August 2008

…something I think needs saying before the party troops down to Bournemouth.

I’m definitely on the warm side on the subject of Make it Happen. It’s nicely written, it covers the basic liberal points without too much bland mainstreamy window-dressing, and hell, it did the dog-whistle job with the press and you can’t argue with that.

My guiding tenet here is that our taxation policy, though it isn’t without its shortcomings (up the tax free allowance to the National Minimum Wage, Vince? Please?) is the party’s greatest contribution to current political debate. We ought to be fricking indignant that it isn’t given wider credence. I’m bloody furious. We are (if we need reminding) the only party actually offering a fairer distribution of the existing tax burden so that people on lower incomes pay less tax. And we were all that before Make it Happen came along, whatever the newspapers think. That tax package deserves to be promoted by anything up to and including unicorns in sparkly costumes performing a medley of the repertoire of Chesney Hawkes, so I’m not going to quibble about mild over-production values in a document which successfully brought the tax package to something approaching national notice.

I must also declare an interest of being, frankly, unfussed by the vexed question of whether or not we commit to reducing the overall tax take. Clegg mentioned this as a Good Thing If Possible In The Long Term in his Liverpool speech, and in spite of an awful lot of harrumphing from the more statily inclined in the party, I can’t find anything in the recent announcements that go much further than that. The immediate goal is still the implementation of the redistributive tax policy, and if a few well-intentioned words about longer term absolute cuts are what the iddle-widdle journalists need to hear in order to grasp the concept of the tax package, then so be it. It is the ultimate aim of a truly liberal government after all – why not refer to the ultimate aim?

So Make It Happen has done the business where a more cerebral approach didn’t, which is splendid. There’s just one glaring turd (if you will) in that document that I really can’t forgive. I’ve got an awful feeling I’m going to be spending a lot of conference in super-wince mode.

This is what I’m talking about:

…to take the pressure off ordinary families… (p 5)

…so ordinary families have more of their money to help themselves (p 5)

We’ll help ordinary families struggling… (p 5)

We’ll cut taxes for ordinary families (p 5)

…[homes] need to be made available for families to rent. (p 14)

James Schneider has ranted about this as well. His main complaint is that it’s a cynical vote-grubbing exercise. Partly it is, but the sheer idiotic vapidity gets to me just as much. Ah, so we won’t be helping ordinary individuals struggling then? And no-one will be allowed to rent unless they are part of a state-approved family? Every time that document, or Nick Clegg, mentions the word “family”, the test of opposites is crashingly failed – would the reverse implication of this statement make the remotest bit of sense? Of course it bloody wouldn’t. That’s why we used to leave the family talk to the Conservatives.

Don’t get me wrong – “families”, in the 2.4 children sense, are very obviously relevant to any education discussion, and to discussion of some specific aspects of healthcare. There’s also a worthwhile mention on p14 of Make it Happen of families getting broken up by rising house prices. Fair enough, they are. And as liberals, we would hope that the drafters of this document didn’t hold that narrow a conception of family in any case, a point which Clegg confirmed as readily as you would expect at our December interview.

So we’re hardly plumbing the depths of antediluvian Toryism. I think my objection is more fundamental than that. Talking about families rather than individuals just sits very, very badly with the whole concept of liberalism, a concept innately concerned with the individual. Time and again, vapid family-speak has been crowbarred awkwardly into outlines of sound liberal principles in a way that frankly looks and sounds odd. Consider the following:

Individual people and families don’t seem to have a voice to influence what happens. (p 12)

there are millions of British people and families living abroad (p 14)

That faux-distinction is meaningless PR-happy toss worthy of David Cameron himself. People who have a place in a family are still individuals – one might argue, first and foremost individuals from a liberal perspective. Of course, it’s also true to say that every individual is part of a family in some sense. But we all know what a politician really means when they use the word “family”. They mean “people who need to use schools”, “people who need to use healthcare frequently”, “people who need to use a large car” and above all they mean “people who will typically discuss their vote with one other person and then go and use it“.

So we’re starting to buy into it, aren’t we. That facile ballot-box commonplace that people who have achieved the incredible feat of either fertilising an egg or carrying it to term are some sort of natural centre of gravity for political morality. That – somehow – once they are part of a “family” they matter more than an individual does, which is, to quote that great liberal authority Kryten, a common mistake made by all truly stupid people.

And it’s not just cravenly vote-grubbing and implicitly Tory – it’s also daft. Consider, for example, my “family”. At the moment, it consists of my retired parents whom I’m about to move three hundred miles away from, my brother, ditto, my friends from college, my friends from previous workplaces, my friends from school, my friends from blogging, the people behind the bar at my local, the people who run the shops I shop at, the work colleagues I know mostly by email in my various freelance incarnations, the postie who is overwhelmed by my ebay habit on a daily basis. And once my projected move to Devon does actually come about I will acquire a whole network of “family” down there which again will have absolutely sod all to do with being part of what politicians call a family. I am who I am because of everyone. No, no. Sorry. I am in no way subject to advertising messages, honest.

But just consider the power of that network – the conversations and the idle grunting at the newspapers, the daily drip-drip of opinions formed, advice sought, achievements shared and help given. The way I interact, economically and culturally, with the world, is shaped by my “family” as much as any conventional domestic situation shapes a parent’s interaction with the world. All that potential. Resolutely untapped into by the messaging in Make it Happen.

The creeping introduction of family-speak into Lib Demmery isn’t just a disturbing sign of vote-grubbing cynicism. It’s an implied acceptance that the turnout will only ever get lower and democracy will only ever be relevant for people who use government services, when we ought to be the one party fighting for the expansion of democracy outside the boundaries of the cosy two-party consensus. It’s horribly, horribly antithetical to the principles of liberalism and it’s also horribly, horribly offputting to the swathes of the population who for whatever reason have their eggs unfertilised or their fertiliser unegged (as it were), and who happen not to have a sick invalid parent tucked away anywhere either (you get special dispensation in politico-moral speak to be a “family” if you have one of those).

On the Saturday morning at conference, all being well, I might be able to go to an interview with Nick Clegg. When it’s my turn asking the questions, I will congratulate him on Make It Happen, rejoice with him that the tax package is getting some of the attention it deserves, and I’ll ask him, much more politely than this, what the hell gives with all the family bullshit.

We will shortly be relocating the People’s Republic to the Dodecanese for a couple of weeks, (weep, rainbound miserablists!) so there has been a certain amount to do lately – powerless regent councils to appoint, exchequer accounts to nobble, rogue outlying provinces to subdue with a show of military force &c – and owing to the parlous state of technological advance, it is still not possible to pack a rucksack using only the copy-and-paste function.

Withal, edicts have been and will continue to be thin on the ground, which is even more embarrassing than  usual wot with being up dere on Mr Dale’s Most Compendious Liste of Righteous Bloggeres (Wyth Somme Leftie Scumme Regrettablie), which was quite delightful and surprising to us because we didn’t think we had that many actual, you know, readers. Well, that’s not quite true. There are an awful lot of you. It’s just that three-quarters of you are here for the fluffy bunnies and cute puppies, aren’t you. Don’t feel you have it deny it. I can see your Google search terms and your motives are unambiguous (apart from the person who googled “fluffy pet adult” today who plainly has one or two fairly important wires crossed somewhere). So thank you, readers and fluffy animal fanciers.

And talking of righteous bloggers, I have received word from a Citizen that he is founding his very own sovereign state partly as a result of having been a reader of mine for a while, which of course is wonderful  and tremendously encouraging for the cause of rational debate, and the absolute cherry on the cake would have been if he hadn’t actually been a, sort of, you know, Tory… Although I rather like the fact that his first post – formerly guested on Iain Dale’s blog – reveals an early allegiance switch from Labour. So we know there’s at least one Tory capable of changing his mind about something (two if you count Passing Tory on Lib Dem Voice).

Finally, and in the spirit of Terribly Boring, I’ve been pounding out the finer detail of the astonishingly controversial Cities Unlimited report over on Lib Dem Voice, and hope to schedule the other two up before I go. Other than that, we shall see citizens, allies, satellites, sworn deadly enemies etc in Bournemouth. Till then…

I'm not knocking it. It works.

I ain’t knocking it. It quite clearly works.

*We hope otherwise.

The Lib Dem blogosphere has got award-happy lately, what with Mr Dale’s Compleat Almanack of Most Excellente Torie Bloggers (And Some Scurvie Leftie Scumme, Regrettablie), our own Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards, now in their fourth year, Alex Wilcock’s Tons More Fun™ self-gratification meme and, of course, SB’s Very Prestigious (And Entirely Serious) Blog Awards delivered in a rich imperial shade of purple, the sidebar button that made my nicey-nice, restrained, olive-and-russet-and-antique-cream coloured blog look as if it had drunk one too many tequila slammers and got itself a tattoo.

Mr Dale’s, &c

I ended up, like many others, doing this in a bit of rush because the deadline moved, and my reasoning  was but a confused mish-mash of what I had always loved and what was floating in the top of my mind that week.

So I can’t be confident that my choices are necessarily in the right order. I am pretty sure that Lib Dem Voice and Liberal Conspiracy should respectively top-and-tail the list. But everyone in between is really just a flavour in a mixed ciabatta filling. I mean, how on earth would you determine whether the prawn or the mayonnaise forms the vital ingredient in a prawn cocktail? Which came first, the olive or the cube of feta? I can only apologise for my glibness in chucking y’all into the salad spinner to fend for yourselves and hope that my particular configuration doesn’t cause some vital slippage or other in the table as a whole.

1. Lib Dem Voice – you are our bitches. And you know you are. That is all.

2. Stumbling and Mumbling – Chris Dillow is, for my money, the best political blogger writing today. It wouldn’t be true to say I never miss a post – generally it takes me 72 hours to digest all the implications of each one, which is my problem rather than his. Tends to be underlinked to in the blogosphere, I think because so often there’s nothing to add. He’s just right.

3. Millennium Elephant – Feet of fluff, mind of steel, buns of stickiness. And oh he is so CUTE! Always high quality, bedazzling at his frequent best (this is perhaps his finest hour). And his services to party blogging this past year in arranging interviews have been tremendous. I can’t be the only one thinking that surely this is his year… (see below)

4. Jock’s Place (Jock Coats) – a true radical free thinker in a sea of patter and chatter. Reading his stuff – usually with Wikipedia open in another tab – reminds me what blogging is capable of. This is exactly the sort of easy-come, easy-go popularity contest he probably won’t do that well in – a world where Dizzy Thinks is branded a critical intellectual is a cruel one. But we’re far more likely to see the adjective “Coatsian” enter the political lexicon than “Daleian”, quite frankly.

5. The Real Blog (David Boyle) – some rather similar sentiments apply as to Jock and Chris Dillow. David Boyle would be a shoe-in for Lib Dem Blogger of the Year if he took enough time out from his busy schedule of Being Brilliant to write more a couple of posts a month if we’re lucky. But of course, why would he? He hasn’t even had time to add any fiddly bits or buttons to his off-the-shelf blog design. Pure class.

6. BorisWatch ( NOT .com) Clarification became necessary when I discovered that is some demented fanboy site which, among other nefarious acitivites, sells Boriswear. The flavour, on the other hand, is “an attempt to enhance the accountability of the new London mayoralty” and does so with perspicacity, aplomb and top class research in the face of oh-my-god-you’re-like-soooo-funny Tory trolling.

7. The Yorksher Gob (Jennie Rigg) – funny and northern and passionate and northern and clever and northern. And did I mention northern? Also, much more innovative as a writer than most of us, with our tendency to write essays which just happen to be on a screen rather than on paper – newspaper columnists in thirty years time, I submit, will write like Jennie. Above all, my favourite kind of feminist -  one that bloody gets on with it.

8. Quaequam blog! (James Graham)He can kill you with a thought! Especially if you omit the exclamation mark! Still the party’s best blogging artillery, scarily incisive and regularly reduces the blogosphere to sensible discourse by the simple means of threatening to be slightly sarcastic. One of the few blogs where I genuinely read every post. Even the ones about comics sometimes.

9. Blunt and Disorderly – a well-established blog which nonetheless came to my notice only quite recently owing, for some reason, to a post about incest, and despite the unpromising beginning went straight onto my favourites. A dilettantish mind which tends to rocket off in all directions – never a bad thing.

10. Liberal Conspiracy - whose government is it anyway? Sunny Hundal has hiked this collective blog (co-starring yours truly when I feel I have something to say that a bunch of Labourites won’t pointlessly shoot me down for) from zero to a major player in a matter of months. And whether you read it for its innate qualities or with the eerie fascination of a NuLab ambulance-chaser, it’s strangely compulsive.

Lib Dem Blog Awards

Best new Liberal Democrat blog (started since 1st August 2007)

This is in many ways the hardest nomination. It’s been a burgeoning year for Lib Dem blogs, so far as I can see. Special mentions (for what they’re worth) go to James Schneider for being effortlessly widely-read, thoughtful and interesting from the off, and Alasdair Wood for blogging passionately and prolifically about every weighty matter that cross his voracious mind at an age where I personally was still obsessed with owning a pony. But after much umming and ahhing, I have settled on Steph Ashley. Mainly because she’s a fabulously entertaining writer, but also, I think, because of this post, in which she discovers, at an unfairly premature juncture, some of the hazards of blogging, and comes through it looking very much like a nice, normal human being, and a credit to the Lib Dem candidature.

Best blog from a Liberal Democrat holding public office

Rick Baum is, IMHO, an overlooked star. Local blogs are one of things Lib Dems, as you might expect, do brilliantly. Rick is a fantastic example of the genre – affects to be in the business of creating cogent, well-written expositions of community politics in a northern town, but occasionally forgets this and is accidentally pant-wettingly funny instead. His humour, intelligence and – for want of a better word – humanity make him a great standard-bearer for elected Lib Demmery.

Best use of blogging or social networking by a Liberal Democrat

Hm. I’m going to have to pass this one. As an old-fashioned word-spouter I’m not entirely clear I have a view on what a successful “use” of blogging or social networking would look like. But I’m sure that, like any other boring ol’ rearguard early adopter, I’ll know it when I see it, so keep trying!

Best posting on a Liberal Democrat blog (since 1st September 2007)

Only one of my posts ever in the whole world anywhere made it onto Lib Dem Voice’s Golden Ton, and it was this one, where I basically wrote three lines saying what a fantastic post this was, and how everyone should go and read it. Seems fitting somehow. It’s funny now, looking back at how utterly nasty the leadership contest got in the blogosphere. But it wasn’t funny at the time, to a comparatively fresh-off-the-blocks blogger who  liked both candidates well enough and couldn’t understand why all these people were getting so damned upset. Alex Wilcock’s post administered a much-needed bucket of cold water in the face to both sides, and in so doing reassured me I hadn’t done entirely the wrong thing in the joining the party.

Best non-Liberal Democrat politics blog

Stumbling and Mumbling again. No question.

Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year

I’ve already described his virtues above, so there’s absolutely NO FLUFFY NEED to go through it all again. He might love the attention, but his daddy will be VERY embarrassed. There is only one Millennium Dome. (No, not THAT one!)

Tons More Fun Blog Awards

Well, this one I like. No categories, no restraints, no compulsory number of posts to nominate, and best of all, I don’t even have to leave the People’s Republic. Posts I would pick on that give me a certain tickle of quiet pride, even where they gave everyone else a certain tickle of click-back, are as follows:

How can we win back twat-in-a-blue-shirt-in-the-street? And do we care?

Terribly Boring III: bumper edition

In which I cling to Nick Clegg’s ankles and weep for justice

Should the Liberal Democrats be doing more to support the Vikings?

Stop the gentrification, I want to get off!

St Nadine the Martyr and the Hounds of Hell

Localism: where will it end (with fluffy bunny picture)

SB’s Very Prestigious (And Entirely Serious) [And Very Purple] Blog Awards

And now I are off over there to submit my nominations to the comment thread. Only thirteen minutes before I turn into a pumpkin…

We in the People’s Republic do not fancy mainstream morality much. We prefer inappropriate humour and stuff that is a bit daft. It looks as if War on Terror – The Boardgame, handmade by a couple of techies from Silicon Fen and described by A Customer as “Risk + Monopoly + political satire” is just our sort of thing. The creators promise that,

Playing it will bring out the nastiest, greediest, darkest, most paranoid aspects of your character

Right-thinking nasty, greedy paranoics everywhere will doubtless be as horrified as I was to learn that a copy of the game was seized by police at Kingsnorth climate camp last week because the balaclava included with the game “could be used in a criminal act”.

Well yes, of course. After all, it has “EVIL” written on it in big red letters. What else would you be planning to do with it?

They never miss a trick, do they, with their sophisticated intelligence-led policing methods.

And I mean that in a strictly economic sense. Because the media and blog reaction to the  Police Exchange’s Cities Unlimited report, co-authored by our own Dr Tim Leunig, has been totally unhelpful to anyone trying to gather what, precisely, is the case for the defence against the charge that top-down regeneration in northern cities hasn’t worked well enough.

Because, surely, it hasn’t. (I stress that my essential agreement with this is purely personal perception on my part; there is some more informed commentary in and around James’ and Paul’s posts, and Jock has a fantastic write-up).

Obviously, some broadbrush flat-vowelled backlash was only healthy and natural, because it’s hard for anyone not to hear denigration of the place of their birth, however objective and well-meant, and not feel slightly like their soul is under attack. It’s a bit like when Kirstie & Phil decided that my hometown (Epsom & Ewell, borough of) was the Best Place to Live in Britain in 2005, except that I was cripplingly embarrassed rather than righteously furious.

But somewhere, you’d expect someone to be saying something rather more sophisticated than “Fluff fluff fluff! Waffle waffle! Nonsense, nonsense! Ears are closed! Look at the regenerational docks/factories area and their many penthouse apartments! Look at the fantastic cultural, er, thingummywotsits that I will definitely, definitely visit as soon as I have, ooh, about a century off from work and my toenails are as clean as I can possibly make them! Look at the amazing Community Enterprise Development Entrepreneurial Urban Living Spaces Start-Up Workshopping scheme! And just LOOK at the trendy wine bars!”

It really would help if someone just pointed me towards figures which directly related e.g. rising employment rates to a single bean of input from regeneration funding. I’ve worked on the fringes of the public sector, and I know that throwing up an arts hub/community centre/housing development doesn’t constitute a measurable improvement to the life of the location unless there are also the cold, hard jobs there to support enough people to use them. I also have no patience whatever with any organisation or  project or “initiative” with more than three words in the title (extra points are lost if one of those words is “community”), because in my experience the people who are “driving” them, or similar, don’t really know what the hell they’re doing or why, and bring as their biggest contribution to the UK economy the ability to put “actually” in front of every verb construction.

Moreover, while we’re on this daring regionalist interlude, I’ve recently spent a decent bit of time in Liverpool and Manchester, and I can say without fear of contradiction (though almost certainly with fear of abuse) that though I came to both eagerly and quite prepared to be swept off my feet, I’m afraid I’d still rather sit in a decent London pub, of the sort to be found literally on every street corner, than some chrome-infested spray-tanned temple to Diageo any day. And yes, I’m sure there are honourable exceptions (recommendations of good Manc pubs particularly welcome), but to be honest I suspect the best ones are in the smaller northern towns I haven’t been to, and which the report isn’t really talking about.

Mind you, it’s not an intrinsically northern thing – it’s just that the north has always been the unfortunate victim of early experiments in urban improvement – in the 1960s as now. It really does get the sharp end of every brown ale bottle. When will architects, planners and government departments learn that regeneration is not a synonym for “cover it all in artily-shaped concrete and hope for the best”? I mean, does anyone else remember stepping outside the conference centre in Liverpool back in the spring? Is your hair back to its normal shape yet? Whose insane idea was it to “regenerate” a blowy seaward dockland half-acre into a great big wide concrete boulevard with the exact physical configuration of a wind tunnel? Who does that help find a job, exactly?

Mind you, at least there are houses and shops at street level in Liverpool. There appear to be whole section of Manchester where you can walk for miles without ever actually encountering a doorway in the sheer walls of stern red brick, much less a passable pub. In places it reminds me of nowhere so much as the Tommy and Guys’ hospital complex round the back of London Bridge, except without the charm. What you can find in Manchester, however, is bucketfuls of one- and two-bed executive flats without so much as a cornershop nearby to support the residents who are, accordingly, mostly theoretical.

But I digress. In my defence, I was positively embarrassed to discover that this is how I felt about The North. I was born in the south, went to university in the south, and went on holiday in the south, and perhaps because of that absorbed the self-doubting southerner’s belief that northern cities are this amazing promised land full of wonderful pubs, restaurants, museums, galleries, shops, cultural riches and economic energies etc, except that you can buy a three-bed terrace for 24p and some beans from whence you can walk to work. And then you get there and… well, where are all the decent pubs? Oh, so that’s the only museum. Right. Been there now.  Why am I the only person sitting in this entire streetful of slickly interior-designed restaurants? Who, exactly, is going to buy the two hundred executive apartments in the thirty-seventh housing development  (usually called “The Green”, “The Locks” or “The [old-fashioned substance] Factory”) to be built this year, and where the hell are they all going to get their food?

And why are you getting so fricking uppity just because I’m asking you a simple question?

So, to return belatedly to the point, I bad-temperedly wish someone would explain what northern regeneration is actually producing which is so wonderful without employing any of usual flimsy guffspeak. And I wish people would calm down about the admittedly gloomy prognosis in the Cities Unlimited report for the north’s future development (just because some bunch of southern pansies reckons you might have to move, doesn’t mean you have to do what they say, non? – so why the vitriol?). And for the love of god, can no-one direct me to a decent bloody pub?

Don’t get me wrong. I love techie geeks. Really I do. I love the open-minded culture and the sophisticated humour and the liberal politics. I’m really just a techie geek in medieval historian’s clothing (there’s a mental image for you). And no-one is more of a fan of pressing quirky little fields of esoteric knowledge into the service of liberal campaigning than I.

But sheesh, you guys don’t arf jabber on. This piece from the good Dr Pack was so brimming with enthusiasm for the future of social networking that he forgot to even mention its relevance to political campaigning. And there may, as I somewhat sarcastically suggested in the comments, be a very, very good reason for that (I’m afraid I may have gone a bit overboard. Bah, I’ll just buy him a Great Big Bar of Chocolate).

Seriously, everyone can see that the internet offers boundless potential for innovative political contact, but any idea which involves the entire voting population wuv-wuv-wuvving extreme techie geekery as much as the average techie geek does is barking up the wrong protocol.

There are three ways you can use technology if you’re hoping for actual things to actually happen in actual real life on a mass scale:

Method 1

Aim what you’re doing at the masses. That means that (a) it has to be VERY basic (baseline: most people are confused by Facebook, have never heard of Twitter and have one email address for home and one for work; harsh but true) and crucially (b) it has to ask them to do something they might consider doing anyway (most people’s natural instinct for filming themselves doing or saying something serious is simply not that high, hence the low and nerd-heavy response to the YouTube hustings during the leadership elections).

In fact, it has to ask them to do something full stop – how many Facebook groups are you in? How many people/organisations are you Fans of? How much practical action has any of this resulted in?

Method 2

Aim what you’re doing at the nerds, with the idea that if enough nerds take it up and it involves some sort of quirky/snowballing/viral element, it will become news in its own right. I came across an absolutely sublime example of this, courtesy of MatGB. If you’ve not yet received your Nerd Induction Pack into the world of XKCD, a quick look here first (we also keep a permanent link on the sidebar of the People’s Republic) will ease you in.

Done that? Now, go here. Take your time – as they say on ebay, you will not be disappointed.

The artist, you will note, is running to be a State Representative for a little town in Kansas. And as a result of that single cartoon strip and the associated fundraising drive, he got into the Los Angeles Times under the national news section. Technology and extremely niche cultural references were successfully used here to drive print media with its far broader audience.

So what do we notice about that comic, children?

(a) it’s highly specialised – ideally you need to already like XKCD to get the full impact.

(b) it’s GOOD. This cannot be emphasised enough. Remember that dreadful anti-Boris viral video  we put out during the mayoral campaign? Gave the word “viral” a whole new meaning. There’s absolutely no point in adopting a technology which normally packages something quirky and filling it with middle-of-the-road dross. The kind of people who were being targeted with that video are the kind of people who like Armando Ianucci. He was therefore our benchmark in that case and there’s no point pretending otherwise (Christ, let’s just give up now…)

(c) it celebrates the culture of the people it’s trying to attract. Yes, even at the expense of Normal People.

Now, a team of Nathan Barleys would have looked at that comic strip and complained that it didn’t have wide enough appeal, I’ve no doubt. They wouldn’t get half the jokes, and those they did get they’d blue-pencil because Normal People wouldn’t like them. Normal People wouldn’t buy a product which associates them with geeks, the Nathan Barleys would say.

Yes. But Sean Tevis wasn’t looking for Normal People, we would reply, before shooting all the Nathan Barleys’ kneecaps off and then firing them. Sean Tevis only needed 3,000 other people like him. And once that was secured, it not only got him his $26,000 – it became a story in its own right in dead tree land. This is cross-media viral transmission at its best.

Note also that the 3,000 was only a story because it hadn’t been done before. It oustripped a previous statistic. This is a vital ingredient to any attempt to use technology to start a dead tree story.

But, you might be grumbling, why use technology to start dead tree stories, however successfully? Isn’t that a cop-out? Isn’t the whole point of innovation and mass online collaboration that it enables escape for the individual from the dead tree media and its associated top-down information flow?

And you’d be quite right. It’s a problem. Method 2 is still ultimately shackled to the mainstream media, which is exactly what we need to get away from, and no-one to my knowledge in any British party has yet pulled off a truly successful mass movement along the lines of Method 1.

Method 3

Ha, if I knew that

Want to make those snorty-helpless-laughter-with-associated-little-bit-of-wee-leakage noises in your open plan office this lunchtime? W&W has the means. That is all.

Honestly, is there a more disproportionately over-politicised tax? Two problems with this ‘ere idea of Darling, darling!‘s idea to temporarily suspend stamp duty.

1. It won’t work, according to Dr Cable.

2. It won’t work, according to Everybody Who Has A Job And Lives In A House.

Our Vince’s problem is that artificial boosting is the last thing we need in an overheated market that badly needs to be allowed to recover naturally (though he qualifies this carefully in a CiF piece on Northern Wreck, stressing that he is “not arguing for laissez faire” and that mortgage lenders should observe a strict code of conduct when dealing with arrears etc etc). It will also harm the tax take further at a time of natural slowdown.

Everybody Who Has A Job And Lives In A House’s problem is that suspending stamp duty will be about as likely to have an impact on the decisions of the average first-time buyer as the economic stance of the Kingdom of the Potato People. It’s bonkers, this notion that in a market where the average house is worth a sum approaching 1000% of the average salary that the alleviation of a 1-5% sting in the tail is going to be the occasion for anything other than hollow laughter. And let’s be clear, Darling, darling!, first time buyers is what this is all about. If the government really is barking enough to want to kickstart an overheated market, then they’ve got to introduce significant supplies of fresh demand rather than start a game of state-sponsored musical chairs among existing home-owners. And they’ve chosen one of the Ways Least Likely to do it.

What are these people thinking? Not just the politicians who periodically try to make political capital out of lowering/scrapping stamp duty “to help struggling first time buyers”, but the journalists who apparently wipe their brains of everything they know off by heart at a dinner table for long enough to write a report on it with a straight face. Where does it end? Any chance the press team would consider testing the point with a press release explaining how the Liberal Democrats plan to help struggling farmers by giving them all a free packet of Baby Bio?

Sometimes I wonder if I am an alien sent here for the purposes of research with a modified memory which  is getting a bit worn and needs a new Imporosity Patch, and so memories of the economic circumstances of my home planet keep leaking through (whaddya mean, you never get that?) Because the one, the only, the sole way this insane proposal would make sense would be if everybody was paid in bubble mixture and a decent house costed a small handful of lentils and stamp duty was compulsorily rendered in bits of yellow string, and it was generally possible to achieve an barter rate of 1,000 lentils per pot of bubble mixture but yellow string was absolutely unobtainable unless you were a lentil quadrillionaire. Is this how it works on earth, then?

Silent noctural dogs are what I thought of when I read James Graham’s CiF piece on Clegg’s leadership and Paul Walter’s response. The exchange is one of the most useful I’ve read about Clegg since the leadership contest. Essentially, Paul defends Clegg from a number of charges laid by James, who falls into camp critical at the moment:

Yet the party, after a bumpy two years, is a bit frazzled. I’ve been struck by how many people I have spoken to over the past few weeks – candidates, councillors and activists alike – who appear to be either demoralised or disenchanted with Clegg’s leadership.

(It’s worth pointing out, incidentally, that much of the negative cast of the piece comes from the title and byline, and these are usually created by the Grauny subs, so Paul might be aiming a kick at the wrong dog there.) James adduces three possible reasons for the disillusionment he observes:

  1. Lack of internal communication
  2. The confused position on Lisbon
  3. The Dark Shadow of party centralisation in the form of the Bones report outcomes

To go about this illogically, I think Paul knocks number three very effectively on the head:

We get someone from the Henley Management College to look at our organisation. They’re used to looking at businesses, among other organisations. Well, knock me down with a feather. They come back and tell us that we need to centralise our decision-making a bit. Staggering.

…and is more trusting than James that Clegg won’t – can’t – try and implement the recommendations wholesale without party consent. A battle still to be fought, there. The Europe canard is also dealt with neatly:

Chris Huhne would certainly have handled the Lisbon treaty exactly the same way as Clegg (perhaps with the odd tactical tweak) – he said as much in the campaign. And I note that James Graham brilliantly exposed the lie that the Lisbon Treaty was in any way a constitution. From that I conclude that there was no reneging of our manifesto commitment.

…though I’d be wary of over-relying on the fact that Clegg was, er, right. Whether we like it or not the entire country – or, ok, the 0.0000003% of it that comments on the Spectator Coffee House blog – is now convinced that it was a “debacle”, a word people never actually use in real life, so it’s a very useful indicator when it does pop up that they’ve been mainlining the Daily Mail and no longer have a brain cell to call their own. James’ whole point is that our position was just too nuanced to ever do us, or the cause of Europe, any good in the papers – not that it was wrong.

Paul is a little less convincing on internal communications:

I am not sure what briefing notes came out before “Make it happen”. But if any PPC cannot extemporise a selling pitch for such a brilliant document, then they don’t deserve to be a PPC.

Absolutely agree with that as far as it goes, but it doesn’t address James’ broader point:

Outside of conferences and training weekends, there appears to be no mechanism for feeding the views of key activists and candidates at the frontline back to command central, informally or otherwise. With no two-way communication, the possibility of grave mistakes being made is that much greater.

We could, of course, remind ourselves that this is still a damn sight more than the other parties get. But it’s still a good point for any party to consider, particularly in the field of communications and campaigning.

Where I think Paul really hits on something is here:

Many have expressed relief that our leadership is no longer an issue in the media. The days of the zimmer frame cartoons have gone. We have a young, vibrant and positive leader. I have certainly noticed how we managed to keep ourselves in the media day after day. It is a very welcome turn of events.

This is a dog that isn’t barking in the night-time. Look at the one big thing that is not going wrong. No-one has made any serious attempt in the media to assassinate Clegg, though you can bet your arse they would have if they hadn’t known that they’d look bloody stupid. Reports of our imminent demise have been noticeably lacking, especially since Make It Happen, even though it’s silly season and there’s only so much mileage you can get out of kicking Labour’s twitching corpse. Don’t get me wrong, a dog not barking is clearly nothing like where we need to be. But it’s further than where we were.

I also think Paul is on to something in suggesting that Cleggmania is in part responsible for any disillusionment that may be floating around. I know someone, a perfectly intelligent, politically aware, er, authoritarian socialist admittedly but of no party affiliation, who thinks that Clegg is – and I quote – just as much of a wanker as the other two. Now, I think much the same of Clegg as Paul does, as “an exciting and intelligent thinker and an earnest leader who deserves our full support.”

But it would be daft to suggest, as plenty of people were during the leadership election, that the whole population would love him and he would be the panacea that turned people on to the Lib Dems. People are just too wary of politician cults now. Anyone who voted for Clegg (and like Paul, I didn’t) and did so because they thought his being a “people person” would automatically translate into public affection and votes was misguided. That was clear all along. The media would never have stood for it.

So, while I think James’ three reasons are great starting points for discussion, the problem with being this high-falutin’ erudite liberal thinker like wot he is is that he has trouble appreciating that people might just have really, really crap reasons for taking the lines that they do.

To go back to my perfectly intelligent  and informed authoritarian socialist friend, she doesn’t like Clegg because of the Lisbon treaty, the Clegg 30 and because he’s “Cameron-lite”. That’s two thirds shitty, facile, undisproveable, media-led-by-the-nose reasons that we have no control over whatsoever, and one third good point but-not-in-the-way-she-thinks. So we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the great majority of any disillusionment with Clegg inside the party, or dislike outside, is anything like as thoughtful, nuanced or sophisticated as the JG/PW exchange suggests.

Don’t miss Pt 2, in which an Outsider makes a Constructive Criticism…


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