Monthly Archives: March 2008

The Column Purpose

Dedicated readers may have noticed some feathers being ruffled in the comments sections of my articles on the UK Column and Common Purpose. My favourite is a link to a video of a lecture given by Brian Gerrish. If you have two hours of your life going spare, check it out. My favourite part is his claim that he has had sight of a secret document on the Common Purpose website which is all about “how to take control of a city”. Damning stuff, but apparently he couldn’t download it because that would leave a “footprint”. In which case, if he couldn’t download it, how did he manage to read it?

Gerrish’s style is fascinating. He seems to excel at lulling his audience into submission by showing them slide after slide after slide of completely dull emails and other papers and ask innuendo laden questions about them. Do that once and it is pretty meaningless but repeat the process and it can be bloody effective. You have to take a step back to realise that he’s just taken 1+1+1+1+1+1+1 and come up with pi. Given that he insists that the common practice of taking questions in public meetings in groups of three is a Delphic mind control technique one is compelled to ask: what mind control techniques did he pick up of his own during his time in the military?

There is also a recurring thread in all this about Demos and the IPPR being Communist organisations. Communist? As think tanks go they are about as work-for-hire and cravenly capitalist as you are likely to find (no offense, like). Demos’ latest work with Charles Leadbetter about direct budgeting in the health service is about as close to dismantling the Stalinistic tendencies of that great British institution you are likely to find short of privatisation.

I also enjoy all this “Common Purpose = CP = Communist Party” stuff. This from a newspaper which used to call itself the Plymouth (and Devonport) Column. PC sounds very similar to CP if you ask me. And what about Column? Sounds a bit like both “Common” and “Communist” to me. I think we should be told.

Following all this as I have been over the past few months I’ve been fascinated by this split between Brian Gerrish and David Noakes. There was some kerfuffle a few months ago when one faction refused to distribute the other factions newspaper. It now emerges they have formalised their split, with Noakes publishing the Westminster News (and retrospectively going back and changing all the old Columns so they have the new masthead – nothing wrong with a bit of Stalinistic airbrushing of history is there?) while Gerrish is now publishing the Column with the help of the New Battle of Britain group.

Their latest effort is now available to read online. This issue they have chosen to take to task the “quisling” Daily Mail for running a campaign on plastic bags when it should have been dedicating all its pages to covering the IWAR demonstration at which a couple of old soldiers and a dog turned up (that’s me being all figurative and sarcastic folks – did you see what I did there? Whichever way you spin it 3,000 people turning up to a national demo is a fucking disaster). They also seem to be getting very into divine revelation. Given their apocalyptic visions of the EU, don’t be surprised if they don’t all end up chugging the Kool Aid in some abandoned farm in the middle of nowhere at some point.

Gerrish = Koresh – it’s all linked, see?

Panic! Panic! Hold on, is the economy really in a worse state than 1982?

The Telegraph has breathlessly flourished a new poll showing that the “feelgood factor” is worse than at any point since records began. In, er, 1981.

What this suggests is that the general public genuinely believes the current slowdown in the economy (note, not even a recession, just a reduction in growth) is a worst economic situation compared to the dole queues of the early 80s and the negative equity of the early 90s.

Now, I have my criticisms about the government and things could indeed get much, much worse than they are now. But I would humbly suggest that this illustrates how the public has become increasingly infantilised over the last 30 years, and arguably the uselessness of this measure, more than it says anything about the government’s handling of the economy. The fact that the Torygraph seems completely incapable of grasping that doesn’t say very much about its sense of proportion.

Liberal Youth launches

Liberal Youth rose last night from the ashes of LDYS and by all accounts it was a great success. Andy Mayer has singled out myself and Alex Wilcock as pre-eminent examples of all that was wrong with the previous regime. Fair enough – I never claimed to be a hip young thing even when I could be described as young. If that’s how I’m fondly remembered, that probably explains why, despite being LDYS’ longest serving sabbatical officer, I wasn’t invited to their relaunch. Not sure my record of success at creating vibrant youth organisations is any worse than Andy’s – a former organiser of Liberal Future (dead), the Young Professionals Network (buried) and the Young European Movement (comatose) – though.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are my six bits of advice to the new organisation:

1) Stop looking frickin’ gift horses in the mouth. Last week was People and Politics Day Europe, an event the format of which I will happily admit to having lifted largely wholesale from LDYS’ old Westminster Days (they weren’t using it any more and youth engagement is too important to get territorial about). 1,800 young people. 25 organisations exhibited there and were kept busy.

UKIP turned up at the crack of dawn. Conservative Future turned up soon afterwards. Young Labour turned up late, but had organised a lunchtime event which they plugged mercilessly. And LDYS/Liberal Youth? A solitary member of staff turned up just before the rush with minimal material.

I’m not blaming the staff member – clearly they had plenty to be getting on with. I do wonder though what this says about the organisations’ priorities. One of the reasons LDYS continued to organise Westminster – past the point at which it could barely justify it due to rising costs in my opinion – was that it was a great recruitment opportunity.

2) Break out of the Oxbridge ghetto. It may be a misperception, but it has appeared that in recent years LDYS has been dominated by students from the Big Two universities. Back in the Bad Old Days we struggled to get Oxford and Cambridge students involved at all (with honourable exceptions) and I think it is a sign of the party’s growing success that this transformed beyond recognition in the early noughties. I do think the pendulum has possibly swung too far however – in particular Cambridge seems to have been running the show for some time.

Of course one of the simplest ways to deal with this is to go along with (1), above.

3) Be concerned about gender balance. One thing that most certainly is not a misperception is that LDYS has become increasingly male-dominated in recent years. For a long time LDYS had a good mix of male and female executive members at the top. In 96/97 we actually had more women on the exec than men. Yet in recent years this has changed. Just 4 out of the 18 current LDYS exec members are women. If Liberal Youth wants to look vibrant and hip, this looks like a crucial place to start to me.

Why did it all go wrong? I have a theory which is that it all started when we scrapped the Women’s Officer and Women’s Committee in 1999. This was at the behest of the vast majority of the women members themselves and I’m not saying that they should be brought back but I do wonder if, on a subliminal level, it sent out the signal that the organisation wasn’t just for boys.

Sometimes, it must be said, young women are their own worst enemies here. It was certainly true in the 90s and I think it is broadly true still that few 25s consider themselves to be feminist and have an allergic reaction to anything they perceive as being affirmative action. It is also my perception that this view mellows – considerably – among women over 25 when say suddenly realise that the egalitarian, post-feminist vision of society they bought into is a crock. It’s one of the things the Campaign for Gender Balance has struggled with for years (ironic, given that it was explicitly formed to fend off calls for all-women shortlists). It isn’t easy to talk about “women’s issues” to women who would rather punch you in the face than talk about “women’s issues”.

Nevertheless, at a time when the pay gap is as wide as ever, and with the right to abortion under threat, I’m sure there are numerous campaigns Liberal Youth could adopt that would broadcast that it is woman friendly in a subtle way.

4) Bring back Activate! Activate! – the residential training weekend for new members inaugurated in 1998 by then LDYS Vice President Nikki Thomson – was the single most successful and satisfying thing that I was involved with in my time in LDYS. It created real activists, both for the youth wing and the wider party, who stayed the test of time. It ensured LDYS renewed itself instead of the annual exec elections being a stitch up between the various factions’ and their mates. It even got the party an MP in the form of Jo Swinson. It was a simple formula (attempts at creating a stage two event tended to fail) and a great success. By now, LDYS should be holding 2-3 Activates every year, not none at all.

5) Start a samba band. I’ve always argued for this and no-one has ever taken me seriously. But an official Liberal Youth Samba Band would quickly make the organisation one of the most popular fixtures at any mass demonstration, as well as being fun for the participants themselves.

6) Don’t try too hard to be hip. In my opinion this is where LDYS went wrong a couple of years ago when it was dominated by a bunch of rather elitist snobs who thought you should only be allowed to join if you went to the right parties and who despised party activism and activists. Thankfully, those days are gone and the worst proponents of this have left the party to wallow in their own self-regard.

It’s great to be a young and vibrant organisation, but even the best youth organisations are prone to cliques. Political youth organisations also, whisper it, depend on serious-minded, non-conformist and desperately unfashionable souls who are prepared to do the donkey work. Create too strong an impression that you are not welcome if you look “wrong” or are a bit awkward or inarticulate, and you are guaranteed to struggle no matter how much Andy Mayer assures you otherwise.

Why Catholic moralism makes me sick

I seem to be incapable of blogging at the moment – the problem with failing to do it for a couple of weeks is getting back into the habit is often really difficult when there are so many distractions out there.

This is a shame because there is plenty to blog about. The main thing that has been getting my goat over the past weekend has been the escalating row over the upcoming vote on the Embryo Bill, actively being stoked up by people such as Cardinal Keith O’Brien who has been come up with all sorts of colourful phrases to denounce it. He could at least get his literary allusions right – Frankenstein created life from dead matter; his beef here is about proposals to create animal-human hybrid embryos. That isn’t Frankensteinian – it is Moreau-esque. Is it too much to expect these turbulent priests to at least read? Clearly.

There is a big debate about whether Labour should allow a free vote on this. I am only too aware that both the Lib Dems and Tories are already allowing a free vote. It does rather bring into question what free votes are all about and why it is that religious bodies (and it is unerringly religious bodies) insist on free votes on such a narrow range of issues. As Laurence Boyce argues over on Lib Dem Voice these votes are hardly “free” in that the churches are only all too keen whip to their heart’s content. Is it not absurd that we regard scientific debates about the experimentation on small clusters of cells – or for that matter what two grown adults get up to behind closed doors – as “moral” issues while issues such as poverty, justice and military action are regarded as political?

It is in this context that Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor‘s article in the Guardian yesterday must be regarded. Murphy makes the outrageous suggestion that the difference between religion and “atheistic secularism” is love. Catholics love, atheists “kills the human spirit under the pretence of liberating it” (note how he frames the debate by denying atheists their very humanity). To be sure, he accepts that on occasion Catholics forget this lesson but insists that history repeatedly “shows the church rediscovering its own secret”.

O’Connor has not condemned or even mildly rebuked O’Brien for his speech on the embryo bill, in which he uses such love-filled phrases as “hideous” and “grotesque”. This, lest us forget, is with reference to scientific research intended to save lives and improve people’s quality of life. But presumably that’s okay because their “spirits” will live on.

It all but five years to the day since the House of Commons voted for an illegal war to invade Iraq. The Catholic church, to be sure, condemned it at the time, but did not seek to influence its own congregation in the Commons and require them to choose between the Pope and Tony Blair. Paul Murphy, Ruth Kelly and Des Browne – currently under intense pressure over the embryo bill – were let off the hook. Tony Blair himself has now been welcomed into the Catholic fold with open arms. Meanwhile, people with Parkinson’s are expected to suffer while in Africa and South America people are threatened with eternal damnation for using life-empowering and potentially life-saving contraception. And what does O’Connor use to justify all this and claims we atheists can’t grasp? Love.

Comics’ Final Crisis?

Just back from my occasional jaunt down to central London to pick up my comics from Gosh!. I have to admit I’m making these trips with ever decreasing levels of enthusiasm these days, for several reasons.

Firstly, there is the fact that I generally feel out of touch with the market these days. This problem started about 18 months ago when the UK’s comics trade paper Comics International vanished, only to reappear a few months later under the guise of a new publisher. The transition has not been a happy one, with the magazine struggling to come out on a monthly basis and when it does appear it is out of date, riddled with too many typos and has an amateurish style that I find a little hard to take. I fear that the editor Mike Conroy isn’t really up to the job. Certainly I thought twice about buying the latest issue and having bought it don’t really feel it was worth my while.

For a semi-detached comics fan such as myself this is disastrous from the point of view of the industry. I don’t have any desire to go back to the days when I used to get Previews on a monthly basis and apart from ignoring the UK scene, the US magazines are similarly hype-driven. So how do I find out what’s going on? I’m finding it increasingly difficult and that is reflective in the stuff I buy.

Secondly, there are the comics themselves. I’ve always been more of a DC reader than a Marvel one. This is for the simple fact that it was DC that largely lead the UK-brain drain that lead to people such as Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Grant Morrison working stateside and so it was via them that I got my first real taste of US comics. But for the last four years or more, DC has been vanishing up its own fundament. While Marvel has opted to make itself more accessible, spurred on by its successful film franchises, DC has become increasingly inward-looking.

It began with a 1986 12-part maxi-series called Crisis on Infinite Earths (actually, it began before that with various previous “Crises” but this was the focal point), in which the DC “multiverse” of infinite interlocking parallel universes became just one. It is always a bad idea to set a rule in a sci-fantasy setting like “no parallel universes” – look at how Doctor Who and Torchwood has toyed with the subject – and as a result DC spent the next 20 years bending and even breaking it, coming up with complex ideas like Hypertime to explain it all.

This all eventually lead to the Infinite Crisis – part 20th anniversary celebration of the Crisis of Infinite Earths, part second attempt to sort the whole bloody mess out. This directly lead to 52, a weekly series that ran for a year between May 2006 and May 2007 in which it was revealed that the second crisis had lead to a return of the multiverse – or rather a multiverse of 52 parallel universes. Conveniently this allowed DC to incorporate a number of their other superhero universes into “official” canon. And so, the Wildstorm universe is now part of it (glossing over the fact they have been running crossovers between Wildstorm and DC for over a decade now), the various Elseworlds series each have their own world and even old properties such as the Charlton and Fawcett now have their own worlds back. Even the animated series now gets its own “official” universe.

The problem is, no sooner have they revealed this, but they’ve started on a mission to blow this multi-verse up too. Immediately following 52 was another weekly series called Countdown. Already at least one world has been destroyed, and no doubt more are to follow in the now scheduled Final Crisis which writer Grant Morrison apparently describes as “The Lord of the Rings of the DCU”.

We shall see, and with Morrison at the helm I shall certainly be getting it. But the last four years has required a lot of forbearance. I didn’t bother with Infinite Crisis and by all accounts I was wise not to. 52 was good, Countdown has been distinctly average and the seemingly endless Countdown spin-offs have been worse than that. The whole thing has apparently been a hit but I’m left wondering who with?

There are two types of comics I read: things that I actually like, which tends to include 2000AD and pretty much anything penned by Joss Whedon, and stuff I buy out of habit. I’ve been buying far too much of the latter of late. And while DC have been pretty bad here, Marvel are just as bad offenders with their Civil War and Zombie-everything. I’ve already been sucked in but in what way is this accessible to new readers? They appear to have got caught in the same rut that Doctor Who got caught in in the 80s – fans writing for fans, keeping the community blissfully happy but not catering for anybody new.

So much for the superheroes, my other quandary lies in the fact that I find it increasingly difficult to find my way around what is sometimes rather snootily described as the comics “mainstream” – i.e. the stuff out there which isn’t all about lycra-clad musclebound buffoons who periodically blow up planets. A big Sandman fan, I got rather tired of the ever poorer cash-ins that Vertigo devised to milk that particular cash cow. Alienated by all that, I now get the impression that I missed out of some really good stuff. But how do I tell the good from the bad? I got quite into the indie-scene in the mid-nineties and was impressed by the range of good material out there. But the chaotic schedules left me a little lost. I gave up on Strangehaven having completely lost track of when the next issue was due out.

Overall, I’m feeling a little lost. I’m sure there are websites out there which can supply me with news, but it’s tough figuring out even where to start. It seems that the comics industry has found its little niche and is quite content plugging away at it, leaving it to the film industry to occasionally give it a boost. I’m not sure how sustainable all this is in the long term: if a relatively hardcore fan like myself can get alienated, isn’t there a danger this will all collapse on itself in ten or so years time?

Is Nick Harvey happy being the unacceptable face of Parliament?

One thing that really bugs me is when people who clearly don’t know what they are talking about come up with fatuous excuses for not allowing reasonable requests. Nick Harvey MP, sadly, is a case in point. His response to Jo Swinson’s reasonable request for Parliament to allow video clips to be posted on YouTube and other websites was met by what can only be described as utter stupidity:

Mr Harvey, who is also a Lib Dem MP, replied that copyright of the pictures was an issue, as was the cost of filming.

He said the rules dated back to when cameras were first allowed into the chamber, in the 1980s.

MPs, he added, were allowed to use clips for their own website if they showed them speaking – or a reply from a minister to their own question.

They were not permitted to show clips on “any third-party hosting website”, however.

Mr Harvey said: “At the moment the rule is that the clips can be streamed to be viewed in real time, but not downloaded in such a way that they can be manipulated at a future point.”

How is this stupid? Oh let me count the ways. To start with, what is the precise difference between an MP’s website and a “third party hosting website”. Does that apply to ePolitix’s dreadful homepages for MPs? What about Prater-Raines, the hosting service most Lib Dems use for their own websites? What is the fundamental difference between them and a YouTube channel? I suspect you can count the number of MPs who host their own websites on the fingers of one hand.

Secondly, downloading footage on YouTube is the best way to prevent them from being “manipulated at a future point.” YouTube converts footage into flash files, which apart from usually being of low quality, cannot simply be imported into editing software in the way that windows media files and Quicktime files can be. If an MP hosts their own footage using these formats they are far more vulnerable to future manipulation. But it’s a daft reason anyway because if it is live streamed at any point, it can always be saved and manipulated in the future. Therefore, this is a reason to shut down BBC Parliament, not for disallowing films on YouTube.

What really bugs me about all this though is that we’ve already been through all this. Not long ago, Harvey’s committee was playing silly buggers over TheyWorkForYou and using very similar arguments for why this website should be shut down. The question over the use of footage could and should have been resolved then. They had another opportunity over the Puttnam Report. Three years down the line and they are still being obstructive. The House of Commons Commission was also where the dreadful Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill – happily defeated last year – came out of. And all this on the same day that the police rule out an inquiry over the Derek Conway scandal due to a “lack of systems in this case to account for MPs’ expenses.” Which committee is responsible for those systems? Step forward Mr Harvey.

In short, this committee consistently fights to defend the exclusive, clubable air of Parliament and blocks attempts at greater openness, transparency and accountability. It isn’t really Harvey’s fault that he is the unacceptable face of Parliament – it is the Commons as a whole that appoints this damnable committee. But after the last couple of months, it is perhaps time for a new broom. Such a shame that far from calling for this, Nick Clegg has been spending so much of his time of late defending the Speaker and thus the status quo. So much for being anti-establishment.

Mad Men: health and safety porn for the disinfected noughties

I’ve just finished watching the third episode of Mad Men over on BBC Four. It hasn’t gripped me yet I have to say, but one thing that is starting to bug me is, well, the smokespoitation (a word I thought I’d made up but apparently haven’t). Yes it’s okay, I do get that everyone smoked in the 60s. Even in the office. Even pregnant women. That anti-smoking guy who hangs outside all the party conferences every year shouting at people must be doing his nut.

But it isn’t just the smoking. In general, it is one big fetish fest for everything they did in the 60s that we now consider dangerous. This is all very well, and factually accurate, but do they really have to signal everything with such great big neon signs stating “LOOK PUNY NOUGHTIES-ERA VIEWER! WATCH US TAKE MINIMAL CONCERN FOR OUR HEALTH AND SAFETY AND QUIVER WITH REPULSION AND DESIRE! BWAA-HAH-HAH-HAAAH!” Last week it was children running around with plastic bags over their heads and rolling around in the bag seat of a car with no safety belt during a crash. This week we’ve had extreme drink driving and a kid being slapped across the face. We aren’t talking subtle here.

The problem is, combine that with the rest of the sixties Americana – the cine film camera, the hats, the rampant sexism, et al – and there isn’t much left. This week’s episode in particular just felt like two episodes jammed together. The subplot about the main character’s wife’s unidentified illness (MS?) was all but forgotten. They’ve spent so much time and energy recreating a period (albeit very much from a contemporary perspective) that plot-wise it seems to be little more than a run of the mill soap.

The dark side of Scrabulous

I’ve been alerted to the fact that if you go over to the “join table” section of Scrabulous, you find an … interesting choice of gamers.

Just looking now for example, I notice that “Andrew” is requesting a game with females only during which he is after “s e x y chat, prefer who have messenger and cam”. “Jamie” meanwhile is wanting a game with “any ladies wanting to play strip scrabble over 30..women only..please” while an anonymous person wants “G-A-Y GUYS (!!!!) in London (or at least UK) who want to chat too. I WILL DELETE THE GAME IF YOU ARE NOT!” You get the picture.

I have to admit that until this weekend I was entirely unaware of the links between Scrabble and “sexy chat”. It does bring a new angle to the whole ongoing Tommy Sheridan debacle however.

My budget take on Comment is Free

Well, I seem to be all right. As a public transport-using, non-smoker on a decent wage who is a moderate drinker, I suspect I’ll be the beneficiary of the 2p income tax cut overall (although the devil is always in the detail). But it doesn’t look as if too many people will be particularly happy with this year’s budget.

More here.