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.