Category Archives: thinly-veiled schadenfreude

Kadoodle-oodle-skippety-wee!

As long ago as Long Ago, and as Long Ago Again as That, the City of Peking in the Ancient Land of China rang with jubilation and rejoicing; for a Son and Heir had been born to the Emperor Aladdin and the Empress Bedr-al-Budur

the Grand Vizier summoned a Special Meeting of State in the White Lacquer Room of the Imperial Palace. You may judge for yourself the importance of this Meeting, when I tell you that His Gracious Majesty the Emperor Aladdin presided over it Himself. Others present included the Lord Chamberlain; the Prime Minister; two Senior Generals from the Palace Guard; the Master of the Horse; the Mistress of the Robes; and an Unidentified Friend of the Master of the Horse.

‘Your Majesty!’ began the Grand Vizier imposingly. ‘Also Lords and Ladies of the Imperial Court! Also the Friend of the Master of the Horse. We are met here this evening to give Formal Voice to our Humble and Unworthy Joy at the birth of a Son and Heir to our Celestial Emperor of all the Chinas’

Thus chapter 1. In the next chapter, time having passed in the mean time, Aladdin’s son and heir comes of age, a topic discussed at an equally important meeting attended by the Prince himself and both his parents:

‘Your Imperial Majesties!’ began the Grand Vizier, imposingly. ‘Also, Your Imperial Highness! Also, Lords and Ladies of the Court! We are met here (all except the Friend of the Master of the Horse, who has been sent to his Room till Tea-Time) to give formal Voice to our Humble and Unworthy Joy at the Very Important Event of the Coming of Age of the Heir Apparent’

From Noel Langley, The Land of Green Ginger (1937 and 1966). It’s uncanny.

Update What I really find hard to comprehend is the glacial pace at which this story’s moving. Liam Fox seems genuinely not to have any idea that he’s done anything wrong, and the government hierarchy seems pretty nonchalant as well; the idea seems to be that he’ll be hung out to dry if and when the story becomes too embarrassing, which by implication it hasn’t done yet. Perhaps it’s deliberate news management; certainly it’s made life difficult for the BBC news, which has been left without any editorial stance on the story, other than noting that suspicions continue to grow that Fox may at some time possibly have done something that people might consider wrong in some way. This page is comedy gold; I like the 11.35 quote from Nick Robinson to the effect that Fox is telling people he’s the victim of a “hate campaign”. I may be out of touch, but I don’t think Liam Fox is hated by anyone who doesn’t know him personally – he’s not that important. If he’s the victim of anything, it’s a “WTF did you think you were doing (and who are you anyway)?” campaign. Interesting line of defence, too:

friends have also rallied round to help defend his corner, telling Robinson Werritty was a “a groupie who kept turning up pretending to be something he wasn’t”

(A ‘that’ would have helped there. Robinson Werritty – who’s he?)

The point here is that, even if that were true (which I don’t believe for a moment) it would still suggest that Fox was a bumbling incompetent who should be sacked pronto. Werritty “kept turning up” and helping himself to a seat at the conference table – and he just let him sit there? Why, exactly?

Final (genuine) quote from Fox, asked to identify the unnamed friend who was staying over the night his flat was burgled:

For the sake of clarity,
it wasn’t Adam Werritty.

Kadoodle-oodle-skippety-wee!

No fear, Cavalier

A quick plug: my post on the recent Italian referendum, A Slap in the Face, is now up on the LRB blog. Excerpt:

[Berlusconi] has always known how to stitch an alliance together and how to get an election won. In his heyday he was both the boss of a powerful political machine and the figurehead of a broad alliance, incorporating the successors to the Christian Democrat and neo-Fascist parties as well as the xenophobic populists of the Lega Nord. That alliance has gradually flaked away; most of the post-Fascists and ex-Christian Democrats have abandoned Berlusconi and regrouped as a centre-right ‘Third Pole’. The ability to win now seems to have deserted him as well.

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Someone else will come along and move it

Ten reasons why the AV referendum was lost, courtesy of Tom Clark (via).

1. Some of the Labour Party was against it.

2. All of the Tory Party was against it.

3. The Yes campaign said things that weren’t entirely true, and people didn’t believe them.

4. The No campaign told outright lies, but people did believe them, which isn’t fair.

5. The Electoral Commission said things about AV that were true, but made it seem unattractive. This was also unfair, because if you can’t say something nice about a voting system, you shouldn’t say anything at all.

6. People don’t like coalitions, and they thought AV would make coalition governments more likely (which it probably would).

7. People don’t like the Lib Dems, and the No campaign said that AV would put them in power permanently. (Which, again, it probably would, but that’s not the point.)

8. People don’t like David Cameron either, and the Yes campaign didn’t say that AV would keep him out of power. (Which it wouldn’t, necessarily, but it would have been a good thing to campaign on.)

9. People don’t prefer AV to the status quo.

10. People don’t want AV.

I’ve renumbered Clark’s points and edited them down a bit, but I think I’ve got the gist.

I was particularly struck by Clark’s point 9:

the alternative vote system itself posed particular problems. Infamously dismissed by Nick Clegg as “a miserable little compromise”, it is loved by no one, with most of the yes camp hankering for reform that links a party’s tally of votes to its tally of seats, something AV fails to deliver. Few Labourites, and no Lib Dems, regard AV as an end itself. It scarcely mattered that from the reformist point of view it is unambiguously better than the system we start out with. What did matter was that the reformists could not muster the energy to market something that they did not truly believe in.

Clark stops berating the stupid British public for rejecting a kind of platonic Plea For Electoral Reform, for just long enough to acknowledge that the form it took on the physical plane was a question about an electoral system that nobody actually wants – not Ed Miliband, not Nick Clegg, not Caroline Lucas, not Nigel Farage. (Although apparently Eddie Izzard does prefer AV to PR, and I suspect Stephen Fry may do as well.) This isn’t metropolitan elitism – just well-intentioned self-delusion.

Jolly little nothing

A number of people have been all over the latest from the Odious Clegg. Clegg’s big idea is to contrast “old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens”. Old progressives believe in redistribution; new progressives believe in social mobility. “Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality” (my emphasis).

There’s not a lot to be said in favour of this speech (Jonathan Calder has a go, but even he baulks at the stuff about “new progressives”); there’s rather a lot to be said against it. It begins with a blatant strawman (“Old progressives are straightforwardly in favour of more state spending and activity” – oh really?) and a blinding glimpse of the obvious (“The question is not how much money the state is spending, it is how it spends it”); it doesn’t get much better from there on. Clegg never explains why he believes that achieving income equality would be a bad thing, let alone why increased social mobility is supposed to be an alternative to decreased inequality rather than a complement to it (or a result of it, for that matter).

“Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation,” Clegg writes, adding, in a typical sententious flourish, “That’s when societies become closed, stratified and divided.” There are a number of objections to this assertion. One is that, as Chris says, it makes it effectively impossible to know whether an individual government’s efforts to combat “injustice” have succeeded or failed:

Poverty … is easily measurable, with only a short lag: how many have an income less than 60% of the median? But social mobility can only be measured decades after policies have been implemented: it’ll take 30 years for us to tell whether the pupil premium has increased mobility. What Clegg is doing, therefore, is choosing ignorance: he’s asking for his actions to be judged by a measure that won’t be available until he’s long-forgotten.

We could also say that if (as Clegg strongly implies) inequalities only become injustices when they’re passed on, no inequality in this generation can possibly be unjust: you may think that the differential between your minimum-wage job and Sir Fred Goodwin’s wedge stinks to high heaven, but don’t jump to any conclusions – just wait another thirty years and see where your kids have ended up. This is unsatisfactory, to say the least. And I think we could be excused for finding it relevant that Clegg himself is exactly and precisely the beneficiary of an inequality that’s been passed on, generation to generation; his parents paid £29,000 a year at current values for his secondary education, and look at him now. (“I was very lucky to go to a great school,” Clegg told Kirsty Young. More to the point, he was lucky enough to be born in a household rich enough to send him to a very expensive school.)

But the main reason to object to the opposition between income equality and social mobility is that it makes no sense. Granting for the sake of argument that inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation, why wouldn’t it still be appropriate to intervene at the level of inequality? Even if they were fixed, smaller inequalities would mean smaller injustices. We can imagine a limit case: if taxes and benefits were manipulated to the point where everyone had exactly the same income, would social mobility be likely to increase or decrease? Mobility from a lower to a higher income would cease, by definition, but mobility in the more obvious sense of overcoming accidents of birth – being the daughter of a dinner lady and growing up to run the English National Opera, that kind of thing – would predictably increase. If nobody was running a large surplus of income over necessary expenditure (again, by definition) then no career or qualification could be restricted to those with lots of spare cash, as many careers and qualifications now are. But thinking about social mobility probably doesn’t come easy to Nicholas William Peter Clegg (Westminster and Cambridge), son of the chairman of a bank, grandson of a White Russian Baroness; perhaps he wasn’t really thinking about that kind of social mobility. Or any other kind.

As I said at the top, other people have been all over this. Sunder asks a polite but pertinent question:

If levels of inequality and income distribution by the state have little or nothing to do with social mobility, please name three “high inequality” or “small state” countries with comparatively high social mobility? Could he please explain what he thinks the drivers of high mobility are in Sweden and other societies which rank highest in the OECD?

Stuart quotes John Stuart Mill:

The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership of the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.

While you could argue that Mill’s open egalitarianism puts him towards the Left of the Liberal tradition, Stuart argues persuasively that Clegg’s outright indifference to unequal outcomes puts him right off the map: “The real choice, then, is not between the new and the old progressives. It is between Cleggism and liberalism.”

At the Third Estate, lastly, Reuben draws attention to some sharp practice in Clegg’s attempt to pass off the openly regressive Comprehensive Spending Review as in some sense progressive: the poor may be getting poorer, but hey, there’s the pupil premium, and NHS funding isn’t actually being cut, so they’re coming out ahead overall, right? (Sorry, that was Blair; Clegg’s just as self-righteous, but his tone is more Mr Collins than ‘rocking vicar’.) This harks back to Clegg’s response to the Institute of Fiscal Studies report on the CSR – “People do not live only on the basis of the benefits they receive. They also depend on public services, such as childcare and social care. All of those things have been airbrushed out of the picture by the IFS.” (You see what I mean about the tone.) Now, as it happens, this argument was demolished a month ago at Next Left. The reality is that the effect of the planned service cuts will be even more regressive than the proposed direct cuts to welfare: “the poorest ten per cent of households will be hit 15 times harder than the richest ten per cent as a result of service cuts announced in the comprehensive spending review”. But once again, let’s give Clegg the benefit of a doubt which doesn’t really exist, and assume that service provision can in some sense taking up the slack for cuts to benefits. But then… in what sense? Reuben:

Clegg essentially presents access to public services as interchangeable with cash income, when considering the impact of his and Cameron’s budget, as though the former were a perfect substitute for the latter. The point, however, is that in this society, cash is special: It does not merely contribute to somebody’s material well being but confers a crucial degree of autonomy upon the individual, enabling them to exercise a bit of control over their day to day existence. Somebody trying to live on £200 a week in London will lack such autonomy, even if they enjoy access to a good library and hospital, and their neighbourhood is well policed.

And that lack of autonomy – that endless grind of making do and doing without, never saying no to an extra shift and never saying Boo to the boss, that climate of daily anxiety and besetting fear for the future – that is precisely what makes talk of social mobility a bad joke. If you’re going to move up in the world, you need the leisure to plan for the future and the confidence to believe in your plans; you need to be able to take on unpaid or low-paid work, and to spend hours at a time making phone calls and sending emails; you need to go to the right events and make yourself known to the right people. In short, and to be brutally frank, you need to have money behind you. No amount of NHS funding (even if it were actually increasing, which it isn’t); no amount of improved schooling (even if there were any new money, which there isn’t); no amount of Sure Start childcare (even if it weren’t being cut, which it will be) will give an underpaid worker the chance to raise her head from the daily grind and think about social mobility. (Even if social mobility were an adequate solution to the injustice of present-day poverty, which it quite clearly isn’t.)

Nothing to me better sums up the vacuity of Clegg’s world-view than the words he uses to disparage any kind of redistributive approach to poverty.

Old progressives see a fair society as one in which households with incomes currently less than 60% of the median were to be, in Labour’s telling verb, “lifted” out of poverty. The weakness of this approach is that significant resources end up being devoted to altering the financial position of these households by fairly small amounts – just enough, in many cases, to get them above the line. But poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness. It represents an approach to fairness dominated by the power of central state to shift money around, rather than to shift life chances.

One sentence in particular leapt out at me: “poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness”. Maybe not, but it’s a hell of an improvement on poverty without the extra pound. I’ve done a variety of part-time and low-paid work for most of the last decade, some of it very part-time and very low-paid; I’m wearily familiar with the kind of forward-planning exercise that concludes “and if nothing else comes up I’ll be in trouble at the end of… that month“. The show has stayed on the road so far, and with any luck will do for some time yet, but there have been times – there have been months at a time – when I was acutely aware of the difference between what was going out and what was coming in. Mr Micawber’s figures need a bit of adjustment for inflation, but I can vouch for the principle:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and – and in short you are for ever floored.

(And your chances of social mobility are up the Swanee, we might add.)

I’ll hazard a wild guess that this is not an experience Nick Clegg has ever had. “Poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness”, indeed. Poverty plus a pound represents release from poverty, and as such represents security, liberty and happiness; poverty plus a pound is, apart from anything else, a profoundly liberal goal. Warm words about social mobility, on the other hand – well, that and a pound will get you a cup of coffee. If you’ve got a pound to spare.

I think what I find most frustrating about this stuff isn’t what Clegg’s proposing but how badly he proposes it; how little sense he makes from sentence to sentence. In the paragraph I quoted above, for instance, we get no reason why an approach to fairness dominated by redistribution is so ineffective that it actually “does not represent fairness”; no explanation of why such an approach is opposed to one that tries to “shift life chances”; and not a word about what that approach would actually consist of (although leaving poor people in poverty seems to be an important part of it). I’ve read a lot of Tony Blair’s speeches quite closely; they’ve got lacunae you could drive a bus through, but next to this stuff Blair looks like Immanuel Kant.

I almost feel sorry for Clegg: he’s so clearly out of his depth. One explanation for this stuff would be that he’s personally a Tory (not a particularly left-wing one, either) and all he’s trying to do now is cover his retreat; even then you’d have to say that he’s making a very poor job of it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the reality is sadder and more complex: that he went into the Coalition genuinely believing he’d represent Liberalism in some form, but not realising either how hard the Tories intended to play or how shallow his own beliefs were. But one thing led to another, and now he seems to be on a train he can’t get off. I picture him as being haunted by the suspicion that some people in white coats are going to come into his office any moment and tell him it’s all been a gigantic experiment and now it’s time to go home. Sometimes, perhaps, he wishes they’d hurry up.

Postscript

Googling “Nick Clegg lucky privileged” (for the quote about his school days) brought back this interesting story, from the Glasgow East by-election in 2008:

Mr Clegg’s attack on the Tory leader came after a speech which Mr Cameron made in the constituency on Monday. Mr Cameron appealed for a greater sense of public morality, saying politicians were too afraid to say what was right and wrong. In the most controversial section of his speech, the Tory leader said: “We talk about people being at risk of obesity, instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty or social exclusion – it’s as if these things, obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.”

And here’s Clegg’s riposte:

“You are certainly not going to get any hope from the Conservatives, whose leader had the arrogance to come here just recently and tell you that even if you are struggling on benefits, struggling to make ends meet, struggling to find a job, struggling to cope with poverty, that it’s your own fault and he won’t lift a finger to help you. … I think there is no excuse in politics for the lucky and the privileged to show such contempt for the poor and the forgotten.”

I agree with Nick.

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.

I didn’t make him for you

I don’t know if the ‘traffic light’ coalition is going to work, although it has to be said that the arithmetic isn’t as tight as it’s often made look. I think the problem is that the media here keep forgetting about the North of Ireland. (Great argument for the peace process that is – at one time the province was never out of the news.) Take the weird and wonderful story of UCUNF, a party which I think has appeared on the BBC News precisely twice – the manifesto launch and the DUP poster debacle. I’m not sure anyone in the British media noticed what’s just happened to the Ulster Unionist Party – you know the ones: the heirs of ‘official’ unionism, the ones who weren’t in big with the Orange Lodge and the gunmen, the ones that British government always used to talk to. Quick recap: they merged with the Tory Party; they gave themselves the worst acronym in the world, and they got wiped out; party leader and all. Newly-formed NI wing of the Tory Party: nul points, or rather zero MPs. Sole survivor of the wreck: Lady Sylvia Hermon, standing as an independent, against a candidate from her old party, and taking over 60% of the vote. Story there, you’d think, maybe?

Anyway, NI votes are crucial to the coalition arithmetic, in a number of ways. Firstly, the ‘winning post’ of 326 Commons votes (650/2 + 1), cited over and over again by BBC News, is mythical: there are five MPs from Sinn Fein who never attend, not to mention the Speaker (a Tory). So there are 644 MPs who turn up and vote in divisions, meaning 323 votes (not 326) are needed for an absolute majority.

NI MPs’ votes also count positively. The starting point for a ‘Lab/Lib’ coalition is 320 votes, not 315: Labour + LD + SDLP (whose MPs take the Labour whip) + the Alliance Party (sister party of the LDs) + Lady Sylvia (who left her party rather than vote with the Tories). Admittedly, that’s still a minority overall, but from the Tory point of view it’s an alarmingly big minority. To win a vote against that lineup Cameron would need all 306 Tories (not including the Speaker) plus 15 of the remaining 18 – 3 Plaid Cymru, 6 SNP, 1 Green and (let’s not forget about the province again) 8 DUP MPs. The DUP platform is a many-splendoured thing, but a significant part of their appeal to the NI electorate last week was not being allied with the Tories (as witness that unfortunate poster). That doesn’t look promising for the Tories. (If Thirsk goes Lib Dem on 27 May, which is possible, the basic Labour/Lib Dem alliance goes up to 321 votes, and the Tories are scraping around for 17 votes out of 18 to beat them – basically they’d need everyone but the Green.)

Anyway, it’s still all to play for, although probably not for much longer. But what I really wanted to put down, before this post becomes obsolete, is that you can tell something about the quality of a deal by the opposition it provokes. And this deal really seems to be annoying all the right people. A few quotes culled from the BBC’s live feed:

The Tories came out of the election in a far better fashion than Labour and this should be acknowledged, former Home Secretary John Reid says. The major party should be allowed to form a government, he tells the BBC.

Telegraph commentator Toby Young tweets: A Lab-Lib coalition would be like a declaration of civil war.

The Lib Dems are guilty of a form of betrayal by opening talks with Labour after being offered compromises by the Conservatives, Phillip Blond, director of the Tory think-tank ResPublica, says.

The Daily Mail has a bleak view of Monday’s proceedings. It proclaims a Squalid Day for Democracy, calling Nick Clegg two-faced. The Daily Telegraph calls Mr Brown’s decision to quit a sordid attempt to keep Labour in power.

David Blunkett says the Lib Dems are behaving like every harlot in history, and that Labour should not be seeking to form the next government.

This is the Robert Mugabe style of politics, says Conservative MP and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. It’s exactly what Mugabe did you know, he lost the election and scrabbled to hold onto power.

It’s a strong field, but I think the Robert Mitchum Award for Cool-Headed Sagacity has to go to Sir Malcolm.

But what are they all flapping about? Elsewhere there’s been some discussion of whether the major parties would fall apart under PR; I’ve argued against, citing the experience of Scotland (the Scottish Labour Party’s had 12 years of PR now and still seems to be in one piece). In the case of the Conservative Party, I think I might make an exception. There’s a lot going on under the surface of the Tory Party these days – pro-Europe, anti-Europe; liberal, reactionary; Thatcherite, old-school Tory, beyond-Thatcherite… The genius of David Cameron has been to bundle it all into a big opaque parcel, sealed with a label saying Next Stop Downing Street. That’s what’s starting to come undone now, and the fallout could be catastrophic for the party – all the more so under PR, not least because it would bring the far Right into play. (UKIP got nearly a million votes last week, and the BNP half a million. The Greens got 300,000.) Small wonder they’re panicking.

As for the Blairites – or is this a subspecies, the Blairite Home Office Authoritarian? – I guess they see their grip on the party slipping, and think it would be easier to recover in opposition than while sharing power with the Lib Dems. (Think of it, no ID cards! no control orders! The horror! The horror!) Really dreadful stuff from Reid and Mr Brightside – one of whom is, as far as I know, still under Parliamentary Labour Party discipline. Being prepared to consign Britain to Tory government – positively eager in Blunkett’s case – rather than risk diluting the Labour programme is pretty contemptible sectarianism; when you look at the kind of dilutions that would be needed to accommodate the Lib Dems, it’s beneath contempt.

Paint the words upon the wall

Quick quiz, aimed particularly at any readers who are outside the UK (or who don’t go past phone boxes very often).

Each of the following slogans has been used in street advertising by one of the main political parties contesting this election (by which I mean, one of the parties standing candidates across the country – Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, UKIP and the BNP). But can you match the slogan to the party?

1. GET BRITAIN WORKING

2. BYE BYE, BUREAUCRACY

3. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER

4. PEOPLE POWER

5. SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY NOT STATE CONTROL

6. BIG GOVERNMENT = BIG PROBLEMS

Answers after the jump. No peeping!

Continue reading

Walking your dogs

Last week’s council elections, apart from being very bad news for Labour, told an interesting story about the state of the smaller parties in England. (I’ll leave commenting on the state of the smaller parties in Scotland to those better qualified.)

Smaller parties trying to get established have three problems which make it particularly hard to build support – and which need to be taken into account when we read the results. The most obvious is churn – gaining seats in one area while losing them in another, perhaps because your party’s better suited to harvesting protest votes than to turning out potential councillors. A related problem is the ghost town: a minor party may well be able to make a breakthrough in a ward where elections have had lower than usual turnouts, or gone uncontested – but that’s not to say that they’ll be able to hold it next time round. The third problem for small parties is that of defectors. It’s good to get a defector from one of the big parties – it shows your ideas are making headway and gives you one more voice – but you’ve got to wonder what will happen when they next have to stand for re-election, competing with their old party. (My own Labour councillor lost her seat to a Liberal Democrat this time round; I only discovered after the vote that she’d won the seat as a Liberal Democrat herself, then defected to Labour.) You could even argue that you wouldn’t want a defector to get re-elected, at least not by a big majority – how much of it would they owe to their new-found embodiment of your party’s values, and how much to their personal appeal?

With all of this in mind, here are some figures. I’ve distinguished between seats contested this time round and those which weren’t – if a party goes into an election with 15 seats overall and comes out with 11, this is a much worse result if only 5 seats were contested than if all 15 were. Where seats are lost, I’ve also distinguished between defectors from other parties and home-grown candidates; losing a defector is a misfortune but a predictable one, which doesn’t necessarily say much about the health of the party. I’m listing results for the Greens, RESPECT and the BNP; I’m not including the Socialist Party because the numbers are too small (four seats not contested this time, one defended and lost, no gains). I might have included UKIP (who defended six seats this time, lost three of them and gained two), but nobody seems to know how many councillors they have overall (and I do mean nobody).

  RESPECT BNP Green Party
Starting total 18 48 93
Not contested 15 39 48
Contested 3 9 45
Lost (defectors) 2 1 3
Lost (own) 0 7 3
Held 1 1 39
Gained 2 8 24
Gained + Held 3 9 63
Final total 18 48 111

Two of these parties described the result as a ‘breakthrough’; the third, more downbeat, conceded that “the number of seats won and lost suggests that the Party is standing still” but drew some consolation from a list of second- and third-placed candidates. I’ll let you guess which the two optimists are; I’ll come back to it at the end of the post, like one of Frank Muir’s shaggy dog stories on My Word.

Now for those problems. Churn is most obviously a problem for the BNP. Despite standing over 700 candidates across the country, the fash managed only to gain enough new seats to offset the existing councillors who lost their seats – most of whom had been elected as BNP. There is abundant evidence that, when given the responsibilities of a councillor, BNP members tend not to be terrifically good at carrying them out; a 1/8 hold rate suggests that this impression is quite widespread. Or else, perhaps more probably, that the voters who elected those seven BNP councillors never actually wanted to, you know, elect a BNP councillor, so much as to ‘send a message’ to the major parties.

RESPECT, similarly, had exactly as many gains as losses. However, the main factor here wasn’t churn but the defector problem. All three of these parties lost at least one defector at this election; the Greens lost two ex-Liberal Democrats and one former Labour councillor, while the BNP lost the services of the former Conservative councillor, non-aligned clergyman and all-round interesting character Robert West. As I’ve said, this isn’t a surprising outcome. (At least one defector to the Greens did hold his seat, but I doubt there were many others.) But the vulnerability of defectors is a particularly pressing problem for RESPECT at the moment. Two weeks before the election, in fact, RESPECT had 20 councillors rather than 18. On the 1st of May, a councillor in Tower Hamlets defected back to Labour; he’d been elected for RESPECT in 2006, but described himself at the time as “leaving New Labour to join Respect“. Preston had two RESPECT councillors before this election; however, one of them (Steven Brooks) had defected from Labour since being elected, and decided to stand down rather than fight the solidly Labour Tulketh ward. That left one councillor, the SWP’s Mike Lavalette, who has been re-elected with an increased majority. The recruitment of Steven Brooks was Lavalette’s second attempt at building a RESPECT group in Preston; his first ally, former local Labour Chair Elaine Abbott, defected to RESPECT in 2004, lost her seat at the next election and has not won it back yet. In fact, the people of Preston have yet to elect a single RESPECT councillor from scratch; Lavalette himself was first elected for the Socialist Alliance back in 2003.

As for RESPECT’s other two sitting councillors before these elections, Abdul Aziz in Birmingham and Wayne Muldoon in Charnwood (a.k.a. Loughborough), both were defectors, from the Liberal Democrats and Labour respectively. Neither had been re-elected for RESPECT before, and neither managed it this time. Aziz was beaten by the Labour candidate, pushing his old party in third place; Muldoon, standing in a two-member ward, got a lower vote than any of the six candidates of the three main parties. The list of unsuccessful RESPECT candidates also features a number of ex-councillors, would-be councillors and former activists with other parties – Labour (Keith Adshead in Sunderland and Raghib Ahsan in Birmingham); Liberal Democrat (Tafazzal Hussain in Sunderland); independent (Les Marsh in York) and indiscriminate (Sajid Mehmood, a community activist and ex-member of both Labour and the Conservative Party, in Calderdale (a.k.a. Halifax)).

It’s only fair to mention that RESPECT did make two gains in these elections, and that one of them – Ray Holmes’ win in Bolsover – saw the party come from nowhere to take 53% of the vote. That said, Bolsover is an unusual case. Eight of the town’s 20 wards were uncontested, and returned every candidate who stood (thirteen Labour councillors and one Independent); of the other twelve, eight were contested only by Labour and Independent or residents’ association candidates. That leaves four wards, each of which was a two-way battle between Labour and one other party: one ward each for the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the BNP and RESPECT (only the last of whom won). In short, RESPECT are going to have to watch out for the ghost town problem; another time their success could be emulated – and challenged – by other parties (particularly the Liberal Democrats, eternal harvesters of protest votes). We can see how this might work if we look at Ashfield, one of the places where the Greens lost an elected councillor this time out. When Mark Harrison was elected, he and another Green came first and second in a field of four; it was a straight Green/Labour fight, and turnout was around 25%. This time, turnout was up to 40%; two Liberal Democrats were elected, and Harrison was fifth in a field of eight. Keeping a foothold in Bolsover could be particularly tricky for RESPECT, as Holmes’s ward seems likely to disappear. Mindful of Bolsover’s shrinking population and the precipitous decline of some areas in particular, the Electoral Commission has proposed repartitioning the town into fewer and more evenly-balanced wards; Holmes’s ward, Shirebrook North West, is one of the smallest, with a population little over 1,000. Holmes’s 53% translates as 295 votes – compare the 297 votes which got Maggie Clifford 3% of the vote in Brighton’s Hangleton and Knoll ward.

So which two parties called this election a ‘breakthrough’? One was the Green Party, which did after all add a swathe of councillors in some areas (six in Brighton and Hove, five in Lancaster) as well as getting into three figures nationally. The other was RESPECT:

Breakthrough for Respect
04/05/2007

In every ward in which it stood, Respect proved a serious player not only to the smaller parties but to Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories.

Respect was extremely popular in all seven wards it stood in Birmingham. It came in second in two wards and third in four wards, comfortably beating the Greens and the BNP in all seven wards where it stood.

Altogether, Respect elected 3 councillors, bringing the total to 20[sic] across the country. It also secured eight second places and thirteen third places.

Nationally, in the overwhelming majority of wards where Respect challenged the BNP, it secured more votes. The despair produced by Labour’s record has been susceptible to manipulation by the BNP but where Respect stood, more voters chose a progressive and anti-racist alternative to both New Labour and the BNP. Respect also outpolled the Greens on nearly every occasion where they both stood in the same ward.

I dare say all of that is true as it stands, or most of it – but it’s a distinctly selective assessment. If we’re going to compare RESPECT with the BNP and the Greens, I think it’s relevant to note that the BNP successfully defended as many seats as RESPECT (one each), won eight seats to RESPECT’s two, and can cite rather more than eight second places. As for the Greens, they may have melted into nothingness when they were challenged by a RESPECT candidacy, but they did succeed in defending 39 seats and winning another 18 net. To put it another way, they went into the election with over four times as many councillors as RESPECT, and came out of it with over five times as many.

All three parties lost seats gifted to them by defectors from other parties. The Greens and the BNP were affected by churn, the BNP very badly; the Greens (and probably the BNP) also lost seats which had been won on protest votes in ghost town seats. RESPECT weren’t affected by either of these factors, not because of the party’s strength but because of its weakness: the party only defended three seats, and two of those were held by defectors. What’s more important is that, on the evidence of the closing figures, the Greens are now capable of building and sustaining a large enough base not to be affected adversely by these factors: to gain 24 seats while only losing 6 is not at all shabby. The other two parties, for good and ill, are still well below that level. Eight BNP gains was eight too many, and it could easily have been worse – four BNP candidates were in second place by less than 100 votes, while a fifth (in Burnley) actually tied with the eventual (Labour) winner. But for eight gains to be cancelled out by eight losses suggests very strongly that English neo-fascism is still primarily a protest vote – albeit one that lingers on stubbornly in several white working-class areas, like political herpes.

And RESPECT? So far from making a breakthrough, these results suggest that RESPECT barely exists as a continuing political force. On Wednesday 2nd the party was represented, outside the East End, in Preston (two wards), Birmingham (two wards) and Loughborough; on Friday 4th it was Preston (one ward), Birmingham (two councillors in one ward) and Bolsover. Even Mike Lavalette’s impressive win lost some of its shine for me when I learned that his campaign had been prioritised by RESPECT across the North West. I’m sure Lavalette was worth re-electing, but the North West’s a big place. To prioritise Lavalette at the expense of the rest of Preston would have been something of an admission of weakness. To bring people in from as far away as Manchester – where the Socialist Alliance had candidates in six different wards in 2003 – suggests that the party is cutting its coat according to some very scanty cloth. Meanwhile, as the RESPECT candidate list shows, a lot of ambitious, disappointed or excluded people from all walks of political life are pinning their hopes on the party, hoping to follow George Galloway’s example at a local level. I don’t think much of their chances; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, by the next council elections, several defectors have given up waiting for the great leap forward and re-ratted.

We need a Left alternative to New Labour, but RESPECT clearly isn’t it. For the moment, the party is doing better on a local level than the Socialist Party or the post-traumatic SSP, but that’s not much to boast about. On the other hand, its achievements are dwarfed by those of the Greens – who are, among other things, more coherently anti-capitalist than RESPECT’s broad-front reformism will permit it to be. A workers’ party would be a good thing to vote for, but to organise one will take more combative times than these (and younger people than me to do the organising). Till then, the Greens will continue to get my vote.

No secrets left to conceal

Daily Mail, 5th June 2004:

Dr Phil Edwards is the national press officer of the BNP.

He may have an academic title, but Dr Edwards makes his living by letting off fireworks. When contacted via the mobile phone number given for his fireworks display company he is, unusually for a party political press officer, baffled and then furious that a journalist can call him, knows where he lives and has dared to pay a visit.

And, by the way, Dr Phil Edwards isn’t his real name. It is Stuart Russell. When asked, Dr Edwards/Russell tetchily says he uses a pseudonym for ‘personal reasons’ and it’s none of my business why. He is not unusual among his cohorts. Several have used names other than their own for ‘personal reasons’.

Stormfront ‘White Nationalist’ board, 17th April 2006

boutye: Phil Edwards did a great job, and the interviewer knew it. Someone was on earlier from Searchlight saying that isn’t his real name. What’s the crack on that?.:.BNP.:.: His real name is Stuart Russell, he is the father of Julie Russel
[attaches picture of Julie Russell with Jean-Marie Le Pen]

Sweetlips: That’s a bit strange. Why doesn’t he use his real name for heaven’s sake?

BNP’er: Strange? I’ll tell you what’s strange! The Doc and his missis have suffered so much ****e you couldn’t wave a stick at it. He is a personal friend of mine and, like me, he has suffered for the cause of his race. No wonder it was decided to give him a non-de-plume. What I find strange is some stupid bitch trying to imply he has something to hide.

Guardian, 27th April 2006:

Even if it is not your usual thing, there is a video report worth watching on the Sky News website. It concerns Phil Edwards, the far-right BNP’s national press officer, and the recording of a telephone conversation he had at the start of last year with a student. When the student started working, Mr Edwards explained, he would be paying taxes to raise black children who would “probably go and mug you”.

Daily Telegraph, 27th April 2006:

Dr Raj Chandran, a GP and Mayor of the Borough of Gedling, Nottinghamshire, was not prepared to let the unfounded allegations on the BNP website go unchallenged, said solicitor Matthew Himsworth.

Mr Himsworth said that the BNP press officer Dr Stuart Russell – who wrote the article – and website editor Steve Blake “freely and completely” accepted that Dr Chandran was misidentified in the article.

Guardian, 21st December 2006, “Exclusive: inside the secret and sinister world of the BNP”

The techniques of secrecy and deception employed by the British National party in its attempt to conceal its activities and intentions from the public can be disclosed today. Activists are being encouraged to adopt false names when engaged on BNP business, to reduce the chance of their being identified as party members in their other dealings with the public.

The techniques, adopted as part of the campaign by Nick Griffin to clean up his party’s image, were discovered after a Guardian reporter who had joined the party undercover was appointed its central London organiser earlier this year.

Nothing like investigative reporting, eh?

Update 12/2/07

Last week “Dr Phil Edwards” made another appearance in the Graun, in an article co-authored by Ian Cobain (he who went underground in the BNP and emerged with the shocking news about activists being encouraged to adopt false names). I complained, as I generally do, but this time I included some of the material I dug up for this post. The result was a phone call from Ian Mayes (the paper’s Readers’ Editor) who was very concerned; he said he’d advise the news department to refer to Stuart Russell under his real name from now on, and asked me if there was anything else I wanted from them. (I said No, since I don’t really feel that I’ve been defamed by the blighter. There was one occasion a few years back when my mother said she’d heard “Phil Edwards of Manchester” announced on Any Answers and been quite surprised by the views which followed, but I doubt many people were confused.)

So: a result, provisionally (we’ll know when the Graun refers to Russell under his own name). I think it was probably the Torygraph quote that swung it. Top tip: if you’re going to publish under a pseudonym, don’t write stuff that puts you in the dock for libel.

Update 8/5/07

Here we go again:

Asked if there were serving police officers who were also BNP members, Phil Edwards, a spokesman for the extremist organisation, said: “I believe there are.”

I’ve written to the article’s author and to Ian Mayes, again. We shall see.

The most cruel has passed

Newsflash…. General Augusto Pinochet of Chile has just died. His condition is described as ‘satisfactory’.



(Thanks, Rob.)



Like Rob (and Ellis), my thoughts turned to Victor Jara, the Chilean Communist singer whose brutal murder would be enough in itself to damn Pinochet, even if Jara hadn’t been one of 3,000. Jara’s writing is vivid, poetic, charged with love, passion and humour – and it’s deeply political. Look at this song, “Abre la ventana”:



María

Abre la ventana

Y deja que el sol alumbre

Por todos los rincones de tu casa



María

Mira hacia afuera

Nuestra vida no ha sido hecha

Para rodearla de sombras y tristezas.



María ya ves,

no basta nacer, crecer, amar,

para encontrar la felicidad.



Pasó lo más cruel,

ahora tus ojos se llenan de luz

y tus manos de miel.



María…

Tu risa brota como la mañana brota en el jardín.



María…



Our life wasn’t made to be eaten away by shadows and sadness



Let’s remember one of the great unpunished crimes of the last century: a moment of revolutionary joy and revolutionary hope, snuffed out by the General. I could almost believe in Hell if I thought he’d rot in it.

Update 12th December

OK, OK, here’s a translation.

Open the window

Open the window, Maria
Let the light shine in
To every corner of your house

Look around, Maria
Our life wasn’t made to be eaten away
By shadows and sadness

Now, Maria, you can see
There’s more to finding happiness
Than just living, growing, loving
The worst time has gone
Now your eyes are filling with light
And your hands with honey

Maria…
Your laughter breaks as the day breaks over the garden

Maria…

Pasó lo mas cruel. Gets to me every time.

Mistakes were made

The incomparable Emma Brockes has turned music critic:

The orchestral arrangements for [the ballet] Chroma were commissioned last year by Richard Russell, head of the XL record label, as a gift to the White Stripes’ Jack and Meg White. Three of their songs, The Hardest Button To Button, Aluminium and Blue Orchid, were re-arranged by Joby Talbot of Joy Division

I’ve commented before now on my admiration for Joby Talbot; he’s a bright lad. But he was never a member of Joy Division – not least because the band ceased to exist when he was nine years old. A howler like that could be quite embarrassing for Ms Brockes (and her editors). It’s just as well nobody’s likely to read this stuff. It’s only a ballet review, after all.

On the front page. Of the Saturday edition.

The age of intuition

As a brief postscript to the local elections, here are some tips for successful canvassing.

1. Do introduce yourself, even if you’re a local MP – or rather, especially if you’re a local MP. Do give the person on the doorstep (hereafter ‘the punter’) a chance to tell you they’re not interested. Don’t just launch into your spiel, like a Jehovah’s Witness or an npower salesperson. Yes, they can see the rosette. Yes, they can always shut the door in your face. Not the point.

2. If the punter disagrees with you or expresses opposition to your party, do say something mollifying about how you understand their concerns or appreciate their point of view before resuming your attempt to gain their support. Don’t argue back. Some examples:

2.1. Punter complains about communications with your party (wrongly-targeted mailshots, unanswered letters etc).
Do say: “I can’t recall that particular letter, but I will look into it for you and make sure we respond to it.”
Don’t say: “When did he send it? Well, you can’t expect us to have acted on it by now.”

2.2. Punter complains that your party’s campaigning was negative.
Do say: “I appreciate your point of view, but I think we did have a strong positive message in the area of…” (and complete as appropriate).
Don’t say: “No it wasn’t!”

2.3. Punter complains about the absence of appeals to ethical principle in party’s campaign literature.
Do think of something. (“I understand your concerns, but…”)
Don’t say: “Like what?”

3. Do talk to the person in front of you. You may have a particular voter on your canvass list, perhaps because he/she has told an earlier canvasser that he/she intends to vote for someone else. If you find that the punter isn’t your target voter, do ask him/her whether you can count on his/her vote. Don’t make it look as if you don’t care about anyone who’s not on your list.

3.1. In particular, don’t do this when your target voter is male and the punter is his female partner. Really, really don’t.

This guy has a good voting record at Westminster, but his doorstep technique could do with a bit of work. Manchester was one of the few areas where Labour did well last week; they gained four seats from the Liberal Democrats. I’m slightly disappointed, but I can’t say I’m surprised.

A night to kill a king

Justin:

It was also, today, another anniversary: another less famous than once it was. Less famous than it ought to be: it is the anniversary of probably the most significant day in all this country’s history, a day with greater consequences for politics, government and religion than any other.

One day Herr Keuner was asked just what he meant by ‘reversal of perspective’, and he told the following story. Two brothers, who were deeply attached to one another, once adopted a curious practice. They started using pebbles to record the nature of each day’s events, a white stone for each moment of happiness, a black one for any misfortune or chagrin. They soon discovered, on comparing the contents of their jars of pebbles at the end of each day, that one brother collected only white pebbles, the other only black. Intrigued by the remarkable consistency with which they each experienced a similar fate in a quite different way, they resolved to seek the opinion of an old man famed for his wisdom. “You don’t talk about it enough”, said the wise man. “Each of you should seek the causes of your choices and explain them to the other.”

Thenceforward the two brothers followed this advice, and soon found that while the first remained faithful to his white pebbles, and the second to his black ones, in neither of the jars were there now as many pebbles as formerly. Where there had usually been thirty or so, each brother would now collect scarcely more than seven or eight. Before long the wise man had another visit from the two brothers, both looking very downcast. “Not long ago,” began the first brother, “my jar would fill up with pebbles as black as night. I lived in unrelieved despair. I confess that I only went on living out of force of habit. Now, I rarely collect more than eight pebbles in a day. But what these eight symbols of misery represent has become so intolerable that I simply cannot go on living like this.” The other brother told the wise man: “Every day I used to pile up my white pebbles. These days I only get seven or eight, but these exercise such a fascination over me that I cannot recall these moments of happiness without immediately wanting to live them over again, even more intensely than before. As a matter of fact, I long to keep on experiencing them forever, and this desire is a torment to me.” The wise man smiled as he listened. “Excellent, excellent”, he said. “Things are shaping up well. You must persevere. One other thing. From time to time, ask yourselves why this game with the jar and the pebbles arouses so much enthusiasm in you.”

The next time the two brothers visited the wise man, they had this to say: “Well, we asked ourselves the question, as you suggested, but we have no answer. So we asked everyone in the village. You can see how much it has upset them. Whole families sit outside their houses in the evenings arguing about white pebbles and black pebbles. Only the elders and notables refuse to take part in these discussions. They laugh at us, and say that a pebble is a pebble, black or white.” The old man could not conceal his delight at this. “Everything is going as I had foreseen. Don’t worry. Soon the question will no longer arise; it has already lost its importance, and I daresay that one day soon you will have forgotten that you ever concerned yourselves with it.”

Not long thereafter the old man’s predictions were confirmed in the following manner. A great joy seized the people of the village. And as dawn broke after a night full of comings and goings, the first rays of sunlight fell upon the heads of the elders and notables, struck from their bodies and impaled upon the sharp-pointed stakes of a palisade.
- Raoul Vaneigem, Traité de savoir-faire à l’usage des jeunes générations

Charles Stuart, 19/11/1600 – 30/1/1649

And the market forces play

Time for a commercial break. This goes out to all my readers in the Northampton area, particularly those who may be in the market for a photographer – perhaps because they’re planning to acquire a passport, or because they want to celebrate the purchase of a nice new sundial. There are many local businesses competing for your custom; I might mention Profile Photography, Charles Ward Photography or Harvest Studios. Then there are John Roan Photography and PRS Digital – the list goes on. Weddings, of course, are big business for photographers, in Northampton as in other areas. (I had a wedding once, and a very nice day out it was.) If a wedding is on your agenda – assuming once again that you’re in the Northampton area – you might want to consider going to Nene Digital Wedding Photography, or getting the whole thing on video courtesy of April Productions.

I’m not able to endorse the quality of the work carried out by these businesses, as I know nothing about any of them. However, they do have one point in their favour, which sadly isn’t shared by one of their competitors. None of these businesses has attempted to gain cheap publicity by spamming the comments section of this blog. For that, I salute them.

(CC’d by email to… you know who you are.)

[Update: the offending photographer was only the first in a stream of comment-spammers, all of whom have presumably signed up to a particularly scummy direct-marketing service. Deleting them individually was getting to be a pain, so all comments are now giftrapped (thanks to Chris for the term). Sorry about the inconvenience.]

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