Friday 31 December 2010

Top Ten Dance Tunes of 2010

One year. Ten top electronic tunes. 'nuff said.

Rocket by Goldfrapp
Could This Be Real by Sub Focus
Stereo Love by Edward Maya and Vika Jigulina
Orbion by Armin van Buuren
Remember Love by DJ's United
This Night (Alex MORPH Remix) by Filo and Peri feat. Audrey Gallagher
Always Loved a Film by Underworld
Chasing the Sun (D Mad vs Matt Darey Radio Mix) by Matt Darey and Aeron Aether feat. Ridgewalkers
Not In Love by Crystal Castles feat. Robert Smith

And this beast is number one ...

Don't forget to check out the top 100s of the 00s, 90s, and the 80s.

Thursday 30 December 2010

Support for Students Falling? Probably Not

Guido today leads with the news that Britons are "saddened, ashamed and disgusted" by the demonstration that took place on December 12th.

In a series of questions, polling firm Angus Reid asked the 2,000 or so respondents what they
felt about the demonstration, with significant numbers selecting shame, sadness, disgust and anger. They were also asked whether "all things being considered" if kettling was justified (53% yes, 37% no) and whether the use of water cannon at future demonstrations would be justified (55% yes, 36% no).

It's interesting Angus Reid asked what respondents
felt rather than what they thought about the demonstration. They are asking people what could be complicated and conflicted feelings to a single word (or, in this case, four single words). Were people angry at the demonstrators, the troublesome minority, the police, the subsequent tête-à-tête with the royal personage, or the wall-to-wall coverage? Did people feel disgust at the actions of demonstrators or the police? What was the consistency between anger, shame, etc? I guess the subsequent questions on kettling and water cannon makes things slightly less fuzzy, but as a scientific exercise in providing a sociological snapshot it wouldn't, let's say, get past the peer review stage. Had Angus Reid been interested in accurately reflecting what people thought above results that lend themselves to glib headlines, perhaps they could have asked respondents what they felt about the actions of the students and police. Or who they blame: students, a "troublesome" minority, and the police. What they thought/felt about the media coverage too. And whether these events have affected their opinions on the issue. Had Angus Reid done that, I bet a more complex picture would emerge.

Nevertheless, I can imagine wannabe careerists ensconced in various student unions looking at these figures and thinking the game is up. Indeed, Guido comes to that conclusion: "... the student demonstrations are doing the students no favours, every demo costs them support." Is that really the case?

While it's self-evidently obvious violence doesn't play well, I think the public are more sophisticated than Guido implies. I'm certain they can separate a bit of argy-bargy on the streets out from the wider injustice of tuition fees. You don't have to take my word for it either, here's a couple of poll results. According to YouGov, way before the protest movement kicked off, a
14th October poll found 37% supported the rise in tuition fees while 45% were against. There were 18% who didn't know. Go forward to 6th December - after the violent turn taken by protests - and we find the figures are 38% for and 49% against. For what it's worth, an Ipsos MORI poll dated 13th December (but undertaken prior to the demonstration that took place the day before) only 28% of respondents supported the government's plans, while 64% were opposed. Make of that what you will.

Wednesday 29 December 2010

UK Minimum Wage "Manifestly Unfair"

The Council of Europe's Committee of Social Rights has published an assessment on its 47 member states' progress on the European Social Charter, which was initially signed by ten founding members in 1961. This commits signatories to providing various social and legal protections, such as health, housing, recourse to the law and employment rights.

The conclusions the report makes on employment in the UK makes grim reading for workers and trade unionists. Here are the lowlights.

On annual holiday with pay: "The Committee concludes that the situation in United Kingdom is not in conformity with ... the Charter on the ground that workers who fall ill or are injured during their holiday are not entitled to take the days lost at another time."

On weekly rest period: "The Committee concludes that the situation in the United Kingdom is not in conformity with ... the Charter on the grounds that there are inadequate safeguards to prevent that workers may work for more than twelve consecutive days without a rest period."

On increased remuneration for overtime worked: "The Committee concludes that the situation in the United Kingdom is not in conformity with ... the Charter on the grounds that workers do not have adequate legal guarantees ensuring them increased remuneration for overtime."

On trade union activities: "The Committee concludes that the situation in the United Kingdom is not in conformity with ... the Charter on the ground that Section 15 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which makes unlawful for a trade union to indemnify an individual union member for a penalty imposed for an offence or contempt of court, and Section 65 of this Act, which severely restricts the grounds on which a trade union may lawfully discipline members, represent unjustified incursions into the autonomy of trade unions."

On the right to take collective action: "The Committee concludes that the situation in the United Kingdom is not in conformity with ... the Charter on the following grounds:
 the scope for workers to defend their interests through lawful collective action is excessively circumscribed;
 the requirement to give notice to an employer of a ballot on industrial action, in addition to the strike notice that must be issued before taking action, is excessive;
 the protection of workers against dismissal when taking industrial action is insufficient."

Perhaps most damning is the committee's conclusions on "
the most successful policy of the last 30 years", the minimum wage. It's worth quoting this section of the report verbatim:

Paragraph 1 - Decent remuneration
The Committee takes note of the information contained in the report submitted by the United Kingdom. In its previous conclusion the Committee held that the situation was not in conformity with Article 4§1 of the Charter on the ground that the minimum wage fell far below the threshold of 60% of the average wage.

It now notes from the report that in 2008 the adult rate of the UK National Minimum Wage (NMW) amounted to £5.73 (€6.90) gross per hour. According to the report the NMW has increased substantially faster than both average earnings and prices, especially since 2001. Since it was introduced in 1999, it has risen by around 59% up to October 2008. The Government takes advice on NMW rates from the independent LowPay Commission. The aim when setting the rates is to help the low paid through an increased minimum wage, while making sure that no damage is done for their employment prospects by setting these rates too high.

As regards the minimum wage as a per cent of median earnings (the so called NMW bite), the Committee observes from the report that it is higher in low paid sectors such as hotels and restaurants, cleaning, hairdressing etc. On average, in all sectors it represented around 50% of the median wage in 2008. The report also describes the system of tax credits which aims at achieving fairness combined with flexibility in the labour market. The Committee observes that when combining the NMW with tax credits, a single person in October 2009 earned £197 (€237) per week.

The report does not provide information on the average wage. The Committee notes from Eurostat that the average gross annual earnings in industry and services in 2007 amounted to € 46,050. The Committee notes from OECD2 that the minimum relative to average wage of full-time workers represented 46%.

Taking all elements at its disposal into account, the Committee still considers that the situation is not in conformity with the Charter. Despite a number of efforts aimed at improving the overall situation of minimum wage earners, and notwithstanding the fact that the pound value of the minimum wage has gone up during the reference period, this wage remains low and cannot be considered fair in the meaning of the Charter.

The Committee concludes that the situation in United Kingdom is not in conformity with ... the Charter on the ground that the minimum wage is *manifestly unfair* [
my emphasis]"

You can read the full UK report

Shamefully, the UK was one of the ten founding signatories of the social charter. Some progress.

Stronger Unions on Twitter)

Why Ed Miliband Makes Me Angry

Guest post from Sister C

I didn’t vote in the Labour Party leadership election. I didn’t for a number of reasons but if I had voted I would have done for Ed Miliband. His campaign impressed me as a move away from Blairism was what the party needed.

When Ed Miliband was announced as the new Labour Party leader I was as pleased as punch, and not just because I won a lot of money by betting that he would win.

However since Ed became leader I have constantly been angry at him. The thing that first started this off was his cabinet appointments. I will begin with the obvious: ALAN JOHNSON over Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls for Shadow Chancellor? What was he thinking? What a complete waste of the talent we have in the Parliamentary Labour Party. The party would of had a full set of alternative economic policies and a spring board from which to annihilate Osbourne at the despatch box. But no.

Talking of policy, what policies does Labour have at the minute? I don’t know one policy other than we don’t like the Tories and Lib Dems. I go out and doorknock for the party and when people ask me about Labour’s economic policy I can’t answer. Likewise on education policy we have no answer. All I can do is reel off our record over the last 13 years. But if for argument's sake all the Tory and Lib Dem MPs got blown up tomorrow and we had to take charge of the country, I don’t have a bloody clue what the Labour cabinet would do.

On top of this, as a party we have not landed one hit on the coalition government, not one. Why? Well we have no policy, and we have a leader who's failing to take a lead. All his energy from the leadership campaign has gone and all we're left with is a great void.

So what is Ed Miliband doing? Messing about with Labour Party policy is all well and good, but now shouldn't be the time for naval gazing. Instead we should be attacking the coalition government and presenting the public with a strong Labour vision.

If my annoyance wasn't enough, the
penny membership wheeze has made me beyond angry. Joining a political party you should be about making a financial and time commitment to the party. A peppercorn subscription is not a financial commitment by any stretch of the imagination, in fact it morally undermines the contributions made by others as well as the standing of the new recruits who've taken the party up on its offer. The only time I can imagine this sort of thing being acceptable is for the unemployed, others dependent on benefits, and the very low paid.

Yesterday "the leadership" has
proposed a cap on donations as low as £500 that would mean that the party is no longer funded by trade unions. The mind boggles. How on earth do you expect to raise enough small donations for party staff, party buildings, oh and those little things known as elections. The Labour Party is already in financial problems and this policy is just going to make things worse.

The leadership also wants to give “Labour supporting” members of the public 25% of the votes in leadership contests (with MPs, trade union members and party members each taking a quarter of the votes). If this happens I may as well give up my membership up now. Why the hell should I stay a member if members of the public are going to be given a vote in my party? On top of that, that last thing we really, really need is a more complex leadership election system. Ed Miliband was once said to be the emissary from Planet Fuck. Which one is he on now?

Now don’t get me wrong. If David Miliband had won things would hardly be rosy. The Blairites must be having a field day with what Ed's doing. I can understand why some people believe Blairism was the only way to make the Labour Party electable because the "alternative" we are currently presented with is anything but credible.

Ed Miliband's fuzzy policies and softness in the face of the Coalition is emboldening the Blairites and strengthening the hand of the told-you-so's. His half-hearted shuffle away from the common sense of the previous era will, if the opinion polls remain in Labour's favour, support the argument that sticking to the say-nothing middle is the right course. But in the mean time we're not connecting with the public, not motivating the party, and not having alternative policies. This is a crying shame. But we're still not far into Ed's leadership. Wiser heads may come to the fore and a shift in direction may prevail. But what are the chances of that happening, eh?

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Political Leadership and City Regeneration Part 1

Over the last couple of weeks I've been on a short adventure in city regeneration policy. A fortnight ago I was down at Portcullis House in the Big Smoke for a morning discussion on 'Rebuilding Britain's Cities: Lessons from the UK and US'. And the Friday before saw a day conference at Keele on the 'Socio-Political Challenges of Medium-Sized Cities' concentrating on neighbourhoods, health, and political leadership. The changes to health policy and the persistence of areas associated with deprivation, unemployment, crime, high morbidity were discussed in some rigorous detail, but I would like to concentrate on that day's final paper by former MEP and council leader, Mike Tappin. His topic not only serves as a bridge to the Portcullis House discussion but is one of crucial importance for all cities negotiating the treacherous rapids of regeneration: the problem of political leadership.

Mike's paper, 'The Governance Challenge for Stoke-on-Trent: A Study of System, Economic and Political Failure' didn't pull any punches. It really was a frank look at the multiple contributors to Stoke's decline. First, Mike flagged up the spatial dimension. Rather than following the "traditional" centre/periphery model of cities, Stoke is a polycentric city. It is as if drawn out along a South East to North West axis. It comprises the six towns that federated to form Stone-on-Trent in 1910, but in practice (according to previous work undertaken by Mike) the city is sub-divided into 56 more or less discrete "villages", which lends The Potteries a very strong cultural and political localism. This is reinforced by the bypassing of Stoke-on-Trent by the M6, poor internal road networks (for example, Potteries Way - the inner city ring road - has been only half built for over 20 years), and a not altogether praise-worthy public transport system. When 34% of city households are without a car this is a big problem.

Like many medium-sized industrial cities Stoke has suffered economic decline. In the 1950s 70,000, 10,000+, and 20,000+ workers were employed in ceramics, steel, and mining respectively. By 2001 those figures stood at 6,000, 200, and zero. In the 1971-81 period (before Thatcherism began to bite), that decade saw the loss of 28,000 manufacturing jobs and the closure of two local collieries. Additionally, because of the dependence on the potteries, Stoke possessed something of a counter-cyclical economy. When Britain entered into recession the devaluation of sterling boosted Stoke's exports abroad, allowing it to buck the trend. Since 1981, for all intents and purposes the potteries are the only significant economic survivor of the early period. Manufacturing - including ceramics - accounts for below 20% of local employment. Distribution and retail have taken up the slack of private employment.

The unemployment figures more explicitly tell the story of Stoke's decline. In the 50s and 60s unemployment averaged at around 3% - roughly 2,500 people. Through the 70s to most of the 1990s it hovered around the UK average, but in this last decade it has become a major problem. In February 2009, at the start of the recession, 24.1% of the workforce were unemployed, and 43% of that jobless total had been out of work for five years or more. Taking together JSA, incapacity benefit, and income support, 55,550 people were dependent on benefits in some way in North Staffordshire. For Mike, this has bred a 'culture of contentment' whereby aspirations are atuned to the income one receives from benefits, therefore helping to culturally lock Stoke into a perpetual cycle of economic water treading. This can be seen in educational attainment. Whereas the West Midlands average for NVQ levels 2, 3 and 4 are 61.6, 42.3 and 24.5 for the working age population, the respective figures for Stoke is 53.8, 32.3 and 14.4.

Mike argues the city's economic problems are exacerbated by its political difficulties. From 1977-96 Stoke was governed by the County Council based in Stafford, reducing the Potteries to the status of a district council. This led to a two-tiered political culture where the brightest and the best "went south" while the "b team" remained at home. In 1996 the city was made a unitary authority (Mike would have preferred a broader N Staffs authority commensurate with the city's economic footprint) and off the back of the national wave against the Tories, Labour romped home that year with 60 councillors to nil. From 2000 on the Labour party began imploding, seeing its vote collapse from 40.75% at the start of the decade to just 25% in 2008. Matters weren't helped by a switch to an elected mayoral system in 2002, only for it to switch back
six years later. Independents and the BNP started making inroads at Labour's expense, but were checked at the 2010 local election. Labour gained 13 councillors off the back of the general election turn out, and has since recruited another councillor who crossed the floor. Labour now governs in a coalition with the Conservatives and Independents Alliance, LibDems, and the City Independent group.

So much for the form of local politics. What of their content? Mike identified five interrelated problems: the poor quality of local councillors; a clear lack of bold strategic thinking in any of the local parties; the culture of localism; the absence of a civically-minded educated middle class; and lastly, the tendency of the system and parties to store up long term political animosities.

On top of political instability, there has been a constant churn in the city's administration. 2001-10 saw the council get through six chief executives, five directors of social services, and three finance officers. This lack of inbuilt expertise has seen the Council pay out (on average) £6m annually to various consultancies. Even worse, up until the government's bonfire of the quangos, city governance was parcelled out among the City Council, the Renew Housing Partnership, the N Staffs Regeneration Partnership, and Local Strategic Partnerships. It's pretty clear who was responsible for the traditional functions of local government, but which body was in charge of the regeneration process?

These problems have been partially addressed by a governance commission that was appointed in 2007. Its brief was:

1) To consider options about future governance arrangements for Stoke-on-Trent Council to deliver that strong, effective and accountable leadership that the city needs to address the economic, social and cohesion challenges which it faces.
2) To give consideration to governance across the wider public/private sector and to the importance of economic regeneration and community cohesion.
3) To consider the relationship between Stoke-on-Trent and the wider sub-regional/regional/national bodies including other Local Authorities and their partners within the region.
It recommended the setting up of a further body - the 'transition board' - to make further suggestions for sorting out the city's governance. It concluded by favouring all-out four-year elections, single member wards, fewer councillors, member development, more devolved decision-making, working to improve the council machinery, and improving community engagement. After much wrangling councillors will be reduced from 60 to 44, and council ward boundaries redrawn with the majority of them becoming single member (owing to behind the scenes fudges, some will move to two member wards, and one will remain three member). For Mike this strikes at the root of many of the petty rivalries that have grown up between councillors representing the same patch, and the move to four-yearly elections allows the necessary space for longer term strategic planning.

But this doesn't go far enough. He would like to see the council concentrate on core functions and, in the longer term, help voluntary organisations and social enterprises take over some of the ancillary services it currently provides. He wants to see a drive to develop the civic capacity of Stoke's communities to produce the ambitious and competent cadre of politicians the city needs. And Mike also called for more cooperation between N Staffs councils, businesses, quangos and other interested bodies to deliver a proper plan for the city and its hinterland.

While I didn't agree with all of Mike's presentation, it did provide plenty of food for thought. 

Regards 'civic capacity' this is where political parties come in. At the moment Stoke Central CLP is in the process of renovating itself. For the first time in years it's been conducting regular political work inbetween elections, which the party is starting to reap benefits from in terms of new recruits and, for want of a better word, "reconnection". Similarly internally the party is rolling out a programme of political education in conjunction with activism to develop all members' strengths. The culture of bureaucracy and deference is slowly being eroded, allowing space for new members to grow and assume responsibilities. But this process is long, slow and painstaking.

A civic culture, according to Will Hutton, is one of the "soft" cultural props a successful and sustainable capitalism depends on (and, I would argue, an essential component for socialism too - but we'll leave that by the by for now). Its absence in Stoke is one of the contributing factors to a generalised lack of internal capital accumulation that could see the city out of its doldrums. Therefore this isn't just a problem that can be boiled down to atomised working class communities and privatised individuals: it's one that afflicts existing business elites too. I don't want to say much more as I'm involved in a couple of projects on the issue of civic culture and political participation, but as we shall see in the next post, there are important lessons that can be drawn from American experiences of declining cities.

Lastly, one cannot disagree with Mike's view of time-scale. Whatever regeneration strategy tickles your political fancy it has to be long-term and consistently pursued. I grew up in and around Derby. Though it has its own set of persistent problems and inbuilt advantages, 20 years of a tenacious pursuit of a coherent regeneration strategy has transformed the city to the point where it has the
highest workplace wage base outside the South East. While Stoke's situation is such that it's unlikely to achieve parity with its more affluent neighbour, it is a useful exemplar of what vision and determination in local government can do.

Monday 27 December 2010

Top 100 Tweeting Bloggers 2010

Find below 2010's list of the top 100 UK-based tweeting political bloggers. Follower numbers were those yesterday evening.

1) (1)
Alastair Campbell (52,095 followers)
Jon Snow (36,962 followers)
Johann Hari (33,656 followers)
Krishnan Guru-Murthy (32,917 followers)
Nick Robinson (27,337 followers)
Tory Radio (21,166 followers)
7) (5)
Guido Fawkes (20,864 followers)
Caroline Lucas (17,465 followers)
Toby Young (15,504 followers)
10) (4)
Tom Watson MP (14,910 followers)
11) (18)
Kevin Maguire (13,994 followers)
12) (90)
Laurie Penny (10,838 followers)
13) (14)
Paul Waugh (10,776 followers)
14) (15)
Tim Montgomerie (9,655 followers)
David Allen Green (9,558 followers)
Boulton and Co (9,475 followers)
17) (13)
Labour List (8,569 followers)
18) (66)
Left Foot Forward (8,551 followers)
19) (45)
FT Westminster Blog (8,197 followers)
Robert Peston (8,178 followers)
21) (7)
Kerry McCarthy (7,590 followers)
Paul Mason (7,502 followers)
23) (10)
Enemies of Reason (7,234 followers)
Michael White (7,180 followers)
25) (63)
Will Straw (6,953 followers)
Mehdi Hasan (6,685 followers)
27) (26)
Sunny Hundal (6,666 followers)
Michael Crick (6,575 followers)
29) Life on Wheels (6,387 followers)
30) (6)
The Wardman Wire (6,033 followers)
31) (20)
Gideon Rachman (6,013 followers)
John Rentoul (5,832 followers)
33) (24)
Harry Cole (5,775 followers)
34) (44)
Liberal Conspiracy (5,687 followers)
35) (38)
Daniel Hannan (5,538 followers)
36) (28)
Benedict Brogan (5,479 followers)
37) (8)
UK Progressive (5,472 followers)
38) (19)
Cath Elliott (5,382 followers)
39) (37)
Andrew Sparrow (5,369 followers)
40) (62)
Political Scrapbook (5,358 followers)
41) (22)
Lynne Featherstone MP (5,187 followers)
UCL Occupation (4,549 followers)
43) (9)
James Cleverly (4,411 followers)
44) (35)
Next Left (4,320 followers)
45) (27)
Think Politics (4,130 followers)
38 Degrees (4,121 followers)
47) (33)
LibDem Voice (4,081 followers)
48) (23)
A View From the Public Gallery (4,000 followers)
Charlie Beckett (3,910 followers)
50) (21)
Obnoxio the Clown (3,773 followers)
51) (32)
Mark Pack (3,711 followers)
52) (31)
Bloggerheads (3,577 followers)
53) Police State UK (3,563 followers)
Labour Uncut (3,533 followers)
55) Jonathan Isaby (3,484 followers)
Gordon MacMillan (3,449 followers)
57) Jim Knight (3,442 followers)
58) (48) Douglas Carswell MP (3,316 followers)
Hannah Nicklin (3,308 followers)
60) (67)
Labour Matters (3,276 followers)
61) (43)
Adam Smith Institute Blog (3,123 followers)
62) (55)
Adam Bienkov (3,073 followers)
Iain Martin (2,972 followers)
64) Conservative Home (2,901 followers)
65) (34)
Jon Worth's Euroblog (2,899 followers)
Lisa Ansell (2,823 followers)
67) (65)
Boris Watch (2,762 followers)
James Delingpole (2,660 followers)
69) (49)
Eric Joyce MP (2,607 followers)
Progress (2,590 followers)
71) (75)
Martin Bright (2,590 followers)
False Economy (2,517 followers)
73) (54)
Dizzy Thinks (2,510 followers)
Tristram Hunt (2,506 followers)
Hopi Sen (2,491 followers)
James Kirkup (2,442 followers)
Old Holborn (2,434 followers)
78) (89)
Angry Mob (2,420 followers)
79) (88)
Cardiff Blogger (2,318 followers)
80) (64)
A Very Public Sociologist (2,230 followers)
Lenin's Tomb (2,037 followers)
82) (95)
Luke Bozier 1,937 followers)
83) (50)
Greener Leith (1,864 followers)
84) Bright Green Scotland (1,852 followers)
85) (70)
Mark Reckons (1,817 followers)
Crash Bang Wallace (1,810 followers)
87) F for Philistine (1,801 followers)
88) (40)
Kirklees Unity (1,794 followers)
89) New Left Project (1,746 followers)
90) (82)
Liberal Burblings (1,732 followers)
Big Brother Watch (1,694 followers)
92) William Green (1,690 followers)
93) (61) Andy Reeve's Running Blog (1,675 followers)
Archbishop Cranmer (1,671 followers)
95) (39)
Cllr Lisa Northover (1,610 followers)
96) (77)
Local Democracy Blog (1,583 followers)
97) Heresy Corner (1,579 followers)
Tom Miller (1,556 followers)
99) (78)
Stephen's Linlithgow Journal (1,531 followers)
100) (86)
Caron's Musings (1,530 followers)

Now for the analytical bit. The normal churn of political blogging has claimed several high profile casualties over the last few months. In fact, apart from the Tom Harris's and the Iain Dale's some 31 other bloggers who were on last year's list didn't make it through 2010. Some of them are still active on Twitter, like John Prescott, Bevanite Ellie, but their blogs have seen better days. As before bloggers are excluded from the list if either their blog or Twitter feed has fallen into disuse for 40 days, are ensconced behind a pay wall, or have announced their retirement. The only exception to this rule is Obo the Clown who, despite announcing his departure, is still gracing the blogosphere with his inimitable pearls of wisdom.

The 2010 list sees 41 new entries, meaning that a further eight bloggers from last years weren't able to break through the floor, which now stands at 1,530 followers (last year it was 641). But what is most striking about the new list is the number of
professional bloggers it contains. By my reckoning, journalists, think tank'ers and the like account for 33 positions. Last year it was 11. This change can only be partly explained by my casting the net wider too. Some new "stars" operating out of mainstream media platforms have made a splash, such as the cartoon reactionary James Delingpole. Bloggers like Harry Cole (AKA Tory Bear) and Laurie Penny came up through independent blogging and have been incorporated into the media apparatus - Cole is now an "editor" at Guido's, and Penny is now hosted by the New Statesman and is a Graun regular. Also a lot of liberal, left and leftish bloggers have done paid for bits and bobs for Comment is Free. As I'm not a Telegraph regular I don't know if it's fulfilling a similar role on the right.

The preponderance of professionals, particularly near the top, raises some interesting definitional issues. It seems a blog has become
de rigeur for the disconcerting broadcaster and media name. But these are very much bolt-ons to their existing work. Often their blogs are tired, uninspiring and, in the case of the BBC, have to shy away from controversy for "impartiality's" sake. The question is would anyone bother reading them if there wasn't an established name attached?

On this basis it's easy to assume this list is a measure of blogging influence as determined by number of Twitter followers, and might suggest the position of indie bloggers is slipping. But not all things are equal. You can be pretty certain people follow Guido because he's a blogger. Likewise, I imagine Jon Snow has many more followers ... because he's Jon Snow.

Does this mean anything? It doesn't follow that independent blogging is an endangered species. There'll always be room for people to mouth off and an opportunity to
build up a blog audience, but with limits. I think the path is closed for one-woman and one-man bands starting out now with aspirations to become their party's version of the next Guido or Iain Dale. But this has more to do with the rise of collective blogs than the eminence of "celebrity" bloggers.

It's strange. In many ways the route to blogging "fame" is easier than it once was. The existence of popular collective blogs can short circuit the slow process of building up and getting to know an audience. The advantage is instant prominence, but at the price of always being at the mercy of the blog's editor and having to compete with up to six or seven other posts a day for attention. But this way there's a chance you might catch a newspaper or magazine's eye and be snapped up. For most who go down this route it's more likely their name is lost among the prodigious output.

So, to venture a prediction. Even with the likely upsurge of radical protest-related blogging this coming year I reckon the list will look very similar toward 2011's end. The professionals will have squillions of followers, more of them will dominate the list and those capable of keeping up are prominent personalities attached to collective blogs. The number of indies will fall through being crowded out or by their absorption/incorporation by the collectives or traditional media. It would, however, be nice to get proven wrong.

Update 28.12.10: The list has been updated now for the last time. If you have been missed off it's hard lines, basically. But do let me know anyway via the comments below so you'll be considered when it's compiled next year.

Sunday 26 December 2010

Doctor Who's Christmas Carol

It's as Christmas as Noddy Holder and selection boxes. It may have only been going since 2005 but the Doctor Who seasonal special has become a firm festive favourite. According to overnight figures, it managed some 10.3m viewers - second only to Eastenders. So Steven Moffat and the Cardiff crew can cheerfully raise a glass to a job well done. And if I was wealthy enough I might get them a round in too. Because, for once, the Christmas episode was quite good.

Doctor Who's
A Christmas Carol is, as you might expect, an adaptation of the ever-green Dickens favourite. High above a neo-Victorian planet a space liner is threatening to crash with Amy and Rory on board. Oh noes! Their fate rests in the hands of the Scrooge-like oligarch Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon). Kazran is the owner of a device that keeps the cloud decks away from the surface, and with it the sky-swimming scools of sharks and other fish. He can use his spire to guide the liner in to safety but refuses to do so - and the Doctor is helpless to intervene directly because its controls are biologically-bonded to Kazran's person. The subsequent plot (described in detail here) sees the Doctor travel into Kazran's past to try and guide his development and maturation down a gentler, compassionate path while loosely following the themes of Dickens' book.

As you'd expect it's completely daft, featuring scenes of a shark-propelled rickshaw and enough time paradoxes to keep the nitpickers scratching their heads until the next series. But there was something that didn't sit easy with me, a bit like one too many mince pies.

Straight away we are (sort of ) introduced to Abigail (Katherine Jenkins), a young woman kept by Kazran in cryogenic deep freeze. Because he refuses to release her into the custody of her (impoverished) family for Christmas day on the grounds that she is collateral for a loan they have yet to pay back, he is set up as the Scrooge-like character. Half way through the story the reason for her suspension is changed. In his attempts to reform the young Kazran, the Doctor begins disinterring Abigail from her icy crypt every Christmas eve. They whisk her away to all the desirable locations - Venice, the pyramids, a Frank Sinatra party in Vegas. Each time she returns at the end of the evening the counter on her capsule inexorably decreases by one. With only eight to begin with and one left on the tumbler, it's not long before we learn her secret: Abigail is dying. The numbers indicate the days she has left, and all the cryogenics are doing is delaying the inevitable.

There's a little bit of gender politics at work here. Stripped of Who's derring-do and down to brass tacks, this is a story about an old man who keeps a woman in a box in his basement. He not only refuses to part with her (after all, she is his property), but because she's on ice he - aided and abetted by the Doctor - controls her freedom. Rather than allowing her eke out her last days with her family, Abigail is let out for jolly japes with the boys. They determine what she can do. They determine how long she's out for. And at the end of each adventure they put her back into the box. With only one day left on the counter, Abigail is called on again many decades hence to sing, which reverses the polarity and saves the day for Amy, Rory and the others on the doomed space liner. In other words she is kept under lock and key until she becomes useful. This time however she's left to her fate, and we leave Abigail to her unpleasant fate riding a shark-drawn carriage with Kazran.

Criticism and interpretation of film, books and TV is a tricky business. But Sci-Fi has form as far as dodgy gender issues are concerned (see some of the critical material at
Feminist SF, for instance). Doctor Who's case isn't helped by Steven Moffat himself, who authored yesterday's episode. In an installment of Doctor Who Confidential, the BBC Three behind-the-scenes documentary of every Who episode, he discusses the casting of Karen Gillan as the Doctor's new companion. After seeing an audition tape of Gillan sitting down, Moffat is on record as saying "And I thought, 'well she's really good. It's just a shame she's so wee and dumpy ... When she was about to come through to the auditions I nipped out for a minute and I saw Karen walking on the corridor towards me and I realised she was 5'11, slim and gorgeous and I thought 'Oh, oh that'll probably work.'"

If this is the key criterion for Moffat's casting decision it's small wonder
A Christmas Carol has an uncomfortable subtext. I wonder how many of his other episodes do, too?

Saturday 25 December 2010

Happy Winterval!

We've tried so hard, but yet again the left's War on Christmas has failed to destroy the festive season. Bah humbug! Better luck next year ...

Friday 24 December 2010

Tommy Sheridan Around the Blogs

Yesterday's guilty verdict was always going to result in vicious rounds of denunciation on the left. And the various blogs that make up part of its online infrastructure would be first port of call for comrades hungry for analysis and with a spleen to vent.

In the pro-Tommy corner,
Lenin's Tomb makes a number of stinging criticisms of the SSP leadership's conduct from the moment the allegations surfaced to the role they played in providing the perjury trial key evidence. Andy makes a similar argument on Socialist Unity. Andy's position is one well-travelled since 2006, when he backed the SSP against the Tommy faction. I can see where both comrades are coming from and their arguments are much more credible than the transparently self-serving explanations put out by interested parties (see here). They are right to criticise the SSP and like them I believe it will be a long time before the organisation regains a modicum of the reputation it once had. But in Andy's and Lenny's rush to put the boot into the SSP, Tommy is let completely off the hook. It's as if expecting comrades to lie in court (risking late perjury charges and imprisonment), for no reason other than the protection of Tommy's personage is of zero consequence. I'm sorry, I just don't buy it. In attacking the SSP's unprincipled behaviour they obscure the fact that ultimate responsibility for the mess rests on the shoulders of one man and those who egged him on.

Elsewhere, Journeyman asks
which side are you on? in a post more nuanced and thoughtful than the title suggests. In his 'Solidarity with the Sheridans' Riversider claims "a whole host of blogs are literally salivating with glee ..." at the prospect of Tommy getting sent down. Apart from the Scottish Socialist Youth blog, just who these unnamed others are is a mystery. Unfortunately Riversider sticks rigidly to the "class battle" frame in discussion of the issues, a frame I've argued massively distorts what really happened and what the issues were.

On the other side of the debate,
Dave Osler cuts to the quick. Likewise Jim argues that Tommy's arrogance and lies are rooted in a far left culture of personality cultism and deference. Louise in Gender, Class, Sexism and Tommy Sheridan reiterates all these points while exposing the attacks on the SSP's feminism as a rather poor attempt to dress Tommy's court case up as a principled struggle. However, even though he liked my analysis of the trial, Ian Bone's contribution comes across as bitter and vindictive.

Away from the hot house atmos of the far left, how has Tommy's conviction been received by others outside our tiny circle? As we never tire of hearing Tommy's standing in Scotland, what do Scottish political blogs have to say? Lallands Peat Worrier
subjects the case to a legal analysis and throws up some uncomfortable questions Tommy's supporters have yet to answer. The Firm (magazine for Scotland's legal establishment) offers an alternate legalistic view and suggests the Lord Advocate was leaned on by Murdoch's minions to give the perjury investigation the go ahead. Will Patterson locates Tommy's hubris in his ego and foresees a Scottish left cleared and ready for the return of the Gorgeous One. Similarly Bella Caledonia isn't looking forward to Galloway's imminent return, and argues a new leadership is needed in Scotland to rally its progressive forces.

Strangely the chief props of mainstream blogging have little to say. Harry's Place has posted nothing. Paul Staines, the
enfant terrible of establishment politics is similarly silent. Legal blogger David Allen Green is presumably too busy handling the mince pies to write anything. In fact, south of the border you'd be hard pressed to find anyone outside of the sunlit uphills of far left blogging giving much of a toss at all. So much for Tommy's case being a vitally important political event. However, Dave was cross-posted to Liberal Conspiracy. In the subsequent thread questions are raised about the public interest/money spent on the prosecution and Tommy's judgement. But most unnerving of all is reading a discussion of the case free from rancour and entrenched positions. Political Scrapbook mischievously runs with a parallel first suggested by Tommy at the outcome of his 2006 defamation action. But as one of the commenters notes, "I take exception to any argument that challenging Goliath justifies lying ... Tommy Sheridan has actually done News International a big favour because now any time someone accuses them of dishonesty they can legitimately argue "well, that's what Sheridan said and he was a liar too!""

The recriminations and the arguments will see the left nicely into the new year. But hopefully people will soon start looking beyond the case. As Bella Caledonia notes, "The time for raking over one individuals life is thankfully over and the new task is to work out how the future looks for the left in Scotland – where energy can go and where alliances can be made. 2011 should be the year when the agenda is reclaimed by those more interested in the opening future than the inglorious past."

Thursday 23 December 2010

Tommy Sheridan: Tragedy and Farce

I thought he was going to pull it off. Thanks to the excellent in-depth coverage by James Doleman and his comrades at the High Court in Glasgow, we know Tommy Sheridan fielded a spirited and convincing defence. In contrast the prosecution's case was shambolic, farcical and at times threatened to come apart at the seams. When Gail Sheridan was acquitted and 12 charges were dropped, anyone would be forgiven for thinking Tommy Sheridan would escape conviction. In fact, you could almost say the prosecution deserved to lose. But that wasn't to be. Despite the amateurish investigation underpinning the charges, despite a cack-handed job of handling the evidence, and despite the rhetorical power of Tommy's defence, the jury of 12 women and two men found him guilty of the six charges remaining on the Crown's indictment.

Very few people who've followed the case since Tommy's sudden and unexpected resignation as the Scottish Socialist Party's convener six years ago would have had their minds changed by the evidence presented. Speaking for myself, I was a member of the Socialist Party at the time of the original defamation case brought by Tommy against
News of the World. I originally (and perhaps naively) believed he hadn't done it, but changed my mind after its successful conclusion. And what's more most of my comrades believed he'd done it too. Nevertheless the party, the SWP, and a sizable chunk of the far left stuck with Tommy. The logic of this part-political, part-moral position is set out in this article from The Socialist. Political because Tommy was Scotland's "most iconic post-war socialist" and had pull among the Scottish working class beyond the collective profile of the rest of the far left. Moral because socialists shouldn't look down the noses at comrades' sexual preferences, let alone testify against them in court.

Presented like this the whole affair looks straightforward. If you're in the business of building a left alternative and trying to build the capacity and combativity of a relatively quiescent working class, it was your duty to stand by Tommy as he sued the
News of the World and again when the Crown came after him for perjury. It was a case of the working class vs the boss class, played out in a court room.

But this is to violently distort the politics and morality of the case.

Tommy wasn't up on perjury charges as an outcome of a protest, strike, or dispute. It was because he lied in his defamation action. He wasn't featured in the
News of the World because of his record of struggle. He was, like many politicians before him and no doubt many more to come, caught with his pants down. And before he was named by the paper as the MSP dilly-dallying with Anvar Khan, he'd held his hands up to the SSP executive and confessed. While some members may have a particular attitude to sex and fidelity, the exec didn't sack Tommy because of his peccadilloes. He was asked to step down because he intended to sue News of the World for defamation, despite admitting the story was substantially true, and because he expected *others* to risk their necks by going along with it. In other words, Tommy asked his comrades, many of whom he'd worked with for 20 years, to buy into a lie so he could trouser a couple of hundred grand in damages.

Surely no socialist in their right mind would go along with such a scheme. But some did, even to the extent of lying in court themselves. I hope they will not find themselves brought up on perjury charges too. However, those SSP members who refused to lie to satisfy one man's vanity were unjustly vilified as scabs and class traitors. Unfortunately,
Barbara Scott, Alan McCombes, George McNeilage and others were subsequently so consumed with rage and hate that they were prepared to cross the line. It is understandable why they did what they did, but inexcusable for all that. As long as they play any kind of front line role in the SSP their actions will cast a shadow the organisation cannot shake off.

But every action has its precursor, and none of this would have happened had Tommy listened to counsel wiser than his ego. In some parallel world there exists a united SSP and a stronger Scottish anti-cuts movement because, at some point in 2004, Tommy made the right decision. But here, he didn't. He has destroyed a viable socialist organisation and left behind him a trail of toxic wreckage that will take socialists in Scotland decades to clean up. This is Tommy's doing. His. Against this his previous good works come to nought. What a shame, what a waste.

Tragedy and farce? That about sums it up.