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Freedom of speech and the right to protest

People are screaming “censorship!” today again after a student debate was cancelled. The ridiculously named Oxford Students for Life attempted to stage a debate about abortion, with Telegraph journalist Tim Stanley arguing against and fellow Telegraph journalist Brendan O’Neill arguing for. It didn’t happen after a horde of students threatened to disrupt the debate with (presumably musical rather than gynaecological) “instruments”.

Cue manufactured outrage, with Brendan O’Neill’s article on the topic making the front page of this week’s Spectator. But what’s really going on here? Who has been silenced? Not the well paid journalists, and certainly not Brendan O’Neill who has managed to make a quick buck out of it. Not the Oxford Students for Life, who are now being discussed up and down the country. Not the feminists who protested against the debate, who have also received a media platform from which to air their views.

It is clear that the debate was calculated to offend. That’s what you do when you put Brendan O’Neill on stage, who if you don’t know is a sort of Katie Hopkins for dullards – especially when you invite the notorious misogynist to speak in favour of abortion. They might have wanted the debate to go ahead, but you can bet they wanted people to be making a noise about it. For O’Neill, this is his meat and drink, and he’s managed to churn out another lazy article drawing huge generalised conclusions out of a single incident.

What we’re actually looking at is a well functioning, democratic discourse. Something to be celebrated. Paradoxically however, the only way this discourse is maintained is by everyone running around insisting that important democratic principles have been chucked in the gutter. Let’s assume for a minute that no-one had been offended about anything in this incident. The debate would have happened, listened to by a desultory bunch of spotty Herberts, and it would never have entered the public imagination. A couple of well paid men in suits would have got to play a game for 60 minutes, that’s all. It’s bizarre that O’Neill and the Spectator’s assistant editor Isabel Hardman think that freedom of speech is really that dismal, and disregard everything else that has happened over the past couple of days as just noise. But then, this is by no means the first time that I’ve seen journalists imply that freedom of speech is a thing only to be valued when it comes to the views of professional journalists.

It is very lazy indeed, not to mention potentially dangerous, to equate protest – especially disruptive, effective protest – with state censorship. It leads you down the dangerous path, which governments are quick to encourage, that protest should be silenced. The next step is that the only people who’s views are allowed to enter the public realm are those well paid men in suits, while the noisy, dirty – and yes, sometimes idiotic – masses get their heads bashed in.

If you genuinely believe in freedom of expression, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to tolerate the fact that it works both ways. And sometimes it even inconveniences privileged men.

Myleene Klass and Ed Miliband

Myleene Klass and political failure

Myleene Klass may be deeply confused about how the mansion tax will work in practice, but she probably isn’t the only one. As a supporter of land value taxation, it is no surprise that I think it is a flawed policy, but what’s really problematic is the way both Labour and the Lib Dems are attempting to sell it.

In many ways, Klass’s tustle with Ed Miliband sums up the problem. She seems to think that, as a tax which will only apply to properties worth £2m and over, that in parts of London that applies to garages. She’s wrong. The £2m figure was calculated to be as painless to as many people as possible. In fact, under Vince Cable’s original proposals in 2009, the tax was to apply to properties worth £1m and over. This was quickly adjusted following an outcry from Cable’s fellow South West London MPs who feared a backlash (and even £1m is a bit steep for a garage, Myleene).

The UK – and London in particular – has a real problem with rising house prices. Home ownership has reached extremely low levels compared to recent history and the fears of another housing price bubble, despite the views of fantasists like Danny Alexander, are very real. The UK ought to be having a very serious conversation about how it tackles this.

Instead, we try to kid ourselves that this is just a problem for the very rich. Hence the mansion tax’s £2m threshold. We ought to be having a national conversation about restructuring our economy to avoid property bubbles. We ought to be talking about a property tax which kicks in at much lower levels. But we’re too busy blaming everything on immigrants and the poor.

Meanwhile, our existing domestic property tax, the council tax, has not been revalued in England since 1991. If our politicians lack the courage to even do that, what hope is there for us to have a serious conversation about what’s needed.

Ironically, the Lib Dems in particular, are in a better place than they have been in years to make the case. 10 years ago, they were transfixed with the idea of scrapping all property taxes and making taxes on employment take up even more of the strain. Now they are making the case for more taxes on property and taking people out of income tax altogether. Yet there is no narrative connective tissue between the two. They aren’t making the case for a fairer society and stronger economy in which a hard day’s work is taxed less and wealth is taxed more.

Ignore policy for a minute, which is largely irrelevant these days in a world of coalition government. What a liberal party ought to be making the case for right now is a new economy with significantly different priorities. It can’t be done overnight, but it can be done over time, piecemeal. There can be a direction of travel. It can’t however be done by stealth; the public need to buy into it or it will fall apart after the first Daily Mail headline.

The mansion tax could be step one of a new economic plan; as it is, it’s a policy cul de sac. Assuming it eventually happens, it will probably suffer the same indignity as council tax, and never be touched again. Or worse, start going up by inflation to ensure that only a tiny minority ever pay it and its true revenue potential is never realised. It’s emblematic of the political malaise; instead of dealing with the big political issues of the day, we’re reduced to soundbites.

Star Wars card game

How JJ Abrams could severely hurt tabletop gaming

Typical. Just after I write a blog post praising Fantasy Flight Games, they go and do something that makes me wary. Yesterday, FFG announced their intention to be taken over by French board game company Asmodée. This comes just months after Asmodée took over Days of Wonder, publishers of the enormously successful Ticket To Ride board game (among many others).

The Days of Wonder/Asmodée takeover didn’t especially concern me as, despite their success with a number of product lines, Days of Wonder seems to have been struggling for some time to come up with another big hit; I can see how that merger could potentially be in their interests. Fantasy Flight on the other hand is a much larger company currently in its prime; it isn’t immediately obvious what they’re getting out of this, but I assume they have their reasons.

I’m especially nervous about this because Asmodée itself is part of the Eurazeo group, a publicly listed investment company with its fingers in a large number of different pies. To say the board game industry has had a fairly difficult relationship with the stock market would be an understatement. The most notorious example is that of Hasbro’s buyout of Wizards of the Coast and Avalon Hill. Hasbro began the 2000s owning the largest war games company (Avalon Hill), RPG (Dungeons and Dragons) and card game (Magic: the Gathering). It ended that decade having royally screwed all of them up, although Magic has since clawed its way back and D&D has just had a successful relaunch.

The problem is that PLCs’ main focus is on shareholder value, not necessarily on delivering good product for consumers. Add to that the fact that they almost always have to borrow to afford these buyouts and the focus within those companies inexorably becomes about profit. And if they don’t return the right numbers to keep the board happy, they have their work cut out explaining how their business works to a bunch of people with no knowledge of the industry. The result, if Wizards is anything to go by, is creatives getting the chop, gouging and a company which is less viable than it was before the takeover.

With all that said, as I said before, Fantasy Flight have always seemed like a sensible company which has learnt from the mistakes of its predecessors. It’s entirely possible that their current business model, with several highly successful product lines and more on the way, are the perfect fit for a PLC and that all this takeover will mean for them is access to resources and in particular capital to allow them to expand. There is a bigger question in continental Europe where a lot of FFG’s games are licensed to companies which are not part of the Asmodée group and what will happen to those companies (either merger or they’ll take a big hit being the most likely answer), but generally, this could be all steam ahead for FFG.

What makes me worry though is this: it has already been clear for quite some time that FFG have been lining their ducks in a row in anticipation for Star Wars: Episode 7. They currently publish or will soon be publishing three Star Wars roleplaying games, two Star Wars card games and three Star Wars miniatures games. Of these, Star Wars LCG and X-Wing are two of their biggest sellers, and the incoming Imperial Assault looks set to be as popular if not more so than these two. Like Disney-Lucasfilm, they have opted to ditch support for the prequels-era in favour of a line of products that very much harken back to the original films.

By December 2015, all these product lines will be very firmly established, and no doubt FFG are keen to have these games on the shelves of every supermarket, toy and book shop in time for Black Friday next year. No doubt, Asmodée’s takeover will help them in that respect (let’s ignore the plight of the specialist retailer here for a second), and there is a good chance they will be wildly successful. If, as everyone hopes, Episode VII is a hit and results in a new mega-franchise to rival Marvel’s (owned by the same company), then this could result in a significant boost for the company.

But there are two things that concern me here. Firstly, what if the new JJ Abrams’ film is rubbish? I’m sure it will make a lot of money either way, but a weak film will lack the sort of fanbase that FFG are hoping for. They’ll probably be safe for Christmas 2015 either way, but Christmas 2016 will be another story if the film is widely perceived to be another Phantom Menace. That potential will dry up and if any of those games are produced in large, unsellable numbers, a lot of money will be lost.

If the film is good, there’s still the question of what happens when the franchise winds down. Again, past precedent is not encouraging. Games Workshop almost collapsed in the mid-2000s when their cash cow in the form of the Lord of the Rings films came to an end. If FFG get big based on a film franchise, they are unlikely to be able to convert huge amounts of the mass market over to buying Twilight Imperium 4; they’ll be dependent on more franchises.

Under either scenario, there will come a point in which the company, while still profitable, will need to contract compared to its height, at which point the money men step in. And that’s when I get nervous. When Asmodée’s expansionist plans were limited to companies like Ticket To Ride, we weren’t looking at an investment company navigating its way through a boom (as distinct from a more sustainable period of growth). Now the fortunes of what amounts to a very large chunk of the industry is going to be at their mercy.

Hopefully, Episode VII will be a success and FFG will find the success it is hoping for for several years before it reaches that crossroad, by which point the relationship with the money men will have matured enough to avoid any panics making things worse during the inevitable lean years. But as of yesterday, an awful lot of my hobby suddenly became hitched to the fortunes of JJ Abrams’ film career, and so I’m nervous.

Shattered Remains card art (artist Matt Zeilinger)

Rotation and Tabletop Economics

Wednesday was a big day in the world of tabletop gaming. While in the UK we were having bonfires around the country, in Roseville, Minnesota Fantasy Flight Games announced a bonfire of the Living Card Games. Well, a light singeing at any rate. To any non-tabletop gamer, and indeed any non-LCgamer, this will probably mean absolutely nothing. But it’s an interesting response to a growing problem which the fans of these games have recognised for a long time.

Ever since I worked in a comic shop in the early nineties during the speculator boom (and arguably going back to when Games Workshop decided to change their business model in the late 80s and alienate fans like myself), I’ve always had an interest in how economics impacts on hobbyist interests. Tabletop gaming is currently going through a bit of a renaissance, with convention visitor numbers up, the number of games exploding, and games starting to enter mainstream consciousness. To what degree this period of growth will be sustainable in the long term is an interesting moot point, and there have been a lot of busts in the past. Reading the excellent four volume Designers & Dragons as I did recently, it was made painfully clear how vulnerable tabletop gaming – in that case RPGs – are to such cycles, and the severe consequences when the industry takes a dive. Fantasy Flight Games in particular appear to be on a high right now – they more or less owned Gen Con this year with a succession of announcements which had their fans – especially Star Wars gamers – frothing at the mouth. Past experience suggests that at some point someone is going to make a big mistake and for this to all come crashing down around our ears. The question is, when?

I don’t want to suggest in any way that Fantasy Flight’s announcement on Wednesday is an early warning that that crash is imminent; quite the opposite. In fact it’s a sign of something I’ve felt for a while, which is that FFG are a generally very cautious and sensible company that is all too aware of the risks inherent in the industry.

CCGs and LCGs

First of all, a bit of terminology. Living Card Games is a trademark of FFG which they use to describe their customisable card games and the business model they use to market them. The model itself is now being adapted by other companies as a sign of its success. Customisable card game may require a little more explanation for people not familiar with the concept.

Most people will know what a card game is, whether its poker or Uno. The most significant thing that makes customisable card games different is that the players have their own decks of cards which are kept entirely separate from their opponent’s. What’s more, while a standard deck of cards might be finite – 13 cards for each suit plus one or two jokers – the different cards that might appear in a customisable deck is potentially infinite. Before the game itself, players will “build decks” by selecting cards from a pool of cards that they own. They can customise their decks however they like, as long as they stick to certain restrictions laid out in the rules of play.

The difference between a Collectable Card Game and a Living Card Game is how players acquire that pool. The first customisable card game – and the first Collectable Card Game – was Magic the Gathering. This game and its hundreds of imitators sold players cards in the form of starter decks and booster packs. The business model was essentially cribbed from trading cards (or football stickers, cigarette cards or bubblegum cards depending on what you’re more familiar with): the cards came in randomised packs, with some cards especially rare and hard to find. If you want a full set, you would need to buy many thousands of cards (seriously; I recently acquired a bunch of retail packs of a long out of print CCG called On the Edge. I’ve ploughed through two boxes – 1,800 cards – and still don’t have close to a full set of the basic 270 cards).

The Magic the Gathering CCG model was wildly successful in the mid-90s until it all came crashing down, taking retailers, distributors and publishers with it. Since then, Magic itself has remained a strong contender and a number of companies continue to do good business that way, but the mania that surrounded it has died down. Fundamentally, there are people who hate it as a model and won’t go anywhere near it. Even Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Magic, have recognised this and increasingly sell pre-made decks for more casual players.

Fantasy Flight dipped their toes into the CCG business but in 2008 decided to switch to the LCG format. In their business model, there are no randomised packs (let’s park discussion about draft play for now). Instead, they sell core sets, boxed expansions and cycles of smaller packs of cards, all of which contain exactly the same cards. What LCGs lose by abandoning the random factor they gain in an increased focus on optimising decks and keeping up with the “meta” (the groupthink of the player base in which certain cards and strategems fall in and out of favour as more cards are published).

Rotation

The LCG model has been extremely successful for Fantasy Flight. Beginning by reformatting their Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones CCGs to the new model, they currently publish six games – including the wildly popular Netrunner – and retired a seventh earlier this year. The announcement they made on Wednesday is in response to that success.

The one thing FFG are good at doing is supporting their successful games, and that means expansions. For their more traditional board and card games, that’s relatively straightforward: sell a game, offer players the options of expansions and they can pick and choose what they want depending on their enthusiasm. The prevalence of expansions aren’t a huge barrier to entry for board games; they give you more variety and options but since all players are playing with the same set, there’s no competitive need to buy expansions.

LCGs are different. If you don’t buy all the cards, you have a competitive disadvantage to the players who do. At least, in theory; skill and practice is a generally a far bigger factor. Nonetheless, that drive for completion is real. Right now, completing the Game of Thrones card game means acquiring the core set, six boxed expansions, and 72 smaller packs. Each of those smaller packs will set you back a tenner, meaning that if you want to buy everything available right now, you will end up spending just shy of £900. The other games are less extreme, but by the end of this year, relative newcomer Netrunner will consist of a core set, three boxed expansions and 18 smaller packs, costing just under £300. That isn’t just a challenge for players; that’s a challenge for retailers who only have so much shelf and storage space.

There’s also another problem, and a different economics. Fundamentally, the more cards in the pool, the smaller an impact each additional card will make. This is mitigated by FFG deliberately taking note of and attempting to disrupt the aforementioned meta from time to time. Thus, if they spot that a specific card is being used in all the winning championship decks, they will set themselves the task of coming up with a new card that will weaken the power of the old one. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of LCGs, which is that play in the real world has a direct impact on future releases. But over time, their ability to keep evolving the game in that way becomes increasingly limited as more and more options become available to players. At that point, the theory goes at least, the game will become less exciting; it will no longer be “living”.

I haven’t ever played the Game of Thrones LCG for precisely the prohibitive entry restrictions that I outlined above, but I understand that the problems with the metagame outlined above have become acute with that game. Rather than try to fudge it, FFG have opted instead to simply bring out a new edition of the game and be done with it. For the other games however, they have decided to introduce a new system called rotation. What that amounts to is the smaller packs over time being declared not tournament legal and falling out of print.

The most interesting thing about all this to me is how modest a change this new policy amounts to. Because rotation will only kick in when a game reaches its eighth “cycle” (a cycle is a set of six thematically linked packs), at which point the first two cycles will be taken out of circulation. With FFG pumping out slightly less than two cycles a year for each LCG, that means that cards will have a tournament life of around four years. Contrast that with Magic the Gathering, which I understand has a rotation cycle of roughly 18 months.

The total tournament legal card pool will remain huge. For us Netrunner players, we still have five and a half cycles to look forward to before our cards start becoming obsolete and I personally can’t even visualise what a card pool that large will look like. It isn’t obvious to me how this will especially lower the barrier of entry for new players, although I suppose it will at least encourage them to invest in the newer cycles and box sets and not bother with the older ones which have less tournament life in them.

I suspect, also, that in reality a game will have to be doing extremely well to actually reach the stage when a cycle is rotated out. Hidden amongst all the announcements on Wednesday is the news that rotation won’t actually affect the Call of Cthulhu LCG because they won’t be producing any new cycles for it; it’s a complete game. The same has already effectively happened with Warhammer: Invasion. The Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game and thus players don’t have to worry about tournaments. It is by no means certain that the other LCGs – Netrunner, Star Wars and Warhammer 40,000: Conquest – will survive long enough.

The Future

I presume that Fantasy Flight wrestled over this a lot before settling on a change that will have such a modest impact. While I don’t think it is a backwards step, I do think they have hedged too much to avoid alienating the existing fanbase. For all its flaws, Magic the Gathering offers far more frequent jumping on points for new players, which explains its longevity (20 years and counting). I suspect that once the concept of rotation has bedded down, they will tweak it more in favour of bringing in new players.

What’s fascinating is seeing a tabletop games company explicitly planning over a period of five years. This represents a level of maturity generally unheard in the industry. The business plan of most games companies seems to be: produce a new game on a regular basis and, if it’s a hit, rush out a series of expansions and spin offs until the cashcow has been squeezed dry. To be fair, an increasing number of companies seem to plan their release schedule 1-2 years ahead, but Fantasy Flight seem to have a bigger picture in mind. And it seems to be working for them.

You can especially see this in their Star Wars game range. They’re currently supporting 8 Star Wars games (counting the three RPGs separately despite their compatibility), and it’s clear that they’ve had quite a far sighted release schedule in mind. With the new films on the horizon, it’s increasingly looking as if their game ranges will be maturing at exactly the right moment; a completely unprecedented bit of marketing synergy (if you can pardon the expression).

The million dollar question is, how much is too much expansion? LCGs, while apparently cheaper than CCGs, expect their players to sink around £170 into the game every year, and rotation won’t change that. The X-Wing miniatures game, while allowing for more specialisation (i.e. in LCGs, you have to buy all the different “factions” which are available to play in the packs; in a game like X-Wing you can focus on a single faction or even a handful of specific ships), costs even more to buy the entire range, and that is about to be joined by two more miniatures games this winter. If enough players suddenly snap and stop buying product, these games could suddenly see sales plummet. It hasn’t happened yet in this case, but there are past precedents (such as RPGs in the early 80s).

Fantasy Flight themselves appear to be quite mindful of that, and produce games in modest print runs. What’s mildly irritating to us consumers in terms of product being out of stock all the time, makes perfect sense for them. But the downside of this approach is cost. This was drilled home to me when I attended the giant Spiel convention in Essen this year, where you can buy German board games intended for the high street for literally half the equivalent US games typically cost. The former is produced in print runs of 500,000+ while the latter is frequently produced at runs lower than 5,000. The reason FFG charge £12 for a pack of 60 cards is because they don’t want to be left sitting on thousands of unsellable packs and come unstuck in the way that so many of their predecessors have done.

I’ve already heard grumblings about how much better value AEG’s new Doomtown Reloaded customisable card game compared to its Fantasy Flight equivalents. The reason is simple: AEG are looking to break into the market and only have one game to support: they have both the capacity and the incentive to undercut FFG. As FFG grow, an increasing number of their competitors must be making the same calculation. And while I think FFG are too cautious to create a boom (and AEG are a veteran company – this is not their first rodeo), I’m not so sure about everyone else. That’s a cause for some concern.

This year, the US gaming convention Gen Con is believed to have eclipsed the German Spiel for the first time in terms of attendance figures. Even here in the UK, Games Expo has been enjoying exponential growth over the last few years (of course, these conventions are still tiny compared to the largest computer game cons). It very much looks as if we’re on the cusp of a boom. We’ll almost certainly see a market contraction at some point; the question is when, and by how much. In the worst case scenario, this could see high street gaming stores – already in long term decline – obliterated. But if the lessons of the past can be learned, the overall impact – with the rise of board game cafés and mainstream consciousness – could still be positive. FFG’s announcement on Wednesday suggests to me that at least one company is very mindful of the risks and rewards at stake.

Norman Baker performing Piccadilly Circus

Norman Baker, political journalism and hinterlands

It’s an odd evening to defend the MP for Lewes, given that his constituents are currently behaving like a bunch of spoiled children blacking up and attempting to set fire to “politically incorrect” effigies. Nonetheless, I share a lot of the views expressed elsewhere that he performed an excellent service in his role as Home Office minister and can well understand his reasons for resigning.

This blog post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of his resignation though. Rather, it’s a simple observation. Most of the media coverage was transfixed by the idea that Norman Baker was in a band, that it isn’t a wildly good one, and that these facts alone are wildly hilarious. Every TV and newspaper report I came across seemed to fit in a quip about it somewhere

I suspect that it doesn’t especially matter that his interests are in music. In fact, the Reform Club’s middle of the road style from what I can make out is pretty inoffensive to anyone. What seemed to provoke the lobby was that he was doing something – anything – that was slightly out of the ordinary.

When that slightly out of the ordinary thing is practicing music skills on a regular basis, you’ve got to wonder how they’d treat any MP who has personal interests that are really unusual.

Several years ago, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at a games club playing a game of Puerto Rico with a Labour MP, at the time a Parliamentary Private Secretary. After the game, we looked over our shoulders to see another group having a raucous game of Cash’n’Guns. He observed “I have to be really cautious about what games I can play in public” at which point I pointed out, to his horror, that he’d just spent the last couple of hours playing a game about the slave trade.

I mention this because he’s right: playing a game in which you wave foam guns in each other’s faces would potentially be career suicide for an aspiring politician, no matter how silly a game it is (which is certainly the case of Cash’n’Guns). But the reason isn’t because doing so would be wrong or wicked in any way, but because it would be seen as weird. And being weird, as Ed Miliband has learned to his cost, is an almost unforgivable crime in modern politics.

The result is, paradoxically, that all our politicians are deeply weird. It’s been almost 40 years since Denis Healey scathingly noted that Margaret Thatcher lacked a hinterland. These days almost none of them have one. William Hague is allowed to write books, albeit on political history. Beer and football are permitted interests, as is primetime television (in moderation). But anything else is treated as shameful and hidden from view, a bit like being gay in the 1950s.

But the weirdest thing about all this is that at the same time, being “wacky” is increasingly the norm for how political journalism is conducted. The model established by Andrew Neil on This Week and the Daily Politics, has now become ubiquitous. Politics is now typically presented on television by people who can’t wait to dress up in silly costumes or wear outrageous hats to make some leaden point or other. Newspaper journalists all seem to consider themselves to be side-splittingly hilarious comedians if my twitter feed is anything to go by. Norman Baker’s crime seems to have been to be sincere in his interests. If he’d done an appallingly awful duet with the chief correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, then it would have been considered perfectly acceptable and not even worthy of mention.

We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.

Flashville, or where they went wrong with The Flash [SPOILERS]

The Flash
The Flash is my favourite superhero. He has a simple but amazing power, he’s a scientist and he’s an uncomplicated hero; what’s not to love? So I was quite looking forward to the new TV series, and the extended trailer they released over the summer whet my appetite. Now though, a few episodes in, I’m about ready to call it quits.

It’s worth pointing out that they’ve done a lot right with the series; the special effects are fantastic given the demands of television. Grant Gustin is just right for the role (it’s interesting comparing his frame with John Wesley Shipp’s in the 1990 TV series; it never made sense for Barry Allen to be as bulked up as Wesley Shipp was back then). And I applaud their decision to go for a multi-racial cast. But there are three main quibbles I have with it [SPOILER WARNING FROM THIS POINT ON]. Continue reading

Labour and Lords Reform – a short history lesson

Steve Bell cartoon on Lords reform

Labour has announced that it would replace the House of Lords with an elected senate. There are reasons why supporters of Lords reform should be cautious about celebrating too hard about this, as Labour’s promises in this area have failed to blossom into meaningful action so many times in the past. But it is progress – a fully elected senate and no caveats about needing a referendum first – and it is something to hold them too if they win the next election.

The Liberal Democrat response has been curious and revealing. Speaking on their behalf, Sir Malcolm Bruce said:

“We could have given the UK greater representation in parliament, but when presented with the chance, he bottled it; turned his back and ran. This is simply lip-service from a Labour party who have no intention of actually delivering.”

You would think that the Lib Dems would be a bit more cautious about labelling others as dishonest, given the hole that they’re in. Leaving that aside, it is simply not true to say that the reason Lords reform fell in 2012 was because Labour walked away. They were no angels, but to pin the blame on them is to ignore Tory treachery, different Liberal Democrat priorities.

Talk to a Lib Dem MP between May 2010 and September 2012 for more than five minutes and it will be perfectly clear what their main preoccupation was: boundary changes. Seriously, I personally spoke to around a dozen of them in that period and that’s all they ever wanted to talk about. As the boundary changes were published, it increasingly dawned on them that they had signed a suicide note by agreeing to the boundary changes and a reduction in the number of MPs, and they were fixated by how they might be able to break that promise. Everything they did during that period was going through that lens.

Thus is was that as soon as the Lords reform proposals were published, the Lib Dems started threatening to block the boundary changes if the Tories failed to fulfil their promise on Lords reform. From the point of view of actually replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber, this was disastrous. Tory backbenchers don’t respond well to threats, especially from junior partners they are determined to squash, and the message Labour were getting was that if they helped scupper Lords reform, they would be freed from boundary changes as well.

The fact is that Labour was split on Lords reform. Managing to derail the process helped to avoid them looking that way. It became increasingly clear that the Tories were even more split (despite promising Lords reform in their manifesto) and that Labour would have to carry the government through the entire process, at every stage. It also undermined the Lib Dems and got them a policy concession they wanted. Under those circumstances, even the most strident supporter of reform would struggle to not make the decision that Ed Miliband did.

If the Lib Dems had not made support for boundary changes a precondition, has said that that deal was done and that they would stand by their coalition partners, there would in all likelihood have been fewer Tory rebellions over the issue and Labour would have had less of an incentive to dissemble. Of course, it would have looked weak, and would have meant that the Lib Dems would be facing even more losses in the next election. Given the choice between party and principle, they chose party. I don’t especially blame them for that either, but please spare me the self-righteous indignation over how Labour behaved in response.

That was all two years ago. What concerns me about the Lib Dems now is that an awful lot of them seem to believe their own hype. I’ve read an awful lot of tweets this morning from Lib Dems denouncing Labour betrayal on this issue. Yet the fact is that if you want House of Lords reform then your best bet is Labour winning at least a plurality in the next general election. It certainly won’t happen if the Tories win. And it certainly won’t happen if what remains of the Lib Dems in the Commons in 2015 sit around whingeing about missed opportunities.

Making Lords reform a partisan issue in the way that the front bench Lib Dem team seemed determined to make it won’t actually make it happen. Once again, they seem to be putting party ahead of principle – and on this occasion I’m a lot less sympathetic.

Resting on the Laurels of the Doctor

Note: there are no actual spoilers in this post, but there is some speculation about this month’s Christmas Special of Doctor Who in the last paragraph.

doctorwho50
I have a confession to make: I don’t entirely get Doctor Who.

It’s not that I don’t like it; I’ve watched pretty much every episode that has been aired since, as a young child in the late 70s, I was aware of its existence (and quite a few others besides). I wept buckets at the end of both “The Day of the Doctor” and An Adventure in Space and Time last week, and laughed like a loon during The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. What I don’t understand is quite why it seems to inspire as much passion as it does.

What I find with Doctor Who is this: a lot of the older stuff which is frequently cited as “classic” and the best that Who has to offer often leaves me non-plussed. At the same time, while I often feel that New Who gets a far worse rap from its Old Who critics than it deserves, as often as not it underwhelms me as well.

Take a specific example: “The Caves of Androzani”. This is cited by multiple sources as the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. Yet when I watched it a couple of years ago, it left me cold. The acting was weak, the sets poor (I know, cheap shot), the pacing all over the place (despite having a fondness for Old Who-style cliffhangers, a lot of the time the episodic format seemed to lead to a lot of padding out), the drama was nowhere. At around the same time, I also saw “The Awakening” – a Peter Davison story which is variably treated as awful or indifferent – and really enjoyed it. I genuinely don’t understand why Caves is considered a classic while Awakening is a flop.

Lest you think I’m just having a go at Old Who, I have a different problem with New Who. The new version solves a lot of the issues that the old one had, namely acting, special effects, pacing and theme, but has created some new ones of its own. To a lesser extent with the Russell T. Davies era and a much greater extent with the Stephen Moffat era, a formula has become established whereby the Doctor faces a problem, the stakes are raised to a ridiculously high level, there are lots of emotions, and then the Doctor solves everything with a lot of hand waving and Murray Gold’s score doing all the heavy lifting. After seven seasons of this formula, I feel like I’m done with it. There are episodes which follow this formula and yet transcend it, and I do feel that “Day of the Doctor” achieved that (partly I think because of the odd pacing which rather broke it up), but it has certainly been the case that for the last couple of years it has felt as if it has been stuck in a timeloop and being edited by an 8 year old with ADHD. I often feel like the subsequent animated gifs that emerge online after each episode of Doctor Who are more worthwhile than the episodes themselves.

(I’m sounding very anti-Moffat hear so let me say this: his worst episodes and best episodes are better than Davies’s worst and best; it’s just his average episodes that let him down. I also think that while he deserves a lot of criticism for his portrayal of women, I also think it is true that he is probably the most feminist of Who’s showrunners thus far and that it is odd that Davies didn’t get more stick than he did.)

There is plenty about Doctor Who that I love. The TARDIS is a beautiful concept, wonderfully realised (and for me at least evokes childhood memories of excitedly spotting the last few genuine police boxes before they were removed from British streets). The enigmatic nature of the central character, together with its endless potential for renewal, has proven itself. I’m frequently taken in by the series’ charm, especially in the case of the Hartnell, Troughton and Tom Baker eras (Pertwee has never really done it for me). At its heart, the programme is about hope and believing in alternatives. Perhaps more so than any other science fiction or fantasy franchise, it is fundamentally, unashamedly liberal, with an emphasis on social justice and the dignity of the individual, and a deep distrust of authority and dogma.

I suppose that ultimately my problem with Doctor Who boils down to this: somehow it appears to have ended up with a status that places it above a lot of other fandom for no other reason that there is so much of it. As a kid, Doctor Who pretty much lost me in the 80s and yet as an adult I feel that I’m often told it was my fault for not giving Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Sophie Aldred et al more of a chance. I think you need to squint a little too hard to see the genius of this era; it’s not that I can’t comprehend what people are talking about on an intellectual level, it’s just that it still isn’t that enjoyable – and this is meant to be entertainment after all. With New Who I almost have the opposite problem: I appreciate that the reason the series comes across like a hyperactive toddler is that it is a kid’s show, but at the same time I feel I’m supposed to also appreciate that it has depths at the same time, even when those depths seem to have been done by the numbers. Both incarnations seem to get let off the hook because of Doctor Who’s privileged status as the Grand Old Man of British genre television rather than appreciated on their own merits. To a certain extent this is echoed by Colin Baker’s intemperate “for the fans” remarks, complaining about the fact he and the other 80s Doctors weren’t invited to be involved in the 50th anniversary programme directly; what ought to matter is what makes good television, not nostalgic fanwank.

Fundamentally, right now I think the series is in a rut. I can almost guess how “The Time of the Doctor” is going to go: the Doctor is given the choice between dying a final death (because he’s on his twelfth regeneration of course) and saving the universe, or letting something awful happen, it all gets terribly emotional and then he waves his hands around and cuts the Gordian knot, only to realise that he has to die anyway but – cue more handwaving – gets to regenerate after all. Oh, and there’ll be snow and sleigh bells at some point because Christmas. Hopefully it will transcend the formula again, but I think it will be hoping too much for it to actually subvert it. I pray that the Peter Capaldi incarnation will lead to a greater variation of tones and plotlines than we’ve seen in recent years; if it doesn’t then I might just be forced to give up on it.

Scapegoating Nick Clegg is the lowest form of populism

Owen JonesMy ire was particularly roused yesterday by Owen Jones’s latest attack on Nick Clegg. Now, regular readers of this blog may be aware that Nick Clegg is not exactly my favourite person, I actually agree that Clegg is populist with little in the way of actual principles, and that this latest capitulation to crack down on virtually non-existent use of the UK welfare system by EU migrants is an apt if depressing example of this. But Jones’s analysis has one fatal flaw: he’s a member of the Labour Party.

You don’t have to agree with Martin Shapland’s equally flawed analysis that the fact that Labour have equally let down EU migrants and indeed the UK electorate that that somehow makes the Lib Dems’ own actions more acceptable to agree that Owen Jones and his cohorts are in no position to criticise.

If Clegg’s “scapegoating” of EU migrants (which is to ignore the fact that the Lib Dem position is far less coherent than simple scapegoating) is “unforgiveable”, then what does that make Yvette Cooper’s claim that the coalition are playing catch up behind Labour on this issue? Indeed, so behind the coalition were Labour on Tuesday that they set one of their lead attack dogs to smear Laszlo Andor, an EU commissioner who had the unmitigated gall to criticise the UK for adopting such a policy, wrongly claiming he was a fascist.

This isn’t the first time, and won’t be the last, that Clegg’s team has concluded that with Labour and the Tories united on an issue they might as well go along with it for fear of being singled out. It was the same reasoning that made Clegg so keen to not come out against the snooper’s charter. Clegg isn’t a liberal, although he wore that mask for a while, and his mission is to be seen to be in the centre of politics between Labour and the Tories, no matter where that centre happens to be (he’s only sticking with the party’s pro-EU stance because he knows that dropping it would lead to a split the party would not survive from). He’s pretty despicable. But does anyone really believe that is more despicable than the party leaders he is slavishly following? Miliband could have caused a split within the coalition by adopting a pro-migrant, and fact-based stance on immigration. Leaving aside his ethical and moral responsibilities, he had a responsibility to do so as the leader of the official opposition. Cringing in fear of how Lynton Crosby would respond, he chose not to.

I’m not suggesting the Lib Dems should be let off the hook, merely that they are irrelevant. Even if every single Lib Dem voted against these measures, the combined Labour-Conservative hegemony would get it through parliament. If Owen Jones truly had the principles he has pinned his professional career to, he would have chosen to lay into who is possibly the next prime minister for his cowardly stance, rather than the leader of a declining third party. Does anyone else see the irony in choosing to pull his punches on Miliband and ramp up the rhetoric on Clegg in an article denouncing the political practice of scapegoating? This is black propaganda indeed.

If you’re a small community campaign, the #gagginglaw will affect you.

Save Totley LibraryI’m annoyed that I’m starting to sound like a stuck record on this blog, but I feel the need to go back to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill again because of a potentially explosive confusion that has arisen.

Earlier today Joe Otten, a Lib Dem Sheffield Councillor, made the following claim on this blog:

No James, the Totley library campaign is not partisan, and the rules in the transparency of lobbying bill (and equally PPERA) do not apply to it. It is blatant scaremongering to suggest otherwise.

Now, I don’t claim any special knowledge of the Totley library campaign. No doubt the Labour council are claiming they have to shut it down due to central government cuts and the Lib Dems are claiming that it is solely closing because of Labour irresponsibility and opportunism. Whatever. But the argument that the bill won’t apply to such campaigns is dangerously misleading. I make no claim as to whether Otten is spinning here or has been spun to by his constituency MP Nick Clegg’s office, but either way it’s utterly fallacious.

The clue is somewhat in the name of the bill: “non-party campaigning”. “Partisan” campaigning is covered by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The reason this bill has been introduced in the first place is that the coalition feels, in its wisdom, that non-party campaigns have been poorly regulated, and are seeking to change that.

Here are the various ways in which the bill will directly impact any small local campaign:

  • The minimum threshold that a local campaign can spend before coming under the auspices of the legislation is being cut from £10,000 to £5,000. That will include any in kind or pro bono work (such as legal advice) donated to it.
  • A new per-constituency limit of £9,480 (or, more precisely, 2% of the party spending limit, divided up on a per-constituency basis) is being introduced.
  • If your campaign is in a coalition with another organisation (for example, you are supported by a trade union), the spending limit will apply to all the organisations in the coalition in aggregate. In other words, if your coalition partner(s) spends any money at all in the constituency, your own spending limit will be reduced accordingly.
  • The regulated period will apply for 12 months before an election takes place. So, for the 2015 general election, it will commence in May 2014.
  • Once parliament has dissolved and the “short” election campaign itself has commenced, your group will have to submit weekly spending and donation reports to the Electoral Commission.

All of which is all very well, but will it apply to a non-political grassroots campaign that explicitly doesn’t support any candidate?

Well, it all depends on whether it is deemed that your campaign has a significant effect on the election or not. Fundamentally, that will all depend on how successful your campaign is. Campaigns that are deemed to not put politicians under any pressure will have, of course, little to worry about. Most campaigns however, at least aim to make an impact. And if you do, while the distinction in your mind between publicly criticising a councillor or MP for failing to support your issue and calling for people to not vote for a councillor or MP for failing to support your issue might be clear in your mind, it won’t necessarily be quite so clear in the mind of the solicitor the candidate your are criticising has paid to write you a stern and threatening legal letter. The Electoral Commission, who will be the ultimate arbiters of this legislation, have themselves repeatedly warned that it is too vague to be enforced.

There’s a bit more to it than that – especially if you are based in Scotland or Wales – but in a nutshell that’s why all small grasssroots community organisations ought to be concerned about this bill and the fact that it is being forced through parliament with so little scrutiny (the brief “pause” the government have reluctantly been forced to now observe is little more than a bit of breathing space really). If you want to know more, don’t trust me but go to the website of the National Campaign for Voluntary Organisations, who have a useful list of resources.

Of course, take everything you hear from people with a grain of salt. The nature of campaigning is that the rhetoric is often quite shrill. But if your Lib Dem or Conservative councillor tells you that it doesn’t effect you at all, they are either lying or have themselves been deeply mislead.