Wednesday, October 31, 2007
John Dixon is quite right to ask questions about Clegg's views of the NHS. I am always pretty wary of people who say things like "You can have a free of charge health service, which is funded but not produced by the public sector", as an anonymous commenter has done under that post. Surely that is a recipe for private companies to simply try and hoover up as much public money for their own profit as possible?
I was going to say something about the trains being an example, but my "inner swivel-eyed free-marketeer" pointed out that that is not an example of a perfect market, since the area franchises are a poor approximation to a genuinely free marketplace. See, liberal purist bloggers? I'm learning! Nevertheless, I remain suspicious. It is undeniably the case that any corporation is legally bound to maximise profits, and so on, and that health is not a perfect marketplace either, because at the end of the day, people want a local hospital. Hence, at least some degree of price gouging, no?
More locally accountable management of the NHS seems like a rather better emphasis to me, at any rate.
So how come I support Nick? Well, because as a democratic party, it's not up to Nick what our policy on this is. If he and FPC put something I find odious before conference, then it is up to me and others like me to make the argument against it and have it rejected. As a party, we have nothing to fear from the particular ideological bent of our leader. We have everything to fear from a leader who can't make our policy, whatever it is, make sense for the electorate.
The story is essentially this:
Mr Clegg said last night: "If the legislation [to require people to provide information to the Home Office for ID cards] is passed I will lead a grassroots campaign of civil disobedience to thwart the identity cards programme ... I, and I expect thousands of people like me, will simply refuse ever to register."No doubt some bright spark will ask the Tories if they might consider doing the same thing, and I would imagine they will say no, and then try to paint us as being immature, or witter something about "gesture politics" or somesuch. Well good. It should make it that much clearer who's really driving opposition to this hideous, illiberal, inefficient, fallible scheme.
I'm pleased to see Nick actually doing something interesting; for a while there it was looking like his frontrunner status was going to leave him playing it safe unless pushed. It's all very well to say you want to attract people outside of the normal realm of the politically engaged, but unless you give some indication of how you might do that (beyond what Steve Bell amusingly called "an explosion in a charisma factory"), it's not worth a great deal. This is exactly the sort of thing that might genuinely excite people who usually couldn't give a rat's arse.
Meanwhile, Chris Huhne is looking for ways to catch people's attention, but has so far not come up with anything nearly so interesting. OK, sure, policy purism will appeal to some in the party, and playing the "I will demand PR in any coalition" card is a standard move (Ming made it last time, of course). But Nick has highlighted exactly what he means by being a more outward looking party, one that engages in the politics that is taking place in a wider sense within the general population.
So I for one will be standing alongside Nick (and anyone else) breaking the law when the time comes.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
"Ah-hah", any of you inclined to defend Sony cry, "surely that's because the PS3 hasn't been out for as long, and Christmas '06 will have put a lot on the Wii's figures". Well, that would be fine, if the PS3 was outselling the Wii now. Which it's not. Here is a lovely graph.
OK, then, so why should I be all that bothered about this? Surely I am celebrating one company making a huge amount of money rather than another company making that money, neither of which makes much difference to me? Well, yes and no. I am, it has to be said, a shameless Nintendo zealot. I bought a Gamecube and not a PS2, a rather more questionable choice than the one most consumers are making today. Why?
Well, Nintendo are just a nicer company. Throughout their history, they have been willing to be innovative and take risks with their products. Sometimes they have produced what can only be described as duds with this strategy. And on those occasions, only people who wanted to support Nintendo as a company bought their products. But on other occasions, they produced things that revolutionised the industry, and were immediately stolen by the other companies. I'm sure I don't need to point out the parallel to the Lib Dems here.
So for instance, Nintendo gave the world the analogue control stick, immediately nicked by Sony, whose horrid PS1 controller was soon replaced with the swanky Dual Shock, a PS1 controller with not one but two analogue sticks shoved on the bottom. The next generation, there wasn't much in the way of innovation, but still Sony couldn't produce a controller that was anything like as nice to hold as Nintendo's. This generation, of course, Nintendo have gone so far out of the box that they can hardly see it any more, with the Wiimote. As soon as the operating concept for the Wii was announced, of course, Sony once again set about ham fistedly stitching it into their plans for the PS3, with the result being the less than exciting Sixaxis. Very little so far has been done with it, compared with even the limited output on the Wii.
"Policy theft" aside, another parallel we might point to is "non-sensationalism"; the nature of the games that Nintendo makes its flagships compared with the other companies. Where Sony and Microsoft are all about wars and the "broken society", with the selling point being essentially populism and shrouding themselves in glamourous clothing, Nintendo sells its games based on a sound philosophical underpinning based on characterful and slightly more wholesome franchises and, most importantly, interesting and innovative gameplay. As a recent article in Edge argued,
It’s these two factors – innovation and kid-appeal – that have remained at the core of Nintendo’s philosophy ... And, although that assumption that Nintendo is for children may raise howls of frustration from dedicated grown-up fans, it’s a crucial point ... whatever their real age, there’s no doubt that Nintendo perceives its audience to be childlike. Whether five or 50, Nintendo thinks of its gamers as playful, curious, eager to be delighted, ready to laugh. It’s not how Rockstar, Epic or Bungie would ever describe their target audience.Indeed it isn't. Before I leave this point, let me just make clear that by "wholesome", I don't mean "family" or "kiddie" oriented, I simply mean a game that isn't intended to appeal to the most brainless instincts in a person. I equally think that applies to innovative games with rather more gritty clothes like the new Metroid game, or, on another platform, Deus Ex. The point is not that games be brightly coloured platformers; rather, it is about what the structure and gameplay of the games says about its creators' expectations of the audience. Equally, the Lib Dems aren't necessarily the "nice party", in the sense that they haven't got the guts to take difficult decisions (they have, you will be surprised to hear!) so much as they are the party who aren't as interested in appealing to people's more unpleasant nature.
Next, Nintendo are a company whose numbers add up. Not for them the practice of selling their consoles at a thumping loss in the hope of making the cash back from software sales. It's just as well; unlike Sony they don't have a large, succesful parent company to bail them out. Why do Sony think people want to pay such a lot of money for their product? Well, because they reckon (and they're probably right) that what they're offering is good value for money. The trouble is that not everyone wants all the things they are selling as an indivisible package. I already have a DVD player, I don't want a console to act as one for me. I certainly don't want to buy into the Blu-Ray side of the format war until the whole thing has died down.
As good liberals, of course, we know that the answer to this is for non-essential stuff to be left as a choice of the buyer, leaving them the option of having the money in their pocket. Which is why the Wii was launched at £180 and each one makes Nintendo a profit, whereas the PS3 launched at £425, and still made a loss with each unit sold.
Lastly, I guess, we have the superficial points. To many people's eyes, Nintendo have been an underdog, (even though they have never been in the business of making losses - the Edge article again:
In 1993, when a slump took profits down to a still very handsome 23 per cent of sales, The Economist was startled enough to run an editorial asking if it was the beginning of the end. For a modern perspective that seems ludicrous: it’s hard to imagine how ecstatic Sony or Microsoft, both currently shouldering multi-million dollar losses, would be to be pocketing 23 per cent of their incomes. Nor has Nintendo’s golden goose status diminished. Its latest annual financial results show a 77 per cent rise in profits – ¥74.3 billion (£310 million) from total revenue of ¥966.5 billion (£4 billion).Similarly, the Lib Dems are seen as an underdog, despite a massive trend over the last 30 years of movement upwards in the polls and a dash for our political territory. Meanwhile, we have Sony (the Tories), who are just bad, and Microsoft (Labour), who mean well but are just so hulking and over-centralising that one can't get too enthusiastic about them. Sega (the SDP?) have now given up as a hardware producer, and now co-operate with Nintendo quite a lot. I think this metaphor is best left for dead now, not least because, in Sony's videogaming infancy, they flirted with Sega, which would make Sony Labour and not the Tories. Never mind.
So yeah. Nintendo are lovely. And all good Lib Dems should go out today and find themselves a Wii (stock is still short, it seems; they are selling second hand online about £280 at the moment) and copies of Shigeru Miyamoto's masterpieces for it. I am not on commission, honest.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Here is a transcript of the exchange. I include the toadying question which preceded it from Jessica Morden, since Gordon used it to pre-empt Vince's questioning to some extent:
Interesting that Brown should try to lump us in with the Tories as a bunch of NIMBYs over stuff like the Severn Barrage. Surely he knows that people like Steve Webb have been at the forefront of pushing for this plan to go ahead. Indeed, only yesterday, Chris Huhne reiterated our support for the Severn Barrage in particular and renewable energy in general, as part of a reaction to exactly the issue Vince was asking about today.
Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): Given that we are being asked to reduce our carbon footprint as part of energy saving week, has the Prime Minister had the chance to see the WWF report that came out yesterday, which ranks Newport as the joint No. 1 greenest city in the UK? Will he commend the residents of Newport and its Labour city council for their efforts to cut their carbon footprint?
The Prime Minister: I applaud Newport, and I applaud what my hon. Friend is doing to promote energy saving. I met the Energy Saving Trust yesterday to talk about the measures that we can take in the future. A huge amount of effort is being made this week to persuade people to take the necessary steps to save energy, whether it involves boiling a kettle, putting things on standby or changing the electric bulbs that they use. I believe that the combination of personal responsibility, public investment in energy saving and the new energy policy that we are adopting will be the best way to secure our climate change agreements. We are also absolutely committed to the European 20 per cent. renewables target.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): On that specific point, the Prime Minister’s predecessor made a very firm commitment to that 20 per cent. target for renewables by 2020. The Prime Minister’s own Ministers are now trying to renege on that commitment. Does not that suggest that Brown is less green than Blair?
The Prime Minister: To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, I am pleased to see him back in his place this week. Given the turnover of Liberal Democrat leaders, it is great that he is still here. However, I think that I answered his question in my last reply.
We are committed to the targets agreed in the European Union. The European Union will now publish what it believes that each country is able to do, and we will engage in a consultation. However, I must tell both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives that that will lead to difficult decisions that they will have to make.First we have a feasibility study on the Severn barrage, secondly we wish to extend offshore wind turbines, and thirdly we wish to extend onshore wind turbines. I believe that the Conservative party has been totally opposed to something that is necessary to meet our renewables targets.
Dr. Cable: If the Government are fully committed to the 20 per cent. target for Britain, why did the Prime Minister’s own energy Minister go on television yesterday and say that he wanted it to be cut to 10 per cent., under pressure from the nuclear lobby? Does the Prime Minister not realise that if he rats on renewable power, not only will that damage the environment, but he will drag his own environmental reputation down to the level of that of his friend George Bush?
The Prime Minister: Perhaps I can explain to the hon. Gentleman what has happened. Europe has agreed on a 20 per cent. renewables target, and each member state will be given a target that it is supposed to agree to and meet in order for the 20 per cent. target to be reached. That has not yet happened; when it happens, we will report back to the House.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that what makes it possible for us to achieve our energy targets is the renewables obligation, which the Conservative party voted against when it came to the House, the climate change levy, which the Conservative party also voted against, and wind power. I hope the hon. Gentleman will join me in supporting wind power and its development for the future through wind farms and turbines.
Brown tries to turn this into an attack on the other parties, in particular ours, without levelling any specific criticisms at us. The reason is that he hasn't a leg to stand on. He knows that the nuclear industry hate the idea of big engineering projects in the name of renewable energy, because they want to hoover up the money for themselves. As a result, they are busy lobbying (succesfully, it would seem) for the renewables targets to be as low as possible in the UK.
And by the way, the idea that there is a conflict between nuclear and renewable energy funding is not new. It is central to our party's opposition to nuclear power. Huhne at conference last year:
First, we reject the nuclear option. Given the time delays, nuclear cannot stop us becoming more dependent on gas over the next ten years.How Brown can try to accuse us of being unwilling to take difficult choices for the environment, whilst his government is busy caving in to the nuclear lobby in exactly the way we predicted, is quite beyond me.
And it would close off investment in attractive options like the Severn Barrage or lagoon scheme, the Airtricity wind farm in the North Sea, and non-stop tidal power in the Pentland Firth.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Interesting comments at the bottom of the Guardian's article on this:
One of the main objections of government to meeting the renewables target set by Mr Blair is that it will undermine the role of the European emission trading scheme. This scheme was devised by the Treasury under Mr Brown and allows wealthy governments to pay others to reduce emissions. "[Meeting the 20% renewables target] crucially undermines the scheme's credibility ... and reduces the incentives to invest in other carbon technologies like nuclear power", say the papers.So is this mainly because Gordon would rather just pay others to make the changes we need? Or is this for the nuclear industry's benefit?
Either way, this is ludicrous. Ambitious targets for renewable energy are surely vital to tackling climate change?
Monday, October 22, 2007
Friday, October 19, 2007
If no other candidates want to put themselves forward for the position, then that is their decision, and we should respect that. Clegg and Huhne should be flattered that they are obviously perceived as such unopposable figures, but we must accept that that is the way things are. So instead of carping about what we wish was happening, can we focus on what is, please, and put the blogosphere to more contructive use?
For a start, how about getting some sort of pressure going on a policy issue? LVT anyone? I know Chris Huhne is president of ALTER, but does this mean he would do something about sorting our silly LIT policy? And can anyone tell me what Nick Clegg's position is?
Or how about pressing for Mike Smithson's idea of giving each leadership candidate a shot at PMQs?
Of course, people are free to blog about whatever they like. I just don't think that adding momentum to the John Harris angle will do anything helpful. If it does anything at all.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Also to be noted is the Guardian's report, which includes the following little snippet down the bottom:
Ms Goldsworthy, the 29-year-old MP for Falmouth and Camborne, felt moved to announce on her Facebook page that she wasn't standing.Since I haven't added her as a friend, and since she seems not to have her profile visible to all (an unusual decision for an MP, but fair enough), I will have to take the Guardian's word for it.
So it's looking increasingly as though it's just Nick vs Chris. Ho hum. That'll be straightforward, then...
For too long, there has been a benign fog where the Lib Dems' ideological clarity should be. To the left of Labour in the north, Eurosceptic in the south-west, this muddle helped the Lib Dems bag seats. But it is surely not sustainable indefinitely.A similar way of thinking was put forward in the piece on Newsnight that preceded Paxman trying to manufacture a policy schism within the party where there isn't really one. Currently, I can't find a link to it. Anyway, in it, Paul Mason mocked up two "alternative" party political broadcasts to represent the two paths we apparently have to choose between, essentially highlighting those aspects of our policy which might be characterised as either "left" or "right".
There's no shortage of possibilities. One scenario would present the Lib Dems as unabashedly liberal, socially and economically: they could promise low taxes and, say, the legalisation of all drugs, following the chief constable of north Wales. Such an approach would have tremendous intellectual coherence, but there are drawbacks. It could take the party into places comfortable for a thinktank, but awkward for a political party. What's more, the rightwing postures it would entail would be too much for many activists to swallow.
Alternatively, the Lib Dems could fill the vast acres of space vacated by New Labour on the left. Taxes on the super-rich, an Iraq pullout, protection of civil liberties - it could be an appealing programme. But it would hardly play well in those southern marginals where the Lib Dems do battle with the Tories.The risk is that Clegg or Huhne will be tempted simply to join Brown and Cameron in fighting for the evershrinking, hallowed terrain of the centre ground, saying nothing too daring on tax or equality or anything else (though Clegg deserves credit for proposing an amnesty for illegal immigrants). Such a huddle in the middle, leaving the rest of the ideological spectrum badly unrepresented in Westminster, would not just be uninspiring to Liberal Democrats. It would be depressing for British politics.
The only problem with both of these analyses (and I'm sure there are more like it around) is that at no point do they explain why the two are mutually exclusive. Why do these people find it so hard to understand that what we stand for is what Gladstone stood for, what Lloyd-George stood for, what Liberalism has always stood for: freedom, fairness and equality of opportunity. Why exactly can't we be the party who stand against the monopolies and lump government subsidies required for nuclear power, at the same time as being the party who want to cut income tax to make way for green taxes? Why can't we be both the party of skeptical pro-Europeanism and the party of legalising cannabis? Nobody has yet made a good argument as to why our current position is foggy, they have simply asserted that it is.
Now, I don't deny that people just don't understand liberalism, that they are confused because for so long the left-right axis, with its bizarre smushing together of all sorts of values and ideologies into completely incoherent "sides", has dominated politics. But that doesn't change the fact that it is a wholly inadequate way to categorise us, and indeed, to categorise any of the other parties.
We must not be persuaded by these voices. The position we inhabit right now is mostly right, it holds together probably better ideologically than the other parties' positions, and by and large it is one we believe in. Of course, in selling our manifesto to a Labour or Conservative voter, we are going to emphasize the elements that we think will appeal to them. We would be silly not to. That doesn't mean that we aren't all fighting on the same manifesto, just that we think different pages of it will appeal more to different people; because of course they will! It doesn't stop those voters asking us about other policy areas, and when they do so, we will of course be equally happy to defend those policies.
And let's not allow ourselves to be told that there is only "bigger" or "smaller" government, when we know full well that every bit as important as those ideas are "more local" and "more accountable" government.
We are not here to position ourselves in relation to the other parties. We are here to argue for what we think is right. We are liberals, we believe in all those things that it says on my membership card, and that's where we're staying. There is no choice to be made here, and no future in either of the false choices being presented. Either of those options would turn us into a genuine protest party, little more than a cobbled selection of whinges about government policy. What makes us more than that is precisely the fact that we are self-evidently not designed to woo a particular type of discontented voter.
The other day, James Graham was on CiF, arguing that
He was right, but I don't accept that we have a massive problem here. He correctly identifies the push for the "grey vote" as a pretty cynical move, but other than that, I don't really accept that our policy is Labourish or Toryish. He also wrote:
Our political opponents like to talk about how the Lib Dems say different things to people depending on what side of the street they're on. I don't accept that is true, at least no more true than the way I've seen other parties behave over the years. What is true, however, is that there is an inclination to try and be all things to all people: to have a sprinkling of Labour-ish policies here, a dash of Tory-ish policies there, all designed to appeal to the swing voter.
It's worked, but it has its limits. There are only so many of this kind of voter. When, in 2005, we offered the middle-class "grey vote" pretty much everything they could ever dream of on a silver platter and with a cherry on top (small print: at the expense of everyone else), the stubborn old buggers refused to be bribed.
The real division in the party is between what the party recognises as long-term goals that are in the national interest, and short-term populism that's in the party interest. We have a long-term commitment to shifting the burden of taxation off income and onto wealth and natural resources, but our short-term commitments are a muddle, taking 4p off income tax while introducing a 4p local income tax. We have a long-term commitment for a progressive form of property taxation based on land values, but in the short term, we propose to scrap council tax and its requisite infrastructure. We have a long-term goal of replacing inheritance tax with an acquisitions tax, making tax avoidance more difficult and ensuring that wealth is spread more thinly; in the short term, we are cheerleaders for raising the inheritance tax threshold as much as our Tory and Labour opponents. In the long run, we want increased access to higher education for people from poorer backgrounds to increase social mobility; in the short term, we are committed to spending our limited higher education budget on scrapping tuition fees, which will mainly benefit the middle classes.Now, those are some pretty good examples. But I would argue that in none of those cases are our policies for the immediate future notably Labour or Tory, so much as they are just motivated by a desire to translate Lib Dem ideals into practical steps which the public could easily imagine happening. Say to most people that we support abolishing council tax in favour of LVT, or that we want to introduce an acquisitions tax in place of inheritance tax, and they will look blankly at you.
I think James is (unsurprisingly) much more right than the MSM commentators, though. For them, the problem is that we need to be more like one of two things. For him, it is that we are already trying to make ourselves look like those other things. In so far as we are doing so, we should stop.
Specifically, my reservation is this:
I think this leadership election is not really about policy. I think the party's policy machinery stand it in good stead to reign in the excesses of any one leader, and I think that most important for the party right now is to select a leader who is engaging, and has the drive and energy to get out there and sell our policy. Given that this is the case, I don't see any point having a left of the party token in the race.
Now, I am not saying that is all Steve Webb would be. I like Steve a lot, I think he speaks engagingly and is articulate without being stuffy. But I would want to see and hear evidence that Steve really wants to be leader, and really thinks he's up to it, and that he's not simply standing to give the press some (very slight) policy differences between the candidates to point to. So for now, I guess I'm waiting to see if he announces, and what he says when he does.
Whilst I'm commenting on the leadership, though, I might just say right now that I will not be supporting Chris Huhne over Nick Clegg, despite my residing fairly firmly on the centre left of the party. Like I said, I don't really see this election in terms of policy. The idea that to the majority of the electorate, Huhne can even compete with Clegg in terms of "just coming across well" is a joke. Every one of my friends who is interested enough to know who the two are agrees with me here. I could be persuaded otherwise, but only by some pretty dynamic performances by Huhne on the campaign trail. And I don't really expect to see them.
One general plea: Whatever course the contest runs, can we not conduct it through the prism of which candidates are perceived as being "good to take on Cameron", "good to take on Brown", "too much like Cameron", etc. People can make whatever statements they like about whether or not the public like the Blair/Cameron "type" of politician, or any other type of politician. The fact is, the public are fickle, and there is really no point in trying to think this way. A good leader is one who communicates who we are as well as possible. It is not someone who tempts a particular type of voter to us by appealing to things they like about the other parties. It is someone who convinces all voters that there are things they like about us.
Oh, and one last thing. The candidate who promises an end to Lib Dem barcharts will have my vote instantly.
Monday, October 15, 2007
OK, Ming has done the right thing, and stepped aside. Just one thing to note here. The other parties are already spinning like mad on this one, and we need to be ready to rebut them. According to Iain Dale "It is clear that Vince Cable was the man who wielded [the dagger]."
Really? Because to me, he looked like a man quite genuinely surprised and shocked by the whole affair, both in his speech with Simon Hughes, and in his appearance on News 24 shortly afterwards, where he tried to steal Miliband's blinking crown.
UK Daily Pundit gives us this:
The power-hungry trio of Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes, better known as the Rat Pack, are tonight expected to deny their involvement in the ousting of Ming Campbell as Lib Dem leader.Again, pure crap. We have it from Nick Robinson that he "had been interviewing likely leadership candidate Nick Clegg for the News at Ten, and he had given Ming his full support". It is obvious to anyone but the most instinctive political attack dog that the party as a whole is pretty bloody shocked at the swiftness with which this came.
Widely suspected of organising the coup, all three will insist that Sir Ming's decision to step down was entirely his own.
Now, the party's media arm has a very tricky job on its hands. The next few days will determine whether or not the other parties, and more particularly the media, can get away with pointing and laughing at the wounds they themselves have inflicted, by labelling us a shambles for having two leadership elections in as many years, and by painting our MPs as vicious backstabbers. So what we need now, more than ever, is a convincing strategy for media dominance over the next few days.
We have, perhaps unwittingly, made a good start. Ming not making his announcement personally means that, although this announcement will be top of tonight's bulletins, we have a good chance of also getting our line on the news tomorrow as well. But for that to do much good, Ming needs to take a breath, suppress the upset and the anger which he must be feeling, and go out and give the most dignified and convincing performance of his life tomorrow. The management of the press strategy for this announcement will very likely be as important as the decision itself.
I would expect many members of the public, particularly older people, who after all are the most reliable voters, to have a great deal of sympathy with Ming. There is no reason why we should suffer from this announcement. Ming must tread a fine line between implying that ageist carping from the press has the power to end his career, and hammering home the point that the unpleasant and bigoted tone of much media commentary on his leadership was a disgrace.
He must make it clear, as it is already to someone watching the rolling news splurge that accompanied the announcement, that he has not been directly pushed, and that this is his decision not to let pride stand in the way of the party moving forward. Unfair as the media has been to him, we can't do anything about the fact that this constant prattle was preventing us from making any headway on the issues. He has simply recognised that, and with regret, he has taken the decision to resign.
There must be no undignified early rush of candidates to succeed him. Remember, the media love personality stuff. If the "young turks" wait until after Ming has finished his set piece, then they can spin the coverage out further. Additionally, lets see a good strong field of candidates once they do come forward. Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, yes, but why not a few more too? Julia Goldsworthy? Steve Webb? Heck, even Charles Kennedy? We can lose nothing from showing off the wealth of our front bench.
Meanwhile, Vince has a chance to shine. He always goes down very well with voters who actually get to see much of him. He comes across as honest, even when it's not in his obvious interest, and clear. Much of the political debate at the moment is centered around tax policy, so Vince has absolutely no excuse not to be able to shove us forcefully into the media agenda on his own terms. He may be a caretaker, but the great advantage of Lib Dem policy formation is that it is not determined by the direction the leader wants to go in, but by the members. Nothing about our values or policy has changed with the loss of Ming, and Vince has no good reason not to get out there and sell it.
The next week or so will probably do more to shape the environment which the new leader eventually inherits than anything else. Let's not screw it up.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Meanwhile Liberal Democrat support, which has plunged disturbingly, might recover, more to Mr Cameron's disadvantage than Mr Brown's. Sir Menzies Campbell ended his party conference with a capable speech that should have strengthened his leadership, but unfair though it is, he has not caught the public mood and probably never will. How will his party respond?I will ignore the obvious shit-stirring subtext to this. What I got annoyed with was their use of this curious phrase "unfair though it is, he has not caught the public mood". Leader columns are supposed to represent the "voice of the newspaper" in question. Well, I imagine the Voice of the Guardian saying this whilst the Face of the Guardian does its best to look innocent. "I can't imagine why. I'm sure I had nothing to do with it!" say its earnest, pleading eyes. The lie is given only by a slight curl of the mouth indicating a smug grin.
The fact is that the heights of Stalinist revisionist history have nothing on the Guardian's coverage of the pre-budget report over the past few days. The fact is that Darling stole more of our policy than the Tories', as Russell Eagling explained here. And yet the Guardian spent its pre-budget report special pullout supplement telling us all about how Darling had been raiding the Tories' policies. Not a mention of the Lib Dem origins of much of the policy, or even really of the Lib Dems. This stands in stark contrast to the immediate reaction of the BBC, by the way, which was the headline "Darling 'using Lib Dem air tax'".
When the papers do things like this, it's hard, as a proud member of a third party, to come to any conclusion other than that in some way, there is some kind of conspiracy going on. I simply refuse to believe that competent and intelligent journalists can write a whole 16 pages or so about the PBR and include only a few paragraphs about the Lib Dems and no mention of the provenance of much of the policy which they correctly identify as having been lifted from elsewhere.
And this comes back to where I began; the papers, and indeed all the MSM, like to pretend that they merely report, and have nothing to do with the attitudes and opinions they are reporting. And yet saying that Ming has "not yet caught the public mood" surely means, in practice, "We have not yet seen fit to pronouce that Ming has caught the public mood". Political reporting is driven by this sort of ludicrous projection of opinions onto the general public which they just don't have.
Presumably, on the day of David Cameron's speech to conference, much of the country was gathered around the TV watching his masterful feat of speaking without notes (well, without many notes). A few days before, we (apparently) felt he was superficial and had no real substance. Afterwards, we were all bowled over by the substance and policy detail of his speech, and in particular by his and George Osborne's well received announcements on policy.
Except we weren't. We read that we were, and most of us went along with that. Because we don't all have the time to sit actually watching this stuff, and nobody wants to come in from work and do a research project into the veracity of what the news tells them. So we turn on the TV, watch the News at 10, and figure it's probably right.
Charlie Brooker explored the same terrain in relation to the Northern Rock crisis the other night, in a noticeably calmer and more serious in tone programme on TV News than most episodes of Screenwipe. Go to about 6 minutes into the clip linked to for the Northern Rock thing, or just go here for the start of the whole (excellent) episode.
In that case, the point is rather easier to see, but it holds for much of what the news tells us we are thinking. It works as a kind of echo chamber, where views become perpetuated because we are told people hold these views. Journalists hate actual events getting in the way of their perpetuation of the narrative they have pre-written, because then they have to think on the spot, and do their actual job.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
What constitutes a campaign in 2007? A supposed consumer backlash has begun against the makers of Kettle Chips, who have brought in American union-busters to prevent unionisation at their factories. The Guardian reported on October 9 that:
''Two groups, "Boycott Kettle Crisps for attacks on workers" and "Boycott Kettle Crisps: the Anti-Trade Union snack", have been formed on the popular website Facebook.com.
''They have attracted 130 members, many of whom say they are pledged to persuade friends and family not to buy the product.''
In August, another report claimed "victory" for a 4,000-strong group of students who had forced HSBC to back down on overdraft fees, also via a Facebook group.
To put the 130 in perspective, as of 17:00 on the day of the Kettle Chips story, 253 people were members of the Facebook group "Kettle Chips are just a superior type of crisp" - one of several dedicated to extolling the virtues of the Kettle Chip - against 181 and 185 in the two mentioned in the Guardian report. Moving off the potato snack theme, 575 people had joined "I Hate Razorlight and Want the World to Know" and a frightening 155,287 were members of "Jeremy Clarkson Should Be Prime Minister".
Er... yup. OK. And if each of these groups had the same kind of purpose, then that might be a point worth making. But you know what? Facebook is a sub-branch of that medium of communication known as teh Internets. It facilitiates people building for themselves an online personality profile which they can use to express themselves to people. Joining groups of similarly minded people is part of how you do that. And the level of seriousness or otherwise of the groups you join says as much about you as the specifics of those groups.
The point is, if the way that the student campaign against HSBC worked was through Facebook, then there is nothing wrong with reporting that. Indeed, when "Jeremy Clarkson Should Be Prime Minister" achieves a similar level of success in its own campaigning (god forbid), then I am sure it will be reported in equal terms. But I am pretty certain it won't, and let me tell you why: "Jeremy Clarkson Should Be Prime Minister" is not in fact a serious, motivated campaign group with focussed objectives and a realistic plan for achieving them. I know this may come as a bit of a shock to some people, but in fact, arguments that try to decry a medium using some of the things that some people try to communicate with them (even most people) are almost always HORSESHIT FROM START TO FINISH. Like this:
Facebook is not yet a medium for informed debate: by and large the groups are remarkably badly informed, populated through whimsy or a desire to make a superficial statement. It is the Gen-Y equivalent of wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, but without even the capital expenditure. Most users join because their mates invite everyone they know to join whatever the group du jour is, usually the one with the most amusing name.I mean, lets run that one again, but removing the feeble attempt to pin the actions of people using Facebook onto Facebook itself:
This is not in any way a substitute for political action, and it is rarely, if ever, translated into real-world effects.
People are not yet capable of informed debate: by and large they are remarkably badly informed, making statements motivated by whimsy or a desire to make a superficial statement. They wear Che Guevara T-shirts. Most conversations are simply held with their mates, and most people probably go along with whoever makes the funniest statements.
This is not in any way a substitute for political action, and it is rarely, if ever, translated into real-world effects.
Stripped of its layer of false analysis of Facebook itself, we can now see two things pretty clearly: 1) This is, to some extent, a true picture of many people, and a very depressing one to the more politically engaged. 2) It has absolutely bog all to do with Facebook. As the author comes close to recognising (in his comparison of the people who join some of these groups to people who wear Che Guevara t-shirts) this is not a fundamental problem with Facebook, any more than it is a problem with t-shirts. This is about people expressing themselves, and feeling disappointed in what they choose to express. Except no opinion writer could possibly write that, because it would be (rightly) decried as patronising.
Thankfully. Close to half a million people are apparently part of a global movement for physical assaults on irritating pedestrians as part of the "I Secretly Want To Punch Slow Walking People In The Back Of The Head" group (define "secretly"!).Secretly: Privately, inwardly, not openly.
As in these people are just having a laugh, they are not in fact "part of a global movement for physical assaults on irritating pedestrians", you complete pillock. I know that may seem like a petty thing to take issue with, but it is symptomatic of an inability to see that Facebook can be used to have many different kinds of conversation, or interaction in a wider sense.
Worse still, a smaller, if significant number of people, just over 55,000, want to take it further, supporting capital punishment, albeit only for "chavs who play music off [sic] their phones in public".Rinse and repeat as necessary. Except that here, he inserts a smug little "sic" where there is no obvious need for one. The sentence quoted communicates perfectly well what it is trying to say.
But the almost total inability of the media to objectively consider the statistics before declaring a Facebook group "a movement" is a more worrying trend. At best, it is simple laziness - an easy, stop-gap example of consumer disaffection that can be plugged into any story.
There seems to be some projection going on here; this bit could equally be rewritten about the author of this piece:
But the almost total inability of the media to objectively consider new communication media before judging their worth as "a movement" is a more worrying trend. At best, it is simple laziness - an easy, stop-gap example of a story that can be plugged into any new medium (and has been, ever since, at the very latest, the novel arrived as a literary force).
Now, in the interest of balance, I should quote the following, which is perfectly true and a valid comment:
Bad reporting, perhaps, as a simple number on Facebook cannot be said to be in any way statistically rigorous. Of the quoted numbers, not all are even necessarily supportive of the "motion", because it is not uncommon for users to join in order to attempt to put up some counter-argument (though, since bloggers' law applies, they are, of course, shouted down). There is no tally of how many people rejected or ignored invitations to join the group, and even if there were, there is likely to be significant sample bias ... you generally only invite like-minded people.He had to go and get that dig in at blogging, though, didn't he?! Betraying as he did so a view of blogging that has more to do with the comment conversation that takes place on a handful of behemoth blogs like CiF itself and Huffington Post than on the vast majority of blogs as actual bloggers would understand the term.
At worst, this becomes a case of media misrepresentation, a written noddy shot. By blowing out of proportion events in a social network not readily understood by most of their reading demographic, reporters risk creating a campaign where there was none. HSBC may have claimed to be listening principally to its young customers (though, we are unable to tell how many of the 4,000 banked with HSBC), it could easily be suggested that it was the headline coverage that really forced their hand.Quite so, but then, would there have been a headline if there wasn't a Facebook group? Like all lobbying, protesting or otherwise manipulating the democratic process and media, it doesn't quite work the way it might ideally. I imagine in many cases, the reporters not only "risk" creating a campaign where there was none, they actively hope to do so. This has always happened, and I imagine the founders of the groups are often all too happy to have them reported. Certainly, if the reporter who wrote up the Kettle Chips story looked at it when it had only 180 members or so, then they were probably invited by someone pretty close to its originator. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just the Facebook way of sending out a press release.
Internet gossip (and that is what, by-and-large, Facebook groups are) works on an odd system of correlations between sites and ideas, on self-reference and self-promotion, and its trends are caused by snowball effects that act as a distorting mirror for the real world - perhaps concurrent, but by no means accurately portrayed. Draw your own parallels with Cameronite politics.Oh I see, this is some sort of clever comment on Cameronite politics, is it? Well, no it isn't.
But that aside, this is an alright ending. The point he's missing, though, is that it is a legitimate role for journalists to report on those bits of Facebook that aren't Internet gossip. After all, if they are only "by and large" gossip, then there are, by definition, bits that aren't.
As for "an odd system of correlations between sites and ideas, [working] on self-reference and self-promotion, ... its trends ... caused by snowball effects that act as a distorting mirror for the real world - perhaps concurrent, but by no means accurately portrayed", well, you could have fooled me that he was talking about politics and the media in general there.
I know it is human nature, it would seem, to attack any new medium for the messages that are communicated using it. It happens when people say the internet is full of porn, or that computer games are brainless and violent, or that TV rots the mind, or that the papers are full of lies, or that novels are sensationalist nonsense for young ladies (thankfully we haven't heard that one in a while). People just need to get a bit better at spotting this sort of thing. If we don't start distinguishing medium from message, then some really stupid things might start happening.
Having left them on the table in my room, when they were first noticed I was expecting some admonishment for having spent money on such a thing. Instead, within minutes of their discovery, four of my friends were sat around my room playing with them. It turns out people (students, at any rate) will play top trumps with anything they can find. Or perhaps it's just my friends.
Either way, these have proven to be a great way to force home a few points far more effectively than I might ever be able to do in a more conventional way. Play with these cards for a few minutes, and people start to realise just how many Lib Dem frontbenchers they have actually heard of and know about. They see just how popular some of them are in their own constituencies. They are introduced to the idea that, like any other party, we have plenty of people you don't hear all that much about - backbenchers, basically - and that we're not just the same crowd of maybe 10 people you hear about on the TV (if that).
And of course, it's funny what stands out about someone on their Top Trumps cards. Someone like Willie Rennie, surely a hero as far as Lib Dem lore goes, actually has some seemingly pretty uninspired stats on his card. By the same token, the sheer regularity with which people like David Heath go out to bat is also brought out.
Playing the game using our rules, when ties happen, instead of picking a new stat, we thought it would be more fun to decide who had the "best" photo. By which we seem to mean who looks the most interesting. Fulfilling Lib Dem stereotypes will get you quite far; a beard is an instant advantage. In any such play-off, John Thurso wins hands down with his amazing moustache. Other features considered to be interesting include Paul Keetch's background, in that his picture comes from some conference or other and therefore sees him stood in front of a glowing Libby-bird, bathed in an amber glow. It is perhaps the closest thing I have seen to Lib Dem religious iconography.
Even I have been encouraged to learn more about our parliamentary party, spurred by my inability to remember what someone's portfolio is, or simply by an interest in knowing more about some of the ones I've barely heard of.
So overall, a big well done to LDYS, for producing this handy little aid to familiarising one's friends with the party without it seeming like any effort at all.
UPDATE: Mark has left the following helpful comment:
If you would like a pack LDYS still has about 20 left. Please contact Paul Pettinger at email@example.com or on 020 7227 1387. They cost £6.95 + 50p postage.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
So essentially I have two things to say about this, neither of which are actually much to do with having a snap election or not, but about the aftermath.
1. Adam Boulton has had a rather good couple of days of it, at least from the non-Labour blogosphere. Meanwhile, Andrew Marr comes out looking decidedly fishy. Not something I really want to see. I believe in the BBC, in publically and government-independently funded newsgathering, and it really doesn't make me happy to see a great institution like the Big British Castle being regarded as soft on the establishment, and a Murdoch organ, albeit one of the better ones, being (rightly) held aloft by all and sundry as a bastion of (relative) veracity. Nothing good can come of this in the long run. Pull your socks up BBC.
2. Well done to whichever arm of the party apparatus was responsible for this video.
It's not perfect; it's a little bit overlong, leading to its becoming repetitive, and could do with a little more polish (eg. The "ten thousand men" point being backed up not by a cloned picture of the same man but of all the Labour MPs and so on who have been trawling the MSM sewing this chatter in the past month or so). Nevertheless, clearly we are well on the way to having another weapon to add to our ground-war arsenal, making the MSM's insistence on keeping us out of the air-war where at all possible increasingly irrelevant. I'd also like to say that it was nice to see the ad about the phoney Iraq troop withdrawal. More of this kind of thing, please!
Friday, October 05, 2007
And that's probably it from me for today, because a) I am now back in Cambridge, with a big wad of research projects to choose from which I should probably at least read, and b) I can't think of very much politics I might write about, since I don't really want to contribute to the mountain of guff about snap elections: "My dog done a funny shaped turd this morning. What does this mean for the prospects of a snap election?"
None of us really know, and you know what? It doesn't matter. If it happens, it will happen, if it doesn't, it doesn't. Whatever the principle of it, the decision currently rests with Brown, and he will do whatever it is he does. Personally, having lived through the last few weeks will serve only to make me that much more determined to see a Lib Dem government and the fixed term parliaments that would come with it. Only then can we be sure that we won't have to live through another national snap election fever like the last few weeks. Like Ming said last night on Question Time, "Nothing that has happened in the past few weeks has been in the public interest."
Thursday, October 04, 2007
UPDATE: I found this interesting little summation of the situation in Burma on the Real News website (which is well worth a quick poke around, btw).
Today is, as anyone reading Lib Dem Blogs today will already have noticed, an International Bloggers' Day for Burma. Whilst I have little to say that is especially insightful about this dreadful situation, I would like to echo Jock's comments that fundamentally, this is about people who could be doing more not doing so. Sanctions are rarely the answer, sadly. If only it were that simple.
I suspect, though, that since the people who could do something about this the easy way are steadfastly not doing so, we will instead have to simply support, in any way we can, the monks and other protesters going about doing it the hard way.
For more information, go to www.free-burma.org
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Here is what I thought, in the order I thought it:
14:15 – They don’t seem very good at recognising where they’re meant to clap.
14:16 – Communism. Is that really the point any more?
14:17 – Women candidates; fair enough.
14:18 – “I didn’t do that, you did that, and you should be proud of what you’ve done.” Bored with this catchphrase now. Apart from anything else, most of the things he referred to had quite a lot to do with him.
14:19 – Loud applause for Sayeeda Warsi. What a surprise.
14:19 – "A force to be reckoned with in every part of our country" (except the north, Scotland, the west, Sedgefield and Ealing Southall).
14:20 – Is he trying to trump Gordon Brown in his use of the word “change”? It’s just as well there’s an election now. Come next year, Cameron and Brown might well have got up on stage and simply repeated the word “change” for an hour.
14:22 – EU law makes British jobs for British people illegal, apparently. You learn something every day.
14:24 – He is actually quite strong on Brown’s faults, now he has something to go on. It’s so much more convincing than the “roadblock to reform” or the “clunking fist” stuff.
14:24 – “I am by nature an optimist”. It’s not quite “let sunshine win the day”, is it?
14:26 – He’s not very well lit, really. Sorry, theatre techie thoughts creeping in.
14:30 – “Tear up the rules”. Again.
14:31 – Abolish regional assemblies. Power back to local councils. This sounds familiar...
14:32 – The Big British Castle have highlighted a quote I missed: “Our democracy is still in the dark ages”, apparently. Pity no mention of electoral reform, then.
14:33 – "Sharing the proceeds of growth"; presumably no proceeds of growth to be given to the effort to come up with a better soundbite on tax than this one?
14:34 – There seems to be an awful lot of Redwood in here. I wonder if there will be as much Goldsmith-Gummer?
14:35 – Cameron wants all his kids to go through the state sector, he says. I do hope he breaks that.
14:37 – Choice, diversity and innovation. Academies. Churches, voluntary bodies, charities, etc, to be invited into the state sector. I feel queasy.
14:38 – “Action on standards now”. Meaning what?
14:38 – Cameron admits cosy consensus on education: “Ed Balls gave a speech the other day that I could have given myself”.
14:41 – “Appeals panels have got to go”. Not sure about this. It does sometimes happen that a school, even an individual teacher, just takes a dislike to a pupil, and their behaviour spirals downwards from there. In such a situation, I would think it wise of their parents to go elsewhere if possible, but if they feel it best for their child to fight their corner to remain there, and they have a legitimate grievance to take to an appeals panel, why shouldn't they?
14:42 – “George showed how we’re going to cut stamp duty”. No he didn’t. He asserted that it could be done by a highly dubious looking “seemingly voluntary” tax on non-domicile tax status.
14:45 – “Sometimes globalisation can increase inequalities within a country…freedom is not enough…make society more responsible.” Sounded encouraging in identifying problems, but unless he means some serious legislation to make corporate citizens more responsible, I don’t see how his prescription of “stronger families, more responsible society” is really going to provide a solution for the hypothetical mother halfway up a tower block he cites.
14: 47 – “Treat people like statistics, rather than human beings”. [PAUSE FOR APPLAUSE…. APPLAUSE DOESN’T COME]
14:48 – We can copy Wisconsin! Excellent idea. I'm pretty sure we must be fairly analogous to Wisconsin in most respects, right?
14:48 – We will ask charities to run this stuff for us. So once they are co-opted into the state’s work, are they still charities? How do we demand accountability of them? Unless he means simply abdicating the state’s responsibilities, and leaving it to charities. Which sounds a lot like pretty hard-right stuff to me. Also, it’s not as if charities don’t already get a fair amount of funding, in the areas they are useful. Don’t know I would want to go to a school run by a charity, though.
14:49 – “The best welfare system in the world: it’s called the family”. Is it bollocks. If you come from a poor family, or your parents are unemployed, then how the hell is your family going to be able to help more than the state? And more to the point, why the hell is it desirable that they do so? This is a fluffier version of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”.
14:51 – “Using the benefit system to drive people apart rather than bring them together.” Yes. That is exactly what we are doing. Recognising the financial benefits of cohabitation equals trying to drive cohabitees apart. OK. Fine.
14:52 – “Time is the most precious commodity of all”. OK. Right to flexible working. I think we passed something like that at our conference the other week, didn’t we? Except that, since we are the sensible party on the economy, we recognised that a straightforward “right” to flexible working could cripple small businesses, so we made it merely a right to request it, and therefore make your employer at least tell you why you can't have it!
14:54 – Nice little bit about “throughput and output and patient episodes and all that”.
14:55 – An awful lot of NHS, actually. It seems like the NHS has replaced the environment as his totemic fluffy policy. I have heard barely a mention of the environment yet, actually. The one time he did mention it, he felt the need to weaken it by making clear he didn’t “just” mean climate change, but also litter, which he then majored on.
14:57 – “Allowing GPs to choose between whatever hospitals they like”. Sounds a lot like patient passport, to me.
14:58 – Fighting for district general hospitals. Really? Personally, I think we do need to strongly reconfigure the NHS, and a lot of what we can learn from places like Cuba is that lots of basic, local health services are often more helpful than big, “all under one roof” hospitals. Cottage hospitals, anyone? It’s so easy, as a conservative, to simply oppose all change. Of course, that doesn’t mean no one should oppose these changes when the replacement for these services is inadequate.
15:00 – The new world order is "not going to happen". Interesting comment.
15:02 – Proud of his support for renewing Trident. Boo!
15:04 – Chooses to talk only about the bravery of our soldiers in Afghanistan. No real mention of Iraq.
15:05 – Accusing Labour of breaking the military covenant. Good.
15:06 – Interestingly strong support for tweaking the rules on giving soldiers leave.
15:06 – Returning to the theme of hospitals for the third (?) time this speech, to touch on separate military wards. I can’t say it would be uppermost in my mind if I had been wounded, but there you go.
15:07 – “Realistic and not utopian” foreign policy; a fairly strong slap in the face to neoconservatism and the Iraq war, but still no mention of the actual word “Iraq”, despite it being the clear meaning of his pledge to make Afghanistan his “number one priority”. Why is the word “Iraq” so apparently toxic to him?
15:10 – Now we’re onto the dodgy dossier, and still he won’t name the war he’s talking about.
15:10 – Banning Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Sigh. There are two possible stances on free speech…
15:12 – Finally! Green-ness.
15:13 – “The party of sensible green leadership”. OK. Announce some policy then. Oh, that's right, you can't, your party would kill you if you did anything much more than witter about litter.
15:14 – Broken society guff. Like Ming said, it is simply ludicrous to infer from a few dreadful incidents that our society is “broken”. What does that even mean?
15:15 – Also: I make that about 2 minutes of green-ness. Compared to about ten of Vulcanism peppered throughout. So I guess we know who won that internal struggle.
15:15 – “Beat-based zero-tolerance policing that everyone wants to see in their neighbourhood.” I don’t know I do, actually…
15:17 – “I’m not advocating a return to national service”. Thank goodness for that, it sounded a lot like it for a minute there.
15:18 – Er.. what is national citizens service exactly? Cuz it sounds a lot from what you just said like it's... boxing. Um?
15:18 – Time-filling: “I have told you this….”. I know. I was watching you.
15:19 – “I went to a fantastic school, and I’m not embarrassed about that.” Name it then.
15:20 – I want to tell you about my mum... Fuck’s sake. You wouldn’t find Ming doing this.
15:22 – Election posturing. Quite well done.
15:22 – “Who’s really making the arguments on the changes that need making in our country?” The Lib Dems, naturally.
15:23 – “We will fight, Britain will win”. Bit of a hostage to fortune there?
And that’s it. Not a single mention of the word Iraq. Very little environment. Very solid on conservative territory, but not going to convince many others, I don’t think.
The audience didn’t really seem to know how to react to it either. The applause was hesitant and relatively infrequent, or so it felt to me; I suspect because everything about the wider context of the speech would imply that it should be a barnstorming election rally, when in fact it was much more thoughtful and content-heavy than that would suggest.
Anyway, not a speech that’s going to set the world on fire, and certainly not one that would lure many Lib Dem voters. Brown is wrapping himself in Tory colours, Cameron targeting Labour (we weren’t even mentioned). Never has the cosy consensus seemed more obvious to me than after following this conference season.