Monthly Archives: October 2009

Will Lembit have me arrested?

I’ve just updated Prawn Free Lembit with Mr Opik’s latest column from the Daily Sport and it has put me in a bit of a quandary.

You see, by posting that column, I’m breaching copyright. I’m a pretty good boy when it comes to copyright violation generally – unusually for my generation even where music is concerned – but I set up Prawn Free Lembit because I thought these columns ought to see the light of day outside of the confines of a porn-infested and frankly medieval website that doesn’t even have RSS feeds. He’s an elected politician and I think we all have a right to know what he has to say without having degrading images of women shoved in our faces, don’t you think? I don’t editorialise and let Lembit speaks for himself. If it leads to people asking awkward questions about why a man in his forties who owns a pair of trousers would spend a significant part of his working week perving about which “Sport Stunna” he’d like to “elevate” to “high office” (f’narr!), then that’s on him.

However noble my intentions may have been however, it is clear that Lembit has a very black and white view of the matter. Breach of copyright is “theft”, pure and simple. He has lent his support to Peter Mandelson’s plan to cut off people who are caught filesharing illegally and presumably the rozzers will be knocking on my door any minute.

The arguments about why Mandelson’s plans are utterly bogus have been well rehearsed. While I wouldn’t go quite as far as those who favour legalising peer-to-peer filesharing in all circumstances, the government’s disconnection plans would punish the innocent, be impractical in practice and fundamentally miss the point.

The music industry is in the mess that it is in for a very simple reason. It has filched the public and recording artists for decades. This was possible to get away with 20 years ago because technology and IP laws made it easy for them. As a result they could live it large, ply their musicians and useful dupes with drugs and alcohol and indulge their megastars. When the internet came along, instead of waking up to its potential threat to them and adapting, they pretended it didn’t exist for decades. The result was utter contempt by the general public which fuelled the rise of peer-to-peer once the technology came up to speed.

The death of the music industry – which is a real possibility – will not mean the death of music. Music existed before copyright laws and it will exist long after them as well. People won’t suddenly stop making music. What it will probably mean is the death of the superstar. Your online music store will resemble a public library more than HMV. Instead of having a middle man around who decides what music is worth listening to and what category it should be wedged into, we’ll be able to choose from a much wider source. Technology will (has) made garage bands sound as professional as the big labels and marketing costs have levelled out. The Simon Cowells of this world are utterly fucked, which is why his himself has already jumped ship and moved onto TV – and even then the X-Factor band wagon won’t keep rolling forever.

Will it be possible to make money as a musician in the future? It all depends on what your aspirations are. Any halfway successful musician will be able to make several multiples of what I’ll earn in my lifetime, but there’ll be a lot fewer multi-millionaires. You probably won’t ever get that private jet I’m afraid. The simple fact are only so many punters out there and talent is nothing like as hard to come by as Smash Hits and NME led us to believe. They lied.

But is rendering musician to the status of mere vocation such a terrible thing? Money has destroyed so many talents over the years that it is hard to shed a tear for the decline of the superstar. Is it really so wonderful that popular music has become so strongly associated with excess, mental illness, vanity, self-abasement and violence? More musicians earning less money is a scenario in which 99% of us win. It is no coincidence that Wilkinson and Pickett considered a move towards less restrictive IP laws as a crucial step towards engendering a more equal culture in The Spirit Level.

The reason I suspect Lembit does not see it that way is that it is not music he is really defending but the industry which he has courted and been courted by (and indeed courted within) for the past decade.

Oh, and as I have thus far forgotten to post the latest edition of The Show, courtesy of EyeSeeSound.tv, allow me to do so here. It’s the future!

Debut Boo on the most important thing you’ve never heard of that Parliament is debating this week

My nice shiny new iPod has inspired me to give podcasting a go. My first “boo” is on Local Spending Reports – the most important thing you’ve never heard of that Parliament will be debating this week.

Listen!

It is very rough and ready (you don’t need to listen to the last 30 seconds – there’s nothing there apart from a cough) but I guess you’ve got to start somewhere.

Incidently, you can check to see if your MP is currently supporting LSRs by going here: http://edmi.parliament.uk/EDMi/EDMDetails.aspx?EDMID=38168 – if they aren’t then phone/email them on Wednesday and demand that they do so!

Biased Question Time? Bring it on!

It has to be said, the BNP has a point. The BBC did change the format of Question Time. It was almost all about the BNP’s policies, the audience was somewhat more ethnically diverse than the UK average.

Fair enough. Instead of pretending he got fair treatment, let’s be equally unfair to all the parties. Let’s have a similarly formatted show with Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Throw in Nigel Farage, Caroline Lucas and the nationalist parties for good measure.

Of one thing I am absolutely certain: while they might flounder here and there, none of them will come across as badly as Griffin did last night. Not even Brown and his evasiveness. Not even Farage (although I suspect it will be a close run thing).

It would almost certainly make for better television than Question Time normally. Seeing how our political leaders face up to adversity is frankly more of a test than a programme attempting to maintain the semblance of balance. Frankly, right now I am struggling to come up with a downside.

Rolling news and the BNP

I’ve been watching the BBC’s news coverage. Since 5pm they have had one new story – Nick Griffin. This despite the fact that the Royal Mail strikes are ongoing, 6,000 Sri Lankans have been released from internment, another soldier has been killed in Afghanistan and Ethiopia has asked for food aid.

Why are the BBC so obsessed with, um, the BBC? In fairness to them, the UAF have been doing all they can to feed the media beast by protesting outside TV Centre, invading the building and helpfully coordinating parallel protests outside all the other BBC offices around the country.

Throughout the hour broadcast there was just one short two minute item which went into what Nick Griffin actually believed – pretty much everything else was talking heads and process. This isn’t news – it’s noise – and the only two memorable images to come out of it is a bunch of students being dragged around shouting something incoherent and silly about Nazis and a grinning, avuncular Nick Griffin entering the studios from the rear.

I think the BBC are right to have Griffin on Question Time. I’m a bit concerned at the format. In common with all political broadcasting in recent years it has become more soft focus, featuring celebrities and members of the commentariat to voice their often empty headed opinions. I am concerned that if the mix of questions is got wrong then Griffin will be let off the hook and allowed to express reasonable views on an assortment of fairly uncontroversial issues. I still think however that he is likely to get a harder time on the programme than I’ve seen any BBC interviewer give him – most notably Gavin Esler this afternoon.

But if every time he goes on a programme like this the UAF and the BBC decide to turn it into a day-long event then how he looks on the programme itself will be irrelevant. All people will remember is a big row which they can spin into their narrative about standing up to a wicked and venal establishment. Both organisations really need to consider their policies here and what exactly they are trying to achieve.

I’d rather have politicians interrogating the BNP than the BBC

The debate surrounding Nick Griffin’s imminent appearance on Question Time is hotting up. I’ve been intrigued by today’s events which, to cut a long story short, has resulted in Griffin suggesting that the army chiefs who have stood up to him today ought to be hanged.

It is an idiotic thing to day and something he will no doubt be challenged over on the programme on Thursday. And related to that, Sunny Hundal has some good suggestions of points that Griffin’s fellow panelists ought to challenge him with.

Here’s the thing though. I’m quite confident that Jack Straw, Chris Huhne, Bonnie Greer and even Sayeeda Warsi will be briefed up to the eyeballs and give Griffin a hard time. If anything, I’m worried that in their enthusiasm they may give the impression that he is being bullied. Sadly however, I don’t have the same confidence in the BBC to do the same, either before or afterwards.

The treatment meted out (or rather not) by Radio 1’s Newsbeat to Mark Collett and “Joey” perfectly encapsulates this. But generally, the BBC tends to talk up the chances of the BNP’s prospect and talk down quite why exactly they are “controversial”.

It isn’t just the BBC. The media generally tend to report the BNP as a phenomena without actually examining what they stand for in detail, leaving that to organisations such as the UAF, Hope not Hate and Nothing British.

My own encounter with Mark Collett was a case in point. A lifetime ago (well 2000-2002) I was the campaign organiser for the Leeds Lib Dems. Collett was standing in Harehills ward against one of our sitting councillors in a ward hotly contested by Labour. The Yorkshire Evening Post were obsessed with this, and convinced that Collett was about to march to victory. This despite the fact that the ward was only 60% white. They were putting him up on the front page every other day, screaming about an imminent BNP invasion. At one point, out of frustration, I bet a journalist that Collett would get less than 5% of the vote. Sadly we did not agree terms regarding money (I certainly needed it at the time): he got 3.8% of the vote (pdf).

The BNP are certainly a threat in Leeds now, having maneuvred themselves into the largely white parts of the borough. Their influx would have been slowed somewhat if only the media had been willing and able to keep some perspective.

So, far from condemning politicians who agree to go on Question Time, I’m hopeful that they will do a rather better job than the journalists who interview them – with less controversy – on a daily basis.

Open Up: any candidate you like, so long as they are gleaming white.

Another day, another TWO new big ideas for solving the deep problem inherent in our electoral system. Without, you know, actually solving the deep problem inherent in our electoral system.

First we have Geoffrey Wheatcroft who proposes annual elections. Because, you know, the Chartists did. Imagine that. Political parties in permanent election mode – even more than they are now. I guess it is one of those ideas you either think is genius or stupid and no-one is going to persuade you either way. Needless to say, I come under the latter category.

Second, we have Open Up, a new campaign to persuade ALL the parties to hold Open Primaries in ALL constituencies before the next general election. Again. Once you have gone down the route of such mental decrepitude, there is probably no helping you.

I will however point out a little fact. On their FAQ, they state the following:

Of course, it will cost money to hold Open Primaries. But what price better government?[1] From the financial crisis to the expenses scandal, it’s obvious that our system must improve. As taxpayers we pay a lot now, and we’re going to pay more. We need the best people to be the stewards for our money and our future. Against this background the extra cost of Open Primaries seems very small.[2]

On top of this consider the costs of a General Election…where we don’t have a choice in our candidates:

o The Department for Constitutional Affairs estimated the cost of administering the 2005 general election in England and Wales was approximately £71 million in public funds. (House of Commons Written Answers for 25 May 2005)
o Spending for the three main parties in 2005 was more than £40 million. (Electoral Commission, “Election 2005: Campaign Spending”). This is in addition to the £71 cited above.
* Conservative Party £17,852,245
* Labour Party £17,939,618
* Liberal Democrats £4,324,574

[1] Is there any evidence, at all, that this will lead to better government? Where is it?

[2] Since they have given us some costs to look at, let’s look at the cost of holding primaries for all 628 constituencies in Great Britain (I’m excluding Northern Ireland here for the not unreasonable reason that the three main parties do too):

Sending a second class, franked, letter costs 25p these days. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that if they are mailing the entire British population of voting age (approx 40 million) they could get a discount down to 20p. That is still £8 million – nearly double what the Lib Dems spent in the last general election (including the unlikely to be repeated dodgy donation of £2.4 million from Michael Brown).

Assuming that the voters won’t be expected to pay to vote, and also assuming a LOW turnout of 20%, that adds another £2 million to the bill.

The cheapest I can find C5 manilla envelopes on Viking Direct is £24.99 for 125. Assuming that the party can get envelopes at HALF that cost, the total envelope cost (one to send out and another to get back) will be another £8 million.

So even before we get into paper, printing and distribution costs (which are much harder to estimate) we are looking at a low estimate of £18 million, or more than either the Tories or Labour spent nationally in 2005.

Throughout the summer I’ve heard vague assertions that if all this were done at the same time, these costs could be brought down, but even if they were halved that would still mean each party shelling out £10 million that most don’t have.

I’ve heard suggestions that primaries could be held on the same day as local elections with the ballots being held at polling station, but this idea couldn’t work for Open Up’s campaign who want candidates installed before next year’s local elections (it isn’t for that matter clear how it would work otherwise since local elections all take place on different days and it would mean essentially putting candidate selection into the hands of the state – a radical measure to say the least). I’ve even heard wacky suggestions of all the primaries being held online, along with all the scary potential ballot stuffing that would imply. Presumably Open Up wouldn’t be in favour of that as former ORG Director Becky Hogge is one of their key supporters.

Either way, there is no running away from the fact that what Open Up is calling for is an exclusive club in which only the wealthiest parties are allowed to participate. Any party not able to participate will be clobbered to death for hating democracy. Cheekily, they use the existence of safe seats as a reason for justifying their campaign. The idea that safe seats themselves might be the problem isn’t even entertained. In another video, weirdly, they claim that the Spanish electoral system is corruption free. Spain uses a form of proportional representation but significantly also uses closed lists – giving the electorate very little in the way of a choice in candidates. I’m not sure this is an especially wise assertion to make two weeks after the imprisonment of Francisco Correa.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to primaries, although I do think they are a distraction which in practice will have very little effect on the nature of our politics. I certainly think that the open primaries idea being spelt out by Open Up would lead to more identikit politicians, with Labour candidates under even more pressure to be Tory-ish and Tory candidates under pressure to be Labour-ish (and of course Lib Dems to be all things to all people), but since it has no chance of happening – less of a chance, I’d argue, than Gordon Brown introducing PR before the general election – why worry?

I worry because the anti-politics rhetoric that is informing this campaign (and others) is leading people up the garden path. Instead of embracing the opportunity to shout loudly for pluralist politics and for moving beyond politics meaning little more than voting every few years, people are grasping at ideas that don’t even amount to half measures. There are people out there who seem to believe in both primaries AND pluralist politics, but they have chosen to emphasise the former because somehow they imagine it would be easier to introduce – I will certainly concede that it is easier to explain. But this fatal lack of confidence seems to be leading us towards a system of politics where you have to be richer than ever to participate in and preferably entirely self-sufficient because that way you won’t have to ever claim for any troublesome expenses.

Open Up itself is overwhelming dominated by people with a PR or media background. In short they represent a subtler, more insidious form of corruption – the kind which has told us for years that citizenship is a defunct concept in a brave new world of consumerism. And now, proudly marching around with their Che Guevara t-shirts, they are here to tell us all to be good little revolutionaries and to embrace a politics which looks remarkably like shopping. Choice of whatever brand of washing powder you choose, all of which are exactly the same. It is the ultimate grand joke.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the party leaders’ contributions to the Speakers Conference today. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to tell apart the establishment and the insurgents in this debate; they all seem to be arguing along the same lines and I don’t like any of it. Maybe I should just accept that my views are just too unfashionable to even contemplate.

Westminster Liberal Drinks is back!

Just a brief word to point out, if you don’t already know, that I’ll be holding fort at The Silver Cross this coming Wednesday (7.30pm on 21 October to be precise) for Westminster Liberal Drinks.

I haven’t held one of this since January and already it is looking like there might be a good crowd. So if you live in the London area, why not come along.

Full details on Facebook and Flocktogether. Please register so I have a vague idea of who to be looking out for. See you there!

Isn’t it time you came clean about Lisbon, Mr Cameron

According to the Telegraph

Mr Klaus, the sole remaining leader in the European Union not to have signed the document, conceded that despite his personal opposition to the treaty, it was now too late to stop it.

He also dismisssed speculation that he would try to hold off formally signing the document after the forthcoming British general election next year. Such a move would pave the way for a future Conservative government to hold a referendum on the treaty, which could derail the entire plan if it delivered a “No” vote. But Mr Klaus said: “I will not and cannot wait for the British election. They would have to hold it in the coming days or weeks.”

Er, David, your last figleaf just fell off.

MPs just “don’t get” the minimum wage

David Wilshire has been hilariously telling any journalist who will listen that his £65,000 annual salary is “dangerously close to the minimum wage” – which means that he must be working a 30 hours a day, 7 days a week (or 24 hours a day, 9 days a week – take your pick). But he isn’t the only MP who doesn’t seem to know at what level the minimum wage is set at.

Throughout the week there have been noises off about Sir Thomas Legg’s retrospective limit of £2,000 a year to claim on cleaning, with MPs and trade unionists claiming that it would mean MPs being forced to pay their cleaners less than “a decent living wage.” As is the nature of such things, this “well known fact” has started to get parroted in passing uncritically.

This being British journalism, no journo I have come across has yet had the wherewithall to sit down with a calculator for five minutes to determine the veracity of that fact but it isn’t exactly difficult. First of all, what is a living wage? Well, the London Living Wage, as supported by trade unions, is £7.60 an hour. In my unforgiveably middle class household, we pay our cleaner £9.50. From my straw poll of people I know, rates paid have varied significantly. The most I’ve been heard about is £15, which is apparently the going rate in Kensington.

Let’s assume £15 an hour, which is roughly double the living wage and which amounts to more than I earnt when I started my current job even taking into account national insurance (in fact it’s more than I currently earn, but then I’m down to a four day week these days). Let’s also assume that MPs second home is, at most, a two bedroom flat (that’s a reasonable assumption isn’t it? Second homes are meant to be boltholes, not luxurious family homes. Luxurious family homes are first homes, unless you’re on the fiddle).

It takes five hours to fully clean our four bedroom home here; no-one I know with a flat pays their cleaner for more than two hours to clean it. So, even assuming the £15 hourly rate, that would cost MPs £30 a week, or £1,560. And that’s assuming they use a cleaner 52 weeks of the year – despite the fact that for much of the year they will presumably not be using their London-based flat as Parliament will be in recess.

So, after all that, can anyone explain to me how trade unions of all people have managed to establish that £2,000 is too low a limit to spend on cleaning? The problem, I suspect, is that the people at the top of trade unions these days are about as in touch with the reality of peoples’ daily lives as, well, David Wilshire. Unlike the average MP, they don’t even hold weekly surgeries. The rot in the political class is not limited to Parliament.