Book Review: Times Guide 2010
I got home today from a tiring day of hospital appointments - in different hospitals - with my haematologist and neurologist (where I learnt that "you are in remission" are four of the nicest words in the English language) to find a parcel from Amazon.
Contents: Times Guide to the House of Commons 2010, hardback, £55. Unfortunately even at this obscene price I am addicted to the Times Guide. I feel a strange compulsion to buy it after every General Election, and to back fill my collection via second-hand bookshops, the internet and Politico's reprints of the really old ones (where you get to find out entirely useless gems of trivia like the current 2-seat Hackney having had seven MPs, including separate ones for Hoxton and Haggerston, back in 1910, and how many votes the Unionists got in Dublin before Irish independence).
Unfortunately the Guide is on a downward slide. It has always had a few mistakes as it is rushed out soon after each election. But over the years the amount of statistical analysis has been slashed both in the constituency profiles and in the tables at the back, or rather lack of them. Once upon a time there were county by county breakdowns and percentages, useful lists of the oldest MPs, the biggest swings, the safest and most marginal seats, the background of MPs, the seats changing hands. Now you get a wholly useless page listing the MPs with small majorities without even the seat names. And nowt else. Inexcusable in an age when excel spreadsheets means the Times staffers could have compiled useful lists in rank order very easily. In the constituency profiles you get a couple of lines on each losing candidate (which from memory is an improvement since 2005) a pen-portrait of the seat (this never used to be in the Guide in the good old days and is a nice addition but you can get far better ones in other publications or on the web), and basically the raw result with the percentage change since the 2005 notionals. Not even any swing calculation, which is just idle. Why don't the Times invest in a few pocket calculators?
The manifestos are reproduced in full, which in the pre-internet age was a useful resource but is now a) a waste of paper as they are on the web and b) just evidence that the Times has mastered cutting and pasting.
Visually the new Guide looks great. There are some colour photos of key moments in the campaign for the first time and a series of nice colour regional maps where once you got a fold-out large map at the back which was liable to tear. The cover could have been classy - it's in a nice black, gold and white colour scheme, but has been ruined by a silly cartoon of Clegg and Cameron.
The MP biogs are good in that they make mainly well-informed judgements on the political orientation of each MP within their party, but rubbish in that they are littered with sloppy factual errors. I have only bothered to check a few but already found Michael Dugher illustrated with a picture of the decades older Mike Clapham, Tom Harris' picture shows an Asian man, which Tom definitely is not, the marital status of another MP ignoring his second marriage several years ago, a former Campaigns Officer of NOLS described as its Chair. And some of the profiles are gratuitously offensive - one Labour MP well-regarded enough by his peers to have just been elected a select committee chair is described as "Unimpressive backbencher. Dull, even by the standards of librarians."
So a book that on its cover describes itself as "the definitive record" but is free of statistical analysis, full of mistakes, and full of unsubstantiated subjective opinions. And costs £55 in an age of austerity.
Buy it if like me you feel a compulsion to complete the set, but don't expect to use it as a work of reference. You may be better off waiting to get it at a jumble sale, which may come back into fashion as a way of funding schools and hospitals now the Tories are back in.