Category Archives: comment

Two years is a long time in politics

When I returned to the Labour fold and joined the party a few months before the 2010 General Election it was party through fear, partly through duty, but mainly because I thought there was a real opportunity that it could be reclaimed from the New Labour years and start representing the people again. People I trusted trusted Gordon Brown, and the alternatives were too awful to contemplate.

That said the tipping point of joining rather than just voting was because I didn’t want to vote Labour: I had no confidence or trust in the sitting MP that a boundary change had forced upon me. By accounts he was a lifer, remote from his constituents and out of touch. Had the coming election nationally been anything but close I’d have marked my cross next to the semi-independent community focused candidate that looked like she might win. I wanted to vote for her, but didn’t want to be responsible for a situation where we got a tory government by one MP, and not Labour in my constituency. I figured that my membership might offset my ballot-box slip somehow, save my coincidence.

As it turned out it wasn’t that close, neither locally or nationally. But, being a member in opposition felt like the right thing to do. I delivered leaflets, did a little phone canvassing and a little door knocking and was rightly pleased when in the next council elections our man overturned a Liberal majority with a significant one of his own. It might have been national tides that turned the ship but there was a real feeling that the local party was working hard on the ground and really cared. At this point I was as taken with the democratic system as I think I’ve ever been—despite a really disappointing result in the Alternative Vote referendum, an opportunity as I saw it for more representative politics.

I’m fond of quoting that the UK always has a more right wing press than the electorate—there are always more papers supporting the tories than Labour even when the left(er) party wins big in elections. I suspect that if you asked most people about policies in simple terms, and presented real alternatives, most people would be more left wing than any government we get too. Certainly any we’ve had since 1979. So while it felt right to be in the most likely opposition, each failure to control or challenge the dominant shock doctrine narrative by Ed Miliband and his team made it difficult to see what you were working for.

Another referendum offered more hope.

I’d met MP Siôn Simon a few times when he was a creative industries minister, he was trying to look at ways to help the local media through the ‘internet transition’ and I was on the fringes of the local blogging scene that was one possible prop for keeping some news going. He was engaging, engaged, and—you could tell—above all looking for the right solutions to the problems he was tasked with. So when, after the election, he talked to me about the problems of reaching people and told me that he really thought there was an opportunity for change I believed him and believed in him.

That change he said, could be driven by an elected mayor for a city like Birmingham. A position that would have to be backed by a mandate, a leader that would have no choice but to campaign on a manifesto upon which they would be judged. Direct accountability to the people, direct scrutiny by an engaged media, high-profile and with an ability to be strategic. I was sold, and it looked like it was going to happen.

Over the last two years I’ve been variously working on things for Siôn and the non-partisan Yes to a Mayor campaign. The amount of free time I had to volunteer on both ironically helped by the “austerity” cuts the tories disproportionally heaped on poorer areas like Birmingham and on the third sector—reducing my freelance work considerably. I’ve not worked as hard as some others, but I’d like to think I’d made a contribution. To what, maybe, is a more difficult one as ‘we’ lost last week (not by as large a margin as was being reported, but lost all the same).

What’s the main disappointment for me is perhaps the insight it gave me into just how hard change is and seemingly will always be under the current system. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, which is understandable—but turkeys don’t talk 364 days of the year about the need for a dry-fowl-meat based religious feast.

Vested interests within the existing party machines are the ones with the access and the voices to the media—which disappointingly went for ‘balance’ (presenting voices from both sides) instead of neutrality  (where they could exercise independence and question the arguments on both sides). The main arguments that we heard in the press against the chance for change were all easily researchable and refutable by experienced journalists, but they were all too often let through with a “no campaigners say…” and no challenge. It’s too late to go through them now, but I will anyway as it’s now a pavlovian response:

A mayor would not have cost more than the current system of a council leader and a chief executive, roles which the announced candidates promised to combine. In Leicester, the nearest comparable city the mayor took a salary smaller than Birmingham’s current council leader’s allowances.

The powers of a mayor were defined, in the act of parliament that brought the referendum into being. Extra powers could be negotiated, which in theory they could be for a council leader—if one side was a ‘pig in a poke’ the other was too.

The electorate cannot in practice—whatever the theory—get rid of a council leader. Forget the past, look at the situation currently in Birmingham—a clear Labour majority of councillors that is certainly not likely to change in fewer than the four years a mayor would have—whatever they do and however they perform in the eyes of anyone who cares to look.

Not being challenged on these is the equivalent to the current government not being challenged every time they bring up the ‘cutting the deficit’ line. Statisticians have proved that the cuts are making the deficit worse, in real and structural terms—but time and again that’s not mentioned and the cutters are allowed to dominate the narrative. And for some reason the opposition are too scared to challenge—maybe it comes across as too negative, maybe there is something about the media that they know which means this fight is lost and it’s better for them to move the debate on.

And that’s the crux of it: better for them.

It’s so unusual to see anyone in politics really commit and to do something that might not have benefits for their coterie of contacts. Essentially the party system seems to draw people to compromise for power and not to compromise for good. Siôn’s decision to stand down as an MP to campaign for change in Birmingham always struck me a a courageous decision—not for him the bet hedging of certain other people who were maybe, or maybe not, in favour of real change but would quite like the power if it was available.

And he bravely stuck to talking about the truth of the size of the problems: areas of the city are very deprived, with high—especially youth—unemployment, unacceptable infant mortality. Do you need more? Will rearranging the deck chairs change that? I doubt it. Was that not the line that the media wanted to focus on? Maybe not, but in sea of platitudes and apathy it stood out for me and I was proud to have contributed in a small way.

The Yes campaign bravely tried to rise above politics, and I think that may have contributed to the downfall—often seeing it sidelined in events in favour of people the media already knew about (the BBC WM debate for example had formal ‘no’ people on the panel but no ‘yes’). That presented the argument as a political struggle when maybe it should have been one about opportunity. Some honourable councillors and people involved in the political machines saw that opportunity, but I’m afraid my suspicion is that most didn’t as they were clouded by fear about their own positions and interest.

There were honest people on the ‘no’ side too, but those ‘leading’ it dragged it down some dark paths.

The theory of Overton windows has always stuck me as interesting—it states that there’s only a limited section of the political continuum that’s acceptable mainstream debate at any time. Anything outside it seems too radical to be considered. Decades of right-ist spin seems to have dragged the window to a point where the absurd views of the Taxpayers Alliance are given credence and unions of workers are not—even by the leaders of the workers’ party.

And that’s sad. But more than sad, it’s life and death for countless people in Birmingham, the UK and the World.

I’ve had a brief glimpse of the opportunity as well as a ringside seat at the way the status quo protects itself.

It’s time to be honest, to be open, to be radical. It’s time to challenge obfuscation and apathy as well as disinformation and dishonesty. That can be dragging the window back to the left, or it can be just not letting nonsense past.

Each time you hear someone parrot a political line, think. And if what they say is not true, respond like that. Tell people, bore them stupid.

Reposition the narrative to change.

O2 New Street Birmingham Insurance Rip-Off

Boring post this, it’s just for Google to in case any other people are looking to see what’s happened.

I popped and got an iPhone 4 the other day, it’s nice (and it won’t cost me much once I recycle the old 3G – and the battery was dying).

I decided to stay with O2, I’ve not had problems with them and changing providers is fraught with hassle. The guys in the shop made it quite easy — except that I’ve discovered that the salesman lied to me to sell an insurance policy. This is a proper O2 shop (the receipt says Telefonica O2 UK Ltd and everything).

The salesman told me that insurance was compulsory on iPhone4 upgrades. That sounded fishy and I said I did not want it, only to be told a that it was free for 14 days and that I could cancel without being charged. I asked how, just to confirm, and they said by phone.

Then received my bill via email this am and that charged me for insurance at £15. The customer service rep on the telephone has refunded that and cancelled the insurance — confirming that there’s no such thing as compulsory insurance. But as it is credited in the next month’s bill,  how many £15s are O2 receiving and getting interest on for one month? How many people don’t check or cancel. How much commission is the liar (fraudster?) making.

Watch yourselves.

The Future of Reality TV

Channel 4 have announced that they’re giving up with Big Brother after the next series — although a dedicated web show for 2011 would be my guess — they’ve tried fiddling with the format, bunging more and more people in, making more and more stuff happen. They’ve cut the “my god, who wants to watch them sleep” live stream — either on the assumption that no-one wants to watch a TV programme where not much goes on, or because of the sheer cost of keeping it legal.

But I’ve a theory that it was the “not much happens” “dip in and out” long arching narrative thing that was what got people interested in the first place — much like how Twitter works (unless you’re obsessed), or much like how the Australian soaps were a revelation in low-impact TV. I think that by making it too hard to watch they killed the format.

Reality TV, when you define it as pointing a camera at people having real emotions, is much broader than Big Brother — and most of it is edited to be as action packed as possible. It’s tiring, only the committed can keep it up. Live football is reality TV, although the Olympics – three weeks of lots of coverage, unknowns and new stories evolving is more like what we’ve come to know as staples of the genre.

I’m not of the opinion that “reality TV” is dead, but I think people want two different things; either the slow “nothing much happens” – but it happens for a long time — or the tight visceral shared experience (the way the big X-Factor finals, or even important elections do).

Reality TV commissioners — let’s face it Channel 4 in this instance, they’ve got the money — you’ll want more “event TV” that has that endurance aspect. So here’s my pitch — you want something like live uninterupted coverage of Gimpo’s 25 Hour M25 Spin or this.

Cat ‘eat’ crunch three

In my continting series of photos on the packets of cat-food:

photo21

Brekkies is a once mighty brand fallen to the odd appearances in Wilko, and this tabby has felt the sting of every rung of that ladder on the way down. He’s landed on his feet, but you can see the upward glance to the heights of Wiskas or Felix the longing look in his eyes.

photo31

The saddest cat I’ve yet seen, however, is this morose tom. I know advertising wilko’s own brand cat litter isn’t the carear he dreamt of, but he’s a litle podgy and you know that if the litter works for him it’ll be good quality. He looks a little eggbound here.

Campaign for Real Heritage

Are you fed up with “officials” deciding what’s important? Do you wish that history wasn’t just written by the winners?

The losers, the outsiders, the real people have history too. It deserves recognition, YOUR history deserves a blue plaque.

Campaign for real heritage

So now it can have one, the Campaign for Real Heritage will place a plaque anywhere, commemorating any event you like. Just get a sticker, fill in the gap, and stick (with permission, obviously).

Stickers available to buy here. They come in ones, tens and fifties — depends how much history you wish to create.

When you’ve made history, have a ceremony, take a photo. Place it here.

Mark Lawson acts a bit of a presumptuous git

Mark Lawson in The Guardian:

“Most art – and certainly the greatest examples – is private and exclusive, created by elite professionals for an audience of amateurs. Though touched by it, we cannot touch it. Schemes that physically involve the public in art or music are an important part of art, but should remain a small one”

isn’t that up to the artists rather than the critics, Mark?

Got their number

What’s shocking about watching the “live feed” of questions and answers from 118 118’s “ask anything you like service”, isn’t the illiteracy and stupidity of the questions — that’s a given — but the illiteracy, stupidity and plain ignorance of the answers:

See Questions & Answers as They Come in - 118.com

Is it a or b? No.

See Questions & Answers as They Come in - 118.com

Top line from second hit on google.

See Questions & Answers as They Come in - 118.com

No Mr Band, I expect you to be good in singing.

See Questions & Answers as They Come in - 118.com

“Jobs for a 15 year old? selling tablet and macaroon”

See Questions & Answers as They Come in - 118.com

Second google hit, after one telling you what the fern effect is.

It’s not what you like

I’ve just finished reading a excerpt from Haruki Murakami‘s book about his obsessive running, and in particular a 100KM “ultramarathon” he completed (it’s taken me a while to get round to, it was in the Observer in July). He’s been one of my favourite authors in recent years, but something has disturbed me about finding out he was into running (a pastime I find incredibly dull).

I now feel the same way that you do when you find out a girl you like is a dog person rather than a cat person, or that someone likes Oasis, or watches Eastenders.

It’s not as bad a discovering someone votes tory tho’.