Monday, March 31, 2008

Blind date with a projectionist

I tried an experiment today. I had a day off - using up the last of my holiday - and I thought about going to the cinema. I've not read any film reviews for a while, so I had no idea what I wanted to watch.

Also, reading reviews often discourages me from going to see things that I actually end up liking. So, if the review includes terms such as 'sci-fi', 'horror' or 'RomCom', I skip over them quickly. Sometimes, I miss quite good films as a result. What's more, knowing what a film is about ruins it a bit. I try to avoid reading the cover-blurb from novels for the same reason, preferring brief recommendations from people I trust.

So today, I looked at my local cinemas and found all of the films that had more than four stars from the BBC film review page. The only thing I wanted to know was 'is it good?' or 'is it Drillbit Taylor?'

Now anyone who thinks that the range of offerings at local cinemas prove the virtues of the market in providing choice and diversity really does need to go and boil their stupid heads. But more of that another time. I had the usual choice of an almost exclusively American pile of shit from the nearby multiplex, and one film at the arthouse cinema a few miles away that had four stars from the Beeb.

I deliberately didn't read the critic's verdict, and went. And it was a good move. Go and see The Orphanage if you get the chance. But whatever you do, don't read the review.


"... management is not a technical function aimed at making things work, but an ideological process used to justify bosses' status and salaries."

Sunday, March 30, 2008


This is a very good post over at the Trots, by the redoubtable Rotund One. But I'll restrict myself to pointing to this bit for now:
"However, there are two other broad categories of sites that can be found. Firstly, there are those that are firmly anti-totalitarian but have little or no critique of domestic politics. They have made their peace with the establishment and the legacy of Thatcherism. However dramatic their declarations of human rights, they are Tom Paines abroad but Edmund Burkes at home. Whilst the finely tuned English ear is quick to pick up the contented cadences of the privilege of class.

As for the other, it is a, sometimes fractious, cacophony. There are humanist Marxists, left libertarians, social democrats, Old Labour diehards, those who would combine Marx with Mill, querulous liberals, and others who place human emancipation at the centre of an ecological understanding of the diversity of the natural world. It is where I feel most at home and where the more interesting, and idiosyncratic, writing is taking place.

What will emerge is unclear, but socialism, in the broadest sense of the term as an emancipatory, egalitarian social movement, is alive, well and thinking. Come and join in."

I'm not sure if my ears should be burning about those under the 'firstly' charge, but I think that Gadgie's right about the cacophony and what a productive and refreshing thing it is.

I'd also argue that anyone who believes that the proliferation of right-wing activists and bloggertarians is evidence that the blogosphere is an asset to the political right doesn't understand how interactivity adds value to anything.

And they don't have any confidence or conviction that the left has a viable ongoing project either. One wonders why such people bother turning on their computers at all?

Credulous Bayesianism

Seen here (for more):
"Credulous Bayesianism can produce extermism and significant blunders."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Centralisation, it's causes and culprits

There is something of a consensus among political scientists about what the causes of political centralisation are. One of the obvious causes is the demands of pro-market reformers for a 'level playing field'.

So an essential pre-condition for any move to increase the volume of the exchange in goods and services is a harmonisation of regulatory frameworks, standards of measurement, trades descriptions, tariffs and taxes etc. Historically, it speeded the consolidation of the nation state, and, of course, the EU is largely the result of the postwar European demand for growth and stability through increased inter-trading.

This finds an echo in public demands for even standards of public service. If a Mancunian can get that boil on his bum lanced by a pretty nurse within an hour of presenting it, why the hell can't a Cockernee expect the same service? Thus we commonly hear of popular campaigns against postcode lotteries - campaigns that are always bought-off with centrally-set targets.

Another cause is a minor crisis in the legitimacy of professionals, brought about partly by a political decision to control inflation by challenging producer interests in a concerted way, and partly by the willingness of some liberal professionals to assist this process by repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot.

A further cause is the declining legitimacy of local government. No-one knows who their councillors are, few vote, the quality and competence of local officials (elected and otherwise) is questioned. The media ignore them anyways and seek to sell any story they do decide to cover by making charges stick to a more recognised target. Media consolidation means that there is a smaller and smaller local press, and a highly competitive global media will always offer shinier distractions. Would that a the residents of Penge could read as much about a local election in Penge as they can about the Democrat primaries!

So if a failing in local government can be blamed on the national government, (and only national journalists report local government anyway) it will be. And if council taxes go too high, central government will suffer from the non-specific dissatisfaction that most people feel when they notice that they have less beer-money.

So - leaving nothing to chance, central government behaves rationally. It says to itself "if I'm going to be blamed because local government looks crap, I might as well make sure that I'm been seen to be doing everything I can to make Town Halls raise their game." And "if I'm going to get the blame for a decline in education standards / unpopular sentencing .... etc " and so on.

The fly in the ointment is, of course, assertive local politicians and outspoken professionals. And so much of the way public life is conducted can be understood in the context of the need to marginalise and neuter these voices. Thus ratecapping. Thus sentencing guidelines. Thus SATS. Thus The Standards Board.

The judiciary and the police have, in different ways, suffered as a result of this process. There are more forms to fill in - ask PC Copperfield. Parliament is being gradually neutered in the same way, and it has seen much of the power that it has sucked up to itself evaporate in the general direction of the cabinet (who in turn have to compete with stronger PM's policy units, co-ordinating departments, and the other arms of the core executive.

This last point relates to another - more two-way - symptom of centralisation. In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher had a particular fear that her officials were irretrievably 'liberal-bureaucratic'. She wasn't prepared to accept the Mandarin's mantra that they were simply doing their job properly by being independently minded.

The PM (specifically, Mrs T) wanted the civil service to damn well do something instead of obstructing every reform she proposed. So she embarked upon a campaign to remove the least compliant people in Whitehall and replace them with officials more to her taste. It worked. And - in the same way that Mrs T fought to stop her ministers from suffering departmental capture, she also ensured that she poisoned any wells that she was forced to relinquish to her enemies.

I know that I'm practically alone in saying this, but this was Tony Blair's greatest mistake - his greatest failing or his greatest betrayal (you decide). A long way before May 1997, he should have looked at the officialdom that he was going to inherit and he should have plotted the purge.

Instead, he left Labour ministers to tackle a the Whitehall that John Major left behind. Not card-carrying Tories, mind, but mandarins that were well-disposed to blend what they'd learned at the hands of their Thatcherite nannies with Labour's priorities. So political centralisation isn't even the hoovering up of power into the hands of the current Prime Minister.

Departmental capture. And ... hey presto! Managerialism. Labour stuck to much more than Tory spending limits - and for much longer than two years.

Lefty conspiracy theorists can credibly claim that this was no oversight on new Labour's part, and that Tony was always a Tory entrist. And I'd struggle to offer a good counter-argument. But I digress here.

My point is that political centralisation is systematic. It's a function of late capitalism. It is caused by a range of social and economic factors. Public discourse largely ignores this, and a strategic long-term assault on centralisation would find no takers in the UK at the moment.

This systematic trajectory is largely immune to short term party-politics. It was Mrs Thatcher that signed the Single European Act - not Harold Wilson or Jim Callaghan. For the most part, Labour have continued Tory attacks on creativity in the classroom and pluralism in local government.

I say all of this now, partly as a second answer to our Shuggy. Because I find so many of the charges of illiberalism that are leveled at the politicians of this government hard to stomach - not because we don't have a government that is really tending to be quite illiberal - but because I've been in the Labour Party man-and-boy for nearly thirty years, and in opposition, it was overwhelmingly liberal-minded. I'm really not convinced that illiberal government is the result of politicians ignoring the urges of liberals.

There was always a less limp-wristed streak in our heartlands of course, but new Labour was largely a triumph of metropolitan centrists and old Labour roundheads. But when you read our only-on-the-internet bloggertarians saying that this is all the product of socialism, you have to reply: Yeah - I wish!

Oh, and that post of Shuggy's that I'm replying to here - it has developed the usual bloggertarian infestation in it's comment thread. Have a look at Bishop Hill's contribution. You'd think that a libertarian would be well swayed by the argument that 'it doesn't matter who you vote for, the government gets in.' When you read that centralisation is a function of a Labour government, you know you're reading a Tory, not a libertarian. It's a bit like that VI Form essay question in the early 1980s:

"Exactly how much of a tosser was Lord Hailsham when he described a LABOUR government as an elective dictatorship?"

Document Freedom Day

From Philosophy, et cetera.
"Imagine if we all wrote in invisible ink that could only be read by wearing special Microsoft-designed glasses."
Off you go. Read the rest.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Departmental capture

In using Jenni Russell regularly, The Guardian seems to be breaking it's annoying pillocks only rule for columnists. This portrayal of departmental capture is particularly revealing:
"Charles Clarke...accepted... that some children were having a very stultifying and limited experience of education. The question was, did that apply to 5% or 95% of them? Clarke appeared to be a rare example of an education secretary who was prepared to entertain the possibility that the government wasn't always right. He published a document encouraging primaries to be more creative and flexible in their teaching, but he moved on before he could lend political muscle to that instruction.

Since then, every education secretary and minister has been distinguished by an almost wilful determination to ignore the mass of research that does not suit their agenda. Politically, that is the easiest choice. They are encouraged in this by their senior civil servants, whose careers have been built around delivering a particular agenda, and who have nothing to gain by seeing it change course. What is truly alarming is that ministers rarely even glimpse the reports they dismiss. Last year I mentioned a particularly critical Ofsted report to one minister. "Oh, my people tell me there's nothing new in that," he said, breezily. In fact, it had a great deal that was new, and important, and the individuals who put thousands of man-hours into preparing it were probably writing it for an audience of three - of which the minister who never read it was the most important one."

Context-free book recommendation

For quite some time, I've been waiting for a suitable pretext to post a particular book recommendation (or rather, an author recommendation). None has come along, so I'll put it here anyway:

If you've not done so already, have a look at Alan Sillitoe. And not just his more well-known 50s works such as the Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner (the excellent short story collection) or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

The Wikipedia entry has missed a reference to Birthday - his 2002 (I think) encore for SNSM's Arthur Seaton - I'd change it myself, but I've lent my copy out, and I'd want to refer to it accurately if I edited wikipedia myself.

Leonard's War is a pretty special portrayal of loneliness, and the largely autobiographical Raw Material is directly comparable to The Road To Wigan Pier. Indeed, as it's not as much of a journalistic travelogue it some readers may find it more compelling than anything similar written by Orwell.

And I really don't think that I'm posting this just because Alan's a Nottingham boy either...

Managing the electorate

A quick point: A friend and I have been discussing this proposal to make voting compulsory (as part of a wider voting reform package). He made the following observation:
"...politics has turned into a profession with a technique in which the manipulation and management of the electorate, rather than its representation becomes the driving force in the struggle for control of the levers of power."
... which is a pretty good point, I think. It sort-of puts a dent in my position that political parties and politicians need to become more professional and that they should start elbowing civil servants out to replace them with their own people.

But it's not really my job to point out the holes in my own arguments, is it? Or is it?

Free our bills?

If this results in less insider lobbying and more transparency in the way that political advocacy is conducted, it's a great idea.

If it simply reduces the resources that pressure groups have to commit to hectoring MPs, then I'm against it.

On balance, I think that the 'distributed intelligence' argument wins out. I'm backing the 'Free Our Bills' campaign. I think you should too.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

More free? Or less?

Shuggy has invited me to disagree with him about what he sees as a decline in the liberties that we enjoy. On the whole, I'm not even sure that I do disagree with Shuggy that much anyway. I just think that it all bothers me a bit less. For instance, Shuggy does a very entertaining line in blogging about things that annoy him. I'm not as good at this as he is, but it doesn't mean that a lot of petty impositions, or misguided centralisation don't bother me either.

One thing is for certain: I can't reply succinctly. Thinking about it, I was tempted to draw up one of those poxy mind-maps, but even that got too complicated.

However, I've got the day off. And I've got stuff to do. So I can reply, but this isn't a fully footnoted essay. More a series of observations that I think are pertinent: Many of them aren't really deeply held convictions, and some of them may even reflect poor research and misunderstandings on my part. The aim here is mainly to provide an impressionistic portrait of the state of our liberties - to show a different perspective on the subject.

Where to start? How about...

1. Our increased ability to reason, learn and develop
Well, in that post, I think Shuggy undersells the increases in 'liberties' that we have come to enjoy in recent years. For instance, we can learn more freely, cheaply, and with less constraint. The Internet is the autodidact's wet-dream-come-true. This is turning into a massive emancipation, I would argue. It makes minor subtractions to our gross liberty look feeble.

Better, more diverse, less conformist content of a social, cultural and educational nature is available at little or no charge, and the situation improves daily. The pre-Internet society had many of the traits of a society that burned books, and these traits are withering before our eyes. The increased speed of innovation is there for all to see and it would be pinching arguments from most liberals to point out just how emancipating this progress can be.

As an aside, this could also be the relativists wet-dream-come-true as well, but this worries me a lot more than it worries most self-styled 'liberals'. As a corollary to that, we can associate and organise in a way that we could only have dreamed of 15 years ago. Communications costs have plummeted. Barriers to entry into some parts of the mass media have evaporated.

None of these liberties, I'd add, are largely the result of political pressure or constitutional change. But in happening, they have changed our relationship with the state decisively in a way that most liberals will surely welcome?

That said, the state has reacted less furiously than I suspect that it would have done in the 1950s - perhaps because we are a lot more of a liberal society now than we were then?

There is also a liberalising agency that the state has performed in recent years. We can travel further. More cheaply. And - if we were more willing to embrace 'projects of the elites' in this country, we Brits would be able to do so without a passport in the way that most EU citizens can.

We can also go to places that are more liberal than they used to be. These liberties are - at least in part - the result of our own muscular liberalism. We - the EEC / EU countries - imposed liberal preconditions upon accession states (from Greece, Portugal and Spain, through to the former eastern-bloc countries). You can now go to east Berlin without being followed, and you can expect a fair trial in Spain when you get lifted holding an eighth. We made them provide these liberties before we let them into the EU.

You can go to many more countries and join the locals in protesting about their governments. You can even recruit the locals to campaign against your own as well if you want to. Which brings me to...

2. A right to participate in government
As I've observed, we can now work, trade, invest, and park our money elsewhere with a great deal more ease. But not all of these 'liberties' have a objectively liberal outcome, in that they often remove options from the majority in order to protect the privileges of the rich minority.

One of the greatest liberties that we enjoy is the liberty to participate in the social contract and to shape it.

For example, I would also like to vote for a government that would implement a greater tax-and-spend programme than the current one does. It would be in the short-term interests of most people I suspect, so it may be popular. But no viable option of this kind exists because the liberty that the wealthiest fraction of the population enjoy to keep their finances opaque curtails my electoral options here.

The social contract makes it possible for the wealthy to become more wealthy than they would be able to in Hobbes' 'state of nature', yet 'libertarians' have a curious knack of forgetting this when the other contractors ask for their facilitation fee (taxes).

I'd like to vote for a government that would shift taxation decisively away from indirect taxes (VAT, etc) and onto direct taxes (income taxes, etc). I can't do this because our government signed a multilateral treaty many years ago that effectively trumps the outcome of the next election. EU states can't compete on indirect taxation, I believe? So international treaties curtail my liberties.

All of that said, in both cases, I recognise that I enjoy benefits that arise of out of the withdrawal of these liberties. I understand that the open society results in more creativity and higher productivity. I understand that long-term international treaties enable us all to plan, and reduce the damage caused by footloose capital. And for these reasons, my concerns here are very lightly held.

Shuggy raises the withdrawal of our rights to protest as evidence that our liberties have been reduced. As I've said before, I'm not convinced that rights to protest give us much more than a symbolic freedom that actually clouds our understanding of what liberties really are. This brings me to...

3. A system of government that is inclined to result in social liberalism
Then there is the question of 'liberalism' in it's many meanings. I think that Shuggy and I have a similar, fairly limp-wristed, social liberalism.

We don't want people executed (with obvious exceptions). We don't want the police to be allowed to torture suspects and we want punitive sanctions to be geared towards rehabilitation. We want a state-funded open hand extended to the widow and a collective light shown to the child. We understand that the beggar doesn't really have the liberty to dine on caviar.

We don't like over-testing in schools or national curricula (?) and we acknowledge that any warmth that we feel towards corporal punishment (and we both do, I'm sure) is largely atavistic. I suspect that we are both, deep down, Guardian readers - no matter how much we fight it.

I think that my liberties are best guarded by people that I can elect. People who don't have too many unelected and powerful rivals that are beyond my control.

So I want the people that I elect to apply their distributed moral wisdom to legislate. All of my experience of politics has taught me that genuinely empowered elected representatives of the centre-left to the centre-right tend to (in aggregate) support the kind of liberal limp-wristedness that I do, and that as democracy gets more direct, that the outcomes are likely to be more illiberal. I fleshed this out here a while ago (in response, as it happens, to a post of Shuggy's).

In short, I want to see a policy-making mechanism that results in a more liberal settlement than we have at the moment - and I really haven't seen another blogger arguing this yet - nor have I found these arguments being criticised (er... yet!). So, finally, is my position broadly illiberal?

4. The essential pre-conditions for libertarian socialism
I also would like to see a greater level of political decentralisation, This would result in more liberal outcomes (both of the limp-wristed variety and the anti-statist one). Here's my back-of-a-fag-packet plan to bring this about soonish.

And I think that the state should be more active in promoting co-operative and mutualist solutions to social problems than it does. As such (decentralisation, Euro-federalism, mutualisation) I don't think I would have a problem in describing my position as being that of a libertarian socialist.

In short, Shuggy, I'm not going to push the envelope and claim that I'm actually *more* objectively liberal than you are.... but it must make you wonder, eh? ;-)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Mortification of the flesh?

Don't forget your jabs....

More on voting systems

So voting systems are being reviewed then? I'd disagree with a few parts of Paul Anderson's latest post on electoral reform. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I'm 'pro-AV' (I've never been able to stay awake for all of the pro and anti arguments), but it does seem to me that it favours a more conversational type of politics.

He takes us on a trot through how previous elections would have panned out with an AV system in place. But he neglects one important factor: In saying...
"...when Liberal and Social Democratic Party voters generally saw the Tories as less bad than Labour, it would almost certainly have given Margaret Thatcher even more commanding majorities than she actually won."
As far as 'parliamentary majorities' was concerned, this may have been the case. But she would never have been able to muster a Thatcherite majority in the first place. I'm still not sure whether the ability of a political party to assert itself in the way that Mrs T did is always a bad thing anyway ... but I digress.

He says that ...
"... yielding a House of Commons that more accurately reflects the spread of party support across the country – which should surely be the goal of any change to the electoral system.."
Why should this be the case? The question of the desirability of 'proportionality' in government is a minefield, and not one that lends itself to such declarations. But I've not seen any evidence that it results in better policy-making.

And surely the focus on 'party support' compounds the unhealthy domination of policy-making by political parties? In resisting AV, isn't Paul arguing for more political tribalism (and control-freakery that follows with it)?

And if so, is this in the public interest - or the interest the political left? I'd argue that it is neither.

But my main disagreement with Paul is that voting systems should be decided on the basis of what makes for a better quality of representative democracy. I've posted previously with ten tests that I'd apply to any electoral reform.

Paul doesn't seem that bothered about the 'compulsory voting' proposition. I am. Elections shouldn't be decided by the people who care least, or the least decisive. We'd all be better off if they stayed at home. And Paul's framing of the question - 'but is it good for The Left'? I'd argue that any improvement on the quality of representative democracy is always good for the left, even if it doesn't directly translate into short-term tribal advantages for Labour.

I'd even go so far as to say that lefties would achieve more if they shut up about how left-wing they are and concentrated instead upon improving upon representative democracy. But, again, I digress....


I was talking to Mick from Slugger the other day. He'd been looking at my blog, and he was asking if - taken to a logical conclusion - I'm actually arguing for a complete absence of any external scrutiny upon MPs and the way that they conduct their business?

It's a fair point. As things stand at the moment, I'm broadly against any pressure being placed upon MPs to conduct their business in a more public and accountable way for the reasons that I outlined at (perhaps too much) length here.

I think that Mick was reasonably satisfied with my answer.

But I think it's worth enlarging upon anyway, because, in principle, I suspect that I'd be in favour of a much more open form of government than most of those who would campaign for open government. Broadly, I'd like to see all of the players in public policy-making exposed to the level of scrutiny that politicians are.

I'd like to see
  • full disclosure of all expenditure on lobbying and policy-campaigning by commercial entities, semi-public bodies and pressure groups
  • justification of editorial decisions by newspapers on why they chose to target particular politicians / parties, and on what the provenance of their campaigns are. Is a newspaper appeasing it's advertisers or the commercial interests of its' proprietors in choosing to pursue a particular obsession? Is it hiring reporters that have a reputation for reporting, or does it expect to be taken seriously hiring only those who major in campaigning and editorialising?
  • a full disclosure of what the commercial interests and the personal prejudices of newspaper proprietors are
  • a parliamentary body - with regulatory powers - that can ensure that newspaper proprietors can't exercise undue influence on any particular policy area
  • a commissioner, a tsar, a watchdog AND a standards board to scrutinise the degree to which advice that is given to ministers is given in the public interest, as opposed to the interests of those who give the advice
I'd also like to see full disclosure of the steps that news organisations are taking to ensure that their reporting is of a sufficiently high standard? Are they putting enough resources into reporting to back up their claim to be "the world's greatest newspaper" (taking an example at random)?

Have they taken steps to ensure that their reporters actually understand what they are writing about? Do they have any strategy that will deliver continuous improvement? Are they investing in reporting or just commentary? And if so, how is that adding to the quality of scrutiny?

And are they doing anything more than giving themselves minor slaps on the wrist and paying pitiful fines after they've spend six months lying in a highly damaging way in order to ratchet up their sales by millions?

Because, if politicians are being asked to conduct themselves in a more transparent way, what does that mean? To whom are they being more transparent? In doing so, are their constituents likely to have a clearer view of how they reach their decisions as a result?

At the moment, I suspect that greater transparency will simply play into the hands of the unelected and the unscrupulous. And that, I would suggest, is not a good thing. I'm all for open governance, which is why I'd like it to be symmetrical. That way, it will result in better policy-making, instead of a decline in representative government.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

If you missed the news yesterday

It's not easy to ignore the US presidential primaries, even if you want to, though I've done OK so far.

But yesterday - even if it is only to be remembered as a fine bit of oratory - Barack Obama gave a mighty fine speech of the kind that we rarely hear from politicians of any stripe these days.

Text and comments over at Freemania.

I don't know if it makes him the best prospective President either. But it as a piece of engagement, it was pretty impressive.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Back pages

A while ago I pointed to this post by Gracchi on prosecutorial politics. I've just seen it again and it's still as good.

If you missed it the first time...

Cutting a dash

I've found a nice white suit for sale.

I wonder, who could I buy it for? I wonder?

He moves in mysterious ways

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

All hail! He is come among us.

St Patrick's day question

Can anyone think of another Irish gaelic word (apart from 'galore') that is in ordinary English usage?

(Pogue Mahone doesn't count).

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Music-wise, Nottingham has always punched well below its weight. Where other cities had their respective scenes, I think that the best that we ever managed was Alvin Stardust (and even he was from Mansfield really). Oh, and KWS.

Oh, and Paper Lace - a wretched band but one with an awesome classic. (MP3s here)

But the one thing we always did have was a fantastic record shop in Selectadisc. When I was at school, if you were almost broke, it was worth buying the cheapest thing from the bargain bins at their old secondhand shop upstairs on Bridlesmith Gate just to have another one of the hip yellow plastic bags to carry around.

One such example - only 50p in 1979 - The Headboys - The Shape of Things To Come.

Why mention this now? Well, Rullsenberg is a bit worried.

Oh, and here's Alvin: "Keep your wits abaht yer - be smart, be safe."

More on voting against.

Via PG, here's Right Next Time on The Libertarian Party going for the non-voter vote.

And then there's this.

Let me know. Am I being unfair here? Is this cloying cynicism deeply reactionary, or am I imagining it?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Voting against, not for.

For anyone interested in the way that the Internet is changing the way that political campaigning is done, the Stop Boris site is worth a look.

Here's the FAQ, and here are the downloadable posters. Some of them are quite good. And my Labour-voting soul hopes that the site will succeed in it's mission.

Some of London's voters (*ahem!*) will vote for the candidate of their choice with serious misgivings. But this illustrates an important difference between the huge majority of us - those who vote but don't stand for election ourselves - and those who do.

We can justify picking the 'least worst' candidate. Because of the growing cynicism in public life, we can expect more campaigns to look like this. Political parties, well-funded individual candidates, and even candidates with backing from a corner of the press no longer can necessarily regard their campaigning structures as assets. Often, the best way to destroy a candidate in the public mind is to promote them, because we are now supremely distrustful of promoters.

In 1997, in east London, we had to forbid some Labour campaigners from driving around with loudspeakers on top of their cars 'getting the vote out'. We knew that a lot of the Tory core vote was going to stay at home sulking. Any evidence of triumphalism would have poked them out and into the polling station.

There are no trust issues with the Stop Boris campaign. It can make anti-Boris points from both the left and the right. The site goes to great lengths to point out that it isn't a Ken-proxy. I'm sure most visitors suspect that it is just a well-done deniable Ken-proxy, whatever the site claims. It's Douglas Rushkoff's media-virus world of peer marketing.

So most voters will end up voting for the candidate we fear the least. Public debate is good at working out who we don't want to run the country. But it's crap at working out how to run the country. This is a point that I believe that anyone with a brain would have to agree with. But it is not a point that would be publicly affirmed by many politicians or paid commentators.

And as long as the broad tenor of public discourse continues with the pretence that we should all be given more of a say in policymaking, democracy will continue to decline as it has done in recent years.


I know that I've urged you to do so before, but if you didn't take my advice then, you should now.

Subscribe to Gilles Peterson's podcast.

And for the next six days, at least, you can use the BBC iPlayer to watch this lovely programme about harmonicas that was on BBC4 last night.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Be off with you

Nothing much here today.

Just found this one though - Foolish Interuption. I just hope he didn't waste any cash going to Cheltenham today.

One day, I'll do something so wonderful that the Missus will say "go on Paulie. Treat yourself. Instead of buying me a new hat, why don't you go off to Cheltenham next month and chuck a few quid at some slow bobboes before the poxy flat season starts?"

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Deadly sins

I saw this at Shuggy's.




Sloth:Very High




The Seven Deadly Sins Quiz on

Guidance for a constipated culture

Tom Watson is asking for feedback on his draft code of conduct for blogging civil servants. And – fair play to him – he knows what blogs can and can’t do for a politician. He says:
“A clunky old blog is not the place for ministerial edicts. It is place to start discussions and seek views.”
For me, the whole question of whether or not MPs, Councillors or Civil Servants blog is a bit of an odd one. In most cases, given the constraints that are on them, I can’t see what it is going to achieve. One of the meanings of the word ‘politician’ runs fairly close to the definition of ‘diplomat’. Politicians have to use diplomacy to square circles, broker deals and occasionally to shaft someone who really doesn’t deserve shafting – all in the wider public interest. It doesn’t make for a full and frank baring of the soul.

Similarly, there is the whole concept of the ‘official secret’ – and the broader role of the policy-making bureaucrat. It isn’t really their job to be thoughtful in public. The opposite is often true, however, for public employees on the ground. Copperbloggers, for instance.

It is, however, the job of politicians to encourage the public to be thoughtful and candid about their experiences and their observations.

So, for most politicians and bureaucrats, I’ve argued (in Shane’s comments box) that there isn’t that strong a case for it. Generally, it can get you into a shitload of bickering with a load of people that you don’t personally represent, or that don’t have anything valuable to give you back in return for a finely crafted (or even a dashed-off) post. There are exceptions, of course. Some of the time, Tom Watson is genuinely interactive without being too cautious about it. Bob Piper is great at this kind of thing – mainly because he doesn’t take any prisoners. I doubt if a ministerial limo will ever be picking Bob up every morning though.*

What ministers and civil servants could do, however, is invite Mick – someone who has loads of experience managing a potentially explosive situation (a Northern Ireland political blog) over to their offices for a quick primer on how to conduct and moderate a valuable conversation. How to encourage people who have something worthwhile to say, to say it – and keep them talking. How to weed out trolls, and how to reward people for bringing content to the table. How to discourage ‘me-too’ comments and gratuitous opinion. How to encourage people to play the ball, and not the man.

These are the conversational skills that are actively suppressed in our up-tight, constipated political culture.

For what it’s worth, it means keeping a close eye on the blogosphere. Dipping in – under a consistent (but deniable?) pseudonym if needs be, and engaging with people that have something to divulge. It means spending time drilling down into other people’s arguments and rewarding them in some way for playing nicely.

There is an experiment about to take place (and it ain’t me doing it either) in which this approach is going to be tried by a few civil servants and politicians. I won’t say more about it yet because it’s still being finalised (it’s not a big secret, so don’t get excited) but stay tuned: It has some bearing on the questions that Tom is raising.

*In the unlikely event of Bob ever being given his own ministry, he'd have to hope that he doesn't get a Birmingham City fan as his driver. The headline: Ministerial limo reverses into a wall - nine times)

Gawd bless her!

OK kids! When you've finished the art class, can you come inside to swear allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen?


Last month, I told you that parliament would respond to recent public anxieties about MPs expenses by creating a tougher audit regime in which MPs have to answer to civil servants on how minor details of their day-to-day work is conducted.

The Commons Members Estimates Committee has now obliged:
"The committee said it was "determined to establish audit controls which command public confidence".

Some MPs had suggested a system of random spot-checks "for checking the money has been spent on the purpose intended", it added.

The committee will hold discussions with the National Audit Office, accountancy firms, HM Revenue & Customs and the Audit Commission "to establish what is the most practical and effective arrangement"."
As I suggested previously, parliament no longer has the ability to defend itself.

So. Were going to get a more centralised and judicial quality of political representation. Would anyone with an ounce of sense want this?

Tough. You'll get it anyway. Get used to it.

It seems that the correct way for the country to be run is for newspaper journalists to frame the big questions, and for MPs to report to civil servants on how they are meeting the requirements of their three masters - hacks, lobbyists and bureaucrats.

And while they're at it, they better file their receipts properly!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Ten prejudices about voting systems

As usual, I agree with Freemania about communalism and opinion-based politics (he's against the former and in favour of the latter).

Now, electoral systems can have some influence upon the quality of politics, and it would be fair to say that some systems foster communalism (and other vices) more than others. I've always avoided discussions around the detail of electoral reform, because I don't really see much point in them. Not that electoral reform isn't a good thing, you understand - just that any amount of study or argument is unlikely to actually lead anywhere.

Governments determine electoral systems, and the current one is always too good a thing for any party of government to break.

But - hey! Sometimes, asking a semi-pointless question is a good exercise to try anyway. So, if we were starting with a blank piece of paper, writing a spec for the ideal electoral system, what would it look like?

Here are my prejudices on this matter - I reserve the right to rethink all of them, and these points aren't fully considered. Let me know what you think?
  1. The fairness of the voting system isn't *that* important. Exact proportionality is so fraught with problems, it isn't really achievable anyway. Proportionality in what, anyway? Political parties have factions within themselves, and any sensible understanding of how representative democracy can be improved should include a requirement for shorter generalised manifestos anyway. I don't even know how important it is that a minority viewpoint should be denied any means of taking a commanding role in government. Surely coherent government requires an occasional democratic coup whereby a particular political position is given the time and space to try something without getting stuck in a permanent pudding of consensus?
  2. It is important that few people can sustain electoral office by appealing to only one community (or an exclusive alliance of them) - whether it's racial, geographic, cultural or religious, the politicians should be rewarded for championing the interests of the whole polity. The only exception to this is in regional government, where politicians should positively champion the interests of their region against those of their neighbours. But overarching elected federal structures should have the power to referee these conflicts fairly.
  3. The electoral system should have rules that severely limit the powers of organised pressure groups or media interests in being able to have a decisive influence on the outcome. So media concentration, political advertising and a regulation of pressure groups are all electoral issues, and should be subject to legal frameworks that are more assertive than those currently in place.
  4. The electoral system should be interesting. It shouldn't be over-complicated, and it should be meaningful to those who vote, without them needing a PhD in constitutional affairs. That said, I think that Single Transferable Voting systems are good for picking people, and could make for good TV. The winner can usually say that most people have voted for them. OK. I'm really not sure about this one.
  5. People should be able to vote for people - not parties. As few of us are qualified to determine the best policies for the country to take forward, we should be choosing the people who will make those decisions on our part instead. Parties should have less power over elected representatives. The electoral system should ensure that power is distributed in such a way as to ensure that people understand that their choice of individuals is important.
  6. Democracy will be better if MPs can think and act more independently. The greatest enemy of effective aggregated deliberation is groupthink. It is not possible to overstate how undesirable groupthink is. This means that individual representatives need their own resources for communication and research.
  7. Political parties are still important though - they represent a pre-arranged set of alliances, and an approach to policymaking that will reflect upon the character of those that we vote for. Coherent government is not possible without political parties.
  8. We should only have one elected member for each assembly. It is important that everybody has the name of only one person who is their MP. A geographic link. One who is their regional government representative, one who is their local government representative, and one who is their MEP. Multi-member constituencies hold out the option to promote communalism.
  9. Voter turnout is not - in itself - that important. If any sub-group (social class, race, cultural grouping, religious grouping) were particularly prone to abstention, then this would be a problem that would need adjustment. But an agreed message that says "I you really don't know which candidate to choose, then don't feel pressurised to vote" would be a good thing. Currently, general election campaigns are exclusively an appeal to the most indecisive and apathetic voters. They enjoy extraordinary influence when they should be encouraged to stay at home sulking and feeling all disillusioned and disenfranchised instead. The twats.
  10. A higher number of candidates IS important. Political parties struggle to get people to stand as councillors. And - increasingly - 'professional politicians' are the only ones capable of succeeding at a higher level. It should be more socially and financially rewarding to be an elected representative. Being able to change things would also be a plus. And it would be a good think if you could appoint / dismiss more civil servants when you win an election as well.
There you go. If you can't disagree with at least one of those, you probably need to check your pulse.


Here's Buddy Rich -v- Animal

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Closed groove

SLF then....

A few years ago, I had a moment of self-awareness, watching a Paul Weller gig on the TV. Occassional audience shots shows a moshpit filled with greying balding heavy-set forty-somethings - pogoing - to That's Entertainment.

Yet despite this clear warning, I went to see Stiff Little Fingers last night at The Astoria. In my teens, I usually stuck to moddy bands like The Jam, The Chords, The Specials, Selecter, Dexys etc (and The Beatles / Who / Small Faces, natch), along with a bit of soul.

My big exeptions to this rule were SLF and The Undertones and Inflamable Material was the first LP that I bought with my own money. So when I saw the ad a few weeks ago, I couldn't resist it

Tonight, SLF played a handful of numbers that I haven't heard since my copy of Nobody's Heroes was nicked at least 25 years ago. Jake's still a terrific (and chubbier) vocalist, and SLF's guitar sound is a good deal more influential than it has ever been given credit for. All-in-all, it was good fun. Jake may need to stop trying star-jumps though?

A mix of fairly juvenile politics, crowd-pleasers, and the usual dynamic between a long-standing band and their audience: The first half-a-dozen songs are ones that only the hardcore know - y'know, the serious stuff, more mature numbers with the odd jazz-chord that the band like, before it all degenerates in to a well-received medley of the hits.

We got 'Johnny Was' as an encore - then and now an outstanding version of it. But, for me, the best commentary on the night was the final number before the encores: Suspect Device - a raw furious punk cornerstone whose relevance has evaporated almost completely given Northern Ireland's recent history.

Just before the final verse, Jake broke of, with the band keeping time in the background - to do the farewells: "Ladies and Gennelmen, you've been a great audience - now, on guitar, I give you...."

And then when he said his thanks, he continued onto the last verse, ending with the final "We're going to blow up in your face!!!"

... and now: About to blow up in your face...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Voting for the soul?

The resignation of Lee Jasper – Ken Livingstone's equalities advisor - could provide the Mayor with useful cover under which he can appeal to a small-but-important section of the public that don't really think that they can go anywhere else, but are reluctant to vote for him.

I'm in this particular quartile, by the way. And while my own objections may be a bit esoteric, I think that there is a wider general perception that Ken is a fine politician, but that he blots his copybook badly with his dishonesty / posturing / politiking around issues of race, communal politics and a Joe-Strummerish desire to be positioned is the retreating shadow of Che Guevara.

More than the allegations about being tipsy at the wheel, or the hints of graft in City Hall, I think that it costs him votes among his natural allies.

For me, this raises an important question. How fundamental is the perceived character of an individual in one's decision on how to vote.

I see Ken as an extreme case here, so he really foregrounds the question well – even if you don't agree with me about his flaws. If you have an absolutely great candidate, but they continue to strike a posture that disgusts you, can you still vote for them? And how important is it that the obnoxious posture that they are striking doesn't even impact upon their job that much?

I say this because – in many ways – I hold Ken in some degree of awe. More than any politician, I think that he is almost the definitive elected representative in so many ways. Anyone who is as obsessed with the defence of representative democracy as I am has to acknowledge that Ken is – in many ways - the finest specimen ever seen on these islands. He not only illustrates the virtues that all elected officials could possess – if only they had the brains, the skills and the audacity - but he has developed a few traits that even the most wishful democrat wouldn't have hoped for.

I've banged on about this before over at the trots, and - in summary (to save you reading *another* over-long post), it lists the ways that Ken has excelled as a Mayor (and prospective Mayor).

And it doesn't end there, either. I don't have that much time for a lot of the mainstream left's objections to Ken. For instance, it has been suggested in a few places that Ken is still a member of Socialist Action – a shadowy revolutionary cell that is seeking to subvert democracy from within.
I can understand why Marc Wadsworth would make a big deal about this – anyone who watched London's anti-racist movement at close quarters in the 1990s will recall the fervid sectarianism that infused every part of it (a clue: Wadsworth didn't come out of it very well).

But for Martin Bright to say ...
“...there is now no doubt in my mind that Socialist Action has carried out the most successful Trotskyist entryist operation since Derek Hatton's Liverpool. Vote Ken Livingstone, get Socialist Action.”
...well only a journalist with a story to sell would take that line seriously.

I don't think that it's part of any coherent entryist plan. I'm with Paul Anderson on the question of Socialist Action: It doesn't really exist any more.

Ken isn't using his office to hatch a dastardly insurrection, and the worst that you could accuse him of here is that he's taken a group of people who got themselves into a Trotskyist cul-de-sac back in the day, and used those relationships to create a tight-knit team of loyal acolytes around himself. No-one has needed that more than Ken, and much of his success as a mayor wouldn't have been possible without it.

He should be applauded for this – not condemned. In doing so he's succeeded where so many ineffectual new Labour ministers have failed. Ken is able to impose himself on his civil servants.

It's great that he has done so while this is still possible, without being sidetracked into a sludge of compromise and 'consultation'

I've heard a few critics claim that he betrayed Labour in 2000, and now he's appealing for party discipline in the face of internal Labour dissent now. This is nonsense. The original mayoral selection was such a massive exercise in bad-faith, Ken was entirely justified in serving the party bureaucrats with their arses on plates.

If that were not enough, I'm not very impressed with the way that Ken's detractors have gone after him. If I knew nothing else about him, the fact that Ken has drawn an obsessive enmity from the loathsome Evening Standard should be enough to guarantee him anyone's vote. I'm even not very impressed with the way that some hacks that I often rather like – specifically Nick Cohen and Martin Bright – have targeted him.

I'm even inclined to share Ken's suspicion that much of the hostility from lefty journalists – surrounding his alleged corruption – springs less from a dissatisfaction with his work as a Mayor – or even a real concern about corruption – and has more to do with a 'decentist' vendetta.

As Ken himself points out, these allegations of graft will disappear the day after the election – whatever the outcome.

And if that isn't enough, I'd go *even* further. One of the most unpleasant symptoms of our uptight, constipated political culture is the ease with which any political hostility can be short-circuited with an allegation of corruption. This takes a number of forms. It can be a Mornington Crescent-style game of pinning some piece of mismanagement at the door of a target public figure. Or it can be incompetence or cronyism on the part of an associate.

Yet, as far as I can see, if you haven't accrued a couple of advisers with a dodgy hinterland, and if you haven't pulled a few short-cuts over the last couple of decades, you probably haven't achieved anything as a politician. The politics of perpetual investigation can only lead to a much worse form of government in the long run (as I argued here, here and here)

And, rounding it all off, Ken's record as a Mayor is – in most respects – excellent. There is a good utilitarian defence of him, and Dave Cole has written it so that I don't have to.

So, surely, all sensible people should attempt to put their paltry vote up as a counterweight to this vast and anti-democratic idiocy – even if there are aspects of Ken's record that we dislike?

Well, while we're thinking about utilitarianism though, there's what Maryam Namazie has called the... “...whirlwind love affair with political Islam” of the left. And Ken is one of her chief offenders here.

There's no need for a long rehearsal of the charge-sheet.

Ken has lionised people who have expressed genocidal views and promoted communalist politics. I don't know whether he did so to satisfy what remains of his youthful insurrectionist self, or because he somehow fancies himself as an American-style city boss? But I do know that it reflects woefully on his character. In a city like London, promoting communal politics – particularly in consorting almost exclusively with non-representative extremists in order to shape your engagement with any particular community – is simply inexcusable. It's irresponsible, and fundamentally anti-democratic.

Furthermore, there's the nature of those that he consorts with here. For a man who built his reputation on the rainbow liberation politics of the 1980s, to invite people who would kill gays and Jews, or enslave women is such a huge outrage that it almost eclipses everything else that he's done.

The odd thing about this is that he hasn't really needed to do this. He's taken a number of opportunities to get himself involved in thorny questions that he didn't need to. Ken's interventions on race matters – aside from generating a noisy debate – have probably changed very little. He may have chucked money at various communialist and extremist organisations, but again, it is unlikely to result in much harm, or in any real positive benefit to those groups. His funding for MCB initiatives have only really embarrassed him.

I've seen claims that anti-semitic attacks are on the increase, but laying that at Ken's door would be a bit harsh in itself. But for a democratic politician to be even-handed with those who would promote anti-semitic attacks – it is such a negation of liberal democracy.

So, I return to the question: Ken's soul. Does it disqualify him for office? If you vote for the person – not the policies (I do) then the answer is likely to be ‘yes’.

However, if he were to provide Londoners with a signal that he will rein in his more controversial urges on this front – ensure that his personal prerogative will not stretch into areas that he has little influence on anyway, and that he is suspect, then that refusal turns into a 'maybe'. If he were to appoint a new 'equalities adviser' – someone who was on the record criticising his invitation to Qaradawi, someone who is notably impatient with pressure groups in general, and communal ones like the MCB and MAB in particular – then that it becomes a 'better-than-maybe'.

Go on Ken. Repent – as much as you can without it backfiring. Appoint a half-decent equalities adviser. Send a signal that you will stick to what you're good at: Transport, policing, demanding more powers for yourself. And tell the public that the weirdo that invited Gerry Adams to London in the 1980s and his clerical equivalent in recent years is retired.

If you can repent of, or constrain, a bad soul, then maybe you do deserve a vote. There is greater joy in heaven …. etc etc.

And even if you don’t share my view on Ken’s communalism (etc) I’d be interested he read comments on the general question of how you vote if you admire the skills but deplore the character of a candidate.

Either way, I'm not an abstainer. And I'm really not going to vote for a tosser like Boris, a self-righteous poseur like Paddick, or any hippy from the fucking Green Party. I desperately need someone to come up with some fig-leaf that will allow me to present a good reason for voting for Ken – when I almost certainly do so on the day.