January 2009


Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg have both used the word “British” as the key to a political message in the last six months with, er, contrasting results.

Clegg’s usage, after an initial flurry of interest from the Telegraph the which reference I now can’t find, sank from view as usual. And his suggestion that people respond to the downturn by making the decision to “buy local, buy British” was even greeted with scorn by some inside the party, who saw it as an appeal to the huffy colonel constituency and a dangerous intimation of pro-protectionism.

They may be right about the appeal but I thought it was a little precious to dismiss the announcement on that score alone. Isn’t “buying local” exactly the same, in practice, as “buying British”. Could any of us buy local without buying British? Only if we live on the Dover docks. It’s the same idea packaged for different audiences. “Buy local” doesn’t appeal to huffy colonels or irritate party activists with its jingoistic overtones, but it’s essentially another way of saying “buy British”.

As for advocating protectionism, any liberal ought to know that advising someone to do something need not be any sort of prelude to forcing them to do it. To assume otherwise is to demonstrate how rooted one is in authoritarian dogma. Let’s fight that battle if Clegg brings it to us.

In other words, I liked the damn message. And so did the Telegraph for a day. It comes to mind again because of Brown’s use of the word “British” and what it has contributed to.

Like most things Brown says, “British jobs for British workers” was a hostage to fortune from the start. It was a naked invocation of the kind of protectionism Labour was once famous for, and it sounded like a promise – a promise that, for reasons of EU law if no other, could not be kept. What the hell did he think he was doing? It may well be that, as Pat McFadden, “minister for employment relations” (that’ll be a fun job over the next five years), put it on Radio 5 Live:

What he’s saying there is, I want to see the British workforce equipped for the jobs and skills of the future and that’s precisely what the government is doing.

But, sorry, you just can’t reclaim language which has that kind of cultural history. You can’t cry “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close up the walls with our English dead!” and then send your spokesman onto Radio Five Live to add the clarifer, “Once we have completed due reconnaissance in accordance with special operations procedure and exhausted every possible avenue in negotiations for surrender with the town burghers”.

“British jobs for British workers” sounds like a angrily waved placard from the Winter of Discontent. I’m not going to be as bald as the Guardian and assert that all the Lindsey refinery strikers are “quoting” the phrase “British jobs for British workers” and would never have used it if Brown hadn’t used it first. Utter chump though our unelected, unelectable Prime Minister is, there comes a point when blaming him personally for every bum note in national affairs turns into parody. And in using the phrase, Brown was reacting to zeitgeist influences himself – unless we’re going to assert that he invented this particular influence; if so, he’s not managed it with anything else.

But there must be some connection, if only that of two fish swimming in the same current. And at the moment, as I hardly need tell you, they’re both heading straight for the turbulent weir of nationalism, which will jumble together a lot of movements that up to now have seen themselves as poles apart and spill them into the fermenting pool of racism, where the upturned supermarket trolley of the far right resurgence lurks.

There’s been some confusion on the left as to what to respond to – the solidarity of strikers or the incipient racism that may, consciously or sub-consciously, underlie their intent. I wouldn’t presume to look into the feelings of a large crowd of upset people in too much detail, but I can tell you one thing. The person who made this particular placard is either an innocent babe-in-arms or an extremist recruiting genius. Brown has not single-handedly turned Britain into a country of racists but he has, as pressure groups observed at the time of his remark, given them some sort of legitimacy to work with.

To get us back from this sorry examination of the current economic scene to Clegg’s jolly imprecations about buying vegetables, we need to consider the EU. Eurosceptics are, of course, gleeful about the law which required the Lindsey oil refinery to seek bids from EU contractors as well as British ones, and seem to be suggesting that without it, the jobs would have gone to British workers (“We’re against protectionism, except when we’re in favour of it!”)

It’s strange, given their belligerent pro-British stance, how little faith these people often seem to have in British people and British enterprise. Their assumption seems to be that, given (a) British wages tend to be higher than the average EU wage for reasons that are no individual British person’s fault and (b) EU law requires employers to seek contract bids from elsewhere in the EU, British contracts will more often than not be awarded to overseas workers. There is no way that the higher-paid British can compete with lower paid overseas workers.

Bollocks. Because only an idiot makes a calculation based on wages alone. We know, in the instance of Lindsey, that at least part of the reasonfor the temporary importation of Italian workers is that they were already working for the contractor in question – why should the latter be expected to take on a whole new workforce for one project? Only if all other things are equal is money ever the primary consideration, as anyone who has ever been involved in contract bids, public or private, knows.

These people, the hirers, have got a couple of briefcases full of hundred pound notes. On a day-to-day basis, they deal with tiny business risks and they share that riskload among their juniors and superiors. But suddenly here’s a big, fat risk, a risk that might consist of a sizeable chunk of next year’s budget in a time of economic downturn. And it’s right there in their in-tray, to do what the hell they see fit with. They’re answerable to the bosses and the owners if it all goes wrong. They’re answerable to their spouses and families if they happen to be the bosses and owners and it all goes wrong.

We all know this, because we’ve just spent the last three months examining the contrary scenario in minute detail – the bankers should have been in this position vis-a-vis risk and accountability, and weren’t. Does anyone seriously suppose that any semi-competent Director of This, That and the Other of a medium-sized company in some biggish town somewhere, faced with the above scenario, will hire one set of people as opposed to another for the sole reason that they’re a bit cheaper?

The kind of idiots who do that will find themselves bitten in the arse, and deserve no-one’s protection (although to be fair, I don’t think anyone deserves UKIP). Those destined for survival in the lean years will take a range of other factors into account, and one of these will be (at last) exactly the factor Nick Clegg was talking about when he told people to “buy local, buy British”.

Hiring in local talent might be sensible for a number of reasons, depending on the nature of the business. It might mean keeping local wages high and boosting the local retail trade on which the company, perhaps, relies for its own income. It might make sense because the hirers know they’re going to need something closely related done in the next fiscal year, and then the one after that.

It may be the start of a successful long-term working relationship, with the prospect of discounts, perhaps, for regular work, and the good communication that comes with prolonged contact and physical proximity. The contractors will be going to the same networking events, and might be able to put the hirers in touch with other people who can fulfil their contracting-out needs, or even with new clients. A lot of people go into business because they like interacting with people and are good at pursuing relationships and deriving business advantage from them – a local, personal relationship counts for a lot with them.

There are perfectly respectable reasons for buying British (local) vegetables and hiring British (local) workers – and they all have to do with sustainability, something business increasingly realises is not just another NuLab buzzword (one of their better ones).

Of course, you run risks as well. Buying locally grown food might bolster you to some extent against international commodity price fluctuations, but it puts your whole community in a bit of a spot if (to come over a bit medieval for a moment) a series of floods and drought depletes the year’s produce. Hiring in British workers as opposed to Italians might protect you from the knock-on effects of political and economic change in Italy of which you have little knowledge and less control – but it can also mean you all sink at once.

Critically though, a sustainable, locally focused way of doing business gives you more information and more immediately accessible resources with which to manage risk. How good you are at processing that information is up to you, and that was always true of the whole gamut of running a business anyway. Those who are better at processing information will survive, and heightening that requirement by giving people more information is likely to a lead to a more robust, responsive economy. See, these over-used words actually do mean something.

So I, like Clegg, would like people to buy British, or local, or whichever way we choose to put it. And I’m pleased to find that, contrary to my gloomy prognosis, the message has resurfaced in the last couple of weeks.

But it’s still entirely down to individual choice. Only individuals know what their circumstances are and what will meet their needs best. A concept which, despite having featured, in its day, as another NuLab buzzword, is alien to the clunky soul of Gordon Brown. Which is presumably why he feels himself able to make pronouncements like “British jobs for British workers”.

The fact that people have taken him at his word, cultural history and all, would be no surprise to anyone who is willing to look the recession in the face. As Chris Dillow points out, economic hardship makes people selfish and demanding – in essence childish. “But you PWOMISED!” is basically what the strikers are saying. It’s a natural response to increased risk and uncertainty. And, as we see at PMQs week after week, Brown is publicly unable to look recession in the face, because to do that will be to admit that his entire career up to this point has been a disastrous failure.

This is tragic, isn’t it. In every conceiveable sense. An unfolding tragedy we can’t do anything about.

Warning: great, big, long and a bit technical in parts. Non linguist-nerds may wish to get themselves some cocoa.

Simon Titley has an interesting post up at Lib Dem Voice about jargon, Liberal Democrats, for the use of. He’d like Focus writers in particular and the party in general to “fight and defeat jargon, buzzwords and clichés” and thereby learn to communicate more effectively.

I’m all for this, being very much a one-woman special ops unit in the cause of saving the world from hackneyed writing. Cliches quail at my approach, over-used adverbs slink away in shame and meaningless linkage words whisper my name in fear (except for “actually”, which for some reason I have made a pet of). And jargon, I agree, can be a particularly dangerous ingredient in bad writing, because it’s not just boring – it obscures the message.

There’s one small problem. Simon provides a long list of jargon varieties he would like to see vanquished from Lib Dem communications, and most of them contain plenty of words that aren’t jargon, and which do fulfil useful purposes in communication. Let me take them one at a time.

• Business jargon – Currently the most pervasive and pernicious example is ‘going forward’. You can strip this phrase out of any sentence and the meaning remains unchanged. Simple use of the future tense does the job better. The Liberal Democrats are not immune; for example, the terms of reference for last year’s Bones Commission talked of ‘stretch goals’ and ‘step change’.

On the whole, I agree with this, but I also think business jargon is sufficiently fast in evolving to kill off a lot of its own grim progeny pretty effectively. No-one uses “dropping the ball” any more except in sitcoms, but it was the buzzphrase of the late nineties. Interestingly, it gave rise to “John’s going to throw you the ball later today” which is still sometimes used.

The rule with business jargon is the same as with any linguistic evolutionary process – only the useful stuff sticks. Linguistic usage is a market whose purity would delight the heart of the crabbiest libertarian, brutally culling the weak and perpetuating the strong, but never discriminating against the young upstart. Dare I whisper it, we started using “going forward” for a reason. Just using a future tense verb, as Simon suggests, will not do the same job, because English has no long-term or speculative future tense (the futuristic equivalent of the Past Historic).

Compare:

David Cameron will order an internal investigation into the Derek Conway affair and make sure Conservative MPs uphold the highest standards of integrity.

David Cameron will order an internal investigation into the Derek Conway affair and make sure Conservative MPs uphold the highest standards of integrity going forward or in the future.

The last words are necessary here to make the meaning absolutely clear. Otherwise, perish the thought, we might suspect that David Cameron was only going to spot-check the integrity of the Conservative MPs and not worry about whether they kept to those standards in future. “Going forward” does add information.

And “going forward” also means something a bit different from “in the future”. That’s why it has stuck. “Going forward” implies action on the part of the plan/company/strategy under discussion. “In the future” implies passivity. This is a very fine distinction, and I still wouldn’t use “going forward” purely on the basis that it irritates so many people as a result of over-use. Give it 20 years and it will have assumed a modest place in the mainstream lexicon and will be acceptable on a Focus leaflet.

• American jargon – The use of baseball metaphors is wholly inappropriate in a country that does not play baseball. ‘Touch base’, ‘Stepping up to the plate’ and ‘Coming from left field’ are common examples. British people who use such phrases usually do not understand what they are saying themselves.

This strikes me as a very strange prescription. We don’t have bear-baiting in this country any more either, but still use the “bearpit” metaphor to describe the house of Commons at PMQs. You might well argue, of course, that this is a bit of a tired old cliche, and you’d be right, but that’s a different argument. It’s still a metaphor we have no contemporary experience of in the UK.

Simon’s comprehension argument is demanding as well. Many common metaphors are no longer instantly comprehensible to today’s users – “to pass muster”, “rain on my parade”, “batten down the hatches”, “the beam in one’s eye”, most biblical and nautical metaphors in fact. That doesn’t mean people don’t know in what context to use them.

• Media jargon – Presenters who say, “At the top of the hour”.

Never heard that one, but fair enough. I’d guess it derives from some practice of having each hour’s schedule laid out on separate bits of paper- either literal or metaphorical. It’s an interesting curiosity, but it seems to me it could cause confusion by referring to the hour just passed or the hour to come. So we’ll dump that.

Another media jargon example, apparently, is “reach” used as a noun. What do people feel about that? It seems we mostly mis-use it, because the page I linked to gives a very precise meaning and we tend to use it rather vaguely. It’s a very good example of a piece of jargon that has come out of its specialist closet and into mainstream usage (a process which Simon doesn’t think takes place – I suspect we’re both right and it can work in either direction).

• Young people’s jargon – Like, whatever.

“Like” is not jargon in the most commonly understood sense of a deliberately obscure and technical terminology. Words like “like” are linguistic fillers, in the same category as “um” or “y’know”. “Whatever” is slang rather than jargon – the reason I wouldn’t use it in a Focus leaflet is because it’s a hard-working word that can mean too many things. Unless you’re a very skilled writer, you risk misusing it and sounding too flippant.

• Trendy jargon – It’s a big ask.

I’m not sure what else falls into the category of “trendy” jargon, but I confess a fondness for using “ask” as a noun, for all that the marvellous Antony Hook once ticked me off for it. Back to the old linguistic rule – we’ve started doing it for a reason. There’s no exact equivalent noun. “It’s a big demand” is too strong – you wouldn’t say it to your boss for fear of sounding accusatory. “It’s a big request” is too weak and undermines the sense of “bigness” you’re trying to get across. We need a noun of intermediate weight. The nearest equivalent is “It’s a lot to ask.” This is just a sleeker variation.

The only reason I’d hesitate to use it in a Focus is overuse, but I don’t think it has suffered quite as badly as “going forward” has yet.

• Blog jargon – Disagreeing with someone in a condescending manner by replying, “Erm, no.”

This really is not jargon at all. There’s plenty of jargon associated with blogs, of course, but what’s Simon’s referring to here is a sort of pidgin/shorthand hybrid. This hybrid also encompasses emoticons, acronyms like ROFL and pretty much every word that has ever being bastardized by Lolcatz.

Again, it’s market necessity driving this development. People got online, they got into forums and onto blogs, they needed a way of communicating that would be as near as possible to communicating in person, with all facial tics, body language and tonal colouring. They needed to “write as they spoke”. They needed a way of implying condescension through the keyboard alone.

And the Darwinian rules of linguistic evolution are stronger than ever in this branch of language – what doesn’t work is ditched very fast on the internet. I use “erm” and “um” interchangeably to mean a range of things from condescension through puzzlement to shock, which shows how fluid the whole thing is.

Obviously I wouldn’t recommend using ROFL in a Focus leaflet, but don’t dismiss the idea of “writing as you speak”, possibly with fillers like “um” included. It can often result in much livelier, warmer prose. After all, you’re trying to do exactly what forum users and blog users are doing, aren’t you, communicate with people as if you were standing right there in their kitchen. One to think about.

• Political jargon – In an echo of Richard Nixon’s ‘moral majority’, politicians of all parties try to identify with ‘hard-working families’. Not content with this, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander persist with dismal variations on the theme: ‘hard-pressed families’, ‘struggling families’, ‘ordinary families’ and now ‘modern families’.

I’m mostly in agreement here, although Thomas makes the very good point in the original thread that “modern families” are a decided improvement on “hard-working” and “ordinary” families, and also contrast us to the Tories’ “traditional” or “nuclear” families. But generally, yes. “Hard-working families” was the only real wince moment I had reading Make it Happen.

Make it Happen, by the way, is an object lesson in how one can mostly avoid jargon, use plenty of plain English and still end up producing something fairly dull. It wasn’t terrible, by any means. But by god, it was safe. Plain English is not the panacea most people (including Simon) think it is – it’s supposed to be for making tax credit forms comprehensible, not making political messages exciting or inviting. If you apply the rules of the Plain English Campaign uncritically to your Focus leaflets you’ll kill them stone dead in a single morning.

• Liberal Democrat jargon – If I hear another Lib Dem councillor refer to something in his ward as “on my patch”, I shall remove his reproductive organs with a rusty boat-hook. Meanwhile, many Focus editors are using the same hackneyed phrases they were publishing 25 years ago.

Hywel very reasonably wants to know what the alternative is to “on my patch” – equivalents are “ward” or “division” but these, he rightly points out, are less easily understood. They’re also dull. This is a prime example of how using the “correct” word can sap all the warmth out of something.

Other than that, I can agree with Simon that I’ve seen some pretty dire writing in Focus leaflets.  Jargon, however, is not to blame. It’s often simply the result of a non-professional working with an ageing vocabulary (sorry, chaps). Writing is not easy, and keeping writing fresh and lively is less easy still, otherwise lucky swine like me wouldn’t get paid to do it.

I suppose this is my main problem – Simon gives such a wide prescription of “jargon” that he ends up including a lot of things that are useful, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to what he excludes. “Short-selling” is a recent example of a technical jargon term that has lately passed into (fairly) common usage – but I hope nobody would omit it from their Focus leaflet. “Legwork” is an example of a jargon term from much longer ago that has passed into common usage, and it still does a pretty good job of meaning, well, legwork. There isn’t another word for that. Carry on using it (or “donkey work”, if you’re working particularly hard).

The trouble is one could follow Simon’s rules to the letter and still produce some terrible writing. Me, I’d advocate juicing up your vocabulary and turns of phrase as often as possible – and if that sometimes means using something on Simon’s forbidden list, so be it.

People are far too prescriptive about the “correct” way to write. I agree there are basics of grammar to be observed, but as long as your sentences are shortish and your paragraphs logical, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have fun writing a Focus leaflet. Just please, for the sake of the People’s Republic, stop using so many bloody exclamation marks. Not everything on there can possibly be that exciting.

This morning, a fat, creamy envelope plopped onto my doormat. Oh noes, I bethought me, it’s another thumbnail of Vince looking grave and determined, telling me how wonderful I am and asking me for more money.

I have been upgraded in the Lib Dem stationery lexicon to creamy ploppy envelope, you see, on account of a recent undertaking over the phone to sign up for an extra direct debit. Sadly, I remain a freeloader in that creamy ploppy category because the letter which consequently arrived thanking me in fulsome terms for my direct debit did not actually contain the direct debit form to which it happily alluded, and I have been trying to remember to do something about it ever since. Sometimes I wonder if we are quite ready for government after all.

But no, this creamy ploppy missive is from my MP, Chris Grayling, in response to my email of last week about the MPs’ expenses exemption from the Freedom of Information Act.

Now, let me say first of all that I am suitably impressed to receive a reply. It was, after all, not twenty-four hours after my email was sent that the whole issue was pulled off the table, at which point Grayling’s stance became of slightly more academic interest and I would have accepted silence on the point.

Let me add that I am also happy with the overall tone of the letter, in favour of openness, would have voted against it, taxpayer  must be able to access a full and transparent picture etc etc. And moreover, that he made a point I hadn’t entirely expressed to myself, that the legislation would have been retrospective, which is an abstract no-no in legislative terms.

Let me say all that, just to put the drubbing to follow into some kind of  context.

Grayling says the government made the U-turn after “real pressure was applied by David Cameron and the wider Conservative Party.”

Say what?

I followed that whole twenty-four hours  leading up to the government U-turn fairly closely on the blogs and the news, and rather received the impression that the Tories, unloveable versions of Flashman that they are, were hiding behind a tree wetting themselves until it became clear which way the wind was blowing (“Oh dash it! Georgina, fetch me my new spats!”) Bishop Hill, who as he says is far away from being our greatest fan, agrees. It was the Lib Dems who shouted, have been shouting since (on the laziest google search ever) March.

Cameron’s original plan was apparently to suggest abstention. As late as 20 January, two days before the vote, the Beeb, in reporting on the surge of protest courtesy of MySociety, could still state that:

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg says he will recommend his MPs vote against the exemption.

But so far neither the Parliamentary Labour Party nor the Conservative Party have stated whether they will support or oppose the FOI exemption.

Now, as to this alleged Tory-Labour pact blarney. I watched the news that evening and watched Harriet Harman assert hand on heart that there had been an agreement with the Tories to support the Order, and then watched Alan Duncan assert hand on heart that there hadn’t been. One or both of them must have been at least half-lying, I honestly have no particular preconception as to which. But it’s nonetheless germane to point out that there are still whispers about certain Tories being discomposed by the late change of stance.

At the very least, there are question marks over the Conservative party’s behaviour on this issue, whether the charge is duplicity or simple dithering cowardice. For Chris Grayling to imply that the Tories were somehow leading the charge against the government’s attempt to curb freedom of information is repellantly deceitful. The announcement of a whipped Tory no vote could have turfed this off the table at any time, but Cameron only acquiesed to popular campaign pressure at the last minute to make that decision.

It’s ghastly not just because it’s deceitful, but because it’s apparently based on the assumption that I won’t have been interested enough to watch what was going on. It makes you wonder what else they get away with telling people who aren’t obsessively plugged in to politics, and who don’t have immediately obvious ways of checking what they’re told and expressing it publicly.

As the saying goes, never bullshit a bullshitter. Especially one with a blog.

When I was a little school spod we used to, quite solemnly, read horoscopes out to each other at breaktime. To this day I am incapable of being in the presence of magazines and other girls (and when I say “girls” I mean people who are deputy headteachers, finance analysts, doctors, strategy consultants etc) without reading them their horoscopes and demanding that they read mine to me, which they eagerly do (because it’s bad luck to read your own, of course!)

These days it is, I hope, an affectionately maintained habit and form of cultural girly-glue, but when I was a little Head of State I daresay it was to do with self-identity, development of. I read the horoscopes in the hope that some of the sweeping generalisations about determination, success orientation, being good with money etc (yup, Capricorn) would rub off on my rapidly unfurling little soul and start to mean something. I was seeking to define myself, albeit in a juvenile way with the  only tools at hand, against the opinions of others about how the world worked and what people in it were like (and some of them were crazy, I mean, Shelley von Strunkel, for goodness’ sake. I nurse a suspicion that she is actually a piece of random vocabulary generation software.)

It is my contention that political compass tests and the like are horoscopes for little politicos who grew up. That feeling of wanting to see how we measure up hasn’t gone away. Human beans love quizzes. What has changed, I suspect, is our reaction to the information. Then: try out newly acquired characteristics in a sentence about self. Now: snigger at how wrong the information, and everyone else, and the world in general, is.

So it was with the absorbing Political Survey 2005, (h/t the Yorksher Gob). The terms of it naturally read a little oddly today because Iraq then still loomed large in the public consciousness, but the oddest decision of all is the one made in spite of this greater awareness: to associate the “pro-market” characteristic with being “pro-war”. Look what it does to me:

The number of other little yellow dots trundling up towards the “pro-war” end should demonstrate how useless that association is. This is graphical proof that liberalism as a creed unto itself does not exist to most people, even the kind of people who are well informed enough to draw up political surveys. No wonder we scare them so much.

The real bonkersness starts when the survey discusses each of my axes. For a start I am a totally atypical survey taker. As Jennie has quoted already, people who describe themselves as being on the left of the first axis tend to be, in fact, at the centre, whereas people who describe themselves as right-wing tend to self-identify correctly. None of that nonsense for your Head of State. Just to be totally contrary, I identify myself as “slightly left-of-centre” but discover that I am in fact “fairly left wing”.

It seems that over 88% of the population holds views that are “significantly to my right” (and women are more likely to be to my right than men). Even 87% of the 18-34 year olds are to my right. As are 75% of Lib Dem voters. Even nearly 83% of Londoners are to my right, for heaven’s sake.

A comic interlude, I discover in amongst the sea of red that is my statistics profile that the Guardian really is all that. In every other population context I am a leftie extremist. In comparison to other Guardian readers I am a centrist pink pussycat. 38% of them are to my left and only 27% to my right (the rest of them naturally agree with me, like the good fellows they are).

But aha! That was only the analysis of the first axis – i.e. the one where I explained whether I’d rather kill people or be nice to them. On the second axis I explained whether I’d rather people were allowed to keep their money or have it taken away (and incidentally, because the two are so obviously related, whether I thought it was a good idea for everyone to have their money taken away to kill lots of people. Seriously, who decided that pro-war and pro-markets were appropriate bedfellows? There’s just no level of logic on which that works.)

On the second axis, in a reversal of the trend of the first, most people who describe themselves as right-wing are in fact centrist, whereas most left-wingers self-identify correctly. Again, I have to buck the trend, don’t I. My mimsy “slightly left-of-centre” ness jumps right over two whole categories to become “fairly right wing”! Only 3% of the population are significantly to my right! (Though this time it’s more men on my right than women.) Only 2% of over-55 year olds are to my right, for goodness’ sake! I’m now a pariah in the party as well as 87% of the Liberal Democrat voters have now got up and trooped over to my left.

Slightly more interesting things happen to the London and Guardian stats. Granted that 70% of Londoners and 80% of Guardian readers are now to my left. But this time, 24% and 17% of them respectively hold views that are “similar to” mine. It would appear then that there is some sort of London Guardianista culture of which I am a part, but it shades considerably more to the incorrectly perceived “right” than tradition has it. This seems to make a certain amount of sense to me. It’s always interesting to see commenters over at CiF telling people off for being “right-wing” when they’re doing something terribly offensive like, er, advocating lower taxes for people on low incomes.

Friends and liberals, the System is bonkers conkers, and I have the split political personality to prove it. Get your own schizo-liberal stats here.

…I rarely get embroiled in discussions about identity politics, for reasons which will shortly become apparent (by which I mean, they will shortly begin to become apparent. They will go on being apparent for some considerable time after that. I should go and get yourself a cup of coffee and settle in if I were you).

I was round at IlLiberal Conspiracy yesterday, and strongly recommend this thought-provoking piece by Unity (for which, obviously, another cup of coffee). In the course of arguing that a “British Obama” simply wouldn’t carry the same significance as the American version because of the UK’s very different cultural baggage, Unity attacks “portmanteau” identities:

Terms like ‘British Asian’, ‘British Muslim’ and ‘Black British’ are no more a valid description of your identity than ‘British English’, ‘British Midlander’ or ‘British Atheist’ are of mine. That’s not how the British civic identity works; you’re British AND you’re a Muslim, or you’re South Asian, or you’re Black or whatever other words you might choose to describe your own sense of identity in a particular situation. The British civic identity is not like that of America because it developed and evolved to serve a very different purpose.

These terms, as Unity has it, are American imports, at best meaningless and at worst divisive when transported into a British context. Sunny Hundal is soon on the case, defending his right to adopt not just one cultural portmanteau identity, but several, and then he says:

If anything, I would like to see people attach even more hyphens to their identities so we can push forward the notion that everyone has multiple identities – not just brown or black people.

And this was where yours truly foolishly stuck her oar in.

Now, clearly I’m not as troubled by portmanteau identities as Unity because as a liberal why should I mind what people call themselves? I also think they must to some extent be symptomatic of divisions rather than causal. Removing a symptom never works, you just have to wait on the causes – and this has happened before in the perpetual melting pot that is now the UK. Past societal divisions – northerner versus southerner for example – have gradually ironed themselves out of serious identity discourse and only their archaeological existence as jokes, or filler pieces for local redtops, tell us that this was ever a serious problem. We wouldn’t get nearly as much mileage out of the northerner-southerner “division” as we do if its terms were still genuinely incendiary.

When Lancashire play Yorkshire at cricket these days, everyone takes the opportunity to howl five hundred year old insults at each other and generally have a marvellous time. Yorkshiremen are tight and grumpy, Lancashiremen are… well, does anyone remember what that stereotype was? If there ever was a counterpoint, it has faded from the collective memory. Other identities have faded altogether – ever joshingly called anyone a Viking down the pub? On the other hand, the “Celtic” identity, which is of similar antiquity, has been somewhat artificially revived (with plenty of borrowings from the Wromantic but Wrong Victorians) for contemporary political reasons in the form of late twentieth century devolution.

The evidence suggests that when ethnic or religious or geographical divisions are politically ready to fade, they’ll do so all by themselves, the portmanteau identity will have served its purpose, and the most ardent proponents of identity politics won’t be able to keep it alive.

Sunny should hang on to his portmanteaus as a matter of personal liberty. But I questioned (this was the oar) whether actively encouraging everyone else to adopt them as well is useful to the future of societal cohesion, or even viable.  If I follow the usual ethnic/religious/cultural portmanteau formulae all I can come up with is “A Bit Middle Class West Country-Surreian-Londoner”, viz a mash-up of my grandparents’ birthplaces and backgrounds. Religion, in my particular portmanteau, is so unimportant as to not even qualify as weak C of E.

In other words, something pretty meaningless. If I have a portmanteau identity, it is composed of occupational, intellectual and political elements which I have taken on for myself, and they have very little to do with any ethnic, religious or otherwise non-acquired cultural backdrop. I enjoyed living in London, to be sure, and I do love Devon, but I’m not really a Londoner or a Devonian. I also, for example, love the Mediterranean in general and feel at home there, but that doesn’t mean it’s part of my cultural heritage (*although see below). It’s very hard to feel any sort of cultural identification with suburbia, the not-quite-Surrey, not-quite-South-London buffer zone where I was born and brought up, and accordingly I don’t.

I’m not particularly taken with the “British” identity because most political aspects of being “British” that I consciously value (rule of law, protection of private property, the common weal etc) predate the Union, and given the way civil liberties in this country appear to be collapsing I’m no longer sure “Britishness” as I’ve been taught to think of it exists. But I’m not particularly taken with being “English” either, probably because it’s hard to be a medievalist and not understand that “English” was a political convenience like everything else. England per se doesn’t seem to have a great deal to do with me.

I’ve thought long and hard about this, and the only congenital cultural identities I can honestly come up with that seem genuinely meaningful to me are western European and southerner. And the southerner bit is really a joke identity, something to play off against a northern boyfriend. In short, I don’t have a meaningful, distinctive portmanteau identity along ethnic, cultural or religious lines that I was born with, and that I can usefully deploy in British society. I might as well self-identify as an earthling. I seriously wonder if Civis Romanus Sum (*aha, you see!) doesn’t sum it up as well as anything else.

All this was not a particularly helpful thing to point out in a discussion on the politics of race, perhaps. Because in suggesting that it was possible to have a  nondescript ethno-cultural identity that I did not, personally, carry around with me, I guess I also implied that it was possible to have a “default” or generic identity. i.e. white, British-born, no exceptional ancestry or cultural or religious input. The actual identity I carry around with me is largely the one I’ve chosen for myself, and that necessarily implies my total freedom of choice. In other words, there is nothing about my ethno-cultural backdrop that stops me choosing to do whatever I like, and seen in the context of the lack of choice of others, this must imply privileges attaching to the elements that make up that backdrop.

The fact that I see myself as someone whose ethno-cultural “portmanteau” is meaningless, useless for self-definition purposes and  generally nothing to do with how I live my life is therefore part of the problem, and the reason why we might well need a new politics of race. A similar friction occurs on feminist threads whenever a man says that he doesn’t feel particularly privileged by virtue of being a man. It might be perfectly true, but it must also in a sense be symptomatic of a real division that causes real problems for the people on the opposite side.

But what are we to do? We can’t force me to adopt a portmanteau identity based on elements that are totally meaningless to me, any more than we can force Sunny to relinquish his.

Here’s an idea. We as Liberal Democrats are committed heart and mind to devolution of a profound order. We rarely talk about it in broad terms, probably because it would be such a revolutionary change that the Britain on the other side of it is genuinely hard to envisage (I think this is the main problem Land Value Tax eggs face, by the way).

But wouldn’t one of those unlooked-for effects eventually be a hardening of geographical and regional identities? If Devon does things differently from Lancashire doesn’t that mean that eventually differences become entrenched and commonly recognised? Devon will become famous for its quality education, Lancashire famous for its sporting facilities provision. And in time the differences in public services will lead to cultural differences. Devon will become a breeding ground for inventors, Lancashire for sporting champions. Hampshire will be the business destination for the financial services sector and Suffolk will become the home of the most outrageous millinery industry in Europe.

Retrograde? Yes, in the literal sense. Maybe some of those ancient regional identities would creep back, no doubt suitably updated. Even the old agricultural patterns – based on the variations of by far the most crazy geological palimpsest of its size anywhere in the world – might make a reappearance.

But all that, alarming as it may be to a nation accustomed to think of itself as, well, a nation, is potentially more productive, isn’t it. Why, after all, do we want devolution? Because it’ll lead to experimentation and diversity. Provided peace can be kept and some basic personal liberties respected, and provided communication remains possible, there’s no logical point at which diversity of identities ever stops being a good thing. It’s no good our claiming we’re in favour of diversity if we’re not also prepared to follow wherever it leads.

So Sunny is right, but perhaps for slightly different reasons to the ones he proposes. Portmanteau identities for all are a good idea – because they’d no longer reflect solely the politics of race. Instead they’d reflect the politics of, er, politics. They’d be symptomatic of political devolution and diversity, the postcode lottery to end all postcode lotteries. And the only way to get there, so far as I can see, is to roll on devolution. Just as portmanteau identities naturally fade when they’re no longer needed, so they’ll return if and when they are.

Now I remember why I don’t get into identity politics. It’s because it takes forever to write up (and read) the brain fall-out.

There will be a short test at the end.

Posit. I am Derek Draper.

I am tasked with setting up a blog for the Labour party, a blog which will have the professionalism of Conservativehome and the authentic grassroots flavour of Lib Dem Voice, a blog which will challenge the contention that the left has run out of intellectual steam and retake control of the political internet.

Tricky.

I have three big problems. (1) Everybody hates me, (2) most people hate Labour, (3) certain individuals who fall into groups (1) and (2) already have extremely powerful political blogs and will not hesitate to pour guano over a new Labour contender. After all, the failure of Labourhome to make the grade is well documented in the blogosphere, acknowledged by Blears herself no less. Bloody Blears.

What do I do?

I create a blog called Labourlist.org. A blog associated overwhelmingly with my personal – and tarnished – brand. A blog whose very name indicates a lurching, sinking motion. A blog so comically badly designed that techies all over the internet twitter in disbelief about how rubbish it is. A blog which quickly descends, in its comment moderation policy, into the kind of tinpot authoritarianism that the likes of Guido and Dale are just itching to catch a whiff off.

I do all this.

I let it stew a while.

Then, just as the rest of the political internet has finished wiping its eyes and laughing itself sick… another blog appears. This one does not have quite such a ridiculous name. This one uses a smooth, shiny, WordPress-ready template with no hitches or glitches. This one is not run by me. In fact it is run by “grassroots activists” who are expressly opposed to my heavy comment moderation policy.  I have “kindly agreed” to share the content of Labourlist, so that they may, in effect, run a blog in direct competition to mine except with a more welcoming comment moderation policy.

Result. A blog that everyone is suddenly inclined to praise, or at least meet with an open mind, because it is run by “grassroots activists”, because it is open to allcomers. And above all because it’s nothing to do with me. And no matter how bad it gets, it can never be as bad as that original repository of internet hatred, Labourlist.

Cunning, eh? I must report back to Lord M.

Phew. Yuck. It is I, Mortimer again. Here is your test: which is the scarier possibility? Is it (a) that I am right in drawing the above scenario or (b) that I am not right and Draper and co really are that rubbish?

Word reaches us in the People’s Republic of a New World.

This New World is composed of many states, just like this one, and they too share in the munificent glory of the Wikio rankings. The inhabitants of this New World speak in strange tongues, making utterances like “Javascript”, “Drupal”, “user-led design” and “bugger, this still isn’t working.”

Actually, I’m probably one of the few people in the political blogosphere who doesn’t regularly read tech blogs as well. I am very much your plug-in-and-play blogger.  So far as technology goes, I am a classic rearguard early adopter, last in line of the nearly-cool kids. It’s a burden.

But it does have the advantage of making me my very own canary.

If I suddenly start to get something, start to perceive a development, or start to read up on something to do with the world of tech, it means something BIG is about to happen.

And this is the development I perceive:  increasingly, as the governmen’s designs on our personal freedoms grow ever darker and Jacqui Smith’s boots grow ever shinier, tech bloggers’ concerns are becoming our concerns as politicised liberals.

Mike Butcher at Techcrunch writes:

Are we also expected to think that the consumers using online services are not going to be put off from engaging in the boom of “sharing” that Web 2.0 created? How would you feel if every Twitter you sent, every video uploaded, was to be stored and held against you in perpetuity? That may not happen, but the mere suggestion that your email is no longer private would serve to kill the UK population’s relish for new media stone dead, and with it large swathes of the developing online economy.

These proposals will affect both the blooming of online culture in this country, the development of the innovation economy and its civil liberties – all in one fell swoop.

Techies tend, in my experience, to be naturally individualistic, entrepreneurial and liberal folk (it’s no coincidence that they people the ranks of the Liberal Democrats so thickly). They also tend to be distrustful of mainstream politics and prefer not to think of themselves as politicised (that was me once as well; I have all the attitoods of the natural techie with none of the career-enhancing specialist knowledge).

And for as long as our advancing state left their core universe alone, they were happy. Sure, the internet got taken over by the great unwashed non-techies, and corporations tried to snuffle into their email accounts. But if you’re a geek, you can escape all that, encrypt yourself and slip behind a molecule, gather someplace where the mainstream can’t find you and carry on doing your thing.

But if the mainstream has a totalitarian dictatorial arm in the form of a Labour government, and they want to regulate the whole of the universe you inhabit, in every dimension, then you are forced to take notice.

Yes. The geeks are angry. Mike Butcher goes on:

What is to be done about this?

Well, one approach might be a coalition of civil liberties campaigners, digital rights groups and business. The Open Rights Group is a key thought leader in this. There is also an interesting looking event on soon: The Convention on Modern Liberty. But I also hope that more mainstream figures who are in some way associated with tech, perhaps Stephen Fry, can be persuaded to join.

Why should business get involved?

Mark my words, business would be affected by this: startup technology companies, already restricted by plenty of red tape associated with setting up a business would now have to build in plans for content ratings, tracing users, capturing data for the Home Office – you name it.

And when terrorists can merely default to VOIP or messaging services held on servers outside the UK – hell, they are even using online games to pass messages not old-fashioned, traceable email – it seems utterly ludicrous to subject the ENTIRE population to this burden. All this legislation will do is drive organised crime and terrorists deeper into parts of the Net where they will be virtually impossible to trace, leaving the rest of us monitored like battery chickens.

On Monday I will be calling Westminster Council about how we can go about setting up a public rally against these initiatives, and I’d like to hear from anyone else who wants to get involved.

Stay tuned.

You heard the man. Liberals and libertarians, big-L and small-l alike, our kinspeople need us! Head over and comment.

You’ll think me an awkward cuss, no doubt, but I can’t help wondering what came of that infamous cold-calling exercise. As you will (try not to) recall, Clegg announced in his leader’s speech at Bournemouth that “we” would be  calling 250,000 people that very evening (18 September) to “hear their views on the challenges facing our country” and when he said “we” he meant “I, in a pre-recorded message”.

The media smelt blood and closed in. Someone had made the dubious decision to actually trail the strategy in the pre-speech press briefing, and as a result it dominated the session. Immediately afterwards, a white-faced attendee member told me it looked likely to be the main storyline of the coverage of the leader’s speech.

This subject is ripe for a revisit because the man who was (probably) responsible for both the strategy and the trailer is ex-Saatchi bod John Sharkey. Formerly the leader’s strategic communications adviser, he has just been appointed Deputy Chair of the party’s General Election campaign as part of the recent reshuffle.

In his New Statesman column at the time of the leader’s speech, Jonathan Calder had no doubt where the cold-calling idea originated:

Where did this enthusiasm for a cheesy marketing technique come from?

The independent Liberator magazine is the starting point for all Lib Dem kremlinlogists, and its latest issue points to the influence on Clegg of people from the advertising and public relations industries. It mentions John Sharkey, a former managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi UK, and Gavin Grant from Burson-Marsteller in particular.

All Liberal and Liberal Democrat leaders fall under this spell eventually; the difference with Nick Clegg is that it has happened in the early days of his reign. But there is always a tension between PR professionals, who see winning votes as a marketing exercise, and party members for whom it is a matter of policy.

Calder points to the party’s previous form on opposing not only cold-calling, but the whole creeping advance of impersonal blanket communication, from both corporations and the state. This was the stuff of “Faceless Britain”, a theme which I have argued in the past is one of Clegg’s own particular hobby-horses. So why undermine that message?

Clegg could have saved himself the stain on the generally favourable coverage of his speech, Calder suggests, if he’d run the idea past even one rank-and-file member.

Was Calder right?

First, no-one can speak for everyone. That’s glibly true in real life, but it’s much more literally true in the world of marketing. We all live on our cosy little individual pebble in the Mosaic. There is no such thing as objectivity from any one individual.

So it’s interesting to note that while most of the online party community at Lib Dem Voice exerted itself in various attitudes of horror, the marketing professionals tended to have more support for the idea.

To put it bluntly, it’s precious in the extreme for a bunch of computer-literate ABC1s to gather online and rant about how outrageous something is and how “no-one” will like it, if previous evidence  shows that, for example, the much more numerous C2DEs, whose opinions are less represented online, tend to like it very much indeed. And that goes for the media reaction as well. What happens in ABC1 stays in ABC1.

And yet, and yet… Has anyone ever met anyone, of any political stripe and from any walk of life, who likes cold calls? In John Sharkey and co we’re talking about people who are supposedly at the top of their game. Can they really think of no more sophisticated contact method than that, with the panoply of modern communication methods at their fingertips? And did they know how unsophisticated it would appear to most of those who immediate task it was to interpret it to the world?  I can think of two patterns for the mindset that made the cold-calling decision.

Scenario 1 – an old but sound idea, cleverly spun

Yes, they knew it was unsophisticated. But it also remains one of the few ways a large organisation can make contact with a large number of people. It’s a vastly different approach from the personalised, localised campaigning Liberal Democrats normally do, but that’s because it started with a much grander goal in mind. A postal equivalent would be those letters you get printed in script font. A pre-recorded call apes a doorstep discussion in the same way a script font letter apes the handwritten envelope beloved of campaigners.

In other words, the limitations were built in to the size of the exercise. The marketing industry currently knows of no better way to get in touch, decisively and in one swoop, with a large number of people. The originators had some reason to believe that not everyone would slam the phone down immediately, ergo the exercise would be worthwhile even though the idea is, truth be told, a bit clunky.

They also knew, however, that the idea would tank with the kind of people who write newspaper copy. Trying to hide things from a journalist only makes them sniff around all the harder. So they decided to be upfront. Get rid of the toxin at the briefing stage and stick it right there in the speech, rather than having someone ferret around and produce a counter-story to all the mainstream speech coverage stories.

There is a wafer of support for this view in one simple fact – the speech coverage wasn’t nearly as bad as we all thought it was going to be immediately after the briefing. We read the situation as a disaster waiting to happen which was saved by Clegg’s powers of oratory. But could it be a subtler case of someone drawing the poison from a sting in advance? How would the speech coverage have panned out if the string-pullers had elected to try to hide the cold-calling plan?

Scenario 2 – outmoded marketing principles clumsily applied

Calder is right. Marketing and its techniques is a shallow industry and its ideas will always be accordingly shallow.  The originators of the cold-calling plan believed it to be a work of sophisticated brilliance that would be hailed as an advance in political communication. They were disastrously and horribly wrong.

There is a wafer of support for this view as well. I disagree with Jonathan insofar as I believe that marketing is an intellectually complex an exercise as policy-making is. But I think he could be right in that the marketeers, in this instance, got their calculations badly wrong.

We’re talking, remember, about people at the “top” of their game. Being at the top of your game in, say, law, is extremely desirable. It has no disadvantages. That’s because knowledge of the law can only get deeper and subtler. Knowledge of marketing can get deeper and subtler, but it can also get out-dated. This is a self-consciously young industry and in John Sharkey we have someone who was a rising star at Saatchi & Saatchi at the time he was running Thatcher’s re-election campaign in 1987. Being at the top of marketing isn’t necessarily as useful as being somewhere nearer the middle.

When I say “out-dated”, by the by, I don’t mean in technological terms. Telephones are still more widely owned than an internet connection. That’s not the problem. It’s less easily defined than that – an outmoded sense of what people like, what people will respond to, what kind of assaults on the senses they have been suffering lately from the spectrum of marketing.

It’s a failure to keep “up-to-date” in this wider sense that leads political parties to produce shockingly unsophisticated and dreadful party political broadcasts. It was a comprehensive failure to be “up-to-date” with recent (and when I say recent I mean, decade-old) fashions in humour that led to the production of that head-in-cushion anti-Boris “viral video” during the mayoral campaign. In this scenario, John Sharkey and co were fundamentally out-of-date when they came up with this idea.

Which is it, pattern A or pattern B? The answer matters a great deal. This man is now deputy chair of the GE campaign. On him depends the future of our national campaigning strategy, whether it appeals to the right groups, and whether it dovetails with our local campaigning strategies.

Bring me the head of communications

I can think of one way we could resolve this. Some wise soul in that LDV thread pointed out that there was very little point in our banging on about how worthwhile or worthless we thought the exercise was – the originators would know the real answer soon enough for themselves.

They would get the data back and analyse it – how many people stayed on the line, for how long, are there geographical patterns for success and failure, does this relate to local polling and/or canvassing information in any meaningful way? Even an out-of-date marketeer can do all that.

Basically, if the results vindicate the decision to hold the exercise – irrespective of its legality – then we’re in good hands, whether we happen to like the clammy ad-man feel of those hands or not. If not, we’re in serious trouble, and need to lead an online revolt to secure the integrity and effectiveness of our national campaigning strategy.

So I’m asking – would the party or any component part of it care to officially or unofficially give us all an idea of exactly what the results of that exercise were?

Or perhaps Sharkey himself would care to comment – it’s his reputation at stake, after all. My membership subscription pays for his ideas to be realised. And like any taxpayer, I want to see the money.

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