Saturday, 23 January 2010

Don't Panic! Policy Failure Alert!

The UK Terror Alert has been raised from 'substantial' to 'severe'.

The threat level operates according to the following scale:
Low - attack is unlikely
Moderate - attack is possible, but not likely
Substantial - attack is a strong possibility
Severe - attack is highly likely
Critical - attack is expected imminently

The current policy was formed in the aftermath of the London Tube attacks on 7/7/2005. Only weeks before the bombing the previous measure had been lowered, so it was decided then that the level should be simplified and made public when it changed.

Apparently Alan Johnson made the public announcement in order to raise awareness. Independent Assessor Lord Carlile said the government has "decided that if you don't tell the public to be vigilant, they're not going to be vigilant," adding that he supported this view.

I disagree. I think this underestimates the vast majority of members of rational members of the public and completely miscalculates the potential for self-imposed problems arising from fear (which is the ultimate aim of the terrorist, after all).

I do agree that there should be an internal scale which can be used to coordinate official responses. However I would also add that the volatility of the scale is itself a measure of the failure of government to prevent terrorism and that this indicates the need for a change in policy.

As the Beeb helpfully provides a timeline of the threat level I think it's worth having a closer look at the changes.

On 1/8/2006 the terror threat was raised from 'severe' to 'critical'
14/8/2006: lowered from 'critical' to 'severe'
30/6/2007: raised to 'critical'
4/7/2007: lowered to 'severe'
20/7/2009: lowered to 'substantial'
22/1/2010: raised to 'severe'

During this period members a tranche of evermore imposing anti-terror measure have been introduced, as anyone who has attempted to go anywhere will be all too aware.

What I would say is that if the changes to the terror level are to be publically anounced then this should go hand-in-hand with variation in the stringency of travel restrictions - the public will understand there is a connection between the level of the terror threat and regulations, and will be more accepting of them as a result.

But if the restrictions continue to be imposed without any hope they will ever be lifted, while the threat level fluctuates wildly according to the state's ability to react to intelligence, then they are only building up more resentment to the never-ending slide into a police state.

So if the blanket imposition on banning liquids on flights or full body scans (or even for that matter the ban on photographing public buildings) are going to continue then announcements of variations in the threat level are redundant and should be kept internal, but if the announcements are to continue then the anti-terror measures should be varied accordingly.

It's a choice that has to be made, and it seem it is one that the Labour government is not prepared to take.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Is it a city?

Reading is bidding for 'city' status. Again.

It is a topic which rises to the surface periodically and can be guaranteed to spark off a good argument. It also helps show the dividing lines on the issues, so in order to complement the topic on my local newsblog it's worth investigating the issue a bit further.

According to UK Cities there are currently 50 cities in England. They also highlight the discrepancy between common usage and the official distinction which is conferred by the monarch.

The dictionary definition harks back to ecclesiatical power structures, citing the requirement for a cathedral, while more modern statisticians look at human communications identifying the connurbation and metropolis as more obvious units of settlement.

Wiki has more on the different ways a city can be understood.

The Reading/Wokingham Urban Area is the 17th largest in the country by population (369,804, 2001, up 10.1% since 1991), but this includes most of central Berkshire. According to the Office of National Statistics the Reading Urban area has a population of 232,662, while the borough itself has a population of 144,000.

Reading has played a significant role at pivotal points in our national history, from Alfred the Great, to the Magna Carta, the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution during the Victorian age.

The first spur to the prominence of Reading came after the Norman conquest when the site was chosen for the strategic importance. The charter of incorporation was received in 1253 after the local merchant guild successfully petitioned for a division of responsibility with the Abbey authorities - typically this came down to questions of taxes, as the local economy was suffering due to a lack of financial transparency and accountability.

Reading has always been a major transport hub to the west of London and traditionally boasts some of the best communication links in the country. However Reading partly grew up because it was located at the confluence of bottlenecks from the east-to-west and north-to-south so continues to suffer from major congestion as a result. The railway station remains the second busiest interchange outside of London (though this is largely driven by the large numbers of commuters).

Once upon a time when greater devolution for english regions was on the cards Reading considered development would help make it a candidate for a regional capital. Consequently the town managed to turn itself into a major regional retail location and has developed into an increasingly important location for technology and financial services companies, supported by the excellent University (which has several world-class research departments).

The area has a rich cultural life and many figures in the international arts world either hail from or have close connections with Reading. It is also widely recognised as the home of the traditional August Bank Holiday climax to the summer music festival circuit and for the sports teams located at the neat Madejski Stadium complex.


But is this enough to deserve 'city' status?


In 2000 Wolverhampton and Brighton were given charters as English cities, while Preston followed up in 2002. This time round Reading is competing with the likes of Milton Keynes.

From my perspective I think it comes down to a matter of character.

Because the town has always been at the crossroads of political debates it has often been more convenient to demolish and build anew than to learn to integrate.

The loss of the Abbey and Castle during the civil war left a gaping scar at the heart of the civic life of the place which took centuries to recover from.

The victorians introduced and adapted the local vernacular of brick design into common buildings and encouraged an imperial triumphalism into civic institutions such as the Royal Berkshire Hospital and the Old Town Hall (see above). The twentieth century has seen half-hearted transport solutions strangle development while the expression of personality has been suffocated with overreliance on intensive bulding to cheap design in the ensuing move to a mass consumer society.

Brutalist architects cut swathes through the ancient streets when the IDR and new civic centre were constructed, while virtually every available green space has been turned into housing without consideration for an overall vision of how each development has a cumulative effect on the quality of life in the town.

Between every generation a philosophical swing from economic functionalism to a human idealism (or vice versa) takes place that is more expedient than designed to enhance the active community - political necessity always overrules far-sighted planning.

And so, because the state of our shared built environment represents both what we stand for and controls how we live in it we need to understand how the visions of place do have a determining impact on the recognition of our civic status.


In summation there are really only two political questions which must be answered before I can decide whether to support Reading's bid to become a city.
  • Which vision for the future is on offer?
  • In whose interest is it?
Is the bid just a shiny bauble to show to posterity, or is it something which can be used to make a practical improvement for the lives of the the resident population?

In the end it comes down to a matter of balancing finance and control... as always. My fear is that the balance will be tipped so far in one direction that we may once again lose more than we win.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Song of the day

I'm informed that today is the most depressing day of the year.

It's also known as 'Blue Monday'

...according to the Telegraph, the Brownies are are offering advice on how to beat the blues, but Ben Goldacre points out that the mathematical formula used to calculate the position of the day in the calendar was designed by a PR company on behalf of SKY Travel - a Murdoch initiative!

more music

Friday, 15 January 2010

Just Us?

Wiki's explanation of the stages of moral development offers an interesting starting place for some discussion.

Although the question of morality and ethics is at once separate and intertwined with pragmatics I think it does offer an means of gaining insight into parts of the political mind.

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation
(How can I avoid punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation
(What's in it for me?)
Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity
(Social norms)
(The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
(Law and order morality)
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
(Principled conscience)

Now without being too mean on him - I've been strong enough in the discussion - committed Leeds-based blogger Darrell Goodliffe has declared that he has resigned from the LibDems to join the Labour party.

He cites a clash of personalities and the desire to resist Conservative attacks on spending. However he also continues to repudiate Labour policy in a number of areas.

He is clearly on the side of social justice and argues he has taken a pragmatic decision in the hope of making a political difference.

But I'm both a bit disappointed for him and in him. I think he has made an decision in a pique of emotion based on expediency to try to minimise short-term losses. This is a strategic error as far as I'm concerned because it throws away any longer-term ambitions by undermining any sense of his reliability or credibile claim to principle.

Looking at the tribal embrace he has been smothered in while trying to resist tribalism I'm amazed at the apparently contradictory nature of his choice and sought to find a way to explain it (hence the above plan).

I won't go so far as to ascribe partisan characteristics to each stage precisely because that would be to sterotype, even if there are any general trends which may be identifiable. However the usefulness of the chart is in being illustrative for describing a form of progression in conscious reasoning.

Now I don't agree with linear or regular progression, but I'm of the mind that Darrell may have actually undergone a stage of regression within it - which would mark a sad day (if relatively insignificant in the wider context) for the state of political debate on the blogosphere.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Top marks for Clegg on equality

Following on from my earlier posts (here and here) arguing for commitments on funding for blood screening in order that unfair exclusions on donation by gay men can be lifted, I'm very pleased to read that Nick Clegg has aligned the LibDems solidly in favour of such a move.

Modesty forbids me from claiming credit for raising this issue to the attention of my readers in the Houses of Parliament as I'm certain this is something our representatives would be aware of, but I'm glad to see statements in this direction showing LibDem leadership.

The blood ban is a highly practical symbol of the continuing divide in official attitudes towards sexual equality which gives rise to cynical feelings that some politicians in the establishment are more interested in saving cash than saving lives, but Nick Clegg has gone further in identifying areas where discrimination has a real and negative effect on society.

He points out a comprehensive list of areas across the spectrum where dicrimination on the grounds of sexuality could easily be changed.

Apart from lifting the blood ban (which potentially affects everyone) he argues that in early life as well as in adulthood discrimination is allowed to be fostered unchecked.

In faith schools and with regard to 'civil partnerships' homosexual people are treated as second-class citizens by the failure to implement anti-homophobic bullying policies and resistance to allowing equal 'marriage' status.

And in international relations the failure to provide guarantees on asylum for the victims of homophobic persecution or to use diplomatic pressure to push for equal human rights in places like Uganda (where homosexuality is punishable by death) is a stain on British foreign policy, undermining claims to ethical standards or strategic effectiveness.

Labour has not been consistent or principled on the matter, while Conservatives are apathetic at best.

For me equality issues are a vital testing ground, so I think Nick Clegg should be commended for taking such a strong and unequivocal stance clearly stating what needs to be done while the other parties sit back in contemptuous neglect.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The dregs of war

Lara Pawson says in a somewhat understated way, "it's amazing what football can do."

After the shocking machine-gun attack on the Togolese team bus headed for the African Cup of Nations tournament in Angola which killed 3 people people are talking about the political movement called the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (Flec).

For those of you who don't know Cabinda is a tiny Portuguese-speaking territory separated from Angola by a quirk of colonial history.

During the 27-year Angolan civil war following independence (remember the Eurovision song contest in 1974?), which killed an estimated 1.5m people and ended in 2002, Cabinda was regularly used as launching pad and haven from the central authorities due to its separation.

Once the civil war ended oil exploration spread up the coast and quickly discovered reserves significant enough to be predicted to produce 3.4 million barrels/day - almost double the approx 1.9m bpd produced currently.

Of this total Cabinda may account for as much as 700,000 barrels/day.

An added factor in the historical battle for economic control is the specific location of the oil-fields.

Whereas in Angola proper the off-shore oil is located in deep water, the Cabindan reserves are closer to shore. This makes them relatively cheaper to exploit and subject to greater interference from gunships operating from shore.

Now the first time Cabinda entered my consciousness was as the fictionalised location for a fictitious coup attempt in The Dogs of War, as written in 1974 by that never-recalcitrant, ever-imaginative Cold War theorist Freddy Forsyth (movie review by the NY Times).

I later imagined Cabinda as a stopping point in a fictionalised prologue to Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Whereas the Council on Foreign Affairs once described it as "an improbable locus for a superpower collision," from my point of view Cabinda's simple geographical location in a proxy power play places it directly in the line of fire for all the historical forces those two novels would suggest for it.

With oil to lubricate the wheels of motion, all this combustible situation has been waiting for is an ignition spark.

And it looks like football has given us just that.

However Rodrigues Mingas, the self-proclaimed leader of Flec, has declared that the attack was not preplanned because the forces were drilled to target Angolan soldiers rather than the somewhat unexpected transit of international footballers travelling hundreds of miles by bus - which seems to imply the gunmen did not know the bus was carrying high-profile sportsmen until too late.

This would seem to correspond with separatist claims, rather than terrorist aims, although reports have typically picked up on the more dramatic hyperbole of the protagonists - as here an unnamed Angloan minister is described as calling it 'a terrorist act'. I guess that what gets more face-time with CIA advisors to lobby for additional funding support these days.

This suggests some sort of miscalculation by Angolan authorities to use regular Army as bodyguards, possibly using the Cup of Nations tournament to exert and extend political control - if it was using 'soft' power as a shield for 'hard' power then the three lives lost are a demonstration for the value the Angolan authorities place on human life.

The arrests of two suspects indicate a usual knee-jerk reaction to round up some scapegoats who fit the bill to prevent public feeling front spreading out of control.

But as Chatham House's Alex Vines explains the dissident groups have been splintering into ever smaller factions over whom control is less able to be exerted, which means occasional events like this became more likely. But for me if Angolan government tactics were deliberately surreptitious then they have already conceded the moral and practical arguments and are fighting against the tide.

While left-wingers focus on state repression and right-wingers worry about the security threat of ever increasing numbers of splinter groups funded and armed by outside forces who hope to profit, my concern is how all this only ever comes about through the struggle to overcome the irresolution and greed of all sides.

For starters, why would Manchester City's Emmanuel Adebayor (who earns a basic salary of arond £5m/year) subject himself and his teammates to a journey by bus through some of the most volatile areas of the world, crossing suspect borders in the process, all because his national federation wouldn't pay for the flights? I'm not surprised Arsene Wenger throws a wobbly when players report back from national duty so often.

It would also be highly unusual if none of the oil money stuck to the fingers of any of the Angolan government, just as it's patently clear the war-lords in the Cabindan enclave also hope to profit from the rush of petro-dollars (if they aren't satisfied with running drugs, slaves and guns through to and from the interior of the Congo basin, as they have for hundreds of years).

But back to the sports economy of Angola.

Petro Atletico of Luanda is the traditional powerhouse team of the Girabola. Founded in 1980, it's pretty easy to guess where it's roots are and its funding is derived from. Just as Adebayor's Man City has become the big boy's toy of a gulf oil sheik, Petro is the Angolan equivalent.

Apparently $700m has been lavished on upgrading infrastructure for the tournament using Chinese expertise and labour - including $420m on stadia ($150m for the brand new state-of-the-art principal 50,000 capacity 11th November stadium in Luanda, which will be occupied by Petro when the tournament is over), as the country hopes to use the tournament as a springboard to build a sustainable tourist industry.

At one level all this represents an attempt by Angola to legitimise itself in the international community which threatens to be exposed by the attacks in Cabinda as petty self-aggrandisement of powerful individuals.

But at another it reflects the outbreak of a new stage in the great game of global power relations. As Sedem Ofori describes the shocked response of western media and concerns about the World Cup in South Africa exposes the continuing Euro-centrism of global powers.

And at a third it reflects continuing acceptance for less than rigorous standards on the part of the powers-that-be in African officialdom.

As ever it will be a precarious balancing act trying to hold it together, which could easily explode in everyone's faces. But in the end if the show does go on to make it to the climax it will be marked as a qualified success and one more small step for humanity on the road to grace.
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Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Gittin' pally with Ally

As things happen I managed to catch the Daily Politics on the Beeb at lunchtime yesterday.

The appearance of Danny Alexander caught my attention (watch here) - especially considering I strongly criticised him over his last interview with Andrew Neil during the party conference.

There are a number of things worth mentioning on this, but first I have to say - I like Danny Alexander. His enthusiasm, eagerness, inquisitiveness and receptiveness to criticism mark him out as someone who will be a bedrock of LibDem politics for decades to come.

He comes across as a bit fresh-faced and serious, but there's nothing wrong with that in itself.

It was particularly noticable that he has grown in his presentational abilities since I last commented. He still got a rubbed a bit up the wrong way by Neil's aggressively pedantic orthodoxy towards the end, but he was much better in getting his message across by remaining calm as long as he did (although he was also helped out considerably by the televisual naivety of former Blair advisor David Hill who jumped in to offer support towards the end and in so doing diminished the aura of negative criticism inspired by Neil which tends to become directed towards the party under scrutiny).

However there are two matters which arose in the questioning that are worth dealing with.

The first was relating to the reason he was there in the first place: justifying Nick Clegg's 'wholesale' ditching of spending pledges.

Neil asked why Alexander couldn't spell any of these intentions out during the conference, when he asked whether LibDems didn't think they weren't unaffordable, as he claimed 'we all knew they were'.

Following the script, Alexander didn't notice the deft change of emphasis and tried to plough on, when he could easily have spotted the obvious out: things have changed in the period since September.

While the economic trends may be better than they were at that point (discounting the extraordinary seasonal events), the full scale of the government deficit has been brought more into the light. So when it was put to him that the proposed taxation policies may look good on paper but work less well in practice he found he couldn't quite escape the inquisitioners trap.

Personally, I think Labour's over-dependence on stimulus policies suffer from the laws of diminishing returns, so by arguing that easing quantative easing (ie reducing the speed of growth of the deficit) is a direct policy that can be initiated he would have gained more credibility for the details which he was stating would cut the debt.

More simply, dumping pledges which cost several billions is tinkering at the edges when compared to the hundreds of billions spent on preventing the collapse of the currency. You can't promise fiscal responsibility and cutting debt levels when the cuts you propose are smaller than the rate of growth. It is vitally important to start with the big picture.

Nevertheless he did make significant headway by arguing for the principle of equalisation as a basis of fairness, but on the point of 'bankability' of additional revenues he could have stated fairness isn't created on the swish of a magic wand - it is something that is won incrementally. Tax avoidance, such as not taking the gain on capital, is not possible if such a reform in favour of fairness is a permanent and universal shift in the philosphy of government - which is something the other parties have been demonstrably incapable of doing.

To successfully attack the rhetorical nature of opponents arguments it is necessary to highlight their inconsistency and incoherence and Alexander only started to do this - he didn't allow himself the courage of his convictions to give it enough weight to hit home and he didn't throw in combination to make the score a knockout.

The second point worth raising was when Neil's eyes lit up like the old dog he is to pitch a wedge in between the definitions of values and performance.

Danny Alexander could have responded niftily that performance is a measure of values, or that performance is a valuable measure itself, or something along those lines. Short, sharp and succinct.

Now this is a linguistic twist, and could be laughed off as such, but it is illustrative as a way to negate the tactical wedge. He would have debased the oppositional debating style set up in a two-way interview such as this and forced the questioner to reformulate the question to something which would open the door to actual information. In the end it was Hill's intervention that tipped the balance and changed the viewers' perception - Danny also just managed to get the strike in that he'd made a convert to the cause

To start with such a wedge presumes a distinction between ideology and realism, which in my personal philosophy is just not there, or at the very least, not necessarily. 'Evidence-based policy-making', 'dealing with the facts as they are not as we'd like them to be' etc is a well-established form of principled reasoning, but it is also one which is a struggle to get across in almost all circumstances - it just doesn't conform to entrenched traditional expectations - as such realism is one of the core tenets of any form of liberal ideology (only one, mind you).

When presented with such a opportunity a hardcore LibDem should really be alive to the situation and take it up, spotting a chance to explain how our environment is the making of our problems and that by better understanding it how we can take control of it.

Now if this were 'strictly come political interviewing' you'd be right to guess I'm a tough judge to please. I'd be tempted to give Danny Alexander an average mark, though possibly slightly higher than David Cameron on Andrew Marr's show at the weekend.

Where I'd draw the line of comparison, then, would be to note where Alexander is slightly flabby, he has much more depth to him than the shiny plastic Cameron - Alexander can get a bit more trim, but Cameron will never be anything other than soulless (especially if his advisors encourage more air-brushing and blandness as the way to appeal to the potential voters).

While I recognise the country may feel that a solid front and centre (or fringe and side-parting, as someone said to me) is required in the short-term, politics is a process, not a race; what gets people excited is not what will sustain.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Songs of the day

Something for robot friends in St James

not 1

not 2

not 3

not 4

yes 5 - count 'em, 5!

Bah, that's all my fingers and thumbs (on one paw)!

more music

Thursday, 7 January 2010

A Gulf Apart

This is a fascinating picture.

It shows the gulf stream in the north Atlantic on New Year's Eve diverted from it's normal course towards western Europe and flowing up the eastern coast of Greenland.

Left Outside shows what it should look like:

It is the single biggest cause of the exceptional and unprecedented winter weather in recent weeks.

Anyway I've taken it from an article explaining how the warm air associated with the gulf stream has pushed itself up into the Artic basin and displaced the cold air there onto the continental land masses of Northern America and Eurasia.

Well, I'm hardly original in picking up on this - it's been widely predicted since 2005 (see here).

But I do think it raises some interesting questions about the permanence of any shift and the politics of the environmental movement.

Obviously a rare climatological event of this nature will be taken as direct evidence of anthropogenic effects on the environment, and indeed it is the most extreme occurrence of the effect seen in the past half-century since the gulf stream was first identified and began to be studied.

However, as there seems to be some correlation between a similar event and the extreme winters seen in 1947 and 1963 I'm not entirely convinced that this is the whole story.

Just as oceanographic flows like the 'El Nino' and 'La Nina' effects in the Pacific basin are periodic occurrences (which some have connected with solar activity), resulting from perfectly normal ecological processes, it strikes me that the flow of the gulf stream can only be connected to the wider ecology of the planet.

Melting of polar ice (as seen in the video)

requires that the colder water must go somewhere, and it seems obvious (to me at least) that the water has interupted the Atlantic Conveyor and caused the shift in the Gulf Stream.

Firstly, it is plainly absurd that the Arctic ice-cap can continue melting at ever-increasing rates for the simple reason that at some point the ice will be all gone.

Secondly, it is plainly absurd to say that the effect of ice melt rates will not cause a cascading chain reaction of environmental effects which will act in mitigation of continuing warming.

Thirdly, it is completely absurd to imaging a world in which the polar regions will not retain a specific polar climate, since the polar regions and seasonal nature of weather on Earth are a direct consequence of the inclined orbit around the sun.

However, it is also patently clear that while the Earth's ecological system is created by these astronomical coincidences and has in-built feedback systems capable of mitigating extremes this does not mean human-kind is completely insulated from situations which would be disasterous to huge numbers of people.

So the potential loss of the arctic polar cap is a threat in the near-term, but it is also quickly reversable once environmental equilibrium is reestablished.

I fully accept that the failure of the recent Copenhagen conference on climate change is brought into direct focus by the weather of recent weeks and the international community cannot be complacent in leading global society towards the environmental precipice, but I also consider the shriller voices among the so-called 'green' campaign bandwagon descended unhelpfully into hyperbole based on a more ideological rationale rather than evidence-based reasoning.

Even to my amateur eyes the following chart exaggerates for effect.

Looking at the angle of the blue line we can see a general decline in polar ice over the past 30-year period, but I would criticise it on two specific grounds: -

1) the 30-year period is far too short to draw any firm conclusions (it doesn't even include the recent severe winters of 1947 and 1963, for example, and it deliberately excludes the period of the 1970s when the seemingly perpetual energy crisis gave rise to concern about global cooling)
2) the minimum and maximum extents of ice coverage seem to be within the bounds of normal variation - up until 2000

From which I can confidently dismiss the assumption of a straight-line or steady decline.

Just like with a pressure cooker, when we build up environmental pressures eventually it will let off the steam, and the change in gulf stream flow and associated heavy winter across northern America and Eurasia are a direct (and major) manifestation of this process.

From a personal perspective an occasional change is as good as a holiday and the break from the norm does provide an opportunity to put things in perspective.

So in attempting to reach a conclusion it seems a fair statement to say that man-made industrial activity (ie the pumping of greenhouse gases including CO2 into the environment) is not a one-way road to destruction, rather that it is likely to increase the volatility of weather events, which in turn has major consequences for living life under regular conditions.

And equally, while I can understand the disgust with ignorant, complacent and corrupt establishment politicians leading to a rise in apathy and fringe parties, I do not think these alternatives affer anything more positive or more beneficial.

While I have no desire to experience permanent drastic climate change of the sort seen around us currently and I recognise some serious effort needs to go into modifying societal behaviour, I also don't think it needs anything like as revolutionary a set of changes as some more extreme voices are using as a front to gain traction for their wider social ambitions.

So that's a YES to environmentalism and ecology, and a NO to 'Green' politics, then.


Update: Blimey! The weather must be wierd if central Florida is expecting snow!

Jennie and matgb have posted a collection of interesting links with some good discussion.Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Musings on the twitterverse

These mashups never get old...

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The Bluff-Goons

Update: Channel4 took soundings from the different blogosphere perspectives: 'too late to make a difference', 'a fantastic political farce' and 'damaging' is what they say.

Hmmm, more cloak and daggers.


So Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt have caused fresh questions to be raised about the leadership of the Labour party by circulating a letter trying to draw out any plotters who are undermining Gordon Brown's credibility from within into the public and mount a proper challenge.

These kind of political shenanigans really excite the people inside the bubble because it is all a game of bluff and double-bluff - looking at the government names who have committed themselves one way or the other it is all just a case of as you were: the same old discontents are discontented, the pawns do the work for their masters, the ones who might are still holding their cards close to their chest and in the end nothing happens because nobody is prepared to put the knife into the tyrrant.

What this tells us is that this letter is a gambit stemming from Gordon Brown himself (though probably with the connivance of Peter Mandelson) and that it is his only tool for reasserting his dominance over the party.

It shows he is actually the best man to lead the PLP because he is the most calculating, but also that he emerges from a very weak batch of contenders who will tear themselves apart as soon as they find themselves on the oppposition benches again.

It also tells us that this is how Labour intends to run their election campaign, by concentrating on themselves, all the while repeating the mantra that they are 'getting on with the job'.

The fact that this is going on at all says that all of the names who are regularly bandied about have missed the boat. What we are watching is like the last days of the Major government with different groups saying different things according to who the audience is. The air is ripe with conspiracy and corruption... or rip with something.

This is a vital period for UK politics. It is a turning point. In one sense we will see the emergence of the next but one power group as the old king finally has his grip removed, and indeed this letter has to be seen in terms of the pretenders jostling for position. But in another more important sense because the route to power dictates the course in which it may be taken once the throne is reached we are also watching what has the potential to happen a generation hence.

From the outside, while watching Labour go at it while Cameron's cheshire grin grows all the wider by the minute and his brow furrows with frustrated twitches of concern and disdain for the mess the hoi polloi are making of the office he fully expects to inherit, this is an ideal moment to strike your hammer blows for change as the coals glow hot.

While the government is tossing itself around and the opposition is telling everyone who is prepared to listen that it would put a steady hand on the tiller (without actually doing so), there is a once in a generational oppportunity to make a lasting impression.

It takes being in the right place and choosing the right moment to use the right words, but there is a chink in the establishment armour now as the phoney election is turning into a real election - there was only so long each side could keep up their pace while still holding anything in reserve and this final breath before the sprint may well catch the frontrunners gasping.

So today's letter retrieves the terms of the election as it was carefully set out by David Cameron earlier in the week and marks the final moment to remove Gordon Brown as Labour leader: it pitches a change in the merry dance of power.

And thus the battle lines are drawn: Labour is the indecisive leading the hesitant; Conservatives are the posh being pushed by the rich; LibDems are neither one nor the other and the others are something else entirely!

I would say that I'm relishing the next few months election campaigning as the drawing of blood will now be legitimised, but on the evidence of a failure of any side to land any potentially knock-out blows in the sparring bouts so far indicates to me the next government will be unable to make any fundamental changes and therefore that the struggle for authority will continue.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Chicken in the middle of the road

While it's nevertheless good to see the head of the Beeb sharing some expertise about his enemy and give me some ideas to bounce off, this is a subject I've also been thinking about recently having watched more than I usually do over the holidays.

I have a feeling ITV has shot itself in the foot to some extent.

An overly commercial popularised appeal tends towards the bland and middle of the road. When talent is cultivated and rewarded this format can develop a lasting appeal to the audience (as it has done with the talent shows, soaps and used to do with football, drama, documentaries and investigative reports) but then the fear began creeping in as proliferation of channels drained the channel's ability to concentrate resources and audiences.

Add this to the centralisation of production and this effect would only be magnified.

I agree that ITV has missed an opportunity by failing to differentiate its different channels, as each of the channels in its stable is now fighting over the same audience. But while I think a reversal towards greater regionalisation in the wider media environment is somewhat inevitable I suspect the heavy corporate forces at work behind ITV mean it will be too slow to decide to turn the supertanker around in response to a changing of the tides around it.

In many ways this 'race for the centre' echoes the problem with politics, and I'm a bit surprised Mark didn't actively make the link, though I'll credit him with a general implication instead and be more overt myself.

One of the problems with democracy and mass media is the emphasis on negative prioritisation. The party or broadcaster can't afford to alienate segments of its' potential audience by offending sensibilities and challenging preconceptions.

Just look at the furore caused when various figures were forced to grovel in public for an apologies - scousers have been notoriously quick to jump up in shock in respose to everyone from Rupert Murdoch's reporting of Hillsborough to Boris Johnson naivities.

But this is the road towards self-censorship and repression.

Right-wingers can't do it because they are the establishment and must resist tipping any winks, but when left-wingers do it it might be with a twinkle in the eye knowing they'll be back again in the future, but in doing so they have conceded defeat.

Dividing opinion into these binary oppositions is a sure way to lead progressively into hell as nobody is satisfied.

While I've met and personally dislike both of the two leading condenders for the title of political saviour (Nigel Farage and Caroline Lucas), I'd be disappointed for our politics if more parties weren't represented after the next general election - in fact I think it's good to be able to disagree (we can start by disagreeing over the significance of either of these parties trying to suggest they would have somehow made a breakthrough and are now on the road to power, ready to completely overhaul society).

Similarly I think ITV has the answer to its problems already within its' ranks. It doesn't necessarily need to be Melvyn Bragg himself, but as a pillar of the broadcasting establishment and a strongly implicated conscious political identity he sets an example of taking his subject seriously enough and with enough good humour to have the respect and authority to appeal to critics and commerce alike. Bragg knows what it is that he wants to say.

ITV on the other hand doesn't. ITV is the chicken stranded in the middle of the road not knowing which way to turn and pulling itself apart as it risks being mown down by the unstoppable juggernaut of social media (which includes blogging).

Which brings me to my pathetic attempt to summate my idea in a single sentence.

In answer to the inevitable joke 'why did the chicken cross the road?', there is only one answer: because it had reached its final destination.

Well, OK, the joke is more about going round in circles, doing the same old thing forever and failing to innovate, but that's probably a bit too subtle for most.