Archive for August, 2010

Electoral Systems For The UK (Part 2)

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

…This follows on from last week’s blog

Are these systems used in the UK?

First-past-the-post (“FPTP”) is the system that has been central to British voting in elections for many years and remains the status quo method for General Elections in the UK and local elections in England.  Alternative Vote (“AV”) is the main system used in Australia and for by-elections in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and is the proposed alternative to FPTP being proposed for UK General Elections.  Party Lists (“PL”) is used in Britain for European Elections, i.e. to elect MEPs.  Single Transferrable Vote (“STV”) is used for most elections in Northern Ireland and has been used for local elections in Scotland since 2007, as well as being the main system used in the Republic of Ireland.  STV is also the preferred system of the Electoral Reform Society.

Is it easy to understand?

Complexity is one of the arguments used to argue for the status quo.  However, I feel that it is an intellectually arrogant position to hold and which effectively says most of the electorate is too dumb to understand some of these alternative systems, so we must not use them; football league tables, betting odds, the rules of cricket, Strictly Come Dancing and how to use a mobile phone are all mysteries to me, but no-one has ever said that they should be stopped. 

From my point of view, the FPTP is undoubtedly the simplest system, but it is also a result the crudest – a truly blunt instrument.  However, I understand the rationale for AV, PL and STV and what these electoral processes are aiming for, and I can work out simple scenarios for how individual constituencies could play out, even if I would not want to work out the detailed algorithms.  Therefore, while the detail can get a bit complex, I do not think that the concepts are that difficult, and isn’t a bit of sophistication in order for such an important influence on our day-to-day lives?

Linkage from representative back to constituency

For me, this is an important one, and even though many MPs have no genuine affinity back to their constituents, it remains for me one of the crucial strengths of FPTP, and so would be of AV.  However, while I originally felt this was a make-or-break point, I now feel that it is really a matter of balance, so I would not want to see vast multi-member constituencies as in Israel where there is one constituency for the whole country nor would I want to see a closed party list where voters cannot make a choice for a particular individual, albeit we don’t really ever know that much about them in the UK anyway.  Whereas I am no longer averse to having two or three member constituencies that better reflect the political views of most of the people within a geographic area.

Are votes valued?

This question covers a number of issues, but at its heart is a very important problem – while we are all told it is important to vote, most members of the electorate believe that their vote has no real influence on which party wins the election.  This is because under FPTP the winner takes all, even if the winner gets less than 50% of the votes (in fact almost all MPs are elected on less than 40% of the vote); therefore, the views relating to the “losing votes” are discarded and their votes “wasted”.  Therefore, even if a party consistently wins 20% of the electoral votes across the country, it may get no MPs into parliament if it comes second or third in every seat.  This results in general dissatisfaction with the whole political system, but also creates many of the undesirable side effects of FPTP:

  • Small amounts of votes can have big impacts on election results, so many policies are targeted towards capturing these marginal “floating” voters rather than the greater body of public opinion, while boundary changes take on special political poignancy and can encourage “gerrymandering”;
  • Tactical voting can become the order of the day, whereby voters vote against who they dislike rather than for whom they actually want, i.e. voting becomes negative rather than being a positive choice.

Therefore, if voting is so important, it then must follow that everyone’s vote should be valued.  As a result, FPTP cannot be advocated as the most desirable system, because it ignores the majority of votes in almost all constituencies.  The questions then move on to which system best balances the need to give value to each vote, and so most voters political viewpoints, while keeping some physical link back to a geographic place.

There are many detailed points for and against individual systems, but the above are the key criteria for me, and I feel that the debate boils down to the following key questions:

  • Do the various proposed systems work? Yes
  • Can the logic of the systems be explained in relatively simple terms? Yes
  • Are most votes valued? No for FPTP, but yes for the other three
  • Is there a link from a geographic location to representative? Yes for FPTP and AV, and can be for PL and STV
  • Should we have a single member constituency or multi-member? Now this is the real question and this is where the political debate should really be, rather than on which system is best.  My own view is that we should have multi-member constituencies of three MPs which would give all parties the potential to get a seat in each constituency, so each part of the country would be worth fighting for.  More than this and you start to lose the linkage back to constituency.  But in the end it becomes a matter of individual judgment.

The big negative against PL and STV seems to be the argument about unstable governments and that you do not get a definitive result for one party.  However, my counter-arguments would be that surely it is more important to have votes that have value and are not wasted than governments that are voted in on low percentage votes of the electorate, and that the coalition in Britain at present happened under the FPTP system and it seems an eminently mature and sensible bunch of politicians.  My biggest issue with the STV and AV system is that I personally do not think that your second or third preference votes should have as big a weighting as your 1st preference, but then there follows a hair-splitting debate about by how much?

So let’s look at a practical example.  For my own benefit, I have assumed that you merge my three local constituencies and I have used the 2010 results:

2010 results for Thirsk, Skipton/Ripon and Harrogate/Knaresborough

  Thirsk/Malton Skipton/Ripon Harrogate Total
                 
Conservative     20,167 53%     27,685 51%     24,305 46%     72,157 49%
Liberal Democrat       8,886 23%     17,735 32%     23,266 44%     49,887 34%
Labour       5,169 14%       5,498 10%       3,413 6%     14,080 10%
UKIP       2,502 7%       1,909 3%       1,056 2%       5,467 4%
Liberal Democrat       1,418 4% - 0% - 0%       1,418 1%
BNP - 0%       1,403 3%       1,094 2%       2,497 2%
Independent - 0%          315 1% - 0%          315 0%
Youth - 0%            95 0% - 0%            95 0%
Currency - 0%            84 0% - 0%            84 0%
      38,142 100%     54,724 100%     53,134 100%   146,000 100%

The first thing you notice are the variations in number of voters, however Thirsk & Malton was a quirk in that this constituency was more like a by-election in that voting was one month later, and so after the result of the General Election in 2010.

The second point is that while it is strongly Tory in this rural area, the Liberal Democrats do get a very good section of the electorate and are especially strong in Harrogate & Knaresborough.  So if you were to divide the enlarged constituency up to give 3 MPs, you would definitely give 1 to a Conservative and another to a Liberal Democrat, giving each one-third an MP to voice their political views, whereas currently you have 3 Conservative MPs.

The final point is what do you do about the third MP.  Now that’s where you need to get a mechanic that is fair in the distribution of the final chunk of votes.  Under STV, the balance of Conservative votes over the threshold (36,500) would be transferred to other candidates, which would go where?  There’s the rub, as they might actually all go to UKIP rather than Labour.  Under the PL system, I would have thought that you would get 2 Conservative MPs and 1 Liberal Democrat MP, but please correct me if I am wrong there.

Overall, I am pleased that I have looked in more detail at these different electoral systems as my point of view has changed.  Whereas I was an advocate of FPTP, I now feel that it is a broken system that must be changed.  However, I also think that this referendum is a waste of time, because while the sop is that this is potentially the start of changes to the electoral system, I feel that the questions being asked are wrong and do not really address the core issues.  Furthermore, I do not think that the detailed mechanics of the electoral system is actually something that should go to a referendum, rather it should be hammered out, debated and equations worked out by a committee of experts.

I think a referendum is needed, but that the question should be different, but absolutely fundamental to how Britain is governed.

All the major electoral systems have been devised and work, plus many of them are practised in the UK and other parts of the world.  Similarly, all systems have their issues, but none of them insurmountable, and while they are interesting for politicos, they are pretty boring for most people and (I believe) not crucial to the debate.  Therefore, whichever system is chosen can probably do a good job, so long as fair and sensible criteria are set for determining which system to chose.  So the electorate should not debate the intricacies of each system, but they should be asked to set the agenda for the bureaucrats.

So the question comes down to what should be the brief.  I feel that some of this has already been debated by the 1998 Jenkins Committee, which was set the following eminently sensible criteria:

  • The maintenance of a geographic link between MP and constituency
  • The need for stable government
  • The desire for broad proportionality
  • An extension of voter choice

I am not convinced by the last point as I feel that voter choice is pretty wide already, rather the issue is that, because of lack of proportionality and wasted votes, minority views do not get representation.  So I would change extension of voter choice to “minimisation of wasted votes”.

So you might ask what is there left to debate by the electorate.  Well there is one fundamental question and I feel this is the key question: 

  • “Does the electorate want multi-member constituencies, or not?”

We all want fair elections.  We all want our votes to mean something.  But the key systemic debate is should we have single or multi-member constituencies.  And while I believe multi-member constituencies would help fairness and proportionality, it would be a big change, from which would flow how best to run an election. 

A vote for single member constituencies would mean a debate between FPTP or AV, while for a multi-member system, the debate would be PL or STV.  Once you have decided on this key point, therefore, it becomes simply a matter of mechanics, so while the Electoral Reform Society prefers STV over the PL system, both work, are fair and provide proportionality, so would be better than the status quo.

My own view is for three member larger constituencies, but thereafter I am not especially concerned about whether we vote via the PL or STV system, so long as these work, which they do.  I find PL easier to understand, but am really fairly ambivalent between PL and STV.

Recipe For Coronation Chicken

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

I had been looking for an excuse to try a recipe that I had pulled out of The Daily Telegraph from Xanthe Clay’s hunt for the Best British Recipes.  It is that classic of British fusion cooking and sentimentality for bygone Imperialism (rightly or wrongly) – Coronation Chicken.  Like many I have been brought up on the quickly put together using up of left over roast chicken – chop the meat into cubes, add some mayonnaise, some mango chutney and a few sultanas plus some curry powder or paste.  Great quick home food, but not particularly accomplished cuisine.

I claim no input into this other than to make it, but it really was worth the hassle as the delicate roasting and marinading create a wonderfully aromatic and sensual flavour, then the crème fraîche – mayonnaise mix was much nicer than mayonnaise on its own.  This recipe is from a reader of the Daily Telegaph called Simon Scutt and is simply brilliant, and while I made a few tweaks they were more out of having the wrong ingredients than anything else.

Recipe – Coronation Chicken
Serves 8 – 10 ( we were 12 including kids)

2 free range chickens
2 large oranges
2 organic bay leaves
2 Fairtrade organic cinnamon sticks
Olive oil
Salt & pepper (I used Steenbergs Perfect Salt)

For the stock:
1 large onion, chopped coarsely
2 cloves of garlic, chopped coarsely
1 glass of medium dry white wine
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp ground cumin
4 green cardamom pods, crushed lightly
1tsp Steenbergs Organic Madras Curry Powder
1 finely chopped, small dried red chilli (not the seeds – I actually used a Hungarian mild chilli as there were 6 kids ranging in age from 2 to 11 years old, but a Bird’s Eye Chilli would give it more heat)

For the marinade:
½ tsp saffron filaments
1tsp Fairtrade turmeric
115ml / 4 fl oz milk
115ml / 4 fl oz white wine (as above)
1tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
2tbsp dried mango (or per actual Daily Telegraph recipe, use mango chutney)
2tbsp organic sultanas
2tbsp chopped dried apricot

For the dressing:
2tsp Steenbergs Organic Madras curry powder
2tsp ground coriander
400ml /14fl oz crème fraîche
200ml / 7fl oz mayonnaise

To garnish:
Chopped fresh coriander
Paprika
Salad leaves

Chicken Stuffed With Orange, Bay And Cinnamon

Chicken Stuffed With Orange, Bay And Cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 400C / 200F.  Quarter the oranges, scrunch up the bay leaf and crush the cinnamon quills and mix these up roughly.  Stuff them inside the chickens, then season the outside of the chickens with a little bit of the olive oil to moisten and some salt & pepper rubbed all over (I actually used some Steenbergs Perfect Salt Seasoning as it was to hand, but salt and pepper is all it needs).  Roast the chickens in the oven for 20 minutes per lb/500g.  Leave to cool then strip the carcasses of the chicken meat.  Chop the chicken into decently sized bite-sized pieces, i.e. not too small, and put into big dish and keep in fridge.

Now take a large pot and put in the dry stock seasonings and dry fry for a couple of minutes to bring out the volatile oils, then take off the heat.  Put into this pan the chicken carcasses and skin.  Then pour the white wine over it all and add enough water to cover the chicken caracasses fully.  Put the lid onto the pot, bring to the boil, then leave to hubble away for 2 hours.  Strain the stock and skim off the fat and boiling the stock vigorously reduce it down to about 500ml/ 1 pint.  Leave to cool.

Dry Roasting Spices

Dry Roasting Spices

Chicken Carcass Ready To Make Stock

Chicken Carcass Ready To Make Stock

Dried Fruits Being Stewed Gently

Dried Fruits Being Stewed Gently

Now, start making the marinade.  Heat the saffron and turmeric gently in a dry saucepan for a few seconds, then add the milk and bring to the boil.  Stir in the wine, coriander, mango, sultanas and apricots.  Simmer gently for 10 minutes until the dried fruits all plump up.  Leave this mixture to cool and then add to the cooled stock.  I actually blended this into a smooth sauce first, which is more like the original Coronation Chicken recipe from Constance Spry, but this version by Simon Scutt kept the fruit in nice small chunks.

Stir in the stock – marinade mixture into the chicken pieces.  Cover and leave overnight in the fridge.  This is the magic stage which pulls out as much flavour from the chicken as possible and gives a subtly luxuriant, Eastern flavour to the chicken pieces.

Next morning, heat the curry powder and coriander in a dry pan for a few minutes to become fragrant.  Add the crème fraîche and mayonnaise in a bowl and stir in the spices.  Fold this dressing into chicken and marinade, which has set into a light jelly overnight.  This takes a few minutes of gentle stirring.

Bring the Coronation Chicken to room temperature and serve with green salads and a cool rice-based salad.  You can use new potatoes as well, which is what we did, and served it along with cold poached salmon as well, for a classic English summer buffet spread.

Daily Telegraph's Coronation Chicken

Daily Telegraph's Coronation Chicken

Where’s The Economy Really At?

Friday, August 13th, 2010

I have been intrigued by comments by Mervyn King and others about the state of the economy, as I am not sure whether they ever take into account the real situation for small companies.  So I thought I would briefly blog some notes about Steenbergs at present.

Employment – Unemployment : one of our members of staff has just left to another business on site and we are advertising to fill that post at the Jobcentre Online (our favourite way of advertising), which is just the best service.  In the past, when we have sought to recruit for this same role, we would get maybe 3 or 4 applicants, but this time we have 20+ applicants and they are still coming in. 

Firstly, it’s a warehouse role, so where are the ladies who would like to do this, as while it is being offered as part-time and for anyone, we are only getting men applying and of all ages, but not a single woman.  Secondly, there appear to be a lot of local people who have been made redundant recently.  Thirdly, I am not sure whether there are really more people available, or whether because of the gloominess in the air, people have set are prepared to look at a part-time role where in the past they would only have looked for full-time.

Finally, we are changing a full-time role into a part-time role, or perhaps no role if we do not find the right person. Are we simply part of a general caution in the economy that has become fearful about recruiting, because of the fixed costs of financing such a role and the structural rigidity of hiring someone (and the emotional desire to keep that person employed once taken on) rather than bringing in temporary staff as and when we need them.

Credit quality: We have noticed a real fall off in the credit quality of businesses we deal with over the last 6 – 9 months.  Now my dad always says that “only businesses with no business have no bad debts”, but still people who do not pay their debts frustrate and waste a lot of time and energy.  I know that some of you will say use credit checking agencies and that will mitigate your risk, but most of the people we deal with have no credit history as they are small, start-ups or have no real debt history, hence we need to make our own judgment calls.  So while we have not had such a big bad debt as we had 3 years ago (I am crossing my fingers and touching as much wood as I can find as I write that spookily self-prophesying line), we certainly have had more in volume.  Most have been small debts of less than £100 each, but they add up and are truly infuriating. 

Many people this year just seem to be disappearing or telling us that they are closing down without paying out their debts, or the administrators get called in to protect the creditors – has anyone ever been paid out by the administrators as it is mysterious how the banks and the administrators themselves seem to take any available cash and leave the small creditors out to hang and dry?  It’s that eternal thing of the big being protected and the weak being screwed. 

Our worst recent experience was The Natural Kitchen that went down last year after they had ordered lots of kit from us just before going into administration – the annoyance was they only bought from us because as Northerners we did not know they were in dire straits (I am sure everyone in London knew!) and when we asked for the stuff back they said they would pay for half of the invoice as they knew they did not really own it, but they never did – rightly assessing that we would never drive from Yorkshire to London to take back the remaining stuff from the shelves; serves me right, I guess.  And Natural Kitchen are backed by millionaires from the property world and investment banking, who quaff their premier cru wines without a care for the hard earned cash of others - disgraceful, but completely legal – aaaargh, it still makes me grumpy!

Sales: actually, they are doing surprisingly well, but we continue to innovate, tweaking our designs, range and recipes.  A few buyers of bulk ingredients are trying to switch to non-organic from organic, but some of the less active ones from last year like Spicemanns/Kerry Ingredients and Elgar Foods and Walkers Shortbread are buying again, while new ones are coming on stream, such as Northumbrian Fine Foods and John Morley; we seem to do well with small batches of blended spices for organic Fairtrade mixed spice and organic sausage seasonings (e.g. for Northumbrian Quality Meats and Riverford Organic) that no-one else will or can do, including exports of our organic curry powders to the Continent.  Prices are stabilising with less currency turmoil, even though commodity pressure is still upwards, which gives better pricing forecasts overall; everyone was nervous in 2009 as costs were all over the place, and contracts from previous years had became onerous. 

General retail is only slightly up, but that’s partly our fault as we have chosen not to embrace with the big bears of the retailing world as we are not ready to lose control of who we are and what we stand for, even if it means sales will not go into the stratosphere; we are seeing good sales of Steenbergs organic bakery ingredients via distributors like Hider, Queenswood, Suma and Tree of Life and continued good sales into some of our bigger stores like Fenwicks, Selfridges and Wholefoods on High Street Kensington, as well as really exciting enquiries from overseas, such as Whole Foods Market in the US. 

Then the web store is going a storm, but that’s more to do with increased tinkering by Sophie and me on search engine optimisation and playing with social marketing (the challenges of Facebook, Flickr, Linkedin, Twitter and we are even looking at how to use Youtube), allied to a massive increase in the range of products that we sell.  We genuinely think we do www.steenbergs.co.uk differently from anyone else’s way of retailing (whether www.tesco.com or www.ethicalsuperstore.com), and will continue to do it in our own eccentric way, for better or worse, chosing products that fit with Steenbergs image as ethical, green and different. 

It’s tough trying to change the world, but every small step forward is a step in the right direction – we will not give in to the temptations of a quick, easy buck, however nice that would be.

Given that ramble, where are we then? Cautiously optimistic about Steenbergs, but gloomy about the state of the economy.

Elsewhere In The Blogosphere – July 2010 (Part 2)

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

…I have done some culling of food blogs that I am following, where activity seems to have died down, while adding one new blog, Lemonpi, which has caught my eye, rather belatedly.

Lemonpi has an interesting recipe for Raspberry, White Chocolate And Lavender Muffins but I would like, at this time of year, to try it with fresh raspberries rather than frozen.  There’s also a great recipe Italian Chocolate Raisin Torte, while her Banana, Yoghurt and Mesquite Cake sounds fine and you can get mesquite meal from Goji King, but not sure if that will quite do the job so any other ideas would be great.

At Not Without Salt, Ashley was on vacation for most of July, but before leaving she posted an evily sweet looking recipe for Chocolate Cupcakes With Marshmallow Frosting; it reminds me of many happy days in my youth and recently with my kids, when happily toasting marshmallows over fires beside dens in the woods or around a campfire.  Then to come back to the summer fruits theme of Part 1 of this round up there’s a recipe for Raspberry Yoghurt Popsicles at Orangette taken from a David Lebovitz recipe.

Now if you’ve got a spare day, this is my recipe for the month which comes from the Smitten Kitchen Blog and is for Sweet And Smoky Oven Spareribs, which was awesome.  Firstly, if you have not got the 6 hours that the recipe required, just turn up the heat a bit to about 125C or 250F and cook for 4 hours – it still came out lovely and succulent, with the meat just sliding off the bone.  Secondly, take Deb’s advice and reduce the sugar and up the salt, which is what we did and it was just right; also, I ditched the sauce as it is heresy to have a barbecue sauce with ribs, plus it just did not need it.  Then there was the Thai Style Chicken Legs, which sounded great but didn’t the month just fly past.  Plus two gorgeously simple puddings, Raspberry Brown Sugar Gratin and Peach Blueberry Cobbler.

And Ree at The Pioneer Woman Cooks is a lady after my heart as she knows that custard is just the best, whether it’s a warm custard on your sweet fresh fruit crumble or a cold custard in a custard tart or in the richest of richest crème brûlée recipes that she shares with the blogging world.  Then she whips up a simple but glorious sounding Blackberry Cheesecake that seems so simple to make that I don’t know why I never seem to find the time. While I like the quick cheat Sixteen Minute Beef and Beans Burritos as it exemplifies what real, home food is about – getting well-balanced food to the table quickly with whatever ingredients are in the cupboard, and (in our house) that’s without the aide of a microwave.

And finally, I like the idea at Wild Yeast of Ginger-Pecan Sourdough Biscotti, perhaps with a sweet Vin Santo di Montepulciano.

Elsewhere In The Blogosphere – July 2010 (Part 1)

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

With the summer fruit rolling in, Raspberry Jam is being made at A Slice of Cherry Pie, while at Cannelle et Vanille Aran is inspired by a simple bowl of frozen raspberries and bakes delicious Gluten Free Raspberry Scones and a fancy Heirloom Tomato, Rice and Almond Tart – I am a sucker for these types of simple tarts that use beautiful in-season vegetables and I like the idea of trying the unusual base for this tart.  And what could be simpler and more inspiring than the Purple Corn Muffins and Poached Salmon Salad which are gorgeously colourful, full of bright harvest-time colours.

It’s been a weird summer here in North Yorkshire, with temperatures never really rising above 15C, so I have not really felt inspired by classic summertime foods like salads and cold fish etc, sticking more to warm salads and barbecued chicken and other meats.  But Aran’s salad and the Tomato and Einkorn Wheat (or Spelt) Salad at Chocolate & Zucchini makes me feel as though I am missing something important this year.  I have already mentioned the recipe for Almond Cake With Blueberry Coulis which seems a great alternative to my own Almond Cake recipe that took inspiration from many sources, but mainly David Lebovitz.

David Lebovitz’s recipe for Caramelized White Chocolate Cakes are my kind of pudding and would go down a storm with any guests, especially amongst children.  Or returning to the summer fruits theme, Vegan Strawberry Ice cream looks and sounds to die for and on the salads line, a recipe for Classic Salad Nicoise, which is something I have always loved being a sucker for anchovies and their deep, umami and salty taste.  Then David Lebovitz has an intriguing recipe for Cornmeal Cookies that has a photo of the dough being chopped with an evil looking slice that reminds me that I must try some of the sablé recipes that I keep seeing posted on various sites; they’re just something I have never baked and I feel left out and a rural country bumpkin and so “1980s” as my daughter keeps on telling me – her current insult of choice for us out-of-date adults.

At Cooksister, there’s a posted version of South African Milktart that uses cardamom, as well as cinnamon, infused into the milk, which must be one of my favourite combinations of sweet spices.  I love cardamom and for me it is one of those misunderstood and unloved spices that should be used much more in British sweet foods, rather than being consigned to the savoury, curry-style end of cuisine.  She also cooks a whole leg of lamb on a braai with an intriguing rub all over the lamb before cooking, which is similar-but-different in concept to my less sophisticated recipe for Barbecued Lamb at Steenbergs web site.  But I do love the idea of her Coconut Tart as I am always struggling with how to imaginatively use coconut, so this sounds great with flavours that hint back to the almond cake recipes in this round up.

Now at Helen’s wonderful blog – Fuss Free Flavours – I have been inspired by her recipe and photos for Whole Wheat Walnut Bread and Matcha Muffins, which are exquisitely green in colour.  I am inspired not only to think about using matcha in sweet bakery – perhaps fudge or sablé biscuits – but I will look to adding organic matcha tea to our tea range at Steenbergs.  I know where to get it, just have been cautious about buying it as it is damn expensive.  While never having been a fan of tofu, finding the texture just too weird to take, I am inspired by Helen’s rendition of Ottolenghi’s Black pepper Tofu recipe.

There seems a lot to write about this month, so this will follow on in next couple of days…

Electoral Systems For The UK (Part 1)

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

I was roundly castigated for being a political ignoramus with my first look at electoral reform, which was probably sound.  However, far from being deterred, I still want to continue to try and understand the debate in spite of the heckling, and see if I can get to grips with the issues, arguments, and general blah! blah! blah! about this crucial issue. 

I am not sure that I have progressed much further, but here is how I see it; I ask for some patience as you read it as it will be posted over a few blogs rather than just one, with the first being about the main types of voting, then the next a general discussion and my conclusion.

Nuts And Bolts Of The Voting Systems

First-Past-The-Post

First-Past-The-Post (“FPTP”) is the current system in the United Kingdom.  With FPTP, you divide the country up into as many constituencies as you want representatives (i.e. one representative per constituency), then get voters to make their choices and the elected representative in each constituency is the one that gets the most votes, however small the margin between first place and second place.

Alternative Vote

The Alternative Vote (“AV”) system is used in Australia for its House of Representatives and most of the Legislative Assemblies of it States and Territories.  AV is an extension of FPTP in that you still divide the country up into as many constituencies as you want representatives, so AV still results in one representative per voting region, but it enables voters to express their preferences for alternative representatives if their own initial choice cannot win.  So when voting, you rank the candidates in order of preference until you can no longer express an opinion, ranking them 1, 2 etc.  When the votes get counted, if one of the candidates gets a clear majority, i.e. someone has been ranked 1st by more than all the other 1st preferences combined, then they are elected.  However, if no-one has a clear majority, the count starts analysing the preferences of the weaker candidates: in reverse order, you take the candidate that came last and then determine the 2nd preference, i.e. alternative vote, for those who voted for the bottom candidate and allocate those to the remaining candidates and recount, continuing this process until one candidate has over 50% of the votes, and so becoming the elected representative.

Party Lists

Proportional Representation is what I always called the Party List system per the Electoral Reform Society.  PL is, also, the system already used in England, Scotland and Wales for electing MEPs, taking an open party list approach.  The basics of PL are simple: starting with a multi-member constituency, the voters vote, then you work down the list of votes cast to elect representatives in proportion to how many votes each gets until all the representatives’ positions have been filled. 

The complexities in this relatively natural system relate to how you actually construct the system:

(i)                  Voting lists – these can be open or closed, i.e. you vote for candidates who are named on the ballot paper (“open party list”), or you vote for a political party without knowing who the candidates are (“closed party list”), then after the election the political parties work out which candidates they want to represent you in their order of preference;

(ii)                Shape of the constituency – in PL, all constituencies are multi-member, and the larger the constituency and so the greater the number of potential representatives, the more proportional the end result, i.e. the more representative the MPs are of the voters’ actual voting preferences;

(iii)               Minimum voting percentage – most countries (except for example the Republic of South Africa) set a minimum threshold that the minority parties need to exceed before they can get any representation, which seems to be predominantly in the range of 1.5% – 5%. 

(iv)              The final wrinkle is how you actually calculate the number of seats to give each party, which (while fundamental to the actual system) is largely irrelevant to the discussion of the best voting system as the detail can be decided afterwards through an analysis of the various mathematical calculations together with a bit of political horse trading.

Single Transferrable Vote

Single Transferable Vote (“STV”) is used in Northern Ireland for Assembly, European and local elections, most elections in the Republic of Ireland and local elections in Scotland.  In 1917, STV was, also, chosen by the House of Commons for roughly half of constituencies with the remainder to use AV, but this never passed through the House of Lords and was dropped.  It is, also, the preferred choice of the Electoral Reform Society.

STV works on the basis of multi-member constituencies with representatives found via a quota system; representatives are determined by calculating a quota that successful candidates must reach to be elected for each constituency and then working out those candidates that get over that threshold in the constituency. 

Under STV, voters put a number “1” against their first choice, a “2” against their second choice and so on until they no longer have any views.  They can stop at any point, so do not need even to make a second choice.  All the valid ballot papers are then counted up and the threshold calculated as the number of valid ballot papers divided by the number of people to be elected plus one.  So per Electoral Reform Society, “with 100 ballot papers and 3 places to be filled, the quota would be 25”, i.e. 100 ÷ 4 (3+1).

Next, the votes have to be allocated to candidates and to available places to be filled.  This is done by sorting the ballot papers firstly into first preferences.  If any candidate has more first preferences than the quota they are immediately elected.  The next stage is to transfer any surplus votes for those elected candidates, being the difference between a candidate’s actual vote and the threshold, i.e. if I got 33 votes, then 8 of my votes could be transferred to other candidates.  But to prevent the argument as to which votes to transfer, all my votes are transferred but with a reduced value per vote and then allocated to second preference candidates.

After allocating all second preferences, the votes are counted up again and you see who has passed the threshold and then allocate them to places.  If they have not, then the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded and their votes transferred to voters’ second preferences.  This process of reallocating surpluses and excluded candidates’ votes, plus re-counting continues until all the places have been filled in descending order.

Interestingly, the Electoral Reform Society suggests reallocating the whole of any surplus from the first round, but only the last batch of surpluses from later rounds.  It views this as a matter of expediency, which seems bizarre as it inconsistently claims that taking a bit more time and using a computer programme is a small price to pay for the increased fairness and complexity of STV in the first place.  Also, I am not sure why this is called Single Transferrable Vote as while an elector does have a single vote, it is not really that single vote that actually counts as it can be reallocated after being counted once (albeit at a reduced value), while it may, also, be your second or third preference that is chosen.

Hybrid Systems

There are various hybrid systems ranging from AV+ to Total Representation, however these seem to be overly complex and do not really improve on the systems as above.  I have not considered them further, but you can find out more about all the systems at the Electoral Reform Society.

Constituencies

It is interesting that the Coalition is including a question about constituency sizes in the referendum questions for 2011, and that the Labour Party is getting itself into a tizz about this second question.  Also, being in an area that has been boundary-changed twice in the last 15 years, I feel particularly sensitive about this issue.

Having thought a bit about electoral reform now, the nature of your constituency is vital.  To make it fair, each elected representative must relate to almost equal numbers of constituents, so (taking into account movement of people) the shape and size of constituencies should be checked every 2 elections or 10 years.  Secondly, the size of the constituency must not get so large that constituents become so diverse that their very specific local issues get lost in the bigger picture.  So it is a balance between number of constituents, equality and overall size.

That is easy in principle, however you then need to make sure that there is some geographic logic to it as people (or at least me) feel a regional kinship to certain places and geographic regions and you must pay heed to these.  For example, you could create a huge constituency of Yorkshire, but I feel no linkage to South Yorkshire and the issues for Sheffield are not the same as for little old Ripon.  On a more micro scale, we are now part of the Harrogate constituency having been part of the Vale of York, yet my issues are rural, small town rather than those of Harrogate which are more suburban and looking towards Leeds, so for me Vale of York was better.

Also, and I will come to this towards the Summary & Conclusion stage, the referendum question should perhaps be simplified to one of single member or multi-member constituencies, rather than what the voting system is itself.

Voting Itself

This is another key issue.  In the end, not enough people are engaged in the political system often enough, which then causes questions of legitimacy of elections.  Which is the most popular political party when most people do not vote, even though politicians impact all our lives hugely?  Is a government’s mandate legitimate if turn out is low?

It would be possible to make it a legal obligation for people to vote, however this has implications on personal freedom.  The only way I can see that us, the people, will become more engaged in politics and care about voting is if politicians engage with the electorate more, respect them more and make the political system smaller, less bureaucratic and recreate it on a more human scale rather than being a huge, amorphous beast that has no master and no heart.

Discussion follows in next blog…

Recipe For Almond Cake

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

This recipe began with a blog post from David Lebovitz, who wrote that his desert island food would be Almond Cake.  So with great anticipation, I tried his recipe several weeks back, but while Sophie and I loved the marzipan-almond luxury and the old style moist, fulsome texture, we both found the taste overpoweringly sweet; I do tend towards the puritan rather than one for luxury.  I checked the recipe, which I had got correct, so decided massively to reduce the sugar content from 415.75g to 262.5g (14.7oz to 9¼ oz), which still gives a balanced and sweet cake.

The glory of this cake rests with the use of almond paste or pre-made marzipan, which is then supplemented by adding extra almond extract and vanilla extract to bolster the volatiles in the flavour profile.  You need to use a shop-bought marzipan as the texture is much finer than a home-made version. 

It is also one of those cakes which matures with age, becoming moister and the aromas maturing nicely, rather than being one of those cakes that become dry and crumbly. 

It would be fabulous eaten with a cooked seasonal berries, or with a little amaretto drizzled onto it for a boozy alternative.  There’s a creamier alternative Almond Cake recipe at Chocolate & Zucchini that adds yoghurt or sour cream for further luxury.

(Recipe adapted from David Lebovitz)

Ingredients For Almond Cake

Ingredients For Almond Cake

Ingredients

150g / 5¼ oz Fairtrade caster sugar
150g / 5¼ oz marzipan (I used Crazy Jack Organic Marzipan)
75g / 2½ oz organic ground almonds
140g / 5 oz organic plain flour
225g / 8oz unsalted butter, at room temperature and chopped into cubes
1½ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp sea salt
1 tsp natural vanilla extract (naturally, I used Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract)
1 tsp natural almond extract (once again, I used Steenbergs natural almond extract)
6 large eggs, at room temperature and whisked gently

Preheat the oven to 160C/325F.  Take a 23cm cake tin and lightly oil the tin, removing any excess oil then line the base with baking paper.

Sieve together the baking powder, plain flour and sea salt in a mixing bowl.

Separately, put the caster sugar, marzipan, ground almonds and a tablespoon of the plain flour into a food processor.  Grind the mixture until the almond has become finer and the marzipan is broken up further, so that it is all a fine breadcrumb texture.

Add the unsalted butter, pure vanilla extract and natural almond extract and process until fluffy.

Pouring Eggs Into Batter For Almond Cake

Pouring Eggs Into Batter For Almond Cake

Add the blended eggs in stages – firstly add about a quarter and blitz until blended in then add a tablespoon of plain flour and mix, then add the next quarter, blend and add next tablespoon of plain  flour and so on.  Add the remaining plain flour and pulse a couple of times until it has just mixed together.

Pour the batter into the cake tin, scraping it all in.  Put cake mix into the oven and bake for 65 minutes or until the cake is brown on the top and set in the middle.

Almond Cake

Almond Cake

When you remove it, run a sharp knife around the edge of the cake, then leave to rest and cool completely in the tin.  Then remove the cake from the cake tin, take off the baking parchment on the base and dust with icing sugar, should you so wish.

A Slice Of Home Made Almond Cake

A Slice Of Home Made Almond Cake

Wheelbirks Ice Cream

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010
Wheelbirks Farm Near Stocksfield

Wheelbirks Farm Near Stocksfield

On the way back from Scotland, we went through Northumberland and on a “memory lane detour” went via Wheelbirks Farm which is near Stocksfield.  Memory lane because I was brought up on Wheelbirks Jersey Milk when the farm used to have a milk round, and so were my father and grandparents.

Orchard At Wheelbirks Farm In Northumberland

Orchard At Wheelbirks Farm In Northumberland

The Richardsons have since started making their own ice cream using their deliciously creamy Jersey milk for the base.  You drive past a little village called Hindley and then up their farm drive and through the farmyard to the Ice Cream Parlour at the back.  Other than the food, there is an decent play area in the orchard at the back, and for smaller children inside, and a small barn that you can look in to see some calves and a bull, plus as a working farm so you might see loads of other comings and goings.  I love the web site where you can see pictures of past prize winning cows and current pictures of other ones, which shows their love of their Jersey herd.

Ice Cream Parlour At Wheelbirks Farm

Ice Cream Parlour At Wheelbirks Farm

The actual Ice Cream Parlour has been very tastefully decked out and split into two – half bright, light and functional looking like a 60s American joint while the other half is all dark wood for a warmer, more natural English country kitchen feel.  They make their own ice cream using a tiny little machine that pasteurises the milk, then make the ice cream before they all get busy packing off the ice cream by hand into tubs for sale in the shop or sending off to Alnwick Castle.

There is a delicious range of flavours including New York Cheesecake, Licquorice & Caramel, Blueberry Muffin, Strawberry, Cookies & Cream, Triple Chocolate, Mint Choc Chip, Peach & Raspberry and Amaretto & Honeycomb.  Prices are £1.15, £2.65 and £3.65 for single, double or triple scoop ice creams.  Alternatively, you can go for tubs, or slices of cake for £1.90 each; I had a huge slice of Coffee & Walnut cake then scavenged tastes of the ice creams from the kids.

My Father Enjoying His Ice Cream

My Father Enjoying His Ice Cream

The ice cream is deliciously rich and creamy in flavour, while the flavours are interesting and full of amazing taste.  Really a luxurious place for a treat.  Our favourites are New York Cheesecake which I could eat all day, Cookies & Cream and Blueberry Muffin, which were all seductively gorgeous.

If you can, you should also buy a bottle of their unpasteurised, unhomogenised full fat milk, which is tasty milk the way it should be, with a thick slick of heavy cream floating on the top of the milk for 80p.  You can also buy Wheelbirks unpasteurised cream at 70p for 142ml, or try the Longley Farm Luxury Jersey Butter at £1.25 per pat of butter and uses their milk, which the Richardsons send down to Longley Farm’s factory in Holmfirth.  It’s good to know that one of my favourites – the rich, natural tasting creamy butter from Longley farm – comes from a source that I like and respect.

Wheelbirks Ice Cream easily gets to the top of our list of favourite ice cream shops we have visited, so try and make a trip to enjoy it.

Nutmeg And Mace Spice In Photos

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Nutmeg and mace are two of those mysterious spices that are really, unusual in where they come from.  They also have many strange stories attached to them – they used to be thought of as part of a cure for the plague and are reputed to be a key ingredient of Coca-Cola as well as being mildy hallucinogenic.  I have collected together some photos (of varying degrees of quality) to show some of the parts to this story.

Nutmeg is a tree that grows a sweet fruit a bit like a cross between and apricot and a mango.  The outer flesh is used for making jams and chutneys.

Nutmeg Tree

Nutmeg Tree

Nutmeg Fruit With Mace Showing Through

Nutmeg Fruit With Mace Showing Through

Nutmeg Fruit Cut Open

Nutmeg Fruit Cut Open With Mace Blades

The nutmeg is picked and the mace threads are taken from the outside of the nutmeg shell, and dried to get the mace.

Nutmeg, Mace And Cocoa Beans

Nutmeg, Mace And Cocoa Beans

The nutmeg is the seed that is within the shell; a bit like an almond or brazil nut within its outer shell.  The shells are broken and the nutmeg removed and dried on drying racks.

Nutmeg On Drying Racks

Nutmeg On Drying Racks

After drying the nutmegs are sorted and graded by hand, then stored in hessian sacks, or other sacks that allow the nutmegs to breathe to prevent them becoming mouldy.

Checking Nutmeg Quality

Sorting Through Nutmeg By Hand

Sorting Nutmeg

Sorting Nutmeg

Hessian Sacks Full Of Nutmeg

Hessian Sacks Full Of Nutmeg

They are then shipped from source in Indonesia, Grenada or Sri Lanka to spice merchants around the world for use in food manufacturing, creating food flavours or packing as spices – whether whole or in powder form.

Packing Nutmeg At Steenbergs Spices

Packing Nutmeg At Steenbergs Spices