Monthly Archives: January 2010

Avatar: did Jim Cameron rip off 2000AD’s Firekind?

firekind2Heavy.com has illustrated the uncanny similarities between 2000AD strip Firekind (1993) and Jim Cameron’s Avatar (apparently in development since 1995). I have to admit that when I first saw the trailer for Avatar I did notice the similarities, but dismissed them on the basis that a few superficial resemblances could easily be down to coincidence and as the hype for the film began to build I forgot all about it. But the list on Heavy.com was intriguing enough to make me sit down and reread the thing this morning (while it was originally printed in 2000AD progs 828-840 it was reprinted in a collected edition in 2005).

Despite Heavy.com’s table of similarities being quite extensive, they actually missed a couple of things out. In both stories the indiginous population have a profound ancestral link to certain trees and in both they don’t merely ride dragons but are psychically connected to them. The plot also has a remarkably similar structure Firekind even features something which is described as “the avatar of violence and retribution” (although the Hronoth is a very different beast compared to Sam Worthington). In many respects however, Firekind contrasts strongly. It could be described as the Anti-Avatar, a peek of what might have been if Cameron hadn’t stuffed his film full of Hollywood conventions and Western chauvanism.

firekind3Aside from the blue skin and hunter-gatherer nature, the Kesheen are very different to the Na’vi. The former are small and weak and no match for the average human. Yet they are also more in control of their own destiny. Protagonist Hendrick Larsen doesn’t lead a rebellion against the human invaders but merely helps. They also don’t fit quite as snugly into the noble savage stereotype; Hendrick is at one point saved by a colony of Kesheen who have been exiled from the tribe for their ‘deviant’ sexual practices (writer John Smith states in an interview in Thrill Power Overload that he was disappointed by the lack at outrage to the fact that in Kesheen society incest is considered normal and anyone who doesn’t indulge in it is cast out). While both stories feature kinky sex (in the case of Avatar we’ll have to wait for the DVD for the full USB-on-USB action), Firekind is devoid of romance. And while Avatar ends in victory, the survival of Larsen and the remaining Kesheen at the end of Firekind is far from assured.

Firekind isn’t perfect by any means; much of it doesn’t quite hang together and a great many of the ideas in it end up trailing off. The eponymous dragons barely feature and they certainly don’t breathe fire. But it has a freshness which still holds up 17 years later and it is certainly less clichéd.

firekind1Are the two stories similar enough to suggest that Firekind has influenced Avatar? I certainly think there are more than enough similarities to suggest it may be the case. The killer, for me, are the flying stones (which admittedly look quite different). There is also the fact that Cameron is a known comics buff (he spent most of the 90s trying to get his hands on the Spider-Man license and is now working on Battle Angel Alita) and has past form in terms of being caught out ‘borrowing’ his ideas from elsewhere (Harlan Ellison successfully sued Cameron for lifting ideas from Ellison’s Outer Limits episodes for The Terminator). Indeed, 2000AD has been successful in pursuing court cases of its own, with the short strip SHOK! now acknowledged as the main inspiration behind the film Hardware. And no-one disputes the influence Judge Dredd had on Robo-cop.

I wrote back in 2006 that I’d like to see a Firekind film “before, hopefully, someone goes and makes an Anne Macaffrey film (God help us!).” With Avatar now out, that would appear to no longer be a commercial proposition. So it might be an idea for Rebellion, who are indeed moving into the movie making business, to at least have a quiet word with their lawyers about whether they have a case.

More BBC pro-Labour propaganda

John Rentoul is outraged that the BBC have chosen to cover the publication of the government’s new report on equality with the headline “Rich-poor divide ‘wider than 40 years ago’.” He is of course correct to point out that the main increase in inequality over the past 40 years took place during the Thatcher years.

But the Harriet Harman approved wording that he picks out of the report’s executive summary is equally misleading:

The large inequality growth between the late 1970s and early 1990s has not been reversed.

It certainly hasn’t been reversed, but that suggests that it has at leasted been reversing. The reality is somewhat different.

I would refer you, dear reader, to page 9 of the report which has a handy graph showing both the Gini coefficient and the 90/10 factor from 1961 to 2007. What this graph shows is that both measures of inequality peaked in 1991, dropped a bit as we came out of recession and then hovered around the same level in the years following. Indeed, while the 90/10 scale shows a slight dip in inequality since 1991 (to 1989’s levels), the Gini coefficient was at an all time high in 2007.

Since 2007 of course, we have had a major recession. Inequality spiked in 1991 for this reason and so we have every reason to believe it will have spiked again between 2007 and 2010. It is quite possible that both scales will exceed the 1991 levels.

So not only have Labour failed to reverse Thatcher’s increase in inequality, they’ve failed to make any impact on it at all.

The BBC should indeed change their headline. I would suggest that it reads “Rich-poor divide ‘wider than 1997′”. John Rentoul won’t like it but it would accurately reflect the real failings of this Labour government.

Chilcot clutching at Straw

I’m determined not to get my hopes up regarding the Chilcot Inquiry, but I have to say that I found Sir Michael Wood’s revelations about Jack Straw’s attitude fascinating.

Jack Straw is an impressive political survivor. Aside from Gordon Brown, he is the only person who has been in cabinet continuously from 1997 to the present day. He’s managed to do this despite leaving a wave of destruction in his wake. The systems that would eventually lead to the Home Office being declared “not fit for purpose” originated under Straw’s watch. Then of course there was the Iraq War itself while Straw was at the FCO. More recently, we had his handling of party funding while Leader of the House (which went nowhere) and his three years at Justice where he has achieve precisely nothing. The latter two, I’ve always suspected, were part of the plan all along. Either way, his role in government has been one of slick, professional incompetence.

Yet throughout this period his position has never been under threat. Much of that is because he is a suave operator, calm under pressure. He always comes across as thoroughly decent and earnest, even when mentally you know he is uttering the most egregious bullshit.

The way Sir Michael has essentially contradicted Straw’s own account last week is the first time I’ve ever seen anything resembling a chink in his armour. It reveals a man with an incredibly lackadaisical attitude to official advice, even on matters as utterly important as the decision to go to war. The picture Sir Michael paints is something that I don’t think we’ve ever seen in the mainstream media before (although it will look remarkably familiar to anyone who has worked near the political coalface over the past decade or so).

I’m sure it won’t lead to his downfall, but it is nice to see a corrective – however minor – after all this time.

Nick Clegg: well hung?

I meant to report back from the “Tribes or Causes: Can we campaign across party boundaries?” session at the Fabian conference last week but, as you may have noticed, I’m not exactly blog-heavy at the moment and time has moved on.

It left me in two minds. On the one hand, a clear consensus for political reform emerged on the platform. All four speakers (which in addition to Evan Harris included David Babbs from 38 Degrees, Will Straw from Left Foot Forward and Jessica Asato from Progress) seemed to agree on the need for a more proportional voting system (note: not AV), the Wright Commission proposals and the importance of internal party democracy. On the other hand, it is fairly safe to say that this is not only not a consensus position within Labour itself, but in all three cases is a position that is being actively opposed by the Labour Party at the most senior level at the moment (in the case of the Wright Commission proposals, if I hear Harriet Harman coming up with yet another weasily formulation for why she can’t simply say if she supports them or not, I may have to start causing somebody grevious bodily harm).

And this, in a nutshell, is why Labour supporters can’t and won’t get the Lib Dems to come out and announce their intention to support Labour in the event of a hung parliament*. The fact that Nick Clegg won’t say this causes a lot of Labourites much consternation. James Macintyre, who asked Evan a particularly sappy question about equidistance at the Fabian conference, has written about this in the New Statesman this week, suggesting there is something of a split amongst senior Lib Dem figures on the topic. Over at Tribune, Ian Hernon prefers to simply heap ordure on Clegg.

The simplistic analysis, as advanced by Darrell Goodliffe (who has recently defected from the Lib Dems to Labour), is that Clegg secretly wants to sidle the Lib Dems up to David Cameron and negotiate a deal to form a Lib-Con coalition government. Exhibit A in this case is Clegg’s repeated statement that, in the case of a hung parliament, he would acknowledge that whichever party had the biggest mandate would have “the first right to seek to govern”.

Yet, while this is bandied about as a veritable smoking gun on a proverbial grassy knoll, and while I am not exactly known to be Clegg’s most uncritical of friends, I just don’t see it. James MacIntyre is simply talking balls to suggest that the by adopting this stance, Clegg is pretending the Lib Dems do not have more in common with Labour than the Tories. Clegg himself could not have been clearer in his Demos pamphlet last year when he stated that Labour were rivals whilst the Tories were the traditional foe. The Lib Dems haven’t had a policy of “equidistance” since the mid-nineties. And note that Clegg has very carefully stated that the party with the biggest mandate only has dibs on the right to seek to govern. That is a very qualified statement. It doesn’t commit the Lib Dems to doing anything other than to try to advance its agenda as much as possible. Far from being unprincipled, as Ian Hernon suggests, this is about advancing the Lib Dems principles as much as possible. While I would be the first to acknowledge that Nick Clegg has nursed some curious delusions over the last couple of years, there is simple no way it has escaped his attention that majority of his parliamentary party would simply not accept a coalition with the Tories unless they made some pretty phenomenal concessions. And finally, there is the simple observation that Clegg’s dislike for Cameron is visceral and personal. Partly that is because so many lazy commentators have drawn lazy comparisions between the two, which he has understandably sought to rebut. But a lot of his criticisms of Cameron hold water: it is the case that while Thatcher was at her height, Clegg was working for people like Christopher Hitchens while Cameron was sliding into a government job. Clegg has defined himself as an internationalist in terms of both his career path, his background and even his family life; Cameron is a little Englander to the core.

So, bearing all that in mind, why doesn’t Clegg just do the decent thing and admit that the only likely partner in the case of a hung parliament is Labour? I would have thought that to Labour supporters, steeped as they are in trade unionism (ha ha), that would be obvious: you don’t begin negotiations by giving up your bargaining position. If the Lib Dems were to start openly ruling out a deal with the Tories, all pressure on Brown to begin conceding ground to the more liberal wing of his party would be lost and the Tory accusation that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour would have far greater force. In essence, the Lib Dems would become pawns in a bipartisan bunfight and all hope of carving out a distinctive agenda would be lost.

But it would ignore certain other political realities. Speaking personally, it will surprise no-one to know that I would really like to see a Lib-Lab coalition and see this as a positive way of moving forward after years of drift and in the face of a Tory party which is nothing like as reconstituted as it claims to be. But I fear that my own price would be too high for the Labour Party to be prepared to pay. It would involve them shifting so much ground in terms of civil liberties and democratic reform that I can’t see it happening for the foreseeable future. And even then, I can’t see how the Lib Dems could practically enter a government lead by Gordon Brown, the most incompetent leader this country has had in my lifetime by a comfortable margin. If I feel that way, you can bet it is a problem for Nick Clegg even more.

I think it is highly doubtful that, in the event of a hung parliament, any coalition government will be forthcoming. Neither Labour nor the Tories have shown any real interest in hinting what they would be prepared to compromise on; understandably so. Labour’s dithering and navel gazing over whether or not to support the Alternative Voting system shows them up to be appalling potential partners. Currently, it looks as if it will amount to little more than a manifesto commitment to a referendum, and we know how much Labour manifesto commitments for referendums are worth (not much). Even if they did legislate for it, it doesn’t particularly get us anywhere. While it is possible that the Lib Dems will settle for AV (indeed, several Lib Dem parliamentarians would prefer it if we did), it is more likely it will be up for negotiation. In that sense, the Labour MPs who fear that AV is the thin end of the PR-wedge are correct.

The current political system in Westminster is not designed for coalition government; indeed many elements are specifically designed to prevent them. I suspect that the most likely scenario is that, after much negotiating, either Labour or the Tories formed a minority government and a fresh election was called within two years. What is more interesting is what would happen then. If a single winner emerges then clearly it will be business as usual. But if the public votes for another hung parliament then the stakes would be considerably higher and the chances of a formal coalition will significantly increase.

There is of course the argument that a long period of political instability would panic the markets (as if they need any help). But in such a scenario, it becomes no more incumbant on the Lib Dems to be part of a coalition as it would be for Labour and the Tories to come together, as Martin Kettle has pointed out. Both Tory and Labour supporters scoff at this idea, yet no one seems capable of explaining why the Lib Dems should be more prepared to sacrifice principle in the name of pragmatism than any other party. Either a hung parliament is the sort of apocalyptic scenario foretold by people such as Ken Clarke, or it isn’t.

In short, if we do end up in a hung parliament situation, all bets are off. It is ludicrious to try framing the debate in terms of whether the Lib Dems would do a deal with Labour and/or the Tories; any number of alternative scenarios might arise. Expecting the Lib Dems to painstakingly spell out their terms in advance of an election is therefore mere cant, especially when it comes (as it usually does) from people who aren’t prepared to do so themselves and do not criticise Brown and Cameron equally for not doing likewise. But it looks set to continue with the launch of Charter 2010, a new website which is dedicated to making the prospect of a hung parliament the number one election issue. Can you think of anything worse? Endless chin scratching speculation about something that has a good chance of not happening, lead by David Owen – the man who wrote the book (both figuratively and literally) on political egomania – it would redefine voter apathy.

I would politely suggest that speculation on this topic should be suspended until after the election and to instead focus on what the various parties do and don’t stand for. I know it is futile of me to do so, but I can try. But if you do insist on playing this game, then please start by telling me what you think your side should be bringing to the table instead of demanding that my party does all the heavy lifting for you. Cheers.

* I appreciate that “hung parliament” is a pejorative term and that “parliament with no single party with a workable majority” is more neutral, but it is useful shorthand.

Reporting back from the Fabians: What not to spend

The Fabian Society kindly gave me a media registration for their new year conference and I spent last Saturday at Imperial College mingling with the Labour Party faithful. I sadly missed Gordon Brown’s morning address but sat in on two discussions: “What not to spend” – a discussion on what public spending cuts the government should make; and “Tribes or causes: Can we campaign across party boundaries?” Both featured Lib Dem speakers, and I attended the former to keep an eye on Vince Cable and the latter to support Evan Harris (or should that be the other way around?).

What not to spend was, of the two sessions, the most frustrating. This was partially because there was no Labour Minister there to give us their perspective, partially because the Nigel Stanley and Janet Daley failed spectacularly to stay on topic and partially because Vince himself was being incredibly cautious. My hope that Vince might give us a tantalising glimpse of what he thought needed cutting, beyond that which the party has announced and reannounced over the past few months ended up dashed (despite his tantalising flash of leg in Parliament the preceeding week). And because the Cult of Vince seems to have extended as far as both the audience and the other speakers (I don’t think anyone breathed a word of criticism of him during the entire 90 minutes), he wasn’t even pressed on the kite flying list of spending cuts he flagged up in his Reform pamphlet last September. A man suggests means-testing child benefit and doesn’t elicit even a single squeak from a Fabian audience; what is going on? Indeed, the one area there did seem to be some tentative agreement on was the rolling back of middle class welfare.

Instead of talking about the current economic situation, Stanley and Daley preferred to continue a traditional left-right ding-dong which you might have heard in any political meeting at any point over the last twenty years. Both, I have to say, were much more nuanced and less dogmatic than they might have been, but neither seemed interested in really addressing what savings government needed to make. To be fair on Stanley, as a TUC staffer, it wasn’t really his job on the panel to do that, but I did expect to hear something substantial from Daley. She made a dig at the start about “not defending David Cameron’s economic policy because I don’t know what it is” yet pretty much the alpha and omega of her own economic policy seemed to consist of one word: “vouchers”.

“Vouchers” – whether they are vouchers for education, healthcare or whatever – have been a real rallying cry for the right in recent years. The aforementioned Reform think tank was for a while obsessed with them. Speaking personally, I’ve always felt it is a bit of a cop out of an argument. We’re constantly invited to believe that the key to the success of the Swedish education system lies in the voucher system, not in the amount of cash each of those vouchers represents, and to believe that, somehow, a voucher based on UK spending levels would have the same effect. I don’t buy it. I can see how they could be made to work in, say, an inner city area where the population density is sufficiently high enough to create a genuine market, but how it would work in a rural area is something I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer to.

Furthermore, while they might be a suitable topic for discussion in a debate about getting value for money from public services, I just can’t see how introducing them during an economic period where we are having to make cuts makes much sense at all. It won’t address any problems in the short term, and indeed the cost and bureaucracy that would be involved to establish the system would make it harder to introduce cuts.

The other area that troubled me was the aforementioned apparent consensus around the idea of scaling back the “middle class welfare state”. Some of this, I have very little trouble with. Creating a shorter taper for tax credits so that people earning £50,000 aren’t entitled to some tiny amount which is eclipsed by its own administration costs makes perfect sense. But that is the trouble with means-tested benefits. By contrast, there is a real danger in means-testing what few universal benefits we have left in the name of cutting costs. Partially, this is because you end up having to establish a whole new bureaucracy to administer the scheme, partially because it means that those most in need often end up failing to claim for it precisely because of that bureacracy, but also because it helps create a sense of solidarity between the comfortably off and the poor. As Sunder Katwala himself said at the Lib Dem conference last September “services for the poor will always be poor services“.

I hope that my concern about the comfort with this rhetoric proves to be unfounded and that things like child tax benefit won’t be regarded as low hanging fruit after the general election. But the way this idea seemed to be supported in the generality at the session did cause me some discomfort. It was the elephant in the room.

What I said to IPSA

My response to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority consultation:

Question 1: Do you agree that the CSPL’s principles, supplemented as proposed, should form the basis of the new expenses system?

Yes

Additional comments:

The public must have a right to know the specifics of expenses. This implied by “open and transparent” but MPs have for years insisted that the system was both of those things and that was clearly not the case. Therefore the principles need to include a public right to know.

Question 2: Do you agree with our proposal to concentrate on expenses rather than allowances wherever possible?

Yes

Question 3: Do you agree that there should be annual limits to the amount that can be spent from public funds on each of the main elements of our expenses scheme, except for travel and subsistence?

Yes

Further comments:

I believe that a lot of MP “casework” is in fact campaigning that is not central to their role as a legislator. I therefore believe that the scope of what support staff can and cannot do in helping with casework should be more restricted than at present. By contrast, I think expenditure on research should be more generous than at present – this would give backbench and independent MPs more ability to scrutinise.

Question 4: Do you agree with our approach to the submission of claims?

Yes

Question 5: Are you content with our proposed approach to the publication of claims?

Yes

Question 6: Do you support the idea of requiring MPs to produce an annual report on their use of public funds?

Yes

Further comments:

If MPs are to produce annual reports then it is crucial that their opponents are given a right to reply within the report itself. Perhaps the two parties or individuals who came runner up in the last election should be allowed space to respond.

Not including a right to reply would make it to easy for MPs to turn these reports into marketing documents and evade scrutiny.

Question 7: We propose that MPs are eligible to claim for accommodation expenses unless their constituency contains a station within London transport zones 1-6. Do you agree with this approach?

Yes

Question 8: Which of the following is most important in a long-term system for accommodating MPs:

Flexibility for MPs to identify properties that meet their individual needs.

Question 9: When should the payment of mortgage interest to existing MPs be ended?

In two years.

Question 10: Do you agree with our proposed approach to accommodation expenses for MPs with caring responsibilities?

Yes

Question 11: Do you agree with our proposed list of running costs for accommodation which might be met through public funds?

No

I don’t have a problem with MPs claiming for furniture. However, these items should be owned by the parliamentary authorities. When an individual ceases to be an MP they can either purchase any items they still want (at a price assessed according to depreciation) or give it back. If the latter, the items would be either disposed of or auctioned.

Question 12: Which of the options that we set out do you favour in providing assurance about claims for travel expenses?

Option 2 (We could ask that all claims for expenses be accompanied by details of each individual journey. MPs would need to list the date of each journey, its start and end, the distance covered and the reason for it.)

Option 3 seemed to be incredibly bureaucratic and hard to enforce.

Question 13: Do you agree with our approach to travel by public transport, including ordinarily travelling standard class?

Yes

Question 14: We propose to prohibit the use of public funds in the employment of family members by MPs. Do you agree with this approach?

No

Rather than banning all family members, I would prefer stricter rules on recruitment. Recruitment should be coordinated by Parliament according to strict equal opportunities guidelines, with the MP sitting as a member of the recruitment panel. There are legitimate reasons for employing partners (other family members, not so much), but this should be assessed objectively. This also avoids the problem of MPs “wife swapping” – i.e. employing each others’ wives.

Question 15: We propose that IPSA should prohibit MPs from renting from, or purchasing goods or services from, members of their families. Do you agree with this approach?

Yes

Question 16: Do you agree with our proposed approach to communications expenditure?

Yes

Question 17: Do you believe there should be any form of payment in the event of an MP leaving Parliament, either voluntarily or otherwise?

Yes

MPs should be entitled to statutory redundancy pay along with everyone else.

Question 18: What impact do you believe our proposals might have on the diversity of representation in the House of Commons?

Many of the claims that cracking down on expenses will discourage good people from becoming MPs are overblown. No MPs or candidates of my acquaintance are in it for the money. The bad publicity surrounding MPs’ expenses will certainly have put people off, but if the system is put on a firmer – and transparently more reasonable – footing the debacle will have long term benefits.

Question 19: Are there further areas we should consider which have not been referred to in this consultation?

There will always be pressure on MPs to abuse their expenses and staff to the benefit of their party until we have a proper system of party funding paid by the taxpayer. We must always be careful to avoid the “incumbancy protection creep” we have seen with the development of the Communications Allowance. Where MPs are to be funded to communicate with their constituents it should be a basic point of principle that their main rivals are given the right and opportunity to reply.

You have until 11 February to submit your own responses. It shouldn’t take you longer than 30 minutes.

Zac Goldsmith, Peter Watt and the anti-politics age

On the face of it, Zac Goldsmith and Peter Watt are two very different people. One thing they have common however is that they are high stakes rollers in the game of politics who claim to not be politicians.

Writing in today’s New Statesman, Peter Watt bemoans the fact that:

Working in front-line politics is like working in a goldfish bowl: everything you do is a potential story, good or bad. Elected politicians rightly have their say, argue their corner and defend themselves. It’s different for the staff of a political party. As a political staffer, you know there’s a risk that one day you could, however inadvertently, become a bad story yourself.

You know, too, that if and when that happens the “machine” will protect you as best it can. It is an unwritten but understood insurance policy andgoes to the heart of how and why political staff will go the extra mile.

I think it would be hard to deny that Labour did not treat Watt at all well and that Gordon Brown ratted him out at the first opportunity. So much for Gordon Brown. But it isn’t quite a simple as Watt would have us believe. After all, he was not strictly speaking a member of staff but an elected official. We was not there simply to do his political masters’ bidding; he had a political mandate of his own (from Labour’s National Executive Committee).

I think that failure of insight on his part explains a lot. If his agenda from day one as general secretary was merely to carry out instructions, it is no surprise that he failed to get Gordon Brown to commit to an October 2007 general election. If he failed to appreciate the political nature of his role and the importance of watching his own back, it is no surprise he was caught unawares by the Abrahams donor scandal.

Meanwhile on the other side of the political spectrum, we have Zac Goldsmith in the Evening Standard today airily announcing that:

“I hate politics. I hate the game of politics. I don’t want to get involved in this childish Punch and Judy. I have seen enough of politicians to know that it is not a class of people I particularly want to spend my time with.

“I don’t like career politicians. I don’t like what they stand for. I look at a politician who votes 100 per cent with his party and think: why did you do that? It’s all about career.”

There are several problems with these claims. First of all, Zac Goldsmith is by any rational definition a career politician. He started as editor of the Ecologist magazine back in 1998. I got the magazine for a few issues, discarding it because it had a distinct weakness for tinfoil hat theories regarding things like “electrosmog.” The other thing that used to wind me up were Goldsmith’s often polemic – and highly political – editorials, especially the ones where he bafflingly claimed that the EU was actually bad to the UK’s environmental policies (we would almost certainly be less green without the EU to prod us and a European Economic Community to enable us). The sort of pointed criticism he has received in recent months is exactly the sort of thing he has written himself, only on a different subject. And even if you ignore his former role as an environmental commentator, the simple fact is that he has been a party politician for four years now.

The only sense in which Goldsmith can be said to not be a career politician is that, as a dilletante, it is arguable that he does not have a career at all. His aversion appears to be less towards politicians per se and more towards those who lack the sort of financial independence he does. In short, he is waging class warfare here, pure and simple. For “career politician” read “oik”.

Either way, this whole “politician, moi?” stuff annoys me tremendously. I hated it just as much when Brian Paddick tried it on during the London mayoral election in 2008 with his “a policeman not a politician” posters et al. Paddick had a much better claim to not being a politician than either Goldsmith or Watt but his biggest problem lay in the fact that in his shiny suit he looked more like the consummate politician than any of his rivals (be it “regular bloke” Ken Livingstone, “toff” Boris Johnson or “hippy” Sian Berry). There’s a lesson to be learned there: if you indulge too much in this populist anti-politics mood then the ultimate victors are not “ordinary” people but consummate politicians who have enough cunning to hide it from view. The 2008 mayoral election was a great taster for what we might see in 2010: an election dominated by personalities, haircuts, tactics and name calling where the issues take a back seat. Neither Peter Watt’s book or Zac Goldsmith’s above-it-all act will exactly help in this respect.

Credit where it’s due

datacameron

The Evening Standard and Liberal Vision have been patting Guido Fawkes on the back for observing the uncanny similarity between David Cameron’s latest airbrushed photo and Lt Cmdr Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Only one slight problem with this: Guido actually got the idea from me as I tweeted this observation over a week ago.

Back in the day, Guido used to run a regular feature on diarists who regularly ripped off bloggers. These days of course, Guido is feted by the mainstream media. Fascinating how times have changed.

It is also worth observing that the substance of Angela Harbutt’s blog post is that Jo Swinson is a hypocrite for criticising adverts with airbrushed images of women whilst not criticising Cameron for this blatant act of fakery. Wrong again, I’m afraid, as any twitter search will tell you.

UPDATE: Guido has issued a carefully worded non-denial denial and accused me of “bloggers narcisim” – possibly the most self unaware statement ever uttered on the internet. Just for the record, I don’t expect or demand an acknowledgement – I’m just putting the facts out there. People can draw their own conclusions.

Which side is Peter Watt’s side of the story?

Why has Peter Watt chosen now to put forward his side of the story? It is hard to see how any of this helps the Labour Party’s cause. If his book were being published six months earlier he could at least argue that there was still time to get rid of Brown; if his book were published six months later it wouldn’t matter either way (and it would subsequently be less profitable for him to do so). One hopes that the full book will go some way to answering that question but at the moment it is mystifying.

Based on the Mail on Sunday extracts, I would tentatively conclude two things. The first thing is that Gordon Brown is even more of a waste of space than I assumed he was. Even if only half the things in these extracts are true, they portray a man totally ill suited to lead the country, let alone a general election campaign.

But if Brown comes off badly, in many respects Watt himself comes off worse. The extracts all have the tone of someone who appears to deny any personal responsibility whatsoever. This may just be selective editing on the Mail’s part – seeking to emphasise all the bits that put Brown in the worst possible light – but it is hard to see how they managed to do this when publishing the substantive section on the Abrahams affair.

David told me he used an accountant to ‘legally gift’ the money to his associates.

He had apparently been advised that as long as they were UK residents, on an electoral roll, and – however briefly – legal and rightful owners of the money, there was no problem. Every donation was reported to the Electoral Commission.

Over a five-year period, Kidd, Ruddick, Dunn and McCarthy collectively gave us a total of £600,000 – money that was gratefully received.

Kidd had also donated money to Harriet Harman’s deputy leadership campaign. Nobody at HQ ever really thought these donations were anything other than lawful.

If no-one really thought that was the case then Labour is in an even worse state than we thought. As Mark Pack pointed out at the time, the guidence emailed to him and Watt by the Electoral Commission was quite emphatic. And as someone whose job at the time mainly consisted of pointing out all the potential loopholes of the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it was clear to me that any rational person perusing the law would quickly conclude that such an act was against both the spirit and the letter of the law. The problem with the law was how easy it would be to bypass in practice, not what it said (in this instance at least).

To read the fact that Watt still maintains that he had been neither negligent nor dishonest therefore is quite gobsmacking. To make matters worse, it appears to flatly contradict this article – written by Watt’s ghost writer Isabel Oakeshott – where it is “understood” that Watt did not know that the donations from Raymond Ruddick and Janet Kidd came from Abrahams:

Now the case against Watt is on the brink of collapse following evidence that he did not know that David Abrahams, the Newcastle businessman and donor, was using agents and took reasonable steps to ensure the gifts did not break the law.

Watt is said by friends to have been devastated by the so called Donorgate affair, believing senior party officials had made him a scapegoat. Sources involved in the inquiry say Watt told police that he believed the go-betweens – Raymond Ruddick, Janet Kidd and two others – were donating the cash in their own right.

It is against the law to make a donation to a party on behalf of someone else without making the true source of the cash clear. No prosecutions have been brought, however, and lawyers believe the wording of the law make a successful case unlikely.

This 2008 account flatly contradicts the Mail extracts. In the latter, Watt admits that he knew about Abrahams using Kidd, Ruddick and others to act as go betweens. In the former, he apparently told the police the exact opposite.

Given Oakeshott and Watt’s subsequent relationship, it seems highly likely that Watt himself was the source for the 2008 article. Perhaps the full book will in some way reconcile these two wavering accounts from the same people. Either way, the account given in the latest extract is barely credible.

Overall, Watt comes across in these extracts as an innocent, something which I don’t mean as a compliment. It suggests that he was out of his depth. It is an interesting counterfactual to wonder whether a more grizzled national secretary would have been able to keep Gordon Brown on track when he wavered over the 2007 phony election.

It is worth noting that, in keeping with other Labour national secretaries, Watt was elected by the National Executive Committee not employed. He was also not Tony Blair’s choice, with the “grassroots alliance” out voting him by 16 to 10. Whatever misgivings I might have about how the Lib Dems’ equivalent – the Chief Executive – is appointed and held to account – I wouldn’t wish Labour’s system on my worst enemies. You need a system whereby committees can come to a consensus, not one in which the individual is seen to be owned by a particular faction on day one. No wonder Brown didn’t bother dealing with him directly and left it to Douglas Alexander to work as his intermediary. The very best thing that can be said about this working relationship is that it cost Labour an unneccesary £1.2million.

Peter Watt has decided to tweet his experience of this book launch, using the very Grant Shapps-esque “peterwatt123“. Thus far, his utterances regarding the launch and extracts have been very Kung Fu, with him tweeting this morning that “Loyalty is a two way street” (there’s a philosophy essay in that). More bizarrely, with both his profile picture and past tweets, he appears to be using his kids as a shield on the apparent assumption that people will go easy on a family man (see this as another case in point). Why not keep this stuff seperate from the book? It’s all very odd (and before you argue that these tweets are none of my business, I was only alerted to them because his publisher started promoting them).

Will Labour Peers be Mr Cameron’s poodle in 2010?

Over on Next Left, Sunder Katwala makes the case for 1910 being the most underrated year in political history. Reading this, a thought occurred to me: will the Labour Lords respect the Salisbury-Addison Convention if Cameron wins the general election later this year?

As long ago as 2005, Lord McNally refuted the continued legitimacy of the Convention on behalf of the Liberal Democrats (pdf), much to the consternation of the government:

… I do not believe that a convention drawn up 60 years ago on relations between a wholly hereditary Conservative-dominated House and a Labour Government who had 48 per cent of the vote should apply in the same way to the position in which we find ourselves today.

I hope that the Lord Chancellor will approach the issue in a constructive way. However, if the Government’s aim is simply to clip the wings of this House, so that a Government who have already demonstrated hubris and impatience on any check to
their powers check the powers of this House even further without proper reforms both down the corridor and in general governance, then Salisbury convention or no Salisbury convention, we will fight those proposals tooth and nail.

McNally’s argument makes good sense; the purpose of the Salisbury convention was to stop an illegitimate legislative chamber from thwarting the will of a democratic one. Fast forward to 2005 and we had a second chamber which roughly reflected the balance of votes cast in the previous general election and a first chamber which frankly did not. The same is likely to apply in 2010, unless the Tories begin stuffing the red benches, in which case the argument that the Salisbury Convention needs to be reviewed becomes unavoidable.

It looks almost certain that one of Labour’s favourite lines in the run up to the general election will be that if you vote Lib Dem you’ll be helping the Tories. They used this line in 2005 and it was partially effective, and I have no doubt that in their bid to stave off the Lib Dems in their marginals they will try the same. Fair enough. But if they maintain as they have in this parliament that Salisbury still applies, then it will be Labour politicians we will be seeing marching into the division lobby to support Tory policies, not Lib Dem ones.

In some ways this sums up the problem with the current Labour Party. For all their bluster, they have become all too comfortable being the establishment. Now that the ultimate establishment party is poised to retain control of the wheel, for all the bluster, what they can do except go along with it? They’ve blown every chance they’ve had, from taking big money out of politics to electoral reform, to ensure that when the Tories eventually increased their popularity there would be some proper safeguards to ensure they wouldn’t be able to abuse their position, mainly because Labour itself has grown so fond of these little abuses themselves.

2010 is going to be a decisive year for Labour. Possibly the worst thing that could happen to it would be to win a fourth term (whether this would be better or worse for the country is another question entirely). Fortunately for them, this is highly unlikely to happen. But what kind of opposition will they be? If the Straws and Browns have their way, they will continue to mouth opposition whilst only offering a superficial alternative. If control skips a generation by contrast we will probably see the party become more genuinely radical in terms of constitutional reform at least, but never underestimate the reactionary small ‘c’ conservative elements that lie at the heart of the party and the trade union movement. It is going to be a fascinating spectacle.

On a not totally unrelated note, I recommend people read Martin Kettle’s Is a Labour-Tory coalition unthinkable? Only until you think about it.