Monthly Archives: July 2009

Total Politics Best Blog Poll

It’s that time of the year for the Total Politics Best Blog Poll again and this year it is being supported by both Lib Dem Voice and LabourList.

As with last year, Tim Ireland is organising a boycott and as with last year I disagree. Nonetheless, I totally accept that the annual Dale blog poll has a problem in that it will inevitably have a certain Conservative bias. That doesn’t really bother me as I take all these things with a pinch of salt anyway, but it is nonetheless a problem.

I don’t want to get into a similar verbal punch up that I ended up in with Tim last year. All I will do is urge him, Sunny and the others who are refusing to take part to organise an alternative instead of a boycott. It would be interesting to see how the two polls differ and it might actually influence the media to look beyond the existing Tory blogging hegemony for a change. I’m sure plenty of people will happily take part.

It strikes me that that is a better use of time than bemoaning the existing one. I’d take part in it. But then I will also be taking part in the Total Politics one as well (indeed I already have).

Have the Lib Dems lost the plot in Norwich?

If I were a Green Party member, I’d be ashamed to have a candidate like Rupert Read. Aside from being a bit of a whinger, while he likes to claim the moral high ground he isn’t above telling the odd lie here and there, such as his repeated insistance that the Lib Dems supported the Iraq war (there is also this incident).

His initiative of a “clean campaign pledge” is both extremely cynical – essentially putting himself as final arbitrator of what is clean and what isn’t (the pledge is cunningly worded so that he can continue telling lies about other parties, so long as he “honestly” believes it) while paradoxically manages to be extremely naive in that it is now being used as propaganda by the Tories (one thing that is particularly telling is that whilst bragging about signing this pledge, Rupert’s newfound friend Chloe isn’t above making some vague innuendo-laden smears of her own).

By the same token, I have been generally happy with what I’ve seen of the Lib Dem conduct of this campaign. I think some Lib Dem activists invest mystical properties in the Power of the Bar Chart as much as their critics and wonder if it is really that useful putting out lots of leaflets with the national result of this year’s local elections on them, but by the same token I don’t accept that is misleading: people have rather more common sense than that.

But one aspect of this campaign does concern me, and that has been the emphasis that seems to have been placed in the campaign in attacking the Greens generally and Rupert Read in particular. A couple of weeks ago there were reports that the party had branded Read as an “extremist” in a press release. In and of itself that was unfortunate, but you could at least dismiss it as a one-off action by an over-enthusiastic press officer.

However, it appears the same language has now appeared in a campaign leaflet:

From the Lib Dem campaign leaflet on Twitpic

(the full – pfff – “magazine” can be found here)

Is Rupert Read really an “extremist”? I don’t know him well enough to draw a conclusion. But I’d need stronger evidence than some vague allusion to him saying something unfortunate about 7/7 – especially when I would go at least partially along with what he is alleged to have said (for the record, I do think we made ourselves a target for terrorist attacks by invading Iraq – if anyone would like to have me thrown out of the party for believing that, the address is 4 Cowley Street, London SW1P 3NB).

And even if he was an “extremist”, unless he said something truly outrageous, I’d be very wary of calling him that and would focus more on what he had said than the fact that unnamed “people” “are turning against him.”

Last but not least, I simply don’t understand why the party is attacking him at all. On paper, the party is going into this by-election in third place – with the Greens not so very far behind. If the goal is to get first or second place, then part of the strategy should be to bring Green supporters on board. By all means point out that they don’t have a chance of winning, but don’t waste any time talking about them – and certainly don’t refer to their candidate by name. You won’t persuade Green voters to switch their vote by attacking their party – the most that will achieve is encourage them to stay at home on polling day.

What this leaflet suggests to me is that the real goal in the campaign isn’t to win, or even get a good second place, but to ensure that the Greens don’t overtake and put the Lib Dems in fourth place. That isn’t a campaign I would personally be the slightest bit interested in fighting and – notwithstanding how marginally useful it might be for neighbouring target seats – it is frankly a waste of resources.

The Lib Dems are trashing their own brand each time they indulge in this sort of nastiness and we no longer live in a world where we can expect the odd leaflet like this to be ignored by the outside world. Projects like The Straight Choice exist to challenge that.

Generally, the Lib Dems have a respectable record when it comes to campaigning. We certainly have never suggested one of our opponents is a rapist for example. But there have far too many examples of bad practice and the myth that the Lib Dems are more dirty than their opponents has gained currency within political circles (partly because it is a convenient one for our opponents to push). It is high time the party centrally recognised how dangerous this could be for our future prospects.

The Tribulations of Torchwood (SPOILERS!)

Unlike some, I’m neither a Torchwood hater or a “Rusty” hater (the habit of calling Russell Tiberius Davies “Rusty” is the Whovian equivalent of referring to a certain political party as “ZaNuLiebore”). The first season of Torchwood completely failed to live up to its potential, to be sure, but it had its moments and season two ironed out most of the creases. While the weeklong story format would certainly have lead to some changes, I was expecting pretty much more of the same.

How wrong could I be?

Torchwood: Children of Earth was a big meaty lump of good old fashioned paranoid and bleak British TV sci-fi, actually far more reminiscent of Quatermass than Doctor Who. Okay, it still had flashes of the old Torchwood’s silliness – episode two, with all its gratuitous nekkidness and concrete entombment, contained almost as much ridiculousness as the whole of season two combined – but much of that was to wrong foot the audience so it wouldn’t be prepared for the very different direction the series took for the rest of the week.

In fact, the way the writers played with expectations was a particularly clever aspect of the series. The first episode started off as Torchwood-as-usual. As the first series ended with the death of two key cast members, the impression created was that this story would be about how they rebuild the team. As such, we are introduced to Doctor Rupesh Patanjali – an obvious replacement for Owen Harper. Lois Habiba, who is clearly a dab hand with computers, is set up as the next Tosh. We’re introduced to Ianto and Jack’s respective families, which is very cosy. So far, so very conventional. But by the end of “Day One”, Dr Patanjali is dead and revealed as a deep cover government agent and the Torchwood Hub has been destroyed thanks to a bomb stuck in Jack’s ribcage (immortality has its drawbacks). It quickly becomes apparent that this story is going to be bigger and more climactic than anything we’ve seen before.

For all that though, while the scope was bigger, this didn’t mean bigger explosions (the biggest happened on Day One) and kewl CGI monsters. What we got instead was proper sci-fi, which is more about ideas than special effects. The bug eyed monsters are never fully seen and aren’t even given a proper name; all we get to see is the occasional claw jutting out from the mist and a particularly disturbing reveal about what had happened to the children given away in 1965.

Indeed, the monsters themselves, while unpleasant, aren’t the true villains of the piece. It turns out they are little more than bullying drug addicts. The real horror is how the people – and in particular the government – respond. What’s worse, that established rule of modern sci-fi – that with a bit of spunk and an inspiring leader, the human race can beat anything – is left wanting.

So it is that the cabinet sits down and casually discusses what criteria it is going to use to decide which children it sacrifices to the 456, leading to the immortal line “And if we can’t identify the lowest achieving 10% of this country’s children, then what are the school league tables good for?” (I got told off for laughing at that line too loud). We are left asking, would we do it differently? I’m sure everyone likes to think that they would have the moral fortitude to insist that the children had to be selected at random, but there is a certain cold logic to it (after all, could you really operate a ‘random’ policy in practice, and wouldn’t the lowest performing schools be the least likely to stand in the way of the military suddenly appearing and demanding their children? Somehow I doubt Eton would stand for it). A highly political drama (and it is surely no coincidence that Brian Green’s name remarkably similar to Gordon Brown, another Prime Minister famed for sitting back and letting other people take the blame), at one point the 456 asks – quite reasonably – why it is that the human race is so precious about giving up its children in this way while being entirely comfortable with daily infant mortality rate of 29,000. The first instinct of government is to give up the children of failed asylum seekers (no doubt the BNP are preparing a press release right now to denounce the BBC’s low estimate of just 62 failed asylum seeking children in the UK at any given time).

Meanwhile, Captain Jack decides that he won’t stand for it, confronts the 456 threatening revolution and… gets Ianto killed in the process. By the end of the story, Jack has thoroughly debased himself and is forced to sacrifice his grandson in a bid to save all the other children. His only recourse is to run away, off planet. To top it all, the most cold-hearted, nasty member of the cabinet ends up replacing the Prime Minister (Britain in the Whoverse seems to go through Prime Ministers on an almost weekly basis). Have you ever seen a programme on the telly that was so utterly anti-heroic?

A lot of people have been very critical of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who output. Some of it, it has to be said, is fair. Davies has two writers rummaging around inside him. One comes up with grandiose stories that end up becoming schmaltzy, soggy messes such as last years’ season finale. But when he is stricter with himself, Davies is capable of pulling off superb drama such as Midnight and Turn Left. Torchwood: Children of Earth was also quite reminiscent of The Second Coming, his pre-Doctor Who collaboration with Christopher Eccleston (the last good thing I’ve seen on ITV and also an example of event television that ran on consecutive nights). I’m a big fan of Stephen Moffatt but while he has proven his ability to do “creepy” he hasn’t thus far shown much of a “dark” side. For every Blink there have been two “everybody lives!” By contrast, even in something as seemingly bland as the Kylie Minogue Christmas Special, Davies set the story up so that all the “good” people died and the “bad” people lived. If Moffat’s Doctor Who lacks this edge, it will be much the poorer for it.

Back to Torchwood, what next? Well, opinion seems to differ on whether they have effectively killed the series or set it up for an exciting reboot. Notwithstanding the fact that bad ratings would almost certainly have killed it, I was left thinking they are planning on the latter option. They even had a bit of foreshadowing: just what was that incident that Ianto referred to “150 years ago” that Jack was somehow mixed up in that was apparently proof that the 456 should back off? But essentially the series will have to start again from scratch, with a new Hub and a new cast (Lois Habiba will presumably be back – and Johnson?). And I really want to find out what is up with the Weevils, and what has happened for Captain John – and Billis? One thing is clear: from here it can’t go back to business as usual. I, for one, really want to see that series.

UPDATE: I finally got around to reading Daddy Richard’s take on the series. Some similar conclusions but much more depth: Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five

Who killed the rainbow?

An unseemly spat has broken out between Bethan Jenkins and Peter Black on Twitter:

PB: @bethanjenkins you were considering rainbow option weeks after LD exec vote. Your rejected it. Nothing delusional about that.
BJ: @peterblackwales- your party refused it before that.
PB: @bethanjenkins no it didnt Bethan.My party voted for it. Stop rewriting history.
BJ: @peterblackwales i think you are the one doing that.
PB: @bethanjenkins not at all. Review the events not the myths generated by your spin doctors.

…and so on. Speaking as an outsider, what surprises me is that this is even a matter of debate. The timetable of events is quite clear:

24 May 2009: Rainbow Coalition talks in disarray after Lib Dem NEC rejects the proposal on the chair’s casting vote.
25 May 2009: Rhodri Morgan reelected first minister unopposed.
26 May 2009: Special Lib Dem conference overturns executive decision.
27 June 2009: Labour and Plaid form “One Wales” coalition.

Now, you could argue a lot of things here. The first thing would be that the Lib Dems were badly split, chaotic, unreliable and not exactly broadcasting their fitness to govern. You could argue that Plaid were only doing the sensible thing from both Wales’ and their own best interests. If you did, I’d be inclined to agree with you. What you can’t argue however is that the Lib Dems were the ones to kill the rainbow coalition talks – that responsibility rests with Plaid and Plaid alone. If you read the quotes from both Mike German and Nick Bourne at the time the deal was struck, it is clear that both of them considered the Rainbow deal to still be on the table. It was Plaid who walked away.

I simply don’t understand why Bethan is denying responsibility here instead of taking pride in walking away from a deal which I sniffed of stitch up (at least from the Tories’ point of view – they hardly seemed to be negotiating at all). I suspect it has something to do with the fact that she doesn’t feel particularly proud of Plaid’s record in office.

But the other thing about this whole debacle worth noting is that what was bad for political parties was very good indeed for democracy. One of the common criticisms of proportional voting systems is that they lead to government being stitched up by people in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. What the 2007 Welsh (and for that matter, Scottish) experience shows is that this is far from the case. The Welsh negotiations were held in public – too public for a lot of people’s liking. They took place over a period of weeks and the challenge was to sort out an agreement that best reflected how Wales as a whole had voted.

Contrast that with FPTP. Normally there are no formal coalition deals, to be sure. But since all parties are coalitions of interest, that isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of negotiations going on behind the scenes. But ultimately, as the typical Labour backbencher will agree (off the record and out of the earshot of the whips), their power is strictly limited. The real power lies in the party funders and the pollsters. With so much focused on winning those all-important swing votes in those all-important marginal seats, the number of people who have a real say in proceedings is just a handful.

To be sure, parties are dependent on funders and pollsters in elections regardless of the electoral system, but their role is much more limited. Parties have to fight for every vote instead of being forced to take most of their core vote for granted and the party or coalition which goes on to take office has to have a mandate from at least 50% of the electorate.

The negotiations surrounding the running of Wales in 2007 were not very attractive, but there is little doubt that process was a robust one.

In defence of “parliamentary graffiti”

A new pernicious and – surprise, surprise – anonymous campaign blog in support of scrapping early day motions has been established. Up until now, calls to scrap this system has been restricted to (usually Tory) MPs. Why an ordinary member of the public would want them scrapped is another matter.

If you go and have a peek at the EDM database, you could be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much to defend. But you would be wrong. EDMs are currently one of the few ways in which backbench MPs can raise issues in Parliament – which means they are one of the few ways in which their constituents can raise issues in Parliament.

As a campaign tool, for both parliamentarians and pressure groups, they are invaluable. On an almost monthly basis you read news reports assessing the likelihood of a backbench rebellion succeeding or failing as a result of how many members have signed the accompanying EDM. They are a key tool for backbenchers to arm themselves against the whips, a way of forming strength in numbers. In order to get private members bill legislation through parliament they are absolutely crucial. The Sustainable Communities Act* would never have become law if 338 MPs – a clear majority – had not signed the accompanying EDM.

Could the system be improved? Of course. For one thing, the current paper-based system is a total waste of money. Parliament could – and should – move towards an electronic system. There is also merit in considering some kind of guillotine rule for EDMs which fail to get enough signatories within a week (for example). The biggest abusers of EDMs are MPs themselves who just can’t resist tabling EDMs about their local football or rugby teams, etc. Yet I have never seen a critic of the system call for it to be reformed, merely scrapped.

Who would benefit from scrapping the system? Party whips whose job would suddenly become much easier. MPs more generally – particularly those dinosaurs who have been taken to task over the past couple of months – whose views would be less open to public scrutiny. Multi-client lobbying companies, who would be able to assert a greater monopoly on who has access to Parliament (currently, voluntary sector organisation facing up against a lobbying firm can at least rely on the public record as a way of monitoring progress of their campaigns and ensuring MPs’ opinions’ can’t waver; without EDMs, the lobbying companies would be the only ones with the resources to monitor this).

So we should be wary of this peevish campaign and question why they are hiding behind the veil of anonymity. Come out come out, wherever you are!

* Interest: I work for Unlock Democracy which was – and remains – one of the main backers of the SCA.

Remembering 7/7

Was it really four years ago? I have two abiding memories of the day.

The first was my journey into work. I got to Finchley Central only to find the trains weren’t working. Grumbled. Jumped on a bus to Golders Green. Got a bus to Golders Green. Got a number 30 once I reached Baker Street. Throughout my bus journey I was sending snarky text messages about the uselessness of public transport. It was only a little further down the road that I got a panicky phone call from my girlfriend ordering me to get off the bus.

Fortunately it wasn’t that number 30 (indeed I wouldn’t have got the phone call in time if it had been). I carried on my journey to work only to find that the Euston area was completely cordoned off. With no phone reception, I had no idea what was going on at that point. It just seemed surreal.

I do occasionally idly speculate what might have happened if I’d got out of bed half an hour earlier that morning (on a related note, I was meant to be in Manchester city centre performing, um, street theatre, on the morning of 15 June 1996 but decided to have a lie in instead; similarly, I planned to go to the cinema at the Brixton Ritzy on the evening of 15 April 1999 but got sidetracked writing an article – I’ve been a bit of a jammy, if lazy, bugger all told).

Having got to work at last, I monitored the news a bit, spectacularly failed to do anything productive and eventually decided to start the journey home. With the whole tube network out of action, it was no mean feat.

This may not sound like a particularly sensitive thing to say, but my overwhelming sense of the day was quite happy. Seeing the commuting population of a city the size of London walking home, with virtually no traffic, was plain surreal and most of us felt the same way. It was a strangely unifying experience. People were making eye contact and even talking with complete strangers. There was an enormous swell of community spirit.

I’m sure the experience for those more immediately involved in the bombings was nothing like this, but for the rest of us the sense was relief and comaraderie more than panic. It was a unique experience and one I won’t forget.

UPDATE: Hmmm… a little worried this article might make me sound dismissive of all the horror and tragedy of that day. I really don’t mean to sound that way. What I’m trying to get across is that a) I was bloody lucky and b) the bulk of the human race – at least the ones in London – are decent, sensible people who behaved well on that day and gave me a glimmer of hope for humanity more generally.

The week in Georgism

I still haven’t got my post-election blogging groove back. In the meantime, here are this week’s news referencing Henry George out there in the internets.

First, “The Silent Consensus” has a piece on the Daily Kos. He begins by quoting Thomas Paine:

“Men did not make the earth. It is the value of the improvements only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property. Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds.”

See also FDR’s Second Bill of Rights and the Progressive Mission and Resurrecting Henry George: The Case for National Housing Assistance. George also gets a brief namecheck on the Huffington Post this week.

Old Henry also appears to have been the inspiration for a sculpture garden in Fairhope, Alabama.

Over in New Hampshire meanwhile, Professor Richard England is making the case for a land value tax.

I’ve noticed a slight increase in talk about LVT stateside recently. Is it the start of a post-crash trend? Time will tell.

WARNING! Reading this blog could make you fat.

I was otherwise occupied last night. If I hadn’t been, I’d have joined in with the chorus of disapproval regarding Nuffield Health and Prof Michael McMahon’s pop at fat ‘role models‘ (see also the Metro’s coverage).

What to add that Costigan and Carol haven’t already said (or for that matter, Susie Orbach and Phill Jupitus)? Merely that the links between the diet/’fitness’ industry and the current obesity panic is one of the most under-reported scandals of our modern age.

It hasn’t gone completely unreported. I blogged about the Independent’s expose of The Obesity Awareness and Solutions Trust (which was quickly wound up thereafter, although you can still find their muddy footprints all over teh internets). TOAST was established by LighterLife who managed to rope Sandra Gidley into a gobsmackingly ill-advised press stunt which involved her walking around in a fat suit* (this exercise apparently proved that I am incapable of tying my own shoelaces – all it really proved is that Sandra must be considerably less fit than me). This latest bit of hate-filled PR by Nuffield only demonstrates quite how brazen they feel they can get away with being.

I get angry about all this because I know how it would have affected the younger me and thus I’m pretty sure how all this affects overweight children and teenagers today. When I look at old photos of my I’m amazed at how relatively unfat I actually was. If only I knew that then. I used to find it hard to imagine how an anorexic could look at themselves in a mirror and see themselves as larger than they really are – until I realised that I did that every day when I was in my teens and twenties.

And aside from Prof. McMahon and his gastric bands, or LighterLife and their magical yoghurts, what actual help is there out there? For me, it was a dietician who told me off for not looking after myself and gave me helpful advice like “if you feel like eating a chocolate bar, eat a digestive biscuit instead.”

These days, I appear to beyond medical help. The last two times I’ve registered at a doctor I’ve been too heavy for the scales – so even if BMI wasn’t totally bogus, they can’t actually tell me what my rating is. Yet I’m rarely the fattest person sitting in the waiting room. So what’s going on? How can the NHS lecture people about the obesity epidemic when they can’t even be bothered to actually measure how much people weigh?

Even the Wii Fit can’t help. I gamely stepped on our nice new one last week only for the computer to order me off and delete my records. Thanks a bunch. Real motivational that one.

The diet and fitness industry is established to make money out of the excessively vain and the desperate. If you fit into neither category, you are just fair game as far as they’re concerned. Like so many other aspects of modern living, they preach individualistic solutions to a phenomenon that is – if anything – a social problem. Walk through Chapel Market, as I do every day, and you’ll notice that most of the obese people you walk passed are from the local estate not executives from the nearby office buildings. Obesity and poverty go hand in hand, yet we are constantly assured that it is all the fault of individuals for eating too much despite evidence to suggest that diets simply don’t work.

I’m not sure that enough has been done to look into the links between mental health and obesity. There does appear to be a link with depression (and indeed a link between mental health and equality). Every week there appears to be new research about the placebo and nocebo effects – suggesting that the role the mind has over the body is still only dimly understood. It is odd that we are expected to believe that people like Beth Ditto and James Corden are such role models to their fellow fatties, yet the idea that obesity might be linked to self-esteem is ignored by the same people.

Either way, there must surely be something sick about a society that seems to simultaneously think that obesity is caused by over eating and can be solved by even more consumption.