Friday, May 06, 2005

In the cold light of day

Well, I lasted until 4.30am.

By that point, the effects of the coffee were wearing off just as the sleep-inducing effects of the red wine were kicking in, and when the Labour victory was confirmed, that was the cue for my head to hit the pillow.

In many ways it's a strange election to evaluate, no one party having that much to smile about.

Labour secured the "historic third term" (returned MPs parroted that like a mantra) they wanted and nearly everyone expected, but with a vastly reduced majority. Refreshingly, there was little triumphalist rhetoric from anyone, little insistence on the outcome vindicating the decisions of the past four years or giving them a clear and ringing popular endorsement. Instead, Blair and company openly acknowledged that they had been given the much-talked-about "bloody nose" over issues like Iraq and trust, and accepted that much work remains to be done to repair some of the damage the party's reputation and credibility has sustained.

The Tories, meanwhile, will have been wounded by their failure to make significant gains in Labour-held marginals, especially given the poor performance (in relative terms) of Labour. There were a few constituencies that switched allegiance and turned blue, but on the whole it was more like treading stagnant water than a genuine recovery - a fact Howard seems to have acknowledged in announcing his decision to make way "sooner rather than later". They will be a more effective opposition this term, but thanks not to their own gains but to the reduced Labour majority.

All of which should have meant that the Lib Dems benefited. But they didn't - or, at least, not as much as they could have done. Their share of the vote increased, as did the number of constituencies they hold, but I still can't help thinking that, given the positions of their rival parties on Iraq, they could have made up much more ground. Perhaps they were cautious not to overplay their opposition to the war in those seats where they were hoping to wrest control from the Tories - but the hoped-for "decapitations" never materialised, and the under-threat Tories by and large survived, including the unspeakably odious Oliver Letwin.

Of the three constituencies in which I had personal interest - Wansbeck, Nottingham South and Birmingham Ladywood - Labour remained in control of all three. Occupying the latter two seats, fortunately, are Alan Simpson and Clare Short - both very much of the old school, and intent on not giving Blair an easy ride in steering the party away from its roots, but both nevertheless suffering swings away. In Wansbeck, Denis Murphy (the only current Labour MP with a mining background) triumphed. Like Sarah, I was amused that the Tory candidate was called Ginny, but even more amused that she thought she stood a chance while her address as given on the ballot paper was in Wiltshire. Obviously she'd have been in touch with the issues concerning local people in south Northumberland...

Best moment of the night? Well, I missed the Paxman v Galloway heavyweight bout, so it was no contest - the look on Robert Kilroy-Silk's face when the Erewash result was announced and the possibility that he might have lost his deposit sank in. This was a seat in which he polled 31% of the vote in the European elections, don't forget. Hilarious. His political bubble has well and truly burst.

Other bloggers' reactions to / reflections on the election:

Skif recounts his experience counting votes in the Liverpool Riverside constituency (thankfully there were no recounts);

Paul rejoices at Kilroy-Silk's dismal failure in his constituency;

Diamond Geezer despairs at the news that George Galloway is his new MP (as he is for He Who Cannot Be Named), while Inspector Sands commiserates;

Jonathan is bemused by Howard's decision to step down;

Pete and Swiss Toni write about their experiences of voting yesterday;

The Girl offers a guide as to "How To Be Political";

Mike sums up the evening's viewing;

and Vaughan is perturbed with the enthusiasm with which some of the electorate greet the results...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Blogwatch: in brief

On a political tip (honestly, anyone would think there was an election going on)...

Jonny B, obviously bitten by the politics bug following his involvement in the recent SWSL Right To Reply feature, presents his reflections on the main parties and their respective campaigns, before encouraging a rather intriguing tactical voting strategy (scroll up for the second and third parts of the post);

Sarah is bemused by a hand-written letter from her local Tory candidate;

Jonathan, exhausted and exasperated by the thought of having to make a choice, leave the big decision up to baby Frankie.

Meanwhile, away from politics...

Inspector Sands reports on a visit to Barcelona;

Holt and He Who Cannot Be Named enthuse about recent Bloc Party and Brendan Benson gigs respectively;

Wan finds himself out hunting for baby bamboo shoots at 4am.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The inquisition

As the old cliche goes, a week is a long time in politics, so it's at the risk of seeming woefully behind the times that I feel compelled to share my thoughts on Thursday's special edition of 'Question Time' featuring the three party leaders.

Michael Howard came in for some fierce criticism for the Tory policies on tax and immigration, and also underlined his party's nonsensical position on Iraq - he claimed Tony Blair took us to war on false evidence and is thus a liar, and yet was still happy to concede that the Tories would have done the same thing had they been in power.

Charles Kennedy, up first, had an easier ride, and came across as relaxed, focused and breezily confident of his party's chances of making significant gains.

But the real interest was in the final third of the show, when Blair came up against an onslaught from the studio audience, the savagery of which surprised even me. Iraq was the most contentious issue, and Blair was very evidently uncomfortable fielding questions and points about his decision. For a man widely expected to be leading his party into an historic third term in office, he looked remarkably beleaguered, able to say little more in his defence than that he had acted in "good faith".

On the question of trust and leadership, his mantra was "Well, you're going to have to decide". Thanks for that, Tone, I think we already knew that much. As defences go, it was hardly robust.

His eyes visibly lit up when talk turned away from Iraq and towards home affairs, but even then he found himself lost for words when told about the way the new system for getting doctors' appointments within 48 hours is working in practice.

All in all it was, I thought, a very shaky performance from a man who, in the world of glib political rhetoric, is a consummate professional.
Junk junkie

As a documentary film about the impact of junk food on health, 'Supersize Me' could have been pretty dry and dull, but Morgan Spurlock's Michael Moore style approach, though lacking subtlety, ensured it was for the most part entertaining.

Watching someone endure ninety McDonalds meals in thirty days wasn't pleasant (neither was the footage of stomach stapling surgery), but if it does have an effect on public attitudes to fast food then it'll have done its job. I'm certainly not averse to a bit of greasy stodge (though I refuse to patronise McDonalds and their ilk), but generally I've been trying to eat better of late. Healthy eating does seem to have become a real public concern over the last few years - just as well, if we don't want to go the same way as the Americans.

'Supersize Me' is probably best viewed in the context of 'Jamie's School Dinners' and Eric Schlosser's book 'Fast Food Nation', which have also helped in getting the message across. Spurlock only touched briefly on the issue of school food to which C4 dedicated a whole series, whilst 'Fast Food Nation' takes a much broader look at the junk food industry than 'Supersize Me' - not just focusing on McDonalds, and looking beyond the obvious effects on health to examine the industry's influence in areas such as employment, farming, business and culture. As good as 'Supersize Me' is, it's not as nutritious and satisfyingly filling as Schlosser's book.
In loving memory

In the early hours of Saturday morning I happened to catch a fascinating short documentary film on C4 called 'The Edgware Walker' about the town's best-known eccentric. Director / producer Lee Kern interviewed local people to establish the myths about the Walker, before revealing the sad truth: he felt compelled to walk or run from one place to another every day as a form of tribute to his father who had committed suicide.

At the end of the interviews Kern broke the news of the Walker's own death, and the expressions on the interviewees' faces spoke volumes - people obviously assumed he'd be around forever, the most recognisable and distinctive feature of their home town even though they knew very little about him. His death was portrayed as a kind of death for the town too.

The film was really affecting, and made me think that the same sort of tribute should be paid to Nottingham's much-missed Xylophone Man aka Frank Robinson, if it hasn't been done already.
It's a kind of Magic

Congratulations to LMT, whose cheeky email to John 'Drumbo' French has secured his band Autons a support slot with their heroes The Magic Band when they play Portsmouth in June. It promises to be quite a night.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

It ain't heavy

Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness Of Being' begins with a discussion of Nietzsche's concept of eternal return, and of Parmenides's labelling of lightness and weight as positive and negative respectively. Andy McNab or Jilly Cooper it is not.

It's a peculiar novel which reminded me of Salman Rushdie's 'Fury' in that the plot, such as it is, is sketchy and the characters, even those central to the narrative - a serial womaniser called Tomas, his wife Tereza and his lover Sabina - are in many ways coincidental, simply convenient fictional devices around which Kundera can weave his philosophical reflections about life, death and everything in between.

Not that he denies this - far from it, entering the novel as its omnipresent and always visible narrator he openly concedes that the characters are entirely fabricated, nothing more than figments of his imagination: "characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about ... The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities". It's as though an interview with the author about his literary practice and beliefs has been embedded within the fabric of the novel itself.

Time and again Kundera unapologetically uses his creations as a springboard for his own thought-adventures, musings about everything from the relationship between humans and animals to Freud's omission of the aesthetic from his theory of dreams. Along the way the reader continually encounters hard nuggets of epigrammatic truth:

"Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us";

"Without realising it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress";

"What is unique about the 'I' hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual 'I' is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered".

For a non-realist - or even anti-realist - novelist, Kundera also has some interesting things to say about his home country - about the realities of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; about the fear, paranoia and restrictions upon freedom which followed; and about romanticised Western visions of protest and resistance against the totalitarian state. However, in keeping with the philosophical reflections in the rest of the book, these observations are not solely serious and solemn in tone; at one point a dissident exclaims: "'The complete recorded lives of the Czech intelligentsia on file in the police archives! Do you know what effort literary historians have put into reconstructing in detail the sex lives of, say, Voltaire or Balzac or Tolstoy? No such problems with Czech writers. It's all on tape. Every last sigh'". It's a wry literary joke, and one that made me smile.

'The Unbearable Lightness Of Being' is a novel that will exercise your face muscles as well as your grey matter.
Iraq: back on the front page

At long last.

After my complaints last week, it's good to see that the invasion of Iraq has finally made it onto the front pages in the run-up to the election, thanks to the leaked document from the Attorney General about the legality of the offensive.

Of course it's just what Blair didn't want - the issue raising its head and biting him in the arse again. The look of exasperation on his face and that open-handed gesture every time he's asked about his decision to take the country to war and about issues of trust say it all, really. He must have been very happy with the extent to which Iraq had been swept under the carpet.

Surely this is the opportunity the Lib Dems and the Green Party have been waiting for, and one they can't afford to pass up? But even now Charles Kennedy has been moderate in his choice of language, preferring "misleading" to Michael Howard's much more aggressive labelling of Blair as a "liar". (Of course the Tory's arguments are pathetically paper-thin and hypocritical, given their support for military action.)

It's not just about cynical party political points-scoring. It's about reminding the British public of the way in which we were deceived and betrayed by our elected representatives - and reminding them that next week's ballot gives us the power to actually do something about it.
Blogwatch: in brief

After a brief vanishing act, Vicky's back, armed with her responses to the literary meme of last week;

He Who Cannot Be Named muscles in on the turf claimed by Kenny for his Parallax View Book Review Compendium with comments on a whole host of books including Ian McEwan's 'Enduring Love', Jack Kerouac's 'On The Road' and Helen Oyeyemi's 'The Icarus Girl';

50 Quid Bloke is enamoured with I Am Kloot's third album Gods And Monsters;

Sarah is pleasantly surprised by a visit from "a Significant Ex";

Paul ponders paying for his groceries with a cat;

Paranoid Prom Queen has moved here;

Jonny B brings a touch of credibility and cool to the game of bowls - and loses to "an elderly lady with a bad hip".
That difficult second album

Another fantastic collaborative piece on Stylus: their Non-Definitive Guide To The Follow-Up, which features The Stone Roses, Bush, Elastica, De La Soul, Goldie, Air, The Clash and Weezer amongst others.

Also on Stylus this week:

Dom Passantino hails Eels' triumphant return to form with new double LP Blinking Lights And Other Revelations, crowning it Album Of The Week.

Todd Burns is impressed by The Evens, Ian McKaye of Fugazi and Amy Farina's side project.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Reasons for silence

I was sad to see that Auspicious Fish is no more because "it's run its course". It'll be sorely missed round these parts.

Speaking of which, I think there's going to have to be a marked scaling down of operations on SWSL over the next few weeks. It's unfortunate that it has to come in the wake of a really good Right To Reply feature when daily hits have gone through the roof and the site's welcomed lots of new visitors, but it can't be helped. Sometimes life just gets in the way.

That said, this isn't the end, and neither is it an indefinite hiatus of the sort of which bloggers and bands are fond. It's an enforced lull. There will still be posts appearing from time to time - I doubt very much whether I could stay away completely for long - so stick with it.

Thanks.
Exhibitionism

My latest piece about the "weird old beardie".
Feel good hits of the 25th April

1. 'I Never Came' - Queens Of The Stone Age
2. 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' - The Smiths
3. 'So Here We Are' - Bloc Party
4. 'Ready For You Now' - Six By Seven
5. 'Union City Blue' - Blondie
6. 'Hell's Bells' - AC / DC
7. 'Video Killed The Radio Star' - Buggles
8. 'Strange Powers' - The Magnetic Fields
9. 'Blue Monday' - New Order
10. 'Lost Cause' - Beck

Is it just me, or is it not fantastic that that Magnetic Fields track was chosen as the song for the first dance at a wedding we went to at the weekend? Especially considering the opening lyrics: "On the ferris wheel / Looking out on Coney Island / Under more stars than / There are prostitutes in Thailand"...

Friday, April 22, 2005

Right To Reply #5: Election Special

(If you’re wondering what this is all about, click here.)

The participants:
Ben - your host
The Girl of Girl With A One Track Mind
Jez - likes Stereolab, dislikes Margaret Thatcher
Jonathan of Assistant
Jonny B of Jonny B’s Private Secret Diary
LMT of Between The City And The Deep Blue Sea
Lol - likes the high seas, dislikes last orders
Mike of Troubled Diva
Paul of 1000 Shades Of Grey
Pete of The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha
Phill of Danger! High Postage

Part Five: The result

If Labour were to be re-elected, what would that mean? A positive vote in their favour or simply a reflection of the weakness of the other parties?

Jonny B: Actually, I think it'd be a positive vote in their favour, for all my talk about negative reactions to the party leaders. People have so many easy reasons NOT to vote Labour – Iraq, Tony Blair, weaselly broken promises, cronyism etc. So if they are comfortable and positive enough in their environment to push these aside, you have to regard it as a vote of confidence in the Government's general performance.

The Girl: I am sure Labour will be re-elected. Not because they are the "best" party, but because they are the least worst.

Mike: I think there's still a large anything-but-the-Tories, lesser-of-all-the-evils factor. I sense an overriding sense of lethargy and complacency hanging over this election. A Labour win would therefore mean very little, "historic" third term or not. Merely a continuation of business as usual.

Jonathan: It would probably mean four more years of disappointment, let's face it, and four more years of small, creeping improvements in issues like childcare, education, and health. It wouldn't be a disaster, nor a victory. It's a fairly sad indictment, I suppose, on the limitations on our collective ambitions. What we're basically saying is "there's just you, and you let us down, but there's just you".

Ben: Depressingly, I think Labour will triumph in spite of their actions and decisions over the past four years rather than because of them, for the simple reason that they're still perceived as more capable of governing effectively and (eventually) getting things right than their rivals. A Labour victory would, for me, say next to nothing about them but speak volumes about the deficiencies of the other parties, as well as the increasingly cynical and negative voting strategies of the electorate. Even The Sun admitted as much in their remarkably lukewarm endorsement of Labour: "The Sun urges Britain to vote for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for two reasons: standing firm on Iraq and the lack of a real alternative".

The Girl: The political lines between the parties are now very slim: they are all right wing. For example, a normal Labour-voting member of the public who believes in the Welfare State, free education for all and is opposed to fighting imperialistic wars (typical "Old Labour" policies), by voting for Labour now, it has much larger implications for them, than it has done in the past. When Labour won in 1997, it was largely as a result of 18 years of Conservative rule, and the voters wanting a change in government, rather than the populus supporting Tony Blair and his right wing policies.

Paul: [Labour will] treat it as a ringing endorsement of everything they are doing (even if their majority shrinks). However I believe it is more a result of the fact that nobody offers a credible alternative and voters tend to adopt a "better the devil you know" approach (just ask John Kerry).

Phill: The present Government does not in fact have a democratic mandate. The "first past the post" system means that it only has 40% support from voters and 24% support from the electorate. So effectively Labour have the support of less than a quarter of adults in the UK. If they were re-elected, in my eyes it would indicate a poverty of ideas in mainstream British politcs and the current mainstream political system. Labour have better PR and marketing, they are the ultimate modern political party - sleek, polished, efficient, soulless and completely lacking in principles.

Paul: The best result could well be a narrow Labour majority which forces them to listen to the backbenchers if they want to pass anything controversial. At least then some of the old Labour diehards could ensure that some of their old values remain at the core of the party rather than being bypassed by Tony and his cronies.

Lol: [It] very much depends on the scale of any re-election. A large Labour mandate would be used as a positive endorsement of their politics and the weakness of the opposition. A much reduced majority would be seen as a rebuttal of some policies (Iraq etc) and the resurgence of opposition. This is my stab at how the election will be assessed: majority < 60 = resurgent opposition, Blair susceptible to early leadership challenge; > 60 but < 100 = good working majority but disaffection with Iraq; 100 = Blair will complete full third term, business as usual, Tories in another leadership crisis (they couldn’t have a 68-year-old Michael Howard at the next election).

The Girl: If (or when) Labour get in this time, the low voter turnout and protest voting will highlight this: people still want change. Not only in WHO is in power, but HOW they are in power too. If this election changes anything, I hope that it will be a wake-up call for the Labour party, a change in leadership, and, more importantly, a change in the way British Government governs. Well, one can hope...

Jez: More importantly, as the result is a foregone conclusion, is how will the other parties fare in the election and how will the political landscape change? Will Iraq turn voters towards the Lib Dems? Will UKIP split the Tory vote? Will natural Tory voters drift back towards the party’s newer hardline stance? Will the Tories implode leaving the Lib Dems as the opposition? Will the Lib Dems form a coalition government? These questions could cause the psephologists a night with even less sleep than Charles Kennedy.

A big thanks to The Girl, Jez, Jonathan, Jonny B, LMT, Lol, Mike, Paul, Pete and Phill for their contributions over the course of the week, which have helped to make what has been a fascinating feature (at least for me - I hope it was for you too). Thanks also to those who have joined in the debate in the comments boxes.

Right To Reply will be back some time in the not-too-distant future. The subject matter is as yet undecided, but if you'd like to take part or have any ideas for what might make for a good topic then please do get in touch.
Blogwatch

Welcome...

Are The Stars Out Tonight?
Girl With A One Track Mind

(Of course, by participating in the Right To Reply feature The Girl has inadvertently revealed that her mind is at least a dual carriageway. Perhaps she could begin to integrate political commentary into her blog and we'd have the most explosive sex-and-politics read since Alan Clark's diaries...)

Meanwhile...

Skif of Hobo Tread interviews John 'Drumbo' French of The Magic Band for his Vanity Project fanzine - "Van Vliet, genius and visionary though he was, also had a reputation for being a bit of a tyrant. I experienced this during my several tenures in the band. It took away a lot of the joy, because there was often a feeling in the air that one might be verbally (or even physically) attacked at any moment";

Inspector Sands is a convert to the charms of Birmingham - "It isn't all hairy people and silly accents";

Phill reviews last Sunday's Idlewild / Sons & Daughters gig at Rock City, and, like me, laments the restraint of the formerly explosive headliners while also being able to see positives in their new material;

Jonathan is disappointed by perfection in the form of Bloc Party's Silent Alarm (my thoughts on the record to appear here soon, incidentally);

Del tries his hand at doing a cartoon strip.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Right To Reply #5: Election Special

(If you’re wondering what this is all about, click here.)

Yesterday The Girl pointed out that this has been a bit of a boys' club, and so in an attempt to address the inbalance I've invited her to join the party - everyone make her feel welcome! There are a few sausage rolls and Wotsits left, but I'm afraid Jez has polished off all the booze...

The participants:
Ben - your host
The Girl of Girl With A One Track Mind
Jez - likes Stereolab, dislikes Margaret Thatcher
Jonathan of Assistant
Jonny B of Jonny B’s Private Secret Diary
LMT of Between The City And The Deep Blue Sea
Lol - likes the high seas, dislikes last orders
Mike of Troubled Diva
Paul of 1000 Shades Of Grey
Pete of The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha
Phill of Danger! High Postage

Part Four: Media influence and public apathy

How influential are newspapers in the run-up to an election? What effect (if any) does a paper coming out in favour of one particular party have?

Mike: I find this very difficult to ascertain. Is it truly ever The Sun wot wins it? Perhaps so.

Jonathan: I don’t know. I don’t think the papers can swing an election unless it’s very tight indeed.

Jez: Hugely. "It Was The Sun Wot Won It!" And it may well have been. We only have to see the sycophancy with which Blair treats Rupert Murdoch and in turn Murdoch’s insatiable desire to enter more and more homes by different means.

Pete: Despite the Sun's claims to the contrary, I don't think that the media has too much influence. I might be wrong, but I think most people have already decided, whatever newspaper they read. There may come a scandal which can tip the balance and papers like the Mail and Sun will certainly reinforce existing prejudices, but I doubt they will change many minds.

Jez: The power of the printed word is huge. Almost 10 million newspapers are sold daily in this country. At a rough guess I’d say that a single newspaper is picked up by three other people. That’s a massive coverage and a massive influence. They may not change a diehard’s mind but they can reaffirm views and alter norms.

Paul: It’s obvious that the media play a massive role in influencing the voters, and some papers in particular carry large chunks of their readership with them.

Lol: Newspapers do make a marginal difference to some undecided voters but I think broadly speaking they tend to reflect the hardened opinions of their core readership. The Daily Mail for example is read predominantly by Conservatives and therefore focuses on asylum, tax, crime etc. The Sun famously said in 1992, following their backing for a re-election of the Tories, that is was "the Sun wot won it". But this is arguable given the "Kinnock factor" within southern England. Over the past 30 years The Sun has tended to back the winning party, and I believe it overexaggerates its influence. This time around, the Sun has said it is going to wait and see before it makes its mind up. You won’t get good odds at Ladbrokes but my guess is that if the opinion polls still look good for Labour this time next week, expect the Sun to support them again (albeit grudgingly and with editorial caveats). [They have indeed come out today backing Labour, with the headline "One Last Chance".]

Paul: Anything supported by the Mail or the Express is unlikely to curry favour with me.

Jonathan: Obviously the Daily Mail and Express are travesties masquerading as newspapers, and I detest everything about them.

Phill: Any reader of the Sunday Express over the past few years could be forgiven for thinking that Kilroy was a serious political force, such is the amount of press he gets in there. Likewise other papers can manipulate the vote. If you are unsure of who to vote for, then you could be influenced, definitely.

Jonny B: Clearly [newspapers] must have some influence in the run-up. But this is negligible compared to a daily drip-feed of opinion over the lifetime of a government.

The Girl: I think newspapapers do have some influence on the way people vote, though not necessarily in the run-up to an election; more that over time the ideology and political belief system that the newspaper (proprietors) support is fed through to the public in the way that the news is reported. I believe this propaganda is much more powerful than a newspaper coming out and saying to its readers, "support this party". Let's face it, no reader wants to feel like they've been told how to think, which is the most likely result of a newspaper overtly taking electoral "sides". I think that most of the electorate are not likely to be influenced one way or another by the media debating the election: their minds have been made up a long time before the election was declared...

Ben: I see things rather differently. As traditional voting traditions are eroded, as was suggested is the case in Tuesday's installment, the newspapers and the media in general become all the more important in the run-up to an election in persuading floating undecided voters to go with one party or another. That's not to deny, though, that there is also a gradual and constant "drip-feed" effect, as Jonny B argues above. Furthermore, there's a danger of overstating the influence the media has in general and thereby understating the capacity of the electorate to assess and digest the available information and make up their own minds regardless of what different sections of the media might be telling them to think.

Jonny B: Local newspapers can often have a big influence in a region such as mine where there's a more cohesive local community – a far bigger influence than either the resources or the talent of their editors.

Ben: In many ways local media sources are able to stir up passions one way or the other more effectively than national newspapers because they can highlight issues of specific and immediate concern to the local community, issues that would most likely be overlooked by the national media, rather than talking in general terms about tax, immigration, health etc.

Jonathan: I’m not sure that sensible newspapers aren’t shying away from giving a clear call on voting these days.

Phill: There has been talk that blogs can influence the election. Bloggerheads' Backing Blair campaign makes sense, but I fear it will mean nothing. Likewise the Conservatives' pathetic attempt to jump on the blog bandwagon, Conservative Home just makes me cringe. Duncan Smith praises blogs and saying they can address the left wing media bias, but he doesn't even have his own blog. And surely even those in the Tory Party don't believe the left wing press bias myth that the Republican Party in the US has been spinning for years.

Ben: Personally I resent this appropriation of blogs as a marketing tool, whether for political parties or commercial products - and I don't think I'm alone in this.

Phill: Blogs aren't developed well enough in the UK yet to have an impact. Maybe next time they will.

What will the turnout be like?

Jonathan: I think the turnout will be poor.

Jonny B: Higher than last time, I'd guess, as it's being fought on emotive issues.

Pete: I think turnout will be low, people just can't be arsed anymore.

The Girl: I think the turnout will be very low - down on the last general election. I'd be surprised if the UK gets even a 40% turnout this election, such is the apathy right now.

Lol: Turnout will be low (under 60%) and I’ll bet it's lower than the recent election in Iraq! I have a view that people only vote when disaffected – "they get out when they want to get them out".

Mike: There is a general assumption that Labour will win, as well as a general lack of the sort of fierce ideological debate which might stir people's passions at the ballot box. It feels as if we're merely squabbling over whether one form of stewardship would be more efficient than another.

Jez: Turnout is generally low when people perceive there to be an easy victory. So this will be another low turnout. However, with vote-rigging a danger due to postal voting the turnout may be unusually high. In fact it may even be as high as a football manager’s 110%.

Lol: [Another] issue is Labour's concerns that voter apathy traditionally affects their support. This is not borne out by the facts. Over the past 50 years Labour’s biggest majorities have come following the lowest turnouts in history.

Paul: Depressingly I expect [turnout] to be low. This only plays into the hands of minority parties. Living in a constituency that will inevitably feature candidates from UKIP, Veritas and the BNP this is incredibly frustrating. What annoys me more is that people think that by not bothering to vote they are making some kind of statement. If they really wanted to show that they were frustrated with the system then they should spoil their ballot. That way it shows they care, but equally that they are rejecting the options currently available to them.

Ben: People need to made more aware that spoiling their ballot paper is a perfectly legitimate option. In fact, your right NOT to vote is as important as your right to vote, but who knows that you're exercising the former and not just being lazy and apathetic if you don't turn up to the polling station and quite deliberately spoil your ballot paper?

Phill: There should be a "none of the above" box like in the film 'Brewster's Millions'! In some countries like Australia, I believe that voting is compulsory, but i'm not sure what this really achieves. It is entertaining and fun to spoil your paper by writing naughty words, but believe me, it's just cheap thrills and the elation won't last. When Blair wins a third term, the fact that you called him a twat on the ballot paper will mean nothing.

Who’s to blame for apathy?

Jez: Although there are differences between the parties there don’t seem to be ideological chasms. If there were I’m sure we would see the rebirth of a widely politically active society. Conspiracy theorists may suggest this is all part of the plan.

Jonny B: Frankly, politicians' attempts at engaging with the electorate are like watching your dad dance at a wedding.

Pete: There is most definitely a feeling that all politicians are the same and I also think that people now believe that politicians are creepy careerists whose sole interest is in getting re-elected.

Jonathan: People have come to understand that so much of politics is about power and ambition, and it’s a turn-off.

Pete: I don't think there is any sense of mass participation in something great and momentous; politicians appear so slimy, so grubby that people have a difficult time motivating themselves to go out and cast a vote on their behalf. Politicians only have themselves to blame for this as they seem incapable of giving a straight or honest answer to even the simplest of questions. They seem to be squirming as they search for an answer that will cause the least offence. Well, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs and unless politicians start breaking a few eggs they will never get any respect back.

Jonathan: I do think that British politics is absolutely drowning in boring, unimaginative men whose language, demeanour and approach is thoroughly unappealing. It’s shameful that we still let this boys’ club atmosphere dominate.

Ben: Personally I don't think disillusionment with the democratic process and politics in general would be at anything like the level it is if we weren't repeatedly and cynically lied to by those who then implore - or rather expect - us to trust them with our vote.

Jonathan: I guess trust is the keystone issue, but I don’t think politicians are necessarily less trustworthy now than they were in the past. I just think that we hear more about them and their failings.

The Girl: People have been frustrated by the supposed lack of democracy this present government has ruled by and this will show itself by the low turnout at the polls, where (amongst others) Labour voters will sit at home in protest.

Phill: The fact of the matter is that most people's votes aren't that important, as most people live in safe seats. It's only those who live in marginal seats that can really influence the way the election will go.

Lol: People are much more aware these days of how the political system works. If you live within a safe seat and are broadly content that "your man" will be re-elected, you are less incentivised to make the effort to vote, knowing that your constituency will return someone you broadly support.

Jonny B: We live in an apathetic, disinterested society in general, in which many peoples' stock response to anything difficult is "It's all shit, isn't it?"

Ben: I refuse to believe that Britain has become a politically apathetic nation. Disillusioned yes, but there's a world of difference between apathy and disillusionment. The truth is that the major political issues continue to engage the vast majority of the population.

The Girl: I don't believe the apathy is with politics in general - if that was so, we wouldn't have seen so many politically diverse people getting on the streets and demonstrating against the Iraq war.

Phill: Low turnout doesn't necessarily mean apathy. Even if you do vote, there are many things that you will not change. The fact that the UK is the second biggest arms producer in the world for instance. Many people now choose to register their dissent outside the ballot box, through direct action, protests and a rejection of the political system. This is labelled as apathy by mainstream politicians and media, but this is merely because they seek an endorsement of their power by the masses.

What can be done to combat apathy?

Jonathan: I don’t know if apathy can be combated, to be honest. If people don’t come out to vote down the Government over Iraq, then you wonder what it will take to get people involved. But then I feel apathetic for the first time in my life now, too, and all my old fury about people neglecting to vote is largely dissipated.

Ben: All those eligible to vote (especially the young, in whose hands the country will be in the future) need to have it impressed upon them that politics impinges upon every aspect of their daily lives. All too often it strikes people as being a distant world, removed, rarefied, nothing to do with them. It's easy not to care about things that seem to have no connection to you - it needs to be made clearer how the braying and squabbling over wording and figures in the Houses of Parliament relates to the lives of the ordinary citizen.

The Girl: If government was seen to be fully representing the general populus, rather than just being a dictatorial machine, run by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, I think we would find more people coming out to vote on the day. Without a change in the style of government, we cannot expect the public to be enthusiastic about replacing one party with another.

Ben: Of the measures proposed to combat apathy, postal voting has proven problematic and controversial. Perhaps it won't be long - whether rightly or wrongly - before you can vote for your preferred government by text, just as you can vote John McCririck out of 'Celebrity Big Brother'.

Jonny B: Combating apathy is a double-edged sword. We need people to feel that they have a stake in the country. But personally, if somebody can't be arsed to pop down the road to cast their vote once every four or five years, then I don't want them to have a say in who runs my country, thank you very much. The idea that it'll somehow make democracy "better" if we make casting a vote as simple as ordering a pizza seems to be perverse. We want people to take it more seriously, not less.

Links:

Guardian article about the fact that there's apparently been less media coverage of the election than there was four years ago.

Not Apathetic - people explain the reasons they don't want to vote (via Hobo Tread).

Tomorrow’s topic: The result
Know Your Enemy #57

It's that same superbly angry young man again...

"I went on to Amazon.co.uk yesterday and read a fair sample of the 587 reviews [of 'The Da Vinci Code']. Those who gave it one star I salute you. To the 550-odd fucktards who gave it five stars and said things like 'the best novel I've ever read', 'wonderful writing' and 'amazing', I have this to say - go shove a stick of dynamite up your stupid ass and light it while standing in a bookshop next to a pile of Dan Brown novels, hopefully while Dan Brown is giving a reading to hundreds of adoring Brownites. You think the writing on sweet wrappers is Shakespearean and you dribble at bus stops while trying and failing to read numbers on the vehicles. Your favourite food are Chilli Cheese Tacos from the 99p menu at Burger King and you have hair like a mangy rat that has just swum through a mile of festering turd-slurry. May thousands of small black creatures burrow into your genitalia. May your children be green and have misshapen lumps on their forehead. May you become a big Cliff Richard fan."

This wasn't an unprovoked display of ire, though - He Who Cannot Be Named was responding to the question that originally headed yesterday's book meme: "You're inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book would you burn?" (my answer can be found in the comments box here).

His more tempered response to the rest of the meme is here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Right To Reply #5: Election Special

(If you’re wondering what this is all about, click here.)

The participants:
Ben - your host
Jez - likes Stereolab, dislikes Margaret Thatcher
Jonathan of Assistant
Jonny B of Jonny B’s Private Secret Diary
LMT of Between The City And The Deep Blue Sea
Lol - likes the high seas, dislikes last orders
Mike of Troubled Diva
Paul of 1000 Shades Of Grey
Pete of The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha
Phill of Danger! High Postage

Part Three: Issues

What are the central issues over which the election will be fought?

Paul: Pensions, health, crime and education will all feature.

Phill: The election will be fought on immigration, crime and the economy.

Jez: Each party likes to fight on their own battleground. Labour defending ("don’t mention the war"), Lib Dems trying to win a few seats and offer themselves as an alternative (although to what I’m not sure, maybe as opposition), while the Tories are growling about immigration and taxes. I’m no economist but they reckon they can drop taxes while raising an extra £5 billion for public services. Not even Derren fucking Brown could convince me of that.

Ben: The figures - whether regarding taxation or spending proposals - are the real battleground, I think. How many times has the phrase "The figures just don't add up" been trotted out by each of the parties so far when commenting on their rivals' proposals?

Pete: Tax seems to a big issue, followed by immigration and health. I don't mind tax being high on the agenda; I just wish the buggers would talk honestly about it. The truth is that we cannot have a just society without high taxes and it is no good pretending otherwise. If the buggers are going to talk about tax let them tell us what the consequences of lower taxes are, let them tell us how else we will pay for all the services that make our societies worth living in.

Jonathan: I’m hugely encouraged that since 1997 Labour seem to have convinced Britons that tax cuts are not the be-all and end-all of politics, so I’m pleased that people seem to have a grown-up attitude towards taxation and public spending these days.

Ben: I have some admiration for the Lib Dems who are the only major party prepared to hold their hands up and admit the obvious - that tax increases are necessary to improve public services. Whether this is a wise move when the Tories are doing their usual job of making "tax" one of the dirtiest words around (along with "immigrant" and "gypsy") remains to be seen.

Mike: Labour would like [the main issue] to be their record of economic stability, coupled with a vague perception that they're still somehow the Nice People's Party.

Lol: As James Carvell said during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election, "it’s the economy, stupid". To support this viewpoint, I certainly can’t think of a general election in my lifetime when the government was changed by anything other than perceived economic mismanagement (Black Wednesday, Winter Of Discontent / IMF loan, Ted Heath’s 3 day week etc).

Jonathan: The economy is, frankly, what is most likely to decide this election. Broadly speaking, people still trust Labour with the country, and are unlikely to unseat them while this is the case. I’m sure that issues like Blair’s unpopularity and immigration will influence people’s voting, but I still think home affairs – education, health, finance – are the key issues, and Labour needn’t worry too much on those grounds.

Mike: The Tories have carefully pitched a small number of selected battles, in particular immigration, but without any readily identifiable wider philosophy.

LMT: Immigration. I’m not even sure what my definitive opinion is on this one. Part of me thinks this island is only so big and can only sustain a certain influx; the other part of me thinks no-one "owns" any part of the planet and people should be able to go where they like. However, I want some definitive positions from the parties on it. At the moment I think the Tories are too harsh, the Lib Dems too weak, and Labour too indecisive, although I do give the Conservatives some credit for at least sticking to their guns and being bold enough to risk making themselves even more unpopular. What is certain is that this will be a key election issue, in terms of what politicians will be saying and papers reporting. Whether this will inspire people to get to the polling booth...

Ben: Thus far, health and education seem to have taken something of a back seat to tax, immigration and crime, but they're bound to come to the fore sooner or later. But elections are as much about personalities as they are about issues.

Jonny B: I suspect a major [issue] will be who the voters find themselves able to stomach, Blair or Howard. That sounds aggressively cynical, but I really do believe this one will be massively influenced by people's negative reactions to one leader or another.

What issues would you like to see placed higher up on the agenda?

Phill: For some reason Europe appears to be low on the agenda. The same is true of the war on Iraq as both major parties seem to think that the killing of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians is perfectly acceptable.

Jonathan: I’d love to hear robust defences of immigration and Europe but I understand that Labour don’t want to rock the boat. I hope they have the courage to do so after the election.

Ben: Given the public discontent up and down the country with the invasion of Iraq, I'm amazed the war hasn't been much higher on the agenda - thus far it's barely received a mention. The reason is simple, of course - Labour don't want it mentioned, and the Tories are also keeping quiet because they backed the invasion. The Lib Dems' silence, meanwhile, is baffling and utterly inexcusable - they could and should be using the war as a massive stick to beat the two main parties with. If Blair and his government aren't unceremoniously turfed out of power for their collusion with Dubya in going to war on false evidence and murdering of thousands of people, then I'll lose more faith in both the British public and the British political system.

Jonny B: I'd like to see some big solutions to our big problems. The mass relocation of governmental institutions out of London and the South East to areas that need the jobs and have the housing and infrastructure to cope with the people, for instance.

Ben: Housing is an issue which is of concern to nearly everyone, and yet it rarely seems to merit a mention.

LMT: I work for a Housing Association and we deal with "social housing": effectively, what most people would understand as "Council housing". One of the things I deal with is people wishing to exercise the "right to buy" (RTB) which means they can buy the Council house they live in for a discounted price, relative to the number of years they have been a tenant. Historically, as far as I can make out, the RTB was a clever idea of Maggie Thatcher's to secure votes from traditional Labour voters. It gives those who may not have been able to afford a house on the open market a chance to own their own home. In one fell swoop it also branded social housing as for "those who can’t afford their own house" and also, I feel, attached a stigma to renting in general. This has led to the current housing market crisis.

Ben: There's no doubt that hundreds of thousands of young people are finding it nearly impossible to get onto the first rung of the property ladder, many unable to buy until long after they're 30, simply because prices have rocketed so much, disproportionately to wages and inflation. Something needs to be done - perhaps it's attitudes that need changing?

LMT: On the continent it is perfectly acceptable to rent all your life. In Britain we have a problem with this; a problem that really started with the introduction of the RTB. As soon as people got a taste of the (supposed) prestige attached with being a homeowner their attitudes changed; everyone became protective of their own interests. Hence, I believe, 18 years of Tory government. The knock-on effect is that you now have children of those people who have bought their council home who also expect to own their own home, where once they might not have. Indeed, they’d be seen as failing if they didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong in principle with giving people aspiration and empowering people with social mobility. But I think the current housing market reflects this.

Ben: Does the RTB scheme itself need to be scrapped?

LMT: Some local authorities have already got a workaround. The problem with people buying their council house is the local authority forever loses a home with which to house someone from their (ever growing) waiting list. So some Councils have sold some or all of their housing stock to a Housing Association. Housing Associations don’t have to allow people the RTB which means Councils can guarantee a certain number of homes within their borough. What I’d like the government to do to address this is firstly to admit that not everyone can own their own home, and give some tax breaks to people renting a property be it social housing or privately rented. We can then perhaps start to work towards a sensible approach to the current housing crisis.

Lol: I would like to see politicians address more sociological concerns and particularly focus on making life happier. But I fear we are many years away from this idealistic view and let’s face it, with half the world near to starving and living in poverty, we are bloody privileged to be arguing about whether our tax-take is 42 or 43.5% of GDP!

Mike: I'd like to see more focus on public transport and the environment, and more emphasis on trying to nurture a sense of collective social responsibility.

Ben: I'd love issues like the environment and world poverty to be much further up the agenda than they are, but the sad fact of the matter is that home affairs issues always decide elections. Self-interest always comes first. Of course, it could be argued that protecting and preserving the environment for future generations is not entirely selfless - but politicians are looking for short-term close-to-home proposals they can sell to voters rather than looking at the bigger picture. It's a myopia that's endemic in the political system, and it's ultimately going to cost us dear unless those campaigning for election - as well as those voting for them - acknowledge that priorities have to change.

LMT: Pensions. Get some proper money to Britain's elderly. Get the link to earnings back in place. No-one deserves to end their life in poverty. However, be honest about where pensions are going. Sort out where the state pension will be in 25 years time and allow those looking at retirement from a distance to plan properly. This may include a state pension fund that anyone can pay into with contributions from the government and employers. The contributions from government would be relative to your income and thus would change over time, but it would allow you to guarantee a standard of living.

Paul: I still feel betrayed by the introduction of university tuition fees, so would like that to be a bigger issue, but I think that boat has well and truly sailed.

LMT: Alcohol. Increase the tax. Force town centre bars that are in concentrated drinking areas, and football clubs, to pay for adequate policing and extra CCTV. The amount could be relative to the number of people going into a particular pub. Blanket ban on drinks promotions and more checks by trading standards to ensure bars aren't selling contaminated or watered-down booze. I love a drink, by the way, but I don’t like the problems in my area that are associated with going for a pint.

Jonny B: [I'd like to see] life imprisonment for people who complain that speed cameras are just a revenue raising tool, then moan about their taxes whilst demanding more resources for the police.

Phill: I've lobbied my MP about the decline of my local crazy golf course. We should be encouraging our young sportsmen and women, especially in sports that nobody else plays.

Pete: I would like to see more talk of philosophy and overiding principles; I would like these buggers to tell us what they stand for, what motivates them, other than careerism; what the hell is the big idea?

Mike: The pitches from all parties have become so narrowly individualist in scope; the Big Ideas have all but vanished, in favour of cheese-paring personal calculations and a kind of "Sainsburys vs Tesco" attitude to taxation and spending.

Ben: Occasionally ideology can be glimpsed behind certain proposals and pledges, but all too often it's obscured by the nitty-gritty detail. Of course people want concrete statements and figures rather than just idealistic visions, but there's certainly room for debate on a grander scale about Britain as a whole and the sort of society we want to create and live in.

Pete: I would love to see notions of justice and equality given more prominence. I think it has been fairly well established that where the gap between richest and poorest is most stark, quality of life for everyone is poorest. I would love to see and hear what they think of this and what they intend to do about it. I would like them to discuss Charles Murray's thoughts on the underclass and if they believe that what he says is true, what they intend to do about it. I would like them to go back to Rawlsian first principles and imagine that there has been no state, no politics and that they now have to invent, while tossing self interest aside, the fairest system they can.

Tomorrow’s topic: Media influence and public apathy

Links:

An excellent summary on the BBC site of the main parties' stance on all the major issues.

Jonathan Freedland on the issue of the Iraq war.
In the memetime

Just to lighten the tone and allay any fears that SWSL is going the way of the po-faced political blog - a meme!

Courtesy of Pete comes a meme with a literary flavour.

Which book would you memorise if you were on a desert island?

(I haven't read 'Fahrenheit 451' either.)

It would have to be something packed with memorable phrases. Probably 'Money' by Martin Amis, or a Will Self novel. Time would pass quicker if you were luxuriating in their language.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Off the top of my head, no - though the unnamed girl who appears fleetingly on the beach in Joyce's 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' has a mysterious allure. I suspect this is probably because the whole scene is constructed from the point of view of Stephen Dedalus. Her desirability is a function of the romantic visions in which he is engrossed at the time.

The last book you bought is?

D H Lawrence's 'Selected Letters', with the 1932 introduction by Aldous Huxley. That was bought with a mind to expanding my collection of Lawrence volumes from the classic orange Penguin paperback series, though. The last book I bought purely for pleasure was 'Tragically I Was An Only Twin: The Complete Peter Cook'.

The last book you finished is?

Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness Of Being'. That reminds me - I really must post some thoughts on it...

What are you currently reading?

Lawrence's 'Sea And Sardinia' - the first of his travel books that I've read. I was inspired to give it a go partly by Geoff Dyer's enthusiastic championing of it in 'Out Of Sheer Rage' and partly by the brilliance of some of the characterisations of place in the fiction, particularly 'Kangaroo'. So far it's not quite matched up to the expectations set by Dyer (he labels it Lawrence's best book), but in many ways it's vintage Lawrence - piercingly observant and occasionally lyrical as well as frequently opinionated and angry.

Five books you would take to a desert island?

It seems a terrible shame to have to omit things like Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs Dalloway' or Graham Greene's 'Brighton Rock', but the five book rule must be respected...

'Ulysses', first and foremost - you could live inside that book for years. Likewise 'Women In Love', the one Lawrence novel I'll restrict myself to. A volume of poetry would make for a change, and most of those in Larkin's 'Collected Poems' bear re-reading time and again. 'England's Dreaming' by Jon Savage, simply so that it finally got read - I could have chosen other dauntingly large books currently gathering dust on my shelves, such as Don DeLillo's 'Underworld' and Thomas Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon', but non-fiction would provide a bit of variety. And last but not least, the dictionary - the OED if possible, though the multi-volume version would be stretching the definition of "a book" a bit. You can never know too many words. The dictionary is to me what an encyclopedia is to others.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (three people) and why?

He Who Cannot Be Named, because he devours page upon page of both fiction and non-fiction and always has an opinion on what he reads (not always repeatable in polite company).

Vicky, because her taste in authors is near impeccable.

Ian, because I want to see how many volumes of philosophy he chooses! Update: Well, now there's a turn-up for the books! Not only had Ian already done it, but he'd also already passed it on to me...

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Right To Reply #5: Election Special

(If you’re wondering what this is all about, click here.)

The participants:
Ben - your host
Jez - likes Stereolab, dislikes Margaret Thatcher
Jonathan of Assistant
Jonny B of Jonny B’s Private Secret Diary
LMT of Between The City And The Deep Blue Sea
Lol - likes the high seas, dislikes last orders
Mike of Troubled Diva
Paul of 1000 Shades Of Grey
Pete of The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha
Phill of Danger! High Postage

Part Two: Choice

To what extent is there a real choice between different options or alternatives for voters?

Mike: There's more of a choice than some pissed-off former Labour voters would have you believe.

Jez: Yes there are real alternatives, each party is keen to stress differences and it’s not too difficult to find them. It’s lazy to suggest otherwise.

Ben: The concept of real choice is predicated upon the existence of a range of different credible alternatives from which to choose, otherwise it’s meaningless. Rightly or wrongly (and I do think wrongly), many British people – mostly, but by no means all, young – feel the choice offered to them on a ballot form is artificial and illusory.

Jonny B: Perhaps there's less choice than there was through much of the 20th century due to this rush for the middle ground. Politics is terribly safe now, isn't it? But was a choice between a Labour Party run by Michael Foot and a Conservative Party run by Margaret Thatcher really any more representative of our opinions? There is still choice – it's just different choice.

Jonathan: There’s far less choice than you’d hope for, but then we always have a choice of two parties who broadly occupy the centre, at least during elections which are close. This time that choice is further to the right than normal, unfortunately.

Pete: I really don't think voters have much of a choice. I think there are real and fundamental differences between the Labour and Tory parties but the differences are becoming harder to differentiate. In any case, even if there was massive gulf between them, you would still be left with little choice.

Jonathan: There’s a massive difference between Labour and Tory, but that doesn’t imply we should be happy settling with the former.

Mike: I absolutely refute the line which says there's no real difference between Labour and Tory, so why bother voting for either. Despite all the frightful things which Labour have done, a Conservative government would be vastly more frightful.

Lol: British politics is nowadays contested within very narrow parameters (for example, the Tories want to spend 42% of GDP whereas Labour 43.5% and all parties recognise the need for immigration control, albeit the Tories want a quota system whereas Labour advocate tougher general controls etc etc) The philosopher Alain de Botton said on Radio 4 (Wednesday) that the reason why people are not as passionate or participative in politics these days is because the big ideological battles of the past have all been won. We have broadly settled on a general consensus of how we want to live and there are no significant issues left that require revolution. I endorse de Botton’s argument to a certain extent as this is evident by the lack of radical politics – there are no politicians advocating getting rid of our cars to save the planet, diverting food (40% of which is binned) to save the third world or scrapping schools and making one parent stay at home to teach their kids. However, within the margins of the “acceptable society” I do believe that there is a genuine ideological difference between the parties and therefore some (albeit limited) choice on 5 May.

Phill: There are single issues parties like Green and UKIP but they are more suited for local and European elections and a system of proportional representation. The main parties are pretty similar on many issues – there are no ideological poles.

Ben: Our “first past the post” system means there is little chance for smaller parties with genuinely radical proposals to make political headway in terms of parliamentary seats.

Pete: [We have] a very flawed system of democracy which leaves millions of people, effectively, with no choice, as their individual votes will count for nothing, unless they live in a marginal seat.

Phill: In the current political system it is pretty pointless voting for any other party outside the top three. In Scotland and Wales then the SNP and Plaid Cymru are a factor. Most seats are safe and are unlikely to change hands. In mine (West Bromwich East), Labour will win whatever happens.

Jonathan: In a perverse way, there’s more choice because people are increasingly unlikely to be swayed by voting traditions.

Ben: While I don’t subscribe to the idea that there’s barely a hair’s breadth separating the two main parties, they are in close enough ideological and political proximity for it to make for an exciting election. Whereas in the past many people had longstanding loyalties to one or the other, now they are floating voters, prepared to be persuaded and change their minds and allegiances on polling day, which I think ensures that the outcome is far less predictable. At least that keeps the politicians on their toes and makes them work to try and win your vote rather than complacently counting on it.

Paul: Labour strike me as more and more like the Tories of old, and it’ll be a cold day in hell before I vote blue. Unfortunately I just can’t see Kennedy as being electable, which is a shame because at least the Lib Dems are offering alternatives to the status quo.

Jonathan: I never had a choice about how to vote before (or never felt that I did) but this time I’m rather enjoying deciding between Labour, the Liberals and the Greens. That’s a rather facetious answer, isn’t it?

Phill: I consider myself a pro-European socialist, but there is no party for me to vote for. Parties like Socialist Alliance and Socialist Labour are both stuck in the past and rabidly anti-Europe. The Respect Coaliation is a good idea in theory, but it's a bit of a mess and also decidedly anti-Europe. Who am I supposed to vote for?

Ben: When people perceive there to be a lack of choice, they often resort not to endorsing one party’s campaign but to voting tactically to deny another party power. It’s depressing that for so many voters putting their cross in a particular box is not a positive seal of approval but a cynical if understandable ploy.

Pete: The reality is that we vote for one or the other and we end up choosing between the lesser of two evils. I vote against the Tories rather than for Labour – my vote is a negative rather than a positive thing.

LMT: Although I really like my local Lib Dem candidate I am considering the unthinkable: voting Conservative. My theory is this. At the moment there is a political stalemate. An over-comfortable Labour majority in the House of Commons, and an impotent opposition. This is not healthy for democracy. It’s democracy I care about, no one political party, and a stronger Tory opposition would in my eyes be better for democracy. I may vote purely on this basis.

Jonny B: The Labour / Conservative consensus to marginalise the Lib Dems as a “wasted vote” is pathetic, cynical and encapsulates everything I detest about politicians. A vote against Robert Mugabe was also wasted if one follows that logic. People should vote for who they believe in, full stop. Otherwise there will never be change.

Tomorrow’s topic: Issues

Links (courtesy of Mike):

Political Survey 2005 - "This is the only internet survey of political views based on real opinion poll data. We can tell you not only where your views lie, but how they compare to the views of the rest of the British population."

The Public Whip - "Choose how you feel about each of these issues. We'll tell you how your ex-MP and each party voted on them in parliament over the last 4 years."
Hail to the ale

I paid my first trip to recently-opened Wellington on Friday night, the only (to my knowledge) real ale pub in the city centre, and was thrilled to discover it seemed to be playing host to a Pork Scratchings Convention - the place was packed full of paunchy bearded men chomping on God's own pig-based bar snack.

I didn't indulge myself, though I did plump for a pint of the intriguingly named Pig On The Wall dark ale. Awaiting the company of Vicky, I enjoyed the excellent company of Kenny and Andy (yes, OK, it was a blogmeet, if you must...), all three of us feeling twenty years younger thanks to the time- and ale-ravaged features of the aforementioned paunchy bearded men surrounding us.

Vicky arrived with her friend James, who pronounced himself to be an Aston Villa fan, a fact I regarded with scepticism given his cheery demeanour. They'd been at the Kaiser Chiefs gig - thankfully Vicky didn't hold it against me for suggesting earlier, when it looked as though she wouldn't get a ticket, that it wouldn't matter as seeing the Chiefs in the live environment would probably be less pleasant than drinking someone else's sick.

We left Kenny finishing off his pint in the Wellington and before the night ended we had managed to pay £10 to get into the wrong gay club, lost James on arrival in the right gay club and sat around chatting about early 90s indie bands.

Whatever you do, though, don't believe Kenny's account of the evening. I would never be seen dead in a "rather fetching cowboy outfit". SOOOOO last year, darling.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Right To Reply #5: Election Special

This week on SWSL has been officially designated Politics Week (yes, we’re not short of pomposity round these parts, you know) – which basically means a special extended Right To Reply discussion feature about the forthcoming General Election. Each day for the next five days will see a different issue debated by a crack team of blogging and non-blogging friends:

Ben - your host
Jez - likes Stereolab, dislikes Margaret Thatcher
Jonathan of Assistant
Jonny B of Jonny B’s Private Secret Diary
LMT of Between The City And The Deep Blue Sea
Lol - likes the high seas, dislikes last orders
Mike of Troubled Diva
Paul of 1000 Shades Of Grey
Pete of The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha
Phill of Danger! High Postage

Part One: Campaigning

What have you made of the campaigning so far?

Paul: Obviously the parties only officially began campaigning once Parliament had been dissolved, but then almost everything a party does is designed to appeal to the masses in some way.

Jonathan: To be honest, I think the pre-election campaign was more heated than the events of the last week or two, which have been fairly tame stuff.

Pete: So far, campaigning has lived down to expectations. Perhaps I have watched too many Preston Sturges films but I wish for once, someone would come out and try to inspire me; move me and make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and set my bottom lip aquiver. It ain't gonna happen though. The main parties no longer seem to have a distinct ideology, other than to get themselves elected, so their campaigning consists mainly of dissing their rivals, rather than promoting themselves. It's as though they are scared of their own opinions or do not have the courage of their convictions, such as they are. There is very little positive about it; it's all negative and quite depressing.

Ben: For each party – Labour and Conservatives in particular – there seems to be a greater emphasis on rubbishing and mocking the policies of rival parties as and when they’re announced than there is on the exposition, explanation and promotion of their own.

Lol: So far we have seen a predominantly negative campaign, focusing on leaders’ trust (or lack of) and track record. Generally the main parties are trying to fill any policy gaps left by their rivals whilst appealing to their ‘core’ supporters at the same time. One example is tuition fees. Labour are committed to introducing the fees with help for poorer students, the Lib Dems will scrap them altogether by increasing taxes for the well-off. The Tories would also scrap them but charge a commercial rate on student loans (poorer kids who wouldn’t be able to pay off their loan quickly and would need to borrow more to go to university would bear the brunt of the cost). All the parties agree that universities need more money but typically there is no consensus of the method for collection; rather they have seen a political opportunity, and developed proposals that play broadly within their own ideology.

Jez: So far it’s been pretty interesting, if only to watch the Conservatives’ tactics.

Jonny B: The Conservatives seem to have a “shit or bust” strategy - with one eye, I'd guess, on defining the ground for the NEXT election.

Phill: [The] Tories are playing dirty.

Jez: Their previous successes have historically been based on the economy. There’s very little they can do here to criticise the government (what would they have done differently?). So they are having to up the ante with their politics of fear campaign. If you believed their manifesto you wouldn’t step into the street unless you were a British version of Snake Pliskin - Escape From Newark anyone? Also their core voters seem to find the nationalism of UKIP appealing. The Tories are being attacked from all sides, an unusual experience for them if you discount the previous campaigns by the snarling (and barking) BNP.

Ben: The Tory campaign, partly focused on exposing the untrustworthiness of Blair and his government, has already seen its credibility torpedoed three times – by Howard Flight’s comments, by Ed Matts’s doctored photo of himself and Ann Widdecombe and by the exaggerated claim on campaign posters about the MRSA “superbug”.

Jonathan: I think for a time, when the Tories were pressing immigration to the forefront of the debate, it seemed that they had a chance, and it got everybody’s blood up. Since the Howard Flight debacle, which reminded everyone just how useless the Tories are, campaigning seems to have lost its urgency, with people more concerned about Blair and Brown and the great succession issue.

Jonny B: Labour's been fun – watching them suddenly realise that perhaps they're not a shoo-in after all.

Phill: Labour are trying to have as little debate as possible, so their policies don't get picked apart.

Mike: I will grudgingly conceded that Blair is playing a cannily judged game. He has picked his interviews well: a matey chat about prog-rock and The Stones with his former band-mate Mark Ellen in Word magazine, and an impressive front-cover interview about gay issues in Attitude magazine. He's busily covering as many bases as he can, in that all-things-to-all-people style of his. Then there was the ‘Tony and Gordon’ party election broadcast, which addresses the perceived division in the partnership that Bono helpfully dubbed the “Lennon and MacCartney of British politics”. It was simultaneously cringe-making and almost - ALMOST - convincing.

Ben: Blair and Brown’s old pals act is (hopefully) fooling no-one. As an attempt to save face and allay any suspicions that there’s a split between the two most important people in the Labour party, it’s about as convincing as Newcastle Utd’s recent PR efforts to convince fans that all’s well behind the scenes – a parallel not lost on certain "with it" Tory MPs.

Phill: The Lib Dems should capitalise but I'm not sure they will.

Jonny B: The Lib Dems constantly frustrate with their inability to communicate.

Ben: That’s the disappointing thing. The Lib Dems are styling themselves as “the real alternative”, and their policies are to my mind impressively honest (not least over tax) and progressive, but they really need to go out and get the message across to a public broadly disillusioned with the two main parties. There’s the potential for a left-leaning party to make real headway this election, and it’s frustrating to think that the Lib Dems might not realise that potential.

Mike: I've steered clear of most of the campaigning, as there is little information which I seek to gain from it. I know how I'm going to vote, and why, and there is nothing that can be said to me at this stage that will make any difference.

Phill: I'm not really interested in any campaigning at all, apart from when someone throws eggs at Kilroy - that always cheers me up.

How big a role has political opportunism or populism played in the campaigning?

Jonny B: “Populism”? Probably better to ask: “How big a role has sensible debate played?”

Pete: Populism and opportunism are the bench marks, which is no way for a mature democracy to behave.

Mike: So far as opportunism / populism goes, Blair's carefully maintained “respectful” line towards opponents of the invasion of Iraq has never wavered. He knows he has to keep them on-side, and prevent them from casting protest votes for other parties. Kennedy's recent fatherhood might have given him a useful populist angle, but little has come of it; an expert like Blair would have extracted every last scrap of PR potential from the situation.

Paul: The Tories in particular seem keen to jump on bandwagons, particularly with their comments on the collapse of Rover lately. However Labour’s Jamie-Oliver-inspired school dinners campaigning did rather stick in the throat.

Mike: But the most shameless populists this time round have to be the Conservatives, with their bizarrely disjointed shopping-list of causes which they think will appeal most to the knee-jerk brigade. Credit where it's due: “Are you thinking what we're thinking?” is a horribly effective slogan. A sly, conspiratorial nudge-and-wink that speaks to the individual rather than the collective mindset.

Ben: It’s been simple and crude lowest denominator stuff from the Tories so far, designed to play upon fears and inflate emotive issues – particularly immigration, crime and health. My concern is that this sort of tactic could prove quite effective, though the opinion polls don’t bear this concern out just yet.

Jonathan: As for opportunism, the Tories have stuck to a relentlessly unpleasant line which doesn’t seem to have done them the trick. They’ve drawn the racists out with their rhetoric, and you can’t help thinking that as nasty as it is to be confronted with such a volume of casually racist people in the electorate, there doesn’t seem to be enough of them to actually change this government, or take us back to the dark ages.

Tomorrow’s topic: Choice.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Blogwatch

Welcome...

The Mighty Love
Paranoid Prom Queen
Long Suffering Wife

(Thanks to The Long Lost Lonely Lagomorph and Paul for the links.)

Meanwhile...

Owing to an ill-advised boozing session last Thurday I was unable (incapable) of attending Mish's gathering in celebration of the wedding of Charles and Camilla / in honour of the late John Paul II. Thankfully, Mish and Mike have reported on what I missed, including a "lewd act" in the garden, and there are even some photos, though thankfully not of the aforementioned act...

Elsewhere...

Pete and He Who Cannot Be Named record their verdicts on Interpol's Brixton Academy gig;

Swiss Toni runs through the finer points of the Tory Party manifesto - "Every citizen to have the right to kill anyone they don't recognise in their village after nightfall, as long as they use a halberd";

Vaughan is rather less than impressed by the standard of service delivered by "Parcelfarce";

LMT's first experience of gigging in London proves to be a fraught one beset by equipment difficulties, but he and the band struggle through;

Andrew is bemused by the revelation that the Sun have smuggled a "fake bomb" into Buckingham Palace;

N advocates confusing people in the park with the help of a radio control handset and some seagulls.

And finally...

A public service announcement: Danger! High Postage is "a general personal blog of no specific waterways relevance". Phill is naturally hell-bent on rectifying this sorry state of affairs, and will henceforth be posting weekly updates about canals.
Decision-making made easy

Who Should You Vote For? is an excellent site that assesses your answers to a set of political statements and shows which party has the policies which most closely match them.

As Phill has said, though, every blogger who gives it a go seems to have revealed themselves to be a Lib Dem supporter, and I'm no different - is it a conspiracy? The Tories fared as badly as I imagined (-41). The positive result for UKIP was a bit mystifying, albeit only +5, but there you go.

(Thanks to Jonathan, Skif and Mike, amongst others, for the link.)
Under the Radar

Thanks to Ian's review for alerting me to the fact that The Radar Brothers have a new album out.

Their second, 1999's The Singing Hatchet, is excellent - slow-motion country with sweet vocals over the top, simple but effective. I haven't got their third record, And The Surrounding Mountains, and Ian's not overly convinced by The Fallen Leaf Pages, but it's good just to know they haven't disappeared off the map.

Back in the mists of time I sat in on an interview with them conducted by He Who Cannot Be Named in a Highbury pub - they were due to play the Garage that night, a warm-up show for the Mogwai-curated All Tomorrow's Parties where we saw them again. Unassuming and amiable blokes, although frontman Jim Putnam was a bit dazed by jetlag and utterly bemused by the sight of "soccer" on the TV rather than baseball.

Also on Stylus: Hope Zabriskie's Top Ten Knee-Jerk Reaction Songs.