Monthly Archives: December 2007

Eight for 2008

It’s still 2007 (just) so just enough time to do Iain Dale’s Eight for 2008 meme. Over the next 12 months I would (realistically) like to see:

  1. Clegg to learn to trust his instincts, distrust his yes men and subsequently the Lib Dems to get back up to the low twenties in the opinion polls and to make steady progress over the year.
  2. After another period of stagnation, and Brown’s Black October a distant memory, the Tories to resume the civil war which was giving them so much fun up until September.
  3. A House of Lords Reform Bill to receive its third reading in the Commons (could easily happen and with the next general election now likely to be 2010, there is time to stand down the Lords obstructionists).
  4. Following much faffing about with this upcoming citizen’s summit, the government to formally begin a constitutional convention in which electoral reform is very much on the agenda.
  5. ID cards to be scrapped.
  6. Clegg to hold a third tax commission, rowing back from the disappointing second one which (despite Vince Cable’s assertions) saw us embrace the conservative consensus to cut IHT and a withdrawal in Lib Dem support for wealth taxes.
  7. The government to finally wake up and introduce a German-style feed-in tariff to promote micro-generation.
  8. The public to embrace the Sustainable Communities Act.

I’m supposed to tag five people so I tag (with apologies to those who have already taken part – I’ve not been paying attention much recently): Alix Mortimer, Anthony Barnett @ OurKingdom, Antony Hook, Jennie Rigg, Jo Angelzarke.

Benazir Bhutto

I remember back when Musharraf came to power and kicked all the politicians out of Pakistan that many greeted this with what at best could be described as ambivalence. A number of people, including prominent Lib Dems, were of the opinion that while military coups are, of course, a Bad Thing, the self-serving corrupt political class in Pakistan had had its day, failed and that Musharraf might be able to bring a period of stability out of which genuine politics could hold sway.

Eight years on and I’m not convinced that Musharraf has any firmer grip on the country than his predecessors. And for all the accusations flying around that Bhutto was merely feathering her own nest, many of which were no doubt not entirely groundless, she lost her life today quite literally by putting her head up above the parapet.

That’s a kind of politics we can only imagine in the West. How many of us would have gone back to a country with complete confidence that our enemies would kill us given half a chance? Whatever else you might say about her, personal greed was not what drove her.

It’s a dark and insane world out there, and I don’t see anything to suggest things are likely to get better over the next 12 months. Here’s to a 2008 with a few fewer people willing to die for principles and a few more people willing to die for humanity.

Intellectual Property – the big 21st century faultline?

Eqypt are set to pass a law forcing royalties to be paid to, erm, Egypt, every time anyone makes a copy of a pyramid or an ancient Egyptian relic. This presumably means I’ll owe them money every time I press the arrow (^) key. But of course, this isn’t the first time a government has passed a special law to protect a specific piece of intellectual property: after all in the UK we have given Peter Pan protected status specifically with a view to bankrolling the Great Ormond Street Hospital, and who could object to giving money to sick children?

This is a rather extreme example of the what is increasingly emerging as a major faultline in civilisation which seems set to dominate much of the 21st century. On the one hand we have global multi-media empires which look set to exploit – and extend – IP as much as possible. What some economists call “superstar economics” means that a piece of IP – pretty much any piece it seems can be exploited for millions, even billions of euros at a global level. On the other hand, there is the open source movement, the idea that the future lies in collaboration and sharing. Largely voluntary movements such as Creative Commons may seem benign enough, but Bill Gates has already denounced open source as a new form of communism, and beyond the obvious face offs such as Napster, we have yet to see how more sophisticated ideas about opening up other mediums and industries might challenge the status quo. One thing to look out for in my opinion is how the movement for opening up access to public data develops. Already there are rumblings objecting to the idea that people should have free access to something that the government has been flogging to private companies for years. Crown copyright has effectively lined the pockets of companies such as Dod’s for years; what will lobbyists do if large amounts of what companies such as this do suddenly becomes available to every Tom, Dick and Harriet? Somehow I doubt Dod’s is going to take this lying down.

One thing is sure, the traditional industries are feeling insecure and starting to behave in a manner not unlike a cornered animal. The ridiculous behaviour of the Performing Rights Society, described on this blog last month, is far from unique. Buy or rent a DVD, or go to the cinema, and it is now par for the course to essentially accused of theft by the very company you have just increased the coffers of in the form of their insulting and bossy FACT warnings (to be fair, their recent cinema adverts are somewhat gentler and might even be accused of having a sense of humour, if you don’t mind being talked down to by a cartoon rodent).

Over the past few days there have been a number of articles in the press about the music industry (and now MPs) taking a stance against websites such as eBay selling on tickets. We are now to understand eBay and the like as being virtual “pimps” – an analogy which is fine so long as you accept that the same basic description applies to estate agents (indeed any kind of agent) and indeed anyone working as a middle man in any industry (including, erm, record companies).

Harvey Goldsmith is proposing legislation to make it illegal to resell tickets to music gigs along similar lines to the existing legislation that applies to football matches. Yet this legislation is there for a very specific reason: it is designed to prevent football hooligans from buying their way onto their rivals’ terraces. Whether you approve or disapprove of this legislation, its intent is to stop people from being maimed and even killed; Goldsmith is calling for nothing more than the protection against their own gullibility.

Much of what seems to be developing appears to be perfectly legitimate. For example, what’s wrong with creating a futures market for ticket sales? It sounds like a perfectly good service for sports and music fans.

The solution to all this seems to be obvious to me: rather than trying to shut down the auctioneers, who are only providing services at the price people are willing to pay, why not sell all tickets in this way in the first place? The music industry appears to take great delight at how quickly they sell out of mega-gigs, yet all that ensures is that the tickets go to the most enthusiastic, the luckiest and the most organised. The average punter loses out at every turn. Surely auctioning tickets would not only ensure that the company (and artist) gets the right price, but would limit the potential resell value. We don’t need new laws, we just need new business models.

(The music industry in particular doesn’t seem to get market economics. If it isn’t complaining that the value of tickets to gigs is to high, it is complaining that the value of CDs is too low. The CEOs of Sony, EMI et al wouldn’t look out of place in the management board of a tractor factory in Stalin’s Russia)

But it doesn’t end there. Both global patent and copyright laws have been extended in recent decades. The original idea behind such laws appears to have been forgotten and pure greed has taken its place. Globalisation means that the earnings potential from a new idea has massively increased; yet at the same time we’ve artificially increased it further still, and long lives will extend this still further. To take one example, J.K. Rowling, a rich woman who can afford the very best in healthcare, is likely to have a very long life. Let’s assume she lives to 100, in 2065. The copyright on her books will stay with her estate until 2135. That means that her great-great-great grandchildren will still be profiting from their ancestor’s books. Is there really any justification for that? I’m all for an artist’s work being protected, but when a work becomes a global brand, doesn’t there come a point when the money made from it is no longer reflective of that work’s value and more based on the value of the marketing behind it? Doesn’t there come a point where these laws no longer protect creativity but stifle it?

Compare Batman to Robin Hood. Anyone can make a Robin Hood movie; the character is in public domain. To make a Batman film (or comic for that matter), you need the permission of Time-Warner. Who does this serve? Isn’t Batman now an iconic enough figure in popular imagination in such a way that is bigger than any corporation?

It is, I readily acknowledge, a moot point. But I’m less concerned about the here and now than I am about the prospect of a century of corporations owning vast catalogues of intellectual properties archived from the 20th century and trying to find ever more creative ways of exploiting them. As a civilisation, we’ve never had to face such a privatisation of ideas before. Technology will make it easier for corporations such as Disney to take legal action against anyone using their IP without permission – on the web and, without wanting to get too sci-fi here, ultimately in your mind? – yet what moral rights do they have over such cartoon characters that have become part of our folk memory?

It strikes me that all this could take a turn for the much worse and inevitably there will be a backlash. And ultimately this is deadly serious because it goes far beyond books, music and cartoon characters; much of the value of our stocks and shares are rooted in intellectual property; challenging the laws allowing Marvel to keep hold of Spider-Man could have enormous consequences for instance. And that means huge vested interests are at stake here.

As with land, I can’t help but feel that the debates on intellectual property that were raging at the turn of the last century will increasingly be revisited in the not so distant future. At stake is nothing less than who owns our very culture.

Cardboard Conservative

Coming in late I know, but I’m amazed no-one has referred to Grant Shapps’ homelessness escapade the other day in the context of being a cunning stunt. “Cunning stunt” is a collection of letters I have repeatedly associated with the brains behind the Tory’s Ealing Southall campaign this year, and it’s nice to have a reminder in this period of goodwill to all men.


Will the Conservatives join the progressive alliance against corruption?

Simple question: Nick Clegg has repeated Lib Dem calls for an inquiry into the scrapping of an anti-corruption investigation into the Saudi arms deal following revelations that Blair wrote a “who will rid me of this turbulent priest?“-style letter to the Attorney General on the eve of the investigation being dropped. Will David Cameron join this progressive alliance, or not?

Since we are apparently all progressives now, this is surely a no brainer? A basic fundamental tenet of progressivism is the idea of equality under the law, with no exceptions for special status. Who could argue against such a thing?

It is a simple question that demands a simple answer. Perhaps my Tory readers would care to try answering it.

Swinsongate: why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Credit where it’s due, when it comes to getting lies repeated as fact, Omar Salem is clearly a latter day Joseph Goebbels. Perhaps he’s been getting advice from his erstwhile colleague Miranda Grell. Andrew Grice at the Independent has regurgitated his press release all-but verbatim over on his blog, incredibly even painting this as “Clegg’s first rebellion.”

What’s interesting is that Grice has filed his article 24 hours after Salem put out his press release and has subsequently visited this website where all the facts have been corrected for him in easily digestible, bite-size chunks. Yet for some reason that hasn’t stopped him from blundering in. Modern news values, eh?

Down with the youth! (UPDATE)

I fear my post on Thursday about Clegg’s reshuffle has roused the Labour Blogosphere into a frenzy of mock outrage at Jo Swinson being demoted from her post as youth spokesperson. Both Rupa Huq and Omar Salem are working themselves into a lather, with Omar singling out LDYS for failing to mention her demotion in their press release despite her being a former Chair of the organisation.

There are just two slight flaws with this analysis. Firstly, Jo has never been Chair of LDYS (although to be fair, she is a former Vice Chair). Secondly, and a little more significantly, she was not and has never been the Lib Dem youth spokes for the Lib Dems. That role, now performed by Lynne Featherstone, was until recently the responsibility of Tim Farron (current Hon President of LDYS, natch).

If I were a youngish MP I would be very wary of taking on the youth brief. It’s a poisoned chalice and one that can set back careers. Sorry Dawn, but look at the meteoric (as in, crashing to earth at great speed) career of Lembit Öpik for an indication at how it can set you back. Jo, as the youngest MP in the House, has I understand always been very wary of taking it on as a direct result. Being pigeonholed can be catastrophic for a politician.

If Labour bloggers want to feel bad for her, lament the treatment she received at the hands of Ming five months ago when she went from Shadow Scottish Secretary to a non-frontbench role on equalities, despite doing a perfectly good job under the circumstances (and bearing in mind the limitations of that post when the Lib Dems had not just a leader in the Scottish Parliament to contend with but at the time the Deputy First Minister as well), while the aforementioned Öpik got a promotion for presiding over the implosion of the Welsh party. Where were Jo’s newfound Labour friends then?

In any case, a little bird tells me that Jo’s demotion is not quite the step back as it first appeared. Watch this space.

UPDATE: It emerges that London Young Labour have press released this. What a bunch of buffoons.

UPDATE 2: Still no correction from Salem, but he’s decided that he’s Jenny Willott’s new best friend now. As it happens, he’s right here, as Jenny Willott does indeed appear to have been the party’s youth affairs spokesperson (shows what I know). But just to add to the confusion, I wasn’t wrong about Tim Farron either.

The UK Column is back!

Cover to UK Column, December 2007The latest copy of the UK Column arrives. Yay! I first came across this august publication at the Conservative Party Conference and I’m delighted to say this one is even nuttier than the last.

No time to write about it in detail now; read it all yourself by going to their website. Suffice to say my favourite article is their long exposition “proving” that the British are the true Israelites. This is argued on the basis that the Celts have legends about the Tuatha Dé Danann and that one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel was lead by Dan. The fact that “Danann” refers to the Earth Goddess (Diana?) seems to have passed them by completely. Apparently the Saxons were Israelites too. And the Normans… just go and read it already.

They’re asking for volunteers to help with distribution. I’m tempted to offer purely on the basis that this is the best way of making Eurosceptics look silly I can think of. Maybe it’s part of a sinister conspiracy.

UPDATE: Oh, forgot my other favourite bit. Apparently all the fringe meetings at Tory conference were chaired by women using “Delphi techniques to control meetings.” This is apparently a rather pretentious and sinister sounding way of saying they tended to take questions in groups of three. This, it would appear, was all co-ordinated. I must ask the gf about it (as she chaired one of the meetings which is specifically mentioned).

Iain Dale may be onto something – but at what price to his soul?

I’ve just been reading the two interviews that Iain Dale has just flagged up about his new Politico magazine. It’s an interesting business model – effectively The House Magazine with bite.

The House Magazine has to be one of the most interminable publications going. Ostensibly a way of hoovering up lobby cash in the form of advertising they rarely bother to make their content interesting at all. I was particularly outraged earlier this year at work to get a phonecall from one of its sister publications offering to “sell” us space for an article on one of our campaigns which they had got a government minister to write an article criticising. They were effectively blackmailing a small NGO and if we didn’t happen to be both better at communicating with MPs directly than them and keenly aware of that fact, we might have fallen for it (we won the campaign).

I don’t know any MPs who admit to avidly reading the House beyond the merest of occasional flickings through – God knows they shouldn’t have the time. But a slimmer, easier read might be more of a likely prospect.

The thing that I’m most keenly aware of with blogging is that although very few people read websites such as this, it tends to be political obsessives who, relatively speaking and with plenty of exceptions, are relatively high up the greasy poll compared with the average punter. It’s one of the reasons I can only laugh when people decide to lecture me about making this website more accessible “to the voter”. I don’t have any obligation to reach out to the voter and it isn’t my job to. Even Iain’s website with its 10x bigger readership is consumed by comparatively few “normal” people. With all due respect to the people out there who do indeed strive to use their blogs as a communications tool with their community (and I’m not saying that’s a wasted exercise as local communities have movers and shakers as much we have at a national level), blogging with an overt focus on trying to appeal to the average voter is doomed to failure.

But talking to the “right” people can be very effective indeed. If that’s Iain’s pitch, I can see him selling a lot of advertising space at the expense of Dod’s. Of course, that’s when the tricky part starts. Iain is very quick to emphasise that the magazine will be cross-party, but what will he be doing to ensure that the advertising tail doesn’t end up wagging the dog? If you don’t have a six-figure lobbying budget you don’t exist as far as Dod’s is concerned. One of the things I’ve liked most about 18DS is that it opened the door to a much wider range of voices. Will The Politico have a similar philosophy?