March 2009

This little Republic on for the Orwell Prize? We are dumbfounded, and a bit shuffly. We are still in our very early history compared to some of these established states, and our peasants are continuously revolting. Sometimes we even make up our own words, and we are a little too fond of the passive. This is indeed an honour.

I’m surprised in particular (as others have said) that Tom Harris, Hopi Sen and the fabulous Heresiarch didn’t make the cut, which I think rather goes to show how cruel and beset by arbitrariness such a short shortlist is going to be – even leaving aside the fact that bookmarkloads of excellent blogs didn’t even put themselves in the running.

I see what they’ve done, though. Two party political bloggers (Iain and I), two wider-current-affairs political bloggers (Chekhov and Night Jack) and two journo-political bloggers (Andrew Sparrow and Paul Mason). No offence to the last two, who are among my regular must-reads, but I think I might have preferred a real bloggers’ bloggers shortlist, seeing as how the journalists have their own shiny toy.

It is our honest opinion that we have gone far enough. This is not false modesty. Rest assured, we are extremely arrogant. But we are also a young state without established roots in the business of political communication. If the winner were to be a political blogger we would tip Mr Dale, if a wider-politics blogger, Night Jack (but narrowly, and had Heresy Corner made it through I’d really have problems). The journalist bloggers, we suspect, will not proceed precisely because they are journalists, and that would cause the full range of prizes to look a bit unbalanced.

Now, the truly interesting part of all this is the part I did not see;  the overwhelming tittishness of Nick Cohen at the shortlist debate last night. You can read about this at El Dale’s gaff, and I have heard similar reports from elsewhere. Cohen’s suggestion that the Orwell Prize is “demeaned” by having the likes of Peter Oborne and Peter Hitchens on the shortlist is one of those lofty lefty assertions that, were I the Left’s psychiatrist and the Left ranting on my couch, I would write down thoughtfully with a thin, silver pencil.

Fashion in politics used to fascinate me even as an apathetic outsider, how a trail made up of gifted individuals, visionaries, climbers, entryists and spivs alike would scramble first to the left, then to the right, with no apparent power over their career course, like the crew in the TV version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea when the ship was under attack from yet another alien-monster-thing. Look at some of the desperadoes in the Labour Stars in their Eyes video I filleted the other day – is this really the best they can offer?

It’s sad, but it’s simple. Wherever they go instead, very, very few of the most capable people want to be associated with the left at the moment. Of course, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was made in the sixties, or some such legendary time, and the actors weren’t really being thrown from side to side in their sea-bound tin can; the camera was tilting and the actors were rushing from one side of the set to another in a reasonably co-ordinated manner. And the monster-alien-thing supposedly causing the tilting was really just a stuntman swathed in green rubber. None of  it was real.

The current tide away from the Left is not “real” either – I don’t even have complete faith that the Tories are going to scrap ID cards, never mind make any real progress towards decentralisation. They’ve hardly got a name for the latter, and only a very recent name, perpetuated largely by party rebels, for the former. I think it’s quite true to say that people aren’t voting for the Tories. They’re voting against Labour.

And I wonder if there is ever a time when it’s not true. An eventual swing against any prevailing ideology is as sure as spring, and it shows a truly repellant arrogance in the proponents of that ideology when they suggest that their ideology should have prevailed forever, that somehow they were different. The Tories of the early 1990s were exactly the same. It’s surprising how many educated political people believe exclusively in the evidence of their own lifespans (this is what studying PPE instead of history does for you) and don’t realise that the motion of the universe really doesn’t care what their experience is or what they think the illimitable truths are.

A good example: on Lib Dem Voice, I and others  regularly get told off for being “Thatcherite” because, among other things, we like the idea of tax cuts and free enterprise. All the patient explanations  in the world about how Thatcher perpetuated monopolies at the expense of truly free markets, and strengthened the fiscal structures that funnelled wealth from poor to rich, do us no good. If Thatcher did it, no matter how and in no matter what context, it must be poisonous. If we continue to object, we are generally told that we haven’t seen what they, our wise elders, have seen.

This seems to me to be as much a statement of fact as saying that we have not spent our youth wearing bri-nylon flares. It doesn’t mean anything. I spent my formative political years under a Labour government which has turned me from a vague lefty sympathiser into a furious opponent. The left, or rather the things done in its name, have made me angry in exactly the same way that the right made an older generation of liberals angry. I can’t un-know all that bone deep knowledge I’ve acquired over the last decade and attempt to “know” the 1980s instead. And I dearly hope I’d have the sense not to make the next political generation down attempt the corresponding feat.

Nick Cohen’s apparent belief that the  left have some higher claim to be associated exclusively with George Orwell is exactly the kind of thing that invites my highest scorn. It just looks profoundly unintelligent, an assertion based on a nostalgic and craven view of what left and right mean. Orwell’s explanation of what he meant by writing 1984 is clearly lost on Cohen:

My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable and which have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism. I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequneces. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasise that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.

My emphasis. “And in any party”, he could have added. And – oh look! – that’s just what’s happening at the hands of the Labour party, who invoke the name of the Left for what they do. The Left are now mostly woken up to this, and the brighter ones are steering well clear of the doomed Labour ship. Still, it’s hard to get rid of that sort of history of co-operation and abetment. If I were The Left, I would bow out for thirty years. Seriously. Not back off, have a little think, and come back in a few months with a New Statesman/Demos sponsored drinks reception and conference panel called “The Future of the Left”.

Just go away, for a long time, and think about what you’ve done.

By way of a postscript – this really isn’t meant as a party puff piece – it is a recognition of the Voyage-to-the-Bottom-of-the-Sea effect that makes one understand, with the near-as-dammit certainty of good historical training, that one day it will be our, the liberals’, turn. Whether the opposition of today like the sound of that or, or think it likely based on their experience or not. Absolutely all things pass. This is the law that both prevents us from making a decent fist of any political ideology, and that saves us from it when it goes rotten.

The Guardian continues to haemorrhage credibility. Every time Polly or Jackie makes an absolutely-last-and-positively-final-ditch defence of Labour, I read it and think, well, that at least is the very pits of absurd desperation, they cannot possibly dig themselves in any deeper than that.

I mean, surely to goodness they must now realise that by carrying on they only make Labour look worse – exposing just how little there is to applaud, how little there is for any Labour supporter to be hopeful about. They damn with faint praise, not by design, but because it’s impossible to do better. They have plunged a borehole right through the rotten flesh for all the world to see and arrived at the unyielding core of reality with nothing to show for it.

Yes, I think all that. It takes a while.

And each time the Graun surprises me. In a sort of danse macabre-style mad celebration of their awful news priorities they’ve just unveiled a “series” entitled Can Labour win?

And someone’s been busy, because though the series is only two days old there are already 23 equally desperate reasons why they can (if only they would follow the Guardian’s sage advice, naturally. I love the way all the commentators, particularly Jack and Poll, talk wistfully about the urgent need for Labour to “push” or “strengthen” various worthy agendas, like age discrimination or domestic violence, as if Labour are not the people who have just been in power for twelve years signally failing to do anything about these and many other things, ohnono that’s some other bunch of bastards, nothing to do with our Labour party).

One of the latest gems to emerge from the Islington bunker is this Young guns who will save the Labour party puffpiece, featuring a number of the more telegenic PPCs from the red corner. You might be thinking this has a familiar ring to it, and you’d be right. It’s not six months since Tatler did something similarly ghastly with the “top Tory totty”, and were rightly and roundly traduced for it by, er, me. And what do the Guardian do? Not only copy, but expressly attribute their inspiration to bloody Tatler magazine! Has the world gone stark raving bonkers? Is there anything, any low lesson of politics or marketing, that the lefty metro-intelligentsia are not willing to scrape off the bottom of the Tory barrel?

Anyway, this really is a video worth watching. It’s terrifying.  In a first-past-the-post system where it takes about four times as many votes to elect a Liberal Democrat as a Labour MP, this, my People, is what awaits us. Keep my commentary open in a side-by-side why don’t you?

Some hopeful plinky music and there’s a shot of all the young guns walking towards the camera, Reservoir Dogs style. It looks like a reject shot for the opening titles of The Apprentice. All of a sudden we are transported into the complex intellectual world of Chuka Umunna, he of the persistant “mainstreaming” and unconvincing grasp of liberal priorities at the Convention on Modern Liberty. (He’d now be officially banned from council communications for the former, incidentally.)

“It’s very flattering to be compared to Barack Obama,” he begins. I kid you not. Those are the first words this flowering hope of New Labour speaks to camera. I don’t hear the rest of what he says because I am busy burying my head in a cushion and weeping. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it would be very flattering to  be compared to Barack Obama if anyone other than his mum was doing it.

To be absolutely fair to him, I dry my eyes, assume he was asked a leading question, and pop the video back to see if he really does bear any resemblance to the leader of the free world beyond skin colour. Why does he want to become an MP, I wonder?

“As a solicitor you spend your time interpreting the law, but I actually want to change it, and that’s, you know, the bottom line there,” he explains.

And there’s more fractally subtle pearls of wisdom where that came from. Turns out Labour’s A-lister is a philosopher of comparative economics as well:

“I’ve always been massively curious about current and foreign affairs and what makes the world go round and why, you know, you get some people in some parts of the world who have nothing to eat and little water and then other people in countries like this who are doing very well.”

Seriously, he’s ticking all the right boxes for the summer internship. Cowley Street should get him on the phone.

Mercifully for his exhausted mental powers, we cut away to Rushanara Ali. She seems a nice girl – I say girl, this woman’s four years older than I am. She’s a little like me, actually, nice  middle class Southerner, bright and personable, but with four more years experience – what will she have made of her life, and what can I learn from her example? What does she have to say for herself? What are her innermost drives, I wonder?

She likes going back to her old school and inspiring the girls there with her political  career. She likes drinking tea with her would-be constituents in Bethnal Green and Bow. Yes, that’s all nice. I went to an all-girls school too. Fantastic way to get an education, and I’d recommend it to anyone, as the girls (or gels) thereby turned out tend to be, in my experience, that bit more confident about their place in the world and aware of why they’re doing what they’re doing.

But obviously you can’t win them all, and some people will always drop through any system. Next.

Rachel Reeves is Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Leeds West. She is nothing if not a good Yorkshirewoman, and she is not a good Yorkshirewoman. Might be Ilford, by the sound of it. But never mind all that “Are you local?” nonsense – the civil war ended a long time ago. Let’s give her a chance, shall we? So why did she join the Labour party?

“I remember in the ’87 election I was eight years old and people at school were talking about who their parents were voting for and I went home and asked my dad. He put on the six o’clock news and introduced me to Neil Kinnock and said ‘That’s who we vote for’ and ever since then I’ve known that I’ve been Labour.”

Now, to be fair, Rachel is hardly alone in having been brainwashed into accepting a Labour (or Tory) allegiance at an early age. Unlucky them, I suppose. I remember asking my mum the exact same question, and she said they’d generally voted Conservative before but were thinking of changing now, and the best thing was to decide who had the best ideas and vote for them. Shocking notion, eh? I’ve never quite recovered.

Next comes Toby Perkins, who appears to have gatecrashed this video on “young guns”, being of the ripe old age of 38. That’s only four years younger than Clegg. There are probably junior cabinet ministers younger than this. What’s going on? Did they run out of half-decent young people? What is Toby hoping for from his political career?

“You’ve got to go there and actually do something. I don’t intend to just sit in the house of Commons and be lobby fodder,” he says bravely.

And yet you will, Toby, you will. You’ve joined the Labour party. He seems like a good bloke as well – oh, it’s too sad! A tragedy unfolding before my eyes. Let’s move on.

Lilian Greenwood, candidate for Nottingham South, is 42. Yes, they’ve definitely run out of half-decent young people. She’s a bit sinister in a way that at first I can’t quite put my finger on. Does she have a master plan of some sort, perhaps?

“About two years ago I finally decided that it was time to move on and try and find a different way to do something really positive for the women that I’ve been representing – well, not just the women  mumble mumble low paid workers in particular.”

Oh what a Freudian slip! Men of Nottingham, head for the forest and take up  arms, ere you be gelded! But soft, am I being unfair? Perhaps the slip is due to her having worked for ten years in a women’s refuge and therefore she has formerly represented only women? Nope, she’s a regional official for Unison, with no official women’s portfolio that I can detect. Her blog lists her as a campaigner for women’s rights. But that’s not her job.

This is exactly why I am suspicious of lefty feminism and believe liberalism can fulfil the same aims more cleanly and fairly. No sooner does one allow that it’s a perfectly Good Thing for campaigning women to start unofficial support groups and mutual aid networks for each other than one finds said campaigners merrily transport all their assumptions, jargon and viewpoints into official jobs and contexts that were never designed to accommodate them.

There is literally no point in being an MP if you’re going to treat your constituents even slightly and subconsciously differently on the basis of gender, and that goes for lefty feminists as much as it goes for Tory dinosaurs. Get a grip.

Meanwhile, Shabana Mahmood is hoping to represent Birmingham Ladywood.

“You’ve got to be in it to win it is what I say,” she opines. I was right – it is The Apprentice! Mandela is her political hero, and she thinks he’s a really  good hook to get young people interested in politics. Hey, we never thought of that! After all, the fact that it has spent thirty years not working as such a hook and an entire generation has grown up in the great man’s shadow without becoming remotely interested in politics shouldn’t put us off.

Actually, I always feel slightly sorry for youngish politicians when journalists ask them – as they invariably will – about political apathy amongst the young, because their responses are so hopelessly inadequate. And no wonder, because they (charmingly uncognisant of this as they may be) are the weirdos who did get interested. You might as well ask a zebra why it thinks more of the  horse family don’t have stripes.

And that’s it, more optimistic plinky music and a couple of moody monochromesque shots of the Six Super Saviours in various noble attitudes in front of a stone parapet.

That, my friends, is what we and the Labour party have got to look forward to. Let’s just remind ourselves of those 2005 voting averages, shall we?

An average of 26,906 votes to elect a Labour MP

An average of 44,373 votes to elect a Tory MP

An average of 96,539 votes to elect a Lib Dem MP

Someone shoot me now.

A brief fly-past, citizens, to bring you the news that David Cameron is sorry that his party has been totally unable to detect the oncoming debt crisis and resulting recession over the last decade (despite the frequent Proverbs of St Vince in and out of the House).


The idea being, of course, that now Gordon will have to say sorry as well, and thence be forced to call a general election, or else refuse to say sorry, and thence be forced to call a general election. Myself, I think they under-estimate his staying power.

God, this is depressing, isn’t it? The two major parties of this once great nation, etc, locked in an unwinnable game of nerny-nerny-ner-ner whose premise is the fact that BOTH of them have spent the last twelve years being crashingly inept.

Mind you, it could be worse. Supposing Labour respond with a statement to the effect that they are even sorrier than the Conservatives? Then the Conservatives will have to hold a press conference to say that they are very very very very VERY sorry and they’ll never do it again, cross their hearts and hope to be smacked until their botties go purple, and then Labour will brief a tame journalist to the effect that yeah, but they are sorry times infinity squared plus one, so ner, then the Conservatives will say that Labour’s sorry isn’t a real sorry but one of those frightful EU sorries shipped in to make apologies when there are perfectly well-qualified British sorries standing idle. I look to next week’s PMQs with a heavy heart.

Image courtesy of ToryBear, who really doesn’t find it remotely funny. I don’t blame him. Nor do I.

We really need to invite some Young People to the People’s Republic to change our jaundiced minds about stuff. For we are grown old and crabby, and here followeth the evidence.

I was never into student politics, of any stripe, largely because all those that were seemed like such unconscionable wankers. Liberal Democrats have, on the whole, a lower wanker quotient than most other affiliations, but even so what strikes me most about the under-25s I have observed in this party is pretty much what struck me back at Oxnod and Cambifudge about all parties’ student activists: they’re all trying to act like fifty-five year olds. They think that’s what they “should” be doing.

Take the suits, for example. No-one in their right mind wants to wear a suit. They’re uncomfortable and worrisome and expensive to clean. And the tie is possibly the single most outlandish and ridiculous creation in the history of costumery, destined to take its place alongside five-foot-wide bustles and male tights in the Museum of Domestic What The Fuckery. What are ties for? To aid natural selection by trapping the stupid in shredding machines? Everyone looks ridiculous in a tie. Including you.

So naturally, most people who are forced regularly to wear a suit live for the moment when they can close the front door and rip the whole sorry lot off in exchange for their gardening jeans and a jumper with tea stains on it. Few people over the age of thirty who don’t have to wear a suit actively choose to do so. And you’d think that Young People, particularly those of a liberal, individualistic bent, would revel in their all-too-brief freedom from this outmoded uniform. But no, up they suit for a weekend away socialising in Yorkshire, the little perishers, presumably in the hope that party movers and shakers will “spot” them as convincing suit-wearers. Do they realise that in doing this they are condemning us all to another forty years of enslavement to the crippling social conventions of the mid-twentieth century?

But sartorial choice is only the outward demonstration of the Trouble with Da Yoof: the real problem is much more serious than that. Take a subject close to my heart, the uses of the internet in political campaigning. In the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s we surely have the most instinctive technologists, the most natural web-savants and the earliest adopters ever to surf the earth. Even I was born a few critical years too early to “get” it as instinctively as those in the next generation down do – I didn’t touch a computer until I was six, and that was at school. Now, I learn things about technology rather than absorb them. My brother is four years younger than me, not particularly a tech-nerd. But he still gets it better than I do, just because he’s that bit younger, because when he was six, we had our first computer at home. Considered alongside most of the political blogosphere – never mind the rest of the internet community – I’m one of the very rearguard early adopters. Blogged my first blogpost in 2007, sent my first Tweet in 2008, only just getting my head around what the internet is really all about.

It is natural that I am a comparative technological fuddy-duddy. I’m old. And yet. It seems I’m still way ahead of Liberal Youth. I recently had it on good authority that they actually hired in web consultants to relaunch their website at a cost of some thousands of pounds. The web architect (and party member) I was with when I heard this news nearly cried.

This is an organisation, mark you that possesses an e-mailing list of several thousands of people under 30, all of whom have chosen to be members of the nerdiest party in British politics. Many of them probably only leave their bedrooms under protest. Some of them are probably going to change the world. A goodly sprinkling of them are almost certainly better web designers than the party’s official providers. All that talent, a cornucopia of innovative potential. And Liberal Youth spent money on web consultants?

A considerable minority of the people on Liberal Youth’s emailing list could have told them the following: there are inherent weaknesses in closed source web design. Big organisations still use closed source because they need to cover their arses, and because the senior management team are of a generation that is used to buying its software from one provider, on one operating platform.

But if you’re a small, mobile organisation, particularly one which needs to husband its resources carefully, open source is a no-brainer. Forget any guff about hiring consultants being the “proper”, “grown-up” thing to do. Getting a closed source provider to build your website locks you into a relationship with that provider, technologically and financially. In fact, it’s that liberal scourge, a protected capitalist monopoly. Open source is a more robust, adaptable and flexible way of doing things, and it’s free. What seventeen-year-old liberal techie wouldn’t leap at the chance to redesign the website of a national party’s youth wing?

Now, if wrinkly old me knows this stuff, why in the name of arse doesn’t Liberal Youth? Why aren’t they the ones doing things faster, better, more coherently with the internet than we are? Why aren’t they the ones getting excited about the possibilities of internet campaigning, and how best to use it to supplement real-life campaigning? Why aren’t they building open source websites, collating campaigning materials, collecting canvassing data and writing neat little program-ettes to analyse it? Where, in short, is the action?

Nearly all the most free-thinking techies I know, the ones who are really starting to grasp the possibilities, comprehend the resources we can build with the internet, are in their thirties and forties. Now, regular citizens will know I am but a cynical friend of technology, at least for its own sake. Lynne Featherstone’s Clay Shirky quote about behaviour and not technology being the pivot of change is a splendid rule of thumb. But the whole point of having a big, varied volunteer activist base with different specialities is that individual components of the base can set out to try everything – throw every technology going at the wall, however daft, and see what sticks.

Liberal Youth ought to be the people trying everything. They’ve got the time, they’ve got the expertise among their membership, and they’ve got the opportunity, over the next twenty years, to change how the party does things, not just on the internet, but throughout the system. And they seem to be too busy playing at wearing suits.

The problem, the above-mentioned web architect theorised, is a social one. Under 25, people are still divided into tribes, the cool tribe, the ambitious tribe, the jock tribe (with apologies to Jock), and the nerdy tribe.  They haven’t learnt how to co-exist productively yet. The nerdy tribe has no official presence in Liberal Youth – the nerdy tribe is busy building AI in its bedroom. Liberal Youth seems to be made up for the most part of a single, and therefore sterile, tribe of the politically precocious. Ugh. And this is the future, is it? Sadly, on past evidence, yes.


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