Friday, May 30, 2014 


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Thursday, May 29, 2014 

Spectators of suicide.

Visitors to our house can be left in no doubt as to which pop stars my daughter Jessica likes.

Drinks are taken from a Suicide cup, their age-worn faces blearily staring out at us at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The band's debut album, also titled Suicide, is on permanent loop, while at weekends Jessica deafens all and sundry with the lo-fi recordings captured between 1977-78 of their live shows.  Posters of Alan Vega (64) and Martin Rev (age unknown) stare down from her bedroom wall.

Alan is her favourite, she tells me on a daily basis.  She believes he can do no wrong. Last week, when my wife calmly suggested the late Sid Vicious was a better singer than Alan, World War III broke out.

Tears were shed and in the fallout, I found myself under attack for claiming, months earlier, that X-Ray Spex were more successful than Suicide.

I'll admit this makes my daughter rather strange.  While all her friends are devoted to the likes of One Direction, she delights in the ten minute long Frankie Teardrop, a song about a Vietnam veteran who kills his wife and child in despair.

And you know what, I'm glad she likes an obscure proto-punk band who despite their lack of commercial success have been highly influential.  I could be the type of father who is so devoted to the well-being of my daughter that I'm willing to write about her for a national newspaper, pretending to feel let down by her heroes appearing to smoke cannabis.  I could be the type of father who denies taking his little girl to a concert by her favourite group on the basis she's too young, despite knowing full well 8-year-olds are the prime audience for One Direction, and now feels smug about it in light of the shock revelation.  I could be the type of father who finds the fact young men in a beat combo are liable to get tattoos, have pop-star girlfriends and occasionally sample "Mary J" an example of their lack of responsibility, a betrayal of our trust, as proof they are unworthy of my daughter's loving affection, just as other men also will be in the future.

But I'm not.  Mainly because I'm not real, and am just a device to weakly mock a Daily Mail article.  If I was though, I'd be glad my daughter is already at a young age discovering what real life is like.  At times it will feel like you're having axes thrown at you, as happened to Suicide at a gig in Glasgow.  The sooner you learn that, the better.  It might also stop my daughter from rebelling against my overly protective, 19th century values by getting knocked up when she's 15 by a kid called Spud.  Your choice.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014 

You can't put the vibe back into this hospital ward.

Now that the tears have been dried, the usual suspects have slunk back to their corners and the UKIP bubble of hype has at least somewhat deflated, we're finally getting something resembling a coherent reaction to last week's elections. Appropriately then the Liberal Democrats find themselves staring into the abyss, the only vaguely plausible response to the shoeing they received from the electorate as whole. It's been a hell of a long time coming and they still don't seem to have twigged precisely why it is they're about as popular as drug resistant gonorrhoea, but hey, at least it's a start.

It also wouldn't be a crisis if there wasn't a botched attempt at a coup, so major props must go to Lord Oakeshott, following in the illustrious footsteps of such titans as John Redwood, Adam Afriyie, James Purnell and Geoff "Buff" Hoon. There he was, innocently commissioning some private polling for his old mate Vince in Twickenham, only he also got ICM to conduct identical surveys in other constituencies as well. Including Nick Clegg's.  And Danny Alexander's.  All without Cable's knowledge or authorisation, natch. The results predictably show the Liberal Democrats could lose all the seats, although rival polling companies have since cast aspersions on the weighting, sample size and methodology used in general.  Despite being conducted at the beginning of the month, with the exception of the one in Alexander's constituency, they were then "leaked" to the Graun ready for Monday's edition, just as it looked as though Clegg was wobbling.  Or at least more than usual.

Has Clegg then duly realised he's leading the party to disaster and stepped in front of the proverbial omnibus?  No.  Has Oakeshott had to resign from the party before he had the whip suspended?  Yes.  There's losing spectacularly, there's failing cataclysmically and then there's what could become known as doing an Oakeshott.  It takes quite something to make Clegg look sympathetic, and yet against all odds Oakeshott's completely transparent plotting has achieved it.

It's made all the more ridiculous as Oakeshott has realised why the party's bombed since it signed up to the coalition, he's just advocating completely the wrong solution.  Tony Blair in one of his rare moments of lucidity had it right on Monday: you can't run on a platform to the left of Labour, then join a centre-right party in government and expect those you won over to stick by you.  The Liberal Democrats have always been a coalition of social democrats and free-market liberals, to state the freaking obvious, but the former usually held sway.  Allied to the Tories they've tried to present themselves as the kinder face of austerity, and well blow me down if this hasn't turned off both Labour and Tory voters.  Even a particularly stupid dog could have told them taking the credit for three years of a flat-lining economy was sensationally foolish, and yet they've kept on doing it.

The key to understanding why the party remains doomed is in the survey conducted by Lib Dem Voice on their members only forum.  81% still support the coalition, despite it having become ever more blindingly obvious it was the rush to jump into bed with Dave and pals, not thinking properly about the consequences that led them to this point.  The achievements simply haven't been worth the sacrifices, the broken promises, the abandoning of the principles and values Oakeshott points towards.  They fell into the trap of believing in their own fantasy of power, the majority still not shaken out of their lust, despite everything that's happened since.  Getting rid of Clegg isn't going to change that, unless his replacement intends to break from the coalition prior to the election, something neither Cable or Alexander have given any indication they would support.

Whether this has truly secured Clegg's position, at least for now, is open to question.  Nor has it really damaged Cable: such is the lack of talent in the party, with Tim Farron the only realistic opponent in a leadership election, he would almost certainly become leader, if only in the interim.  All depends on just how deep into the abyss the grassroots stare.  To develop further a Lib Dem source's take on Oakeshott, who said whether inside or outside the tent he pisses all over the place, at least that's better than pissing on himself.  That's precisely what the Lib Dems have been doing for the past four years in the coalition.  Only when they've finally finished emptying their bladder might the electorate start listening again.

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Monday, May 26, 2014 

About as informative as Eurovision.

Taking the results of the European elections too seriously, in this country at least, is about as worthwhile as looking for deeper meaning in the corresponding voting in the Eurovision song contest.  Did the continent vote for Conchita Wurst because his was the best song, or because he's a drag artist with a luxuriant beard? Was his victory in fact a strike against Russia, for tolerance and peace, or simply down to how there's nothing quite like a novelty act?

Who knows, and who cares.  As for our own verdict, it was revealed the day after Wurst only came out on top due to the jury vote, as those calling in overwhelmingly favoured the Polish entry, notable only for its pneumatic butter churners. Either the Polish population voted e nmasse, or a whole lot of British men are truly that led by their dicks. Sadly, the latter seems the more likely explanation.

We have then been duly shaken by the UKIP earthquake, with some stirred up a hell of a lot more than others. I'm having problems getting too worked up, first as the results tell us even less than the locals did, and second as it was all too predictable. Labour always does poorly; the right always does well; and if they're lucky a fourth party makes something that looks approximate to a breakthrough. This time we haven't so much as had that, not even the not shock of the Lib Dem collapse telling us anything we didn't know already.

Farage himself described it as being an opportunity to land a free hit, and for once he couldn't have been more right. Reporting on what goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg is all but non-existent, for the very good reason no one's interested. Considering we seem to be turning into a country where disengagement with politics is such many wear their ignorance with pride, the idea most voted on anything other than the broadest of strokes or tribal loyalties simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Some are after all trying to suggest great shifts on the basis of a 36% overall turnout, still less than it was a decade ago. When Blair won a comfortable majority in 2005 with a 35% share of the vote on a 61% turnout plenty went on about the inequities of our electoral system; UKIP winning a 27% share, impressive as it is for a fourth party, is hardly the stuff of nightmares.  Also needing separating out is the places where the surge for UKIP is clearly down to immigration, such as Boston, Great Yarmouth and Thanet South, with the party getting above or close to 50% of the vote, and those areas where it is just lashing out or Tory voters going further right, as they have before.

Lovely as it would be to think a solid proportion of the British public have suddenly come round to the idea of creative destruction, voting for a party not interested in doing much other than collecting expenses and being generally unpleasant, the more prosaic explanation is the one fingered by Flying Rodent. The European elections give those bothered enough the opportunity to show their true colours, and it isn't pretty. For every person voting for the UKIPs because they are worried about immigration and how they've been lied to, concerned at the pace of change and loss of identity, as the more earnest academics and politicos insist, there are another 9 who voted Farage precisely because they think the country's been going downhill since the Windrush docked.  Moreover, we have two newspapers pushing that view day in day out, with another couple sympathetic towards it, regardless of how the Sun last week suddenly decided Farage was just a teensy bit racist.

Clearly, the main parties have to do a fuck of a lot more to persuade that one voter they understand their concerns. They need to stop pretending they can control immigration and make the case for it in terms of benefits it gives our own citizens, while at the same time acknowledging the pressure it has brought on housing and jobs. Labour has tried to do this with its work on zero hour contracts, the minimum wage and rent, something yet to have an impact, mainly because they've shied away from making clear the connection with the I word. They should have also attacked Farage personally at the same time, rather than his party's basement dwellers.

For in spite of the shameless spin from the right-wing press over the weekend, these were encouraging if not outstanding results for Labour. Anything over 300 seats in the local elections was a good result, something they achieved, while coming ahead of the Tories in the Euros wasn't guaranteed. Lord Ashcroft's marginals poll ought to give the party real hope, and Miliband himself can't possibly have as bad a campaign as he did again. The Lib Dems by contrast look doomed, and finally seem to have realised how deep a hole they've got themselves in, just as the Tories have apparently decided to fight the general election on personality rather than policies. UKIP can't be dismissed as a mere distraction, but will fall if/when pushed hard enough. Overreacting is precisely what Farage is betting on. Whether the Tories fall into his trap again remains to be seen.  Everyone else should surely have learned not to by now.

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Friday, May 23, 2014 

12 month warning.

Local elections generally aren't supposed to offer much insight as to what will happen at a general election. This time round that doesn't ring quite as true, while the results also aren't telling us anything we shouldn't already know. Confused?

The media certainly have been. This morning they were frotting the UKIPs more than a Jack Russell with priapism does the nearest leg. Breakthrough! Earthquake! Surge! 12 hours on and it turns out they were a little premature: yes, 155 seats is an impressive result, and clearly the party is taking votes from everyone, not just the Tories or the BNP. Compare it to their result last year though, when they won a 23% share, on a day when there were no other elections to motivate their supporters, and dropping back to 17% doesn't suddenly look so conquering. No doubt their counter argument would be if you strip London out of the equation it would look very different, while becoming the main opposition on a couple of councils is exactly the bedrock they need to challenge for seats as Westminster.

Well, maybe. Problem for the Faragists is these were elections practically made for the party. They've had weeks of publicity, the two debates with Clegg gave him an advantage the other minor party leaders would have killed for, and up until last Friday no one had so much as bothered to call him as opposed to the party's social media pink oboe players on their innate xenophobia/casual racism. If the party fails to win the European elections outright, as now seems more likely than it did before, 2013 could yet turn out to be their peak.

Not that this lets the big three off the hook, or means the UKIPs couldn't play havoc next year without winning a seat. In a campaign dominated by immigration Labour didn't want to so much as mention the word. Yes, the party's probably on a hiding to nothing whether it broaches the subject or not, but to let Farage get away for so long with his Romania-baiting was unbelievably stupid. People are opposed to immigration in general, not to specific groups, unless that is they're in the man's own image. If the Tories are still the nasty party, what on earth does that make the UKIPs?

Equally bizarre have been some of the responses as to why UKIP has succeeded and where the main parties have been going wrong.  From which planet do you have to be for Farage to look and sound more human than the rest of the political class?  Granted, when that class includes Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone and Grant Shapps, who more resembles Edd the Duck minus the intelligibility than he does your average homo sapiens it's not always difficult, but really?  Are some honestly falling for the whole a-fag-and-a-pint, whoops missus look out for that immigrant act, or is it they're voting for a party presented as being a safe protest and who've been hyped as no fourth party has been before?  Also popping out of Tory mouths has been welfare reform, which correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think I've heard a single person so much as mention as being one of the issues urgently needing more work.

The overriding message is the same as it has been since the crash, arguably since 2005.  Not just a plague on all your houses, but a veritable Old Testament series of pestilences, one after another.  Overall turnout yesterday looks to have been around the standard 35% mark, suggesting it's the same old people who always vote who are engaged, whether they've swapped parties or not, with the rest either not interested or more realistically, fed up with the whole pantomime.  Labour and the Tories are essentially stuck in stalemate, and when both have similar overall policies, even if the differences would be major for those at the margins, it shouldn't come as a surprise.  The polls have been telling us this now for a good few months, with yesterday's shares just reinforcing it.  Come next year the Lib Dems will no doubt recover somewhat, perhaps swapping positions with UKIP; it still won't be enough to get politics out of the muddle it's fallen into.  Personally, I'll be more than happy with a Labour minority government.  If everyone else isn't, here's the 12-month warning.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014 

In Arsene we still trust.

Trophies this season for the Special One: 0.
Trophies this season for the "specialist in failure": 1.

Jose Mourinho: hijo de puta.

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Friday, May 16, 2014 

Culture, alienation, boredom and despair.

P.S. I'm away until Friday next week. Luckily for the both of us, this means I'll be back in time for some local elections "analysis". Till then. Probably.

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Thursday, May 15, 2014 

Allegedly guilty.

Three cheers for the Graun! They've teamed up with the Torygraph and YouTube, aka Google in a bid to host one of the expected leaders' debates next year.  An online debate is clearly necessary, as it will give "voters more opportunities to engage with debates through tweets, likes, shares or questions to politicians", all things that simply wouldn't be possible if they were once again hosted by the old media.  Translated, the bullshit puffery means they simply want to get in on the act, as the debates will be a guaranteed source of hundreds of thousands of hits: 9.4 million watched the first debate live on ITV in 2010.  Even if the novelty of seeing the big three (or possibly four, this time) engaging in mock verbal combat has worn off since then, it's certainly not going to be something they'll lose money on, which for the Graun has to be a bonus.

As to where and why it's losing money, you only need to look at the ever mounting piles of crap being served up on Comment is Free, which this week hosted an article by Becky Smith on why she wasn't a hypocrite for taking a selfie (along with millennials, quite possibly the worst neologism coined in recent times) with David Cameron in Nando's.  I would explain further, but frankly I just, I just.  I don't know.  Imagine the scene from Fulci's City of the Living Dead where Giovanni Lombardo Radice's character's head meets a huge industrial drill, and know I'd rather it was my skull than have to think about Smith ever again.

Smith doesn't have anything though on Jessica Valenti, whose latest piece goes against just about everything the Graun is meant and usually does stand for.  In it, Valenti praises the people who have named alleged rapists at New York's Columbia university as "heroes".  She agrees it would be awful if someone named on the lists pasted up all over the campus were innocent of any crime, but it's OK as all those named so far are "allegedly guilty".  Let that sink in for a second.  Allegedly guilty.  Besides, for as long as humiliating women for allegedly having sex as they apparently do on certain online forums is legal and naming those "allegedly guilty" of rape is criminal, she'll support the victims, regardless of the methods they choose to make themselves heard.

I am obviously simplifying the forces at work here.  If the men weren't reported to the police by the college authorities due to their status despite being found responsible for sexual assault, then I like Valenti don't have much of a problem with their being named.  We don't know that's the case however, and neither does Valenti.  All we have is a list of names.  In this country we were rightly sensitive when the News of the World under Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) started publishing the details and whereabouts of convicted paedophiles, precisely because it resulted in the police having to intervene to protect some of those who were named.  More recently, Bijan Ebrahimi was murdered after being falsely accused of paedophilia, while Luke Hardwood was also killed by a vigilante gang after he was pointed out as a rapist, again without any corresponding evidence.

There's an extremely fine line between protecting women from sexual predators through naming those responsible, especially when they are only "allegedly guilty" and starting a witch-hunt, the end result of which can't be predicted or anticipated.  The Guardian of all papers ought to know why we should always be cautious of welcoming anonymous accusations.  When it comes to America and the internet it just doesn't seem to matter as much.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014 

The scandal hiding in plain sight.

Anyone surprised by the Labour Force Survey figures confirming there hasn't been an influx of Romanian and Bulgarian workers since the restrictions on free movement were lifted at the beginning of the year?  No?  Thought not.  To listen to Danny Alexander though, you would have imagined he and the rest of the main political parties had always rejected the idea there would be a similar movement of labour as when the A8 countries joined back in 2005.  "Gives the lie to UKIP's scaremongering," apparently.  Forgive me for having a memory slightly longer than a gnat, but that most certainly wasn't the message coming across last year, when politician after politician lined up to say they were taking the issue very seriously indeed, and people were right to be concerned. Didn't Tory backbenchers force a vote in an attempt to reintroduce the restrictions? Were they told to stop being so damn silly? Ask a stupid question.

Not that we should think this one survey puts the matter to rest. The numbers might yet pick up, and it could be there have been a few thousand unemployed Bulgarians/Romanians who've made the journey without being counted by this particular survey. That there's been a drop in the first quarter seems a good indication this probably isn't the case, and bears out what some of us argued: why would they come here when the whole of Europe would be open to them? The fall is probably attributable to some moving closer to back home, the countries that had more stringent visa programmes now being as open as everywhere else.

Besides, the issue never was actual immigration, as I doubt Farage or the tabloids believed their own rhetoric, unless they fell into doing so after repeating it so often. It's that those 26 million Europeans can and could come here and we can't do anything about it. Anyone making just the economic argument is part of the problem, not understanding it's the speed of change, the perception of unfairness, the stories about migrants working for a pittance, putting locals at a disadvantage.  What does it matter if it's not affecting you personally when you simply know it's happening?

There is always something easier to blame.  It's all the stranger when you consider the latest employment figures suggest the coalition might be encouraging something on the scale of the parking of the long-term unemployed on incapacity benefit in the 80s.  Scratch beneath the headlines of a "jobs boom" and the most people in work ever, and the massive rise in the number becoming self-employed stands out.  In the year to March, 375,000 designated themselves as such, more than the number entering work in the private and public sectors.  This has been hailed by some within the coalition as a example of entrepreneurial zeal, only research by the TUC suggests the number starting their own business has in fact fallen.

Some of this rise can be explained perfectly normally, with agency workers for instance being pushed into self-employment.  Others have set themselves up on eBay, selling the odd thing to keep the wolf from the door and away from the ever harsher Jobseeker's Allowance regime.  Another explanation becomes clearer once you take a look at the also released today numbers of those sanctioned, i.e., had their benefits stopped in the last three months of 2013.  Incredibly, this had risen to 227,629, or almost a quarter, yes, a quarter of those who were claiming JSA in November.  Back in February of last year there were reports Work programme providers were pushing people into self-employment, getting the clients off their book, a payment for their company and delighting the DWP in the process.  The "customers" were told to claim working tax credit, especially if they had children as the additional child tax credit would almost certainly take their overall payment above the amount they would get normally on JSA.

With Jobcentre advisers under intense pressure to issue sanctions for non-existent infractions, life on any sort of income, even if below the £72.40 a week pittance JSA provides suddenly becomes attractive.  This also ties in with the crash in earnings of the self-employed since the recession, not all of which can possibly be put down to an increase in people fiddling their incomes.  With the ironically named "Help to Work" scheme rolled out at the end of last month, the aim of the programme being fairly transparently to stop those who have been out of work for 2 years claiming at all, or to sanction them when they fail to show up at the Jobcentre every day, it wouldn't be a surprise if the more sympathetic at the dole office were informing their customers of this almost government backed alternative.  Keep in mind also that those on workfare schemes are counted as in work, rather than unemployed, and the fall in unemployment no longer looks quite so impressive.

The only problem for the coalition (as opposed to those who are being left reliant on food banks, which the DWP insists is not due to the mass sanctioning of JSA claimants) is this dodge can't last, thanks to Iain Duncan Smith's own Universal Credit wheeze.  As Johnnyvoid explains, once fully rolled out only those earning the equivalent of someone working full time for the minimum wage will qualify for the UC replacement for tax credits.  Should UC ever be fully introduced, or indeed if the Tories are still in power, this has the potential to suddenly and apparently inexplicably increase the unemployment rate.  Hopefully by then Labour or even UKIP might have realised a real scandal is hiding in plain sight.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014 

Between the doomers and the Milibelievers.

The obvious, arguably only response to two polls showing a Tory lead for the first time in two years is to put your panic trousers on.  To some this is only what they've expected and long predicted. The "Milibelievers" have been living in a dream world, a comforting place now infiltrated by the twin monsters of past economic failure and lack of leadership projection. With the economy growing, even if the recovery isn't being felt much beyond the south east, only for so long could Labour live off the general unpopularity of the coalition and the emphasis on the cost of living. If anything, Labour should be grateful for the rise of the UKIPs: without Farage's party, now regularly polling at around the 15% mark, the Tory lead would likely be even more crushing.

Scarily, even if just this once, Labour's doomers might have something resembling a point.  You can make all the usual, valid points about outlier polls, margins of error, how on Sunday YouGov had the party with a 7 point advantage over the Tories, it just being a blip and so on and so forth, it doesn't alter the fact that the gap has been steadily lessening.  Yes, everyone knew the Conservatives would make up ground as the general election approached, as they always have; that they have done so prior to elections it was thought they would do badly in, and probably still will, all things considered, is a major surprise.  Last month's 6 point lead in the Graun/ICM series was probably boosted a little by the Maria Miller factor, and while the Tories still have to increase their share of the vote on last time to have any hope of getting a majority in parliament, something not achieved since 1974, an outright Labour victory also looks unlikely.

Most of these worries will be played down in precisely these terms, and besides, with a year still to go anything could happen (more on which in a minute).  The one finding that stands out from the Graun poll which can't be so easily explained away is the transformation in attitude towards George Osborne.  Lest we forget, just less than 2 years ago he was being booed by the crowd at the Paralympics, and for long periods since has been about as popular as a musical on the X Factor endorsed by Mr Cowell himself.  With the budget well received, despite not doing much other than bribing those likely to vote with their own money, Osborne is now, incredibly, seen as doing a better job than David Cameron is.  He gets a +5 score, compared to Dave's +2.  Ed Miliband by contrast is now somehow seen as putting in a poorer performance than the Cleggster, at -25 compared to Nick's -21.

Apart from further boosting Osborne's already off the scale opinion of himself, it brings into sharp focus how the problem right now is not policies, which for so long were sketches and for the most part still are, with occasional specific promises like getting a doctor's appointment within 48 hours thrown in to add colour, but Miliband himself.  This isn't due to Miliband not having been seen enough, although both he and most other shadow ministers seem to have a tendency to disappear from view for long periods of time for no discernible reason, it's instead down to how many have made their minds up already.  It's not that Ed's a "metropolitan libural" as the likes of Dan Hodges have it, not understanding the average Labour voter, especially when the charge is now being made against all of the political leaders by the UKIPs, it's that he's not different enough.  When someone as establishment as Nigel Farage can pose as a revolutionary, it really shouldn't take much for Ed to position himself as firmly on the side of the dispossessed, vulnerable and struggling to make ends meet.  That he hasn't is down to how Labour under Ed has never decided what it wants to be: the Tories with a slightly kinder face, a position they so often default to, or an actual opposition, against the coalition's running down and belittling of the NHS, welfare state and much else that so many hold dear.  For all his attempts to be radical, and indeed the corresponding attempts by both the Tories and the right-wing press to paint him as a raving Marxist, he's just another Westminster politician, the same old same old.

This isn't a counsel of despair by any means.  Winning the policy battle shows that, in spite of what John Harris wrote last month.  It does however mean Ed's style of leadership has to change, which is presumably why David Axelrod has been brought in.  The difficulty is it might have been left too late, with perceptions now that much harder to shift.  All may yet depend on just how right-wing the Tories go in the face of the challenge from UKIP, with the potential for centrist voters to be turned off by the attempt to woo back defectors to Farage.

Also needing to be factored into the equation is the increasing possibility of a yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum.  The SNP campaign over the last couple of months has amounted to little more than asking everyone whether they want to be governed by Cameron or someone they've chosen themselves, the hardly surprising response being the latter.  The further Labour slip in the Westminster polls, the more the undecided start wondering whether the only way to get a government even slightly responsive to their concerns is by voting yes.  Scottish independence wouldn't mean perpetual Tory government in England and Wales, but it would render the 2015 vote all but void, almost certainly necessitating another general election once Scotland secedes a year later.  It probably won't happen, yet such has been the volatility since the rise of UKIP post the 2012 local elections you wouldn't completely rule it out either.  All the more reason why Miliband and co have to do better, and if these two polls don't end the complacency that's set in, nothing will.

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Monday, May 12, 2014 

The impossibility of freedom of speech.

Perhaps it's just the years spent examining my own navel, but for the most part I go out of my way not to be an appalling hypocrite, choose the easy target (yeah, right) or make the obvious riposte/joke about things.  When faced however with the fact that someone was starved enough for excitement in the first place to be listening to David Lowe's Singers and Swingers show on BBC Radio Devon, then was apparently so exercised by how the version of The Sun Has Got His Hat On he played included the original, n-word using second verse that they felt the need to complain, I find it difficult not to wonder about how desperately empty their life must be.  Those minutes spent contacting the BBC could have been used in any other way imaginable; life might not always be all we would like it to be, yet surely, surely, even the most miserable, wretched and pitiless individual could have come up with something more entertaining and intellectually nourishing to do than whinge about the content of an 82-year-old song?

No?  We are back in context land, you see folks.  I can perfectly understand the BBC cutting the Major scene from The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers, especially pre-watershed, not least when John Cleese has himself said it's not something he would write now.  When it comes to material pre-1960 though say, to cut racist dialogue or stereotyping out of either music or films is to deny history.  You're not protecting people, you're censoring something approaching the norm and which should be recognised as such precisely because we've moved on from then.  David Lowe didn't even realise the song featured the n-word, and either wouldn't have played it at all, or as would have been best, prefaced it by saying it contained some language we would view as offensive now but wasn't then.

The only reason the Mail on Sunday decided this was a front page story is obviously due to the discrepancy of treatment between Clarkson and Lowe.  Clarkson, like Lowe, offered an apology and got a final warning; Lowe offered an apology or resignation, and the BBC accepted the latter.  Who knows whether there were extenuating factors or a manager was already looking to get rid of the DJ,  off he went.  The BBC has since done a reverse ferret and offered him the show back; Lowe has declined on grounds of stress.  It looks bad, and it is bad.  Often the BBC ignores complaints on the reasonable grounds that most are from the usual suspects, either with an axe to grind, nothing better to do, or the consistently and never knowingly under-outraged.  Why they took the single complaint this seriously is anyone's guess, unless post-Sachsgate and the Savile/McAlpine disaster they've become far more proactive than previously.

Then again, they could just be entering into what seems to be the new spirit of the age.  Nearly 40 years ago newspaper editors worked themselves into a frenzy over the use of a word they no doubt heard and used multiple times every day.  In our brave new social media world, we have people who can only be described as half-wits making complaints to the police about tweets they don't like.  Rather than the police telling said half-wit to stop wasting their time with spurious politically motivated whining, they instead visit the individual targeted and ask him, despite no laws having been broken, to take the tweet down.  Everyone then duly wonders whether things can be really that slow in Cambridgeshire for two officers to find the time to make such a visit, and if perhaps we've reached a new low in the great giving and taking offence stakes.

On the surface at least, the problem is the law.  We have free speech, except we don't.  Article 10 of the ECHR allows free expression but makes reasonable exceptions, including for the prevention of disorder or crime.  Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 duly makes it an offence to send a message that is grossly offensive (or menacing), which even by the standards of legislation that leaves it up to judges and juries to decide what can deprave or corrupt is by definition subjective.  As a result we've seen the likes of Matthew Woods jailed for three months for making unfunny, off-colour jokes, grossly offensive to some certainly, but par for the course for others.  Last week saw another victim, with Robert Riley jailed for eight weeks after tweeting in the aftermath of the murder of teacher Ann Maguire that he would have killed all of her colleagues at the school as well.  Riley was, predictably, another of those lonely people who enlivened his existence (spent as a full-time carer) by trolling, tweeting purposefully "outrageous" things in the hope of getting a response.  He had in fact as the judge noted sent other messages, including some that were racist in nature, but it was the couple about the dead teacher that resulted in Inspector Knacker getting involved.

Precisely what benefit anyone gains from sending pathetic misfits such as Woods or Riley to jail isn't clear.  It might make someone feel slightly better for a few hours, and could feasibly shock those convicted out of immaturity; it could also cause further bitterness, dare I say perhaps somewhat justifiably.  It certainly isn't a good use of resources, and yet despite the attention giving to trolling last August, the debate Keir Starmer urged nearly two years ago concerning the boundaries of free speech online hasn't really happened.  Abuse on the scale of that received by Caroline Criado-Perez is one thing; surely the despaired upon works of Woods and Riley ought to be something else.  We can't however seem to get perspective, as lazy journalists and also bloggers seek out the next comment or slight to get angry about.  We should hardly be surprised when the police and BBC management can't either.

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Friday, May 09, 2014 

Between the blue of sea and sky.

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Thursday, May 08, 2014 

The curious state of the Liberal Democrats.

On one solitary score, you have to give the Liberal Democrats credit. Compared to both Labour and the Tories, whose respective right-wingers are convinced they are being led towards electoral doom, there are almost no such murmurings within the Lib Dems whether at parliamentary or grassroots level. This is especially curious considering how quick they were before to get rid of Ming Campbell, felt incapable of leading a hip n' happening, designed to appeal to students and lefties in general party.

Compared to Nick Clegg now, Campbell looks as dynamic as he was back in 1964. There's a distinct possibility the party could come 5th in the European elections, behind the Greens and with no MEPs whatsoever. Is the party worried about the damage such a disastrous performance could do? Apparently not. Clegg's masterstroke is to run a campaign based around our place and role in Europe, an admirable concept it must be said, but to judge by the reception he received doing just that in the debates with Farage, it's not exacfly a guaranteed vote winner.

For all the occasions the other two main parties have been accused of running a core vote strategy, neither have taken it to the extremes decided upon by the Lib Dems. Faced with the problem of their 2010 supporters deserting them due to the various betrayals and broken promises of going into coalition with the Tories, the only response has been to double down. We're in government! Look at what we've achieved! It might not be much and we've sacrificed our principles on a number of policies, but we did it! The economy couldn't have flatlined for three years without our going along with the cuts to frontline investment! Only we could have allowed George Osborne to set off another housing bubble in a desperate bid to get growth of any kind! Vote Lib Dem, the only party that wants Europe to stay broadly the same!

And so on. To be fair, it is somewhat down to the party deciding it's still too far away from the general election itself for most of those who've gone elsewhere to think seriously about coming back. The hope is, faced with the march of the Ukips, the likelihood of the Tories coming out with a ridiculously right-wing manifesto, already certain to offer a referendum on EU membership with a likely side order of withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights, and the sheer rubber-faced goonery of the two Eds, Clegg and his constantly sad expression might seem not so bad after all.  It sounds and frankly is a rather forlorn hope right now, but when there's so little else to work with, amounting to over-hyping the pupil premium and ignoring how the rise in the personal allowance helps the middle far more than it does the lowest paid, there's not much other than promising not to prop up a Tory government next time, a strategy itself suffused with risks, to try.

This still doesn't explain however why of all the things Clegg could have chose to make a stand on, he's done so on those caught carrying a knife for a second time.  Again, it's a perfectly reasonable, decent liberal stance to take: judges should have the discretion to take extenuating circumstances into account when passing sentence.  Putting mandatory terms into law except for the most serious offences is an unbelievably bad idea, as demonstrated by the widespread misuse of indeterminate sentences, with many of those given them still trapped in prison, unable to access the courses necessary to prove they are safe to be released.  All the same, regardless of the reasons behind it, those caught for a second time with a blade in their possession aren't the easiest people for most to sympathise with.  Clegg also undermines his argument in his Graun article by criticising Labour for letting the "prison population spiral out of control".  The number in prison at the end of May 2010 was 85,500 (PDF). The number now? 84,697 (XLS).

It further boggles the mind considering the party's climbdown on removing the citizenship of naturalised citizens should they be accused of going overseas to fight alongside jihadists.  As is so often the case, and as the Home Office minister Norman Baker himself wrote to MPs, the promise of the home secretary not taking away the citizenship of someone "reasonably believed" unable to get an alternative passport, and a review system, by which point it will be too late, was enough to override "a point of principle".  Considering the ridiculous case currently being pursued against Mashudur Choudhury, who went to Syria with the intention of fighting only to return, unlike the others he travelled with, the amount of faith anyone should have that the removal of citizenship will be fair and justified ought to be around nil.  The irony and shameless hypocrisy of supporting the rebels fighting alongside the jihadists and then charging those who do go to fight with terrorism should not be lost on anyone, let alone the Lib Dems.  Baker's plea that "if we demand major concessions from the Tories and get them, that should affect how we vote" would be a respectable sentiment were Clegg not manufacturing a falling out over knives at exactly the same time.

You could call it choosing which battles to fight and which to not, or you could put it down to how confused in general the party seems to be right now.  Whether it's simply projected confidence, activists genuinely don't seem bothered by the colossal hammering coming their way.  They imagine their local organisation will save them from complete collapse, as evidenced by the Eastleigh by-election.  They could be right.  If they're not, we might find ourselves in the distinctly odd situation of having four parties getting media attention when there are only two properly represented at Westminster.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2014 

It gets better, despite the scaremongering.

The case of Hannah Smith is as desperately tragic as they come. The 14-year-old killed herself in August last year, writing a note found by her father asking whether her life was ever going to get any better. Her family say she had been bullied for up to three years, her personality changing markedly after going to a party where she was assaulted, her head twice hit against a wall. She became more insular and introverted, and as the inquest into her death heard, told friends on Facebook she was thinking of ending her life.

As terrible as every teenage suicide is, with the taboos around depression and mental illness still making it an exceptionally difficult topic to broach, in spite of the increased recognition of how many young people do struggle during what is already a difficult period of their lives, Smith's death wouldn't have become national news had it not been blamed in part on cyber-bullying. Coming just after the storm of media interest in the abuse meted out on Twitter to Caroline Criado-Perez and others involved in the Jane Austen banknote campaign, it looked another example of the dark side of the internet and the misuse of online anonymity by those without a care for others and no sense of responsibility.

Only as has now been confirmed at the inquest and was claimed by's owners within days of the story becoming front page news, the messages left on her page were not from bullies, but written by Hannah herself.  Giving evidence, investigating officer Wayne Simmons said the messages had originated from the same IP address as Hannah's, and also ruled out that the could have been spoofed.  On the balance of probabilities, she had resorted to a relatively new form of self-harm - attacking herself via different accounts, whether in an attempt to garner sympathy from friends and get them to defend her, or as just another representation of the self-loathing she felt.

The tabloids, and indeed, the prime minister, were not to know this had been the case.  Nonetheless, putting all of the blame onto and by turn social networking as they did, with calls for the site to be shut down and David Cameron supporting a boycott, was precisely the kind of response that hinders rather than helps with understanding how the way teenagers live has changed so radically in a little over a decade.  Cyber-bullying is certainly a problem - I for one am beyond thankful I left school behind just before the inexorable rise of social media, when the main hangout was MSN Messenger rather than sites like Ask.  Anonymous trolling or bullying by those not personally known to the victim is however very much a rarity, compared to the online continuation of torment by schoolmates, something that can make it seem as though there is absolutely no escape from your own personal hell.

This emphasis on the medium rather than message and on one specific factor as the overriding cause is to ignore most of what we know about depression and mental illness.  At times there can be one underlying reason - be it bullying, general unhappiness with life, the end of a relationship, the death of a relative or friend, but often it's a culmination of a number of things.  There are also usually warning signs, in Hannah's case both physical and mental self-harm, as well as talking about suicide.  Even if it were possible, shutting down somewhere like Ask would only result in another such site popping up in its place.  Understandable as it is to want to try and control these new apparent threats, it's just as undesirable and overbearing as doing the equivalent of wrapping children in cotton wool.

The danger is in overreaction, curtailing something that has given traditional outsiders or those being bullied precisely because they are "different" a refuge, a place where they can be reassured their interests or sexuality are not weird or character flaws.  For every teenager whose death has been blamed in some way on the internet, whether rightly or wrongly, there are hundreds of thousands, almost certainly millions whose lives have been transformed or made worth continuing with thanks to making new friends through social media or otherwise.  Without wanting to turn this into old versus new media, that's something the newspapers, always searching for the next passing frenzy, have to be forced if necessary to recognise.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2014 

Clarkson and missing the real issue.

At times, I get the feeling I'm the only person ostensibly on the left who doesn't get instantly outraged when someone is accused of or indeed has used a racist epithet.  Now obviously, as a white 25 to 34 male who has enough free time to have spent the last coming up on nine years writing a politics blog almost every night, the first thing I should do is check my privilege.  

OK, privilege duly checked, and I still think that in most circumstances the context, rather than just the actual word used, is just as integral.

This is why Ron Atkinson had to be sacked when he described Marcel Desailly as a "fucking lazy nigger" in an aside to his co-commentator that was inadvertently broadcast in some countries due to the microphone being left open, and why Jeremy Clarkson and the BBC have just about got away with the former using the same word in unused rushes from Top Gear.  Some will vehemently disagree with me, but I simply don't accept the line that some words are so reprehensible or have such a history they should never be used unless reclaimed or for reference.  It's in how they're used, and Atkinson's ought to be the textbook example of insult married with latent racism. You could also include the case of the LA Clippers' owner, secretly recorded telling his girlfriend not to bring "black people" to games, as blatant, shocking prejudice.

With Clarkson the case is far more nuanced. Counting against him is that at first he seemed to deny he had used the word at all, then in his apology that he hadn't done enough to disguise the word or not say it at all. As is fairly apparent from the video the Mirror soon provided, he does say nigger, albeit quietly. In his favour is he's using the word in the context of the well-known child's rhyme, eeny meeny meiny mo, in order to choose the car to drive. While there are variations on it, Clarkson was more than likely brought up on the version he used, before the word rightly become truly beyond the pale. Old sayings often become engrained in the mind; there was also controversy a few years ago when a judge talked of "the nigger in the woodpile", with a Tory peer also using the phrase.  Offence wasn't intended, but both should have known not to use such an archaic metaphor. For further context, the rhymes we used playing tag when I was a sprog were similarly vulgar: we usually alternated between "each peach pear plum, choose your best bum chum" or "ip dip dog shit fucking bastard silly git you are not it".  Then again, I can't say if I was a TV presenter on a popular motoring programme I would use either to faux choose which automobile to hammer round a race course.

The problem is Clarkson's apology video thickens the plot somewhat.  If as he says there was a take where he said teacher, it seems odd that he would have written a note at all to the production staff telling them to use that rather than the others unless he wanted to be certain.  It would make more sense if they had overdubbed the scene later, especially as Clarkson does lower his voice when say the specific part, and changed it to teacher then.  More likely is that someone said, err, Jeremy, we can't use that for obvious reasons and they then did the teacher take, with Clarkson having seen the rushes later sending a note to confirm the change.

As the epithet wasn't specifically directed at anyone, it was never intended to be broadcast, it's possible Clarkson was mumbling precisely because the intention was to overdub the sound later and an apology was reasonably swift in forthcoming, I don't really have a massive problem with the BBC issuing a final warning.  Indeed, I'd say the use of "slope" during the Burma show was by those standards far more serious and worthy of further action, as it was directed at someone and with Clarkson apparently safe in the knowledge that not many people (myself included) would even realise he was talking about the man on the bridge.  Top Gear often walks the incredibly fine line between stereotyping for (dubious) comedy effect and outright prejudice, arguably staying just about on the right side of it.  You can say this is further evidence of how Clarkson has form, and he probably does.  Is he racist though, rather than just an arse, tweaking the nose of the politically correct, as Paul Dacre described it?  Probably not.

The danger here as so often is that with focusing on the ephemera we miss the significance of other statements that have gone almost entirely unchallenged.  Last year saw Nigel Farage repeatedly claim that London was going through a Romanian crimewave, without a single opposition politician challenging him on picking out a specific community, or indeed making clear that the figures are disputed and have been repeatedly misunderstood.  More recently, as Atul Hatwal writes in one of the first posts on Labour Uncut I've ever agreed with, Farage has moved on to saying people would be right to be concerned if a Romanian family moved in on their street, with the party's spin doctor repeating that message, again with only the heavily criticised campaign against the UKIPs saying anything about racism, and without directly calling them out on their sub-Powellite message.  Directed against almost any other community, creed, or race, there would deservedly be a Clarkson-type outcry.

As potentially self-defeating as it is call out the party's underlings, to not do so when it comes to Farage and others at the top of the party is sheer cowardice, especially when Farage has now resorted to highlighting the party's "black and ethnic minority candidates", having decided not to do so on their previous conference literature.  Regardless of what you think about Clarkson, the failure to properly take on UKIP bodes extremely ill for the general election campaign to come.

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Friday, May 02, 2014 

Des niles.

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Thursday, May 01, 2014 

How privatisation works.

1. Deciding Royal Mail cannot stay in public ownership as it needs access to private capital, the government seeks the advice of investment banks and other masters of the universe on selling off the Queen's head.  Most of these institutions said shares in Royal Mail should not be sold for less than 300p.  The one dissenting voice was Lazard & Co, the corporate advisory arm of Lazard Asset Management.  They advised shares should instead be sold at a range of between 212 and 262p, and repeated this sentiment even when it was apparent that the business could have been bought outright by small investors, with the public offering massively oversubscribed.  Despite the government setting the cost at 330p a share, Lazard & Co are paid £1.5 million for their help.

2. The government decides to provide "priority" access to the shares to 16 investors on the proviso they are to hold on to them in the longer term.  Among those lucky enough to be chosen for this privilege were Lansdowne, a decision clearly not based on how the co-founder of the firm has donated £700,000 to the Conservatives, or how Peter Davies, the co-head of developmental strategy, was a certain George Osborne's best man.  Also included were Lazard Asset Management, who bought 6m shares at 330p.

3. The priority investors almost completely ignore the gentlemen's agreement and join in the bonanza when the shares go on sale.  By January of this year only 12% of the shares were still held by them.  Among those making a killing, albeit for their clients and not themselves, making it perfectly all right, was Lazard Asset Management, selling their shares less than 48 hours after they went on sale, generating a profit of £8.4m.

4. The chief executive of Lazard & Co denies any wrongdoing or conflict or interest in front of the Public Accounts Committee, despite admitting he knew that Lazard Asset Management had been allocated the shares as there was a "Chinese wall" in place between the two different arms.  The government also refuses to accept it could have handled the sale better, with David Cameron continuing to insist the sale was a great success, regardless of how pricing the shares higher could have brought in anything up to a further £750m.

5. Shares in Royal Mail closed today at 538p.

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