Monthly Archives: February 2010

“Good God, they might just do it!”

That was my reaction to the Sunday Times/YouGov poll today suggesting that Labour had managed to close the Tory lead down to just 2 points. While I expected the polls to close as election day drew nearer, and wouldn’t even be surprised by a margin such as that come 6 May, I never expect it to happen so quickly. You’ve got to hand it to Labour; they are starting to get the wind in their sales again.

But then, however much of a shambles the Tories may be at the moment, I’ve got to admit that they have a point when they ask, as they have been today, could you really face another five years of Gordon Brown? The idea fills me with dread. The silver lining on the Tory cloud was at least that there was a chance to remodel Labour along more liberal, less tribal and genuinely progressive lines. There are plenty of people in Labour I would happily see the Lib Dems working with in government; the current hegemony in charge at the top are a notable exception. That hegemony faces oblivion if Labour lose the election; if, hope against hope, they win, it will be another five years of one of most apocalyptically bad administrations we’ve ever seen.

I like to think that if Labour won they would unsentimentally ditch Brown as quickly as possible; he certainly has remarkably few genuine allies in the party. But that would not be without its problems either. Brown would have a personal mandate and it would be regicide on a scale that would make Thatcher’s assassins blush. The result would likely be a Brownite replacement who would quite possibly make Brown seem to be a wise sage in comparison (Balls, anyone?). The best we could hope for is a handful of reforms – including to the House of Lords – that Labour simply cannot continue putting off any longer (although Jack Straw will have a good go) and the prospect that a reduced majority will make it harder for the Brownite hegemony to continue to get its own way. The AV referendum will be a lost cause (the facts that it won’t survive if the Tories win and is highly unlikely to deliver a ‘yes’ vote explain why I struggle to get motivated by it either way).

For me, the most telling part of Peter Watt’s Inside Out was the section in which he describes how George Osborne wrong-footed Labour by announcing his plans to raise the inheritance tax threshold in 2007. No-one at the top of Labour had a clue how to respond to this (including, it has to be said, Watt). The same team were responsible for the 10p income tax rout a couple of months later. For these people, “fairness” is nothing more than an empty slogan designed to engender votes. It’s a branding exercise with no substance which they would ditch in a second if it had served its purpose. The only thing that makes Labour better in my eyes than the Tories is that there are a clutch of consciences sitting on their frontbench which occasionally remind the party of the principles it claims to expound (the baying mob on the Tory benches who are similarly keen to remind Cameron of Conservative principles could never be legitimately described as “consciences”).

I just don’t want either of the fuckers. To the 45% of the population living in a constituency where the Lib Dems are in first or second place: please. We might not be perfect but surely it’s the better option by a wide margin?

What the Lib Dem policy on homeopathy is not

I got two rather bemusing emails today. The first was the party’s official line on what our reaction to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s report on homeopathy is. The second one was to inform me that, five hours later, it has been rescinded. I can see why.

The line (and this is not a secret – PPCs were expected to parrot this word for word to the public) was as follows:

As you may be aware, a recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recommended that the NHS stops paying for the provision of homeopathy. This is a decision which I fundamentally disagree with.

The NHS in England currently spends around £10 million every year on homeopathy, we believe that this should continue.

The Liberal Democrats support a review by NICE into the clinical effectiveness of all Complementary and Alternative (CAMs) therapies. It is important to note that there is extensive evidence on the value to patients of CAMs and extensive support amongst patients for their continued use on the NHS.

While the Science and Technology Committee were right to recognise there are some conditions for which CAMs are wholly inappropriate, the measured introduction of treatment with CAMs therapies at primary care level has the potential to reduce expensive secondary referrals and/or long term expensive drug therapy in a range of conditions. The value of CAMs treatments as secondary treatments also needs to be recognised.

The use of CAMs on the NHS must be subject to the same checks and balances as other NHS services, which is why we support the statutory regulation of CAMs practitioners by the Health Professionals Council. This is a vital step to ensure that standards are maintained and patients are protected from misleading claims by practitioners.

What I find really odd about this response is that the select committee were calling for “CAMs” to be subject to the same checks and balances as established medicine, and did support NICE investigating this – thus far NICE themselves have resisted this. The report notes “we cannot understand why the lack of an evidence base for homeopathy might prevent NICE evaluating it but not prevent the NHS spending money on it”.

Norman Lamb needs to make his mind up. He can’t call for established medicine and its alternative to be treated in the same way, and then protest when it is. If the evidence of the efficacy of “CAMs” (and note how this muddies the water by not talking about homeopathy in isolation – presumably he feels the point becomes stronger the more you dilute the argument) is so “extensive”, then where is it and why were Phil Willis et al unable to uncover it?

It all seems a bit rum. Hopefully they’ll have sorted out the party line by the end of the weekend. But what I really don’t understand is why it was, if Norman Lamb feels so strongly about this, he didn’t put out a press release earlier in the week and argue his case? He’d certainly have got a lot of media attention.

UPDATE: Norman Lamb has finally reissued his position on homeopathy, which can be read here.

Teabagging Captain America

Tea Bag the Liberal Dems before they Tea Bag You!!Marvel Comics have earned the wrath of Fox News and the Tea Party Movement for featuring protestors holding placards with Tea Party slogans on in the latest issue of Captain America. Hilariously for an all ages comic which was at one point vetted by the Comics Code Authority, it even includes the slogan “Tea Bag the Libs before they Tea Bag You!”

Stop the Socialists!So far all very hilarious but it is a shame that Marvel have capitulated so quickly, with Editor in Chief Joe Quesada blaming the letterer and insisting that the protestors were not meant to be Tea Party protestors but rather “a generic protest group” who just happen to be “anti-tax”.

To this poor bear of little brain on the other side of the Atlantic, Quesada’s distinction – and the American right’s indignation – are both a little hard to understand. What Quesada seems to be suggesting is that if an explicit link between the real Tea Party movement had not been made that somehow the implicit link would not have been there. Meanwhile the Tea Party Movement themselves seem to be getting their knickers in a twist because of the use of a placard which, for anyone else, would be excruciatingly embarrassing.

Within all this is the more substantive accusation that Marvel were implying that the Tea Party Movement was racist, on the grounds that a black character did not feel comfortably mingling in a crowd of “angry white folks”. Quesada’s defence here is somewhat more robust, and rightly so. He could have gone further: not only was it realistic to give a black character qualms about the protestors but isn’t it an issue the Tea Party themselves need to address?

All this comic has done is hold a mirror up to the Tea Party and ask questions (whether Quesada is comfortable about admitting this or not). If the Tea Party don’t like what they see, they need to ask themselves questions. But then, since when has that stopped them from doing anything?

The writing’s on the hand wall.

Paperchase and Copywrong

A lot of my (mainly non-Twitter using) readers may be unaware of the controversy surrounding designer Hidden Eloise and greeting card giant Paperchase. In short, Hidden Eloise alleges that a design which Paperchase are using on a variety of products has lifted the central image of a girl from one of her own works He says he can hear the forest whisper.

It could of course be a coincidence but make up your own mind:

I have to say that the whole situation looks pretty cut and dried to me. Not so according to the Paperchase chief executive Timothy Melgund who, with the support of the Telegraph, manages to portray the whole incident as a case of a blameless, struggling company being bullied by a selfish designer, a cynical novelist and the lynchmob they have whipped up on Twitter (the whole article is a classic; even the headline marks a new low in Fox News-style values for the Telegraph: Paperchase forced to deny it ‘plagiarised’ British artist’s work after Twitter campaign):

“We bought the designs from a reputable central London Design Studio along with a number of other designs on good faith.

“We take all reasonable precautions when we purchase our designs from companies or individuals, because, to be blunt, we want to make sure they are entitled to sell it.”

He added: “We have not done anything wrong. Our reputation is of course very important to us. We spoke at length to the Design Studio in question and they categorically denied any plagiarism.

“What upsets us as a whole is that a lot of our good customers have been angered by this and there is no reason for it.

“We spend a long time building up our reputation for creating dynamic and interesting stationery and then something like this happens.”

Mr Melgund said the issue raised serious concerns about the “powers, and there in the danger of Twitter”.

“I am sure it can be beneficial but if you get an untruth (on it) it can be very dangerous,” he said.

As brass necks go, Timothy Melgund must be in for a shot in the 2012 Olympics. Indeed, it made me wonder: why would they mount such a robust defence unless they were absolutely sure the design was not only copied but that Hidden Eloise herself might have been the one doing the copying? The wheels on that hypothesis have now fallen off by the admission by the designer of the Paperchase design that she did, in fact, copy it from Hidden Eloise:

When creating the group of designs bellow I used the outline pose of your Hidden Eloise Girl in one of the designs to create a new pose for my princess. I did not intend to copy your character but use its pose to create a new design for my own character, my intention was not to copy your character, I now realise the pose was too close to your Eloise and apologise to you for this, I also apologise to paperchase for the trouble this has caused.

What is disturbing about this whole incident is that Paperchase have left it to both the freelance designer and the design agency who commissioned her to take a bullet on their behalf. Throughout the whole process, Paperchase have insisted that they had reassurances that it wasn’t a copy and that settles the matter. But it doesn’t because it is blatantly obvious that one design is based on the other. They didn’t need lawyers or reassurances to confirm that a wrong had been committed; they just needed eyes and a conscience. Let’s not forget that Hidden Eloise originally raised the issue with Paperchase in November; they had three months to avoid what is now a public relations disaster for them. Their calculation must have been that there was very little that an independent designer of modest means could do to them. Timothy Melgund’s comments on Thursday only reinforce the impression that his primary motivation was to dissemble rather than right a wrong.

That he went running to a rightwing newspaper to give him a sympathetic hearing and trotted out the usual line about Twitter inciting the mob (© 2009 Jan Moir) only makes him even more despicable. This suggests not only contempt for Hidden Eloise but for his customers. Frankly, I would describe it as a Gerald Ratner moment were it not so unfair on Ratner: at least he was only telling the truth.

Whoever lied to who, Paperchase are the big guys in this incident and they are the ones who should have been big about it. To not do so speaks volumes about their ethics and values. I’ve used Paperchase quite a lot over the past few years; they’ve just opened a new shop near where I work and assumed I would go on doing so. After this week, I’ll be making the strenuous effort of walking around the corner in future. Spread the word.

A final thought on copyright: this is yet another example of how existing copyright laws appear to do more for protecting corporate interests than in protecting the rights of artists. The costs of Hidden Eloise bringing forward a court case on this would have been prohibitive, yet record companies feel they can go around threatening their customers with jail – and in some cases pursue court cases against them – merely for downloading a song on a non-commercial basis. Isn’t it time we reassessed this?

PS I’m bookmarking this article in several places not to self-aggrandise but to ensure it is given wider coverage.

UPDATE: For completeness, and because I don’t think it will remain up on the Paperchase website for much longer (it only appears on the “contact us” page), here is Paperchase’s latest – and possible final – public statement on this matter:

Hidden Eloise / Kitty Mason / Gather No Moss

In an attempt to do the right thing and end this episode we want to briefly set out what happened here, offer our sincere apologies to all involved, and go back to operating our business as we have been doing for many years – albeit with a few lessons learnt from this incident. So, please bear with me.

By now, those of our customers and the social networking community who have been following this story, will know the basis of it. However, for the record:

• Paperchase bought a number of pieces of artwork from Gather No Moss in October 2008.
• By the end of November 2009 four items that contained the ‘copied’ image were on sale.
• On 27 November, Hidden Eloise contacted us saying that her work had been plagiarised, and we – as we would always do – went immediately back to our source to verify the claim. In retrospect we should have withdrawn the items from sale while the claim was investigated – our mistake.
• The studio, Gather No Moss, wrote back to us on 1 December stating that the image we had bought “was definitely not based on Hidden Eloise’s”. Again, in retrospect we should have withdrawn the items, but this was categoric confirmation that we had not been sold a plagiarised image. We assumed we had been told the truth. Another mistake.
• We advised Hidden Eloise of this confirmation on 2 December and heard no more until last Thursday when the accusation on Hidden Eloise’s blog gained worldwide coverage. While we established the “real” truth, we immediately removed all potentially offending items from sale and retraced our thinking. Press reporting could have been more accurate and our attempts to calm the situation through our web announcements met with limited success. Our communication could / should have been better.
• By Friday the truth emerged, and you can read the two statements from Gather No Moss and their freelance illustrator, Kitty Mason, below. This is not about blame, as some have suggested, but a genuine attempt to discover what went wrong. You must decide for yourselves where the faults lie. In retrospect we, Paperchase, are certainly not without blame.

So, we have been chastened by this experience and offer Hidden Eloise, our customers and those from the social network community our sincere apologies that we were not more rigorous in establishing the truth in the first instance.

Finally, please do not take some of the wilder accusations you might have read about our business too seriously. We are absolutely committed to design and independent illustrators alike. We are lucky in that the available artistic skill is so vibrant that it has allowed us to build our business, along with our loyal customer base, to where we are now.

Timothy Melgund
Chief Executive

Gather No Moss and Kitty Mason wish to make the following statements.

Gather No Moss
“Gather No Moss purchased the design known as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ from Kitty Mason in September 2008.
Paperchase bought Kitty Mason’s design from Gather No Moss in October 2008.
At the end of November 2009, the Artist named Hidden Eloise, contacted retailers Paperchase accusing them of plagiarism.
Paperchase contacted Gather No Moss and asked them whether there was any truth in this allegation.
Gather No Moss then asked the designer, Kitty Mason, whether she had copied Hidden Eloise’s ‘character’ (called – He says he can hear the Forest Whisper) in her own design.
Kitty Mason clearly stated to Gather No Moss that her ‘character’ was definitely not based on Hidden Eloise’s” ‘character’ only the pose was the same. Gather No Moss then conveyed this to Paperchase.

We are issuing this statement, to clarify our position and to hope to clear Paperchase of any direct fault.
We apologise unreservedly to Paperchase, their customers and to the artist, Hidden Eloise for this very regrettable sequence of events”.

Kitty Mason
“I created the design known as “Alice in Wonderland” in September 2008. I copied the outline pose of the Hidden Eloise ‘character’ (called – He says he can hear the Forest Whisper) to create a new pose for my ‘character’. I did not intend to copy the girl but use her pose to create a new design for my own ‘character’, I now realise it was wrong to do this.
In November 2009 Gather No Moss contacted me regarding Hidden Eloise’s allegation, I told them that my ‘character’ was definitely not based on Hidden Eloise’s ‘character’ only the pose was the same.

I would like to offer a full and unreserved apology to Paperchase, their customers, Hidden Eloise and Gather No Moss”.

Electoral reform and Parliament

At some point I need to write a comprehensive blog post about where I stand on AV. Today it not the time. But what I will say in response to last night’s vote in Parliament is that I find it appalling that MPs can be so complacent about how we actually count our votes whilst obsessive and dictatorial about as ephemeral an issue as when the votes are actually counted. It isn’t that I don’t think there is any merit in counting the ballot as quickly as possible – the more ballot boxes left overnight the more chance of ballot stuffing after all. But it just isn’t an issue worth getting exercised about.

In fairness to MPs, the blogosphere seems just as obsessed. Truly we are in the End Times.

STV is beautiful

uk09stv_smallDenis Mollison has an article on Next Left about how STV would work in practice. He also shows off a map of how the UK could be divided up into multi-member constituencies.

I really like what Mollison has done here. He hasn’t simply drawn lines on the map but created constituencies based on local authority boundaries. Ironically this would mean that people would identify with parliamentary constituencies more than the largely artificial ones we currently use (if the Tories get their way and replace the current system for drawing boundaries with a more technocratic one based on number of voters, this problem will get even worse). His model would also result in 140 fewer MPs.

I’m sure there are decisions here and there that you could poke holes in; the London boundaries in particular are likely to prove controversial. But this is valuable work as it instantly changes the debate around STV from a very abstract one to one of practicalities.

And, fundamentally, it makes a pretty picture. Any chance of a hi-res version to put up on my wall?

Comment is Free: Gordon Brown and the Alternative Vote

Wondering what I think of Labour’s plans for a referendum on electoral reform? Well wonder no longer!

The alternative vote is a small but significant step forward in the ongoing campaign for a fair electoral system fit for the 21st century. On a good day. Maybe.

If Brown’s system of choice bores campaigners, what hope is there of inspiring the public?

Everything in the middle can be found here.