The Franifesto

There are only 45 days left until the general election.

Get set for a bombardment on all sides as each party launches its own manifesto and embarks on an offensive, charming or otherwise, to win your vote.

As someone with absolutely no influence of any kind, which gives me as much power as just about every other schmuck out there with wearing a party rosette, I feel it’s only fair to join in.

And so I’ve composed the Franifesto, a list of policies I consider essential before I’d even consider putting my X in the box next to a party’s name.

Ballot-box-generic

The Franifesto

1. An NHS free at the point of use – yes, it probably could not be more of a cliché for old lefties like me, but in my opinion, the NHS is perhaps the greatest thing any British government has created. A health service that cares for an individual’s health needs from cradle to grave is the very essence of a civilised nation. I believe this wealthy nation of ours can well afford to maintain the NHS without giving the private sector the opportunity to make money from the sick.

2. Affordable, available housing – the UK’s obsession with home-ownership has been one of my bugbears for years. For three decades, we’ve been programmed to see a house not as a home but as a money-making asset. But – heresy though it might be for some to hear – not everyone wants to buy a house or saddle themselves with a mortgage (in 1986, aged 21, I bought my first flat with an endowment mortgage that the building society manager told me I’d pay off when I was 46. I thought “I’ll never be 46!” At 46, I still had a mortgage and still had about 15 years to pay for it on my fifth property since that first flat. Renting all those years would have had exactly the same effect for me). Affordable rental accommodation with secure tenure is a must, not just in the cities but in rural areas, too. Along the way, the party that promises to end the absolute scandal of taxpayers funding landlords through housing benefit will get my vote. I won’t hold my breath.

3. Jobs that pay a living wage – Yes, I know. Governments can’t just conjure jobs up out of nowhere. But they sure as hell can stop employers returning the job market to the Victorian era where zero-hours contracts have effectively tied workers to a company with no guarantee of work. The minimum wage has done a world of good, but it’s literally not enough. Governments can also use their influence to encourage employers to invest in their staff through education and training. It ain’t rocket science, but it works.

4. A public transport system worth of the name – I pity the poor sods who have the misfortune to have to commute in or out of London on that creaking rail system and pay up to £5,000 for the privilege. Or those who live in rural areas and rely on those behemoths of the bus world such as Stagecoach or Arriva to deign to provide any kind of service. Both rail and bus systems benefit from an enormous public subsidy. That’s you and me paying the private sector for the privilege of failing to provide us with any kind of public transport system that works for most of the people, most of the time. The East Coast Rail Line was brought back into public ownership after its private sector operator reckoned it couldn’t make enough money from it and proceeded to turn a profit for us for the next five years. Funnily enough, it’s now been put out to franchise again, just as costs have gone down and profitability has gone up. Funny that. Well, enough. Rail and bus services should be run with the public in mind, not shareholders.

5. Renewable energy – I know some (if you’ll pardon the pun) bright sparks are concerned about what we do when renewable energy runs out, but trust me, we’ve got a way to go. So while we’re building a whole load of new and affordable housing – preferably through housing associations or community trusts – every single new building should come complete with solar panels and as many energy efficiencies as we can afford. Throw in subsidies to private housebuilders to make them create zero-energy builds and we’d be making a start – albeit a small one – on the way to reducing our reliance on carbon fuels. And reducing our reliance on the big six energy companies along the way. Worth every penny of the investment, I’d say.

6. Remembering that not everything is about money – One of my mother’s favourite phrases was to dismiss someone as “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”. People, not just politicians, who constantly put a price on essential services – you know, like social work or care for the elderly – and say we just can’t afford it miss a crucial point: some things are worth so much more than money. Will Hutton made that point in the Observer this week. It’s about what kind of society we want, not whether we can afford that kind of society. Ask people to invest in their community, to feel they are a genuine part of something bigger than just their household and they get it, they understand it and they value it. Think about more than just numbers, politicians, give us a vision of a nation that we’d all aspire to live in. And maybe, just maybe – with apologies to the Rolling Stones – we might not get what we want, but we’d get what we need.

Community spirit

There is not a religious bone in my body. It was, I’m afraid to say, a source of extreme regret for my late mother that neither me nor most of my siblings retained or maintained the Catholic faith in which we were raised.

And I admit there has been the odd occasion when I have pondered that lack of a spiritual centre in my life – only very occasionally though.

What I have missed over the years is not a spiritual connection or belief in a deity or a church but the undeniable community feeling that comes from attending church services, the responses to prayers, the singing.

Attending a football match does offer something of a similar experience, often down to fans appropriating some of the best-loved hymns and reworking the lyrics and generally the whole communal singalong that you might only ever do in church.

Today is Easter Sunday, the most important and significant festival in the Christian churches, the one on which the entire faith is based. It was also always my favourite holy day, less frenetic than Christmas and – despite the subject matter of crucifixion and resurrection – always the more uplifting and joyful.Christ_of_Saint_John_of_the_Cross

It also inspired one of my favourite paintings in all the world, hanging in my favourite art gallery in all the world – Salvador Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross.

For my family, immediate and wider, it was always the occasion of an enormous get-together with a mighty meal at the centre of the celebration. Yes, attending church was a major part of the day, but the joy came in being together.

As the older generation has passed away, those opportunities have become fewer and fewer. I don’t live near my family now. I don’t even get to the football any more. While there’s no chance of me experiencing a spiritual awakening, suddenly believing in God again and heading off to Mass, on a day like today I can’t help but feel a little pang that there is nothing in my Easter Day to compare to what I once had.

Social media is great for seeing pics of nieces and nephews guzzling their chocolate eggs, but it’s not the same as the entire family piling out to a nearby field for a 4hr game of football in which even your mammy takes a turn in goal.

Those of all faiths and none, enjoy your Easter Sunday/Bank Holiday, especially if you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by loved ones.

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On a related note, I was riled beyond belief this morning by this story in the Mail on Sunday.

In the interests of full disclosure, I confess I did subbing shifts at the Scottish MoS and Daily Mail from 2005-10. Working for an organisation does not necessarily mean one endorses all it does or what it stands for.

Famed even in their own newsroom for their “unique” take on the news, the Daily Mail occupies an interesting position as the paper that has more female readers than any other but also appears actively to despise all women who don’t fit its very narrow worldview of what a woman should do or how she should look.

But even women get a softer ride from the Mail than those on benefits. Witness today’s MoS story on food banks. The rise in food banks in the UK has been one of the most startling and depressing facets of austerity Britain. And their very presence is an utter embarrassment for the Coalition Government.

Hence the start of a backlash against the charitable organisations that run these services – The Sun told a story this week of a woman who fills up at the food bank and gets restaurant vouchers so she can buy fags and take her kids to the cinema. It’s not true.

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story

Today the Mail on Sunday told of how they sent a reporter to lie to the Citizens Advice Bureau so he could get three days of groceries for free and they could rail against how charities responded to people in need by giving them food – even when they lied about that need. Even their headline is a lie.

t’s altogether breathtaking but not surprising.

Newspapers inventing stories or bending them out of all shape so they conform to their political or world view is nothing new.

Dirty tricks and misinformation campaigns waged against politicians, public figures (particularly union leaders – the late Bob Crow and his holiday anyone?), public sector workers/organisations and anyone else who gets up their humph is also nothing new.

But attacking charities because they’re feeding hungry people in wealthy Britain in the 21st century? Have we ever seen such a perversion of the truth, an inversion of reality, all to fit a political agenda? As victim blaming goes, it sure takes the biscuit – or it would if a lying undercover reporter hadn’t snaffled it first.

I said at the start that I had no faith or belief but I do believe that Jesus Christ existed. So, in the words of the slogan, what would Jesus do? Join in on the bashing of food bank charities and users or feed the hungry?

I think we all know the answer.