31 December 2011

Whoops, there goes another year. Whoops, there goes another pint of beer.*

Time to look back on last New Year's Eve's predictions for 2011:

Multiple Lib Dem defections? Yep.

A Mumsnet Revolution? Nope. But this could be the year if they get the right issue. And they've certainly added to their clout in 2011.

Lobbying scandal? Yep, yep-ish, and sort of.

Successful use of Judicial Reviews? Yep. (And I was wrong to suggest that they are not a legitimate alternative to persuasive campaigning).

Campaign groups emphasising what they're for? Well, I meant that one sarcastically, obviously, so yep, again, in that they mostly remained negative. There were some impressive and positive campaigns, but the most headline-grabbing one, Occupy LSX, was just a big whinge which ended when things got a bit nippy.

So what does next year have in store? I'm only making one prediction. It's a long-shot, but here goes:

This time next year, we'll be living under a Tory minority government.

There's a possible confluence of just enough issues and incidents to make this happen as Cameron is dragged to the right by his Party, and Clegg to the left by his. Starting with Chris Huhne's resignation when the CPS decide to go ahead with prosecution over the alleged transfer of speeding points.

Anyway, time for that beer. We're off to The Wedding Present gig at Dingwalls.

Have a great start to 2012, everyone. Thanks for reading and commenting in 2011. See you after the jump.

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

28 December 2011

Mission Accomplished? Why UK Uncut's battle is only just beginning.

The most appropriate quote with which to start this post (covering, as it shall, matters of hubris) is probably the warning given by Harvey Keitel, playing Winston Wolf, in Pulp Fiction:

But what I have been most reminded of in the last few days, by the mutual backslapping amongst Occupy, UK Uncut and their various cheerleaders, is this:

The battling Sunny Hundal has now demanded repentance from those of us who have been less than respectful about UK Uncut's intentions and effectiveness. Apologies are now to be laid at the altar of direct action because the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons has published a report confirming what everyone knew: there is an enormous great load of cash in dispute between Her Majesty's Customs and Revenue, and some large companies. HMRC say a hefty old chunk of this cash is due in tax. The companies disagree.

Campaigners are claiming that this happened because an activist base has, at various times over the last year or so, sat on steps outside St Paul's. Or in shops. Or in banks. Or in Parliament Square. The awareness which this raised has, according to their arguments, led to this unstoppably revolutionary moment: a Parliamentary committee agreeing that there is something to argue about.

Let's leave aside the possible post hoc ergo propter hoc fallaciousness of this. I have never doubted that, to quote Margaret Mead, a small group of committed, thoughtful citizens can change the world. Sometimes campaigning and protesting is raindancing. Sometimes it really is the only way to start change. Sometimes it's a complex mixture of both.

However, I would be more willing to accept the UK Uncut/Occupy claims of "Victory!" if they had at any point proposed (or simply foreseen) the crucial role that they now claim PAC is playing.  Indeed, haven't these people spent a great deal of time and rhetoric claiming quite the opposite? Aren't they usually somewhat contemptuous of Parliament and its MPs? Almost, in fact, violently opposed to this sort of democracy? Well, its good to see them falling in with us brainwashed masses who think that national, representative forums are still the best way to address issues.

My second problem is that those blogging a jig over the alleged success either completely ignore the other factors that have made up the campaign, or subvert these factors as secondary to the direct action.

The Guardian's John Harris is particularly at fault here. After three and a half paragraphs of near-religious adulation for Uncut's shop occupations, he blithely mentions the judicial review process, led by the movement's off-shoot, UK Uncut Legal Action.

About this time last year, I unfairly mocked the possibility of campaign groups using judicial reviews. I was wrong to do so. They are a legitimate and effective form of activism. And, alongside the reporting from whistleblowers and other journalistic investigations, have been the real reason why PAC started taking on the issue of the tax disputes - in July. Mr Harris seems to be arguing that the money to support the judicial review process would not have been raised if it were not for the storming of the High Street. That seems a particularly blunt way to fundraise in the age of internet-based, small total, large volume donations. So far, UK Uncut Legal Action has raised £13,000. That's not to be sniffed at but it hardly suggests a mass, sustainable campaign that has brought people with it on their revolutionary journey. 

Not that it matters: the lawyers working for UK Uncut are doing it on a no-win, no-fee basis, anyway. Money may be needed if they lose (not that anyone in Uncut even considers their arguments anything other than 100% correct) but it's not needed at the moment.

So what do we have to show so far for a year and a bit of occupations and demos? A select committee report agreeing that there is an issue (which everyone said there was anyway); and a small amount of money raised (that isn't needed).

Forgive me if I'm not kitting out the cellar with everything needed for a life post-capitalism, quite yet.

But don't be disheartened, Mr Harris and Mr Hundal have other successes to point to. 

First, Sunny is grateful for support from what he believes to be an unusual quarter:
But no one had ever tried to raise public awareness of corporate tax avoidance in this way before, and certainly no one had got the Daily Mail on side on it either. Only UK Uncut managed that.
Any student of media or politics should be wholly unsurprised by the Daily Mail joining in here. It's entire business model is predicated on reducing complex issues to a a single headline or slogan, pushing opinion as fact, ignoring countervailing arguments, and generating mock outrage based on self-generated half-truths. As an old-fashioned lefty sort, I'd be very wary if the Daily Mail took up a campaign of mine. The "new left politics", apparently, revels in it.

Harris goes even further with his welcome to new, supposedly surprising, allies:

First, there is the small matter of Occupy LSX's achievements: sending the Church of England into such a spin that Rowan Williams suddenly had to align it with what he termed "deep exasperation with the financial establishment"; prompting no end of coverage of the byzantine Corporation of London; and playing a huge role in the pushing of a host of issues around equality that began to snowball in the culture from mid-October onwards.
You're kidding, yeah? The time when the CofE could be described as "The Tory Party At Prayer" is long past. In the last 20, arguably 30, years it has jumped on every populist, trendy liberal bandwagon that's passed down Great Smith Street. Especially so under Rowan Williams. Of course, none of this desperate issue-chasing has had anything to do with declining church attendances. Oh, no. They've all been faith critical, of course. Sharia law, Middle East conflict, republicanism, 'broken Britain', positive discrimination, paganism, ecology, international development. Have I missed anything? If I were John Harris, I'd have been worried if Lambeth Palace did not align with UK Uncut and Occupy. But unsurprised when it did.

The point on City of London transparency is a better one and has the potential for a popular, constructive campaign. But just as it was beginning to gain momentum, Occupy overplayed their hand, mixing sensible proposals for local government reform in the Square Mile, with silliness such as a "truth and reconciliation commission" (lack of perspective, much?) and claims the Corporation is above Parliament.

My favourite bit of his eulogy to Occupy, though, is this:
For sure, their self-comparisons to the rebels of Tahrir Square can easily grate.
To which I would only like to add:
For sure, a Guardian journalist's support for anti-tax avoidance campaigns on the pages of a newspaper owned by a company that practises tax avoidance can easily grate, too.
But I digress.

He ends with a call to "highlight failures which are truly systemic" and to promote them to even greater prominence. 

Highlight. More prominence. Yawn. It is way past time for this phase of the campaign.

The danger now for UK Uncut and its network is that even the argument on tax avoidance can still be lost, despite The Great Leap Forward of the PAC report. As the Committee's inquiry progresses, Uncut's targets will have their "day in court". The case for the defence of Vodafone, for example, has been well articulated here (and that's just one example). Nowhere has there been a rebuttal of points such as these. Nowhere has Uncut or Occupy truly engaged with the debate. They repeat - endlessly - their initial positions and beliefs. They offer little by way of constructive argument.

I certainly want to see the promotion of solutions that do more than take us back to a status quo ante. And I want to see an effective vehicle for radical and effective challenges to the mistakes that got us to where we are now.

But, on their current trajectories, neither UK Uncut nor Occupy will be it.

2011 has ended without one cut being reversed, and without any extra tax income being identified and collected. Is there any reason to assume that 2012 will be any different?

But what would I do? (Thank you both for asking).

Occupy: as you were. Seriously, don't change a thing.

Uncut: first, pray for warm weather and hope that Occupy will take advantage and continue the trend for trustafarian urban camping, with all the leaderlessness and nebulousness and general irritatingness that comes with it. That'll give you something to define yourself against from the other side and position yourself as a practical alternative, dealing with the effect of fiscal policy on real people's lives. 

That's the easy bit. To take advantage of that, you'll also have to better reflect the current debate. Maybe start by admitting your own mistakes (e.g. the attack on Barclays in February, which was an unfortunate misunderstanding of how business works, and was very off-putting). Then recognise that alongside the benefits of taxation and public spending, there are also costs (embodied in concepts such as tax incidence and the Laffer curve) and opportunity costs. You could even start discussing what sort of (whisper it) public sector reform could and should be taking place in our post-Credit Crunch world. This will all establish a context for negotiating in from your current unsustainable positions of rejecting each and every cut and wringing every last penny of possible tax from business. 

That's my (before tax) two shekels' worth, anyway. 

In short, the issues are coming of age. It's time UK Uncut were, too.

25 December 2011

The ruling class may oppress them...

...but to really hate the masses, that takes a Guardian reader:
Unlike readers of the Tory-owned press, we take the Guardian for opinions with which we can agree or disagree and make up our own minds based on facts provided elsewhere in the newspaper or other media.
I still find myself rendered speechless by such snobbery, despite it being commonplace amongst the Pretend Left.

07 December 2011

It's tough being a Guardian reader

From yesterday's Guardian letters page and the file marked "First World Problems": 
I put my cashmere elbow in the pot of hummus on the arm of my seat while watching the relay of Rodelinda from the Met last Saturday. There is reason why cinema food is traditionally dry – like popcorn and crisps (Should a cinema be a restaurant too?, G2, 6 December).
I hope some of those so-called anti-poverty campaigners have a whip-round for the dry-cleaning bill.

06 December 2011

Bell Pottinger's "magical" digital reputation team don't know how to use Google

I know it's missing the point about the murky claims made by the Bell Pottinger lobbyists* but as someone who has seen a number of these stings (one from quite close hand) over the last 13 years or so, I found this element particularly puzzling.

Tim Collins described David Wilson's digital reputation management team as "magical". Yet they appear to not be able to use Google properly.

The name of the fake client created by The Independent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism was the Azimov Group. If you put "Azimov Group" into Google, you get 57 results (at time of writing). Seven of which are links to The Independent story, or news aggregrators or blogs also covering the scoop. One of the pages is what appears to be a failed attempt to set up a page about the group on a Japanese Wikipedia-type site.

The Azimov Group's website is simply a holding page with a name, address and mobile phone number.

Now I know that the schtick was that it was a relatively unofficial, secret, clubby clique of business people. But seriously? Only 50 hits and it didn't start any alarm bells ringing? 

In the age of Wikileaks, Wikipedia and 24-hour crowd-sourced coverage of, well, just about everything, you found just 50 hits about an international investor group with links to a dodgy Central Asian regime and thought, yep, seems like it's all legit and not made up at all.


*FWIW, I do draw a distinction between what Collins, Richmond and Wilson claimed as an extreme form of marketing, and the actual truth of their influence. But what a way to earn a living. And I say that as somebody who has had a career in this field. Though always, I hope, knew where to draw the line. (Somewhere several thousand miles before cotton harvesting child labourers in Central Asia, by the way).

01 December 2011

Charisma community outraged at omission from BBC #SPOTY nominations.

People with personalities expressed outrage today after the BBC refused to re-open nominations for the 2011 Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY).

Leading figures in the charisma community have demanded that, next year, the public broadcaster casts a wider net amongst those journalists nominating the shorltist of 10.

Storm McDazzle, the editor of Twinkle In The Eye Quarterly, said:
"No one wants to take away from the achievements that this year's top ten have grindingly achieved while not over-stimulating anyone. But when all you have is the likes of people called things like Colin and Brian from little read organs such as Angling News and The Independent picking their favourites, then you're not going to have a very representative list".
Excitey De La Blonde, who was one of the first People-With-Personality to qualify for next year's Olympics, added:
"It's been nearly two decades since anyone who wasn't a monosyllabic, media-trained, yawn-merchant won BBC Sports Personality of the Year. To have no one on the list this time with even the slightest history of alcoholic capery or serial shagging is a major set-back for equality."
12 year-old Jody Rascal, a 12 year-old, has pleaded with the BBC to re-think:
"It's not easy growing up as a Charisma Positive young person interested in sport. We need our role models to help us overcome the prejudices we face from other kids whose parents think Tim Henman is a dangerous iconoclast."
A spokesman for SPOTY favourites, Jonathan Boring and Simon Boring (no relation), was asked for a response. After two Red Bulls and a packet of Pro-Plus, she lifted her head and said "Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz."

28 October 2011

Black is white, according to the Guardian. Well, orange is purple at least.

Let me start by saying that my frustration with the "Occupy" London protestors is that if they put their energy and idealism into promoting practical ideas to reform the cronyist brand of capitalism that abetted the economic crisis, rather than throwing a temper tantrum against the vaguely identified system as a whole, or obscure structures of local governance (talk about going from one extreme to the other), then we might get somewhere.

I am all for protesting about this sort of thing - but performance art (as Hopi has put it) isn't protesting.

"Occupy" are not helped in their detachment from reality by the cheerleading of the likes of The Guardian. Maybe I'm going a little mad or blind (or at least colour blind) but can someone explain this to me?:


The Guardian website heads this up with a claim that it proves that thermal imaging photography doesn't work when someone's in a tent and so all those pictures of purply-blue tents taken late at night do not mean that everyone's popped home for a shower, hot meal and to catch up with TOWIE, rather than comitting themselves whole-heartedly to the New Jerusalem.

Butbutbutbutbutbut....the tent turns orange doesn't it? Doesn't it? The activist pops inside for five seconds and the tent starts glowing orange, no? And as soon as she leaves, it stops, yes?  

It's like something out of Orwell. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. And orange is purple. Or maybe they should have captioned it with "All tents ARE purply but some are more purply than others".

And one other thing. Well done Anti-Capitalist Hero Woman on getting hold of some state-of-the-art technology, quickly and cheaply. I wonder what sort of socio-economic system might allow us all to do that?

What? Oh.

UPDATE: And yes, I agree, the original thermal photograph probably didn't prove very much about tent occupation as it was taken at 11 pm-ish when probably hardly anyone had gone beddy-byes. But its "Occupiers" themselves who have been quite open about the optional nature of the overnight stages of this adventure in urban camping.

The importance of punctuation

From Tuesday's London Evening Standard:

"Carey Mulligan collects an award for best supporting actress wearing a black Bottega Veneta dress with a spaghetti strap neckline".

I've no doubt that she deserves it, but the specificity of the award does rather undermine its value, no?

20 October 2011

How to make that perfect #bbcqt audience contribution.

The two-screen viewing trend (one eye on the box, one on Twitter) has reignited my enthusiasm for BBC Question Time. Although reading the #bbcqt stream can sometimes make you feel like a Georgian voyeur taking in the spectacle at Bedlam, the ability to express an immediate 140-character thought or two on proceedings rather helps relieve the urge to throw something hard and angular at the TV screen.

Maybe one day I'll even apply to be in the audience. You can sign-up online.

But there's no official guidance on how to ask a question or make a comment from the studio floor. As always, I'm here to help:

1. Affect mock outrage over the issue under discussion, preferably in a way that suggests you have lost all sense of proportion.

Tip: use the formulation (how dare/can [panellist] say/claim [opinion expressed]) + (when [large number] of [interest group] are [emotion/sufferance]).
Example: "How dare the minister claim that not every senior citizen needs a free bus pass while hundreds of thousands of pensioners are still angrily awaiting a hip replacement?"

2. Make an ideological non-sequitur.

Tip: if you're Pretend Left, then feel free to use "neo-con" and "neo-liberal" interchangeably (don't worry about the distinction) to describe anything that suggests a market solution; if you're right-leaning, then "Soviet" is a good catch-all for anything that might require the State taking an interest.
Example: "And if the government was really serious about helping people reduce roadworks in their communities then it shouldn't have imposed Soviet style targets on local councils, should it?"

3. Throw in a dubious personal anecdote.

Tip: make sure that the subjects are just far enough removed from you for you to plausibly deny any further knowledge if questioned.
Example: "My son's girlfriend was made redundant [while her boss was paid a massive bonus] / [when the Health & Safety shut down her office].

4. Confuse the rest of the audience.

Tip: put a left-wing thing at the start of the comment, then make a sharp right and throw in something out of that morning's Daily Mail letters page. Employ the other three techniques above, and you have what I like to think of as the Question Time Money Shot.
Example: "How can an MP that wants to take us back to the days of Thatcherism just sit there and criticise the millions, like the parents of the kids I teach, who rely on benefits to avoid starvation and who want to work but can't...because all the jobs have been taken by immigrants?"

If all goes well, it should inspire one of those weird half-cheer/half-boo rumbles that sounds like everyone simultaneously throwing up in their mouth a little bit.

05 September 2011

How to really campaign against idiots.

There's been oodles of grandstanding idiocy over the last few days. Some really superb examples for us curators of far-right and far-left dim-wittedness.

First, we had those who wish to boycott, apply sanctions against, and divest from Israel taking their cause to the heart of the Genocidal ZioNazi American-Imperialist Death Machine by disrupting a rendition of Webern's Passacaglia. (No, me neither. If it's not been used in a TV ad or over the opening credits of the coverage of a major sports tournament, then classical stuff rather passes me by).

Brendan O'Neill has best articulated the unease felt by non-idiots at this.

Second, we had the English Defence League's protest in Aldgate. We're all familiar with EDL grassroots idiocy but I do just want to highlight what a fancy-dress wearingnot-quite-identity-hiding, tabloid myth-believing idiot their leader is. 

And finally, we had so-called anti-fascists reflecting the EDL's idiocy straight back at them, and celebrating the physical assault of a woman while particularly delighting in the fact that she was ugly. I would love to be a fly-on-the-wall when "Ben" and "Anthony" (Ed: "Anthony's a bit bourgeois isn't it? Are you sure he's not a "Tony"?) are next in a meeting with their Unite Against Fascism branch's Women's Officer.

Some wish to respond to such behaviour with various bans. Others, with counter-demonstrations. I've sympathy with the thinking behind both tactics. But I don't like banning things. And I don't like to get drawn into endless cycles of banner waving, slogan chanting barricade-manning. I'd much rather undermine Pretend Left idiots and Really Right morons by annoying and humiliating them.

The Freakonomics guys recently highlighted the power of reverse incentives. African-American comedian and activist, Dick 'Greg' Gregory appears to have been the master of such an approach:
"Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant...then these three cousins come in, you know the ones I mean, Klu, Klucks, and Klan, and they say 'Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re going to do to you.' So I put down my knife and fork, and I picked up that chicken and I kissed it."
"I enjoyed campaigning with him, especially when a street hustler would sidle up and ask what he could do to help. Greg would laugh and say, 'really be something else if the rumor got out that Mayor Daley’s precinct captains were paying $20 a vote this year, then, when they come around with the usual $2, folks be so mad they run him out of town'."
Not forgetting:
"...a heckler in the back yelled, 'Nigger!' Greg said, 'Say that again, please. My contract calls for fifty dollars every time that word is used'."
The principle has been put to good effect in the US by the Pledge-a-Picket scheme which annually raises funds for a family planning centre by having people 'sponsor' every picketer at demonstrations outside its clinic. More recently, a comedian has ended up donating $50k to a gay health charity in the name of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Reading through the comments at Freakonomics also turns up Pennies in Protest:
With sites such as justgiving making it possible to get a sponsorhip scheme up and running quickly and easily, I think we all know what can be done next time the Palestine Solidarity Campaign decide to block a shop, or a neo-Nazi groupuscule busses itself into the East End.

We could even take demonstrators' own, and often massively exagerrated, estimate of how many people they managed to get to attend.

Would UJIA or Hope Not Hate be happy beneficiaries?

01 August 2011

What Vincent Hanna (not that Vincent Hanna) taught us about capital punishment. (And why it could undermine our jury system).

David Allen Green, Charon QC, Tim Worstall, Sam Butler and Jerry Hayes have already done a fine job dismantling Paul Staines's arguments for restoring capital punishment (and pointing out the dissonance of hearing such a vociferous campaign in favour from a leading libertarian).

I'll simply and humbly offer one further argument here, courtesy of Al Pacino, playing Lieutenant Vincent Hanna in Heat.

The 1995 film's plot pitches his team of detectives against Bobby (he lets me call him Bobby) De Niro's team of armed robbers. In an early scene, one of De Niro's new recruits goes freelance and unnecessarily shoots the guard of an armoured truck they're knocking over. Within seconds, the second guard and the driver are killed, too.

Hanna arrives on the scene with one of his 'tecs:
You recognize their MO?
Yeah. Their MO is that they are good. Once it escalated into a Murder One beef for all of them after they killed the first two, they popped guard number three 'cause it didn't make any difference anymore, so why leave a living witness? Drop of a hat? They'll rock and roll.
OK. So it's the movies and it's LA and it's squibs and blanks. Of course, the reality of murder is no less abhorrent but far less cinematic than that. But the macabre game theoretic strategy applied by De Niro and his crew was the right one given the options made available to them and the options they understood would be available to the other "players" in the criminal justice system.

So in a hypothetical circumstance where a victim has already been killed and others are still endangered, could capital punishment be not a deterrent, but potentially an incentive to commit further murders?

I'm happy to accept that such a scenario is so unlikely in reality as to be irrelevant in the formulation of justice policy - and that it is hardly ideal to base such policy on a Michael Mann screenplay.

But wildy extrapolating as I am from the imagination of the creator of Miami Vice, it does highlight how the noose/chair/needle does not really result in the outcomes that its proponents wish.

A better example is the suggestion that in a judicial system based on securing an argument beyond reasonable doubt, jurors are less likely to convict when they might be responsible for the imposition of the death penalty. Perhaps only incrementally so but enough to change the dynamic of our courtrooms.

In the US, the recognition of this has ended up undermining the very concept of trial by jury of one's peers. Thanks to the "death qualification" potential jurors are excluded from hearing capital cases if they are personally opposed to the death penalty:
"Today, in some California trials, that means nearly 40% of prospective jurors are excluded simply because of their qualms about the death penalty...the result of the process is a jury less inclined towards justice and more inclined towards conviction, no matter what the evidence shows."
Usually, Guido Fawkes and his supporters are (rightly) the first to rail against the Law of Unintended Consequences, and the ignoring of human nature, when ideological policies trump common sense and evidence. It is odd, to say the least, that this is not the case when dealing with the most important power the State can wield.

28 July 2011

A random thought on the Olympics.

Why isn't wheelchair racing in the Olympics? The actual Olympic Games. Why does it only take place under the auspices of the Paralympics?

If "foot cycling" is in the Olympics, why not hand cycling? If propelling yourself around a track or along a road by transferring power from your legs to wheels is one of the 39 disciplines, why isn't doing similar with your arms?

Spot the difference.

Look at it this way: if a world-class cyclist were to lose, say, a lower arm, but, with a prothesis, could still operate the handlebars, would they nonetheless have to start competing as a Paralympian? And if so, then why?

13 July 2011

The Laurie Penny Drinking Game

Younger readers may find this hard to believe but, not so long ago, the New Statesman was a source of serious news and commentary, widely read and admired; and interesting and brave in what it published. Two years off its centenary, it is barely recognisable from the magazine which, 13 years ago this week, and in the face of a wider media frenzy over an appalling child murder, made the right call on an innocent man (scroll to bottom of page).

Traditional news media have suffered depleted advertising revenues and leaky digital versions. The responses have varied. The Daily Mail gave up all pretence of being a newspaper a long time ago. The Times is now best known for its paywall. The Independent has had some (ahem) innovative journalistic practices. Similarly, certain tabloids. The Guardian is now defined by its Comment Is Free platform. 

Many outlets have turned to multi-contributor blogging as a means of driving traffic to their sites and recouping some of that lost advertising cash. The Spectator's success in this regard has not been without its problems but you can understand the New Statesman's attempts to emulate it over the last 14 months or so.

There are some impressively knowledgeable, genuinely witty and refreshingly insightful bloggers such as Dan Hodges, David Allen Green, Steven Baxter and Olly Grender

There's also Laurie Penny. Who writes beautifully. Do feel free to make your own judgment on whether such beautiful writing is employed in the service of good or bad ideas. But whatever your overall view of a journalist's skills and opinions, there should surely be times, in the face of rushed or lazy submissions, when an editor intervenes and helpfully suggests that one of his or her writers simply abandons a piece or re-writes it. At the very least, they could refuse to publish it in the hard copy version of their organ. Jason Cowley is apparently not such an editor. Which appears to be how something like "The Question Time drinking game" gets to not only sully our screens but our newstands, too.

Let's start with the sub-heading.
"A new drinking game based on the ubiquitous programme..." 
"New"? "Based on"? OK. This may have been the first time that such a bingo-type drinking format has been applied to Question Time but it's hardly an innovation. Games like this have been fixtures of TV-watching and spectator sports for years. Penny's "it happened like this" revelatory tone makes her sound like an aged judge reeling at the explanation of a hitherto unknown element of popular culture.

And while we're here: "ubiquitous" means existing or being everywhere at the same time. Question Time is on for an hour a week for a few months of the year.
"...gives much away about the robustness of political debate in Westimster (sic)."
Yes. If only debate in Westminster or on current affairs programmes could be as robust as the polemics of Brighton's finest. So just to test this out, I proudly present The Laurie Penny Drinking Game:

1. Point browser to Penny's blogposts at the New Statesman website.

2. Pick one of the many fine posts.

3. Open a bottle of perfectably drinkable wine/whisky/beer. Preferably purchased from that lovely new Tesco in Stokes Croft.

4. Click on the grid below to drink as directed:

Loose Red would like to remind you to read the New Statesman in moderation.

11 July 2011

My contribution to Pragmatic Radicalism

The whirl of ideas and activity that is the great John Slinger will be launching Pragmatic Radicalism alongside Lord Wood and Luciana Berger MP tomorrow night.

My contribution to the pamphlet looks at how "in a globalised, highly-networked world, crises are becoming more everyday and more impactful." And why
"reacting to, and exploiting and exploring, such vulnerabilities requires a greater understanding and embedding of resilience. The second half of the equation – exploitation and exploration – is too often forgotten. As a policy theme, resilience should not simply be about bounce-back from a crisis to the status quo ante. It is about recovery being superceded by transformation and renewal; innovating and thriving on change."
 Read and comment on the full version here.

10 May 2011

Life after death: the kindness and wit of David Cairns.

Before I became a dedicated Walthamstower last year, David Cairns, and his partner Dermot, lived in the same ward as me in Islington South. I'd known Dermot since student politics days, and was getting to know David when I was given the fantastic opportunity of going to work alongside him at Labour Friends of Israel. He was LFI's convenor and soon to be Chair. His first stint in the role.

David Cairns MP, 1966-2011

David was determined to break new ground in the debate over Israel/Palestine, washing away any hint of rose tintedness applied to either side, and railing against the lazy thinking and weak assumptions that characterised so much analysis of the conflict. His speech in March this year on the progressive case for Israel (delivered by John Woodcock MP, as David's illness had already struck) was but one example of his principles, eloquence and knowledge. He had understood, on a pilgrimage to the Galilee some years before, about the importance of coming and seeing the region for oneself. He was dedicated to persuading others of such and I was greatly privileged to organise a delegation he led to Israel and the West Bank in September 2004.

He changed British politics, too. His biggest contribution coming arguably before he even entered Parliament. It is extraordinary to think that at the turn of the 21st century, former Catholic priests were still banned from becoming MPs, under early 19th century laws. David had served as a priest for three years from 1991-94 and so the "House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Act 2001" was required to allow him to stand in that year's General Election.

In May 2005, he had just picked up the phone to me when I heard his mobile go and he abruptly hung up, explaining that it was Downing Street. A few minutes later he called back, the delight and thrill flooding down the line as he told me he had been appointed as a junior minister in the Scotland Office. He still wanted to know what I'd been calling about and I asked him about some minor point of LFI business. He responded simply "sod that!" and reminded me again of his news. We were gutted to be losing him as our Chair but delighted that such a talent would finally be playing a direct role in government.

By 2007, he was Minister of State, and had Northern Ireland added to his portfolio. But, under Gordon Brown, his time with the red boxes ended during a particular turbulent period of briefings and back-biting. He resigned in September 2008, believing that a serious debate over leadership could no longer be avoided.

A few days later, he was kind enough to attend some unusually tedious corporate event I'd helped organise in the Jubilee Room. He seemed melancholy but at ease, indulging some gallows humour by describing this new phase in his career as "life after death".

Prior to a hospital visit a few weeks ago, I'd last seen him just before Christmas, with Dermot and some mutual friends. A Friday night in Marylebone with odd-coloured drinks, a genuine cockney knees-up, and David regaling us of his tales and impressions of the casts of Doctor Who and Upstairs, Downstairs, whom he had been to meet that day at BBC Cardiff. As funny and articulate and enthusiastic as ever. That Great Constituency In The Sky has got one hell of a new representative.

27 April 2011

What the Michael Winner impression really tells us about Dave.

David Cameron's attempt at a humourous riposte to a Labour frontbencher's heckle plunged the banter at PMQs to new depths today.

As the Prime Minister used the remarks of former MP and current GP, Howard Stoate, in favour of the Coalition's NHS reforms, he could not help noting the erstwhile Parliamentarian's loss to a Tory at the 2010 General Election. Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Angela Eagle, excitedly attempted to point out that Dr Stoate had stood down before the election.

"Dave" decided that this was a great moment to prove how funny and in-touch with the masses "Dave" is, by employing a popular (?) advertising catchphrase to regain the debating initiative:

I think it gave us a more interesting peak behind the Wizard's curtain, though.

If he wanted to raise a laugh, he should have responded to Ms Eagle along the lines of "yes, you're quite right, he stood down - like the rest of the country, apart from the Leader of the Opposition, he knew that Gordon Brown was a lost cause." OK. Hardly Juvenalian satire. But more effective than not quite mimicking Michael Winner.

Which brings us to the question of exploiting popular culture to prove just how normal you are. The correct way to co-opt ESure's grating motto is via the formulation "calm down, dear, it's only a X". Hence, "Dave" should've gone for "calm down, dear, it's only a weekly Parliamentary procedure". Again, no Perrier Awards being handed out, to be sure. But a clearer indication that you are trying (even if failing) to be funny rather than condescending, and without leaving that patronising and sexist "dear" just hanging there.

Cameron and his advisors have invested a lot of time in fashioning his chummy, just-one-of-the-guys image to counter his true alleged nature: slightly aloof, a little bad-tempered, and desperately wrestling with his patrician instincts. 

I offer no judgement on anyone's personality. And I think the fact that Cameron has faced very little scrutiny in this respect, compared to the near-continuous media psychoanalysis experienced by Brown and Blair, is a good thing. Nonetheless, whispers and asides do occasionally creep out about his high-handedness with colleagues.

Again, not a problem as far as I'm concerned. Different styles of leadership for different styles of leader. Fine. Except that Coalition requires a specific style of leadership. One that deals with conflict constructively whilst maintaining an inclusive and welcoming stance.
Concerns have been raised at ministerial level about deliberate tactics of exclusion, as one Tory in the Government even likened the Lib Dems to “yapping dogs”, suggesting they had to be tolerated but largely ignored.
While some of the recent “rows” have been carefully stage-managed as Lib Dems and Tories seek to underline their differences over the alternative voting system, there is a real breakdown of relations in several government departments between ministers.
I wonder how many on the Lib Dem benches listened to Dave's reaction to Eagle today and thought "yep, normal service from the guys we work for".

18 January 2011

"We simply had no choice": why Nick Clegg might want to get some advice from Ehud Barak.

It's always good to start with a joke. Even when discussing the chaos which is Middle East politics.

The Israeli Prime Minister meets the British Prime Minister. The latter holds his head in his hands. His Israeli counterpart asks what is wrong. "Oh, you wouldn't understand. You are Prime Minister of 8 million. I am Prime Minister of 60 million!" comes the reply.

"Ah," responds the Israeli Premier. "But you are Prime Minister of 60 million people. I am Prime Minister of 8 million Prime Ministers."

(Next week: some juggling!).

Given the fragmentation of their political parties, the population of Israel may not be far off realising the jocular PM's nightmare of them all having a turn at the head of the cabinet table at some point.

Ehud Barak's decision to leave the Labor Party but remain in the Likud-led coalition, has led to much rending of the Israeli left's outer garments, including this over-wraught absurdity by propagandist Gideon Levy, which includes the line: 

"Events yesterday did not propel masses to the streets; nor did throngs of viewers watch the television news."

Well, yes. In a unicameral, pure proportional representation political system, such splitting and fusing between parties is inevitable. (Though a merger between Yisrael Beiteinu and the United Arab List may be a little way off still). 

In many ways, any situation where a coalition exists makes such manoeuvres inevitable. As Barak's co-defector to the Atzmaut faction, Matan Vilnai said:

"At every meeting, you never knew who was with you and who was ready to quit and join a different party...In order to advance our own ideas, we have decided to separate and go on a new path...We simply had no choice."

The centrist element of Labor's internal coalition has decided that their chances of achieving policy goals in the long-term lie in a closer relationship with the right-of-centre senior partner in the current inter-party coalition. 

The more progressive wing of the Israeli Labor Party is now free to pursue constructive opposition to the governing coalition (hopefully under Isaac Herzog, who would be a brilliant, pragmatic and inspiring choice for leader). maybe joining with other social democratic parties such as the New Movement (pdf).

Now. What does all this remind me of?

Nick Clegg has not always been the crunchiest afikomen in the matzo stack when it comes to his commentary on the Israel-Palestine conflict. But I bet he's taking a deeper, more analytical, interest in the region's politics at the moment.

10 January 2011

Have you seen this man?

Christopher Huhne - known to his friends as "Chris" - of Cowley Street, London, SW1, went missing late last year. He had recently returned from a trip to Mexico for a conference believed to be connected with his job as Secretary Of State for Energy & Climate Change.

Christopher "Chris" Huhne MP
Police have noted reports of a sighting in Oldham East over the weekend but stressed that they remain unconfirmed.
Mr Huhne, 56, was last seen wandering around the Chamber of the House of Commons on 16 December 2011, muttering to himself about "emmission reductions pledges" and a "framework for REDD plus".

Friends of the MP for Eastleigh (majority 3864) remain mystified as to why he is so unwilling to be associated with either current campaigns of the Liberal Democrats (polling nationally at 10%); or with Nick Clegg (personal approval rating of -30), who beat Chris for the Party leadership in 2007 by 1.2% of the vote.
His partner said: "Chris, if you're reading this: please come home. I bought you a copy of the 'Liberal Democrat Leadership Election Rules' for Christmas, with the bit about how an election is trigerred pre-highlighted. It's waiting here still wrapped, when you're ready."