ReBrand

“Well, fine, you know, Paxman, I mean he’s lost his teeth anyway, he’s like Russell fucking Hearty these days.”

Cynicism about politics has existed since the first Greeks picked up some pebbles. Democracy, as wise men have said many times before, is the worst of many evils, and just plain doesn’t work.

Fresh from calling panellists and audience members “mate”, “that fella” and “Dave” on Question Time, Russell Brand faced Newsnight attack dog Jeremy Paxman for what appeared to be something of an old-fashioned slice of television, a long and characteristically sprawling interview during which Brand took apart (or tried to) every piece of scaffolding built around the country by Establishment & Sons, Ltd. Like the well versed man he is, Brand pebble-dashed objections, observations and general opinions with little regard to reason. This was not outrageous, nor was it Occupy; it was a proven performer performing.

The reaction has been immense, both on the largely pro- side, who consider Brand and politics to be the new Dawkins and religion, and from the anti- side, for whom the interview was little more than an exploration into the world of a badly dressed sixth former. Somewhere in the middle, surprise surprise, is where you currently find me. I am not subscribing to Brandism, nor do I dismiss everything he says as fluffy idealistic nonsense. As the man himself told Paxman, he can’t create utopia in a hotel room.

Not participating in the democratic process, as Brand advocates, is not a solution. Turnout at many elections, particularly local authority elections, are meagre enough as it is without celebrity-backed boycotts. The fewer people vote, the greater risk of one of two outcomes happening; the incumbent party holds on through lack of opposition; or extremists from either side of the political spectrum sneak through. Ah, people say, but we don’t agree with the electoral system at all, so such concerns don’t matter. I agree that the volunteer sector is proving that people can create opportunities for people to seek and provide help without local authorities’ direct involvement, but no town or city, however small, can survive on support networks created without some form of democratic organisation overseeing the results.

Unelected, unaccountable groups to whom local councils fob off services or decisions, the nameless “vision boards” and the like, are more unacceptable than volunteer groups running the local library. Rather than promoting non-participation in governance, Brand should encourage pressure being put on central government to award or return genuine power to Town Halls – abandon the use of arm’s reach boards and consultancies, and fire up true devolution through councillors to the people. I accept that not voting can, in itself, be a valid democratic act, but far more can be achieved by being within the process than always being outside.

The machinery of national politics needs rewiring, from lobbyists and pressure groups and how they work within the parties and not just outwith government, to the electoral administration of the country. Fix one element and the machine will purr again. Yes, your eyes can glaze over at the sound of the words “voting reform”, but lack of trust in the democratic process stems from members of the public knowing that it makes no sense for Britain not having a truly representative parliament. All those of you who complained – to me, with vigour – that your vote for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 somehow helped create Hell on Earth need reminding that your votes and millions like them, meant tiddly squat in a country where fewer than 100 of the 650 seats in parliament actually mean something. Far too many ‘safe seats’ created by First Past the Post can only – and has – encouraged apathy in millions of people who know that they can never change the government of the day.

Fewer government departments and less MPs would help reduce the cost of Westminster, and true devolution to the regions would loosen the London-centric media grip on covering ‘politics’. Our politicians are not representative of the nation at large – not those Labour front benchers who claim to be ‘on your side’ whilst backed by healthy donations from Unions, and who don’t earn, or would ever claim, anything approaching the average in their predominately working class constituencies; not Conservative members from the leafy shires who still do not understand the anger over expenses claims for comfy country pads and ample gardens. We need to open up Town Halls and Westminster to genuine representatives of the people, not just sharp suited bores straight from Uni who have only known a life of bag-carrying for MPs and climbing ladders within the system. If Westminster is to represent real people, those chosen as candidates by any of the main parties must stop choosing oiks who think The Thick of It was a lifestyle programme.

And yes, candidate selection and proper representation does go back to the dry electoral administration talked about earlier. Open primaries, proportional representation, recall elections, electronic voting, open hustings, votes at 16 – if we are a grown up democratic country, let us fix the machinery. There have been failed attempts at reinvigorating elections – the Referendum Party in 1992, the Jury Team, an ITV reality show to pick an independent candidate. Such ideas don’t necessarily have to fail if used as basis to try again.

Yes, Brand looked beyond such tinkering to a much wider, radical, less democratic revolution, but I’m a believer in representative democracy, and I don’t believe I could any easier create utopia in my room than he could in his. No functioning country in the western world could survive without corporations or democratic institutions. I know far more people who hang on every word of unaccountable, unelected corporate suits – Apple, Rockstar Games, the FA – than those who could name their MP. That’s a failing of the democratic system. That’s not to be ignored as a problem, but it cannot be resolved by the dream-world candyfloss created by a very smart, very clever dreamer. Brandism is but suggestions for a better world already in the mix of debate, particularly in a country of Whigs and Liberals, Churchill and Mills, Dawkins and Hitchens. Let us use Brand’s ideas to form a new structure for the country – but let’s not use his blueprint for the future. It won’t work.

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Being subtle in the House of Commons is not particularly easy, let alone encouraged, so maybe it’s no surprise that Siobhain McDonagh (Labour, Mitcham and Morden) has gone full out neon-lit cuckoo-bananas with her Bash The Coalition Bill.

I’m so sorry; I mean, with her “Homeless (Voting Exclusion) and Head of the Household (Retention of Power over Vulnerable Women and Children) Bill.”

The idea behind the proposed law – which has no chance of progressing much further – has a sound core. It’s just the rest of the structure around it which lacks integrity. Surrounding the central argument is rice-paper and silly string, a ragbag collection of thinly veiled partisan attacks. It’s not surprise to me that a Labour politician wants to nobble electoral administration to benefit the Party; such an attitude was the basis behind their shameless attack against AV and the childlike squealing of ‘gerrymandering!’ during the ultimately killed off boundary change process. Nothing pleases Labour more than keeping the voting system and electoral administration firmly in their grasp, and McDonagh’s proposed Bill ensures the grip is tighter than ever.

One line of attack in the Bill – formally “Electoral Register (Access to Public Services)” – rubbishes individual electoral registration. The move to IER removes the nonsense of the ‘head of the household’ having the power to register (or in most cases, deliberately not register) people living at an address. In my “previous life” as an electoral candidate, it was something of an open secret that manipulation of the registration process by ‘head of the households’ and related problems with postal votes excluded women and young people from voting. IER will go some way to alleviate that problem. McDonagh tries to make a negative thing out of the loss of voters in Northern Ireland when they switched, ignoring the fact that many of the missing names on the Norn Iron voting register probably didn’t exist in the first place. Or indeed had been long since deceased.

The most remarkable piece of nonsense has to be the central part of her proposal. If a person wants to take part in any aspect of everyday life, then they must be registered to vote. I assume this is the same thinking which had the Labour Party promoting compulsory ID cards as part of the ‘war against terror’. Putting to one side the bizarre leap in logic required to accept the notion that wanting to drive has the same passion as wanting to vote, we get to the oddest sentence of all. Namely this beauty;

If someone does not like living in a democracy, that is fine, but they should not expect all the good things that democracy offers in return.

 

Does this remind you of Louise Mensch’s “you can’t be anti-capitalist if you use an iPhone” argument? I love the premise. “If you’re angry about an issue or specific policy, then you ruddy well better wait until an election, young person, rather than this placard waving protests you keep banging on about.”

It’s a wonderful piece of homeless prejudice too, as it completely misunderstands the journey many vulnerable people have to take to seek help. By making the register a form of National Registration Scheme, McDonagh takes the basis of democracy and squishes it into a flattened Colgate tube.

Reaction to her idea has been largely negative in the real world, where McDonagh and other MPs ignorant of democracy tend not to live.

Source, and source and source

Readers of a certain age may recall the fallout from the Poll Tax, during which time the electoral register shrank across the country as people tried all the could to avoid paying charges they couldn’t afford. Linking the electoral register with any kind of State benefits or crime-fighting purpose is therefore toxic in some areas, particularly Labour-leaning cities such as Liverpool or Glasgow which saw the worst of the backlashes. If McDonagh understood the problems people have with the words “electoral” and “register”, she would have realised that threatening to withhold benefits for non-registration sounds like a police sanctioned threat. It’s not the language of politicians generally let alone specifically Labour.

This horrible, twisted and offensive Bill will die a quick death, as the Parliamentary process is not kind to Ten Minute Bills and their related brethren. In the case of this proposal, which threatens women and children with social exclusion and places power in the hands of unscrupulous landlords, nothing could be kinder than a shot to the head. What a shambles.

 

South Shield of fair play…

Labour have the chance to show they’re ready to try something different…..but prominent blogger Mark Ferguson puts forward a good reason to prove how they’re not.

When Louise Mensch left Crosby for New York, the Labour Party had one up in the resulting by-election by way of an already selected candidate who could legitimately use the ‘local boy’ tag. It chimed loudly with Ed Miliband’s  new cry – the still somewhat vague “One Nation” rebranding of Labour – and with it came certain victory. He used one soundbite very well – “The road to Westminster runs through Corby” – and then spoiled it all by claiming he won as proof of “one-Nation Labour”. I can only assume John O’Farrell lost as proof that Hampshire is technically independent.

Things are very different in South Shields, as they were in Manchester Central, and Cardiff South and Penarth. This is a slice of working-class Tyne and Wear, a safe-seat so monumentally strong for Labour that the Electoral Reform Society suggested there wasn’t much need for a by-election at all.

Whilst hyperbolic, that ERS post does contain a valid argument. South Shields has been Labour since Universal Suffrage, had a 13,000+ majority in 1979 never mind the 22,000 majority in 1997, and has awarded almost all its MPs with some of the most significant jobs in British politics. No other party but Labour could possibly hold this seat, a position which makes my democratic senses tingle, even whilst realising there’s hardly anything to be done to break the record.

David Miliband was given this seat – in every sense “given” – in the quiet landslide year of 2001, achieving rapid fire fast-forward promotion within months. Flying off to New York for a £300,000 job isn’t something many of his working class constituents can do, but he’s flying off now leaving a vacant seat looking very tempting for hundreds of Labour Party members. Doubtlessly dozens of local members hope to “do a Corby” by showing how much better things would be if the next MP isn’t so detached from the everyday lives of voters.

Unfortunately the Labour Party machine might not be thinking quite so similar nice thoughts about localism and respecting local opinion.

As Ferguson points out the selection timetable is prejudiced against anybody outside the Labour machine from becoming the next South Shields MP. The selection meeting takes place in London, in only a few weeks, and the South Shields CLP will be unable to fully scrutinise the shortlist in good time. It’s a curtailed timetable with a swift turnaround, made all the less fair by implicitly excluding anyone with a modest income or without ‘contacts’.

I live in a safe-seat for Labour, where elections tend to be try-outs for the “others” as there’s no way Preston would ever fall to anybody but Ed Miliband’s Party. To their credit, the Conservatives have chosen more women candidates recently than the Liberal Democrats have ever done (which isn’t hard, given the latter figure is zero). This is almost, kind of, sorta what the Labour Party could be doing in South Shields. Just because the Tories in Preston have been nice-but-useless doesn’t really matter; they were given the chance to fight a useless seat to give them experience, and as women from the south trying out up north, they could try out new ways of campaigning without blotting their future career prospects too hard. Didn’t win rock-solid Preston as a Tory? Doesn’t really matter, we can review how you did whilst being rightly semi-detached from the objective of the election itself.

Labour could do exactly this in South Shields, trying somebody who doesn’t quite meet the same model as the post-Blair era professional politician, someone who has more about them than a career path which avoids getting their finger-nails dirty. If a woman is selected – there’s not been one of those representing South Shields before – not a political bag-carrier woman known to the Party machine. If a South Asian – ditto – not a think-tank suit from Islington.

Despite talking the talk on “doing things differently”, Labour can’t help but micromanage their local constituency associations’ processes. In Rotherham and Middlesbrough recently, candidate selections were marred by controversy. At the former local members walked out of the selection meeting citing concerns over ‘outsiders’ and ‘stitch ups’. Not very “one nation”.

If we must have safe seats in this country, and we really should be looking at reforming our democracy to avoid having quite so many, then it’s time all political parties vowed to stop rushing towards professional politicians who use The Thick Of It as the context for their everyday lives. All main parties in South Shields should take the opportunity of fighting a foregone conclusion by stepping away from the norm. To an extent, the selection of O’Farrell in Eastleigh did just that; a writer and comedian who could talk “off message” and shake-up normal expectations. Unfortunately the media chose to ridicule out of context quotes from a 20-odd year book and he stepped down from candidature as a result.

Maybe all three main parties, and UKIP, could try tripping up the media and Twitter Outrage Corps. by choosing unconventional candidates in one big push. Maybe just one Party should, for greater effect. Not those who will finish fifth or seventh or even second. Maybe the Party who have already won South Shields without a vote being cast.

If Ed Miliband and Labour can’t loosen the parental ties in a seat like this, where and when will they?

Lancashire – Boundary Review, take 2

And so it’s here, Schrödinger’s review, a wholesale review of Parliamentary boundaries which is both alive and dead, relevant and pointless, current and abandoned. Is it ongoing whilst also aware of its demise? It could be worth sitting down with a large cup of tea, or something stronger, to consider its position. First of all, a personal point. Whilst I had every faith that the Commission would take some notice of the Liberal Democrat proposals I supported (and in some cases assisted in selling at two public meetings), it appears that we failed to convince the scribes there to come round to our way of thinking. In some parts of this region the revised recommendations are – somehow – worse than the already cuckoo-bananas initial ideas. I challenge anyone to find a smaller community than “Reddish North” to be name-checked in a constituency. Anyway, to focus on the red rose county, here’s what the Commission now think should be the parliamentary make-up of Lancashire. You’ll find the maps for Lancashire over here.

Blackburn, Blackpool North and Fleetwood and Blackpool South are all unchanged from the initial proposals.

 Burnley and Accrington East and Pendle are significantly different from the initial proposals. Burnley is no longer divided somewhat arbitrarily across the town centre, which is a breakout of normality. It’s good to see Accrington isn’t cut up like a badly hacked onion either, though the justification for joining the two towns together is still fairly flimsy. There’s something of the “flat map syndrome” about it to my eyes, but at least the word “Pendle” has re-appeared on a constituency map. No explanation behind the reason to ditch it in the first place, by the way.

 The seat of Chorley has been left untouched, meaning it follow the size and shape of the council boundaries as initially proposed, as will Fylde.

 In the west of Lancashire, there’s a slightly different shape and a familiar name for Lancaster and Wyre, a modified version of the initially recommended “Lancaster”. The boundary alteration is the loss of Greyfriars, the most Fulwoodian of all Preston’s Fulwood wards, which is moved from Preston to join the towns of the A6 corridor all the way up to Lancaster city centre.

As ever, the city of Lancaster is split in half at Skerton, allowing Morecambe and Lunesdale to remain unchanged, All three parties agreed with each other on the “Fishwick issue”, brought about by the Commission initially proposing that the Preston ward of Fishwick should be attached to the rural expanse of Ribble Valley.

To balance up the numbers, Fishwick is now back with Preston, which loses Greyfriars but is otherwise exactly the same, so if these changes actually make it through the Commons (stop laughing), the constituency would be formed from almost the entire city, omitting Lea/Cottam, Greyfriars and the rural communities to the north. The modified Ribble Valley is essentially the seat fought at the 2010 election, taking in Bowland, Clitheroe, Longridge and Bamber Bridge/Walton-le-Dale. The ne thing this time round is the addition of Rishton and Great Harwood (dare I suggest amending the name to “Valleys of Ribble and Hynd”?).

South Ribble and West Lancashire have not been changed either, meaning that the former stretches from Leyland to the Southport border, crossing the River Douglas, and the latter brings together Ormskirk, Skelmersdale and all points surrounding. This leaves us with two very peculiar East Lancashire seats indeed, and these really are the Commission at their most…erm….well, peculiar. The new Rossendale and Oswaldtwistle gets a bonus point for mentioning Oswaldtwistle (let’s please have an honourable member for Oswaldtwistle.). The geography of the area is a bit tenuous, to put it nicely. I suppose it’s something that the connecting road is tarmaced at least. The shape of the seat resembles a dead rabbit, just squint.

Bolton North and Darwen joins together the northern suburbs from Bolton with the town of Darwen, logically enough, with a fair amount of hilly bits, moorland and twisty turny roads in between. To be fair, it’s an improvement on Rossendale and Darwen as currently exists (which the Commission seems to hate in its dismissal of our proposal). Wiser men than I will conclude what this means for the defending parties in each seat. It’s true that some already existing marginal seats will remain so – Blackpool, Chorley and South Ribble are already knife-edge without being altered too much. Significant additions of Tory territory into Lancaster and Preston will give Labour a bigger threat than usual, and in the east all three parties will face tough challenges in Burnley and Pendle.

Of course, all of this may be so much photocopier paper and highlighter pens. If there is no agreement between Coalition partners, never mind any other parties, there will be no boundary changes at all. Here’s to a whole host of “What might have been….”

Balls on Thatcher

Ed Balls blathered on Radio 5’s drive-time show last night. You can hear it here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01mk8w8/5_live_Drive_11_09_2012/

This is the transcript (testing my audio typing skills) of the closing part of the interview, at around 45 minutes. This deals with the “dancing on Thatcher’s grave” t-shirts which are doing very well thank you very much amongst Trade Union Conference stalls and websites.

Is this Ed Balls condoning the t-shirts until being backed into a corner?
In this transcript I’ve used (-) to indicate a significant pause, and italics to indicate any significant stress.

Approx 43:00
Ed Balls (EB):… George Osborne is preventing this Government doing anything to kick-start our recovery, to get growth moving. That is why this year, as I said at Treasury Questions, Government borrowing is up this year compared to last year…
Peter Allen (PA): Yes….That’s…
EB: …and his plan’s failed….
PA: I mean….you’re…..you’re talking about boosting public spending which is what got us into trouble in the first place. I mean…demand is something rather different isn’t it?
EB: Well….Peter….Peter…
PA: It can come from all sorts of things?
EB: We are talking about a cut in VAT, temporarily for a year. Bring forward infrastructure and investment because unless you get the economy growing and creating jobs you don’t get people paying tax, people are on benefits and borrowing goes up. Now for two years you and I have debated this and I have been saying for two years if they choke off recovery the borrowing will get worse. And it’s up by a quarter this year compared to last year. Because, in an economy, if nobody is spending and nobody is investing and we’re in recession things get worse. So Vince Cable, I think, I said this on Sunday, in his heart of hearts, Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat  Business Secretary, knows the Conservative Party strategy for the economy is flawed  and failed. He’s not allowed to say that.  And he won’t go out and say that, (-) he’s tinkering around the edges (-) with, as John Pienaar was saying, finding different ways to repackage inactivity and no action.  And it’s not good enough, and we need a new change and I understand why the Trade Unions are very frustrated at the moment because their members are having such a hard….
PA: Okay….
EB: …Such a hard time….But….What you can’t do is deny that the next Labour Government will have some difficult decisions to make and I said that to the Congress in those terms today.
PA: Mmm. What would you say to somebody at Congress who wore one of these t-shirts saying “A Generation of Trade Unionists will dance on Thatcher’s grave”?
EB: (-) Well…I…I actually said at the Congress today that nobody wants to go back to the hatred and division of the 1980s. Nobody wants to go back to the (-) lost days and strikes. Seven times more days lost in strikes in the 80s than under the Labour Government. Nobody wants to go back to the high unemployment and the terrible NHS waiting lists…
PA: …I was talking about the t-shirts….
EB: ….
PA: Not…not the….
EB: I think the T-shirt…..Expresses a view of that division…
PA: Are you condoning it?
EB: …which I reject entirely….Completely, completely.
PA: Completely.
EB: I don’t want to go back to the division of the 1980s. Er…(-) I don’t like that kind of politics.
PA: Yeah. So you would say to people “Don’t wear that shirt”? Don’t wear that t-shirt?
EB: (-). Yeah. I would say to people (-) do not wear that shirt.
PA: Thanks very much. That’s Ed Balls….

Bundle into Leveson

MPs of a certain type like to whip up problems which don’t exist, don’t they?

Remember when Nadine Dorries, the poster girl for Conservative MPs who don’t get out much, claimed that some of her colleagues were suicidal at the height of the expenses scandal? We didn’t get much evidence of this claim, though it underlined the reputation of some backbenchers for being ‘outliers’ of a wider unease about members of the press daring to shine lights into the Westminster village.

From Dorries to Gove, a leap of some imagination which might be hard to stomach before breakfast. The cerebral Michael Gove is the Education Secretary who talks and acts like it’s still the back to basics era 1990s Conservative Government of whom he’s a part, wanting to strengthen the national curriculum so as to introduce poetry by rote, time tables by the hour and Latin lessons from an early age. Now I’m in favour of re-introducing foreign languages in schools – it was a daft idea by Labour to scrap compulsory lessons – it’s just everything else about Gove that makes me feel uneasy. It’s conservatism with a big C and slight sneer, and when he’s not making teachers reach for the anonymous blogs, he’s making Lord Leveson reach for the coffee.

Gove and Leveson didn’t quite hit it off, to put it mildly. Just as Dorries tried to suggest that revealing the truth about expenses was somehow a bad thing because MPs were feeling their collars, Gove has tried to imply that Leveson is putting freedom of speech under trail. The Daily Mail which broke the story has followed it up with more soundbites from Tory MPs, including the self-styled libertarian Douglas Carswell. The result of all this is to add, in a drip-drip style of hints, allegations and suggestions, that the Leveson recommendations will be placed on a high shelf or within tall grass. This might not surprise more cynical readers, and “questioning David Cameron’s sincerity” isn’t exactly difficult.

I’m reminded of Tony Blair’s attitude towards Lords Reform, taking his friend Roy Jenkins’ Lords Reform and throwing it into quicksand. Cameron may well be doing the same with the press inquiry, sending out people like Gove to hint about his true intentions. As much as Leveson has been illuminating, MPs tend not to like bright lights shone amongst the darkest shadows.

Gove might think that the consequences to freedom of speech are ‘chilling’, but that’s only because he’s looking at the issue from the wrong way round. The lack of respect in this field encouraged the press to run feral and politicians to hide behind locked doors. Gove shouldn’t be criticising the process by which improvements are made to the machine; if sausages look grim whilst being made, look away until they turn up on a plate at breakfast, Mr Gove!

I’m not so fresh faced and naive to think that all will be well after Leveson. The relationship between the press, politicians and police will always be intertwined as much as before. But most people observing Leveson has seen green shoots of improvement throughout the processes, and would be knocked back further away from taking politicians seriously (and that’s not exactly registering high on any marker of late) if the end result of this is business as usual.  The press went far beyond what was expected in the pursuit of stories, and far beyond what was expected in their relationship with elected officials. If Leveson changes this attitude amongst those estates that are – and are not – answerable to voters, Mr Gove need to celebrate rather than snipe.

Remember, Gove, that freedom of speech was under threat by Labour’s constant attacks on civil liberties, and it was the formation of the Coalition which was supposed to safeguard personal freedoms. If Leveson was just a smokescreen, I fear Cameron didn’t really want you to blow so hard that we could see through the fog.  

Gangbanged

Following a Daily Mail witch-hunt/campaign and the Conservative MP Claire Perry’s “Independent Inquiry” into online child protection (see the very good post from Ministry of Truth about defining the words ‘independent’ and ‘inquiry’ in this context), the UK is one step closer to State approved Internet censorship. The proposed law is now available to view, with its innocuous enough title of the “Online Safety Bill”.

I was born in the distant 1980s, making my relationship with adult material follow the usual path of “blissful ignorance”, “Late night Channel 4”, “dog eared copies of Whitehouse”, “copied VHS passed on from a friend of a friend’s friend” and then “Internet access” somewhere around early teenage-dom. If you don’t know ‘Eurotrash’ with the sound turned down and a quilt underneath the door, you don’t know the eagerness with which boys of a certain age wanted to see subtitled naughtiness.

That level of smut is a world removed from the Internet age, in which people of all ages are one Google search away from seeing all manner of explicit bits, bops and fiddling about. There is almost no taste or fetish for which a website exists, and the popularity of YouTube-style amateur upload sites makes it all the easier for a couple (or a lone bloke feeling a bit frisky) to show the world how they’re feeling for about…five minutes (three if, you know, it’s been a hard day at work and I’m tired and this bed isn’t very comfortable and…anyway…..).

As we all know, the Internet cannot be censored, making every innocent search for the latest news headlines or an amusing cat picture one click away from Roxxie Thrust-McKenzie having her way with two garage mechanics….

…No, sorry, the Internet can be censored to a degree already, with parental controls and filters. As with most things in life, forbidden fruit is thought to taste better, which is how most teenagers end up smoking, trying weed, drinking cider in a park or trying to view naughty images on line. Forget to change Google’s image search to “safe” is enough to reveal Page 3 models showing their assets, after all. “Opt in” systems for any kind of assumed adult material has all the practicality of attempting to stop office workers from playing Minesweeper. The point being – if grown adults decide to filter/control Internet access under their own roofs, they can do.

Suggesting that the Internet should be censored or blocked in some way often comes from those “in the know” who choose to ignore that ‘temptations’ can also incorporate video footage of hostage beheading, graphic CCTV footage of car crashes or the 9/11 attacks. Graphic footage of Premier League footballers having their legs broken during play can be on YouTube or Daily Motion within fifteen minutes of it happening. These graphic examples are often dismissed or ignored by advocates of Internet policing, an attitude which differentiates between violence and sex, but not between different kinds of erotica. The lie – “It’s about making the Internet safe for children” – is retold enough times to suggest that no middle ground possibly exists between “free for all” and “State approved content”. Are certain lobby groups unable to suggest out loud that parents might be to blame for children searching for XTube? Or are MPs ignorant to how the Internet is navigated beyond blogs and Twitter?

Of all the worrying/facepalm inducing sentences in Perry’s report is the recommendation that – ” The Government should also seek backstop legal powers to intervene should the 
ISPs fail to implement an appropriate solution. ” If private companies won’t deal with Internet access, then the State is going to have to haul them to court! That’ll teach them to know their own customers, control mechanisms and processes! It’s almost as though there’s wilful blindness going on…

There is much to debate about the pornography industry itself – from what viewing explicit material might do to a person over a long-period to safeguarding the wellbeing of those who choose to participate in the industry. Parents have a responsibility to educate their children to whatever extent they feel comfortable doing, a stance which might put me on the opposite side of the room to Harriet Harman. (If there’s any view I hold which puts me with Harman, I might have to consider medication). As user generated content websites prove, there’s only so much of a moral crusade pressure groups can inflict across cyberspace to defeat the great Porn Demon – humans will always feel sexual urges and some will feel comfortable in sharing their acts amongst an audience. The all encompassing “opt in” will do nothing to stop shadier/un-registered parts of the industry from exploiting the vulnerable or abused, it will only make the Morality Police feel better about themselves. That rush of self-congratulation might soon fade if the “opt in” accidentally blocks ordinary material (as some mobile phone blocks incorporate Facebook and Twitter) or accidentally ignores potentially arousing images (such as tabloid newspaper’s favoured roll call of flashed knickers, bikini beach shots and the like).

“Opt in” adult content will not make the Internet cleaner, or teenagers less likely to share dirty photos through text messages or BBM/MSN. Whilst it’s easier to deny freedom of thought than it is to research why sexual content is so popular to view/share/experience, the State is much more comfortable getting its groove on, and for that, we’re all left drowning in a deeply unsatisfactory wet-patch.

anger management

As people who know me would testify without delay, I have been known to react disproportionately to the merest of situations, often triggers which observers would struggle to explain even after detailed analysis. Following an innocuous remark directed my way, my balanced and mature response was a full-on flounce resulting in an unscheduled snooze at a bus-stop in Standish. That happened last year; I was thirty-one years old.

This ‘red mist’ and its responses are analysed by people earning a lot more than I ever will researching what makes the behavioural ‘tick’, mostly in men, which turns frustration into an outburst. Basic, back of the envelope assumption would conclude that there’s a) inability to deal with intense situations brought from childhood onwards, b) a mental imbalance of some kind, or c) a bit from both and more besides. As with all personal problems, from drug addiction to persistent low-level crime, admitting there is something wrong is always considered the first step: from there comes working with others to resolve whatever is curdling the brain.

Critics of David Cameron use the term ‘flashman’ to deride the Prime Minister’s occasional bursts of temper and red-faced snapping. Like many who suffer from this tendency to react badly to pushes and prodding, Cameron looks as though his eyes genuinely do fall behind a cloud of red smoke, and his mind becomes blinkered to exits, alternative options, spaces to breathe. It’s partly the nature of Prime Minister’s Questions, I wager, though it’s clearly part of Cameron’s nature. The “calm down dear” approach to argument might have been ill-advised sarcasm, but from that event onwards the suggestion of ‘red mist descending’ has become increasingly convincing.

Where could Cameron go with this? Will he bring something of the Australian parliament to Westminster by swearing or biting the head of a bat?

I come to this from the little local difficulty involving Joey Barton yesterday. Now we all know that Barton likes his philosophy and chin-stroking consideration, which frames many of the arguments pro- and anti- defending him for repeated violent moments and verbal outbursts. The growth of wisdom, as Nietzsche suggests, may be gauged exactly by the diminution of ill-temper, and as Barton claims to learn from Nietzchean philosophies, you’d assume that the ill-temper/wisdom see-saw would have been  rebalanced at some point. Yesterday’s nail-biting, heart-pounding, sweat inducing final Premier League day was not ruined by Barton’s elbow/knee/head, though it has cast a shadow. As thousands of people watched the games unfold – I did so in a pub which showed both Manchester games on adjacent screens which didn’t help the heart rates – the Barton flip-out took over the conversations across the pub as much as the David Cameron “LOL” revelation threatened to hijack the Leveson inquiry analysis that day. Sometimes the silly, trivial, the curiosities are bugs eager to dig into the topic to take it over, to divert attention from the really important stuff. Luckily both games had enough other stuff happening – and Aguero’s goal, Rooney’s miss and such were momentous enough – to allow Barton’s ‘red mist’ to be pushed to the fringes.

Because of his repeated assurances that he’s learning, self-analysing, reflective, Barton’s constant return to the stage of silliness has stripped away almost all sympathy from neutrals and fans. QPR fans have taken to the internet and phone-in shows to disown him. Barton took to Twitter, his own personal Speaker’s Corner, to act bullish with an edge of accountability. The edge was as thin as the head of a southern-pulled pint, which exhausted yet more patience.

Over at the arena of politics, D-Cam has a few more days before facing another bear-pit PMQs. More often than not, the bun-fights with Ed Miliband bring out the worst in Cameron’s argument technique.  He usually ‘wins’ against Ed, because the Labour leader has all the weight of a speak and spell machine, though it’s how Dave conducts himself which gets the attention, blogs and commentary pieces. Whilst Labour are led by a man who struggles to set jelly never mind the agenda, Cameron’s fits of pique shouldn’t cause too much damage. The term ‘flashman’ has stuck, and some MPs know how to press the right buttons. Cameron hasn’t learned from Tony Blair about how to flavour temper with sarcasm and theatrical flair. It’s all in the tag, as Kenneth Williams would advise. It’s all there in the punchline, the pay-off – get it wrong, and you’re a bully or a short-tempered prat.

Where Cameron and Barton align is the apparent lack of willingness to change, to repair the damage they cause and the damage in their own mental well-being. Whilst many are now abandoning Barton for good – the Guardian which took him around an art gallery now snidely dig at his “copy and paste philosophy” – there’s still sizeable support for Cameron and the Coalition. The temptation to go over the edge must be strong for the PM – the three years before General Election 2015 is a timeframe sprinkled with landmines, death traps, nooses and Nadine Dorries. Pushes from Labour, pokes from the backbenches, irritation from the constraints of compromise politics in this era of Coalition – all the little things which stir up the smoke, colour the mist, send the heart pounding further, stronger, harder. For a man whose ‘flashman’ snapping has been constrained within the House of Commons so far to save his reputation, Cameron will have to deal with all this before it happens in the television studio or on the stump.

Joey Barton is the very definition of the angry young man, and whilst I’m not about to dismiss him entirely, I can see why frustration with his constant return to idiocy on the pitch and at the keyboard has turned into abandonment. People can only take sympathy so far. If the constant misbehaviour never goes away, than either the person has a serious problem which requires longer-term help, or the person just has no intention of ever bettering themselves. Cameron is not some crazed loon at the dispatch box, though he has shown no sign of calming down the red-faced tendency or sarcastic snapping. The temper tantrums which infect Barton’s character, and those which taint Cameron’s responses, are parts of the same diagnosis, and both fans/voters will deliver their medicine whether it’s wanted or not.

Everything to fear

Back in 2008, Labour’s Jacqui Smith explained why it was ‘vital’ to monitor email, internet and other communication use. That plan was eventually dumped, though its ghost has been hanging around Westminster and GCHQ for some time. Somebody called ‘Chris Huhne’ (where he now?) slammed the plans as being “incompatible” with living in a free country. Back in 2009, Jo Swinson   rightly criticised plans to snoop on social media users.

But what now for these Liberal Democrat MPs, and others, who are not in Opposition any more, as time has moved on and plans to create databases of everything typed, texted and crammed into 140 characters is drawn up by Coalition partners? To what extent has the dynamic changed between the instinctive liberal belief in civil liberties and the responsibilities inherent in being the junior partner in a Government? One hopes the dynamic has not changed at all: all Liberal Democrat MPs, regardless of proximity to the Cabinet table, must reject these proposals outright.

Labour have little wiggle room with this. The party who came up with the plans in the first place have an embarrassing record on civil liberties and freedom of speech, regarding these as optional extras. Under Blair and Brown, Labour were amongst the most authoritarian government this country has ever seen – ID Cards, DNA database, locking up children without charge and driving tanks onto the tarmac of Heathrow airport in the name of ‘counter terrorism’. Successive Home Secretaries attempted to outdo each other in their ‘tough stance’ on civil liberties, out-Torying each other as they went. John Reid relished becoming more of a Conservative Home Secretary than any of his predecessors, concluding that the ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office should be beefed up, toughened out. Labour were enemies of civil liberties, making the decision by Theresa May to scrap controversial stop and search laws  and control orders within months of coming into power all the more remarkable – when the Conservatives are in charge relaxing civil liberty laws, you should be worried about the extent to which you were extreme.

This snooping law proposal is obscene, a return to the dark Labour days, and must be resisted. The ‘internet community’ showed how dangerous SOPA laws would be for intellectual properties;  it must now do the same for freedom of expression. “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is an obscene parody of the danger inherent in these plans. GCHQ is unaccountable, unreachable, yet Ministers feel it right to allow the tentacles of that agency to reach out of your phones, laptops and tablet devices like so many scenes from 1980s horror movies: licking your ears, sewing up your mouths, stealing the words from your fingers as you type. This is not “safeguarding freedom”,  this is theft of your thoughts, your ideas, your opinions. There can be nothing more idiotic than this concept of ‘safeguarding’ by way of making freedom less certain, less secure. Remember the lie “if we change our way of life, the terrorists win?”.  This would be the terrorists “winning”.

The words of George Orwell are so often invoked in cases like that so as to lessen the impact. Make no mistake about the lessons from history, especially those written not solely as fiction but as a warning.

I am liberal by instinct (you wouldn’t want to choose being liberal, it’s like consciously choosing to be gay or an Aston Villa supporter).  My suspicion about Governments of all colours comes from their actions – as their words are often blocked by FOI requests and firewalls. Labour were rightly beaten by good sense and reason as they continued their assault on freedom of speech, but the Hydra in Westminster tends to have skin which is coloured red and blue: one hopes, beyond all hope, that there’s no orange. Liberal Democrat MPs must ensure these proposals are voted down and out at every opportunity. Not just on the broad brush “freedom of expression” motion but from each and every angle – legitimacy, cost, reason, sense, achievement. How can this forever morphing ‘war on terror’ have shaped itself into an attack on the millions of innocent British people using email, chat rooms, message boards, Twitter? What justification can there be  to ‘root out’ the bad guys by having everyone clicked ‘suspicious’ like so many Minesweeper boxes flagged for uncertainty?

This has not been a good few weeks for the Coalition, so anything which manages to knock down the reputation yet further must be a hum-dinger of a plan. This stinks to the highest heavens from the lowest sewers of the Big Brother tendencies within the Home Office. We’ve been here too many times recently, the shadow of ‘terrorism’ seeping into proposals like so much bonfire smoke in the eyes. We cannot allow this plan to happen – it’s disproportionate, it’s alien to British values and it’s just plain old damned wrong. Real time monitoring of conversations – just read that phrase out loud! – is not the act of a Government that respects its people. It’s the act of a Government out of control. We are a better people than that. Resistance must start now.

Look North with George Galloway

Proving that I should continue effectively boycotting bookies shops for the time being, I wrote prior to the Bradford West by-election my confident prediction of a clear Labour victory. Just in case you need reminding this soon after the event, George Galloway just sneaked ahead.

In this shrug-shoulders cynical age, the manner of Galloway’s victory could be easily shoved to one side, bunged on Wikipedia and left alone. To be clear, the seat of Bradford West was once considered exceptionally strong for Labour, held by them since 1970. Galloway has broken one record – by virtue of standing a candidate in the general election, his share of the vote increase of 52.8 percentage point is the largest ever recorded rise since the introduction of universal suffrage. It’s worth noting too that the swing against Labour is the second worst of its kind in British political history. Let’s not be too dismissive of this flash in the news headlines; Bradford West has already guaranteed its place in political history, as much a marker on the great long road of British political history as the Liberal victories in Orpington, and Bermondsey, and the Labour victory on the Wirral on the run up to the 1997 election.

So conclusion number one – Labour and Ed Miliband are in trouble, yes? Well…yes. But not emphatically. Bradford West is significant for them by virtue of the lessons we all assumed they had learned when Galloway himself took Bethnal Green and Bow from Oona King: of all the parties who are guilty of taking for granted working class voters and particularly the voters from South Asian immigrants and their families, it is the Labour Party. When the Party dismissed across Scotland last year can still look stunned and slack-of-jaw at the result of Bradford West, you just know lessons have not been learned. There can only be so many times that the same brick can hit the same feet without someone wondering if the pain couldn’t be somehow averted.

Ed Miliband is a weaker man today than he was last week, and given his reputation as Labour leader, that’s the same level of weakness that sends the office loudmouth to KFC over Virgin Fitness. He has been at the centre of a Thick Of It style week of unbelievable news – pasties, petrol, ‘Cam Dine With Me’ – only to conclude with the deflated trump of a pin-pricked balloon. Surely someone within Labour HQ knew the ‘cheat codes’ for Galloway at this point? Or for that matter, the necessity to avoid treating British Muslims as an homogeneous group  of grateful Labour voters? Here in Preston, we’ve seen this come and go in real time: one of the safest Labour wards in the city lost to the anti-Iraq war Socialist Alliance and then Respect, with Labour so unwilling to accept the inevitable conclusions that they would take 8 years to win back the seat. It’s not that Respect have won due to ‘banging the right drums’; Labour just assumed the melody they had been banging would be stuck in the heads by now.

The unmitigated disaster for Labour in Bradford West could yet be overturned in the short-term; there’s boundary changes coming up, with the newly redrawn, more rural West likely to reject Galloway’s charms, just as Poplar and Limehouse decided to put him third in the elections last year. There’s the continued slow motion course changing which Labour continue to stop/start. And there’s the Coalition – rejected soundly by the voters in Bradford – whose fortunes will be turned round by 2015. Or at least one would hope.

Another institution failed in its duties on Thursday: the mainstream media. Having long since abandoned covering by-elections, neither the BBC nor SKY looked able to cover the polling day results adequately until the last possible minutes. For the Beeb, it’s more of a disgrace, for they once had the will and attitude to ensure every parliamentary by-election was treated with respect and good grace. Twenty-four hour news cannot be the only reason for reducing by-election coverage to a scant mention in regional opt-outs; whilst the BBC replayed a repeat of “Hardtalk”, SKY News had grabbed Galloway for an exclusive interview. Even here, though, SKY daren’t take over a third of a studio for anything approaching actual coverage.

Surprised when the media had fits of confusion when Galloway was all but declared the winner? Two studio guests and a decent Twitter feed analyser would have had that sorted within minutes. Thanks to the new emphasis on making current affairs ‘relevant’, the main broadcasters have alienated the very people who want to know, and need to know, the issues of the day. It’s not enough – especially for the BBC – to point to the big screens showing TweetDeck loading up to call their new modern coverage ‘state of the art’. If Auntie means what she says about respecting the little bits of her empire, it’s time to prove it. Next by-election – which could be Manchester Central – the BBC’s outfit oop North must be involved.

The discussion surrounding George Galloway’s win touches on many stepping stones along the river of modern Britain. His victory reminds us that politics can still shock and surprise – maybe even shock and awe! – and that not one of the three main Westminster parties can claim to fully understand the way in which the Muslim vote (and larger BME votes) can be sought and retained. This is not a victory without flaws or potential banana skins; Galloway is a provocative and controversial man, one who was ultimately proved right about both Iraq and Afghanistan. But that does not mean there’s any more of a ‘revolution’ now than there was in Bethnal Green, at which George spoke of a “you ain’t seen nothing yet” atmosphere across East London.

Yes, there has been a shake of a kaleidoscope and the pieces are in flux. For the good of his party, Ed Miliband must now learn the lessons of years of complacent Labour attitude and ignorance….and George Galloway must prove that he is willing to be more of a ‘member’ than just a ‘parliamentarian’. History can only be kind when it is written by the victor.