Opening Leadership Election Thoughts

Last night I was invited to support Bloggers 4 Steve. My initial reaction is yes, I could well be persuaded. So persuade me.

Specifically, my reservation is this:

I think this leadership election is not really about policy. I think the party’s policy machinery stand it in good stead to reign in the excesses of any one leader, and I think that most important for the party right now is to select a leader who is engaging, and has the drive and energy to get out there and sell our policy. Given that this is the case, I don’t see any point having a left of the party token in the race.

Now, I am not saying that is all Steve Webb would be. I like Steve a lot, I think he speaks engagingly and is articulate without being stuffy. But I would want to see and hear evidence that Steve really wants to be leader, and really thinks he’s up to it, and that he’s not simply standing to give the press some (very slight) policy differences between the candidates to point to. So for now, I guess I’m waiting to see if he announces, and what he says when he does.

Whilst I’m commenting on the leadership, though, I might just say right now that I will not be supporting Chris Huhne over Nick Clegg, despite my residing fairly firmly on the centre left of the party. Like I said, I don’t really see this election in terms of policy. The idea that to the majority of the electorate, Huhne can even compete with Clegg in terms of “just coming across well” is a joke. Every one of my friends who is interested enough to know who the two are agrees with me here. I could be persuaded otherwise, but only by some pretty dynamic performances by Huhne on the campaign trail. And I don’t really expect to see them.

One general plea: Whatever course the contest runs, can we not conduct it through the prism of which candidates are perceived as being “good to take on Cameron”, “good to take on Brown”, “too much like Cameron”, etc. People can make whatever statements they like about whether or not the public like the Blair/Cameron “type” of politician, or any other type of politician. The fact is, the public are fickle, and there is really no point in trying to think this way. A good leader is one who communicates who we are as well as possible. It is not someone who tempts a particular type of voter to us by appealing to things they like about the other parties. It is someone who convinces all voters that there are things they like about us.

Oh, and one last thing. The candidate who promises an end to Lib Dem barcharts will have my vote instantly.

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EXCLUSIVE: Facebook Contains People

Just read this piece on Comment is Free. I thought I would write about it, because it seems like a particularly obvious example of the arse-about-face school of opinion writing. So here are some quotes:

What constitutes a campaign in 2007? A supposed consumer backlash has begun against the makers of Kettle Chips, who have brought in American union-busters to prevent unionisation at their factories. The Guardian reported on October 9 that:

”Two groups, “Boycott Kettle Crisps for attacks on workers” and “Boycott Kettle Crisps: the Anti-Trade Union snack”, have been formed on the popular website

”They have attracted 130 members, many of whom say they are pledged to persuade friends and family not to buy the product.”

In August, another report claimed “victory” for a 4,000-strong group of students who had forced HSBC to back down on overdraft fees, also via a Facebook group.

To put the 130 in perspective, as of 17:00 on the day of the Kettle Chips story, 253 people were members of the Facebook group “Kettle Chips are just a superior type of crisp” – one of several dedicated to extolling the virtues of the Kettle Chip – against 181 and 185 in the two mentioned in the Guardian report. Moving off the potato snack theme, 575 people had joined “I Hate Razorlight and Want the World to Know” and a frightening 155,287 were members of “Jeremy Clarkson Should Be Prime Minister”.

Er… yup. OK. And if each of these groups had the same kind of purpose, then that might be a point worth making. But you know what? Facebook is a sub-branch of that medium of communication known as teh Internets. It facilitiates people building for themselves an online personality profile which they can use to express themselves to people. Joining groups of similarly minded people is part of how you do that. And the level of seriousness or otherwise of the groups you join says as much about you as the specifics of those groups.

The point is, if the way that the student campaign against HSBC worked was through Facebook, then there is nothing wrong with reporting that. Indeed, when “Jeremy Clarkson Should Be Prime Minister” achieves a similar level of success in its own campaigning (god forbid), then I am sure it will be reported in equal terms. But I am pretty certain it won’t, and let me tell you why: “Jeremy Clarkson Should Be Prime Minister” is not in fact a serious, motivated campaign group with focussed objectives and a realistic plan for achieving them. I know this may come as a bit of a shock to some people, but in fact, arguments that try to decry a medium using some of the things that some people try to communicate with them (even most people) are almost always HORSESHIT FROM START TO FINISH. Like this:

Facebook is not yet a medium for informed debate: by and large the groups are remarkably badly informed, populated through whimsy or a desire to make a superficial statement. It is the Gen-Y equivalent of wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, but without even the capital expenditure. Most users join because their mates invite everyone they know to join whatever the group du jour is, usually the one with the most amusing name.

This is not in any way a substitute for political action, and it is rarely, if ever, translated into real-world effects.

I mean, lets run that one again, but removing the feeble attempt to pin the actions of people using Facebook onto Facebook itself:

People are not yet capable of informed debate: by and large they are remarkably badly informed, making statements motivated by whimsy or a desire to make a superficial statement. They wear Che Guevara T-shirts. Most conversations are simply held with their mates, and most people probably go along with whoever makes the funniest statements.

This is not in any way a substitute for political action, and it is rarely, if ever, translated into real-world effects.

Stripped of its layer of false analysis of Facebook itself, we can now see two things pretty clearly: 1) This is, to some extent, a true picture of many people, and a very depressing one to the more politically engaged. 2) It has absolutely bog all to do with Facebook. As the author comes close to recognising (in his comparison of the people who join some of these groups to people who wear Che Guevara t-shirts) this is not a fundamental problem with Facebook, any more than it is a problem with t-shirts. This is about people expressing themselves, and feeling disappointed in what they choose to express. Except no opinion writer could possibly write that, because it would be (rightly) decried as patronising.

Thankfully. Close to half a million people are apparently part of a global movement for physical assaults on irritating pedestrians as part of the “I Secretly Want To Punch Slow Walking People In The Back Of The Head” group (define “secretly”!).

Secretly: Privately, inwardly, not openly.

As in these people are just having a laugh, they are not in fact “part of a global movement for physical assaults on irritating pedestrians”, you complete pillock. I know that may seem like a petty thing to take issue with, but it is symptomatic of an inability to see that Facebook can be used to have many different kinds of conversation, or interaction in a wider sense.

Worse still, a smaller, if significant number of people, just over 55,000, want to take it further, supporting capital punishment, albeit only for “chavs who play music off [sic] their phones in public”.

Rinse and repeat as necessary. Except that here, he inserts a smug little “sic” where there is no obvious need for one. The sentence quoted communicates perfectly well what it is trying to say.

But the almost total inability of the media to objectively consider the statistics before declaring a Facebook group “a movement” is a more worrying trend. At best, it is simple laziness – an easy, stop-gap example of consumer disaffection that can be plugged into any story.

There seems to be some projection going on here; this bit could equally be rewritten about the author of this piece:

But the almost total inability of the media to objectively consider new communication media before judging their worth as “a movement” is a more worrying trend. At best, it is simple laziness – an easy, stop-gap example of a story that can be plugged into any new medium (and has been, ever since, at the very latest, the novel arrived as a literary force).

Now, in the interest of balance, I should quote the following, which is perfectly true and a valid comment:

Bad reporting, perhaps, as a simple number on Facebook cannot be said to be in any way statistically rigorous. Of the quoted numbers, not all are even necessarily supportive of the “motion”, because it is not uncommon for users to join in order to attempt to put up some counter-argument (though, since bloggers’ law applies, they are, of course, shouted down). There is no tally of how many people rejected or ignored invitations to join the group, and even if there were, there is likely to be significant sample bias … you generally only invite like-minded people.

He had to go and get that dig in at blogging, though, didn’t he?! Betraying as he did so a view of blogging that has more to do with the comment conversation that takes place on a handful of behemoth blogs like CiF itself and Huffington Post than on the vast majority of blogs as actual bloggers would understand the term.

At worst, this becomes a case of media misrepresentation, a written noddy shot. By blowing out of proportion events in a social network not readily understood by most of their reading demographic, reporters risk creating a campaign where there was none. HSBC may have claimed to be listening principally to its young customers (though, we are unable to tell how many of the 4,000 banked with HSBC), it could easily be suggested that it was the headline coverage that really forced their hand.

Quite so, but then, would there have been a headline if there wasn’t a Facebook group? Like all lobbying, protesting or otherwise manipulating the democratic process and media, it doesn’t quite work the way it might ideally. I imagine in many cases, the reporters not only “risk” creating a campaign where there was none, they actively hope to do so. This has always happened, and I imagine the founders of the groups are often all too happy to have them reported. Certainly, if the reporter who wrote up the Kettle Chips story looked at it when it had only 180 members or so, then they were probably invited by someone pretty close to its originator. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just the Facebook way of sending out a press release.

Internet gossip (and that is what, by-and-large, Facebook groups are) works on an odd system of correlations between sites and ideas, on self-reference and self-promotion, and its trends are caused by snowball effects that act as a distorting mirror for the real world – perhaps concurrent, but by no means accurately portrayed. Draw your own parallels with Cameronite politics.

Oh I see, this is some sort of clever comment on Cameronite politics, is it? Well, no it isn’t.

But that aside, this is an alright ending. The point he’s missing, though, is that it is a legitimate role for journalists to report on those bits of Facebook that aren’t Internet gossip. After all, if they are only “by and large” gossip, then there are, by definition, bits that aren’t.

As for “an odd system of correlations between sites and ideas, [working] on self-reference and self-promotion, … its trends … caused by snowball effects that act as a distorting mirror for the real world – perhaps concurrent, but by no means accurately portrayed”, well, you could have fooled me that he was talking about politics and the media in general there.

I know it is human nature, it would seem, to attack any new medium for the messages that are communicated using it. It happens when people say the internet is full of porn, or that computer games are brainless and violent, or that TV rots the mind, or that the papers are full of lies, or that novels are sensationalist nonsense for young ladies (thankfully we haven’t heard that one in a while). People just need to get a bit better at spotting this sort of thing. If we don’t start distinguishing medium from message, then some really stupid things might start happening.

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Thank Gord For That

Owing to my disgraceful apathy to a snap election all along, I don’t feel an awful lot is to be said today. It’s all very well to see, up close, the undignified reality of a British Prime Minister so obviously trying to wangle an election his way and abandon it at the drop of a hat . But it doesn’t change the fact that non-fixed term parliaments are just obviously wrong, certainly if the “decider” (to quote Mr. Bush) is in fact very much an interested party.

So essentially I have two things to say about this, neither of which are actually much to do with having a snap election or not, but about the aftermath.

1. Adam Boulton has had a rather good couple of days of it, at least from the non-Labour blogosphere. Meanwhile, Andrew Marr comes out looking decidedly fishy. Not something I really want to see. I believe in the BBC, in publically and government-independently funded newsgathering, and it really doesn’t make me happy to see a great institution like the Big British Castle being regarded as soft on the establishment, and a Murdoch organ, albeit one of the better ones, being (rightly) held aloft by all and sundry as a bastion of (relative) veracity. Nothing good can come of this in the long run. Pull your socks up BBC.

2. Well done to whichever arm of the party apparatus was responsible for this video.

It’s not perfect; it’s a little bit overlong, leading to its becoming repetitive, and could do with a little more polish (eg. The “ten thousand men” point being backed up not by a cloned picture of the same man but of all the Labour MPs and so on who have been trawling the MSM sewing this chatter in the past month or so). Nevertheless, clearly we are well on the way to having another weapon to add to our ground-war arsenal, making the MSM’s insistence on keeping us out of the air-war where at all possible increasingly irrelevant. I’d also like to say that it was nice to see the ad about the phoney Iraq troop withdrawal. More of this kind of thing, please!

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Free Burma!

Free Burma!

Free Burma! Petition Widget

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UPDATE: I found this interesting little summation of the situation in Burma on the Real News website (which is well worth a quick poke around, btw).

Today is, as anyone reading Lib Dem Blogs today will already have noticed, an International Bloggers’ Day for Burma. Whilst I have little to say that is especially insightful about this dreadful situation, I would like to echo Jock’s comments that fundamentally, this is about people who could be doing more not doing so. Sanctions are rarely the answer, sadly. If only it were that simple.

I suspect, though, that since the people who could do something about this the easy way are steadfastly not doing so, we will instead have to simply support, in any way we can, the monks and other protesters going about doing it the hard way.

For more information, go to

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Liveblogging Cameron’s Speech…

…but only posting it all afterwards. Because let’s face it, nobody is going to come here for their coverage of David Cameron’s speech (I hope they’re not, anyway).

Here is what I thought, in the order I thought it:

14:15 – They don’t seem very good at recognising where they’re meant to clap.

14:16 – Communism. Is that really the point any more?

14:17 – Women candidates; fair enough.

14:18 – “I didn’t do that, you did that, and you should be proud of what you’ve done.” Bored with this catchphrase now. Apart from anything else, most of the things he referred to had quite a lot to do with him.

14:19 – Loud applause for Sayeeda Warsi. What a surprise.

14:19 – “A force to be reckoned with in every part of our country” (except the north, Scotland, the west, Sedgefield and Ealing Southall).

14:20 – Is he trying to trump Gordon Brown in his use of the word “change”? It’s just as well there’s an election now. Come next year, Cameron and Brown might well have got up on stage and simply repeated the word “change” for an hour.

14:22 – EU law makes British jobs for British people illegal, apparently. You learn something every day.

14:24 – He is actually quite strong on Brown’s faults, now he has something to go on. It’s so much more convincing than the “roadblock to reform” or the “clunking fist” stuff.

14:24 – “I am by nature an optimist”. It’s not quite “let sunshine win the day”, is it?

14:26 – He’s not very well lit, really. Sorry, theatre techie thoughts creeping in.

14:30 – “Tear up the rules”. Again.

14:31 – Abolish regional assemblies. Power back to local councils. This sounds familiar…

14:32 – The Big British Castle have highlighted a quote I missed: “Our democracy is still in the dark ages”, apparently. Pity no mention of electoral reform, then.

14:33 – “Sharing the proceeds of growth”; presumably no proceeds of growth to be given to the effort to come up with a better soundbite on tax than this one?

14:34 – There seems to be an awful lot of Redwood in here. I wonder if there will be as much Goldsmith-Gummer?

14:35 – Cameron wants all his kids to go through the state sector, he says. I do hope he breaks that.

14:37 – Choice, diversity and innovation. Academies. Churches, voluntary bodies, charities, etc, to be invited into the state sector. I feel queasy.

14:38 – “Action on standards now”. Meaning what?

14:38 – Cameron admits cosy consensus on education: “Ed Balls gave a speech the other day that I could have given myself”.

14:41 – “Appeals panels have got to go”. Not sure about this. It does sometimes happen that a school, even an individual teacher, just takes a dislike to a pupil, and their behaviour spirals downwards from there. In such a situation, I would think it wise of their parents to go elsewhere if possible, but if they feel it best for their child to fight their corner to remain there, and they have a legitimate grievance to take to an appeals panel, why shouldn’t they?

14:42 – “George showed how we’re going to cut stamp duty”. No he didn’t. He asserted that it could be done by a highly dubious looking “seemingly voluntary” tax on non-domicile tax status.

14:45 – “Sometimes globalisation can increase inequalities within a country…freedom is not enough…make society more responsible.” Sounded encouraging in identifying problems, but unless he means some serious legislation to make corporate citizens more responsible, I don’t see how his prescription of “stronger families, more responsible society” is really going to provide a solution for the hypothetical mother halfway up a tower block he cites.

14: 47 – “Treat people like statistics, rather than human beings”. [PAUSE FOR APPLAUSE…. APPLAUSE DOESN’T COME]

14:48 – We can copy Wisconsin! Excellent idea. I’m pretty sure we must be fairly analogous to Wisconsin in most respects, right?

14:48 – We will ask charities to run this stuff for us. So once they are co-opted into the state’s work, are they still charities? How do we demand accountability of them? Unless he means simply abdicating the state’s responsibilities, and leaving it to charities. Which sounds a lot like pretty hard-right stuff to me. Also, it’s not as if charities don’t already get a fair amount of funding, in the areas they are useful. Don’t know I would want to go to a school run by a charity, though.

14:49 – “The best welfare system in the world: it’s called the family”. Is it bollocks. If you come from a poor family, or your parents are unemployed, then how the hell is your family going to be able to help more than the state? And more to the point, why the hell is it desirable that they do so? This is a fluffier version of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”.

14:51 – “Using the benefit system to drive people apart rather than bring them together.” Yes. That is exactly what we are doing. Recognising the financial benefits of cohabitation equals trying to drive cohabitees apart. OK. Fine.

14:52 – “Time is the most precious commodity of all”. OK. Right to flexible working. I think we passed something like that at our conference the other week, didn’t we? Except that, since we are the sensible party on the economy, we recognised that a straightforward “right” to flexible working could cripple small businesses, so we made it merely a right to request it, and therefore make your employer at least tell you why you can’t have it!

14:54 – Nice little bit about “throughput and output and patient episodes and all that”.

14:55 – An awful lot of NHS, actually. It seems like the NHS has replaced the environment as his totemic fluffy policy. I have heard barely a mention of the environment yet, actually. The one time he did mention it, he felt the need to weaken it by making clear he didn’t “just” mean climate change, but also litter, which he then majored on.

14:57 – “Allowing GPs to choose between whatever hospitals they like”. Sounds a lot like patient passport, to me.

14:58 – Fighting for district general hospitals. Really? Personally, I think we do need to strongly reconfigure the NHS, and a lot of what we can learn from places like Cuba is that lots of basic, local health services are often more helpful than big, “all under one roof” hospitals. Cottage hospitals, anyone? It’s so easy, as a conservative, to simply oppose all change. Of course, that doesn’t mean no one should oppose these changes when the replacement for these services is inadequate.

15:00 – The new world order is “not going to happen”. Interesting comment.

15:02 – Proud of his support for renewing Trident. Boo!

15:04 – Chooses to talk only about the bravery of our soldiers in Afghanistan. No real mention of Iraq.

15:05 – Accusing Labour of breaking the military covenant. Good.

15:06 – Interestingly strong support for tweaking the rules on giving soldiers leave.

15:06 – Returning to the theme of hospitals for the third (?) time this speech, to touch on separate military wards. I can’t say it would be uppermost in my mind if I had been wounded, but there you go.

15:07 – “Realistic and not utopian” foreign policy; a fairly strong slap in the face to neoconservatism and the Iraq war, but still no mention of the actual word “Iraq”, despite it being the clear meaning of his pledge to make Afghanistan his “number one priority”. Why is the word “Iraq” so apparently toxic to him?

15:10 – Now we’re onto the dodgy dossier, and still he won’t name the war he’s talking about.

15:10 – Banning Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Sigh. There are two possible stances on free speech…

15:12 – Finally! Green-ness.

15:13 – “The party of sensible green leadership”. OK. Announce some policy then. Oh, that’s right, you can’t, your party would kill you if you did anything much more than witter about litter.

15:14 – Broken society guff. Like Ming said, it is simply ludicrous to infer from a few dreadful incidents that our society is “broken”. What does that even mean?

15:15 – Also: I make that about 2 minutes of green-ness. Compared to about ten of Vulcanism peppered throughout. So I guess we know who won that internal struggle.

15:15 – “Beat-based zero-tolerance policing that everyone wants to see in their neighbourhood.” I don’t know I do, actually…

15:17 – “I’m not advocating a return to national service”. Thank goodness for that, it sounded a lot like it for a minute there.

15:18 – Er.. what is national citizens service exactly? Cuz it sounds a lot from what you just said like it’s… boxing. Um?

15:18 – Time-filling: “I have told you this….”. I know. I was watching you.

15:19 – “I went to a fantastic school, and I’m not embarrassed about that.” Name it then.

15:20 – I want to tell you about my mum… Fuck’s sake. You wouldn’t find Ming doing this.

15:22 – Election posturing. Quite well done.

15:22 – “Who’s really making the arguments on the changes that need making in our country?” The Lib Dems, naturally.

15:23 – “We will fight, Britain will win”. Bit of a hostage to fortune there?

And that’s it. Not a single mention of the word Iraq. Very little environment. Very solid on conservative territory, but not going to convince many others, I don’t think.

The audience didn’t really seem to know how to react to it either. The applause was hesitant and relatively infrequent, or so it felt to me; I suspect because everything about the wider context of the speech would imply that it should be a barnstorming election rally, when in fact it was much more thoughtful and content-heavy than that would suggest.

Anyway, not a speech that’s going to set the world on fire, and certainly not one that would lure many Lib Dem voters. Brown is wrapping himself in Tory colours, Cameron targeting Labour (we weren’t even mentioned). Never has the cosy consensus seemed more obvious to me than after following this conference season.

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Meme: Political Influences

I have been tagged by Nich with the political influences meme. So here they are. Since my political position is probably not actually final yet (indeed, I kind of hope it never is – I can’t see how you can be certain you are right without closing your mind, hence the title of this blog), I have no way of really evaluating who is the most important, so I thought instead I would order the list roughly to tell the story of how I wound up with the beliefs I hold today.

1) Doctor Who – Liberalism

Before I had any interest in real politics, my political thoughts were very likely being shaped by Doctor Who. Indirectly, I suppose, this reflects an influence from my mother (a lifelong tribal Labour voter, irritatingly), who encouraged my interest because she preferred the programme to much of the contemporary fare on TV as I was growing up. Alex Wilcock has written (at typical length!) about what makes Doctor Who liberal, but for me, the values I got from it are not limited to liberalism, at least in a narrow sense. I also gathered a respect for science, a suspicion of religion and superstition, and a more general enjoyment of non-conformity. For political discussion within the programme, though, you can’t do much better than the Doctor’s argument with the BOSS at the end of the Green Death.

You might think this quite a frivolous thing to include, but I honestly do think I need to explain why, for instance, one of my earliest political memories (to slip into another recent meme for a moment) is of being in a Thorntons around the time of the ’97 election. For the occasion, they were producing chocolate models of the heads of the party leaders. I was ten at the time, and had no real interest in politics, and yet I insisted for whatever reason that I wanted the one shaped like Paddy.

For a long time before I really thought about it, I had a kind of instinctive loyalty to the underdog, rebellious figure in the political arena. In explaining this, I can only really think of Doctor Who to point to.

2) Air America and Al Franken – Party Politics

American politics is so much more straightforward than ours. There is a Clealy Wrong Party and a Clearly More Right Than The Wrong Party Party. Perhaps for this reason, before I (definitively) picked a British party, I had picked an American one. For whatever reason, I got interested in Fox News (probably because they were available on Sky, and good for a laugh over breakfast), and through them, in the people who had opposed them. Foremost amongst them is Al Franken, whose very funny book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them taught me that not all political mudslinging is the childish bickering we are encouraged to take it for by those who would rather we just didn’t pay attention to how we are governed. It showed me that sometimes, one side is just right, and the other side is not just benevolently wrong, but actually being quite slimy. As such, I suppose, it had the small but crucial effect of convincing me that taking a side wasn’t an ignoble thing to do, and that signing up to a particular party was a good thing to do. Far too many people, especially on the left, like to maintain a lofty detachment from party politics, and it does nobody any good.

At the same time, people like Franken, Garofalo and Maron, all hosted shows on Air America for a time (and are all now sadly absent). I got quite into listening to their shows and therefore keeping abreast of the daily rythmn of US politics. They taught me that political discussion doesn’t have to be dry and boring.

3) Lawrence Miles – Cultural Politics

Within Doctor Who circles, Lawrence Miles is well known for his lengthy interviews, as well as his excellent books. Much time in these interviews is given over to cultural analysis of one sort or another. Often, his interviews contain huge amounts of guff (as does his blog), but some of what he says is fantastically perceptive and, for my money, brilliantly right. For instance, a few years ago now (long before Doctor Who came back):

Looking at TV and literature right now, I think the idea is that we’re supposed to be ashamed of liking anything that goes beyond normal, everyday professionalism. We’re supposed to feel that we’re sad wankers for wanting to get away from the kind of stuff that grinds our lives down to nothing, but as far as I’m concerned if you’ve got a story about Character X ripping out Beelzebub’s heart with a pick-axe and saving the universe then it’s a story worth telling, whereas if you’ve got a story about Character Y going to work every morning and bravely doing the filing then you can frankly piss off. And somehow we’ve reached the stage where the only drama programmes that get made at all, on British TV anyway, are about twentysomething law students sharing a flat and arguing about the Hackenschmacher case as if anybody really gives a toss. For a while we at least had stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but now even Buffy’s gone down that “soap opera is good, fantasy is incidental” path and started slagging off anyone who’s got a vaguely alternative kind of lifestyle. And while I’m in mid-rant I’d also like to question the long-term effects of children’s movies like Toy Story and Monsters Inc, which seem to be designed to turn things that used to be astonishing and remarkable into things that are crass and ordinary. In Toy Story, all the toys magically come alive and then… hold bureaucratic meetings about paint erosion. In Monsters Inc, it turns out that monsters aren’t actually strange and fabulous beasts but bored clerical staff who spend most of the day hanging around the water-cooler at Monster Head Office. These films aren’t made with children in mind, they’re made by “professional” adults who want to feel good about their own petty lives, and as a result the next generation’s being primed for clerical work from birth … There was a time when we were proud to do things that were new and interesting and eccentric, the whole point of Doctor Who as a TV programme was that it was the victory of the fantastic over the mundane, and yet now all of a sudden we’re being asked to side with the mundane and being told that you’re “naïve” and “unprofessional” if you don’t. The day I start being “professional” is the day you’ve got permission to murder me in my bed. So I think we’re starting to forget the point, overall. To actually look for that kind of life, where you’re stuck in an office job and acting like it’s a great heroic victory… it’s a kind of living death, I think. To be so badly messed up that you can’t even imagine anything better.

Of course, much of this probably appealed to a slightly teenage nonconformist sentiment, but I do still think he was onto something. Thankfully, I think we probably have moved on from that, thanks in no small part to Doctor Who’s return.

4) Noam and Anarchism – Anti-authoritarianism

Fairly straightforwardly from interest in the American left came a reading of Naomi Klein‘s awesome No Logo and from there, The Corporation by Joel Bakan (available as both a film and a book). Both are excellent, by the way, especially The Corporation. The guy who made the film of The Corporation, Mark Achbar, had also made a documentary introducing Noam Chomsky, called Manufacturing Consent, so I thought I’d watch that. Though overlong, it serves as a great introduction to Chomsky generally, and acted as a springboard for me to read some of his stuff.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to everything he says, and I do find his view occasionally slightly dogmatic. What concerns me perhaps more than anything else about him is that his view of the world doesn’t seem to have shifted at all in the last fifty years. Anyway, I think he does offer a very insighful analysis of the media, especially the corporate media that until blogs had more or less a stranglehold on the politics of the US. His analysis of US foreign policy is hit and miss, though it hits more often than it misses, and I have always had some sympathy for his side of the argument because the people who “rebut” his arguments in the MSM very often seem to be distorting or wilfully misunderstanding his arguments.

Anyway, I think the single most important principle Chomsky passed to me is the anarchist maxim that all forms of authority must justify themselves; sometimes they are legitimate, but we must always question them.

5) The Lib Dem Blogosphere – Rounding off a few rough edges.

Blogging in general is quite good for getting feedback on one’s views. A lot of the policy discussion on the aggregator has had a real impact on my thinking, or at least made me alive to a few weaknesses in both sides of a particular argument or other. For instance, Jock has probably convinced me on LVT. More widely, I don’t think my position in the social-economic divide, mythical as it partly is, has changed much, but if I were to rewrite the post I wrote on the subject back when I started this blog, I would hope to be able to make it a little more bulletproof.

Anyway, I should now tag some more people for the meme, so:
Alex Wilcock (any opportunity to prod him to blog more), Paul Walter, Jock Coats, and (just to be cheeky) Iain Dale.

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Another day, another article on the apathy of youth

So JSP has expanded on her eloquent remarks the other night on Question Time. Which is nice, since it gives me something a little bit more substantial to try to take apart.


Fighting to impose his authority on his party at the end of their annual conference last week, Ming Campbell confronted the age issue head on by asserting that his 66 years make him a better leader than David Cameron (40) or Gordon Brown (56). Utter bilge – Ming’s reasoning is as out of date as his jokes.

First off, note that as far as the MSM are concerned, Ming was “stamping his authority on his party”, not responding to endless smearing in the MSM, like it looked an awful lot more like he was doing from where I was sat. Also note the standard of debate here: Ming’s argument that his experience makes him better qualified to make difficult judgments is rebutted here by… an ad hominem remark about Ming’s age (not even a particularly cutting one, at that; anyone who saw the speech acknowledged that the jokes were actually not bad at all).

Although one opinion poll gave the patrician Scot a two-point lead over the Tory toff, does anyone really think that this chap has the charisma to sort out Britain?

Erm.. the people who voted in the poll obviously feel he’d be a better bet than Cameron. Which is the only point that anyone has tried to make off the back of it.

But age is a big issue and Ming was forced to bring it up because a clutch of so-called “young turks” (all white, middle-aged, middle-class males, by the way) in the Lib Dems have let it be known to anyone who’d listen that they’d like the top job.


We have made age a big issue and forced Ming to bring it up, by reading meaning into a clutch of so-called “young turks” (both white, middle-aged, middle-class males, by the way) in the Lib Dems letting it be known to the reporters who asked them about it that one day they would like the top job.

Back to JSP:

They might have spent a decade or two less on the planet than Ming, but this doesn’t mean that they are more in tune with a younger generation or any more able to resolve the problems society currently faces dealing with people who haven’t even got the vote yet.

Actually, this is probably true – because Ming is actually pretty well placed to deal with all thosee things. After all, we have made proposals (pdf) a damn site more concrete than anyone else has to reform the political system meaningfully. And as JSP rightly points out, the age of the person making the argument is immaterial, it’s what they have to say that matters.

Politicians are obsessed with age, and by focusing on his seniority, Ming is acknowledging that. Whether he likes it or not, youthfulness is seen as an asset by a lot of people, not least our previous Prime Minister. Which is surprising, given that we have an ageing population, and the first generation of persioners (sic) hell bent on making 60 the new 40. (I’m proud to be one of these grey baby boomers.) You’d have thought Ming shouldn’t even have to bother discussing age as a possible impediment to doing anything, as his successful contemporaries such as Richard Branson, Terence Conran, Paul Smith and the Rolling Stones would find the concept laughable.

Yeah, you’d have thought, wouldn’t you?

Even Clement Freud was talking about sex at 70 on the radio the other day before he was ruthlessly cut short. Some things are best not dwelt on too long.

Oh. Apparently some age discrimination is acceptable after all.

Given that they make age an issue, it’s interesting that politicians of all parties have not really connected with the younger generation, preferring instead to come up with a variety of solutions to what they see as a breakdown in society – all of which seem to identify a large section of our population (mostly those under 21) as a “problem”. Drinking, antisocial behaviour, gun and knife crime, gang culture, lack of employability, illiteracy and drug use do blight a disgracefully large number of these people whose energy and passion could be our biggest asset, but we are never going to get anywhere unless we stop identifying them as a special group purely by age.

Actually, this verges on making some sort of actual sense.

Whenever the next election is, whether it’s next month, next spring or a couple of years away, the biggest issue Ming, David and Gordon have to face is how to get a large disenfranchised, uninterested group of people who have never voted to be part of our democracy. These range from young people who commit petty crime to the new generation that has benefited from university education under new Labour. There are 20-year-olds with massive credit card debts – totally uneducated about money – and school leavers who can’t read and write properly.

Watch it, Janet, the argument’s getting a bit skewed here. I’m sure you’ll get back onto the straight and narrow shortly…

It doesn’t really matter what age a politician is to me – you can be sympathetic to the problems faced by the young at 95 – they have to start the process of reaching out and engaging with this generation that has been left outside politics. For years politicians never really bothered with first-time voters, believing that it took a huge mortgage and a family to get people to the ballot box where self-interest rules.

…well done, now into the home strait with a call to arms for young people to prove them wrong…

Twenty years down the line, the number of people who feel politics is nothing to do with them is larger than ever before, and the consequences will be disastrous.

How can we have gone from the student protests and political uprisings of the 1960s to torpor and apathy 40 years later? Young people sign up for causes – like the painfully obvious Make Poverty History campaign – but few have any intention of voting. Paradoxically, a new survey shows that it’s the over-60s who now behave the way the kids used to do all those years ago, placing having fun and adventure and getting more sex at the top of their wish list.

…Yes! Yes! Go on…

Oh. No, that was the end, apparently. It turns out that Janet didn’t particularly feel like making any kind of point today, or putting forward any kind of constructive suggestions, so much as simply taking a quick ramble around the general situation. After all, she has important comments to make about the chuffing Blue Peter cat.

Incidentally, most of the time I feel that my age has absolutely bog all to do with anything, and indeed I hate it when newspapers patronisingly include someone’s age after a letter they print (it just seems like the print equivalent of a pat on the head). But just to bolster my credentials to speak for the young (at least, those who can vote), I should point out that I am 20.

So what to make of this? What’s frustrating is that she comes so close to explicitly putting her finger on the real issue: Politicians think we as young people aren’t worth the effort. They believe that the people who go out and vote are mostly above 30, and the people almost certain to vote are retired.

Can you blame them? They’re right. Those are the people who vote. And nobody should expect politics as a system, even the Lib Dems, to make much of young people’s issues until young people put themselves on the market, so to speak. Sure, we have policies that address young people’s issues: we oppose age discrimination in the minimum wage, we have a whole bunch of proposals on the environment and other things young people are concerned about. But we won’t be putting them prominently on leaflets we put through doors when we could be talking to the people who do vote, about 4p off income tax and decentralising the state so that the kind of people who take an interest in local politics can exert real influence over the running of their services. And that means pensioners more than anything else.

The people who keep writing this crap have got things arse-about-face. They make an argument that goes something like:

Young people are disengaged
Politicians must change
Young people will engage.

Whereas in truth:

Young people are disengaged
Young people must re-engage
Politicians will change.

Power has never been interested in bending or retreating because it sees an inherant inequity in the status quo. It has been made to bend by people who suffered from those inherant inequities deciding to do something about it. (If I’m sounding like a socialist or something, sorry, but I’ve got my Democrat hat on today, not my Liberal hat.)

And politicians have thick skins; so thick, in fact, that for the price of listening to the occasional sound of a whiny young person telling them they don’t feel engaged, they are quite happy to have one fewer categories of people to try and appeal to. Whingeing as a way of achieving real political change has never worked, certainly not unless it was something that the establishment kind of wanted anyway, or unless it was clear that this would not be the end of matters if the whingeing was ignored.

Young people need to get out there and hit the system where it hurts. Even if there isn’t someone they particularly want to vote for, they need to demonstrate simply that they are not a category to be ignored, by achieving some kind of real shift in the electoral arithmetic. Quite honestly, I don’t know what that would be (although I’d love it to include electing some Lib Dems, obv). Only then will main parties start campaigning with them in mind.

I will stop banging on about this subject now.

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Janet Street-Porter wants a knee trembler. Apparently.

Tonight’s Question Time came from Brighton, where, amongst others was Paddy, looking, to my mind, noticeably laid back whilst John Redwood made unfounded and ridiculous predictions of a “big tax shock” from the Lib Dems. Frankly Redwood was just nauseating in his slimy disingenuous hypocrisy throughout.

But anyway, what really had me wanting to throw things at the TV was a “young person” announcing his general uninspiredness with the leaders of our parties. Now, curiously enough, I have just the other day written of my general feelings on this kind of whinging. This particular chap, at least, made his feelings known in an articulate way, wrong-headed as they were. Sadly, though not entirely surprisingly, Janet Street-Porter chimed in to agree:

Self Identified “Young Person”: I don’t think it’s an issue really of the age of political leaders, I think it’s more a question of how inspiring they are, to all age groups; and at the moment, with all the parties fighting for the centre ground, I’d say there’s a lack of identity and a lack of direction in British politics which comes across to me as a young person coming up to voting age. I find none of the parties’ leaderships particularly inspirational.


Janet Street Porter: You know when Ming Campbell started droning on today about his age, I thought “He’s really lost the plot.” Because, frankly, it’s ageist to talk about your age, isn’t it? Haven’t we just passed all this legislation about going on about your age all the time and… it was pathetic and also to refer to these other two people as “young turks” when they’re about as exciting as a plate of tapioca [LAUGHTER, god knows why], I mean, that young lad up there is completely correct [smug nodding from young lad], I mean, what politics needs is some excitement, and somebody that when they speak your knees start to tremble, and quite frankly, when Ming Campbell speaked (sic) today, his jokes were so old – it was so old -

David Dimbleby: [interrupting] I don’t know what makes your knees tremble; does David Cameron make your knees tremble?

Janet Street-Porter: No no no no no, he’s, er, he’s…

John Redwood: {some old shit about Mourinho}

Janet Street-Porter: I think the fact of the matter is that politics needs to be … does need to be inspirational for your generation of people to vote, and at the next election, whether it is in the next eight weeks or early next year or in four years, our problem is that we have one of the lowest turnouts in Europe, and I don’t see any sign of that changing with these particular group of people leading our parties, so the idea of choosing between Ming Campbell and these other two “young turks” is like choosing between frozen peas or.. custard. Forget it.

You can find the relevant bit of the programme at about 49:45 on the play again thing on the website.

The first thing that comes across loud and clear to me about JSP’s comments is that she has clearly not actually seen Ming’s speech. Now, I don’t think everyone should be made to listen to Ming’s speech – I wouldn’t be much of a liberal if I did – although it would be nice. But if you’re going to go on Question Time and profess to knowledge about the world in general, maybe you should actually know what you are talking about.

How can I tell this? Well, because, having sat in the conference hall and listened to Ming myself earlier, I am quite aware that the “young turks” in question were not the leaders of the other two parties, as she seems to imply at the end of her rant, but Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. I am quite aware that very little of Ming’s speech was about his age; about two sentences in a 45 minute speech hardly counts as droning on. I am quite aware that several of his jokes were actually quite original (at least, they were new to me, and I watch a fair amount of political humour). I can’t help but think that in all likelihood, what JSP has watched is the five minute round-up of the speech from the news.

But what depresses me is the idea that this somehow passes for informed commentary (and incidentally, it’s only when you sit and transcribe this stuff that you realise that, whilst this young guy in the audience spoke in perfectly formed, if long, sentences, Janet Street-Porter speaks in a stream of fragments not a million miles away from the rhetorical style of John Prescott).

“Because, frankly, it’s ageist to talk about your age, isn’t it?” Er.. not particularly, no. And anyway, how are you supposed to answer your critics, who, the media tell us, are attacking Ming for his age (not really true at all, when there even are critics, but sod the actuality), without mentioning your age? This seems to smack of quite obscene double standards; people are allowed to slag off Ming for being “too old”, but when he refutes that, he’s being ageist?!

“Haven’t we just passed all this legislation about going on about your age all the time…” Er.. no, Janet dear, we haven’t. We’ve “just” passed some legislation outlawing discrimination by employers on the basis of age. As far as I’m aware, fuckwits the world over are still quite free to “go on about your age all the time”, much as I wish they weren’t in the case of Ming. Incidentally, Charles Kennedy on This Week made the very valid point that if cartoons as disgraceful as some of what the papers have printed this week on the subject of Ming’s age were instead about race, sex or religion, there would surely have been complaints to the Press Complaints Commission, a statement Andrew Neil seemed to agree with. A suggestion for a line of agitation?

Anyway, getting back to JSP (sigh). I do wonder why exactly people are quite so keen on being lead by someone who “makes your knees tremble”. Personally, I want to be lead by someone intelligent, a good leader, who I would trust in a crisis, and who believes in something I believe in. On all these counts, I think Ming does pretty well. I absolutely do not want to sweep a politician into office on the grounds that they “make my knees tremble”. This just seems like a perfect articulation of the wish to submit to authority figures. Are we really a nation of political BDSM enthusiasts? I want to be encouraged to select an MP and to vote for a party based on a rational evaluation of the interests of the country from my point of view. I would hope I wouldn’t ever vote for someone purely for their rhetorical skills.

At the end of the day, who exactly does JSP have in mind? Dimbleby made an attempt to get an answer to this, but none came. Thatcher? Not to my mind. Churchill? Possibly. But politicians of his stature only come along every now and then, and, in line with what I was just saying as a generality, I would frankly like to think that were I voting in 1950 I would not be terribly keen on Churchill, grizzled old racist that he really was.

To my mind, what the support for this sentiment from JSP indicates is that people really can’t be bothered to have to actually listen to what politicians say and work out which one they agree with. They want charisma and rhetoric to make a decision for them. Surely that’s not a healthy desire?

In the end, this comes back to what I said on Wednesday; sadly, politics is something you have to put some intellectual effort into to get anything out of it. This yearning to be led is a window-dressed version of the facile whinging that we need to be “engaged” better. My advice to all of these people is:

Grow the fuck up. Poltics is about issues. We live in a country where the gap between rich and poor is widening, where our government wants to waste our money encroaching on our liberties, where we are lied to over signing up to an illegal war, where endless schemes are conceived to wastefully shovel public money into private companies, and where the two main parties agree on more than they disagree on. In short, we have problems. We don’t have time to sit around whingeing that we don’t feel inspired enough.


So fringe things I went to today were: Chris Huhne’s new waste strategy thing (excellent free food), the ERS’s “Ed Davey answers no questions and Alastair Carmichael answers slightly more” (dull) and Steve Webb and Will Howells‘s thing on campaigning on Facebook, which was really quite interesting. I won’t go into too much detail, but I was impressed to see how much time and effort “Steve Webb and Steve Webb alone” had put into developing his strategy, and there was some nice advice on campaigning.

As I remarked earlier in the day, as I stopped by the Lib Dems Online stall and was encouraged to go along to the latter fringe meeting, Steve Webb seems to have been doing a Fringe meeting on this kind of thing just about every day. The response I got was “Yes. You’d almost think he was trying to make some sort of point, wouldn’t you?”

I hope it’s been getting through to people who need convincing, is all I can say. The meeting I went to tonight seemed well populated by people already on Facebook. When we were asked at the end how many had changed their status during the course of the meeting, as we had already watched Mr. Howells do, about 5 hands went up.

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Young People are Rubbish

The other day I attended a Fringe event about young people. At the age of 20, I probably count as one myself, especially in the context of conference. The listing in the fringe guide was as follows:

MTV and Electoral Reform Society
Are you listening?
A panel of young people take politicians to task.
18.15 – 19.30
Old Ship Hotel, Gresham Suite

And that would indeed be a fairly accurate description. But the trouble I had here is that I felt completely at odds with the young people on offer. The politicians in question who were being taken to task were Simon Hughes MP, Norman Baker MP, and Mark Gettleson (chair of LDYS). All of whom I felt much more affinity with than the “young people”.

The trouble I have is that increasingly, I think politicians in general are getting into a bit of a business of self-flagellation on this kind of issue. Yes, we have a problem that young people, even those who are really quite interested in “Issues” are not connecting with the traditional party process. But increasingly, I am convinced, the problem is basically that these young people are simply infuriatingly self-centred. They claim to be interested in politics and in issues, and yet, most of the ones I have ever spoken to have never been sufficiently interested to actually, ooh, I dunno, find out what the different parties’ policies on their particular issues are and support one.

Today it has never been easier for parties to make their policy available, unadulterated by the necessities for simplification and spin that the media and campaigning have generally imposed, freely on the internet. And so, they have. It’s really quite easy to go on our website, or that of any other party for that matter, and find out what their policies are. When these precocious whingers who claim to speak for young people admonish us that we are not “engaging” them, they are effectively throwing their rattle out the pram screaming “I’m not interested in you! MAKE ME INTERESTED IN YOU!”.

Frankly, it’s not our job to. If young people can’t be arsed to actually engage in the political process, then what are we meant to do about it? As Zoe Williams wrote a while back now:

Nobody is being entirely straight with these young putative apathetics. Nobody wants to look fusty, so everybody’s trying to think outside the box. Bored with politics? Try an internet poll! Try a survey on your mobile! …

It’s dishonest: the correct answer is, bored with politics? Shut up, then. Get used to your economic status. Bored with middle-class men? Vote them out. They’re only there by mandate, they have no superhuman powers. Bored with tax solutions? Well, they are boring. But they’re also the only solutions. Why do you think people got so fired up about them in the 70s? It wasn’t because they enjoyed being bored. Nobody likes teenagers more than I do, but when they say they’re not interested in politics, they shouldn’t be indulged, they should be grounded.

I couldn’t agree more. I really wish these bawling whiny cynics would just grow up. Because at the end of the day, we were all “interested in politics” once, and we weren’t party affiliated, and we enjoyed the freedom of maintaining our own lofty position of independence of thought from any of the main parties, and proclaiming that “oh, they all screw it up in the end” or somesuch cop-out drivel. And then some of us grew up, and recognised that no, the system isn’t perfect, but if you want to see some changes then you can bloody well grow up and engage with it. And you can start by picking a party acceptably close to your views and signing up to march under its banner. Because that’s how it works. Sorry.

Everything else about today’s world may have been atomised into a world of meaningless personal choice, a smokescreen of democratic rights and expression of attitudes you somehow exercise through buying a t-shirt and “having it your way” at Burger King. But if you want to make real changes, if you want to see people who really represent you in positions of authority, then you can just knuckle down and get on with it, can’t you?

There is no alternative. We’d have come up with it by now if there were. The internet may provide some useful campaigning tools, and empower genuine grassroots movements like it has in the US. But don’t expect the fundamentals of the business of governance and democracy to change all that much.

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If Gordon had any sense…

Well now. Ming has done the right thing. Not that he ever did the wrong thing, as such, but he’s made it a bit more apparent than it was last time, in line with the Stephen Tall school of thought. I link to the GU story and not the BBC one because it contains the following fascinating comment from William Hague:

William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, was not impressed.

“This proposal is a clear sign of desperation from Ming Campbell, whose party is so split on this issue,” he said.

Steady now.

Frankly, if, as one might be forgiven for thinking, Gordon Brown’s number one priority for the bettering of our country is to finish off the Tories (not a priority I am especially opposed to), he could do a lot worse than to go along with this.

Every party stands to make hay from this apart from the Tories. Labour can play its traditional “we may not be wholly convinced about the EU, but we are the government, and government means taking the tough but correct decisions” line in supporting EU membership. The Lib Dems know exactly where we’re at on membership of the EU, despite Hague’s rather pathetic politic-ing. But the Tories might very well have a bit of a meltdown. The people who would stand to gain most from that are UKIP, and don’t they just know it:

UKIP leader Nigel Farage welcomed Sir Menzies’ call for an “honest debate” on British membership of the EU.

“I have believed for some time that the only referendum that Gordon Brown will ever consider would be one with the new Constitutional Treaty as continued part of our EU membership.

“Brown believes that this is the only referendum on the EU that he can win.

“The parliamentary arithmetic means that if the Lib Dems support such a move it would give the British people their first chance in over 30 years to determine their own futures.

“I would be interested to hear which side in such a referendum Mr Cameron would support.”

So I would say: Go for it Gordon. The appearance of bowing to dissenters on this might be uncomfortable, but it’s more than worth it.

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EU Referendum: meh

Apparently, some Lib Dems are thinking about quitting the party over Ming’s stance on the EU treaty. Now, I have to say, if forced to take a stance, I probably agree with the people who argue that a referendum is not necessary. Or, to state it a little more accurately, that it’s a bit late now if one is necessary. If you want to know my view, here it is in small writing (because it’s not the point of this post, particularly):

We as a nation have passed any number of treaties similarly signing away some power in the past without referenda, and holding one now would simply allow Eurosceptics to stir up a kick in the shins for the government. I would also go further than Ming in arguing for a more fundamental referendum, if we must have one. After all, if the answer to “Do you want to be in the EU?” is yes, then the answer to “Do you like this treaty?” is to some extent immaterial. If we want to play the game, we have to follow the rules and put up with some compromises, or the whole thing will never get anywhere.

Frankly, once you’ve decided that you want to be in the EU (an institution inherantly of compromise) and participate in it fully, then short of sending the whole British public to negotiate in Brussells, we frankly have to accept that it is part of a representative democracy that we send people in to do this for us and accept the outcome. If we don’t like the fundamental decision, fine, lets have an “in or out” referendum. But what is the UK supposed to do with a “no” vote on this treaty? The EU needs to be reformed, on that I don’t think anyone is uncertain. If every time it makes an attempt to move forward, some country somewhere blows the whole thing out of the water, we’re fighting a losing battle.

Anyway, that stuff said, my main point is this: I just don’t actually care about this very much. I know I should, but I find this whole debate a bit tedious. I know there are arguments on both sides, and I know this is an important issue. But I also have to say, I find all calls for referenda slightly bizarre in the context of a representative democracy – the burden must be on the people who argue that this is a special case to demonstrate that it is. Constitutional change is all very well, but when you have an unwritten constitution, it’s pretty hard to say what changes it, and how fundamentally. I mean, technically, we are still under the ultimate rule of the crown, subjects of Her Majesty, not citizens of a republic, like I might like us to be. I find it hard, therefore, to get terribly worked up about signing away of our constitutional power; we never fought and won it conclusively in the first place, so why should I feel terribly concerned about it being transferred?

I guess that’s an attempt to rationalise what is fundamentally an irrational feeling towards this whole debate, so don’t read all that much into it.

Putting this treaty to a free vote of parliament, that’s something I could get behind. Bitching about the outcome of that vote because the makeup of parliament is a fucking joke which we should all be ashamed of, that’s something I could get behind. This? I don’t care all that much. Sorry.

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Big Pharma: Everyone’s Favourite Market Failure

Adbusters’s website has put up a new article by Dee Hon on the subject of the pharmaceutical industry, which gives a nice clear outline of the case against ‘Big Pharma’. Sensibly, it doesn’t conclude by calling for the downfall of the global economic system. Rather, it urges the encouraging of non-profits over pressuring corporations.


In recent years, pharmaceutical companies have offered discounts on vital medicines to middle-income countries, while charging the poorest countries only production costs. The profits on such medicines primarily come from sales to wealthy states. Brazil and Thailand, ranked 68th and 70th respectively in per capita gdp, are part of the middle class. Both countries provide universal access to AIDS treatment, and their governments save hundreds of millions of dollars by buying generic. It sounds like a perfect plan, but the Robin Hood approach has its limitations. Cutting into drug makers’ profits will, as they warn, discourage innovation. Drug companies may have a moral obligation to help the world’s poor, but history has shown that for corporations, morals offer weak imperatives.

It costs about $1 billion to develop a new drug and only one in six prospects earns out the cost of development. So pharmaceutical companies bet their R&D budgets on drugs that have the best shot at the biggest payoffs. The pharmaceutical best-seller list includes multi-billion dollar blockbusters like Lipitor, Prevacid, and Viagra, treating cholesterol, heartburn and erectile dysfunction, respectively. They’re the disorders of the wealthy, aging and overfed West.

Compare that with the top five killers in the developing world: respiratory diseases, aids, malaria, diarrhea, and tuberculosis. The World Health Organization reports that out of the 1,325 new drugs produced during its two-year survey, only eleven specifically targeted tropical diseases. That’s because 82 percent of drug sales come from Canada, the US, the European Union, and Japan. Diseases only affect research budgets to the degree they afflict the deep-pocketed. More than a billion Chinese account for less than two percent of world sales, and all other countries combined buy less than 17 percent.

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The Dawkins Debate

Liberal Leslie has posted on the marvellous Dawkins programme last night, to which I wrote a slightly lengthy response. I would urge people to add their own comments, as I would be interested to see other people’s thoughts on the questions raised. While I’m at it, a quick link also to Charlie Brooker’s thoughts on the programme – facetious, yes, but also funny. All of which has prompted me to write a post of my own, the general gist of which has been floating around my head for a bit. Full disclosure from the outset: I am an atheist, and I generally think Dawkins is much more right than people give him credit for being.

Dawkins comes in for a lot of lazy criticism nowadays, not least the bizarre claim that he is somehow “just as much a fundamentalist” as religious figures, for sticking to a rational skeptic standpoint. To my mind, there is nothing fundamentalist about taking as a starting point the stance that what most religions today purport to believe requires a good deal of justification; the burden is on the people who believe these things to convince us they are true – either by rational, empirical means, or by convincing us that there are other meaningful means.

The other irritating evasion of Dawkins’s arguments that gets thrown around is the idea that he is out of his depth commenting on religion, because he is a theological ignoramus. I went to a talk, not so long ago, by a Christian theologician (Nicholas Lash, since you ask). Its purpose was supposedly to provide a response to The God Delusion. The question asked by its title was “Where does The God Delusion come from?”. Like most theistic response to Dawkins, the premise assumes Dawkins to be wrong, and looks to explain why someone might be impertinent enough to even raise the issue. The main thrust of the actual talk, as far as I could tell, was that Dawkins was terribly ignorant of theology, and that frankly nobody had the right to question God’s existence without first having spent much of their life bettering themselves by poring over every theological text going.

Dawkins himself answers this and other criticisms pretty well, so I will just quote his response:

I need engage only those few theologians who at least acknowledge the question [of God's existence], rather than blithely assuming God as a premise. For the rest, I cannot better the “Courtier’s Reply” on P. Z. Myers’s splendid Pharyngula website, where he takes me to task for outing the Emperor’s nudity while ignoring learned tomes on ruffled pantaloons and silken underwear. Most Christians happily disavow Baal and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without reference to monographs of Baalian exegesis or Pastafarian theology.

To which I would only add that many of these people seem much happier noisily assailing Dawkins than they are actually taking on the people who have devoted their lives to engaging with their arguments.

Next up: the accusation that Dawkins is a ranting, hate-filled old sod with a chip on his shoulder. Thankfully, this has been answered pretty difinitively now, not by Dawkins himself but by Christopher Hitchens, who has furnished humanity with an example of what such a book might actually look like. Which is not to say that it isn’t enjoyable, by the way, just that it really is one for the atheists!

Which leads me to the final point often made about The God Delusion. It is regularly said, indeed it was said today by the TV reviewer in the Telegraph, that Dawkins is preaching to the converted. Again, this is a criticism that does rather better lobbed in Hitchens’s direction. Hitchens has written an eminently entertaining, occasionally outrageous and always readable whistlestop tour of the arguments. What it adds to Dawkins’s effort is a discussion not just of Judaism and Christianity, but of most organised religions extant today. What it lacks, though, it the clarity of thought and structure. It will likely entertain and fire up the convinced atheist, but I doubt it would convince anyone else.

Dawkins, in turn, is not out to convince the religious, or if he is, I doubt he will get far, though I hope I am wrong. What I felt The God Delusion did brilliantly, though, was preach to the soggy centre. Dawkins’s mission should be to convince the great swath of people out there who aren’t especially religious that there is nothing dirty about the word “atheist”, and no terribly meaningful position to be staked out under the umbrella of agnosticism.

The book does not, indeed cannot, convince people who feel certain about God’s existence, who believe in special revelation and all that. Much of the rest of The God Delusion actually deals not with this central question of God’s existence, but with much of the apologetics which pass for debate of this question nowadays. “Don’t we get our morals from religion?”, “Religion gives us purpose”, etc.

The important thing it does, though, is make a powerful case to agnostics that the “neutral” position is not some kind of “50/50″ middle ground.

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An Encore for Israel’s Noisy Eviction Theatre

Over the years, various incidents have taken place whereby Israel noisily evicted settlers from land which it deemed no longer tenable. Today it evicted forcibly some squatters in Hebron. There were two families living in two houses, numbering perhaps 24 between them. To remove them, Israel sent over 200 police and border guards, and spent over $500,000 (according to alJazeera – note that of the reports I have read, these are conservative figures; Jerusalem Post is reporting 3000 police and security)

Of course, the squatters were joined by quite a few demonstrators, making the total numbers up to maybe 100, according to alJazeera, making the oversized operation slightly more justifiable. But frankly, why did this need to be done? All they have achieved is a media furore, fuelled in part by the Israelis who refused to take part in the action. If these actual squatters do not come back, others will surely take their place. Over 650 Israelis live in Hebron, illegally under international law. Israel today made an attempt to move about 20 of them.

Here is alJazeera’s report:

Of course, this is not the first such occasion. In an incident strikingly similar in 2006, three families were evicted by 700 police and 1000 soldiers. Israel has a very developed sense of political theatre over these events; thoroughly symbolic and achieving almost nothing at great expense in practical terms, what these operations do is provide Israel with concrete examples of them facing down their own fanatics in the name of peace.

In a sense, these events mirror the much less violent circumstances in which both Neil Kinnock and David Cameron set about framing their own media narratives about facing down the extremists in their own parties. In each case, both leaders set about noisily assailing the ideological fringes of their own parties; people who had no real influence in the wider party, but who served as convenient pawns in the media games that suddenly surrounded them. In Kinnock’s case, it was the militant tendency, in Cameron’s it was a more diffuse set of comfort zoners, but media figures such as Norman Tebbitt handily presented themselves to be steamrollered by the New Tory machine (of course, it may not have worked so well for Cameron; he failed to realise that whilst the majority of Labour supporters were not militants, a surprising number of Tories really are the wingnuts of popular imagination).

To get back to my point, though, I will end by mentioning Sharon’s eviction, in 2005, of around 9000 people from settlements in the Gaza strip. In that case, the move represented a meaningful withdrawal, but the overblown manner of making the move was just the same. As Chomsky observed of the Gaza evictions:

The “media blitz” on disengagement was quite impressive, manufacturing one of the lead stories of the year. There were pages and pages of photos and reports of the pathos of families forced to leave their homes and greenhouses, the weeping children trying vainly to hold back soldiers, and the anguish of soldiers who were ordered to evict Jews from their homes and to remove the thousands of protesters who flooded to the settlements to resist evacuations (by means that would lead to instant death for any Palestinian), miraculously evading military forces that keep an iron grip on Palestinians.

All ignored was the fact, plain enough, that disengagement on August 15 required no army intervention. The government could have simply announced that on that date the IDF would leave the Gaza Strip. A week before, the settlers would have quietly departed in the lorries provided to them, with compensation to resettle. But that would not have entrenched the message: Never again must Jews suffer such terrible fate; the West Bank must be theirs. (Chomsky, Failed States, p. 195)

Of course, subsequently, it seems that around 6500 of the evictees from Gaza did indeed go straight over to the West Bank and set up home there.

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Dodging Hypotheticals

Mark Pack asks whether one should dodge hypothetical questions, over at Lib Dem Voice. He does so at the prompting of this Slate article by former Al Franken Show regular John Dickerson (I’m sure he’s significant in other ways, too, but that’s how I think of him), the thrust of which is probably summed up best by the line:

But what might not be great for Obama politically is great for us, so we should thank him for taking the risk.

Now, I think the interesting question that springs from this is who are the “we” who should thank him? Voters? Or journalists? Personally, I would have thought both, but from the suggestion that these answers may not be great for Obama “politically”, I take it Dickerson doesn’t think it necessarily helps him with voters.

Which is weird. Personally, I have always found refusals to answer hypothetical questions absolutely bizarre. Since elections are essentially one big hypothetical question (“If you had to pick one of these people to represent your view for the next four years, and you didn’t know what might happen in those four years, which one would you pick?”), surely one of the best ways for the electorate to have a firm idea of the people they are choosing between is to ask them how they might react to certain situations. They have every right to ask hypotheticals. Representative Democracy almost depends on their being able to do so.

Of course, politicians know this as well as anyone, and will answer any question they want to answer, whilst batting off ones they don’t with whatever line they can find. But it is a continual source of puzzlement to me why a refusal to answer a hypothetical question on those grounds is regarded as legitimate, and therefore even an option.

Now, at this point, let’s take a step back and ask what the applicability of this to Lib Dems is. Obviously, the most politically dangerous and perennial question we face is the hypothetical coalition forming deal one. To which we have already given an answer, whether it is the one the Church Of The One True Liberalism likes or not.

So I should at this point clarify that answering hypotheticals, rather than simply refusing outright, does not rule out the possibility of simply saying “that would depend on several factors, such as a), b), c) and d), so I cannot give you a definitive answer based on the parameters of your question.”

So on coalition forming, the answer might well be:

“We would talk to all major parties, and try to ascertain which offered the most opportunity to implement liberal policy. PR would be a prerequisite. We would try, all other things being equal, to support the party with the largest popular vote. Our decision would be highly dependent on all of these. But in any situation, getting liberal policy enacted is what drives us, and the best way to achieve that is to elect a Liberal Democrat government.”

Which is a bit clunky, I guess, but then that’s the problem with honesty. It doesn’t tend to be very snappy. But, if nothing else, consideration of this has at least persuaded me that maybe Stephen Tall was right and I was wrong.

Liberalism – Does it have to apply to everything?

Just been reading Femme de Resistance’s post, and the reaction it has attracted,
in particular the comment:

It is all about priorities. If you support both economic and personal liberalism, think that free markets are best for the whole society, but also think, that the state shouldn’t have a say to what consenting adults may do in the bedroom,then you have to choose which is the most important to you.

To me, this sticks out as somewhat incongruous, as do LibertyCat’s assertions that

Liberals are not socialists

Socialists reject economic liberalism. They believe that economic competition inevitably leads to the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. Socialist ideas of equality tend to deal with equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity, and with equality between groups rather than between individuals. Most socialists reject political liberalism, believing that a strong centralised state is needed to counteract the economic power of the capitalist class.

To read this, I would probably get the impression that I was a socialist if I didn’t (think I) know better.

I agree that socialists tend to focus on equality of outcome instead of equality of opportunity. I think they’re wrong in that. But I don’t think that they’re wrong about unfettered economic competition bringing with it the likelihood of simply creating self-reinforcing inequalities, of opportunity as much as of outcome.

I also agree that the centralised state is the wrong tool to solve such problems, in the shape of the traditional Labour vision of government. But I do see a role for strong regulation and limits on competition, in order to ensure a level playing field. Ultimately, it comes down to the same point that MPH and Oxfam and all that lot make about free trade: It’s not the same thing as fair trade.

When you’re formulating an ideology, it’s important to know who you want to benefit from your actions. I want people to have the opportunity to live better lives, the lives they want to, with as little interference from outside as possible. Note the word outside there. I didn’t say government. The way I see it, with the world going in the direction it’s going, we’re simply going to replace the 20th century’s spectre of limits on freedoms (the state/socialism) with the 21st’s (corporate force of will expressed through financial power).

To me as a Lib Dem, the word Democrat is at least as important to my reasons for joining the party as the word Liberal. If we’re in this to protect people’s freedoms and uphold democratic principles of representation, as locally as possible, then that takes in opposition to corporate power just as much as it does state power. People with more money being able to have more say than people who don’t, and the oft-made argument that people are in some way excercising a “democratic right” by not buying the goods of a company they dislike, say, overlook the fact that this is a vision of democracy with the idea that people’s sway in a vote goes in direct proportion to their wealth.

To subscribe to unreconstructed economic liberalism is in my view a very unhealthy move, and it perturbs me to see quite so many people seemingly making this argument that Lib Dems are people who believe in liberalism both personally and economically, but see the personal bit as more important. In my case, it is precisely because I believe in personal liberties that I oppose economic liberalism in its uglier forms.

If that makes me more of a New Socialist in some sense, and not a Liberal, then that’s fair enough. But what I am also is a Liberal Democrat, and I suspect I’m not the only one who thinks along these lines.

So am I in the wrong party? I certainly don’t see myself as a Tory, since I am opposed to both personal illiberalism and economic liberalism (in its purest form – I of course recognise the invisible hand of the free market as a powerful organisational tool). The Tories are pretty much the opposite of all I believe, in their traditional form. Now? Cameron, if he actually believed what he projects, would probably be closer to my views than some of the people I see calling themselves Liberals in our party.

And I’m not really a socialist, since I still don’t believe that the way around my reservations with the free market is to take it all into the hands of the state. What is needed is simply a greater willingness of the state to set a few ground rules and enforce them in the private sector, not more public sector (But there is of course still a big role for the state in health, education and social security that simply has to be funded if not run from as high a level as possible (to protect it from the vagaries of the economy as much as possible)). Labour ideas are closer to my own, I suppose, in terms of the outcomes they want, but not in how they think we can achieve them.

Many see the Lib Dems as the expression of some sort of messy compromise of SDP and Liberal ideals. To me, what the Lib Dems represent is a surprisingly consistent manifestation of the views set out above: that ultimately this is all about people and their lives. There is no conflict between Liberalism, as I see it, and opposition to economic liberalism.

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OK. Well, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say from the outset that I am a Hughes supporter, and that if you go to his campaign website you will in fact see my name in the list of supporters.

That said, what I want to explore is why I have arrived at this decision. The place to start for a look at this contest is, I would say, a look at the party’s position. We have come out of the last election with a strong but simmultaneously disappointing position. The Lib Dems won extra votes for their opposition to the Iraq war, an issue which anyone with much judgement at the time could see would drag on for a while. They won approval for their leader, Charles Kennedy, though some uncharitably criticised him for his slip on tax policy at an early morning press conference. They won probably the same degree of approval they normally have for the rest of their actual policies. Now they have publically exorcised Kennedy, they are left with their basic position mainly the way it always has been, and the likelihood that (through force of American opinion) the Iraq war will have been handed over to the Iraqis to fight among themselves by the next election.

So, on the face of things, it doesn’t look good. The next election, they will almost certainly (barring Alien abduction or somesuch unforseen circumstance) be up against Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Cameron has made a spirited play for the Lib Dems’ voters. I don’t see this getting too far, though. It a fair assumption that most Lib Dems would rather see a Labour than a Tory government, backed up by many polls showing that the party members see themselves as more the left than the right. Unless Cameron is spectacularly credible on issues close to our hearts (the environment is uppermost in my mind here), Lib Dems are not going to be abandoning ship in his direction in a big way. The loss of support for them in the wake of current media hype would seem to support this theory. It has largely contributed to a Labour bounce, not a Tory one.

Remember, Lib Dem voters are generally quite well informed. They will look into Cameron’s claims with some scrutiny, and my belief is that by the time the small fight in the Conservative party has resolved itself, it is fairly inevitable that Cameron’s agenda will have conceded a little ground to the Tebbit school of thought. Environmentally sensitive taxes are sure not to be top of the agenda, and it would seem that, quietly, the Tories are already sticking the knife into the very idea that directors of companies should be answerable to the public on what they do to the environment. I don’t think that, played right at the election, the Lib Dems campaign should suffer much from the Tories.

What is much more of a problem is the classic “Do you want to wake up with a Tory MP?” scare from Labour. With the Tories resurgent the Lib Dems are far more likely to be squeezed that way. Of course, the great argument to that is that a strong third party in a political landscape of fairly evenly matched (Cameron is no Blair, neither is Brown) main parties, the third party, even outside of the oft-touted hung parliament, has a fair amount of weight to it. It only takes a few rebellious MPs on either side (especially if we’re still in a Labour majority) to turn the situation into one where the Lib Dems can seriously affect the vote, and thus wield influence over the government on what comes before the house to be voted on.

Nonetheless, I would say that opposing the current government should remain the focus of the Lib Dems, whilst trumpeting loudly their actions where they go beyond the Tories’ in the areas that Cameron is trying to move in on. I don’t believe it is incompatible with stealing Tory and Labour seats to do this. If handled well, the Lib Dems could even conduct a campaign of painting the Tories as turning themselves into watered down Lib Dems (a nice turning of the tables from the days when we were accused of being cuddly Tories). We need to stop trying to lure Tories on the same reasons that they might vote Tory, and instead convince them that the things we focus on are more important.

In fact, that brings me to one of the central problems in perception the Lib Dems face. For a long time, they have suffered under an image of dithering and ill-definedness in their policies. It is an easy and lazy smear to throw in our direction to call us woolly, to accuse of being all things to all men. Even when we clearly had policies at the last election that weren’t to everybody’s taste, now that the election is out of people’s memories, this is the line used to marginalise us. A consent around this idea has been manufactured by the other two parties, aided and abetted by a media for whom political impartiality is much easier when the public (and therefore they) only think in one political dimension.

As you may notice, my last post was a graph of my own political position. It shows politics in two separate dimensions, related but not fixed to each other. It is quite possible to be economically left or right wing, and for that to have little or no bearing on your sense of authoritarianism/libertarianism. The Lib Dems need to communicate this new way to evaluate politics to the country, at least sufficiently to get it on the radar in some sense. For too long, we have laboured under the old left-right line, when it is no longer the focus of our arguments.

When even the Tories are happy using the word ‘redistribution’, and when the last election at one point devolved into an argument over whether you can call pledging to increase spending by less than someone else a ‘cut’, you know we’ve more or less reached a consensus on that line. That’s why the political pundits you get on TV and in the papers will tell you that the parties are all in a big smush in the middle of the spectrum, and yet you still get some quite heated debates between them on occasion. They’re looking at the wrong spectrum. Sure we’ve all snuggled up together in the same band on the left right axis, but we sure as hell haven’t on the authoritarian/liberal one.

Look at the arguments going on right now: Freedom of speech in the religious hatred bill in the UK, in America they’re about the government’s illegal wiretap scandal. The “war on terror”‘s pressures on our civil liberties have brought these issues to the fore, but even before that, this is where the real action is. But the two other parties have a vested interest in stopping people thinking on this axis, because as soon as you think about it, it becomes clear that actually what we have in this country is not a centre-left, a right wing and a wooly fudge party, but we have two centre-authoritarian parties and one liberal one. As soon as people see this axis, they will both see the party for what we are, and vote to correct the imbalance.

And look, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to claim that the Lib Dems know exactly who they are. What I’m saying is that the reason we’re seen as ill-defined is because we define ourselves on the axis that nobody else defines themselves on. Labour and Conservative define themselves in the left-right direction. So people who wish to identify themselves on that axis join one or the other, regardless of their positioning on the liberal-authoritarian axis. People who wish to define themselves as liberal join the Lib Dems, regardless of their position on the left-right axis. As a result, Labour and Conservatives alike are just as fuzzy on the liberal-authoritarian axis as the Lib Dems are on the left-right line.

So into all this, we see three (now) leadership candidates step into the fray. All of them, obviously, have pretty good liberal credentials, but there are differences on the left-right axis. Hughes is tradtionally the more leftwing, but to be honest I simply see him as the more honest about his thoughts. But what we have to accept, for the moment, is that the thinking is not going to change. People are going to think on the left-right axis, and they are going to see Hughes as leftish, Huhne and Campbell as centre right.

So why pick Hughes? Because, as ever, Labour have a large group of members who are not content with their actual party. A proper signal that the so-called “orange book” tendency is in the minority, like they wish it was in their own party, might have the best chance of attracting the Labour votes the party needs. Anyone who really is ideologically a Tory will never vote for a party who believe in fair taxation and real steps to help the environment that won’t benefit business. Some people who simply vote Tory out of tribal opposition to Labour might come join us, but that is frankly a bonus. As we saw in the 2005 election, to base a strategy around bringing down Tory seats is a non-starter.

So the clearest message to the voters we need to attract to the party would be to pick Hughes. Happily enough, I also happen to think that, talented communicator as he is, he’s the best person to then try to get the idea across to the electorate that we need to move on from the left-right mypoia that we currently suffer from. On top of that, Campbell is quite well placed where he is, as an elder statesman who speaks very well on foreign policy. Huhne may well be useful to the party as a now better known face, but in all honesty I don’t think he’s well known enough to be leader, and a vote for him as leader would simply suggest to most people that we are an irrelevance, happy to be led by someone they’ve not even heard of.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that Ming Campbell is too old, but I do wonder whether he is perhaps a little inexperienced in having to think in the slightly juvenile ways a party leader has to, on occasion, to avoid embarrassment. As was so evident from his first PMQs as acting leader, he is quite able to shoot himself in the foot with a question that a more savvy man might have seen was a bad idea. Leave him where he is, as the respected advocate of liberal internationalism that he is, out of the glare of too much presentational scrutiny. He works for a Newsnight audience (and frequently proves it), but for the public, too easily distracted by irrelevancies, he is not the man to carry our torch.

So having talked down Hughes’s opponents, why do I think he’s up to it? Obviously, I couldn’t disccuss this topic without at least mentioning his recent problems. To be honest, I don’t think it’s as damaging as people would like to think, and as evidenced by the poll taken by ICM it’s clear that actually people take to him the best overall. As far as the stain on his record it supposedly represents, I think several things need to be said. Firstly, that this view is generally put across by partisan commentators. Second, I think people understand why one might lie about this kind of thing, because really the sort of non-committal answers he gave the question before were getting him nowhere.

Lastly, I think, as Johann Hari pointed out, that a far greater reflection on Hughes’s character is given by his brave actions in relation to the murder of a constituent, which led to a price of £10,000 being put on his head. The man is, in his public life, a passionate and principled advocate for his view of the world. Privately, he may have had any number of reasons to keep his sexuality hidden. I don’t think it’s an excuse, but I do think consideration should be given to his point that it’s harder for MPs still around from the era when gay MPs did have to hide their sexuality to be electable to suddenly switch policy and come out than it is for MPs who’ve just arrived to simply be open about it.

And lastly, one small point: HE’S BISEXUAL, NOT GAY! The continual refusal of so many people to take on this important distinction is maddening and frankly offensive. It speaks to an attitude of ‘once a poof always a poof’, and suggests that these people really don’t care about the details of his life one bit, but simply want to focus on the supposed ‘scandal’. One expects this sort of behaviour from the Sun, but I don’t want to see such attitudes reflected by the rest of the, more sane, media.

Well, I’ll stop there. You’re probably quite bored by now, to be honest. Vote Hughes!

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Just for people’s interest, here is my reading on the political quiz on OkCupid!

You are a
Social Liberal
(68% permissive)

and an…

Economic Liberal
(15% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid

And here is my reading from the political compass:

60% Economic Left, 40% Social Liberal

Sorry, but they don’t seem to allow me to show the little diagram, which is a shame. Of the two sites, I would actually recommend Political Compass more than the first one (which is American and has a few America specific questions).

So am I surprised by this? Clearly both would put me in the same kind of area, and socially I would say I am pretty liberal. As for economically, though, I wonder. I don’t really think of myself as hugely against the capitalist system per se, but simply very aware of the flaws of the system as it is. These tests tend to ask questions about such issues, because they are aware that such issues are big issues to people on either side of the divide, but they then don’t distinguish between my answer being no to ‘what’s best for a multinational corporation is best for the world’ meaning I hate capitalism and everything it’s built on, and meaning simply that I don’t think this is true, but nonetheless the forces of the market and the private sector can, harnessed properly, still be useful to us.

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Adbusters: Important and Timely or Childish and Pretentious?

The anitcorporate movement is one of the last great hopes of the left, in more or less any place on Earth you want to name. And I do sincerely believe that the issues raised by this particular corner of the political world are vitally important. In case you’re wondering what I’m on about, go and watch The Corporation, or read No Logo, or some Chomsky. It’ s been done before, I’m not going to retread it here.

Since having access to an outlet that actually sells Adbusters (Cambridge WHSmiths) I’ve been buying it. And sure, its political heart is more or less in the right place. But the trouble is, I get the impression half the people involved in its production are more in love with a romantic vision of an underground, shadow-culture driven movement than they are with the actual beliefs.

Now I have no problems with a magazine liking to present itself. When you can find all sorts of commentary on these lines on the internet, a magazine has to make a pleasant experience for readers. That’s not my issue. My problem is its tendency to describe movements in extremely nebulous language, to publish articles like its Yomango article (which two letters this month complain about, thank God) carefully avoiding the word ‘stealing’, to put in pointless pages every now and then whose only purpose seems to be to make angsty teenagers feel like part of something special.

Go on their website’s message boards, and you find little but fairly infantile conversations about the problems we face, from people that the right very effectively paint as communists. Are these the best that this movement can attract? Am I missing something? Some very intelligent people are involved in the movement. They make a lot of very good, subtle and nuanced arguments. But beyond the few central texts to the whole thing, the followers of it seem to be, on the whole, a rag-tag bunch of sociopaths and people who simply don’t believe business has a place.

And my problem here is that for a fledgling movement, that would be fine. But this isn’t, any more. This is now an urgent problem; corporations are lobbying the US government to destroy the environment, some environmentalists are now saying we’re already past the point of no return, this stuff is urgent. Many related movements seem to be able to sort themselves out into meaningful, coherent campaigns: Make Poverty History, green groups, and so on. Why does this one, which actually has put its finger on the issue underlying most of the others we face today, not flourished to the same extent?

I tend to shy away from being too tinfoilist about these sorts of thing, but I am beginning to give some credence to the idea that the corporate media actually condition, in a subtle way, people to believe in the system. What Chomsky calls manufacturing consent. Because the people intelligent enough to see the importance of issues like this seem to like to believe in some mysterious controversy over the issue. As far as I can tell, nobody has made a good case for the idea that corporations should be the primary motivator in our lives, certainly never put it to the vote (at least not told people that’s what it was; US elections are now a choice between two ‘yesses’ to the corporate world, pretty much). But people who are intelligent like to think that the world all kind of works the way it does for some reason – they find the idea reassuring – and so they almost ascribe a counter-argument to it all out of good faith that there must be one.

The movement is stuck in a rut, because the only people it is attracting, by and large, are the ones who really want to be dropouts or rebels anyway, the ones attracted to it precisely because it is radical and in the minority. It needs to get itself into the mainstream. And for that to happen, its house organ, Adbusters, needs to grow up a bit. It needs the people who do actually vote to get the message. More of its activists need to get into traditional politics, if only because that guarantees you some coverage by the media. We need to get the message out there carried by the intelligent spokespeople who understand the realities of the movement, not just the immature studenty types who want to stick it to the man.

And we need to do this soon.

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