Monthly Archives: July 2007

Postcard from Florence

I’m currently sitting in an internet café in the heart of Florence (better known as Firenze to Harry Potter fans). I’ve been in Tuscany for just under a week now, and in Florence itself since Friday, so I’m starting to get the feel of the place. Sadly, the same cannot be said for my Italian keyboards!

This is my first time in Italy. I spent the first couple of days desperately trying to acclimatise – I think I’m there now. Economically, it is a funny mix of seeming 10 years behind the UK, and being somehow ahead of us. A lot more places – including our hotel – don’t accept credit cards compared to the UK and while chip-and-pin exists, it is unusual. On the other hand, the trains are much cleaner and much cheaper. The nature of a medieval Tuscan town like this is that the rich and poor live on top of each other, which is very different from London these days.

The Italian attitude towards religion seems to be one of studied hypocrisy. Where else can you find free rosaries given away on the front of magazines and condom vending machines on every street corner. I’m not convinced it is an entirely healthy attitude as it seems to lead to a very pick-and-choose attitude. I think I prefer the British culture of simply ignoring the church.

In a place like Florence, you can’t ignore what a monstrosity the Catholic church has been during most of the last two millennia. The studied hypocrisy is deeply ingrained and goes right to the very top. The Duomo – a stone’s throw from here – was essentially an architectural exercise in willy-waving. The Medicis were very keen on using religious iconography to justify for themselves a status that was earned almost entirely through usury and war-mongering.

You may have gathered, I’m not entirely taken by the place. To be fair, I’m impressed by the grandeur; it just seems so decadent. Perhaps once we get passed visiting the cathedrals and palaces and start to explore to social history in more detail, I’ll be more generous. Certainly I was much more taken by Siena, where we saw the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and Their Effects on the Town and Countryside by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The mirror of all this tyranny was a desire for liberty and independence, which this fresco encapsulates superbly. Indeed, we went on to visit the Santa Maria della Scala, a medieval hospital which became the focus of a power struggle between the lay community, who wanted to use their resources to help the poor, and the priesthood, who basically wanted to spend the money on themselves.

So there is plenty here to inspire me as well as appall. Still a few more days to go before we return to old Blighty.

Joseph Goebbels: “honestly, it’s like living in a police state!”

Reading Sarah Helm‘s article in yesterday’s Observer severely pissed me off, on at least two levels.

  • The complete lack of contrition from Blair’s inner-circle that they had done anything wrong. Lest we forget that if anyone tried raising funds via undeclared loans now, they would be committing a criminal offence. They might not have committed any laws, but they were going around bending them like it was going out of fashion. If Sarah Helm was capable of self-introspection, she might be a little less quick to bemoan how her family has been treated these past few months.
  • If anyone, say the makers of Taking Liberties say, were to go around claiming that the police under the Blair regime have become equivalent to the Gestapo, the Blairistas in the press would tear them several new arseholes. Yet here we have a member of Blair’s inner circle bemoaning that fact that the police, under Blair, have become like the Gestapo. If the police are mob-handed these days, which Prime Minister spent 10 years indulging such behaviour?

Finally, a note of caution about Guido’s attempts to bring a private prosecution on this case. Firstly, I wouldn’t bet your shirt on this getting anywhere. Proving anything over this in a court of law will be difficult even with the CPS behind it. Secondly, is Guido going after all the individuals implicated, or just the Labour ones? After all, the Conservatives are up to their necks in cash-for-honours as well; Michael Howard was even interviewed by the police. I wouldn’t want naive people to think they are giving money to clean up politics when what they are actually doing is funding a partisan exercise in mudflinging. Thirdly, Guido is a cautious soul when it comes to the law and his pledge seems to be deliberately vaguely worded. This isn’t a tenner you’re being asked to cough up for, it is a “donation” of no fixed amount. Sign it and you may find yourself jointly and severably liable for the legal costs incurred, with no say over what is spent and how.

Me? I wouldn’t touch it with your’s, mate.

The Great Documentary Swindle

What’s the link between Queen Elizabeth II and sun spots? The production company RDF, according to Tony Juniper:

I was more than a little interested to learn that both ITV and the BBC have decided to suspend the commission of programmes from independent programme-maker RDF Television. I came across this outfit back in 1997, when I was invited to appear in a programme about “the history of the environment movement”.

In good faith I answered questions put to me by the programme maker, Martin Durkin

…I was staggered when Channel 4 commissioned and broadcast another programme from this very same anti-environmentalist film-maker earlier this year (by then working for Wag TV, but the programme was distributed via RDF).

It’s an interesting connection that casts new light on the aforementioned documentary. One wonders why, however, an unflattering edit of a film about an old lady can bring a TV channel on its knees, while a misleading documentary thoroughly discredited by the science continues to spread its poison around the world. I wonder how many reactionary old sods out there are baying for RDF’s blood at the moment for how they treated the queen while simultaneously praising them to the hilt for helping to spread the claim that anthropogenic climate change is a myth?

Incidentally, Durkin’s website is still suggesting that the heat of the Sun is responsible for why the winter is warmer than summer.

BNP plan to run away

Hilarious story in the Observer:

A few miles from the historic southern Croatian town of Knin lie 1,100 hectares of farmland and a couple of abandoned buildings. A tributary from the river Krka runs through the lush countryside nestled close to the sun-drenched Adriatic coast.

It is a tranquil place, one that would make an ideal spot for a campsite or a clutch of holiday homes. But instead the land is destined for a rather more bizarre sort of retreat. It is here that a small cabal, comprising senior members of the British National Party, plans to hole up once, as they expect, the world’s supply of oil runs out, triggering anarchy.

Croatia is welcome to them. Bye Nick!

Tories hit self destruct button. Again.

Excellent analysis of Cameron’s woes in the Sunday Telegraph today.

What I find endlessly fascinating is the Conservative Party’s almost limitless capacity for self-destruction. Even when Campbell was having trouble a couple of months ago, the limit of dissent was a couple of bloggers shooting their mouths off. By contrast, at least 2, possibly 6 MPs have written to the 1922 Committee expressing no confidence in him. The noises off in the media suggest there are a lot more who haven’t (yet) put pen to paper.

With Brown now in place, the big question is, can Cameron do substance as opposed to froth? The answer, it currently would appear, is a resounding no. But if he can’t, can anyone in the Tories do it without having the appeal of Roger Knapman? Is the next General Election going to turn into a retread of the last, with the Tories shoring up their core support in a bid for survival? That may be too much to hope for, but it is clear that the sunshine days are over.

UPDATE: Via Andrew Rawnsley, an excellent quote from Gordon Brown which perfectly sums up Cameron’s piss-poor handling of the Grammar school debacle:

‘It is not leadership to try to have a Clause Four moment and then sack the man who tried to do it for you.’

Just not Wicket

Wicket 4 LondonI’ve just heard that the Tories have shortlisted Warwick Lightfoot, star of Return of the Jedi, Willow and, of course, Leprechaun, for their candidate for London Mayor. I’ve always been a big fan of his work.

Seems like just the candidate to stuff Boris. After all, look as the mess he made of that Scout Walker!

UPDATE: I should have added a few gags about Professor Flitwick standing for Mayor of Diagon Alley – you know, for the kids – but you get the idea.

My favourite Ealing Southall leaflet

Tony Lit leafletThis is my favourite leaflet from the campaign (click on it to enlarge). It was being delivered on the morning of polling day in particularly leafy part of Southall near the Grand Union Canal (for the record, I picked these two examples up from the street).

Why is it in so-bad-its-good territory? Well, the message on it will mean nothing to non-Hindus; indeed I would imagine it would put a lot of their backs up. What’s more, I would have thought that a lot of Hindus themselves would feel patronised, being effectively advised that it is their religious duty to vote for Tony Lit (and not the Hindu Vivendra Sharma).

If you’re going to mix religion, ethnicity and politics up in this way, why not go the whole hog and include a Hindi translation? I’m sure there must be one or two individuals out there who would be receptive to the message but don’t read English.

But for everyone else, how is this leaflet worth delivering on polling day? What does it tell them? There isn’t a tactical message, information about polling, a phone number to request lifts… anything. I could come up with 101 things that you would be better off getting your activists to do on polling day.

In fact there was a better leaflet being delivered just a few streets away. Overall, the impression one gets is that the Tory campaign team were caught with their trousers down on polling day and were just flailing about in a vain attempt to keep people busy. A less generous person than myself would say that just about sums up their whole campaign.

Return to Ealing Southall

I’ve sure everyone is heartily sick of the Ealing Southall by-election by now, but I thought I’d add a few final thoughts.

The Tories made a big play about how they were, to paraphrase one Iain Dale commenter, “parking their tank on the Lib Dems’ lawn”. Many of their leaflets did indeed ape our style (although as I said earlier, they were appallingly amateurish – in particular their version of “Talk of the Town” OK Magazine style literature), but they were still infused with Toryish notions about the candidate standing stiffly and self-importantly in every picture. I don’t think I saw a single photo of Tony Lit actually listening to someone talking in any of their literature. Of course such photos are always posed, but they send important subliminal messages about your candidate. Of course, if you come from a Conservative standpoint and see politics as a thing done by important men in suits rather than for ordinary people (it’s interesting to compare and contrast the photos posted on the Facebook groups for Conservative Future and Lib Dem Youth & Students: the former has portraits of Cameron, Hague, Osborne et all, the latter is full of pictures of LDYS campaigning, partying and doing lewd things to one another. Same age group, different planet), you will struggle desperately to get your head around such a concept.

That leads me onto the choice of Tony Lit himself. Why would you even consider a non-local candidate who wasn’t a party member, let alone impose him on the local party (I heard Caroline Spelman on Today yesterday saying that the ES campaign showed that Cameron was committed to localism – ha!)? But Tony Lit does rather conform to the ideal Cameroon candidate, not because he is minority ethnic, but because he is a dilletante. To be sure, he isn’t a top hatted toff like Boris Johnson or Zac Goldsmith, but he screamed money. Far from seeing this as a problem in an economically under-performing place like Southall (I should be careful here because I actually loved the place and have added it to my list of places I might consider moving to), the Tories tried selling him as a ‘local success story’. In doing so they blithely ignored the fact that his ‘success’ is rooted in his father’s money; but when have ‘meritocrats’ ever let the truth get in the way of a good story? Again, it boils down to a Toryish concept of the candidate as ‘hero’ as opposed to ‘public servant’ and one that I’m not convinced has much traction outside of the sort of cosy suburban areas that the Tories have retreated to over the past couple of decades. Far from modernisation and reaching outside of the Tory supporter base, Cameroonism is looking distinctly old fashioned and inward looking from where I’m sitting this morning.

Then there was the bad tempered nature of their campaign. I for one was taken by surprise by the sheer intensity of it. It started with Grant Shapps bizarre claims about ‘poster lotteries’ which he still hasn’t offered any evidence of and continued with a stream of threats to either sue their opponents or sic the police on them. In the event, only one campaign team are being investigated by the police: the Conservatives, for allegedly leaking the result of the postal vote count. The Grant Shapps/YouTube incident will live on forever as an example of quite how mad, bad and plain stupid the Conservatives can be.

But there was another, more subtle but in some ways even more lamentable aspect of this. In by-elections, tensions among party activists run high. There are regrettable incidents such as the Watson/Kemp addiction to using rentamobs to intimidate their rival candidates. But as a general rule you make a point of being polite to one another when you cross each other in the street or tell at a polling station. There is simply no need to make it personal.

The Tories I encountered in Ealing Southall however were something else. Without fail, if I crossed one of them in the street, they would sneer, mutter something rude under their breath or otherwise make it clear that I was wasting my time and the Lib Dems were about to be victorious. One Conservative woman was polite when she drove up to me on the eve of poll, but that was simply because she was trying to plug me for information (having just carefully taken the Lit posters off her window ten metres down the road).

In fact – confession time! – it was one particularly unpleasant incident outside the Conservative HQ in West Ealing that lead me to blogging about that Billy Taylor post on their Facebook group.

What is clear from these incidents, and from a cursory glance at the blogosphere is that the Conservative campaign team committed the ultimate sin of convincing their own activist base that they were on the cusp of victory. You don’t piss in your own backyard. The innocent little CF monkeys who were so arrogantly sneering at rival party activists in the street two weeks ago will have had their hearts broken. It was clear from the outset that the Tories weren’t getting activists in sufficient numbers, despite the hype. Next time, they’ll have to rely on Paul Seery to do everything (if he hasn’t defected to Labour by then). And that’s not to mention all the political journalists, such as Jonathan Isaby and Michael Crick who they were quite clearly telling fibs to. Campaign teams in backwater, moribund seats get this sort of electionitis all the time, but when your senior by-election task force gets carried away like this, you have a crisis on your hands. Just how badly do you think they’d have screwed up if it had been a General Election?

Finally, you have to ask serious questions about David Cameron’s judgement. I’m not just talking about his decision to put his personal credibility on the line, to the point of having his name on the ballot paper, but of his decision to dedicate so much party resources to a campaign that went nowhere. Let’s be quite clear about something: the Conservatives did play a decisive role in denying the Lib Dems another by-election win. The Tory campaign was effectively a spoiler, muddying the waters, confusing the media and enabling Labour to present it as a straight Labour-Tory fight. If they hadn’t gone for it in the same way, perhaps concentrated their resources in Sedgefield where they were second, the Lib Dems might just have been able to take the seat.

Of course, for people like the aforementioned Paul Seery, that is mission accomplished. But if Cameron thinks that, he should resign. Coming a poor third in Ealing would not have got them worse headlines than they received yesterday and today – indeed without the over hype, they wouldn’t now be getting spanked. But it would have damaged Brown and brought his honeymoon period to a crashing end. Instead, Brown’s bounce has been consolidated. From a strategic point of view, it has to be one of the worst political miscalculations ever.

It could be that the Tories genuinely believed they had a real chance of winning, but who managed to convince them of that? Nothing is certain in politics, but if you can’t guarantee with 100% certainty that you are going to come at least second, you should never campaign to win. I think I learnt that in Primary School. What do they teach those crazy kids at Eton?

There is a comparable pre-1997 example. In 1995, Labour took a strategic decision to challenge the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, a Tory held seat where the Lib Dems were second. They ran a hard, even nasty campaign, that many Lib Dems still feel sore about. The Lib Dems won, but Labour significantly came second and went on to take the Oldham East and Saddleworth seat in 1997 (which they hold to this day). Peter Mandelson knew exactly what he was doing. Did Grant Shapps?

All this suggests that, for all the froth, Cameron doesn’t really have a clue what his anti-Brown strategy should be. He’s done a good job at making people sit up and pay attention to the Tories again, but he’s done a lousy job as changing hearts and minds within the Conservative Party itself. He surrounds himself with top hatted toffs and dilletantes, and calls it ‘diversity’. At the height of his popularity he nearly lost the Bromley by-election, while at the height of Gordon Brown’s popularity, he ends up humiliating himself when he didn’t need to. The money continues to flow in, some of it not from the clinically insane, but money can’t buy you activists in the North and other areas they need to win. And now we have a return to back to basics and posturing over Grammar Schools (sorry, ‘Grammar streaming‘), entirely at the behest of the very swivel eyed loons who have been keeping them in the political wilderness for the best part of two decades now. It isn’t looking good.

(and after all that, I failed to blog about my favourite Tory election leaflet of all time! Maybe later).

What a complete Lits up!

Fuck up Ealing SouthallNo time to blog at the mo, but in a rare act of cross-partisanship, I thought I’d make my new Ealing Southall button available to all. Subtlety is my middle name!

UPDATE: here’s the code if you want to add it to your page: