Sunday, December 21, 2008

Franken Winning?

Norm Coleman should be worried: Nate Silver has proclaimed as much. I do hope it continues to go well for Franken, I genuinely think he would make a better Senator than Coleman.

Apart from that, while I'm here, I might as well note that the Minnesota recount business has been interesting from a spin point of view; with the benefit of the hindsight applied to the Florida recount in 2000, both Coleman and Franken have shown a determination to win not only the legal wranglings over the recount process, but also the public perception battle.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Jacqui Smith's Cunning Plan

Some of my Lib Dem Blogs colleagues have been unaccountably sniffy about Jacqui Smith's brilliantly clear and incisive analysis of the situation we have with sex trafficking and prostitution. Personally, I think it's brilliantly sensible, makes absolute sense, and the same strain of thought should be rolled out more widely to solve other problems.

For instance, sweat shops. We all know that the people who are buying garments cheaply from chain stores, without knowing that they haven't been manufactured by child labourers or otherwise exploited workers, are partly morally culpable, so why don't we make it illegal for them to buy these garments? Ignorance of the consequences of their actions is no excuse, and we can all agree that this is a stain on the conscience of our society, and action must be taken, etc.

Of course, the business lobby will suggest this will "unfairly" punish customers who buy many "legitimate products", by simply putting them off buying any products at all. But I think anyone with any sense will recognise that this is a sensible direction to go in. I mean, yes it's a shame to have an adverse effect on the livelihood of people in good, legal jobs on a living wage, but we shouldn't let that get in the way of cracking down on this great social evil. So lets bang up anyone who buys a cheap item of clothing that turns out to have been made by an eleven year old!

Phew, I'm not sure I could have kept that up much longer. I don't know how Labour ministers do it.

Seriously, is there anyone who can explain to me what the thinking on this policy is? Can you, dear reader, think of a single other instance where the same thinking would make much sense whatsoever? I can't. I mean, if people are being exploited, surely the thing to make illegal is the exploitation, and the best way to enforce that is to make said industry as transparent and open as possible, so that it can be suitably regulated and investigated. No?

Jacqui Smith should just be honest, and say that she doesn't like prostitution, and she wants to ban it. I mean, that's the only way this makes sense, because as an attempt to tackle trafficking it's fucking bonkers. But she's frightened of being honest, because she knows she'd lose the argument: it's the world's oldest profession and she'd just drive it further underground, etc. Instead, she fudges a policy together that achieves actually fuck all, is probably worse than either an outright ban or a destigmatisation and legalisation, but which allows her to muddy the political water on this just enough to get away with not doing anything that might be perceived as bold.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cameron Tries To "Nudge" His Way Out Of Recession

The Tories have announced a plan today to give companies National Insurance breaks on employing people who have been unemployed for over 3 months. Detail on their website, but the gist is this:

It costs the government £8100 per annum in benefits payments and lost income tax receipts to support an unemployed person. So their proposal is as follows:
Private sector employers, who hire someone who has been claiming unemployment benefits for more than three months (13 weeks) and who has not previously worked for that company in the previous year, would receive a credit against Employers National Insurance Contributions. The credit would be worth £2,500 for full time jobs of 30 hours a week or more, or half that amount for part time work of 16 hours a week or more. It would be phased out beyond the higher rate tax threshold so that only basic rate taxpayers would be eligible for the full amount.
• To prevent companies making people redundant in order to replace them and claim the tax cut, the payment would only be available to companies that had made no redundancies in the previous three months, or for three months after claiming the credit.
• To limit the amount given in tax cuts to companies who are already growing rapidly, the tax cut would be limited to a maximum of 20 per cent of the workforce of any one company.
• The credit would be available for one year after the employee starts their new job.
David Cameron doesn't believe you can borrow your way out of a recession, it seems. Instead, he seems to intend to Nudge his way out of one. It's a pity, then, that in the words of Nick Clegg, "Cameron has drawn the fly on the floor". This doesn't help anyone who is already in a job. It doesn't help businesses who are struggling to keep employing the people they already employ. It doesn't seem likely to boost consumer spending all that much. It doesn't even seem likely to genuinely get all that many people back into employment. All it really does is tip the scales in favour of people who have been unemployed for over 3 months.

Let's look at this from the point of view of the people it's aimed at: employers (and note, in passing, that the last two Tory tax announcements - VAT delay, and now this - have been aimed at helping business, not people in the most direct sense).

To employ someone on minimum wage full time costs them about £11,000 (depends what hours they're on, so no point being too precise here). £5682 of that is above the Earnings Threshold, so National Insurance is paid on it, to the tune of 12.8%, or £727. So overall it costs the employer £11,727 to employ someone on the minimum wage. The Tory credit reduces that to £9227. Essentially, the Tories want to reduce the price of employing someone on minimum wage by 21%.

The significance of these credits only gets lower the higher the wage you're talking about. Someone on £20,000 costs their employer £21,891 to employ. That becomes £19,391, a cut of 11%. Or if you're on £30,000, it costs your employer £33,171, becoming £30,671, a cut of 8%. Much beyond that, the credits stop under the plan in question. So the jobs this is likely to have most impact on is those at the bottom end of the pay scale.

Fair enough. But now ask yourself this: Are you, a struggling company in the middle of a recession, going to set yourself back £9227 a year to employ someone who is currently unemployed out of the goodness of your own heart? I suggest that the answer is no. I suggest that most of the companies who are going to be taking people on in the next few years are the ones who had a pretty good chance of employing some extra people anyway: businesses who are just filling gaps left by employees leaving, or who are recruiting people they would have needed anyway. The Tories themselves admit that this would be true to some extent; the £2500 figure is based on an estimate that only ~31% of the jobs that would be created under this scheme wouldn't have been created anyway. I suspect it would be rather less than that, depending on how bad the recession gets.

Is it too cynical of me to suspect that this isn't really a Tory prescription for the recession at all? I reckon what this is is a bit of policy they had on the back burner as a remedy for long-term unemployment, which has been tweaked a bit and packed up in a shiny new box that says "Tax Cut!" on it, to cover up for the fact that the Tories, and specifically Gideon Osborne, don't know anything about the economy, really, and it has only become obvious to them relatively recently that the "responsibility ... sharing the proceeds of growth ... no irresponsible tax cuts" line wasn't going to cut it any more. Everyone else is talking tax cuts now, but they've got nothing much to announce, and the fiddly bits and pieces they'd come up with so far (Council Tax "freeze", Marriage Bonus, Inheritance Tax threshold to millionaire-friendly level, etc) were looking a bit shabby and tight-fisted in comparison. Hence today's policy.

It's a good job we've got an economic team who were able to beat the rest of the parties to it, despite the slowing effect of the Lib Dem policy ratification process, isn't it? We've had a revenue neutral package to really help people on low and middle incomes for over a year now. The way to create job growth is to give everyone a significant amount of their own money back. Spending goes up, jobs are really created, etc. Today's Tory plan does next to nothing to mitigate the recession.

Go back to your drawing board and try again, Gideon and Dave.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

It's Not Over Yet

As Kos's map shows, the senate results are not yet in.

There is a post explaining what's going on with these races that are yet to be called here. The presidential result is already determined, so the electoral college predictions are largely academic (give or take an LDV mug).

But the Senate races are important. The Democrats had hoped that they might come out of this process with a filibuster proof senate. If they are to achieve this, the four yet to be called races all have to go that way. That's a tough call on the face of it. But lets just look at those a bit closer (from the Kos posting linked above):

We're currently at 56 seats with Sanders and Lieberman. We need a clean sweep in Alaska, Georgia, Minnesota and Oregon to win.

: With 99% of precincts reported, Ted Stevens (R) leads Mark Begich (D) by 3500 votes.

There are reportedly over 60,000 absentee ballots filed, so no one has called it yet.

Georgia: Saxby Chambliss (R) leads Jim Martin (D) 50-46. However, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that over 600,000 early votes have not been counted. Martin led handily in early voting, so it's highly likely that Chambliss will end up below 50% and this will go to a runoff.

Minnesota: Norm Coleman leads by less than 600 votes now. All outstanding ballots will matter, and there's the possibility of a recount as well.

Oregon: Gordon Smith (R) leads Jeff Merkley (D) by 15,000 votes with 75% of precincts reporting. Not looking good.

So Oregon looks like a write-off, which is a shame. But even so, there is every chance of 59 Democratic caucusing Senators by the end of all this.

Minnesota could get nasty, with lawyers piling in on both sides. Al Franken is talking up his chances of changing the result:

The Associated Press uncalled the Senate race at about 9 a.m., saying they had prematurely declared Coleman the winner.

Franken said this morning that he intends to exercise his right to a recount.

He also said his campaign is investigating alleged voting irregularities at some polling places in Minneapolis, and that “a recount could change the outcome significantly.”

“Let me be clear: Our goal is to ensure that every vote is properly counted,” he said.
It will be some time before we know what happens there, with the recount not expected for some weeks.

Alaska looks, initially, bizarre. They seem to be about to re-elect a convicted felon, but as Kos point out, there are absentee ballots to be added. More importantly, even if Stevens wins, he is likely to be forced out of the Senate if his appeal fails, and that will trigger another election to fill his seat.

If Georgia fails to give Saxby Chambliss an overall majority (which looks likely), then that too will trigger another election, a runoff between the two highest voted candidates (the Rep and the Dem).

So in Alaska and Georgia, there is a significant chance for what remains of the Obama war chest to be put to good use trying to win a couple of extra senators, not to mention spending it on lawyers to help Al Franken's efforts to inch it in Minnesota.

We may not know for some time exactly what the Democrats' Senate position is going to look like. The only thing we can be sure of is that they seem likely to fall short of that all important 60 seats. Oh well.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

US Election Night

Sofa and TV: Check

Several tabs in Firefox on laptop displaying various websites:
- LDV's liveblog when it arrives: Check
- Maron v Seder: Check
- to see how their predictions went: Check
- CNN Results page: Check
- Political Betting: Check

Popcorn with which to enjoy the looks on the inhabitants of Fox News's faces: Check

...yup, all set!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Best HIGNFY Ever!!!!!

Tom Baker, Vince, Chris Addison. Enough said.

ETA: Now on iPlayer here (for the next 7 days).

Characters/Letters Meme

Picked this up from Jennie. Rules as follows:
1. Comment on this post.
2. I will give you a letter.
3. Think of 5 fictional characters whose names begin with that letter and post their names and your comments on these characters in your LJ.
Anyhoo, my letter was B, so these were what came to mind:

Bernice Summerfield - Dr Who companion through much of the NAs, which I am trying to read in order at the moment (and have been doing since forever, tbh). Not yet managed to quite "get" the high levels of affection for the character, to be honest.

Bilal - Exxilon from Death to the Daleks. Don't really know why this occured to me, other than that he's quite sweet. (Don't worry, won't all be Whovian).


Bloody Stupid Johnson - Terry Pratchett's carnival-hall-of-mirrors reflection of Capability Brown. A great archetype.

The Black Man - enigmatic seller of illicit materials from This Town Will Never Let Us Go (and also a cameo in Alien Bodies?). One of the more effective bits of the book, for me.

Big Brother - Orwell's enduring anthropomorphic vision of an overbearing state. Inevitably always quoted by people making points about something or other, but not always the most relevant dystopia.

So, anyone want a letter?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ross and Brand: Where Did The Anger Come From?

The main sense I have this evening is that much of the venom towards Ross and Brand is coming from people who have never liked them in the first place. 2 people complained about the original broadcast, but the day it hit the tabloids this number started creeping up over 1000, the next day it shot up to 10,000, and by today this number had hit 27,000.

Sorry, what? Isn't this a bit ridiculous? I mean, that's the order of magnitude of the Big Brother racism row. What is driving people to complain, exactly? That they feel sorry for Andrew Sachs? Because by the time most of the complaints were registered, Ross and Brand had already offered sincere apologies to Andrew Sachs. It's notable that Russell Brand, in his probably correctly judged resignation tonight, is at pains to make it clear that he feels the need to make a statement only for Sachs and Georgina Baillie's sake, not for the sake of the media storm it has sparked.

Now let me make it clear that I don't think what Brand and Ross did was especially funny, and I think it was right that they should have apologised. But what strikes me as odd here is the point that people who think they are being clever keep making: "Well, the real question is why their editors broadcast such an offensive piece of radio." No. No it isn't. The issue is that they made some calls that upset Andrew Sachs. They should have apologised even if it wasn't broadcast. The fact it was broadcast is neither here nor there - a fact the show's regular audience recognised, since nobody who ordinarily listened to the show actually complained about this aspect (the 2 initial complaints were about Ross's language, specifically).

To my mind, people going on the internet to play back clips that they've heard might offend them, with the express intention of being offended and complaining about it, is utterly bizarre. I suspect that much of the anger here is being driven by people who have long felt that Jonathan Ross's salary was completely inexplicable, and resented the BBC's belief in what they seem to feel are his unique abilities.

Today, I was sat in a cafe having lunch, while a table of three older ladies behind me had a good mither about the whole thing. It was pretty clear to me that they, like most of the people in this vox pop video, just dislike Ross, and feel he has no place on TV. "I've never liked him. He took over that Film 2000 from whatshisname..." "Oh, Barry Norman." "Yes, that one. He was good, I used to watch him. It was never the same after that Jonathan Ross took over. He's awful."* Not once was the specific incident discussed. What was discussed was their general distaste for Ross and Brand's personas more generally.

What this incident has done is create a flashpoint for a large but disparate anger over these two performers, and in particular Jonathan Ross. If Ross gets through this with his job intact, he would be well advised to ask for a pay cut.

*Whilst I quote this story as an example of what I think are the wrong reasons to want Ross sacked, I can't say I entirely disagree with them about The Film Programme. If Ross goes, can we have someone who can actually review things as if he actually cared about them? Mark Kermode, perhaps? They could do a lot worse, when presumably Film 2008 isn't on this week (what with Ross's suspension), than to simply broadcast an edited copy of the video webcast of Kermode's Radio 5 reviews on Simon Mayo's show.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Policy Exchange on GP&U, and Nick Clegg: A Fisking

Lib Dem Voice has already noted Nick Clegg's attack on Policy Exchange's document (.doc) profiling certain speakers and exhibitors at this year's Global Peace and Unity event. The discussion on LDV included several people suggesting that Policy Exchange might have a point, so I thought I'd have a look into this. To my mind there are several questions here that should not be confused, so I will deal with them separately.

1. Are Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes lending credibility to cranks by going to this event?

Well, only if they are equally endorsing the views of Tony Benn, Ian Blair, Dominic Grieve, Tony McNulty and a host of others by doing so.

Here's a list of the attendees Policy Exchange have issues with:
Mohamed Ali Harrath

Sheikh Yusuf Estes
Sheikh Yasir Qadhi
Sheikh Muhammad Alshareef
Rt Rev Riah Abu El-Assal
Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss
Mohammad Ijaz ul Haq
Ebrahim Rasool
William Rodriguez
Here's a list of the people they don't mention who are also speaking:
Yusuf Islam
Abdul Wahid Pedersen
Sheikh Tawfique Chowdhury
Jermaine Jackson
Reverend Jesse Jackson
Tony McNulty MP
Jack Straw
Simon Hughes MP
Nick Clegg
Sir Ian Blair
William Ernest "Bill" Rammell
Moazzam Begg
Sir Iqbal Sacranie OBE
Lord Sheikh
Shahid Malik MP
Dominic Grieve MP
Ahmed Zakayev
Zareen Roohi Ahmed
Salma Yaqoob
Tony Benn
John Rees
Lord Nazir Ahmed
Sadiq Khan
Stephen Timms
Richard Barnes
Imran Khan
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari
Obviously, many on the latter list are also muslims, but Policy Exchange aren't lauding the event for encouraging dialogue with moderate Islam, they are trying to pick out those people with allegedly reprehensible views. This is legitimate, certainly, but somewhat divisive and negative of them. More importantly, the presence of other politicians at the event, including from Labour, Conservative and Respect, serves usefully to underline the point that in no way do speakers at this event think they are endorsing the views of other speakers at the event, any more than MPs who speak in the House of Commons are endorsing the views of everyone else present in the chamber at the time.

2. If we believe in free speech, do we have a responsibility to challenge people saying bad things?

I mention this only because Geoffrey Payne seems to think we do:
Well I do not see the point in allowing free speech and then not taking the opportunity to challenge the opinions you disagree with. [ie. boycotting the event]
Free speech allows debate, but you do not want a debate, and so you will leave these opinions to go unchallenged. How is that useful to anyone?
I have to say, one reading of the above seems a bit odd. Surely we cannot, as liberals, be expected to be responsible for rebutting all things which we disagree with
that are ever said, wherever they are said, just because we are in favour of people's right to say them?

However, there is rather more of a case that since Nick (and Simon) are there, they do indeed have a responsibility to speak up against views they disagree with. There doesn't seem to be much point in their being there if they don't.

3. Is Nick right to criticise the dossier Policy Exchange have produced?

Well, the specific criticism he makes is that the dossier "seeks to raise alarm over a number of the speakers planning to attend the conference. The accuracy of the allegations is variable, with a notable lack of evidence to support many of the claims."

Of those assertions for which sources are quoted in the footnotes, the sources are as follows:

Probably Reliable:
  • Companies House documents
  • Interpol
  • The Guardian
  • The BBC
  • South African Broadcasting Corporation News
  • Muslim Council of Britain
  • The Washington Post
  • A Youtube video of Sheikh Yasir Qadhi speaking for himself
  • The Houston Chronicle
  • The BBC
  • Court Documents from Pennsylvania
Not sufficiently well known to me that I'd consider them an authority, but nothing I can find wrong with them:
  • Insight Magazine (a controversy over the specific article cited is noted on Wikipedia; this is the citation of evidence from SANE to which Nick refers. Policy Exchange's quote from David Gaubatz takes on a rather different sense when you bear in mind that SANE believe Sharia is treasonous)
  • The Investigative Project on Terrorism (whose founder showed some prescience of the threat from Osama bin Laden, but has not gone without criticism, and looks to be something of an alarmist)
  • Frontpage Magazine (edited by git-wizard David Horowitz)
  • Open letter printed on Al Manar TV's website (Al Manar being a Lebanese Hezbollah mouthpiece likely to present things in a way that reflects well on Hezbollah)
So Nick seems to be on reasonable ground to point out that some of the people cited are equally biased as the people they are quoted in criticism of, but that's by no means true of all of them. Now, lets look properly at the claims themselves. All of Policy Exchange's dossier is quoted below, in this colour. Anyone else's material will not be coloured, to make it easier not to get confused.

According to Companies House, the director of Global Peace and Unity PLC is Mohamed Ali Harrath. Mr. Harrath is also the CEO of Islam Channel. He is a Tunisian national for whom there is currently a red notice on the Interpol website. According to the notice, the Tunisian Government has issued an arrest warrant for offences including: counterfeiting, forgery, crimes involving the use of weapons and explosives and terrorism. His date of birth and nationality provided in the red notice match the details given by Companies House. It must be noted however that the Interpol red notice is not an arrest warrant, but indicates that the Tunisian Government has requested he return to the country to face charges.
Fair enough. Director of the company in charge seems to have a dodgy past, at least according to the Tunisian government.
Sheikh Muhammad Alshareef

Mr. Alshareef is the Canadian born founder of the Al Maghrib Institute and a graduate of the University of Medinah. He graduated in 1999 with a degree in Sharia.
He has written an article entitled Why the Jews Were Cursed, in which he explains that Allah has punished the Jews because of the way in which they responded to his blessings. He concludes by saying that Muslims “should not take them (the Jews) as our close allies…should not imitate them…(and) a Muslimah may never marry a Jewish or Christian man that remains in his beliefs.”
Well, yes, but the article in question appears to be more or less a survey of all mentions of Jews in the Quran, and interestingly, Policy Exchange don't quote the following from straight after the bit that they do quote:

Is all this a death sentence on the Jews? Nay, Allâh’s infinite Mercy has left the gate open for ANYONE who wishes to come back to him.

[And if only the People of the Scripture had believed and feared Allâh, We would have removed from them their misdeeds and admitted them to joyful Gardens] - Ma’idah 5/65

So we are left with an impression of Muhammad Alshareef as maybe more bigoted than he is. Whilst the views they quote from him are unpleasant, that is in the nature of religion and in particular the notoriously cherry-pickable Quran. I don't see a reason to single out Alshareef over this.
Mohammad Ijaz ul-Haq

Mr. ul-Haq is the son of former Pakistani president Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. He is a Pakistani MP and former Federal Minister for Religious Affairs.
As such one might argue that this alone qualifies him to be at the conference. No matter what awful views they might attribute to him, he is a valid choice to invite to an event aimed at promoting useful dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims from around the world, in the interests of peace.
In June 2007, after Salman Rushdie was awarded a Knighthood, Mr ul-Haq, who was at the time Religious Affairs Minister, suggested this was a justification for Muslims to carry out suicide bombings. He was reported by a number of UK newspapers to have said: “This is an occasion for the 1.5 billion Muslims to look at the seriousness of this decision…The west is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so unless the British government apologises and withdraws the 'sir' title.”
One might almost suspect that this controversial pronouncement was one of the reasons he was considered an interesting choice to invite to the event. There is absolutely no point inviting people with views we can all agree with to an event to promote dialogue and understanding. By definition, there has to be something to understand and reach accomodations over. Bridging (somehow) the gap between the more fundamentalist demands of Islam and the tenets of liberal democracy (including freedom of speech) are central to promoting peace. No?
According to online Pakistani news portal, The Daily Times - translating an article in an Urdu newspaper called Daily Jang - during a controversy over the sexual abuse of children by ulema (Islamic scholars) at Islamic seminaries in Pakistan, Mr ul-Haq urged that the reporting of such incidents should be concealed so as not to blemish the reputation of the scholars.
Well, again, this just emphasizes that this is a man who is not from the liberal democratic tradition, and who sees his role as to some extent a religious one. The Catholic church has arguably spent years keeping similar issues quiet for the same reasons. That doesn't make either right, but lets not get ahead of ourselves in our condemnation of other people's extremists.
Rt Reverend Riah Abu El-Assal

Until 2007 Mr. El Assal was the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem.
Again, as much as we might disagree with his views, this somewhat justifies his invitation in and of itself.
According to a Christian website based in Nazareth called Come and See, Mr. El Assal gave a lecture in Ramallah in February 2003 where he said: “Greetings of appreciation to all martyrs that were killed on the Land of Palestine.” He also added that all martyrs receive eternal life and they "live in the Kingdom of Heaven". In order to support his statement he quoted the following Koranic verse: "Do not consider those that were killed for the sake of God as dead, but alive with their Lord". When he was questioned about these remarks during an August 2006 BBC Hardtalk interview, he did not deny the comments attributed to him by Come and See, though he did claim that he was referring to “worldwide martyrs” and not Palestinians.
As bizarre as the quoting of Koranic verse by an Anglican minister seems, none of this seems all that outlandish to me. We don't know what he means by "martyrs" without more context - he may not mean suicide bombers, which is what we are supposed to assume. We oughtn't to forget, of course, that Christianity has its own hall of fame of martyrs. I might be wrong, but I suspect in the eyes of Policy Exchange, Ijaz-ul-Haq's real crime is failure to fall in line slavishly behind Israel.
Ebrahim Rasool

Mr. Rasool is a member of the South African ANC party and a former Premier of the Western Cape Province.

In May 2007, Mr. Rasool, in his capacity as Premier of the Western Cape Province, received a Hamas delegation to South Africa for discussions.

In June 2007 he addressed the MCB, and according to the MCB press release: “He commended the MCB for serving as a 'point of coherence', 'a point of articulation' and a 'point of focus' for British Muslims and their religious identity. He noted that Government cannot pick and choose with whom it seeks to speak to - the only credible dialogue will be with the institution that represents the community and has its trust.”
Errr... and? I don't even see what it is this guy is supposed to have done wrong, other than talking to Hamas. If Policy Exchange want to take the McCain-Palin side of the "talking to people we don't like" argument, fine, but I don't agree with them on that, so to me this seems a rather pathetic attack.
Sheikh Yusuf Estes

Sheikh Estes is a convert to Islam and director of the Islamic Mission Foundation International in the United States.

In an October 2006 Washington Post article, the author Asra Q. Nomani reports that she heard an audio sermon by Estes where he advises men on how to deal with disobedient wives:

First, "tell them." Second, "leave the bed." Finally: "Roll up a newspaper and give her a crack. Or take a yardstick, something like this, and you can hit."

Ms. Nomani then writes that she contacted Mr. Estes to ask him for a clarification of his position and he said he was attempting to limit how and when men hit their wives.
OK, I'll give them this one, he doesn't seem like a very nice person, and if he's based in the US he doesn't even have the cultural relativist defense, he has every opportunity to know better. I would just add, however, that the Quran is arguably on his side (ridiculously interpretable book that it is), and that by the sound of Nomani's article, this view is pretty widespread in Islam, even in the US, so again, the central point that you have to talk to the people you disagree with if you aren't wasting your time.
Sheikh Yasir Qadhi

Sheikh Qadhi is an instructor at the Al-Maghrib Institute and the Al Kauthar Institute.

In a March 2008 lecture on the Islam Channel he refers to the original Channel 4 Undercover Mosque Programme. In this talk he claims that the Wahhabi cult is a group invented by non Muslims in order to “divide and conquer” the Muslims. He also states that “we are loyal to our countries insofar as it does not conflict with our religion of Islam”, and that homosexuality is an “aberration against God.”

In the Houston Chronicle, Qadhi has mentioned that he is on the US Department of Homeland Security terrorist watch list.
Yes, he does. Specifically, he says:

"The main problem the Muslim community has ... is the presumption of guilt," said Yasir Qadhi, a Houston imam and a doctoral candidate at Yale University. "It is the singling out of people just because of their looks or their identity."

Muslims are routinely detained and questioned at airports and other ports of entry, he said. Qadhi also protested the denial of visas to imams and other religious leaders who are invited to this country to speak.

Sutherland said his office was empowered to investigate any complaints over discrimination and urged Muslims to report any incidents and problems.

Qadhi said he was detained for five hours, along with his wife and three small children, about four months ago when he drove back from Canada through Niagara Falls. He said he is routinely detained whenever he enters the country.

Qadhi said his name is on a terrorist watch list. He said he has no idea how he got on the list.

Anyway, back to Policy Exchange:
According to David Horowitz’s Frontpage magazine, during a 2006 lecture on the Koran’s Surah Yusuf, Mr. Qadhi denies that Hitler’s aim was the genocide of the Jewish people:

“All of these Polish Jews which Hitler was supposedly trying to exterminate, that’s another point, by the way, Hitler never intended to mass-destroy the Jews.”
As I've already mentioned, I'm going to take Frontpage with a pinch of salt for now. I don't have any reason to specifically disbelieve this, though, so I'll give Policy Exchange that this guy probably isn't very nice either.
Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss

Rabbi Weiss is an activist and spokesman for Neturei Karta International, an anti-Zionist group of orthodox Haredi Jews. This group is known to actively support both Hamas and Hezbollah.
Meaning what, exactly? No source quoted.
In March 2008 Rabbi Weiss was a co-signatory to a Neturei Karta open letter to Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah. Much of the letter praises Nasrallah and his work:

We now turn to Your Excellency, Sayyed Nasrallah ever so humbly, and ask you to accept our words and to convey these words with the following message to the citizens of Lebanon and to the Palestinian people in refugee camps in your country.
May we reiterate that we speak to you as the voice and messengers of true Jewry — the Jewish people, true to the Almighty's Torah, from around the world.

Although we are limited in the means of expressing our deepest and true feelings, by the barriers of words, nevertheless, the Jewish people humbly offer to you and all of Lebanon, Gaza and the entire Palestine, a few words, to attempt to convey our support, deepest sorrow and heartfelt sympathy that we all feel for you, in this present tragic and traumatic time.

Once again may we state it would be only proper and fitting, that we personally write to and address each and everyone who has fallen victim of the Zionist state of "Israel". Unfortunately and how tragic, the list of victims is daunting.
May our few and humble words be a message of consolation, friendship, loyalty and support to you, the people of Lebanon, and to the people of Gaza and the entire Palestine.
Doesn't look all that supportive of Nasrallah to me. Yes, they express support for "the citizens of Lebanon and to the Palestinian people in refugee camps in your country", and later, "you, the people of Lebanon, and to the people of Gaza and the entire Palestine", but they say nothing in the quoted section of the letter in support of Hezbollah's actions. It's a pretty standard anti-zionist statement of regret about the grievances that people in Lebanon and the occupied territories have towards Israel, which they are understandably keen to separate from Judaism per se. Nothing especially reprehensible on display here, other than opposition to the state of Israel (NB. Not to the people who live there).
Naturei Karta also attended a December 2006 conference in Iran informally known as the ‘Holocaust denial’ conference, which questions the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Though they do not deny the Holocaust, the group believe that it was and still is being used by Jewish people as "tool of commercial, military and media power".
As Jews, they have some right to say this, and they are free to go where they want and talk to who they want.
Imam Johari Abdul-Malik

Imam Johari Abdul Malik is the Director of Outreach at the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Centre in Virginia, USA.

There is a recording of Imam Abdul-Malik giving a sermon at the Dar al Hijrah in 2004, in this lecture he spoke of how Islam shall become the primary religion in the United States:

“People even under the pressures that you and I know about, the deen of Islam is growing because people see even within all of this struggle it is better to be a Muslim under these conditions than to be a kaffir under any conditions... before Allah closes our eyes for the last time you will see Islam move from being the second largest religion in America-that's where we are now - to being the first religion in America.
Um... this seems like a pretty standard aspiration from any evangelical religion. Why are we supposed to think this makes him an extremist?
William Rodriguez

Mr. Rodriguez was a janitor at the World Trade Centre and survived the 9/11 attack on the North Tower.

In October 2004 he filed charges against 156 parties including: The President of the United States, The Vice President, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), claiming their complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Among his allegations were that the Twin Towers were brought down through the use of controlled explosions, and the Pentagon was in fact struck by a missile and not by American Airlines flight 77.
Uh-huh. A 9/11 truther. Well, yes, it is disappointing that such a person is invited to this event, when there are all sorts of 9/11 survivors they could have invited if they wanted one. But I'm not convinced this is evidence that this man is a dangerous extremist. There are any number of slightly naive teenage rebels who are convinced of the same arguments, widely available from websites and films like Loose Change. People can think what they want. In this case, they'd be wrong. But it's a good thing that Rodriguez tried to bring the issue to wider attention in a forum where evidence could be properly presented etc., and rather more laudable than just spreading silly rumours online, claiming anyone who argues with you is obviously drinking the Kool-Aid.

I can't be arsed to look at stallholders, I'm sure that out of a whole bunch of stallholders, Policy Exchange will have managed to dig up two dodgy ones. Big whoop.

So, to sum up:
Mohamed Ali Harrath - criminal record in Tunisia, seems fair enough.

  • Sheikh Yusuf Estes - wife beater
  • Sheikh Yasir Qadhi - David Horowitz says he's a holocaust denier, and he thinks Channel 4 are trying to "divide and conquer" Islam
  • Sheikh Muhammad Alshareef - provides a roundup of what the Quran says about Jews
  • Imam Johari Abdul-Malik - wants to convert people
  • Rt Rev Riah Abu El-Assal - quotes a Quran verse about "martyrs", whatever he might have meant by that
  • Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss - anti-Zionist
  • Mohammad Ijaz ul Haq - supports bombers over Rushdie award and wanted to cover up child abuse
  • Ebrahim Rasool - spoke to Hamas
  • William Rodriguez - 9/11 truther
So, it's fair to say that there is a mixture of some fairly unsavoury and some relatively innocent people in Policy Exchange's list. They are right to say that some of them hold some pretty unpleasant views, but in other cases their dossier is rather slippery and unfounded.

Anyway, are Nick's criticisms justified? Well, we've got this far, so let's just go a bit further, and take his criticisms bit by bit:

I am writing to ask you to retract an offensive dossier that Policy Exchange has been privately circulating condemning the Global Peace & Unity Event scheduled for the coming weekend in London.

This is the fourth year of this conference. It will be attended by 30,000 people and is geared towards promoting harmony and dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Policy Exchange briefing I have seen seeks to raise alarm over a number of the speakers planning to attend the conference. The accuracy of the allegations is variable, with a notable lack of evidence to support many of the claims.

Maybe overstating his case a bit here, but some justification for this. What he also could have mentioned is that some of the "evidence" is quoted as if it amounts to rather more than it actually does, which is a subtler accusation, so maybe he was wise to steer clear of it.

In particular I was appalled to see ‘evidence’ quoted from the Society for American National Existence, an organisation which seeks to make the practice of Islam illegal, punishable by 20 years in prison. I need hardly point out how illogical it is to attempt to criticise one set of extreme views by citing another.

Fair enough, with the elaboration that by "the practice of Islam", SANE mean signing up to Sharia law in its totality, a divisive but not unreasonable position.

My concern is not limited to the facts in the document, however. Your attempt to raise a boycott of this event by privately briefing against it is bizarre, and underhand behaviour for a think-tank supposedly interested in open public debate. The information you are disseminating is extremely narrow in focus and as a result tars with the brush of extremism the tens of thousands of Muslims who will be in attendance.

Yes, and not only this, but it also attempts to tar the majority of speakers at the event, whose existence Policy Exchange doesn't even let on.

Of course, no-one should condone violence or bigotry. But neither must we allow the repugnant acts of a minority of dangerous individuals to be a reason to deny the one million British Muslims - and indeed all other members of British society - the right to meet together to celebrate faith and discuss the importance of peace. The sad truth is you play into the hands of the men you seek to discredit, driving further the alienation of the majority of Muslims who see themselves mischaracterised everywhere they turn as would-be terrorists.

That a think-tank professing to promote ‘a free society based on strong communities [and] personal freedom’ would act to undermine tolerance across our society worries me greatly.

The space for debate is currently filled with few voices, a fact that extremists capitalise on. If we are to truly achieve a society in which all peaceful members are free and equal, that space must be filled with reasoned and principled debate. That is why I shall be speaking at the conference, not hiding from open discussion. We must challenge publicly the ideas of those who propagate terrorism and instead promote the cause of peace and freedom in Britain for all citizens.

All very true, and I can only say that for Nick to follow through on this, he does indeed have to challenge the few genuinely objectionable views that Policy Exchange highlight.

I therefore urge you to withdraw this briefing and to call off any plans to circulate it further. I also suggest that if you want to make a positive contribution to this debate that you step out of the shadows and make yourself heard.

Eminently fair.

So, all in all, I'm not quite sure what the LDV commenters are up in arms about. Yes, if I was Nick I might have reworded this slightly, but in its general thrust, the letter is entirely correct.

I will finish, if I may, with a reiteration of this point: To urge a boycott of an event just because there are people with dodgy views at it is bonkers. What Policy Exchange are arguing here is that we shouldn't talk to people with views we disagree with. They are just opposed to the whole idea of the event, but they choose to hide this in favour of attacking some of the specific people who happen to have been invited. This is a cowardly way to make an argument. They would have done much better to make a proper case for no-platforming (which is what they are arguing for, really), and to have made it publicly. That they didn't is underhanded of them, and Clegg is quite right to have called them out on it. Meanwhile, by going to this event, Clegg and Hughes (and various other MPs) are making an explicit stand against no-platforming. Good for them.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Videogame Morality: How Should It Work?

On the train back from Cambridge the other day I read the most recent edition of Adbusters, which had a much better than usual interesting:ludicrous ratio. One of the most thought provoking things (to me, anyway) was this, rather difficult to answer, article. It raises the question, if it's OK to murder people in a videogame because nobody gets hurt, then why shouldn't people also commit virtual rape? Or have sex with virtual children?
The issue typically discussed around violent games such as Grand Theft Auto is that the violence or sexual behavior of the virtual worlds will surface in the real world – that violent games will eventually create violent people who do horrific things (videogames were repeatedly blamed following both Columbine and Virginia Tech. massacres, for instance). But there is another concern that has gone largely unaddressed that will become increasingly perplexing as videogames create better, more immersive models of reality: am I free to do anything I want in a virtual world, or are some things inherently wrong?
Apart from being a good article that's worth reading in full (don't worry, it's not that long), it's also a nasty central question, and not one I have any immediate answer for. Anyone else want to have a go?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

LMAO - Thanks, Neil Stockley

Neil has just written this about Nixonland. This rang a bell with me, but I haven't read the book, so I set out to find out where I'd heard of it from. My search wound up on Sam Seder's (now ex-) show blog on Air America's website, specifically this post, which corresponded to an interview with Perlstein about Nixonland that I had heard.

The reason for the post, however, is that I came across this post in the process, and in turn this fantastic clip. Enjoy!

Agnostic Bus Campaign?

There is still an annoying confusion doing the rounds that any statement less strong than "I am absolutely certain there is no God" is not atheism but agnosticism. We can see it today in the faux surprise (expressed by religious sites like Ekklesia) at the wording of the Atheist Bus Campaign:

The slogan on the buses will read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

This appears to be a tactful retreat from Professor Dawkins' previous claims that God "almost certainly" does not exist - but commentators are already pointing out that it is closer to agnosticism (uncertainty about whether God can be known as a reality or not) rather than atheism (outright denial).

This is a wedge that the religious like to drive between two positions that, typically, have more in common than they want people to think. After all, if you think atheists believe they can be absolutely certain there is no God, then there are almost no atheists in the world, and Richard Dawkins would, on that definition, be an agnostic. Here, for instance, is what Dawkins wrote on HuffPo two years ago:
Accepting, then, that the God Hypothesis is a proper scientific hypothesis whose truth or falsehood is hidden from us only by lack of evidence, what should be our best estimate of the probability that God exists, given the evidence now available? Pretty low I think, and here's why. [...]
That sounds, to me, entirely compatible with what the Atheist Bus Campaign is proposing to put on buses. The difference is one of degrees, between "probably" and "almost certainly", both phrases which acknowledge uncertainty. I would argue that the Atheist Bus Campaign chose the wording it did mostly because it was trying to be pithy, not because they wanted to water down the atheist position. They are, after all, calling themselves the Atheist Bus Campaign.

Similarly, Bill Maher recently went on the Daily Show to promote his new film Religulous, which is, to all intents and purposes, advancing atheist arguments. Nonetheless, Maher claims for himself not atheism, but agnosticism. Now, an agnostic is "someone who does not know, or believes that it is impossible to know, whether a god exists". If that is the case, then why argue, as Maher (correctly) does, that the beliefs of religious people are preposterous? If you're agnostic, you are allowing that there is a reasonable case to be made both for and against the existence of a particular God, or at least that there is no robust case to be made against their existence. So why try?

I think the problem here comes from the wide range of definitions claimed for atheism in common parlance. Atheism can be "either the affirmation of the nonexistence of gods, or the rejection of theism. It is also defined more broadly as an absence of belief in deities, or nontheism." Thing is, most atheists aren't "affirming the nonexistence of gods", they are "rejecting theism". Religious apologists want you to believe that I believe there is definitely no God. I don't. I just think the claims of religions are bonkers, and as such the burden of proof is on them, not me. But don't call me agnostic. The only uncertainty I have is the technical kind of uncertainty that I also hold about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Russell's Teapot, both equally bonkers propositions.

Who are Stoke-On-Trent's City Independents?

Thursday's Question Time featured an interesting discussion of a particularly potent local issue: why, it was asked, were so many BNP councillors getting elected in Stoke On Trent, and what was to be done about it. The usual arguments on the BNP arose, but, it was suggested, the difference in Stoke On Trent was that the council is run by a coalition of all three main parties, because the council is hung (although predominantly Labour since nineteen canteen). This lack of a conventional opposition was leading people, it was suggested, to register discontent with a coalition-run council and Labour mayor by voting BNP.

Interested, I thought I'd have a look what's going on here. Here's the results of the last local elections, meaning that the council stands as follows:

Labour 16
British National Party 9
Conservative 9
Liberal Democrat 5
Others 21

So that's a total of 60 seats on the council, and no overall control means that a coalition of 31 needs to be formed in order to wield a majority.

It is notable that, if a general sense of discontent with Labour meant that an alternative was wanted, it ought to be quite easy to build a rainbow coalition type thing with LibDem, Tory and these "Others". So the question I asked myself was "Why hasn't this happened, and who are these others?"

Well, if you break the council make-up down by party on their website, you discover (or maybe already know, if you're actually from Stoke-On-Trent, and not just whimsically looking into their political situation for half an hour on a Sunday) the following:

Labour 16 (+1 Elected Mayor)
City Independents 15
Conservative and Independent Alliance 9
Lib Dem 6 (if we count Gavin Webb again, now)
Non-Aligned 3
The Potteries Alliance 2

Most notable here is the fact that, because they don't fit into a national picture, the BBC and other national commentators have ignored what looks to be a fairly major presence, something calling itself the City Independents. But who are they? What do they stand for? I can't seem to find much on the web to inform me about them, so I am left to speculate. Since there are "Non-aligned" independents as well as "City Independents" independents, the implication is that the City Independents are something more than a simple mutually supportive grouping of independents with no overall policy platform. So is this the case?

One of the only things I have turned up about them is the suggestion in this comments thread that they might be BNP-in-all-but-name, which would be a frightening thought, but this is disputed.

So can someone who knows a bit more about Stoke-On-Trent politics enlighten me?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Final Presidential Debate: Liveblog

If you're up for the debate tonight, join me below.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Maron v Seder = Excellent

Readers of this blog (at least, those with a) long memories and b) any concern about things I like whatsoever) may remember me mentioning Marc Maron before, here and here.Well, I now have the opportunity to plug a couple of things Marc is doing that you can actually go and find on the Electric Internet. One of them is that Guardian America, the US face of our very own Grauniad, has signed up Maron to go on a road trip with them, apparently. Which is nice, but so far the promised "daily short videos" are either very well hidden amongst the "On The Road" posts, or have failed to materialise. I wonder what's going on there?

Anyway, meanwhile Maron is also involved in the actually-happening-at-the-moment daily webcast Maron v Seder. This is a daily ~45 minute video feed narrowcast live at 3pm Eastern Time (8pm GMT, for the British). It can be found live here, and you can also stream old episodes on demand here, or subscribe to the podcast here. So what is it? It's essentially a comparatively tightly produced radio show with pictures hosted by Marc Maron and Sam Seder (both ex-Air Ameria Radio hosts), with - so far - one guest per day, comedy segments (don't worry, they're usually genuinely funny), questions from listeners, and Maron and Seder's analysis of the day's political news, from an unashamedly left/liberal perspective.

As a fan of both hosts' radio shows of the past, especially the brilliant Morning Sedition, I would recommend it as a great way to stay abreast of US politics, election or no election. If you're not yet convinced, here's a sample, in the form of Episode 2, from Thursday last week:

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Cameron Reverts To Type

Well, today David Cameron made the speech that made clear what his opponents have been saying all along: That his first year or two as leader were a complete fiction designed to de-toxify the Tory brand. Now that he's ahead in the polls, he feels comfortable speaking with conviction about the things he actually believes. Lets take a quick look at some of the contrasts.

In his speech accepting the leadership of the party, Cameron said:
We need to change the way we feel. No more grumbling about modern Britain. I love this country as it is, not as it was, and I believe our best days lie ahead.
Today's Cameron, though, seems to have no problems grumbling about modern Britain, even criticising as out of touch those who caution against his exaggerated rhetoric:
Some say our society isn't broken. I wonder what world they live in. Leave aside that almost two million children are brought up in households where no one works. Or that there are housing estates in Britain where people have a lower life expectancy than in the Gaza Strip. Just consider the senseless, barbaric violence on our streets. Children killing children. Twenty-seven kids murdered on the streets of London this year. A gun crime every hour. A serious knife crime every half hour. A million victims from alcohol related-attacks.

But it's not just the crime; not even the anti-social behaviour. It's the angry, harsh culture of incivility that seems to be all around us. When in one generation we seem to have abandoned the habits of all human history that in a civilised society, adults have a proper role - a responsibility - to uphold rules and order in the public realm not just for their own children but for other people's too.
2005's Cameron was keen that
my children, your children, grow up in a country where the streets are safe, the public space isn't filthy, where it isn't a hassle to get around, you can own your own home and where climate change and the environment aren't an afterthought.
but today's Cameron made the environment exactly that, tacking onto the end of his speech a solitary sentence on the environment proper, just before coming into the final stretch of his speech:
We changed because knew we had to make ourselves relevant to the twenty-first century.

You didn't champion green politics as greenwash, but because climate change is devastating our environment because the energy gap is a real and growing threat to our security and because $100-a-barrel oil is hitting families every time they fill up their car and pay their heating bills.
To be fair, the other part of the speech that mentioned the environment was this:
I am also a child of my time. I want a clean environment as well as a safe one.
What strikes you about these two quotes? Most obvious is how far the environment has fallen down the agenda. Compare it to, say, this bit of his 2006 leader's speech to conference:
As you might have gathered by now, I am passionate about our environment. It's a very personal commitment. I grew up in the countryside. I've always loved the outdoors. As you can see if you look around this conference, I'm quite keen on trees.

We saw in our debate on Monday the scale of the threat from climate change. I know that we have within us the creativity, the innovation, the technological potential to achieve green growth - sustainable prosperity. The Stern report will tell us that the tools of success are in our grasp. But it will also say that the price of inaction gets higher every day.

So I will not pretend to you that it will be easy. That there will be no pain or sacrifice. If you want to understand climate change, go and see Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth. Today, I want to tell the British people some uncomfortable truths. There is a price for progress in tackling climate change. Yes of course low-energy light bulbs, hybrid cars - even a windmill on your roof can make a difference and also save money.

But these things are not enough. Government must show leadership by setting the right framework. Binding targets for carbon reduction, year on year. That would create a price for carbon in our economy. What does that mean? It means that things which produce more carbon will get more expensive. Going green is not some fashionable, pain-free option.

It will place a responsibility on business. It will place a responsibility on all of us. That is the point. Tackling climate change is our social responsibility - to the next generation.

And I'll tell you something:In politics, it's much easier to take steps that will be painful if political parties work together, instead of playing it for partisan advantage. That's what we have offered to do. We have asked Tony Blair to put a climate change bill in the Queen's speech. If he does, we'll back it. So come on, prime minister. It's your last few months in office. It's your last Queen's speech. Use it to do something for the environment.
At no point in 2008's speech was there a section on the environment as an issue. In the first quote, the environment is an example of a change to the Tory party. In the second, it's a piece of character window-dressing for Brand Cameron. Neither sees any hint of a policy direction like 2006's quote. In both cases, the issue is not important in and of itself, but because of what it supposedly says about Cameron or the changes he has brought to the party. If that isn't a clear demonstration from Cameron that he doesn't really care about the environment as an issue, he merely recognises its potency as a vehicle for changing public perception of him and his party, then I don't know what is.

Some of the Cameron of the past even proves to be quite prophetic about the present. For instance:
I think that when some people talk about substance, what they mean is they want the old policies back.
Appropriately enough, today's more sober, substantive speech sounded very much more like a Tory speech; no sentence would have been out of place in the Daily Mail.

Let's also note that whilst the Tories are far too "responsible" to make commitments to cut taxes on low income taxpayers (managing only a fairly pathetic, fiddling Council Tax Freeze that has been taken apart skillfully elsewhere, so I won't rehash that one here), they aren't beyond making commitments to help payers of Inheritance Tax, and now also Corporation Tax. The only real commitment that Cameron has made that will genuinely affect most people on low incomes is his moralising Marriage Bonus.

The real turning point in British politics in the last year or two was not Brown's bottled election, it was Cameron's back-pedalling on grammar schools, and the quiet distancing of the party from the Goldsmith-Gummer review. That was the point where it became clear that his party could only be pushed so far before they would grumble too much. That is the turnaround that could really make a difference to our country in the long run, not whether Gordon Brown hung on for a couple more years and achieved very little other than reacting to events.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Isn't Tory Conference Tuneful?

Sat in front of BBC Parliament this morning, this thought crossed my mind: "Why don't we get to play music at Lib Dem conference, to show off our edgy, liberal tastes in music, in contrast to these bland, painfully "hip and modern" choices the Tories make?"

Then I remembered: it's because we don't need to cover up for a lack of anything actually happening at our conferences.

Are The Tories Finally Backing Up Their Green Talk?

The most interesting thing the Tories have said today is not, of course, George Osborne's council tax "freeze", but Theresa Villiers's suggestion that they are now opposed to Heathrow's third runway. I know I should be partisan about this, but I genuinely want to congratulate them on this announcement, not least because certain Tories seem to be in denial about it.

It's been a long time coming, but on a subject as urgent as this, any conversion is welcome. One might think this means that the Tories have accepted that endless expansion in air travel capacity is not, as so many in the party have argued, simply "necessary" (on the contrary, it has to stop). But don't be so sure about that. Instead, they are justifying the decision with a two pronged approach:

Firstly, to present a high-speed rail link as in some way an alternative to it. This is, as BAA have pointed out (amongst other squeals of pain from the usual "money must come before planet" brigade), a false choice:
"The total number of flights to Manchester and Leeds/Bradford is only 13,356 or less than 3% of Heathrow's total flights. Even if every flight from Manchester and Leeds/Bradford were replaced by a new high-speed rail line then Heathrow would still be operating at 97% of capacity."
Of course, I don't agree with the conclusion that BAA draw from this (that we still need more air capacity). Rather, I would say that the point to take away from this is that green politicians are, sooner or later, going to have to get away from the soft lie that all our current travel can be replaced with a greener alternative that is in no way less convenient. Quite simply, eventually some brave soul is going to have to tell Britain's (and the rest of the world's) flyers that it's no good, they just can't feel entitled to go jetting off round the world as often as they like. Cameron sailed close to this with his suggestion last year of a "green air-miles allowance" of one short-haul flight a year per person before punitive taxes kicked in. That, like much of the environmental stuff Cameron's early rebranding exercise floated, seems to have been dropped six months later.

Secondly, the chatter about a possible Boris Island continues, putting completely to rest the idea that this might actually be a good policy shift from a climate change point of view. On the contrary, if both of these prongs went ahead, they would probably see a greater expansion in greenhouse gas emissions than would be the case with a third runway at Heathrow and no high speed rail link. Of course, even the latter is not desriable.

So, once again, it is left to the Lib Dems to make the green case, since the Labour government have already leapt in on the side of the airport and airline operators, with this choice quote from Ruth Kelly (still here, Ruth?):
"These proposals are politically opportunistic, economically illiterate and hugely damaging to Britain's national interests. The Tories are posing a false choice - we need both more capacity in Britain's airports and on our main rail lines."
Apparently, unchecked growth in greenhouse emissions from the aviation sector are "in Britain's national interest". Well it would explain a lot.

Osborne's Council Tax Freeze: A Few Questions

This morning, immediately before the speech by George Osborne, there was a bit of a buzz around the rolling news channels and on the Daily Politics that Osborne might be about to pull a bit of an inheritance-tax style rabbit out of his rhetorical hat. "Something to do with local taxation", hinted Andrew Neil. Then I went out for lunch. Intrigued to see what it was when I returned, I flipped on the news channels, only to find that nobody was talking about it, preferring instead to keep up the constant general rumble about the US bail-out plan. Nothing very interesting, then, I guessed.

Turning to the internet to find out, this was confirmed: Osborne has promised a council tax freeze. Except he doesn't have the ability to enforce it. All he's doing is offering councils money from central government worth up to a 2.5% increase in council tax in their area (as I understand it). So, instead of raising the money locally, they are being encouraged to increase the centralisation of their funding stream (nicely localist, George). I wonder if any other strings will be attached to the money?And would the money be withdrawn if a council stepped over the 2.5% threshold, or would it effectively just be a bit of extra money for councils. (That might explain Osborne's projection of 100% take-up for his scheme.)

The real test on this is whether the Tory government would reverse the Labour trend of demanding that local councils provide certain services or fund certain projects, without providing them with sufficient money to pay for them, thus forcing them to take the political hit for raising the taxes necessary to fund them, while central government basks in the glory of simply having mandated the fruits of said spending. If not, then all that this will mean is an escalation in huffing and puffing by the national Tory party, whilst local councils put up council tax because they have to.

Of course, a genuinely localist party who genuinely wanted to do something about council tax might... oh, never mind.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Obama's Ground War Looking Good

It's been known for some time that the Obama campaign's strategy in the US Presidential Election is rather different from the McCain campaign's. The former is fighting what we Lib Dems might find a rather familiar concept: the ground war. Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is fighting the air war, winning news cycles by feeding the national media new stories and "events" as often as they can. when national overall polls started, after the nomination of Sarah Palin, to show a McCain lead, some Democrats started to feel a little nervous about this strategy. Those with a stronger constitution urged them to hold firm: not only was the ground war a sound strategy, but Palin's initial popularity would burn out fast, they predicted. Both factors are now beginning to play out, it seems, with Palin's shielding from the media and inadequacy when she does appear becoming ever more obvious to journalists, and Obama's target states strategy (in states which weren't what you might call obvious blue states) now beginning to look like it will pay off. Particularly interesting is this report from Rasmussen, a polling organisation:

Barack Obama has a two-point advantage over John McCain in the traditionally Republican state of North Carolina.

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey in the Tar Heel State shows Obama attracting 49% of the vote while McCain earns 47%. A week ago, McCain held a three-point edge. This is the first time in eight Rasmussen Reports polls that Obama has held any kind of a lead in North Carolina, though the candidates were tied once as well.

This is pretty extraordinary. In 2004, North Carolina voted solidly for Bush, with a +12.4% margin. A quick look at this summary of state-by-state polling data tells an interesting story: not one 2004 Kerry state is currently leaning McCain-wards, but 5 2004 Bush states are now looking as if they could well go to Obama.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Not Dead Yet

Apologies for not having bothered to blog for a while, but I've been subject to a combination of

1. nothing interesting to say that hasn't already been said about conference season
2. blogger being inaccessible to me for large amounts of time

The latter is especially irritating, since it means I can't read blogspot blogs either. Anyone got any ideas why this is?

Anyway, I am going to try and get back on board with the whole blogging business now, with an overhaul of all the crap down the right hand side of the page. Wish me luck...

Friday, September 19, 2008

How To Change Financial Regulation

Lord Eatwell (alas, he is not one of ours; he's a former economic advisor to Kinnock) has written this rather interesting article for CiF. It is an attempt to put a little meat on the bones that are the current sentiment that "something must be done" to change the regulation of financial institutions in the light of the current financial crisis. Having attended a talk on the subject of the credit crunch that John Eatwell gave to Queens' College's "FF Society" not so long ago (well he is President of the college, after all), I was pleasantly surprised to see his name pop up on CiF a few minutes ago (I know, why am I reading it at this time of night?). He has a few interesting things to say, alongside a (perhaps a little controversialist) dismissal of calls for transparency, disclosure and risk management as being ill-informed.

What Eatwell does well, apart from display his own understanding of the situation, is help those of us who aren't experts with a bit of all important context:

Thirty years ago most loans, to businesses and to individuals, were made by banks, or specialist institutions such as building societies. The deregulatory fervour of the 1980s changed that. Credit markets became "disintermediated" - instead of banks acting as intermediaries between savers and borrowers, the markets took over. Borrowing is now packaged into securities that are sliced and sold through a myriad of financial intermediaries. Investment banks, such as Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, are (or were) at the centre of this process, taking on massive amounts of debt relative to their capital base (that is, becoming highly leveraged) in order to deal profitably in the complex web of markets. Guiding their operations are their risk models, which measure the riskiness of their operations against patterns of past market behaviour. The firms claimed they could manage risky markets, and the regulators swallowed that claim. Faith in transparency, disclosure, and risk management by firms is at the heart of the financial regulation today.

Yet at the same time it is generally accepted that a core purpose of financial regulation is to mitigate systemic risks, like a global credit crunch. Such risks are externalities; their cost to the economy as a whole is greater than the cost to a firm whose actions are creating the risk. But if regulators focus on risks that are recognised by firms already, and neglect systemic risk, why do we need regulation at all, other than to enforce best practice? Firms will manage risks well enough, using systems that are inevitably, and properly, market sensitive.

The flaw is that in the face of systemic market failures the market is inefficient. Risk is mispriced, with consequences that are all too evident today.

So what can be done to tackle "systemic" risks?
Read the rest here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Edinburgh Reviews: Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray

Well, this was the cheapest thing I saw all festival, being as it was just £5 for me, a student, to sit up on the slopes of the upper circle. Since then I've seen this show being given a bit of a slagging off in the national press, so I'll leave those interested in the show's shortcomings to read reviews by people more widely read than me. I quite enjoyed it, thought the whole thing was brilliantly performed and, for the most part, well choreographed (though it is slightly uneven; the opening half hour sets a high standard which the show finds it hard to live up to all the time), holding my attention throughout. The best thing about the show, however, is the design, both lighting and set, and, to a lesser extent, the sound and costumes. The production of this show is absolutely fantastic, and worth the money alone (and I don't just mean because it was £5).

It's true that Bourne doesn't seem to have a lot to say about what a modern Dorian Gray might be, but I can't agree with the critics who say that the doppelganger is a poor substitute for a portrait. How on earth would an onstage portrait be an effective part of a ballet? Anyway, in some ways the concept hasn't been completely discarded, with both the art works on the wall in Gray's appartment, and the billboard featuring Gray which makes two contrasting appearances during the show, carrying on the idea of art mirroring Gray's moral decline in life. The doppelganger is a bit rubbish not because it's a bad idea, but because it's not very well executed: the doppelganger doesn't especially display the decline that one might expect, either in appearance or expressed (noticeably, at any rate) in the choreography.

Other detractors, including some of the friends with whom I saw the show (admittedly more musically literate than me), have taken issue with the music, which is quite stylised and electronic. Personally, I quite liked it; it's not like I'd want to buy a CD of it, but it suits the production and sits well alongside the choreography, without drawing too much attention to itself most of the time.

So ultimately, not Bourne's best work by any means, but probably not deserving of the backlash which it received in some quarters.


(of course, if I marked the show on the same scale as the Fringe stuff I've been reviewing, it would be 5/5, but there seems little point in doing that)

Edinburgh Reviews: Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler - Double Down Hearts

Apparently Kristen Schaal is in Flight of the Concords, which is one of those programmes that so many people tell me I will like that I've become quite resistant to actually seeing it. Nevertheless, Kristen Schaal is also occasionally on the Daily Show, and has been very funny and a bit unexpected on that, so I thought I'd go see this show.

A stand-up duo is not an especially conventional way to do comedy, but in this case it works pretty well; the two bounce off each other with a comfortable chemistry, developing a snappy stop-start rythmn to their exchanges that emphasizes not so much embarrasment as a slight awkwardness. The two don't so much have a stand-up show as a series of bits, joined together with little bouts of banter. Sometimes the show feels a bit desperate to keep up a constant barrage of new, different stuff, roving between a pastiche play in three parts, two audience members being invited onto stage to win a (live, onstage) date with Kristen Schaal, and some video-based silliness in a wood with fluffy animals. It would be easy to accuse the show of being "of the ADD generation", or somesuch, but actually, everything naturally seems to flow into the next thing, and the restlessness struck me as springing not from a lack of ability to sustain ideas, but from the urge to be unpredictable. It certainly succeeds there: the show is relentlessly funny, containing for me some of the biggest laughs of the Fringe. Best bit? The "live onstage sex act". You don't get to say that very often.


Edinburgh Reviews: Clive James In The Evening

I have always enjoyed Clive James as a TV personality and occasionally, when I can be arsed, as a writer, so when I read his article in G2 I figured I'd see what his attempts at stand-up might be like. Unfortunately, he more or less admits defeat at the outset of this show, telling us straight off that there are "other people out there" who can do the modern, quick-witted style of stand-up much better than he can. He tries to excuse himself by saying that he hopes that he brings a sense of "the world" to the show which will make up for this, but the trouble with that as an argument is that there are plenty of stand-ups who do engage with the world at large, and have all the other presentational slickness James admits he lacks.

It was pretty telling that I think I was the youngest person in the audience by a good twenty or thirty years, a couple of days into the run of the show. Clearly there was little buzz about the show attracting anything other than an audience of loyal followers. Nonetheless, I can think of worse ways to spend an hour; occasionally, James is genuinely hilarious, but the overall effect is of a slightly half-arsed attempt, the main intention of which is to sell his new book. Which is all very well at the book festival, but not really if you are listing yourself in the Fringe guide as a comedy show. The show seemed self-indulgent, because I find it hard to believe that someone as intelligent as James couldn't have written a better, sharper stand-up show if he really wanted to.


Edinburgh Reviews: London Gay Men's Quoir - Far From Kansas

We saw these guys on the Royal Mile doing a slot on one of the little stages, and it looked fun enough, so we thought we'd go along and see them. The offer of free sparkling wine on the flier helped, too. Sure enough, "fun" is pretty much the one word you would use to describe this show. Basically, the show is a series of show-tunes, performed under the umbrella concept that they are being sung as an act of worship by some kind of religious movement (The "Friends of Dorothy") who hold the Wizard of Oz story to be a religious text. The songs bringing out the three divine qualities of love, intelligence, and bravery (but without much intelligence).

The singing isn't the best you've ever heard, but it's pretty good, and they all blend together well, and the soloists are all good and sing songs that suit them. It's musically pretty competent, but it could go a little bit further to provide some fireworks in the arrangement and the vocals occasionally. But ultimately, it's almost pointless to try to evaluate the show like that, because it is so infectiously fun that it's pretty much impossible to come away having had anything other than a good time.


Edinburgh Reviews: Stephen K Amos - Find The Funny

Last year's show, More of Me, was my first introduction to Amos, and I found it honest and interesting, as well as being well performed, slick, etc. This year, the show is just about finding the things to laugh about in everyday life, and there are a number of gags that are exactly the same as the last show (eg. waiting for Lenny Henry to die -> the BBC's "one in, one out" diversity policy). Unfortunately, this year Amos comes across as rather more abrasive and arrogant; his way of dealing with heckling is pretty heavy-handed, even extending it to people who haven't actually heckled, just shouted out something a bit silly when invited to respond to some question or other. This, combined with the fact that the show doesn't have the honest, confessional feel that last year's show did, and the slightly self-congratulatory gimmick of getting a member of the audience to count the laughs, left me feeling somewhat less well disposed to Amos than I did last year. It all seemed a bit smug.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that Stephen K Amos is a very good stand-up, assured and funny. The show this year may have been treading water (come on, "Find the Funny"? What kind of a title is that? It tells you no more about the content of the show than the fact that it's listed in the Comedy section of the Fringe brochure), but you never feel like you've wasted your money. So... yeah.


Edinburgh Reviews: Lucy Porter - The Bare Necessities

Lucy Porter is affable enough, but this show was rather less than the sum of its parts, at least on the night I saw it. Her usual little tales of everyday life, her talking to the audience and being a bit inappropriate with some of the male members of the audience shtick, her general warmth, etc., are all present and correct, but this show felt like a bit of a rag-bag. There's not much to join it all up, with the result that I found Porter more enjoyable in short, deliberately unconnected doses as the compere of one of those "BBC Presents" late night line-ups. A bit disappointing, really, after last year's show.


Edinburgh Reviews: John Gordillo - Divide and Conga

John Gordillo says he set out to write a show about politics, but ended up realising he was simply having a hypothetical argument with his (spanish communist) dad, so made it more explicitly about that instead. The result is a show that is in exactly the vein I tend to look for in comics: it has a subject, a thesis which the comic wants to explain to the audience; it is engaging with the world rather than simply looking for laughs from all directions. My only problem with it, really, is that on the night I saw it, Gordillo repeatedly made it clear that we as an audience weren't laughing as much as he would have liked, or as much as previous audiences.

Perhaps we weren't, but then there's nothing that kills the mood more than a comic drawing attention to this fact and then not really going anywhere with the observation. The sooner Gordillo learns to stop doing this to himself, the sooner he will find himself able to win over those audiences he finds initially disappointing. Anyway, this is not the most gut-bustingly funny material you've ever seen, and it's all the better for that. Gordillo is not in it just to make people laugh, that much is clear from this set, and that's not a bad thing.

As for the actual content of the show, it needs a bit of a reworking. I suspect that, as Gordillo's dad made his way more and more to the centre-stage position he occupied in the show by the time I saw it, the introduction of the central idea of the show (that political extremists divide the world into an "us" and "them", and then project their own suspected failings onto the "them") had shifted itself towards the status of something like a "final thought". It would have been better to find a way to place it closer to the start, I suspect, to give the show a bit more focus and structure.

Also, the common argument-with-someone-who-isn't-there-to-defend-themselves trope which much of the stuff about Gordillo's dad fell into comes to feel a bit unfair on his dad when it runs right through the show rather than being a ten minute bit of a show about something wider, despite all of Gordillo's attempts to be fair by slipping in a few things he feels his dad would probably say by way of response to him. Ultimately, he is still diagnosing the psychological failings of someone who isn't there to answer back, and in making the show quite so much about his father personally rather than as an example of a broader point, he made this a bit uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, not entirely without laughter, and with a commendable determination to look a little deeper than your average stand-up


Edinburgh Reviews: Departure Lounge

Departure Lounge tells the story of four "lads on tour" over the course of an hour sat in the departure lounge of a spanish airport, looking back over their time on holiday and, through flashbacks and songs, unravelling the various secrets of the four. Sounds pretty dire, doesn't it? Well, it isn't.

I was encouraged to see this show by the MD of our show, who absolutely loved it and had, by the time I saw it with him, been four or five times. It had quite a lot to live up to when I saw it, then, and it nevertheless impressed me. This is, in the least patronising way possible, exactly the kind of show that the Fringe is for. Small cast, limited budget, hour-long format, and perfectly formed and brilliantly performed. All too often shows come to Edinburgh whose success is in making you want to see a bigger and better production of the same material; nobody could say that about Departure Lounge.

The performances are perfectly pitched, all of the cast are professionals and can sing beautifully (a relief in the world of Edinburgh Fringe musicals, I can tell you), but really the genius of this show lies in the writing. Dougal Irvine's score and libretto are exactly right for the show and for the hour-long format, the plot perfectly paced, the dialogue for the most part very believable, and the music a cut above your average musical theatre tunes without showing off. The writing uses songs economically and to great effect, each song having a clear purpose in the narrative (usually at least two purposes, actually).

Whilst I was in Edinburgh, I saw a couple of reviewers fall into that age old trap of assuming that depicting something was the same thing as advocating it, sniffily dismissing the show as "not as ironic as it thinks it is" and so on. All I can say on that account is that these people are hopeless and shouldn't be allowed to review shows; Departure Lounge goes out of its way to make clear in one or two satirical songs that there is a rather unpleasant side to the kind of Brits Abroad that it shows, so I can only assume that you have to be the most joyless lefty around to grudge the show its use of these ingredients - the kind of people who give "political correctness" a bad name.

If I had one problem with the show, it is the slightly clumsy way in which the central metaphor of the show is shoe-horned into the dialogue in the middle of the show, the most thoughtful of the lads just dropping it into conversation, accompanied by a little "I've just had a funny thought" marker. The show doesn't need this, the final song contains enough for people to pick this aspect of the show up unaided, I would say.

Still, marvellous stuff, the best musical I saw in Edinburgh.


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Edinburgh Reviews: Stewart Lee

Stewart Lee's show last year was one of the only things I tried to go see and couldn't because it was sold out, so I was pleased to be able to rectify the situation this year with a visit to The Stand, a comedy club with a much smaller capacity and profile than the Udderbelly, where Lee played last year (Lee's performing there was, apparently, a protest against the self-appointed Edinburgh Comedy Festival brand which four big venue operators created this year).

Boy, am I glad I did. Stewart Lee is easily one of the best stand-ups I've seen, and one of the best suited to what I seek in stand-up (basically, the comic has something they want to explore with the audience, and the comedy is there to make it entertaining as well as just interesting). It helps that Lee is mostly in harmony with my liberal sensibilities (go find his bit on Political Correctness on YouTube), and that he has such a fantastically dry delivery. I don't think I have ever seen someone more confident in taking as much time about what they are saying as they like; it adds so much to the performance, because the anticipation of the next line is often as funny as the payoff.

I'm not sure that the picking two of six topics each night was all that interesting for the show, but since the show was explicitly a device for Lee to workshop material for a TV series, I'm not really worried by that. I look forward to the TV series.