Monthly Archives: September 2006

Just because you’re paranoid…

Oh dear, the police are getting bored. They’ve started enforcing arbitrary rules on the myriad leafleters delivering outside of the Labour Conference secure zone, forcing them to stand behind invisible lines that, remarkably didn’t exist yesterday.

Of more concern, I’ve just watched half a dozen police officers spend half an hour filming an anti-vivisectionist handing out flyers. The lad didn’t exactly look very dangerous (his 60-something female colleague on the other hand seemed somewhat unhinged), and the flyers they were handing out were relatively innocuous (questioning the validity of vivisection but not using the usual emotive photos of bleeding monkeys, etc). With animal rights activists taking ever more extreme action, I can understand why the police may have wanted to photograph any activists they come across, but why film him for half an hour? And why does it take 6 PCs to do the job?

When you see this sort of just-plain-weird police activity, it gives you a jolt because it makes you realise quite how arbitrary police powers have become in this country. And of course, those powers were introduced by the very people inside the conference secure zone.

Personally, I’m very suspicious of the need for a secure zone altogether. The whole thing is paid for by the taxpayer, which on one level is fair enough. But of course, Labour can charge higher room booking fees for organisations inside the zone. In short, regardless of the actual security implications, they are making a packet out of creating a ring of steel around their conference, inconveniencing locals and ensuring that a large number of conference goers only get exposed to the lobbying organisations with larger paychecks.

Funny how, even after the Brighton bombing in 1984, it was a decade and a half before such security was deemed neccesary.

Communicating and Campaigning

Readers of Liberator will be aware that I’ve been having a disagreement with Chris Rennard about internal party democracy in that magazine’s pages over the last two issues. But there is one thing that the two of us do agree on, albeit possibly for different reasons: the English, Welsh and Scottish State Parties’ proposal for defining the party’s Campaigns and Communications Committee in the constitution was a terrible idea.

Far from Lembit’s claims that this was all about democratising the system, what they were proposing was a system of indirect election. At the same time it was clear from the speeches that the movers wanted this new committee to set campaign strategy, a power currently formally in the hands of the FE.

There is a problem in the way the CCC is set up, but it is in the gift of the FE to take back those powers and reassert its authority. Creating another tier would simply confuse things intolerably. The reality is it had nothing to do with democratising the process and everything to do with the State Parties wanting us to move away from a Federal system to a Multilateral system. That is understandable from their point of view, but let’s not fool ourselves that it would put the system closer to the membership.

James Gurling was all too correct when he said that if this committee were to be established a new, secret sub-committee would emerge and take on the bulk of the decision-making powers. In fact, we’ve already seen what happens when the “wrong” people are elected onto the CCC. In 2003, the committee didn’t meet for nine months, coincidently during a time when a known “troublemaker” was elected onto the committee.

The party used to have much more open debates on strategy. To be fair, the Meeting the Challenge process was at least partially concerned with this and was certainly an open process, but it is a long way since the No Glass Ceilings debate in 1998. Such open processes are desirable because they mean that good ideas have a chance of making it onto the table regardless of who they come from.

The FE doesn’t need a new bit in the constitution for that sort of thing to happen; it simply needs to WANT it to happen. My advice to conference reps who want such a process is to look very carefully at who they vote for in next month’s Federal Executive elections.

A long ramble about Cherie Blair and mythology

A few months ago I wrote about how the media, once they’ve decided on a narrative, use every single minor incident they can to reaffirm this while downplaying every major event that contradicts it. In that case I was talking about Ming Campbell and the fact that the media had settled on narrative focussed on his age, his desire to enter a coalition with the Tories and the fact that he usurped Kennedy. Last week, I think, went a long way to dispelling that story (Kennedy’s speech was flat, rambling and lacked contrition, the mood of the conference was as anti-Tory as ever and Ming didn’t require a zimmer frame during the leader’s speech).

Another week, another conference, and Manchester is gripped with what has almost certainly been dubbed by one newspaper or another as Cheriegate (I think it’s technically Cheriegate 3 but who’s counting?). When I heard this story last night, I was under the clear impression that she had stormed out of the auditorium and said her now-famous 4 words in a microphone. Now it would appear that neither were true.

It is interesting to note how the gloves have now come off on this story. If a similar incident had happened five years ago, it wouldn’t have been reported immediately. Instead it would probably have found itself as an anecdote in an Andrew Rawnsley-penned book published long after the event. I suspect the speed in which it became news was partly exacerbated by the internet: if Bloomberg hadn’t gone with the story, Guido would almost certainly have done it for them. But it is of course also rooted in the fact that after the incidents of a fortnight ago, the Blair-Brown feud has become public property in a way that it wasn’t even as recently as August.

But it does trouble me. Two questions converge: does the fact that she said it actually change anything? and does it actually matter if it is true? The answer to both questions is, I fear, no. We have reached a point where anyone can allege that a political figure said anything that fits a deeply held stereotype, without offering any proof, and if the story is good enough, it can dominate the front pages for a day. As the famous quote from Scott Eyman goes ”When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The sad thing is that no media outlet can afford to not cover the story for fear of looking out of touch.

It seems that we have reached a point where we rely on the media for myth, not the facts. By myth, I mean in the strictly accurate term of a story that contains a truth but may not actually be true. The danger of course with such stories is that we only tell them to comfort outselves – at that point, the media ceases to be a means of liberation and instead becomes a gilded cage.

In essence, this is what has already happened with regard to the public perception of politics in general. A narrative has been decided upon (“politicians are all alike and on the make”), a cocktail of weighty evidence and trivia is thrown at the public by the media, and the public end up wrapping themselves in the story and cease to question it. It is often contradictory: on the one hand politicians are condemned for following the party line, with the other they are condemned if their party is divided on an issue. And of course politicians end up seeking to ingratiate themselves by swallowing the story and indulging in it, which in turn only makes matters worse.

A new myth has recently arisen: “there is no such thing as apathy, its just that politicians no longer speak a language that the public understands.” Simon Carr in the Independent recently wrote about this, the unwritten assumption being that as a journalist he knew exactly how to communicate with the public (conveniently ignoring the fact that the Indepdendent’s circulation is only slightly above the total number of people who voted Green in 2005). Most evidence I’ve seen, both academic and anecdotal, suggests that actually politicians are very good communicators on a personal level, its just that very few people have personal contact with them. And you only have to look outside to see that apathy is very real and all-pervading (that isn’t to say that antipathy doesn’t exist, just that it isn’t representative of the majority of the disengaged).

The question for me is, are we simply stuck in a cycle that will sort itself out eventually, or could things get so bad that we cease to have a democratic culture in any meaningful sense? Will new forms of media do anything to change this? The rise of the aforementioned Guido suggests that it won’t, but there are other more positive signs.

Ultimately, I think a real test of global civilisation is the extent to which it manages to counteract our tribal need for mythology. From Cherie’s big mouth to suicide bombers (with creationism and Heat magazine in between), our failure as a species to avoid wrapping itself in comfort blankets, is starting to reach a crisis point.

Outside the Gates of Hell

For reasons I won’t go into now, I find myself at Labour Party conference. To be precise, I’m currently sitting in the Starbucks outside the Midland Hotel in Manchester. Simply everyone is here, darlings. Dave Miliband and his band of sycophants have just left. Geoff Hoon is sitting behind me and a man has just threatened to murder him – in’t being an ex-warmonger glamourous?

Anyway, no time for much blogging right now (do I ever have time for blogging these days?) but if I do see anything worth reporting I will of course do so.

Government: The Final Frontier

One of the truly awful things about conference this week was music used for the video photomontages – all three of them – that they insisted on playing before the leader’s speech, all three of which were to the tune of the most vein-opening soft rock I’ve ever come across. Personally, I’d never heard of the first piece they played, although it did sound suspiciously like the sort of thing to be found on the soundtrack to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (which I’m ashamed to admit to owning). The second piece however was much easier to place: it is the theme tune to Star Trek: Enterprise.

My understanding is that this music was selected by Ming’s image consultant Gavin Grant. The question one has to ask is, what next? I confidently predict that at the next conference, all MPs will be forced to wear Starfleet uniform, colour coded according to what policy team they are in. Evan Harris will of course be forced to wear a red shirt. It would be nice to think that our “Lib Dem lovelies” ([c] The Sun) will be wearing 1960’s style Star Trek uniform (i.e. miniskirts so small you need an electron microscope to detect them) but we simply can’t be that lucky. The Liberator crew will be forced to wear Klingon costumes.

More worrying still is what this says about the direction our foreign policy may be going in. Star Trek has always at least flirted with what we now call neoconservativism – in the Next Generation the Prime Directive was always name checked, but most episodes were focussed on how the Enterprise crew found ways to get around it. The original series didn’t bother with such niceties: “we come in peace (shoot to kill)!”.

But Enterprise was a different beast altogether. Very much a product of its era, Scott Bakula even looks like George Dubya Bush. The third series – during which I pretty much lost the will to live (or at least continue bothering with it) – was concerned with the Enterprise going off on a dangerous and uncertain military adventure to find weapons of mass destruction following from a transparently obvious 9/11 type incident. United Federation of Planets? Who needs it?

Before we go around embracing its theme tune, Gavin should note that it was possibly the most reviled aspect of a most reviled TV series, which ended in miserable failure only four series. The omens do not look good.

I enjoyed conference shocker!

People who know me may have noticed that by halfway through autumn conferences in the last few years I have become very sullen and withdrawn, wandering around the halls of the conference centre muttering darkly under my breath.

The truth is, in recent years I’ve come to loathe party conferences. They’ve increasingly become worryingly close to the Tory version for my taste, with policy “debates” reduced to Nuremberg-style rallies (the fact that the person speaking at the front usuall has the charisma of a wet fish appears to have escaped people’s notice). The policies themselves have tended to be dire: over-interventionist, full of lazy sloganeering and squarely aimed at the lowest common denominator. By the end of the conference week I had normally lost the will to live.

But not this time. In fact, I really enjoyed myself. This is probably in part due to ego, as I enjoyed the extra attention borne from writing chapters in two pamphlets (Liberalism – something to shout about edited by Graham Watson MEP/Liberator and Community Politics Today/ALDC) that were doing the rounds, writing the Taking Power local party’s guide and speaking in two fringe meetings. But it is also to do with the fact that for the first time in ages I’ve been able to detect tangible evidence of neural activity going on in the upper echelons of the party.

Ed Davey’s plans for revamping our campaigns and communications was better than I was expecting, despite having heard some very good rumours beforehand. The tax paper, while not perfect, has respectable underpinnings and is taking the party – at last – in the right direction in terms of economic policy. Notwithstanding Alex “crass, boorish and more a bruiser than blogger” Wilcock’s mean comments (some of which are very much spot on), as a first attempt at moving away from the party’s usual sloganeering, it isn’t bad. The important thing is to keep padding it out and to keep revisiting it.

In short, the party is moving in the right direction. Still plenty to be irritated about but that’s a far cry from two years ago when I very much thought we were going backwards. Even Ming’s speech outclassed anything that his predeccessor delivered in his 6 years, although he’s still got a long way to go to beat Paddy. Can I suggest borrowing the latter’s trick of using his conference piece as a think piece to challenge the party rather than slavishly following the “Labour – bad, Tories – worse, Lib Dems – yay!” formula that simply flatters the prejudices of its audience?

The only real cloud on the horizon for me was the party’s strategy to involve more women and people from under-represented groups. Apart from Simon’s dreadful diversity motion, which I was the speaker to oppose (although I understand that one of the other speakers got a speech on the basis that they said they would speak against and then didn’t – some very dirty tricks there as it unbalanced the debate), the announcement of a £200,000 “leaders fund” was worse than I was expecting.

Let me be clear about something. This £200,000 is for supporting candidates who have already been selected. Not a penny of it will go on outreach work to attract new people. Not a penny of it will go on training people interested in becoming candidates. Not a penny of it will go on mentoring, coaching or support. Somehow, individuals at the top of the party have convinced themselves that the main problem the party faces is giving selected candidates in target seats sufficient support. It is the single most arse-backwards policy I have ever come across and the party will – I promise you – pay the price.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the existence of this fund won’t help to convince people that if they get selected they will get sufficient support, or that that support isn’t needed. But in order for us to truly ensure that our candidates better reflect Britain we have to go out there and find hundreds of new people who up until now have not been putting themselves forward. And that costs money.

So be it. All in all, I’ve come away from the conference feeling enthused and inspired, to the point that in the areas where I’m less happy, I can at least see there is a point in spending time doing something about it.

Land Value Tax – Towards a Fairer Society

A guest article by Dr Carole Tongue and Dr Dinos Kyrou, of the Professional Land Reform Group.

“All taxation is theft”. The quote from political activist Lester Neil Smith (also a writer of science fiction), has been used by the right wing and those who oppose distribution of wealth for decades. Ironically, those who support Land Value Tax may think that L.N. Smith was correct – to a certain degree. Continue reading Land Value Tax – Towards a Fairer Society

An Orange Wash

There is one positive thing you have to accept about this “Orange Book 2” – aka Britain after Blair. At least they’re finally taking health and safety seriously.

Look at the cover to the old book. Marshall and Laws have got that poor girl leaning at an uncomfortable angle. She looks like she might topple over any minute. Surely it would have been more sensible to move the ladder across? The mind boggles how she got everything above her painted.

Orange Book

Now, contrast this with Britain after Blair. The man is painting in a much more comfortable position. Although again, how did he paint everything above him – and how come he left this last space until last? While he seems to finally be taking safety precautions more seriously, I would question his efficiency.

Britain after Blair

But the real question is, why do they want to paint their walls this ghastly colour in the first place?