Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Doctor Who DVDs 2012 Preview

With the “Classic” Doctor Who DVD collection hurtling towards completion in next year’s fiftieth anniversary year, most of the remaining stories are due out during 2012. There are long-awaited favourites; “missing” stories restored; others it made sense to leave ’til last. I’ll probably review several of them in detail later, but here to start with are single-paragraph summaries in which I reveal which are the most exciting (and which the… slightly less exciting) 2012 releases, and predict some as yet-unannounced releases*. Unconvincing Daleks! Unconvincing dinosaurs! The Master at his best! Billy’s big hat! Tom’s deadly jelly babies! Sylv’s hot arse!

The 2012 Doctor Who DVDs In Brief(ish)

The UNIT Files: Invasion of the Dinosaurs / The Android Invasion
(starring Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker; out since January)

Not the year’s strongest stories, but rather good DVDs with engaging and extensive extras, these two stories have much in common with each other – though neither is what you’d expect from the Doctor’s military chums in the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. In both, the Doctor’s already finished his exile to Earth and so is only dropping in; each has an “Invasion” title that rather gives the game away; each stars the great Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Yet only one has Nick Courtney’s Brigadier, and it’s not too much of a spoiler to suggest this might be called the ‘UNIT Goes A Bit Iffy’ box set. Both stories have some superb location footage; both have uneven scripts (one a striking central story with quite a bit of politics but some pretty poor plotting, the other intriguing but often dumb); only one has the least convincing dinosaurs known to humanity. Well, I’ve warned you. And yet I have a massive soft spot for them both, and have been enjoying them hugely.
Try the DVD Coming Soon Trailer today!

The Sensorites
(starring William Hartnell; out since January)

Starring the original and best Doctor and from the end of the original and one of the best seasons, this is… Still a contender for the weakest release of the year. It’s not that the story is bad, exactly, as that the way it’s done is long, dull and the most aimed at rather dim and undemanding children that the series has ever been. Nearing the end of a nine-month-long first season, even the superb TARDIS crew look like they need a holiday (and one of them gets one. You can get a great suntan cooped up on a spaceship). Along the way, though, there are some nice pieces of design – both architecture and aliens that inspired the Ood – a few creepy moments and the series’ first steps from ‘monsters’ to aliens with individual characters. Very small steps. With very big feet. The extras are a bit light, but one of them’s fascinating, too (probably best to watch it before the current massive luxury overdose of the lovely-but-ubiquitous Toby Hadoke puts you off).
With another exciting DVD Coming Soon Trailer

Revisitations 3: The Tomb of the Cybermen / The Three Doctors / The Robots of Death
(starring Patrick Troughton / Jon Pertwee, with Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell / Tom Baker; out since February)

This boxed set might well be the best release of the year, an absolute must-have purchase… At least, if you don’t have them already. Picture restoration techniques, DVD technology and expectations of extra features have all improved strikingly since the first Doctor Who DVD was released in 1999, and so it’s no surprise that some of the earlier releases have been scheduled for up-to-today’s-standard “Special Editions”, based on their having video quality that could now be sharply improved, documentaries that could now be made, or egregious cock-ups that could now be corrected. Like its two predecessors, this boxed set features three stories that may already be on your DVD shelves, and it’s a great improvement on last year’s Revisitations 2. Though The Three Doctors is less impressive than the other two, that’s largely because they’re among the best the series has ever produced. The Tomb of the Cybermen is probably the definitive story for the steel giants, really getting across what they’re about and copied ever after. It sounds and looks fabulous, from location filming in a quarry that, for once, could pass for ancient Egypt, to the Tombs themselves, almost a temple to maths. As you’d guess from the title, this has a strong horror inspiration – but, most importantly, it’s probably Patrick Troughton’s best performance as the Doctor, and possibly the best by anyone. It’s the story that Matt Smith saw and decided Pat was The Man, and that bow ties were cool (though you might gloss over many dated attitudes. And accents. Points for homoeroticism, though). The Three Doctors has more variable design, but many utterly loveable performances, and an operatic villain whose moment of despairing realisation clutches my heartstrings like no other – and finally, The Robots of Death is another superb story, a masterpiece of design with gorgeous décor and robots, a tightly twisted murder mystery (though don’t look too hard when you’re only meant to see a bit of the murderer) and a terrific script.
Ooh. Another DVD Coming Soon Trailer. Cool, but in just that one respect Revisitations 2’s was better.

The Face of Evil
(starring Tom Baker; out in March)

Next week’s DVD release completes Doctor Who’s best ever season (so far) on DVD and introduces Louise Jameson as bright, questioning, heretic action hero Leela – who too many people think was just a dumb savage, because they can’t see past her leather bikini. Slightly oddly, as with three of last year’s releases, this is coming out back-to-front: The Robots of Death and The Face of Evil are out in consecutive months and were indeed broadcast right next to each other, but they’re out in reverse order. Originally titled The Day God Went Mad, the story’s a particularly intelligent piece of sci-fi, with twists, political in-fighting and such a blatant religious theme that it must have been trying hard to get up Mrs Whitehouse’s nose (and end up climbing Tom’s), though also with considerable wit, including a strategically deployed jelly baby. The Doctor is cast as Satan, predating Mr Moffat’s ‘Doctor as mythical figure’ by several decades and, thankfully, much shorter. It’s just a shame that the design and direction aren’t nearly as impressive in the rest of the season…
And the latest DVD Coming Soon Trailer so far available; it still seems weird to have this on The Robot of Death for the story before it…

The Dæmons
(starring Jon Pertwee; out in March)

Surely the most anticipated release of the year and possibly the best, this is an iconic story of the Doctor fighting the Master’s plan to raise the Devil (or is it?) in an archetypal English village. The religion / science story isn’t as intelligent as The Face of Evil (and has a famously wobbly ending), but it looks an awful lot better and the characters are much more memorable. Unfortunately, the Doctor is mainly memorable in this one for being a patronising git, so it’s easy to warm to the Master (Pertwee is far more likeable in the two new releases out already). Terrific cliffhangers, a bit of TV satire, a much more cosily familiar use of UNIT than either of The UNIT Files… I admit I’m looking forward to it. The only thing I can’t understand is the timing: after courting controversy by releasing last year’s terrorism-themed Day of the Daleks on September 12th because that was the exact date on which it was set (though no-one noticed, still less took offence), why not release this Beltane tale on April 30th?

Nightmare of Eden
(starring Tom Baker; out in April)

The 2012 release most likely to split fan opinion – and I’m on its side. A script from an Oscar winner, hilariously, has many strong ideas and some grim reality (if overdoing its ‘Drugs are BAD!’ message), with many fewer laughs than you’d expect from this 1979 season with Douglas Adams in charge of the writers. The images are more of a mix, from some striking spaceships to over-lovable monsters, while the acting is… Variable. No, scratch that: Tom Baker is variable (with some outstanding moments but one scene infamous and another on which he’s previously been recorded laughing and telling the camera, “But it was funny, wasn’t it?”); most of the others are just bad, with the notable exception of David Daker, who gets a priceless scene watching TV. Romana seems overwhelmed by her hideous frock, but K9 has plenty to do. Still, don’t let that put you off…

There’s a possibility that the final story planned for that season, the Cambridge-set famous ‘unfinished’ Shada by Douglas Adams – unfinished, surprisingly, not because he didn’t finish the script in time but because of strikes at the BBC – may be released, completed in some way or other, later in the year as part of a Doctor Who – The Legacy box set. Or that may be next year. I admit I’ve never warmed to Shada, thinking it probably Mr Adams’ weakest work, but I’m hoping I’ll change my mind when there’s more of it. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to Gareth Roberts’ decades-delayed novelisation of it next month.

Ace Adventures: Dragonfire / The Happiness Patrol
(starring Sylvester McCoy; out in May)

Did I say that Nightmare of Eden was the release most likely to split fan opinion? How quickly I’m proved wrong. Sophie Aldred’s Ace is a popular companion, but these two of her stories (one introducing her) have more controversial reputations. For me, Dragonfire is the more mixed of the two, with great villains – and terrible bit-part actors; feeble sets – and a spectacular special effect; and a tone that veers wildly from film noir sex to ineffectively macho ’80s. The Happiness Patrol, with its high politics, high camp and sweet villain, is either loved or hated. I love it, and it’s one of Sylvester’s most marvellous performances. The question is, will they include the more-than-twenty-years-later Newsnight ‘scoop’ from last year that it didn’t like Mrs Thatcher?

Death to the Daleks
(starring Jon Pertwee; out in June)

It has been observed among Doctor Who fans that any story with “Time” in the title is a stinker, and though that’s a catty and unfair generalisation, it’s usually true. I’d add the presence of the word “To”, after which every story seems to give up all hope (the execrable ‘radio’ adventure Death Comes To Time seems to prove both effects). The most tired story of Doctor Who’s most tired season, this is another obvious contender for the weakest release of the year, and arguably the worst Dalek story (when I reviewed every Dalek story a couple of years ago, there were three or four in with a shot at that. Though I still picked this one). It’s also probably the story that treats Sarah Jane Smith least well. And as for the music… Yet even the feeblest of Doctor Who stories has much to enjoy in it, with some interesting ideas under the mud: ancient alien cultures falling to dust; an elegiac ending; religious maniacs determined to wipe out their non-conformist naturist cousins (the ones who looked so thrillingly like living rock when I first saw their photos in The Doctor Who Monster Book as a kid). Nick Briggs loves it, bless him.

The Reign of Terror
(starring William Hartnell; probably out later in 2012)

The rest of the DVD schedule for the year hasn’t yet been announced, though this one’s been given as very likely; at the least, there are bound to be several more releases when the series returns in the Autumn, as the DVDs sell more copies when Doctor Who’s on the telly. But while the continuing Who stories since 2005 all exist in their prime and are no harder to find than looking at BBC3 every single day, the stories made back in the Twentieth Century are a little more erratic, with many requiring time-consuming restoration work before they can be released and some no longer even existing on video. So if you’ve ever wondered why the “Classic” Who DVD range isn’t released in sequential order, this is a prime example. It’ll have some Doctor Who that I’ve never seen before – that no-one has seen before. Because a third of The Reign of Terror was among those episodes the BBC call “missing” and that other people call ‘the ones the BBC had burnt before they realised they could make money out of them’. Fortunately, the soundtrack still exists for every story, and this release will include all-new animation to match it on the “missing” parts. The Doctor lands in revolutionary France and struts about loving it in a massive hat; his companions have rather a rougher time, involving gaol, the guillotine and, worst of all, being chatted up. But, basically, Bill Hartnell is fabulous in this, not least crossing wits with the enigmatically sinister Lemaitre (the series’ first character with that name and, no, it’s not him yet) and – this will be one of the ‘new’ bits I’m looking forward to – Robespierre, as well as giving the rather lovely closing monologue that finishes the first season.

The Greatest Show In the Galaxy
(starring Sylvester McCoy; probably out later in 2012)

This will be a milestone in the DVD range – with this, every story from the ’80s will be available to buy. It’s rather good, with both this Doctor’s and Ace’s performances strong (I’d say it’s a better part for her than either of the “Ace Adventures”, and he gets arguably his coolest moment – which, ironically, involves his arse being on fire). Shot entirely on location, by accident and then clever design, it has many ideas, impressive guest stars and a striking look. I like the theme of the hippy dream turned sour; I enjoy the pokes at the ’80s and the enforcement of ‘family values’; I marvel at the pre-emptive strike on The X-Factor. But I don’t like the ending at all, and I’m the one person on Earth who prefers the same author’s Paradise Towers. Still, if you want to see the show’s real target, just imagine if they’d cast Jon Pertwee instead of TP McKenna…

Vengeance On Varos
(starring Colin Baker; probably out later in 2012)

Another “Special Edition”, this is a sort of Revisitations Three and a Half (though I’d have swapped it with The Three Doctors, personally, both to balance the decades and because that story’s more likely to sell more on its own). It’s one of Colin Baker’s best stories, and another that presciently swipes at reality TV – as well as introducing possibly ’80s Doctor Who’s most memorable villain, Nabil Shaban as gurgling slimy alien Sil. Martin Jarvis is excellent as a suffering politician; Jason Connery is… pretty, half-naked; few of the other actors are worth bothering with. It starts a bit slowly, and for an ’80s story about the corrupting influence of big business and the powerlessness of the ordinary person against market forces, the ending doesn’t have a clue about supply and demand. Still, ‘Press the red button to electrocute the Prime Minister’ might catch on…

The Krotons
(starring Patrick Troughton; probably out later in 2012)

The first story from Doctor Who’s greatest writer; outstanding chemistry between the three regular leads (and more chemistry later); guest-starring the mighty Philip Madoc. Pity it’s not very good. Cheaply made even by Doctor Who standards of the time and with infamously unimpressive monsters (to show how ’60s they are, they have mini-skirts and do acid, but neither fetchingly), much of the characterisation is poor and many of the actors worse. On the bright side, the sound design’s good, one of the other guest actors is much more lively than he was in The Reign of Terror, and the Doctor gets a fabulous scene making a mess of standardised testing.

Planet of Giants
(starring William Hartnell; probably out later in 2012)

Visually ambitious though rather banally plotted, this started Doctor Who’s second season and, comparing it with the first, you’re now left in no doubt that the Doctor’s the unmistakeable star, taking all the actions and having all the ideas, while Ian is staggeringly slow and unobservant and Barbara just gets to… come over all faint. The latter two are a shame, but I can’t resist Bill Hartnell taking such delight in his arson around. It’s described as an early ecological fable, but really that’s just a hook to hang the ‘giants’ on; the giant fly’s the high point. Still, I may find myself re-evaluating it; of all the completely existing Doctor Who stories, it’s probably the one I’ve watched least often, and I suspect it may be similarly obscure to many other fans – with the video release long ago deleted, this is the only Who story of the ’60s that you can’t get hold of in the shops today, with all the others out on DVD, CD (notably for the “missing” story soundtracks), or both.

The Ambassadors of Death
(starring Jon Pertwee; probably out later in 2012)

This story was originally planned for release last year, but delayed for more restoration work; while every Jon Pertwee story still exists in full, they don’t all exist in their original full colour, and this is one of the worst-hit. Apparently, though, the colour restoration is now going rather well, so I’m hoping to see it by the end of the year. While two of this year’s Pertwee releases are from his last and most lacklustre year, The Ambassadors of Death would complete his first and by far his best – uniquely, set entirely on Earth (even if two of the stories suggest in their different ways that it may not be Earth), this is the nearest we get to adventures in space, as the Doctor makes a brief rocket trip. It’s long, strange, but exciting, packed with intriguing characters and thrilling mini-adventures, far more episodic than usual, and ahead of the ’70s fashion for conspiracy thrillers. It’ll probably be the fourth or fifth story released this year to feature its own TV-show-within-a-TV-show (and they’re all good), as well as at least the second to nick major set-pieces shamelessly from The Avengers. A splendid story to finish the year with. If indeed it does.

*Having already got some wrong, as it turns out we’ll have to wait until 2013 for the newly-discovered episodes.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Lib Dem Peer Shocked That Lib Dems Hold To Their Principles (As He’s Changed His)

I see that Lord Lee of Trafford (a figure of such great repute that I’m sure you’ve all heard of him) is threatening to resign his Liberal Democrat duties because the party is threatening to fulfil a democratic promise that it’s held steady to for a century. That of abolishing his cosy job for life (but no personal interest, of course).

Anyone would have thought that this might be some cautionary tale about how even the Lib Dems have treated the Lords just as some sort of patronage-a-go-go by doling out peerages to every time-serving Tory who happens to join us after their career is over in the pathetic hope of encouraging more defections, rather than thinking of the Second Chamber as a serious part of Parliament that might need people in it with Liberal principles that might make legislation more Liberal and not more conservative.

And that the moral of the story would be that unelected patronage running part of our laws sucks, whoever appoints the old cronies to their jollies, and that therefore Lord Lee is accidentally making the precise case as to why he and all his peers should be abolished – even the good ones.

But, no, that would be madness talking.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Things To Remember About Labour #3

Labour opposed every single move towards Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender equality before they were for it. The Labour Government spent millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money fighting to keep discrimination in the armed forces and age of consent before the European Court found against them and they were forced to change the law. Now they shamelessly claim credit, like a crook caught by the cops and found guilty after a long trial they tried to escape… Then pretending they turned themselves in out of their own goodness. They voted against civil partnerships and in favour of Section 28, too, before belatedly U-turning and pretending they’d been in favour of equality all along.

Labour’s civil partnership laws were designed as a second-rate same-sex marriage, so they deliberately exclude mixed-sex couples; the original Liberal Democrat proposals that the Labour Government voted down in Parliament years earlier were gender-neutral and non-discriminatory. At the same time, the Scottish version of Section 28 was scrapped by Lib Dems in the Scottish Government while the Labour Government at Westminster kow-towed to the bigots for several extra years.

Today, the Labour Party continues to pretend it’s in the lead to the LGBT communities, while being very different to other audiences. The Liberal Democrats in Coalition Government are acting on putting Lib Dem policy in favour of equal marriage into law, while Labour tells the LGBT press they’re “pressing the Government” for it… Except that the Labour Party has no policy in favour of equal marriage, and explicitly opposed it when they had absolute power in government for thirteen years.

And just in the last week, we’ve seen yet again that Labour politicians are against homophobia when it suits them… But homophobic themselves again and again as long as it’s against someone they don’t like, like a Tory or a banker. ‘Some of my best friends are gay’ doesn’t cut it this century.

The Lib Dem position on LGBT rights is simpler and more principled – for equality when Labour was opposing it, for liberty before it was fashionable, Always Been There, Always Will.

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Thursday, February 09, 2012


Things To Remember About Labour #2

In thirteen years of authoritarian government, the Labour Party inflicted 4,400 new laws on the UK – more than any other government in British history.

Though Labour is all over the place on almost every policy in Opposition – alternating between Tory and Trot – there’s one thing in which they’re consistent.

Labour is still determined to be to the far right of the Libera-Tory Coalition on law and order, immigration, civil liberties… Basically, they’ll say anything to please a Tory or a Trot, but the one thing that keeps them together is that they’re never, ever Liberal.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2012


Housing Heresy?

Would rent controls be the worst method of controlling housing benefit aside from all the others?

With its mixture of good ideas and painful ones, the Welfare Reform Bill going through Parliament is causing more anguish among Liberal Democrats than anything since… Well, since the last horrible compromise the Coalition Government came up with. The logic is relentless: Labour wrecked the economy and stiffed us with the bill; government is still spending vastly more than it has coming in; the NHS and benefits dwarf all other government spending; the Coalition is committed to NHS increases; benefits need to be cut. It’s just that that means taking money from the people who, by definition, have least – and with the Coalition also committed to pension increases and (a Lib Dem victory) to increasing benefits with September’s high inflation rate, that narrows mightily the field of possible cuts.

Amid all the pain about how wrong it is to restrict benefits and the echoing question of where else to find the money when there’s simply none left, that old political cliché of ‘thinking the unthinkable’ – usually spoken by the unspeakable – is being trundled out on a daily basis. So, looking at where the soaring costs are in the benefits system, one element stands out as a massive problem for which no-one is proposing any action.

I come, inevitably, to the elephant in the room, and Millennium’s howl of pain which, amongst other points, reiterated his support for a Citizen’s Income – at least the Universal Credit is a small step in the right direction – but noted the biggest problem with it:
“And since I've been saying for AGES that I would support a flat Citizen's Income if only I could make the maths add up – the problem remains the disproportional effect of Housing Benefit in a housing market that is still massively over-inflated, which is why that's proving such a botherer in the current debate about a "cap" on benefits…”
If the Coalition Government wants to make really big savings on the welfare bill, arbitrarily finding relatively small groups from whom money can be clawed back (often because they can’t fight back) just isn’t going to do the job. And while I support the Universal Credit as a way of simplifying the benefits system and making work pay, this has its limits when there’s not much work to be had (the government needs to cut benefits more as there’s not enough tax coming in. But there’s not enough work about for being to move off benefits into and pay taxes on. So the government needs to cut benefits more as there’s not enough tax coming in. But…).

Everybody knows there is one big problem in the benefits system, and nobody knows how to tackle it. Which drives me to an unthinkable thought.

Shouldn’t we look at how rent controls might work, a quarter of a century after they were abolished?

And, yes, it’s a bizarre and heretical thought for a free-marketeer in one of the two free-market parties and in coalition with the other one. But there’s a simple answer to the gut-instinct complaint, ‘But that would distort the free market!’ No. It can’t. Because the rented sector reliant on housing benefit isn’t a free market at all. Either you abolish housing benefit and let all the consequences of an untrammelled free market in housing erupt, or recognise that this is a market that is warped out of all recognition by subsidy at the bottom, and that it therefore needs an equivalent pressure downwards.

The obvious solution is a vast new build of social housing, but – though the Coalition Government, incredibly, is building much more than Labour did – to pull that off in a couple of years is both financially and physically impossible. Previous governments have put limits on housing benefit but, blatantly, this hasn’t worked. Whether it’s people having to pay top-ups to their landlords or simply that the problem is too big for controls on the benefits side to handle. Government is still paying out vast sums with no effective control, not going to the people in the greatest need but instead subsidising businesses (some small, some large) in the way that we don’t for any others, yet that endless subsidy distorts and makes unaffordable for many people not just the housing market but the whole of government spending.

Look, the idea of price controls makes me cringe. It summons up ideas of post-War drudgery or Gordon Brown salivating, neither of them attractive images. But with massive cuts needed to government spending, the Coalition is having to do a lot of things that either or both parties don’t want to. So what’s the religious objection to the government setting up trials looking at benefits cuts from the other end of the telescope?

I admit that I don’t much like talking about either housing or benefits policy, either. With housing, in my many years on the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee, there was no other issue that came up so many times to so little effect, and it was, I’m afraid, boring – not because of the vital issue itself, but because over a decade and a half it became clear that I could pretty much deliver all the speeches on either side, and the summing-up that always failed to come to a conclusion: And I don’t like talking about benefits because, very simply, I’m on them. I’ve been too ill to work for many years, and I feel ashamed, so I’d prefer to keep my head down. But I noticed in my diary that it was twenty-three years ago tonight that my political career, such as it was, started very small (joining my local party Exec) before its meteoric rise and then health-related complete crash, after which I gave up standing for FPC and now rarely stir myself to write from my pit. But I remember why I started in politics, and it wasn’t to take away benefits from people even worse-off than I am.

Besides, taking money away from landlords might be more popular than taking it away from people with cancer. Who knows?

Of course any rent controls would take a lot of looking at. I don’t want a return to the monolithic sort running for half the last century, or ones that do little for the poorest but give you the jackpot if you’re renting a penthouse. Even regional setting would be far too crude, and any system would probably have to be restricted to rents paid by housing benefit and to bear down very gradually, year by year, so as not to depress the housing market too far (because that inflated bubble is still holding up what’s left of the economy). And I’m prepared to believe – especially after thirteen years of Gordon Brown – that the amount of micro-managing bureaucracy involved would make it impossible to pay off. So it may well be that, after carefully examining the costs and effects, after feasibility studies and pilot schemes, the government might find that it wouldn’t work.

But I still have to ask the question, and propose that we try those feasibility studies and pilot schemes. Would micro-managing bureaucracy for landlords be worse than micro-managing bureaucracy for people who can’t find work, or who are too ill for it? Because that goes on all the time. Would distorting the housing market with a downwards pressure be so shocking, when governments have for decades distorted it with hundreds of billions of pounds of upwards subsidy? And if you have to do something drastic to make savings in the benefits bill, who is better-placed to bear them?

Note: Good grief. Apparently, this is my six hundredth blog post and, thanks to having fallen much more ill than usual (as usual) in December and still being rather worn down, only my second so far this year – this January was only the second month in six years of blogging that I failed utterly to publish a single word on here. Oops. For those of you interested in such things, last year’s 145,792 (ish) words came in uneven bursts of between 37,715 and 314 a month, but none of them were as poor as zero.

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Things To Remember About Labour #1

Anything new the Labour Party claims they’d do if only they were in government now?

It’s a great big lie.

They had a booming economy* and absolute power for thirteen years**.

So if they gave a flying fuck about it, they’d have done it.

*Later revealed to be a debt-fuelled disaster that’ll probably take another thirteen years for the Libera-Tory Coalition to repair and pay off Labour’s bills.

**The Labour Party, on its own, had massive Parliamentary majorities, so they could do whatever they wanted – and did. Even though the large majority of people voted against them each time. Neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems have anything like that power, so each has to compromise.

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