Tuesday 31 December 2013

Tristram Hunt on Education and Immigration

"Just as broken clocks are right twice a day, even the Daily Telegraph occasionally prints the truth." I can't remember who coined it, but it's a cliche so commonplace that to cite it is to patronise one's audience. Unfortunately, that is what I'm going to do about the reception this ridiculous article received among people who really should know better. First things first, I have a current and former interest to declare. Tristram is my Member of Parliament. He's also my former employer.

Right, that's out the way. On Saturday the Telegraph published snippets of an interview with Tristram under the headline 'Labour: White boys' underachievement linked to mass migration'. Now, of course, there is an issue with white boys' underachievement at school - though, forgive my contrarian nature, few outside the women's movement were that bothered about white girls' underperformance until the terms of the problem were reversed. But anyway. It's a complex problem but not an insurmountable one by any means. And, unfortunately, immigration is a hot topic too. Even if we don't wake up to our Romanian and Bulgarian overlords tomorrow, the UK can look forward to being swamped by 27 million new Britons by the end of the month. And if the pint-chewing and cigarette-drinking Nigel Farage gets his way, you can add tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to that total. Immigration does matter to many millions of voters - you don't need the ringside seat I once had at Tristram's postbag to realise that.

Are the two linked? Because my next-door-but-one neighbours are Polish, does that mean the white working class boy around the corner is going to do worse at school? It's difficult to see how a link could be suggested. But this is what the Telegraph says Tristram believes. Asked about it, he replied “Exactly. And that comes back to the supply side. We have to get in there.” Seems unequivocal.

It all depends on how you define 'linked'. Evidently, if white working class boys aren't doing well at school they will find themselves disadvantaged when they enter the labour market. And this is especially the case when they're competing for unskilled work with recent arrivals from overseas. There is a link between the two. A relationship. And, it's perfectly obvious from the short piece and the longer extract from the forthcoming Fabian Review that this is the sense in which the matter is being discussed. Hence why Tristram stressed the necessity of upskilling working class boys and acknowledged that open borders to EU migrants were a mistake. Whether you agree with the comments or not, the end point is aimed at the entry points and extent of the labour market in low paid, unskilled work.

Sadly, thanks to the mischievous headline the title strongly implies immigration causes underachievement. And going by the outraged tweets that fell into my feed on Saturday and Sunday, this was how many, many lefties interpreted it too. This is why I'm going to have to patronise folks who were so moved. The Telegraph is a Tory paper. As such, it doesn't have the best interests of the labour movement at heart. It will say and do what it thinks it can get away with to traduce and rubbish progressive views. That is why they publish Dan Hodges and Lisa Ansell, both of whom spend their time knocking Labour and the trade unions from Blair Ultra and Ultra-Left perspectives respectively. The paper has also embarked on a conscious effort to distort whatever front-bench Labour people say to undermine members' and activists' morale (some might say the leadership are quite capable of that themselves).

Given Labour's unenviable past of indulging racist dog-whistling, you can understand why some might accept the Telegraph's spin as plausible. Nevertheless it's still disappointing that people who know a thing or two about media literacy and the partisan press uncritically swallowed the report.

The 10 Best Dance Tunes of 2013

Tradition time.

10. As We Collide (Orjan Nilsen Remix) by Christian Burns, Paul Oakenfold and Jes

9. Need U (100%) by Duke Dumont feat. A*M*E

8. Axis by Pet Shop Boys

7. Magenta by Giuseppe Ottaviani with Ferry Corsten

6. Try to be a Headliner (DoubleV Mashup) by Jorn van Deynhoven vs Sunlounger feat. Zara Taylor

5. When a Fire Starts to Burn by Disclosure

4. Cheops (Original Mix) by Matt Bukovski, Andy Elliass and Abys

3. Ramelia (Tribute to Amelia) by Ram and Susana

2. Count On Me by Chase and Status feat. Moko

Just wow. It has been a vintage year all-round. An excellent year for UK dance with Duke Dumont, Disclosure and Chase and Status all reaping deserved overground success and praise - especially Count On Me which rates as one of the greatest, uplifting dance-your-arse-off anthems ever to leave this shores. And an entirely unexpected 80s rewind from the Pet Shop Boys. If you haven't heard Axis yet, what's your excuse?

But, as long term readers know, trance is where this blog's really at. With awful chimey-rhymey EDM cluttering up the radio and the clubs, and despite the likes of TiĆ«sto and Armin van Buuren cashing in with their own unimaginative jingles, trance - now it's very much underground again - has hit its stride. Always best when it is emotional and euphoric, it has grabbed for itself six of the year's ten spots. Cheops is a work of classical beauty not seen since the golden age at the turn of the century. Ramelia is a deeply sad and moving piece. Composed in tribute to DJ Ram's wife, who died suddenly in May, you would have to be made of stone not to surrender to its grip. But the best, the single most stunning dance song of the year fuses poignancy and joy in a piece that almost defies description. My pick is more than the cream of 2013's crop. It's a contender for the best song of the decade and is among one of the greatest trance records ever produced. Ignore the fan-made video. This is the original mix of Apprehension by Simon O'Shine and Sergey Nevone. Enjoy.

Sunday 29 December 2013

Andrew Lilley and the Stoke Labour "Conspiracy"

It's good to see Stoke Central Labour in the national press. Not so good when it's about my local constituency party having had at least ten grand nicked by its former treasurer. Back in November, the Stoke-on-Trent Labour-turned-unaligned councillor Andy Lilley was sent down for 16 months after his pilfering of party funds were uncovered. You can read a bit about the subsequent by-election this caused here and here. Unfortunately, as per the "idiosyncratic" nature of local politics in the Potteries this has become the pivot of a local conspiracy theory. A theory given life by some of the nonsense uncritically regurgitated by yesterday's Mirror. It's about time someone cleared the air.

The Mirror writes "in 2010 ... attempts to suspend Lilley were blocked by regional party officials during a period of political infighting." I wasn't in the party when this was happening. But my understanding was that Lilley had not produced the books for inspection by the constituency for a period of time, a situation compounded by his avoidance of party meetings. Understandably the then executive had concerns and had notified the city party organisation (now Local Campaign Forum) and the regional office. At this point there was no evidence of wrongdoing. However, events have a habit of shaking up politics and so it was with Stoke Central CLP. Against the backdrop of leading party members - practically the entire executive - playing crucial roles in campaigning for the unseating of an elected Labour mayor, in the space of a mid-March weekend the party was placed into special measures by the NEC and incumbent MP Mark Fisher announced his retirement a month-and-a-half before the general election. Of course, some might want to attribute sinister and cynical motives to the regional party apparatus failure to pursue Andy Lilley then, but more reasonable people could conclude that organising a last minute candidacy, handling the administration that comes with a constituency party suspension and the small matter of overseeing a large election campaign across the West Midlands were monopolising their time.

I first met Andy Lilley after the election. Tristram Hunt was the new MP and the 'old guard' had resigned. Lilley chaired the first meeting of the CLP and was re-elected the constituency treasurer. It also appeared the previous executive had nothing to be worried about - in 2010 and 2011 the constituency finances were audited again by members chosen at those years' AGMs. Money in the ledger Lilley kept matched the money in and out recorded by the bank statements (I saw these as I was the CLP secretary 2011-13). It all appeared above board.

Then, at the 2012 AGM, he was voted out of office. There followed a substantial delay of months before the books were handed over to the new treasurer and the auditors could take a look at them. We met about this time last year in a pub with the auditors, and there was a discrepancy. Money known to be paid in had not appeared in the accounts. Pending further investigations, the auditors did not sign them off. About a month later on a Saturday morning, we were called to an emergency executive meeting at the campaign officer's house. The treasurer had produced a fully itemised statement from the bank that showed the incomings and outgoings, which clearly didn't match with what was in the ledger. But what about the banks statements seen in previous audits? Then came the real bombshell. They were fake. Coming to light after he scanned copies of the old statements and sent them to the bank, what we and auditors had previously seen were quite convincing mock ups. They looked like the real thing with the exception of two details - the reference numbers on them were false, and its design was a few years out of date. But unless you have an eye for that sort of thing, you never would have guessed. And so it turned out the bank account, which we were led to believe was in a low but workable state was empty and in front of us we had evidence that our former treasurer had been forging documentation. What could you do? I remember my jaw hitting the floor and laughing. In short order the treasurer spoke to the regional office and both went to the police. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Irony of ironies, it was around the time his wrongdoing was coming to light that Lilley resigned from Labour for "principled" anti-cuts reasons. He made a big play of not wanting to attack the labour movement, but thought nothing of splashing thousands of its pounds on ridiculous watches, expensive champagne and large tables at the Lord Mayor's charity do.

So let there be no doubt at all. There was no blocked investigation. No cynical shafting of Lilley when he ceased being "useful". There was never any conspiracy. There was one man who, whatever his excuse, helped himself to at least £10k of party funds. He troughed on money raised from campaigning and the donations of ordinary working people who believe Labour can make a difference. Lilley didn't steal from a faceless institution. He took cash off me, off the executive he worked with, off the activists and CLP regulars, off affiliated trade unions, off our phalanx of members in their 90s and the youngest comrades who've not long joined and, worst of all, his own wife. It's right he's doing bird for it. And it's right that the nonsense surrounding this case be put to bed.

Saturday 28 December 2013

Will 2015 Be Labour's Poisoned Chalice?

It's tough being a political party. Life outside of government is relatively care free affair. You can formulate policy, spend your time critiquing and criticising, and look forward to a fair amount of time sat atop opinion polls. But once you're in power it's a whole different ball game. It's time to come up with the goods you promised in opposition. It's an occasion for breaking promises and getting found out, as our friends the Liberal Democrats have found to their cost. A party's image takes a battering, its representatives in local, devolved and European bodies pay the price of unpopularity, its leading figures defamed and lampooned and, eventually, the electorate give it the boot. This begs the question: why bother? That's the question Jackie Ashley more or less asked in The Graun the other day.

Okay, I'm guilty of being a touch facetious. Come 2015, what in Trot-speak we used to call the "objective conditions" are not going to be much different. Will the economy be growing or not? It won't matter to most people, for whom pay is likely to remain lagging behind inflation. Will joblessness be down? Probably, but again not replacing sacked public sector workers like-for-like and seeing more and more jobs cut up into zero-hour, part-time and temporary-sized chunks is no recipe for a feel good factor. Exports are down, and debt - public and private - is at record highs. There's very little chance of that "rebalancing" Osborne and Dave like to bandy about meaningfully occurring before 2015, except on one measure. Slashing the state-employed work force and/or outsourcing/transferring many hundreds of thousands of them to for-profit businesses can make it look as if the private sector are storming heaven, or some such rhetorical nonsense that accompanies any indication of economic growth.

The situation will be grim, so does Labour really want to win? Of course, the answer depends on what Labour does with its victory. But first things first, we know what the party has announced so far. We know it will abolish the bedroom tax straight off. At a stroke our very poorest, including hundreds of thousands of disabled people, will get immediate relief. For readers getting prissy about voting Labour, you might want to consider that. We also know that the party has promised a repeal of this government's Health and Social Care Act - the one that transformed the NHS into a market for service delivery, a market that is subject to EU competition law and one in which public providers of health services are discriminated against. A complete waste of money, as well as something many sitting on the Tory benches will benefit financially from. That also makes a real difference. Yet both of these, in a way, are "easy" policies. They're on the right side of Labourist politics, and they will save public money too. The political pain comes with the tough issues.

As is customary these days, Ed Balls has committed Labour to the Coalition's public spending plans for 2015-16, just as Brown and Osborne did before him. This doesn't necessarily mean a Labour Treasury won't play around with the monies it has. There's a bit of wiggle room in £720bn. Yet telescoping forward from the vantage point of 2013, and given the forewarnings about "tough decisions", a programme of cuts will carry on. Sure, there is a political logic in sticking with established spending plans. Straight away the sting of "tax and spend" Labour has been drawn. Not being able to take Labour on without the Tories attacking their own plans, it could be smart politics. On the other hand, it's a gamble. Is it strategically wise to allow your spending plans to be set by an out-of-his-depth chancellor and a gang whose blueprint for the economy is The Road to Serfdom? The answer has to be no. Nevertheless, barring an Osborne-style pledge for an emergency spending review, that is likely where Labour will be. So, Labour's hand is not of its choosing, and the chancellor will ensure the cards are shuffled in such a way to be to our maximum disadvantage, but its up to the leadership team how they play it. Here's my suggestion.

From day one of the Coalition, the Tories and LibDems have approached economic questions politically. Wedded to Adam Smith sans his moral injunctions against money-grubbing, they have not wasted the crisis in ensuring that working people pay for it, and continuing to ensure the redistribution of power and wealth to the very rich from everyone else. Theirs is a sectional, class war government justified by a doctrine of economic necessity in the first instance. This is a policy orientation bought at the expense of the long term interests of those they champion. Their very political economy has to be met by one of our own. Thanks to its baggage, calling it a five-year plan is perhaps best avoided but Labour has to be bold about restructuring British capitalism. Labour's immediate and long-run health demands that it does so. Cutting doesn't work and has been shown not to. Instead, it needs to be smarter with taxpayers' money. Cracking down on tax dodging is an ever-green cure-all, but it needs putting into practice. Cracking down has to mean *cracking down*, up to and including shutting down off shore crown dependencies where trillions have been parked. Being smart means recognising that HS2 is 30 years too late and will do little to improve Britain's economic performance. Far better would be investing those colossal sums in wiring the entire country up with high speed broadband and wireless internet. Perhaps it should also be free. It is also about time the need for a submarine nuclear deterrent was rethought. What does Britain gain from swaggering around the world pretending to be a great power?

Again, easy stuff in terms of pain. Not so easy with the practicalities. For example, chasing tax dodging is a complex business involving courts, other states, international negotiation and so on. Technically speaking it'll be a while before money is repatriated, but politically Labour will reap the rewards. The same is true of HS2 and, perhaps, Trident. But these are not the magic bullets some of my erstwhile comrades think. They will not magic away deficits and debts, though, of course, they could go some way to addressing them. Labour needs to use the stick of the law and the carrot of corporation tax to prevent businesses from dumping their costs onto taxpayers. Uprating your workers above the living wage? Here, have a corporation tax cut. Provide company-wide child care for employees? Have another. Take life-long learning and job security seriously? Recognise collective bargaining? Relinquish one-sided PFI contracts? The list goes on. Assuming there will be no nationalisations and renationalisations or radical legislation like one shareholder, one vote; businesses have to be incentivised by the tax regime to make sure they have direct material interests in discharging social and environmental responsibility. This will go a long way toward putting money in people's pockets and making them feel more secure in work and life generally. It's a start.

These can be done or begun within the parameters set by the Tories. If there is one lesson Labour should take from the Coalition, it is to move with haste and ensure a new settlement is bedded down in short order, before the opposition in the Tories, in the media, in finance, and in other sectors of the establishment start organising around their bleating. And then after that first year, if Labour need to borrow more it should do so - but soften the inevitable nonsense from the right by announcing a simultaneous zero-based budget review of public spending, beginning with procurement, outsourcing, internal market costs (health, education, defence, etc.) and high salaries. If a public body cannot afford to run certain services, it certainly cannot afford to pay reams of officers on £100k+.

Looks relatively rosy, doesn't it? But it's not. While this is going on there will still likely be cuts, even though Ed Balls and Ed Miliband know they're counter-productive and act as a drag on economic activity. Every single cut across every single department needs to be thought through in terms of *net* saving and *net* cost. There's no point laying off tax inspectors if that will damage your revenue stream in the medium term. Throwing public sector workers onto the dole is stupid if it will cost more in redundancies and depress the local economy.

Could winning in 2015 do Labour in? Yes, but it's not inevitable. It's a question of politics. Labour has a chance, if it wins the election, to permanently change British capitalism, to 'under-promise and over-deliver' as the leader is fond of saying. The prize is not just a better society, a foundation on which further social advances could be built, but also, perhaps, an almost permanent marginalisation of the Tories and the backward, sectional, moneyed interests they represent. It's not a matter of praying that Labour succeeds - it's a call for every labour movement person to get on board to push and campaign for what needs to be done.

Friday 27 December 2013

Top 100 Tweeting Bloggers 2013

That awkward interregnum between Christmas and New Year. What is one to do? For politicos should we go full bore on our hobby horses as if it was a normal week. Or should we ease off and enjoy the wine, the mince pies and our recently-acquired selection of woolly jumpers? I'm all for a mix of both, if I'm honest. A bit of r'n'r, a few reflective/year-in-review postings on here, and business-as-usual on everyone's favourite micro-blogging site. That's the cue to segue into my annual list-a-thon of the Top 100 Tweeting Bloggers on, erm, Twitter. Long-time readers know this is an annual thing for me, being obsessed as I am with the cataloging and listing of the irrelevancies of our (social) mediatised lives. You can see how the list below has evolved between 2009 and today (missing the hiatus year of 2011) by looking here, here and here.

I have to say this every year. I define political blogging in a particular way. If you refer to your site as a blog, but do not allow comments then no, you're not a blogger. That excludes most MPs at a stroke, for instance. If you blog behind a pay wall then no, you're not a blogger either. To qualify, our tweeting political bloggers have to be contributing to something that identifies itself as a blog, regardless of whether it's a traditional blogging platform, something bespoke, or a site hosted by a media organisation. As a general rule, self-definitions vary according to context. For example, speaking to Nick Cohen last year he said he saw himself as a journo/writer and not a blogger. But clearly he is, as he regularly rattles pieces off for Speccie blogs. However, journos like Polly Toynbee and Zoe Williams aren't bloggers - they write for The Graun proper and not Comment is Free, despite the site (like most newspapers) co-opting the accoutrements one would associate with blogging - extensive hyperlinking, comments, favourite and share buttons, etc.

That's 'blogger' sorted, but what about politics? I have a wide, encompassing definition. Some might say it's a slippery customer, an understanding that rolls around in KY jelly, yet it seems straightforward to me. If a blogger writes about politics, they're in. So David Allen Green, nominally a legal blogger, writes about legislative issues and matters of law that directly impinge on politics. Which is why he's listed. Newcomer-to-the-list Jack Monroe, ostensibly a food blogger, writes frequently about anti-poverty matters. That counts as a little bit of politics in my book, so she's in. I think you get the gist by now.

When does a blogger become an ex-blogger? When a) retirement has been announced, or b) there hasn't been a post by the blogger in question on either their independently-maintained site or another blog for some 45 days.

Okay, I'll shut up about definitions now. Please find below the top 100 blogging tweeters in politics for 2013, listed by number of followers. It is inclusive of individual bloggers and sites with Twitter feeds. How did you and/or your favourites fare?

1. (><) Jon Snow (371,137 followers)
2. (><) Robert Peston (317,272 followers)
3. (><) Alastair Campbell (259,021 followers)
4. (><) Nick Robinson (212,242 followers)
5. (+3) Owen Jones (154,600 followers)
6. (-1) Tom Watson MP (135,906 followers)
7. (-1) Guido Fawkes (120,704 followers)
8. (-1) Krishnan Guru-Murthy (115,176 followers)
9. (+8) Mehdi Hasan (106,240 followers)
10. (-1) Comment is Free (95,508 followers)
11. (><) Laurie Penny (85,458 followers)
12. (-2) Paul Mason (82,393 followers)
13. (NE) Louise Mensch (80,520 followers)
14. (+2) New Statesman (76,315 followers)
15. (-2) Caroline Lucas (70,610 followers)
16. (+3) Huffington Post UK (69,622 followers)
17. (-3) Faisal Islam (68,347 followers)
18. (-3) Michael Crick (64,135 followers)
19. (-1) Fraser Nelson (60,649 followers)
20. (+2) Cathy Newman (54,922 followers)
21. (-1) David Allen Green (47,071 followers)
22. (+1) Iain Dale (46,121 followers)
23. (+3) Left Foot Forward (40,894 followers)
24. (NE) Yvette Cooper (40,417 followers)
25. (+2) Sunny Hundal (40,015 followers)
26. (+2) Daniel Hannan (39,615 followers)
27. (-3) Toby Young (39,114 followers)
28. (+6) Helen Lewis (37,147 followers)
29. (+4) Benedict Brogan (36,088 followers)
30. (-1) Michael White (34,465 followers)
31. (+1) Gideon Rachman (34,271 followers)
32. (NE) New Economics Foundation (33,832 followers)
33. (-2) Andrew Sparrow (32,528 followers)
34. (+4) John Rentoul (32,238 followers)
35. (-5) FT Westminster Blog (30,911 followers)
36. (NE) Jack Monroe (30,656 followers)
37. (NE) C4 News Fact Check Blog (30,343 followers)
38. (-3) Political Scrapbook (30,227 followers)
39. (-2) Labour List (30,087 followers)
40. (-1) Harry Cole (29,957 followers)
41. (-5) Sophy Ridge (29,193 followers)
42. (NE) British Politics and Policy at LSE (26,888 followers)
43. (-3) Eoin Clarke (26,303 followers)
44. (><) Conservative Home (25,539 followers)
45. (NE) Caroline Criado-Perez (24,121 followers)
46. (+12) The F-Word (23,545 followers)
47. (-6) Demos (23,369 followers)
48. (+20) Dan Hodges (22,633 followers)
49. (-7) False Economy (22,447 followers)
50. (-5) The Spectator Coffee House (22,057 followers)
51. (+12) Nick Cohen (21,444 followers)
52. (-4) 38 Degrees (21,360 followers)
53. (-7) Open Democracy (21,228 followers)
54. (-7) Iain Martin (21,075 followers)
55. (+10) David Blanchflower (20,768 followers)
56. (-6) Richard Murphy (20,127 followers)
57. (-6) Gary Gibbon (19,165 followers)
58. (NE) Jim Murphy (18,638 followers)
59. (-6) Adam Smith Institute (17,923 followers)
60. (-4) James Delingpole (17,724 followers)
61. (+1) Douglas Carswell MP (17,360 followers)
62. (NE) Liam Byrne (17,329 followers)
63. (+1) James Kirkup (16,972 followers)
64. (-4) Lynne Featherstone MP (15,989 followers)
65. (-8) Charlie Beckett (15,424 followers)
66. (+1) Ellie Mae O'Hagan (15,270 followers)
67. (+4) New Left Project (14,468 followers)
68. (-2) Labour Uncut (14,339 followers)
69. (NE) John McDonnell (14,210 followers)
70. (NE) Isabel Hardman (13,355 followers)
71. (+25) Labour Left (13,303 followers)
72. (+1) Progress (13,177 followers)
73. (NE) Jennifer Izaakson (13,075 followers)
74. (+6) Mark Ferguson (13,037 followers)
75. (NE) Julian Huppert (12,815 followers)
76. (-4) Joey Jones (12,350 followers)
77. (-7) The Commentator (12,285 followers)
78. (NE) Dan Jarvis (12,252 followers)
79. (-4) Archbishop Cranmer (12,110 followers)
80. (-2) Dawn Foster (11,700 followers)
81. (-5) LibDem Voice (11,470 followers)
82. (+5) Mike Smithson (11,213 followers)
83. (NE) Esther McVey (11,184 followers
84. (NE) Mark Thompson (11,148 followers)
85. (+15) Jim Pickard (11,044 followers)
86. (+6) Another Angry Woman (10,815 followers)
87. (NE) Boycott Workfare (10,775 followers)
88. (NE) Bella Caledonia (10,585 followers)
89. (-7) Compass (10,445 followers)
90. (NE) Andrew Gwynne (10,366 followers)
91. (-10) Jacqui Smith (10,225 followers)
92. (-12) Jonathan Isaby (9,944 followers)
93. (NE) Libcom (9,920 followers)
94. (NE) Robert Halfon (9,897 followers)
95. (-6) Jon Worth (9,868 followers)
96. (-19) Cath Elliott (9,628 followers)
97. (NE) Andy Slaughter (9,538 followers)
98. (-14) Diary of a Benefit Scrounger (9,522 followers)
99. (NE) Paul Goodman (9,435 followers)
100. (NE) Telegraph Blogs (9,428 followers)

To absolutely no one's surprise the list is dominated by "professional" bloggers - those who blog for a living, or discharge a blog as part of their journo responsibilities. Falling out of the list from the top 50 this year are the recently-retired Liberal Conspiracy (though Sunny's still knocking about), ex-of-Sky Glen Oglaza, Tim Montgomerie who now does things behind the dirty digger's paywall at The Times, Adam Boulton who doesn't bother penning blogs any more and Stephanie Flanders. She traded last year's number 12 spot in for a reputed £400k/year at JP Morgan, so who can blame her?

On the face of it there are plenty of new entries, but many of these are MPs who happen to blog and have not been caught by the list in previous years. Still, kudos to all MPs who run proper blogs with proper comment facilities. The highest new entry is, of course, Louise Mensch. Content these days to moan about The Graun's role in exposing the NSA's global (and unconstitutional) wiretapping/internet monitoring surveillance programme and totally oblivious to the massive violation of freedom and civil liberties it embodies, she crashes in at number 13 (allow me this opportunity to plug this post on conservative feminism too).

24, 35, 36, 41 and 44 sees entry into the top 50 from Yvette Cooper, Jack Monroe, C4 Fact Check, the LSE Politics Blog, and Caroline Criado-Perez. A proper riddle is the new arrival of independent blogger Oliver James at 57. And no, he's not this Oliver James. To have just shy of 20,000 followers off the back of a seldom updated and bland-looking blog is enough to raise an eyebrow. But still, this list does not care for how one acquires a Twitter audience. It is merely enough to note it, and move on.

Other notables are the 21 place climb from Dan Hodges, proving there is a bigger market than anyone thought for cricket commentary and anti-Ed Miliband Kremlinology. Also notable in the lower part of the list is the 25 point jump by Labour Left. Heading in the other direction is the 23 place fall by my Tory Twitter friend and Boris Johnson obsessive, Angela Neptustar. In all about a quarter of the list (not counting MPs) are made up of bloggers who do not rely on "professional" platforms to get their views out there. There's no reason to believe this squeeze on cool indie-types (like me) won't continue over the course of the next year, and as it does so I expect the "mobility" of people who make the list, especially near the top, will slow right down. This reflects the crystallisation of a comment establishment and the London-centric character of political blogging. This will partially be corrected by the arrival on New Year's Day of my annual countdown of the 100 most-followed tweeting independent bloggers.

Of course, as is the nature of these things the endeavour to be complete often means someone was inadvertently left out. If you think a tweeting blogger has been overlooked, let me know in the comments below.

Update 31st December
Thankfully I haven't had to make too many revisions this year. There are three blogs I missed off as per the definition who've now been included. And they are all new entries. In at 32 is the New Economic Foundation's blog. 73 sees an appearance from HuffPoUK blogger, Jennifer Izaakson and lastly at 96 is the new(ish) editor of Conservative Home, Paul Goodman.

Lastly, I have decided not to count the aforementioned Oliver James and have so removed him. Of course, I doubt very much he purchased followers so he could have a high ranking on this here list. But nonetheless as his musings only reach a few hundred real people and the rest appears on feeds manned by zombie Twitter accounts I don't think he should be recognised. Expect a future blog post on the meaning of Twitter followers very soon.

Update 1st January
Final additions are Mark of Mark Reckons fame at 84, Boycott Workfare at 87 and Libcom at 93, thereby pushing out Angela Neptustar, Richard Seymour and Mark Wallace of ConHome.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Vacuity and Celebrity

In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Oceana's grand project is to replace English with Newspeak, a language so carefully constructed that it is completely incapable of articulating critical thought. Far-fetched perhaps, but between the hours of 21:00 and 23:50 last night Channel 5 screened a close approximation of it - the 50 Most Shocking Celebrity Moments of 2015. Of course, we don't live in the dystopic world of Winston Smith and Big Brother. I wasn't forced to watch, but I do so every year. Is there a part of me that likes it?

If this blog exists to promote one thing, that is the sociological imagination. This is the idea that there is such a thing as society, that it cannot simply be reduced to an aggregate of individuals going about their behaviour. To get a grasp on how human communities work, to develop a politics that is about deep and thoroughgoing social change you have to understand how social action gives rise to persistent inequalities, semi-permanent differentials of power, how these structures appear "natural" and, in turn, always conditions our social being and our consciousness of it. That's my business. It's what I do.

Celebrity culture, as catalogued by Most Shocking, is the very antithesis of this. As "shockingly" behaved celebrities parade by a random (and no doubt, inexpensive) clutch of talking heads drawn from the z-list and celeb churnalism, it's one tale of personal troubles followed by another. Simon Cowell's going to be a dad. Someone off Celebrity Big Brother peed the bed. Madonna sparks plastic surgery rumours. And, horrifyingly, Jennifer Aniston 'fessed up to having a Maccy D's.

The discourse of celebrity this show typifies is almost bleached clean of critical resources. Well, that's not totally true. Alec Baldwin, the X-Factor's James Anthony, and ex-Corrie Chris Fountain were justly slammed for homophobia and, in the latter's case, rapping about rape. These were transgressions of the commonly accepted moral code. Apart from that, there were shocks and gasps at photos, dancing and, yes, twerking. Criticism was locked down and limited to diva-esque behaviour and shenanigans. At most Most Shocking was gently chiding - no taking of the scalpel to the increasingly ludicrous Kanye West. It was pure "so-and-so did this, isn't it awful/exciting/unexpected/desperate?"

Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticising Most Shocking for failing to undertake a critique of the political economy of celebrity and placing it in the context of generalised commodity production. That's what the likes of me are for. But, perhaps with the possible exception of sports culture, celebrity might be unique in that its obsessive concern with surface appearance provides no internal resource for critiquing it. This doesn't mean folk who follow E! or the Sidebar of Shame with gusto are "brainwashed". They know it's bullshit. So do the journalists. Whisper it, some of the celebrities are in on it too. Celebrity discourse is cynical and "post-ideological". It's diverting, raises a smile, lubricates the wheels of everyday gossip. It is knowingly cheeky, vacuous and tissue-thin. Its depthlessness, its absence of complexity, its easy (some might say sought-after) co-option by advertising, its inauthenticity doesn't wrap an appearance around an essence. It's up to you whether you want to emulate celebs. It's up to you if you buy the products they endorse. It's up to you if you want to clutter your mind with harmless trivia. Celebrity discourse assumes you're a particular subject - a consumer - and addresses you as such (that the "preferred" subject tends to be heterosexual women and gay men is something for another time). You're hailed as a buyer-of-lifestyles and celebrity offers a readymade how-to (and how not to).

And that, at best, is all. Were celebrity ripped away tomorrow, deeply critical and politically-motivated human beings wouldn't follow in short order. It's a few gaudy baubles hanging from the top of a system. It might dazzle a few but ultimately the reason why capitalism successfully reproduces itself, even in the aftermath of a global economic crisis, lies elsewhere.

Monday 23 December 2013

Local Council By-Election Results 2013

Number of candidates
Total vote
+/- Seats
Plaid Cymru**

*There were 15 by-elections in Scotland.
**There were 11 by-elections in Wales, nine of which were contested by Plaid Cymru.
***There were multiple independent clashes this year.
****There were multiple clashes in the same contests.

Overall 529,355 votes were cast over 340 individual local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. Fractions are rounded to one decimal place for percentages, and the nearest whole number for averages.

Discounting the two main parties for the moment, both LibDem and UKIP percentages are well within the ranges consistently given by this year's opinion polling. However, it is worth noting that this is on the basis of their contesting far fewer wards than the Conservatives and Labour so their support here may well be inflated by the well-known "distortions" of second order elections. i.e. Voters are more likely to support alternative parties when their vote "doesn't matter". This is certainly the case with independent candidates. 'Others' (excluding anyone who stood on a party label) polled 1.1% in the 2010 general election.

The interesting thing about the Labour/Tory contest at the top of the tables is that while their vote share is depressed thanks to the large number of alternative candidates standing, the margin between them is roughly the average indicated by polling. As this is a poll of over half-a-million people one can reasonably assume this is a real indicator of the gap that exists.

Next year, especially in the second quarter, I would expect UKIP to do better seeing as local election day falls at the same time as European polling day. As we saw this year, parties tend to roll local by-elections into other polling days if they can to capitalise on wider political awareness and campaign momentum.