Category Archives: predictions

Cold water in the face

A remarkable variety of people have poured scorn on Clegg Minor’s contribution to the Sun, and rightly so. The point I want to make, following on from that fourth link, is that we need to watch the Liberal Democrats – now more than ever. (‘Watch’ here includes ‘exacerbate the contradictions within'; there are some good people in Clegg’s party, even now.) The problem is not just that the party’s support is going down the drain, or that the party’s reputation as a byword for unscrupulous vote-whoring has escaped the politically active minority and gone viral: trust can always be regained, to a greater or lesser extent. (And at the end of the day they don’t have to outrun the bear: it doesn’t matter if they don’t look whiter-than-white any more, just as long as they look cleaner than the other two parties.) What’s more to the point is that the reputational capital the party built by coherently positioning itself to the Left of New Labour was thrown to the winds last May; a sizeable chunk of the party’s 2010 vote went with it, and it’s not coming back. On top of that, the experience of coalition – the extraordinarily passive and timorous experience of coalition – is surely chipping away at the party’s bedrock support: from David Steel back to Jo Grimond, the party always stood for something, whatever that might actually be in any given period. The ‘standing for’ part seems to elude the party at the moment – quite possibly because they’ve been stitched up like a kipper by their coalition partner – and their former supporters have noticed.

The problem for the Lib Dem leadership is that they need to stem the flow of disaffected supporters. (The party took 23% of the vote last May; UK Polling Report currently has them averaging 9%, and doesn’t record a single poll when they’ve exceeded 15% since the beginning of November.) Or if they can’t do that – and they haven’t had much luck so far – they need to get support from somewhere else. And cue “Alarm Clock Britain”:

There are millions of people in Alarm Clock Britain. People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life. People who want their kids to get ahead. People who don’t want to rely on state handouts. People who don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives. People who are not poor but struggle to stay out of the red.

They are the backbone of Britain. These are the people who will get this country moving again. It is their hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in.

This Government is formed by a coalition of two parties and we want to join the people of Alarm Clock Britain in another coalition. A coalition of people prepared to roll up their sleeves and get the nation back on its feet. Ed Miliband may be prepared to hide under his duvet from the problems Labour left us with. But we will get up every morning and face up to them. In Alarm Clock Britain, people don’t want a handout but they appreciate a helping hand. And that is exactly what the Coalition Government is offering them.

I know that times are difficult right now. We are having to make cuts to pay off Labour’s debts and some bills are going up. Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.

That is why the Liberal Democrats made a promise to voters on the front of our manifesto. That no basic rate taxpayer will pay any tax on the first £10,000 they earn. We’ve already taken the first steps which will take nearly 900,000 out of paying tax altogether. From April, every single taxpayer earning less than £42,500 a year will see their income tax bill cut by £200. By the time of the next election, 23 million people will be paying £700 less.

The Government is lending a hand in other ways, too.

(That’s enough Lib Dem promises – Ed.)

“Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.” And who is he standing up for? Why, it’s you, you lucky Sun-reader! “People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life.” People in work, in other words. Follow it through: these are also people who “want their kids to get ahead”, “don’t want to rely on state handouts” and (bizarrely) “don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives”. And they’re “the backbone of Britain”: Nick Clegg thinks they’re great, he really does.

Obviously life isn’t always quite that neat, but that’s OK too. Maybe you are receiving benefits of some sort or other – lots of working people do – but that’s all right: you’re just one of those people who “don’t want a handout but … appreciate a helping hand”. Maybe you’ve found that you just can’t “get on in life”, no matter how early you start work, but not to worry – you’re not poor, it’s just that you “struggle to stay out of the red”.

Which is just as well, because if you were poor, or – God forbid – if you didn’t have a job to get up for in the morning, then this offer would no longer apply. You would no longer be putting in the “hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in”; on the contrary, you would be digging that hole deeper with every day you lived on benefits, and making life harder for “the backbone of Britain” with every morning that you didn’t stir from your lazy idle bed.

Who Nick Clegg is standing up against turns out to be just as important as who he’s standing up for. The message seems to go something like this: Tired after a long day? Taking on extra shifts? Working unpaid overtime? Blame them – blame the workshy, blame the bone-idle, blame all those people living on benefits. They don’t know the meaning of a hard day’s work, not like you do… This would be nasty, vindictive stuff at the best of times. At a time when the unemployment rate stands at 7.9%, or 2.5 million people – and when (as Clegg well knows) the government is poised to throw many more people out of work – it’s outrageous.

Having abandoned any pretence of a position to the Left of Labour, Clegg seems to have decided that fishing for support to the left of the Tories isn’t working either, and he’s trying out the populist far Right. I’ve got a nasty feeling this isn’t going to be a one-off: Clegg may be staring into the abyss, but he’s not going down without a fight. In 2011, watch out for our Deputy Prime Minister celebrating Crimestoppers Britain (“people who don’t want to see lynch law, but can’t let petty criminals make their lives a misery”), Easter Egg Britain (“people who are not racist, but simply know how to value their own traditions”), Beside The Seaside Britain (“people who don’t hate other nations, but know the truth of that old adage – east, west, home’s best!”) and (of course) Poppy Day Britain (“people who don’t glory in war for its own sake, but know that sometimes it is the only honourable choice”).

On the plus side, by the end of the year they’ll probably still be stuck on 9%.

Update Oldham East and Saddleworth: Labour 42.1% (up 10.3%), Liberal Democrat 31.9% (up 0.3%), Conservative 12.8% (down 13.6%); turnout 48.1% (down 14.1%). An interesting result, not least because the shares of the vote aren’t that different from earlier results:

Votes for the main parties in Oldham East and Saddleworth, 1997-2011 (rounded to nearest %)

Year Labour Lib Dem Tory Tory + LD
1997 42 35 20 55
2001 39 33 16 49
2005 41 33 18 51
2010 32 32 26 58
2011 42 32 13 45

At every election from 1997 to 2005, Labour has been at least 6% ahead of the Liberal Democrats, with the Tories taking less than 20% in third place. You could see 2010’s result as a local example of last year’s swing against Labour, and last night’s result as the return of business as usual. But if 42% and 32% are around what you’d expect Labour and the Lib Dems to be getting in OE&S, 13% is very low indeed for the Tories; there will have been some defection to the extreme right, but not a lot (the combined BNP and UKIP vote share went up by a little over 1% against last May). The best explanation is surely that the consistency of the Lib Dem vote is deceptive, and that some – perhaps quite a lot – of last night’s 32% were tactical Tory votes. It’s also worth noting that the combined Tory and Lib Dem vote was lower last night than it’s been at any time since 1997; it’s only the second time it’s been below 50% (and 2001 was an unusual election; this was the year of the BNP’s big push in Oldham, when they took 11% of the vote).

However, unlike Tom Clark, I don’t believe that this result supports Clegg’s apparent new direction:

YouGov this week reported that by 51% to 16% , the small band of remaining Liberal Democrats would prefer a Tory government led by Cameron to an Ed Miliband Labour administration.

The shrinking Lib Dem electorate, then, is now much more inclined to the centre-right than it has been historically, and Oldham suggests that as it retreats from the left it can hope to make good some of the losses by advancing on the right.

Dear oh dear. The Lib Dems have lost 14% of the 23% support it had in May 2010 – more than half; 51% of 9% equates to 20% of 23%. Lib Dem voters are more right wing than they used to be because there are fewer of them, and the left-leaning voters are the ones that have given up on the party. (As UK Polling Report puts it, “the remaining rump support for the Liberal Democrats is made up of those more positively inclined towards the Tories”.) This doesn’t mean that there are votes to be gained by “advancing on the right”; in fact it specifically and precisely means that that’s a good way to lose votes.

Nor does OE&S suggest that there are votes to be won on the Right; actually what it suggests is that the party’s vote is only holding up thanks to the generosity of Tory voters. This kind of grace and favour arrangement may keep the lights on for a while, but it doesn’t bode well for the party’s future; it suggests that a party with Liberal in the name is, once again, locked into a decaying orbit around the Conservative Party. Into which, precedent suggests, they would disappear without a trace.

Update 19/1/11 Polling data bears out my speculation that the unchanged Lib Dem percentage vote masked a partial collapse in the vote, propped up by borrowed Tory votes. UK Polling Report:

of 2010 Lib Dem voters, only 55% of those who voted in the by-election stuck with the party, with 29% instead defecting to Labour … This drop in Lib Dem support was cancelled however out by Conservative tactical voting: of 2010 Conservative voters, 33% who voted in the by-election ended up backing the Liberal Democrats.

Only 49% of the 2010 Conservative voters in the sample voted Tory in 2010; 91% of the 2010 Labour voters stayed loyal, but then there were fewer of them. Shift all the Tory-LD defectors back to the Conservatives and you get a notional Tory vote share of 22%, vying for second place with the Lib Dems on 23%. Of course, this is working back from answers to a phone poll to the actual result, which isn’t really legitimate, but what’s interesting about these figures is how much of the shift in voting patterns they do in fact seem to account for. You can do it yourself if you’ve got a spreadsheet handy:

2011 Labour = 91% 2010 Labour + 29% 2010 LD + 5% 2010 Tory (!)
2011 LD = 5% 2010 Labour (!!) + 55% 2010 LD + 33% 2010 Tory
2011 Tory = 0% 2010 Labour + 3% 2010 LD + 49% 2010 Tory

Let 2010 Labour = 32%, 2010 LD = 32% and 2010 Tory = 26%, and the 2011 figures come out at 40%, 28% and 14%; you only need to massage the figures a bit to cover variable turnout and you’ve got the real results of 42%, 32% and 13%.

These figures bear out the big difference between the Tory base and its Lib Dem counterpart. Tory support is flexible, and will go under other colours if it’s for the good of the party. Lib Dem support is just soft – and, given what they’re currently being asked to support, it’s no wonder.

Hang your freedom higher

The situationists … don’t talk of a real utopia but an abstract utopia. Do they really think that, one fine morning or one decisive evening, people will turn to one another and say “That’s enough! Enough work and boredom! Let’s make an end of it!” and that they’ll embark on an endless festival, on creating situations? Maybe it did happen once, at daybreak on the 18th of March 1871, but that conjuncture won’t come round again.
– Henri Lefebvre, October 1967

Although I’ve written about activism, I’m not an activist; I tried it for a few years, in my late 20s and early 30s, but after a while I wanted my evenings and weekends back. I joined the 24th November demo in Manchester, although I legged it when it looked as if we were going to get kettled; I missed yesterday’s altogether (I was at a seminar on student activism, ironically enough) and I haven’t been to the Roscoe occupation.

So I’m seeing the current movement from a distance, and I may be getting it wrong in any number of ways. But, from what I’ve read, it seems like this could be the start of something big. This, from OxfordCambridge, is absolutely exemplary in terms of tactical, organisational and ideological innovation:

On Sunday, occupying students will host a General Assembly for all those who have been inspired by their action against the cuts and the ConDem government. “It is clear that the cuts we are facing go far beyond the student movement and so should the resistance. This large general meeting aims to address the question: “what next?” By bringing together school, sixth form, and university students, academics, workers, trade unionists, pensioners, anti-cuts and community groups we will help to build the movement in Cambridge and beyond.”

The Cambridge occupation has now ended, but occupations continue at Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle and of course Manchester; in London there are occupations at KCL, UCL, the LSE and SOAS. (This is not an exhaustive list.) There are thousands of angry, inspired and well-informed people out there, who have made a serious commitment to this movement; for a lot of them the occupations are providing some great experiences, enabling them to get to know themselves and what they’re capable of.

There is depth of feeling and attention to detail, along with the inevitable earnestness; reasoned debates take place over coffee – they’d bought a machine since continual café runs had eaten into the kitty – and stale sandwiches donated from a staff meeting. They look cleanish though tired and cold – the heating got turned off on Sunday night and today is Wednesday – but they’ve learned to get round things: a shower and a night at home every few days, a few hours’ work on their essays before bed, a break for a lecture and to pass out flyers. It’s like a ‘really big sleepover’, one student tells me; another says that it’s almost become a way of life. They talk of the dance-off they’d had with the Oxford Radcliffe Camera occupation via Skype, of the ‘fun’ they’re having. They didn’t know each other before and now they’re a community.

If the fees bill gets passed today, I think we can be confident that a lot of them will fight on. And in the unlikely event that it falls… I think we can be confident that a lot of them will fight on.

One outcome which I think we can rule out is quick and effective repression of the movement. This is largely because the government is unpopular and disunited; the kind of tactically heavy-handed and legally ingenious treatment the miners got in 1984-5 was only feasible because the government was united in the belief that it was cracking down on the Enemy Within, and an awful lot of ordinary people backed them in that. But we should also give the movement some credit for the way it’s responded to the police attention it has received. There’s a learning experience going on out there:

The Metropolitan Police seems to be on a mission to prove to everyone under the age of 25 that the Marxists are right and the bourgeois state is fundamentally repressive. Last week they gave a bunch of fifteen year olds mild hypothermia and severe anxiety as part of this project.

As we all know a big turning point in every revolutionary’s life is that moment when they learn to really hate cops. The youth are learning. Watch this little video of the student protests on November 30th from The Gabber to see how they dodge the cops’ kettling tactic.

(Do watch it – it’s inspiring and sometimes hilarious.)

Did I mention my book? It’s been fascinating – and heartening – to see the tactical creativity, the ideological openness and the defiant playfulness of the 1970s movements which I wrote about reappearing in this one. Another interesting parallel is the sense that the established revolutionary groups are being sidelined – or, at least, are having to learn how to follow as well as lead:

Here is an expletive riddled account by someone who was at a recent student organised event.

“We were invited guests of the most radical activists in town. They had a very good structure worked out, announced at the start of the meeting. 1 hour of ‘open mic’ on what cuts are affecting your workplace, community, sector or whatever, and what fightback is occurring (if any). 20 mins tea break. 2 hours of strategizing about where next – first in relation to education and then the wider cuts.

|Of course, it only works if people respect the agenda set. And then the f**king deatheaters started with their boring set speeches. Do they not get it? This is not a rabble that needs rousing – they are already more f**king aroused than the constitutional revolutionaries, whose main objective is to win this vote, or that position. Egomaniacs sucking the air and life out of the room.

“The students were too f**king civil – very good at reclaiming space from the establishment but haven’t figured out how to defend their space from sectarians. All they could do was politely remind people to stay on topic.”

You can see why she is furious. If ever there was a moment when the vanguard is running behind the popular mood insisting on its right to lead it is now. Pretending that your small group is the only leaders a movement needs is downright delusional. This could just be one of those occasions when the best thing to do is to let the movement run free and develop its own momentum.

Wise words mate. (“Deatheaters”!)

The other sure sign that the movement is starting to get somewhere is that attempts are being made to separate the “extremists” (those who are revolutionary, violent, criminal, beyond the pale of civilised politics) from the “moderates” (those who are willing to denounce the extremists). Sayeeda Warsi’s attempt to hang the ‘extremist’ label on John McDonnell deserved to be laughed out of court, but sadly – and only too predictably – wasn’t:

While it would be great if Ed Miliband came out explicitly for the occupations, in much the same way the NUS leadership has been shamed into doing, he is unlikely to do so because of the gravitational pull received practice and Labour’s contradictory location exerts on him. Given the choice of supporting students, winning tens of thousands of radical new adherents to Labour, and placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts; and the prevarication of politics as usual, he will plump for the latter every time.

I would argue that Labour’s “contradictory position” isn’t just that of the party of organised labour within a capitalist democracy, which is what Phil has in mind here. Labour is also, like the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s, occupying the role of “gatekeeper” in a relatively closed political system. The party is the arbiter of the leftward limit of what’s politically thinkable, and maintains that position by either denouncing or appropriating innovations from the broader Left. The fact that under Ed Miliband the ratio of appropriation to denunciation is likely to rise above zero doesn’t change that context, or its constraining effects: placing the party firmly on the side of opposition to the cuts would simply be politically impossible.

Rather more disappointing was the failure of a leading Green to get it:

The Green Party’s Jenny Jones who is also a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority … opted to issue a scabbing statement saying:

“In my 40 year experience of going to protests, the violent people aren’t real protestors at all. They are criminals who use the cover of a demo to do as much damage as they can. Real protestors want to make their point and get good headlines for their cause.”

a fault line is going to start running through every trade union, students’ union, political party, Christmas party and football team as the struggle heats up. It’ll be around trivial stuff like vandalism but underneath it will be a choice about whether you’re on the side of the fighters or the capitulators. Jenny Jones won’t be the last to jump the wrong way.

I think this is exactly right, except that it won’t be – at least, it won’t purport to be – about trivial stuff like vandalism: it’ll be done through accusations that protestors were being violent, or threatening to be violent… or tolerating other people’s violence… or tolerating other people’s threats of violence… or failing to denounce other people’s violence… or failing to denounce other people’s tolerance of threats of violence… and on it will go, if the protestors let it. I wasn’t entirely enamoured of Clare Solomon’s tactics when she was grilled on Newsnight, but she clearly recognised the importance of not walking into a trap when it’s been laid for you – which, sadly, is more than you can say for Aaron Porter. When people get angry they often damage property and break laws. Damaging property and breaking the law is generally a bad thing, but getting angry is sometimes entirely appropriate: an angry demonstration does not turn into a criminal demonstration if some of its participants commit offences, and nor is the movement behind the demo tainted by those individuals’ actions. (Nor should it necessarily back them to the hilt, on the other hand. I agree with Mary Beard, up to a point – being punished for breaking a law which you set out to break cannot reasonably be called unjust. That said, I think what she misses is that no law is ever applied with absolute uniformity. There is always a broader context which determines whether the law will be applied in particular cases; in this case the protests against the law, and the claim that the law was broken in a just cause, are part of that context.)

A couple of quotes from my book seem relevant here. (SPOILERS: they’re the last sentences of the last chapter proper and the methodological appendix, respectively. But it’s even better if you read the whole thing.) My book, incidentally, has sold 248 copies in the UK; considering that it has an rrp of £60, and is presumably only being bought by libraries and the odd eccentric millionaire, I think this is pretty good going. The hardback edition is only 400, and if we can sell that out a paperback should be on the cards; so if it’s not in a library near you, why not request that they buy a copy? It’s starting to acquire a certain amount of contemporary relevance.

In Britain, where the electoral system excludes social movements from the national political system, the Labour Party remains the principal Left gatekeeper. Faced with a disorderly and uncontainable rival to its left, Labour would have the same options as the PCI. An inclusive engagement would require the party quietly to appropriate and absorb the demands and tactics of the new movement, while publicly denouncing its leadership as irresponsible extremists. An exclusive engagement, in contrast, would involve denunciations of violence, escalating demands for dissociation and emphatic assertions of the party’s own commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Thirty years on, the Italian political system and the remains of the Italian Left still demonstrate how disastrous the effects of this approach could be.

in political systems which remain relatively impermeable, we should be alert to the power of the labelling mechanisms deployed by gatekeeper parties, in particular in the conditions of a negative engagement. We should be particularly wary of attempts to draw an authoritative dividing line between the ‘moderate’ and the ‘extremist’ elements of a social movement. A resolution passed by a national meeting of the ‘movement of 1977’ in April of that year concluded: ‘The movement does not carry out excommunications and does not accept the criminalisation of any of its elements.’ Neither should we.

One puzzle about this movement is where it came from: nationwide university occupations don’t come out of a blue sky, do they? One answer would be to refer back to poor old Lefebvre and say that sometimes they do just that. I think also there’s a combative mood that’s been building for a while, smouldering just below the surface. Ironically, it’s been fostered – or at least permitted to continue – by the fact that Labour were in office for so long. New Labour were certainly an authoritarian and pro-business government, but the two elements weren’t combined (as they had been under Thatcher) in a war on “militant left-wingers” and “union bully-boys”. New Labour’s authoritarianism mostly took aim at much softer targets – Islamism and “anti-social behaviour” – in a kind of punitive reinforcement of the social exclusion already suffered by marginalised groups. The result was that a generation forgot the lessons that were drummed into us under Thatcher: “pickets” meant “thugs”, “militants” meant “loonies”, “mass meeting” meant “mob rule”. In short, the taboos against collective action quietly faded away. Lindsey was an early – and impressive – sign of the kind of action that had become thinkable again. At the same time, and for similar reasons, radical ideas began to have a bit more purchase: the language isn’t always the same, but the ideas still work. A speaker at yesterday’s seminar suggested that “neo-liberalism” is becoming a master-frame for the current wave of activists: neo-liberalism gave us Iraq and Afghanistan, neo-liberalism gives us public spending cuts and now neo-liberalism wants to give us massively increased tuition fees. Neo-liberalism, nein danke. Those two taboos – against leftist thinking and against collective action – were the product of years of Thatcherite Kulturkampf, beginning in the mid-70s; it would take years to reinstate them, and it would take a stronger and more united government than this one to do it.

The other question is, of course, where it goes next. If precedent is anything to go by – and if that statement from Cambridge is at all typical – the next step will be to link up with workers in struggle; the next but one, to link up with workers who aren’t in struggle yet. We shall see. I don’t think today’s vote in Parliament will be the end, or even the beginning of the end – but it may be the end of the beginning.

The Liberal Democrat Party: An Apology

I’d like to apologise to James Meadway, Justin Horton, Ellis Sharp, Richard Seymour, Les Jones, my wife, and all the other people with whom I have argued about the political positioning of the Liberal Democrats and Liberals over the years. I now realise that my efforts to counter these wise and sensible people’s criticisms of the party were entirely misplaced, and that my repeated assertions that the Liberals were in some sense on the Left of the British political spectrum were, at best, wishful thinking.

I would also like to apologise in advance to Nick Barlow, Alex Harrowell, Mike Holmans and any other friends of mine who have the misfortune to be members of this shabby, unprincipled, Tory-tailing rabble, for any acerbity or unpleasantness which may unfortunately creep into our personal relations now that their leaders have sold us all down the river and delivered the country into the hands of David Cameron. I hope that the conditions leading to this unwelcome situation will rapidly be rectified with the introduction of a fair voting system and the holding of fresh elections (in which the Lib Dem vote will surely drop like a stone). I recognise, however, that this is unlikely, given that the Lib Dems’ new chums are certain to shaft them royally on that issue as on most other things. I note finally that Nick Clegg, the Parliamentary Liberal Democrat Party and the Liberal Democrat Executive did not come down in the last shower and have collectively gone into this with their eyes open, and conclude from these observations that they’re allying with the Conservatives because they want to ally with the Conservatives. Which brings us back to where we came in.

Thanks Nick, and Vince, and, er, the other ones. You had the chance to do something really different, do the country a lot of good and (incidentally) prove several of my friends wrong. Instead of which… well, you’ve certainly done something different. Yellow Tories, now and forever.

Your weakness is none of my business

One interesting aspect of the election result is that it’s been bad for all three of the main party leaders. (You could even extend that and say that it’s been bad for all the party leaders – Ieuan Wyn Jones, Alex Salmond, Salma Yaqoob and Nick Griffin have all had a disappointing time of it, not to mention Reg Empey and Peter Robinson – but it doesn’t quite work; Caroline Lucas had rather a good night, and I don’t think the non-Unionist parties in the North of Ireland are complaining. Bad joke about wearing of the green goes here.)

But Brown, Cameron and Clegg have all had a bad result, and will all be facing criticism from within their party: it’ll be argued that a different style of leadership could have saved Labour from the wipeout, could have given the Tories an outright majority, could have made the Lib Dem breakthrough a reality. (This is clearly magical thinking to some extent – after all, if all the parties had performed better their results would presumably be stuck pretty much at their current level. Also, the idea that the leader has a defining influence on the party’s performance smacks of power-worship and is almost certainly inaccurate anyway. But we’ll go with it for the time being, because the current stalemate does put the leaders front and centre, and I want to think about what they’re going to do next.)

Now, the one thing a party leader can never do – or not while remaining party leader – is to lose face by conceding to criticism from others. (This is what made the Gillian Duffy story so grimly fascinating; Brown did nothing that we haven’t all done, but his political position meant that a loss of face was a tremendous risk – and it was extraordinarily difficult to extricate himself without one.) There are two main strategies for dealing with criticism without losing face: one is to double down and make a virtue of the position being criticised, demonstrating its strengths and merits; the other is to adopt the criticism as one’s own and address it without seeming to concede anything to the critics, getting out of trouble in a kind of knight’s move. All three of the main party leaders are going to have to adopt one of these tactics over the next few days, and it’ll be interesting to see which escape route they each choose.

What Brown did wrong – or what Brown will be seen to have done wrong; or the area where Brown will be seen to have gone wrong by acting like Brown – was to hang on like grim death: refusing an early election, refusing a leadership election, refusing to resign as leader, refusing to call the election until the very last minute. Right from when he took over from Blair, Brown was determined to k. b. o., in Churchill’s immortal phrase. It’s going to be hard over the next few days for him to make a virtue of this approach; flexibility and surprise are going to be at a premium. The obvious escape route – in more ways than one – would be to resign, but I don’t see Brown resigning as PM or party leader and simply walking away, like Heath in 1974 (as PM) or Wilson in 1976; I think his parting gift to the party would be to resign in such a way as to hand power to a chosen successor, as the prospective head of a coalition government. I haven’t the faintest idea how that could be fixed – it would need to involve an awful lot of talking to the Lib Dems and other parties – but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brown’s working on it.

What Clegg did wrong – or where Clegg went wrong by acting unlike Ashdown or Kennedy, say – was clearly to move the party to the Right. You can look at this as an attempt to return to equidistance between the main parties after getting uncomfortably close to Labour, or simply as a move rightwards: tailoring the party’s approach to its main target seats by appealing to Tory voters, while banking the support the party had already gained from former Labour voters. Either way, it backfired spectacularly on the night: faced with a party that seemed destined for coalition and refused to rule out coalition with their least favoured party, many people not only declined to vote Lib Dem but actually cast an anti-Lib Dem vote. 23% isn’t a bad vote, but it’s well down in the realms of the third-party squeeze – in a way that the 26-28% the polls seemed to promise wouldn’t have been. Clegg could double down on the move rightwards by sealing the deal with Cameron; he could even double down on ‘equidistance’ by proposing a Grand Coalition, although I suspect that if he was going to do this he would have done it by now. These options would not be without problems, to put it mildly. I’ve been defending the Lib Dems for years, pointing out their radical policies to Labour loyalists and socialists who dismiss them as ‘yellow Tories’. I’ll never say another word in their defence if they make a deal with Cameron now – and I imagine there are many more like me, some of whom have actually voted for them. The alternative would be to cut the knot by dumping equidistance, shifting back leftwards and forming a ‘progressive’ alliance; that would work – it could solve our problems as well as Clegg’s own – but I’m not sure Clegg’s the man to do it.

Cameron is probably in the worst position of all, and in the most need of some quick and innovative thinking (hmm…). His critics are sure he’s done something wrong – something bad enough to turn a Tory landslide into a mere 307 seats, without even any Ulster Unionists to prop up the numbers – but they don’t agree on what it is. For every Tory who thinks Cameron should never have linked up with the assorted nutters of the European Conservative and Reformist group, there’s one who thinks he’s too much of a Europhile; for every Tory who thinks he should face down the climate change deniers, homophobes and cadet Teabaggers who now find a home in the party, there’s someone who thinks those groups are the future. And then there’s Philip Blond and the ‘Big Society’ theme, which hardly anyone has any enthusiasm for – but it’s hard to even hang that on Cameron, since it’s not clear that he has much enthusiasm for it either. The problem is, he’s not a conviction politician and never has been; he’s Dave from PR (or rather, Eton, BalliolBrasenose and PR). Both of the tactics I’ve been describing – doubling down on the offending behaviour or convincingly repudiating it – are going to be hard for Cameron, since they would require him first to identify something people think he’s doing wrong and then to make a convincing case for it. (Or, indeed, against it.) I think rather than open any of these ideological cans of worms, he’ll take a couple of steps back and conceptualise his approach to leading the party as one in which they trust him and he gives them power – and on that basis where he’s gone wrong is in failing to deliver. This would make the escape route easy to identify, too: he gives them power, they get off his back.

With all this in mind, I think we can expect the Tories to go quite a long way to meet the Lib Dems halfway. Whether it will be enough is another matter, as the one thing they will need the most in that situation – some way of maintaining their credibility on the Left – won’t be in the Tories’ gift. Cameron could go some way to providing it by offering the Lib Dems a loose alliance, with a free vote on non-confidence measures; however, this wouldn’t be enough to solve his own problem, by guaranteeing the Tories power as well as office. At some not too distant point it’ll be up to Brown to produce a better offer, i.e. one which solves his problem as well as Clegg’s; in principle this seems, if anything, more achievable than a durable Lib Dem/Tory deal, but the practicalities may be against it.

With the possibility of PR aroud the corner and the possibility of the Lib Dems taking a definitive step to the Right in the mean time, the stakes are high. The British political scene may be about to become a great deal more fluid, or the music may be about to stop, freezing it in a definitively right-of-centre configuration. All we know at the moment is that it’s not over yet; we can still hope for the best as well as fearing the worst.

UpdateThoughtful postscript The question is what arrangements there are which would allow two of the party leaders to pull off one of the self-justifying/self-exculpatory moves described above. As we’ve seen, Clegg could answer the critics of equidistance by collapsing the Lib Dem waveform either rightwards or leftwards. Justifying himself by sticking it out seems less likely, if only because the only practical way of doing this – offering a Grand Coalition – is in nobody else’s interest. Going Left would probably be easier than going Right, if only because the Tories are unlikely to be able to offer enough to make the deal palatable to the Lib Dem base. But if the Lib Dems can’t meet Cameron halfway, he’s going to be stuck: unlike the other two leaders, there isn’t a reverse gear (or a knight’s move) available to him. All he can do is double down on being him: Dave from PR, the sincere opportunist, the liberal Tory, the reactionary moderniser; all the contradictions of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party swept under one shiny new market-ready carpet. But that’s only going to work for as long as it delivers results, which it may be about to stop doing.

As for Brown, a good move would be to make a virtue of repudiating his limpet-like tendencies, by offering his resignation as a sweetener to a deal with Clegg. As well as being a costly signal, this would up the ante on the Lib Dems (what else do you want?). A really good move would be to make a virtue of going while also making a virtue of staying, as the one politician capable of steering Britain through these troubled times, and so forth.

Clegg has, of course, said that he’ll give the Tories first go at winning him over, but it occurs to me that he might be playing quite a clever game. If Clegg had announced after the election that the Lib Dems would talk to both major parties, he’d have been lynched by the press. So perhaps the plan is to talk publicly to the Tories, but also talk to Labour without telling them. Then, by the time the Tories reach their high bid, Labour will know the target they need to beat; they’ll also know by then that they need to make an offer pronto. These could be very interesting times.

That was a thoughtful and prescient postscript written on the 8th of May. Not an update written with hindsight on the very interesting evening of the 10th – certainly not.

The world’s behind you

As I write it’s 9.30 a.m. and 614 of 650 seats have declared. The Conservatives have 290 of them. Taking into account the Speaker’s Buckingham constituency, this means that the possibility of David Cameron leading a majority government has just disappeared. Shouldn’t he make a speech at this point?

Last night’s extraordinary exit poll – giving the Tories 305 seats, Labour 255 and the Lib Dems only 62 – is starting to look more or less accurate, albeit a bit too generous to the Lib Dems; I’m guessing the final result will look more like 305:260:55 (with a couple more ‘Other’s than the poll reckoned for). Interesting times.

The rest we can leave

To end this slightly hyperactive day, here’s a recommendation you’ve probably seen already: read Johann Hari on Hammersmith.

As I spend days walking across the borough, I find the detritus of the old thriving public sector now shut and shuttered. Next to a big council estate I stumble across the large red-brick Castle Youth Club. It was built in Dickens’ time and bequeathed to the local council “to benefit the children of this area for perpetuity”. The Conservatives shut it down two years ago to sell it off. The deal fell through, so now it sits empty while the local kids hang around on the streets outside.

I realise I am peering into the reality of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. The council here told people that if they took away services like this, there would be volunteers; if the state withered away, people would start to provide the services for each other. But nobody … started a new youth club on their own time and with their own money. The state retreated and the service collapsed. It’s a rebranding trick. The Conservatives know that shutting down public services sounds cruel, while calling for volunteerism sounds kind – but the effect is exactly the same.

Read the whole thing. (I’ll wait.)

And here are a few lines from a comment at Crooked Timber (hi Tim!)

I too would like to ‘punish’ Labour for the GWOT/Iraq business. Brown may not have been enthusiastic about the whole business, but keeping quiet and wishing it would go away while signing off on every penny is of course nowhere near good enough. On the same grounds, I’d like to reward the Lib Dems (as well as liking their noises about Trident and ‘illegal’ immigrants, for example). … But retribution and reward are not top priorities at this point, even they could plausibly be seen as a necessary part of a system of long-term incentives. (The war has already had electoral consequences in prising Blair out, of course.) … The urgent imperative is to keep Cameron out.

The Conservatives have done nothing at all to suggest they have moved toward the centre in broadly economic terms – even with a rightward-bound centre. … The Conservatives have, even before getting in, the most hawkish about spending cuts, and flagrant in their ambitions for top-rung tax cuts like inheritance, for example. Their real intentions have to be guessed at, but they won’t have been understating their brutality. Even the line of verbiage they’ve chosen to fill the ominous silence is actively repellent. All this wittering about voluntarism is familiar enough stuff, now elevated from a weak debating point to a supposed philosophy: ‘other things equal, wouldn’t it be nice if everything were done voluntarily, out of, er, benevolence?’. Other things equal my arse. Tell it to Adam Smith’s baker. Making obligations and liabilities voluntary – repudiable – has only one purpose, as every instance of self-’regulation’ testifies.

I particularly like that last point. Other things equal my arse – Tories of all people should know that you don’t get owt for nowt. But the market doesn’t supply everything or everyone – it’s conspicuously bad at providing universal services, unlimited emergency services or services for people who can’t afford to pay, for instance. The history of public service provision since Joseph Chamberlain has been one of collectively-funded efforts to redress market failure. Turn off the funding and that ‘market’ – the market for home helps, youth clubs, women’s refuges, emergency accommodation – will fail in a heartbeat. And the Tories know that, those of them who are older than 18; they have to know that. The idea of sleek Tory politicians knowingly and heedlessly consigning poor people to lives of misery and fear is terribly old-fashioned and rather melodramatic, I know, but it seems like an awfully good fit.

If you’ve got a vote tomorrow, please use it to help prevent a Tory government. That will be an achievement worth having been part of.

Tomorrow, today will be yesterday

In the last post I revisited the series of posts I wrote before the last election, arguing that Labour supporters should vote for parties to the left of Labour – a category in which I included the Lib Dems. (I voted Green on the day.)

This time round, I’m seriously considering voting Labour. So what’s changed?

There are four things, I think. Continue reading

Yesterday today was tomorrow

I started blogging in March 2005, after I’d started commenting on Tom Watson’s blog (more on that another time). In particular, I wrote a series of posts on why people shouldn’t vote Labour. They were:

I: 126 as a limit
A shadow of its former self – about 75% of this post got eaten by Blogger one night. Which was a shame, as it established the context for the whole series. Looking at the 2001 results and at current polling data, I established pretty conclusively that the Tories weren’t going to win: tens of thousands of Labour supporters could vote against Labour without costing Labour the election.
II: When you need cover
On Labour’s resort to dog-whistle politics, and a peculiarly empty form of dog-whistle politics at that: rallying the core Labour vote isn’t just difficult for New Labour, it’s the one thing they can’t do. What remains is an empty, moralistic appeal – you ought to vote Labour because, well, you ought to.
III: In the Big Muddy
On what an anti-Labour vote might achieve (a slim majority or a hung parliament at a pinch) and who this would benefit (primarily Gordon Brown – “Turn around men! I’m in charge from now on.”) And why it was worth doing anyway.
IV: I just can’t see myself following you
“We’re living in a strange, muted, deadened political landscape, where many of the most important questions go unanswered or unasked.” On the need to break New Labour’s blockage of the political landscape, but also on the genuine risk of benefiting the Tories in the process.
V: Beneath the flag of democracy
On Iraq: war as “the ultimate trust issue” and the ultimate reason for withholding trust. “If Labour are re-elected with a majority of 80-100, we will have officially drawn a line under Iraq and moved on; we will have told Blair, loud and clear, that we do trust him after all.”
VI: Everything you say is like iron
Against the advice to “hold your nose and vote Labour” which was coming from both the Guardian and the Morning Star, and against the opposition between party loyalty and ‘tactical voting’. “Tactical voting is holding your nose when you vote: voting Labour even at the cost of registering your support for policies you oppose … It’s not tactical voting to vote for breaking the log-jam, and vote to make it more likely that it breaks to the Left. It’s not tactical voting to vote to replace New Labour with something better.”
VII: Put your lips together and blow
More on dog-whistle politics and the difference between loyalty and principle. “There are reasons why I voted Labour at most opportunities between 1979 and 1997, and most of them are the same reasons why I’m voting against Labour this time. I haven’t moved – they have.”
VIII: Arrows with a very bad aim
On good reasons and bad reasons for refusing to vote for a particular party. I took the line that there were good reasons to refusue to vote either for Labour (“There is nothing good to say about the New Labour project.”) or for the Socialist Labour Party (“the SLP, after all these years, urgently needs to give up and let its activists get on with their lives”) but not for refusing to vote Lib Dem.
IX: Yeah yeah, yeah, yeah
On the disturbing possibility that all this messing around on blogs might be entirely detached from the real world, and Labour might still be heading for a three-figure majority. (SPOILER: they weren’t.)
X: None of you stand so tall
I’ll repost this one in full:

Here’s my advice, for anyone who’s interested.

Don’t vote Labour.

Don’t vote Conservative, don’t vote UKIP and for God’s sake don’t vote Veritas. But don’t vote Labour. Here are 35 reasons (hat tip to Ellis Sharp). Iraq is at numbers 11 and 22. There are another 33. The name Blunkett doesn’t even appear on the page.

There are values which have been associated with Labour throughout its history: even under operators like Wilson and Smith; even under chancers like Kinnock; even during the long retreat in the face of Thatcherism. Under New Labour, that’s all gone. Maintenant c’est joué… The party of the Left must be built, and it won’t be built in a matter of days. For now, what’s essential is for the Left to withdraw its consent from the representatives who have betrayed it. If you want to vote for the values which Labour once stood for – under Hardie, under Attlee, even under the member for Monklands East – don’t vote Labour.

This isn’t about the war, except insofar as the war has shown a lot of people in their true colours. As I wrote back here, “this is a single-issue election – and the issue is New Labour.” From which it follows that I don’t advise anyone, anywhere, to vote for a Labour candidate. Not even if they’ve got a good record on the war; not even if they’ve got a good record on control orders and ID cards and tuition fees; not even if they’re Jeremy Corbyn, frankly. (Sorry, Jeremy.)

The objection that these tactics will lose us some good MPs misses the point. This is a boycott. If boycotting something – goods from a certain country, say – didn’t involve forfeiting choices we would normally make, there’d be no need for the boycott: the invisible hand of the market would do the job for us. Boycotts, by definition, cannot be relied on to deliver an optimal choice: that’s not what they’re for. What they do is signal that there are choices we are not willing to make – positions that we are not prepared to endorse – even at a cost to ourselves. I’d hate to have a Tory MP, but I would rejoice to see my Labour MP’s vote drop far enough to make that a possibility.

While Labour is controlled by the New Labour clique (and it is – these people are serious about power), nobody running as a Labour candidate deserves our support. It doesn’t matter whose name is on the ballot paper. It doesn’t matter if Labour won last time or came second or third. If you can’t stand the Trots and the tankies, vote Lib Dem. If you can’t stand the Lib Dems, vote Green.

Don’t abstain. Don’t be an idiot and vote Tory.

But don’t vote Labour.

So what’s changed?

Know your constituency: Manchester Withington

Inspired by Splintered Sunrise‘s extraordinary series of “know your constituency” posts on the election in the North of Ireland, here are some thoughts on the constituency The Gaping Silence calls home. (Personal to Splinty – how do you do it? I’ve only done this one and it’s taken me all evening…)

2005 results:
Leech (Liberal Democrat) 15,872 (42.4%)
Bradley, Keith (Labour) 15,205 (40.6%)
Bradley, Karen (Conservative) (no relation) 3,919 (10.5%)
Candeland (Green) 1,595 (4.3%)
Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP) 424 (1.1%)
Bennett (Ind) 243 (0.6%)
Zalzala (Ind) 153 (0.4%)
Reed (Their Party) 47 (0.1%)

2010 candidates: John Leech (LD), Lucy Powell (Lab), Chris Green (Con), Brian Candeland (Green), Robert Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP), Yasmin Zalzala (Independent), Marcus Farmer (Independent)

The Withington constituency, after a bit of boundary adjustment following the 2005 election, extends from affluent, liberal, green-ish East Didsbury northward and westward to green, liberal, affluent-ish Chorlton. It’s a rough triangle, with Northenden and Sale to the southwest, the Heatons and Stockport to the southeast and Fallowfield, Whalley Range and the city to the north.

For anyone who’s tried to buy a newspaper in Chorlton on a Saturday, the political complexion of the constituency might seem fairly self-evident. Continue reading

Green and yellow pinky-blue

Andy did a reasonably good job of making a left case for the findings of the National Equality Panel – it’s true that New Labour have implemented policies aimed at the people at the bottom of the heap, and it’s certainly true that some of the inequalities that remain are more intractable than they were in the 1970s. Andy concludes that this government has taken “a sincere but flawed approach to reducing social exclusion” involving “pushing up the wages of the poorest”, but that this was ultimately vitiated by New Labour individualism: the government “failed to acknowledge that equality has to rest upon shared sense of community, and that community is alien to the spirit of free market capitalism”.

It’s always good to be reminded that there is still a Left case to be made for some of this government’s actions, but I don’t think Andy has joined enough of the dots here. While Andy notes that “for the Blairites, poverty reduction was the target not promoting equality per se, as they did not want to reduce the income of top earners”, I’d go further. A system that generates enormous profits for a few thousand individuals is not just part of the context in which poverty reduction takes place; that system is actually producing and reproducing poverty on a huge scale. I also think it’s worth noting that the vein of compulsion mentioned by Andy runs right through Labour policy on social exclusion, however beneficial it may be in practice; SureStart itself began life as a Home Office project, with medium-term crime reduction as its goal. This is certainly a government which doesn’t want to see anyone starving or illiterate, which is all to its credit. But that genuine commitment goes along with an underlying view of the poorest groups as a problem – a potential source of crime and disorder – and an even stronger commitment to policies likely to keep them poor.

This isn’t a very flattering picture of our Labour government – a Labour government! – but there’s very little evidence that either class politics or egalitarianism has any influence on New Labour policy. Assuming that they must be in there somewhere can lead to some strange misreadings. Andy notes:

The proportion of young people going to university increased from 15% to 28% between 1988 and 1992; but while the proportion of young people from the most affluent 20% going to university rose from 20% to 37%, the proportion from the least affluent 20% increased from just 6% to only 7%. The paradox is that increasing access to higher education has disproportionately benefitted the already better off.

Paradox? What paradox? I see no evidence that New Labour’s drive to increase access to higher education was ever intended to benefit all classes equally; that’s certainly not how it’s been implemented. It hasn’t even been sold that way – Neil Kinnock’s Joe Biden moment was an awful long time ago. These days it’s decent hard-working middle-class people we’re supposed to be concerned about – and when politicians use the words “middle class”, they might just be talking about the middle class and not the working class.

I also thought – like Liam – that these findings demanded to be read alongside the bad news from the British Social Attitudes Survey, published the same week. Indeed, I thought the two shed light on each other. Liam:

”only two in five people (39%) now support increased taxes and spending on health and education,the lowest level since 1984 and down from 62% in 1997.” They add that “support for redistribution from the better off to those who are less well off has dropped markedly. Fewer than two in five (38%) now think the government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off, down from half (51%) in 1994.”

Here’s the punch line: “The shift to the right has occurred mainly among Labour supporters in the wake of the changed stance taken by their party. For example, since 1994, the belief that government should redistribute income has fallen among Labour supporters from two thirds (68%) to half (49%). Among Conservative supporters, in contrast, attitudes have barely shifted at all (from 26% to 24%).”

This to me is a final, sad rebuttal of all those arguments against breaking from Labour to the Left. Yes, millions of working people identify with Labour and with Labour values – but the meaning of “Labour values” can change. Not completely, not evenly and not overnight, certainly, but it still changes. What’s to stop it? After 13 years of a Labour government which regularly proclaimed itself to be the best, fullest, newest and truest expression of Labour values, it would be amazing if the new version hadn’t started to take root. Millions of working people identified with Labour, and New Labour took them with it – and now that New Labour is on the rocks, they’re more available for right- and centre-right politics than ever before. The New Labour project didn’t just set back the prospects for socialism in Britain – would that that had been the worst it did. It wrecked the only viable vehicle for building social democracy, and dispersed and demoralised its natural constituents. A really dreadful piece of political vandalism. Robert:

After the party’s over, my friend
There will be nothing you can put your finger on,
Just a parasol

That goes for any Party.

And yes, I saw it all coming. I wasn’t quite gloomy enough, if anything – I didn’t foresee the possibility that Blair might succeed and then fail. Certainly a future with no Labour Party worth mentioning seems slightly more likely at the moment than one where Labour thrives as an SDP mk. II.

Here, anyway, is a piece I wrote for the eleventh issue of Casablanca in 1994. It was published in the short-running “A gloom of one’s own” series. Most material in Casablanca was either anonymous or pseudonymous, for reasons I was never quite sure about; this one appeared under the name of Brian Parker, for reasons I’m definitely not sure about.

Gloom

Just what is it that makes today’s Left so different, so depressing?

When I was an infantile leftist there were two main groups on the Left, the Campaigners and the Believers. (Three, if you count the Labour Party Members). The best kind of Campaigning, it was generally agreed, was going on strike. The rest of the Left would immediately rally round and offer comradely advice – to stay out for as long as it took (the Trots), to stay out forever and picket everyone in the world until they came out too (the anarchists), to make the rich pay for the crisis (the RCPB(M-L)). Campaigning by leafletting, blocking the traffic and so on was not so good: this made you a Single-Issue Campaigner, and you would usually only be allowed into the Left after most people had gone. (Being on the Left means knowing all the Issues). And if you Campaigned by harbouring foxes and releasing chickens nobody would even talk to you except the anarchists, but that didn’t matter because it’s about something much bigger than just like politics, right.

Like many people, I rapidly graduated from Campaigning to Believing. This is considerably less strenuous, as it consists mainly of (a) finding the right Line and (b) recruiting more Believers. The idea is to ensure that, come the inevitable collision with History, you will be equipped with (a) clean ideological underwear and (b) plenty of witnesses. Being a Believer isn’t a bad way of meeting people and it does get you out of the house (usually on Tuesday evenings, for some reason – so three proletarian cheers to the BBC for moving Barry Norman to Mondays). On the other hand, it is fairly pointless. Realising this, many Believers gravitate towards Campaigning organisations, sometimes in quite large and organised groups. Others attempt to unite the Left, presumably on the basis that if you assemble a large enough group of Believers it will automatically turn into a Campaign. The only problem with this strategy is that the idea of uniting the Left is in fact a Line in its own right and thus only attracts its own Believers – just another strand in the Left’s great dayschool.[1]

About the Labour Party Members there isn’t much I can say, never having shared their belief in the capacity of a Labour government to enact socialism – I suppose every movement needs its dreamers. Actually the rest of us always tacitly relied on the Labour Party. The way it worked was that the press and the BBC would attack Labour for being left-wing – or praise them for being left-wing, it didn’t really matter – and we would attack them for not being left-wing enough. Even the anarchists used to join in, attacking Labour as a way of getting at the Left as a whole. It was quite a good recruiting tactic, while it lasted.

That was how I used to see things – I’m less optimistic nowadays. Most of the Believers have never quite recovered from the end of actually existing Stalinism – arguing about whether Cuba is a deformed workers’ state just isn’t the same somehow. You don’t get the same class of Believers these days, anyway – whatever happened to Red Flame? or Big Stripe? These days there’s hardly anyone doing any Campaigning, either, apart from those young people who sit down in front of trees, play didgeridoos and tell us they won’t get fooled like we did. (They call themselves ‘zippies’, apparently – I grow old, I grow old). Good luck to them, anyway – they’ll need it, now that the Labour Party thinks the Criminal Justice Bill isn’t such a bad idea.

Ah yes, the Labour Party. It’s not Labour’s abstaining on the Criminal Justice Bill that bothers me, or their refusal to support the signal workers; it’s not all the weird stuff which Tony Blair apparently believes (cannabis should stay illegal, the electoral system couldn’t be better and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession – Dan Quayle eat your heart out). It’s true that Tony Blair went to a minor public school, but then so did Prince Charles, and look how well he’s turned out. It’s not fair to attack Blair for coming across as smug, ugly and dull, either – put next to John Major, who wouldn’t?

What bothers me (and I’m amazed it doesn’t bother more people – that’s depressing in itself) is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips[2]. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections – look at Bill Clinton[3]) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely – look at Bill Clinton[3]) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there’s no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left – which is an uncomfortable prospect for Believers and Campaigners alike.

What makes it even worse is the odd references to ‘socialism’ from Blair’s direction – a ‘socialism’ which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of ‘society’) or individual freedoms (except the freedom to ‘achieve’). It’s as if they’d realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We’ve still got ‘Comrade’, I suppose, and ‘Point of order, Chair’[4], but that’s about it).

It’s almost enough to make you envy the Greens. But not quite.

NOTES
[1] This refers to the Socialist Movement (and indeed a number of other initiatives, before and since).
[2] I’m quite pleased to have called that one right (Ms Phillips was still writing for the Observer at this stage).
[3] I don’t know what this referred to. Don’t bother looking at Bill Clinton.
[4] At the first Chesterfield Conference, I was deeply impressed by the person who raised a point of order at the Saturday night social. To his credit, the MC refused to take it.

Take or leave us

Apologies for the long silence – and for the post that’s about to follow, which will be of much greater interest to some than others.

Unlike Liam and Andy, I am not now and have never been a member of RESPECT. Like Liam and Andy, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the fallout within RESPECT from George Galloway’s August letter. I think there are some genuinely hopeful developments taking place, in among the backbiting and abuse: a renewed RESPECT could be the socialist-friendly left-of-Labour electoral party England has been crying out for. (Could be – we’re not there yet by any means.)

Here are some of my comments from Andy’s blog. My thoughts on all this have developed over time, but I’ve only edited for clarity, brevity and anonymity.

1st September:

I’ve never liked George Galloway, but I’m pleasantly surprised by the clarity & cogency of this analysis. Yes, it is all about organisational structure, but structure can be very important in deciding what gets done and what doesn’t – and how the membership is involved in those decisions, both before and after they’re made.

You could object that Galloway’s line (and/or my take on it) is naive, inasmuch as there are solid political factors underlying the organisational sclerosis of RESPECT (reasons having to do with the death-grip of the SWP), and he clearly doesn’t address those. I think that would be to underestimate Galloway’s critique (which does after all propose leading roles for Yaqoob and even Thornett). I also think that a lot of the problems with the SWP itself are ultimately organisational – the weird stop/start blend of caution, opportunism and control freakery that the SWP has brought to RESPECT is a culture with quite deep roots in the party itself, and it’s not good for the internal life of the SWP any more than it’s been good for RESPECT. Viewed in this light, I think Galloway’s aim is to stir things up within the SWP, perhaps with the longer-term aim of splitting the party and expelling part of it from the New Model RESPECT. How it pans out will depend on how much discontent there is within the SWP, and how deep the divisions within the leadership run – is anyone sufficiently fed up to want to either break with RESPECT or split the party?

13th September:

There’s something Kremlinological about the lines being drawn – nobody really thinks Galloway is standing up for party democracy, or that the SWP Central Committee wants to eradicate any hint of communalism. As far as I can see the competing lines essentially boil down to “build a weak and diffuse coalition as an element in the SWP’s longer-term socialist programme” and “build a weak and diffuse coalition without preconditions, but in the hope that it will eventually become less weak and diffuse”. The CC line sounds more socialist, but I think in practice it’s less constructive.

22nd September:

I don’t think anyone’s saying “SWP out of RESPECT” – just that the relationship between the two needs to change. If that line prevails and the SWP responds by flouncing out… well, it’ll be a gamble, but I think it’s one worth taking. (Hopefully some of the better SWP/RESPECT comrades would jump the right way.) In any case [if] RESPECT is currently only kept going by the SWP machine, would it really be worth having on that basis?

3rd October:

There’s strong evidence, in some towns at least, that RESPECT has quite consciously targeted Muslim areas. Building on the massive mobilisation against the war isn’t a bad idea, but it depends how it’s done. I’ve seen RESPECT campaign material which focused exclusively on causes of interest to British Muslims. That’s not to say they were causes I wouldn’t support (Iraq, Palestine, anti-racism…) but that the list didn’t include anything calculated to appeal to non-Muslim working-class voters, or for that matter to Muslim voters who saw themselves primarily as working-class.

What does need to be dealt with quite openly is the difference between the type of approach I’m describing and the allegations of ‘personalist and clientelist’ organising. If that’s happened, it’s a disgrace and should be rooted out. But at the moment it’s unclear a lot of the time whether ‘communalism’ refers to this kind of corrupt practice or simply focusing on the Muslim vote – a legitimate approach, albeit one I disagree with on political grounds.

Ultimately I think the approach RESPECT took is a tragically missed opportunity. They could have gone a lot harder at the outset on class perspectives and on potentially divisive issues such as feminism and LGBT; the result would have been a smaller organisation in the early days, perhaps, but a much more coherent one. Instead we get socialist principle wheeled out as a factional weapon within the party, at a time when most of the early successes have been dissipated.

15th October:

Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoverman expelled for working with Galloway; Nick Wrack expelled for standing for the Organiser post, whose creation Rees & German had agreed to… I can’t see that any of it makes any sense unless the SWP leadership is determined to a) leave RESPECT b) split RESPECT c) wreck RESPECT or d) some combination of the above. These certainly don’t look like the actions of an organisation preparing to operate as a minority current within a broader party – or even preparing to operate within a broader party on terms which might at some point in the future reduce them to a minority current.

There’s a much bigger question than the relative merits of RESPECT and the Labour Left, which is what happens if RESPECT goes under. To put it another way, which is the worse outcome for the Left in England – successful RESPECT or failed RESPECT? I think for the project to fail now would be bad news for all of us. But I think there’s a chance that what comes out of the current crisis will be a more coherent organisation with a clearer identity, not to mention a healthier relationship with the SWP and other groups. I think that possibility and that danger are far more important than anything that can be said about Galloway. (Whom I dislike, distrust and have very little faith in. Makes a good speech, mind.)

23rd October:

even if we take the SWP leadership at their word and assume they have adopted the vision of a more explicitly socialist RESPECT, vision and strategy aren’t the same thing. I believe RESPECT has the potential to become a coherent left-wing electoral party with an active socialist minority, which is rather more than it is now – but I don’t believe it can realise that potential by allowing the SWP leadership to control it. Anyone who wants to see RESPECT thrive and survive should welcome the critique being voiced by Galloway, Yaqoob, Wrack, Francis et al.

24th October:

a lot of the initial policy compromises have evidently been unmade in the course of the last four years, possibly thanks to the influence of principled leftists within RESPECT. The opposition to the SWP leadership within RESPECT isn’t a monolithic bloc, and they certainly don’t all dance to Galloway’s tune. There’s a left and a right within the Galloway/Yaqoob/Francis/Socialist Resistance wing of RESPECT, in other words, and I’m confident that the left will counter any attempt to push the project to the right. At the risk of offering hostages to fortune, RESPECT isn’t over yet; it may just be getting going.

30th October:

It all started, it seems to me, with a power-play by Galloway. If it was implemented unchanged, Galloway’s original proposal would have created a rival to John Rees’s position within RESPECT, with a power base among Galloway’s allies and a focus on electoral success (bearing in mind that we all thought there was an election coming up at the time). As such, the proposal obviously wasn’t welcome to Rees & his allies, and it called for some hard bargaining and careful management. What couldn’t be done was to kick it into touch, because it expressed more than just Galloway’s political self-interest and his belief that a party that stands candidates in elections ought to try and win them. RESPECT hadn’t flourished under the stewardship of Rees & co, and significant groups & individuals within the coalition had some genuine concerns about the way things were going. Galloway’s letter gave a voice to those concerns and put names to some of the people expressing them. It meant that the SWP’s leadership role in RESPECT would never be unchallenged again.

Rees and friends could have bargained and managed the situation; they could have accepted a collegiate leadership; they might well have re-emerged as ‘first among equals’ further down the line. Instead of which they declared war on Galloway – and, by extension, on anyone aligned with him, whether for reasons of principle or convenience.

I said at the time of Hoveman and Ovenden’s expulsions that the SWP leadership’s actions were incomprehensible unless they wanted to leave, split or destroy RESPECT, or some combination of the three. I don’t take any satisfaction in having, apparently, been proved right.

1st November:

for the SWP to pull out of RESPECT tomorrow, taking every dual member with it, would be disastrous for RESPECT. For Linda Smith & her allies to witch-hunt the SWP out of the organisation would be to saw off the branch they’re sitting on; tactically it would be crazy, stupid or sectarian to the point of obsessiveness. I don’t believe they’re any of those things.

So what is going on? I think it’s important to draw two distinctions: between reducing someone’s power and reducing it to nothing; and between long-term and short-term. The first is the difference between Edward Heath’s approach to the Left and the unions and Thatcher’s; the second is the difference between Thatcher and Pinochet. The Smith/Yaqoob/Galloway side of the argument are agreed that the SWP’s formal power within RESPECT needs to be reduced. There are people on that side of the argument (possibly Galloway himself) who believe that in the longer term it should be reduced to nothing. There isn’t anybody, as far as I can tell, who believe that it should be reduced to nothing immediately – that the SWP should be chased out of RESPECT.

The SWP leadership are doubly to blame for the escalation of this dispute, it seems to me: they’ve interpreted a demand for reduction of their power as an all-out threat to their position, then interpreted that as an immediate threat. In the process they’ve created that confrontation. It’s true to say that some, at least, of the SWP leadership’s critics have taken a position of “if you want a fight, you can have it” – and this is regrettable. But when concessions are exploited, well-intentioned criticisms are dismissed unread and challenges are met with strident denunciation and refusal to debate, it does tend to try one’s patience.

(Part of the problem, of course, is that you don’t start a position war with the SWP with much hope of winning – SWP cadre do tend to be very good at this stuff. It’s just not the stuff that’s needed right now.)

Having said all that, it’d be nice to think that the RESPECT which comes out of all this would include some SWP members. (Even now, the RESPECT-loyalists don’t seem to have any political quarrel with the SWP-loyalists – and that goes double for someone like Lavalette, whose work is a model of what RESPECT should be doing.)

2nd November:

I don’t think there’s any mystery around why Linda Smith & her allies don’t want to see the conference go ahead. They’ve stated their reasons – they’ve been comprehensively outmanoeuvred, out-organised and out-mobilised, by both fair means and foul. As a result, the legitimacy of the organisational structures of the coalition itself have been brought into dispute – but, as part of the same process, internal democracy has been boxed off to the point where that dispute can’t take place. In this situation, a pause for thought is the only option – ‘full speed ahead’ equals ’self-destruct’.

With two conferences now scheduled for 17th November, this last comment needs some expansion. By pressing ahead with organising for the planned conference, without addressing any of the issues raised by Smith & Yaqoob, the SWP put the ‘renewal’ camp in an impossible position. Turn up at the conference and they’d almost certainly be outvoted and outmanoeuvred; stay away and they’d lose by default. Worse, organising their own event at a later date would risk organised intervention by SWP partisans. (Before anyone cries paranoia, I’ve been in conferences where the SWP wanted to make sure that a mildly critical point of view got across; it’s not pretty. The ‘single transferable speech’ is one word for the tactic (In response to the last speaker, I’d just like to say that one of the earlier speakers raised a crucial question…)) Holding their own event on the same day was really the only option.

That said, it would be good if a split could be avoided; I was particularly glad to see that Michael Lavalette had been willing to share a platform with Galloway and Yaqoob (Andy has photographic evidence). The game is clearly not over yet. (Although after this post I’ll probably go back to the usual mixture of political philosophy, popular singing groups and miscellaneous geekage.)

Wrapped in paper (6)

As a sort of companion-piece to the last one, here’s a column from September 1999.

THIS MONTH this page is given over to an interview with a pioneering futurologist: Michel de Nostredame. De Nostredame – more widely known as ‘Nostradamus’ – has had a huge influence on the very course of life on this planet itself, and on the development of the computer industry. I was particularly curious to hear Nostradamus’ interpretation of recent events, which have damaged his reputation in some quarters.

So we’re still here, then.

Can I make one thing very clear right at the outset? When soldiers cross the burning river, only a young Pope can hold the jam.

Do you think you could make that even clearer?

Sorry – force of habit. What I meant to say was, I never actually said the world was going to end on the fourth of July 1999.

What about “a creature with two heads will be born the day the eagle celebrates his festival”?

Well, there you go – that could mean just about anything. The Yanks aren’t the only people who make a fuss about eagles, are they? Besides, I didn’t specify a year. I didn’t specify a century, for that matter.

Elsewhere you did refer to July 1999, though. ‘Year 1999, seven months, from the sky will come a great king of terror to revive the king of the Mongols.’

For a start, it’s not the king of the Mongols: it’s the king of Angoulême, which is a region in France. People keep assuming I wrote in anagrams – as if my verses weren’t incomprehensible enough to start with! If I’d meant ‘Mongols’ I would have written ‘Mongols’, I can assure you.

But Angoulême doesn’t have a king.

That’s easy for you to say. I was writing four hundred years ago, remember? Anything could have happened in that time. Then there’s this ‘great king of terror’. What I actually wrote was deffraieur, which means someone who pays the bill – the kind of person who’ll get the drinks in and pick up the tab.

So it should be translated as ‘a great entertaining King’?

Uh-huh.

That gives us: ‘Year 1999, seven months, from the sky will come a great entertaining king to revive the king of Angoulême’. It’s not a great improvement in terms of accuracy, is it?

You realise that the seventh month of the astrological calendar only starts in mid-September? No, you’re right, it’s not very likely. Chalk it up to experience.

What influence do you believe your work has had on the computer industry?

It’s had a huge influence. Bill Gates himself is known to have studied my writing extensively. He even used one of my verses as justification for one of his major campaigns. As it happens that verse was a fake – it was planted by the British government, which had learnt about his superstitions following the defection of Rudolf Hess – but it shows how seriously he took my writing.

I think you’re thinking of Adolf Hitler.

You may be right – these twentieth-century leaders all look alike to me.

How do you think your writing will fare in the next millennium?

I’m optimistic. That reference to 1999 was the last specific date I used – I wish I hadn’t bothered, it was asking for trouble. There are plenty of verses still left to interpret, and some of them are so weird that they’ll be almost impossible to prove or disprove. “They will come to deliver the prince of Denmark, a shameful ransom to the temple of Artemis” – what’s that about? People will be trying to make sense of my prophecies for a long time to come.

Can I quote you on that?

I’d rather you didn’t – you never know what might happen.

Wrapped in paper (4)

Finally (for now), here’s another one from a defunct print publication, in this case one that wasn’t even available on this side of the Atlantic. The magazine was called ePro and it was aimed at IBM users. IBM what users, you ask. That was the clever part – ePro was for users of IBM ‘eservers’, in other words any of IBM’s four (or thereabouts) server platforms. (That was ‘eserver’ with that squiggly at-sign ‘e’. You do remember the squiggly ‘e’, don’t you? Alex? Anyone?)

Anyway, I got the WebSphere-related commentary gig, which involved sounding knowledgeable once a month without making too many jokes. Most of the columns are pretty damn geeky, to be honest, as well as tending to slip into the corporate-breathless mode (I’m guessing here, but if IBM have successfully developed the philosopher’s stone – and that is a big if…) Some of the less technical ones still read pretty well, I think. For example, this one, from March 2003.

MONSTER MOVIES never give you a good view of the monster until halfway through. Representing Godzilla through one enormous footprint — or even one enormous foot — is a good way of building up suspense. It’s also realistic: if Godzilla came to town, one scaly foot would be all that most people ever saw.

Some things are so big they’re hard to see. Although e-business is making some huge changes to the way we live and work, we don’t often think about where it’s coming from and why. Asked to identify trends driving e-business, analysts tend to resort to general statements about business efficiency or customer empowerment. Alternatively, we get the circular argument which identifies e-business as a response to competitive pressures—pressures which are intensified by the growth of e-business.

The real trends driving the evolution of e-business are at once more specific and more far-reaching. Moreover, these trends affect everyone from the B2C customer at home to the IBM board of directors, taking in the hard-pressed WebSphere developer on the way.

The first trend is standardization. On the client side, there is now only one ‘standard’ browser. A friend of mine recently complained about a site which was not rendering properly (in Navigator 7.0). The Webmaster — presumably a person of some technical smarts — replied, “This is not a problem with our site, but your browser. I am running Windows 98 with IE 5.50 and everything displays perfectly.” At the back end, conversely, the tide of standards rolls on—from CORBA to XML to SOAP to ebXML. Interoperability between servers is too important for any company, even Microsoft, to stand in its way.

Whether standards are set by mutual agreement or by the local 800-pound gorilla is secondary; however it’s achieved, standardization has fostered the development of e-business, and continues to do so. The effect is to commoditize Web application servers and development tools; this in turn promotes the development of a single standard application platform, putting ‘non-standard’ platforms and environments under competitive pressure. From OS/400 to Windows 2000, platforms which diverge from the emerging Intel/Linux/Apache norm are increasingly being forced to justify themselves.

The second trend is automation. Since the dawn of business computing, payroll savings have been an ever-present yardstick in justifying IT projects. E business continues this trend with a vengeance. Whether you’re balancing your bank account or making a deal for office supplies in a trading exchange, you’re interacting with an IT system where once — only a few years ago — you would have had to deal with a human being. The word processor was the end of the line for shorthand typists; e-business is having a similar effect on growing numbers of skilled clerical employees. The next step, promised by Microsoft and IBM alike, is an applications development framework so comprehensive that business analysts and end users will be able to generate entire systems: even application development will be automated. (No, I don’t believe it either, but are you going to bet against IBM and Microsoft?)

The third trend is externalization of costs. Not long ago, if you asked a shop to deliver to your home, you could expect to see a van with the name of the shop on the side. Place an order online today, and your goods may well be delivered by a self-employed driver working with a delivery service contracted to an order fulfillment specialist. Talk of ‘disintermediation’ as a trend in e-business is wide of the mark. By offering more agile, flexible and transparent inter-business relationships, e business makes it possible for intermediaries to proliferate, each contracting out its costly or inconvenient functions. On the B2C front, meanwhile, operating costs are increasingly passed on to the customer: I sometimes spend far longer navigating a series of Web forms than it would take to give the same details to a skilled employee.

A drive for standardization, forcing all platforms into a single generic framework; automation for all, cutting jobs among bank tellers and programmers alike; businesses concentrating ruthlessly on core functions, passing on costs to partners and customers. These trends have had a huge impact on IT and society at large — and there’s more to come. In the e-business world, we’re all in Godzilla’s footprint.

These are your favourite things

I undertook last night to defend Torchwood against its critics. Having seen last night’s episode I’m less enthusiastic about this task than I was – about the kindest thing that could be said about episode 3 is that it was a load of old tosh. Still, I feel much more kindly disposed towards the series than Justin or Dave – and some of their criticisms strike me as not so much unfair as irrelevant.

I’ll set the scene with a couple of Russell T. Davies’ earlier hits.

DOCTOR: Look at these people, these human beings, consider their potential. From the day they arrive on this planet and blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do… no, hold on… sorry, that’s the Lion King… but the point still stands!

HOMELESS MAN: Big Issue?
VINCE: Yes, it is! Unrequited love – it never has to grow old and it never has to die!

A lot of Davies’s dialogue – a lot of his best dialogue – is like this: elaborate, tasteless and entirely unbelievable, but at the same time moving, funny and enthusiastic.

Especially enthusiastic. Davies’s imaginative world has three consistent features, all of which play in the direction of upbeat. There’s faith: faith in love and desire (which are seldom far apart); faith in emotions, and letting them out and acting on them; and ultimately an optimistic faith in people. Nothing is more characteristic of Davies than his setting a vision of the end of the world, in the eponymous Doctor Who episode, five billion years in the future:

DOCTOR: You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying, like you’re going to get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming, or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible. Like maybe you survive.

Then there’s sex. For Davies there’s always sex – he’s described it as the single most basic plot driver, whatever the plot is. The promise that Torchwood delivers on (or at least promises to deliver on) was made by Doctor Who as long ago as Captain Jack’s first appearance, and as recently as the Doctor’s parting with Rose. (And remember the Doctor and Rose tumbling out of the Tardis into Victorian Scotland? Why were they so unsteady on their feet – and why were they giggling so much?)

The third key element of Davies’s vision – and the one which seems to have given Dave and Justin the most trouble – goes back, I think, to Davies’s early days as a screenwriter for children’s TV. It’s a quality which Torchwood and Doctor Who share with Buffy and Serenity but not with Star Trek, let alone Star Wars. It’s a kind of unencumbered, disrespectful, not-quite-adult lightness, flippancy even. This is partly about the dialogue – you don’t ask whether a line is credible, you ask whether it sounds good in performance – but it also goes deeper, to the level of character. You don’t say, What does the willingness to do this say about Character X? or How will Character X handle the consequences? You say, Would Character X do this? What about you – would you? What about if you could get away with it, would you then? The characters aren’t burdened with foresight or moral reflection, and the writing doesn’t take up the slack with foreshadowing or ominous sound effects. They do what they do, and the consequences come along later to bite them – or not, as it suits the plot. And what they do is what you would do, if you weren’t too inhibited, too boring, too grown-up. I felt quite comfortable with this element of Torchwood – or rather, I wasn’t consciously aware of it – until I read Dave’s comment

The writing team has a low opinion of their creation’s integrity; three out of six are office thieves.

and Justin’s:

A member of the Torchwood team is revealed (in a *hilarious* scene) in the opening episode as a bisexual rapist who traps his victims using an alien aftershave he’s borrowed from work that makes him irresistible.

Office thieves? Rapist? They borrow stuff from work (including the said alien atomiser which induces immediate desire in anyone who gets a whiff). Sure, they’ve been told not to do it – but with stuff like that lying around, well, you would, wouldn’t you?

Youth, sex and optimism: the trio embodied in Queer as Folk in under-age Nathan, amoral Stuart and the eternally hopeful Vince, and subsequently rolled into one in David Tennant’s Casanova, John Barrowman’s Jack Harkness and (most strikingly) Tennant’s Doctor. This isn’t a world where gains are wiped out by their cost, where dilemmas are unresolvable or where darkness means more than the absence of light. It’s a bright and mostly beautiful world, where external threats needs to be resisted because people matter – and people matter because of their capacity to love. It’s also a world brought to us in a hectic patchwork of action scenes, character development, horror, plot exposition, character-based comedy, backstory exposition, beautiful camerawork and moments of calm, still wonder.

It’s not Our Friends in the North; it’s not even ER. It’s not trying to be. But what it does, it does well. At its worst it’s tosh (albeit beautifully-executed tosh), but at its best it’s good.

Update 31/10

Whoa, comments! Sod the politics (and the music), Whoblogging is obviously the way to go.

There’s some interesting stuff coming out. Jonn:

“So far the pattern seems to be that a) the Torchwood team have moral compasses that are spinning wildly; b) Gwen is already getting corrupted by it all (look at the shooting range scene); c) Jack isn’t nearly as concerned about these missteps as he should be

but I trust the moral grey area stuff to be going somewhere. In fact I suspect it’s what the show is going to be all about.”

biscit:

“Torchwood are supposed to be acting in humankind’s best interests- they keep a lid on things because others can’t be trusted. But the thing is can they? This isn’t subtle extrapolating, the question is more or less baldly asked by Gwen, a policewoman brought in to be the team’s moral compass.

This is a post watershed show, there is scope for the central characters to be devious and amoral.”

A couple of preliminary thoughts. Firstly, I think RTD is a genuinely amoral writer, partly because he sees morality as anti-sex and partly because he likes people. In other words, I think he’d argue that if you just wind people up and let them go it’ll work out for the best, probably, for most people – and that even if it doesn’t always work out well it’s still a better alternative than trying to control them. So I don’t think an RTD character is ever going to be riven with self-doubt – or if they are they’ll probably grow out of it (cf. Vince). Secondly, there’s a question of genre (and in this respect I stand by the comparison with Buffy); you could even say that a basic character makeup of looking for fun and acting without forethought (but learning from the consequences) is a genre convention for this kind of drama.

That said, even I found the shooting-range scene hard to take. I haven’t seen lethal violence made to look so attractive since the Matrix – and even that didn’t make it look so sexy.

So, I dunno. Two basic possibilities, I suppose. Perhaps it really is just the Double-Deckers with added sex and guns, in which case I’d reluctantly concede that RTD may have pushed the young/sexy/optimistic thing a bit too far into amorality – and amoral nastiness at that. Or perhaps there’s some dark stuff coming, but it’s not really being foreshadowed – which would fit with the lack of overt morality and the “act first, reflect later” thing. (Let’s not forget, the first episode included a character who’d become a serial killer for the love of Torchwood – and who killed herself onscreen. That’s pretty dark.)

The big question for me is what they’re going to do with Captain Jack – the second and third episodes have suggested that he’s not the best person to look after the kids he’s surrounded himself with, what with being an amoral bisexual seducer, but also that he’s so damn attractive that you probably wouldn’t care. Gwen’s relationship with her partner – who’s been laboriously established as a boring old Welsh spud – is going to be one to watch, I think.

One last update 2/11

It occurred to me today – not that I’m brooding over this obsessively or anything – that the key to Captain Jack may be that odd scene with Gwen where he told her that he couldn’t die, and added that if he could find “the right kind of doctor” he might become mortal again. We all spotted the D-word, of course, but was there something else going on there? Why would somebody who’d just survived being shot in the head want to be mortal again? What this suggests to me is that, despite all the tall buildings and general Neoish posturing, the Captain Jack we’re seeing is damaged goods. He’s survived a major trauma (none more major) and been abandoned by his closest friends – and now, perhaps, he’s trying to outrun the effects by turning stress into duty (“Gotta be ready!”).

Alternatively, perhaps it really is just a load of old tosh.

We hear the sound of machines

Sooner or later, the Internet will need to be saved from Google. Because Google – which appears to be an integral part of the information-wants-to-be-free Net dream, the search engine which gives life to the hyperlinked digital nervous system of a kind of massively-distributed Xanadu project – is nothing of the sort. Google is a private company; Google’s business isn’t even search. Google’s business is advertising – and, whatever we think about how well search goes together with tagging and folksonomic stumbling-upon, search absolutely doesn’t go with advertising. (Update 15th June: this is a timely reminder that Google is a business, and its business is advertising. Mass personalisation, online communities, interactive rating and ranking, it’s all there – and it’s all about the advertising.)

I had thought that, in the context of plain vanilla Web search, Google actually had this cracked – that the prominence of ‘sponsored links’, displayed separately from search results, allowed them to deliver an unpolluted service and still make money. I hadn’t reckoned with AdSense. AdSense doesn’t in itself pollute Google’s search results. What it does is far worse: it encourages other people to pollute the Net. Which will mean, ultimately, that Google will paint (or choke) itself into a corner – but that, if we’re not careful, an awful lot of users will be stuck in that corner with them.

For a much fuller and more cogent version of this argument, read Seth Jayson (via Scott). One point in particular stood out: Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) insiders are continuing to drop shares on the public at a rate that boggles the mind. It’s true. Over the last year, as far as published records show, Sun insiders have sold $50,000 worth of shares, net. In the same period, IBM insiders have sold $6,500,000; Microsoft insiders have sold $1,500,000,000; and Google insiders have sold $5,000,000,000. See for yourself. That’s a lot of shares.

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