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Friday, April 29, 2005


Tory homophobia

Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton in the last parliament, has come under attack from his Tory opponent, who has been accused of using homophobic material in his election campaign.


Ken Andrew, the Tory parliamentary candidate for Carshalton & Wallington in Surrey, has apparently used his campaigning leaflets to slam the current Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake.

Accusing the sitting MP of "wasting local tax payers money", Mr Andrew uses Mr Brake's voting record to question: "what has he done for local people".

The top two issues in the list are Mr Brake's support for gay adoption and the lowering of the age of consent.
In response to a Stonewall project, leaders of all the major parties (including Michael Howard) pledged to remove homophobia from the 2005 election campaign. This is the second time a Tory candidate has broken that pledge.

Challenged on this breach, the Tories stood by their homophobic candidates.

Speaking yesterday, the Conservative party maintained that candidates and MPs were "entitled" to their own opinions on such free vote issues.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Thursday, April 28, 2005


Red tape? My arse!

For as long as anyone can remember, the business lobby has always complained about there being too much 'red tape'. It likes to paint a picture of British industry struggling under an enormous burden of onerous regulation and punitive corporate taxation.

It's a refrain that was traditionally repeated only by the Tories until New Labour jumped on the bandwagon. More recently, the Liberal Democrats seem to have endorsed this world view. In 2003, the party approved a green paper tendentiously titled "Setting business free" and its economic spokesmen have sometimes sounded more like Rotary Club bores than Liberal Democrats. But is this new consensus based on sound assumptions?

An analysis in today's
Financial Times (available online only to subscribers) explodes a lot of myths.

This would appear to demolish the 'red tape' argument. British business does have problems but might it be the case that they are to be found elsewhere? Might it be the case that the real problems are bad management, low productivity and under-investment? Might it be the case that Britain's business leaders would rather not talk about these problems but prefer to shift the blame somewhere else? Might it be the case that Britain's politicians are afraid to challenge the business lobby and its self-serving propaganda?


Voting Labour? See me afterwards

Today's Independent reports an opinion poll showing that most teachers will be voting Liberal Democrat. And more than half the teachers who voted Labour last time are switching to the Lib Dems.

The report also includes this teaser about two further polls:

Two separate polls published today by The Times Higher Education Supplement reveal that a majority of students and academics plan to vote Liberal Democrat next Thursday.
The story is elaborated here:

Some 47 per cent of students have decided to back the Lib Dems, compared to 23 per cent opting for Labour and 22 per cent for the Conservatives, the Times Higher Education Supplement found.

The figure is up eight points since February.

Labour is down six percentage points.

Among university lecturers and academics, 44 per cent said they planned to vote for the Lib Dems, double the number in 2001, the OpinionPanel Research poll found.
Is there anyone not voting Liberal Democrat? The Sun, apparently. If you want a good laugh, read this morning's hatchet job, 20 things about Lib Dims.


Why it is necessary for Michael Howard to fail

There are times when I think I should rename this blog, "I read the Guardian so you don't have to".

Today's edition, however, has an
outstanding article by Timothy Garton Ash on how Michael Howard has denied his immigrant heritage and the trouble this denial would cause were he to succeed.

In order that Britain should continue to be a place where the children of immigrants can rise to the highest places in the land, in order that thousands of future Michael Howards should be able to succeed, it is necessary for this Michael Howard now to fail.
Although the one immigrant I'd be happy to send back is Lynton Crosby.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


For this relief, much thanks

Why are some politicians so obsessed with race and immigration? A report in today's Guardian may supply the answer.

Charles Kennedy gave a unique insight into his personal habits during the ad break of ITV's Ask The Leader. Jonathan Dimbleby recalled Enoch Powell had said that his performances were given a lift if he stopped himself going to the loo. Mr Kennedy replied: "The last thing I always do before a public performance is visit the you-know-what."
Kennedy's confession can be safely filed in the box labelled 'too much information'.

But at least we now know what we had previously only suspected, that Enoch Powell was full of shit.


Iraq verbatim

The Guardian has just published what it claims to be the text of the Attorney General's advice to the government, regarding the legality of an attack on Iraq.

Blair's justification is looking more threadbare, although any legal text such as this is open to interpretation and you can bet New Labour will continue to split hairs.

This revelation won't be sufficient to stop Blair winning the election but it will make him look increasingly like shop-soiled goods.

PS: Read this.


A filthy campaign

I mean, how hard is it to keep a hospital clean? Too difficult for Michael Howard, apparently.

Today's Guardian

Michael Howard suffered every politician's nightmare yesterday. Having staged a press conference to denounce two pernicious superbugs - Tony Blair and MRSA in hospitals - he visited a London hospital and broke a basic hygiene rule, forgetting to wash his hands before greeting a patient. He later said he was "mortified".

Ooh Matron!


Betting update #3 - Lib Dem gains and losses

The betting market for individual target constituencies is firming up, with more constituencies declaring one way or the other and fewer at evens. Where are the punters currently predicting gains or losses?

As reported
last Friday, this betting portal on the Political Betting website enables you to compare odds for each of the individual constituencies where a betting market has opened up. (If you do bet online, please go through the links on the Political Betting site – doing so earns a commission that helps pay for the running of that very useful site).

As we get closer to polling day, people with inside knowledge are starting to bet and this is affecting the odds. However, a word of caution. When an individual betting market first opens, liquidity is low and only one or two bets of, say, a tenner each can affect the odds. Some shrewd gamblers exploit this situation by first placing a small bet against their favourite to lengthen the odds of their favourite, then placing a second and larger bet on their favourite while they can get better odds. This technique may explain some of the fluctuations seen over the past week.

I should also repeat some other health warnings. First, this posting is a snapshot based on current odds (which in many cases are very narrow), and the betting market is by its nature in a state of flux. Things may have changed by the time you read this. Second, still relatively little money has been placed in most of these markets, so you should take the current odds with a large pinch of salt. Prices should, however, firm up the closer we get to polling day, when the odds are likely to become a more reliable guide than the opinion polls. Third, there isn't yet a betting market for all the marginal and target constituencies (still no market yet for Aberdeen South, Dunbartonshire East, Totnes or Wells), though new markets may open later in the campaign. Conversely, a market has opened in Simon Hughes's Southwark seat, which defies explanation.

Despite all these caveats, these betting markets are fascinating because the election will be won and lost in the marginal seats. The overall percentage figures in the national opinion polls have changed relatively little during the campaign and don't really tell us a great deal about how many seats will actually change hands, or which ones.

So, here's how the Liberal Democrats will fare according to the punters. Constituencies where there has been a change since last Friday in the predicted outcome are marked with an asterisk (*). Constituencies where a new betting market has opened since Friday are marked with a cross (+).

Vulnerable (and not so vulnerable) Lib Dem-held seats:

Brecon and Radnor - Lib Dem hold
Brent East - Lib Dem hold
Cheadle - Lib Dem hold
Colchester – Lib Dem hold
Eastleigh - Lib Dem hold
* Guildford - Lib Dem hold
Hereford - Lib Dem hold
* Leicester South - Labour gain from Lib Dem
Ludlow – Lib Dem hold
Mid Dorset and North Poole – Lib Dem hold
Newbury – Lib Dem hold
* North Norfolk - Lib Dem hold
Richmond Park - Lib Dem hold
Romsey – Lib Dem hold
Somerton and Frome – Lib Dem hold
+ Southwark North and Bermondsey - Lib Dem hold (no contest!)
+ Teignbridge - Lib Dem hold
Torridge and West Devon - Lib Dem hold
* Weston-super-Mare - Lib Dem hold
+ Yeovil - Lib Dem hold
Lib Dem target seats:

Birmingham Yardley - Lib Dem gain from Labour
* Bristol West - Labour hold
* Cambridge - Lib Dem gain from Labour
Cardiff Central - Lib Dem gain from Labour
* Colne Valley – neck and neck between Lib Dem and Labour
Eastbourne – Lib Dem gain from Tory
Edinburgh South – Labour hold
Falmouth and Cambourne – Labour hold (Lib Dems not quoted)
Folkestone and Hythe – Tory hold
Haltemprice and Howden - Tory hold
* Harborough - Lib Dem gain from Tory
Hornsey and Wood Green – Labour hold
Inverness, etc. - Lib Dem gain from Labour [on new boundaries]
Isle of Wight - Tory hold
+ Islington North - Labour hold
+ Islington South - Labour hold (Lib Dems not quoted!!!)
Maidenhead - Tory hold
New Forest East – Tory hold
North Dorset - Tory hold
* Oldham East and Saddleworth - Labour hold
Orpington - Lib Dem gain from Tory
* South West Surrey - Tory hold
Taunton - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
* West Dorset - Tory hold
Westbury - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Westmoreland and Lonsdale - Tory hold
Wiltshire North – Tory hold
The odds have moved in the Lib Dems' favour in Guildford, North Norfolk, Weston-super-Mare, Cambridge, Colne Valley and Harborough. But the odds have moved against the Lib Dems in Leicester South, Bristol West, Oldham East, South-West Surrey and West Dorset. Bizarrely, the Lib Dems are not quoted in Islington South, which I assume is a clerical error.

The Lib Dems are predicted to lose no seats apart from Leicester South (a by-election gain). However, the number of predicted gains has also gone down, suggesting fewer seats will change hands.

So, what are the scores on the doors?

Overall, if this were the situation on polling day, and assuming there are no other constituencies in which the Lib Dems gain or lose seats, the party would be looking at losing none of the seats it won in 2001, gaining between three and five seats from the Tories, and gaining between five and six seats from Labour (counting the two by-election wins, Brent East and Leicester South, as potential gains rather than holds or losses).

On a baseline of 51 seats won in 2001 (adjusted down from the 52 seats actually won in 2001 because of the Scottish boundary changes, and ignoring the two subsequent by-election gains), the punters are predicting a net change in Lib Dem seats of between +8 and +11, which would give the party between 59 and 62 seats. This tallies with the current betting and spread betting prices on the total number of seats.

Before you start gambling, however, read this
detailed analysis by Anthony Wells (and the ensuing comments) regarding the opinion polls conducted in marginal seats. Remember, the marginal seats are where the parties are putting in most of their effort and money, so local swings are unlikely to replicate the national swing.

Update: The Liberal Democrats are now quoted in the Islington South market. The odds currently favour a Labour hold. Markets have now opened in Bournemouth East and Wells (both forecast as Tory holds).

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


The truth about immigration

I cannot recommend too highly this blog posting on asylum and immigration (with thanks to the 2005 UK General Election blog round-up for the tip).

The policies of the Tories, the cowardice of Labour, the lies of the tabloids and the stupidity of the Great British Public are all taken apart thoroughly.

And there is this compelling analysis of the basic political motive behind the attacks on immigrants:

I believe this is all done quite deliberately. Right-wing political forces represent the views and interests of the wealthy and powerful. But, in a democracy, they have to gain the support of a large number - maybe not a majority, but a large minority - of those who are neither. And race is a key tool for achieving this. Convincing people that they are poor not because of injustice and exploitation, but because of the feared "other", coming here and taking our jobs and our benefits and our housing and our health services and so forth. The classic "divide and rule" strategy, setting different groups of people at the bottom against each other. It is no longer possible to directly blame "the blacks" (or the Jews, or whoever else), so the scapegoating is now transferred to the less racially-specific concept of asylum seekers. Thus, solidarity and sense of common humanity are discouraged in favour of fear and defensiveness. Because solidarity and a sense of common humanity do not serve the interests of the rich and powerful.
One of the best things written so far in this election and compulsory reading.


Amazing facts no.493

Last night's BBC1 drama-documentary about Genghis Khan promised a revisionist history, a programme that would prove this global conqueror wasn't so bad after all.

In the event, we learned that slaughtering a million people was all in a day's work for Genghis Khan. Admittedly, all of his adversaries in that era were just as brutal and the only moral difference was his ability to operate on a larger scale.

Genghis Khan came from a modest background and built an enormous empire from scratch. Although this empire lasted barely 100 years after his death, it did leave one unexpected legacy.

One of his main motivations for conquering other people was to "enjoy their women". Only at the end of the programme, however, did we learn this amazing fact: an estimated 1 in 200 of the world's population today is descended from Genghis Khan. The phrase "putting it about" takes on a new dimension.

This confirms my view that the main motivation for acquiring political power is not financial and certainly not altruistic. It is sexual. It is the basic urge of macho men to be "king of the castle" and dominate everyone else, driven by an elemental need to spread one's genes at the expense of other men.

I explored this topic in more depth in my most recent
Liberator article. Behaviour that suited the 13th century Mongols is something we can well do without today.


How to polarise the country

The Tory campaign on immigration is certainly having an effect. It has succeeded in splitting the country into two distinct camps.

In today's
ITN poll round-up, Dr Paul Baines (Principal Lecturer in Marketing, Middlesex University, on secondment to the Political Unit, MORI Social Research Institute) reports:

"NOP's poll for the Independent shows that 38 per cent of all voters agree and 37 per cent disagree that 'the Conservatives are using immigration as an excuse to raise the issue of race' whilst only 19 per cent of Conservative voters agree and a whopping 65 per cent disagree with this statement."
Not an issue you can fudge, then. So I suggest the Liberal Democrats give up trying to pacify racist opinion - they're all voting Tory, UKIP or BNP anyway - and instead take an unashamed liberal stand to consolidate support in the opposing camp.


Swap Shop

Former Labour MP Brian Sedgemore has defected to the Liberal Democrats. This is good news - Sedgemore made a brilliant libertarian speech in the Commons on 23rd February, opposing the government's Prevention of Terrorism Bill. He has also voted with the Liberal Democrats against the government on a number of other issues, notably Iraq. Monday night's BBC2 Newsnight reported that Sedgemore is claiming that several more ex-Labour MPs are about to leave their party.

Just a thought, but is there any chance New Labour would agree to take in return the Lib Dems' odious clique of right-wing nutters in "Liberal Future" ?

Monday, April 25, 2005


A free market in easy listening

Never mind who'll win the general election. Here's the poll that really matters. What are the "All Time Top 200 songs"?

In my home county of Lincolnshire, the listeners of the local commercial radio station Lincs FM think they know the answer. They have voted "in their thousands" in this annual poll and the results make for some
grim reading.

It is unfair to pick on Lincolnshire, since a similar opinion survey in any other part of provincial Britain would probably yield similar results (as
Nick Barlow recently pointed out). Rather than quibble about the specific choices (tempting though that is), the point here is that this list of 200 songs illustrates some fundamental problems with commercial radio and the music business, which have consequences for the extent of available choice and the range of popular taste.

Inevitably, Lincs FM's list is dominated by safe and familiar choices. First on the list is - you've guessed it - Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, the automatic choice of just about everybody too lazy to give the question much thought. There are 200 better songs by Queen, never mind by anyone else.

The list continues in predictable form. Second is Angels by Robbie Williams, third comes Bat Out Of Hell by Meatloaf, then in fourth and fifth places are a couple of songs by Bryan Adams. And so on.

Apart from its obvious predictability, the first thing that struck me about this list is the realisation that rock music has become the new easy listening. Not any old rock music, but 'AOR' (adult-oriented rock), particularly the so-called 'power ballads' that first appeared in the late 70s, a genre set in aspic when bands such as REO Speedwagon, Aerosmith, Toto and Foreigner laid down the rules over 25 years ago. It is formulaic, corporate rock from an anachronistic world of mullet hairstyles, mic-stand wielding singers and lighter-waving audiences.

'Easy listening' once meant the sort of light orchestral music that dominated the BBC Light Programme of 60s childhood memory. More recently, the term has become associated with the sort of light jazz plugged by Michael Parkinson (Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum, et al.). Presumably this is too subtle for Lincs FM's listeners, who clearly prefer some rocktastic bombast with their pipe and slippers.

These listeners know what they like and like what they know. Another striking thing about the list is its narrow range. Most major popular genres are notable by their absence - jazz, blues, country, folk, soul and world music (none of them esoteric). It is also a very white list - the highest placed black artist is Tina Turner at no.40, with the execrable The Best (which I doubt any black person has ever bought). And it is a measure of the strength of the corporate hold on our culture that there is no music on the list with any local connections.

For a list claiming to be "All Time", the historical perspective is remarkably stunted. There are very few songs dating from before the mid-70s and, while there are a few recent songs, this remains a list with its heart in the 1980s.

The influential building blocks of popular music - post-war R&B, 50s rock'n'roll and 60s soul - might as well never have existed. The greatest rock band of "all time", the Beatles, merits only three songs. The first does not appear till no.26 (Hey Jude), then one must wait until Let It Be at no.118 and Yesterday at no.188.

The greatest rock'n'roller of them all, Elvis Presley, fares even worse with just two songs, Suspicious Minds at no.68 and the mawkish Wonder Of You at no.87. There is no trace of Elvis's groundbreaking hits from the mid-50s, which made his name and changed the world.

As for Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones - forget it.

This narrow and unimaginative choice reflects the typical output of local commercial radio stations such as Lincs FM. The situation in Britain increasingly mirrors that in the USA. While there are hundreds of these stations in Britain, most are owned by a handful of large corporations, whose central bureaucrats homogenize the output by imposing playlists and circulating tapes of syndicated programmes. The only thing that's still 'local' about these stations is the traffic reports.

You would think that such a restrictive music broadcasting policy would infuriate the music industry, anxious to sell CDs by a variety of artists. Far from it. This situation suits the record industry, now dominated by four major global corporations, which would much rather consumers bought CDs by a relatively small number of lowest common denominator mainstream artists. It's harder for these companies to achieve economies of scale or make higher profits if a myriad of choice or unpredictable changes in fashion cause volatility in the market.

There's another group that benefits from this sorry situation, and that is those opinion formers who claim that any criticism of mass public taste is 'élitist'. These assorted critics and commentators believe it is 'judgmental' to say there is 'good' or 'bad', or that there are right or wrong choices. In this spirit of bogus democracy, we must 'give them what they want'.

This argument misses the point. One can argue whether a particular song is good or bad until the cows come home. It is less a question of criticising other people's specific tastes, more of recognising that no-one can hope to develop fully their musical tastes unless they are exposed to a wide variety of music. If you restrict what people can hear, they'll vote for a restricted choice.

Paradoxically, if you want more choice on British radio, you must turn to the publicly-owned BBC rather than the 'free market' commercial stations. The BBC's nationwide music stations
Radios 1, 2, 3 and 6 offer a variety of music you won't find anywhere in the private sector. This paradox is something that laissez-faire ideologues simply cannot grasp. In their eagerness to privatise the BBC, or expose it to the stifling demands of advertisers, they would give radio listeners less real choice for the sake of an abstract political doctrine.

This reminds me of a brilliant satirical sketch on A Bit of Fry and Laurie about fifteen years ago. Set in a restaurant, it featured a customer (a government minister) being served by a waiter (played by Stephen Fry). The waiter removed the minister's silver cutlery and emptied a large sack of disposable white plastic coffee stirrers onto his table. When the minister complained, the waiter replied that this was providing more 'choice'.

The value of public broadcasting in general and the BBC in particular is demonstrated when radio stations, rather than 'giving them what they want', give people what they didn't know they might like. This stretches and liberates people rather than panders to prejudices, and helps stimulate a more vibrant and varied culture.

Britain's commercial radio stations, on the other hand, are like a sack of plastic coffee stirrers - cheap, mass-produced and identical. In this instance, the 'choice' is bogus. It is a good illustration of the Liberal view that we should judge economic structures by their outcomes rather than express a doctrinal preference for the public or private sector.


The PEB we should have made...

Suppose there were no inhibitions, regulations or restrictions on Party Election Broadcasts. What PEBs would the parties actually like to make?

Channel 4 News commissioned Lee Ford and Dan Brooks, creators of 2005's most forwarded viral email (the spoof TV commercial where a suicide bomber blows himself up in a VW Polo), to make three such TV ads, one for each of the main parties.

You can watch all three spoof ads online
here (you will need Windows Media version 8 or above).

The Liberal Democrat ad is terrific. It packs a real emotional punch. Watch it before you next go out canvassing - it will put a spring in your step!

Saturday, April 23, 2005


Sieg Heil!

In the interests of balanced reporting, I feel obliged to inform you that the BNP's election manifesto was launched today.

Beyond the predictable stuff about withdrawal from the EU, restoration of capital punishment and a complete end to immigration, the BNP's führer made this bizarre statement:

Mr Griffin also wants the reintroduction of national service and said everyone who had undergone it should be required to keep a modern assault rifle at home.

"It's there to shoot burglars with if they want, it's there to shoot people who invade this country if they want, and if in the end a tyrannical government wants to usurp the rights and freedoms of the people it is there to use against the government as well," he said.
Griffin, whose party is no stranger to tyrannical behaviour itself, then added this non sequitur:

He added that this would disprove the "smear" that his party was totalitarian.
Rather puts Tory policy in perspective, doesn't it?


Down Your Way

The Liberal Democrats today highlighted rural issues.

I don't wish to criticise the party's rural plans as such but would make this observation. Why do we talk of 'rural issues' but not 'urban issues' or 'suburban issues'?

Most British people live in cities. Britain is one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with approximately 90% of the population living in urban settlements. Britain was also the first country in the world to urbanise; the size of its urban population had overtaken the rural population by about 1850. Yet we do not necessarily talk of the issues in urban areas as 'urban' issues, whereas we do with 'rural' issues.

Having once been a candidate in a rural constituency, I know that most people's concerns are the same as you will hear anywhere else and are not distinctly rural. It is true that rural communities have some issues that are distinct from those in more urban areas, such as the threatened closure of village schools. But it is not always helpful to talk of these issues in terms of ruralness.

Take agriculture, for example. It is usually raised as the main 'rural issue'. But is it? Most people living in the countryside no longer work in agriculture. Most agricultural problems, on the other hand, are bound up with the broader problems of the food industry, such as the monopoly purchasing power of the big supermarkets, and are not a function of the rural location of farms.

I look forward to the party's pronouncements on 'suburban issues', so we may ponder the cultural and spiritual poverty of lives lived in dreary housing estates, where no communal amenities (such as shops, schools, pubs or restaurants) are within comfortable walking distance.

The party will tackle the 'continuing crisis' of suburban dinner party conversation, providing grants to enable people to talk about anything other than house prices or school places. Homeowners would be required to seek planning permission before watching a TV makeover show, and rate relief would be offered to newsagents that bother to stock a complete range of broadsheet newspapers.

Well, I can dream, can't I?


Whatever happened to Lib Dem Watch?

The anti-Lib Dem Liberal Democrat Watch site has provided some modest entertainment over the past year.

Though anonymous, it is allegedly sponsored by the trades union Amicus. Stories appeared almost daily until March, when they began to dry up, the last appearing on 27th March.

After two weeks of silence, a new posting on 12th April announced "Lib Dem Watch is back", apologising for the hiatus and promising a return to normal service. Since then, nothing.

One can only assume that, as part of Amicus's efforts to support New Labour's re-election campaign, maintaining the Lib Dem Watch site is a low priority.

Meanwhile, things are little better at the other 'watch' sites. Labour Watch has had no news since 12th April, while Tory Trouble has been silent since 14th April.

And I thought this was meant to be a negative campaign.


Cry God for Harry, England and who?

Today is St George's Day, the national day of England, and the English will celebrate it with... well, not a lot.

To find out what is happening, I put the phrase "St George's Day" into Google and the first website to come up in my search was
St.George's Day Events, "a 'not for profit' organisation, dedicated to promoting and celebrating St. George's Day".

It looked promising. I clicked on 'news and events'. If I tell you that fourth on this nationwide list of events is a scouts' parade in Luton, you will get a flavour. Further down the list, however, we discover that not all English folk traditions are dead. The Heather Pub in Wembley is indulging in that traditional English pastime of Karaoke, while in nearby Harlesden, the Ace Cafe is hosting a Ska Night.

Gore Vidal once remarked how every ethnic group in the USA had its day and its big parade, apart from the English (he didn't mention the German-Americans, but that's another story). He speculated what such a celebration might look like and concluded that it would consist of a parade through New York by men in bowler hats, singing sea shanties.

The current election controversy about immigration suggests a deeply nationalistic race, yet the English are curiously reticent about their nationality. Following the Union with Scotland, the English subsumed their identity within 'Britishness'. If you look at archive film of the 1966 World Cup final, for example, you'll notice that the England fans were waving Union Jacks, not the Cross of St George. It was not until the 1996 European Cup, held in England ("football's coming home..."), that English soccer fans began to wave the English rather than the British flag.

Except at soccer matches, however, the English assume that anyone who displays a flag - British or English - must be a racist or a nutter. Most English people still prefer to regard nationalism as a matter for consenting adults in private.

While the English tend to avoid overt displays of nationalism, they still need a sense of identity. Now that the Scots and the Welsh have walked away from the concept of Britishness, the English have been left wondering who they are. The debate about Englishness really got going when John Major, during his term as prime minister in the early 90s, made this famous remark:

"Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist."
This image was instantly repudiated by a variety of other people with an assortment of rival visions. It turned out that no-one in England could agree what Englishness was. The one point on which the English agreed was that they did not conform to foreigners' stereotypes of the English.

The truth is that, whether you are English or not, if you have a particular image of England, you will be able to find evidence somewhere in England to confirm your prejudices.

The paradox of trying to impose a uniform identity on the English is that England's chief characteristic is probably its variety. Indeed, the English have traditionally celebrated their individualism and eccentricity. So why should anyone be anxious to create a more homogeneous image?

The present English identity crisis is not simply a function of UK devolution but mirrors similar crises all over the world, as people struggle to come to terms with the effects of globalisation.

The English who are most comfortable in their own skins are precisely those who make the least song-and-dance about their nationality. They are educated and cosmopolitan people with transferable skills, who are best able to benefit from a globalised world.

The English with the biggest chips on their shoulders are the older, white and mostly working class people who have been left behind by globalisation. This is the group most likely to retreat behind a stockade of caricature Englishness, blaming foreigners for their insecurity.

This, more than anything else, explains the vote swap that has been going on over the past ten years, with the Labour Party attracting the affluent middle classes while losing its traditional working class support to the Tories, UKIP or abstention.

It is becoming increasingly clear that these underlying social changes are fuelling the arguments in this general election campaign, in so far as there is any real debate at all. Immigration has a potent value because, more than any other election issue, it is able to symbolise and channel some much deeper feelings.

The political argument should not be about whether hostility to immigration is racist - it obviously is and there's no point denying it. The argument should instead be about the underlying insecurities that provide fertile ground for racism.

No policy to combat racism can work unless it is based on a strategy of restoring a sense of inclusiveness and giving people power over their own lives. The right-wing response of pandering to racism deals with symptoms rather than causes, while the traditional left-wing response of 'multiculturalism' - particularly when it tells white people they must live in a perpetual state of guilt - merely aggravates the situation.

It is a perfectly legitimate aspiration for everyone to want a sense of belonging, in the sense of both community and economic usefulness. Neither New Labour nor the Tories are prepared to address the basic problem of people's insecurities, consequently their political argument about immigration and asylum-seekers is entirely beside the point.

These questions of identity and insecurity boil down to the most basic political question of all - how you distribute power and wealth. Popular insecurity is a product of a sense of powerlessness - Liberals above all should understand this.

Friday, April 22, 2005


Betting update - Lib Dem gains and losses

The odds are moving in the Liberal Democrats' favour in many of the betting markets for individual target constituencies. Where are the punters currently predicting gains or losses?

As I reported in
Monday's posting, this betting portal on the Political Betting website enables you to compare odds for each of the individual constituencies where a betting market has opened up. (If you do bet online, please go through the links on the Political Betting site – doing so earns a commission that helps pay for the running of this very useful site).

Let me repeat some health warnings. First, this posting is a snapshot based on current odds (which in many cases are very narrow), and the betting market is by its nature in a state of flux. Second, relatively little money has been placed so far, so you can take the current odds with a pinch of salt. This will change as we get nearer to polling day, when the betting odds are likely to become a more reliable guide than the opinion polls. Third, there isn't yet a betting market for all the marginal and target constituencies (still no market for Islington South, surprisingly, and nothing yet for Aberdeen South, Dunbartonshire East, Totnes or Wells), though new markets may open later in the campaign.

Here's how the Liberal Democrats will fare according to the punters. Constituencies where there has been a change since Monday in the predicted outcome are marked with an asterisk (*). Constituencies where a new betting market has opened since Monday are marked with a cross (+).

Vulnerable Lib Dem-held seats:

* Brecon and Radnor - Lib Dem hold
* Brent East - Lib Dem hold
* Cheadle - Lib Dem hold
+ Colchester – Lib Dem hold
* Eastleigh - Lib Dem hold
Guildford - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
* Hereford - Lib Dem hold
+ Leicester South - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Labour
* Ludlow – Lib Dem hold
* Mid Dorset and North Poole – Lib Dem hold
+ Newbury – Lib Dem hold
* North Norfolk - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Richmond Park - Lib Dem hold
* Romsey – Lib Dem hold
* Somerton and Frome – Lib Dem hold
Torridge and West Devon - Lib Dem hold
Weston-super-Mare - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Lib Dem target seats:

Birmingham Yardley - Lib Dem gain from Labour
Bristol West - Lib Dem gain from Labour
Cambridge - Labour hold
Cardiff Central - Lib Dem gain from Labour
+ Colne Valley – Labour hold (Lib Dems third)
+ Eastbourne – Lib Dem gain from Tory
+ Edinburgh South – Labour hold
+ Falmouth and Cambourne – Labour hold (Lib Dems not quoted)
+ Folkestone and Hythe – Tory hold
Haltemprice and Howden - Tory hold
+ Harborough - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
+ Hornsey and Wood Green – Labour hold
Inverness, etc. - Lib Dem gain from Labour [on new boundaries]
Isle of Wight - Tory hold
Maidenhead - Tory hold
+ New Forest East – Tory hold
North Dorset - Tory hold
* Oldham East and Saddleworth - Lib Dem gain from Labour
* Orpington - Lib Dem gain from Tory
* South West Surrey - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Taunton - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
* West Dorset - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
+ Westbury - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Westmoreland and Lonsdale - Tory hold
+ Wiltshire North – Tory hold
The only constituency where the odds have moved against the Lib Dems appears to be North Norfolk, where it is a very tight contest. One bookie is offering shorter odds on the Lib Dems, the other on the Tories!

Overall, if this were the situation on polling day, and assuming there are no other constituencies in which the Lib Dems gain or lose seats, the party would be looking at losing between zero and three seats to the Tories, gaining between two and seven seats from the Tories, and gaining between six and seven seats from Labour (counting the two by-election wins, Brent East and Leicester South, as potential gains rather than holds/losses).

On a baseline of 51 seats won in 2001 (adjusted down from the 52 seats actually won in 2001 because of the Scottish boundary changes, and ignoring the two subsequent by-election gains), the punters are predicting a net change in Lib Dem seats of between +5 and +14, which would give the party between 56 and 65 seats. This tallies with the current betting and spread betting prices on the total number of seats.

Tip of the week – Pile on the Lib Dems in Folkestone and Hythe at 5/1. You'll probably lose your money but, if enough people bet, it'll shift the odds away from Howard and maybe keep the bugger tied up in Folkestone.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of UKIP

Things are getting worse for UKIP. Having lost Robert Kilroy-Silk to Veritarse, the party has now lost another celebrity supporter, Joan Collins, who has defected to the Tories.

Collins shares with Kilroy-Silk the distinction of being a committed Eurosceptic with a home in continental Europe.

UKIP must be praying it does not lose its one remaining celebrity. The party has recruited as one of its candidates none other than the TV chef Rustie Lee.

Sadly, Rustie Lee is not exactly 'A'-list - in fact, she's so far down the showbiz food-chain that she was
rejected for I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!


Not that popular, then

UKIP is running 488 candidates in this general election. Or is it?

One UKIP candidate in the north-west of England is
standing in eight seats simultaneously. He has been nominated in Ashton-under-Lyne, Crosby, Heywood and Middleton, Hyndburn, Manchester Central, Rochdale, Stalybridge and Hyde, and Wigan.

Dr John Whittaker, an MEP and originally the UKIP candidate only in Wigan, explained,

"Although we already had candidates in place in 58 of the 76 North West seats and I had been selected to fight Wigan, I decided to fill some of the gaps where we had no other candidates."
I realise that UKIP is not what it was, but I cannot believe there is that big a shortage of ruddy-faced, spittle-flecked, tweed-jacketed, rancorous, xenophobic bigots.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Wanted: a backbone

Here's a tricky challenge. You are leader of a liberal political party. An important part of your job is to champion liberal and pluralist values, advance them politically and defend them against enemies.

Elsewhere in the world, a new head of state is elected, who is diametrically opposed to your views. His previous job, which he did for 24 years, was chief 'enforcer' in the organisation formerly known as the Inquisition. He is described in the
Guardian as an "iron-willed enemy of liberalism", while the editor of the Catholic weekly Tablet, writing in the Independent, confesses that this new leader has

... cracked down on liberation theology in Latin America; rejected any idea of gay marriage; countered feminists in the Church, put limits on dissent, and of course, in tandem with his rejection of secularisation, been hostile to pluralism.
In case you were still in any doubt, shortly before his election, this new head of state delivers a keynote speech in which he goes out of his way to declare that liberalism is both a great danger and a passing fancy.

What is the most appropriate response?

If you are Charles Kennedy, you produce this
masterpiece of evasion:

"His appointment comes at a defining moment for Catholicism and in maintaining the momentum of the Catholic church he will face the awesome task of reconciling its internal spectrum of opinion and fostering its external relations with the other great faiths of the world."
Meanwhile, in a press statement issued yesterday, Jim Wallace (Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats) offers this incisive criticism:

"On behalf of all Scottish Liberal Democrats, I congratulate Benedict XVI on his election as Pontiff.

"The prayers of Scots of all faiths will be with Pope Benedict as he embarks on his new mission."
Both these statements leave one wondering why they even bothered.

One doesn't need to resort to the Sun to find any criticism (today's front page
headline: "From Hitler Youth to ... Papa Ratzi"; although on page three, a topless Louise, 19, from Manchester, "warmly welcomes" the new pontiff).

For a more intelligent and liberal response, one must look elsewhere. Philosopher
Julian Baggini, writing in today's Guardian, dealt with the new pope's intolerance in no uncertain terms.

During his last few hours as Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI delivered what was, in effect, his election pitch, speaking out against the "anything goes" mentality that marked modern times. Absolute moral values had to be defended, he argued, against the "dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires".

We have known for a long time that orthodox religion has a preference for black-and-white certainties, but this crude dichotomy between the absolute moral truths of the church and the so-called laissez-faire relativism of the modern secular world is crassly simplistic.
Baggini reminds us that Plato saw through such arguments some time ago.

The idea that moral laws derive their authority from God's authorship of them was dismissed convincingly by Plato more than two millennia ago. His question, updated for our monotheistic times, is: does God command what is good because it is good; or is what God commands good because he commands it? If he commands what is good because it is good, then things are already good or bad irrespective of what he desires and we don't need God to establish morality after all. But if what God commands is good only because God commands it, that would mean that anything could be good or bad, and we're just lucky that God doesn't command us to kill and torture. Ironically, start with the idea that you need God for ethics and you end up either proving you don't, or with the ultimate form of relativism: the idea that God could make it so that "anything goes".

The black-and-white choice Ratzinger offers us is, therefore, a bogus one. The absolute moral certainty he claims the church offers is hollow, and the valueless relativism he claims is the only alternative a caricature of non-absolutist ethics.
Liberalism is a principled, not a relativist, alternative to moral absolutism. It recognises that we must take responsibility for ethics instead of accepting commands from on high. The source of our morality is essentially an ability to empathise with others, not a set of abstract rules.

Liberals need to argue this case vigorously, otherwise the doctrinal enemies of liberalism will assume a monopoly of virtue. The Enlightenment supposedly took place more than 200 years ago but we're not out of the woods yet.


The 500 billion pound gorilla

It has been widely remarked by assorted commentators that none of three main parties wants to talk about Europe in this election campaign. Each party calculates that there is nothing to gain but quite a lot to lose.

But there's a more fundamental political question that none of the parties wishes to talk about, and that is the long-term cost of pensions and healthcare. An
article by Anatole Kaletsky in today's Times explores this topic and comes to some uncomfortable conclusions.

Health and pensions account for nearly half of Britain's annual £519 billion of public expenditure.

Health is cited by 44% of voters as their greatest concern, which makes it by far the biggest issue in this election.

Yet there is surprisingly little fundamental argument about these issues, which explains why there is so little difference between the parties in terms of their overall taxation and spending plans.

The fact is that pensions and health are the most intractable, indeed insoluble, challenges confronting any modern government. And they are the two subjects that define most sharply the fundamental ideological question that all Britain’s political parties seem desperate to avoid: where should we draw the dividing line between the public and private sectors, between the responsibilities of the individual and the state?

Health and pensions raise these questions because they will inevitably absorb an ever-growing share of Britain’s national income as the population ages and as the elderly become more demanding for an affluent and comfortable lifestyle.

The unavoidable implication is that taxes and public spending will have to rise continuously if the government remains the dominant provider of both pensions and healthcare in the decades ahead. In an ageing society, where the ratio of people over 65 to the working-age population will almost double from 28 per cent today to about 50 per cent in 30 years’ time, expecting the Government to finance both health and pensions will mean an inexorable rise in taxes and a creeping takeover of the whole economy by the state.

That, in turn, will imply the sort of economic sclerosis of the kind we see in many continental countries, where age-related public spending has already risen to the levels that threaten Britain in the coming decades.
It is obvious that any grown-up debate will be deferred until after this election campaign is over - but for how much longer?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Money for old rope

Consider this dilemma. You are the renowned environmentalist George Monbiot. You have a weekly gig writing a column in the Guardian. The features editor asks this week for 1,000 words on the British general election, a subject about which you apparently know little. Still, the cheque comes in handy.

What do you do?

Answer: produce the
biggest load of bollocks yet written about the election.


Another reason not to vote Labour

The Foreign Secretary refuses to rule out the use of evidence extracted by torture abroad in our courts.

The law lords will be hearing a test case in the autumn. But we could get rid of Jack Straw this May.


Vatican Central - Conservative hold

So a new pope has been elected. Vatican officials can now get on with the job of clearing the Sistine Chapel of any discarded stakeboards and "Good Morning!" leaflets that were not burnt to make white smoke.

I thought they might pick a cardinal from the third world and I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition. Still, if you're going to have a hardliner who wants to crack down on contraception and homosexuality, it helps to choose someone who started out in the
Hitler Youth.


Rivers of blood...?

Oh dear. Michael Howard is a desperate man.

There's a limit to the number of voters who are turned on by thinly-disguised racism and Howard has reached it. Now it looks as if Tory immigration policy may actually backfire.

Events at this morning's Tory press conference suggest that this particular dog-whistle has made the Tories wobble and sparked internal rows.

It gets worse. Rupert Murdoch, of all people, has publicly codemned Tory immigration policy:

"I don't think you need to put a cap on [immigration] unless you started to see a lot of unemployment arising out of it, which I think is highly unlikely. If you bring skilled people into the country I think it would enrich the whole country and create a lot more jobs. I am pro-immigrant."
As with the issue of Europe at the last election, the Tories have brought this fiasco on their own heads. Serves them right.


Where is the passion?

If you saw the edited highlights of Jeremy Paxman's interview with Charles Kennedy on BBC2's Newsnight on Monday evening, be thankful that you didn't have to endure the whole 30 minutes earlier in the evening on BBC1. (You can watch the interview online by clicking on the link on this page).

Kennedy was on the defensive throughout the interview and his basic problem became clear. It isn't knowledge of party policy (though that would help). The man has no fire in his belly. He needs to project passion and conviction but seems to possess neither.

I cannot recommend strongly enough Matthew Parris's
column in Saturday's Times, which identified this problem ahead of the interview.

Where is the passion? Is George Galloway to be Britain's only mouthpiece for the fury millions feel?
Parris, as a Tory, is surprisingly sympathetic to the Liberal Democrats' political opportunity but not to the party's lack of clear leadership or direction.

In the next Parliament ID cards will prove the new gambling Bill: at first broadly popular in principle, on inspection increasingly problematical in practice and finally open to growing philosophical attack. Mr Howard's Tories are in a mess about the issue. Mr Kennedy's Lib-Dems' position is impeccable on paper.

So where's Charlie? Where is the philosophical confidence? Where are the ringing declarations? Yes I know - I am a Tory - that many floating Conservatives today ask what the fuss is all about. Well, tell them! Tell them why it won't work. Tell them how forgetful little old ladies will be carted off by the police for leaving their cards at home while al-Qaeda bombers will carry impeccable forged credentials at all times. Remind them about the Madrid bombing, where Spaniards had compulsory ID cards. Remind them they'll have to pay.
And there's another problem - the party's localism.

I could write a book about the opportunity Charles Kennedy looks likely to miss, and it would have the most boring title in the history of political science: The Limits of Rennardism. Chris Rennard is the party's election mastermind. He has masterminded many small victories. What makes him so good at masterminding small victories is what makes his approach so bad at masterminding a big one.

Lord Rennard believes that every campaign is local: "Action for Streatham/ Bakewell/Penzance..." But where is the Action for Britain? Focus is what Lib Dem local freesheets are called, and focus is exactly what a party of local action is failing to establish nationally.
The Liberal Democrats lack a clear national strategy and a passionate moral core. What we get instead is the politics of Royston Vasey, an aggregation of local tactical campaigns in 80 or 90 constituencies. It reminds me of one of those old variety show plate-spinning acts, and we're reaching the limits of how many plates anyone can keep spinning.

The outcome in this election that I fear most isn't a net loss of Liberal Democrat seats (because that's unlikely to happen). The outcome I fear is what happened last time, which will probably happen again this time: a modest incremental gain of a few seats, which is hailed as a great victory, thus preventing any fundamental re-assessment of the party's strategy.

amnesia about local income tax appears to have spread to other parts of the parliamentary party.

Will somebody please get a bloody grip?

Monday, April 18, 2005


Runners and riders

Which seats will the Liberal Democrats gain or lose on 5th May?

It's hard to tell from the nationwide opinion polls, since there will not be a uniform swing across the whole country. Perhaps the punters have a better idea - after all, they're putting their money where their mouths are.

Thanks to this
betting portal on the Political Betting site, you can now compare odds for each of the individual constituencies where a betting market has opened up.

Before we look at the list, some health warnings. First, this posting is a snapshot based on current odds (which in many cases are very narrow), and the betting market is by its nature in a state of flux. Second, relatively little money has been placed so far, so you can take the current odds with a pinch of salt. This will change as we get nearer to polling day, when the betting odds are likely to become a more reliable guide than the opinion polls. Third, there isn't yet a betting market for all the marginal constituencies, though new markets may open later in the campaign. Hence no mention yet of Newbury, Eastbourne or Aberdeen South, for example.

Here's how the Liberal Democrats are doing in the marginal seats, according to the punters.

Vulnerable Lib Dem-held seats:

Brecon and Radnor - neck and neck between Lib Dems and the Tories
Brent East - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Labour
Cheadle - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Eastleigh - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Guildford - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Hereford - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Ludlow - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Mid Dorset and North Poole - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
North Norfolk - Lib Dem hold
Richmond Park - Lib Dem hold
Romsey - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Somerton and Frome - Tory gain
Torridge and West Devon - Lib Dem hold
Weston-super-Mare - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
Lib Dem target seats:

Birmingham Yardley - Lib Dem gain from Labour
Bristol West - Lib Dem gain from Labour
Cambridge - Labour hold
Cardiff Central - Lib Dem gain from Labour
Haltemprice and Howden - Tory hold
Inverness, etc. - Lib Dem gain from Labour [on new boundaries]
Isle of Wight - Tory hold
Maidenhead - Tory hold
North Dorset - Tory hold
Oldham E. and Saddleworth - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Labour
Orpington - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
South West Surrey - Tory hold
Taunton - neck and neck between Lib Dems and Tories
West Dorset - Tory hold
Westmoreland and Lonsdale - Tory hold
If you think you know better than the punters, you could place a bet (via the links on the Political Betting site), but don't blame me if you lose your shirt.

Sunday, April 17, 2005


Neither up nor down

Are you a "drawbridge up" person or "drawbridge down"?

Stephan Shakespeare (a director of polling company YouGov) poses this question in today's Observer, in
the most intriguing article I have yet read in this rather dull election campaign.

He uses the Rover crisis to illustrate how there are few real policy differences between the two main parties and thus relatively little choice. What is this election campaign really about?

So perhaps what the modern campaign is really about is defining our values. After all, we are now beyond ideology: the left have given up on the idea of total state control, even as a distant aspiration. The right have given up thinking about shrinking the state. The collapse of Rover is a political non-event. No-one seriously proposes a shift away from public services. Instead, there is a new line which separates one side of the electorate from another: recent YouGov research suggests that we no longer range along a left-right axis, but are divided by 'drawbridge issues'.

We are either 'drawbridge up' or 'drawbridge down'. Are you someone who feels your life is being encroached upon by criminals, gypsies, spongers, asylum seekers, Brussels bureaucrats? Do you think the bad things will all go away if we lock the doors? Or do you think it's a big beautiful world out there, full of good people, if only we could all open our arms and embrace each other? Depending on which side we take, we regard 'drawbridge up' people as unpleasant, or 'drawbridge down' people as foolish.
Much of the comment on this election assumes that New Labour is the one political movement that will survive beyond polling day, and that it is the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats who are struggling to define themselves and justify their existence.

If Stephan Shakespeare and YouGov are right, there might be a wholly different outcome. The Tories are clearly campaigning on a "drawbridge up" platform. The Liberal Democrats are unashamedly "drawbridge down".

New Labour is struggling, its old left instincts pulling in one direction and its short-term electoral calculations in the other. Its support is wide but shallow. Its drawbridge is neither up nor down.

Labour remains favourite to win this election but if, as in the USA, Britain is moving towards a values-based system of politics, then in the longer term it is Labour that is more likely to be the eventual loser.

Saturday, April 16, 2005


Ooh Matron!

The BBC has published this handy guide to "2005's most over-used campaign clichés".

If you're the sort of political activist who discusses what "comes up" on "the doorstep" with "real people" from "hard-working families", then you're in need of a good slap.

Regarding the oft-used reference to "matron" as a panacea for MRSA, the BBC observes,

Not since Hattie Jacques' heyday have we heard so much about Matron - and it is precisely that "Carry On, Nurse" image of the formidable matriarch bearing down on an unsuspecting hospital ward that the politicians want you to think of when they use this word.
My own particular bugbear, not on the BBC's blacklist but heard at every gathering of Liberal Democrat activists, is the reference to one's local area as "my patch". The next time I hear some campaign bore use this phrase, I may not be responsible for my actions.


Me thinks he doth protest too much

I see that Michael Howard has decided to join the growing chorus of complaint against the postal voting system, which is wide open to fraud.

Yet the suspiciously large numbers of postal vote applications in several Tory target seats demonstrate that Tory activists are just as adept with a wheelbarrow as their Labour counterparts.

Indeed, all the main parties are ignoring the Electoral Commission's recommendation that they do not handle postal voting applications at a centralised local address of their own before sending them on. Under the current lax laws, centralised processing of applications is not illegal, and the Electoral Commission has no powers to enforce its recommendations.

Howard's manufactured indignation suggests a contingency plan. He knows he won't win on 5th May, and is preparing the ground to undermine the Labour government's legitimacy. He is planting the idea that, even if Blair wins, he won't 'really' be prime minister. It is doubtful Howard would be complaining so loudly if he were ahead in the polls.

Presumably the Liberal Democrats' decision to ignore the Electoral Commission's request is more pragmatic. They are just as keen to win in their marginal seats as the other parties and take the view that if you can't beat 'em, you may as well join 'em.

The consequence is that the postal voting system is tainting everyone and will make any sort of political or legal challenge after 5th May more difficult, which is obviously Labour's intention.

Friday, April 15, 2005


It's political correctness gone mad!

At last someone has written something sensible in the Guardian about feminist Andrea Dworkin, who died a few days ago. Today's article by Havana Marking provided an antidote to the sheer drivel written in the paper earlier this week.

I found the urge to write an abusive post here almost irresistible on Tuesday, when the Guardian carried an
article by Katharine Viner, an obituary and another obituary , all of which were uncritical and sycophantic to an appalling degree.

If you think I'm being harsh, consider this quote of Dworkin's (taken from Viner's article):

"I really believe a woman has the right to execute a man who has raped her."
Just think about the full implications of that view for one moment.

Or consider this Dworkin opinion (again from Viner's article):

Her analysis of the situation in the Middle East... concluded with a call to women to form their own nation state.
And this from someone described by Viner as feminism's last "truly challenging voice", and by Gloria Steinem as having "a breadth and depth of intelligence that was refreshing".

Marking has provided a healthy (and feminist) corrective to this absurd fawning. I was inhibited from posting earlier by the realisation that any criticism by a man of a feminist icon would be dismissed out of hand. I feel no such inhibitions about quoting from Marking's article:

...what no one said, and what no one wrote in Dworkin's obituaries, was this: Dworkin's true legacy has been that far too many young women today would rather be bitten by a rabid dog than be considered a feminist.

Dworkin's radical writing and hugely controversial - practically melodramatic - ideas not only pushed the argument as far as it could go, but pushed it off the cliff of credibility.

The radical feminist view of the late 20th century is so similar to the moral Victorian view of the 19th century. It is, as Natasha Walter writes in her book The New Feminism, "an alarmist cocktail of horror and fury, with little interest in finding pragmatic ways to reduce women's abuse".

...when a woman is portrayed as a victim, even when she is not, and certainly does not feel like one, you not only insult her but you alienate her as well. The idea that a sexually active and interested woman is merely fulfilling man's fantasy, and there to serve him, is outrageous.

Heterosexual culture, like pornography, is not a bad thing in itself. Dworkin might not have actually said "all men are rapists" but she did have the slogan Dead Men Don't Rape above her desk. Blanket and extreme arguments help no one.
Andrea Dworkin was the ultimate example of the ultra-left's belief in the primacy of posturing over doing anything practical or useful. This self-indulgent search for extreme political purity is done in the name of progress while setting it back.

Perhaps now Dworkin's gone, we can focus more on achieving social justice and human rights instead of waging a gender war through doctrinaire loud-hailers.


The Great Vote Robbery

The headline story in today's Times confirms my view that the big story on election night won't be who's won but who's stolen the votes. The evidence suggests that fraud in this election is large-scale, systematic and impossible to police.

The Times report begins,

Applications for postal votes for the general election have risen by up to 500 per cent in marginal seats, sparking concern about the risk of electoral fraud.

A survey by The Times shows that applications have almost trebled since 2001. In some key marginals the numbers have risen even further. In Cheadle, Manchester, where the Liberal Democrats have a majority of 33, the number of applications stands at 8,226, nearly five times the 1,695 cast in 2001.
The government, meanwhile, appears to have accepted Britain's status as a banana republic.

The Times has learnt that the Government has, for the first time in a general election, invited international observers to monitor the last week of the campaign. The Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights will decide in the next two days whether to accept the invitation. "We don’t investigate and we would not micromanage the police, but postal voting will be looked at if we accept," a spokeswoman said.
Not surprising, really, when you read this:

[A returning officer] said that a Labour Party expert had claimed: "You need 75,000 votes to win elections in this country and I know where they all are."
You can see the Times's chart of constituencies with unusually large postal vote applications here. If one were to draw up a list of the court cases in May, I suspect it would look very similar.


Choice of words

Robert Kilroy-Silk, the Man with the Tan, launched the Veritas Party's manifesto on Thursday morning. I'm using the term 'party' advisedly, since normally it would imply a political movement rather than a one-man band.

The target of his attack was "liberal fascists". I'm trying to picture what one might look like but, no, the Nazi uniform just doesn't go with the beard and sandals. What can he mean?

Kilroy-Silk provides us with a clue. "Liberal fascists", he says, are the people who imposed multi-culturalism.

Of course! Now I remember! It all comes flooding back. Do you recall the time when Jo Grimond went round the country forcing people to eat curry? And the more recent electoral scandal, when Chris Rennard was found to have rigged a postal ballot in favour of the choice of Chicken Tikka Masala as Britain's favourite dish? Throughout his leadership of the Liberals, David Steel would regularly force ordinary people at gunpoint to board planes and spend two weeks in Majorca. Before he became a Lib Dem MP, headmaster Phil Willis had a strict policy of making all the children in his school listen to black pop music. And it has been a common practice for many years for Lib Dem Focus teams working in more middle class neighbourhoods to force people to decorate their halls with carved wooden African knick-knacks.

Indeed, such is the power and influence of these "liberal fascists" that millions of British drunks, instead of going straight home when the pubs shut, have been conditioned to eat doner kebabs.

Yes, "liberal fascists". What's the right word or phrase here?

Oxymoron? Contradiction in terms?

Let's just settle for complete and utter bollocks.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


No Pants Day

The day after polling day will be more interesting than usual.

Yes, Friday 6th May has been declared
No Pants Day.

In case you are worried about what you might have to reveal at the count when the clock strikes midnight, note that this is the American definition of 'pants' rather than the British.


Mr Shifti and Mr Khruk

The new edition of Private Eye (15th April) is particularly good on the fraudulent behaviour of the Labour Party in Birmingham, with a number of reports, both serious and comic.

Among the latter is this brief report in St Albion Parish News:

Mr Prescott writes:

This is a note to informalise you about the new arrangingments for the forthcoming parish elections. Unlike in previous elections, you will no longer have to walk through the cold and pouring rain to the primary school and/or stop watching your favourite TV soap 'Desperate Vicars' Wives'!

This time, you don't even have to fill in the voting paper. Just send it to me in the post and our team of trained helpers, Mr Shifti and Mr Khruk, will do it all for you! Just send your voting paper to me: J.Prescott, The Working Men's Club, St Albion's, and in due course it will be submitted to our returning officer in full accordance with the law! J.P.
It would be funnier still if it weren't so close to the truth.


2 + 2 = ?

I had to crawl behind the sofa while watching the TV earlier today, but it wasn't because of Dr Who.

Charles Kennedy made an appalling gaffe at this morning's press conference to launch the Liberal Democrat manifesto. The
manifesto itself is fine - but it helps if you can remember what it says.

Kennedy was wrong-footed while being questioned by the BBC's Andrew Marr on the subject of local income tax.
The Scotsman reports,

When Mr Kennedy was challenged to name the exact figure at which people would pay more, he appeared confused and had to confer with colleagues before replying: "A double income couple of £20,000 each, that’s what you are talking about. £40,000."

However, the party later issued figures showing that a couple on a double income of £40,000 in a Band D property would actually pay £21 less under local income tax.
The main point that Kennedy should have made is that, for many people, the party's policy would represent a tax cut. That opportunity was lost in the confusion.

On BBC2's
Daily Politics this lunchtime, film of Kennedy's press conference blunder was repeated, then Vincent Cable was subjected to some tough questioning from Andrew Neil (you can see today's programme online here until tomorrow lunchtime - the relevant bit is near the beginning of the show).

Cable performed well under fire, remaining calm, articulate and authoritative, and only once looked slightly flustered when Neil confronted him with a list of income tax rates in the USA to contradict an earlier claim. Worried Liberal Democrat candidates could do a lot worse than watch this interview and learn.

However, I fear that it will be the cringe-making footage of Kennedy mumbling and looking lost that is repeated on tonight's TV news programmes, rather than Cable's more assured performance. The Liberal Democrats can expect a lot of jokes made at their expense over the next 24 hours.

The party is in the big league now, and can't afford to make simple errors like this - baby or no baby. Local income tax is neither a new policy nor particularly complicated. No Liberal Democrat candidate, least of all the party leader, should be ignorant of it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


Blair lends a hand

A valuable political lesson. When you hold up a document at a press conference, be careful where you put your hand...

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


It's criminal

The propaganda war in this election campaign is confronting voters with a mountain range of bollocks. But when it comes to the issue of crime, the voters are facing a veritable testicular Himalayas.

Top of the handwritten shopping list on the front cover of the new
Tory manifesto is "More Police". I would have been more impressed if Michael Howard had instead written "Better Police".

Most politicians seem to believe that the answer to crime is more of the same.
Richard Ingram (in Sunday's Observer) has a conspiratorial explanation for this lack of imagination.

The cliché du jour is that the police are nowadays "tied to their desks" and "filling in forms". I am frankly sceptical of this excuse. A feature of British workplace culture, in both the public and private sectors, is that it is considered a perk not to have to deal with the public. This is why, for example, whenever you visit a hotel or restaurant in Britain, it seems that teenagers have been left in charge. The management is nowhere to be seen.

There is no reason to think that the police are immune from this phenomenon. Faced with a choice between pounding the beat on a cold and wet night, or sitting at a desk with a mug of hot tea "filling in forms", suddenly the bureaucracy has its attractions.

There are lies, damned lies and
crime statistics, which make it easy for unscrupulous politicians to raise fears and indulge in wild exaggeration. A recent Tory claim that violent crime had soared was immediately attacked by Britain's chief constables, but will have succeeded in raising fears nonetheless.

Fear of crime is often as much of a problem as crime itself, which is why irresponsible fear-mongering can make the situation worse. A policy that would tackle both crime and fear is to put police constables back on the beat. This means regular foot patrols in communities where individual police officers and local people know one another.

Unlike various quick-fixes and gimmicks such as ASBOs and CCTV cameras, 'bobbies on the beat' is an unoriginal, old-fashioned and low-tech strategy. But there is no better way to nip low-level crime in the bud while creating a visible police presence that provides people with reassurance.

And a better (though even more old-fashioned) idea than New Labour's gimmick of 'community support officers' is to reintroduce useful jobs such as park keepers, 'lollipop ladies', bus conductors, caretakers and nightwatchmen. Most of these jobs went in the municipal economy drives of the late 70s and early 80s, yet removing such people turned out to be a false economy. No-one appreciated that these jobs fulfilled an unofficial policing role. Local councils ended up spending more on the consequences of vandalism and other petty crime than on the wages they had previously been paying.

However, dealing with crime is not just about effective policing but is also a cultural issue. Something no politician would dare mention is the hypocrisy of most people towards crime.

For the middle classes, burglary is unacceptable, but speeding, drink-driving or pilfering from the office are considered fair game.

For the working classes, an unfounded rumour of paedophilia is sufficient justification to assemble a lynch mob, but it's fine to turn out and pay your respects at the funeral of one of the Kray twins.

The average British voter is all for 'naming and shaming' child sex offenders, but resents the work of the traffic police ("they should be out catching real criminals"). Yet a British child is a hundred times more likely to be killed by a speeding or drunk driver than by a strange man in a dirty mac.

The explanation for these attitudes is that people have always needed scapegoats. We feel comfortable with the idea of crime being something that is committed only by an identifiable alien group ("professional criminals", "yobs", "gypsies", "the criminally insane", "black youths" - in short, "them"). We cannot cope with the idea of crime being committed by people like ourselves.

Much easier, then, for a politician to add another shovelful of bollocks onto the existing tall pile.

Monday, April 11, 2005


Peter Hain - wine connoisseur

An interesting postscript to my posting yesterday regarding Peter Hain's attack on "dinner party critics who quaff shiraz or chardonnay".

Simon Hoggart demolished Hain comprehensively (and entertainingly) on Radio 4's Today programme this morning:

"I thought there was something oddly old-fashioned about his remarks... the idea that only snobs and rich people drink chardonnay and shiraz struck me in its way as being as outdated as the image of the man in the silk hat watering the workers' beer."
... and more revealingly...

"The last time I had a drink with him [Hain] in his office at the Commons, we enjoyed a very pleasant South African sauvignon blanc. He also has an exceedingly sharp eye for a refill, sharper I suspect than his eye for social, political and alcoholic change."
You can listen to the full interview here.


"What I heard about Iraq"

Here's why we "woolly liberals" won't be voting for Blair.

Read this
deeply depressing article by Eliot Weinberger.


Name That Tune - the party's choice

This blog has been the scene of speculation about the Liberal Democrats' official campaign theme tune. Sadly, none of my helpful suggestions have been taken up.

According to
Susanne Lamido, it's "the Karelia Suite by Jan Sibelius, rearranged by Philip Pope."

If it's the
Philip Pope I'm thinking of, he first came to fame while a student at Oxford, as a member of the pop group parody trio, the HeeBeeGeeBees (along with Angus Deayton). He then went on to star in Radio 4's comedy show Radio Active and the TV version KYTV. He wrote and performed the musical parodies on TV's Spitting Image and now makes a living writing the theme tunes to many TV and film comedies.

Sibelius was hardly a barrel of laughs at the best of times, so I'm not sure how a comedy version of the Karelia Suite might sound, or how anyone could have arrived at such a bizarre concept. It must have been a very late night in Cowley Street.

PS: Monday morning's Guardian (in the column 24 days to go, not available online) reports,

Charles Kennedy has ditched plans for a campaign rock song. The Lib Dem leader has put aside his love of David Bowie for the more sedate sound of Sibelius. According to party insiders who had to endure the alternative, the choice is "a lucky escape".
My usual prize of a box of Belgian chocolates to any 'insider' prepared to spill the beans regarding the tune the party nearly chose.

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