Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Dear Undecided Stoke Central Voter

You should definitely vote Labour on Thursday 23rd February. And depending on which way you're leaning, I'm going to tell you why.

Firstly, if you're finding UKIP attractive you should bear a few things in mind. Just take a look at Paul Nuttall. Here you have a man whose sole distinguishing characteristic is his lying. This isn't fibbing to make a CV look a little better, no, he's taken Hillsborough and used it to cast himself as a victim, as someone scarred by tragedy. You have to ask yourself, is this the sort of man you want representing you in Parliament? It's also worth looking at his record as a politician. Since being elected as a MEP, he has acquired one of the worst attendance records in the parliament. Now, you might agree with him. The European Parliament might well be a waste of time. You may sympathise with his view that he's there to show the place the contempt it deserves, but you also know that the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour. He's drawn his salary and done sod all as a MEP. He'll draw his salary and do sod all as your MP.

I know why you might find UKIP a tempting prospect. Labour have had all of Stoke's MPs since forever. It's run the local council more often than not. And during that time, local industry has disappeared. Whole streets have been bulldozed without getting rebuilt. Regeneration, a buzzword that has peppered the local paper's pages for 30 years never seems to get anywhere. Jobs are scarce and low paid, housing waiting lists are long, and every time somewhere new opens in Hanley another place closes. What you have to ask yourself is how will Paul Nuttall and UKIP turn that around. If he wins, the party will only have two MPs. Labour currently has 228, and had more before the last general election. But because it was in a minority, that couldn't stop the Tories and LibDems from targeting places like Stoke for cuts, cuts which meant replacement housing wasn't built, that local services were slashed, and which has resulted in a crisis at the hospital and chaos in social care. Assuming the UKIP leader breaks with his past and does some work for a change, what can he do with his even more limited reach? He can shout about immigration and blame East Europeans and other foreigners for Stoke's woes, but you know this has nothing to do with them. You know that if every single immigrant left, whether a recent arrival or second/third generation, there would still be these problems. Voting UKIP might feel like you're getting revenge on the world, but what is that going to achieve?

Because you also know that a UKIP win would be no good for Stoke. Labour has a plan for jobs, and you can see how Gareth Snell will carry it out. The Conservatives too have a plan, even if they're merely implementing what Labour drew up when it ran the council. What's UKIP's plan? Unfortunately, a win for them means a backward step for the city. I don't know if you voted for the BNP in the past, but outside the city their high levels of support meant Stoke acquired a racist reputation. If UKIP win, the repairs done to that reputation will be torn down. Fair enough, you might not care what people outside of Stoke think about us, but you should. Hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment skipped the city in the noughties because we were associated with the BNP. A similar identification with UKIP will have the same effect. Imagine, if you're someone from outside Stoke thinking about coming to university here, going for a job here, setting up a business here, would being the UKIP capital of the country encourage them? You might think "sod 'em", but that's money not getting spent in Stoke shops. That money not going into the pockets of Stokies. It's fitting UKIP have decided to decorate their leaflets with boarded up shops, because we'll be seeing more of them if they win.

If you're thinking about voting for UKIP these are the things you should consider. You want a better future for your family, for your kids and grandkids, for your friends and for your community. UKIP are not the gate way to better times. Quite the reverse, they will set Stoke back years and condemn the city to dereliction. To more of the same, in other words.

And if you're not going to be voting UKIP but, for whatever reason you don't like Labour and are intending to vote Conservative, Liberal Democrat, or Green, on this occasion I'm asking you to swallow your party loyalty and put your cross next to Gareth Snell's name. You know well the reasons why UKIP would be a disaster for Stoke-on-Trent. And you're aware that this battle is between them and Labour. Should Labour win I'm sure there will be things your new MP does that irritates the hell out of you. But looking at his platform, a jobs plan for Stoke, the creation of better paid and more secure work, working to attract more investment and taking on the divisions in our city that makes it appear so attractive to racists and opportunists, what do you disagree with? As a Labour member and party activist, you won't be surprised to learn that I think our candidate is the best. But whatever you think of him and our party, he's the only way you can get the things you want too. And so when you enter the polling booth, as your pencil hovers above the ballot paper, think tactically and vote Labour. Not only will a Labour win spare Stoke the hardship of carrying the racist town tag again, a huge gap between ourselves and UKIP will throw them into terminal crisis. Tomorrow is the only opportunity we're getting to send a clear message that, despite what people elsewhere may have seen or read, The Potteries is an open, tolerant and friendly place. Crushing UKIP in this by-election is going to help clean up our national politics too. And all you have to do is vote Labour.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Theresa May in Stoke

The Prime Minister managed a double whammy of the unexpected yesterday. First, she visited Stoke, which is something PMs rarely ever do. And second, her presence and parade in front of the local media means she's effectively campaigned for a Conservative candidate who doesn't stand a realistic chance of winning, which is usually a no-no when it comes to playing the Westminster game. How to explain this most unlikely of high profile interventions?

Very quickly, part of it has to do with May's One Nation/Shared Society nonsense. Given the consistency in which the PM talks about this stuff, it is definitely something she's ideologically committed to, even if - like any good Conservative - she doesn't let principles get in the way of power and politics. And so, with nothing to lose in Stoke, her breeze through the Emma Bridgewater factory and saunter about The Sentinel's offices (both "non-political" Conservative-supporting outfits, coincidentally) during the most high profile and important by-election in decades burnishes them One Nation creds. For years Tories have opined about no-go areas, and here's Theresa May herself leading from the front and making the case that Conservatism is for everybody.

She wouldn't have done this if the Tories weren't expecting to turn in a creditable performance this Thursday, and there's every chance they could. UKIP are in long-term decline and have been since before last June's EU referendum, and if there's any justice the lying lies of Paull Nuttall will do for them this Thursday. Furthermore, the polls and deflating performance in local council by-elections suggest chunks of kipper support are returning to the Tories. As far as May is concerned, to hold on in 2020 all she has to do is carry on being the super serious grown up politician, keep her fingers crossed Brexit negotiations don't have a disastrous outcome, that Trump and the economy behaves themselves, and triangulate to retain those fairweather UKIP votes. Her Stoke-on-Trent trip is a field test for that strategy. If the Tories can take extra bites from the purples and improve their position vis a vis Labour, this will be the course she steers between now and the general election.

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Future of Work

Having a wee break from blogging tonight. Here's a piece I did last week for work on, um, the future of work. As it was for the powers that be I had to tone down and be less forthright. Still, writing for different audiences is good discipline ...

There has been a lot of concern recently that millions of jobs are due to be automated out of existence over the coming decades. Of course, this is nothing new.

Since the Luddites undertook the very first acts of machine breaking, capitalism has sought to replace living labour – workers, by hand or by brain – by what Karl Marx called dead labour, or machines. And this has been the pattern of economic development since the end of the 18th century.

We can see this in an accelerated form in Britain over the course of the last 40 years, through the disappearance of manufacturing jobs either by exporting them to low wage zones in the developing world or via obsolescence through technology.

The next wave of automation, however, promises to be deeper and more thoroughgoing. The service sector jobs, the white collar office jobs that grew as manufacturing disappeared, are those set to be replaced by self-service kiosks, software, algorithms and, in a few cases, robots.

What is the future for work?

This has been a concern of social theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. They have argued occupations that place people and the production of social relationships at their heart are the emerging and increasingly dominant forms of work.

The shift in labour markets these last 40 years typify what they call the ‘social worker’, or what we might understand now as the networked worker. Examples run across the occupational and status scale – human resources/managers, shop assistants, couriers, drivers, marketing, trainers and personal services providers, coffee shops, lawyers. Advances in robotics, software and artificial intelligence all variously threaten them. The common pattern is one where tasks are amenable to automation.

For instance:

* Accountancy software requiring a few inputs presents a major challenge to the accountancy profession.
* UK law firms developing software that can turn out legal documentation and provide advice.
* Automated cash registers and cash machines have long displaced retail and shop floor banking staff.

The proliferation of email has grown workloads for professional occupations and rendered many involving “simple” administration obsolete. But where the building of relationships or decision making about relationships are central, these are the careers likely to thrive during the coming wave of automation.

Fewer newer jobs

The problem, however, is that while new technology and new ways of working beget new jobs, it is unlikely the new will manage a like-for-like replacement of the old. In the UK, the well-paid secure manufacturing jobs of old were largely replaced by more insecure, lower paid work. The nature of the coming automation will likely mean even fewer newer jobs.

If automation proceeds to destroy jobs in clerical work, the transport industry, the service sector, and in some professions it could lead to a number of serious social problems and a growing gap between vacancies and the unemployed. This will demand a response from policy makers and governments. Presently, automation is proceeding at a relatively slow pace because labour markets are loose and supply is plentiful.

If post-Brexit the UK decides to restrict immigration, the market overall becomes tighter. Similarly, the baby boomer generation are retiring and withdrawing from the workplace, and the generational cohorts following them are less numerous. Tighter markets allow for the building of wage pressures, and the “solution” to head this eventually off and preserve profits is to invest in more automation, thereby sharpening unemployment.

However, there are a number of policies governments could adopt to avoid these problems. One would be the introduction of a basic income payable to all citizens, which would give people independence from work as a means of making a living – and give them more freedom to take risks, such as starting a new business. Or alternatively, the benefits of automation could be shared by reducing the working week. If automation means higher productivity, do we need people working 39 hour weeks (or more) alongside millions who can’t find work?

These debates are likely to come to the fore over the coming years.

Is there anything individuals can do to prepare for the labour market of the future?

When it comes to higher education, generalist as opposed to specialist degrees in the human, natural or computer sciences provide for a broad range of skills and competencies. This right now appears to be the best way to future proof people for the challenges coming down the line.

Abandoned Stoke

An interesting short from the comrades at WellRedFilms, just ignore the talking head saying things about the passing of Stoke's industry. If you would like more, keep an eye on WellRed's profile page here.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

A Saturday in Stoke-on-Trent Central

Has this week been decisive for the by-election campaigns in Stoke-on-Trent Central? Paul Nuttall must be nursing a cracking hangover. Having been so thoroughly exposed hasn't done his campaign any good at all, to the point where he cannot really go door knocking again - not that he did much except hang around campaign HQ and have a few photos taken. And the lies keep on a-coming. He got rumbled over false claims that he served on the board for a North West skills charity. Michael Crick's digging has discovered that Nuttall was on the local election register before he moved into his house - yet another offence to chalk up with all the others. And the dishonesty is spreading as UKIP supporters at their Spring conference pose as activists in Stoke. I know fibbing and politics are bedfellows, but Nuttall and co are something else. And this is without mentioning his yes-I-would-waterboard-a-10-year-old gaffe.

Despite the repeated efforts of UKIP's helpers in The Sun, The Express and, yes, The Sentinel to put a few daft tweets from seven years ago on the same level as lying about the Hillsborough disaster, going into the last Saturday before polling day things are looking good for Labour. So what was it like on the doors? Yesterday morning I was out in Bentilee. Regular readers will know this is one of the biggest estates in the city, and was - according to legend - once the largest council house build in all of Europe. During the 00s it acquired some notoriety as the then council ward returned three BNP councillors to the local chamber. Concerted campaigning by Labour and change in the national political weather saw them cleared out in the 2010 and 2011 local elections. However, the problems that underpinned BNP support - unemployment, low pay, insecurity, deprivation, housing - did not go away, and were in many ways exacerbated by the cuts forced on the City Council by the Tory/LibDem coalition government. Nevertheless, despite the head of steam building behind UKIP in the run up to the 2015 general and local elections, the purples could only manage the return of two councillors across the city. In Bentilee, Labour held on and retained both seats, which hardly makes it a "UKIP heartland" in my book.

And, as sessions went, it was pretty much what I expected. The round we were on had been doorknocked the previous two weeks and so our time was spent filling in the gaps (you might be pleased/horrified to learn, depending on your affiliations, that Labour had a healthy lead on the prior information). I was on the board, Miss Ford, and so didn't do much engaging, but it did mean I had a proper overview of how we did. Labour came out on top overall by some margin followed by three Tories, and handful of Don't Knows and Won't Says, a couple of Againsts. The BNP and the Greens(!) can each count on at least one vote apiece from this part of Stoke. Too many non-voters though, which is par the course for Benters, unfortunately - ward turnout in 2015 was under 40%. I did get the chance to speak to one bloke who was already down as an Against (read Kipper) who was fulminating against Tony Blair's oh so helpful intervention in the Brexit debate. Another comrade told me later that Blair had come up for him too, a sign that he's firming up the UKIP vote? There is, of course, a rule barring party members from providing assistance to rival campaigns ... In all, not a bad morning. If these canvass returns hold out across the constituency, then Labour can look forward to Thursday's outcome.

In the afternoon we had a flying visit from Jeremy Corbyn. Speaking to the 150 or so present he thanked everyone for coming and laid into UKIP as the Trojan Horse for NHS charges and privatisation. Jez praised Gareth's Plan for the Potteries and looked forward to meeting him in the Leader's Office Monday week to ensure it gets implemented. Lastly, he urged everyone present to grab a canvass board and leaflets and hit the streets.

Much to my amazement, and for the first time ever, when we went to grab a board for more door knocking they had all gone. Our intrepid gang headed off instead to the wilds of Eaton Park with bag fulls of addressed letters. For folks unfamiliar with this district, it is a mix of 1970s and 80s detached and semi-detached housing, a mix of owner-occupied, mortgage holders and privately rented. Politically it's always been a bit tricky for us. The present chair of Stoke Central Labour, Terry Crowe, represented Eaton Park on the City Council 2011-15 and has done so at various intervals for nearly 30 years. Presently, Rita Dale of the City Independents holds the ward. Unfortunately, running around bashing stuff through letter boxes aren't ideal for gauging the mood. Though, somehow, we'd manage to attract a journalist from German radio and she went round vox popping every local that crossed our paths. One young couple said they were voting for Nuttall because of immigration. The woman recounted how she'd previously lived next door to a foreigner, and in the space of a year he bought three cars. Another guy out cleaning his motor said he voted Leave but was undecided in the by-election, though definitely against UKIP. Speaking of the kippers, one comrade out leafleting with us while wearing union paraphernalia was challenged by a lesser spotted UKIP canvassing team. "What do you think of your candidate's sexist tweets?" asked our newly-found allies in the struggle for women's equality. Any other situation it would be "PC gone mad" bollocks.

And that was it for me. Back to base and the humdrum of shopping and putting the tea on. Also, when I got home, I learned that one so-far-unidentified UKIP activist didn't have a particularly good afternoon. One of their leafleters got caught short and decided to relieve himself up against the side of a house. Unluckily for him, he was seen via CCTV and challenged about it. In response, the culprit tried to force his way into the elderly woman's home, presumably to seize the evidence. If Nuttall wins, this will be far from the only time UKIP pisses on the constituency.

Anyway, speaking to comrades out on other rounds the results of the day's campaigning were fair to good. But it's far from job done. Now we have to make sure we turn out the thousands upon thousands of Labour promises on the day. If you haven't had chance to come out yet, want to help and are in a position to do so, there's still plenty of work to be done. Especially on polling day itself. Come join us and help bury UKIP this Thursday.

Friday, 17 February 2017

A Quick Word About Tony Blair

It's been a few months, so we were due another return of Tony Blair. And so we had today's intervention in the Brexit debate, fulfilling his earlier promise that he was going to get more active in British politics again. Naturally, and it couldn't have escaped His Blairness's notice even as he moves among the higher planes, is that there are a couple of by-elections on. In Copeland, the big issues are the local NHS and Sellafield. In Stoke-on-Trent, lying Paul Nuttall, aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrats, are trying to make it about Brexit.

Blair's speech wasn't helpful. Throughout the campaign, UKIP and their little helpers in the local and national press have tried to make a thing about Gareth Snell's Remain voting/campaigning record. He has said on more occasions than I care to remember that had he been a MP during last week's Article 50 vote, he would have obeyed the whip and followed the steer of Stoke Central's constituents and voted for it. He's even gone out of his way to criticise Paul Farrelly's stupid decision to defy the referendum result - Paul represents the tight marginal in neighbouring Newcastle-under-Lyme for Labour. The Tories have tried to make something out of it too. They put out a leaflet, signed by the Prime Minister no less, saying that Stoke's two other MPs - Ruth Smeeth and Rob Flello - voted against triggering Article 50 when, quite rightly, they supported it. Goes to show that Nuttall isn't the only liar in town. And so while Labour is working very hard to say that the Brexit result must be respected, along comes Blair to much fanfare to try and undo it all and muddy the position. At best, unhelpful. At worst, scabbing. I'll leave you to decide which.

That said, if the by-election goes down to a Labour loss, Blair will not be to blame. Like most places, he's not particularly well-liked in Stoke. Then again, not a great many people care about what he has to say either. The local paper have covered it, slots were duly put aside on the evening news, a talking point on local radio maybe, but it's not likely to have much of an affect on the by-election. Stokies aren't thick and know he's yesterday's man. If everything goes belly up, which is looking decreasingly likely, there will be other issues and legacies at play. His fool speech won't even register.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Lies, Damned Lies, and Paul Nuttall

Where to you start with a politician like Paul Nuttall? Like a foul dinner that keeps repeating, his every action belches falsehood upon fib upon lie. Saying you played professionally for Tranmere Rovers and having a PhD when you didn't and don't is good knockabout for politics anoraks, but it's serious when your habitual lying extends to the seminal tragedy of modern football. Claiming you were there, that "you are a survivor" when everyone is saying you weren't, and saying you lost "close personal friends" only to row back reveals a slimy opportunist who has to turn to a dictionary every time integrity is mentioned.

Having finally seen Nuttall up close at Monday's by-election hustings at Staffordshire University, I found nothing that challenged my earlier assessment of him. For example, after saying he wouldn't have a problem waterboarding a 10 year old he immediately disassembled and denied saying it, just as my moggy gives me one of those looks after finding her piss again on the kitchen floor. If only someone had recorded it. He cannot help but lie. If he'd had Ready Brek that morning he'd say he had Weetabix.

I understand why Paul Nuttall lies, and that's because he's a nothing man, an empty vessel that eats, walks around, and draws breath. All that there is a desire to be important, a hunger to be noticed, and that's difficult if there's nothing about you worth noticing. Consider UKIP's leading figures for a moment. Douglas Carswell is the intellectual. Neil Hamilton the sleaze. Suzanne Evans the Tory. And Nigel Farage the cigarette swilling, pint smoking demagogue. Each have definable and discernible qualities, however much you may dislike them. But Nuttall, what of he? He's alright in the media, he's bald, he's a scouser, and that's about it. There is no presence to the man, something that was clearly evident at Monday's hustings where Labour's Gareth Snell and the Conservatives' Jack Brereton both affected more weight on the stage.

If you are a politician without qualities, you can do one of two things. You can drift into obscurity and quietly draw a salary, much like the rest of UKIP's anonymous cohort of MEPs, or make stuff up to give your character a bit of, well, character. In this by-election, we've seen Nuttall indulge Nigel Farage cosplay with his tweed outfit and flat cap look. Where the bloody hell he got the idea from that this is an appropriate look for Stoke is beyond me. He has also been taking a leaf out of Tristram's book, too. Readers may recall that the dearly departed was hailed as a breath of fresh air, as a national figure with all the London connections that would help the Potteries. And give Tristram his due, he helped put the city on the national media's radar and a number of interesting and important initiatives were born of these links. Nuttall has latched on to this and now parades around telling everyone who will listen that he's a "national figure" too. And because he's a big cheese, everything is going to be fine. Really Paul, if you have to go round convincing folks you're a Very Big Deal ...

What I find interesting is this is more than a Paul Nuttall issue, the cynical lies he tells is a property of hard right populist and fascist leaders generally. Nick Griffin and his coterie were pathological liars. Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen of Facebook fash, Britain First, are compulsive liars. Marine Le Pen, just like dear old papa, lies, lies, and lies. And the Grand Poobah himself, Donald Trump, lies as easily as he breathes. What we're dealing with here is not just the individual flaws of a deeply average and, actually, quite dim man but a sociological phenomenon common to a family of politics. As with everything else, Nuttall doesn't stand out among his peers. He's utterly typical and indistinguishable from them. The banality of evil, indeed.

Image Credit

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

At the Stoke Central Hustings

Coming away from The Sentinel-sponsored by-election hustings at Staffordshire University, I spotted a blood moon hanging low over Stoke. For whom did this augur an ill omen? For Gareth Snell and the Labour Party, or Paul Nuttall and the United Kingdom Independence Party? If what happens at hustings matters, I'd have to say it doesn't bode well for our Tranmere playin', PhD totin', compulsive fibbin' UKIP leader. It's not that Nuttall was totally dreadful from a presentation point of view, apart from a catastrophic gaffe at the end, but that he commanded hardly a presence. For the hustings was effectively the Gareth show, with Jack Brereton of the Tories as the supporting act. Nuttall played little more than a walk-on part and had to compete with the also-rans for attention. If he is a national figure, which he kept reminding us, then it's a position achieved in the absence of discernible talent and charisma.

Mick Temple, on hand to offer the expert perspective opened proceedings with the observation that the Stoke Central by-election is perhaps the most important in modern political history. What happens here will have repercussions for two major political parties. For Labour, not only would losing put a question over Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, it raises the issue of if it can't no longer win in its heartlands, where can it win? For UKIP, losing means there is effectively no point to the party any more. Win and there is a possibility it can become the new party of the working class.

With the scene set, Martin Tideswell of The Sentinel invited candidates to make a 60 second stump. Nuttall began by arguing that the message he's getting from the doorstep is one of change, and he can deliver it. As a national figure he has the clout to get things done, and this would be because if Stoke changes from the capital of Brexit to the capital of change, it would scare the establishment. Godfrey Davies of the Christian People's Alliance stated the he was standing against the liberal agenda that had brought calamity to our country - concentrating on Christian values is the only way forward. The LibDems' Zulfiqar Ali said he was the only candidate opposed to hard Brexit, and wanted the people to have a say on the outcome of negotiations. More money for the NHS would be nice, too. Gareth for Labour stated his local credentials and said his priority would be to campaign for homes, and fight for the Brexit the Potteries deserves and not what London would condescend to dish out. Jack Brereton for the Tories said he was responsible for delivering £500m in investment in the city, including 1,000 new jobs on the Ceramic Valley development. He also stated - as if saying it made it true - that Theresa May had a plan that would make a success for Brexit. The Incredible Flying Brick of the Official Monster Raving Loonies began by saying this was his fourth by-election and, to much hilarity, read the BNP speech on the table next to him. Adam Colclough said things about being local and working together, and the BNP's David Furniss said he was the only true Brexit candidate as his dobbins of a party had been against the EU since 1982.

It was evident from the first question that this was going to be a tetchy, bad-tempered meeting, and so it proved: readers interested in the full thing can watch the recording here. And there were flash points and moments of interest aplenty. The first full-on scrap came over the NHS and the integration of adult social care, which everyone agreed would be a very fine thing (though the BNP still managed to get a line in about immigrants). Very quickly it became an argument between Gareth and Jack, while egged on by Tories in the audience shouting PFI (do they know it was a Major policy, and has carried on under the present government?). What really got the Tory blood boiling was the obvious evidence - as noted by Gareth - that private contractors and quiet privatisation have and continue to undermine the NHS. An audience member used the opportunity to challenge Nuttall on his comments regarding nurse training and his belief they don't need degrees. He hadn't changed his mind, he replied, as there shouldn't be any nurses who are "too posh to wash". Scrapping degrees would save £3bn, which along with abandoning HS2 and stripping back foreign aid would supply ample cash for the NHS. Needless to say, this didn't go down particularly well with health workers present.

A question aimed at economic development and directed at Gareth asked how we can get good quality jobs in Stoke, and how would having yet another Labour MP help? He replied that we need to work at moving government departments out of London to spread the benefits of public spending on these organisations. It also means thinking smart and partnering with Birmingham and Manchester to ensure the belated regionalisation the government favours partly accrues to the city as well. In short, we need someone who will get stuck in who isn't going to Westminster to cheer lead the Prime Minister or further their own career. For his part, Jack replied that there are 1,500 more people employed in Stoke than was the case in 2010, and he repeated himself about the Ceramic Valley development. One thing he neglected to mention that these "new jobs" are merely a relocation of Bet365's HQ from Festival Park nearby, which was a development prepped under the previous Labour council. Though I'm sure in good time the Tory-run council will have some achievements of their own they can talk up. It's also worth noting that at an earlier hustings at Stoke Sixth Form College that Jack made his opposition to moving departments to Stoke known on the grounds that local people "didn't have the skills", and this from the champion of inward investment! On local economic development, all Nuttall could do was moan about HS2 and argue for the abolition of fees for "STEM cell subjects [sic]". By far the most intriguing response was delivered courtesy of Godfrey Davies. To regenerate the city he intends to "bring the Kingdom of God to Stoke", and that will provide its own blessings. Indeed.

Naturally, the issue of Gareth's sexist tweets came up. Rather than trying to wriggle and lie as a, I don't know, a Paul Nuttall might, he took it head on. He condemned his previous comments and said he did a lot of growing up in his 20s, and since then as Newcastle Borough Council leader he made the decision to increase funding for sexual violence and domestic violence support services, which benefited some of the borough's most vulnerable women. As a trade unionist he'd helped organise low paid women and had marched shoulder-to-shoulder with his sisters.

There were more ding dongs over EU migrants in Britain after Brexit, whether a Remain-voting MP can represent a Leave constituency, on tuition fees and deindustrialisation. And then came Nuttall's clanger. He was asked if a 10 year old child soldier of Islamic State was suspected of harbouring knowledge about a terror attack, would he order a member of the armed forces to waterboard them. Nuttall replied that if there was a suspect with information about a dirty bomb set to go off in London, Liverpool and, just remembering where he was, Stoke, then yes he would. Gareth quickly interjected with a "you've basically said you would waterboard a 10 year old", to which all chaos broke loose. Above the din, Nuttall was stupid enough to shout he knew the evidence was that waterboarding doesn't work, but would do it anyway.

I am increasingly of the mind that hustings don't really serve any discernible purpose. At the beginning of the evening, Martin Tideswell asked who of the 60 or so present were actually Stoke Central residents voting on 23rd February. About half the hands went up, and looking at those who did about half of them were Labour, another five or six UKIP, and a handful of Tories and others apiece. It was what you call a public meeting without the public, a dialogue of people with no interest in having a dialogue. Yet it served a purpose. There is a recording available for all to view in which the ineptitude of Paul Nuttall is laid bare. This so-called national figure was not only bested by his Labour opponent who has had nowhere near as much media exposure than he, but by the also-ran Tory too. If there is any justice, he'll get a drubbing so bad that the name 'Paul Nuttall' will be one remembered only by geeks and politics historians five years hence. Come to Stoke and help make sure this happens.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Is the Corbyn Moment Over?

The seisometers are registering something. Is it a tremor triggered by the usual grumbles, or are the plates storing up a major event? This is the problem when it comes to analysing the travails of the Labour leadership. With the irreconcilables tactically and temporarily reconciled to the present state of affairs, the cracks are feeling their way across the Corbynist edifice. Clive Lewis had to resign his business brief after defying the three line whip to support the triggering of Article 50. Before David Davis assaulted her, Diane Abbott's migraines were the stuff of Westminster gossip. Owen Jones has cast doubt on whether he would vote for Jeremy Corbyn again, while doing his bit to big up our Clive. There is (unserious) speculation about another leadership challenge, and the papers today are stuffed with grumblings - including leaked focus group findings checking out the viability of Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey as heirs to Jeremy. Is this yet another episodic difficulty, or a sign the Corbyn era, barely 18 months old, is drawing to a close?

The precipitating factor behind the latest round of chuntering was the aforementioned Article 50 vote and the deep splits that cleaved into the Parliamentary Labour Party. As it happens, I believe Jeremy Corbyn absolutely made the right choice, and I'm sure any leader would have done the same in his position. Plebiscites and referenda are regressive and a step back from representative democracy, let alone the more substantive forms of democracy we should be aiming for. Nevertheless, we have to deal with the outcome of Dave's gamble because we - the parties, the campaigns, the voters - all signed up to it, and woe betide the political consequences for any of the big parties should they seek to defy the result.

The problem is, from the standpoint of Corbynism and its watchers, is while the enthusiastic uprising of hundreds of thousands of new members put their man in the leader's office, they themselves were overwhelmingly pro-EU while Jez was, by repute, historically opposed. And since the referendum there has been a strand, in and outside the party, that has tried tying the responsibility for Remain's loss to him. Never mind that the Prime Minister of the day only persuaded fewer than half of his party's voters to support his case. Nevertheless, this notion that Jez was/is a secret Brexiteer has persisted and that his actions during the last fortnight should be read in these terms. Pure poppycock, but it has certainly knocked the stuffing out of sections of his support. Is this the beginning of the end?

Firstly, no. There is not going to be a leadership challenge. There is no appetite in the party, and the PLP remain mindful about what happened last year. As the boundary review and battle over merged seats lies ahead, no one is in the mood to upset the party membership. I don't think shock losses in in Copeland and sunny Stoke-on-Trent Central make that any more likely, either. Nor is anything going to come from the unions. They are very concerned about the poor polling figures, but cannot be seen and will not make the first move to oust Corbyn, especially as it would sow serious division between them. Two years hence the situation might be different, but not now.

All that said, how long can Corbynism go on for if it's feeling the pinch of real division and failing to gain traction in the country at large? The answer to whether the moment is over is ... not yet. Labour is in a dark place, but we should be wary of treating politics as if everything is fixed and ordered in advance. Look out the window and everything is all over the place. In Britain, the dynamic that fed UKIP is dissipating and the LibDems are making an unlikely comeback. Brexit so far has kept the Tories together, but as negotiations get underway it will surely be impossible to keep a lid on things. And with the danger of talks collapsing completely which, thanks to May's complacency and the arrogance of her lieutenants, cannot be completely ruled out the possibility is the roughest, most frightening part of the road to travel may still lie ahead. And then there is the small matter of Donald Trump's innumerable idiocies and the government's evident desire to act as his bag carriers. To go all Rumsfeldian for a moment, these are the known unknowns. Even without them, British politics is still wracked by uncertainty. These problems, insecurity, precarity, fatalism, frustrated aspiration, have not gone away and the government is set to do little about them. These will find expression in some way - indeed, Corbynism is a symptom of it. The spectre of the unknown unknown is abroad.

Is the Corbyn moment over? If we understand it as a consequence of the flux and pulse of political crisis, probably not. It might in fact just be starting.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Mega-lo-Mania for the MegaDrive/Genesis

God games. Oddly, there were a few knocking around for Sega's all-singing, all-dancing arcade conversion monster. Mega-lo-Mania started out life as a title from Sensible Software on the 16-bit home computing formats of the early 90s (Atari ST, Amiga), proved a bit of a hit (as well as scoring rave reviews) and made its way over to the consoles. For reasons unknown, the publishers decided to change the name for its North American Genesis release to Tyrants Fight Through Time, presumably as they believed it was beyond the ken of yanks to reach for a dictionary. Even weirder, for the Super Nintendo release they reverted back to the old name but gave it a ghastly sonic and graphical overhaul. If it ain't broken ...

Mega-lo-Mania is a God game. There's some piffle about worlds coming into being bearing intelligent life, and how the universe's deities cluster around and fight for the right to control it. The plot is hardly serious, but then it's not meant to be. Each level has three islands to conquer, and the player is endowed with a small pool of computer people to begin the task. Any left unused carry over to the next level, which is handy for the later stages where time is of the essence. You are then awarded a base, or tower, from which to direct your operations. You can assign folks to mining, designing technologies, forming armies and what have you. The aim is to develop weapons and grow your population so you have a hefty enough army to invade your neighbours' square until, in the words of the game, you've "conquered the sector!" Simple, right? The problem is you're squaring off against up to three opponents who are all trying to do the same and, terror of terrors, not all squares are as equally well endowed with resources. You might merrily and painstakingly build up a mine and a factory to manufacture cannon only for your base to be invaded by 50 spear men. The result is curtains for you.

The core game is simple. It's a matter of allocating numbers of people and growing them, and as you proceed through the game the rate of technological advance picks up. You start off in prehistoric times where the cutting edge technology of the day are rocks, and the game finishes nine levels later with Strategic Defence Initiative lasers and flying saucers. It's the later levels where things start getting tricky and you need to have saved some people over from earlier on. Levels seven, eight and nine are where nuclear weapons become available. It's usually a race to who can design and manufacture them first. If you win the production race you get to nuke your opponents and win. If not, you become the nuke-ee.

A further consideration the player must bear in mind is the end game. When your tower has reached 2001 (it was the future, once) and provided you either have other settlements or an army deployed somewhere, you can send your peeps into suspended animation. They wake up on the island of Armageddon at the end of the game to do battle with lasers with any opponents who also packed their folks into cold sleep. Generally speaking, because the AI isn't great the opposition are rubbish at doing this. During my playthrough 36 of my guys (out of 200+ who went into storage) survived. Only one other bothered earlier on in the game, and they must have had less than a dozen people to play with. The final battle was more a massacre than the promised mother of all battles, alas.

As an early real time strategy game, it is designed for quick play, of piling up your designs, manufacturing the most advanced weapons and taking it to the enemy. But when I was a little 'un determined to get full value of the £39.99, I quite liked playing long games, of slowly building up empires and military and toying with the much more stupid opponents. If you were the kind of kid that enjoyed tormenting ants, then Mega-lo-Mania is the game for you.

Mega-lo-Mania was noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, in a period where speech in video games was relatively rare, this was a positively verbose and came packed to the gills with samples. Diplomacy, which began and ended at the striking of military alliances, was mostly a jovial affair. Of the four demigods you could play as/against, Madcap and Scarlet sounded quite gruff and serious. Cesar was every inch the comedy Italian with an overblown accent. And everyone's favourite was Oberon, who in his best Carry On camp voice would ask "do you want to be on my team?". And if he was turning you down, there came a very John Inman-esque "no, I don't think so". As he shared his name with Shakespeare's fairy king, perhaps camping him up sounded like a good idea at the time. The MegaDrive, oft noted for not having a fantastic sound chip, nevertheless rendered all the speech as clear as the Amiga version. The second point is its importance to real time strategy games in general. When it came out, the roost was ruled by an ageing-looking Populous and the first Civilization game on PC. The former was an RTS but relied on growing your population to overwhelm your opponent, while the latter was turn-based but was organised around a tech tree. Mega-lo-Mania married the two and was able to prepare the ground for the likes of Command and Conquer, Warcraft and Starcraft, which went on to dominate the RTS genre.

Thirdly, Mega-lo-Mania was important for a less celebrated reason: console optimisation. The 16-bit computers lent themselves to quick-thinking RTS thanks to the mouse interface. Point and click was and is much less cumbersome than pratting about with a joystick or pad. For instance, the MegaDrive's iteration of Populous wasn't so optimised, meaning it was a pain slowly dragging your hand of God from one end of the screen to another. A good job that it isn't a fast paced game, really. While the problem isn't eliminated entirely in Mega-lo-Mania, each pad press automatically places the cursor on a control pad icon - a system much simpler than the ugly-looking menu system inflicted on the SNES version. Still, in both cases it demonstrated there was no reason why strategy games couldn't be modified to suit consoles, and today - though perhaps thinner on the ground then they once were - games of this stripe now all draw on the lessons learned then.

This begs the question, if Mega-lo-Mania was a big deal at the time, if it was an important milestone in the evolution of RTS games, and if it played a crucial role that influenced how control schemes need to work for strategy console releases, why is it largely forgotten? It could be that its creators, Sensible Software, met their demise at the close of the 1990s and so has sank into history as an orphan. That it never received a sequel, that the American name change nonsense damaged its ability to solidify a following around a brand identity. More likely, unfortunately, was while the game is very good it is relatively short and doesn't offer the kinds of variety Civilization and, to a lesser extent, Populous did. Whereas they required a variation in strategy and tactics (of sorts), you can complete Mega-lo-Mania by building quickly and attacking in overwhelming force almost every single time. Only the nuclear weapon levels offer a slight variation on the theme.

And that is a real shame, because Mega-lo-Mania does, if you'd forgive the clumsy allusion, deserve its place in the video game pantheon. It doesn't need worship, but its importance demands recognition.