Sifting through the ashes in search of something, anything

england-eu

Shantih Shantih Shantih, wrote Eliot in the final lines of ‘The Waste Land’, a fragment pillaged from the Hindu Upanishads. It is bewitching, it is intensely mournful, almost inexplicable, and today in particular, it is the most poignant expression of ultimate resignation.

Along with David Dimbleby, JK Rowling and a good chunk of the country’s students, among a vast array of others from John o’ Groats to Land’s End, I stayed up all night to watch the results of the EU referendum come flooding in over the airwaves and through the slippery plumbing of the social media pipework. And, just before 5am, the BBC called game, set, match for the “Leave” campaign.

Newcastle was the signal fire that first spelled doom for those championing solidarity with Europe, bringing in a tiny “Remain” majority despite confident projections that it would be much higher. This was almost identical to the role of the Dundee result in the Scottish referendum, which in the same way brought in a much smaller win for the “Yes” campaign than predicted, crippling them for the rest of the count.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 12.41.19But this was by no means the first speed bump of the night that was last night. Next came Sunderland, then Swansea, the latter with a huge “Leave” majority, a trend that was incidentally set for the rest of rural Wales in stark contrast with cosmopolitan Cardiff. And when Birmingham, with its 700,000 or so votes, came in with a “Leave” win, all hope was lost. Though it was a narrow margin the fact that “Leave” triumphed at all was unprecedented, the great swathe of votes in the region therefore serving to just about cancel each other out. The disappointing Euroscepticism of the outer London boroughs nailed the coffin shut despite soaring “Remain” majorities in the likes of Lambeth, Hackney, Camden, and the rest of the city. Scotland of course voted “Remain” pretty decisively (albeit with a 67% turnout versus the 85% of September 2014 and the 72% of yesterday’s national average), but so did Northern Ireland, prompting calls from Sinn Féin as well as NI’s Deputy First Minister to reignite the debate for a unified Ireland. One can hardly imagine a UK consisting of just England and Wales, the very prospect of which seems simply absurd, outlandish even. And yet here we are.

The steep “Leave” trend, however, in the xenophobic and pensioner-rich middle class enclaves of the North East and Midlands was expected, but the bitter truth is that it was Corbyn’s polarising leadership bid that splintered those red-rose strongholds and so compromised the voice of Labour’s “Remain” proponents. And now on the eve of chaos, he has been served a motion of no confidence.

But as Iain Martin of CapX put it in the wee hours, “Labour: it’s the fault of the Tories. Tories: it’s the fault of Labour”.

Undoubtedly, one of the first seismic political tremors following the result occurred when David Cameron emerged from 10 Downing Street at 08:18 just moments after rumours had swept along the rope line of the press that he would be resigning.

At the podium he began by championing democracy, thanking those who took part on “my side of the argument”, and congratulating the opposition, stating categorically that “the will of the British people is an instruction that must be respected.” He swiftly went on to reassure the markets, the armies of investors, and those Brits living abroad as well as those non-British EU citizens living here that there would be no immediate changes, stressing the need for preparations for negotiations to ensure the interests of “all parts of our United Kingdom” are heard. That rather cemented the trajectory of his speech, and sure enough, he was soon expressing how proud he was to have been Britain’s PM these past six years and listing his government’s achievements, before insisting we must “confront, not duck, big decisions”. This, he said, was that so quintessentially British spirit that saw the first coalition government in seventy years being forged in 2010, a “fair, legal and decisive” referendum in Scotland, and the EU negotiations he carried out with his “head, heart and soul”. That’s when he delivered the words that we were all expecting to hear, that he was not the “captain” to steer the country in this new direction, and while giving no precise timetable, that there must be a new prime minister in time for the Conservative conference in October. “Delivering stability” was the priority he emphasised, with a Cabinet meeting scheduled for Monday and the Bank of England taking steps to ensure this stability. He said he had already spoken to the Queen and will be attending the European Council next week to formally explain Britain’s decision. He finished on a note of solidarity, encouraging “those on the losing side” to help make it work, because ultimately, Britain is a “special” country, driven by its astonishing history of science, arts, engineering, creativity, and though certainly not perfect, it can be and will remain a model of a multi-racial, multi-faithed nation. “I am the first to praise our incredible strengths,” he concluded, voice breaking, “I love this country and I’ve been honoured to serve it.”

MP Anna Soubry hailed the PM moments later on the BBC for his “beautiful composure”, looking rather shell-shocked as she described how he “led from the front” and how sincerely she hopes “this won’t cloud our memory of him”, while across the Channel MEP Philippe Lamberts condemned him as “utterly irresponsible” on the doorstep of the HQ in Brussels.

Of course, Cameron really had no other option than to resign. As Salmond dryly remarked to the BBC earlier this morning, “I have some experience in this field”. And so, the three month leadership battle begins. Johnson, May, Davidson, Crabb… whoever emerges on top, it will be a sensationalist Tory pseudo-drama of Freudian proportions.

But much caution has already been expressed over the rapidity of implementing Article 50, with many prominent “Leave” politicians encouraging cool-headed patience and negotiations. And yet, Corbyn appeared on BBC1 at 07:30 saying it should be invoked “now”, a reminder of his reluctance at backing the EU at all given his long history of resistance against the establishment, the status quo, the bureacracy. He did, after all, express his support for the EU at only “7 and a 1/2”, whatever the hell that means. And now speculation is stirring that Corbyn will be ousted by the end of the week.

Speaking of speculation, Carney emerged after the night’s global turmoil in the wake of Cameron’s resignation to reassure the markets that the banks were fully backed with a £250 billion reserve ready to secure credit for both households and businesses. It was at the sight of the Newcastle signal fire that the pound, which had soared to around $1.50 against the dollar right before the vote, plummeted to its lowest level since 1985. The FTSE was down 500 points at its open, Barclays bank tanked 35%, with RBS and Lloyds quickly following, and shockwaves rippled though the Nikkei. Expressions of Britain’s bad judgement appeared in morning papers across the globe, from the New York Times to El Mundo, with Obama receiving a “briefing” on the result in the White House around 6am. Indeed, some have hailed this disturbing realisation of xenophobia, regression and isolationism as the harbinger of everything from the resurgence of Europe’s far-right groups to the wall-building, Muslim-banning madness that would be a Trump presidency. Sensationalism aside, the EU has been guaranteed at least two years of uncertainty.

As for Scotland, we now know that every council area across the nation voted to stand with the EU, and Nicola Sturgeon just made her assurance from Bute House that preparations for a second referendum will now begin. She was careful not to confirm it, but that is undoubtedly the trajectory we are now on. Indeed, the weight of the Glasgow result at 2am temporarily tipped the total national count into a “Remain” majority. The consensus in Scotland is beyond doubt, but the case for independence of course will now be made even more complex and polarising by the reality of a Britain outside the EU and an EU rocked by the messy exit of its second largest economy. Of course there is the possibility that “Brexit” will now trigger any number of copycat referendums in the most traditionally Eurosceptic countries from Greece and Spain to Latvia and Hungary, not to mention the looming spectre of potential bank runs.

It may just be that the EU was the crucial pressure point on the windowpane of the UK. Now it has been hit with such surgical precision, spidery cracks have bloomed across it, obscuring all beyond. A second independence referendum will be the tap that shatters it forever. But, there will be two Nationalist reactions. Sturgeon has made her position clear, while expressing respect for those No-voters who will want to rationally reevaluate their position. However, many senior figures within the SNP leadership, Humza Yousaf among them, will be reluctant to use Brexit as a vehicle for statehood. For one thing currency is now even more of a roadblock. It will have to be the Euro or a brand new currency, perhaps pegged to the pound. Also, there is the simple reality that Scotland receives £9 billion per year from Westminster while juggling a deficit three times the size of the rest of the UK, particularly problematic given the lack of oil revenue. And we must remember that over a million people voted to leave the EU and the SNP would certainly not want to initiate a referendum that would most likely take place in 2017-18 without being certain of victory. There would also need to be a border, a proper, real-life border between Scotland and England. But there is now a new independence case for previous No-voters to consider. There is not space here to elaborate just quite yet, particularly in the swirling Charybdis that is today, but yes… there is certainly a case.

The fact remains that 17 million is a lot of people, a hell of a lot, and yet it’s not even a third of the UK’s population. Nor is it actually a majority of the electorate, despite the record turnout. The result was so close that a 72% turnout didn’t give “Leave” over 50% of the votes when those other 10 million-ish people who couldn’t or wouldn’t fill out a ballot are taken into account. Just look at the demographics. 64% of 18-24 year olds nationwide voted “Remain”, while 58% of 65+ year olds voted “Leave”. If, as in the Scottish referendum, the 1.5 million 16-17 year olds in the UK had been granted the vote, the nation would have awoken to very different news this morning. Instead, our futures have been decided by the oldest generation to the detriment of all.

Marina Hyde of The Guardian took to Twitter this morning to muse over Farage’s comment that “this is a victory for ordinary people, decent people”, pointing out that all us Remainers are therefore extraordinarily indecent. Indeed, we are the “indecent minority”, as JK Rowling wryly replied.

From the terribly bitter and painful ashes of this referendum, several things will rise. The question and intense likelihood of a second Scottish referendum, the question of a possible Irish referendum, the question of fresh party leaders for both the Tories and Labour, the question of the timing and logistics of Article 50, the question of citizenship for Brits abroad and Europeans here at home, and the question of trade and foreign relations now we have cut ourselves loose from the continent.

Not all of these things will survive the battle to wing their way across the sun-splashed skies, but the ones that do will determine the future of this isle full of noises in every single possible sense of the word.

Shantih Shantih Shantih

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“I WANT EDGE”: Observations From Inside the ITV Newsroom

BBC

“I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information,” said Christopher Hitchens, probably with a twinkle in his eye and a cigarette in his hand.

One of the most fiercely analytical voices of the last half century and surely its most gifted debater, Hitchens rather encapsulated the sentiment of a generation with this statement. Though one could of course perceive a hidden idealistic streak in his desire to reform the field from within, he nevertheless articulates a widespread disillusionment with journalism that is only now starting to lift. Well, from where I’m standing it certainly is.

I had the opportunity at the beginning of the year to spend a week of work experience in the heart of the ITV newsroom in London. I essentially shadowed the Planning team for a week, the desk of editors who cover all the Home Affairs stories, planning and scheduling the items and reports covered on a daily, weekly, and annual basis. There are separate teams for foreign affairs, the tonight show, and specific editors and reporters for each programme.

To my delight, I discovered the software featured in TV shows and films about journalism is the programme they actually use: iNews. It’s an application utilised by all networks in to which flood the breaking news stories from all over the world. These wire reports are labelled with coloured flags to categorise their importance on a scale from red to yellow. Only the FTSE updates were classed as yellow though, the majority being red or orange. These little parcels of information appear on the screen every few minutes from Reuters with ‘slugs’ indicating the general subject e.g. LIBYA – SECURITY. The one week I spent with this wealth of information at my fingertips was the most up-to-date with the news I’ve ever been.

Most of the Planning team seem to perform admin-driven roles, finding stories and allocating them to reporters and programmes. They have the high-level view on the news-capturing process, also controlling what ultimately goes on the air by tailoring the topics for the executive planning meetings. The schedule and order of items are listed on iNews one day in advance, with ‘slugs’, ‘summaries’, initial ideas and angles, and an assigned reporter. Once locked in, these topics are updated until air, with processes obviously being in place to react to international breaking news. I heard some eye-opening stories about the atmosphere during the Paris attacks last November when the entire newsroom was kicked into action.

The studio itself is in the basement. Forget the sweeping panorama of the BBC newsroom, ITV’s is a green room tucked away at the bottom of the elevator where the anchor sits a few doors down from the control room. This was truly a sight to see, a relatively small room in which the Director and four producers operate an entire wall of about thirty screens from a bank of control boards. All the cues, effects, packages, adverts, and segments are broadcast with the flick of a switch, meticulously timed by the staffer who actually sits with a timer, counting down out loud the last fifteen seconds before each segment goes live. At one point, quite literally everyone was speaking at once, including the Director through his headset into the ear of the anchor.

It was an impressive set-up, but what was perhaps more enlightening were the executive planning meetings in which all the senior editors pitched stories and angles, deciding how to exercise the resources of their reporters spread across the world. The leader of these meetings, who shall remain anonymous, was like a cross between Rita Skeeter and Daffy Duck. From his suggestion to put a reporter inside a ‘vomit comet’ airplane to his proposal to strap a “GoPro on a stretcher” in emergency rooms in the US that treat gun wounds, he exploded like Aunt Marge every few minutes with some wild plan to secure more viewers. This may be the natural effect of living in the shadow of a much larger network that quite literally dominates every area of the field, or a deeper symptom of a certain journalistic stereotype. ‘Daffy Skeeter’, if you will, also referred to “scoops” as “prizes”, slammed the desk with the frustrated proclamation of “I just want something creative” every so often, proclaimed the nuance of every story is that it is “all about the characters”, and rather stuffily pointed out in the discussion of two different angles that “one might win us an award, the other won’t”. Suffice it to say, he seemed quite literally consumed by dry, materialistic statistics: audience retention, audience share, audience ratings. Verklempt, indeed. It wasn’t even a surprise when he stood up near the end and practically bellowed, “I WANT EDGE!”

A fascinating insight this was indeed, especially given this field has existed in its visual incarnation for less than a century, and whose tectonic plates shifted again with the birth of the internet.

NBCWith Murrow and the war correspondents pioneering radio broadcasting in the 1930s, the reign of the broadsheets, and the explosion of television on the scene in the 1940s with the likes of Cronkite, came the first real set of revolutions for journalism. Up to this point the dissemination of information and social commentary had been confined to novels and journals, circulated only among the ‘bourgeoisie’ of political history, the only people who could both read and afford to read.

But it cannot be denied that by the end of the 20th century, disillusionment had rather become the bien pensant attitude: disillusionment with the value and integrity of politicians, with rampant materialism, and with a bloated and biased media. One need only look to the impassioned howls of the Beat Generation for poignant articulation of this desperately disappointed sentiment.

Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river! Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit! – Ginsberg, Howl.

So where did it all begin?

Well, for starters, the Columbus and Magellan of broadcast journalism, William Paley (founder of CBS) and David Sarnoff (father of NBC), headed into Washington DC to cut a deal with the US Congress in the 1940s. Congress granted the newborn networks free use of tax-payer owned airwaves in exchange for one public service: one hour of air-time set aside every night for informational broadcasting, or what would become the evening news. An oft-cited grievance today is that Congress, unable to anticipate the enormous capacity television would have to deliver consumers to advertisers, failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would perhaps have changed US national discourse for the better. They didn’t have the foresight to ban paid advertising from their golden hour, a slot that was never supposed to be about profits. Though such a condition would never have survived the subsequent decades of media deregulation, it would rather have set a precedent, the likes of which the BBC only really still retains, despite the fact they of course gain their funding through license fees and are quite literally the Charybdis around which everyone else gravitates.

CameraIt was Sarnoff who perhaps first recognised the potential for television, the combination of motion pictures with electronic transmission to disseminate information. He was put in charge of broadcasting at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1928 and soon teamed up with engineer Vladimir Zworykin. Zworykin developed the first photomultiplier before demonstrating to the RCA a working iconoscope camera tube and kinescope receiver display tube in 1936. With these crucial camera components came the birth of electronic television.

Several short years later in April 1939 when the world was balancing on a knife-edge, regularly scheduled, electronic television in America was initiated by the RCA under the name of their broadcasting division at the time, The National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Later that month on April 30th, the opening day ceremonies at The World’s Fair were telecast in the medium’s first major production, featuring a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first US President ever to appear on television. These telecasts were only seen in NYC and the immediate vicinity, since NBC television had only one station at the time. The broadcast was seen by an estimated 1,000 viewers from roughly 200 televisions sets. Meanwhile, the London-based recording and publishing company Electric and Musical Industries developed a system based on Zworykin’s work and further Russian research which was put into action in Britain by the BBC.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

But it was also Sarnoff whose name soon became associated with a media ‘law’ of sorts. Put simply, this law states that the value of a broadcast network is proportional to the number of viewers. I’ll tell you who would concur with that… Daffy Skeeter. But why should a network be driven solely by ratings and audience share, its initiative diluted by its own bureaucracy and reactionary nature?

I think there’s room to be a lot more quixotic than that.

News reporterTo hell with corporate concerns, competition, consequences, and general cowardice. It may be a crappy business model but it’s a fearsome journalistic one. A truly great newspaper or network is not just a conduit for information, it’s a factory of thought and analysis, a force to fly in the face of vitriol and voyeurism and above all, political duplicity.

The only place I’ve ever seen this idea articulated and expressed with full unfettered enthusiasm is in the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, a newstopia possibly even more barbed in its message than The West Wing that came along a decade before it.

It’s outrageous, it’s arrogant, it’s stubborn, it’s smug, it’s moralising, it’s hopelessly quixotic, and it’s bloody brilliant.

And that’s my idea of news done well. Because we can all be Don Quixote, a fact I thoroughly believe in having lived through the Scottish independence referendum.

I became eligible to vote on the day of the vote itself and it was the most enlightening experience of my life so far. Suddenly everyone was talking about politics, from the supermarket aisles to the school playgrounds to the pubs, it was the most incendiary topic of conversation for over a year and was a subject that quite literally transcended demographics. In a matter of months everyone was informed about oil prices, education policy, EU membership, the budget deficit, trade flows, the energy industry… And the sheer level of political engagement was reflected in the voting turnout, which came in at an average of 84.6%, the highest ever recorded for an election in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage, and indeed a figure which beats every US Presidential election in history.

Moral of the story: the dream of a well-informed electorate who care passionately about the issues of the day is more than possible, and that’s what the news should do, frame that debate.

May 6, 1970 CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE Working Day Layout.  Walter Cronkite at typewriter in his office. Copyright CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Credit: CBS Photo Archive

Bread and Circuses: Reinventing Populares in the Wilderness of Westminster Politics

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Westminster is something of a ‘wilderness of mirrors’. Within its walls one can imagine a cesspool of vitriol and backstabbing ambition, a merciless land where leering faces are reflected in all directions. Perhaps one could not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy… Just turn on the PM’s Questions for two minutes and you’ll see them braying across the benches at each other like a bunch of boorish barbarians.

This, of course, raises the question of populares, the manipulative masters of deception deviously spinning their webs in the heart of SW1. Indeed, we need look no further than the Autumn Statement to see populism in action, power-hungry panic triggering George Osborne’s high-profile U-turn on tax credit cuts. The policy would have cost low-income families an average of £1000 a year, but Osborne scrapped the plan altogether despite such a move forcing him to breach his self-imposed welfare cap, citing an unexpected £27 billion fiscal windfall.

Was this a popularis moment, a blatant case of bread and circus tactics responding to an almost poll-tax-worthy level of discontent among the public and a whiff of rebellion in the Lords, or was he genuinely moved to reevaluate his position, realising he made a mistake and wanting to do… well, good?

The use of popularis as a descriptor for a set of policies or the character of the politician behind them has never been a good thing. First invoked in the dying decades of the Roman Republic to describe those leaders who “favoured the people”, it was even then a reference to blatant moral corruption, to those wealthy male snobs who slithered their way through the labyrinths of senatorial bureaucracy. Their webs of power were masterfully spun throughout the people’s assemblies until they had won the support of thousands, who were of course simply fat, juicy flies tangled in the silk. The most notorious of these political masterminds was undoubtedly Julius Caesar, but the best example of the populism that has so figured in the political disillusionment of 21st century Britain, is that of Gaius Sempronius Gracchus.

Immortalised in the corridors of history for implementing a potentially progressive amendment to the policy of Cura Annonae in 123BC, his intentions were suspect indeed. Gracchus was one of the ten ‘Tribunes of the Plebs’, tasked with checking the power of the senate and magistrates by proposing and vetoing legislation and generally advocating and safeguarding the wishes of the ‘commoners’. Cura Annonae, which involved the care of the grain supply, had been around in one form or another since 509BC, and was at some point personified as the rather artificial goddess Annona, with the grain dole itself being distributed from the Temple of Ceres. Gracchus’ policy involved a portion of the state-collected grain being sold at a subsidised rate to the plebeians.

Always a contentious political issue, for Gracchus the grain dole presented a perfect opportunity to advance his career, shamelessly appealing to the lower classes in a perfectly packaged parcel of manipulation. This, along with the provision of gladiatorial games, particularly following the rise of the Augustan empire, led to the proliferation of the maxim “bread and circuses”.

Populism for power began with the Romans and grew like a weed in every political regime that followed them over the millennia. It is the mark of not quite a broken system, but certainly one built on rotten foundations. When moral centres are substituted for power-hungry ones, disillusionment inevitably follows.

But perhaps we can reinvent the whole concept of populares in the political sphere. Is there room for a progressive interpretation?

Consider Publius Clodius Pulcher. A senator born sixty-three years after Gracchus, he is remembered for his actions in 58BC during his own bid for the tribunate. Amending Cura Annonae even further, he implemented a free grain supply to the poor in the world’s first large-scale benefits system. Though the expense to the state was extensive and Julius Caesar considered abolishing it, the policy survived into the Empire, even though Augustus reduced the number of recipients. Pulcher may have been embroiled in sexual scandals and political feuds aplenty but perhaps his policies were genuinely progressive for the right reasons. He has, after all, been described as “one of the most innovative urban politicians in Western history”.

Surely that’s what it’s all about?

Politics should by definition be reactionary. But it is only regressive and disillusioning when politicians lack integrity and resolve. The rub lies in those driven solely by their desire for popularity and power. As ever, the key lies in perception. Perhaps we can sever this link between populares, and bread and circuses.

What, then, is its true meaning? Perhaps a true popularis is one motivated above all by compassion and the all-consuming will to do good. In the political wilderness of the 21st century that seems like such a hopelessly quixotic concept, which is, unfortunately, a rather bien pensant opinion, as they say. After the Iraq War, the expenses scandals, and austerity, disillusionment with the ‘establishment’, the Westminster ‘paradigm’, is at a depressing high. But if we try to not just see through but past our so subjectively tainted lenses for just three seconds, a rather different image emerges.

Both George Osborne and Jeremy Corbyn could indeed share this illusive quality. Of course it’s rather radical and polarising to start claiming similarities between two so politically opposed figures, but both have made impassioned speeches about their desire to truly make a difference, to prioritise the impoverished and vulnerable above all.

Is it too quixotic to believe them?

Cicero once said, non nobis solum nati sumus. Not for ourselves alone are we born. Perhaps that’s what populares should mean.

George and Jeremy

The Corbyn Crusade: He’s not Mick Jagger, but he’s ignited hope, and that may just be enough

Labour

Jeremy Corbyn. It’s a name your average layperson on the Clapham omnibus, as they say, wouldn’t have known just a few short months ago, but Corbyn’s meteoric rise to household fame has pitched the Labour Party into chaos. Like a bearded messiah crashing dramatically into the vitriolic house party of boorishness and bravado that is British politics, Corbyn has emerged as the sort of eccentric-uncle-candidate in the leadership race, amassing an unfailingly enthusiastic following of those thoroughly brassed off by the “establishment”, “the failure of neoliberalism” and the dreaded “disillusionment with the paradigm”. For these budding revolutionaries, Corbyn, with his Farage-like oddities and lupine looks, perfectly epitomises those core values carved into Labour’s grieving heart, a good old socialist sitting firmly in the far left wing miles from Blair on a “clear anti-austerity platform”, regardless of whether he’s all ham and no let.

But where on earth did he come from?

Corbyn has been the MP for Islington North since 1983, believe it or not, with a 43% majority at the last election. A weekly columnist for the Morning Star for over three decades, and an active member of the Socialist Campaign Group, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War Coalition, he champions the renationalisation of the railways, the abolition of tuition fees and restoration of student grants, steeper taxes, a British republic, a reduced voting age, and the end of austerity. Unsurprisingly, he was actually the Labour Party’s “most rebellious” MP from 1997 to 2010, opposing 25% of all votes, and becoming embroiled in a variety of controversies, from inviting members of the IRA to the Houses of Parliament, as well as Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams in 1984, to calling Hamas and Hezbollah “friends” in his support of Palestine and blaming the crisis in Ukraine on NATO and American imperialism.

Some of his supporters have compared him to Harold Wilson, the moderate socialist who won four General Elections and imagined himself a Bolshevik revolutionary presiding over a Tsarist cabinet, advocating a mixed economy, more power to trade unions, pacifism and educational reform. Wilson, however, steered the country into the toxic mess of the 1970s, despite so audaciously advertising his ambition to boost the economy. Others have compared Corbyn’s rise to that of the SNP over the last few months, and their success at persuading those who didn’t usually vote to do so for the first time in an attempt to block the Tories and their dreaded austerity plans.

But the reality is far more nuanced.

Demographically, Labour gains the most support from 25-44 year olds in Wales, the West Midlands, northern England and London, and the least support from those aged 55+ in southern England and Scotland, but neither the age nor the gender differences are as pronounced as they are for say UKIP or the Greens. What does remain consistent are the proportion of voters in “working-class” socio-economic groups who continue to favour Labour, a traditional base who now seem to be marching in force behind Corbyn. Indeed, some of the loudest and most enthusiastic members of the Corbyn Collective or the Corbyn Cohort or the Corbyn Clan (sorry, the opportunity for alliterative effect was too tempting) are students. Why? A result of hostility towards Blairism (despite his early radicalism), the era of the soft-left Milibands, and disillusionment with the paradigm following the Iraq War, the expenses scandals, and now austerity (picture, if you will, the three bursts of acceleration of the steam train in Back to the Future III).

Only entering the leadership contest when he was able to persuade several MPs who have no intention of voting for him to back him in order to make the 35 MP mark, he has leapt ahead in the public opinion polls with his bold proclamations to “stand up against injustice” as “a popular, modern alternative to the Conservative government” at a time when “Britain is not working well for most people.”

That’s an interesting claim given the economy has grown by an average of 0.44% every quarter for the last five years, unemployment has fallen from 2.49 million to 0.76 million, and interest rates have remained at their historic 0.5% low (the lowest since the Bank of England’s establishment in 1694). Household disposable income has also recovered to pre-recession levels suggesting “standard of living” has improved, despite research apparently showing that people are less satisfied with their incomes than they were five years ago, though of course one could argue this is because an improving economy has boosted ambition and personal targets.

Either way, it’s pretty much impossible to predict the outcome of the leadership election on 12th September. I think everyone is a lot warier about the business of calling elections following how spectacularly wrong we all were in May, but one cannot resist the dark seductions of speculation.

Personally, I don’t think Corbyn will win, despite Blair’s melodramatic letter in The Guardian this morning pleading with anyone who will listen to “rugby tackle” Uncle Jeremy before he can drag us “over the cliff”. Voters are enjoying humouring his impassioned rallying cries of peace and justice, but given Labour lost largely in part to distrust of their economic competence, a swing to the far-left is unlikely, even with Corbyn now having the backing of four trade unions.

My prediction, and I say this very tentatively, lies with Yvette Cooper, and her calm and collected voice of experience, solidarity, and community. She has been criticised for her indecisiveness, but what some call vacillation others would call the shrewd calculations of a cool and analytical mind. Indeed, former home secretary Alan Johnson wrote last week, “being sane, rational and intelligent doesn’t set off a box of fireworks”, but “she understands things very quickly. And she is tremendously calm. I can’t think of a single occasion in 13 years [of government] when I saw her lose her cool, and that’s remarkable given the kinds of jobs she was doing… After over a century of male leaders we have an election where the most qualified candidate to lead our party back to government happens to be a woman. Let’s end the madness and elect her.”

As the Inverness-born daughter of a maths teacher and a trade unionist, a graduate of Oxford, LSE and Harvard, someone who spent a year living off benefits, and a veteran politician, Cooper could very well be the anchor in the storm for Labour, with her vision of high quality jobs, universal childcare, a digital economy and vocational education.

But, in all honesty, we shouldn’t be too surprised if the Corbyn Crusade goes steaming to first place on a wave of sheer enthusiasm. As a campaign insider told The Guardian, “OK, he’s not Mick Jagger, but you see that he has awakened all these hopes in people.”

We’ll just have to wait and see.

Labour 2

Game of Seats: UK General Election 2015

When you play the game of seats, you win or you die…

Game of Seats

Today marks the most momentous and unpredictable election in a century.

Not since the hung Parliament of 1923 when all three major political parties achieved over 100 seats have we seen a field as open as this one. In the wake of a bruising referendum, Scotland is projected to vote overwhelmingly for the nationalist SNP party, while the regressive UKIP are campaigning ferociously to gain their first ever seat. Nick Clegg is travelling to John o’ Groats right now in the Lib Dems last desperate 1000 mile tour of Britain, while both Cameron and Miliband still robotically fight for that elusive “majority”. The heavyweight media channels are gearing up for their all-night election coverage broadcasts, and millions of voters head to the polling stations.

If you are still undecided, have a glance at the guide below where the key manifesto policies and notable pledges for each party are outlined, along with their Game of Thrones doppelgänger to give you a fresh perspective…

The Conservatives aka House Lannister

Conservatives Lannister

1. The Economy – eliminate the deficit and start to run a surplus by 2018-19 & make the minimum wage tax-free

2. Employment – firms with more than 250 employees to publish average male & female pay

3. Housing – 200,000 new homes and Right-to-Buy for tenants in Housing Associations

4. Health – 7-day a week access to GPs & increase NHS spending every year

5. Other pledges – a referendum on the EU by the end of 2017, to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, “English votes for English laws”, to keep the Army over 82,000, to renew Trident, freeze rail fares for 5 years, and vote on repealing the Hunting Act, to have elected mayors for large cities, and have 50% of the Scottish budget decided by Scotland.

That’s certainly a lot of tax cuts and spending increases but given the coalition government has fought down unemployment and achieved exit velocity from the financial crisis over the last 5 years, their economic credibility must be acknowledged. Like the Lannisters, the Conservatives are usually associated with wealth, age and power. The rearing lion sigil and motto of “Hear me roar!” is also perhaps in keeping with their stereotype, and the infamous words, “a Lannister always pays his debts” reminds one of Tory pledges to eliminate the deficit. They’ve certainly made an admirable start!

Labour aka House Baratheon

Labour Baratheon

1. The Economy – cut the deficit every year and balance the books “asap”, scrap zero hours contracts, introduce a 50p tax rate for those earning £150k+, & raise the minimum wage by more than £8 an hour by 2019

2. Housing – 200,000 homes to be built every year by 2020, scrap the Bedroom Tax & a cap on rent rises

3. Young People – 16 and 17 year olds to get the vote, a cut in tuition fees from £9000 to £6000 & Maths and English compulsory until the age of 18

4. Health – 8000 more GPs, 20,000 more nurses and 3000 more midwives & a guaranteed doctor’s appointment within 48 hours

5. Other pledges – further devolution across the UK, energy and rail prices frozen until 2016/17, & replace the House of Lords with an elected Senate

With similar housing and health targets as the Conservatives, Labour proposes an interesting idea for an elected Senate, redefining the Westminster model in what could be quite a progressive way, however their plans for the economy do not bode well for the budget. Arguably their greatest weakness however lies with the distrust of their leader, leading to fractures in the party worthy of the infightings of House Baratheon. The latter’s motto certainly seems fitting, “Ours is the Fury.”

The Liberal Democrats aka House Tyrell

Lib Dems Tyrell

1. The Economy – aim to balance the books by 2017, raise tax free allowance to £12,500 by 2020, a property levy on homes over £2 million & firms with more than 250 employees to publish average male & female pay

2. Health – £8 billion in funding for NHS England and more for the rest of the UK, increase mental health spending by £500 million per year

3. Young People – 16 and 17 year olds to get the vote, 20 hours of free childcare per week for children aged 2-4 & extend free meals to all primary schools

4. Housing – build 300,000 homes per year with 10 new Garden Cities

5. Other pledges – a Digital Bill of Rights outlining the online privacy of each person, to remain a “committed member of the EU”, & plant a tree for every child born

The Lib Dems’ manifesto indeed looks like a fusion of the Labour and Conservative manifestos, raising the question of whether they actually believe in these policies or if they’re simply setting up camp firmly in the middle ground so that they can be in the position to do a deal with either major party. Planting a tree for every child born is definitely intriguing! Like House Tyrell they do possess influence, and also went into marriage with the Lannisters. The Tyrell sigil is a golden rose on a pale green field, a similarly natural and peaceful image as the Lib Dems’ Bird of Liberty, and their motto is “Growing Strong”. Can they grow strong once more?

The SNP aka House Stark

Stark SNP

1. The Economy – a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax and a bankers’ bonus tax, an increase in the minimum wage to £8.70 by 2020, & a crack down on zero-hours contracts

2. Health – a vote for an increase in health spending across the UK of £24bn by 2020, which will deliver an increase in spending to the Scottish NHS of £2bn by 2020

3. Devolution – the proposals of the Smith commission to be delivered in full, a phased transition to full financial responsibility for Scotland, and devolution of powers over employment policy, welfare, business taxes, national insurance and equality policy

4. Housing – the rollout of universal credit, the reversal of the replacement of disability living allowance by personal independence payments, opposing the £3bn cut in disability funding, the abolishment of the Bedroom Tax, & to build 100,000 affordable homes each year

5. Other pledges – scrapping Trident, a call on the UK government to match the approach of the Scottish government with a dedicated climate justice fund, an EU referendum where all four constituent nations would have to have a majority vote to leave, devolution of the BBC, & more infrastructure to be built in Scotland and the North of England

Aside from the unnecessarily aggressive tax increases, this is quite a progressive set of policies, and an optimist could argue that if Labour does indeed secure the most votes but falls short of a majority, then a coalition with the SNP could be quite a desirable outcome. They could really be a force for good and could see the union revitalised. However, if we are to believe the recent analysis in The Times condemning such a marriage as the rise of the politics of sadism, then this could do more harm than good. But surely the SNP wouldn’t try to tear the UK apart from within the walls of Westminster to ultimately secure another referendum? Surely they can’t be that malicious? Scotland has spoken, and that decision must be honoured. We must work to save the union not plot to destroy it. From the frozen mountains of the North, House Stark have also continually butted heads with the Lannisters for centuries, an ancient House characterised by their ferocious dire wolf sigil. But is winter coming?

UKIP aka House Bolton

UKIP Bolton

1. The Economy – increase the personal allowance to £13,000, raise the threshold for 40% income tax to £55,000 & abolish inheritance tax

2. Employment – allow British businesses to choose to employ British citizens over immigrants, introduce 6000 new jobs in the Police, Prison Service and UK Border Force, & train and fund 800 advisors to work in 800 food banks

3. Immigration – hold a referendum on EU membership as soon as possible, & introduce and Australian-style points based immigration system

4. Health – invest £12 billion in the NHS to pay for 8000 new GPs and 20,000 nurses, increase funding for mental health treatment by £170 million annually & invest £130 million per year into dementia research

5. Other pledges – increase defence spending to the NATO 2% target, cut the foreign aid budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.2%, waive tuition fees for degrees in science, technology, engineering and medicine, abolish the Entertainment division of the BBC, & amend the smoking ban to allow it in pubs and clubs

Among several very regressive policies such as aggressive immigration controls, an inexplicable amendment of the smoking ban and the heretical abolishment of Doctor Who, nowhere does UKIP mention anything about eliminating the deficit or balancing the books. What they do mention is irresponsible tax cuts and ambitious spending increases left, right and centre. That may be a desirable reality but it resides firmly in the realms of fantasy. They can only be likened to House Bolton, the ancient clan born from the disgruntled north who became infamous for the centuries-old practice of flaying their enemies alive. Their official motto is “Our Blades Are Sharp”, though a common saying of members of the House remains “A naked man has few secrets; a flayed man, none”.

The Greens aka House Tully

Greens Tully

1. The Economy – increase the minimum wage to £10 an hour by 2020, companies’ top employees can only be paid ten times more than its lowest earners, a new wealth tax on the top 1%, & a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on the banks

2. Environment – limit the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees, ban fracking and phase out coal and nuclear power stations, ensure everyone lives within 5 minutes’ walk of a green open space, & ban the importing of fur

3. Young People – 16 and 17 year olds to get the vote, abolish tuition fees and cancel existing student debt, & set a maximum for school classes of 20 pupils

4. Housing – abolish the Bedroom Tax, build 500,000 new socially-rented homes by 2020, cap private rent, introduce longer tenancies, & license landlords

5. Other pledges – re-nationalise the railways and cut rail fares by 10%, ban the sale of pornography in supermarkets, create an assembly for Cornwall with similar powers to the Welsh Assembly

As ever the Greens boast an impressive and ambitious set of environmental policies that are certainly very hard to argue with, but their economics let them down, being just too unrealistic for a successful and healthy economy. Their plans for further devolution are also very intriguing and the abolishment of tuition fees is tempting… it would be an interesting experiment to see them in government with the Conservatives! We can definitely draw comparisons between the Greens and House Tully, the Riverlords who were targeted by the Lannisters, who aided the Starks, and who are characterised by their silver trout sigil.

Plaid Cymru aka House Targaryen

Plaid Cymru Targaryen1. The Economy – ensure everyone, especially women in part-time work, are earning the living wage, an extra £1.2bn a year in funding for Wales, and re-nationalise the railways

2. Young People – 16 and 17 year olds to get the vote, ultimate abolishment of tuition fees but in the meantime, people who live in Wales and are studying to work in fields such as science and engineering will not pay fees if they stay in Wales for their education

3. Housing – rent controls to make tenancies more affordable, increase tenants’ rights and create “reasonable” minimum tenancy lengths

4. Health – oppose privatisation and recruit an extra 1,000 doctors for the NHS in Wales

5. Other pledges – Wales to become a “Country of Sanctuary”, taking “our fair share of displaced people” including those who are refugees from the wars in Iraq and Syria, & all the major Welsh railway lines to be electrified by 2034

Comparable to House Targaryen, the mysterious fallen tribe from across the sea, Plaid Cymru hail from a land of druids and dragons. Their policies are, like the SNP and the Greens, admirably socially liberal, but they seem to lack realistic economic targets that would help cut the deficit while continuing to boost the economy. However, their pledge on immigration is inspiring and puts UKIP to shame, especially their plan to create a list of trades which are not currently being matched by the skills of Welsh workers and attract skilled people from around the world to fill those gaps.

Dragon 1

So there you have it, the election line-up for 2015. Never has there been such a level playing field, such an eclectic mix of manifestos, politicians and choices. This is undoubtedly a defining moment in history for the United Kingdom, and the outcome of this day will lay the path for either its resurgence or its decline…

Let the Game of Seats begin!

Cast 1

David Dimbleby will be kicking off the all-night election coverage at 21:55 on BBC One

Election 2015

International Women’s Day: The Long Road to the Universal Right to Choose

empowerment

It was Christopher Hitchens, veteran journalist, author and fierce condemner of religion, who said, “there is only one cure to world poverty that has ever been found and ever will be, and it’s very simple, it’s called the empowerment of women.

He made this astonishingly obvious and brilliant remark in a debate hosted by Intelligence Squared in 2009 about whether or not the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, this statement is surely a contender for the single most profound and inspirational truth ever spoken.

On this International Women’s Day, let’s consider one of the world’s most controversial debates.

How can we possibly tackle world poverty, how can we possibly empower women, while at the same time advocate laws that forbid women from having control over their own bodies? Laws that, in the 21st century, can send women to prison and even condemn them to execution for the simple crime of taking control of their own bodies. How can abortion possibly be argued against? How dare democratic governments criminalise abortion while at the same time they claim to be democracies. The very definition of a democracy is a system in which power is vested in the people, and in which the human rights of all citizens are guaranteed. All citizens. And yet millions of women living in these so called democracies are told that, hey, you’re equal to men, yeah we men used to see you and your body as our property, and hey we recognise that we’re not really patriarchs any more and here, have a vote, but oh yeah, your body is now the property of the state, sorry.

How can any sane and educated human being advocate a law that prohibits another human being from controlling their own body? How does that even remotely resemble common sense let alone basic humanity?

The self-named “pro-life” movement, which, let’s not forget, also includes the majority of the world’s religions, demands this right to control a women’s body by first, claiming God says you’ll go to hell if you “kill” a microscopic collection of cells that has no ability to think or feel, and second, by using the inane argument that to abort a pregnancy is to commit murder. If we were to apply this ludicrous logic elsewhere then surely eating a full English breakfast is also murder? US comedian, author and philosopher George Carlin once said, “How come when it’s us, it’s an abortion, and when it’s a chicken, it’s an omelette?

Frankly, if you’re going to claim that a microscopic collection of cells that has no ability to think or feel, and that doesn’t have any semblance of human consciousness, does actually constitute a human and therefore is protected by human rights, then surely every time a woman has a period you should be accusing her of murder and locking her up? Because they’re all potential humans too, right? Chance just decided that those eggs wouldn’t bump into any sperm on their way. Why would the egg the sperm missed not be given the same rights as the egg chance decreed the sperm didn’t miss? A foetus or embryo or prenatal mammal conceived by humans may genetically be a potential human but it is not yet a human in any other sense of the word until the moment it can survive outside the womb.

Regardless, the fundamental rights of the human must take precedence over the rights, if any, of the potential human.

Amazingly, and paradoxically for a nation that would go on to utterly obliterate the rights of its people, Russia was the first country to legalise abortion in 1919. Iceland followed in 1935, Sweden in 1938, and eventually the UK in 1967. The US did not see sense until 1973, with the infamous legal case of Roe vs Wade that began with Norma McCorvey, later given the alias Jane Roe, who tried and failed to gain an abortion four years earlier. In the US especially, the debate remains one of the most contentious political issues of the day, though why it should be a political issue at all is a mystery, with Republicans traditionally being “pro-life” and Democrats “pro-choice.”

But in many countries across South America, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia (and, um… Ireland), women still do not have the right to choose. This alone should prove Hitchens right, that there is a definite correlation between the empowerment of women and the alleviation of poverty, and where women are still oppressed, poverty reigns supreme.

19th century American nurse and political activist Margaret Sanger said, “No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.” Italian journalist Italo Calvino said, “In abortion, the person who is massacred, physically and morally, is the woman.” American lawyer and activist Florynce Kennedy said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” It’s a simple fact that 205 million pregnancies occur each year worldwide. Over a third are accidents and a fifth end in abortion. How many of those that do not are due to immoral laws, I wonder? And what effect does that have on the child?

The right to have an abortion should be on the UDHR. Yes, the entitlement for a woman to choose should be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Frankly, how can it not be on there already?

Eleanor Roosevelt with the UDHR

Eleanor Roosevelt with the UDHR

rally

US Presidential Debates vs UK General Election Debates: When Acting Drives Democracy

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players.

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts…

Debates graphic

The idea of life resembling a performance with actors and sets and costumes is a common theme in literature. So much of life is a performance when one really thinks about it. How often do you truly say what you feel? How often do you let social convention and the opinions and experiences of others govern your own decisions? Our most human moments surely come when the performance of life is discarded.

So the question is, should we let performance be a defining factor in politics?

UK headlines have been dominated over the past few days by the loaded exchanges going back and forth between the political parties and the broadcasters. Bickering and boorish behaviour aside, the key point of disagreement is over the head to head between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, incumbent Conservative Prime Minister and leader of the opposition party Labour. After first advocating such a debate, Cameron is now saying he is only willing to take part in one, a single debate that involves not two, not three, but seven party leaders. And he has been labelled as a coward.

It is undoubtedly a triumph for democracy that we now have the opportunity to see a 7-way debate. Even just a few years ago that would have seemed a great unlikelihood. At most there have only ever been three main parties in this country who have really been taken seriously on the national stage but now seven are being given a level platform to advocate their policies and visions live in front of a projected audience of at least 20 million, almost half the electorate. Surely no one can deny that this is a good thing?

But what about this prospect of a head to head between Miliband and Cameron, which the latter is refusing on the grounds that it would be unfair for the other parties to be excluded?

On one hand, it would fuel political engagement, which was the most extraordinary and invigorating thing about the recent Scottish referendum which saw the highest levels of debate regardless of age and class this country has ever seen. But on the other hand, a debate of this nature will push showmanship and performance to the forefront. Suddenly the success of the arguments become intrinsically linked to the mannerisms and articulation of the candidate. And, as Margaret Thatcher said when approached about the prospect of televised debates, we’re not electing a President. Two decades earlier Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home argued, “You’ll get a sort of Top of the Pops contest. You’ll then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a scriptwriter.”

They have a point. The high stakes high profile presidential-style debates that are meticulously planned, performed and polled are a very American idea. Such debates were pioneered back in 1858 with a series of seven head to heads between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas for US Senate but the first general televised presidential debate did not come until 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon and they soon became a regular occurrence.

Perhaps it is important for Americans to see their Presidents on stage like that given that they will also become the head of state, but Ford lost the race in 1976 due to a single foolish statement he made under pressure in the debates that year, and Reagan won a landslide victory in 1980 due to years of acting experience. Should the result rely so heavily on the performance at the expense of the political policies? It is certainly a clearer answer with regards to British Prime Ministers.

What is the difference between the President and the Prime Minister?

Well, the most important factor is that in the UK the people elect the party and that party elects its leader, who in turn must lead and also answer to the legislative body of Parliament, but in the US the people are voting for the President who works in parallel with his or her legislative body, Congress, comprising of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and has the power to veto legislation while also acting as head of state and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.

So the argument that US presidential debates are important is perhaps understandable, even though a lot of the time they can be counterproductive and simply turn into acting competitions, but it is a lot harder to see the benefits of UK general election debates between the two people most likely to become the next Prime Minister. And frankly, it is outrageous for Miliband and Clegg to be condemning Cameron as a coward for refusing such a debate and accusing him of arrogance. Notwithstanding the fact that as the more gifted debater with an improved economy to boast of he would probably “win”, it is wildly unprofessional and incendiary to bring such backstabbing and belittling comments into the political arena. This is an arena that should be defined by its civility, respect and integrity.

Margaret Thatcher also said, “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left”. Why can’t political debate be civilised? Can we not declare politics a malice, spite, voyeurism and gossip-free zone? Why do politicians think there has been such political disillusionment over the last decade when they spend so much time acting like schoolchildren? If only the desire to do some good could forever transcend the desire for a stage and a doting audience.

I’ll say again that the most extraordinary thing about the Scottish referendum was political engagement. When your 13 year-old sister starts debating oil revenues with her friends, when you pass two elderly ladies discussing the different currency options in Tesco, when the most controversial and fight-inducing topic in pubs is about political autonomy, when the voting turnout is 84.6% of the electorate, the highest ever recorded in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage, then you can truly understand what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”

Political engagement, that’s what we should strive for.

But leave the presidential debates to the Presidents.

Constitution