06 December 2010

Is the awarding of World Cup 2022 to Qatar a Zionist plot?

There has been much disquiet expressed over FIFA's decision to award the 2022 World Cup finals to Qatar. The New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan even goes as far as to call it Qatarphobia.

And in the same week that saw the usual idiocracy suggesting that Wikileaks' latest information dump is all part of Israel's undue influence on world affairs, I'm amazed that there haven't also been calls to boycott Qatar 2022 because of this:

Perhaps the conspiracy theorists are too busy finding the sweeper system to be suspiciously cosmopolitan. Or something.

02 December 2010

Things They Said Will Kill Or Destroy Us But Haven't.

When I was a younger, more scared, less intellectually developed man (and we're talking about a period that lasted well into my thirties, mind) I thought that the ability to ban something was an important tool in the progressive box. So many things were so obviously "bad"; their prohibition, so unchallengeably good.

I think that the only thing I have ever directly been a part of trying to get banned myself was Holocaust denial literature from my university's library. An act of which I am profoundly ashamed. Not because I'm now of the opinion that well, yes, 6 million does seem a little bit high, now you come to mention it. But because a) the idea that my fellow students would overnight become neo-Nazis based on reading such works was absurd and offensive, and b) even if they did, I had the arguments ready to deploy in defence of the truth.

I was reminded of my childishness in such matters by my own short post on Monday on the putting away of childish things, by @johnrentoul's highlighting of Richard Thaler's things we used to believe but were wholly wrong, and by this article about anti-comic book campaigner Fredric Wertham.
These also got me thinking about all the objects or media or ideas or cultural phenomena that have have been, in my lifetime at least, the subject of moral panic or dire warnings about adverse effects on health, life and civilisation as we know it. 

They all, of course, turned out to be either completely safe or passing fads or a lot less fatal and dangerous to Western society than "predicted".

So. I'm starting a list of Things They Said Will Kill Or Destroy Us But Haven't (TTSWKODUBH). Please add your own in the comments below.

#1 Tamagotchis...
...were going to disrupt classrooms, and turn children into gambling addicted, emotional wrecks.

Last seen: interesting only elderly, obsessive collectors. And NEITHER disrupting classrooms NOR turning children into gambling addicted, emotional wrecks.

#2 Mobile phones...
...were going to give us all (especially the young) brain tumours and other types of cancer.

Last seen: forming part of a Teenage Cancer Trust survey about cancer myths. And NOT causing cancer. Especially not amongst the young.

#3 Harry Potter...

...was going to turn children into occultist satan worshippers, gathering in covens to practice witchcraft and wizardry, rather than doing their trigonometry homework. 

Last seen: Hmm. Not sure. Might be a new film out or something, I think. Anyway. Trig homework is still getting done. With slide rules*, not wands.

*Yeah, alright. Calculators.

The Girl With The New Statesman Blog.

Just saying.

30 November 2010

Erin Boag will certainly have her work cut out.

I wonder what ballroom-enthusiast-turned-cabinet-minister Vince Cable is really like on the dancefloor? Will he, on the Christmas special of "Strictly", be a twinkle-toed, terpsichorean genius? Or will his footwork and lines be as clunking and shapeless as a Lib Dem activist's winter wardrobe?

Not that I'm one to judge. Until the BDC introduce an indie-dance section (feet together, love, keep the head-bowed, WATCH YOUR ARMS DON'T LEAVE YOUR SIDES DURING THE DOWN BEAT ACCENTS!), it is unlikely to be worth my while squeezing into a sequinned jumpsuit at the Winter Gardens. 

I just wouldn't feel able to commit to the choreography. But, Vinny, my friends, also has commitment issues.

As I type, students, schoolchildren and various aggro-seekers are out on the streets, keeping warm in the snow by shouting about tuition fees (and offering up suggestions for viable alternatives*) and scampering away from the police. 

(I don't mean to be too dismissive here. I'm just jealous that student protests in my day were far, far duller affairs. On one occasion I was even a steward on some NUS march against something, wearing a reflective waistcoat and showing due concern when a fellow undergraduate started getting a bit provocative with a placard. I mean, that's nothing to tell the grandkids, is it?)

Anyway, as the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills, the person most directly responsible for the piece of legislation that is inspiring all this running about is one Rt Hon Dr Vincent Cable MP.  Whatever your views on increased tuition fees, then, you may not feel it unreasonable to expect that he will be voting for it himself. In fact, to even entertain the thought of not taking a stroll through the aye lobby on this one would be, to say the least, a most courageous decision on his part:



On Sky he went a little further, having the good grace to admit that he does at least have a "personal inclination" to vote for the policy.

Let's hope he does not bring such attitudes to his yuletide rhythmic lark with Kiwi hoofer Erin Boag. For it is one thing to duck responsibility for unpopular fiscal measures; quite another to place the onus on your dance partner for a cross-body lead.

*Not really.

29 November 2010

Childish things.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child that A New Hope was the best Star Wars film; but when I became a man I put away childish things and understood that The Empire Strikes Back was by far the most superior of the trilogy.

RIP Kersh.

26 November 2010

No it isn't.

From today's Guardian letters:
Interesting that 29 April was also the date on which Adolf Hitler married Eva Braun (Royal wedding, 25 November).
But it's nice to see Godwin's Law fulfilling its potential for memetic evolution.

17 September 2010

Lessons From The Guardian Letters Page Module #2 - nothing is so bad that Israel isn't worse - homophobia's OK as long as it's about celebrities - and (in the interests of fairness) one great piece of TV trivia.

One thing that certain elements of WWUTCTL excels at is taking any controversial issue/person/organisation/nation and making some tortuous link to Israel in order to supposedly demonstrate that however bad that issue/person/organisation/nation is, it is not as bad as Israel because Israel is the worst thing ever:
I share the criticism of the Catholic church and Pope Ratzinger made by Stephen Fry (Letters, 15 September). But I wonder if they would extend their stance to rejection of state visits by other heads of theocratic states guilty of gross human rights abuses (Iran, Israel)?
Anybody familiar with the history of the Middle East would struggle to deny a religious aspect to some (but only some) of what Israel does. As is the case with countries in Europe. And America. And Africa. Oh, and Asia, too. To deduce from this a nasty theocracy in action is absurd. To give it equivalence with totalitarian Iran is the sort of unabated willful stupidity that you only see exercised by really, really clever people.

The sort of people who would sneer at others for making jokes about gay men being defined by their preference for a certain style of sexual intercourse, and the counter-productive state of our prisons.

Unless, the subject of the joke is a celebrity, in which case, apparently, it's perfectly OK for a woman to write:
Loads of men around 24/7 and cannabis supplied on demand (Wham! Michael jailed for eight weeks, 15 September). George Michael must think he's died and gone to heaven!
Don't get me wrong. Jokes about the unique - how you English say? - culture to be found in prison can be amusing. But to be amusing, jokes have to be funny, strictly speaking. And original. The unabridged version of that letter probably implored him to drop the soap in the showers.

More than that, though, would it have been published had it referred to a normal punter convicted of an offence who happened to be gay? Or if it had been written by a male correspondent about a lesbian celebrity off to Holloway nick?

Your report on Harley-Davidson's woes (Unions vote for deal that stops Harley motorbikes moving out of Milwaukee, 15 September) named the Fonz as a Harley-riding icon. Despite being a native Milwaukeean, he was more commonly seen on British bikes, including the Triumph 500 Trophy seen in Happy Days' opening credits. Perhaps he anticipated the company's future woes.
I might even have to respond, working in references to the five (yes, count 'em) Happy Days spin-offs.

16 September 2010

Can we ever really trust internet polling?

Apparently not, if the results of a new study published in Computers In Human Behaviour are to be believed.

Two academics from the Universities of Vienna and de Deutso (Bilbao) have found that we simply do not pay enough attention when filling out surveys on line.

Their UserActionTracer (UAT) may have been developed to check the seriousness with which participants took psychological data collection. But the behaviours they identified (such as 46% clicking through at a suspiciously fast rate) point towards weaknesses in all web-based surveys.

A neat summary of their findings is here.

14 September 2010

Neanderthal author captures geist of the ice zeit.

Working alone in his office in the Neander Valley, the greatest author of our and any other time, Jonathan Paintstone has finally completed his new cave drawing, entitled "Why Hunting Is All You Need And How The Choice To Gather Means We'll Never Progress Beyond The Altay Mountains".

The long-awaited follow-up to "Is It Getting Warmer Or Is It Just Me?" (which anticipated by a few weeks the beginning of the inter-glacial period) has been hailed as the Scrawl of the Pliocene-Quartenary.

The story revolves around an upwardly mobile Cro-Magnon couple, Sue and Jake, who move into a rundown area of Lascaux in anticipation of it gentrifying as it attracts ever more reasoning sub-species of Homo sapiens.

On the surface, Sue and Jake are happy, but there is a strong undercurrent of misery and dissatisfaction in their lives thanks to the onset of the Modern Stone Age. 

Unable to cope with their new found freedom - to bury their dead intentionally, worship fertility, appreciate art for aesthetic sake, and apply basic principles of nursing to the sick and wounded - they forget to keep breathing and disappear up their own backsides (surely "sometime around the mesolithic age" - Ed.).

Barney and Betty Rubble said:

"We, too, used to be happy, simply breaking down mammoth hides with flat-backed tools. But since they opened the Bedrock Bowling Alley and we had that pigosaurus waste disposal installed, our lives have been hell. And you should have seen what buying a woodpecker that plays gramophone records off its beak did for Fred and Wilma's marriage."

10 September 2010

Lessons From The Guardian Letters Page Module #1 - how the real problem with the world is that there just aren't enough anti-bourgeois, anarchistic, surrealist, cultural anti-war movements anymore.

The Guardian letters page, etymologists of the future will conclude, was what the phrase "beyond parody" was invented to describe.

On 8 September, it published this

I'm horrified that Martin Kelner (Screen Break, Sport, 6 September), in quoting the theme song from Bonanza, omitted "da da" before the final "dum". He should leave this kind of thing to us music lovers.

A little arch, perhaps, but amusing and admirably brief. This isn't what I'm talking about.

But this, today's response to it, is:

We shouldn't lose sleep over a dropped "da da" from Bonanza (Letters, 8 September), but focus instead on the absence of Dada in our modern world. This creative movement was founded in 1915 to highlight the horrors and pointlessness of the first world war. Sadly, the movement lost its way during the 1920s. Would "A Journey" have chosen a different path, and how many thousands of lives would have been saved, had Dada still been alive in 2003?

At least it, too, is brief.

Or am I missing the point? Perhaps it is parody. And I'm the one being a po-faced, joyless, obsessive, pretentious, tortuous, tedious, ahistorical, esoteric waste of pixels.

Wouldn't be the first time.

08 September 2010

"Where they burn books...

While the Ground Zero Mosque is not a mosque and isn't at Ground Zero, the controversy has now thrown up another poorly named building in the form of the Dove World Outreach Center.

If the title is supposed to suggest peace and understanding throughout our sceptred globe then I think they might have lost sight of their mission a little, with plans for an international Burn The Koran Day. 

As someone who can both breathe and think at the same time I don't really like seeing any books burned, banned or censored in any way. 

I've never read the Koran in its entirety. Though this is pretty much as I understand it: religious text claiming to be the word of God through direct revelation or via the representations of agents, containing some ethical and moral guidance that transcends time and remains pertinent, and some other stuff that fails to take account of contemporary values and expectations. 

Not unlike the Old and New Testaments which have also, at various times, found themselves interpreted to inspire and justify extremist acts.

However, such acts are not in and of themselves religious and are certainly not so in their consequences. Rather, they are political.

The motivations of those who carried out 9/11 had far more in common with communism and fascism than with any theological insight.

Unless I'm missing something. So rest assured, Pastor Terry Jones! Fear not, good congregants of the DWOC! Your planned actions have inspired me. 

On 9/11 this year, I will, as always remember those who died on that day and in the conflicts which followed. Anyone who knows me will know the sincerity of this and that nothing I would do could ever be intended to disrespect them. And with that in mind, I'm also going to buy, rather than burn, a Koran, and read it, and learn a little more.

Buy A Koran Day. Can anyone suggest the best English translation?

Is this the worst political metaphor ever?

Political wit is a tricky business and one of that discipline's subsets is especially difficult: the employment of a memorable metaphor or similie to illustrate a particular controversy.

In 1992, Dennis Skinner sought biblical inspiration for his assertion that sterling rejoining the ERM would be akin to 

"a dog returning to its vomit".

I seem to remember the leader of the then-MSF union, Roger Lyons, describe Michael Portillo's 1994 promotion to Secretary of State for Employment as 

"like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank".

Simple points, well made. But cliches, even then. Which is perhaps why politicians attempt new comparisons in the search of that sharp piece of argument-closing rhetoric.

Do think it through first, though. Otherwise you end up, like Lib Dem Treasury Spokesman Lord Oakeshott, saying this sort of thing (of the appointment of Bob Diamond as Barclay's new Chief Executive):

"you don't put the chief croupier in charge of the casino".

Err. Yes, you do. A chief croupier's job is, amongst other things, to make sure that all the gambling is being carried out within the rules. He or she will understand risk, probabilities and financial irregularity better than most.

If anything, we should be encouraging career-changes from The Strip to the Square Mile.

11 August 2010

Sharp elbows and slippery slopes: the problem with 'nudging'*.

It has finally leaked out that Number Ten have established a rather Orwellian-sounding behavioural insight team, or "Nudge Unit" (registration).

While recognising its limitations, it's fair to say that I'm a little more than agnostic about the so-called "nudge agenda". The ideas that continue to emerge from the fields of social psychology and behavioural economics can support our daily interactions with each other and our personal professional development. Businesses have felt the benefit of the analyses provided by the likes of Robert Cialdini and others.

We're not, however, all going to become Derren Brown - and the State certainly isn't - by reading a few self-improvement books (for that's basically what we're talking about here). Even if, beyond the illusory elements of his act, there are some easily replicable examples of nudging that may have an everyday application:

If you like that sort of thing.

Does all this mean that government should be pursuing policy goals by seeking to influence and persuade individuals to take certain courses of action based on these "libertarian paternalist" principles?

Liberal concerns focus on the abuse of the term "irrational" to describe human behaviour (as Tim Worstall and Stuart Derbyshire explain). While the scope for greater individual freedom within any government initiative is welcomed.

Those of a more social democratic bent can be more comfortable with such attempts to find a balance that provides the maximum utility for society while retaining free choice.

Most importantly, the question of who decides what is best (and how), before designing the relevant nudge, should interest us all.

Either way, it seems to me that any policy led by "behavioural insight" faces huge challenges if it is to be effective in the long-term. The danger is that it will either fail to have an enduring impact. Or evolve into direct compulsion.

The first of these is due to the very human nature that it seeks to exploit. As policies based on behavioural insight become more common and more obvious, people will become more aware that they are being nudged. What starts as a gentle, maybe barely perceptible, little push in the right direction, can start feeling like a very sharp elbow indeed.

Fig 31 of the Nudge Unit's new manual
had attracted much controversy

At this point, naturally rebellious streaks might kick in, as individuals seek to reassert sovereignty over themselves.

What happens then? Does the State start indulging in reverse-psychology with the citizen? Will Downing Street have to start endlessly gaming double, triple, quadruple bluffs in pursuit of the desired behavioural scenario? Or we will simply have to revert to more traditional regulation?

On the point about controlling the evolution of the process, those who are enthusiastic about policy led by behavioural insight need to explain how nudging can be prevented from slipping all too easily into compulsion. Anarcho-capitalist David Friedman points out that:
[It] depends on leaving the individual free, at no significant cost, to make the choice you don't want him to make. But if you don't want him to make that choice, it will be tempting to make it more and more difficult...to neglect to tell him that...the alternatives you don't want him to choose are available. There is thus a serious slippery slope problem, making it possible for libertarian paternalism to be used as the justification for government actions that end up as paternalism, or compulsion for other purposes.
He highlights the following from his own experience:
It was the beginning of my daughter's first year at college and the college sent us a bill, a list of charges and a total we were to pay. One of the items in the list, included without explanation, was ten dollars for the "Green Edge Fund"...it was a fund to subsidize environmental projects by students. It had been voted in the previous year—as an optional ten dollar per pupil payment.
"Optional" means that you don't have to pay. We sent in our check minus the ten dollars and I sent an email to the president of the College, pointing out that he was billing parents for money they did not owe. I received back an apologetic email from an administrator, explaining that the program was a new one and they had not yet gotten everything set up properly.
A month or so later I received a bill from the College for ten dollars. I wrote back...pointing out that they had billed me, and all other parents, for ten dollars we didn't owe.
A few weeks later, I received a second bill for ten dollars—shortly followed by an email from the administrator telling me that the matter had been taken care of and I could ignore the bill.
Recently, we got our bill for the second semester. It included a form for our daughter to sign and hand in during the first two weeks of the semester requesting a waiver of the charge for the Green Edge Fund.
The bill did not include any mention of the fact that the College had, in the previous semester, charged parents for some tens of thousands of dollars that they did not owe, nor any offer of a refund to any parent who wanted it.
It starts out as advice and through a mixture of bureaucratic incompetence and political motivation, it becomes compulsory. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with compulsion per se. It's just that it might be fairer and more honest if we started from that point in the first place.

But if the challenges of evolving compulsion and obsolescence can be overcome then a welcome for the behavioural insight team, and its attempts to work with the grain of human nature rather than against it, is due.

*As per the Grand Universal Blogging Clichés Directive, I hereby embed that Monty Python sketch in order to comply with Rule #94 concerning all posts dealing with the "nudge agenda":

30 July 2010

You don't have to be mad. But...

Theodore Dalrymple in today's Times (£) highlights the inflation in the official recognition of syndromes, manias and psychoses, as meticulously documented in and promoted by the ever-expanding Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Which got me pondering as to how the Labour Party leadership candidates are bearing up as we enter the thirteenth week of campaigning. With the DSM as my guide, I think I may have noticed a condition or five that point towards everyone needing to take a few days off:

an irresistible compulsion to jump on bandwagons

inability to stop mentioning one's regional provenance

a speech impediment presenting as tongue paralysis 
when asked a question about education

unavoidable anxiety experienced by those 
diagnosed as the frontrunner
(see also Heseltine Syndrome and Acute Portilloism) 

severe aversion to smaller than expected returns 
from the local party nominations


The good news is that most of these are reckoned to be seasonal disorders and that everyone should be cured by the 25th September.

29 July 2010

Insistent upon themselves: Peter Griffin, The Godfather and Compass

Five blog posts in and I finally get to mention Family Guy (what took you so long? - Ed) thanks to Compass - Direction for the Democratic Left.

Unfortunately, all AV clips of the relevant scene have been taken down but the script can be scrolled through here:

Get This Quote - Find more at TVLoop

When I first saw that, I didn't really know what "insists upon itself" meant. Then along comes Compass and pretty much offers the definitive insistence upon oneself by holding their own Labour leadership ballot.

As Luke asks, why?

Although it is all of a piece, I suppose. The superimposition of Compass-supporting MPs' pictures over the "A New Hope" title at their last conference. The employent of tautologies such as "existing incumbents". The giving of "primacy not to ends, but to means."

It all just, I don't know...insists upon itself.

But to be fair, just like Peter, we haven't seen the end yet.

28 July 2010

On the Che Guevara Information Super-Highway* with a Castroist Councillor

I really do try not to get too drawn in to circular debates in the comments sections of other people's blogs. No. Really. I do. But the peculiar obsession with Cuba held by the more Jurassic elements of What We Used To Call The Left (WWUTCTL) holds a particular curiosity for me as it led to one of the livelier Labour Party branch meetings I've ever been to.

The problem began when the Secretary tearfully described the joy he had felt at seeing the expression of wonder and gratitude on a Cuban child's face at being handed a state-funded textbook that was going to help her learn to read - an occurrence that was apparently unique to Cuban communism. When I asked if, once she had learnt to read, whether she would be allowed to read whatever she wanted, I was told that I was a sucker for American propaganda. As I was for pointing out the inconvenient truth about the island's human rights record.

One of my older comrades, for reasons that remained unclear, was especially proud that drugs traffikers got executed in Cuba. She then said that she wished she lived in Cuba. I said I was glad that I did not. At which point I was told that I had no right to comment at all, as I had never been to Cuba. Of course, this hastily introduced Rule Of Not Self-Righteously Ponitificating On Countries For Which We've Not Got The Passport Stamp did not apply to them and their international bogeymen in the Middle East and other parts of the world whose timezones remained as familiar as the moon's.

So a couple of weeks ago, I was grateful for the opportunity afforded by Councillor Terry Kelly to revisit the debate when he excitedly posted on his blog about how Fidel Castro isn't dead yet.

In response to which, I posted in the comments section, challenging the view of Cuba as a collective, progressive paradise. I was being awkward, true. Just because Cuba ranks 179 out of 194 in the UN Human Development Index for hosting an immigrant population doesn't necessarily mean that nobody really wants to live there. And maybe the 2.5 million tourists in 2009 really did go for the immersive revolutionary experience, rather than the sun, salsa, ropa vieja and mojitos before getting on the plane home.

Councillor Kelly then explained that any imperfections in Cuba's economy, society and legal system are due to the over-arching need to "defend the revolution".

Which, if you view the world through a Marxist-Leninist prism, is internally logical. But for the rest of us, it's just more of the moral relativism that infects WWUTCTL. You can roll out the "defence of the revolution defence", if you like. But you can't then claim to be universalist, internationalist or really all that socialist.

*#1 in a series of ongoing attempts to get a title, lyric or reference thereof from every Billy Bragg song into the post titles.

26 May 2010

The Tragi-Comedy of the Square

Yesterday, a lot of people were getting very excited about Parliament Square as police tried to enforce some sort of security and/or tidiness upon it.

As irritating as the sight of assorted members of What We Used To Call The Left (WWUTCTL) pitching tents, banners and placards on the Griswald's favourite London attraction is, I reckon Winnie, Abe, Dave, Ben, Jan, George, Edward and Pam might have benignly approved. (As Nelson is still alive, he can speak for himself). It's all very tame compared to the political upheaval of their days. And that is what is truly irritating about Democracy Village: its faux radicalism that typifies WWUTCTL. If there was any coherency to what these people were doing, their despoilment of a world heritage site might attract a tad more sympathy.

According to the Democracy Village website, this whole operation is a "peace strike". Hmm. A "strike", eh? Cool. Workers strike, don't they? Those horny-handed sons (and daughters) of toil. Betcha Dad's told you all about the miners' strike, hasn't he? Now that, that was a strike. And what the BA cabin crew are doing. Phew. That's almost too exciting to bear! Not only are they striking but, in the process, they are also grounding those CO2-spewing aeroplanes.

Hold on, though. Surely to be a strike, you have to be witholding something that that those whom you are striking against want. Now the ruling classes are a sensitive lot, I know. And I'm sure they'd prefer a nice, unobliterated view out of the windows of the Houses of Parliament while they quaff cognac from hollowed-out diamonds and gently caress the capitalist lap-dogs curled up in their Saville Row-tailored crotches. But refusing to be "not in Parliament Square" falls short of a proper strike, don't you think?

Fear not. I'm sure you've got a few other ideas up your sleeves. Like these three, who set out several yards from Democracy Village to drape a protest banner over Westminster Abbey:

Woah, woah, woah, woah. Wait a second. What's going on there? Soldiers home, please? PLEASE? Soldiers home bloody comma please?! There is no greater pedant than me. No one more admiring of the correct use of a punctuation mark. But are you demanding an end to a war which you insist is illegal? Or ordering breakfast? The woman leading this heroic act of peace even described it as "a little bit naughty". What is this? "Carry On Smash The Imperialist Conflict-Mongers"? I'm still not sure exactly what it is you're trying to achieve but I strongly suspect it might take more than being "a little bit naughty".

Help. Please. Help me understand. What's that? Ryan'll sort me out? I can just go along to the Information Stand? Lovely. Now we're going somewhere. I'm starting to get it. Democracy Village is the Ideal Campaigns exhibition. Will you guys be at Olympia, next year? Ryan won't, I'm sure. He'll still be too busy "worrying" about the war in Afghanistan. Pete Phoenix might be, though, as long as there are some suitable "network experiences" to be had.

"The most controversial speaker was a mouthpiece for the
Tories who encouraged us anarchists to register as such in
return for mind-altering substances. A few Villagers didn’t
seem to have a prior understanding of satire and became
quite riled at the ‘Tory’s’ opinions; one lady began shouting
about the Village being funded by oil and arms companies…
and the Israelis."

You can begin to understand when the original long-term Parliament Square protestor, Brian Haw, is said to be less than impressed with his new-found co-habitors. Though if he had a grasp of basic economic theory he would have known that this tragi-comedy was all very predictable. (We know he doesn't have a grasp of basic economic theory through his insistence that the Iraq War was all about the oil when everyone else knows it was about serving the interests of Jewish bankers*.)

Thanks to its unique location in the heart of our political district, Parliament Square can provide great publicity for an issue and the opportunity to communicate with decision-takers. If that opportunity is over-exploited, that provision is depleted. While individuals may benefit from their experience in Democracy Village, the cost - of incoherency, dissipated responsibility, inaccessibility, and counter-productive campaign tactics - is borne by all.

Through his strangely pointless but impressively stubborn nine-year long sit-in on the Square, Mr Haw has established its status as a shared resource for protest. Like all such resources, it has now become vulnerable to the Tragedy of the Commons.

*As this is a new blog and the web is full of lunatics, I rather suppose I should point out that this remark is what is tecnically known as "a joke".

25 May 2010

10 questions for the Labour leadership candidates

Dear Andy, David, Diane, Ed B, Ed M and John,

So you're all agreed that we've become "disconnected" from our "core vote". Break it down for me. What, or rather who, is our core vote?

Everyone's also quite clear that we need to "listen" more. Listening is good. But so is leadership. Is there any conflict between the aspirations of our core vote and those of the voters we need to attract (or attract back) to regain power? How would you balance this?

Specifically, one of the oft-cited reasons for the disconnection is our failure to satisfactorily address immigration. Is putting the case for immigration part of the solution here? If so, how would you articulate this?

More generally, do science and evidence-based policy-making play a large enough role in determining Labour's direction and ideas? If not, how would you ensure they do?

Let's imagine that it's the morning after the next General Election. Labour is in the same position that the Conservatives were on May 7th this year. You are standing pretty much in David Cameron's shoes and having to intiate coalition discussions. What are the main principles of negotiation in such circumstances? What is your experience of leading similar negotiations?

Alternatively, Labour win that election with an overall majority. It's minute one of your time in Downing Street. What's the first thing you announce? Or, in other words, why do you want to be Prime Minister?

Yours, in genuine curiosity,


11 May 2010

There is much in the Con-Lib programme that we can and should support - and much we can't and won't.

During my two decades of political activism, I had never got round to attending an election count. I put that right last week. And it was magical. Like a democratic technology at which those from a different era or political system might only wonder. 

As the papers spilled out, we could be sure that nobody had been physically threatened during their journey to and from the polling stations. No gangs had tried to disappear a ballot box or two. No bribes had been offered to (let alone taken by) those counting what had been cast. Relief that the campaigning was over mixed well with a certain pride that an election free and fair was culminating in the trays of neatly clipped papers piling up in front of us. The Sunday Times completely missed the point with an article fretting about the non-requirement of ID. Damn skippy we do not have to prove who we are to polling station staff. Long may it remain so.

It is easy to take for granted the pacifity with which one elected representative is chosen over others in our body politic. For while magical, it is no illusion. 

That said, I make no claim for our democracy as the optimal reflection of the collective choice, effortlessly creating a consensual vision of the future around which a cohesive national effort for unstoppable reform and progress is launched. For now, we find value elsewhere in the decisions taken on 6th May 2010 - and 1st May 1997, 3rd May 1979, 28th February 1974, 18th June 1970, 15th October 1964, 30th May 1951 and 5th July 1945. On these dates, incumbent governments were essentially given their notice by voters who wanted them out for reasons (both real and perceived) of incompetency, leadership failure, simple over-familiarity, or the alternatives being better. 

Political scientists talk of "change" elections. I think a better description is "safety valve" elections, in which frustration is expressed and then relieved. The choices made under such circumstances may not be postitive but they are no less significant for that.

Which is why as progressives we can feel disappointed with the General Election result but, on democratic principle, satisfied with the outcome of coalition talks. The people spoke. And their will has been alchemised into an administration.

Ultimately, renewing ourselves in government turned out to be nigh on impossible. In opposition it will be much easier but riskier. Our approach must be measured and pragmatic. This was no 1997-style wholesale rejection of a long-standing government but we did lose badly and the message has been clear: while there is much to be proud of in the indisputable progress of the last 13 years, there is also room for contrition and some in-hindsight recognition of when we got it wrong. Equally, there is much in the Con-Lib programme that we can and should support - and much we can't and won't.

The Left's rather odd (and one would think contradictory) propensity for reactionary and elitist responses has already been glimpsed in the Take Back Parliament campaign. What if the electorate made the right choice? Not "right" as in what we agree with. "Right" as in what people felt about the parties, their leaders and the policies. Just because the Lib Dems didn't do as well as you hyped hoped, does not mean that the election was "broken".

We are already in danger of tying ourselves up over process and nurturing a resentment of what ordinary men and women think while real opportunities to influence pass us by. Choosing a different direction over the coming weeks will ensure that our experience of being out of power this time is for years, maybe months, rather than decades.