Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Ridge Racer 6 for the Xbox 360

I love my racing games. Yet, as long-time readers know, I'm not so keen on modern games. By 'modern' I mean the era inaugurated from around 2000 onwards with the coming of the Playstation2, and it's "competition" from Microsoft and Nintendo. Yes, for readers under the age of 25 that is aeons ago. 15 years is a long bloody time, but I'm sticking with that definition because reasons, and that your humble scribe is, sadly, well over his mid-20s. But I'm well aware that I run the risk of being the video game equivalent of a too-cool-for-school dad who declares current music crap because we had Hendrix, the Stones, and The Carpenters back in the day. This granddad needs to get with the programme and start jiving to more modern fare. And so I've been kicking about for recent(ish) stuff to get my teeth into. And so I've picked up Diablo III for the PS3 (of which more another time) and this, Ridge Racer 6 for the Xbox 360.

Long time readers might remember this blog visited its illustrious predecessor last year; Ridge Racer Type 4 for the original PlayStation. That was a superlative racing game that hit these shores back in 1999 and excelled via its compulsive arcade-style gameplay and, what were for the time, stunning visuals and soundtrack. As I am a fan, when I saw Ridge Racer 6 going at a bargain bin price in a local gaming emporium, I thought why not. It was a wise choice because I haven't played anything else for the past couple of months.

RR6 is a worthy entry in the franchise. Apart from the visuals, obviously, this 2005 release is clearly stamped by the marks of its ancestor. The premise is much the same. Race around the tracks and qualify for the subsequent race. You start off with the basic route and once all those races are um, raced, more areas of the game universe are unlocked. In all there are a range of tracks going from the aforementioned to the hidden master level. It also presents different challenges to the players. As you might expect the cars get faster as you move through the game, and the races vary from standard you versus a field of 14 to one-on-one duels to quad challenges. These are especially challenging and get nigh-on impossible toward the game's end (being rubbish, I'm stuck on the 94.5% completed mark). Unlike racing games of the last five years, it's very simple to pick up. Turn on the automatic gear system and all you need do is press accelerator, learn how to corner, and that's about it.

Also, being Ridge Racer, it prides itself on the absurdity of its arcade roots. If you like realistic physics as part of a super serious racing experience, this definitely is not for you. Imagine, if you will, taking corners at 320kph. Yet that is how this game rolls. In fact, in the dozens of hours I've sank into RR6 I don't think I've used the brake button once. Success here depends on mastering its drifting mechanic. This just isn't so you can steal a march on the computer-controlled opposition, but in this game universe the friction from drifting charges you up with nitrous oxide which, as per every racing game from the 16-bit era on, provides you with a temporary shot of mega speed. Winning, especially on the higher levels where you frequently go up against cars faster than yours, depends on its acquisition and strategic use. Another lovely touch, especially for gamers of a certain age, is the liberal use Namco makes of its classic catalogue. You can play Pac-Man on the loading screen and unlock it as a permanent option as you race. Several of the teams and models of fictional cars are named after old arcade favourites like Mappy and Galaga, one of the tracks features a remixed soundtrack from the latter too. And, of course, you can unlock a Pac-Man themed car too.

Speaking of cars, despite not being entirely serious RR6 does follow the conventions of car porn established long before it in more serious racers. Perhaps there's a little bit of sending up going on. With each unlocking, a car is off-loaded from its transporter and is greeted by a camera that almost leers at its lines, curves, and reflective surfaces. It happens regardless whether it has a sleek, elegant design, or is boxy and awkward-looking. Also, again in-keeping with licensed driving games, the cars are indestructible. It doesn't matter if you smash straight into a wall at ludicrous speed or scrape against the side of the track for the best part of half a mile, the motor always emerges unscathed.

The only downside is the length of the game. Having 200 races is fine, but there are only so many basic tracks. When you have to race on each one well over 10 times each against progressively faster opponents it can get a bit wearing, especially on the lower levels where half-decent players can breeze through without so much as a by-your-leave. It does, however, make up for it as the cars get faster. The other point is the lack of customisation, not that this particularly bothers me. I've never seen the attraction of fiddling with car components to build up the ultimate racer. Yet for those who do like to personalise their stuff, you can unlock and apply unique colour schemes. Each to their own.

There are two points of interest from a chin-strokey perspective here. Back in Ridge Racer Type 4, I noted how its longevity rested on the pursuit of ephemeral gamin experiences. You've won all the races, had the credits roll, banked the glory ... now what? In the earlier title, more gameplay could be found by racing through the different difficulty levels and meeting a myriad victory conditions to unlock more cars, of which there were 320. That's a lot of driving with cars that differ very slightly in terms of speed, handling, and appearance for no discernible end goal rather than the pleasure of play itself. And with each racing campaign taking about half an hour to get through, that's a lot of bloody time soaked up that most gamers would have - and did - expend elsewhere. In RR6 this superfluous element is incorporated into the core game design. To get the 100% and complete the game fully, you are compelled to pursue ephemeral experiences. However, it is unclear whether the game considers itself completed if you fall short. Once you go through the basic run the end sequence, which is just the credits, start rolling without reason. Go through a couple more "expert" levels and the same happens. All that appears to change is the swirly patterns that dance along with the staff roll call. The rewards for pursuing the experience, however, is the unlocking of super fast and increasingly surreal-looking cars. These include a rocket booster with wheels, a hover craft, a car with four legs, and a limo with a fearsome nitrous thrust concealed in its boot.

The other point is why I went for this game. Not being au fait with modern games, I did my research and was ultimately looking for nothing more complicated than OutRun, which is what RR6 is. It has all the core gaming mechanics of the really old racers I used to (still) love, but steered away from the serious simulation claims of some, and the whacky race-and-destroy nonsense of Ridge Racer Unbounded and the Burnout series. In all essentials it's probably an example of why I usually stick with retro product: it's about comfort gaming, of being content with what you might call the gamer/gameplaying habitus I've acquired since first playing Phoenix all those decades ago. I can't be bothered to sink the time necessary to learn (comparatively) new gameplay conventions or taking up a RPG that might take over 100 hours to finish, but thinking nothing of doing just that for a game that is as simple as modern gaming can be. So, incredibly, while lots of gamers and gaming commentators wax lyrical about emotionally engaged story lines and the depths to which one can be lost in brilliantly realised gameworlds, for me at least all it took was something brainless to get me to reflect on my understanding, experience, and orientation to gaming.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Strange Return of the Political Party

In the aftermath of the general election, this little gem from the BBC caught my eye. It reported on the seemingly counter-intuitive view that political parties, particularly if they lose, often experience a surge in membership. The Liberal Democrats, for instance, who saw their worst defeat in their history saw them put on 10,000-15,000 members (depending on who you talk to) since the general election. The Greens have apparently added another 5,000, the SNP 7,000, and Labour just over 30,000. Poor old UKIP, however, failed to put on any thanks to some untimely IT problems. Still, the combined membership of parties are stuck stubbornly beneath 1% of the electorate but it seems, at least on the surface, that the political party is back. At least as organisations comprised of growing numbers of active citizens - however you'd like to define them.

Of course, the political party never really went away. If you take the period from the 2005 general election to the eve of the Scottish referendum, despite falling combined memberships and dislocation from the constituencies of people that breathed life into them parties remained relevant. They formed governments and councils, sent their members to the European Parliament and devolved bodies, they won elections and pushed through policies. Insurgents from the far left and far right challenged incumbents successfully through the party form. For all of the talk of party breakdown and the erosion of stable identification, the success of self-styled independents remain sporadic and highly localised.

Yet for anyone interested in the health of representative democracy, and that includes those who are well aware of its limitations and might perhaps like to see more participatory and democratic forms eventually develop, the weakness of political parties are bad news. It can exacerbate other pressures constantly bearing down on the state that contribute to the withering of democratic accountability. Party weakness can let undesirables through too. In Stoke the BNP's rise during the 00s had many roots, and one of them was the complete absence of the Conservatives from most local election contests.

From the liberal democratic perspective then, parties are necessary. And this is why seas of ink have been poured over the problem of declining parties and hollowed out polities. It's a problem that's exercised me too. Both Conservatives and Labour have undergone a progressive diminution of influence as tectonics of classes and class fractions have shifted beneath their feet. It's a symptom of their own decadence as declining forces that they act against their own interests. I believe Labour can come back from this, but only if it appreciates itself as a movement in society - not a PLP of latte slurping wonks for whom the party is an adjunct. As for the Tories? More on that another time.

If the main parties are in decline then, and mainstream political participation is low and election turnouts have practically flatlined, where is this sudden about turn coming from? If the multitude of social trends are responsible for miniaturising parties and presumably still working them over, what are the counterveiling forces? There are a few things going on. Some are short-term and episodic events, others may have longer term salience.

1. The reaction to defeat can drive political people who, for whatever reason, haven't taken up party membership beforehand to do so. It's the realisation that no one else is going to participate and build the sort of party you want in your absence, so it's up to you. This is certainly the case for Labour and the LibDems. Indeed, when Labour were dumped out of office in 2010 it put on 50,000 members in the space of six months in reaction to the formation of the coalition. Fear is a great motivator, as we have seen with those angsty voters that gifted the general election to the Tories.

2. A low-level feeder to be sure, but way after Blair ceased displaying Bambi's qualities, the procession of young careerists into Labour continued unabated. Regardless of what's going on in wider society, there is a small section for whom politics is a career choice: there will always be seats to fill, constituency offices to be staffed, council candidates needed, and various other jobs to be taken up. From this position, joining a party is a long-term investment. Networks have to be built, notables flattered, activism undertaken, favours accumulated and banked. Also, opportunities in politics, depending on what you're looking for, can come up frequently. I can't but help think that a substantial number of people pouring into the LibDems presently are aware that the next five-ten years will see more opportunities open for aspiring activists as it recovers.

3. Events, dear boy, events. The Scottish referendum and the spectacularly stupid way Labour in Scotland and UK-wide handled it saw them dynamite their own citadels north of the border. The spectacular growth of the SNP was won on the back of a mass politicisation that coincided with monumental strategic blunders, a moribund party, and those long-term trends. Similarly in England and Wales, the surge that saw the Green Party overtake UKIP and the LibDems in terms of members were driven by one-off events. That doesn't necessarily mean both parties are now likely to fall back. I can't speak for the Greens, but I know the SNP's left in its trade union group are looking to set up the kinds of workplace linkages that used to nourish Labour and provide it generations of activists, thinkers, and politicians. With a Parliament pregnant with tumultuous potential, a few 'one-off' events might act as triggers of active political participation and therefore party membership.

4. Perhaps the most important long-term driver partially replacing the transmission belts of old is social media. Like nearly every political Twitter user I know, my feed is little better than an echo chamber. The vast majority are labour movement people from all corners of the broad tent, but we hold some basic positions in common. It can provide the illusion that your utterances get some real world traction when they are retweeted thousands of times, but that pails against the millions that still read the mainstream press. Nevertheless, the tendency for social media to create unstructured, 'spontaneous' intentional communities can be a boon to political parties. The informal hierarchies and networks that make them up can and do encourage people in them to join the party they're broadly aligned with. Take, for instance, the typical (maligned) campaign selfie. Yes, they're a touch on the narcissistic side but they can and do convey a sense of community, of people from all kinds of backgrounds (apparently) getting on with the job to hand. For some that can be an incredibly powerful pull factor, especially in the context of inhabiting a self-constructed social media world revolving around party politics. As social media continues to expand, so this will be many - mainly young - people's first point of contact with parties. From there it's a short hop, skip, and a jump into active party membership.

Is the return of the political party that strange then? Not really.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Dear Liz Kendall

Dear Liz,

Re: Leadership of the Labour Party

As I noted the other day, leadership contests are that rare occasion when MPs and ordinary members are frank about the personalities and policies at the top of the party. Some also over egg the pudding and go for outright abuse. I'm thinking mainly, this time around, about the people who are mostly Andy Burnham identifiers and think attacking you as the Conservative Party candidate for Labour leadership is a smart way for their man to win. It isn't, it's unfair, and it's clear from an acquaintance with your material that a Tory you're most definitely not.

That doesn't mean I think you're well suited to lead the Labour Party.

In the spirit of honesty customary to these times, I'm going to tell you why. Don't, however, make the assumption I'm rooting for Andy, or Yvette, or Mary, or lamenting the dear departed Tristram or Chuka. Like many tens of thousands of party members I am far from enthused by any of the meagre policy pitches so far made. I am also worried that every single candidate's pronouncements on the subject of why Labour lost and what it needs to do to come back is so far from the mark that, already, it does not bode well for our chances in 2020. That might change, of course, but I'm writing to you because your candidature condenses all the faulty analyses and mistaken policy conclusions that are not only most egregious, but potentially most ruinous for our party over the tumultuous five years ahead.

Rather than pick over your comments about various things like others have done, I want to look at your core philosophy and go from there. Thankfully, a lot of the (sympathetic) spadework has been done by Labour Uncut, and I think your opponents should show the courtesy to find out what you really believe rather than throwing meaningless insults your way. Nevertheless, I read this piece with some interest. I agree with you that Labourism as a tradition is overly statist, that too often the left cede questions of individual choice, liberty, and freedom to the right. On paper at least, you are right that social security shouldn't disempower its recipients, that public services should be receptive to the needs of those who use them, and the pressures of state and the market should come second to flesh and blood human beings. However, while the Uncut piece flatters the radicalism of this "republicanism", at base there are few politicians on the centre left and centre right who would disagree. That's because what we're really talking about here is liberalism.

The defining feature of liberalism, classically conceived, is individual sovereignty. It is a "republican" political tradition in the sense that authority should not derive from a body that over-arches society and responsible to no one but itself - see medievalist despotism old and new. Instead, authority should rest on the consent of the governed and representative democracy being the best means yet devised for aggregating the preferences of the citizenry. Fair enough, this is the basics for all forms of democratic politics. But it's only the basics. Socialism, which is both the heir to liberalism and its consistent application (among many other things), recognises its strict limitations. For liberalism property ownership, for instance, is a strictly private affair. Yours and mine freedom to own things as a cornerstone of individual sovereignty. That, however, is as far as it goes for liberalism. It's an abstract right that should be defended to the death. Socialism differs. It does not start from first principles but rather takes its departure point from an analysis of the social world. It notes that the liberal/utilitarian objective of the greatest good for the greatest number is blocked by the very way our societies are structured. Not only are good jobs, which we will define here as being well-paid and having a large degree of satisfaction and autonomy, in scarce supply, but more fundamentally the bulk of the economy is owned and directed by private individuals. When you have a situation where one vanishingly small proportion of the population primarily lives off the wealth accumulated by their capital, and the overwhelming majority have to rely on working in return for a salary or wage and collectively are responsible for generating that wealth, so you have a political problem. As much as liberalism tries to shy away from the way the world works, because the fates of vast numbers depend on economies working, the idea ownership and control are private matters is an absurdity: it is very much a public issue.

I'm sure you're well aware of this critique without subscribing to it yourself. But you might want to pause and reflect, because it illuminates well the blind spots of your political position-taking. Let's concentrate on your pledge to reform public services. Your approach is entirely consistent with your philosophy: a public service should serve the public and responsive to their needs. Fine, but what would this reform look like? As the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, I expect you would eschew the democratisation of public services and go for market mechanisms instead. Such as the model of the funding follows the patient, as per past NHS experiments, or tuition following the student as per the free market in higher education due to be operative from this September. These arrangements make the assumption that markets are the best way for individuals to signal their preferences, hence making service provision more accountable. It sounds neat and elegant, the sort of solution a mind attuned to abstract patterning would find attractive. The problem is that, if anything, markets have made public services less accountable. We hear the excuse that hospital, schools, and council chief executives have to be paid top whack because the market demands it. Across the public sector organisations are beholden to targets supposedly conditioned by competition, such as call handling times in the 111 service, patient turn around times in surgeries and hospital beds, and so on. And because markets is what business supposedly has an intuitive understanding of, the public sector is opened up to profit-making and profit-taking. Typically, especially in the care sector, this has meant holding or forcing down staff wages so margins between cost and price can be widened.

What worries me is you appear blind to this on two counts. Firstly, that you approach public services as so much machinery to be tinkered with and not as aggregations of human beings who, in large part, made an active choice based on their values to undertake a career in public services. Second, and in keeping with a technocratic mindset, you appear utterly oblivious to the notion of interest, that the organisations of public sector workers are the backbone of the movement that has provided you a seat in Parliament. You either forget or just don't realise that the public sector is a constituency in and of itself, and it is supremely harmful to your own political interests to attack their wages and working conditions, to outsource them to third parties, to make their conditions of work less gratifying and less secure. Just go and take a look at the Conservatives across the chamber from you. Do you seriously think they won't tackle zero hour contracts, abuses in the city, and executive pay because they have the wrong ideas? Or does it have something to do with the interests they represent?

This is why your leadership would be a disaster waiting to happen for our party. You have no conception that Labour is not just a party but a real movement in society. Even your letter to trade unionists smacks of their being one constituency among others to be courted.

That, I'm afraid, concludes this letter. Like I said, you're not a conservative. You are a liberal with all the limitations and problems that come with it, and as such because you do not understand the party you're aspiring to lead that makes you particularly ill-suited to the position.

Yours sincerely,

Phil

Friday, 22 May 2015

Stoke Politics After the Election

The good people of Stoke-on-Trent didn't take my advice. *Sigh*. If only more people listened to what I had to say, a lot of bother could be avoided. But on the day our party got a thumping, Stokies gave local Labour a kicking too. Rather than letting their local council vote be determined by their national choice, there was unprecedented ticket splitting, gifting us one of those lovely interpenetration of opposites politics so often throws up. They demonstrated an increasing sophistication on the part of the electorate, but did so by voting in Tories, a motley crew of independents and, shudder, UKIP. By the end of the local count on the Friday, Labour were left with 21 councillors. The City Independents on 14, the Tories seven, and UKIP two. A deal between Labour and any of the others was out of the question, so it was switcheroo time.

In truth, observers of the Stoke political scene should have seen a big hit coming. Rightly and wrongly, these last four years Labour has acquired a reputation for high-handed arrogance. It has made unpopular decisions that can't be reduced to Tory-mandated cuts, and every example of council incompetence, from housing benefit screw ups to crumbling concrete floors in the new civic centre, have been laid at its door. So deep is the antipathy that it's probably fair to say dissatisfaction with Labour locally hit the votes of each MP the city returned to Westminster.

There are lots of things Labour needs to do in Stoke if it hopes to win the Police and Crime Commissioner elections next year and retake the council in 2019. But I'm not going to talk about any of that. This post is about focusing on the new regime, a "combination of purple, black and blue, it's not so much a rainbow as a bruise", as John Woodhouse puts it.

I don't know if Guinness keep track of time taken for a party to break its manifesto promises, but the moment City Indie - and now council - leader Dave Conway picked up the phone to the Tories and UKIP, he dumped over one of their key promise scant seconds after the election result. As page four of their manifesto has it: "the City Independents will not consider allying with any other party or group or individuals as this would send out confusing and contradictory messages." I wouldn't want to suggest the remuneration package that comes with council portfolios had anything to do with the decision to dump a pledge: I'm sure it was all about the practicalities of keeping Labour out. That said, why make an undeliverable promise in the first place?

Whatever, no one will recall that four years hence. But what people may remember are some of the difficulties brewing around their promises. Nonsense about package tours with council-prescribed oatcake breakfasts and Staffordshire Hoard crockery is sure to make the cutting room floor. It's doubtful the tram system will get a look-in too, more's the pity. But first on the leader's desk is the ongoing saga of the Smithfield project, the attempt to kick start the development of a city centre business district. If the City Indies could wave a magic wand and return the site to a hole in the ground, they would. And, if reports are to be believed, that might actually happen. Rumours abound that the prefabricated concrete slabs that make up its flooring are, let's say, not of the requisite standard. By that I mean they're liable to crumble away in short order. This was a contractor, not a council fault but it may mean two buildings' worth of £60m might have to be demolished. Best hope those other more serious rumours that council officers did not build penalty clauses into the contract are untrue too. This no doubt will be flogged for all its worth over the next four years. However, if all that remains is a hole in the ground that can become a problem for Conway's coalition. Ask Bradford.

The next big one is economic development. Just because Dave's buddied up with some nice Tories doesn't mean the DCLG are going to look more fondly on Stoke-on-Trent. As we will find out in the emergency budget Osborne is convening in July to clean up the mess left by the previous government, anything outside the NHS, education, and overseas aid is going to be shaken down, and then some. Labour's approach was to manage the cuts as best they could, and use whatever was left to drive economic development. Whatever you might think of that strategy, I've seen more things built in Stoke these last five years than the previous 15. Labour wanted to offset the cuts by attracting more businesses and building more houses so rates and council tax could make up the shortfall. The City Indies agreed with regeneration but vociferously denounced the core/cluster strategy Labour pursued (i.e. trying to concentrate as many businesses and services in the city centre as possible), even though it is tried and tested in every other successful city. Well now they have the control, sooner or later they will find trying to spread council-led regeneration thinly has fewer benefits than they think.

Then there are the cuts. Having read the City Independents' pronouncements on cuts over the years, you could be forgiven for thinking they were all cooked up in Labour's regional office. Conway and friends are about to find out that's not the case. And here comes a very big problem for the coalition. The Indies don't like cuts and are nominally against them. The Tories here, like everywhere else, are relishing the chance to take a chainsaw to local government. So when Dave's administration is tasked with another £20m shortfall, will he revert to full tub-thumping mode and denounce the government from the rooftops of Chell? His heart says yes but ... he has his new Conservative friends to please. They won't relish their ally moaning and groaning about them to the local media. The alternative then is to offer muted criticisms, but that risks upsetting some of his group councillors. The problem there is because the City Indies have foresworn the concept of party discipline, they can never guarantee that all of their group is going to vote with the leader and observe the coalition deal. After the customary honeymoon period, there is the very real risk of paralysis.

Let's talk about those City Independent councillors as well, some of whom are, as we might say, "controversial". There is Janine Bridges, previously of the Labour Party - and before that City Independent. She curiously found a conscience and discovered her opposition to the "dictatorship" Labour had imposed on the city five minutes after her challenge for the deputy leadership of the council group ignominiously collapsed. She says her resignation was about the the Rotherham child abuse scandal, and yet now sits in group meetings with a fellow City Indy who is on the sex offenders' register for the possession of child abuse images. With principles that change with the wind, Dave Conway had better watch out. Then there's my old mucker Jackie Barnes. Her and I have form. She soundly beat a local by-election campaign I ran by issuing a 20 page manifesto calling for the banning of cervical smears and dubbing people born in the 50s, 60s, and 70s the greatest ever. It worked, and I'm not at all bitter (though perhaps council officers announcing the business district plan just prior to the campaign had more to do with it). But since her election in 2012 she has courted controversy by getting herself barred from The White Star, a local much-loved (and council staff frequented) boozer. Small beer when it comes to political scandals, sure, but can her boisterous behaviour be contained?

Much more seriously than either of these is the unwelcome return of Melanie Baddeley in Abbey Hulton. Page two of the City Indy manifesto reads "HELPING to create conditions for everyone to thrive regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, disability or background." That is provided you are one of the "genuine people of Stoke-on-Trent", whoever they are. Now why is it that Labour, the Tories, the Greens, TUSC, the LibDems, and even UKIP didn't feel the need to feature a homily to equality and the City Independents did? Could it be to do with Cllr Baddeley and their candidate for Meir Park, Ellie Walker, having previously sat as BNP representatives? You bet. As Stoke BNP fragmented prior to its welcome move into irrelevance, Walker left the group and renounced her past association. She and her husband didn't know they had represented a fascist party for five or so years, you see. Easy mistake, I suppose. Baddeley, however, was a BNP councillor until Labour turfed her out in 2011. As far as I'm aware, she has not distanced or accounted for her active BNP membership, nor retrospectively apologised for the racist literature put out in her name, nor publicly repudiated that association. None of this would matter a great deal, except this year Dave Conway has appointed her deputy Lord Mayor, which means she will be Stoke's first citizen in approximately a year's time. This ridiculous position, which should have been scrapped years ago, means that Baddeley will be the official face of the city for visiting dignitaries, for big inward investors, and can look forward to having her mug slapped all over promotional material. Call me, I don't know, someone with commonsense, but surely it's monumentally stupid to have this role filled by a councillor who, not long ago, was a key member of a party that whipped up hatred against local Muslims, thought a good chunk of the city's population had no right to be there, and tarnished Stoke's image as a racist place. Stupid yes, but no problem for our City Indies, Tories, and UKIP who are letting this happen.

If the coalition can't even get a simple grace-and-favour right, what ill does this bode for the complex problems Stoke faces? Let's see. By announcing their intention to get rid of the council chief executive (by name), and the press department, they have already pre-empted the consultation process required by law and have put the local authority in a ridiculously weak position when it comes to deleting those posts. All affected may even have grounds for a constructive dismissal suit, and that could cost the council a fair whack. They want to reverse the present council leader and cabinet system, and return to a committee-based way of doing things - seemingly without realising this requires primary legislation in Westminster. And they hope, magically, somehow, that without getting the city centre right the depressed town centres of Stoke, Burslem, Tunstall, Fenton, and Longton will sort themselves out. 

It's not looking good.

Stoke's governing coalition is a fragile thing that's going to have a hard time holding itself together. The only consolation having this frightful ball of piss and wind visited upon my city is that I now have something else to write about. Don't disappoint!

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Behold: The Protest Oven Glove

Behold, the forces of progress and socialism were caught napping as No voters in tomorrow's equal marriage referendum in the Irish Republic take to the streets in the latest protest apparel: the oven glove.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Feminism and Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a paradox. A completely overblown, absurd masterpiece of a paradox, but one that balances two seemingly irreconcilables and fuses them astonishingly successfully. On the one hand its an utterly mindless action romp with scant dialogue, a simple plot, lashings of violence, and spectacular vehicles that make for very big explosions. Yet beneath that is a cunning and penetrating commentary on patriarchal (not male per se) violence and feminist struggle. This is what I'm going to take a look at so yes, this piece is rammed with spoilers.

Okay, where to begin. In one of his many asides, this one on the so-called Asiatic mode of production, Marx noted the despotisms of Asia, particularly in the desert regions, rested on control and maintenance of water supplies. Leaving well alone the controversies that ballooned around Marx's statement, in MMFR this is certainly the case. The War Boys, a cultish group ruled by Immortan Joe, keeps its population in thrall by being the only source of water in a parched desert wasteland. Every so often, Joe turns on the immense pipes beneath his citadel and briefly drenches the hundreds of wretched followers gathered beneath his balcony. In so doing, he chooses to lecture them on resisting one's dependency on water. We are taken into his lair. Joe himself is an albino grotesque who relies on a breathing apparatus and a suit that protects his irritable skin. We also get the measure of the kind of society he runs. Sat tethered to milking machines are a half dozen women, and locked up in a vault are his five brides: women he keeps imprisoned and, it is implied, he repeatedly rapes to yield him a son.

Below that are his caste of war boys who are cursed with a 'half-life'. It seems these fanatical followers (and cannon fodder) have some form of cancer that limits their usefulness, and binds them to the father worship of Joe. Faced with a lingering death as the cancer takes hold, they prefer to carelessly throw their lives away fighting in one of the Citadel's war bands.

Here then we have a patriarchy in a classical sense. This is not the rule of women by men, but of women and men by the father. It is for Joe's satisfaction that nearly all the young men are pressed into soldiery, that he keeps a collection of women as, for want of a better phrase, breeders; and that the destitute subjects of his kingdom are kept under his thumb by his ownership and control of the Citadel's hydraulics. The patriarchy - and the filmmakers would have been hard-pressed to have conceived of one more viscerally ugly and brutal than this - controls property, the means of repression, and the means of reproduction.

Imperator Furiosa is a woman who thinks differently. Abducted as a young child, she grew to be one of Joe's trusted lieutenants. Neither cannon fodder or sex slave, she is charged with the task of driving a tanker to the nearby gas refinery run by one of Joe's cronies. Except she has gone rogue. Under Joe's nose she liberates his "wives" and smuggles them into her truck, where she plans to take them to 'the green place', the idyllic matriarchy she was hailed from. The mayhem starts when Furiosa takes the tanker off road and the war band set off in pursuit.

This is where the titular Max properly enters the frame. Having been captured by the War Boys, he's designated a universal blood bank where transfusions of his blood can keep Joe's warriors going a little longer. With the general alarm he's paired with Nux, a particularly fanatical boy not long for this world, and rides into battle with him mounted as a front piece to his car. Eventually Max escapes and teams up with Furiosa, then the fun really begins.

As an action film it is notable for two things. Unlike previous iterations of Mad Max, this is less Max as lone wolf saviour and more as equal help meet. There are times when he saves the day for the band of women he's escorting, but there are others where they save his skin. Far from being helpless, Furiosa is up to her neck in fighting and action. She's the one with the plan, while Max is a drifter just along for the ride. Theirs is a fully cooperative relationship and it's this mutual interdependence that sees them through to victory.

Finally, Furiosa arrives at her former homeland and is greeted by the half dozen remaining members of her tribe. They are a strictly separatist group with one of the women boasting about how many men's heads she's blown off over the years. But ultimately it's bitter sweet. The green land is a poisoned marsh. She may have reached safety beyond Joe's reach, but it's safety in desolation. After despairing an screaming into the wilderness, her alternative plan is to just ride out into the desert - they have enough supplies for 160 days and hope they'll eventually come across something. Max, however, has an alternative suggestion. If Joe's forces can be trapped in the canyon system they battled through on the way in they can return to the Citadel with its water supply and green of its own. Cue more surreal, sumptuous mayhem.

Needless to say, our heroes kill Joe, defeat his army, and make it back to the Citadel in one piece. This is where it takes an interesting turn. So far it's been warrior feminists and male allies who've defeated the patriarchy. When they reveal Joe's torn body to the crowds the old social structure crumbles, and the wretched of this earth celebrate. From a radical point of view, while welcome it nevertheless underlines the myth of the vanguard who, in Guevarist fashion, enter the city and liberate the huddled masses. It's not an act of self-liberation. However, as our heroes start being elevated up to the higher echelons the water starts flowing again. The women strapped to milking machines have seized the moment to liberate themselves and turn on the taps. Our vanguard, sans Max who melts into the crowd, help people up onto the rising platform. It's no accident that the first helped up is a particularly rough looking bloke. The message here is clear: men have nothing to fear from feminism. My destroying the patriarchy, of the rule of men and women by powerful men, then all are liberated. The relationships and social structures that have twisted society into an apparatus of domination can be recast, laying open the road to a better, freer place for everyone.

Hence rather than MMFR being open to feminist interpretation, it itself is a $150m commentary on feminism, by way of ultra violence, the best guitarist ever, and audacious nonsense. Do go for a showing: it will be the best film you've seen this year.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

If David Miliband Had Won ...

The polls were with Labour. The feedback on the doorstep was very encouraging. It looked like all the naysayers and the problems of the previous five years had been put to bed. Until that exit poll flashed up on the nation's TV screens. It gave the Tories a clear lead, and one several seats away from a majority. Then the worst happened. As the night wore on it became increasingly clear Labour were not winning the seats it needed to capture to form the largest party, and by the morning the impossible had happened: David Cameron had pulled the irons of an overall majority from the election fire.

Despite the naysaying and doom laden predictions coming from the left of the labour movement, David Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party started off well. From the moment he emerged ashened face from behind the curtain at party conference, he set out a stall that confounded expectations. Labelled as the continuity Blair candidate, David's victory speech - secured across all three sections of the electoral college, albeit very narrowly in a higher-than-expected turnout from USDAW members in the trade union component, emphasised the need to capture economic credibility. He announced an establishment of a commission under Alastair Darling to revisit the rules and responsibility attached to government spending, but he also played to the left by indulging tough rhetoric around the regulation of the entire economy. The behaviour and spending of public bodies wouldn't be the only ones to be covered by tough new rules: businesses big and small were also expected to behave responsibly and play their part. Concerned to yank back economic credibility from the Tories, he reaffirmed the Darling plan to halve the deficit over the course of the parliament, and made points around the need to develop a proper industrial strategy. Lastly, David Miliband announced an ambitious plan to re-energise and refound Labour as a mass organisation, offering CLPs incentives to recruit people and draw more trade unionists into the party. Jon Cruddas was also announced as the face of the Movement for Change.

Shadow cabinet elections came and went. As Darling had ruled himself out from heading up a front bench position, the shadow chancellorship went to John Denham. Angela Eagle was sent to BIS, in an unexpected comeback Ed Miliband got the shadow foreign brief, Yvette Cooper the home office, Jim Murphy defence, Alan Johnson education, and Andy Burnham health. Observers noted that Ed Balls was kept from the top team, getting the Transport brief.

During the first year of opposition, the David-led Labour Party played the Westminster game well. He proved, at times, an effective interlocutor at Prime Minister's Questions, though more often than not the clashes ended with a score draw. Labour also supported the air strikes in Libya, leading some - mainly on the left - criticising Miliband for appearing to have too warm a relationship with David Cameron. Questions were also raised that summer when a scandal broke about phone hacking. It transpired that News of the World journalists were hacking voicemails and using the information to run stories. The public and Westminster were largely unconcerned until it was found the phone of murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, had been tampered with, which gave her parents hope that she may have been alive. An almighty storm brewed up and Rupert Murdoch was forced to close his Sunday paper to prevent the toxicity spreading to the rest of his publishing empire. However, while condemning the appalling practices that had been uncovered, David Miliband did not launch his own generalised critique of the press - instead much of the legwork was left to people marginalised under the new regime, such as Tom Watson.

Nevertheless, a successful party conference in Liverpool came and went - crowned by a speech applauded from all sides of the commentariat for setting out a vision of a Greater Britain, in which all were to benefit from a rising tide of prosperity once the forces of conservatism had been pushed aside. It was bitter sweet from a left point of view. He made supportive comments around the living wage, and challenged Labour-run councils to implement it. Though, again, there were grumbles and a few relatively low-level protests around cuts to local services - councils were expected to get on with the business of passing on Tory cuts themselves. Yet the opinion polls ticked upwards, and David Miliband's personal ratings hovered in close proximity to the PM's.

Then came the darkest moment for the government and the brightest for Labour. George Osborne's omnishambles budget saw him ease up on austerity and commit the government to the Darling plan, something Miliband jumped on with alacrity. In his budget response he demolished Osborne's austerity policies. In one fell swoop the Tories had renounced their economic credibility by retreating to the surer ground of Labour's plan. However, just as the path to the home counties opened up, so the cracks started appearing in David's leadership. It began almost imperceptibly. At a stunt following the announcement of the pasty tax, the leader along with several shadcab colleagues piled into a Gregg's for a photo opp and a round of sausage rolls and pasties were duly ordered. All tucked in outside, save David, who on the way to his car was snapped dropping his into a bin. A small thing that would later assume greater significance.

Following George Galloway's win in the Bradford West by-election, a number of union leaders and left MPs wrote an open letter to the leader's office asking for a policy review, and urging the adoption of an agenda they argued would tackle the 'cost of living crisis'. Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears. David had also refrained from criticising bankers' pay outs at the start of the year, despite his previous calls for responsibility in business. Amid the poll leads, that for three months consistently topped 12 points, Team David thought they were on the road to Downing Street. After all, while Bradford West could be put down to a one-off, Labour was able to win Corby with ease after Louise Mensch stepped down from the House.

2013, however, was not a kind year to Labour at all. From April the government's change to housing benefit - the introduction of what came to be known as the bedroom tax - came into force. Constituency offices had a surge in cases from people affected by this punishing attack on the most poor and vulnerable. Unfortunately, not wanting to risk being seen as weak on social security, David Miliband criticised its implementation, dwelling on the fact there was not enough social housing for those hit by the change to move into. However, he refused to reverse the policy saying it, along with a number of changes the government had made, might be subject to a review after the election. This stoked up a row with the big trade unions, leading to an unseemly war of words in the pages of The Guardian and New Statesman. Matters weren't helped when Unite were accused of trying to rig a selection in Falkirk. However, this was followed by a much bigger crisis - the largest of David Miliband's leadership.

In August, Parliament was recalled to discuss the murder of dozens of children in a chemical attack in Syria. Intelligence pointed to Assad's forces being responsible, though it was not one hundred per cent conclusive. David Cameron tabled a motion seeking the House's permission to join American military action, which the Labour leader backed. This was followed by the resignation of a number of junior shadow cabinet people, and defiance of the party whip by some 80 MPs. A large street movement developed, albeit not quite in the same proportions the Iraq War mobilised 10 years earlier. Nevertheless, it was profoundly damaging. George Galloway's Respect Party had a second lease of life, and the Greens and UKIP also pushed themselves forward as vocal opponents of the war. As for the fortunes of the conflict, systematic pounding of government positions enabled the Islamist militias on the ground. The civil war stalemate was broken and rebel forces poured into Damascus, with Assad and his closest allies barely escaping by a diplomatic jet provided by Russia. Immediately, the militias started fighting among themselves. The largest and most powerful, ISIS, was eventually able to win out but soon moved against the Kurds in the north and began incursions into western and northern Iraq. At the time of writing, some 200,000 people lie dead and most of Syria and chunks of Iraq are in the grip of Islamist terror. Again, the United States and Britain have been forced into turning against a monster of their making.

Labour's share in the polls started to slide. The war was unpopular, and Labour strategists were confounded by its diminutive effect on Tory polling figures, while biting into our party's shares. The Greens especially benefited, reporting a membership surge on account of their anti-war stance and positioning against the bedroom tax. By the time conference season came around, there was very little he could say to assuage members' anger. Nevertheless, he did retain the active support of enough to prevent an existential crisis to his leadership. After a lacklustre speech about the need to create a stakeholding meritocracy, he made a quiet approach to the unions for a Warwick-style agreement - this was due to be a very public making up, and was scheduled for the new year.

This, however, was overshadowed by two events. The sad passing of Paul Goggins triggered a by-election in Wythenshawe and Sale East in February. Labour kept the seat with ease, but the rise of UKIP and the Greens the previous year saw them both turn in very creditible performances of 18% and 11% respectively. Commentators were quick to note these sorts of protests against the opposition didn't bode well for the general election. The second was the surfacing of a video, published by the Guido Fawkes blog, of David Miliband at a private fundraising dinner for business. Asked about the future of trade unions, he replied "Do they even have one?". The result was absolutely devastating. There were mass resignations and the war of words with Unite dragged in the rest of the trade union movement. Even USDAW and Community chimed in with a joint statement by Labour affiliates. Warwick mk III never happened, and Unite, Unison, and the GMB pledged to support only those Labour candidates who professed trade union values. The Tories, having looked for an angle to hit back at Miliband, linked his union comments, the pasty incident, and Westminster tittle-tattle about his alleged arrogance and indifference to more junior members as evidence of elitism and snobbery. Caricatures as David as Lord Snooty started appearing in the press, and stories circulated of divaesque behaviour that put Liam Byrne's 'Working with Liam Byrne' document in the shade.

Somehow, despite the awful pressure of Tory attacks and party crisis, David was able to present the same smooth, confidence to the camera. Even the panic that gripped Westminster in the closing days of August over the independence referendum seemed not to disturb his preternatural calm. The Better Together campaign had long since been licensed out to Alistair Darling. He and other Labour MPs were sharing platforms and media pitches with the Tories in defence of the union, and David himself went on telly jointly with David Cameron to appeal for a no vote and warn of dire consequences should Scotland secede, particularly with regard to pension funds and use of the pound. In the end, Project Fear worked and independence was rejected 55-45. However, much to Labour's dismay their polling figures collapsed, a problem that was exacerbated after Johann Lamont, the incumbent Scottish leader, resigned arguing that not only was she fed up being treated like the head of a branch office, but also attacked an unwillingness to offer the kinds of Labour policies the SNP were making a show of appropriating.

As 2015 came round, the polls were tight. Wipe out was predicted in Scotland and a close race was forecast in England. On the plus side, despite all the difficulties of the previous two years, Labour ran the Tories almost neck and neck on economic competence and leadership qualities. Then, in the final two weeks of the campaign, the Tories started pushing hard the line that a lash up between the SNP and Labour were inevitable. The party that tried to break up the union would put Labour's much trumpeted economic competence into jeopardy, so why take a chance?

In the end, the result was all over the place. The SNP scooped up 56 out of 59 seats. The Blairist targeting of Middle England saw a healthy number of swing constituencies fall into Labour's hands. This, however, was extremely uneven. The Tories' own version of Project Fear in England managed to scare Tory leaning UKIP voters and some soft Labour votes in their direction, while Labour-leaning kippers kept to the purples. Meanwhile, on their left flank, the Greens polled extremely well off the back of their anti-war work, winning just shy of three million votes - a million less than UKIP. They came from the LibDems but, significantly, from Labour too. Virtually every gain was offset by a splintering of Labour's working class and progressive support in a number of seats it really should have kept hold of. At the end of it, after a night none of us saw coming - though the warning signs were there - Labour had gone into reverse. Stalemate and Scotland gave us a net loss of 24 seats.

Bewildered, angry, disappointed, David Miliband announced his resignation on the Friday and assumed full responsibility for Labour's failure. That wasn't his can to carry alone, but the controversial decisions and non-decisions he made left a number of people wondering what would have happened had the other Miliband brother won.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Notes on the Labour Leadership Contest

There's something to be said for political leadership contests. It's the one time politicians are honest about each other. It's also an occasion for an airing of views, of setting one's stall out in public about the strategies and policies that are likely to capture the imagination, and get party and country out of the holes they're in.

Unfortunately, so far at least, the Labour leadership contest falls short of this ideal-typical notion of what a contest should look like. Having scanned numerous discussions in the last week amid the compulsory Ed Miliband obituaries; professional commentators and the hoi polloi of social media are fixating on personality over politics. That's probably because there isn't that much separating the five (I'm including my erstwhile boss here, even though he's yet to declare). It's frustrating. The left have piled in behind Andy Burnham, it looks like the Progress-y types are rallying around Liz Kendall, leaving Yvette Cooper to mop up whoever's left. Poor old Tristram and Mary Creagh, they will be hard pressed to pick up the required 35 MP votes to be put before the membership. And no one, not one of the candidates so far have made much of a policy announcement. Aspiration is the buzz word of choice, and all are vying for its mantle.

Of course, personalities are important in politics. Having a figure that can embody your party and movement, as well acting as a canvas for uncommitted/swing voters to project whatever they want onto her/him is crucial. Though, it should be noted that leader effects can be overstated. Despite the chatter about how better David Miliband would have done, serious research into this area finds that leaders have marginal effects on vote tallies (though, in the case of this election, that might have made the difference between a hung Parliament and a majority).

Let us dwell then on the issue of personality and the scraps of policy comments made by the frontrunners so far. Again, condensing the chatter out there in political comment land, a number of views are coalescing. Andy Burnham is too northern and too working class to appeal to the 901 middle England voters who gifted the Tories their majority. He has privately-held conservative views consistent with his Catholicism (you can guess what they are, nudge nudge), and, well, Mid-Staffs Hospital. Yvette Cooper is a time server who, for obvious reasons, is too close to Ed Balls and carriages baggage from the Blair/Brown ancien regime. She voted for the Iraq War and "opposed" Theresa May by, at times, appearing even more authoritarian. Mary Creagh is this contest's Andy Burnham (circa 2010) who stands no chance, but is raising her profile. Similarly with Tristram Hunt. His urbane charm would go down very well in the South East but ooop north, he is the stuff of which UKIP votes are made. And then there is Liz Kendall. Select Tories have helpfully let it be known she is the one that scares them the most, and while very personable with a sharp tactical brain, she is as Westminster wonky as the rest and has skewed priorities. Asked at the leadership hustings at the weekend's Progress conference, she outlined one of her priorities to be "public sector reform". There couldn't be a clearer signal of her heir-to-Blair creds. The fear is the hollowing out that took place under Blair and Brown, and has since been partially filled back in, could see the excavation start all over again.

In fact, that Progress hustings should be required viewing for all sections of the labour movement. Just don't expect too much. While all are aware of what Tristram calls the triple-bind - coming back in Scotland, seeing off UKIP and other threats in heartland seats, and scooping up Tory-held constituencies by the bucketload, there is scant - if any - awareness of the deep seated problems the party has got. Take this of Barry Sheerman speaking "unofficially" for Camp Kendall. He says:
The 2010 result, and the way it happened, means we need a different relationship with the trade unions. We don’t want to break it, but we have to be realistic about the role of unions in society. They are smaller than they ever were and they are increasingly rare in the private sector. They do not provide troops on the ground or at general committees. The number of trades unionists that are active in the Labour party on the ground is tiny.
Charming. I don't know what it's like for Barry in his Huddersfield patch, but that's certainly not the case with the half dozen or so CLPs of my acquaintance. Perhaps a few words with his West Midlands comrades might be in order. Nevertheless, to choose to mouth off on this issue now when candidates should be courting votes suggests that Liz thinks the future is putting even more distance between real working people, at the very moment politicians treat working people in the abstract as a fetish. Thanks, but no thanks. You can't solve Labour's problems by making them worse.

And then there were four. A litmus test for any political leader is economic literacy and understanding the difference between political economy and economics driven by politics. And, unfortunately, this is where two more of the contenders fall short. On Thursday's Question Time, responding to an audience member asking about spending under the last Labour government prior to the crash, Tristram conceded the Tory view that it had spend too much. It got a round of applause, but it was wrong. Likewise, and worryingly for a leadership candidate, at Progress Mary said it hadn't and yet a day later, faced with Brillo on The Sunday Politics, she said that it had - but won't be apologising for extra nurses, hospitals and what have you. It's been a long time since I've seen such gratuitous - and fatuous - cake eating. So for not standing up for the truth, however inconvenient it might be and, in Mary's case, for basic dishonesty, it's a no.

Two left. Notably, only Yvette defended Labour's spending. Andy clapped, the others sat on their hands. Here then are the two who have an inkling about what's going on. Yvette, as a trained economist, presumably believes the Post-Keynesian economics that underpinned her husband's challenge in 2010 and, one hopes, will see them get an airing this time round. However, the big problems with Ed Balls was his intellectual pitch against austerity during the 2010 contest, and then abandoning it entirely once he assumed the shadow chancellor brief. He knew cuts were unnecessary and damaging, but went along with it anyway because - again - Westminster convenience. Will she show greater political courage?

And there is Andy. He has the momentum, but does he have the policies? Interestingly, at Progress he made an audacious pitch for aspiration by hinting (only hinting, mind) that he's set to lump tuition fees in with so-called 'taxes on aspiration' - one barrier to aspiration most Blairite ultras have shown persistent indifference to. But much of what he is standing for remains in the murk. A development of a national care service and its integration into the NHS, certainly, but what about the economy, housing, and the rest? And what's his diagnosis of the problems facing the Labour party, the movement he represents, and how does he propose we address them?

Of the field, Andy and Yvette seem to be the most plugged in but there's little that is inspirational. Unless things liven up, unless the serious questions are raised, debated, and faced up to, the road beyond the leadership election is going to be rocky.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Why Labour Lost: A Scottish Perspective

I certainly don't agree with all of what is said here. For instance, it assumes much of the English and Welsh political landscape is similar to Scotland. The piece below, however, contains some very uncomfortable truths for all Labour people. I'll be writing about the Labour leadership later on, but it behoves us all to pause and reflect on some of the disastrous decisions made over the last five years. This originally appeared on Labour Hame as a comment, and came to me by way of the excellent Mutterings from the Left blog.

"I am so tired of the word “nationalism” being branded about by Labour. And, ooh, they inserted the word “patriotic” in their constitution, how quaint. Personally, I don’t give a toss about patriotism and nationalism. I am an EU citizen living in Scotland and I voted YES because it is my firm belief that every country has a right to political self-determination and should not be ruled by another country. This is something that I suspect most Labourites would in theory agree to, because it makes them sound noble, but when applied to Scotland, they suddenly get a hissy fit at the notion of someone “wanting to break up our country.” The only explanation I can find for this behaviour is that they believe Scotland is not a country.

I’m going to help you out here, Labour, because I have watched your decline for a long time and it seems clear that you have not the foggiest idea where you have gone wrong. That is why almost everything you did to improve your prospects has only made things worse. So let me try to explain, and let me tell you in advance that everyone I have spoken to over the last few days agrees with me. Not because I am so super-clever, but because it is blatantly obvious. Only Labour seem to be unable to see it.

Forget Blairism. The con Blair pulled off worked once, but it will not work again in our lifetime, because there are things people don’t forget. Blairism gained Labour the support of a certain number of swing voters and that helped you as long as your core supporters loyally stood by you. Whatever made you think, though, that you could give up the goals and values of your real clientele and that nevertheless they would keep voting for you indefinitely? Sure, many people feel loyal to a party and are patient with it, and there is a certain inertia that needs to be overcome before some voters desert their traditional party. But if that party continually fails to represent their supporter’s interests, these supporters will eventually walk away. The sentence I heard again and again and again these last few months was this: “I have not left Labour, Labour have left me.” That is the core of the problem.

So listen to me well, Labour Party, because if you get this wrong again you will be done for, once and for all: Don’t try to appeal to Tory voters. Tory-leaning voters might vote Labour as a one-off protest vote, but by pandering to them you alienate the people who are your natural clientele. For a few years that might work out, but eventually the Tory-leaning voters will return to the Tory fold and your own supporters will decide you’re just not worth it anymore. If they have any sense, they’ll move on to the Greens, and if not, there’s always UKIP. If they feel seriously conflicted, they might just stay at home and not vote at all. In Scotland, they have serious alternative now. In any case, you’re unlikely to gain back their trust as long as you present yourself as a paler copy of the Tories. Nicola Sturgeon did give you the heads-up in the leadership debate. She said that of course there is a difference between Tories and Labour, but the problem is that the difference is not big enough. It is nowhere near big enough.

There are several ways in which this failure to be properly Labour instead of Tory-lite has played out.

1. You have failed to be an effective opposition. Instead of challenging the Tories’ brutal austerity policies, their hair-raising incompetence with the economy, their blatant favouring of the rich elites, you have done little else than bicker about details. You have allowed the electorate in England and Wales to believe against all evidence to the contrary that the Tories have is basically right. You voted with them for more austerity cuts. You voted with them for Trident renewal. You voted with them for more foolish military interventions in the Middle East, even though you must know by now how the Iraq War has damaged you. You abstained from the vote on the fracking moratorium which would have succeeded had you not been so cowardly. You have not been a counterweight to the nasty coalition, you have enabled them.

2. You have allowed the Tories to determine the political narrative. Instead of countering their agenda with your own agenda, you kept telling us you would do much the same as the Tories, only in a nicer way, and you deluded yourself that this would keep everyone happy. All this nonsense about cutting the deficit by slashing public services and restricting government spending, when it is standard textbook economy that in times of recession the government must increase spending to help the economy recover – you could have called the Tories out on this, you could have presented the figures of how the Tory approach had made the economy much, much worse. Why did it have to be Nigel Farage of all people who pointed out in the leaders’ debate that the Tories had doubled the national debt? That would have been your role, you should have hammered this message home relentlessly instead of letting them get away with their ludicrous claim that they had fixed the economy. You even allowed UKIP to set your agenda: Instead of making it clear, like Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon did, that immigration really, really isn’t a relevant problem, you went about printing “Controls on immigration” on mugs and even inscribing it on your ridiculous monolith.

3. Instead of fighting the Tories, you fought your potential allies. This wasn’t so disastrous in the case of the Greens and Plaid Cymru, given their small numbers, but I will say that having a big campaign to unseat Caroline was not only mean-spirited but stupid; those resources should have gone into targeting a Tory seat. However, it was your treatment of the SNP that might well have cost you the election. Again, you let the Tories determine the narrative. They crowed about a constitutional crisis, about a second referendum which neither the SNP nor the wider YES movement are seeking within the next few years anyway, about “breaking up our (sic!) country,” about chaos and nationalism and England being held to ransom. They and their compliant media outlets abused the SNP and the people of Scotland on a daily basis in the most despicable terms. And all you did was parrot them. Nicola Sturgeon could not have held out her hand any more sincerely, and yet you sneered at it.

What you could have done, should have done, was to challenge the Tory narrative. The SNP have been riding sky-high in the polls since September; and you had known for months that you could only form a government with their help. Plenty time to come up with a constructive strategy. You could have pointed out that the SNP are a moderate party of the centre left. You could have pointed out that they have a track record of eight years of competent and sensible and not-at-all-outrageous government in Holyrood. You could have pointed out that they stood for the kind of temperate progressive policies that many, many people in England would have been delighted to see. You could have pointed out that in no imaginable universe would even 59 SNP MPs be able to call the shots in a 650-strong parliament; that you would always be the boss in any kind of arrangement. You could have thrown all your might into convincing the English electorate that a Labour/SNP team effort would be good for the whole of the UK, as it undoubtedly would have been. Instead you declared a week before the election on national television that you would rather see the Tories return to power than work with the SNP. The stupidity of this is mind-blowing. And all under the banner of “not working with a party that seeks to break up the UK.” Tell me, what is your deal again with the SDLP, a party that seeks to unite Northern Ireland with the republic? You don’t even field candidates against them to give them a better chance? If you can work with them, why not with the SNP? But even today you still harp on about “nationalism” when in fact what the people of Scotland have opted for is the moderate social democratic policies which you should have offered but didn’t.

4. Having alienated your core supporters and turned your back on your potential allies, and with no progressive track record as an effective opposition to show to the electorate, you have based your election campaign on sound bites, PR stunts and silly gimmicks. Just after Nicola Sturgeon presented her gender-balanced cabinet and promised to work tirelessly on shattering the glass ceiling, you insulted the women of the UK by inviting them to talk “around the kitchen table” about “women’s issues,” proudly brought to us by a pink van. And you didn’t see it coming that people would call it the Barbie Bus and laugh it out-of-town? You allowed Jim Murphy to run amok in Scotland with one insane “policy announcement” after another – remember the “1000 more nurses than anything the SNP promises?” Why not promise weekend breaks on Jupiter for the over 65s? You wheeled out Gordon Brown at random intervals to make meaningless promises and you expected people to be swayed by the pledges of a retiring back bencher? You had some wishy-washy election promises carved in a massive gravestone and you thought that was a good idea?

Yours was a hopeless, hopeless campaign from beginning to end, without vision, without structure, without conviction. And yet I, like so many, clung to the hope that surely people in England must be so fed up with the Tories by now that they’d vote for you anyway and that surely once the election day dust had settled you’d see sense and head a progressive alliance with the SNP, SDLP, Plaid Cymru and the lovely Caroline Lucas who is worth her weight in diamonds. We could have turned things around for the good of the many rather than the few. Instead the Tories now have carte blanche to suck dry the people of the UK and grin smugly while they feast on our bones. All thanks to you, Labour Party. Now get your act together and make sure this will never happen again. I cannot spell it out any clearer."

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Eurovision Preview 2015

Eerily like the front runners for Labour's leadership, none of this year's contestants in the Eurovision Song Contest particularly grab me. Even the genius inclusion of Australia as a 60th anniversary one-off has not flattered my discerning, world-weary ear. There are still a few, however, that stand out from the mush for a variety of reasons. The first is Armenia's entry:



This year marks a century since the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, so what better way to commemorate the event and raise awareness by, erm, immortalising it Eurovision-style? It's a worthy track, how could it not be? But, I'm afraid to say it's a touch forgettable and without the trappings of the video, who would guess the titular shadow is that cast by one of the 20th century's most appalling atrocities?

Now, you can say what you like about Russia, but they do take Eurovision very seriously. Take this year's entry as a case study:



Production and melody-wise, Polina Gagarina's entry nails all the qualities one expects from a Eurovision entry, sans the campery that definitely is not the done thing in Putin's Russia. Polina is a well known star, having graduated from their equivalent of The X-Factor and has had hits in the Rodina and Ukraine. A lesson there for the mandarins in charge of our entries.

Next up is this peculiar offering from Serbia.



For two thirds of the song, you're talking dullsville Euroballad and then, suddenly, it goes all uptempo and a bit dancey. And then it collapses back into dirge again. Oh well.

So, who is my favourite to win? No prizes for guessing it isn't Britain, again. No, this ditty has had very little traction on YouTube but it does have the novelty value of a Conchita Wurst and a Lordi. It's also possibly the shortest Eurovision song ever, if it can be called that:



Not quite those Extreme Noise Terror scamps, but it should discombobulate and divide Eurovision audiences. Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät are an outfit made up of guys with learning difficulties and mental disabilities, and they're playing punk. Any sympathy gained from the former is immediately challenged by the (thankfully brief) racket of the latter. It's a bit like the bigots from last year. They wanted to fancy Conchita but the beard. The Finnish entry hasn't been heavily trailed outside of Eurovision geek circles, but provided it gets through this week's semis it could be a surprise hit on the night. Will it do the business?