Cyber sects

Reading in full detail how Egyptian authorities effectively isolated their nation from the rest of the world through one simple act of denying Internet access puts into focus our own complacent attitude to the icon we double-click almost without thinking every morning at work, or every night at home. For the Chinese living under their own stringent regime, even searching for the word ‘Egypt’ has become impossible.

Hardship at a time like this promotes ingenuity; Al Jazeera [whose coverage has been compelling viewing, the channel coming of age as CNN did during the first Gulf War] reports the uptake of dail-up and proxy accounts has soared. Chinese Internet users have been making subtle changes to the spelling of ‘Egypt’ [埃及] to circumvent the ‘No search results can be found’ generated message. Through enthusiastic social media interaction and co-operation around the globe, the development of uprisings and protests across North Africa and beyond has been tracked and followed despite the crackdowns on communication.

Whilst news coverage of Egypt filled our laptop screens, protests in London and Manchester against tax evasion, Government spending cuts and public service reform attracted coverage of the BBC and SKY. Some placards drew parallels between their message and that of the Egyptian protesters, urging the NUS and UKUncut-led umbrella movement to ‘walk like Egyptians’. Cyber-communication played a vital part in organising and maintaining the British marches; the website Sukey [http://sukey.org/] enables protesters to stay ‘one step ahead of trouble’, utilising programmes such as Twitter and Google Maps, and “wisdom of the crowds”, to avoid marching into violence or kettles.

Whilst many of the most poor Egyptian protesters would gladly have a fraction of the life of their UKUncut equivalents, parallels between the ostensibly different circumstances can be drawn. Access to the Internet, affordable over-the-net communication and cheaper mobile phones has empowered the most disenfranchised and redressed the balance between the ruled and their rulers.

How did we get to this stage? And how complacent are we in the West to the ‘right’ of Internet access?

As somebody who remembers the need to wait 4 minutes for the completion of the dial-up tone before accessing Netscape whilst living at home, the strides taken from then and now are beyond comprehension. Schoolchildren in the UK today have grown up with home or school web access almost as a ‘given’. The poorest children in Britain are in serious danger of being left behind as the incessant march towards technological advancement creates a two-tier system at the earliest, most important stage in a child’s educational development. Governments of all colours, and organisations and companies which manufacture computers, are complicit in this digital divide: we are all complacent as we punch in search terms on Wikipedia or Google or YouTube.

Re-defining what the Internet is, can be, could be, will be the next struggle for those on both sides of the protesting marches throughout this year and future years. Guns and fighter jets are no use against cybercrimes or mass denial of service attacks; Governments cannot rule where there are no borders. Ultimately, though, the question should be “for whom”, not “for what”. Freedom of speech, freedom to protest, the right to exist above the poverty line: these are the “rights” whilst Internet access itself is the “privilege”. From the very trivial – only having email address to a company or service – to the most vital – having blogs censored or deleted by the State – however politics and people exist this year, the world-wide-web is inextricably linked.

Preston Guild Hall

Prestonian blogger River’s Edge has had an outburst relating to the safe-guarding of Preston Guild Hall. Despite Preston City Council suffering one of the largest funding cuts – over £5m lost in two years – all three parties in Preston Town Hall, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the ruling Conservatives, have worked together in ensuring a budget which secures Preston’s Guild Hall as a venue for music, plays and comedians.

I agree with River’s Edge view that “[c]reating and enjoying theatre, music and dance are activities that can mean the difference between civilisation and dull quotidian existence.” The news that future Guild Hall productions will have a greater emphasis on local productions proves that Town Hall members are dedicated to keeping local theatre groups and local technicians in guaranteed employment. There is still a guarantee of big names being signed – so the best in national figures and local productions will continue to appear side-by-side. Even the Pantomime is secured. We could have the Chuckle Brothers again! Or Paul Dannan….Oh, wait, no, no..Not after last time…

The figures are clear. The Guild Hall complex costs over £1 million to run and maintain, and the last two years has seen consecutive losses of £1 million each. The financial pressures on Preston Council and taxpayers cannot be put to one side. Preston has secured, through some very difficult choices, the continued opening of both leisure centres at Fulwood and West View, and maintained the future of the Guild Hall, whilst suffering the severe central Government cuts.

Preston’s Guild Hall is more than just its Charter Theatre – the complex has room for improvements and expansions which would help our city in its aim to become “The Third City of the North West”. Some expansion plans will need to be mothballed, others explored through co-operations with third parties and local enterprise. Its ‘grotty’ side, that which used to be Morrisons leading to the Bus Station, is as bad an advert for Preston as anything I could imagine; surely the Council or the Guild Hall management can explore ways to brighten up this section without breaking the bank?

The reality is all three parties in Preston agree that a closed Guild Hall would be infinitely worse than one cut back to help balance the books. As somebody with the threat of redundancy over my own head, I know the sinking sensation in the stomach which comes from job uncertainty, and I can think of nobody within Town Hall who wants to deliver the worst news to staff currently working within the Guild Hall. There are avenues to explore and I hope the pain today can soon be over. We still have a venue to attract tourists, and ultimately money to help rebuild the shaky economy.

It’s refreshing that all three parties are getting somewhere with working within the financial realities for the city. Here’s hoping continued cross-party attitudes can carry on whilst the need for such attitudes is required…

School haze

One vivid memory from my primary school days involves the dire warnings of the future from a traditional old sort of a teacher about the forthcoming “National Curriculum”. His fire-and-brimstone approach painted the newly created world of education would be all “format” and no “freedom”. Standards would be prescribed, classrooms would become cages for our dreams.

That was in the 1990s, and now Education Secretary Michael Gove is undertaking the most significant review since its creation. Somewhat predictably, the review and its remit is tinged with political posturing on all sides of the education debate; is the naming of anti-Slavery campaigners and the axing of Winston Churchill ideological, should children learn from rote, should children be filled with facts without opinion, why should children be forced into formal education in the first place, and so on, so on, so on…

Having been introduced to the NC at its inception, thousands of adults today retain the distant memories of learning certain subjects over and over again every other month (Oh good, the Roman Invasion again, it must be Tuesday!). The new regime was backed up with ‘attainment targets’ and ‘programmes of excellence’. Later on in the process, fake-leather ‘Records of Achievement’ would be handed out, all the better to keep our exam board certificates fresh within plastic pockets. (I have, long since, lost my ‘Record of Achievement’….).

Inevitably, subsequent political changes at Westminster have tended to dictate education reform. Nothing works on the stump more effectively than promising to shake-up the schools. The current National Curriculum document speaks in languages alien to my recollection of High School during the 1990s;

The most significant change is the development of
diploma qualifications in 14 lines of learning at levels
1, 2 and 3. The first five lines – engineering; society,
health and development; construction and the built
environment; IT; and creative and media – will be
piloted in schools from September 2008. The diplomas
combine practical skill development with theoretical
understanding, covering sector and general learning in
applied contexts.

“Society” – and “citizenship”, which now appears to have been scratched – are Labour reforms, and “practical skill development with theoretical understanding” is policy wonk speak which could only have been created by the kind of people my primary school teacher warned against. The tick-box education system did not happen on the day NC was introduced, though it certainly polluted everything else since.

Bad decisions were made in the race to be seen ‘responsive’ to education concerns – most infamously the decision to axe compulsory language education beyond Key Stage 3, effectively denying children the opportunities which come from being able to converse in either modern European languages or the new business world languages of Mandarin or Hindi. Search the current NC documents for “language” and no results are found.

Measuring standards across schools is the priority for Governments, fearful of judgements on the reading, writing and arithmetic skills of the children the State is tasked with educating. Sadly the urgency to be seen succeeding has filled most staff rooms with fog and bluster; it takes years for the education reforms of one Government to be seen “at the other end”, and the increasing impatience for instant results sees children’s educational experiences swapped and changed more times than management away-day agendas. It is hard not to feel sympathy for teachers whose lessons are built from continually changing materials; one year firm-but-fair could become freedom-and-expression. League tables, another on-high prescription for all which ills, force Local Education Authorities into a bizarre competition format within and beyond their borders, although the inability for low- and middle-income families to move children from one underperforming school to another – should they want to – means League Tables are often only useful for one partisan side of the education debate to criticise the other. Parents, children and teachers, whose work ultimately creates those Tables, are left shielding their heads from the sniping.

If Gove is serious about NC reforms, his rationale needs to be far more radical than his Department’s briefing notes suggest. It is shocking to me – as someone who relished learning the little things to keep the brain ticking over – that Ministers have highlighted omissions such as “geography curriculum does not identify any continents, rivers or mountains or name any countries apart from the UK.” If Gove is honest in his endeavour to reintroduce ‘facts’ into the classroom, this deserves support and praise. The curriculum was always ‘alien’ to Britain by its very nature; if it takes one Conservative to improve on the foundations from predecessor Conservatives, then that should be congratulated.

The wider education debate is far more involved than merely publishing new booklets explaining what can and cannot be taught to eager teenagers. The opportunities for learning and expression across younger years has been blanketed under boardroom tussles and Government grandstanding for decades, generations held within the grip of ideology and party politics. Gove is clearly an educational enthusiast, bias cut towards the schooling he received. In the wider education argument drafting prescriptive checklists and targets seem wholly inappropriate.

My teacher was concerned by how the National Curriculum would miss the specifics in its model for the wider ‘ambitions’ for education. I fear he has been proved correct. Gove should making ‘free schools’ with lowercase letters, and axe the National Curriculum entirely.

Oldham East and Uphill Struggle

Tomorrow morning, in front of Oldham’s Civic Hall, Labour leader Ed Milliband and his newest backbench MP Debbie Abrahams are holding their victory press conference in the open air surrounded by shipped-in supporters of all shapes, sizes and religions.

“A new dawn has broken, has it not?” asks the younger Milliband, holding onto Debbie’s wrist with his left hand. (Her left hand is flat and by her side, as focus groups find female candidates doing the thumbs-up “too Palin”. She is permitted two (max) little waves of the hand, like the fattest bridesmaid at the wedding reception.)

“This result is a sensation that rocks the heart of the ConDemNation!” barks little Ed, to the choreographed delight of the invited crowd. By the end of the evening, Oldham East (and Saddleworth, “like attaching Coronation Street to Last of the Summer Wine” as described by Michael White) would be thankful for never being asked to vote on anything, again, ever.

All being right and reasoned with the world, the good burghers of Oldham East and Saddleworth will put Labour back with a handsome-ish majority. LibDem Elwyn Watkins is a damn fine candidate, and I would prefer him winning after running Phil Woolas so close (one-hundred-and-three votes) in 2010. My smart money is on Abrahams; this is Labour’s to lose, not the Liberal Democrats to lose.

Doubtlessly, the combined forces of the on-line Labour keyboard Corps. will hed asplode at 11pm when the Returning Officer takes to the stage. It would certainly wobble the Coalition, just nothing like as hard as Labour think it will. This is more “finger poking a cheesecake” than “hammer against a balloon”.

Ed, for one, has yet to strike a name for himself. Though his stance has advanced from “opposition for the sake of it”, he appears to have given up reminding his Shadow Cabinet colleagues of his Conference plea to ‘grow up’ and ‘do Opposition differently’. Labour MPs appear confused, still, over the best way to deal with Coalition Britain; pointing out divisions between the two partners is counter-productive. Of course there’s going to be differences, that’s what “coalition” means. On the deficit reduction plan, Labour have yet to define exactly what they would do differently (if we sidestep the inevitable reminders of Liam Byrne’s “there’s no money left” note, there’s Alistair Darling’s “cuts worse than Thatcher” quote whilst still Chancellor to bring to mind….).

I’m not as rabid pro-Coalition/anti-Labour as some notable interweb commentators appear to be, clearly frothing at the mouth at every whisper of Westminster gossip about early elections, splits and divisions, as though ‘new politics’ means the same tedious parlour games that turned off voters years ago. Labour, it has to be said however, are not addressing the nation as a “Party prepared”. In the fast-forward news agenda world of today, the Opposition are expected to be primed for action; more mature and reasoned opposition would stop chasing the spotlight and dictaphones (and, indeed, some members of the Government could do well to stop acting like newspaper commentators, too….)

Labour must be careful what they wish for. Unsettling the Coalition, even pressing for an early election, would be a disaster. Ed’s profile is negligible. His position on the student protests was shaky, uneasy, and even now his reputation amongst the growing numbers of youthful protesters and anti-cuts groups seems weakened and wary. An early election would underline the under-cooked centre of his strategy, splitting his internal coalition – Brownites and Blairites at opposite ends of the Shadow Cabinet table ready to pounce.

Opinion polls are two a penny at the moment, bringing Labour some cheer with their constant and growing lead. Annoyingly for Ed, the polls show much less obvious support for not making so many cuts so quickly. His “squeezed middle” has yet to permeate beyond the hacks in the Lobby. They are also within the margin of error; and after the 2010 election you can forget ‘uniform swing’, it no longer exists.

A snap election would doubtlessly “do” for the LibDems…but for Labour? They’re constant House of Commons “bantz” as they ridicule the Coalition without putting up answers themselves could backfire. An electorate who accept the need to keep tight hold of their pursestrings don’t want to hear about spend, spend, spend. An outright Tory majority is statistically more likely than an outright Labour win. Coalition is currently putting the brakes on the worst Conservative excesses (see how angry the 1922 Committee is getting with their allegations of ‘tickling the LibDem tummy’). Coalition is working, and Labour know deep down how realistic an outright Conservative victory really is.

Playing the long-game annoys MPs, especially now, when the news agenda demands quick-smart reactions and fast-forward changes. It would be far better for Labour to play the slow game, make the subtle and considered moves of the poker player. Ed may win in Oldham tonight, but lose the long-term battle. That’s the gamble at the foot of the Pennines. Whatever happens, it only matters what moves Labour makes next…

Britney Spears "Hold It Against Me"

So it’s out there, and YouTube is full with “0 Views” hastily copied videos of it, Twitter is awashed with RT’d links to naughty download sites, and Facebook seems to have become a de facto fan site….

Yes, Britney Spears – the schoolgirl gone RnB princess via media meltdown – has a new single out (as though any of the contrived publicity has passed out by). Is it any good? Erm…Well….

It’s a muddle of a song, to be fair. The title – “Hold It Against Me” – is the tag-line for the world’s worst chat-up line (and, it seems, written in more seriousness than The Bellamy Brothers ever did).

There’s just the hint of the GaGa about it (the ‘in the club playing my favourite tune’ vibe of the first verse is clearly hoyked from “Telephone”), with the dubstep beats and multi-layered vocals all combining together with an over familiarity. Remember when Kylie over-used the vocal-effect of ‘coming up to air from underwater’ ? It’s here, right before the Eurovision-style key change for the end. There’s even a sudden stop ending, an old throwback if ever I heard one…

All that said….however….it’s a comeback single alright, one which shows intent and direction. Faced with Rhianna and Lady Gaga, and witnessing the hapless reinventions of one time rival Christina Aguilera, le Spears has not embarrassed herself much at all. Tap your foot, nod your head, murmur along to the words whilst in the shower; it’s at the upper end of ‘decent’.

Whole new image? Entirely new direction? Revolutionary reinvention? Not a chance. It’s still very identifiable as Britney Spears, unusual mouth-full-of-boiled-vegetables voice an’ all; it sure as Heck ain’t “Toxic”.

Sleeper

Back when NME used to leave newspaper print on your fingers, and “Melody Maker” wasn’t the name of an iPhone app, Britain rocked to the sound of one of the last genuine musical movements.

Jealous of being locked out of the older scene – where a single £15 pill would last all weekend – the kids of the 90s picked up their guitars and generated years of a very British music revolution. Call it ‘Britpop’ or ‘indie’, it was the coming together of northern lads borrowing from Merseybeat and southerners taking on the Mod sound, in a gear-shift in cultural attitudes and behaviour. It wasn’t without its low points (ahem, cough, Kula Shaker, aichooo), nor did it end when it should have done (go away, Silver Sun), but don’t we all want to compartmentalise our youth into little packages? Course we do.

And here’s the thing: most retrospectives will stuff their pages chocka with the Union Flag plus Gallagher combo, plastering the memories with posters of blokes and their outgrown fringes. Despite the best efforts of many female-fronted and all female-bands (from Sneaker Pimps through to Lush), the majority male bias to the scene remains the more profitable to recall.

This is a shame, not least because any broadbrush overview ignores the very specific reasons why Britpop was unlike any other modern musical moment. (Why are all contemporary females in pop soloists, whilst men make up the groups? Wasn’t always ever thus…)

Louise Wener’s Sleeper (as they were always called, especially in Select), did not use femininity as a leitmotiv, though female twists to the narrative did appear throughout their time bothering in the charts. It was Wener, to be fair, who sold the band for what they were. Her voice – with the fragile break of Tracy Thorn about it – and indie-chic look (dividing schoolboys between her and fellow pop Louise Nerding from Eternal) were vital pieces in the Sleeper jigsaw. Yes, they had more radio-friendly melodies than many of the other girl-led bands (Elastica, for example, tended to stay away from mainstream radio stations), but that is by no means a crime. Heck, it got Garbage through two albums before the scene finally ended its final come down.

Sleeper stand up today to much critical scrutiny. This is uncommon – Lush turned out too many middling fillers for my liking, and Echobelly had a firework-like career (though check out “Djinn”, if you can, cracking late-late-late-career single). Sleeper have a constituency and maturity which belies the mainstream, readily available nature of their output.

There’s plenty of songs I could highlight, but I’ll go for the couple to which I return the most. “Inbetweener” – the name living on in cult Channel 4 sitcom-land, though not the same meaning – and “She’s a Good Girl”. I hope the unitiated enjoy.

All that glistens

The BBC has been on the wrong side of soap opera publicity this month (only one week in), with mass-appeal programmes attracting the wrong kind of focus and commentary. The soap suds were well and truly whipped with perennial gloom half hour Eastenders, with its cot-death storyline curtailed following 6,000 complaints about the additional narrative element involving a ‘baby swap’ and mental instability.

Across on Radio 4, where listeners are often less likely to take to the complaints forms and Basildon Bonds unless it is absolutely necessary, the ‘everyday tales of rural folk’ took a leftfield (see what I did there, geddit, etc) turn with the death of Nigel Pargetter. Former Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer coined the phrase “Shock Armitage to the Core”, inevitably reduced to the Twitter hahstag “sattc”, to describe the storyline which was kept under wraps (unusually for a soap opera) until the moment it happened. When it did happen, all the usual soap opera tropes were there – I listened waiting for someone to say “Please, Nigel, don’t go onto the slippy, icy roof at night in a storm, for you might fall off”, and I wasn’t that disappointed…

Both these examples show the attraction of, and problems with, soap operas as mass-market audience magnets. That Eastenders has felt the need to run with a cot-death storyline for prime-time television is a topic for another debate; that they chose to include a baby-swap element indicates part desperation (like it or not, the Beeb has to participate in the ratings war) and part acknowledgement of the hyper-reality of soap storylines (real life is never as interesting for those who don’t live in a street or square with weekly murders, affairs and morality price-wars).

The Eastenders storyline is now being wound up faster and sooner than originally intended The ‘power of the ‘net’ didn’t quite force the producers hand, though interestingly it was the founder of Mumsnet who led the charge against the BBC with claims of inappropriate sensationalism. How many television programmes have now been subjected to social media users running campaigns and groups for or against specific elements of output? Should producers be concerned by this viewer power revolution? I am reminded of Mark Gatiss’ remark about live-tweeting during television programmes; it’s best not to watch what viewers are saying in real time to broadcast, it’d drive a writer mad.

So is this just ‘Points of View gone feral’? Certainly it seems that way for Radio 4 and The Archers, where the death of Nigel has been called ‘an anti-climax’ after weeks of publicity and heavy hints in newspapers (though Twitter and Facebook did play a part in whipping up suggestions for what exactly would cause Ambridge to shake to its core, running from a gun rampage to a character turning on the radio, hearing the Archers themetune and causing a time-vortex across central Cambridgeshire).

Soaps are very rarely failures for channels with the time and investment to keep them high profile. When Channel 5 launched, they did so with a soap (“Family Affairs”) and when that soap began to falter, killed off the main family for an effective relaunch. ITV capitalised on kitch being cool with relaunched (and dream sequenced) Crossroads. For the BBC, Eastenders and Archers are testament to quality and patience, loyalty and treating audiences with as much respect as possible. Why these recent surges in criticism matter is because the last point has not been upheld, like a contract not being respected.

For the Beeb, shaky confidence in soaps matters. These two incidents should recall, however briefly, the one instance of Auntie getting it completely wrong, the launch and plane-into-mountain collapse of Eldorado in 1993.

This ‘sun, sea and scandal’ soap (opening credits somewhat truncated here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmUpuMcQlUU) bumped Wogan off the schedules and was promoted across the BBC as the best soap launch since Eastenders in 1985. To cut costs (it was filmed entirely on location), producers used untried actors and simplistic filming techniques. The results were disastrous. It would close its doors in 1994, a million or plenty thrown away, leaving the Corporation red-faced through shame rather than sun-tan.

Notable elements of the Eldorado disaster are legendary. The international cast had many who could not speak fluent English, so were given entire scenes (often 3 or 4 minutes long) of dialogue in their native tongue without subtitles. To help viewers in the UK understand what was going on, contrived scenes appeared later on with laden dialogue (“So, Swedish girl, you are having problems with your partner, maybe you should tell me all about it before your next Swedish-language scene with him?”

What is still known as the ‘Eldorado effect’ hampered production. If you want to know what a swimming pool sounds like through a boom mic, watch old episodes, as the lapping water would be louder than the actor’s voice. Filming in bare villas, not studios, meant echoing footsteps and laughter sounded unusually flat, or lifeless.

Ultimately, the programme finished because viewers did not feel engrossed in the lives of the ‘everyday folk’ soaps need for success. Ex-pats living abroad, shacking up with 17-year old girls or having a bemused Spanish speaking waitress as a live-in lover at your exclusive villa, did not give the mid-90s soap audience (generally those suffering from the recession) much attraction to tune-in.

Pre-internet campaign groups, all pro-Eldorado viewers could do was demonstrate outside Television Centre demanding Alan Yentob’s head on a stick. There was little sympathy.

For Eastenders today, the cot-death storyline will bruise the brand but not hoik the show off the screens anytime soon. The BBC has forgotten about the core audience now being joined by a multitude of on-line keyboard warriors ready for action whenever outrage is afoot. Eldorado was badly written, terribly acted and too well-meaning to be saved. But nothing is too big to fail, as we are learning to our costs. It’s only television, granted. If it’s not scaring too many horses (unless it’s supposed to, like the Archers or Emmerdale), just switch off…

Fringe thinking about binge drinking

A professor at Chicago University has advised the Government on how to deal with binge drinking.

I suspect this guy – Richard Thaler – knows nothing much about the British drinking culture….

But that is just one factor of this story. I thought this kind of ‘State knows best’ advice mindset had been deposed at the last election. “Behavioural economics”, as the story calls it, is questioning what is not merely ‘tradition’ but polite, ordinary behaviour. Rounds at the pub is probably the best way to keep checks on outgoings – the additional cost of buying for a small group should persuade most sensible people out of drinking excessively. If you don’t want to ‘keep up’ with the people you’re drinking with, then don’t.

Pubs are closing at a record rate, and whilst I don’t want to encourage people to get ratted just to keep the local open, I can’t see how previous or current Government policy is helping to stem the tide. There are numerous threads to the problem – the smoking ban, the Licensing Act and its tangled bureaucracy, increased duty on alcohol and little support for small/micro-breweries…I am against ‘minimum pricing’ on booze because the costs can be soaked up (if you will) by supermarkets whilst hitting publicans hard. There’s no incentive for landlords to stay open outside city centres, and even within busy towns traditional pubs are shutting at an alarming rate.

This professor seems to be interesting in ‘engineering’ social behaviours. If I’m out with some mates around town, it’s up to us to decide when the next ales are bought. I don’t see suggesting some kind of tab system in a city centre pub is feasible for this situation, never mind the endless combinations of groups going out for a quiet ‘un or an all-day bender. This idea seems targeted at young first-time drinkers, but as ever with Government advisers, is stretched out to fit everyone. “Prevention is better than cure” shouldn’t be advice outside the Department for Health.

I understand why Governments need to deal with ‘binge drinking’, and the related problems of pubs closing and supermarket buying power. It seems, as ever, the best advice tax payers are ultimately charged for is ‘micromanage’. Tab systems in British pubs as a ‘solution’ to a round-buying ‘issue’? It must be a slow news day. It just has to be. The sour taste in my mouth after reading this just won’t go away, I need a stiff drink…

Speak your brains

When Tony Blair introduced the Number 10 petition site, critics and plaudits arranged themselves in formations not too dissimilar to those now reacting to the Coalition’s proposals to allow Parliamentary debate and even Bills from a website-based scheme whereby 100,000 signatures could be the gateway to Commons scrutiny. “This could open up Westminster”, claimed those in favour. “Magnet for obsessives and saddoes” decry the antis.

In reality, the Number10 scheme was not a total disaster. It did encourage debate; over 1 million people supported the proposal to scrap road tolls and vehicle monitoring, something the Labour government was forced to carry-out and something the Coalition has pledged not to introduce. I recall the issue coming up in conversation in the office at the time, which led to people spending a lazy afternoon creating and signing petitions of their own interests and persuasions. Although the Number10 model was flawed (and in some cases open to this sort of tin-hat oddity), it opened a door which subsequent Governments will find difficult to close.

(Labour have been very good at laying ‘traps’ for subsequent Governments, I notice, they may have been economically illiterate but they were as cunning….)

As Mark Pack points out over at LibDem Voice, the scheme proposed by the Coalition has some in-built ‘checks’ against viral campaigns and trouble-makers; the 100,000 minimum signature level should deter some of the usual suspects, and even then only those ‘deemed appropriate’ would make it to the floor of the House. I worry about how those which cross the 100,000 line would be ‘chosen’, and whether orchestrated campaigns for extreme or frivolous suggestions would be themselves encouraged by MPs who want the scheme ended, but from the groundwork of the original site I think a sound building has been proposed.

Asking our MPs to debate awkward subjects – maybe an immigration petition, possibly abortion law reform or tax evasion – cannot have a down-side. There is all to play for if the scheme allows the country to put pressure on MPs to debate those subjects which attract the attention of the increasingly politically inclined Twitterati and Facebook group creators?

There is something of the ‘novelty’ about all the recent attempts to – horrible word alert – ‘engage’. Nobody seems to have responded to “The Big Conversation”, and Nick Clegg’s ‘freedom from’ or ‘freedom to’ website has only been given a prod today thanks to the Independent on Sunday running a front page feature (with highlighted proposals running from the legalisation of cannabis and relaxing the Licencing Act, to scrapping the Racial and Religious Hatred Act. Out in the country is a genuine hunger for debate and discussion, one which is fired up with every newspaper comment column and phone-in. Petition sites with the ‘prize’ of a Bill at the end could be a great idea (I hope is it), though the path getting here is littered with forgotten schemes and redundant websites.

Democracy has not been fixed since the general election; schemes like this won’t repair everything, and must be attached to such ideas as the referendums in the Localism Bill and genuine work on fixing broken relationships between people and elected representatives. Has anything come from the Labour idea to make creating parish councils gone anywhere? “Estate Councils” would empower disadvantaged people build their local area far more than pressing ‘Like’ on the proposal ‘Give checkout girls nurses wages!’.

Critics bemoan all these ‘devolution’ schemes as gimmicks. They underestimate the power of the internet to collect and organise, to frame and focus debate and lobbyists. There’s a lot of constitutional reform being pushed through this Parliament, and the main focus seems to be on returning power to the people through direct democracy. This could be a massive opportunity for reform, one which will shake the certainty of ‘the establishment’, one which will test the doubters if its allowed to happen.

Doubters have valid concerns – the cost, the feasibility, how the valid petitions will be chosen, how much of this is ‘buck passing’. One interesting idea from the comments section of Mark Pack’s blog post is to have a “NO” vote reduction on the scheme, reducing the total of supporting signatures. That could dampen the viral campaigning of the troublemakers.

I have tentative support for the ideas, all told. It would encourage debate of some tricky subjects, introduce to the House the subjects so often called ‘those our MPs never want to discuss”. There’s a heap load of logistical nightmares to overcome, though I’m one for siding with the opportunities it encourages. Dealing with difficult truths could be Blair’s petition legacy…