I am leaving the phone at home

What might it be like to wander around without anxiously looking at a screen every ten seconds? I wo

I am leaving the phone at home.

Those words are easy to write, but not so easy to carry out in practice. But I think it's worth a try. Since I'm on holiday this week, I thought "Why not?" -- and so, I'm going to give it a go.

I was made redundant in the middle of June, since when I seem to have slipped into a familiar pattern of gazing at a screen for hours on end. Not that I didn't do that at work, you understand; but at least I was getting paid for it then. I've taken work home, and now I'm doing it for nothing. Work shouldn't be a hobby. Hobbies shouldn't be dull, like work. But there it is: my hobbies seem to consist of gazing at a set of characters on a screen, almost all day, every day.

It's got bad. I've started to venerate Martin and Lucy out of Homes Under the Hammer as gods in a strange duotheistic religion I've created. It largely centres around buying property at auction and ensuring that you don't forget to read the legal pack, but other than that it's a fairly straightforward new religion. I'm the only devotee, as far as I'm aware, but I keep the flame burning every morning at 10am without fail. The pair of them have become such significant figures in my poor puggled unemployed brain that I've begun to look forward to their daily presence as one might the arrival of workmates, or friends -- and the ritual of communion with these two property doer-uppers has led to me seeing them as worshipful, all-knowing beings.

Television, though, is not the only screen to which I bring my gaze every day. I have a phone, which I look at all the time, as well. And this: the screen I'm looking at now, the PC screen. If I'm not looking at one, I'm looking at another. Sometimes I'm looking at Twitter on my PC, while simultaneously reading tweets on my phone. Sometimes it feels like there's no point in watching TV without tip-tapping away on the tiny BlackBerry keys in order to tell the world that I'm watching the thing I'm watching, and that my opinion on it is X, Y and Z.

How did it come to this? Whatever happened to looking at things with your eyes, and just enjoying them for what they are? Is there no way we can simply sit through a TV show now, without telling random people on the internet what we think about someone's hair or who they vaguely look like? Apparently not. I can see the idea of the virtual community being more pleasant, less odorous and easier to shove out of the house when you want to get some sleep, but I worry there's a stage at which this all might lead to some disconnect with reality.

I remember looking at things. You know, just looking at them, without having to see them transformed into zeroes and ones on a small LCD in front of you to verify their existence. I remember when you could just go and see stuff, and enjoy it for what it was, without the necessity of a tediously framed and set up digital record; or going to gigs without having to film ten blurry, jerky seconds so you could prove you were there.

I don't want to come across as a grumbling old Luddite railing against the modern technology that allows me to write a blog or stay in touch with my friends in the "meatspace", or real world, more than I could ever have done 10 or 15 years ago, but there it is. I just wonder what it might be like to wander around without having to anxiously look at a screen every ten seconds. I have a feeling it might be some kind of liberation, and worth doing. So I'm going to give it a whirl.

I'll send you a text to let you know I'm all right.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.