Message for Ed Davey

Ed, by now, the UN Secretary General has managed to comment very sensibly on the fairly appalling actions of Israel in recent days. Why have we said nothing on this? In 2006, when the Lebanon business flared up, Ming took a very sensible and proactive stance in calling for Israel to call off its grossly disproportionate and aggressive campaign. Surely this is an equally obvious situation in which we can be pretty clear in opposing the cosy consensus view of Labour and the Tories, which broadly supports the (typically fatuous) US-Israeli line that goes something like the following quote.

The Observer:

Last night, the US called for an end to the violence and said it regretted the loss of life in the Gaza Strip. ‘There is a clear distinction between terrorist rocket attacks that target civilians and action in self defence,’ White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Actually, when you have responded to 1 death and 5 injuries at the hands of terrorist rockets from Gaza with bombs that have killed over 100, and many innocent children and other civilians amongst them, as well as denying medical care to many innocent Palestinians, I don’t see the distinction Mr. Johndroe is trying to make. Only an amazingly militaristic, aggressive and paranoid mind could call this “self defence”. This becomes obvious when you listen to the statements of some within the ruling Kadima party who are presumably driving this, for instance:

Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit: “The heads of Hamas must pay the price. Hamas doesn’t understand any other language; the problem is we are talking to them in English instead of in Arabic. They only understand [the language of force]. The situation at present doesn’t make sense; every other country faced with rockets on its citizens would go in and destroy the area. We should warn the [Arabs in Gaza] in advance, give them a day’s notice, and then wipe out a neighborhood. We should also hit their leaders, regardless of who or what they are.”

Opposing this kind of thinking looks like a no brainer to me, especially in light of Israel’s bomb attack on the office of the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Whatever we may think of this man, his party was democratically elected by the people of Gaza, and it is not Israel’s place to remove him by force. Isn’t the word “Democrat” in our name?

When Ming was leader, we all welcomed calls for him to be “the pinstripe radical”, for our party to “rattle the cage of British politics”. It seems perfectly in line with that aspiration to me to speak up about this issue. And yet I see no comment from you (or anyone else) about this at all on the party website. I know you are busy with the Lisbon treaty stuff right now, as you told some of my fellow bloggers the other day. But this shouldn’t be a difficult issue. I, and I’m sure many others would appreciate it if you could make a bit of noise about this. After all, the Lisbon treaty circus is all very well, but it’s not likely to actually sway many voters. This might.

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"Ministers Plan Clampdown" – What A Good Idea

Today’s Guardian front page story (and doesn’t it look pretty now?!) tells us that

A legally enforceable cinema-style classification system is to be introduced for video games in an effort to keep children from playing damaging games unsuitable for their age, the Guardian has learned. Under the proposals, it would be illegal for shops to sell classified games to a child below the recommended age.

At present only games showing sex or “gross” violence to humans or animals require age limits. That leaves up to 90% of games on the market , many of which portray weapons, martial arts and extreme combat, free from statutory labelling.

Now, whilst it is true that the requirement for age ratings to be followed only applies currently to those games referred to the BBFC, there has for a while been a system of indsutry-wide voluntary ratings, first under ELSPA and then PEGI. The problem, as ever, is not so much with the industry, which did everything you could reasonably expect it to without being particularly firmly regulated. The problem comes in the shops selling the games and the people buying them. Whilst most shops, certainly chains, had some kind of policy not to sell games to people under these ages, on the whole it wasn’t exactly ruthlessly applied.

So to be honest, despite it probably being in some sense illiberal, I am all for this. For one thing, if we can’t trust parents to exercise their own control over children in the field of video sales (which are all covered by the BBFC), then why should we for video games. If anything, there is more of a case for intervention here, since most parents don’t play games, and certainly aren’t likely to play a game through before giving it to their children like they might a film.

Another reason I would be wholeheartedly in favour of this is that it just might drag the games industry into a more mature place. There will always be violence in all artistic depictions of events, as the film industry of today shows. But by making itself one of the major avenues for boys (and, to a much lesser extent, girls) to get their hands on the kind of material they wouldn’t be able to get near (hopefully) in any other medium, the games industry has given itself an image problem. From the outside, it is seen as churning out games full of rather adolescent crap for the sake of it (and not without reason – it does produce a disproportionate amount of this kind of output).

From the inside, many games consumers have got themselves into such a skewed mindset that anything not full of guns and violence is seen as in some way childish and immature. Frankly, companies like Nintendo, which produce an output with some kind of balance of subject matter, deserve to be lauded for their maturity, but they receive precious little of this, and when they do, it often comes from parents, giving them an even worse image.

Gaming still has a problem being taken seriously as an artform in the sense that television and film are. To some extent, this will be the case until the generation which grew up with games supplants its forbears, and the average Mail or Telegraph reader has personal experience of playing games and knows it didn’t turn them into either a gun wielding vigilante or an acrobatic plumber, according to taste. But until such time, a step in the right direction might be brought about by this move. My logic for saying so runs something like this:

A large section of the audience for the kind of adolescent drivel which is released is probably underage. If they cannot buy it (and of course, this will not be absolutely the case, parents will still buy things they shouldn’t, just as irresponsible parents will buy their children DVDs they shouldn’t have), this market will be significantly diminished, rewarding those games companies which have staked their business model on expanding the idea of who their typical customer is (like Nintendo), and punish those who have relentlessly pursued a pretty cynical agenda of pandering (like Sony and EA).

On the other hand, this might see an increase in (ugh) sports games.

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Political Balance

Reaction to my bit of number crunching earlier today has been interesting. Benedict G commented that “From that graph it looks like we’re overrepresented on Question Time.”

A valid viewpoint, I can see where it comes from. But it also doesn’t ring true to me (surprise surprise!). Here’s why.

Any conception of a “balance” in guest booking must be based in some conception of what that balance looks like. How does one go about doing this? One idea might be that the guests over the course of a series should reflect the balance of public opinion. It looks as if that’s what the producers have indeed been doing. At the 2005 election, the polling went 37/33/22/8. When you multiply that proportion by turnout (61.3%), that means that of the total electorate, the proportions who put their vote to the use of a particular party were 23/20/14/5. Question Time, meanwhile, has, since 2005, booked guests such that its proportions go 21/21/15/5.

So no, I don’t think we’re over or under represented, if you accept that this is what balance means. Certainly no more than the Tories are. And arguments addressing the idea that the proportion should follow our seats in parliament is ludicrous, since it accepts a fundamental tenet of FPTP which we, as Lib Dems, do not accept.

The problem comes in the presence of the wildcards who make up the other guests on each panel. Because so many of them are columnists, or journalists, from the national press, we end up with an awful lot of people expressing opinions which march in much closer step with the Conservatives than the guests who might be more sympathetic to Labour or Lib Dems do with their respective parties.

So here are my suggestions, if we’re accepting that model:

No more programmes where you have effectively two tories or two labourites. That seems silly no matter what arguments about balance one puts. And it wouldn’t affect the balance much anyway.

Greatly reduced presence of Littlejohn.

That is all.

But I’m not convinced that that is the model of balance that we should be accepting.

There is such a thing as a “main party”, at least, that seems to be what the BBC believes – they use the phrase often enough. Surely, then, it is the role of the BBC, in its public service remit (and I feel certain that they claim Question Time as part of their public service time), to provide equal platforms to the “main parties”. They seem to broadly agree with this, they have more or less a guaranteed place on the programmes for a Tory and a Labour person each week – even though simply the idea of “balance” doesn’t require that this be the case (you could have weeks where nobody from the government was present, for instance, and more weeks when there were two; at least then the sense that the other two parties are in some way “entitled” to these places, but we aren’t, would be removed).

The BBC simply doesn’t accept that the Lib Dems are a main party. If it did, I feel sure it would be allowing us on each programme.

GMTV Sunday

What the hell is the point of a programme that goes out at 6.10am on a Sunday? Who exactly can watch this? And why is there no facility to watch it again on the internet (certainly not one I can find after 5 minutes of Googling)?

I really don’t see why politicians would want to go on it. Almost nobody sees the interviews, the only things which ever make the news are the bits the press decides are newsworthy. And since nobody (to a first approximation) really saw the original interview, they are free to take it as out of context as they want.

This must be the most influential programme for insomniacs ever made.

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You know you’re in trouble when…

…you first read something that you could genuinely describe yourself as “disgusted” at. Not just your common or garden intellectual disapproval, but a genuine visceral reaction.

Well folks, today I hit that point, thanks to this story, tucked away on EducationGuardian:

Students will be “blackmailed” into holding identity cards in order to apply for student loans, the Tories have warned.

According to Home Office documents leaked to the Conservative party last night, those applying for student loans will be forced to hold identity cards to get the funding from 2010.

Anyone aged 16 or over will be expected to obtain a card – costing up to £100 – to open a bank account or apply for a student loan.

The document says: “We should issue ID cards to young people to assist them as they open their first bank account, take out a student loan, etc.”

What is it about ID cards that gives Labour such a blind spot on this? They talk about a “voluntary phase”, and no compulsion without further legislation, and then they immediately start cooking up schemes like this, which to my mind can only be described as fucking despicable. As NO2ID state:

This is less a phased introduction than a clandestine one. There is to be no choice.

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Here, Mr. Dale!

Iain Dale’s obsession with the Lib Dems continues today with an attempt to make Clegg look out of step with the party on the EU reform treaty (as long as for “party” you read “four bloggers”). He asks: “are there any LibDem bloggers at all who support their new leader’s calamitous stand?” Well, on the condition that I don’t accept the stance as calamitous at all (awkward, maybe), I would like to step forward.

Paul Walter has already put forward the best worded technical argument on this that I have heard (including from Ed Davey), and I don’t intend to retread that particular strand of the case against a referendum. If you haven’t read Paul’s post, read it, and then add the rest of my post to it, to achieve a full appreciation of my point of view.

My main reason for disliking the idea of a referendum is that it just seems like a really stupid way to work our membership of the EU. When these documents get put together, years are spent by our (constitutionally) elected representatives hammering out the clauses they want and those they don’t. There are now 27 countries in the EU, and they all have their own positions. It’s a long and drawn out process. Nonetheless, if we believe there is merit in membership of the EU at all, then it is a worthwhile one, and any treaty that makes the EU work better is worth negotiating.

Once all this stuff is put together, right at the end of the process of wrangling that has formed this constitution, its final step before being passed into law is for each country to ratify it. And this is the stage when it is appropriate for the British people (or the people of any other country, for that matter) to have their say?

Think of it this way. You commission an architect to design a building for you, on the basis of your brief for what it must do. They then go away, and get the building’s design accepted by your neighbours, which involves the odd compromise on one or two points. They have to change one or two building materials to comply with environmental regulation (quite right too!). They draw up a design. At the end of it all, they stand back and say “There you are, it may not be exactly what you wanted, but we did our best. You can now either accept the job we’ve done, or tear it up.”

What would be on offer to the public in a referendum on this treaty would not be a meaningful say on the treaty, it would be petulance. If we want to be in the EU, we have to accept that treaties must be negotiated, and must inherantly be compromises. If we don’t like what they come out with, we should not derail the process for the rest of the nations who are quite happy with the way it is going. There is no point in sending them back to the drawing board, we are unlikely to get anything better back if we do. If we don’t like it, we should leave the EU.

And that is why the referendum the Lib Dems are proposing is the only sensible one to be offered. Referenda are always blunt instruments, and the idea that a referendum is the appropriate instrument with which the British public should express a view on something like the contents of the EU reform treaty is barking. Not when we have already had, for some time now, a much more sensible instrument with which to do so: a representative democracy. Nobody could argue that a party’s position towards the EU was not a big issue in the minds of many when they elected the parties that they did.

(You might, of course, take issue with the way our representative democracy is organised. For instance, you might point out that the Tory party is not as outright anti-Europe as many of its MPs and supporters might like, and that as such, your only option for expressing an explicitly anti-EU stance is to vote for a party like UKIP with little chance of success. I know. Frustrating, isn’t it? Why not vote for a party with a committment to change that, then.)

So lets not waylay the EU’s progress any more. If the great British public are so set against the EU reform treaty, despite the government’s having done their best to negotiate it in our interest (it is not in their interest to do otherwise, surely?), then lets take the opportunity to leave them all to it. But lets not insist on remaining in the EU, sending them back to the drawing board with every attempt they make to reform the EU. And if we entertain the notion that actually, given an in or out vote, the majority would vote to stay in the EU, then can we also accept that membership of the EU entails a committment to compromise and due process, and that referenda are wholly inappropriate to that process?

When we passed Maastricht, there was a case for a referendum. When we entered the EC, there certainly was. And there is a case now for a referendum. And it is the one the Lib Dems are offering. But I just don’t see that it is in any way helpful to have a referendum on the reform treaty. Once we accept that we want to be members of something called “the European Union”, and that we do not want to be the only members of it, then we no longer have the right to expect it to be everything we might want. It belongs to other people as well. If, on balance, we don’t like it, we should get out of it.

And that is why what Nick Clegg has done is eminently sensible.

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Clegg’s New Year Message

I just got in from work to read the email version of Nick Clegg’s New Year Message. He has also recorded it as a YouTube video:

Personally, I was genuinely enthused by it, and it’s not often I can say that about a Lib Dem email shot. I think this message contains the beginnings of a really strong narrative for Clegg to hang our policies off: what he terms “social mobility”.

I believe no-one should be condemned by the circumstances of their birth. And I am certain that is what the British people believe, too. We are a nation with a strong sense of fair play, and natural justice.

The challenge for our party is to persuade those people that their home is with the Liberal Democrats. We will do it by putting social mobility – a fair deal for every family – at the heart of our message.

Sprouting from this sturdy trunk are four key issues which he clearly intends to try and make some running on in the new year. Two of them are not surprising, they are major planks of existing policy and are familiar territory for us, although weaving them into his “social mobility/families” may be interesting to watch. They are:

1. Opposition to ID cards.
2. The Pupil Premium / Levelling the playing field for poor families in general.

One of them is clearly a piece of David Cameron’s political territory which Nick wants for himself:

3. Quality of Life / Work-Life Balance

I see no reason why he shouldn’t take it relatively easily, since the Tory quality of life policy review’s suggestions were so roundly ignored.

The last one, and the most specifically trumpeted here, is an interesting one:

4. “We will campaign for sensible restrictions on advertising aimed at toddlers.”

Now, as a regular reader of Adbusters, I need little persuading that campaigning to take back some of our more cherished public spaces from advertisers is a good thing, so I don’t have too much concern about this as a bit of policy, but I think it is interesting as a sign of Clegg’s thinking, since it is so specific an issue and so early in Clegg’s leadership. I don’t know what to make of it, really. I hope it will go down well, though. Advertising is quite a big issue for the anticorporate left, and for young people in general, and it’s a sufficiently unusual political issue that it might just capture the attention of people who don’t usually pay much heed to the usual spats on tax, education, health, foreign policy and so on. If the campaign on this can find something genuinely interesting to say, we may well win some new following. Which can’t be bad.

I will finish on a prediction: Like last time there was a kerfuffle over kids TV advertising, the commercial broadcasters will likely predict the end of kids’ TV in the commercial sector. I didn’t believe them then, and I wouldn’t believe them now. Anyway, to be honest, it’s wouldn’t be a terrible thing for the BBC to end up producing the bulk of kids telly. They do it very well, and I think it’s more obviously justifiable as a public service than much of their programming. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how the commercial sector reports it. Will ITN’s reporting be notably chillier than the BBCs? Will either of them bother to report this at all?

Time will tell…