Friday, April 29, 2005

What did you do in the war, daddy?

I got a lot of earache today along (now) familliar lines: How can I still vote Labour after their participation in the Iraq war?

Like most limp-wristed Guardian-reading wusses, I opposed the war at the time. I still think that it was not the right thing to do. I even went on the big march against it just before the invasion began.

My view at the time was that Blair was going to back the US on this for a number of reasons. In no particular order...

1. Numerous unspecified ulterior motives (oil, etc)
2. Labour has a strong faction that is keen on ‘liberal intervention’ - using our armies to replace BAD MEN with GOOD PEOPLE wherever possible. A belligerent US makes this possible in Iraq’s case and he saw the US position on Iraq as an opportunity
3. The US was going to do it anyway - Blair believed that they would either do it unilaterally or do it with a moderating influence that only we Brits can supply.
4. A cynic would suggest that Blair saw an opportunity to gain brownie points by backing the world’s first ‘hyperpower’

Taking these in order, I don’t know whether I buy the ulterior motive argument or not. I doubt if many commentators have the kind of vantage point to give an authoritative answer and I’m always suspicious of people who claim to know the truth on this one. They are usually either right-wing conspiracy theorists, or lumpen-trots and general anti-capitalistas. I’m sure there were very powerful ulterior motives behind the UK’s position - but I think that everyone would be quite suprised if we were ever told what they were in terms that we could understand.

I partly agree with the ‘liberal interventionist’ line. A lot of Labour lefties supported the action in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Bosnia was betrayed by an absence of this instinct and it could be argued that supporting the US over Iraq may even provide a bit of leverage to get their undoubted firepower lined up more quickly next time an obvious case for intervention emerges. (This is probably a bit idealistic, but bear with me here...).

My problem is the desirability of US unilateralism. There appears to be a part of the British Establishment's DNA that insists upon a bridging role for the UK. There must be a reason that we have to comply with most demands that the US make upon us. It is clear that there are very few people in the UK who have a good enough vantage point to fully understand what these reasons are but it is obvious that these reasons exist and that they are very compelling. And complex. And sensitive.

I don’t think that any of us have had those reasons explained to us properly, but no-one should believe that Prime Ministers are allowed the luxury of principle instead of pragmatism on issues like this. Those that do are easily spotted. They are those precious souls who are forever declaring themselves ‘disillusioned’ with politics.

The ‘brownie points’ issue, therefore, must have some substance. I didn’t agree with the war because I don’t understand the relationship of the UK government with the US. But I don’t feel betrayed - or deceived. And in this election, there isn’t a realistic way that this position will impact on the way I vote.

We should all cast our vote with the big picture in mind. We have to opportinity next Thursday to bring about the final collapse of the Conservative Party, and with it the rightwards gravitation pull that it has on the Labour Party.

A whopping Labour majority will help to bring that glorious day closer.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Chelsea v Liverpool: The away goal cometh.

Ah! Great European Fixtures! The Away Goal? Isn't it? Not half!

My money is still on Chelsea this time even though Liverpool held them at Stamford Bridge last night. Chelsea don't concede goals easily and - in an odd way - I think that they prefer the away leg of European fixtures. Their manager's reputation is built on winning away legs.

It all takes me back to that glorious night in 1980. Forest v Cologne at the City Ground. Standing on the terraces of the old East Stand watching a 3-3 thriller. It was never as packed as it was that night - it's one of the few times that my feet didn't touch the ground in the crush at the City Ground (the East Stand was a relatively narrow bit of terracing).

It meant that we needed to win in Germany, which we did.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Agit Pop

Having a good collection of MP3s in an iTunes library can turn us all into compilers. One possibility is an 'Agit Pop' CD. Something that straddles the fantastic pop of the late '70s and early '80s, and the spikier post-punk stuff.

So far, it's got these tracks:

At home he's a tourist - Gang of Four
Ghost town - The Specials
We are all prostitutes - The Pop Group
London calling - The Clash
Stand down Margaret - The Beat
Religion - PiL
The lunatics have taken over the asylum - Fun Boy Three

It could have any one of half-a-dozen tracks by The Jam and there are plenty of additions that could be made from The Clash or The Specials discography. It could - controversialy - include something by Sham?

Local Libraries

I don't think that local libraries are usually very well run. They don't seem to care about attracting visitors - and then the staff are surprised when Tory councils see them as an easy target when it comes to cost savings.

There. I've said it.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Interactive local government

I’d like to do a bit more thinking around the subject of the ‘interactive Council’ and the ‘interactive Councillor’. I really don’t think that this subject gets taken seriously enough and I often wonder how much I think this because of my involvement in this project (have I got things out of proportion?). We started it in the first place because we thought that a move to transfer the communication of Council activities largely to Councillors would not only improve local democracy, but ‘humanise’ the Council itself.

There seems to be a view abroad that politicians are held in particularly low esteem at the moment. Conversations with my older relatives make me doubt that somehow. The consensus I’ve picked up is that “they’ve always been a bunch of liars, but in the old days, we had two choices – our liars or their liars.”

I do think that the current malaise is partly due the fact that people are less aligned – and therefore, they are less inclined to regard ‘our liars’ as … well … OURS. If this is the case, then I think that making politicians more interactive will act as a counterweight to the reasons that political parties are so powerful.

If political parties in general – and centralisaton of power in particular – are products of the growing mass media of the past 50 years, then a more accessible interactive polity may reverse this a bit.

Maybe?

How Football clubs could be owned by their fans

Anyone interested in a half-baked idea for a scheme that would put a well-financed club in the control of it’s fans?

Here’s how it could work:

There are – say – about 30,000 adults who have an active interest in supporting a medium sized football team that was once was worth watching.

Of these, say, 50% are homeowners of whom 50% have endowments underpinning their mortgages.

Say that 40% of the 30,000 have pension schemes that are ‘with profits’ of some kind (based on accumulated investment).

So now we have 7,500 people who are contributing an average of £100 pcm towards their endowment. £9 million per year.

And we have 12,000 contributing an average of £100 pcm towards their pension scheme - £14.4 million per year.

Now there is an established market for ‘ethical’ funds. This is where people chose funds that either avoid ‘bad’ investments (arms, exploitative employers etc) or funds that support ‘virtuous’ schemes (fair-trade brands, employers with a good record for fairness etc).

So we apply this to football. We go to the big ‘with profits’ providers. We know that they are always keen to upsell. We tell them to write to all of their current customers:

Dear Mr Footiefan,

We at Mendacious Financial Holdings Ltd (MFH) note that you currently spend £100 per month on your pension. We understand that you support Anytown United. We would like to give you the chance to own your favorite club. It’s easy! All you need to do is increase your monthly investment to £110. We will invest the extra £10 per month in Anytown United with a view to acquiring a majority shareholding in the company.

You will still have a great pension scheme – but if AUFC enjoy a good performance thanks to the investment of yourself – and thousands like you – then your pension scheme will benefit accordingly. AND, we at MFH will hold an annual meeting that you will be invited to. This meeting will hear from other supporters and representatives of AUFC – and you will have a vote to mandate your own named representative on the Board of AUFC on how to vote on all of the issues that effect your club!

Etc


These figures are all, of course speculative. I don’t know how many AUFC fans there are really – worldwide – and I don’t know the % of pension / endowment holders. Not all pension companies would go for it either. But my speculative figures (all a fair stab at reality I think) would unlock over £2m worth of investment every year. Most clubs would be in the hands of the fans fairly quickly I reckon….

And I DO know that a Labour government would absolutely love the idea and may even weigh in with possible tax / regulatory breaks to help this happen.

A scheme like this would help Man U fans outbid Malcolm Glazier. In fact, helping Manchester United fans to be even happier than they are with themselves is the only downside I can think of...

Comments please?

Friday, April 22, 2005

Local Councillors and their own websites

I saw Michael Cross's article about e-democracy projects. He has kindly referred to a project that I've been working on for a few years to give Councillors their own websites.

http://society.guardian.co.uk/e-public/story/0,,1463323,00.html

While I’m usually very happy with Michael Cross’s coverage of the work we’re all doing on Councillor sites, I think I his sub-editor may have slightly re-interpreted what I said about the need for legal change. (I’m guessing it was the sub-editor in this case).

Just for clarification purposes, Professor Coleman may not be keen on legal changes, but personally I’m broadly in favour of something being done. When I spoke to Michael, I said that I thought something should be done on this issue, but I did add that some people thought that the political rules had a unintended benefit of discouraging political grand-standing and that – in my view – political leadership is as important on this subject as any legal change.

Otherwise it's an excellent article - and if Michael sees this post, I hope he doesn't feel unfairly criticised here ;-)

I think that the rules on 'political communication' that infect large sections of the public sector are a convienient mask for a profoundly anti-democratic outlook in some sections of the civil service. This is a theme I will be returning to, so keep your eyes peeled....

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Stripes

Isn't this one of the most beautiful websites you've ever seen?

.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Why public sector websites are so dreadful (vol 1)

There are over 400 Councils in England and Wales alone. Almost all of them have built their own websites. They are mostly built from scratch, using a range of different Content Management System (CMS) products, though there is one national open-source project that some Councils have collaborated on as far as I know.

Yet the vast majority of these Councils largely use the same functionality. If they could work effectively together, they could save a fortune in scripts, hosting and software and concentrate on the things that they currently all do appallingly – content, marketing, usability etc.

But because their IT departments are in charge of this, for the most part, effective co-operation would be a bit like turkeys voting for Xmas. Why concentrate on soft non-techie skills when the finance department (who don’t understand how websites are built or how they work) will allocate 99% of the ‘new media’ budget to the techies?

So, they all go off and “procure a content management system” (code, “buy software that our own techies have to implement”) and host it themselves (code: “buy a couple of servers and manage them themselves.”) Result? Expensive clunky websites that are badly designed, hard to find anything on, have poor quality copy, are expensive to host and are more likely to be unavailable at weekends.

And ones that have little by way of an upgrade path that isn’t costly.Whereas, they could have got together, developed a shared hosted solution and concentrated their budget on usability and copy etc.

I worked on a big project for the local government association last year. We noticed that NO councillors were getting any help to develop their own websites from their Council (despite £millions spent on e-democracy projects). We worked out that there were a dozen reasons why this was happening (11 of them had nothing to do with the technology and only one of them was the lack of training / manuals) and we came up with a prototype hosted solution.

As a result, the government then made it a condition of getting the 2005 funding that every Council should give their Councillors their own sites. Result? – surprise surprise! they’re all doing it themselves!

We worked out that 80% of the project was about doing this in a way that Councillors are all motivated to update their sites, peer groups, advice on content, marketing etc. But the government only said that they have to develop them. And because they cost their time differently (we have to charge a figure significantly higher than £100 per day (sic) that we cover our costs, but because of the miraculous way that the public sector are allowed to budget (apparently they can do days of development for the cost that we rack up to do one day’s work – even though they pay their staff the same), they will develop it for ‘less’ than we would charge them to buy into the scheme.

So, the taxpayer pays more, the result is something that is less useable / used, and we wonder why e-government take-up (as opposed to implementation) is so much lower than expected.

*calming down now*

Don't let interactive websites tell you who to vote for

This site purports to tell me how to vote based upon my opinions:

http://www.whoshouldyouvotefor.com/

Now, like Paul Anderson, I’m a convinced Labour voter this time (as I have always been). So I have to work out why this website is telling me I should be switching to the Liberal Democrats.

I don’t have to think very hard this time. The questions chosen pick ‘stand-out’ Lib Dem policies (because it has to include all three parties, it has to choose issues where there is a noticeable difference). As the Lib-Dems are aiming to be a good third rather than win the election – AND they want to target ABC1s in their campaigning (because they are most likely to switch vote), they have chosen standout issues of principle to foreground.

The evidence shows that biggest factor that determines people’s vote is perception of economic competence. It isn’t even asked for. Nor does it ask whether parties can do what they say – another factor that usually over-rides the question of support for individual policies.

The site SAYS it’s neutral, but their choice of issues looks suspiciously like a shortlist of Lib Dem policies that educated Labour voters would support.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Bitter and Twisted

I found an old newspaper (Xmas 2003) lying around the other day. It provided a perfect illustration of the way our newspapers urge us to look at the world.

In New York, a tipsy pilot has been arrested and a planeload of passengers queued up to tell an eager media about how dreadfully it has all been handled. (i.e. they were forced to stay an extra night in a nice New York hotel and they have all been given a free flight as compensation). One of them was a pretty Actress! (interviewed by all networks on both sides of the pond).

Again, the dynamic between a highly risk averse company culture combines with an increasingly litigious population to create a shril climate of over-reaction and recrimination.

Elsewhere, competing pressure groups are moaning about the proliferation of air travel – now within the financial reach of millions. The particular issue exercising everyone is the location of the new runways that are being planned, the noise and the traffic that they will cause.

The contribution that aviation fuel makes to global warming is also uppermost in all of our minds.

Like everything else, flight is only discussed with a pervading sense of doom. Yet the progress in the last century is barely believable. A TV programme a while ago (can’t remember the name, date or channel – sorry!) tried to recreate the circumstances in which the Wrights worked by attempting to complete a rival project that was cruelly curtailed by the death of it’s project leader. In 1903, flight was precarious and rickety affair. The first journey lasted less than a minute.

When we then bear in mind that the vast majority of progress – Kittyhawk to Concorde - took place within one lifetime, it is astonishing that the ‘celebration’ of this fantastic acheivement wasn’t more ostentatious.

But then, a major celebration of any kind these days will simply provide a backdrop for a new round of recriminations, over-reaction and hysteria.