Monday 30 June 2008

The amateur spirit

Given the gallons of ink pissed away on the results of the Henley by-election (see below for a small sample), it's no surprise, but a hell of a shame, that more coverage was not given to the plucky struggle of the smaller contenders. Not, of course, the acknowledged joke candidates - Miss Great Britain (Blonde) f'rex - who are merely tedious. Much more interesting are the sincere, the principled, the self-appointed, who run in the conviction that their take on politics not only can win the hearts and minds of the electorate, but must do so just as soon as it may be lengthily expounded.

In the case of Henley, this role was played to the hilt by the Libertarian Party of the UK. If the rights are still available, I imagine that this tale of a plucky yet naive band of zealots pitching themselves against the corrupt yet powerful political machine has "Oscar-bait" written all over it. We start in an atmosphere of optimism and camaraderie. Prominent LPUKer Devil's Kitchen announces the selection of the candidate (one Ian Parker-Joseph), and is careful not to overpraise him:

Not just a nice chap, though: Ian's a skilled political operative and has got the campaign off to a flyer!

He has been in Henley this week, doing the rounds of the pubs and gauging opinion: apparently, "the message seems to be going down fairly well, especially with the younger crowd."

But we're not there yet by any means, and we can't afford to be complacent. Actually, we can't afford much of anything, so DK asks his public for whatever they can spare, be it money (it could cost as much as £4K to run!), time, or - if at all possible - some sort of premises in the constituency. Or a neighbouring one. Whatever you can spare, really. Brilliantly, this actually works and they now have a Registered Office!

What next? Time for our candidate to set out his stall, is what. This rousing blog post covers the usual Libertarian talking points (albeit in somewhat bowdlerised language): politicians are tyrants, tax is theft, regulation is slavery, meat is murder. It also includes a little biographical information - some insight into the man behind the slogans.

"My background is one of Business Consulting, Programme and Project Management, providing practical help and assistance to organisations with failing projects and policies.
I am not a career politician who has only ever known University and Westminster, I live and work in the real world"

Finally, someone who isn't a professional politician! Why aren't there more of those in politics?

Alas, we will soon learn. This is the point in our script treatment where we scribble a note to the composer of our score - "NB: start using minor key now". What has begun with such enthusiasm and lightness of spirit will soon end in disillusionment and a painful coming of age. As with all the best tragedies, our hero's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Despite our contempt for the professional politico, with his sleaze and his corporatism, his contempt for the public and his love of regulation, despite all this, we must admit that he knows (too well, alas!) how to campaign. Would a professional ever have an event calendar quite so unremittingly empty? Would a professional have been so surprised to learn that other candidates were campaigning too?

"Sadly, [our] message was being drowned out in Henley by the other parties, through sheer weight of numbers"

And so, almost two whole weeks after his candidacy was announced, Ian Parker-Joseph withdraws. Some might say this is merely a case of David vs Goliath (except that here, Goliath kicked David's ass). After all, who cannot be moved by this simple truth:

As a relatively new entrant to British political life, the Libertarian Party simply doesn't currently have the resources needed to compete in such a febrile environment.

That this "febrile environment" is a by-election and that the LPUK is a political party which is more or less bound to compete in by-elections might seem to indicate some structural problems with the whole enterprise. But there are other lessons too, that real world candidates could not have been expected to know before their first bruising contest. Picking himself up off the canvas, DK highlights one important lesson:

Part of the problem, actually, is that we simply were not prepared because we hadn't considered what it was that we needed. For instance, we needed general party literature to convince people to sign support of us, but we didn't have any. Why? Because we came about on the internet and because we simply hadn't realised that we would need it.

Writing down your policies and giving them to people to read: a sophisticated tactic well beyond the grasp of a real-world, common sense candidate.

Friday 27 June 2008

So, what's it all about?

So, Labour got thumped in the bye-election. But why? What message are the voters sending? With well over 30,000 different people casting vote, can we even begin to distil a clear understanding of which factors affected their choice?

You and I may not, but the professionals can:

It's road tax!

In his victory speech, Howell claimed that voters had sent an anniversary message to Brown "to get off our backs, stop the endless tax rises and do a U-turn on the road tax rises".

It's the economy!

The health minister, Ben Bradshaw, conceded that the Henley byelection had produced a "terrible result" for Labour, which he put down to economic problems rather than voters' dislike of Brown. "When people start feeling the pinch and start feeling a reduction in their disposable income ... they take their anxiety out on the government."

It's the global economy!

The former prime minister put Brown's problems - and those of other political leaders - down to people wanting domestic answers to global issues such as rising fuel and food prices.

It's disaffected traditional Labour voters!

First Cruddas. He ran an energetic campaign to become Labour's deputy leader (he beat three cabinet ministers to come third) and made much of the accumulating loss of core Labour supporters - the white working class - in areas like his own patch, Dagenham in east London, where the BNP has been picking up votes lately.
This morning's result in Henley suggests that Labour supporters in pockets of poverty that coexist with affluence in south Oxfordshire have drawn a similar two-finger conclusion

It's not anti-Labour, it's pro-Conservative!

"I think what we are seeing is that people who voted for all sorts of different parties - including the Liberal Democrats - are now looking at the Conservatives and saying "Yes, this is an alternative to the Government that I can believe in"..."It is our agenda of giving people more opportunity and control over their own lives, of making families stronger and society more responsible, of making Britain safer and greener that is setting the pace in politics now."

It's the Cabinet!
Tam Dalyell, the ex-Father of the Commons and former Labour MP, said: "Cumulatively it is perceived that there are some young, rather arrogant, inexperienced, bumptious ministers in the Cabinet, and people don't care for them very much.

It's Brown!
Labour's disaster in Henley suggests they are no longer listening to Brown because they have already made up their minds about him. Ominous.

Proof, if proof were needed, of David Davis's sage wisdom. If you want a clear, unambiguous message from the people of Britain, hold a by-election.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

I mean, seriously? Seriously?

So, apparently religion plays a biggish part in American politics. This has come to the fore most recently when an apparently well-respected and influential preacher, one James Dobson, took it upon himself to criticise Obama's understanding of the Bible.

(Specifically, Dobson was criticising a speech Obama made two years ago. It's here. What's astonishing is that this is namby-pamby watered down quasi-atheism in the US, but sounds to me like it came from the Daily Mail:

"But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square...So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.")

Shuggy covers the story here, and makes some insightful theological points about the extent to which Christianity can ever claim to have a political role - points far more intelligent and civilised than what you're about to read here. He also summarises Dobson's politico-theology:

smack your weans whilst condemning homosexuality and other abominations and think to yourself you wouldn't be having half of these goddam discipline problems if we could have prayer in schools.

On the off-chance that anybody might believe this foul canard, I thought I should put the record straight with a few choice quotes from the man himself:

On Homosexuality
"Homosexuals are not monogamous. They want to destroy the institution of marriage. It will destroy marriage. It will destroy the Earth."

On 9/11
However, rather than trying to forge a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the terrorist attacks and America’s abandonment of biblical principles, which I think is wrong, we need to accept the truth that this nation will suffer in many ways for departing from the principles of righteousness. "The wages of sin is death," as it says in Romans 6, both for individuals and for entire cultures.

On bringing up your son to be a real man

"[T]he boy's father has to do his part. He needs to mirror and affirm his son's maleness. He can play rough-and-tumble games with his son, in ways that are decidedly different from the games he would play with a little girl. He can help his son learn to throw and catch a ball. He can teach him to pound a square wooden peg into a square hole in a pegboard. He can even take his son with him into the shower, where the boy cannot help but notice that Dad has a penis, just like his, only bigger."

The words. In my hour of greatest need, they have failed me.

Cruel, cruel world

Recent global financial upsets have generated there fair share of hard-luck stories from around the world - families reduced to one bowl of rice per day, and so forth. That's obviously pretty tragic, but sometimes it's difficult to really care about people who live such different lives, whom you'll never really meet. Here though, is one story which absolutely wrenches the heartstrings: how a well-loved and charming women - one who had served her country, no less - finds the wolf well inside the door and making inroads on the vestibule thanks to the disloyal and selfish actions of a once-trusted employee. Read, and weep.

"...her late husband's diplomatic pension of £12,000 a year...She is the beneficiary of a trust fund which owns the house, but the trustees only give her £650 a month...Lady Killearn also has a country is rented out for weddings, but the income - after upkeep is paid - is enough to pay only for her car and the occasional chauffeur."

And all this under a Labour government. For shame.

Sadly, there are no details of the emergency fund to which even now you are clamouring to donate whatever you can afford. All I can give you, in a less worthy cause, is this.

I hope you've been keeping up with your Will Self reading list, kids, because this site will donate free rice to the World Food Program if, and only if, you score highly in a vocab test. What kind of sick mind could even conceive of such a scheme?

It's not all bad though. It gets pretty tough but brilliantly, there a fair few entries where their definition is clearly wrong. How good is that? In one fell swoop, you can
a)stroke your altruism
b)show off more or less meaningless knowledge
c)be a complete smart-arse

It's like they saw me coming.

Monday 23 June 2008

Now you're just being silly

Some questions for you:

1) Who is the world's top intellectual?

2) What the hell does that question even mean?
3) How could we answer it?
4) Why should we care?

Prospect magazine have had a stab at 1) and 3) recently; they should have thought more about 3). Their online poll, for God's sake, was widely publicised in Turkey, which has possibly skewed the results. I know what you're thinking - who could have predicted a skewed response to an open online poll? Well, not Prospect: "Prospect's editor, David Goohart, admitted to not having previously heard of Gülen and said his supporters had 'made a mockery' of the poll."

"Made a mockery"? Of an online poll? An epistemic methodology slightly less likely to reflect reality than "She loves me, she loves me not?" How would that even be possible? In any case, if Goohart has some good reason to believe that Gülen is not the world's top intellectual, why the hell did he need to run a poll? Wouldn't it be great if the editor of "the most intelligent magazine of current affairs and cultural debate in Britain" had just come out and said:

"This meaningless exercise failed to reflect my own opinion, so I'm disowning it forthwith."

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Damn, they're good

Limber up your flag-waving arms, my friends - our brave boys have won another crushing victory against the forces of evil.

But it's not all good news. These Taliban johnnies may have a bit of a blind-spot when it comes to ethics, but they're top-hole at organic chemistry:

Officials believe the area - near to the Taliban stronghold of Quetta in Pakistan - was turning dried cannabis leaves into heroin.

Why are we fighting these guys when we should be hiring them to make petrol from sand?

Friday 13 June 2008

How not to have a national debate

Let's assume, for the moment, that David Davis is completely sincere: his only interest is in provoking a national debate, because the 68% of people who disagree with him need to have their eyes opened to the truth. Does he have a point?

The national (as opposed to parliamentary) debate on 42 days hasn't exactly showcased our collective grasp of complex issues. Media cheerleaders on either side haven't had to present much more than slogans: "Terrorists will eat your baby!" vs "Our liberties are sacred!" The specific proposals have barely got a mention - the role judges will play, Parliament's position as final arbiter, the evidence threshold required. This may be a reflection merely of my own woeful ignorance, but I don't recall seeing these thrashed out on Newsnight.

Instead, the focus has been on the tangential: What will this mean for Brown? Is he merely seeking to push the Tories onto weak ground for the general election? Do Labour MPs feel safe enough to rebel? Could this have been the end of the Brown government? Some of this is quite interesting in itself - insofar as it draws attention to the compromises inherent in a parliamentary system - but it's hardly the main issue. We haven't had a focus on the question of whether 42 days, as proposed by the government, is right or wrong.

So I can see that Davis feels cheated of his debate. I even agree that it's important to have one. But when he's running against Kelvin Mackenzie, who's quite happy to play to the peanut gallery ("The Sun has always been very up for 42 days and perhaps even 420 days.") I think he's going to be a little disappointed.

Thursday 12 June 2008

Standing on principle

What the hell is going through David Davis's tiny, tiny mind? Here's his version:
"I want Labour to debate this pre-eminent issue. If they think we are soft on terror, or my arguments don't run with ordinary people, then turn up at the byelection and prove it. If they don't come, we will have the campaign anyway, and find people to argue both sides of the debate."
Some things he might have missed:

1) Labour just did debate this pre-eminent issue. In the House of Commons. He was there. Next, it's going to the Lords. Then it'll be back in the Commons. That's Parliament for you. By-elections are, on the whole, somewhat less representative of the nation.

2) What exactly will winning this by-election (5000 majority, nearest rival not running) do? Force the Commons to reconsider? Does contempt for the sovereignty of Parliament really fit with his new role as champion of our freedoms, or has he not grasped that 1 is considerably less than 646?

3) Does he realise just how little 99% of the nation cares about any given by-election? Not at all would be a good first-order approximation.

4) Does he think he's at a school debating society? "We'll find people to argue both sides" - and then hey - we'll do the show right here! Presumably, if he can't find people to act as sparring partners it'll be a dramatic indictment of the weakness of the government case and not, say, a queasy unwillingness to take part in the David Davis Debatorama.

Finally there's this:
"There is a huge imperative to get the public engaged on this issue and get beyond the soundbites. Last week there were polls showing 68% in favour of the government's policy. That 68%could not have understood or read the policy, so the only way to break through that is to get a serious debate going in a one issue byelection."
If people disagree with me, the only explanation is that they're ignorant, or stupid. I mean, what's the point of democracy when people keep getting it wrong?

Sunday 8 June 2008

24 hours to save the world

Last Thursday was Environment Day. Those of you who missed it can relax and light up those outdoor patio heaters - you're off the hook till next year. Good thing the environment only needs 24hrs attention per annum, isn't it?

Of course that's dreadfully unfair - the whole point of Issue Days is to get some focused PR and maybe get people to start thinking about what they're going to different. Much like we all Made Poverty History by having just the most fantastic party two years ago - a lot of consciousness raised that day! But if you're sceptical about the effect of these exercises, be of good cheer. For there is another, ineffable but ineluctable process that will, as it always has, guide us into a better tomorrow. I refer, of course, to the invisible choke-chain of the market which cannot help but drag us into a greener, richer world.

So, as I understand it, goes the theory. A theory which is propounded, I find, mainly by people who don't want anybody, especially the government, to actually do anything about the problem. And as if proof of this theory were needed, just look at how the people of Britain have responded to the rising fuel prices. The prediction is that, cuffed and beaten by the invisible hand, we will now turn to cheaper alternatives. In practice, we've merely whined like kicked puppies. I can't find the clip on the Beeb, but there was a news report which first showed honest citizens blaming the government for the cost of their journeys, and then cut to a shot of crowded motorway. But not all that crowded - one lane was completely vacant. No prizes for guessing that the empty lane, next to which hundreds of cars were grinding their way past, was marked "2+ Car Pool Lane Only". Oh yeah, we're feeling the pinch all right.

The point is that we don't really know what our margin of error is here. There is some price of petrol that will get (say) 50% of people to halve their annual transport CO2, but we don't know how high that price is. And until there's clearly money to be made from providing alternatives (because people are spending money on them), there's no incentive to invest in making them. This, pace market fundamentalists (or bello if you're feeling bolshy), is where the government comes in. In one arena, by relatively crudely interfering with the market by e.g. taxing petrol and subsidising alternatives. In another, through behavioural economics, by encouraging people to value greener options more - putting the general case, explaining the benefits of specific schemes. For example, ostentatiously worthy and generally naff as it seems, by having an Environment Day.

Thursday 5 June 2008

For you Tommy, the war is not quite over

Say what you will about the Luftwaffe, at least they're tenacious

UPDATE: It's OK! The Cavalry are coming!

It feels like the beginning of a movie - WWII II: Zombie Apocalypse. If anyone turns up a revenant in a Spitfire, start running and don't look back.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

Moving pictures

When I found this, my first thought was to slap it up on the blog and let you all* have a good laugh.

As a melange of distortions, misrepresentations and downright nonsense goes, it's pretty damn funny. My two favourite quotes:

"We've already swallowed the wedge. Where does it go next?" Some guy

"It seems there are some people in this country who can't tell the difference between self-defence and malice aforethought." Tony Martin

But there's more to this than simply a chance to sneer at both gun-nut Americans and Countryside Alliance buffoons. I found this on a US messageboard, where some guy was asking Brits to verify what is apparently a hot story on the right-wing blogs. These blogs are very popular, and are very good at passing around "stories" like this - which then make the phase-change to unkillable chain-email. But it cuts both ways - check this out:

It's quite good, isn't it? Well-researched (as far as I can tell), nicely put together, gets its point across. But it's not the sort of thing (as far as I've found) that you get much of over here. Freemania and Don Paskini can and do create similar content but (forgive me) not with quite the impact that video has. YouTube right now is filthy with political commentary of all stripes, and will no doubt become more mired in the stuff as we edge towards November. My point is that this is all pretty cool. People are already tuned in to the grammar of TV; that motivated but otherwise unremarkable people can use it to communicate their own ideas and agendas (however ill-founded) has real potential for widening the scope of political debate above the usual palace intrigue/office gossip/punch and judy stuff that we get all too often from the professionals. As I understand it, professional US news/comment hasn't even begun to look critically at John McCain - how soon before the above critique gets play on CNN?

Case in point - Hopi Sen, who I was going to name-check above until I read this bit - is asking how he can do straight to camera pieces on his blog. I hope he finds out.