Monday, November 26, 2012

Awaiting Lord Leveson

I understand the principled arguments against press regulation. Really. I do. I probably agree with most of them as well, in all of their impoverished fiddling-while-Rome-burns glory.

 But can everybody else who opposes this please also acknowledge that British journalism has been a recurring car-crash for decades now? We don't have regulation already? Apart from the right journalists have to only print the prejudices of their proprietor that their advertisers don't object to?

It's not as if there is some beautiful crystal garden there that is about to be ruined by the heavy jackboot of the state, for f**k sake. We have Europe's most distrusted press corp. Our anti-regulation journalists have allowed their industry to turn into one where beating competitors is a sideshow. Beating regulators is the main event, and actually reporting what is going on with any accuracy or lack of bias is..... well.... just so analogue.

As a result, monopolies have thrived while the local press has been gutted. Journalists have allowed the perceived value of their work to be diminished almost to nothing, and then they wonder why no-one will invest in it. Reporting has been suffocated by an Oxbridge-dominated commentariat who imagine themselves to be experts about everything. Every public debate is reduced to a set of polar simplifications and competing groupthinks that get picked up, cab-rank style, by the appointed overpaid class of celeb mouthpieces.

I don't know about you, but if I never heard from Simon Jenkins, Matthew d'Ancona, Peter Oborne, Janet Daley, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Fraser Nelson, Andrew Rawnsley, Henry Porter, Seamus Milne, Benedict Brogan or (..... add your own in here) it wouldn't be a moment too soon. If any of us never saw another page of our infotainment tabloid sector, would we be stupider or wiser?

Don't get me wrong. There is a place for good commentary. I specifically left a few names out of that list because there are one or two of them that understand that there's more to being a columnist than simply playing the simplifying roles assigned to them. But it's the ubiquity of it all that is so unacceptable.

There is no reason to imagine that a regulatory ecology that has Parliament as a player is necessarily any worse than one that is only regulated by our self-serving metropolitan chattering classes, within the confines of an industry that has no notion of the public interest at all. We have norms and rules that regulate how our press works already. They are useless and counterproductive. The most convincing argument for press regulation is to spend a short period watching most of the most vociferous opponents making their case.

Democracies and markets rely upon wide access to reliable information and our press is not, currently, an asset to civil or commercial society. If anything, it's the opposite - and that needs fixing whatever else Leveson comes up with.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dexys: What are they like?

I travelled up to Cambridge the other night to see Dexys showcase their recent LP. Declaring an interest here, this is the only band I've over-played to the point of having to replace the vinyl albums.

But that was a long time ago, and dealing with that short-noise-long-silence gap made the gig a particularly unknown quantity from the outset. Recent interviews with Kevin Rowland have shown us a more equivocal soul than the smash-and-grab merchant behind Burn It Down - but surely the whole point of Dexys was the emotional incontinence and the fanatical self-assurance of one man who Knew He Was Right?

Outgrowing certainty is surely a sign of a welcome maturity in most. But will it really work for Kevin?

This was reflected in the current sound. The tightness and purposefulness of the popular stomping recordings was missing and the 'difficult' 'Don't Stand Me Down' sound dominated - a choice that would have suited the more dedicated fanbase in the hall.

Gone was the punch or the conviction that the three-piece brass section gave the first LP. Gone, also was the twinkling pantomime Celtic pixie-ness or the passionate Caledonian soul of their Too-Rye-Aye phase. Now there's no 'Emerald Express' - just a sole fiddle.

But the new LP is a fine original piece of work. It has the feel of a bunch of musicians, some of whom had been in the same band at different times around thirty years ago, who have recruited some other journeymen to put together a bit of musical theatre, reviving some of their old idioms on the way. In itself, it's funny, and at points, poignant. And this is also true of the song-cycle of unwelcome maturity, infatuation, commitment-phobia and lonely old age.

The first hour of the gig was a track-by-track performance of 'One Day I'm Going to Soar'. And very good it was too. The second hour was more flaky and thin though. I won't spoil it for anyone who has tickets for this tour (I'm going again on Sunday!) by naming most of the chosen tracks, but in that hour we got only a handful of tunes including a painfully protracted 'Come On Eileen'.

A lot of it was glued together with a stilted conversation between Kevin and Pete Williams dressed as a policeman which stretched the audiences willingness to suspend normal expectations to the limit. It was a thin hour.

All in all, it was one last wild waltz and the new LP's showcase was worth the entrance fee alone. But if this show is to run and run, rather than provide us with one final cameo appearance, they need to decide: Either keep this line-up and lean heavily on Don't Stand Me Down for the back catalogue next time, or hire a driving brass section and more Celtic Soul Brothers and The Strong Devoted and tighten the whole set up.

Those of us with almost a tribal loyalty to Don't Stand Me Down often forget what fine LPs the others were.

It's a gamble. Personally, I think that the breadth of Dexys 1980s output is a largely unacknowledged jewel that would grab new audiences by the nuts. It would need a lot of conviction to pull it off, and maybe the new, introspective Mr Rowland would say that he's grown out of that now?

We may never know.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Left losing its mind about brain-work

In recent years, an unconfident left has watched shiny new bandwagons passing by and it has sometimes jumped upon them in hope.

A few years ago, Islamism looked oddly attractive to some. Today, its 'copyleft'.

For some reason, there seems to be a view that support for copyright infringement is popular (this report - pdf -comprehensively demonstrates it isn't).

Opposing the enforcement of intellectual property laws also looks like quite a radical cause. You get to stick it to the man - especially when the man is the MPAA - Universal, Disney or (history fans) EMI (who?)

And then there's something of a mystical pseudo-rationalist view that the internet offers unlimited quantities of magic dust that multiply knowledge and - on some utilitarian calculation - make copyright infringement a small crime that has a large benefit to mankind and the commons. 

There's a ton of bad science behind that one. There's no reason it has to be an either/or question. We are told that the very mild measures outlined in the UK Digital Economy Act or the French Hadopi law designed to reduce file-sharing are somehow 'censorship'. That these measures, and those around Sopa/Pipa in the US would somehow 'break the internet' if they were ever passed.

Then there's what Andrew Orlowski of The Register refers to as the Pseudo Masochism of self-styled civil liberties campaigners who claim any enforcement of IP law is a form of censorship. Take the celebrated Newport State of Mind parody -  it was totally censored as you can see here, here, here and lots of other places.

And the closer you look into it, the more you find that it's more of an issue for corporate monopolies, the very-very right wing and even the fascist and neo-nazi far-right.

In the last few weeks, evidence of Google dog-whistling up campaigns from supposedly liberal organisations has happened at the same time as a surprisingly slick campaign at EU level against the global anti-counterfeiting treaty, ACTA.

Thing is, the music / film / TV industries that lose so much from having their work nicked like this are mostly populated by small independent producers, small labels and freelancers who have to invest in their own kit, skills and training. Many have spent a great deal longer learning their craft than the over-paid professions that they compete with.

Journalists, bafflingly, have bought the liberality of this argument hook line and sinker - none more than The Guardian - a newspaper group whose business model could be summed up as Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun. (another h/t to Andrew Orlowski for that one). Meanwhile, as a profession that has dedicated itself to openness, local newspapers everywhere have died on their arse. The writing is on the wall, but can you find any journalists who are prepared to read it?

They pay taxes at decent rates (unlike the ISPs, search engine(s) and hardware manufacturers who benefit from copyright violation). And creative work has a great multiplier effect on the UK economy.

When the DVD market is hit by piracy, it still hurts. Badly.

If you want a good - if long - outline of why this is an essential issue for anyone who has ever believed that people should be paid and not exploited for this work, this open letter to Emily White is worth a read. But more to the point, creators rights are basic human rights. Why have we decided to forget this?

Next time you speak to the opponent of copyright enforcement measures, ask them...
  1. Do you think copyright should just be abolished and that music/film/TV work should just be appropriated with no compensation to creators (usual answer: No)
  2. What effective enforcement measures would you support (usual answer; Er..... waffle waffle whataboutery - usually something about how totally unfair some pricing models for music were in the past)
  3. OK. Now answer that first question again (usual answer as above)
The whole debate is being distorted by a false flag campaign that actually wants to abolish copyright altogether. The Pirates make no bones about it. The words are more weasely from the Open Rights GroupWhich brings me to the final argument: That the music and film biz totally missed the boat and should have adapted earlier. That they should have adapted. 'Home taping didn't kill music' we're told. Because knocking up a few mixtapes for your mates is exactly the same thing as pulling down entire record collections and movie catalogues off a torrent, innit?

Google and Apple don't get their copyright breached because they would have your bollocks in their pockets 30 seconds after you did it. Musicians, on the other hand, can't enforce their rights, so they've kinda got it coming to them.

It's feudalism - pure and simple. And, apparently, it's a liberal cause as well.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Alan Turing - 100 today

The 'Bombe'. This machine killed fascists.
I don't like petitions in most cases - not for anything that is any kind of complex policy question, anyway.

But I've signed this one and I hope you do the same. A few weeks ago, £millions was spent celebrating the (whatever colour it was) Jubilee. Today, the centenary of fascism's greatest nemesis will go largely unmarked.

They also serve who smile and wave, I suppose, but our country's shame at the treatment of this man is only matched by our failure to properly recognise the enormity of his contribution - both to the war effort and to our wider economy and culture.

I'll be getting a nice cake in to share with the kids. They need to know about this.

Pic credit: Pic from here.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Greek elections - voters and distributed judgement

What do voters know about their vote in the Greek elections?

Looking at the BBC's summary of party positions (scroll down) there is really only one party that can tell its voters how its MPs will act - the Communists who are promising to kick the table over and return to the Drachma.

All of the other parties are really standing for a variation on the 'stay in the Euro and renegotiate the bailout' line, whatever they are actually saying - variations on the 'Swedish healthcare on US Tax rates' policy.

Circumstances beyond the control of these voters will determine the choices of the politicians that are elected when the counting is over. There is, for example, a chance that Frau Bundeskanzlerin will blink and offer a deal that is good enough to persuade a majority of Greek MPs that honour has been satisfied.

Or there is a chance that she will have her arm twisted by a combination of a newly emboldened French left, or even a Greek government playing its extremely weak hand well.

Or the third option: The new Greek government may overplay their hand and find themselves in an impasse that is disastrous to all concerned.

Whatever. It tells us a lot about democracy because this Greek election is oddly similar to any that any of us have voted in. Sure, it's a more extreme situation and the consequences are nastier than normal, but the Greek people can have no certain idea of what the best hand to play is.

They don't know how the outside world will react, the politicians concerned are all knowingly offering an unrealistic account of how they will behave the moment the polls close, and they don't know what the consequences of any outcome will really be anyway.

So, just another election then.

One small upside of the current Greek situation is that pundits have been remarkably backward in coming forward with confident predictions. The benefits of this should be observed approvingly everywhere.

Uncertain people are voting for uncertain politicians who will take decisions that have mysterious consequences. The only power Greek voters have is to play a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, gaming each other into coming up with a final configuration of Parliament. Correspondents are full of stories of lefties switching to New Democracy while other former moderates dive off to a Syriza party that is offering an extraordinarily radical set of proposals.

Whoever wins (polls say its currently 'too-close-to-call' in the race for that vital majority that awards 50 extra seats) will struggle to claim to be the unity government that Greece will need the moment the whole bailout package has been finalised one way or the other.

Voters seem to be signaling in a negotiation more than they are voting for candidates in a party. A vote for Syriza may be, for instance, closer to an attempt to look confident at a Poker table than it is an indicator of conviction. I could totally understand a vote for almost any of them regardless of any underlying political positioning.

This can't bode well for Greek governance in the long term. It's like voting in a referendum and then having to have your whole government shaped over the long run by your vote on a single issue. In many ways this is a referendum - and probably a better one than we'll ever have in the UK.

Every European politician needs to put themselves in the shoes of their Greek counterparts and update their understanding of what an elected representative is for. And every voter needs to do look at the situation Greek voters are now in and update their understanding of what a vote actually is.

Elections. They're a hoof-it-and-hope affair at the best of times. Politicians need to learn that they don't have a mandate and they do have an obligation to get into genuine human negotiations with their political rivals and not get stuck in a 'prisoners dilemma' sort of partisan grandstanding. And voters need to learn that a vote isn't a direction to government - it's a feeble speculative intervention in a whirlwind - that's all.

It's still better that all of the alternatives...

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Ireland are playing their Euro 2012 group matches on Poland, thus this.

As an aside, the most compelling political argument I've found recently has been the one that the Tories are making vindictive cuts, not because they need to, but because they want to.

The need for a restructuring of the economy (and it is needed) is being used to justify score-settling by nasty Thatcherite fantatics.

That this is an opportunistic political attack dressed up as economic prudence. That it's not the cuts we object to, but their choice of cuts.

When they identify the barriers to growth, they don't see banks that won't lend, or these mythical startups that fail to materialise, or a private sector that hasn't got the entreprenneurial nuts to jump into the space vacated by the public sector.

They don't see consumers and businesses who are keeping their cash in their pockets because they don't know if tomorrow is going to be more rainy. They don't see the unmet need for housing or the uncertain caution of people in precarious employment.

No. They see trades unions who are too strong. Workers who enjoy anti-social employment rights. Bosses who can't fire anyone they please.

Unions have the potential to be the rallying point here. I'm not sure it's an opportunity that they always take, but if ever there was a time for a 'free trade union' campaign in the UK, now is it.

It's a slightly anti-political argument - it plays on a general suspicion about the motives of the political caste. But this isn't something to be afraid of. If it helps to nudge Labour out of it's own bunker-mentality, so much the better.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A few things a few people should know about copyright Pt1.

I like 38Degrees most of the time. They campaign on issues that I agree on. I know one of the people there slightly, and I know that they take on some of the criticisms I've made about the democratic problems around petitions and write-in campaigns. I also think that there are some issues where the Westminster Village needs to be jogged out if it's own obsessions - especially on important issues that slip below the radar at election time.

I also like the way they're diversifying into other constructive forms of crowd-sourcing.

But where I worry most is the way that campaigns can be built up because they have a superficial appeal to a particular activist demographic. On complex questions this can be the case. 38 Degrees and AVAZZ have both made their presence felt on issues around copyright. There is a general, slightly muddy contention that the open internet is always a good thing and that the benefits of letting it rip in all ways outweigh any benefits related to curbing the way it's used. So, no porn-blocking, no piracy-enforcement, and so on.

It's not an argument I've ever seen made much beyond being an idealised contention, though for the most part, I'm in complete agreement with this view (except where it comes to the 'piracy enforcement' which I'll come to in a sec). It's a fashionable view. And, if you hold it, I suspect you may be receptive to claims that support it.

Here's 38 Degrees from a couple of years ago:
The Digital Economy Bill .... gives the government the ability to disconnect millions. Schools, libraries and businesses could see their connection cut if their pupils, readers of customers infringe any copyright. But one group likes it, the music industry. 

This resulted in a significant write-in campaign. There are a number of things wrong with their position (do read the whole thing):

a) Millions? Schools, libraries and businesses?
Er.... only after a range of warning letters. In France, the Hadopi Bill (generally seen as being a good deal more draconian) has reduced piracy significantly without resulting in any civil liberties fiascos it's opponents suggested would happen. The amount of disconnections are expected to be negligible.

This is a massive over-egging of the civil liberties argument to the degree to which the only rational conclusion about the people who make these claims must be this: That no measures that curb illegal copying of copyrighted material are acceptable.

b) "But one group likes it, the music industry."
We'll, yes, they do. I suppose they could have added Disney/Time Warner/Universal from the film industry as well. But this isn't just the big music industry. It's also smaller labels. And its not just the industry. Actually, the most active part of the 'industry' that is supportive of steps to curb illegal copying is the Musicians Union. And then there are independent TV production companies. They hate it as well - and they see their ability to fundraise for new productions being seriously hit by falling DVD sales.

Then there's Equity, the actors union and BECTU (who - declaring an interest, I work for part-time - I blog here on my own time though). And PACT, the independent producer trade body. Not just Hollywood.

Because only one part of the opposition to legislation like this has the lobbying muscle to make itself heard doesn't make it the only part of the opposition, yet these voices get no name-checks.

And here's AVAAZ:
"The oppressively strict regulations could mean people everywhere are punished for simple acts such as sharing a newspaper article or uploading a video of a party where copyrighted music is played. Sold as a trade agreement to protect copyrights."

There is other stuff in there about pharma and patents, areas on which I have little knowledge, but seeing as it sits below such an outrageously over-stated and simplistic case as the one about copying, if it is a good case, it's tainted by association with a bad one.

The claims about censorship (as I've argued at perhaps too much length in the comments here) are nonsense. My real problem with this is that, undisclosed in these circles, is the huge global battle upon which so much hangs. And - more to the point - politicians are now openly speaking about how these campaigns shift them away from decisions they would have otherwise made.

Google stands to benefit hugely - and we're talking about eye-watering numbers here - from the weakness of artists in enforcing their rights.

They have a huge interest in not dealing with piracy. By 'dealing with' I don't just mean 'stopping' but also 'not facilitating an alternative'. The continuing presence of rogue sites that they could easily block damages the capacity others have to create a legitimate market. Delay in enforcing the Digital Economy Act, for example, is the perfect outcome for them.

Google are a monopoly here. As we've seen, they're as close to governments now as Murdoch ever was. When you have a monopoly position, your responsibilities go way beyond some dumb compliance with regulations. (I'm awake to the irony of me posting this on a Google-owned bit of software, btw).

Google are looking down the barrel of a fantastic opportunity here: They could end up as the world's default collecting society - collecting a fraction of the amount that national or regional players would (from Google!) for monetising unlicenced content. Creators will only have a monopoly to turn to.

When you oppose copyright enforcement without coming up with an alternative, then you essentially favour the alternative that inertia promotes. When Johnny Rotten said 'Never Trust a Hippy' he was talking about Richard Branson's Virgin Records after they'd just made the leap from EMI and A&M.

Say what you like about those businesses, they paid something from the profits they made out of musicians' rights. More than Google ever will, I suspect.

I hope no-one gets involved in the next write-in campaign without addressing these questions first.

I've got a few more of these to come as well - stay posted. In particular, it's worth focussing on the degree to which the industry that carries and 'adds value' to content has mushroomed without much benefit to the people who actually make the content.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Esoterica - elsewhere

I'm not religious. Really, I'm not. But I've mentioned here (and here) before that I think sacred music is fascinating. And the biggest, fleeting doubt I've had about my choice of agnosticism has been in learning about the direct relationship between proportion and beauty - the Fibonacci Sequence in structure and design or the mathematical basis of musical harmony, as examples.

I think most agnostics with a limited grasp of natural sciences prefer 'cosmic accident' as an explanation for most natural phenomena, don't we?

I'm not alone in seeing some profundity in these things. All sorts of esoteric cults have grown up around this evidence. Picking at these subjects, I keep stumbling over various artefacts and concepts - the Harmonograph, the 'music of the spheres' or many and varied artworks that I think are worth thinking about.

I suspect my interest will be more similar to curious fascination that drives most readers of The Fortean Times than it will be to the kind of interst expressed by any 18th Century sub-Freemasonary sect.

Rather than boring you about them all here, I've just started using Tumblr to keep track of them here if you're interested.  I've not really got my head around how Tumblr works, but I think you can post things on to it yourself if you feel like it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Copyright. Patented in Ireland.

The Statute of Anne came into force on the 10th April 1709 (303 years ago today). I mention this as it’s seen as the cornerstone of the anglo-saxon model of copyright (often contrasted with the more continental approach to intellectual property) and it’s a subject that I’m having to think about quite a lot in the course of my work.

I mentioned this to my mother recently. It’s very rare that I discuss anything with her without her finding some Irish connection – usually a connection with Mayo, or – if possible – a connection with the small north-western portion of that county.

I figured the idea of copyright couldn’t have been conceived by some fella from Tallaghan Bawn or anything like that. And, in this case it wasn't. But she was, obviously, happy to correct me any 'copyright wasn't an Irish idea in the first place' misconceptions I may have had:

“The first historic mention of Copyright, which set the universal precedent, can be traced to 6th Century Celtic Ireland. It is contained in a judgement of Diarmaid, High King of Ireland – the legal equivalent of today’s Supreme Court – in his finding against the Christian missionary Columba, founder of monastic rule, later canonised as Saint Columcille, who had become and incorrigible plagiarist......
....The High King took that well-founded legal precedent and extended it in his famous judgement against Columcille thus:
“As to every Cow its Calf, so to every Book its Copy.””

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Media Mess

In today's Observer, Julie Burchill - perceptive and pithy as ever - brings the consequences of the media's failure to adapt to a changing world into sharp focus;
"Fewer than one in 10 British children attends fee-paying schools, yet more than 60% of chart acts have been privately educated, according to Word magazine, compared with 1% 20 years ago. Similarly, other jobs that previously provided bright, working-class kids with escape routes – from modelling to journalism – have been colonised by the middle and upper classes and by the spawn of those who already hold sway in those professions. The spectacle of some smug, mediocre columnista who would definitely not have their job if their mummy or daddy hadn't been in the newspaper racket advising working-class kids to study hard at school, get a "proper" job and not place their faith in TV talent shows is one of the more repulsive minor crimes of our time."

Where the sort of Bishops that get invited onto Newsnight have chosen to wring their hands over the bad behaviour of News of the World hacks, the infinitely bigger problem of how creativity and journalism is funded is largely ignored. The superficial moral malaise is but the product of a bigger, nastier structural one.

Churnalism is, after all, largely a product of under-funding and a failure to ensure that journalism has a well-invested future. The dominance of trust-funded kids in music, theatre, film and broadcasting reflects an industry that would rather live on the short-term charity of posh parents than invest in a long-term future in which talent rises on merit rather than on a feudal ability to buy your way into a profession.

Short term dividends to shareholders and sky-high salaries to managers trumps any public interest in journalism.

If we really imagine that we'll have a world-beating broadcasting settlement, a high standard of journalism to counter our low democratic/constitutional settlement, or a film industry that makes great movies / attracts inward investment*, we're just kidding ourselves. Where Julie Burchill highlights our poisonous tolerance of everying that Monarchy implies, this is the price we pay, both in terms of economic value and democratic scrutiny.
A rare exception can be seen over on Open Democracy, but even then, Angela Phillips solutions lack flesh or any sense that the injunction to follow the money is usually good advice.

Why is no-one asking this question:
The demand for content is burgeoning. The amount of money going into the digital economy is multiplying at a rate of knots. So why are 'content creators' scuffling for cash? Why can't newspapers pay for journalism? Why are theatres and TV producers so reliant upon interns?

Or more succinctly, where is the money going?

A recent report by Vodafone (pdf) illustrates the tiny revenues – around two per cent – that 'rights-­holders' make from this burgeoning marketplace as well as showing the huge percentages of online traffic that are taken up by the streaming of high-­quality content. It's very fashionable to stick two fingers up to 'rights-holders' (trans: The Man, EMI, the MPAA, even News Corp etc), and there's a great deal wrong with the way that they appropriate and distort creativity, but for now, the fact that a handful of media monopolies - whether it's Samsung, Apple, Google, or BT - are making a fortune adding value to content, is a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.

Until we can lose our Anglo-Saxon cultural cringe about hardware levies, it's a sin that will largely be ignored. But I doubt if the whole question is one that has even appeared in the periphral vision of most UK journalists.

The copyright debate is an important one. I don't think that most journalists understand it. I don't think they're atuned to the political sideshows that deprive them of their professional incomes and allow their professions to enjoy any integrity. As a related sideshow, the moral rights of journalists are hugely undervalued in this country. I doubt if Lord Leveson would be holding an inquiry if this were not the case.

The media is in a mess. It's workers don't really have any sense of where their incomes should come from. It's quite ironic that a profession whose flag is carried by an investigative branch know so little about what economic value they create - and how little of it that they personally harvest.
*Delete depending upon which side of the price of everything/value of nothing divide you fall

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pasties and party funding

All attacks rebound in some way. Sometimes, they blow up in your face and other times, your shoes just get splashed a bit.

Today, Labour had a good time looking terribly 'in touch' in front of their supporters, and a bit smarmy in front of everyone else. The Tories look slightly off their game at the moment, but they still didn't need to work too hard in partly unpicking Ed's 'prolier than thou' credentials.

Still, it was bad day for the Tories and a not bad one for Labour, when all things are taken into account. It could have been a lot better though.

A union could have orchestrated a better stunt. A non-Labour affiliated one could have really gone to town on this one. Or any union's money could have hired the right celeb to take the piss out of Cameron all day long.

This has been in the Tory playbook for as long as anyone can remember. Deniable outriders make the attack before the front benchers turn up with a subtle and statesmanlike coup de grĂ¢ce. A lot of the attacks Labour would like to make are out of bounds for two reasons: that they can rebound on the people who make them, and because they compromise future policy positions. Not a problem that the Tories have ever had with Taxpayer's Alliance attacks on Labour.

This is why party funding matters less than it seems. Labour and the big unions can help each other more if they start doing it informally.

This is an argument that's unlikely to find favour with Labour and senior trades unionists for all of the wrong reasons.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Is Ken a tax-dodger? Is Boris a hi-jacker? Is mayoral politics annoying?

I hate the concept of 'elected mayors', or at least, I hate elected mayors in way they're intended to fit in with the wider settlement in the UK. I suspect a growing band of Londoners will come to share this view over the next few weeks.

Already, everyone is in pointscoring mode, and anyone beyond Planet Politics who doesn't conclude that 'all politicos are utter wankers' is probably in the sizeable quartile of the population who have previously tuned politics out all together.

Anyway. Back to the shrillness of it all. Personally, I'm really no fan of Ken Livingstone. He's my party's candidate, and he's the kind of devisive figure that smokes out dissenters from within the party's ranks.

For instance, anti-Ken Labour people are happy to give a following wind to this Tory attack-blog idea that he's some kind of tax-dodger or hypocrite.

It's not a fair line of attack. He's not fiddling his taxes or living high on the hog. He's a political obsessive - if he wasn't paying HMRC, he'd be spending the money in other ways to get himself elected in a climate where political funding is hard to get.

As a Labour supporter, if I were to find that a candidate - any candidate - wasn't managing their finances efficiently and couldn't finance their campaign properly as a result, I'd be very unhappy about it.

In addition, given Ken's circumstances as a self-employed individual who pays staff and who almost certainly drags is wife's elbow-grease into his campaign whenever he can, there isn't a single accountant anywhere in the country who would even let him arrange his finances any other way. Anything else would result in him over-paying taxes for the sake of appearances.

If Ken were salting the money away in some tax haven or buying himself a mansion, this would be a fair line of attack - but if not, it looks to me like opportunism.

I don't suppose we've heard even a fraction of the shrill opportunist attacks that we're going to hear on Ken over the next few weeks.

But Boris isn't going unscathed either. Today, a range of Labour people have got their knickers in a twist about how Boris has 'hijacked' ... er .... his own Twitter account. Sorry - that should read "his own TAXPAYER FUNDED account!!?!??!?!!!"

Boris was @mayoroflondon and he is now @borisjohnson. The former has been converted to the latter now he is in 'election purdah' period.

Here's a likely example of the dialogue that took place a few years ago between Boris and a civil servant a few years ago now:

CC: "Mr Mayor, it's in our job description to encourage you to interact with the public a bit more. Now I know that this is a bit of the job description that most civil servants ignore, at the very least, but I've got a time-and-motion person from Capita standing behind me to make sure that I tick everything on my list off. So why don't you .... er .... set up a Twitter account?"

BJ: "Gosh, I say! What a jolly good idea. What is a 'Twitter' by the way?"

CC: "It's a social networking tool (Boris looks blank) ... on the Internet (Boris looks blank) .... on your computer (Boris looks blank) .... the tellybox on your desk that you watched that Thai lady .... you know ... with the ping-pong balls?"

BJ: "Ah! I remember that. Have her sent to my room! What were we talking about again?"

(This goes on for some time). We return an hour later and the conversation is still progressing.

BJ: "This Twitter thing is a jolly good idea of mine. So shall I call it @borisjohnson or @mayoroflondon?"

CC: "Well there are all sorts of silly rules about what you can and can't say. Best if you let us have the passwords so we can step in when ... er ... IF you ever say anything a bit problematic.... about the Chinese Ambassador's wife and ping-pong balls, for instance. So let's stick with @mayoroflondon - and we'll set up a few feeds so that some tweets are automated...."

BJ: "What's a tweet again?" (this goes on for some time). We return an hour later and the conversation is still progressing.

BJ: "OK. I fully understand this now. Ping-pong .... computer .... internet .... Twitter .... can do it from my phone .... shouldn't do it from my phone .... can't pass comment on Frau Bundeskanzlerin's appearance... so how much will this cost the jolly old taxpayer then?"

CC: "Not much. Well, technically, not anything. Of course we signed some PFI deal with Accenture that means that we've got to send a couple of staff on a Social Media Risk Awareness Course at £800 per head. And we've got to then commission some written guidance from them (£6,000). And we've got a similar arrangement with BT that means we've got to  make the account match our corporate house style (don't ask - an arrangement with Wolff Olins). So it'll probably look like about £25k if we get the wrong sort of FOI requests in. But it doesn't really cost anything."

BJ: "Ticketty boo!. And just to prove I've been listening, I'll need some 'followers', right? Do we have an obligation to pay Serco to drum them up for me?"

CC: "Er.... no Mr Mayor. If you can't get a couple of hundred thousand followers on twitter for nothing, then I doubt if anyone can."

BJ: "And I can say anything I jolly well please?"

CC: "Er.... no Mr Mayor. Accenture will draw up a lengthy list of things you can't say" 

BJ: "What? Can't I even have a pop at old Ken once the election starts?"

CC: "Er.... yes Mr Mayor. But at that point, you're on your own. And you'd probably better set up a new account as @borisjohnson"

BJ: "But Ken will be doing this as well between now and then. His lot will have thousands of followers by the time the election has been announced - he's got nothing better to do, and I'll be at a standing start. That isn't fair."

CC: "Well maybe the sensible thing is to re-name your account as @borisjohnson when the purdah period starts. Technically the rules say that you can't use publically funded assets for political advantage, but the account won't be paid for by the public sector. 

And anyway, I suspect that giving you a twitter account without any restrictions on what you can say is technically the opposite of giving you a political advantage.... and it's not really an electioneering tool in itself. Tories don't really use Twitter much anyway...."

BJ: "What's a hashtag again? I say, I appear to being 'followed' by a charming Russian lady who has no followers herself. This looks promising...."

And so on. Get the picture? Ken's not a tax dodger. Boris hasn't hi-jacked anything. And this is going to be a very long month or so.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Paid links

Here's an odd one. Someone is offering me $25 to put a link to a commercial service in an old post. The way they're asking me to do it is not even really an endorsement of the thing I'm linking to and I doubt that the post concerned will get many visits, apart from search-engine crawlers.

Has anyone else had a request like this? It looks like free money to me. WDYT?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Neo-liberalism or Managerialism?

A f**king clipboard yesterday.
Here's a short and simple question to my fellow lefties.

Have we been sold a hospital-pass with the widespread use of the term 'neo-liberalism' to describe the current economic impasse we're in?

Are we, in fact, in a managerial age instead, where all economic activity is designed to increase the status and value of administrators at the expense of workers and the professions?

And - in doing so, are we missing an opportunity to say the right thing and enjoy all kinds of political benefits that we don't currently enjoy?

If anyone still comments on blogs, I'd be interested to hear what people think on this one.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Against certainty - quotes worth noting

On the subject of 'methodological agnosticism' (my current religion), I saw this a while ago:
"The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts while the stupid ones are full of confidence." - Charles Bukowski
Digging around, I subsequently found that Bukowski was actually paraphrasing Bertrand Russell who said (in his worth-a-read 'Triumph of Stupidity' article - a short response to the rise of the Nazis in Germany)...
"The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."
The quote was superimposed on a photo of Sarah Palin. I shared it on Facebook when I saw it. My mate, Steve, commented with his preferred version - this one from Yeats' 'Second Coming'
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity"
Then there's an older quote I heard on the radio (and blogged about it), from the (then) Archbishop of York, John Hapgood:
"Has it occurred to you that the lust for certainty may be a sin?"
Or this from Darwin:
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” 
This Wikipedia link to the page about The Dunning Kruger Effect may also be of interest. Or this:
"Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them." Laurence J. Peter
And then, moving on, to a not-unrelated topic, there's this:
" can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into” (source unknown). …
I used that last quote in a post that I wrote about The Backfire Effect a while ago- the observation that bringing evidence to bear against strongly held views usually results in the views being held even more strongly.

And who can forget…
 “…when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” (J.M. Keynes)
If you haven't done so already, I'd recommend that you go back up this post and read the Bertrand Russell essay, as it makes some interesting points about the lack of purpose that arises from a lack of intellectual confidence.

And finally, this blog seems to exist, these days, largely to quote and endorse Chris Dillow's writing. His chosen strapline is 'An extremist, not a fanatic' - a nice distinction I think? He's written this and this as well.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Inequality in wealth and political representation

There's a good post over on LabourList by Owen ('Chavs') Jones about the need for a new, two-pronged, class politics in Britain - one in which the yawning material gap in incomes isn't disentangled from the crisis of representation.

I say that it's a good post because it raises essentially the right questions, and that these fundamental concerns don't seem to be on the table almost anywhere on the left with as much clarity.

Where I substantially disagree with him is that I think he underestimates the capacity, suitability or willingness of trades unions to act as the agents for the change he's calling for. I think the following points are worth making:

1. The problem of managerialism is roundly ignored by the left
I'd characterise a lot of the problems that Jones identifies very differently. In the 19th Century, Bagehot painted an 'English Constitution' in which the dignified elements of the state enabled the efficient bits to do their work. It's slightly worrying, reading Bagehot, that his view appears to be somewhat rosy today after a century-and-a-half of democratic reform. At least most of the executive power was actually in the hands of the people who were supposed to exercise it when Bagehot was writing.

Today, even our governing Oxbridge caste of career-politicians appear to be more dignified than efficient. The real business is being done by managers, mostly in the private sector. It used to be the case that managers were the servants of private shareholders or ministers, depending upon which sector you were looking at. That fact that there aren't working class voices in Parliament isn't actually the biggest problem.

Today, society is largely ordered to facilitate government by - and for - managers. Public policy is entirely shaped by the consultariat who have replaced the semi-accountable Whitehall mandarins. PLCs are, similarly, no longer shoveling value at shareholders but at their managers.

It is managers who gauge the value of talent, who aim to replace what professions did with their systems, and who set the wages at all levels of society. The need to replace politicians and professionals with managers drove the privatisation-lite of the New Labour years and has continued uninterrupted into the direction of The Coalition.

I've rarely met anyone on the left who isn't persuaded by this explanation for what Chris Dillow calls The End of Politics, once it is put to them. But I've also very rarely met anyone on the left who is even aware of this diagnosis.

2. We need to be clearer on why the link between wealth inequality and unequal representation exists
Crosslandite social democrats were always 'intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich - as long as they pay their taxes.' Peter Mandelson was only putting provocative parentheses around Crossland's view that managed capitalist growth would reduce inequality. And - as far as it goes - this could be a respectable argument if the people making it were not also intensely relaxed about the way that some individuals exercise a great deal more power than others at the ballot box.

If you can buy your way into the political process in order to exempt yourself from the process of redistribution, then all of this intense relaxation becomes toxic. If you can do so to change the direction of redistribution - corporate welfare - then it is even more poisonous. And this is often what happened with new Labour in power, culminating in the banker's bailouts - an unparalleled act of larceny.

3. The democratic problem is more straightforward than most people say it is
There's a touch of the Emperor's New Clothes around discussions of democracy. It's a point so obvious to make that no-one does so for fear of being rude. Let's put this crudely. My vote should be no weaker or greater than anyone else's.

If you fund political parties in a way that doesn't involve safeguards, this ceases to be the case. If you use your media ownership to bully regulators and politicians in a way that serves your material interests, again, this isn't the case.

If the private sector is at all of the top-table seats (and the public interest is largely unrepresented) in a parliamentary process about something as central to our politics as healthcare, then you have an unprecedented crisis in British democracy. (Update: Here's the background to the 'Reform' think-tank - it's funding and it's role in health service policymaking)

If, in a more participative and direct democracy (and we're definitely heading in that direction), you have convening power or the capacity to shape the marketplace of ideas, then our votes are going to become even less equal.

4. Unions should help - but probably won't
Jones is right; Trades Unionism should be the key to addressing the diversity of representation in the way that it did in helping to found the Labour Representation Committee back in the day. Remember, this was really the only uniting principle that brought Labour into being. We weren't socialists, mutualists, syndicalists, feminists, fabianists, rationalists or communists. We were primarily concerned with addressing the crisis of representation - where universal male suffrage had failed to result in working class MPs.

Labour was really just a jump-together club of all of those '-isms' - they all thought that their cause would be strengthened by more working men being in parliament.

I'd suggest that Jones massively underestimates the degree to which Unions need to change to facilitate this though. The smaller unions still promote a lot of the civil society ethos that writers like John Dewey saw as being essential to democracy (the 'holding elections does not a democracy make' argument), but the larger unions only seem to grow by acquisition and have very little by way of democratic legitimacy in the way that they conduct their business any more.

The arguments about managerialism that I outlined earlier in this post are ones that should have a massive appeal to a Trades Union movement that is still thinking. It's an argument that I've never heard raised when the brothers meet.

Owen Jones is right: This crisis of representation should be a much greater cause for alarm than it is. I'd suggest that it also needs to be understood more - and that the obvious agents for change (the Unions) need to travel a good deal further than I think they are prepared to go.

5. Let's not underestimate how important The Labour Party is either
I won't bore on about this last point too much - It's such a regular staple here. But in summary, lefties need to drop the idea that they first need to capture the Labour Party, then win an election and then implement Project Utopia. Right wingers have never made this mistake about the Conservative Party.

Alex Hilton has an understandable whine about Ed Miliband's Labour Party (though I can't see why his complaints didn't equally apply to pervious iterations of the party). Hopi Sen answers him and it looks like two bald men fighting over a comb.

Labour should be a boring party that chases votes around the centre ground. The job of the left is to drag that centre-ground leftwards. The big unions that finance Labour waste so much money paying for office space when they could be running campaigns that no politician can ignore.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

You Can't Read This Book - Nick Cohen

I've spent a lot of the weekend going through Nick Cohen's 'You Can't Read This Book' - I'd get a copy if I were you.
It's very good, and as a follow-on to his 2007 title, What's Left, it represents a consolidation of many of the themes there about the reluctance of Western liberals to defend what one would expect to be their basic principles.

It's a good read, picking most of the right fights, and I'm not going to highlight too many of the minor quibbles I'd have with some of his approaches here.

There is one aspect, though, that falls into the 'I'd have done more on this if I were writing this book' category, that could provide a useful jumping off point for Nick here.

The book gives a lot of credit to some of the better UK bloggers - notably, David Allen Green on the chilling effect of our libel laws, and Chris Dillow on the cult of managerialism.

He also picks up on the way that scientific method relies upon open collaborative policymaking rather than the closed beltway structures that are found in modern management and government. There's also a nod towards some of the politics of transparency and some of the phony claims made, for example, about Wikileaks.

I think that there's a lot more to write about the dialectics of both managerialism and transparency. The lack of media pluralism, the need for more collectively-managed media structures such as those found, albeit imperfectly, in public service broadcasters such as the BBC.

There's a need for the skeptical (!) readers of Cohen's book to unite not just around what they are against when it comes to censorship, but also what they are in favour of. OK - our libel laws, the flaky responses from liberals to religious zealots and bullying oligarchs within capitalism and failed democracies are part of the problem. But they survive at least in part because they lack a coherent counter-proposal.

Managerialism is hardwired into British politics today. It provided Labour with a disastrous sledgehammer to crack the nut of the charge that a union-backed Labour Party faced in the 1990s. Disastrous in that it fed in to the economic catastrophe of recent years, but also because it robbed Labour of its credibility in promoting collecive provision of public services.

Managerialism was the handmaiden to the privatisation-lite agenda of New Labour. It was the essential pre-condition to state disvestment. Large numbers of professionals were sidelined by the flimsy claims to competence from managers - the same over-confident claims that shareholders have faced as over-paid managers have dwarfed the traditional 'budget-maximising bureaucrats' of statism's mythology in the way that corporations are controlled.

Today, the management of the public sector presents us with a crisis. There is no Plan B - and Cohen hints at one in his advocacy of a more open and collaborative policy making. I'd love to read him expanding on this argument.

What are the essential pre-conditions to a more collaborative approach to public management? I'd say that the answer to this needs a detailed mapping of the different types of transparency and collaboration that we've been offered in the UK over the past decade, along with a deeper understanding of what participation means - what dangers and opportunities it presents. We need to look at what we've been offered in terms of it being misdirection - there's a lot that we've not been offered while the right hand has been offering so much of it's preferred form of largesse on the 'transparency' front.

I try to make it a rule not to plug my own work here. With fewer posts these days, it's increasingly a rule that has more exceptions to it than it used to have, and today's exception is a link to this project that I'm organising over the next few months - helping to promote a wider understanding of the politics and practicalities of a more collaborative and participative form of open government.

I'm hoping to help flush out a few of the answers.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Questions about Scottish Nationalism

I'm even more of a spectator than a participant on the Scottish independence debate than I am on most things. All I have is questons.

Firstly, as a social democrat, I'm very keen on a one-club approach to all political questions. I'd generally not ask "what do I think should happen?", but instead, "what would a good democracy do?"

I'm concious that this is an idiosyncratic way of looking at the world, but I'm more interested in working out what the best way of making decisions is than in what decisions we should make. I'm always looking for this formula;
  • Decision-making in the interests of everyone, not just sectional interests (with protection of minorities provided by a 'constitution' of some kind)
  • Where sectional interests happen at the expense of others, there is compensation
  • Decision-making that is optimised to maximise the quality of those decisions
  • As many people as possible involved in those decisions - as long as we can avoid self-interested outcomes at the expense of those who don't have the capacity to participate
  • Geographic closeness to the seat of decision-making
 In other words, fair and good government. Or motherhood and apple pie.

It seems fairly obvious to me that decentralisation is an essential pre-requisite to achieving this. And that Federalism offers the only means by which a state that makes decisions according to these lights will not suffer at the hands of its neighbours and rivals.

So, does this make me a supporter of Scottish Nationalism? And if so, does it make me a supporter of the Scottish Nationalism that is currently being advocated by the SNP?

Is Scottish Nationalism an irrational-but-understandable reaction to the traditional injustice of The Union?

Does one-off independence for one part of the UK set back the wider cause of Federalism for all? After all, I'd like to see almost everywhere liberated from decision-making that benefits London and the South East - and I think there's plenty of evidence that this injustice has been growing during my lifetime.

Listening to the debate this week, most sides seem to have - as a starting point - that the outcome of independence will not involve any kind of negotiation in which the final outcome is fair to all. Nationalists seem to be offering a very rosy outcome where The Union accepts separation on very favourable terms to Scottish residents while Unionists insist that the result will involve the Union helicoptering out of Scotland taking all of the investment and strategic assets with them, forcing the Scots to join the queue for EU accession just behind Somalia.

If anyone has written anything that responds to any of this, I've not seen it anywhere. The thing is, this debate has to be about democratic principles, and I think it's quite odd that no-one seems to start from that point.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

What's wrong with Labour?

I've been trying to come up with a catch-all summary of why non-Labour people don't like that party. 

Firstly, I'd say that Labour's USP is that it's the party of collective action. This is sometimes misrepresented as 'statism' but Labour people would be quick to point out that non-state actors (the voluntary sector, co-ops, mutuals, trades unions, 'social enterprises', commercial companies performing an 'outsourcing' service, the BBC, etc would all be just as acceptable as the state as agencies for collective action. 

Many Labour people even have a distinct preference for putting the state at the bottom of that list.

To Labour's opponents, it translates thus: Labour are comprised of the lumpen-intelligencia who think that the best way of doing things is to get committee of humanities graduates together.

But let's take this one step further. Today, in the absence of much else to talk about, lefties have been venting their anger at Liam Byrne for spearheading Labour's new year offensive on the workshy. Here's the offending lines: 

"[Beveridge] wanted a responsible government taking determined action to create work, but a responsible workforce too. He would have wanted reform that was tough-minded, and asked everyone to work hard to find a job. He would have worried about the ways that his system had skewed social behaviour because he intended benefits to help people who had their earning power interrupted because of illness, industrial injury or the capriciousness of the trade cycle. He never foresaw unearned support as desirable. 
.... But beyond this, "something for something" means reward for those who are desperately trying to do the right thing, saving for the future and trying to build a stable, secure home. Right now, these families are offered too little reward and incentive – in social housing and long-term savings – for the kind of behaviour that is the bedrock of a decent society."

To understand why Byrne is saying this (clearly with the blessing of the leadership) can be understood by reading Anthony Painter, writing for an audience mostly of Labour insiders:
"They [the voters] want to hear a clear voice of condemnation when people terrorise our streets and not hear it suffixed with ‘understanding’ and ‘complexity’. They can’t understand why those on out-of-work benefits – excluding the disabled and the retired – get a pay rise more than the average worker. When they turn to Labour, they want to hear a credible and clear line. Too often they experience a haze."
The thing is, at a point at which it's unclear whether we will ever again enjoy the economic conditions that make full employment possible, the arguments for stigmatising the poor and the unemployed are very weak, as Chris has pointed out here, here, here and here (and elsewhere, I'm sure).

So, here's what we know about Labour: They are transfixed by the need to establish a simple and popular legitimacy for collective action as a necessary pre-condition to practicing it. This may involve the resort to simple arguments that, on their own, don't stand up to serious argument. 

Personally, I think that they could put more effort into attacking the coalition and less into fashioning a pristine narrative of their own, but that's another argument for another day.

It's plain that all of this simplification is being done in the knowledge that the dominant social commentators prefer a simplistic stigmatisation of the poor than any of the sensible steps that would reflate the economy or place the burden of fixing it in the laps of the people who screwed it all up in the first place. 

It's a problem that could be reduced by tackling the lack of pluralism in the media and the monopolistic powers exercised by media owners.

The other day, I argued that technocrats - unsatisfactory though they are - can be acceptable if they can deal with a crisis that has been created by forces that politicians are unable to oppose successfully. But the other condition that we should apply to them is that they should also challenge and degrade the forces that dwarf elected politicians.

The same goes for simplification: If you think that you have to attack the workshy, then that's what you have to do. But when you do it, you also have to take steps to reduce the influence of the demagogic simplifiers of the media. One without the other is the political equivalent of paying a ransom.