The ConDem’d: Day 1

A cool damp dawn in North Staffordshire heralded the first day of our new ConDem government.  Last night the LibDems voted in favour of their ‘coalition’ and have already been rewarded with the Deputy PM job for Clegg, and the Scottish Secretary post probably going to Danny Alexander (but given the lack of Conservative MPs in Scotland, this is hardly a major concession!). At the time of writing it seems that Osborne is Chancellor, Lansley gets Health and Fox gets Defence. Hague is Foreign Secretary. These are all fairly predictable appointments, but what of the LibDem posts? Cable seems to have been given ‘Business and Banking’ (enough said), and Huhne is tipped for Environment and Climate Change. I am particularly interested to see who gets Education. If it goes to Michael Gove, I despair for Education in the UK! But if Cameron gives it to the LibDem David Laws, then that may be slightly better. No doubt more will be revealed as the day progresses …

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Welcome to the ConDemNation!

So it seems as if Clegg will tie the knot with Cameron soon, assuring the latter the PM job. Labour will have to regroup under a new leader, as the only truly progressive party remaining. I was particularly saddened when the likes of John Reid and David Blunkett did their best to sink the possible LabLib deal. As John Prescott put it, the ‘dad’s army’ of the party should have kept out and not interfered. But moving on, I for one support David Miliband as the next leader. He’s young but has the right qualities for the job. We will see what happens!

LibCon or LibLab: that is the question!

Since the General Election results were announced, the question of who would form the new government has been paramount. Until today it looked as if we would have a LibCon coalition, or a minority conservative government with LibDem support. This always seemed a paradox to me, as the Tories would be unlikely to agree to electoral reform. That all changed today. Simultaneously, Gordon Brown announced talks with the LibDems, and his intention to step down as leader. We are now in exciting times politically. I hope the talks succeed, and that there is a good outcome to the leadership contest. More of that in a later posting!

Election night and the day after

It wasn’t going to be easy. As I mentioned in my last posting, I approached election night with a sense of impending doom, but also interest in seeing if my predictions were right.

I listened to the first hour on Radio 5 Live. Victoria Derbyshire and John Pienaar did a good job in setting the scene, and describing the results of the exit poll. At 11:00 pm I switched to the BBC1 coverage, just as the first Sunderland results came in. I felt some limited euphoria as the first few results all went Labour’s way, while feeling sure that would change as the night progressed. I liked most of the BBC1 coverage; David Dimbleby provided a reliable anchor, with Jeremy Paxman excelling himself with cutting jibes and sarcasm. The only bit I could have done without was Andrew Marr’s ‘party’, where such political pundits as Joan Collins and Bill Wyman gave their views as the results came out. I couldn’t help thinking of the expense of the event, using licence payer’s money, no doubt!

As the night progressed, there were some good moments – Gisela Stuart hanging on to Birmingham Edgbaston, and later Ed Balls’ result and of course Gordon’s. Most of the Tories interviewed positively dripped with complacency, but I couldn’t help thinking that they were making a few too many assumptions. The lack of any LibDem ‘surge’, and the loss of such figures as Lembit Opik and Evan Harris, showed that the LibDems were in for a bad night.

I tried to hang on for the Stoke results, since there was interest particularly in the Stoke Central outcome, but by 3:30 am I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I found out later that Labour had held all 3 seats, as well as my constituency, Newcastle-Under-Lyme.

What of the morning after? The predicted ‘hung parliament’  seemed to be being borne out, along with my prediction that the Tories would have the most seats, but insufficient to form a government. By midday the situation was clear, and Cameron seemed to be about to offer a deal to Clegg for some sort of coalition. But will Clegg accept? I can’t see the Tories offering anything on electoral reform, and everyone had been led to believe that would be a condition for acceptance. One thing is certain: the next few days will be interesting!

Some thoughts as the election approaches

As the election approaches I find myself reflecting on the way I have been involved in politics and influenced by it throughout my life.

I was born into a strongly Labour voting family, and considered myself a Labour supporter from quite an early age. When I lived in East Anglia, it was (as it is now) strong Conservative territory, and Labour supporters were a novelty. We had to get the Guardian sent by post in those days (around 1963-4) since the local newsagents didn’t stock it (in those days it was still a Labour paper (: )!

The first election I voted in was in 1979, by which time I was living in London, in the (then) St Pancras North constituency. We all know what happened in that election, and throughout most of my PhD, my postdoc contracts and the early part of my career, the Conservatives were in power.

When Labour were elected with a landslide in 1997, it almost seemed too good to be true. I had joined the Party that year, so I really felt part of something new and exciting. Throughout the time that followed, right up to the present day, I have supported the actions the government took, including the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. I would have preferred Tony to have remained leader; Gordon was an excellent ‘prudent’ Chancellor, and possibly lacks something as party leader. Nevertheless, I have been a strong supporter of him since he became leader.

So, what of now? The worldwide financial crisis would impact badly on whoever was in power, and the MP expenses scandal has had a bad effect. Apparently some people want something ‘new’; whether they will still like it after a few years of David Cameron remains to be seen!

I don’t blame the Liberal Democrats for making the most of their apparent surge in popularity, but they must realise that with the current electoral system, they will come third, and have little influence unless they go into a coalition with one of the other parties. As for electoral reform, I’m against PR, as it will inevitably lead to a profusion of smaller parties, and resulting difficulty in decision making and a lack of strong government.

I was astonished by the breathtaking naivity of the Guardian newspaper in announcing yesterday their support for the Liberal Democrats. Don’t they understand how our political system works? Who will they support if the Conservatives are elected, and Labour are the official opposition party? They say that they discussed it among staff and readers, but I heard nothing of such a consultation. It will inevitably lead to loss of readership, and I am sorry for this once great socialist newspaper.

So, as Thursday approaches, my feeling of impending doom increases. My predicted outcome follows the recent polls: the Conservatives will have the most seats but not enough for an absolute majority, and Labour will come second. I don’t think the Liberal Democrats will do as well as they hope or expect, but they may be in a position to form a coalition with the Conservatives, assuming they are prepared to forget any principles they might have had at one time (in the days of Joe Grimond, for example). We will have to see what happens. To misquote a Chinese proverb, we certainly live in interesting times!

A chemical approach to grading student assignments

With the Periodic Table celebrating its 141st birthday this week,  I had an idea for grading student work – e.g. class tests and lab reports, which would build the learning experience even into understanding their grade.

Instead of giving a mark (between 1-100, or 1-50, say), one could give the element symbol whose atomic number corresponds to the grade.  So someone getting 100% would be awarded Fm, and a gold (Au) grade would correspond to 79%; good, but not as good as uranium (92).  A pass mark of 40% would get Zr, etc.

This would mean the students always needed to have a Periodic Table with them, and after a while, some association between elements and atomic numbers might sink in!

Like Mendeleev, I did consider using atomic masses, but the issue of isotopes would make this too confusing.

How to deal with half marks? Well, maybe you could write something like Cd+1/2 for 48.5%. I toyed with the idea of a ‘+’ sign, but then we get confusion with ions …

Yes, I know this sounds mad, but it is Friday, and it seemed too mad an idea not to share!

‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees: a response

Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, writing in his blog has said ‘‘Mickey Mouse’ degree courses should be swept away, and priorities in university education and research should reflect the challenges facing the country over the forthcoming decades’.

My objections to this line of argument are twofold:

(i) It’s against the principle of academic collegiality. Universities, such as mine, are founded on the basis of mutual respect, with equal value given to all subjects. We can’t continue as we are if some subjects are considered to be ‘superior’ to others, and therefore get more funding.

(ii) In this time of pending cuts in funding, we must all stand together, and argue the case for universities as a whole. The line being proposed amounts to ‘divide and conquer’, turning subjects and departments against each other. We will be far stronger if we face this together.

Incdentally, I am a Chemistry lecturer, and care about my subject, but not at the expense of academic collegiality, and good relations between departments and colleagues.

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