Friday, December 30, 2011

Walking In Lanzarote

I'll be away for the next few days doing some walking in the island of La Palma, my first time there. So I leave with an account of last year's trip to Lanzarote, done at the same time of year. Lanzarote may not be as famous for trekking as islands with higher peaks or forests like Tenerife, La Gomera, El Hierro and La Palma, but we thoroughly enjoyed our time there and did much better walks than we had expected.

Day 1 began with not much walking going on. In the national park of Timanfaya you have to leave your car in the parking area and then get on a bus to be taken on a route around the area of the extensive volcanic eruptions that took place in the 18th Century. It's still a volcanic desert, but a spectacular sight. 

A short distance down the road from the Timanfaya interpretation centre there is an area of the park where you can do some walking. The Caldera Blanca is a beautiful, and reasonably easy, route to do. Once you find the path from the parking area it's hard to wander off it, at least whilst you are walking through a sea of jagged lava. Despite the path it's still a good idea to wear boots or strong shoes. The Caldera Blanca is the one at the back in the photo below.

There is some climbing involved to get up to the crater, and if you want to make the route a bit more difficult, as we did, then you can descend down into the crater itself. I wanted to check out the stone rings in the centre. I suspect they are not very ancient.

We did a full circuit of the crater with fantastic views along the coast and into the interior of the island. It's a route that can be done comfortably in 2-3 hours and was a great introduction to the volcanic landscape of Lanzarote.

On the second day we moved to another island. La Graciosa isn't very big, has only two villages and a few hundred inhabitants, and is just a short boat trip away from the the northern part of Lanzarote. This is the capital!

We set off into the interior of the island without worrying too much about following a path or even having a fixed objective. Others hire bikes or even Land Rovers to take them around the island, but we just went over the low hills in the centre. Once again, the views were spectacular and the weather was perfect.

On the other side there is a wild Atlantic beach, with waves to match. Although conditions were calm this is not a very safe place to go in too deep, there is a strong undertow. But the day, and the walk to get there, made it hot enough to go into the water. 

We walked back using the road that cuts across the centre of the island, much quicker but with poorer views. La Graciosa has a low key charm, and is a place where I could happily spend 2-3 days. 

On our third day we went to a part of Lanzarote known as Los Ajaches. Nowhere on the island goes much higher than 600 metres, but in this area we did a relatively tough circular walk taking us from the hills higher up down to the coast and then back up again.

The reward for the effort was another day of fantastic weather and excellent views of the island. The landscape, as with much of the island, is fairly barren. Nobody comes to Lanzarote for the Atlantic cloud forest. But we could see the coast on two sides, including views of neighbouring Fuerteventura.

We were based for the trip in the beach resort of Playa Blanca. It's always entertaining to stay in a place like this on walking holidays, people preparing for a day by the beach stare in wonder at the Martians who eat their breakfast wearing full trekking gear. It was a good place to stay, a beer by the sea after a day's walking always gives things a different perspective. La Palma I expect to be a bit different. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Things Have To Get Worse Before They Get Really Bad

It seems we were far too optimistic in believing that Mariano Rajoy would finally reveal the details of his economic programme in the parliamentary debate which led to him being formally elected as Spanish prime minister. Instead what we got is a carefully presented misrepresentation of what awaits us, with all the painful details still unrevealed. Supporters of the government will claim this is not true, with the announcement having been made of 16000 million euros in cuts in government spending. But this figure, with the nature of the cuts to be made still unspecified, is simply an unsustainable fraud.

It's true that the cuts figure represents the amount needed for Spain to hit the budget deficit target for 2012. But Rajoy's speech was littered with fiscal presents that make it impossible for Spain to hit the deficit target without making further huge cuts. Unnecessary reductions in corporation tax were promised together with the crazy reintroduction of tax deductions for mortgage holders. The tax on companies is only paid if they are profitable in the first place, and tax officials in Spain have estimated that the real average rate at which this tax is paid is only 10% anyway given that there are so many ways in which to reduce the burden. The mortgage tax deduction is widely credited with having been one of the factors behind the disastrous housing price bubble. If Rajoy sticks to these tax commitments, together with his promise to increase pensions, then most of the promised cuts in spending are already cancelled out by reductions in government income or increased spending elsewhere.

What this all means is cuts in spending way beyond the headline figure, or backtracking on Rajoy's few concrete commitments. A few short weeks ago it was education and health that were untouchable alongside pensions. You won't hear that any more. Despite all the talk of cutting wasteful spending, the reality is that the axe is going to fall on essential services and the employees who work in those services. All the money ripped off in those mega projects of the boom years has been safely stashed away. Usually where the taxman is unlikely to find it should the government surprise us and start to do something about the manifest injustice that leads to so many of those who have the money not being asked to make any contribution towards the cost of the crisis.

The bad news doesn't stop here. Nobody seems very confident about Spain hitting the deficit target for 2011, mostly because of the still unconfirmed deficits in the regional governments. Each 1% of variance above the target is more or less equivalent to another 10000 million euros in cutbacks. Lets assume that 1% variation and a generous estimate of a similar amount on the tax cuts; that's a not very trivial additional 20000 million euros of cuts on top of what Rajoy has already promised. In total well over twice as much as those cuts already made by Zapatero's government, which of course the PP opposed so vehemently when in opposition. Whatever happened to the Madrid PP's petition against the rise in VAT?

The reasons why the PP will not reveal the true scale of the cuts are more to do with political strategy, rather than the economy. Andalucia holds regional elections in March, and the PP has high hopes of winning control of the region after decades of PSOE control. So the full reality of the cuts the PP intend to make has been put back until after these crucial elections, when suddenly we can expect the veil to be lifted and reality will bite hard. The outlook for Spain in 2012 is tremendously grim, unemployment is going to continue to rise well beyond the symbolic figure of 5 million and there is no prospect of economic recovery.

It's wake-up time, particularly for those PP voters who were seduced by the comfortable but cynical illusion that all it would take was a change of government for Spain's economic situation to improve. The recognition yesterday by the new economy minister, Luis de Guindos, that Spain is heading back into recession just makes all this pain for no gain seem even more absurd. This is no natural "business cycle" recession. It's a deliberately provoked recession which will only be made worse by the spending cuts. There are those who will argue that it's a sovereign debt crisis, or even those who still prefer the morality fairy tale of spendthrift Mediterraneans punished for their years of high living. But the Christmas gift of huge amounts of cheap money the other day from the European Central Bank to the banks tells the real story. Those who warned that failure to deal with the causes of the financial crisis would lead to it continuing were right. Those who scoffed at them were disastrously and stupidly wrong. 

There is possibly somewhere a lunatic, safely locked up and restrained, who regards the bombing of Hiroshima as an example of progressive town planning and slum clearance. Those who insist on regarding the deliberate destruction of productive economic capacity as a process of "structural reform" are still walking the streets. You need to have a truly impressive resistance to reality to still believe this kind of interpretation with everything that has happened in the last few years. But then the faith based economics which are so dominant these days accept no examination of the evidence. The coming economic miracle is just kicked repeatedly further into the future. Any other economic model which produced such dismal results would have been binned long ago. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ghost Train

With all the publicity concerning airports in Spain where no planes land any more, or where no planes have ever landed, here is a reminder of some failed projects from an earlier age. We did a weekend trip to Jaca in August to do some walking and had some time to take a look at the international railway station of Canfranc. A very fine looking building it is too, but a bridge accident in 1970 on the French side has meant that international traffic has been a bit sparse for the last 40 years. Not that there are no trains at all in Canfranc, a graffiti covered two coach service from Zaragoza arrived whilst I was taking photos of the station. But it goes no further towards France than this.

It seems that the most successful period for the Canfranc line was during the second world war, with busy trade between Franco's Spain and Nazi occupied France. The sort of thing that the revisionists who play down the fascism of Franco's dictatorship tend not to like very much.

Over in Cantabria there is a significantly less successful line. The station at Yera has never seen any trains at all as the Santander-Mediterranean rail link was never completed. We did want to take a look at the nearby tunnel of La Engaña which cuts through the mountainside separating Cantabria from Castilla-León for almost 7 kilometres, but we didn't have the right footwear for the day we were there in November. In any case the tunnel is not recommended for visits, having collapsed in places. Instead we went off to eat cabrito asado.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mariano, Pan Y Vino

The shroud of secrecy that normally covers one of the most mysterious regimes in the world was lifted briefly yesterday. The accession to power of Kim Jong Rajoy in Spain and his announcement of the new Politburo have excited foreign observers who were not expecting the man now known as the "Dear Leader At Last" to make any public pronouncements. He normally doesn't.

The official party organ, PPravda, has greeted the new leadership with enthusiasm and furiously condemned the legacy of Kim Jong Rajoy's predecessor. Little is known about Kim Jong Rajoy's rise to power, he is believed to worked his way up through the ranks largely by being extremely difficult to remove from any position that he has been given and by being absolutely loyal to the Greatest Leader Kim Jong Aznar.

The task facing the new leader is a formidable one, his country faces potential bankruptcy as a result of the ruinous and semi-clandestine programme of banking fusion pursued by the regime. Information about the programme is strictly controlled but it is believed to involve smaller banks being hurled together inside a collision chamber, the fusion being achieved thanks to lubrication involving vast amounts of public money and the combustion of essential public services.

Far away from Madrid's special diplomatic shops with their showy displays of expensive imported consumer goods, there are reports of deep economic crisis from around the country. Kim Jong Rajoy, in his first speech to the Central Committee as leader, promised the nation that he would now be calling bread "bread", and wine "wine". This cryptic remark is interpreted to mean possible significant price hikes for these important Spanish staples.

Economic policy is in the hands of a group of dogmatic hardliners who refuse to accept responsibility for the crisis. They don't get out much and therefore make no attempt to assess whether their policies are working. Much of the blame for the crisis has instead been apportioned to those few groups of workers who still have jobs. It is said that some of these still enjoy clearly outmoded privileges such as time off at weekends, a limit on working hours and even the occasional holiday. It is expected that the new leadership will move swiftly to ensure that such inefficient practices are eliminated. A long, cold winter is expected.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Lombok....Mount Rinjani

I'm off to Malawi for 18 days for the traditional South of Watford winter break. So in the meantime I leave you with a long overdue post from last year's September trip to Indonesia. Mount Rinjani, on the island of Lombok, is without doubt one of the most impressive treks I've done and one of the most special places that I have ever been to.

There seem to be plenty of people offering Rinjani treks these days, of varying difficulty and duration. We opted for what seems to be the 'full' trek that goes to the summit of the volcanic crater rim; three days trekking and two nights spent camping on the mountain. We arranged it in advance and were picked up on arrival in Lombok, having travelled by fast boat across from Bali the morning after arrival leaving our jet lag behind us. The first night in the village of Senaru was also included in the package that we had contracted. Rinjani was hidden by clouds when we arrived in Senaru, but the surroundings were not. Later on that day the weather would get significantly worse.
It rained hard for most of the afternoon and evening, even though this was supposed to be still the dry season. Now where have I heard that before? We didn't feel too optimistic about the weather conditions on the big mountain above us, given what was falling down below, and we had to make some tough decisions on what to take with us on the trek, to avoid being overloaded on the climb. Our guide splashed his way to the hotel to come and give us a basic briefing for the next day.

The first day of the trek dawned quite bright and sunny. Even so, the mountain above still seemed to be covered in thick clouds. Knowing how cold it could be up at 3000 metres if it continued to rain we ended up taking a bit too much stuff with us. The trek begins at the national park office a bit above the village and we immediately started climbing through the forest, hot work even with the shade provided by the trees. Above us we would get occasional glimpses of groups of monkeys. The path is occasionally steep and it's best to have boots with a reasonable grip. The route is easy enough to follow, there are few alternatives and the surrounding forest is thick enough to make wandering off in the wrong direction difficult.

There are stopping points at intervals on the way up and by mid-morning we had reached the point where everyone seems to stop for lunch. We had already climbed some 900 metres up the forest path and I was grateful for a lengthy break. Our guide was also the cook, and the two porters who came with us were carrying the food, water and the tents that we would sleep in. Lunch took a while as the rain the day before meant that the available firewood didn't burn easily. After lunch the path continued to rise quite steeply through the forest for another hour or so, after which it levels off slightly and the forest gradually disappears. It was raining occasionally, but never heavily enough to make wearing a jacket seem like a good idea, I was already hot enough from the climb.
The next rest point is a good place to stop, because the last part of the climb to the crater rim - our objective for this first day - is steeper. I took this part very slowly, in total the day's climb was around 2000 metres and the last 2-300 were very hard work. There was a reward though. I hadn't expected to be able to see very much when we got to the rim, given the rain that had fallen further down and the clouds that were still swirling around. We were in luck though, and arrived at the crater at a perfect time to appreciate our surroundings. Several hundred metres below, inside the crater, we could see the lake and the young (in geological terms) and active volcano Gunung Barujari rising out from the waters. It's a beautiful place to be and the weather was on our side, although it soon feels cold after dark. Normally I hate camping, but there are places like this where there is simply no alternative if you want to be there.
The next morning the mountain was again very clear. Breakfast has to be watched closely, unless you want the scavenging monkeys to eat it for you. Day 2 of the trek involved a descent into the crater down to the lakeside, to be followed by the climb back up to the rim on the other side in preparation for the summit walk. Rinjani's crater is steep, wherever you look, and going down is not really easier than going up. We set off early, and I think we were the first people to make it down to the lake. From this position you get a close up of the volcano in the middle. But the main attraction down here is a short walk away from the lake itself. Hot springs gush out of the mountain and we spent the time before lunch enjoying the murky, but just hot enough to bear, water. 
Maybe it was the heat of the water, but in many ways I felt more tired after the springs than before, it produced a feeling of lethargy which lunch only seemed to make worse. This was a shame, because the afternoon activity was all upwards, ascending the crater path to our campsite for that night. I was happy for the clouds to move in and protect me from the sun as I made my slow way up the mountain. We'd been worried about the possibility of rain but in the end the weather was more or less perfect as the clouds just seemed to move in when we needed them. Our camp for the night was still around 1000 metres below the Rinjani summit point. It's not quite such a beautiful position as the first night, as the volcano in the lake is hidden from view. In any case, we were not intending to stay up late - there's not a lot to do after dinner and you get up in the middle of the night to go to the summit as the best time to be there is for sunrise.
Warm clothes on, head torch in position, and we were ready to start the climb in darkness but with some light from the moon. I was never very optimistic about my chances of making it to the top, I was really feeling the effects of the previous two days in my legs and we had already agreed with the guide that he would stay with me if I couldn't make it to the top. To be honest I don't think he relished the prospect of the climb either. I knew after about 5 minutes of walking that I wasn't going to go all the way. The path consisted mostly of volcanic grit and sand and we had already been warned about the effort this would involve as you try to go up without sliding backwards. My legs weren't strong enough, and I was going painfully slowly. After a while Silvia left us behind and sped off up the mountainside with some other trekkers. I continued slowly but steadily, but with no real intention of attempting the summit - in the end I think I got a little over half way.The path had got a little easier than the first part but would soon get steeper again We had to shelter from the wind for a while as we waited for daylight and the first faint rays from the sun.

It didn't matter too much about not reaching the top, the views from where I gave up were still fantastic. At first light the lake was still partially lit by moonlight. Then, as it became lighter, the shadow on the horizon would become recognisable as Bali's Mount Ugung; that was to be climbed later in our trip. The sunrise was spectacular and we could see all the way down the mountain to the coast and some of the smaller islands close to Lombok. With the sun high enough to make us feel a bit warmer we made our way back down to the campsite for breakfast. Silvia told me that the final part of the ascent is tremendously difficult as the volcanic sand and a steep path makes going up so hard and slow.
Back at the camp a war was in progress. When we arrived the previous afternoon there was no sign of monkeys hunting for food. But now they were out in force and were incredibly bold in their attempts to snatch anything edible. The porters and guides were being very vigilant in keeping them at bay but you couldn't put a plate on the ground. As if getting up in the middle of the night to climb wasn't enough, we now had the descent to deal with. We didn't go back the way we had come, that would have meant going back into the crater to climb out the other side. Instead we had a descent down to the village of Sembalun. The first couple of hours was difficult, a steep walk down a gritty path where it was very easy to slip. After that things get easier, but hotter, as we crossed grasslands with little shelter. The final section as we neared the village seemed to take forever and I was looking forward to a good rest. It's a fantastic trek to do, but it would take a couple of days for my legs to recover from the experience. We were picked up by the people from the agency who took us all the way around half of Lombok to our next destination on the coast, Senggigi.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Aguirre Digs In For The Battles To Come

It's difficult not to feel some sort of admiration for the discipline showed by Spain's right-wing in the run up to the general election. Knowing what we do about their internal feuds and hatreds, it was impressive how all of this was buried until the Partido Popular had won the vote. The left doesn't generally show such determined single minded focus on the ultimate objective.

Then it only took a few days after Mariano Rajoy's victory for the cracks to show again. With Rajoy still clearly far away on some sort of spiritual retreat, Esperanza Aguirre took her chance to regain some media attention and to demonstrate in the process that the PP is not as united as it likes to pretend. She did this by sacking the secretary general of the Madrid PP, Francisco Granados, alleging a loss of confidence as the reason.

Nobody should feel too sorry for Granados, who was the organiser of the little band of spies that followed various other PP politicians around for a few weeks back in the not so distant days when Rajoy was not exactly everyone's favourite leader. But it seems that he lost the power struggle to be the Condesa's bag carrier to Ignacio González; who has already been appointed to replace Granados in the party position whilst maintaining his role as regional vice-president.

This is more than just a minor adjustment of roles in the Madrid party. Granados had not been hiding his unhappiness over losing the battle with González and in the process his position in Aguirre's administration. The word is that his dissatisfaction with the outcome had led him to commit that most heinous of all crimes in the eyes of Aguirre loyalists; he had become too friendly towards the loyalist Rajoy wing of the PP leadership. Nobody who has done this in the last few years has survived as a member of Aguirre's inner circle. 

What's more, the selection of González to control the Madrid PP is seen as a direct challenge to Rajoy and the start of the battle over who might succeed Aguirre as regional president in Madrid. González was one of the few PP politicians who openly spoke out against Rajoy after the 2008 election defeat, and this has not been forgotten by the Rajoy camp. One side effect of this was the decision by Rajoy to pre-empt Aguirre's attempt to put González in charge of Caja Madrid. Aguirre's ill fated move to displace Rajoy as PP leader continues to affect the stability of the party even as they (allegedly) prepare to govern.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Cheap Seats

Motivated to investigate a bit further after my previous post on Spain's general election results, I decided to check different provinces to find out just how few votes you can get in order to win a parliamentary seat here. The motivation to do this came from all the complaints about how the Basque coalition Amaiur managed to "only" need 47000 votes for each seat won. My bet was that there would be several places where it was possible to elect a representative with less votes than this. I was unaware before carrying out this admittedly slightly geeky exercise just how low that number of votes needed could be. Where a party has won more than one seat in a province I've applied the Amaiur formula by dividing the number of votes by seats won. Starting from the bottom with the name of the province or colonial outpost, the number of votes needed and the party taking the cheapest seat:

  1. Soria - 16058 - PSOE
  2. Melilla - 17791 - Partido Popular
  3. Teruel - 19896 - Partido Popular
  4. Ceuta - 20981 - Partido Popular
  5. Avila - 24164 - PSOE
  6. Segovia - 24711 - PSOE
  7. Huesca - 29128 - Partido Popular
  8. Palencia - 29290 - Partido Popular
  9. Burgos - 30550 - Partido Popular
  10. La Rioja - 31524 - Partido Popular
  11. Araba - 31849 - PNV
  12. Girona - 32834 - ERC
  13. Zamora - 33936 - Partido Popular
  14. Cuenca - 34958 - Partido Popular
  15. Guadalajara - 35641 - Partido Popular
  16. Lleida - 37229 - Partido Popular
  17. Ourense - 37991 - Partido Popular
  18. Huelva - 38499 - Partido Popular
  19. Lugo - 39962 - Partido Popular
  20. Tarragona - 40917 - Partido Popular
  21. Illes Balears - 42115 - PSOE
  22. Navarra - 42411 - GBAI
  23. Albacete - 42628 - Partido Popular
  24. Salamanca - 42786 - Partido Popular
  25. Gipuzkoa - 43218 - Amaiur
  26. Almería - 44970 - Partido Popular
  27. Cantabria - 45663 - Partido Popular
  28. Caceres - 46175 - PSOE
  29. Valladolid - 47125 - PSOE
  30. Ciudad Real - 47618 - PSOE
  31. Las Palmas - 48132 - Partido Popular
  32. León - 49547 - PSOE
  33. Tenerife - 51244 - Partido Popular
  34. Badajoz - 51775 - Partido Popular
  35. Castellón - 52181 - Partido Popular
  36. Jaén - 55031 - PSOE
  37. Toledo - 55078 - Partido Popular
  38. Cordoba - 56678 - PSOE
  39. Cádiz - 58335 - Partido Popular
  40. Zaragoza - 58749 - CHA/IU
  41. Murcia - 58919 - Partido Popular
  42. Granada - 59245 - Partido Popular
  43. Málaga - 59517 - Partido Popular
  44. Alicante - 59707 - PSOE
  45. Asturias - 61057 - PSOE
  46. Bizkaia - 61303 - Amaiur
  47. Pontevedra - 66970 - BNG
  48. A Coruña - 68041 - Partido Popular
  49. Barcelona - 72567 - PSOE
  50. Sevilla - 73610 - PSOE
  51. Valencia - 82514 - Partido Popular
  52. Madrid - 86531 - UPyD
An incredible variation between Soria and Madrid. I'm aware that this is not a completely scientific study, the way in which the electoral system works means a party could have won a seat by a single vote or by 20000. Nevertheless, I think it demonstrates fairly clearly that the weight of a vote in Spain depends very much on where the voter lives. Leaving aside the special cases of the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the upper ranks of this table are dominated by the sparsely populated provinces of northern Spain. Meanwhile, the big cities are where you really need a lot of votes to elect someone. As for the Amaiur factor, they did best in Gipuzkoa which turns out to be almost the median province in terms of votes needed for a seat.

The explanation of all this variation lies in the fact that the electoral division in Spain is based on the province. Not only that, but there is a minimum guaranteed representation for a province. That's why Soria gets two elected representatives with only 50000 people voting. Some also attribute an influence to Spain's use of the D'Hondt method for distributing seats, because this system tends to favour larger parties. Even so, studies done applying the D'Hondt calculations on a national electoral division rather than a provincial level show the result to be reasonably proportional. 

The smaller national parties, like Izquierda Unida and UPyD, don't stand a chance of winning a seat in Soria, Teruel, Avila or Segovia because the number of seats contested is too low for a party winning less than 10% of the vote to compete for. That's why these parties win their seats in larger electoral areas, principally those of the big cities, where the result tends to be more proportional (Madrid, for example, elects 36 representatives). The result of this is that a vote for a minority party in a large part of the country is extremely unlikely to count. That's the reason why UPyD have 1 seat for every 220000 votes they got, and why Izquierda Unida in the previous parliament could claim 450000 votes for each seat won.

It needs to be said again and again for those who refuse to understand it, but the major beneficiaries of Spain's electoral system are the PP and the PSOE. That's also why calls for electoral reform don't tend to get very far. In this parliament we may even get to see a bogus electoral reform disguised as an anti-crisis measure. Inside the PP they have been floating the idea of reducing the number of members of parliament from 350 to 300. Presented as a money saving proposal for austere times, such a move would of course only have the result of reducing even further the representation of the smaller parties in parliament, because it would leave the provincial bias of the electoral system untouched whilst reducing the number of seats in the larger electoral divisions.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Missing Person Alert....Help Us Find Mariano

Mariano was last seen on Sunday evening shortly after winning Spain's general election.

At the time of his disappearance he was wearing a dark grey suit and is generally a bit grey in appearance. He was also carrying with him some very light intellectual baggage and a torn Post-it note which he told friends contained the solution to Spain's economic problems. If you see him it is best to contact the authorities rather than approach him directly, otherwise you may get involved in a pointless conversation which is hard to escape from.

Mariano's family and party believe he might have run away from home because he was scared of being punished by the German leader Angela Merkel. We have received a very reassuring message from Angela, via her interpreter Prima de Riesgo, telling Mariano that he is in no danger, and that if anyone is going to be punished it is the rest of the Spanish population for all that wasteful spending on Mercedes and BMW's.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Spanish General Election 2011....The Data Behind The Landslide

The polls didn't get it wrong this time for Spain's general election. Not very wrong anyway, although many of them underestimated the scale of the collapse in the vote for the governing PSOE. The campaign seems to have made virtually no difference to voting intentions, at least for the two biggest parties. The PSOE's total of 110 seats is a dreadful result, and well below the hoped for face-saving result of 125-130. It is this collapse in PSOE support, more than anything else, that has given the Partido Popular a comfortable absolute majority. The PP now holds unprecedented political power at all levels of government in Spain, only two provinces in the entire country were held by the PSOE.

All of this has happened with an increase of PP support of just 500,000 votes. Indeed that PP absolute majority has been won with significantly fewer votes and just 0,8% more of the total popular vote than Zapatero obtained in 2008 to run a minority government. This is made possible because the PSOE have lost over 4 million votes since the last election. The advantage under the Spanish electoral system for the largest parties has tilted hugely in favour of the PP with such a dramatic decline in the vote for the second party.

So if we assume that half a million votes went from PSOE to PP, where did the rest go? Participation was down compared to the last election but not more than a couple of percentage points, so abstention only accounts for part of the lost votes. Two smaller parties, Izquierda Unida and UPyD, both increased their total national vote in this election by more than the PP. Izquierda Unida added 700,000 votes to their 2008 total, and have leapt from just 2 seats in parliament to 11 (if we include their Catalan allies). Even more dramatic has been the increase for UPyD, who added 800,000 additional votes to the much lower base of just over 300,000 from 2008. They got 5 seats, although only 1 of these is outside of Madrid (in Valencia).

Meanwhile the right-wing nationalists of Convergència i Unió displaced the PSC (Catalan wing of the PSOE) as the largest party in Cataluña. This was not the only stronghold that the PSOE lost on the night, the PP won a clear victory in Andalucia. The decision by the PSOE's regional president in Andalucia not to hold the regional election on the same date as the national one starts to look like smart politics. Although he may still lose power in March next year. We can't completely rule out the possibility that by then the PP's intentions will be somewhat clearer than they are now. 

In the Basque Country, it was widely expected that the new coalition Amaiur would do well following ETA's declaration of an end to violence. Even so, few expected them to do better than everyone else! Although in total votes they still trail their nationalist rivals in the PNV, Amaiur took a total of 6 seats in the region and an extra one in Navarra. The result casts serious doubt on the future of the PP supported but PSOE led regional government in the Basque Country. You have to bear in mind that the nationalist vote in general elections tends to be significantly lower than in regional and municipal votes.

The distribution of seats resulting from this election has again sparked debate about the electoral system in Spain. Both UPyD and Izquierda Unida are seriously under represented in the new parliament despite having increased the number of seats obtained. Amazingly, the myth still persists that this is due to the system favouring regional nationalist parties. It is true that under a completely proportional system Amaiur would lose a couple of seats and Convergencia would lose one. But some other nationalist parties would gain, and Izquierda Unida and UPyD together fall short by some 25 seats from what they would get in a proportional system. There is, of course, a very good reason why the right in Spain seeks to focus on the nationalist vote as the source of the problem. True proportionality in the whole country would deprive the PP (with 44% of the vote and 53% of the seats) of 30 diputados and that means adíos absolute majority. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mariano Rajoy....A Profile Of Spain's New Prime Minister

A property registrar by profession, Mariano Rajoy spent 8 years occupying senior ministerial positions in the government of José Maria Aznar with no visible achievements of any kind to show for it. He likes to smoke cigars and read Marca.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Spanish General Election 2011....The Results

I'm away in Cantabria for the weekend and I will be sitting on a train heading back to Madrid when the election results start being announced on Sunday evening. Assuming that I haven't taken the exile option of the ferry from Santander if things are looking really grim. But where do you escape to these days anyway? My absence means that there'll be none of that live blogging nonsense here on Sunday, but you will be able to see the results as they are announced (and in English!) courtesy of this widget from El País. From 20:00 Spanish time onwards. In the meantime it shows the results from the 2008 election.

So what are the things to look out for. An absolute majority, which all the latest polls have predicted for the Partido Popular, requires 176 seats in the Congreso. Any failure to hit that mark would be regarded as a bad result for the PP given the expectation that they will easily pass it. For the governing PSOE the aim above all is to avoid a result similar, or worse than, that which they obtained in 2000. In that election they got only 125 seats. If Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba does better than that this time he will feel that he has salvaged something from the election. Again, many polls have predicted that the PSOE result could be worse than this.

The PSOE cling to the hope that many of the undecided will swing their way and that they can buck the trend of the polls, as they did quite spectacularly in 1993 and 1996. In different circumstances. There will be no dramatic resignation announcements from the PSOE if things go really badly. Rubalcaba is not the party leader, just the candidate. Zapatero is still in charge of the party and it's expected that in the event of defeat he will soon announce a special congress of the party to choose a new leader. 

Let's assume that the polls are more or less accurate. In this case much of the interest lies in where the disenchanted switch their votes to. Izquierda Unida, the main party to the left of the PSOE, has high hopes of obtaining a significant number of seats including several outside of Barcelona and Madrid which are the areas they were reduced to at the last election. IU argues that the technicalities of the electoral system mean that they are competing directly with the PP for seats in several regions. Barring absolute shocks, 15 seats would be an excellent result for them, 10 would still be good but anything closer to the 2 that they got in 2008 would be a major disappointment.

What we could call a weathervane party (blowing the way the political wind blows), UPyD have hopes of capturing more seats than the single one they currently hold. Their best chances are in Madrid. No polls that I have seen suggest they will win seats elsewhere. Their hope is that some of those who have abandoned the PSOE but can't stomach the PP will opt for them. The new eco-socialist party Equo will be happy if it ends up with a single representative (possible with an alliance in Valencia) and delighted if they manage to capture any more in Madrid or Barcelona. 

Looking at the regions, the result in Cataluña will be interesting. The PSC, Catalan wing of the PSOE, is still predicted to be the first party here, although both Convergència i Unió and the PP are not far behind. This is a region where the PP have done spectacularly badly since Aznar's time, the fact that they stand a chance of taking second place is astonishing. In Andalucia the PP is predicted to win easily against the PSOE, and such a result will represent a major change in the region that, together with Cataluña, provided the PSOE with sufficient additional representatives to govern in 2004 and 2008.

One other very interesting result will be in the Basque Country. This is where the recent declaration by ETA of a definitive end to violence can be expected to have a direct electoral impact. In the rest of the country it has hardly been a campaign issue. The battle is on to see whether the PNV can maintain their position as the major nationalist party against Amaiur, the new coalition including those who were formerly supporters of ETA's political wing Batasuna. The new political climate in that region may also affect the share of the vote for the PSOE and PP, in the case of the former they may even buck the national trend. 

Anyway, I'm not going to make any predictions, I've got ferry timetables to check.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Class Warfare In Madrid

Yesterday saw the latest in a series of strikes by teachers in Madrid. The teachers, those who work in the public sector schools, are protesting over cutbacks implemented by Esperanza Aguirre's regional government. If you were to believe the Aguirre propaganda machine, then you would think that the strikers are just a bunch of lazy teachers unwilling to accept an increase in teaching hours from 18 to 20 a week. At the beginning of the dispute several weeks ago Aguirre was even trying to suggest that 18 hours was all the work a teacher did in a week, although she later had to retract that claim.

In the background to this confrontation is the model of ideologically motivated cutbacks which we may well have to get used to if Mariano Rajoy comes to power in Sunday's elections. It's a model similar to that already implemented in the UK where the government regrets having to do cuts at all, but then uses the crisis as an excuse for doing things which they would like to do anyway. Later ministers go off to the US to boast about what they can get away with. The change to working hours for teachers in Madrid is a direct result of Aguirre's administration firing teachers who were 'interinos', those teachers who have passed the exams but without a high enough mark to guarantee a fixed teaching place.

Despite this supposedly interim status, schools in Madrid were employing a lot of interinos and many schools estimated that 10-15% of their staff were disappearing at a stroke with the cutbacks. Such a sharp decrease was leading schools to have to use teachers specialising in one subject to teach others which they were not qualified to teach. Aguirre has denied this is happening, but several teachers have spoken to the press about being forced into this position. For contradicting the Lideresa, some have since been disciplined. Aguirre is determined to sit out the strike without dialogue. Some think she adopts this position because of her permanent desire for attention, others because it had the potential to make Mariano Rajoy a bit uncomfortable as he attempted to put the election campaign to sleep. The woman responsible for education in Madrid, Lucía Figar, is seen as a Rajoy loyalist and even a potential successor to Aguirre.

So where does ideology enter into this? Well, the total saving claimed by the Madrid government for these cutbacks is €80 million. The cuts only affect schools that are 100% public, no sacrifice of any kind is required from the publicly funded concertados that are mostly run by the church or associated religious sects. Aguirre's government has worked overtime in the last few years to increase the amount of money and resources available to the concertados, at the expense of course of the truly public education sector. Madrid is the only region in the country that has seen such a significant shift towards public subsidy of private schools in recent years, although of course there are other areas where concertados are important. There is a video circulating of Figar addressing a catholic meeting in Italy where she boasts of this policy of handing public resources to private religious schools, including the gift of land on which to build them.

Then there is the €90 million worth of tax breaks in Madrid that go to those who educate their children privately. There is no alternative? I think not, why should we subsidise the generally better off who choose to educate their children privately at the expense of the vast majority who rely on the public education system? The education system in Madrid was already two-tier before the cutbacks started, testimony to this is the very low percentage of immigrant children who get a place in the concertados. But now with the crisis being used as a pretext for swinging the axe only on the public, the gap between the tiers can be expected to grow. Welcome to the future, any resemblance to the past is more than coincidental.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pedro J. Ramírez, Ralph Lauren And Wikipedia

It's not all about elections, especially when the campaign is as boring as this one. I was in Sevilla last weekend and although the excuse for going was to attend Evento Blog España 2011 (EBE), I took advantage of the trip to enjoy the fantastic weather and some excellent tapas recommendations from SevillaTapas. On Friday evening though, I stayed relatively late at the conference to listen to the final presentation of the day by El Mundo's editor, Pedro J. Ramírez. Those who have read anything on my other blog will be aware that Ramírez is not exactly high on my list of admired journalists, but I still couldn't resist the temptation to hear what he had to say.

On the face of it, Pedro Jota wouldn't seem like a natural speaker for an event like EBE but he was scheduled to talk about his experience with using Twitter. Despite only having been a user for a few months, his prodigious output on Twitter may well be responsible for many of those error messages with the whale that the rest of us get when we try to catch up with what has been happening. It's a mixture of promotion for El Mundo and their paywall Orbyt, together with more typical autobombo from Ramírez as well as a hefty percentage of plugs for his latest book. It has to be said, though, that Ramírez has adopted a slightly less lofty stance than many other newspaper editors who don't really believe in direct online dialogue with their readers.

Pedro Jota also knows how to spin a good tale and to work an audience, so his reception at EBE was generally enthusiastic. One entertaining anecdote he told in response to a question about Google got a good laugh from the audience. He claimed that whilst taking his daughter around universities in the US he was presented with a copy of the page about him from Wikipedia and that this page claimed that "he is divorced and lives with Ralph Lauren". All seemingly quite possible, but Ramírez embellished his story by claiming that Larry Page of Google personally apologised to him for this entry and offered to track down the culprit.

This latter claim caught my attention, "why would Google apologise for something that appears in Wikipedia?" was my immediate thought. They have nothing to with the online encyclopaedia. So yesterday, just to demonstrate that I have little idea of what to do with my time and being fully aware of how Ramírez can play fast and loose with the facts, I decided to do a bit of investigation. The great thing about Wikipedia is that every single edit made to a page is still available, and I went through the edit history for his Wikipedia page. It didn't take long, Pedro Jota's pretensions to be the Spanish Bob Woodward haven't yet made him an international celebrity. The famous Ralph Lauren claim doesn't appear anywhere. For good measure I went through the significantly larger, and occasionally quite entertaining, edit history for the Spanish article on the man. Plenty of vandalism and the occasional insult, but no mention of Ralph either.

So what, you might say. A bit of journalistic licence to get a laugh out of an audience doesn't do much harm. But the really striking thing about going through a Wikipedia edit history is the way in which almost all vandalism or inaccuracies get systematically corrected or removed by the editing community. People put silly things in all the time, but they don't usually last long because of a general seriousness about the project. Contrast this with the repugnant, manipulative, hugely inaccurate pile of steaming horseshit that Pedro J. Ramírez and friends have published about the Madrid bombings and which has not been subjected to a single correction or rectification. You see, Pedro Jota was using the Ralph Lauren tale in an attempt to justify the need for "professional" journalists as opposed to the efforts of the amateur crowd in internet.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Spanish General Election 2011....That PP Programme In Full

It's so unfair. All these people saying that the Partido Popular refuses to spell out what it will do if it comes to power. Fortunately, we have this video to reveal in full and glorious detail the PP's plans for our future. Courtesy of José Ramón Bauzà, president of the Balearic Islands, allow me to present to you the PP programme in just 18 seconds! In case you are wondering, this is not the abridged version.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Spanish General Election 2011....Game Over For Rubalcaba?

We don't get opinion polls in the last week of a general election campaign in Spain, they're not permitted. That explains the flood of polls we got at the weekend, and the message of these tests of public opinion was not a happy one for the candidate of the governing PSOE, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. Not that anyone, even Rubalcaba, was really expecting good news from the polls; but the most depressing indicator for those dreading a Partido Popular absolute majority is that every single poll suggests a crushing victory for that party.

If next Sunday's voting fulfils these predictions then Mariano Rajoy could potentially enjoy an absolute majority bigger than that obtained by Aznar in 2000. That you would think would spell the end of Rubalcaba's career. He was the favoured candidate of many in the PSOE precisely because they thought his experience would give the party a chance of avoiding electoral disaster. As I watched him failing to make any headway against a stonewalling Rajoy in last week's televised debate I couldn't help thinking that a younger, fresher candidate might have done better against the PP's leader. At least in avoiding all the futile "you did this in 92" kind of barbs that Rajoy was able to use to avoid talking about what he might do in the future. 

As Soledad Gallego-Díaz observed in yesterday's El País, we won't really know what Rajoy proposes to do until December 20th when he is expected to be voted in as prime minister. Spain doesn't have a system where the election winners come in the day after the vote and start moving the furniture around, and Zapatero's administration still remains the interim government for a month after the election. The way things are going, that might be a long month for José Luis whose only ambition for the latter part of his premiership has been to avoid the sort of European Union "rescue" where the body still gets tossed into the ditch but the ransom has already been paid. 

It's odd, in the depths of the crisis and with the whole of Europe on the verge of another recession, that the campaign should be so completely devoid of content or controversy. This of course is the way the PP wants it to be. They don't want anything that stirs emotions, especially if it reminds people of why they didn't vote for the PP in previous elections. Rajoy gives very few interviews, and holds no official press conferences of any kind. To make sure that nobody was going off message the PP even pleaded with their supporters in social networks to surrender their accounts so that the party could bombard their followers with unwanted electoral spam. Both major parties feed their selected coverage of their stage managed rallies to the television channels and the result is a deadly boring campaign almost perfectly designed to not change anyone's voting intentions. 

Monday, November 07, 2011

Spanish General Election 2011....The Story Behind The Polls

Imagine a general election in a country where:
  • More people think that the right-wing opposition party would have done a worse job compared to the current government than think it would have done better.
  • Only 11% of those polled think that this opposition party has done a good job of opposition to the government.
  • The governing party attracts more ideological sympathy than the opposition.
  • The candidate of the governing party has a higher approval rating than the opposition leader.
  • Only 16% of those questioned situate themselves on the right of the political spectrum as opposed to 34% who position themselves on the left.
And, finally....this same opposition party has a lead in the polls of 16.69%!

This is the great paradox of the major pre-election opinion poll in Spain carried out by the CIS. A lead greater than almost any other opinion poll for a candidate and a party that inspire little confidence even amongst their loyal voters. The answer to this is perhaps not that difficult to find, almost 90% of those polled regard the current economic situation in Spain as bad or very bad, and this translates into the mother of all punishments for the incumbents. Bill Clinton's people had a phrase for it. 

The best hope for the PSOE with less than 2 weeks to go before voting on November 20th lies with the 31% of those who say they haven't yet made their minds up. Many of those could well be disillusioned PSOE supporters who are not prepared to vote for the Partido Popular but not yet motivated enough to come out for Rubalcaba. If the PP maintain this poll lead on election day then they will have an absolute majority even bigger than that achieved by Aznar in 2000. It's unlikely that the PP once in power will ponder too much on the origin of their votes, experience tells us that they assume a majority in parliament to mean popular support for anything they might choose to do, no matter how out of step their ideological positions are with much of Spanish society.

The CIS poll is of additional interest for its predictions on how well some of the smaller parties will do. Izquierda Unida are predicted to get 5 seats, and their former allies of Iniciativa in Cataluña to get 3. It doesn't sound like much but remember they only had 2 between them in the last parliament. A genuinely big change could take place in the Basque Country where the new nationalist coalition of Amaiur is challenging the hegemony of the PNV for the nationalist vote. CIS puts them equal on 3 seats each, and it's worth bearing in mind that the polling data precedes ETA's recent declaration of a definitive end to violence. The other relative newcomers of UPyD are predicted to increase their presence from 1 to 3 members of parliament, all of these being elected in their natural base of Madrid.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Spanish General Election 2011....They're Off, In Case You Hadn't Noticed

So the election campaign has now officially started, although it has been a very low key start in what may well be an indicator of a dismal campaign fortnight ahead. This, of course, suits the strategy of the front runner, Mariano Rajoy. With what still seems to be a fairly stable advantage of around 14-15 points in the opinion polls, the Partido Popular's campaign will be based around riding the wave of the economic crisis and doing nothing that might mobilise anti PP feeling.

It's all uphill for Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the PSOE's candidate. He's putting forward far more detailed policy proposals than the PP, his problem is that most of them run counter to what Zapatero's administration have done over the last couple of years. It's not an inspiring choice at all, between two politicians whose time has already passed and neither of whom really have any vision of the future. Rajoy and Rubalcaba have both got where they are by being loyal lieutenants and machine politicians.

There is only going to be one televised debate between the two men, and I expect it to be a tightly managed affair. It's some progress though, the PP has never before agreed to debates when ahead in the polls and Rajoy is the only one who has anything to lose by participating. He's a poor debater, coming across as arrogant and aggressive and he only got a higher rating in one of his many tussles with Zapatero when the latter was at his lowest ebb this year.

There aren't many in the PSOE who seem convinced that their candidate has much chance, it's now an open question whether Rubalcaba will manage to better what was seen at the time as a dreadful result the last time the PP got an absolute majority in 2000. The electoral system in Spain means that Rajoy can potentially get a huge majority with just a couple more percentage points than Zapatero's minority administration. Perhaps that could finally put an end to the common urban legend that the electoral system favours the smaller nationalist parties?

This same electoral system means that the election will be mostly decided in the areas returning larger numbers of representatives, in many provinces there will be no change at all. The PSOE has to do well in both Andalucia and Cataluña to stand any chance of depriving the PP of their majority, in Cataluña they may recover some ground because of opposition to cutbacks by the Catalan government but in Andalucia they could easily lose to the PP. It's interesting that Rajoy started the campaign in Cataluña, where the PP did depressingly well by running an openly racist campaign in the municipal elections in May.

With economic policy being (disastrously) overseen by the EU, voters for the main parties have in reality a limited choice between that of a party which enthusiastically supports drastic austerity measures, and a party which reluctantly supports them. Let's call it a Greek choice. There are alternatives, but the signs are that many disillusioned PSOE voters may just simply stay at home. Izquierda Unida have picked up some extra support but have a lacklustre candidate and in addition have a new rival on the left of the PSOE in the eco-socialist party Equo. It's hard to resist feeling despondent at the likely outcome of this contest. Spain is not about to get better.

Update: The CIS opinion poll released this morning gives the PP a 16.7% advantage over the PSOE, a bigger lead than most polls have shown. The poll data contains some interesting, and seemingly contradictory, data which might be worth a further post.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Spanish General Election 2011....The Future Looks Very Unclear

It's an unusual step to release an electoral programme in the midst of a long holiday weekend, I personally can't remember any similar precedent. But that's what the Partido Popular has just done in Spain. Anybody would think that they don't want people to pay too much attention to their proposals, and they would of course be absolutely right to think that. The timing, and the absence of any detailed substance in the programme, says a lot about the PP's determination not to reveal what they will really do until after the election on November 20th.

This doesn't mean that we can't draw any conclusions about the PP's policies. What you see if you piece everything together is the hazy silhouette of precisely the kind of failed economic policies that currently have us lurching from one catastrophic financial crisis to another. With a particularly Spanish nod in the direction of the construction industry. A combination of tax cuts for those who least need them, privatization gifts for the same beneficiaries, combined with even less employment rights and harsh austerity for those who are already bearing the brunt of the crisis.

The idea that the PP propagates, that they can reduce taxes at the same time as hitting the targets on deficit reduction is nothing more than a massive con-trick. The PP has already defined their get-out clause on this mathematical impossibility, everything is subject to the state of the accounts that they inherit; as if they really don't know what that situation is at the moment. What I predict we will see if they get elected is a now familiar recipe of tax redistribution, those that have the most will pay less and regressive indirect taxes will be significantly increased to pay for this. The only people in Spain who really pay taxes at a rate equivalent to other major European economies are those on salaries. The PP's strategy will increase their burden whilst reducing what they get in return.

Of course one way to substantially reduce the deficit without slashing public services would be to crack down on tax fraud and corruption. Neither issue gets a single mention in the PP's programme, we're back to the days where not talking about something means it doesn't exist. So how about changing the direction of the economy, and attempting to catch the already departing train of new, internet based, technology? No, no need for that apparently in the low rights, low wage economy they're preparing for us.

The PP provoked some amusement last week when they presented their Madrid candidates against a background of Madrid's now notorious smog. It's not really that funny, the city has yet again gone way over the limits on permitted annual air pollution and didn't even bother to present the paperwork for their proposed moratorium on doing something about it. They obviously believe a change of government will relieve them of the need to do anything at all to improve the air we breathe.

In charge (if we can call it that) of Madrid's environment is Ana Botella, whose husband used to be big in the Spanish government. I mention this because the inclusion of the current mayor, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, in the PP's lists for Madrid makes it quite likely that the incompetent Botella will soon be in charge of the city; toxic particles and all. Gallardón has played a good hand, for himself if not for those of us who live in the city. By making Botella his likely successor, he increased his chances of becoming a minister in a government led by Mariano Rajoy. Having the support of the Aznar family business can do him no harm inside the party.

Someone else who would like to be a big hitting minister, if we believe leaks from within her circle, is Esperanza Aguirre. Rumour has it she would like to be foreign minister. The South of Watford Institute for Political Studies reckons she is more likely to be offered an ambassadorship to a remote Pacific island nation, or one of the poorest former Soviet republics. If Rajoy wins with a big majority Aguirre faces a dramatic loss of power in the PP. This was already illustrated by her absolute lack of influence over the PP lists in Madrid. There is already much talk of this being her last legislature as president of Madrid, and it's quite possible that she will end up with plenty of time to practice her swing on what may come to be seen as her only significant legacy; the numerous golf courses spread around the region as part of the construction bubble. That's if poor visibility doesn't prevent play.

Monday, October 31, 2011

No-One's Slave, No-One's Master....Messages From The English Revolution

I was in the UK for a brief visit last week, so I took the opportunity to visit the protest camp installed outside St. Paul's Cathedral. The camp is in danger of being evicted any day now, given the hostility towards it of the Corporation of London (a medieval institution in need of even more reform than the monarchy - see footnote) and the church authorities.

The original objective was to occupy the Stock Exchange, but Paternoster Square is firmly sealed off to all who don't carry permission to enter. It's a good indication of the priorities of our rulers. Oddly, given the claim that this is private land, most of those doing the protecting seem to be familiar looking uniformed public employees paid out of the public purse. I suppose that's what you get when you don't pay much taxes but make contributions to the parties who control the police.

A propaganda campaign against the campers has been carried out which will be familiar to those of us who read similar tales directed against the protestors in Madrid's Puerta del Sol in May and June. They're hurting the local businesses goes the cry. Well in reality the only businesses who might be suffering are those located in the aforementioned private land above. Starbucks beside the camp seemed to be doing very well, and next to it is a shop which sells, amongst other things, camping gear! I bet they're having a terrible time.

The camp seems to be well organised like its Madrid counterpart with an information tent, proper rubbish collection and recycling, and food and cinema organised by the campers themselves. The other ludicrous propaganda act against the camp was the completely unnecessary closure of St. Paul's. The picture below was taken from the steps of the cathedral and shows the distance between the camp and the entrance, there is no impediment of any kind to those who want to enter the building. I attended part of a general assembly held on these same steps, it was just like old times except with less sun and notably cooler.

Updated: Anyone who doubts the medieval nature of the City of London Corporation should read today's excellent column from George Monbiot.