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?