“Help to buy” undermines the very purpose of the Lib Dems in government

AlexanderUnlike a lot of disgruntled former Lib Dems (and, for that matter, disgruntled current Lib Dems), I still have a lot of time and sympathy for the party. I still think that joining the coalition was the right thing to do. I see the Lib Dems stopping Tory madness on a daily basis and anyone who doesn’t accept this must either deluded or plain dishonest. I oppose many of the welfare reforms, but recognise that with Labour offering virtually no opposition on the subject and public opinion very much in favour, there is not a whole lot they could really do.

And while I’m distinctly uneasy about George Osborne’s economic policies and the Lib Dems’ support for it, I will give him this: even if he wanted to adopt a dramatically different approach, the combined forces of Germany and the financial markets would make it exceedingly difficult for him to do so. And while it’s possible the recovery would have been swifter if we had borrowed more and cut less, I can’t honestly say that I know this to be true.

But much of my respect for the Lib Dems’ work in government is rooted in the fact that it was a responsible decision in the face of economic chaos. It stops right at the point where I think they start signing up to policies which are economically irresponsible. And that brings us to this “help to buy” scheme.

I am hardly the first person to point out that inflating house prices at this time to help people to take out mortgages in an untargeted way will simply help to increase property prices in an unsustainable way and price even more people out of the market altogether. I was alarmed to hear Danny Alexander on the radio this morning denying that the current rate of unaffordable house prices was even a problem and insist that all that was needed was easier access to mortgages. To hear him wistfully talk about how he got a 95% mortgage “25 years ago” (which meant he got his first mortgage when he was 16, incidentally), made it sound as if the Lib Dem policy was now simply a case of returning to the old housing boom fuelled economics of the last few decades and had lost all interest in learning from those excesses.

Housing was one of Labour’s greatest failures. More than anything, their failure to get Britain building during the noughties both heightened the boom and deepened the inevitable bust. And of course, the housing benefit bill would not have escalated in the way it has done. Yet, tellingly, this is one area of policy the coalition have failed to attack Labour on. In the case of the Conservative wing, the reason is fairly obvious: they are engaged in class warfare and very much see the retention of an economy in which the elite’s rent-based wealth is preserved. Historically, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats stood against that sort of thing, at least in the 20th century. Cynics like myself bemoan that Clegg and his former adviser Richard Reeves are part of a faction within the Lib Dems that consider the 20th century Liberals an aberration and see themselves as merely the heirs to Gladstone. It is hard to dispute that when you hear them talking about this issue.

The 2010 Lib Dem manifesto had this to say about the economy:

Fairness is an essential British value. It is at the centre of how the vast majority of British people live their lives, but it has been forgotten by those at the top. Instead, greed and self-interest have held sway over the government and parts of the economy in recent decades. They have forgotten that growth must be shared and sustainable if it is to last.

It would appear that in government, the Lib Dems themselves have forgotten that lesson very quickly indeed. Justifying your role in government as having to tackle the economic crisis is one thing; setting the foundations for the next economic crisis is quite another.

So farewell then, Chloe Smith…

20131007-133217.jpg

It was quite a surprise to see Chloe Smith resign last night, less than 48 hours before her team was due to carry the Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning, Trade Union Administration and Anything Else We Can Think Of Bill through the House of Commons report stage. I find it hard to believe that the two incidents can be a coincidence.

Over the last nine years I’ve had to follow the work of the various junior ministers in charge of constitutional reform or their equivalents and I can safely say that Smith was the least impressive one. She has the most obvious “tell” I’ve ever seen in a senior politician; whenever she knows she’s talking out of the top of her hat, she starts beaming like the Cheshire Cat, like it’s all a tremendous joke. It isn’t a terribly redeeming quality, and one which did her no favours at all at the dispatch box, where she often gave the impression that she wasn’t taking her job at all seriously.

She is leaving to spend more time with her constituency, and it is fair to say that she will struggle to hold onto her seat which was, after all, a by-election gain. She’ll be joining the ranks of a number of politicians who thought that the best way to get ahead was to be impeccably loyal and do all the dirty jobs that no one else wanted. The sad truth is that while prime ministers often find such pliancy useful, they seldom respect it and it is almost never rewarded.

But what of the bill she is walking away from? The Lib Dems are now claiming that all the problems with it have been solved. However, the same people also insisted, and still do, that there wasn’t a problem in the first place. The legion of charities, trade unions, voluntary sector organisations, lobbyists and backbenchers who have lined up against it are currently waiting to see what the government’s actual amendments say, no longer giving ministerial assurances any credence.

It is a strange debacle that a stronger minister in charge would surely have been able to prevent; indeed, the fact that the task of getting the bill through parliament was taken out of Smith’s hands and put into the hands of the similarly tarnished Andrew Lansley was a significant vote of no confidence in her. But it has to be said that this is a debacle largely of the Liberal Democrats’ making as well.

The fact that Clegg himself could not be involved with anything to do with lobbying regulation was a strong reason for him to move to a different department in last years’ reshuffle. The lobbying register was the one political reform the Lib Dems had left to claim a victory over after the mess of the AV referendum and House of Lords reform.

It is also clear that much of the pressure to regulate non party campaigning came from the Lib Dem camp as well. The first hint anyone had that this legislation was being planned was in the publication of Lord Tyler’s attempt at cross party agreement on a party funding reform bill, published back in May. Overall, this is a very strong piece of work, proposing a way to introduce party funding while not actually increasing the overall cost of politics to the taxpayer. Yet, to hear Lord Tyler talk, it was clear that it was the non party campaigning section which got him the most excited and he was alarmingly quick to dismiss the criticisms being levelled at it.

Overall, this has been a farce from start to finish. Hopefully the House of Lords will be able to steer it in a more sensible direction. But the rushed through process itself ought go deeply concern any democrat. In the past, the Liberal Democrats were always the first to criticise governments for rushing through legislation without recourse to proper pre-legislative scrutiny or consultation; it has been truly shocking to see them become its greatest advocates over the past couple of months.

An announcement: free as a bird

Redundant cat has redundant tatAs most people who know me personally probably already know, I have taken voluntary redundancy. Today, in fact, is my first day. After working for the New Politics Network and then Unlock Democracy for just over nine years, I’m not planning to jump straight back into the daily grind just yet. Instead, I’m planning to pursue a number of personal projects and see if I can make them work (possibly even financially) before considering looking for new work.

In terms of my writing, this means that (hopefully) there will be somewhat more of it. I’ve really struggled to maintain this blog in recent years for various reasons but having more time on my hands will help. Indeed, if there are any friendly commissioning editors out there looking for someone to write about constitutional reform, political engagement, the Liberal Democrats, comics or board games – I’m your man!

I think this blog, and my blogging strategy, is long overdue a rethink however, so expect some changes here.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say at this point, but I’ll hopefully be back before too long.

Whatever happened to the Lib Dem interim peers list?

Cute ermine.
The only place we should see ermine is in the wild.
I was intrigued by last week’s list of 10 new Lib Dem appointments to the House of Lords. As longstanding readers of this blog will know, I was one of the people who helped develop the Lib Dem system of electing an “interim peers panel” from which the party leader gets to choose the majority of appointments. Every party leader has railed against the constraints of this system and tried to get around it wherever possible, but even I was surprised that only one out of ten new peers this time around was from the list.

So I decided to have a little look at what the current party policy on appointing peers is. Lib Dem Voice said that a report was due at the 2013 spring conference but I couldn’t find anything. But I did find the following in the Federal Executive report (pdf) published for the autumn conference taking place in Glasgow this autumn (emphasis mine):

Interim Peers Election Panel
At the beginning of the year, the FE also established a working group on Internal Democratic Reform, whose first task has been to look into a replacement for the Interim Peers’ Election Panel.

Last year, FE came to the conclusion that given (at the time), we were hoping for a more wholesale democratic reform of the Lords, and that the Peers List was not operating as well as might have been hoped, the existing list would stand until we could produce a more appropriate replacement. This replacement is intended to be in place for elections in autumn 2014.

Our group, chaired by Sue Doughty, is consulting widely on this process, and will be distributing a consultation paper and holding a fringe at Glasgow to ask for input from members. A final motion will then be brought to Conference in spring 2014. Given that we haven’t yet succeeded in convincing the other two parties of the need for democratic reform of the Lords, I hope that you will be engaging in this process with Sue to ensure that the process we end up with is a fair, free, and democratic as
our party always aspires to be.

All of that is fair enough; I’m the first to admit that the current system is not perfect. But it bears absolutely no resemblance to the list of appointments made last week. And however imperfect the current system may be, it is infinitely preferable to simply appointing whichever millionaire donor happens to want their ego stroked.

I’m amazed that the Lib Dems allow themselves to have the mickey taken out of them by their leader like this every time. No doubt the Federal Executive will shuffle its collective feed extremely vigourously over its authority being usurped once again – and then do nothing.

More than anything, the thing that made me want an elected second chamber was dealing with Lib Dem peers – especially over lobbying and Lords reform. Patronage is a poison that infects the brain of even the greatest democrat. It is a sad thing to see.

UPDATE: I should have worked out who is or isn’t on the list myself before posting. In fact, two of the peers appointed last week were on the interim peers panel: Brian Paddick (who was elected), and Ian Wrigglesworth (who was on it by dint of being a former MP). In my defence, it is a nuance between considering an elected person to be on the list and including the “ex-officio” members as well. It is indirectly linked to above, but the paper outlining the process can be found here. As far as I’m aware the party has not revised the process since then, but since it refuses to publish the rules then who can really say?

Let’s try that again. I’ve just updated the spreadsheet that I set up a few years ago. It turns out that Brian Paddick was elected in 2008, and so the four year rule means that technically he was no longer on the panel by summer 2013. A very generous interpretation of the rules could however be made that it was allowable on the basis that the party (after establishing that Lords reform wasn’t going to, um, happen), decided to not hold a ballot in 2012 – and thus the previous two lists (2008 and 2010) still apply. Ian Wrigglesworth most definitely is on the panel however – being a former MP is for life.

It appears the party has interpreted the rules regarding ex-MPs to include MSPs and AMs. That never was the case however, and you can see from the list of people who have got elected to the panel over the years that it includes former MEPs. If they aren’t eligible, why are MSPs and AMs?

Borgen: how realistic is it?

Birgitte Nyborg ChristensenI’ve spent this weekend catching up with Borgen and probably reading about it a bit too much. In particular, this critical review by Rachel Cooke came to my attention yesterday via political academic Stuart Wilks-Heeg’s twitter feed, prompting this exchange:


Personally speaking, while I wouldn’t say I’m “gripped” by Borgen, I’d say it does a pretty decent job at reflecting not just the reality of Danish coalition politics, but politics more generally. It doesn’t get everything right – I agree that some of the portrayals of journalism are unrealistic (spending a whole episode angsting over a single newspaper article – taking up days in real time – is simply ludicrous), but the way it actually reflects on why idealistic, principled people often end up failing to do the right thing or end up getting eaten alive, is very accurate.

By contrast, while much of The Thick of It rings true, for the most part it reflects on the kind of sofa-style politics which dominated Tony Blair’s government and which has to a large extent melted away (to be replaced by something which much more closely resembles Yes, Ministerplus ca change) – and it got coalition politics horribly wrong. The West Wing was famously “liberal porn” and is probably more successful for creating a modern mythology for the US Democrats to aspire to than in its ability to reflect reality. Also, is it me but does it feel that Nyborg has achieved more in two years than Bartlet achieved in eight?

We live in very consumerist times and so much political discourse is dominated by that. The left, in particular, appears to have been utterly hobbled by a lack of humility or civic duty and a mindset that is dominated by the fallacy that the customer (in this case, the angry activist) is always right. The inability to accept that bad things are sometimes done by good people on all sides leads to a conceitedness that leads people to simply repeat the same mistakes again and again. Nick Clegg is a perfect example of this, but so too are many of his critics.

I think this idea is dominated by journalists as well, and Rachel Cooke seems to struggle with the idea. It’s interesting that she chooses to criticise the second episode of the second season of Borgen and not the first, on the basis that it’s topic – choosing a Danish European Commissioner – is boring. In fact, the episode was anything but, exploring a whole range of fascinating themes such as how appointment to the Commission can be a career boost for some politicians and career suicide for others. The fact that stuff isn’t always straightforward is the definition of interesting. By contrast, the previous episode, while superficially about the war in Afghanistan and therefore “more” interesting, was remarkably pedestrian, with very little to say about the nature of politics.

Of course, understanding the difficulties of getting things done in politics is not the same thing as condoning mistakes, bad behaviour and outright treachery when they happen. But if we had a better grasp of this reality, I think we’d make a lot more progress in this country.

Where Cooke might be right is that somehow people can stomach a programme like Borgen when it is about another country and has subtitles in a way that we would struggle to accept a UK version, at least today (Professor Steven Fielding points out that we didn’t seem to have this blind spot in the recent past). I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the way we seem to distrust anything designed to promote political understanding in this country. Citizenship education never seemed to enjoy much support even amongst the teaching profession; the Electoral Commission was forced to scale back its citizenship and voter inclusion work. My own baby, Vote Match, struggles for funding despite – or rather because – while the general public seem to find it useful the political class distrust its simplicity.

If Borgen in its small way is slightly reversing that trend towards ever more impotent cynicism, then I can only welcome it.

Suzanne Moore and freedom of speech. So. Much. Nonsense.

lynn_1802176cTry as I might, I can’t stop getting annoyed by the whole debate surrounding Suzanne Moore and her continuing feud with the so-called “trans cabal” (this isn’t really an article by the way, just a series of random points – but at least it is mercifully shorter than my last effort).

Yesterday, Moore wrote a bizarre article in which we sought to argue that her persecution at the hands of transgender and queer activists is a freedom of speech issue.

What’s got her and, for example, Padraig Reidy at the Index on Censorship, jumping up and down is that the International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone tweeted on Sunday that she thought Julie Burchill should have been “sacked” for her Observer article attacking transgender people. Now, for the record, I don’t think Featherstone’s intervention was very sensible. As has been pointed out by others ad infinitum, Burchill is a freelancer and any intervention by a government minister was bound to end up a distraction – and so it has proven. Both Reidy and Moore have leapt on this as an example of state censorship and proof that Leveson report is dangerous nonsense that will lead to government interference of newspapers. The fact that this was a junior minister who is a member of a junior coalition partner just expressing her personal opinion (and the fact that Leveson wasn’t actually arguing for a government body to regulate the media but rather self-regulation underpinned by a statute to be overseen by the judiciary) gets ignored amidst all the shrieking.

The fact is, this is not a freedom of speech issue. The Observer did not take down the Burchill article (and I agree with Jane Fae that it was counterproductive for them to do so) because of Lynne Featherstone or any other government minister’s intervention – you can bet they’d be shouting about it right now if they had done so. It will be interesting to see what they say about it on Sunday but right now it appears that the editor John Mulholland took it down for the exact same reason he put it up in the first place: good old fashioned venality. They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.

I’m highly suspicious of people who are quick to leap up and down about Featherstone’s intervention being somehow sinister and an attack on civil liberties, while being so blithe about the assymetric power dynamic between Moore and her critics. There are a lot of pissed off trans and queer people out there right now who feel that Moore has been using her considerably privileged media platform to utterly misrepresent them in this debate. Again, Stavvers sums it up better than I could. What I don’t understand is why Moore is sticking to her guns in terms of her right to express her “anger and pain” while at the same time is so utterly blind at the fact that the people who are furious with her are doing exactly the same thing. At the end of her article she writes:

So I regret not making it clearer that we need both love and anger to be free. And you may continue to hate me, put me on lists, cast me out of the left. Free-thinking is always problematic. But if you take away my freedom to love, be intemperate, silly, angry, human, ask yourself who really wins? Who?

Yet it has been clear from the get go, that the problem has been her capacity to love in the first place. She escalated this row, and she continues to do so on an hourly basis on Twitter. As Deborah Orr said in response to her latest (at the time of writing) explicit troll:

The most telling line in Moore’s article is when she compares Featherstone to being a “humourless, authoritarian moron” (my emphasis). She isn’t the first to imply, or even express out loud that the problem at the heart of this debate is people who just “can’t take a joke”. Usually claims of humourlessness are the preserve of people like Jeremy Clarkson in their unending defence of “banter“. I’ve seen an awful lot of people over the past week making pretty similar defences, only suggesting that it is only transgender people and their friends who need to “get over it”. For some reason we are supposed to feel great at the progress we’ve made in fighting cissexism, homophobia and racism – yet we are meant to accept that trans people are an exception it is fine to laugh at and casually dehumanise. The debate seems, at its heart, to be between people who see this as an intolerable contradiction and people who don’t.

Finally, if we are to believe that this is a freedom of speech issue, and that Lynne Featherstone represents an oppressive, authoritarian government determined to crack down on the freedom of expression, why is it that the same government has just this week agreed to scrap Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986? Both Padraig Reidy and Suzanne Moore chose to ignore this inconvenient little factoid. In the case of Reidy, and the Index on Censorship, they have failed to acknowledge this at all on either their blog or weekly email newsletter. Perhaps this is because it’s a little bit of state oppression that never really affected journalists? Throughout this week I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that the real anxieties at the heart of this debate are rooted in professional self-interest rather than any genuinely noble concerns about the state of democracy; I’ve seen very little to shift this notion.

Suzanne Moore and ever decreasing circles

Suzanne-Moore-006I’ve been pondering over whether to write a post about identity politics-centred twitterstorms for a while now, but each time I get close to doing so, I back off. The reason? A fear of getting engulfed in the same maelstrom that I’d be commenting on. That in itself is probably a good reason to write, but I think I should start off with a number of disclaimers.

Firstly, this blog is primarily a means by which I seek to order my own thoughts. I welcome other people’s constructive feedback because that, in turn this helps to further order my thoughts. If people agree or are inspired by what I say that’s tremendous. What it most certainly is not is an attempt to lecture people or hector them. If you are tempted to verbally assault me for anything I write here, please consider for a moment that it may just be that we disagree (or that you don’t like what I have to say) rather than assume I am being condescending or trying to silence you. I am certainly not attempting to speak for anyone other than myself.

Secondly, my knowledge of gender studies is almost certainly defective although I do my best to look up and understand unfamiliar terms. If I get any concepts wrong here (in fact, I’ve ended up largely trying to avoid them to make this article as accessible as possible), then I’m sorry and would be happy to make a correction if you point them out.

Thirdly, I’m writing this as someone who has been a political campaigner for 18 years (Has it really been 18 years?) and in the spirit of support for cultural and economic equality for everyone regardless of their identity or background. I hope that anyone who reads this will find it interesting and useful. In all likelihood, it won’t be. Either way, please read it with that in mind rather than view it automatically with suspicion as something written by a white, middle aged, middle class, southern English man in an exclusive, long term heterosexual relationship.

Why all the disclaimers and nervousness? Because some of the people involved in this storm are people I have tremendous respect and admiration for, and I really don’t want to fall out with them. At the same time, it feels as if the battle lines have been drawn in this debate and people seem to get pigeonholed (or indeed pigeonhole themselves) on one side of the debate or the other within seconds. Rational or not, it does feel somewhat as if the odd wrong word here or there is liable to blow up in my face. From reading Stella Duffy’s article on the Suzanne Moore row, it would appear that it isn’t just white middle class men who have this anxiety.

I genuinely can’t decide whether it is to queer feminists’ credit or detriment that I’m as concerned as I am about blundering into this debate as I am in a way that I wouldn’t think twice about in pretty much any other subject (I blog on all subjects these days much less than I do, but that has more to do with a fear of repeating myself than actually offending anyone). People being mindful of the language they use is a good thing; sclerosis caused by a fear about unintentionally offending people is not. Disagreeing in public with someone you like – especially if that person is experiencing a crisis to a greater or lesser extent – is much harder than disagreeing with someone you don’t.

It’s further complicated by my indecision about to what extent I actually disagree or who I disagree with. When considering the recent rows between, for example, Caitlin Moran and her critics over the last few weeks, there have been numerous times when I’ve switched sides as a new fact here or there emerged.

Finally there is the fact that I’m not perfect, and indeed my own views are evolving. My interest in feminism over the past decade, and especially over the last five years, has increased enormously partly as I’ve changed and partly as what I perceived as a rather sterile debate has revived itself. Would I blunder into the “female political blogosphere” debate quite as cackhandedly and insensitively as I did five years ago? One of the problems with having views which are emergent, is that you are rarely confident of them, especially when there are things you are on the record of having written in the recent past which you are not entirely proud of.

Anyway, enough introspection and onto the main purpose of this article. I can’t really improve on Stavvers’ analysis of the Suzanne Moore row (at least as of Friday; it has moved on since then). For me though, the most depressing moment was when I saw Graham Linehan tweet this:


Needs finessing, but a new logo for Twitter?  on Twitpic
I know a lot of people dismissed Linehan’s views a long time ago as just another member of the privileged elite closing ranks, but I was genuinely surprised to see someone who considers himself to be on the left making such a crass intervention; this isn’t so much Jeremy Clarkson-lite as Jeremy Clarkson. Even as an adolescent in the 80s in a boys school for whom women were an alien species, Millie Tant seemed like a particular low point for Viz. The jokes seemed to be just a little bit too obvious; the target just a tiny bit too easy; the strip just a teensy bit too defensive. The implication of Linehan’s tweet was that we are going back to a point in which feminism and mainstream culture simply had nothing to say to each other and that he, as part of the mainstream, was putting as much distance between it and himself as possible.

Suzanne Moore’s wounds this week were entirely self inflicted. Her response to her critics was to give them both barrels and ended up escalating the argument from a small matter of poor taste and judgement to becoming grossly offensive in a matter of minutes. What I hope her most fervent critics have noticed however is that an awful lot of sensible, rational supporters of equality ended up taking her side. In most cases, that was a kneejerk reaction having failed to bother reading the debate, let alone what Moore herself actually said (today’s revulsion by many of the same people to the Julie Burchill article in which she does little more than repeat the thrust of Moore’s argument suggests that), but who can say they don’t depend on heuristics when it comes to taking side in a debate?

It seems to me that there’s a perception problem here that somehow needs to get tackled. The problem is, we seem to be experiencing a case of ever decreasing circles here. As Stavvers writes:

Privileged person nakedly articulates something privileged or wrong or harmful. It pisses off those who are harmed by it–or those who know just how harmful such naked articulations of privilege can be. We express this. We are told not to be angry, or rude, to be rational and logical. It is all derailed. The privileged person fails to learn, change, grow, be better. They act as though they are the victim of some unreasonable mob, never giving a second’s thought to why people are angry.

I understand and share Stavvers’ and others’ frustration at this. Where (I think) I disagree with her is that the answer is to plough on, getting steadily angrier, until the “revolution” arrives (ironically of course, Suzanne Moore’s article which started this latest cycle was also in defence of anger).

Notwithstanding the fact that Burchill may have indirectly helped matters by laying her transphobia bare for all to see in her defence of Moore, I don’t see this circle and widening gulf ending well for the queer feminists. The greater danger is a return to the situation in the 90s in which feminists, when they occasionally emerged blinking into the spotlight of mainstream attention at all, had nothing more to say other than that the fight had been won by a mixture of Thatcherism, Madonna and the Spice Girls. It’s been quite refreshing to see women of the generation after mine take ownership of feminism in the way that women (let alone men) of my generation largely did not. At the moment, I worry that this trend may be on the verge of reversing.

None of this is intended to let the commentariat off the hook. The target of much of this ire recently has been Caitlin Moran. Helen Lewis wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago which went through many of the Caitlin Moran controversies. I found it genuinely enlightening, and it presents a much more sympathetic figure in Moran than her critics tend to present. But if the defenders of Moore were guilty of letting their prejudices about her critics blind them to what she actually wrote, and this is a problem queer feminists must tackle, then the same can be said of Moran. She’s got herself into a rut, with people who ought to be her champions hating her. And it’s happened because she lets her temper and weakness for a cheap gag and playing to the audience get the better of her too often. She’s allowed herself to become surrounded by a group of likeminded writers who, like her, have gone from fearing the mob to actively baiting it. And in doing so, all too often she betrays the values she espouses.

Is rapprochement really too much to ask for? Is the gulf between these two sides really so great? It is terribly fashionable to say that the left likes its infighting, but I’m not sure that actually applies to more than a minority; most people just find it all rather alienating.

For the commentariat, the demands are pretty simple: have a bit of care for your language and don’t make a minority group which faces prejudice and oppression the butt of a cheap laugh, no matter how “accessible” that makes you as a writer (I don’t believe this anyway; in what way would Suzanne Moore’s article have been undermined if she’s replaced “Brazilian transsexual” with “supermodel”? If anything it would have made it more accessible). If you lose your temper on Twitter, like Moran did when she ill-advisedly told someone she “literally couldn’t give a shit about” women of colour, then expect a storm. As a public figure, you can’t complain when it leads to a load of abuse any more than any politician could do so if they made a gaffe.

And there’s the rub. Because what a lot of this row feels like to me is a group of people who are incredibly uncomfortable with the slow dawning realisation that social media, a thing they hitherto embraced as a great leveller, is leading to increased scrutiny and thus accountability that they assumed would only happen to “them” – the politicians, bankers and business people who they perceived as alien and thus the problem. It must be a horrible feeling to suddenly realise you are perceived in much the same way as the people you yourself consider to be the establishment.

As someone who, in a previous lifetime, was a relatively high profile Liberal Democrat blogger and activist, that level of scrutiny and, yes, abuse, is something I take for granted (admittedly, at a lower level). Yes, it is often difficult to deal with and you wouldn’t be human if you always dealt with it with that perfect blend of diplomacy, tact and humour that is often necessary. But however unfair much of it is, it’s a fact of life.

It is worth noting that when politicians get abuse on social media they don’t, as a rule, attempt to smear all their critics with the same brush when responding to it. A few exceptions exist, notably people like Nadine Dorries. Here then is a hint, journalists: if you invite comparisons to Nadine Dorries, you are doing it wrong. Unlike Nadine Dorries however, all too often they get away with it; their supporters simply swallow it as fact when of course it isn’t. That’s a repository of good will which is being abused. Optimistically, I’d like to think that the commentariat will simply calm down after a few years as it learns to take the rough with the smooth of social media. There is however a chance that they will simply continue to close ranks. I doubt this will do newspaper sales many favours (accountability of journalism is also a theme of the Leveson report and thus received a similarly over the top and defensive response from journalists, but I think I’ll leave that hanging for now).

For queer feminists, the challenge is somewhat more amorphous, not least of all because it is a more amorphous grouping. The fact is that there are a lot of people out there who will happily jump on anyone they disagree with on Twitter and start issuing the death threats and piling on the abuse. James Ball triumphantly spent this afternoon retweeting a number of the ones he received for making some mildly satirical comments.

I find the vogue on Twitter to express a desire to “kill” or “set on fire” anyone you happen to disagree with rather odd. It’s tempting to dismiss it on the basis that the individuals concerned can’t really mean it, are being satirical and that the correct interpretation is that it is simply shorthand for an expression is strident disagreement, but I think there’s probably a bit more to it than that (I also wonder, at the risk of sounding patronising, whether it is a cultural issue and that the generation who spent their adolescence using the internet simply developed a different grammar and cultural norms which us oldies can’t interpret). Either way I somehow doubt that, on a psychological level, having 20 people superficially threaten to kill you does anyone any good in terms of developing an open mind about their threateners’ opinions.

I’m not going to go down a cul-de-sac about whether right-minded people have a moral obligation to condemn the threats; I don’t think that particularly gets anyone anywhere. What I do question however is whether the rhetoric of self-righteous anger is particularly helpful. No injustice was ever resolved without at least one person being angry enough to do something about it; that’s pretty redundant. But I question that anger itself should be celebrated in the way that both Moore and Stavvers were suggesting.

A lot of the time the expression of anger is a just massive suck on energy. But it’s actually worse than that. As a tool, the expression of anger has only ever been effective when it has hit the right target and when there have been other tools at people’s disposal to back it up. The poll tax riots worked – but only because there was a political opposition to Thatcher which reaped the benefits politically. 2010’s student protests failed because there was no other channel with which to direct the rage; ironically, the Tories did a fantastic job at getting that rage deflected on the Lib Dems and using it against them during the AV referendum (and by doing so, ensuring that the political system remains as unresponsive as ever). Anger without being connected to anything is simply the verbal and/or political equivalent of letting off a machine gun in a crowded street and hoping it will hit the right target.

I’m reminded of the Guy Aitchison / Jeremy Gilbert dialogue in the book Regeneration (which I failed to review last year), in which Guy’s explanation of the protest movement’s strategy depressingly resembled the Underpants Gnomes’ business strategy in South Park. To be fair, this confusion between tactics and strategy is hardly a problem unique to the radical left (in the Lib Dems’ case, you can replace “anger” with “Focus leaflet” and reach pretty much the same conclusion – although admittedly all those leaflets have proven themselves to be far more effective than riots), but it is a massively under-appreciated one amongst lefties (of course, there isn’t a perfect overlap between queer feminists and the radical left, but there is hopefully sufficient crossover for it to give people pause for thought).

Suffice to say, by all means hold on to your anger – you need it and it will keep you going. But if you aren’t combining every protest and attack with a concerted effort to build bridges and alliances, all you will succeed in doing is alienating people who should be your allies and burning yourself out. Don’t let your anger end up blinding you into carving up the world into some Manichean divide of light and dark, or the light will just look increasingly dim. And don’t confuse genuine anger with casual irritation, which is all an emotionally stunted individual needs to start issuing death threats on Twitter. They aren’t angry; they’re just nasty.

But the other area in which people could improve matters is in communications. Gender studies is the only field I’ve come across in which a criticism over the use of inaccessible language is quite so frequently inferred to be an attack on the field itself. To be fair, cis- is a useful piece of shorthand as long as everyone is on the same page, but if you’re trying to convince someone who hasn’t come across the term that you aren’t being deliberately obscurantist, it simply isn’t helpful. “Intersectionality” is arguably even worse. Again, it isn’t the meaning of the term that I would take issue with (although the term does appear to have drifted from referring to an area of study to referring to an agenda), just the way the term seems to be so frequently held aloft like some kind of talisman. I’ve lost count of the number of tweets I’ve read over the last year that go along the lines of “I just don’t understand why people can oppose intersectionality”. If each time someone wrote something like that they replaced the i-word with something like “awareness that all women face discrimination and the importance of solidarity” (that can certainly be improved upon, but it’s less than 140 chars), an awful lot of progress would have been made. At its heart, this row is rooted in people being defensive in their use of language; a bit of give and take seems necessary on both sides. If your aim is to bring people on the fence over to your side, then speaking in terms they don’t find alienating is a basic step. I’m genuinely confused why this appears to have become such a shibboleth.

I hope that, as tempers start to cool, people on both sides of the divide might attempt to reach out to the other side. If they don’t, then it will simply be an opportunity wasted.

UPDATE: There was an observation I meant to make in this post about the double standard when it comes to “twitterstorms” but I forgot. It was simply an observation that some of the same people who I observed dismissing the idea that abuse on Twitter could effectively silence a feminist writer then went on to defend Suzanne Moore against those selfsame awful feminists. An example is Hayley Campbell here and here, although Hayley is by no means alone. I wanted to include this point not to single people out but to observe quite how tribal this whole debate has become.

UPDATE 2: A few links which I found interesting:

Lib Dems, welfare and the art of negotiation

Nick Clegg signing the NUS anti-tuition fees pledge.As former, disgruntled party members go, I think it is fair to say that I’ve been remarkably discreet and reasonable. I’m not a huge believer in trashing my former colleagues (and still, in many cases, current friends) in some vanity exercise designed to justify my resignation ex post facto, and tend to distrust the judgement of people who feel the need to endlessly do so. Aside from a couple of blog posts, I’ve generally kept pretty schtum, and have very little time for those who denounce the Lib Dems as having sold out and failed to achieve anything in government, as if the position they were put into wasn’t fiendishly difficult or that the alternative – a Tory majority government – would be somehow better. Generally speaking, while I think they are getting the big picture pretty badly wrong, on a daily basis the Lib Dems are making a very real difference in government.

You can tell there’s a but coming, can’t you?

But, then. Tuesday. What, the actual, fuck? Just for the sake of argument, let’s completely ignore the human cost of yesterday’s vote on benefits. Let’s just focus on the politics. Back in September, flushed with his (non) apology about his handling of the tuition fees debacle going viral on YouTube, Nick Clegg issued an ultimatum: “For me, it is very simple. You can’t have more cuts without more wealth taxes.

Well, aside from some tweaking to the pension rules, he didn’t get any wealth taxes this autumn. But you know what? The cuts are happening anyway. So much for “it is very simple”.

Unless, apparently, you are Stephen Tall: “It’s the kind of compromise that happens within a Coalition government.” Well, er, no. The “compromise” was that the Tories would get a cut in benefits and the Lib Dems would get a wealth tax. Spinning retrospectively that all that has happened was Cameron and Clegg split the difference is delusional. What actually happened is that Clegg made an opening gambit, Osborne called his bluff, Clegg blinked, and got a pity concession so he could at least pretend to have saved some face. Carry out your threats or don’t make them; you won’t get a second chance.

Putting benefits at the centre of a horsetrading negotiation is one thing. Failing to carry out threats is quite another. You can argue that the Lib Dems have conceded too much in this coalition, but tuition fees aside, they haven’t actually done that bad a job of over-reaching or making pledges they weren’t prepared to stand by. Clegg, to his credit, has carried out his threat to block boundary changes in exchange for the Tories’ betrayal over House of Lords reform (although the fact that the zombie boundary review lives on within the pages of the Mid Term Review speaks volumes about the weak leadership of both Cameron and Clegg). Things were looking up. Today’s capitulation however can’t be put down to naivety. What it suggests is that for Clegg there ultimately is no bottom line and no point at which he is prepared to walk away. What it tells Osborne is that he can merrily keep salami slicing the welfare bill, and the Lib Dem response will be the Stephen Tall “genius” move of “splitting the difference” each time. It would be comedy gold if it didn’t affect the lives of so many vulnerable people.

Speaking of comedy gold, it should not be forgotten that the Lib Dems communications department would very much like its parliamentary party to keep pushing the line that “The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fair society.” Based on today’s performance, it is manifest that that assertion is not true. Of course you can trust the Conservatives. They have an agenda and they doggedly stick to it. They might not want a fair society (although by their standards, and many voters’, they do), but they can damn well be trusted. That consistency counts for an awful lot in the electorate’s eyes.

It is Clegg, and all those who go along with him, who can’t be trusted. From a communications point of view, flip-flopping in this way is more damaging to the Lib Dem brand than any number of backbench MPs going off message. The Lib Dems’ communications problem isn’t non-entities saying the wrong thing; Clegg himself is the living embodiment of the Lib Dems’ fundamental communications problem. Focusing on anything else is just displacement activity.

Oh, and a final thing. I really don’t understand why it is that so many Lib Dems are so up in arms about Ken Clarke’s secret courts legislation, with talk of special conferences and all out war coming my way from numerous sources, while the best welfare gets is a shrug of the shoulders. It isn’t that I don’t think civil liberties are worth standing up for; it’s the lack of a sense of proportion. Enabling the government to hold secret trials, at most, might affect thousands of people. Benefit cuts stand to affect millions.

Even if you agree with these cuts, from a civil liberties perspective, surely last year’s legal aid cuts were more onerous than the secret courts? I just don’t understand why so many seem prepared to die in the ditch over a principle that affects a tiny minority, while don’t appear capable of doing anything more than shrug their shoulders over cuts which affect a whole segment of society. Again, it appears dangerously to resemble displacement activity; the wider cuts are too hard and too vast, so it is easier to focus on small measures and exaggerate their importance (see also: this utter preoccupation with Labour hypocrisy and opportunism as if that somehow justifies anything whatsoever).

90% of the criticism of the Lib Dems is at best unfair, at worse downright mendacious. But what I saw on Tuesday was a party that has ceased to have any kind of strategic nouse or moral compass whatsoever; that will doom them more than anything.

Dragonmeet and widening the RPG audience

I had a great time at Dragonmeet on Saturday. It may surprise some people to know that this was my first Dragonmeet (London’s premiere roleplaying convention which I believe has been going since the 1980s) but in fact, UK Games Expo this year was the first gaming convention I’d gone to since, I think, Games Day ’88 (around the time Games Workshop was transforming from a distributor to just focusing on its own miniatures games).

I had a game of Durance, Jason Morningstar’s next game after Fiasco which can best be summed up as “early colonial Australia – in spaaaace”. I wish I’d played a couple more games, especially Microscope, but Durance took a long time and I needed a break and some shopping time.

As for purchases, I picked up My Life With Master, Psi*Run, Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne and Becoming Heroes – all indie games with their own little quirks. I’ve read the rules to Psi*Run thus far and it looks great – essentially the players are amnesiacs with psychic powers who are being chased by some unknown threat: maybe they’re alien abductees or the victims of some government experiment. They start the game asking themselves a series of questions and end the game when one of them has answered all of them (as is common with indie games, you get to make these up as you go along).

I only went to one seminar, and I regret not going to the one with Robin D Laws about his new Hillfolk game which I’ve invested in as a Kickstarter. I’m still toying with investing in the Guide to Glorantha Kickstarter (I deeply love Glorantha as a setting both because it is highly original and the setting of the first RPG I ever owned), so it would have been nice to go to that, but it would have meant not having a morning game. Priorities!

The one seminar I did go to was about the future of the UK RPG “industry”. But the main point that was rammed home at the seminar was that there was no industry, just four games companies which operate out of the US (Pelgrane Press, Cubicle 7, Chronicle City and Mongoose), a distribution company (Esvedium) and a scattering of shops. And while the general consensus seemed to be that its decline from the “heady” days of the 1980s has probably levelled out now, no one could envision any sunlit uplands ahead to look forward to. There was an agreement that with the internet, we probably don’t even need an industry for the hobby to continue, but it would probably plod along in any case. There was no prospect of a renaissance.

I found it to be quite an interesting talk, not quite depressing although in many ways it should have been. It reminded me a bit of the very similar conversation going on within the comics ironic-quotation-marks-industry and the heroic but seemingly futile efforts of a handful of people working within it to persuade it that there is a mainstream audience out there to exploit if only it would haul itself out of its self imposed ghetto (I promise not to segue into a discussion about Giles Coren being a cock, except to say that Giles Coren is a cock).

I’ve written about RPGs and the mainstream recently. At the risk of repeating myself, if you want to expand your audience, you should focus on games that do not require (at least) 3 expensive “core” hardback books to play and which encourage the sort of play in which one individual dedicates huge amount of personal time preparing a game for everyone else. You should probably look at games which put as much emphasis on plot and character – possibly even sex – as they do on action and violence. You should look at games with a wide range of genres, not just another flavour of fantasy-horror-scifi. None of this is to say that any of these things are bad or that all games should contain none of these elements, just that variety is the spice of life and a narrow idea of what is and isn’t roleplaying doesn’t help anybody. Don’t mistake a genre for a medium.

Of course, there are games out there which tick these boxes, but they are known as “indie” games and seen as niche (from my experience, by their advocates as well as others in the RPG scene). I don’t think there are any particular villains here: most of the industry panellists at the seminar were enthusiastic about the indie scene. Indeed, the host James Wallis wrote The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and is in many ways a godfather of the indie scene*. All the UK RPG publishers produce games which are to a greater or lesser extent “indie” in style or tone. The issue to me is more one of mindset, and a realisation of the opportunities that games like Fiasco bring to the market.

At one stage in the seminar, one of the audience members asked the panel what they were doing to bring children into the hobby and got quite finger jabby. While enticing a new generation is important, I wonder whether too much concern about making it accessible for “the kids” is missing the point. I couldn’t make head or tail of Runequest 2 when I was 8 (or MERPs for that matter; I always seemed to buy complicated fantasy games when I was a kid); it didn’t stop me from playing it numerous times. I persevered because it seemed cool, because my media was saturated with science fiction and fantasy, and – crucially – because there weren’t shinier, easier ways to sate my appetite for immersive fantasy gameplay. Since the latter factor has now been irrevocably lost thanks to computer games and to a lesser extent miniature war games, I can’t really see how efforts to entice them will ever be enormously successful.

I think it’s the slightly older generation that is a more likely prospect and the one thing that isn’t likely to excite them is tabletop versions of something they can do on the computer in a way that is infinitely more immersive. What that suggests to me is that “old school” dungeon bashes are unlikely to cut the mustard.

Tabletop roleplaying’s potential appeal is in providing things you can’t do on a computer, and that means stuff other than killing things and solving puzzles. You can create worlds, endless situations, flawed heroes (and even not heroes at all) with a few simple rules, some friends and possibly some dice in a way you can never do on a computer (and the moment you will be able to do that will also be the singularity; best not to think about!).

Roleplaying’s potential therefore is its ability to provide boundless creativity in a social environment, if only the scene could get over its obsession with stabbing orcs. And what goes for teenagers is also likely to appeal more to women.

What all this suggests to me is that if the industry is to be truly ambitious, it needs to start eschewing notions of “old school” play and deliberately look towards games which offer things that are unique to tabletop roleplaying itself. Surprisingly (to me at least), that would suggest that the approach of moving to simpler boardgame “gateway” games such as Castle Ravenloft may not actually be the right approach. It suggests that, for example, while the Dungeons and Dragons Next project may result in a game the existing fans love, it will be a cul de sac rather than a way of bringing in new gamers.

Psi*Run offers an alternative approach. A 60 page rulebook clearly designed to be accessible to a younger audience, offering a type of game that you couldn’t do better on a computer. I’m thinking of buying it for my niece. The recently released Dungeon World appears to offer old style fantasy adventure with more of an indie aesthetic; maybe this is the way forward?

Piers from the London Indie RPG Meetup made a salient point at the seminar when he suggested that in many ways indie games are more like traditional RPG scenarios than game systems in that they are intended to be played a couple of times before the players move onto something else rather than a game you go back to again and again over a number of years. In some respects, this is a bit like novels as opposed to a massive TV franchise like Star Trek; a one off story focusing on one or two ideas rather than a never ending saga. And that also has a lot in common with how boardgames have developed over the past decade where the designer is becoming ever more important rather than the franchise.

Overall, I think there needs to be an injection of ambition into the RPG scene. There has been more innovation over the past decade than we saw throughout the 25 years before that. Accessible games like Fiasco have the potential to break into the mainstream. What the scene needs is a little more self confidence and a little less comfort with the idea of wallowing in obscurity. There’s already Free RPG Day (itself a spinoff from Free Comic Book Day) but from what I’ve seen of what most companies produce to promote this event, it is more aimed at promoting upcoming stuff to an existing base than building a new one. Perhaps this day, or another, needs to be adopted for evangelising about the mediums true potential – and potential audience.

* (UPDATE) It would appear that I stole that description of James Wallis from Robin D. Laws. But he’s right.

Taking sides in the Grant Morrison / Alan Moore cosmic feud

20121128-001951.jpgSooner or later, someone is going to come up with the idea of a story about two wizards – a hirsute, midlander who worships a made up god and dapper suited, bald Glaswegian chaos magician – and the bitter feud between them. The real life story about the animosity between the UK’s greatest living comics writers Grant Morrison and Alan Moore is nothing like as dramatic, but for anyone who has even a modicum of respect for both of them, rather compelling.

We aren’t talking about a massive feud here, incidentally. The two don’t publicly attack each other at every opportunity. The intrigue is rooted in the fact that both writers have very similar interests and backgrounds, and why exactly it is that they have managed to rub each other up the same way

Pádraig Ó Méalóid has written a synopsis of the disagreement which Grant Morrison has taken exception to and comprehensively fisked. You can make your own mind up but to a large extent it is impossible to arbitrate on the issue without your own prejudices about either writer getting in the way. In the interest of full disclosure then, let me say this: on balance I am probably more of a Grant Morrison fan, so take what I have to say on the topic with that particular pinch of salt.

Although I think he is right on the broad thrust, I don’t entirely agree with Morrison though. I think he let’s himself off a bit too gently with his justification that his column Drivel for Speakeasy magazine, which he wrote in the late 80s, was purely work for hire on which he was working to a specific brief. While it is self evident to anyone who has read them that the columns were tongue in cheek – at one stage, I vividly recall his dictum being that “99% of comics are shit except for the 10% that I write” – the fact is that this persona was rehearsed in all the media interviews he gave at the time. What was quite funny a few times rapidly ceased to amuse and he slowly became the parody that he was mocking at the time.

Morrison and his then writing partner Mark Millar were given unprecedented editorial control over 2000AD in 1993 (“the Summer Offensive”) and the two set about tearing up the comic from its roots and implementing the sort of philosophy that Morrison had been espousing in his Drivel columns for years beforehand. The result was an utter disaster, best forgotten. Morrison and Millar’s take on Dredd is the worse mishandling of the character in its long history. I recall in an interview atbthe time Morrison denouncing Dredd-creator John Wagner for not writing funny Dredd strips any more. Ironically, even at his most serious and po-faced, Wagner manages to inject each episode with more genuine humour than Morrison and Millar managed in their entire run on Dredd.

To cut a long story short, in the early 90s, Grant Morrison was a bit of a dick. Having suddenly found himself rich and successful after more than a decade as a struggling writer (his graphic novel Batman: Arkham Asylum hit the bookshelves at the height of Batmania following the release of the 1989 Tim Burton film), discovered the drink, drugs and sex that he couldn’t afford and wasn’t particularly interested in during the early part of his career. In his 30s, he went on a teenage bender, something which almost destroyed him as a writer.

But the important thing is, he grew out of it. The Morrison who emerged over the following decade was a different creature altogether. Most of his works during this period have a sort of life affirming therapy quality to them, with Morrison himself effectively starring in The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and The Filth.

I find the claim by both Moore and Michael Moorcock that Morrison is a creatively bankrupt thief of their work to be utterly bizarre. If you want to read a sub-Alan Moore deconstructionist and misanthropic take on the superhero genre, you need merely screw up a copy of Watchmen and throw it over your shoulder; the chances are you’ll hit a comic by a writer taking precisely that approach. On a superficial level, there are clearly similarities but where Morrison’s work is all about hope amidst the darkness, Moore’s work is, well, darkness amidst the darkness. They are so incomparable that it is barely worth even rebutting.

And this is the nub of it: Alan Moore’s complaint about Grant Morrison appears to be nothing more than a massive troll, and potentially an attempt by Moore to get his own back for a couple of mean-spirited things Morrison said about him during his idiot period. But as Morrison says, during the Drivel years, Morrison was a 30 year old still struggling to find his place in the world. Alan Moore is a highly successful man in his 60s. In the context, it is hard to deny that Moore is the bigger dick (term used in the strict Wheaton sense of the word).

I have heard more than once people defend Moore when he says his more outrageous things that if you hear him say them in person it is clear he has his tongue firmly in his cheek when he does so. But if this is all an act, is there a risk that Moore himself ends up resembling the persona he is pretending to be? We await to see what Jerusalem is like, but the fact is that most of his work over the past decade has given me the sense of a man coasting. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is good fun and a gentle read, kind of like putting on your favourite slippers, but nothing like as edgy as it thinks it is. Century had nothing to say ultimately other than “modern culture (and particularly Harry Potter) is rubbish” – the familiar old man lament since time immemorial. We appear to have reached the point in which Alan Moore has little more to say than “99% of modern culture is rubbish, except for the 10% that I write” – the only difference between this statement and Grant Morrison’s own utterance more than 20 years previously being that even at the time we knew with complete certainty that Morrison was taking the piss.

It’s great fun to watch Alan Moore be rude and nasty about everything, but there comes a point where it’s just rudeness dressed up as criticism. I think he went passed that years ago and it’s time he reined it back in. I suspect that if he did, his work would significantly improve as he was forced to move outside of his (cynical and world weary) comfort zone.

Still looking forward to Heart of Ice though.