Daily Archives: 18 September 2009

The Littlewood Effect… twelve months later

Mark Littlewood has articles on Liberal Vision and The Telegraph reminding us of his pamphlet The Cameron Effect last year.

That’s fair enough. It’s equally fair enough for me to point you in the direction of my rebuttal of that pamphlet.

What has changed in the previous twelve months? Mark is right to say that one thing that hasn’t, frustratingly, is the opinion polls. Nonetheless that is to ignore the fact that they went up for the local elections in June (and down for the European Elections). We have every reason to expect those figures to pick up as we head towards 2010 all else being equal. In fact, I think we have a lot of reason to be confident that things will pick up quite well during an election campaign. Clegg has finally moved on from his “calamitous” period and Vince Cable continues to get good press.

Does that mean that I am prepared to revise my prediction that the Lib Dems will finish the election with roughly the same number of MPs that it started with? No. I don’t see any evidence of a breakthrough this time around. But equally, I continue to regard Liberal Vision’s pessimism as misplaced.

Mark, it has to be said, has subtly shifted his position. Last year the focus was all on tax cuts; this year he has replaced this with more ambiguous language about “winning over those who are flirting with David Cameron’s Tories.” But the people switching to the Tories this time are not the ones clamouring for the Tories to adopt a small government, low tax agenda; indeed they are coming to the Tories precisely because they don’t think that is what Cameron is offering (they may be in for a surprise considering what the new Tory intake looks like). Ultimately, I don’t follow the argument that this is some kind of zero sum game between the Lib Dems choosing between soft Labour and soft Tory voters at all. Instead it is a mad scrabble for floating voters who are up for grabs by any party.

Mark may not have got his wish of the party adopting a position of overall tax cuts, but he should be consoled that the party is in favour of reducing taxes for low and middle income owners and that the party is united behind this position. This isn’t a policy aimed at the left or right (although the right may quibble with the tax increases we propose to impose to pay for them); it has far wider appeal than that.

Talk of tax cuts right now would almost certainly scare people right now and be scarcely economically justifiable; Mark knows this. So the question is, what buttons should we be pressing that would appeal uniquely to people currently in the welcoming arms of David Cameron? Should we be bolder in our talk about spending cuts than Vince Cable has been this week at a time when all Osborne can offer us is flummery and his characteristic whingeing? It is hard to believe that would make us especially popular.

The main thing that has changed is that the economic situation has got a lot worse. That’s bad news for those of us who would like to see greater investment in specific areas and bad news for those who would like to see overall tax cuts. I suspect the all out hostilities over the heart and soul of the Liberal Democrats will have to wait for at least another conference, something which is good news for the hedges outside the Bournemouth Conference Centre.

Bullying

Am I a bully? Over the past month I’ve been accused of bullying twice. Once for suggesting that calling one’s political opponents “national socialists” is over the top and yesterday on twitter for suggesting that there is something ironic for the director of a subsidiary of an organisation called Progressive Vision to criticise people for using the word progressive. I will happily admit that both of these jokes were not especially funny and might well be frustrating for their intended targets, but they don’t immediately spring to my mind as acts of bullying. I could laugh these accusations off. I could, as I’ve been advised this evening, note the triviality of the objections, the relationship of the objectors and consider the fact that I might be being played. But for various reasons, “bully” is one of the few things you can call me that actually hurts.

I’ve had an emotionally draining six months and while I’ve been doing a fairly good job at keeping my head above water, it hasn’t been easy. It’s worth considering therefore whether this has lead to me taking things out on people online. Such things are not exactly unheard of and it frequently does result in things going too far.

I’m also aware that at at least one point in my life, at school, I was a bully. I had an epiphany then and rowed it back. If I had the ability to do that then, I certainly should have the maturity to do it now.

With that said however, I think we have to be clear about what is and isn’t bullying. I would never deny that this blog is frequently belligerant, sarcastic, mischevious, obtuse and angry. I don’t suffer fools gladly and have no patience for nonsense. I don’t like beating around the bush or couching my criticisms in platitudinous nonsense. And if you push me, I have an tremendous weakness for pushing back. This blog has a pretty justified reputation to that effect.

I have to confess however, I don’t actually see this blog as always being that. I can write what I consider to be quite thoughtful, diplomatic posts and yet have people praising its trenchant criticism. As the saying goes, if you have a reputation for being an early bird, you can afford to occasionally sleep in until noon. People come here expecting knockabout stuff and that’s what they see; I can’t really complain.

There’s also the Alex Wilcock Factor. That is to say that on two seperate occasions Alex Wilcock has come up with a description of my writing style that is so hilariously over the top that I’ve put it up on as a subheading for my blog (“crass, boorish and more a bruiser than bloggera tactical nuclear bastard”). Why have I done this? Fundamentally because they’re funny; partly because I don’t entirely recognise myself in them and enjoy the cognitive dissonance; and partly because of who they’re from. I have to confess that Alex and I have always had an odd relationship. I’ve known him for 14 years and before the wireless interweb was ubiquitous in the way it is now I read all his pamphlets and articles obsessively. He’s been a big influence on my politics. Yet we’ve never, frankly, really got on; we just don’t get each other. So what do you do when someone you know and respect but are not friends with starts referring to you in quite vicious terms that are almost certainly in jest but seem to have a slight edge to them? You take ownership of them, obviously. To do anything else would drive you insane.

With all that said, I wonder sometimes if there is a personal cost to this “killer rep” of mine. A work colleague once reported to me that he had met someone who read my blog and had commented “that James Graham is such an angry man.” My colleague, having sat next to me for 18 months found this to be hilarious.

It gets further complicated by two other things. First of all, I am 6’4″ and half again as wide. As such I tend to intimidate people who don’t know me. It is a prejudice that people seem to think is acceptable in a way that they would agree wouldn’t be if their intimidation was due to the colour of my skin or my sexual preferences, but I don’t let it get to me; if people can’t get over it they aren’t worth bothering with. Nevertheless it is something I’ve been conscious of my entire life.

Secondly, there is my past. Eight years ago, I was not in a good place psychologically; frankly I was a mental wreck and it took me a long time to recover. If I come across as belligerant now, I was much worse then. I took my frustrations out on people in a way that I should not have done. I take some consolation in the fact that a number of those people I took my frustrations out on remain very good friends of mine, and that many of the rest turned out to be real snakes, but it isn’t a period I’m particularly proud of.

Both these factors mean that I have a reputation that preceeds this blog in the real world and that this in turn gets fed back into the commentary in the blogosphere. It is possibly something I should be more careful about and could manage better, but that just isn’t my style.

Moving back to the present I have to ask myself if I’m slipping back into bad habits. Yet I honestly don’t think I am. Indeed, during a period when people have been trying to start a feud with me and my colleagues, I’ve been quite careful to not respond in kind (which is not to say I haven’t responded at all). I have to say that from this end of the telescope I do feel more sinned against than sinned.

Secondly, cyber-bullying by almost any definition I’ve been able to find involves stalking, attacks on people’s appearance and other personal characteristics, and threats. Typically what starts off as an attack on a web forum can take on a dimension in the real world. I’m confident I haven’t crossed the line in respect of any of these but it does feel as if that’s the implication whenever an allegation of bullying is made.

But while I don’t feel particularly responsible for starting this feuding I do feel I need to finish it. It is also timely to review exactly what I am achieving by giving racists and trolls a platform on this blog. For a long time I’ve tended to consider this to be a basic freedom of speech thing; I’ve only censored comments on this blog in extreme circumstances and in clear cases of defamation. But anyone can start a blog – I don’t need to give them a platform – and rolling in the mud with these jerks doesn’t actually make me feel any better.

What this all amounts to is two things: I need to develop a commenting moderation policy designerd to reduce the level of yah-boo nonsense – perhaps a three two strikes system – meanwhile I need to do more to avoid getting into feuds with specific individuals. The latter is slightly more complicated as feuds can be in the eye of the beholder. But generally if one side thinks it’s a feud it is one regardless of how the other side feels.

What I hope this doesn’t mean is that this blog becomes any less brutal in its relentless crusade against idiocy. Ultimately however, for me to keep blogging I have to be enjoying myself. Exposing myself to accusations of bullying, however unjustified, is the very definition of not having fun and something I need to take steps to avoid.

That is all.