25 August 2013

Hello Underground Typewriter

As of now no new Hal Berstram posts will appear at this blog - see the new Hello Underground Typewriter post for new content. After 7 years it's time to move on. (Van Patten is of course welcome to carry on here if he wants to).

Best wishes to all readers and good luck.

12 August 2013

Labour: the last post

This is, for the foreseeable future, the last post I will make on the Labour party (and it may well be the last ever giroscope post, before moving to the new Hello Underground Typewriter blog - which I will do sometime in late August).

It's the end of an era in many ways. Ever since this blog was set up in 2006, around 50% of the posts, at least, have been about the Labour party, from a broadly sympathetic perspective.

So why stop? Quite simple really: at some point earlier this year I realised that the Labour party had deteriorated so far politically that, even if it were able to win the next election (which I doubt), the difference between a 2015-20 Labour administration and a 2015-20 Tory (or ConDem) administration will be so limited as to make voting or campaigning for Labour pointless.

Most of my friends on the left realised this some time ago and it's only really my belief in Ed Miliband as a potentially transformative figure that stopped me coming to the same conclusion as them a couple of years ago.

Ed Miliband may still be a potentially transformative figure but I think that's all he'll ever be. Tragically unrealised potential. If Labour forms a government in 2015 in its present state, I don't think they've done the policy thinking to make a success of it, and I think internal divisions between the Blairites and everyone else would soon come to the fore in any casewe could be looking at a Tory landslide in 2020, god help us. The guy who is quoted in this excellent John Harris article thinks the same way I do:

A month or so ago, I was discussing the increasingly uncertain outcome of the 2015 general election with a friend whose involvement with the Labour party stretches back more than three decades. "I'm scared of what will happen if we lose," he said. "And I'm scared of what will happen if we win."

Ed's policy stance - if you can find it, that is - seems to combine the lunacy of Ed Balls's pro-City light touch economic policy with the barking-mad social policies of the Blairite right (tough on immigrants and "scroungers" etc), with very little of Ed Miliband's own vision running through any of it.

In a way this post is just my blogging catching up with my own political activity: I haven't been a member of the Labour party since 1992, and I've been a member of the Green Party since 2010, although I'm starting to feel that the Greens are in their own way, not even half way radical enough for the current challenges that we face.

This means that political blogging on the Hello Underground Typewriter site will be mainly focused on the Green Party and alternatives situated further to the left such as Left Unity and Counterfire. I don't anticipate political blogging accounting for more than about 20 percent of posts as I really want to get back into music blogging - music is mainly what's occupying my spare time these days.

In a way it feels a huge relief to be shot of Labour and just able to get on with the interesting stuff. The future awaits.

26 July 2013

Coming soon... "Hello Underground Typewriter"

Due to no activity whatsoever for the past 2 months, I think it's time for a blog relaunch to get things moving again.

I'm off to Spain next week for a few days but on return (sometime in the week beginning 5th August) I will be relaunching the blog as Hello Underground Typewriter (I'll put an active link up here when it's up, probably on Wordpress as I've been more impressed by Wordpress than Blogger as a blog management platform. Expect rather less politics (but still some) and rather more music and gardening than has been the case in the last couple of years (this blog will incorporate groscope and Brother Typewriter's Golf Ball as well as Giroscope.) It'll also be linked in much more to my musical experiments as Brother Typewriter on Soundcloud.

Anyway, this should provide some impetus to get a bit more happening. That, and August - traditionally a quiet work month, although this year, maybe not so much.

See you soon.

05 May 2013

The UK Independence Party and the reactionary majority

(Just for some explanation for starters... I never did finish that Mrs T post because the whole death and funeral thing became rather a media circus and in the end I was just glad it was all over. So there probably won't be a "Part 2" to that post. Sorry about that. )

The big news this week is the rise of UKIP to a major player in local government, going from 8 to 147 councillors in the local elections (held mainly in the predominately Tory "shire counties"). The Tories lost 335 seats which was poor, although not disastrously so for a governing party. Labour won 291 seats which was good but not spectacular (see Luke Akehurst on LabourList for a good summary of the results from a strategic Labour perspective). The Fib Dems, like the Tories, performed badly but not catastrophically. The Green Party gained 5 seats for a total of 22 - steady if unspectacular progress, including 2 very good wins in Essex, which was very pleasing. I was also pleased to see gains for Mebyon Kernow and the Old Liberals (that classic "70s washing powder" logo for the Liberal Party is the best thing in British politics today, without a doubt).

The good professors Rallings and Thrasher at Plymouth University (sounds like a classic comedy double act) have worked out a projected national vote share based on the county council election results. Now, some caveats to this:

(a) it's hard to tell much about the areas where elections didn't take place - most of Wales, all of Scotland, and most of the English cities and urban areas - from the county results, so it's not clear how accurate a national picture this is;
(b) local turnout is almost always much lower than general election turnout (unless you have local and general elections on the same day) so there are a huge number of people who will be involved in a general election who simply don't take part in the locals, making extrapolation to a general election vote difficult;
(c) people may be voting on different issues locally to nationally;
(d) the UKIP surge makes things even more unpredictable than usual because there is very little previous data to go on.

Anyway with that in mind, Rallings and Thrasher suggest vote shares as follows:
Labour - 29%
Tories - 25%
UKIP - 23%
Fib Dems - 14%
Other - 9%

Feeding these into the election calculator at UK Polling Report produces a Labour majority of 20 which, oddly enough, is roundabout my gut feeling for the outcome of the next election: Labour with a small, but workable, majority. Having said that, the UK Polling Report calculator isn't much good for these purposes as it doesn't even allow disaggregation of "Other" into UKIP plus smaller parties.

Can UKIP manage 23% at a general election? I doubt it, although even 10% - a far more achievable goal - would most likely make a huge difference compared with 3.1% which was what they scored in 2010. Looking at the political situation now one gets the feeling that a huge proportion of the electorate is hacked off, and likely to stay hacked off for years, if not decades. UKIP's strength is that it can do that peculiarly English combination of Colonel Blimp authoritarianism, anti-Europeanism and smoking-room libertarianism better than the right wing of the Tory party can. And in Nigel Farage, it has the most articulate of the 4 main party leaders. Yes the manifesto isn't that coherent; yes, some of the candidates are questionable. But then, much of the same critique could be levelled at the other parties - and they lack the excitement generated by Farage.

The key question for the outcome of the next election, as well as how high the UKIP vote share can go, is how much of their vote comes from the Tories compared with Labour. Looking at today's YouGov poll - which shows UKIP on 12% - their support comprises 19% of the people who voted Tory last time (about 7% of all voters on my calculations), 5% of the people who voted Labour last time (about 1.5%) and 8% of the people who voted Lib Dem (about 1.5%). That makes 10%, so presumably the other 2% of support is people who voted UKIP last time (or didn't vote at all). In other words Tory switchers to UKIP are outnumbering Labour switchers to UKIP by almost 5 to 1. This pattern of UKIP support makes it much, much easier for Labour to come out ahead of the Tories in the general election. Ed could secure a majority with a vote share somewhere in the low 30s.

Of course, this would be an artefact of a truly ludicrous electoral system rather than a vote of confidence in the Labour Party. If Labour won an overall majority with (say) 32% of the vote - equal to its 1987 vote share under Neil Kinnock, when the Tories had a majority of over 100 - does anyone think the country would be stable? Does anyone think the right would take that as a legitimate result? I think the Powers That Be would foment some kind of uprising and take control by force.

The UKIP surge, on the face of it, means that rather than the Polly Toynbee-esque "progressive majority" in UK politics, there is actually a reactionary majority - and it's growing. If we take the latest YouGov poll and optimistically assume that Labour's 40% plus 2% for the Greens is the "progressive vote", then the right-wing vote comprises 30% Tory plus 12% UKIP plus 11% Fib Dems - that's 53% for hard-right politics, right there. Staring You In The Face. It's true that some people who are voting UKIP may actually be hard left on certain issues; for example UKIP claims it's going to massively increase spending on local services while cutting taxes, and it may be that some people are voting for the spending increase part of that equation (despite the fact the policy is totally incoherent). But Farage, of course, is hard right (although not fascist IMHO).

So, UKIP: potentially a shot in the arm for Ed Miliband's electoral chances in the short run, but in the longer run a harbinger of a very nasty shift in UK politics to something much more right wing than we have seen at any point in the univeral suffrage era. Centered around three planks: opposition to immigration, opposition to the EU, and a Tea Party-esque dislike of the "Westminster bubble". Be Very Afraid.

One last point: if Labour does get in on 32% or something not much more than that, Tories are going to be ruing the day they campaigned against AV in 2011. AV would have contained the UKIP threat right there, as the majority of UKIP voters would have had Tory as second preference.

08 April 2013

On the death of Mrs T - part 1

Anyone with their head out from under a rock today will have heard that Margaret Thatcher has died.

I'd often imagined myself celebrating this day with a bottle of champagne (which would be very appropriate, given Mrs T's dislike of French socialists such as Mitterand, Jacques Delors and presumably Francois Hollande), but in the end, that would seem an indulgence when the current ConDem government is going way beyond Thatcher in implementing Thatcherism - an agenda of cuts, privatisation and the impoverishment of working people. If she'd hung on another couple of years and we were in the early stages of the first Ed Miliband administration then maybe it would have been a good excuse for a party. But Thatcherism as an idea lives on... perhaps more than ever.

There have been two big shifts in the political consensus in the last 75 years. One was in the 1940s, where the landslide victory of the Attlee government in 1945 established full employment, nationalisation of the 'commanding heights', the NHS and the welfare state as things that political parties had to commit to if they wanted to win power. Having opposed every one of these things in the 1945 election and been annihilated, the Tories adapted quickly to the post-war consensus and were able to return to power within only 6 years (albeit with less votes than Labour, as a result of  the ludicrous first-past-the-post electoral system).

The second shift began in the mid-1970s when Labour pretty much abandoned full employment (unemployment went up to 1.4 million, having been well under a million for the whole period between the late 1940s and 1972) and embraced money supply (M3) targeting under Callaghan/Healey. The Thatcher govt then introduced full-scale monetarism (for a few years at least), abandoned full employment completely (unemployment went over 3 million by 1985 as a result), began privatisation and chipped away at the welfare state. But this was a slower ideological shift. It wasn't really until 1997 that the Labour Party embraced most aspects of Thatcherism, although Labour began to drift right as early as 1982 after the short lived Bennite hard left insurgency of 1979-81 which came to an end when Benn failed by a whisker to win the 1981 deputy leadership contest.

Interestingly, Tony Benn was probably the one Labour politician who really understood what Mrs Thatcher represented; the end of the post-war settlement and a systematic attack on working class institutions - in particular, the trade union movement, which had played such a pivotal role in the establishment and development of the Labour Party. One feels that if Benn had been leading the party in 1981 (rather than the worthy but rather past-it Michael Foot) then Labour would at least have stood a chance of articulating an effective challenge to Thatcherism. Much of Benn's early 1980s analysis makes even more sense now, in the era of the ConDems.

Unfortunately, the split of the left with the formation of the SDP in 1981 was a death blow to the chances of defeating Thatcher electorally even though her vote percentage in 1983 and 1987 was lower than in 1979. It is probable that any Tory leader who had won in 1979 would have been able to stay in office for a decade even on a quite low share of the vote, due to that split on the centre-left. In the first past the post system, having a large and coherent voting bloc is everything - something the Tory party has always understood (at least up until now, with the emergence of UKIP).

However, the key election of the post-1979 era actually took place after Thatcher had been knifed by her own cabinet and MPs, after a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine in November 1990. Heseltine did not manage to win the leadership election but he did do enough to make it clear to most of the cabinet that Thatcher would not survive a second round vote, paving the way for the John Major era. It was Major's 1992 victory - on a ostensibly softer brand of Toryism (though in reality it was largely the continuation of Thatcherism under another name) that really killed socialist politics in the Labour party for a generation and inaugurated New Labour (although it wasn't called that until Tony Blair took over in 1994). Ironically, Labour gave up on the possibility of fundamentally altering the Thatcherite settlement just before the Tory reputation for economic competence evaporated in the wake of Black Wednesday and sterling's ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Strange days indeed.

There is a lot more to write here but I don't have enough time or energy to finish this off right now so I will write more tomorrow... watch this space.

28 March 2013

A disastrous day for the Labour Hard Right

If you're a Guardian reader you couldn't really have missed the news that David Miliband, the Denis Healey (or maybe the Roy Jenkins) of post-Blairite Labour politics, has decided to stand down as an MP to go and work for an American charity called the International Rescue Centre. This news was the top story on the Guardian website for at least half of yesterday, which gives you some idea of the priorities of the Guardian news editors.

I had some sympathy with David's interview with Krishnan Guru Murthy on Channel 4 News where he explained that the main reason he was stepping down was to avoid an ongoing "pantomine" whereby every comment he makes on national politics is interpreted as a coded attack on his brother Ed. That's true, and this move gets David completely out of British politics and gives him a chance to do something completely different - and I'm sure he'll do very well. However, it's important to realise that the reason that David's political commentary has had a "pantomine" aspect to it is because his more zealous supporters - the Blairite Labour Hard Right, known fondly on this blog as "LINO" (Labour In Name Only) - have chosen to raise the stakes to that level.

For two and a half years now the LINOs have been in a state of shock, still unable to accept that David lost. How could it have happened?
Didn't David have the best set of ideas for taking Labour forward? [In my view, no.]
Didn't he have the best funded campaign? [yes - but that encouraged a complacency which was, in the end, fatal.]
Didn't he have the best experience for the job? [yes - but that often counts for little in a leadership ballot. Look at (e.g.) David Cameron vs David Davis in 2005.]
Didn't he have the endorsement of almost all the Labour Party's "big hitters" (Blair, Mandelson, Johnson, Darling, Blunkett, etc. etc.) [yes. Read those names back to yourself and you'll see what the problem was... he wasn't change, he was more of the same.]
Wasn't he stabbed in the back by his dastardly brother?

This is the question it comes down to in the end. "How dare Ed Miliband stand against the anointed elder brother!"

The Labour Party is a strange place for primogeniture to find a foothold as the main ethical principle for allocating a position of power, but that's the principle that LINO are invoking here. Ed shouldn't have stood against David because he's the younger brother.

To which my response is: mile-high bullshit! Any sitting Labour MP had the right to stand in that election regardless of who their brother was and what position in the birth order they were in. We might find it surprising that the Miliband brothers couldn't agree some kind of joint campaign which would have meant only one of them stood (for example, David could have stood, supported by Ed, with the promise of the Shadow Chancellor position - which Ed would have been brilliant at - as a reward). But obviously there was a fundamental difference of political opinion which meant that Ed wasn't comfortable with that. And so, he felt that it was more honest to have an open contest. And why not? It was the most honest thing to do.

And it was all above board. Ed didn't stab David in the back; if anything, he stabbed him in the front. (H/T Chris Brooke on this phrase).

But Ed was a huge underdog and it's a testament to how badly run the David campaign was that Ed managed to get anywhere near him on votes, let alone win. Once again the "bad loser" tendency in LINO is huge when the manner of victory is mentioned. We hear "Ed won with union votes". Yes he did. Did any of these people look at the election rules? It's a tripartite electoral college. Ed took the strategy of trying to maximise his vote in all three segments, whereas David only bothered with two. And apparently he wasn't even that bothered about the PLP... according to Mehdi Hasan and James MacIntyre's biography Ed, David spent very little time over the run-up to the summer recess meeting MPs to get extra support - he just assumed his Big Name status would deliver. Whereas Ed, not the most natural Strangers Bar visitor, was apparently there all the time pressing the flesh.

In the end, David Miliband was The Entitlement Candidate. He felt he didn't need to try very hard to win the leadership election because the arithmetic and the resources of the contest were so heavily weighted in his favour that he was a shoo-in.

Whereas Ed Miliband was The Grafter. It was a long shot from the start but he believed from the get-go that if he put the hours in and made his case he could win.

Given a choice between those two strategies as a template for Labour's 2015 General Election campaign, I know which one I'd choose. I actually think Labour is now further ahead in the polls with Ed as leader than it would be if David were leader. David's personal ratings would probably be better than Ed's but David would have failed to map out any kind of strategy for opposing the ConDems and putting "Clear Red Water" - those all-important dividing lines - between Labour and the Tories.

The "pantomine" and "soap opera" which David Miliband has resigned to put a stop to, started when Ed was declared winner by a narrow margin in September 2010. There was a large group of LINOs - some of them influential (or at least semi-influential) journos - who just couldn't accept the result. And so it was toys out of the pram time... because they couldn't win in a straight fight they hoped to destabilise the Ed regime to the extent that he would step down before 2015. The most ludicrously blatant example of this strategy is the Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges, who attacks Ed in the most clumsy and flailing manner in at least 80% of his columns. But there are others: John Rentoul in the Independent, a misanthropic Tory masquerading as some kind of Labour supporter, is the obvious example.

Perhaps the most insidious attempt to undermine Ed has come from the Guardian's Political Editor Pat Wintour and Chief Political Correspondent Nick Watt. Wintour and Watt have spent large parts of the last two and a half years coordinating a range of Blairite has-beens to launch thinly veiled attacks (or in some cases not even thinly veiled) on Eds Miliband and Balls - mainly arguing that the Eds lack credibility on the economy (even though if one compares Ed Balls's predictions for the economy in 2010 with George Osborne the score is something like Balls 10, Osborne 0). The Wintour/Watt strategy came fairly close to destablising the opposition completely at the end of 2011 and start of 2012 when biased media reports of Cameron's so called "veto" had briefly given the Tories a lead in the polls. In the end Ed was saved by the "omnishambles" Budget, after which Labour opened up a 10-point lead over the Tories which has remained more or less around that level ever since.

It's not clear to what extent David Miliband was involved in these destabilisation efforts, if at all. He played little direct role beyond the odd article here and there calling for Labour not to retreat to its "comfort zone" (although arguably it is Blairism which is the real "comfort zone" which needs to be avoided.) I'm inclined to think that his role was that of an interested onlooker... if Ed had been forced to stand down a la Iain Duncan Smith, David would probably have thrown his hat into the ring again. But crucially, he could not have afforded to have been seen as the man who destablised his brother's leadership... that would have made him look like the guy who knifed his brother in the back, and LINO would have probably abandoned him for another candidate.

But who would that candidate be? One of the reasons that LINO, Progress and all the rest are fighting such a desperate rearguard action at the moment is that they have no obvious Blairite challenger in the event that Ed Miliband falls under a bus next week. The best they can do at the moment is Yvette Cooper, who is only semi-Blairite at best. The two most senior dyed-in-the-wool Blairite shadow cabinet members are Liam Byrne and Steve Twigg, who would be laughable choices for leader (so laughable in fact that they are a liability to Labour and should both be ditched asap). Jim Murphy at Defence at least gives an impression of competence but is too lightweight a figure to challenge for the leadership. And there have been few if any Blairites in the new crop of 2010 MPs.

In short, the fall of David Miliband is just one more staging post on the slow extinction of Blairism in the Labour Party: and for that we can be grateful.

17 March 2013

Cyprus: Beginning of the end?

Apologies for a very long silence here... been ridiculously busy with work, partly because it's the lead-up to the Budget. Hopefully I should have a lot more time after Easter and will be getting back to regular posts.

There is a lot to catch up on - Eastleigh and UKIP, the Pope, plottings against Dave Cameron... but right now, the most important story appears to be the Cyprus bailout - the first bailout where ordinary savings account holders (as opposed to large institutional investors) have taken a haircut.

And it's a relatively large hit: a 6.75% savings tax on deposits under €100,000, with 9.9% on deposits over €100,000. (It's being described as a "one-off" savings tax... but then all the other bailouts were meant to be "one-off" and the European banking system has gobbled them all up and is asking for more. As long as austerity is shrinking the economy, there will be plenty more need for bailouts.

If the economy lasts that long... my feeling is this could be the beginning of the endgame. Savers in other southern European countries (and probably some of the northern European countries as well) will be rushing for the exit doors. If the ECB can ride roughshod over small depositor insurance schemes to grab large chunks of people's savings, then - given that most savings interest rates are close to zero anyway - what's the point in having money in the bank? At which case we get Northern Rock x about £1m.

Any of you kids remember Space: 1999? In the pilot episode, "Breakaway", Nuclear Waste Disposal Area 1 burnt itself out quickly, with little collateral damage. That was Northern Rock, if you like. Nuclear Waste Disposal Area 2 was thousands of times larger than 1 - and when that blew up it took half the moon with it. Well, the European banking system is Nuclear Waste Disposal Area 2. And the Cyprus bank savings raid could well be the fuse that sends the whole system up. Time to stockpile tinned food again...

05 February 2013

Chris Huhne - a few thoughts

The big story of the last couple of days (apart from the discovery of Richard III in a car park) is that Chris Huhne now faces a prison sentence after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice after getting his then-wife Vicky Pryce to take speeding points for him by pretending she was driving their car in 2003 when it was actually him driving it.

A few rather random thoughts on this:

  • if you think about it, this kind of thing is probably going on all of the time - particularly in cases where someone gets caught for speeding with 9 points on their licence. Unless the culprit's actually been stopped by physical police rather than cameras, or there is (e.g.) CCTV footage of the person behind the wheel, it's easy to get away with. And Huhne would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for his recent marital infidelity and subsequent estrangement from Pryce. 
  • Apparently Huhne is the first ever serving Cabinet minister to be forced to resign because of committing a crime - that is a quite amazing statistic. Either previous Cabinets were whiter-than-white or (more likely) they were much better at covering their tracks than Huhne has been. 
  • It's amusing to think that in the wake of the AV referendum debacle in 2011, speculation was rising about a possible leadership challenge from Huhne. I discussed it at some length in a post back then. This leaves the space on the "left" of the party wide open for someone like Tim Farron to make a challenge after Clegg resigns ignominiously in May 2015 (I say "left" because there is really no evidence that Farron - or most of the other "social democratic" Lib Dems for that matter - are really "left" in any way whatseover, but there you go). 
  • This sets up an interesting by-election in Eastleigh where some people - including the normally-reliable Channel 4 News - seem to have written off Labour already, which is somewhat odd, because they are the obvious protest vote (well, them plus UKIP, but an upsurge in UKIP is going to mainly weaken the Tories). The deal in seats like Eastleigh and a whole load of other leafy suburban parliamentary constituencies - Twickenham, Sheffield Hallam - was that they were the places where Labour was so far behind in the run-up to 1997 that there was a mass movement from Labour voters towards the Lib Dems in an effort to unseat the Tories. But this of course relied on the Lib Dems being a fundamentally anti-Tory party. That calculation no longer works now that the Lib Dems are effectively an appendage of the Tory party - its "withered arm", if you like. So I would expect a big upswing in the Labour vote and indeed I will be having a look at what the odds are on Labour winning this by-election because it looks like a pretty good bet to me. See you at Paddy Power. 

16 January 2013

Darkness Falls

One worthwhile accomplishment today was to join the distinguished list of people banned by one of mine (and most right- thinking peoples) bĂȘte noires, Richard J Murphy in being barred from his blog's comments sections for pointing out the absurdity of This post.

Apparently, as with so many other Bloggers who have fallen foul of his admittedly quite well advertised policy regarding 'comments hostile to the basic precepts on which this blog is based', he took exception to my questioning his authority to judge legislators' state of mind when passing Tax legislation. This comes after he used a Spirit medium to Channel Keynes , arguing that a 'Left wing filter was the only way the true intent of the six decades deceased economist could be viewed.

The argument was a familiar refrain - all unemployed people are apparently victims. We used to have Full Employment prior to the the Thatcherite 'revolution' and if we only turned the clock back to 1977 (apparently his knowledge of history doesn't extend much beyond then) and reinstated the economy of that era then everything would be sorted out.

It's rather dispiriting that this crap is what masquerades for highbrow economic thinking on the Left nowadays. As the consequences of trying to spend what you don't have mount up across country after country ( not least in the USA) it'll be interesting to see if this atavistic desire to go back to a simpler, far less complex world is reflected in Labour's so far blank policy slate. I for one cannot wait for an election campaign to get off the ground (although given polls the Tories will probably delay until 2015) as thus far the opposition, despite embarking on a policy review, has thus far come up with very little, meaning that the man to whom this site is a tribute, Dan Hodges might not be far off the mark with his assessment that the Tories still have a chance of winning the next Election.

13 January 2013

Tribalism is for football fans - not politicians

The catalyst for this post was a Facebook comment by my friend Chris Brooke of Virtual Stoa fame, but the issue has been bugging me for a while, so it's time to get to the bottom of whether political "tribalism" has any place in progressive politics.

Chris's comment referred to a recent post on the soft-left Shifting Grounds blog by a variety of authors including Andy Harrop (director of the Fabian Society), Neal Lawson (director of Compass), Olaf Cramme (director of Policy Network), Linda Jack (chair of Liberal Left) and David Clark (the Shifting Grounds blog editor) as "rubbish". The post was called "Paving the way for an alternative coalition" - some excerpts from it are posted below:

We are now closer to the date of the next election than the last and debate about the shape and composition of the next government is well under way. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have just set out their joint priorities for what remains of the current coalition’s term of office. But progressive politics will be the loser if a renewal of that arrangement comes to be seen as the natural outcome in the event of another hung parliament. An alternative coalition joining Labour and the Liberal Democrats also needs to be on the table for a proper debate about Britain’s future to take place. The British people deserve no less.

We know from experience that creating that option will require courage, care and commitment. The failure of both our parties to prepare the ground before the last election became painfully apparent during the coalition negotiations that took place three years ago. The realities of parliamentary arithmetic made a Lib-Lab coalition difficult in any event, but the climate of mutual suspicion showed how estranged the two parties had become since tentative efforts at co-operation were abandoned in the first term of the Blair government. It would be a tragedy for Britain if the centre-left failed to enter the next election better prepared for the aftermath and the negotiations that may follow.

Looking across the main areas of policy, it is easier to find points of agreement than disagreement [between Labour and the Lib Dems]. But laying the ground for an alternative coalition requires more than policy agreement. It calls for a change of attitudes and working methods...

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats will continue to compete robustly and fight the next election aiming to win on their own terms. That’s as it should be. But both should also prepare for the possibility that the British people once again decline to give a majority to any single party. In that eventuality there will be a number of options to consider and nothing we propose can prejudge what either party may decide. But if we want a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition to be one of those options, the ground will have to be prepared in advance and that process should start soon. The decision about the next government of Britain is too important to be taken by default.

Was this post "rubbish?" I don't believe so. Some background:  I know Chris is one of those people who left Compass because they ceased to be a purely Labour-based pressure group and began to open up their membership to other parties such as Greens and Liberal Democrats (he was not the only one to leave when that happened: the entire Compass youth wing resigned, for example). I think this is a real shame, frankly, as it seems to me that it's ridiculous to claim that the Labour Party has a monopoly on good progressive ideas in this country. Moreoever, given that it's far from certain that Labour will win a majority at the next election, it seems sensible to plan for the possible outcome of Labour as the largest single party but short of a majority. But for Chris (and many others), apparently not. I find this stance hard to understand.

I should be clear, by the way, that I don't agree with all of the Shifting Grounds article. It's not really true that "looking across the main areas of policy, it is easier to find points of agreement than disagreement between Labour and the Lib Dems." After the last 3 years in which the Lib Dems have shamelessly propped up a reactionary Tory govt, it should be fairly clear that the Lib Dem leadership is a long way right of centre - particularly on the economy - and the backbench MPs remarkably willing to comply with that right-of-centre agenda (having campaigned pretending to be a left-of-centre party in most respects). It's not for nothing that I call the Lib Dems the "Fib Dems" loudly and often on this blog. I detest what they've done to this country and I think it would probably be a good thing, all things considered if the Lib Dem party collapsed after the next election after losing all its MPs. They are dissemblers, traitors and collaborationists. And to the extent that there is agreeement between Labour and the Lib Dems on economic policy issues in particular, that is a failing in the Labour Party - it reflects the (diminishing but still far too high) influence of centre-right Blairism, which Ed Miliband has weakened but not completely dispelled.

However, I think we need to think realistically about what's likely to happen at the next election under current boundaries. I doubt there will be a complete wipeout - it's more likely that there will be at least 20 Lib Dem MPs still around after the next election, largely because some of their candidates will probably succeed in fighting a guerilla war against their own party's policies and will pull in anti-Tory votes from the left, particularly in areas where Labour doesn't have a good ground operation. (There is precedent for this in the Labour Party by the way - Bob Marshall-Andrews managed to win in Medway in 2005, when most other Labour MPs in the south-east lost, by running a guerilla campaign against Tony Blair). Given that maybe 20 Lib Dem MPs will manage to hang on, the idea that Labour should just ignore this possibility and act as if the Lib Dems are going to be wiped out after the next election - however much they might want that to be the case - seems stupid to me.

How likely is it that the Lib Dems are likely to be holding the balance of power at the next election? I don't think it's the most likely option - I think that's a majority Labour govt, albeit with a small majority. But I'd say Labour as the largest party but short of a majority is the second most likely option. And in that case, it would be very useful if some bridges were built with the Lib Dems - or at least the more progressive MPs among them - before the election. Otherwise, there is a huge risk that Labour could be kept out of office by another Tory-Lib Dem coalition - even if Labour were the largest single party.

I'd actually go even further than that (again disagreeing with the Shifting Grounds article) and say that where there is a progressive Lib Dem MP with a good record of voting against the current govt, Labour should consider not putting up a candidate in that constituency and advising Labour voters to vote for the Lib Dem instead. And similarly,  in Brighton Pavilion where Caroline Lucas is pursuing a policy platform that's vastly better than pretty much anything the Labour Party has to offer, the Labour party should advise its voters to vote Green. Now, this kind of open-mindedness and willingness to focus on the policies of the sitting MP, rather than the particular colour of his or her rosette, will of course be anathema to many Labour activists but unfortunately, that simply reflects their own bone-headedness and tribalism. I would much prefer it if we had a PR system of elections and everyone could vote their first choice. I think that will happen - eventually - but it's still a long way off at the moment and so we have to do the best to keep right-wingers out of Parliament however we can with the system we have. (This doesn't, of course, do anything about some of the extreme right-wingers in the Labour party - for example I don't know how any progressive could vote for Liam Byrne - but that's probably best handled by Labour constituency associations voting to deselect far-right Blairite candidates - something that, sadly, never seems to happen).

Basically I think the kind of simplistic tribal Labour politics that says "I'll vote for Mickey Mouse (or indeed, Tony Blair) as long as he's wearing a red rosette but give me a left-wing candidate wearing another rosette and I'll try to annihilate them" is boneheaded and infantile. (By the way, Chris is on record as saying he doesn't subscribe to this naive tribalist view either: but in that case I'm a bit puzzled as to why he thinks the Shifting Grounds article is so bad). Of course, it's possible to go too far the other way, and give too much of the benefit of the doubt to nominally 'progressive' parties that are anything but. For example, many people - including myself to an extent - got taken in my Nick Clegg's fresh-faced "New Politics" shtick in the last election campaign and believed there was no possible way he could go into a coalition with the Tories. That was a stupid mistake and I hold my hands up about that. But equally, I don't believe that every single Lib Dem is a dyed-in-the-wool right-wing neoliberal anti-progressive. And to categorically rule out any collaboration with the Lib Dems in advance of the election (which is what Chris seems to be indicating is the best thing to do), that's what I'd have to believe. I can certainly believe that more than half of Lib Dem MPs are like that, but that still leaves many who aren't. Possibly enough to make the difference between a Labour minority govt which achieves nothing at all in the next parliamentary term, and a Lab/Lib majority govt which achieves a hell of a lot.

So let's have a bit less of the cardboard cut-out terrace chant tribalism that characterises so much party political discourse, and a bit more willingness to judge politicians by their ideas and not the colour of their rosette.

UPDATE: there is a good debate on the Labour Uncut blog - the best thing I've ever seen on Labour Uncut, actually - between the aforementioned David Clark and a Labour councillor called Pete Bowyer in which Mr Bowyer demonstrates many of the tendencies I have criticised above. Well worth reading.

09 January 2013

Belated Happy New Year

Greetings to the dozen or so readers remaining on this blog - unfortunately as my colleague said recently, I am now back in the world of work, and my wife has not been in the best of health so the blog has had to take a back seat, but just a quick post to wish people a very Happy New Year, and hope 2013 is a better year than its predecessor.

The USA marked yet another grim milestone before year's end with yet another school shooting in a relatively calm small town, this time in the tiny state of Connecticut, not a million miles away from me (Indeed a number of my co workers are based in Fairfield County, where it took place) the shooting reignited the seemingly eternal debate about gun control, and has led former Mirror editor Piers Morgan to weigh in on the side of far more restrictive gun control. This has led to arguably the first 'must see' clip of the year, with an old reference of both mine and Hal's, Texas based 'shock jock'  Alex Jones appearing on Morgan's show

Predictably the glitterati who live over here (mainly it has to be said in California) like Ricky Gervais and celebrity types who seem to hold such sway in the era of Social media have branded Jones ' the best advert for gun control he could possibly have' and made fun of him, and it's fair to say his tirade against Morgan probably comes across as slightly unhinged. However, the message needs to be made loud and clear, that whatever the merits of Gun Control, Morgan's argument is a shockingly inept one.

Arguably Two of the key events I recall from the UK in my formative years were the twin massacres, in 1987 at Hungerford, and in 1996 at Dunblane which led the UK to adopt arguably (maybe excepting Japan) the most stringent gun control laws in the world. The good faith attempt to call for reform of laws that were already very tight in 1996 by the much smaller shooting lobby in the Uk were drowned out in a howl of orchestrated media outrage, with the Daily Telegraph a lone voice of sanity in the morass. I'm sure those firearm owners that remain in the UK are grateful that the outrage occurred (because the existing law wasn't properly enforced) prior to the arrival of Twitter and Facebook, what Rod Liddle so accurately described as 'new conduits for the brain dead and moronic'. In the wake of that legislation, every single prediction made at the time by columnists perhaps more predisposed to think things through than the rentaquotes of the Sun and Daily Mirror has come to pass.

1/ The number of guns in circulation continues to rise (note- this isn't the same thing as the murder rate rising) as any control of who had guns has been lost.

2/ By definition , the only people in possession of them are now criminal elements and the Police

3/ Britain's Olympic shooting team is the only one in the world unable to practise in its country of origin.

Jones would have done better to point out that for Morgan's example of the UK I could find at least five countries with relatively high gun ownership (Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, Finland and Norway)  and relatively tiny homicide rates. Anyway, the serious debate which needs to accompany this issue looking at licensing laws, storage of firearms and the practicality of placing a simplistic ban in a nation where there are more guns than people looks as far off as ever...

04 January 2013

Who killed the netbook?

Almost exactly 5 years ago on this blog, I asked whether Asus's Eee PC netbook was a Toshiba Libretto for the 2000s. And it turns out that it was for the late 2000s, but not for much longer in the  - 2010s - the Guardian reports that most manufacturers have now stopped making netbooks

I've always liked the netbook format - as long as it's running an operating system that's suitable for the relatively feeble Intel Atom processor inside the hardware. The original Asus Eee ran Linux, mainly because the processor wasn't fast enough to run Microsoft's Vista OS. This led to a period of approximately 3 months where Linux was taking over the bottom end of the PC market and Microsoft was basically shitting bricks that this was the thin end of the wedge. 

But Microsoft are canny buggers and they hit back with that perennial favourite, Windows XP - brought back from the dead specifically for OEM release on netbooks. This led to a decline in Linux netbook sales and also raised the average retail price of the format (because of the need to pay licensing royalties to Microsoft for each copy of Windows sold pre-installed). Neither of these were a killer blow to the format, however. For me, that was Windows 7 "Starter" version, which replaced XP on netbooks  from late 2009 onwards. 

I'm writing this blogpost on a netbook (Toshiba NB500). It's dual-boot, running Linux Mint 11 LXDE and Windows 7. In general I use Linux 95% of the time and Windows 7 maybe 5%. Windows 7 is just a dog running on the Atom processor - it's as simple as that. Something like opening Google Chrome can take 30 seconds in Windows compared with maybe half a second in Linux (that's with a lightweight Linux window manager like LXDE, mind you - I've not tried the netbook with e.g. KDE, nor do I much intend to). 

So I think it was the sheer crapness of Windows 7 running on an Atom that killed the netbook. The tablet revolution of the iPad and Android which started in 2010 has also played a role, but I think it was a dying format even before that. I like Android tablets for web-browsing, but for writing blogposts I always choose the netbook over a tablet because of the real keyboard. (I know you can get a bluetooth keyboard to go with a tablet but I haven't found a keyboard I like yet). 

Weirdly, Microsoft's recent Surface tablet is more like a tablet/netbook cross as it has a keyboard built into the case. But I think that one is DOA... It runs an ARM processor rather than the Atom (which I think everyone has decided was the shittest processor in decades), but because of this it has to run a special version of Windows called "Windows RT" which isn't compatible with all the existing Windows applications. So it's Windows, but it isn't Windows. Now I'm confused about this and I follow computers pretty closely, so what chance have the general public got? 

So, RIP netbooks. But they won't be dead in this house, not for a long time yet. With lightweight versions of Linux still being released and maintained, there's no real reason for me to want to change to anything else. So f*** Microsoft and f*** touchscreens... I'm happy with this computer just the way it is. 

03 January 2013

Congratulations to the "Elite: Dangerous" team

Great news from the world of gaming! Elite: Dangerous has met its Kickstarter funding target of £1.25m and will now be going ahead.

I like computer games but haven't really played any on a regular basis since Privateer 2 in 1997, because of lack of time - I don't really have enough time to do all the bits and pieces I want to do in any case, and computer games are a huge time-sink. But when the game in question is a follow-up to Acornsoft's Elite - one of the greatest games of all time, and certainly the greatest 1980s home computer game - I make a very big exception.

Elite: Dangerous is being developed by Frontier Developments whose CEO David Braben was one-half of the team behind the original Elite, and I'm going to be very excited to see what the finished product looks like. The projected launch date of spring 2014 looks ambitious, but to be honest, I wouldn't be that bothered if it doesn't come out until (say) 2017; the important thing is to produce an all-time classic. Certainly the various videos on the Kickstarter site explaining how various features of the game will work look way cool and if they can deliver on this, I can't see how it can be anything other than a mind-blower.

Kickstarter is providing a platform for crowd-funding of some very interesting products at the moment, and I'd certainly recommend that you take a look over there and see some of the things they're coming up with.

02 January 2013

"Silly season" over? Not for Peter Kellner it isn't...

As long-time readers will know, this blog has monitored the activities of the Labour hard right closely for the last three years. After a very promising start to 2012 for extreme neo-Blairites, as Ed Miliband seemed increasingly vulnerable to a putsch (if we ignore for a moment the fact that they had almost no credible right-wing leadership candidate), things fell apart in the wake of George Osborne's botched budget of March, and Ed seems as safe as houses.

With things looking rather bleak for their particular brand of carbon-coby Toryism, the neo-Blairites have been forced to retreat into a fantasy world to avoid confronting the harsh truth that their project is in very poor health - perhaps DOA. The most obvious (and amusing) of the Blairite fantasists is Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges, but there are other more superficially credible (and therefore more dangerous) exponents of the dark art. The most obvious of these is YouGov president Peter Kellner. YouGov generally seems to be a pretty accurate pollster, despite only using people with an internet connection to get their results. It's just as well that Kellner heads up an organisation which does its basic job well, because when he tries to play the pundit, he's more clueless than - well, than just about anybody else out there, and that even includes utterly worthless hacks like fellow Blairite traveller John Rentoul of the Independent. Don't get me wrong - Rentoul sucks shit on a regular basis. But he has occasionally been known to write something coherent. Poor old Pete can't even reach that modest standard.

And Kellner's latest YouGov column, "David Cameron's Happy New Year 2016", is not only the worst article written by any (former) political journalist this year (not difficult) - it's the worst written since the 2010 election, and maybe a good few years before that. Kellner assumes that the Tories will be able to increase their share of the vote by 3% on the 2010 level - something no governing party has done in the post-1945 period - and furthermore that a 4% lead against Labour will nonetheless translate into an overall majority due to huge swings from Lib Dem to Tory in just the marginals the Tories need to win, with all the increase in the Labour vote coming in other parts of the country where Labour is already strong. This despite the evidence that the millions of pounds spent by Lord Ashcroft in the Tory-Labour marginals in the run-up to 2010 delivered a swing to the Tories that was almost no higher than the national average.

Labour is currently around 10 to 12 points ahead in the polls. Will they be that far ahead in May 2015? Probably not. Will they be 4 points behind? It seems extremely unlikely. Kellner assumes, as do so many pro-European Blairites, that UKIP will just melt away as the 2015 election approaches. I think it's much more likely that UKIP will poll around 8-10% at a general election (they managed over 3% last time, with no coverage whatsoever in the media (apart from when Nigel Farage crashed his plane on polling day). My own prediction is that the Tories will manage to just about hold the line at 35-36% of the vote, losing votes to UKIP while gaining a few from the Lib Dems. But I can't see them doing any better than that. If Cameron promises a referendum on EU membership (as Kellner predicts)... so what? Are UKIP supporters really going to fall for that? Some of them maybe, but I doubt it would be anything like enough to get Cameron the extra votes he needs.

Kellner also highlights the potential for the Tories to gain seats from the Lib Dems as a result of the collapse in the Lib Dem vote - which certainly will happen. But the Tories will lose many more seats to Labour as a result of the Lib Dem vote collapsing in Labour-Tory marginals. Net result - a big increase in Labour seats. For someone like Kellner, who deals with polling and election results all the time, to misunderstand the likely outcomes of the next election so fundamentally is deeply disturbing.

Or at least it would be if he were really that stupid. Whereas in fact, Kellner is describing not what he thinks will happen, but what he wants to happen. The whole piece is third rate Blairite (D Milibandite?) political fan fiction of the basest stripe, and shows that, far from trying to come to terms with Ed Miliband's project to remodel Labour as a genuine 'soft left' social democratic party, the Labour hard right is still living in 1992. And long may they stay there as far as they are concerned. It's like Oscar Zeta Acosta (aka "the attorney") said about John Lennon in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: "That bastard shoulda stayed where has was. Punks like that just get in the way when they try to be serious."

01 January 2013

How far can any can be kicked?

I'm not in full agreement with the Zerohedge financial blog about very much but I do agree with the pseudonymous "Tyler Durden" that the US, and the EU, reaction to the economic crisis which has enveloped most of the developed world since 2008 is quite simply to kick the can down the road by using QE to disguise the fundamental insolvency of the system. Where I differ from the Zerohedge guy(s) is that he (they?) are Austrian-school hard right wingers who think that a return to the gold standard and "sound money" would solve all our problems, whereas I think that would merely make the problem worse. What's needed instead is to curb the power of the bankers and of multinational corporate entities more widely.

Obviously that's the broadest brush-stroke of a statement imaginable but, given that I didn't limit myself to the regulation 3 units of alcohol (or whatever) at the New Year celebrations last night, if I'm to fulfil my ambition of doing a post a day on the blog all through 2013, some of them are going to have to be rather short. But anyway, the Fiscal Cliff "resolution" is certainly yet another can-kick, and one wonders if the "shit" can ever "hit the fan", or if the can can [sic] just be kicked indefinitely? A very good question is, just what will be the catalyst (if any) for the collapse of the whole system? And would someone mind giving me a ring at that point to remind me that it's time to get out on the streets?