Shattered Remains card art (artist Matt Zeilinger)

Rotation and Tabletop Economics

Wednesday was a big day in the world of tabletop gaming. While in the UK we were having bonfires around the country, in Roseville, Minnesota Fantasy Flight Games announced a bonfire of the Living Card Games. Well, a light singeing at any rate. To any non-tabletop gamer, and indeed any non-LCgamer, this will probably mean absolutely nothing. But it’s an interesting response to a growing problem which the fans of these games have recognised for a long time.

Ever since I worked in a comic shop in the early nineties during the speculator boom (and arguably going back to when Games Workshop decided to change their business model in the late 80s and alienate fans like myself), I’ve always had an interest in how economics impacts on hobbyist interests. Tabletop gaming is currently going through a bit of a renaissance, with convention visitor numbers up, the number of games exploding, and games starting to enter mainstream consciousness. To what degree this period of growth will be sustainable in the long term is an interesting moot point, and there have been a lot of busts in the past. Reading the excellent four volume Designers & Dragons as I did recently, it was made painfully clear how vulnerable tabletop gaming – in that case RPGs – are to such cycles, and the severe consequences when the industry takes a dive. Fantasy Flight Games in particular appear to be on a high right now – they more or less owned Gen Con this year with a succession of announcements which had their fans – especially Star Wars gamers – frothing at the mouth. Past experience suggests that at some point someone is going to make a big mistake and for this to all come crashing down around our ears. The question is, when?

I don’t want to suggest in any way that Fantasy Flight’s announcement on Wednesday is an early warning that that crash is imminent; quite the opposite. In fact it’s a sign of something I’ve felt for a while, which is that FFG are a generally very cautious and sensible company that is all too aware of the risks inherent in the industry.

CCGs and LCGs

First of all, a bit of terminology. Living Card Games is a trademark of FFG which they use to describe their customisable card games and the business model they use to market them. The model itself is now being adapted by other companies as a sign of its success. Customisable card game may require a little more explanation for people not familiar with the concept.

Most people will know what a card game is, whether its poker or Uno. The most significant thing that makes customisable card games different is that the players have their own decks of cards which are kept entirely separate from their opponent’s. What’s more, while a standard deck of cards might be finite – 13 cards for each suit plus one or two jokers – the different cards that might appear in a customisable deck is potentially infinite. Before the game itself, players will “build decks” by selecting cards from a pool of cards that they own. They can customise their decks however they like, as long as they stick to certain restrictions laid out in the rules of play.

The difference between a Collectable Card Game and a Living Card Game is how players acquire that pool. The first customisable card game – and the first Collectable Card Game – was Magic the Gathering. This game and its hundreds of imitators sold players cards in the form of starter decks and booster packs. The business model was essentially cribbed from trading cards (or football stickers, cigarette cards or bubblegum cards depending on what you’re more familiar with): the cards came in randomised packs, with some cards especially rare and hard to find. If you want a full set, you would need to buy many thousands of cards (seriously; I recently acquired a bunch of retail packs of a long out of print CCG called On the Edge. I’ve ploughed through two boxes – 1,800 cards – and still don’t have close to a full set of the basic 270 cards).

The Magic the Gathering CCG model was wildly successful in the mid-90s until it all came crashing down, taking retailers, distributors and publishers with it. Since then, Magic itself has remained a strong contender and a number of companies continue to do good business that way, but the mania that surrounded it has died down. Fundamentally, there are people who hate it as a model and won’t go anywhere near it. Even Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Magic, have recognised this and increasingly sell pre-made decks for more casual players.

Fantasy Flight dipped their toes into the CCG business but in 2008 decided to switch to the LCG format. In their business model, there are no randomised packs (let’s park discussion about draft play for now). Instead, they sell core sets, boxed expansions and cycles of smaller packs of cards, all of which contain exactly the same cards. What LCGs lose by abandoning the random factor they gain in an increased focus on optimising decks and keeping up with the “meta” (the groupthink of the player base in which certain cards and strategems fall in and out of favour as more cards are published).

Rotation

The LCG model has been extremely successful for Fantasy Flight. Beginning by reformatting their Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones CCGs to the new model, they currently publish six games – including the wildly popular Netrunner – and retired a seventh earlier this year. The announcement they made on Wednesday is in response to that success.

The one thing FFG are good at doing is supporting their successful games, and that means expansions. For their more traditional board and card games, that’s relatively straightforward: sell a game, offer players the options of expansions and they can pick and choose what they want depending on their enthusiasm. The prevalence of expansions aren’t a huge barrier to entry for board games; they give you more variety and options but since all players are playing with the same set, there’s no competitive need to buy expansions.

LCGs are different. If you don’t buy all the cards, you have a competitive disadvantage to the players who do. At least, in theory; skill and practice is a generally a far bigger factor. Nonetheless, that drive for completion is real. Right now, completing the Game of Thrones card game means acquiring the core set, six boxed expansions, and 72 smaller packs. Each of those smaller packs will set you back a tenner, meaning that if you want to buy everything available right now, you will end up spending just shy of £900. The other games are less extreme, but by the end of this year, relative newcomer Netrunner will consist of a core set, three boxed expansions and 18 smaller packs, costing just under £300. That isn’t just a challenge for players; that’s a challenge for retailers who only have so much shelf and storage space.

There’s also another problem, and a different economics. Fundamentally, the more cards in the pool, the smaller an impact each additional card will make. This is mitigated by FFG deliberately taking note of and attempting to disrupt the aforementioned meta from time to time. Thus, if they spot that a specific card is being used in all the winning championship decks, they will set themselves the task of coming up with a new card that will weaken the power of the old one. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of LCGs, which is that play in the real world has a direct impact on future releases. But over time, their ability to keep evolving the game in that way becomes increasingly limited as more and more options become available to players. At that point, the theory goes at least, the game will become less exciting; it will no longer be “living”.

I haven’t ever played the Game of Thrones LCG for precisely the prohibitive entry restrictions that I outlined above, but I understand that the problems with the metagame outlined above have become acute with that game. Rather than try to fudge it, FFG have opted instead to simply bring out a new edition of the game and be done with it. For the other games however, they have decided to introduce a new system called rotation. What that amounts to is the smaller packs over time being declared not tournament legal and falling out of print.

The most interesting thing about all this to me is how modest a change this new policy amounts to. Because rotation will only kick in when a game reaches its eighth “cycle” (a cycle is a set of six thematically linked packs), at which point the first two cycles will be taken out of circulation. With FFG pumping out slightly less than two cycles a year for each LCG, that means that cards will have a tournament life of around four years. Contrast that with Magic the Gathering, which I understand has a rotation cycle of roughly 18 months.

The total tournament legal card pool will remain huge. For us Netrunner players, we still have five and a half cycles to look forward to before our cards start becoming obsolete and I personally can’t even visualise what a card pool that large will look like. It isn’t obvious to me how this will especially lower the barrier of entry for new players, although I suppose it will at least encourage them to invest in the newer cycles and box sets and not bother with the older ones which have less tournament life in them.

I suspect, also, that in reality a game will have to be doing extremely well to actually reach the stage when a cycle is rotated out. Hidden amongst all the announcements on Wednesday is the news that rotation won’t actually affect the Call of Cthulhu LCG because they won’t be producing any new cycles for it; it’s a complete game. The same has already effectively happened with Warhammer: Invasion. The Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game and thus players don’t have to worry about tournaments. It is by no means certain that the other LCGs – Netrunner, Star Wars and Warhammer 40,000: Conquest – will survive long enough.

The Future

I presume that Fantasy Flight wrestled over this a lot before settling on a change that will have such a modest impact. While I don’t think it is a backwards step, I do think they have hedged too much to avoid alienating the existing fanbase. For all its flaws, Magic the Gathering offers far more frequent jumping on points for new players, which explains its longevity (20 years and counting). I suspect that once the concept of rotation has bedded down, they will tweak it more in favour of bringing in new players.

What’s fascinating is seeing a tabletop games company explicitly planning over a period of five years. This represents a level of maturity generally unheard in the industry. The business plan of most games companies seems to be: produce a new game on a regular basis and, if it’s a hit, rush out a series of expansions and spin offs until the cashcow has been squeezed dry. To be fair, an increasing number of companies seem to plan their release schedule 1-2 years ahead, but Fantasy Flight seem to have a bigger picture in mind. And it seems to be working for them.

You can especially see this in their Star Wars game range. They’re currently supporting 8 Star Wars games (counting the three RPGs separately despite their compatibility), and it’s clear that they’ve had quite a far sighted release schedule in mind. With the new films on the horizon, it’s increasingly looking as if their game ranges will be maturing at exactly the right moment; a completely unprecedented bit of marketing synergy (if you can pardon the expression).

The million dollar question is, how much is too much expansion? LCGs, while apparently cheaper than CCGs, expect their players to sink around £170 into the game every year, and rotation won’t change that. The X-Wing miniatures game, while allowing for more specialisation (i.e. in LCGs, you have to buy all the different “factions” which are available to play in the packs; in a game like X-Wing you can focus on a single faction or even a handful of specific ships), costs even more to buy the entire range, and that is about to be joined by two more miniatures games this winter. If enough players suddenly snap and stop buying product, these games could suddenly see sales plummet. It hasn’t happened yet in this case, but there are past precedents (such as RPGs in the early 80s).

Fantasy Flight themselves appear to be quite mindful of that, and produce games in modest print runs. What’s mildly irritating to us consumers in terms of product being out of stock all the time, makes perfect sense for them. But the downside of this approach is cost. This was drilled home to me when I attended the giant Spiel convention in Essen this year, where you can buy German board games intended for the high street for literally half the equivalent US games typically cost. The former is produced in print runs of 500,000+ while the latter is frequently produced at runs lower than 5,000. The reason FFG charge £12 for a pack of 60 cards is because they don’t want to be left sitting on thousands of unsellable packs and come unstuck in the way that so many of their predecessors have done.

I’ve already heard grumblings about how much better value AEG’s new Doomtown Reloaded customisable card game compared to its Fantasy Flight equivalents. The reason is simple: AEG are looking to break into the market and only have one game to support: they have both the capacity and the incentive to undercut FFG. As FFG grow, an increasing number of their competitors must be making the same calculation. And while I think FFG are too cautious to create a boom (and AEG are a veteran company – this is not their first rodeo), I’m not so sure about everyone else. That’s a cause for some concern.

This year, the US gaming convention Gen Con is believed to have eclipsed the German Spiel for the first time in terms of attendance figures. Even here in the UK, Games Expo has been enjoying exponential growth over the last few years (of course, these conventions are still tiny compared to the largest computer game cons). It very much looks as if we’re on the cusp of a boom. We’ll almost certainly see a market contraction at some point; the question is when, and by how much. In the worst case scenario, this could see high street gaming stores – already in long term decline – obliterated. But if the lessons of the past can be learned, the overall impact – with the rise of board game cafés and mainstream consciousness – could still be positive. FFG’s announcement on Wednesday suggests to me that at least one company is very mindful of the risks and rewards at stake.

Norman Baker performing Piccadilly Circus

Norman Baker, political journalism and hinterlands

It’s an odd evening to defend the MP for Lewes, given that his constituents are currently behaving like a bunch of spoiled children blacking up and attempting to set fire to “politically incorrect” effigies. Nonetheless, I share a lot of the views expressed elsewhere that he performed an excellent service in his role as Home Office minister and can well understand his reasons for resigning.

This blog post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of his resignation though. Rather, it’s a simple observation. Most of the media coverage was transfixed by the idea that Norman Baker was in a band, that it isn’t a wildly good one, and that these facts alone are wildly hilarious. Every TV and newspaper report I came across seemed to fit in a quip about it somewhere

I suspect that it doesn’t especially matter that his interests are in music. In fact, the Reform Club’s middle of the road style from what I can make out is pretty inoffensive to anyone. What seemed to provoke the lobby was that he was doing something – anything – that was slightly out of the ordinary.

When that slightly out of the ordinary thing is practicing music skills on a regular basis, you’ve got to wonder how they’d treat any MP who has personal interests that are really unusual.

Several years ago, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at a games club playing a game of Puerto Rico with a Labour MP, at the time a Parliamentary Private Secretary. After the game, we looked over our shoulders to see another group having a raucous game of Cash’n’Guns. He observed “I have to be really cautious about what games I can play in public” at which point I pointed out, to his horror, that he’d just spent the last couple of hours playing a game about the slave trade.

I mention this because he’s right: playing a game in which you wave foam guns in each other’s faces would potentially be career suicide for an aspiring politician, no matter how silly a game it is (which is certainly the case of Cash’n’Guns). But the reason isn’t because doing so would be wrong or wicked in any way, but because it would be seen as weird. And being weird, as Ed Miliband has learned to his cost, is an almost unforgivable crime in modern politics.

The result is, paradoxically, that all our politicians are deeply weird. It’s been almost 40 years since Denis Healey scathingly noted that Margaret Thatcher lacked a hinterland. These days almost none of them have one. William Hague is allowed to write books, albeit on political history. Beer and football are permitted interests, as is primetime television (in moderation). But anything else is treated as shameful and hidden from view, a bit like being gay in the 1950s.

But the weirdest thing about all this is that at the same time, being “wacky” is increasingly the norm for how political journalism is conducted. The model established by Andrew Neil on This Week and the Daily Politics, has now become ubiquitous. Politics is now typically presented on television by people who can’t wait to dress up in silly costumes or wear outrageous hats to make some leaden point or other. Newspaper journalists all seem to consider themselves to be side-splittingly hilarious comedians if my twitter feed is anything to go by. Norman Baker’s crime seems to have been to be sincere in his interests. If he’d done an appallingly awful duet with the chief correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, then it would have been considered perfectly acceptable and not even worthy of mention.

We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.

Flashville, or where they went wrong with The Flash [SPOILERS]

The Flash
The Flash is my favourite superhero. He has a simple but amazing power, he’s a scientist and he’s an uncomplicated hero; what’s not to love? So I was quite looking forward to the new TV series, and the extended trailer they released over the summer whet my appetite. Now though, a few episodes in, I’m about ready to call it quits.

It’s worth pointing out that they’ve done a lot right with the series; the special effects are fantastic given the demands of television. Grant Gustin is just right for the role (it’s interesting comparing his frame with John Wesley Shipp’s in the 1990 TV series; it never made sense for Barry Allen to be as bulked up as Wesley Shipp was back then). And I applaud their decision to go for a multi-racial cast. But there are three main quibbles I have with it [SPOILER WARNING FROM THIS POINT ON]. Continue reading

Labour and Lords Reform – a short history lesson

Steve Bell cartoon on Lords reform

Labour has announced that it would replace the House of Lords with an elected senate. There are reasons why supporters of Lords reform should be cautious about celebrating too hard about this, as Labour’s promises in this area have failed to blossom into meaningful action so many times in the past. But it is progress – a fully elected senate and no caveats about needing a referendum first – and it is something to hold them too if they win the next election.

The Liberal Democrat response has been curious and revealing. Speaking on their behalf, Sir Malcolm Bruce said:

“We could have given the UK greater representation in parliament, but when presented with the chance, he bottled it; turned his back and ran. This is simply lip-service from a Labour party who have no intention of actually delivering.”

You would think that the Lib Dems would be a bit more cautious about labelling others as dishonest, given the hole that they’re in. Leaving that aside, it is simply not true to say that the reason Lords reform fell in 2012 was because Labour walked away. They were no angels, but to pin the blame on them is to ignore Tory treachery, different Liberal Democrat priorities.

Talk to a Lib Dem MP between May 2010 and September 2012 for more than five minutes and it will be perfectly clear what their main preoccupation was: boundary changes. Seriously, I personally spoke to around a dozen of them in that period and that’s all they ever wanted to talk about. As the boundary changes were published, it increasingly dawned on them that they had signed a suicide note by agreeing to the boundary changes and a reduction in the number of MPs, and they were fixated by how they might be able to break that promise. Everything they did during that period was going through that lens.

Thus is was that as soon as the Lords reform proposals were published, the Lib Dems started threatening to block the boundary changes if the Tories failed to fulfil their promise on Lords reform. From the point of view of actually replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber, this was disastrous. Tory backbenchers don’t respond well to threats, especially from junior partners they are determined to squash, and the message Labour were getting was that if they helped scupper Lords reform, they would be freed from boundary changes as well.

The fact is that Labour was split on Lords reform. Managing to derail the process helped to avoid them looking that way. It became increasingly clear that the Tories were even more split (despite promising Lords reform in their manifesto) and that Labour would have to carry the government through the entire process, at every stage. It also undermined the Lib Dems and got them a policy concession they wanted. Under those circumstances, even the most strident supporter of reform would struggle to not make the decision that Ed Miliband did.

If the Lib Dems had not made support for boundary changes a precondition, has said that that deal was done and that they would stand by their coalition partners, there would in all likelihood have been fewer Tory rebellions over the issue and Labour would have had less of an incentive to dissemble. Of course, it would have looked weak, and would have meant that the Lib Dems would be facing even more losses in the next election. Given the choice between party and principle, they chose party. I don’t especially blame them for that either, but please spare me the self-righteous indignation over how Labour behaved in response.

That was all two years ago. What concerns me about the Lib Dems now is that an awful lot of them seem to believe their own hype. I’ve read an awful lot of tweets this morning from Lib Dems denouncing Labour betrayal on this issue. Yet the fact is that if you want House of Lords reform then your best bet is Labour winning at least a plurality in the next general election. It certainly won’t happen if the Tories win. And it certainly won’t happen if what remains of the Lib Dems in the Commons in 2015 sit around whingeing about missed opportunities.

Making Lords reform a partisan issue in the way that the front bench Lib Dem team seemed determined to make it won’t actually make it happen. Once again, they seem to be putting party ahead of principle – and on this occasion I’m a lot less sympathetic.

Resting on the Laurels of the Doctor

Note: there are no actual spoilers in this post, but there is some speculation about this month’s Christmas Special of Doctor Who in the last paragraph.

doctorwho50
I have a confession to make: I don’t entirely get Doctor Who.

It’s not that I don’t like it; I’ve watched pretty much every episode that has been aired since, as a young child in the late 70s, I was aware of its existence (and quite a few others besides). I wept buckets at the end of both “The Day of the Doctor” and An Adventure in Space and Time last week, and laughed like a loon during The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. What I don’t understand is quite why it seems to inspire as much passion as it does.

What I find with Doctor Who is this: a lot of the older stuff which is frequently cited as “classic” and the best that Who has to offer often leaves me non-plussed. At the same time, while I often feel that New Who gets a far worse rap from its Old Who critics than it deserves, as often as not it underwhelms me as well.

Take a specific example: “The Caves of Androzani”. This is cited by multiple sources as the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. Yet when I watched it a couple of years ago, it left me cold. The acting was weak, the sets poor (I know, cheap shot), the pacing all over the place (despite having a fondness for Old Who-style cliffhangers, a lot of the time the episodic format seemed to lead to a lot of padding out), the drama was nowhere. At around the same time, I also saw “The Awakening” – a Peter Davison story which is variably treated as awful or indifferent – and really enjoyed it. I genuinely don’t understand why Caves is considered a classic while Awakening is a flop.

Lest you think I’m just having a go at Old Who, I have a different problem with New Who. The new version solves a lot of the issues that the old one had, namely acting, special effects, pacing and theme, but has created some new ones of its own. To a lesser extent with the Russell T. Davies era and a much greater extent with the Stephen Moffat era, a formula has become established whereby the Doctor faces a problem, the stakes are raised to a ridiculously high level, there are lots of emotions, and then the Doctor solves everything with a lot of hand waving and Murray Gold’s score doing all the heavy lifting. After seven seasons of this formula, I feel like I’m done with it. There are episodes which follow this formula and yet transcend it, and I do feel that “Day of the Doctor” achieved that (partly I think because of the odd pacing which rather broke it up), but it has certainly been the case that for the last couple of years it has felt as if it has been stuck in a timeloop and being edited by an 8 year old with ADHD. I often feel like the subsequent animated gifs that emerge online after each episode of Doctor Who are more worthwhile than the episodes themselves.

(I’m sounding very anti-Moffat hear so let me say this: his worst episodes and best episodes are better than Davies’s worst and best; it’s just his average episodes that let him down. I also think that while he deserves a lot of criticism for his portrayal of women, I also think it is true that he is probably the most feminist of Who’s showrunners thus far and that it is odd that Davies didn’t get more stick than he did.)

There is plenty about Doctor Who that I love. The TARDIS is a beautiful concept, wonderfully realised (and for me at least evokes childhood memories of excitedly spotting the last few genuine police boxes before they were removed from British streets). The enigmatic nature of the central character, together with its endless potential for renewal, has proven itself. I’m frequently taken in by the series’ charm, especially in the case of the Hartnell, Troughton and Tom Baker eras (Pertwee has never really done it for me). At its heart, the programme is about hope and believing in alternatives. Perhaps more so than any other science fiction or fantasy franchise, it is fundamentally, unashamedly liberal, with an emphasis on social justice and the dignity of the individual, and a deep distrust of authority and dogma.

I suppose that ultimately my problem with Doctor Who boils down to this: somehow it appears to have ended up with a status that places it above a lot of other fandom for no other reason that there is so much of it. As a kid, Doctor Who pretty much lost me in the 80s and yet as an adult I feel that I’m often told it was my fault for not giving Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Sophie Aldred et al more of a chance. I think you need to squint a little too hard to see the genius of this era; it’s not that I can’t comprehend what people are talking about on an intellectual level, it’s just that it still isn’t that enjoyable – and this is meant to be entertainment after all. With New Who I almost have the opposite problem: I appreciate that the reason the series comes across like a hyperactive toddler is that it is a kid’s show, but at the same time I feel I’m supposed to also appreciate that it has depths at the same time, even when those depths seem to have been done by the numbers. Both incarnations seem to get let off the hook because of Doctor Who’s privileged status as the Grand Old Man of British genre television rather than appreciated on their own merits. To a certain extent this is echoed by Colin Baker’s intemperate “for the fans” remarks, complaining about the fact he and the other 80s Doctors weren’t invited to be involved in the 50th anniversary programme directly; what ought to matter is what makes good television, not nostalgic fanwank.

Fundamentally, right now I think the series is in a rut. I can almost guess how “The Time of the Doctor” is going to go: the Doctor is given the choice between dying a final death (because he’s on his twelfth regeneration of course) and saving the universe, or letting something awful happen, it all gets terribly emotional and then he waves his hands around and cuts the Gordian knot, only to realise that he has to die anyway but – cue more handwaving – gets to regenerate after all. Oh, and there’ll be snow and sleigh bells at some point because Christmas. Hopefully it will transcend the formula again, but I think it will be hoping too much for it to actually subvert it. I pray that the Peter Capaldi incarnation will lead to a greater variation of tones and plotlines than we’ve seen in recent years; if it doesn’t then I might just be forced to give up on it.

Scapegoating Nick Clegg is the lowest form of populism

Owen JonesMy ire was particularly roused yesterday by Owen Jones’s latest attack on Nick Clegg. Now, regular readers of this blog may be aware that Nick Clegg is not exactly my favourite person, I actually agree that Clegg is populist with little in the way of actual principles, and that this latest capitulation to crack down on virtually non-existent use of the UK welfare system by EU migrants is an apt if depressing example of this. But Jones’s analysis has one fatal flaw: he’s a member of the Labour Party.

You don’t have to agree with Martin Shapland’s equally flawed analysis that the fact that Labour have equally let down EU migrants and indeed the UK electorate that that somehow makes the Lib Dems’ own actions more acceptable to agree that Owen Jones and his cohorts are in no position to criticise.

If Clegg’s “scapegoating” of EU migrants (which is to ignore the fact that the Lib Dem position is far less coherent than simple scapegoating) is “unforgiveable”, then what does that make Yvette Cooper’s claim that the coalition are playing catch up behind Labour on this issue? Indeed, so behind the coalition were Labour on Tuesday that they set one of their lead attack dogs to smear Laszlo Andor, an EU commissioner who had the unmitigated gall to criticise the UK for adopting such a policy, wrongly claiming he was a fascist.

This isn’t the first time, and won’t be the last, that Clegg’s team has concluded that with Labour and the Tories united on an issue they might as well go along with it for fear of being singled out. It was the same reasoning that made Clegg so keen to not come out against the snooper’s charter. Clegg isn’t a liberal, although he wore that mask for a while, and his mission is to be seen to be in the centre of politics between Labour and the Tories, no matter where that centre happens to be (he’s only sticking with the party’s pro-EU stance because he knows that dropping it would lead to a split the party would not survive from). He’s pretty despicable. But does anyone really believe that is more despicable than the party leaders he is slavishly following? Miliband could have caused a split within the coalition by adopting a pro-migrant, and fact-based stance on immigration. Leaving aside his ethical and moral responsibilities, he had a responsibility to do so as the leader of the official opposition. Cringing in fear of how Lynton Crosby would respond, he chose not to.

I’m not suggesting the Lib Dems should be let off the hook, merely that they are irrelevant. Even if every single Lib Dem voted against these measures, the combined Labour-Conservative hegemony would get it through parliament. If Owen Jones truly had the principles he has pinned his professional career to, he would have chosen to lay into who is possibly the next prime minister for his cowardly stance, rather than the leader of a declining third party. Does anyone else see the irony in choosing to pull his punches on Miliband and ramp up the rhetoric on Clegg in an article denouncing the political practice of scapegoating? This is black propaganda indeed.

If you’re a small community campaign, the #gagginglaw will affect you.

Save Totley LibraryI’m annoyed that I’m starting to sound like a stuck record on this blog, but I feel the need to go back to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill again because of a potentially explosive confusion that has arisen.

Earlier today Joe Otten, a Lib Dem Sheffield Councillor, made the following claim on this blog:

No James, the Totley library campaign is not partisan, and the rules in the transparency of lobbying bill (and equally PPERA) do not apply to it. It is blatant scaremongering to suggest otherwise.

Now, I don’t claim any special knowledge of the Totley library campaign. No doubt the Labour council are claiming they have to shut it down due to central government cuts and the Lib Dems are claiming that it is solely closing because of Labour irresponsibility and opportunism. Whatever. But the argument that the bill won’t apply to such campaigns is dangerously misleading. I make no claim as to whether Otten is spinning here or has been spun to by his constituency MP Nick Clegg’s office, but either way it’s utterly fallacious.

The clue is somewhat in the name of the bill: “non-party campaigning”. “Partisan” campaigning is covered by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The reason this bill has been introduced in the first place is that the coalition feels, in its wisdom, that non-party campaigns have been poorly regulated, and are seeking to change that.

Here are the various ways in which the bill will directly impact any small local campaign:

  • The minimum threshold that a local campaign can spend before coming under the auspices of the legislation is being cut from £10,000 to £5,000. That will include any in kind or pro bono work (such as legal advice) donated to it.
  • A new per-constituency limit of £9,480 (or, more precisely, 2% of the party spending limit, divided up on a per-constituency basis) is being introduced.
  • If your campaign is in a coalition with another organisation (for example, you are supported by a trade union), the spending limit will apply to all the organisations in the coalition in aggregate. In other words, if your coalition partner(s) spends any money at all in the constituency, your own spending limit will be reduced accordingly.
  • The regulated period will apply for 12 months before an election takes place. So, for the 2015 general election, it will commence in May 2014.
  • Once parliament has dissolved and the “short” election campaign itself has commenced, your group will have to submit weekly spending and donation reports to the Electoral Commission.

All of which is all very well, but will it apply to a non-political grassroots campaign that explicitly doesn’t support any candidate?

Well, it all depends on whether it is deemed that your campaign has a significant effect on the election or not. Fundamentally, that will all depend on how successful your campaign is. Campaigns that are deemed to not put politicians under any pressure will have, of course, little to worry about. Most campaigns however, at least aim to make an impact. And if you do, while the distinction in your mind between publicly criticising a councillor or MP for failing to support your issue and calling for people to not vote for a councillor or MP for failing to support your issue might be clear in your mind, it won’t necessarily be quite so clear in the mind of the solicitor the candidate your are criticising has paid to write you a stern and threatening legal letter. The Electoral Commission, who will be the ultimate arbiters of this legislation, have themselves repeatedly warned that it is too vague to be enforced.

There’s a bit more to it than that – especially if you are based in Scotland or Wales – but in a nutshell that’s why all small grasssroots community organisations ought to be concerned about this bill and the fact that it is being forced through parliament with so little scrutiny (the brief “pause” the government have reluctantly been forced to now observe is little more than a bit of breathing space really). If you want to know more, don’t trust me but go to the website of the National Campaign for Voluntary Organisations, who have a useful list of resources.

Of course, take everything you hear from people with a grain of salt. The nature of campaigning is that the rhetoric is often quite shrill. But if your Lib Dem or Conservative councillor tells you that it doesn’t effect you at all, they are either lying or have themselves been deeply mislead.

Remind me how the gagging law will prevent a UK “Koch Brothers” again?

UKIP Billboard from 2004One of the common arguments by the supporters of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is that it will prevent the UK equivalent of the Koch Brothers from being able to buy the political process for their own nefarious ends.

So it is with good timing that Paul Sykes has re-emerged, promising to do “whatever it takes” to get UKIP to become the largest UK political party in the European Parliament after the elections next year.

Paul Sykes, for those with short memories, was a Conservative donor who switched sides in the early noughties. The billboard campaign he funded in 2004 had a direct effect on the result, in which UKIP leapt from 3 MEPs to 12. Even without his intervention, it was looking distinctly possible that UKIP could become the largest party in 2014, with the Tories’ popularity being dented due to being in government, and the BNP collapsing. Now it is looking like a very real prospect indeed.

This sort of intervention by a Eurosceptic millionaire is hardly a new thing in British politics; it’s been an ongoing saga since the Maastricht debate shot Europe up the political agenda 20 years ago. And while it’s true that they have occasionally dipped their toes into non-party campaigning with causes such as the disastrous (in terms of its impact compared to the amount of money that was reportedly spent on it) IWantAReferendum.com, they have predominantly sought to exert their influence via political parties rather than pressure groups.

All of which makes shroud-waving about what might happen when “Koch UK land here” seem rather odd; their tanks are already on our lawn. The policy solution is of course to limit what individual’s can donate to political parties, an issue which the coalition paid lip service to but have now walked away from even after we saw progress made on alternative, revenue-neutral funding mechanisms and the Labour Party shifted ground significantly in terms of their own trade union-led opposition to the idea.

Gratifyingly the government have now – for a short period at least – agreed to pause the legislative process, to allow more time for ministers to listen to the concerns of civic society organisations. We can thank organisations such as 38 Degrees for helping to win that respite. Hopefully it will lead to meaningful engagement and at least some of the scrutiny that the bill should have got before being read in parliament. Optimistically, it might even lead to a more robust legislative framework to regulate the role third parties can play in elections. But be under no illusion whatsoever that it will do a thing to remove the dominance millionaires have over the UK political system.

Russell Brand and the Emperor’s new thong

Russell Brand holds aloft the cover to his issue of the New StatesmanSo, Russell Brand’s interview on Newsnight and New Statesman editorial has caused an awful lot of brouhaha, and I’d kind of like to join in. I find a lot of what he has to say on the subject of voting not only wrong but actually quite offensive. His assertion that my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generation were “conned” in fighting for the vote is simply factually not true, unless you consider the welfare state, universal education and a national health service to be a “con” (as far as I’m aware, Russell Brand is not an Ayn Rand aficionado).

The fact that we’ve just lived through the deepest recession since the Great Depression and not seen the level of starvation and grinding poverty that destroyed people’s lives in the 1930s suggests that, for the most part, democracy has actually worked out quite well for most people in a lot of ways. Combine that with Brand’s obvious hypocrisy (opting out of the political system he despises while very much opting into the capitalist system which he claims to equally hate – yet very much profits from) and casual misogyny, and you have a pretty loathsome end product. Instead of miscrediting Billy Connelly with the quote “don’t vote, it encourages them,” just once I would have liked to see him engqge with Gandhi’s equally miscredited “be the change you want to see in the world” – it is all very well calling for a revolution of the mind, but if that’s where it stays, what is the point?

Here’s the thing though. Siding against Russell Brand means siding with an awful lot of rather distasteful people. I might not agree with his prescription, but I agree with a lot of the sentiment and many of the people whose pious critiques of Brand’s position I’ve read over the last few days have been the very people who I think are part of the problem.

Piously telling Russell Brand that he’s wrong is one thing, but if you’re one of the people who subscribes to the view that the current voting system is fine and dandy, and that your political party should be slavishly attempting to fix itself in the centre ground, or jump on whichever populist bandwagon which might get you the next short term voting fix, then you actually have less credibility than he has. Voting and political engagement can make a difference, but in spite of such people not because of them. Most people in the political establishment are not democrats, but rather technocrats who spend their time actively seeking ways to shut down public debate, not open it up.

And voting, especially for young people, is a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma. For individuals, voting is a cost in time and effort. It’s only if a critical mass of a certain demographic start voting that they are likely to make an impact, and no-one knows in advance how many people it will take (especially with our broken and random single member plurality voting system). If like me you voted in 2010 in the hope that we were on the verge of seeing a fundamental shift in voting patterns, you can understand why it is hard for people get their hopes up that they are a part of something bigger.

The benefits of democracy are indirect, long term and fundamentally collective. It is ironic that a self-proclaimed lefty such as Russell Brand can’t get beyond the very individualist and consumerist mindset that he claims to want a cultural revolution to overthrow, but he is by no means alone. And the political establishment has done nothing but encourage precisely this mindset over the past 35 years. The fact that Brand and so many other wannabe revolutionaries are creatures of this atomisation of society may suggest that their ideas are not so radical after all, but it ought to give the establishment pause for thought because it has the potential to cause them a lot of problems.

Young people aren’t voting. More than that, it seems to me that an entire swathe of young people are effectively opting out. It’s no surprise as they are being systematically shut out of the economic system. Mainstream politicians are obsessed with forcing them to run in ever decreasing circles trying to find jobs which don’t exist, only to find that even if they succeed in that they will have none of the economic security that their parent’s generation take for granted. When I was turning 30, I was in a minority in my peer group of people who didn’t own their own house (admittedly, most of whom were dependent on their parents’ for support); now I don’t personally know anyone under 30 who owns property. I can however tell you tales of people forced to move out of their over-crowded HMO because the landlord insisted on putting the rent up by an exponential amount and the stress that substandard housing and long term unemployment is causing people.

All of this amounts to a massive deal for our society, yet if you take a gander on Twitter, you won’t find many mainstream politicians talking about it at all. Instead they are determinedly issuing blandishments with hashtags such as #ForHardWorkingPeople, #StrongerEconomy or #FairerSociety and, urgh, #coalicious.

In Paul Mason’s response to Russell Brand’s intervention, he predicts that we will see increasing social unrest over the next decade. It isn’t a new prediction; the BBC produced a documentary 10 years ago saying broadly the same thing. Such dire forecasts don’t have to be 100% correct to be a cause for concern and it certainly looks to me as if we are starting to see signs that it could be happening.

So, ultimately, it isn’t enough to dismiss Russell Brand’s views. If an idiot child starts proclaiming that the emperor has no clothes, expending so much energy to point out that, in fact, he is wearing an extremely snug bright pink thong is to badly miss the point.

Jeremy Browne: off his trolley

Jeremy BrowneThe Times’s interview with Jeremy Browne today (link to the Guardian because it doesn’t have a paywall and there’s nothing in the Times original that you’re missing) highlights for me the inherent contradiction of the Lib Dem right wing.

They’ve always veered between two modes. One is that the wicked left of the party have tainted the party with social democracy and the purity of liberalism. This was the general approach of the Orange Bookers and the narrative that Nick Clegg presented during his rise to prominence. The other is to denounce the left for wanting to be a party of protest in permanent opposition. Notoriously, this was the subject of a Nick Clegg speech earlier this year, but it was also the main tactic 15 years ago when the right (the majority of whom were the same people), were arguing that the Lib Dems ought to be repositioning for a permanent alliance with the Blairite New Labour.

In Jeremy Browne’s flounce in the Times, he manages the double: the wicked left both want to be in permanent opposition and are not proper liberals. What’s interesting though is that it appears to be an open secret that the main reason he was sacked from the home office was because he was so comfortable with the Tories’ anti-immigration and increasingly authoritarian policies.

In theory, the one thing that unites Lib Dems across the spectrum is that they are liberal on social issues. The Orange Book narrative was always that the left, with its suspicious closeness to the Labour Party and love of the state and positive freedoms were the most susceptible to drifting into a “nanny state knows best” mindset. In practice however, it has consistently been the right which has ended up professing a love for Big Brother. Back when Mark Oaten was the right’s golden boy, he came up with the term “tough liberalism,” the only substantial application of which was support for ID cards.

Jeremy Browne can’t be entirely blamed for the Lib Dems’ tacit support for authoritarianism in government, even if it does appear to have accelerated since his promotion to the Home Office last year. It does appear however that the right in the party has a problem with definition. 10 years ago, the Orange Book launched on the premise that the right was economically liberal but still share the socially progressive goals the 20th century Liberal Party championed. Over the course of that decade, they have gone further back, increasingly ditching economic liberalism in favour of the classical liberalism of Gladstone where the only thing that mattered was unfettered markets. With the right’s poster child having now revealed his true disdain for basic liberal values such as civil liberties and the freedom of movement of people, you’ve got to ask yourself: what, aside from conservativism, do they have left?