Polly-ticks


Equality and diversity at tertiary education level are  a tangled set of important and emotive issues. Needless to say, David Lammy has made a complete dog whistling breakfast of the whole thing. (Note: all the following figures not taken from his article are from table 5 in this summary, and relate to home students who filled in an ethnic diversity form.)

In an expose of racism in Oxbridge admissions for 2009 (on the watch of the last Labour Minister for Higher Education, apparently a Mr David Lammy) he has perpetrated statistical no-nos such as:

  • generalising from insignificant sample sizes (highlighting 1 Black Caribbean admission in Oxford for 2009, but failing to mention that it comes from 35 applications in that category, which in 10,210 applications and 2,653 acceptances, is pretty much noise),
  • cherry-picking (choosing the Black Caribbean group at all, with its acceptance “rate” of 2.9%, as opposed to, say, the Black Other group with an acceptance rate of 21.4% – but more about that anon),
  • a particularly technical error which I think is known as “making stuff up” (stating that there are no Black faculty members at Cambridge, something which will come as an enormous existential surprise to people who are in fact Black faculty members at Cambridge).

This is very sad, because a look at Table 5 suggests there is potentially something to investigate here. That healthy-ish 21.4% success rate for Black Other students? Also an inappropriate cherry-pick, of course. Hey, I could be a shadow minister! It represents 3 admissions out of 14 applications. Following Lammy’s logic, we’d have to surmise that some highly complex form of racism was going on which selected Black Other applicants over Black Caribbean applicants. This is clearly unlikely to be the case.

Anyway, averaging out these two groups along with Black African (which I realise is a bit of a lumpen way to treat people’s ethnicity, but they’re pretty lumpen categories anyway) you get 27 acceptances out of 221 applications, or a success rate of 12.2%. That sample size, 2.1% of applications and 1% of acceptances is still within the margin of error, but let’s be generous and take it as an indication, if nothing else. Not at all healthy, is it, given that the overall success rate for all British domiciled students is 26%.

If this indicator does represent a genuine problem, and not statistical noise, what might be happening? This is Oxford’s gloss:

Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects, contributing to a lower than average success rate for the group as a whole: 44% of all black applicants apply for Oxford’s three most oversubscribed subjects, compared with just 17% of all white applicants. That means nearly half of black applicants are applying for the same three subjects … the three toughest subjects to get places in. Those subjects are economics and management, medicine, and maths… This goes a very long way towards explaining the group’s overall lower success rate.

(Note: Where I have placed the second ellipsis, the Guardian has the words “with 7% of white applicants.”, no capitalisation, straight after the full stop of the previous sentence. I have assumed this is some kind of subbing error, but can’t be sure. They spelt “rein” as in “to rein in” with a g on their front page the other day, so anything’s possible.)

Now, this could well be special pleading on Oxford’s part. We just wouldn’t know without seeing the full figures, which they’re not releasing any more than Lammy is. Frankly, the way Lammy appears to have mauled the stats, I don’t think Oxford could do worse than release the lot in full – ethnicity breakdowns by subject and college.

But, pending such mere inputs as hard data, the Oxford response has a slight ring of truth about it, and I’ll tell you why. We might posit that as a general rule, black kids are less likely to be applying from public schools, private schools and top state schools. They are disproportionately educated in lower-achieving schools in poorer areas. That means that, amongst many other unfortunate things, their Oxbridge preparation is not going to be so hot. And one of the things they tell you in Oxbridge preparation is “maximise your chances”. If you want to apply for a big name subject, but there’s another less popular variation that will do just as well, go for that. If you’re not that fussed about golden twiddly bits on your college, go for one of the concretes or redbricks as your first choice.

This is how Oxford (and broadly Cambridge too, as far as I know) admissions works: you pick a first choice college, and you get allotted another two (alternatively, you can make an open application, in which case you’ll be allotted three colleges, and they will probably be the ones with fewest applications). If you’re called for interview, your first choice college will interview you. If they want you, that’s it, no more interviews. If they don’t want you, and your second and third allotted colleges still have places to fill, you’ll be sent along to those. And here’s the crucial thing: all of this happens within a week.

You can see what happens to people who apply to the popular colleges. Not only have they lowered their chances by applying to a competitive place as their first choice – their second and third choices are compromised too. Because by the time their first, popular choice has chewed them up and spat them out, the second and third colleges have already filled plenty of places from their own first choice (or allotted open) applicants. Fewer places remain for the scramble of applicants rejected from popular colleges. And if you’ve picked a popular subject as well, then you’ve exacerbated the problem. Very probably, this means that some of those who get rejected every year could have got in if they’d applied to a less popular college, or subject.

The point of all this is not, of course, to imply that black students can’t get onto these courses, or into popular colleges. All other things being equal, they stand the same chance as everyone else – but everyone’s chance is lower than the chances of those applying for less popular subjects and colleges. So a disproportionate number of black applicants to popular subjects would indeed have the effect the spokesperson suggests.

But, as I say, this isn’t really demonstrable without the full figures *hint to media*. As a matter of fact, the most shocking statistic for me to emerge from the whole thing doesn’t have anything to do with Oxbridge admissions. It’s this one:

In 2009, more than 29,000 white students got three As or better at A-level (excluding general studies) and about 28.4% applied to Oxford; while 452 black students got three As or better, and nearly half applied to Oxford.

*attempts Steve McQueen impression* Four hundred and fifty two? There are probably more people than that in John Lewis on Oxford Street right now. They are outnumbered by our MPs. Jesus.

Good god, it’s a mess in here.

*kicks skeletons of former readers aside*

I’m only picking my way back in through the cobwebs to ask, seriously now, what on earth the NUS/the Campaign for Nice Pixies Against Nasty Orcs/Labourlist/whoever thinks it’s doing by gloating over the cancellation of the London Lib Dem conference?

You total hilarious dweebs! What is up with you?! The entire party has been in open revolt for over a month, big long lists of PPCs are writing letters to Nick Clegg, there are rumours of resignations all over the place, councillors and activists are to my certain knowledge running around right this minute badgering, cajoling, threatening and pleading with their MPs to stick to the damn pledges and you know what? They were wobbling. That PPCs’ open letter was quite quickly followed by speculation on mass abstention peppered with individuals voting against.

Now, I’m still wavering on the whole question of tuition fees, and would be quite happy to go to my grave in that condition because I find the issue genuinely complex, and am continuously baffled at the number of people who don’t, on both sides. But there’s no doubt the plurality of opinion in the active section of the party is anti-fees. And now they’ve had taken from them the last big chance ahead of the vote to speechify, press flesh, lobby in person, brief an attentive media and generally make a nuisance of themselves. The students of Liberal Youth have lost the chance to square up publicly and en masse to their supposedly elders and betters and demand a hearing.

Now, it’s true that Lib Dem regional conferences are ham sandwiches and flipcharts affairs with typical attendances in the low hundreds, and the media’s rebranding of the London conference as a “summit” is the subject of much internal hilarity. Bilderberg this ain’t (and that’s why the cancellations have happened, because busting the sort of venues usually chosen for a Lib Dem regional conference is about as difficult as breaking into an envelope).  But the fact remains – you’ve just lost a day of public pressure on Clegg and you are celebrating the reduction of Lib Dem membership lobbying opportunities.

It’s hard to see how anyone who thinks this helps the anti-fees cause could possess the requisite neural co-ordination to hold up a banner, never mind be fronting a national campaign. What were you going to do at the protest, dribble on us until we got really annoyed? Political short-termism is one thing, this is pure bloody goldfish territory. Yes! We stopped the Lib Dem conference! Let’s celebrate by occupying this pinhead! Now they won’t be able to publicly debate and restate their opposition to their own leadership and be top of all the news bu-

Duh.

A couplet of TED talks from Sir Ken Robinson. The first is from 2006:

The second is from this year:

(In a manner of speaking Ken Robinson has already been to Lib Dem conference, because I’m pretty sure Clegg’s speechwriters filched one of his anecdotes one year.)

I’ll let the talks speak for themselves, but one incidental observation occurs to me. I spend some of my internet time as a silent lurker on various science and skeptical blogs. This is not because I have any scientific training whatsoever – I was overjoyed to leave science behind at school. I lurk there because I can get a fix of that element that science and the humanities have in common – the concern with an evidence base, and the passionate and laudable desire to promote it in public life and policy.

The same movement, that attempt to connect the lessons of one’s own discipline with the wider world, doesn’t exist on the humanities side at the moment. Or at least not in such a self-conscious way that it gives itself a name and gathers together to blog. Humanities graduates, in their infinite variety, don’t find a specific sense of common purpose online, probably because the number of professional spheres and ways of life open to them are traditionally wide. People who trained as scientists of various sorts do feel a greater cohesiveness, it seems to me, even where they go on into unrelated fields. They have a more lasting shared culture, probably because many of their likeliest professional spheres are specifically related to their university training. The cultural glue of studenthood is very powerful, and may be sustained for longer among, say, doctors than among, say, civil servants. All this would explain why the online skeptic community has grown from that particular side of learning, even though its concern with an evidence base is not unique.

Anyway, one potential weakness in the science/skeptic outlook, it seems to me, is an occasional impatience with pluralism in education. Scientists traditionally have a hard time in terms of funding, so unsurprisingly they have developed a  sort of collective chip about it, and in particular about the idea that there could be any merit in funding certain arts and humanities subjects. Charles Clarke lost his seat at the election, and after giving three  cheers for the end of another authoritarian home secretary, I gave another small one for the end of an anti-pluralist. In 2003 Clarke suggested that “unproductive” humanities subjects could have funding withdrawn. Naturally, all the liberal arts broadsheets set off in full cry after him for being a philistine.

My response to Clarke would have been much simpler. Clive Bloom wrote along similar lines of the uselessness of much funded humanities research in the THES recently, and oddly ended up reminding me of nothing so much as  science and medical research. In so much research, in all fields, we simply don’t know how the thing ends. The applications aren’t immediately obvious. This or that obscure paper or experiment might be a tributary into an uncharted river, a new line of enquiry, a new field even. It is probably true that 50% of all humanities research is useless how-many-angels stuff, but like the man said of his advertising campaigns, no-one knows which 50% is useless.

Surely, if we take a sort of fundie approach to education at any level – from the arts, the humanities or the sciences side – we’re cutting off our own options, and far from incidentally cutting off a proportion of the population from its potential. We lose one segment of the Ken Robinsons of the world. Science training, for example, doesn’t equip you to think  about or design new education systems, or undesign them – even though a new education system might be fundamental to the successful provision of science training in future. And set alongside Robinson’s reconception of what education should be about, wrangling over which subject areas should attract most postdoctoral funding starts to look unbearably petty.

How you would even begin to translate Robinson’s vision of pluralism and local variation into reality, and basically give education its own inbuilt capacity to evolve and meet humanity’s needs, is an entire culture of blogs unto itself. (And free schools look like the clumsiest of first attempts, set uselessly within the same old framework.) But you certainly couldn’t expect to be successful if you began by rejecting one of those two basic tenets, and it’s a shame to see otherwise thoughtful people moving in that direction.

I keep being told by Labour commentators and supporters that for the Lib Dems to do a deal with the Conservatives would be to walk away from the only chance of the electoral reform that the Lib Dems have always fought for. I keep being told that only Labour offers that chance.

I’m certainly not sanguine about what Cameron is likely to offer, but I am starting to wonder about the smoke and mirrors on the other side as well. Obviously, Labour has had thirteen years of vast parliamentary majorities to reform the system and restrained their eagerness, so we are right to be cynical about their late conversion.

But they could have blown all that doubt away – and put the Lib Dems in a tricky bind – if they had come out immediately after the election and very publicly made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. Brown gone, Citizens Convention, referendum on STV, open to generous negotiation on all other Lib Dem policies. Something so obviously better than what we’re likely to get out of Cameron that Clegg might be tempted to go against common sense, honour and democracy and seek an alliance of the two smaller parties against the larger one.

This would have been absolutely impossible on Friday, of course, when Clegg stuck to his word and allowed the party with the most votes to take the first shot at government. But there have been three days of talks with the Conservatives now, with amicable briefing on both sides; no-one can say Clegg hasn’t tried. If he’s not getting the results we want, the imperatives on him to stay in negotiations with Cameron shrink by the hour. I’m not sure Clegg would do it anyway – I suspect the democratic instinct is too strong. But it would be worth Labour having a try, wouldn’t it, if only to show him up?

So where’s the offer that could tip the balance? Why hasn’t it been on the table since Saturday morning, when Sunny first pointed out the need for Labour to give Clegg a proper incentive? Why are we still today hearing briefing noises about AV, for god’s sake, a system not even proportional and can sometimes be more disproportional than FPTP? What do all the Labour supporters who chanted “We want PR” in Smith Square on Saturday think of the fact that their party of choice hasn’t actually put down a firm commitment to it?

Honestly?

I doubt Labour wants a LibLab coalition at all. I don’t think they care enough about electoral reform to go after it – the majority of their MPs certainly don’t. Think about this from their tribal point of view. If we go into alliance with the Tories, we’ll be wiped out in the north, Wales and worst of all Scotland. Labour are looking at the prospect of winning back all the votes it has lost to us over the last ten years and laying claim to being the “only progressive party”. The only conceivable drawback to this plan for them is that it doesn’t involve electoral reform. And Labour’s MPs don’t, by and large, don’t care about electoral reform, or have the habit of listening to the grassroots that do.

Labour are doing what they, by design of Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, have always been best at doing: creating enough sound and fury to seem like they are mounting a passionate argument. But the substance is not there. The necessaries have never actually been done, and as things stand no real prospect of a LibLab deal has been created. So, if and when a Lib/Con deal is concluded, expect Labour to suddenly and smoothly slip into wounded innocent  progressive gear.

If you hang around the yellow bit of the internet much you’ll know that the Lib Dem Voice server is utterly borked, owing to a surfeit of people trying to get on there to tell other people what they reckon, and a surfeit of journalists trying to get on there to selectively misrepresent to the outside world what people reckon.

The text below was the last post on there, and since it’s rather important we’re being asked to copy and circulate it far and wide, so please do. At present I am assuming this is for members only, but I will update if I hear to the contrary. Members and party supporters fine. Non-supporters who do not wish to know the results of the hung parliament negotiations should therefore look away now:

What should the party do next? Have your say by 2pm on Saturday

On Saturday afternoon the party’s Federal Executive is meeting to discuss how the party should handle the Parliamentary situation. There’s no pre-set, universally supported answer to this so the FE’s discussion is going to be meaningful and important – which means that if you want to influence what the party does, now is the time to let the FE know.

Because many members of the Federal Executive are scattered around the country – sleeping, travelling back from election counts, making their way to London and so on – the FE members may be hard to get hold of and many will not necessarily be checking their emails frequently.

Therefore, in order to ensure that people have a chance to send in a view that will be read before the meeting, we’ve agreed with the Party President Ros Scott a special email address -

balancedparliament@libdemvoice.org

which can be used to email in your views. A member of staff will collate all the messages and make sure that they are drawn to the attention of Ros and also reported to the members of the FE in time for their discussion.

A few tips when emailing this address:
- Given the pressures of time, short and concise messages are likely to be more effective than 12 pages essays [chiz - AEM]
- As with letter writing or lobbying more generally, saying in full who you are and where you’re from is likely to add to the impact of the message
- Please send your message as soon as possible

In the darkest hour of the night, around 4am when Evan Harris lost his seat, someone reminded me of this Woody Allen quote:

People get the government they deserve. Unfortunately, I get the government they deserve too.

Oxford West and Abingdon was the only moment last night that I was actually scared. Not just grumblingly disappointed with the whole thing on a partisan Lib Dem level (I’m on record as saying I’d have been happy with 25% and that remains my position – I would have been). Really scared. What sort of world is it where Evan Harris can lose his seat to a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship? I stress I know nothing about the woman herself, but the background to his defenestration – hate mail from pro-life and animal cruelty groups, frenzied character assassinations from the ghastly Cristina Odone, and an unspeakably unpleasant piece of twit-gloating from the even ghastlier Nadine Dorries soon afterwards – is inescapable.

Evan lost his seat because an ungodly alliance of the Daily Mail mob, the woo mob and the Christian fundie mob went after him with pitchforks and burning torches. It worked. They’re probably dancing round a flaming pyre somewhere right now, celebrating, before they sober up with a spot of demon exorcism.

It scares me, the thought of these people imposing their morality on others. That’s why I’m a liberal. I don’t want these puritans trying to influence my life and my rights, reducing the abortion limit on moral grounds, building their narrow beliefs about familial organisation into my tax system and turning out baseless judgemental guff under the banner of “social research”.

Why, then, am I getting them? Partly, lets face it, because Christian Conservatives tend to be good at attracting money, and money wins  political campaigns as we saw in Richmond. But also partly because their mindset lends itself to collective activity in a way that mine, frankly, doesn’t. It took me twenty-eight years to stop seeing politics as some dirty little squabble far beneath my lofty uber-rational notice. What, you mean I might have to commit to things I might not 100% agree with? Do things I couldn’t see the point of? I might have to – gulp – surrender some of my autonomy to a group identity?

Look again at that moment, 4am this morning, right there. Yes, I do have to. If I want people  like Evan to stop being beaten and people like Nadine to start being beaten, I’ve got to be prepared to give a little autonomy, do all the usual grunt work, put in what I can,  be prepared to be (in some sense) part of an organisation. Do things, say things and support things I wouldn’t necessarily choose to if it were entirely up to me.

And so do you. If I’ve specifically asked you to read this post (and you are, for which, thank you) it’s because I think you’re, in some sense, a great and mighty nerd, and I think it’s time we started to put things on a more formal footing if we want to (a) get Evan back into parliament and (b) stop the same battles being lost elsewhere. I don’t suggest for one moment that joining the Liberal Democrats is necessarily the thing you need to do. There are more specific ways you can help Evan regain the seat, and in any case staying out of membership means you could also help, say, a independent candidate in the same way. But sooner or later, this endarkenment thing is really going to start to close in upon us, and we are each going to have to be prepared to be a cog in the engine of reason that resists. And that might mean you – you precious little rational autonomous snowflake, you – doing things that are a bit poe-litical.

Because make no mistake – our opponents, the purveyors of unreason, the doctors of woo and the anti-secularist Christians, have no compunction whatsoever about conforming and stifling independent impulses to achieve their goals. They revel in it. It’s the sort of people they are. If you’ve not read this account of the Christianisation of Tory party policy by the excellent Chris Cook at the FT, you should do so. We don’t have to turn into those sorts of people. But we do have to be able to challenge them effectively, and that means organising, mobilising and all those others words that individualistic skeptics instinctively flinch at. It means getting off the internet too.

I do not yet have a clear idea in my mind of what such organisation would look like. I can imagine it might be based on such existing social structures as the skeptics meet-ups, with a fair bit of overlaps with various campaigns such as Sense about Science, PEN, No2ID, Unlock Democracy and so on. But it would be distinct from all these – a sceptics movement which sought a public voice, and leant its numbers to particular political causes. All this is  the roughest of rough outlines my addled brain can produce right now. I’ll return to the thought, and I dearly hope others will too (Christ, I’ve never actually caught myself longing for people to read my blog before.)

We got a horrible, horrible warning last night. If we don’t heed it, we’ve let the slide towards the triumph of unreason begin. I need to leave you with this excessively long  quote from the stupendous Less Wrong blog (and the post is honestly worth reading in full):

I’ll write more later (tomorrow?) on how I think rationalists might be able to coordinate better.  But today I want to focus on what you might call the culture of disagreement, or even, the culture of objections, which is one of the two major forces preventing the atheist/libertarian/technophile crowd from coordinating.

Imagine that you’re at a conference, and the speaker gives a 30-minute talk.  Afterward, people line up at the microphones for questions.  The first questioner objects to the graph used in slide 14 using a logarithmic scale; he quotes Tufte on The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  The second questioner disputes a claim made in slide 3.  The third questioner suggests an alternative hypothesis that seems to explain the same data…

Perfectly normal, right?  Now imagine that you’re at a conference, and the speaker gives a 30-minute talk.  People line up at the microphone.

The first person says, “I agree with everything you said in your talk, and I think you’re brilliant.”  Then steps aside.

The second person says, “Slide 14 was beautiful, I learned a lot from it.  You’re awesome.”  Steps aside.

The third person -

Well, you’ll never know what the third person at the microphone had to say, because by this time, you’ve fled screaming out of the room, propelled by a bone-deep terror as if Cthulhu had erupted from the podium, the fear of the impossibly unnatural phenomenon that has invaded your conference.

Yes, a group which can’t tolerate disagreement is not rational.  But if you tolerate only disagreement – if you tolerate disagreement but not agreement – then you also are not rational.  You’re only willing to hear some honest thoughts, but not others.  You are a dangerous half-a-rationalist.

We are as uncomfortable together as flying-saucer cult members are uncomfortable apart.  That can’t be right either.  Reversed stupidity is not intelligence.

With apologies to the Daily Mash.

Here are some of the headlines you can expect to see tomorrow (or if you’re surgically attached to the internet, tonight):

HUNG PARLIAMENT WILL CAUSE GREEK-STYLE CHAOS!

BRITAIN TO GO TO IMF, SAYS MAN!

CHAOS AND DEATH AS LIB DEMS OFFER ALL EXPENSES PAID HOLIDAY AND NICE CUP OF TEA TO TEN MILLION PAEDOPHILE IMMIGRANT SCUM!

Others have written on these matters (ok, the first two) far more effectively than I could.

(But this much, I can tell you: in a country with a large deficit, a generally overspending government, and a desperate need for stimuli to work and to enterprise, widdling away billions on inheritance tax cuts and marriage tax breaks is high up the list of things you probably shouldn’t do. No-one should be in any doubt about the fact that supporting the Tories for their economic competence is largely a matter of faith.)

Yup, we’re going to get a lie sandwich in the face, which we absolutely do not deserve. So don’t forget – establishment figures like those ordering the articles and those calling their tune are only scared because we, the Lib Dems, represent a threat to their “arrangements”. And believe me, I’m fully aware of how ridiculous that sounds – when a mainstream political party led by a decent chap constitutes a fundamental threat to the status quo in media, politics and public life, something has gone badly wrong with the system. And so it has.

But on one subject, and one only, they are right to be afraid. Because on political reform, the Liberal Democrats are the real thing, the bona fide radicals, and political reform would spell the end of all the current hegemonies across public discourse. No matter what happens tomorrow, political reform is now the main event, and will be until some sort of reaction occurs at the very top of politics (I hear rumours of a mass rally in London this Saturday, regardless of who wins or doesn’t on Thursday). This is why they’re so afraid – and we did this. Little yellow us.* So keep calm, wear a quiet smile, and fucking carry on. You’re doing great.

*With a little help from the Telegraph. I do wonder if they really understood what they were starting with the expenses scandal. It’s a nice coincidence that the editor who oversaw that has been pushed out  of the group tonight isn’t it.

Let’s be clear: I am trying very hard not to romanticise. I am trying to do what Lib Dems keep exhorting each other to do, which is keep your feet on the ground, and also keep calm and carry on. Which is tricky. (There’s a lot of things to keep in there.)

I’m definitely trying to not entirely buy into the idea that there is an Establishment, an actual one with a capital E, and it favours the Duopoly, with a capital D, and we, the Lib Dems, are shut out of it because we would mean its destruction, both by reform to the political system, but also just by existing where they think we shouldn’t exist. I am trying not to think all that.

I’m trying not to say things like, “This is how we know we’re getting somewhere.”

But boy. Getting difficult, isn’t it.

First we were given advance warning by David Yelland, former editor of Sun:

Over the years the relationships between the media elite and the two main political parties have become closer and closer to the point where, now, one is indistinguishable from the other. Indeed, it is difficult not to think that the lunatics have stopped writing about the asylum and have actually taken it over.

We now live in an era when very serious men and women stay out of politics because our national discourse is conducted by populists with no interest in politics whatsoever. What we have in the UK is a coming together of the political elite and the media in a way that makes people outside London or outside those elites feel disenfranchised and powerless. But all that would go to pot if Clegg were able to somehow pull off his miracle. For he is untainted by it.

We were constantly assured with much waggling of eyebrows that there’d be “a lot more scrutiny” now. A couple of half-hearted News of the World stories were, I think, the opening salvo on Friday.

Then this from the Mail:

There can be only one credible explanation for the utterly irrational outpouring of support for the Liberal Democrats after a mere 90 minutes of X Factor-style TV politics: the public, disgusted by the near moral bankruptcy of the last Parliament, is looking for revenge.

The electorate are being totally irrational in not voting the way we say! Re-educate them immediately! Sieg heil! The commenters don’t seem too impressed.

A slew of sloppy stories surrounded this central core, attempting to spread misinformation about Clegg’s expenses. The Mail claimed that Lib Dems were “among the worst” expenses offenders, which is demonstrably not true. There was even an attempt to imply that Clegg’s mortgage on his own house in London was paid for on expenses. So far as I know, his second home is in Sheffield and that’s what he claims for – anyone know any different? If not, he is basically being accused of spending his own money on his own house.

And this is what the front pages look like this morning. Open it in another tab. Keep it there in case you need to have another look.

I suspect the Mail need detain us no longer, since it appears to have fallen screaming into a boiling vat of self-parody (Clegg does carry off that pink dress well, though, it must be said). But even the Telegraph, so far as I can tell, is pushing the bounds of credibility. It’s reporting that Clegg received donations from registered donors into his own account, notified them to the Register of Members’ Interests, and paid them out as half a salary for one of his researchers. Which was the purpose for which they’d been intended.

Unless there is something more to this that the Telegraph are keeping back, I am struggling to see what point they are trying to make. I am forced to conclude that they are playing on general ignorance about tax arrangements. An MP, so far as I know, is a sole trader, and employs their own staff. I’m a sole trader myself and I do everything through my private bank account. Of course, many sole traders set up separate accounts for their business, especially if they have lots of income and outgoings (builders, for example).  It’s not clear whether Clegg has done this or not, because the Torygraph doesn’t want  to tell us. Certainly the bank statements also show mortgage payments on his second home, so it may well be the case that this is a bank account opened specifically for expenses purposes. But even if it wasn’t, there’s no obligation whatever on a sole trader to run items through a separate bank account – it’s not like being a company. A separate expenses account would still be an ordinary current account in his own name  anyway (which is precisely why we can’t tell whether that’s what this is or not).

I’m told ITV news were highly unimpressed last night, and this morning they don’t even seem to be running it on their home page, Krishnan Guru-Murthy didn’t think it was a “killer blow” especially given the opacity of Tory office funding, Iain Dale thinks it’s a terrible indictment of the British press which will backfire. Even Nick Robinson reports the view that it’s a smear (22.26pm) and seems to think (see bottom of this story) that Clegg has been badly treated.

Yes, looking at the assemblage of the right-wing papers today, it’s hard not to start romanticising what’s going on here. If we’re upsetting them this much, these press barons and billionaires and opponents of reform, these ghastly, leathery old pooh-bahs of the status quo, we must be doing something right. Look again at those ludicrous front pages – that is how much they don’t want us to succeed. What is it that’s making them this afraid of us, if it isn’t the prospect of getting it in their own corrupt necks?

(In fact, my god, maybe this is how much they don’t want us to succeed. Murdoch’s people can’t really be trying to bully other newspapers into following their line. Can they? Can they?)

And we all know why they’ve had to resort to this. Because “scrutiny” didn’t work. Scrutiny of our policies was supposed to be the moment at which everything Clegg did in the first debate evaporated in a puff of smoke. Scrutiny was supposed to reveal that our policies were ill-thought-out and badly costed, that we weren’t to be taken seriously. Scrutiny was supposed to show, not just that we have policies that some people don’t like (which we do, like all parties, and we’ll take it on the chin), but that none of our policies were worth a damn at all.

That was the plan. It went wrong. During the first debate, Cameron blithely assumed that we had no costings at all set up for the £10,000 personal allowance – and handed Nick a chance to explain them. Afterwards, Cameron admitted he hadn’t read the manifesto, and it was then that it dawned on me – christ, maybe none of them have. Seriously. Maybe they assume it’s just like theirs, and doesn’t have any actual numbers in it. Can the two big parties really have got so comfortable with the idea that the Lib Dems are “useless” and not a threat that they’ve started believing their own hype?

Make no mistake. (See? I’m doing it again. I’m saying things like “Make no mistake.” Any minute now it’ll be “Mark my words.”) These people have come up against the cold truth that all sprawling, inefficient businesses must eventually come across. There’s a leaner, fitter competitor out there who wants your customers, and because they haven’t got an existing custom base, they have to work twice as hard to be viable. Their offering has to be, as Clegg put it of the manifesto, “stress-tested to destruction”. Because that’s the reality of life for a third party in a duopoly system. The big parties spent three days trying to land blows on policy, and only succeeded when they lied about them (there are now people in Britain who honestly believe that it is Lib Dem policy to give the vote to paedophiles).

Hence the wild expenses stories, the ludicrous front page spreads, the incredible spectacle of the Mail incandescent and spinning with fury because the good little peoplebots aren’t doing their masters’ bidding.

The Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun and the Express absolutely do not want you to vote Liberal Democrat. They don’t want to see the first sign that their time has come, that oligarchical politics controlled by billionaires might not be what people want any more. Even after the election, however it goes, we’ll be on their radar. We’ll get an occasional warning shot across the bows if we look like getting important again, while the rest of the time they’ll redouble their efforts to return British politics to stage two of Ghandi’s maxim:

First they ignore you
Then they laugh at you
Then they fight you
Then you win

We probably won’t succeed this time, maybe not even next time. But everyone knows that the plucky little underdog eventually wins, and no-one knows this better than the national press of Great Britain. That’s why they’re so scared.

The resources controlled by these people are enormous. With odds like this stacked against us, as Terry Pratchett might say, how can we possibly lose? It’s a million-to-one chance, but it might just work.

(Hey, count yourself lucky I didn’t finish up with “We cannot falter. We dare not fail.”)

In the words of Will Bailey from the West Wing, “Something weird is happening. We’re winning.”

Polls schmolls. It’s a volatile period; the most you can say with any certainty is that the race has closed up a bit. If we stick at 25% on the day, I’ll be very happy. No, I’m talking about this. It’s a Facebook group.

So what! I hear you cry. Were you not always opposed to Facebook political campaigning as lacklustre, overdone and counterproductively irritating? Why yes, I was, and am. Official political campaigning on Facebook is almost uniformly awful, tedious, uninspiring drivel. I can’t cope with my Facebook profile any more because I’ve given in to too many of those bloody “Lib Dems For Smaller Bankers Bonuses and Larger Coffee Tables for All!”-type invitations. The only function official Facebook groups can perform well is to make contacting people easier. In terms of winning hearts and minds and whipping up popular sentiment, they’re about as effective as Arnold Rimmer in smarm mode.

This group however, is not official. Yes, if you look through the membership now you’ll find all the usual suspects, but when I joined about a week ago, the group had about 13,000 members. And I was at first shocked, and then beside myself with joy, to realise I didn’t recognise a single bloody one of them. Lest you suppose from this that I have some kind of scary person recognition database built into my brain, let me assure you that I have. I know everybody in the online Lib Dem world – or at least their names and gravatars. Every councillor, every activist, every half-affiliated sympathiser who has ever commented on Lib Dem Voice. Not because of clever networking, I hasten to add (my idea of clever networking is to return phone calls within the same week), just by hanging about in the yellow bit of the internet so much. Tragic would be my middle name if it wasn’t Emily. There’s very little goes on online to do with the Lib Dems that I don’t know about. And I didn’t know about this.

And I love this one:

And to think a couple of months ago we were impressed with people playing around with mydavidcameron.com. This group is heading for 100,000 members. They range from committed supporters who have looked up the policies and liked them, through those mainly motivated by electoral reform, to some people who just know they like the sound of the Lib Dems and feel they’re being hoodwinked by the current state of affairs.

They had and have one thing in common, though. All of them – perhaps especially the last group – are absolutely incensed by the fact that they keep being told not to vote Lib Dem, either because it’s a “wasted vote” or because it will let one of the other two in. They’re incredulous about this. Why would anyone take such an instruction seriously? The relief in the wall posts from people who’ve just joined is palpable. Why should I listen to this self-serving bullshit? Why would I believe any newspaper anyway? And thank god there are lots of other people out there who feel the same as me. They mention the self-interest of the old parties, the lazy misinformation of the media, the innate daftness of not voting Lib Dem because they won’t get enough votes to win. They get it. To coin a phrase, they really are thinking what we’re thinking.

But if I’m giving the impression that it’s an entirely negative group with fuck-you-system overtones, I should correct it. They exhort each other to make sure they’re registered to vote, they quote bits of the manifesto at each other, they positively demand to know how they can help campaign. Very early on, I remember someone suggesting that the group should try to get an official sponsor on board, a Lib Dem MP maybe? Get them on board? My god. There isn’t an MP in Britain who wouldn’t beg to be a part of what you’re doing. They’re joining your group anyway. This is what they – the good ones, at least – dream of happening. A genuine grassroots movement that reassures them they’re on the right track, and that they can tap for volunteers. In fact, every so often someone pops up from a local party and asks for help. I’m told one of the parties who did that got six replies within a couple of hours.

And if you think that group and its outputs are impressive, consider this:

So far as I know, someone made that, for no money, without official say-so, because they wanted to. All this is only telling us what we instinctively know -  that command-and-control political campaigning must evolve to survive, and that bottom-up can look as good as or better than top-down because it has superior resources.  No-one is paying these people to do these extraordinary things.   Ashcroft himself couldn’t buy it – there are too many people involved.

How much did the Tories spend on their derisory poster campaigns anyway? Whose idea was it to put Dave’s face on the side of whacking great buildings like a pompous mekon giving advance notice of his invasion? And a six-foot gravestone, for god’s sake? Did anyone actually think about how that was going to look in meatspace, as opposed to on a monitor screen? How, given free choice from a wealth of pictures of Gordon Brown looking like a gargoyle with unnatural  appetites, have the Tories managed to pick a relatively inoffensive picture of him for their latest efforts? Whatever happened to #cashgordon, after we’d all stopped laughing at its spectacular fail? Whatever happened to the idea – freely promoted by dead tree media without question – that the Tories were doing the most advanced online campaigning?

It always sounded like total bullshit, and it was. A spectre conjured by briefing a sympathetic media with the message, “This is what is happening on the internet.” As if seeing it in a newspaper might make it true (this is quite a revealing glimpse at the Labservative mindset, actually). I’m still waiting for the Tories’ brilliant online campaign to make an appearance and it still hasn’t.

None of this means, of course, that the grassroots Lib Dem campaign taking shape is going to have a huge impact on this election. Online campaigning still only reaches a small section of the population, and the bulk of that section is young – some of them are too young to vote.  But the reach can only grow, and the effects of online campaigning leech out into newspapers and into media consciousness anyway. It already looks like it’s given us a lasting slogan in “I agree with Nick”, admittedly with a little help from the Prime Minister.

Rob has started to collect examples and is twittering when the blog is updated, so if you see anything you think should be added, go and let him know. Regardless of what happens in the election itself, this stuff needs to be recorded so that it can form the raw material for half a chapter in someone’s definitive monologue on how internet politics changed in 2010.


I was entirely unsurprised by Nick Clegg’s performance last night. He came across like he usually does in bloggers’ interviews – passionate, quite eloquent at times and for want of a better word, genuine. He did all the things you’re supposed to do – replied directly to the questioner, remembered people’s names, visibly tried to work out answers to the actual questions rather than defaulting immediately to manifesto-speak. Had good posture, looked relaxed, came across like a human being. Derided the old way of doing things, suggested that we could do something different.  Blah blah. Seen him do that schtick a dozen times. None of it is rocket science.

He did have the advantage of a reasonably coherent policy programme to talk from, but the real explanation, which I’ve not seen any journalist mention, is the town hall meetings. It was one of the first things Clegg said on becoming leader in December 2007, that he was going to get out of Westminster every couple of weeks, and stand in a town hall or community centre or a school taking questions and flak from an unscreened, unplanted audience. He’s done that all round the country, unnoticed by the London media establishment, probably about a hundred times in the last two years. It’s not surprising that he’s quite good at it, it’s just practice.

One moment where I felt the practice really showed was the question from a boy about his schooling, and why it involved such a frenetic pace and so many exams. Both Brown and Cameron talked in general terms about schooling, standards and funding, but it was only when Cameron started on the horrors of unruly pupils that it dawned on me -these two have only ever talked about this to adults. Parents, teachers, whoever. Their stock lines on education are absolutely not prepared for answering a question from a pupil.  Clegg got it – “you mean creativity, don’t you” – and answered the question that had been put to him, with the situation of the questioner in mind.

He also displayed familiar faults, chiefly getting carried away with exploring one point when a sharply rattled-off list is what’s required.  I noticed this habit when he was running for the leadership. It was really noticeable when Cameron asked him – rhetorically – how raising the personal allowance to £10,000 was going to be paid for, and Alistair Stewart quickly stepped in to make the rhetorical actual. This was an on-a-plate opportunity for Clegg to put the lid on the question and rattle off  the list of measures which will pay for the raise – they’re in the manifesto – and he only got to the end of one of them because he got so enthusiastic about why it was a good idea. Brown rattles off lists all the time and sounds awful, but there is a happy medium and I don’t think Clegg has quite got there yet. He needs to sharpen this up.

Still, all in all, an unsurprisingly decent performance.

No, the revelation of the night, for me, was David Cameron. Anxious, sweaty, somehow indefinably lumpy (and something else…piscine?),  many of his answers were delivered in the sort of rambling bark that works so well on the floor of the House of Commons and was clearly never, ever going to work on camera and to a studio audience.  After he saw Clegg do it, he got the hang of the fact that in an audience debate you go back to the questioner – but he needed to be shown, apparently.

This surprised me, because I thought that, however much I might disagree with him, he was a player. This is Dave the great communicator, right? Elected leader because he was supposed to be good at putting across what the Tories stand for. Regularly wipes the floor with Brown at PMQs and stares earnestly into TV cameras when being interviewed by journalists.  We all expect Brown to sound like a dalek – “I  say to the nation” – but I was very surprised at how often Cameron came across as thoroughly ill-at-ease.

He  was confident on the traditional Tory stamping grounds of crime and immigration, mind, and that slightly bombastic hectoring style he has is what right-wing people like to hear when those topics are discussed. So that worked well, and will have shored up his core vote without necessarily persuading anybody new. But his style has basically been evolved to browbeat Brown across the despatch boxes, and he seemed torn between going for business as usual and the (correct) realisation that it would  make him look like a boor in this context. He had no alternative style to call upon, it seemed.

But above all, I was surprised by his failure to put across a positive vision for government. I have never been one of these people whose default assumption is that he represents the “same old Tories”. I thought they were supposed to be all about self-reliance, big society, mutualism, localism, a smaller state, volunteering etc. That was what the manifesto was all about. And yet last night, Cameron didn’t mention it until his closing speech, as if he’d suddenly found a shoe horn.

I suppose what this underlines is how poorly the Tory narrative actually hangs together. The common soundbite policies – the NI package, inheritance and marriage tax breaks, longer prison sentences,  immigration cap, being nice to the NHS – are all either traditional and predictable, or have been made on the hoof in response to attack. None of them have much to do with all the localism/DIY stuff. The exception is probably free schools, but then Gove and Cameron shaft any DIY overtones in that one every time they start ranting in enormous detail about how Key Stage Whatever History should be taught.

This debate was always Cameron’s to lose (Labour and Conservatives will tell you that it was Clegg’s to win, but the odds said different. It  was his to not fuck up, yes, but to win he had to win). But this is not just about expectations – opportunities were clearly missed by Cameron. Brown was offering the audience fear, Cameron could have been the man of the hour if he’d offered them hope. He not only failed to do that, he failed on some surprisingly basic presentational stuff as well. I’m not sure what they’ve been doing up to now, but I suspect there’ll be some very different practising going on in CCHQ over the next week or so.

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