Nick Clegg

My Lib Dem ambivalence

Sadly, as with all articles about my political beliefs these days, this has degenerated into a rambling mess. This is why I write, let alone publish, so few blog posts these days. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to publish and be damned this time, which in turn might explain why I’m quite so all over the place.

Reading articles by your past, more idealistic self is a little cringe-making, and this Comment is Free article written by me at the height of Cleggmania in April 2010 is no exception. Back then, despite previously agreeing to a vote swap with my wife in which I voted Labour in the General Election in exchange for her voting Lib Dem in the locals, I ended up casting a big, positive vote for the Lib Dems. The result was a Tory MP with a majority of 106 over the Labour and an unfortunate tendency to compare same sex marriage to incest. As for the locals, the Lib Dems were beaten into third place. So much for that.

This year, I’m going to cast the least ideological vote of my life, and will be voting Labour. I will be doing so knowing that the man I’ll be supporting, Andrew Dismore, is exactly the sort of cynical Blairite that I spent most of my time as a Lib Dem activist fighting against. To be fair, he’s a genuinely conscientious community campaigner, but really the best thing I can say about him is that he isn’t Matthew Offord.

I’m lucky that my choice is so stark and so simple this time around; if I were in a constituency with a larger majority or a less loathsome Tory MP, I might have a harder decision to make. I’m extremely grateful that happenstance has left me in a situation where I don’t really have to think much about my vote this time round.

But this all rather begs the question, what do I believe in these days? Most people who have left the Lib Dems stalked off over some firm, principled objection to something they had done. In my case, it was simply that I was burnt out, feeling responsible for everything and yet not able to change anything. I’ve never advocated people following me into the wilderness, and I simply can’t fathom why so many of my former colleagues have ended up joining Labour, where the ability to actually influence anything must surely be even more limited.

At my heart, I’m still a left-leaning liberal, and by most measures I should still be a supporter. As I’ve said before however, for me it boils down to the fact that the Lib Dems don’t have a vision of the economy at their heart. I’m just not convinced that it is enough to be a “liberal” party these days. All the mainstream parties have liberalism at their heart, merely existing along a spectrum of in terms of to what extent they focus on negative or positive freedoms. You can happily be a classical liberal in the Conservative Party, or a social liberal in the Labour Party.

What should, and manifestly doesn’t, mark the Lib Dems out as different is their economic policies. I could get on board for a party with a clear vision for actually tackling the massive privatisation of our common wealth, even if that was tempered by pragmatic policies about how to get there. What we get instead is a couple of piecemeal, populist sops to a “mansion tax” – carefully designed to offend the least number of people and thus ending up not being able to raise that much money. That, aside from more austerity and pain, is all the Lib Dems have to offer about the economy, and that isn’t enough for me.

With all that said, I have a sneaking admiration for my old party. Say what you like about this government, but the fact that it has managed to last five years is a fantastic, game-changing achievement. Past experience suggested that it would have been lucky to last two years; the fact that it confounded these expectations in an age of Twitter is all the more remarkable.

I confess, there isn’t an awful lot I can put my finger on and point to as massive Lib Dem achievements that they can be proud of. There are some. Steve Webb’s pension reforms. Jo Swinson’s work on shared parental leave. I still support raising personal allowance in principle (although I don’t like the way it has been done). But at the same time, I have seen almost weekly examples of the Lib Dems blocking Tory policies that would have been dreadful.

I confess, that feels like small beer, and I can also name many Tory politics they did let through, which I find fairly hard to forgive (especially when it comes to benefit cuts and reforms). There are also things that they seemed to have been actively complicit in, rather than merely passively letting the Tories run with, most notably in the case of the Lobbying Act which has caused me to really doubt the Lib Dem top brass’s commitment to democracy.

Overall, I think the fact that they’re taking a knock in this election is justified. Despite predicting it however, I don’t think they deserve to take the beating that they look set to get. I see an awful lot of competent, smart people losing their seats regardless of their personal qualities, and that sucks.

What is most unedifying is seeing the Lib Dems getting the blame for the wrong things. Despite the “broken promise”, the resulting policy on HE funding is by all measures fairer than what came before it; indeed, it’s biggest flaw is that I suspect it will quickly be deemed unsustainable by whoever forms the next government (I’ll laugh, albeit ruefully, when we subsequently see the NUS rushing to defend the status quo then). Meanwhile, we have the monumental screw up that was the NHS restructure, which only happened because Clegg personally supported Lansley on the issue (it certainly wasn’t Lib Dem policy). If he should be crucified for anything, it is this. It is weird that our politics are such that the media is preoccupied by “broken promises” yet lacks the analytical skills to adequately assess things like competence and whether a policy is likely to actually work.

I’m even in two minds about Clegg. On the one hand, he’s pretty much everything I hate about modern politics. He stood for leadership of the Lib Dems on a false prospectus, lead the 2010 election campaign on a false prospectus and negotiated the coalition agreement on the basis of his own priorities rather than the parties (which is why tuition fees, health reform and free schools were all “conceded”; these were all Clegg policies). On the other hand, to have managed to survive five years having so much ordure poured over his head, is quite remarkable. I hesitate to admit that I like him more than I did five years ago, but I do (but let’s not get carried away).

Ultimately, the thing that completely alienates me from the Lib Dems however is the internal culture. I couldn’t bear it even 10 years before I finally left, ducking out of Glee Clubs and party rallies whenever I could. I might dislike Clegg, but I had a growing problem with how Lib Dems campaigned long before he was leader. The Lib Dems simultaneously like to think that they have a monopoly on community politics, and that it can be reduced to an election-winning strategy. Neither are true, which is why it will always result in cynical campaigns and ever decreasing circles.

I had a problem with the man behind the modern Lib Dem campaign strategy Chris Rennard, long before the allegations of sexual impropriety emerged. The way the party ultimately welcomed him back under the fold, and threw the women who made the – to quote the official report – “credible” claims against him under a bus, is utterly shameful. The allegations about Cyril Smith’s conduct are clearly more serious than the ones made against Rennard, but the pattern is the same: studied incuriosity and scrupulous hand washing after the event. This is a party with a serious problem when it comes to how it deals with allegations of a sexual nature made against its own senior party figures, and we have seen nothing that suggests this culture is likely to change significantly in the future.

I have to admit that, for me, it’s personal. If I was still a party member and this hadn’t happened to personal friends of mine, I might be more inclined to shuffle my feet and shrug in the way that the vast majority of Lib Dem MPs and members have. I can’t shrug off the perception that this is linked in with the party’s wider failure to improve its record on gender balance and Clegg’s now largely forgotten decision to include a pledge to grant people accused of rape with anonymity in the coalition agreement. When it comes to sex and gender, the Lib Dems find themselves on the wrong side of the argument far too often, and it can’t begin to renew itself until they can credibly claim to have changed that.

So I’m torn. On the one hand, I’m grateful to the Lib Dems for proving that coalition government can work and stopping the Tories’ worst excesses over the last five years. On the other hand, I’m very conscious of deep cultural and philosophical shortcomings of the party. It deserves a hit in the polls, but I’m highly ambivalent about the fact that many of the wrong people will end up being at the sharp end. The pragmatist in me thinks I should get back involved and try and change it from the inside, the idealist in me is repelled by the idea of being tainted by all that again. Fortunately for my idealist side, there’s also my mental health to consider, so it is largely academic.

I’m hopeful that a new party can emerge from the ashes on 7 May. But if it ever wants my vote again it will need to have a much stronger commitment to social justice, wealth distribution and feminism at its core*.

The Greens

* Inevitably, I’m going to get asked why I’m not turning to the Greens. I have to admit that I’m increasingly struggling to come up with a good answer to that. The simplest answer is that a) I’m happy voting tactically this time and b) staying away from political activism for the foreseeable future. But as someone who was rather preoccupied with the Lib Dems’ (subsequently dropped) 1992 pledge for a citizen’s income when he first joined the party, I can’t deny that the party has its appeal. I’m not yet convinced that, if I ever do get off the bench, my time wouldn’t be better spent organising inside a party with a national infrastructure than inside a party which has yet to demonstrate that it has one. It remains to be seen how many of these new members the Greens have purportedly recruited will go on to organise themselves outside of election time and turn their handful of potential target seats into something more ambitious. If they can prove they are a sustainable force, things might be different.

Vote Match

Why political elites hate Vote Match

Vote Match has launched for the general election today and for the first time since the project started in 2008, my fingerprints aren’t all over it (declaration: I am of course married to the Unlock Democracy director, which is behind Vote Match). The design I built for the 2010 general election has been replaced by a much slicker and more modern design and I’m impressed by it.

It is a sign of Vote Match’s success that this year it is in a crowded marketplace for voter advice applications in the UK. There is Vote for Policies, I Side With, possibly Verto if they ever get it to work, and I’m sure there are several others that I haven’t come across yet. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I couldn’t be happier or prouder to see so many people leaping on this particular bandwagon.

Not everyone agrees. Former Labour councillor and communications professional Antonia Bance has singled out VAAs for being misleading and “written by people who don’t understand politics”. The problem with them, she suggests, is that they indicate that all that matters about politics is policy. And I suppose that, taken literally, the name “Vote for Policies” does suggest that, and I certainly can’t claim to speak for everyone who has ever built a VAA.

But here’s the thing. Not a single VAA exists in a vacuum, and not a single voter relies solely on a VAA to decide which way to vote. There certainly is a problem; the RegistHER campaign are quoting stats today suggesting that 28% of people don’t know anything about Conservative policies, 41% about Labour policies and 62% about Lib Dem policies. None of these stats tell us anything we don’t already know: a huge proportion of the voting public don’t even know where to begin where to vote.

But it is the height of condescension to suggest that anyone will jump on a VAA, take the result at face value and cast their vote accordingly. Bance is keen to emphasise that brands matter too. Well, yeah. VAAs tend to either confirm or confound people’s prejudices (or “brand awareness” if you can only talk in marketing), but the thing is, everyone has prejudices. If there truly are people out there who use VAAs without having any prior awareness of political parties, that’s the parties’ and media’s fault – not having the VAA there isn’t going to help anyone; it would just lead to more disengagement.

VAAs are the start of the conversation, not the end of one. When I was working on Vote Match, that was always central to what we were trying to achieve. That’s why, back in the mists of time, I insisted on including a Twitter button to encourage engagement, despite the fact that no-one used Twitter back in 2008. That’s why we included the parties’ own statements in response to each question (if they were interested in providing them; most frankly don’t in the UK). That’s why we pointed people to look at information about their constituency. There is a live debate about how many disclaimers and clarifications you should put up on a VAA; should you swamp the user with explanations about why it is only a match against certain specific policies, not a fully objective and perfect answer? While it is good to include some disclaimers, for the most part people aren’t stupid and get that. It is only the political elites who seem to need to have those things pointed out to them.

So to reiterate: no, politics isn’t all about policies, and I highly doubt anyone behind a VAA thinks that any more than it would be utterly ridiculous to believe that because I built PartyFunding I must believe that the only thing people should consider is who funds parties. They give people a way to engage with the political process, and in a way that is on their terms and not the parties.

It is highly ironic to be having this debate a day after the last Prime Minister’s Questions of the year, in which Ed Miliband demanded David Cameron confirm if he would raise VAT or not and was completely wrong-footed when he got a straight answer. Because, when it suits them, political elites are always the first to tell you how important policy is; it is only when they don’t like what they’re being asked that they retreat into caveats about branding and core values.

Terry Pratchett with librarian

On angels, apes and Terry Pratchett

I’m what you might call a lapsed Terry Pratchett fan. For most of my adolescence, his work was a huge influence on me. But, as was typical of my late-teenage self, I walked away when he hit his most prolific period out of indignation about “cashing in” or some such self-righteous bullshit (I like to think I have a more sophisticated and generous view of artists these days). I never went back because the backlog got overwhelming, although I still intend to at some point.

Like everyone else, I was saddened to hear of his death yesterday. Amid all the tributes and an affectionate quotes that filled my various feeds, one image particularly jarred with me. Intended as a tribute, it was this British Humanist Association image, repeating the oft-cited quote “I’d rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel”:
"I'd rather be a rising ape than a falling angel" Sir Terry Pratchett
There are several things I could say about this. The first thing is, that I thought it was a shame that the first thing the BHA reached for was the most divisive quote they could find. The second is that, the concept of a “rising ape” is nonsense. The enlightenment notion that we are on a progressive path from amoeba to divine being was actually pretty much refuted by Darwin himself, whose own views about evolution did away with concepts that were very much steeped in notions of progressivism such as Lamarckism. Of course, much of that was subsequently undermined by Herbert Spencer and his championing of the most un-Darwinian Social Darwinism, but we emerged from that intellectual cul-de-sac 70 years ago.

To be fair on Pratchett, this is an off the cuff quip he made, apparently inebriated, at the end of a very long answer he answered at a Guardian event at few years ago. It’s not a quote from Pratchett as much as it is a quote from the anonymous sub-editor who chose to give this clip that title. His full answer is much more nuanced:

For me, the far more inspiring quote is at the start of the same section, when he makes largely the same point in a much more sophisticated (and funny) way:

“I find it far more interesting; in a sense, far more religiously interesting; that a bunch of monkeys got down off trees and stopped arguing long enough, to build this; to build that; to build everything. And we’re monkeys. Our heritage is [unintelligible] to climb trees and throw shit at other [monkeys]. And actually, that’s so much more interesting than being fallen angels.”

But the third point I would make, via my friend James Blanchard, is that this in turn is an evolution of something Death says in The Hogfather:


Both the last two quotes are classic, brilliant, wonderful Pratchett. The first one is not. It is such a shame that the former seems to be the one that is being parroted by the media today.


Citizen Four

I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed by Citizen Four. As a document covering the launch of the Snowden story and its impact on him, it’s interesting enough. But as a film about the issues (something which he himself expresses concerns about his personal story obscuring), it fails utterly. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, and I don’t think I’ve read the news reports that closely.

I also don’t buy into the “death of freedom” narrative that the film seems to assume you believe. It does a lot of the security agencies’ work for them by pushing the premise that they can predict everything about from your data, despite the fact that Amazon, Facebook and Google demonstrate they are hopeless at doing so on a daily basis. If they can’t do it with a massive profit motive urging them on, why am I meant to believe that an intelligence agency with zero scrutiny and a hitherto tendency to screw up, is capable of doing so?

Honestly, the human factor – people arbitrarily using records to victimise people for entirely frivolous reasons – is a lot scarier than the all-seeing all-knowing big data aspect.


The “TERF” debate: a primer for the terminally confused

No publication has done more to pour oil over the fire at the heart of the debate over trans rights than the New Statesman, and last night it issued its latest incendiary broadside: an anonymous article purporting to explain the debate and condemn people like Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell for not wanting to be associated with people they consider to be Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs.

Generally speaking, any writer who dredges up Joe McCarthy and George Orwell to attack their opponents should not be viewed uncritically; those are pretty clear red flags. I’m not intending to go through a line-by-line rebuttal of the whole article, suffice to say that much of it is grossly misrepresentative.

At its heart though, it is just blatantly misleading. The argument is not about whether trans women are biologically identical to cis women, or even whether trans women have different life experiences than cis women. The argument is about whether that should matter. The argument is whether cis feminists should extend the hand of solidarity out to trans women. To argue that all feminists do is blatantly wrong.

It seems strange to be even having to rebut this. If a major national political magazine were to publish an article arguing that white women are biologically different to women of colour, and that women of colour just have to accept this, the outcry would be near universal. The fact that this article is seemingly being approvingly quoted by people who otherwise consider themselves to be progressive and unprejudiced, shows us that this is a civil rights struggle over which there is still much work to do.

There’s a particularly revealing part of this article, in which the author states – with not inconsiderable alarm – that “in some circles it is considered transphobic for women to question the presence of people with openly displayed male sexual organs in spaces like communal female changing rooms” (my emphasis).

I can well understand that some cis women might be uncomfortable about this. The question is where those people, who a non-TERF would call women (simples!), should get changed. Is the discomfort of cis women so inviolable that the minority, trans women, should have to get changed with men? Or perhaps they should be allocated their own broom cupboard? Again, the analogy with skin colour is hard to avoid: 50 years ago, this was a big deal. Fortunately, we’ve moved on. Maybe your discomfort at getting changed in a room with someone who looks different to you is your problem.

I repeat: this is a civil rights movement. All successful civil rights movements have got in people’s faces, upset them, made them uncomfortable and, yes, occasionally crossed the line and made mistakes. They have to; that’s how they win. If you can applaud a film like Selma, or Pride*, and somehow consider that New Statesman article to be legitimate journalism, then you need to be aware that you are part of the problem.

* Actually, I had a number of issues with that film, but I’m not getting into that here.

One Ring RPG

The One Ring RPG Review: You Can Never Go Back Again

So, a bit of background for context of this review: I’ve been roleplaying since I was 9, back in 1983. Over the last 30 years I’ve played all sorts of games, mostly GMing, but never really got that sense of unbridled joy and creation that I got from playing those games as a kid when we barely understood any of the rules; the more I “learned” how to play RPGs, the less I seemed to enjoy them.

As I got older, I played less and less. Partly this was because of life and career getting in the way but, to be honest, partly is was the disappointment I tended to feel every time I played. I came to believe that being a good roleplayer – and specifically a good GM – was a skill that I simply lacked.

All that changed when I discovered Fiasco in 2012 (thanks, Mr Wheaton). I quickly graduated onto other games, particularly Monsterhearts, go involved in the London Indie RPG Meetup and have been a keen indie gamer ever since. I’ve played more memorable games over the last 2 years than I had in the preceeding 30.

None of this is to say that conventional RPGs are rubbish. I don’t believe that and neither to the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people who play and enjoy them every week. All I’m saying here is that they aren’t really for me. I want to tell a story, I want to get immersed into a story, and I want to do it in a single session or a handful – not over dozens. I don’t want to be a player or a GM and would prefer to be in that sweet spot in between.

At least, that’s how I felt. But after a couple of years, I started to wonder: am I simply being unfair on conventional games? Is it possible to use the techniques that I’ve picked up from indie games and apply them to conventional ones? The One Ring, a game which I had had sitting on my shelf since its initial publication back in 2011, had been calling me – especially with the publication of an exciting looking campaign book which purported to be like the Great Pendragon Campaign only where you got to actually have an impact on events.

I didn’t have the time, inclination or players to try a full 30 year campaign, but I thought we could have a taster campaign of half a dozen sessions or so, to see how it works. So that’s what we started back in October and had our fifth and final session last night. So, did it change my perceptions of conventional RPGs?

The basics

First of all, I recognise that a number of people might object to me calling The One Ring a conventional RPG at all. It’s indie influences are quite clear, especially in the form of Mouse Guard / Burning Wheel (a ludography would have been nice, actually). This is takes the form of the game having a “loremaster phase” during which the adventuring takes place and a “fellowship phase” during which time the players get to regroup, recover and get on with life (I’ll return to this idea later).

The game has been designed from the ground up to better evoke Tolkien, almost as a rebuke to its predecessor Middle Earth RPGs (I can’t comment on the Lord of the Rings RPG from a decade or so ago, but Iron Crown Enterprise’s Middle Earth Roleplaying, the second RPG I ever owned, is almost comedic in its trashing of the Tolkien aesthetic). The game utilises custom dice, although ordinary dice would work fine with it: a twelve side “feat die” numbered 1-10, a “Gandalf rune” (an automatic success) and an “Eye of Sauron rune” (an automatic zero, or a complication), and a number of six sided “success dice” with a special rune marking each six to represent some special success has been achieved. Task resolution involves rolling a number of dice according to your skill value, plus the feat die, against a target number.

In keeping with the books it is based on, the game places as much emphasis on travelling and social encounters as it does on combat. Doing stuff in The One Ring, especially when you are starting out, is hard, and you will most likely have to spend Hope points – a measure of your favourable outlook on like – to succeed at things. In fact, my players tended to be a little shy about doing this during our first few sessions, partly because (as storygamers), they were interested in seeing what happened when they failed.

This brings me to my first criticism: failure is, on the whole, not especially interesting. Mouse Guard has a general “succeed but pay a price” rule when it comes to failure. The Hope system seems to replace that but I almost wish the rule had been that if you can succeed with the bonus spending Hope gets you, you have to spend it, because otherwise the GM and players are left stranded.

The exception to this rule is with the travel rules in which a role of the Sauron symbol on the Feat Die results in some kind of hazard occurring. This is okay, but the hazards themselves aren’t terribly interesting and having significantly more examples in the book would have been really useful. Indeed, aside from it counting as a zero, this is the only way the Sauron symbol is used in the mechanics, which is a bit of a missed opportunity in my view.

Overall, task resolution of all kinds tends to involve rolling dice multiple times. It isn’t always clear how exactly this is meant to work; I’m still not really clear what a failure on a die roll for an extended resolution represents (a complete failure, a “reset” where you have to start again, cancels out a success?), and found the social encounters system similarly murky. Fundamentally, I’m not sold on the idea that rolling lots of times makes a task resolution die roll more interesting; all too often we ended up sullenly rolling the dice instead of narrating what was actually happening. The dice weren’t prompting us and it was quite joyless. Compare this to a game such as Apocalypse World where everything is simplified down to a roll of just two dice, and yet the prompts provided for each “move” is such that it does a great job at guiding you towards a dramatically interesting resolution. I really wish this game had had more of that.

The combat system I’m slightly more of a fan of, although I know that view wasn’t unanimous within our group. For myself, I quite liked the system which involves characters adopting either a rearward or one of several close combat stances, and then making difficulty rolls based on the stance adopted (so for example, it is easier to hit if you adopt the forward stance than if you are defensive, but you are similarly easier to be hit). The rules as written don’t apply to every situation, essentially they assume that all the player characters are together in a bunch, but if you apply a bit of common sense, the system works quite well. Or at least, that’s what I felt by the end of our last session when I loosened up a little.

Actual play

So my intention when starting out with this campaign was to run the first six or so years in the aforementioned Darkening of Mirkwood campaign setting, possibly involving the pre-written adventures in the Tales from Wilderland book as the opportunity arose. At the end of the first session, however, I had decided to pretty much abandon that plan.

During the first session I ran the adventure provided in the basic rulebook, the Marsh Bell. I very quickly found I had an enormous problem with this scenario as it essentially railroads the characters to go down a certain path, have an assortment of encounters and then return. There seemed so little opportunity for the characters to have any agency at all. This is of course a basic problem with pre-written scenarios and a hard one to solve. But if I was to retain my enthusiasm for a full half dozen sessions, I’d need something more inspirational.

My alternative approach was to have the players provide me with a list of things they wanted to see in future scenarios. I’d then randomly pick a handful and use them (and the campaign guide) as inspiration for the following session. I used this approach for the following session, and thus set them on a mission to invite a great warrior to King Bard’s celebrations to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Five Armies. I deliberately didn’t overly prepare each session, preferring to “keep it feral” Monsterhearts-style, and letting the players prompt the action.

For me anyway, this seemed to work a lot better and very quickly we had lots of ideas. Although the path we followed ended up being almost a linear as the initial scenario, it felt less railroady because it was based on the player’s prompts. A bit of reincorporation goes a long way, so a weird vision of a sword in session one ended up forming the basis of a quest which was revealed in session three.

I felt that at times we were still straining against the system to be honest, especially when it came to travel, and there were times when I fudged like crazy. But overall I’m satisfied that in our five sessions we told a fairly satisfying story, and one which despite the decision to end it there, I was interested discover how it continued. This was at least partially because, as a result of the thrilling combat and escape from an orc domain at the end of the adventure, both of our Elf adventurers had worryingly little Hope left and I am curious to see how that would have complicated matters.

Not for me

It pains me to say it, but I’m wary of running a similar game again, certainly not for a while and without certain tweaks. Regardless of system, at the end of the day the relationship between player and GM is simply not one I enjoy that much.

At the same time, this experiment has given me a certain amount of insight into what it is that people get out of conventional RPGs. Up until now, I have tended to buy into GNS Theory, the idea that there are three types of RPG – gamist, narrativist and simulationist, with the fans of a lot of conventional RPGs enjoying them because of an interest in realism as opposed to telling a good story.

While there may well be people for whom that is a concern, I can’t help but feel that on the whole the roleplaying hobby abandoned overt simulationist games back in the 80s with all those 20 volume, intensely detailed games such as Rolemaster. The divide between conventional RPGs and story games doesn’t seem to be a tension between gamists and narrativists either as many story games place more emphasis on “game” than conventional ones. Instead, I think it is a question of where you want your story: in your head or on the table.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about a typical RPG session as an experience where the real fun is figuring out what really happened between sessions, and I certainly felt that there was a bit of that with our game (and not just in the case of the really helpful notes that one of my players wrote up each week). All too often, the system informs the story but doesn’t enable it to happen there and then; it requires reflection to sweat the details out. And that reflection often takes place inside the head of the individual players rather than it being a shared experience.

By contrast, story games are all about experiencing the narrative there and then (in that sense, Ron Edward’s definition of “story now!” is quite correct). There certainly is reflection, but it tends to be based on a lot more open information and a much greater attempt to develop some level of consensus around the table as it happens.

In short, I think that conventional gamers get the same kick out of roleplaying that I do, just in a slightly different way and at a different time.

There is also a question of timescale within the fiction itself. Characters have agency in conventional RPGs; it’s just that their influence on events is more akin to steering a supertanker than a London cab. The Darkening of Mirkwood is a great example of that. I’ve read about half of it and what peaked my influence really is good. It effectively tells a story in which the actions of the player characters in year five might have enormous repercussions in year twenty-five. This is awesome. It is also something that I am unlikely to ever have either the time or patience to experience.

In this important respect, The One Ring is not thematic. The Lord of the Rings, certainly, has chapters which span decades as opposed to days, but they are just that: chapters. Cubicle 7 have yet to publish an adventure which has the feel of an epic quest such as the one told in either the Hobbit or its sequel. Yet that is what my players expected and wanted, and I’m sure they aren’t alone.

What would be more thematic, for me anyway, would be a system which allowed for both the Loremaster and Fellowship phases to be much bigger deals. So you would have bigger adventures spaced out by longer periods of downtime. The existing Fellowship phase system is simply not equipped to do this; even during the shortish periods it is designed to cover (by shortish I mean anything from a few weeks to a year), it is a bit of a damp squib. The Fellowship Phase options listed in the basic book and its supplements amount to little more than preparation for the next adventure. With some exceptions, they don’t really represent complications in a character’s life at all.

It would have been a great system if, during the Fellowship phase, characters might encounter some adversity, fall in love, lose a loved one, get sick, retire and pass the torch; anything to add a little more flavour and colour and definitely something that is not entirely in the control of the players. Allowing the players to flash their cash or hang out with a patron simply isn’t the same.

The bottom line is that the Middle Earth RPG that I want to play would be more epic, more dramatic and hand over a much greater share of narrative control to the players. I’ve come away feeling that despite being worlds apart tonally, Apocalypse World (but probably not Dungeon World) would form an excellent basis for this. At the same time, this game has given me some insight into what fans of conventional RPGs are getting out of it. I respect that, but for me what people enjoy about a game like The One Ring are a chore for me, and I don’t think that any amount of tweaking can fix that.


How we lost The Great Egg Race

So my wife and I were talking about old TV programmes this evening (to be honest, this was more me fulminating about how no-one seems to remember the TV programmes I used to watch as a kid on account of my great age and policeman getting younger every day, you get the idea), and our conversation settled on The Great Egg Race. I decided to show her a video of it to demonstrate how it had The Best TV Theme Tune Ever, but we ended up watching the entire episode. It was oddly compelling:

What’s interesting about this programme is that it marks an era when people could be intelligent on television without having to apologise for it. The basic format is essentially the same as any other modern “reality” show such as Masterchef or the Apprentice in which a group of people are set a challenge with limited resources and a limited amount of time and then get to square off against each other in a final contest. But beside that basic format, all other resemblances end.

Much of the programme consists of boffins muttering to each other under their breaths about how they plan to build their contraption, followed by Professor Heinz Wolff and his expert guest having discussing the week’s challenge without worrying especially about whether the audience was keeping up or not. The presenters do a rudimentary job at explaining things, but the viewer is pretty much left to it. There’s no Sean Pertwee sexily explaining what’s going on every thirty seconds. Neither is there much in the way of conflict; it is possible that they had their own equivalent of the Baked Alaska scandal, but I’m not aware of it.

The most striking contrast is with The Apprentice, and I think it says a lot about how our society’s values have changed over the past 30 years. While widely mocked as a piece of car crash TV, I can’t help but think that one of the reasons The Apprentice continues to be popular is that the corporate executive is now what we are meant to believe is what the ideal job to aspire to looks like. We might not all buy The Apprentice’s portrayal of corporate suits behaving like idiots and stabbing each other in the back to get ahead, but we at least buy into it as being a caricature of something real.

The Great Egg Race on the other hand is about engineers being set a similarly impossible and ridiculous challenge, who go about it by working together collaboratively and just getting on with it. They aren’t steered by the nose by producers who desperately want to drag a narrative into it all, and in the final challenge even the losers have a certain amount of dignity; they might have failed – they might even have failed badly – but even the biggest loser emerges from The Great Egg Race with a degree of dignity.

And they were engineers! A profession which our modern culture appears to simply ignore. Scientists are of course lauded, especially if they’re pretty ones like Brian Cox (sorry Heinz Wolff), but engineers seem to be pretty much invisible. Yet somehow our transportation systems, computers and widgets continue to get built.

There is, to be fair, a continuation of programmes which emulated the Great Egg Race. In the 90s we had Robot Wars, in which amateur engineers to pitch their robot creations against each other in a Thunderdome style arena. It was never really about the engineering however as much as it was about the occasional metallic carnage. It was an interesting programme to follow as both the robots and their builders evolved. You got to see the robots get slowly better over successive series and the builders become more and more up their own arses as their minor celebrity statuses (which appeared to involve opening the odd village fete and visiting children’s parties) reached their peaks. You would see them slowly coming out of their shells, wearing increasingly extroverted clothing. Some of them even (gag!) started to flirt with presenter Philippa Forrester (believe me when I say that this lead to some of the most excruciating television ever broadcast).

Scrapheap Challenge was perhaps more of a true spiritual successor to The Great Egg Race, just on a somewhat bigger scale. In so many ways, where The Great Egg Race was tweed and elastic, Scrapheap Challenge was METAL. With the number of bikers who took part in the latter, despite the years separating the two series, the amount of hair on both was about the same – they just wore t-shirts rather than suits.

But Scrapheap Challenge was ultimately a lot more like a modern reality TV show as well. Aside from the narration, there was a much greater focus on controversy and conflict, both inside the teams and between them. It did indeed have it’s own share of Baked Alaska Incidents. It was, to be fair, better at explaining concepts than its predecessor, but it was ultimately much more self-conscious about the fact that what it was ultimately about was a “boring” topic like engineering; it was certainly dressed up more. You can sort of see this in the team names; while the teams on The Great Egg Race were simply named after their place of work (Kontron Electrolab Ltd), the teams on Scrapheap tended to have jokey, ironic names like The Anoraks. I enjoyed it as a series, but it ultimately came across as a much less simple pleasure.

What am I saying here? Nothing more than that I feel that in the 20 years between The Great Egg Race and Scrapheap Challenge we somehow lost the ability to celebrate cleverness for its own sake and to simply take delight in people working together to do a good job under trying circumstances. Whether “we” have lost it or TV producers merely perceive we have is of course a moot point, but watching that episode did leave me feeling oddly nostalgic.


Can’t a gesture be just that? #jesuischarlie

Yesterday, when news of the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo office was just emerging, my main reaction was simply to feel extremely sad. Fortunately I’m not a politician, a journalist or even much of a blogger these days so I’m allowed to feel that way without having my motives examined for signs of possible racism or bigotry.

Over the last day of so I’ve made a number of comments and shared stuff on my usual social networks using the hashtag #jesuischarlie. What I meant by it was merely “there but for the grace of God go I” – a simple statement of solidarity.

Apparently that isn’t the case however. According to countless righteous people who have been all too keen to leap on the bully pulpit, I used that hashtag because I’m either a crypto-racist/islamophobe or hopelessly naive, thinking of Charlie Hebdo as some kind of bastion of western satire when in fact it is a scurrilous rag and not even very funny. And apparently I’m an idiot for thinking that this was about cartoons when it was in fact about much wider issues. I’ve even read suggestions that any act of solidarity must automatically mean I’m in favour of cracking down on the very civil liberties that yesterday’s murderers were attacking.

As it happens, from what little I knew of it, Charlie Hebdo did seem pretty scurrilous, insensitive and unfunny. As it happens, I’m not so stupid as to believe this is simply about a drawing of Mohammed. And needless to say, the last thing I want to see as a result of this attack is a crackdown on civil liberties or the end of multiculturalism.

It is too much to ask for people to not use atrocities like this to advance their own agendas. Indeed, that can be useful. But is it really too much to ask that people don’t insult everyone else’s intelligence whilst doing so, inferring far more into a simple expression of grief than it warrants?

Thank you. As you were.


Will the UK voting system survive 2015?

Consider the following bizarre potential outcomes for the 2015 general election:

  • The SNP romp home, winning well over 20 seats. The Green Party also do the best they’ve ever done, gaining 5% of the national vote. Yet the latter party only win a single seat despite getting a higher UK share of the vote than the former.
  • UKIP do the best they’ve ever achieved in a general election, with 16% of the vote. They only win around half a dozen seats however. The Lib Dems meanwhile creep home with just 15% of the vote, yet hold onto over 20 seats.
  • Labour gets slightly fewer votes than the Conservatives. Despite this poor performance, they win more seats than their opponent. Their total vote share hovers at around 60% of the vote, the lowest combined score since 1918.
  • No single party gains a majority. More than that, no two party majority is possible, with the exception of a Labour-Conservative coalition.

I’m not suggesting that all of these outcomes are going to happen, merely that at this point in time they are all feasible. If they do all happen at once, it will be the perfect storm of electoral outcomes which will put our single member plurality voting system (“SMP”)* under greater strain than it has ever known.

This has in fact been a long time in coming. The reality is that “two party politics” is a historical quirk that has only enjoyed a very brief period of popularity. The modern political party as we now regard it didn’t even exist when the Third Reform Act was passed in 1884 enfranchising most men over the age of 21. 16 years later the Labour Party was born and we had decades of 3+ party politics until the Liberals pretty much gave up the ghost in the 1930s and 40s. In 1951, two party politics reached its apex with the combined Labour-Conservative vote reaching 96.8% but by 1974 that was down to 75.1% and in long term decline.

We can see this trend by looking at how the gap between Effective Number of Parties (“ENP”) by votes and seats has widened over the last 70 years (ENP is an academic concept used to estimate the number of parties active in an election according to their relative strengths). As you can see, the disparity between votes and seats has widened almost inexorably.

Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at,  accessed 1 January 2015).
Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at,
accessed 1 January 2015).

Indeed, it is also worth bearing in mind that the voting system itself was stitched up to reinforce this hegemony. SMP is not, in fact, the only voting system to have been used in a House of Commons election. Multi member constituencies were quite common for urban areas at first, and university seats were elected using Single Transferable Vote from 1917 until 1950. You can see how, in the first decade after single member constituencies were universally adopted in 1950, the disparity between votes and seats actually got worse. By contrast, if we had not gone down that route, it seems likely that UK elections would have done a better job at reflecting votes cast.

Josep Colomer asserts that as political systems embrace multi-party politics, they tend to drift inexorably towards proportional representation.

A crucial point, however, is that coordination failures can be relatively more frequent under majoritarian electoral systems, especially for the costs of information transmission, bargaining, and implementation of agreements among previously separate organizations, as well as the induction of strategic votes in favor of the larger candidacies. With coordination failures, people will waste significant amounts of votes, voters’ dissatisfaction with the real working of the electoral system may increase, and large numbers of losing politicians are also likely to use voters’ dissatisfaction and their own exclusion, defeat or under-representation to develop political pressures in favor of changing to more proportional electoral rules.

In other words, eventually the ability to “do politics” using a majoritarian system becomes increasingly difficult as more parties become effective agents within the system. He goes on to suggest that “above 4 ENPs, establishing or maintaining a majority rule electoral system would be highly risky for the incumbent largest party, and possibly not feasible either due to pressures for an alternative change supported by a majority of votes.”

Sadly Colomer doesn’t actually tell us how this switch will happen, but we are already seeing the current system falling apart. Of all the potential outcomes I listed at the top of this article, the biggest problem from a governance point of view is that difficulty we might encounter in forming a government. In 2010 (and despite the more fruity speculation by some), the arithmetical logic behind the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was quite straightforward: there was simply no other way to form a two party coalition, apart from a Conservative-Labour one of course. Despite some sunny optimism about the viability of a Labour-LD-SNP-Unionist government, the fact is that such a rainbow would have been incredibly hard to maintain.

A lot of political commentators have asserted that the outcome of the 2015 general election is impossible to predict. They are only half right. It’s actually quite clear which way people are going to vote; what is unpredictable is a voting system that is so poorly suited to its purpose that the numbers that it chews out could go anywhere. That this doesn’t lead more people than it does to declare that it is time to pick another system is a sad testament of how badly let down our media and politicians are letting us down.

After the 2011 AV referendum, the No campaign declared the matter of the voting system settled for a generation. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum has already demonstrated to us how such things are rarely that simple, and it seems likely to me that the debate over whether SMP is any longer fit for purpose will kick off in a big way after this year’s election. At least, it will among the public. The question is whether civil society and the media will join that throng or allow it to peter out. It can’t be left to the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy to make the case.

And how will the political class respond? Will they embrace the tide of history in the way that they did eventually over the Reform Acts and female suffrage, or will they continue to resist it? I hope they’ll take the pragmatic, former option; if they don’t we could be looking at decades of instability. For me, it’s the only truly interesting question about this year’s general election; until we have a system which in some way reflects the settled will of the people, everything else will just be a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

* Personally I prefer to refer to the UK voting system as “single member plurality” and not “first past the post”. This is for several reasons. Firstly, it is a simple fact that it better describes the actual system: we have single member constituencies and you win by getting the plurality (largest share of the vote). “First past the post” on the other hand doesn’t actually describe how the system works at all – ironically, to the extent that it describes anything, it better describes the Alternative Vote system/instant run-off voting which actually has a “winning post” (50%). Secondly, it is the internationally recognised description of the system; the UK loves its quirky and confusing names for voting systems (Additional Member System instead of Multi Member Proportional for example), and it is a fairly contemptible bit of British chauvinism. Thirdly, I think that allowing the supporters of SMP to use their preferred, familiar term puts them at an advantage as all other voting systems sound alien and technical in comparison. That’s nonsense, and I don’t think we should allow them the privilege.

Screenshot 2014-12-02 13.56.16

Russell Brand and the media

It is almost pointless in writing an article about Russell Brand. Opinions are so divided about him that his haters seem to eat up every criticism of him no matter how stupid while his supporters seem to shrug off any criticism as if it’s all some grand conspiracy.

I’m not a Russell Brand fan, and at some point I may well bore on at length about why. For now though, I’m going to focus on his latest spat on Channel 4 News with reporter Paraic O’Brien.

Outside 10 Downing Street where Russell Brand was presenting a petition with residents from the New Era estate in protest at Westbrook Partners buying up their homes, O’Brien pressed Brand over his own living arrangements. An visibly irritated Brand evaded all questioning on the matter, pulled a protester into the shot to defend him and then stalked off, calling O’Brien a “snide”.

So far, so predictably divisive. Brand’s critics will leap on this as evidence of his hypocrisy, Brand’s supporters will attack it as the media attempting to discredit it so as to continue their neoliberal agenda.

Yet the fact is that if you watch the full report shown on Channel 4 News, it by no means focused on Brand. Instead, it was a genuine attempt to draw out the bigger picture. Leaving aside boring accusations of hypocrisy, the fact is that London’s inflated rental market is the real story here, making Russell Brand’s own living arrangements relevant. These wider issues are now struggling to gain attention, with Russell Brand’s behaviour in front of a camera once again dominating the story.

I would genuinely suggest to Brand that he gets some media training. The thing is, not only were Paraic O’Brien’s questions reasonable, but with a bit of preparation, Brand could have responded with something reasonable. He could have said something along the lines of “I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford my rent but if Westbrook are allowed to put up the rents of residents on this Estate, many people will be forced out of their homes. There are wider problems about the cost of housing in London which urgently need to be tackled and hopefully this campaign can help force this issue up the agenda and force politicians to listen.” If pressed, he could have said something like, “Yes, the amount of rent I’m able to pay for my luxury flat is part of the problem; so is the cost of your home. Ultimately this isn’t about one home or even one housing estate, but the bigger issue of housing in London.”

Okay, maybe it lacks a certain Russell Brand panache. Indeed, the fact it is a little dull is kind of the point.

Of course, this practice of staying on message is exactly the sort of thing politicians do. I can understand that might feel that indulging in such practices would be to play the media game. But it seems to me that if you want publicity (and he could quite easily evade publicity if he wanted) you have two choices: play the game or get played. The latter is what seems to be happening. Unless it was Brand’s intention all along to steal the limelight from the New Era residents, he can’t possibly be happy with the press his interview has garnered, which relegates the actual issue to paragraph 8. If he’d kept his calm, the New Era protestors might have been deemed less newsworthy, but at least it wouldn’t have been used simply to deflect attention away from the actual issue.

Of course, all this assumes that Brand actually believes there is a wider picture about London housing, and that the New Era estate controversy is the part of something greater and not just a unique story about corporate greed.

Even leaving aside the tactics of it all, one thing I don’t understand is how it squares up with Brand’s own calls for greater spirituality. Because surely the spiritual answer to “are you part of the problem” is always “yes”? Surely the solution always starts with the individual? Yet despite hearing Brand talk endlessly in abstract about how we are all one, and that our egos, greed and selfishness ultimately only work against us, when it comes to politics, he only ever seems to talk about Them vs Us. I’m genuinely mystified about how he can reconcile the two, because on the surface of it his political agenda is less spiritual than the most cynical Westminster hack. Perhaps I should read his book, but by all accounts it won’t actually answer my question.