Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Tories' 'non-sectarian' pretence definitively exposed

I couldn't resist having a peek to see how self-styled 'liberal unionist' Northern Ireland blogger Chekov is reacting to the news that the Tories have comprehensively reneged on their promise not to enter into any sectarian deals with the DUP, by caving in to their UUP partners' wishes to step aside in favour of a joint unionist candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Perhaps predictably, Chekov merely goes through the motions of expressing his disappointment, before emphasising at considerable length the supposed up-sides of the Tory sell-out. Rodney Connor, we are assured, is a "promising candidate" with "impressive cross-community credentials" (which, if they exist, are surely about to be somewhat tarnished by standing on such a blatantly sectarian ticket), and a victory for him will ensure the constituency is "represented by a Conservative and Unionist MP".

The latter point is particularly disingenuous. There can be no dispute that Connor is not standing as a Tory, and although he has pledged to accept the Conservative whip if elected, there is a subtle distinction between doing that and being a full member of the Conservative parliamentary party (which is what any of the proper 'Conservative and Unionist' candidates will be if successful). In some circumstances that distinction might be a technicality, but not when the prospective MP is pledging to regard the whip as non-binding on "matters concerning Northern Ireland". A part-time affiliation to a party is as meaningless a concept as a part-time pregnancy - so, unless Connor is cynically misleading the electorate about his intentions, he simply isn't going to be a Tory MP.

The main point here is that this decision makes a mockery of Conservative claims that their entry (or vastly stepped-up involvement in) Northern Ireland elections was intended to promote a new non-sectarian politics. As ever, actions speak louder than rhetoric, and when it really came down to it, the opportunity to replace a Sinn Féin MP with a unionist - any unionist - was more important to them than offering the electorate of Fermanagh and South Tyrone a non-sectarian alternative. It also means, incidentally, that the Tories have abandoned their pledge to stand in every single constituency in the United Kingdom. They were already in technical breach of that due to John Bercow nominally not standing as a Tory in Buckingham. However, that was unavoidable due to convention, this one certainly isn't - and thus the Tories have turned their back on the chance to crow about being the only 'national' party. It also means that if the broadcasters follow Liam Byrne's strictures that participation in the Prime Ministerial (sic) Debates is only appropriate for those parties standing in "every single seat", it won't just be Alex Salmond, Ieuan Wyn Jones, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown watching them from the sidelines. It'll be David Cameron as well. But never fear - ninety minutes of silence would probably be considerably more elucidating than what's currently planned.

In other campaign news, it appears that David Cameron's "modern, compassionate Conservative party" wants to get back to the good old Victorian values of encouraging us to marry for monetary gain rather than love. But as Vince Cable has pointed out, it'll probably take more than £3 a week to pull off that particular trick. What say they chuck in some free carpets? Or some air-miles. And I've always fancied a wok...

Interesting to read that Gary McKinnon's mother is planning to stand as an independent against Jack Straw. It's a timely reminder to me that, while I think on balance a Labour government would be the lesser of two evils, there are some specific points on which that wouldn't be the case. McKinnon's future probably hangs, at the very least, on Labour not emerging from this election as the sole party of government. But then again, would the Tories once in office simply revert to their slavishly pro-American instincts, and pretend there's nothing they can do? I wouldn't exactly faint with amazement if they did.

Frankie Boyle : his comedy can be defended, but not his lack of humanity

Following on rather neatly from my previous post about someone who used humour to make others feel small, I've just caught up with the story about comic Frankie Boyle's latest mishap. At the opening show of his new tour, he upset a woman in the front row of the audience with a routine poking fun at people with Down's Syndrome, and then challenged her after noticing her disapproval. The woman in question, Sharon Smith, has a daughter with Down's, and later wrote about the experience in a blog post, which has been picked up by the mainstream media.

The problem with this kind of incident is that it instantly leads to the familiar knee-jerk reaction from many people of "oh, this just shows how talentless these so-called 'comedians' are, time for them to be banned from TV". Last autumn, I picked up on a post in the Caledonian Comment blog concerning Rebecca Adlington's fury over Boyle's jokes about her on Mock the Week - the suggestion was that if TV executives didn't now realise how unfunny he was, that just proved how "arrogant" and "out of touch" they were. In truth, of course, they'd be far more out of touch if they didn't realise how wildly popular Boyle and others like him are.

This is such a difficult issue, because much of the best comedy (admittedly not all) relies on material capable of deeply offending someone. We all have our points of vulnerability - even, I presume, Frankie Boyle. Does this mean that such edgy comedy should always be regarded as undesirable? Sharon Smith herself seems to be somewhat conflicted on that point, admitting with admirable honesty that one of the reasons she went to see Boyle's show in the first place was that she liked "how nasty he is" and "wanted to see him out of the confines of a TV editing suite, to hear him say things he could not get away with on mainstream TV".

On the other hand, I don't think it's a legitimate criticism to make of Ms Smith that, since she knew exactly what Boyle is like, and had booked her tickets in that full knowledge, she therefore had no right to be upset about what happened. She didn't "know what to expect" - she had no way of knowing that one of her own personal 'points of vulnerability' was going to come up. It was hugely bad luck, both for her and for Boyle. So I'm unable to reach any conclusion about whether a comedy routine based around stereotypes concerning a vulnerable group of people can be regarded as funny or even morally acceptable - in a sense it's a question that doesn't have a right or wrong answer. It's all in the eye of the beholder.

But what is truly shocking and utterly indefensible about Boyle's behaviour is how he reacted after things started to go wrong. To begin with, he should never have challenged her when he saw she was unhappy - he should at least have had enough awareness of the sensitivities of the situation to realise that someone offended by the initial jokes was unlikely to react in a benign way to being effectively told to "lighten up". But having made the mistake of drawing her into the performance, and then seeing her stand her ground and refuse to see the funny side, that was certainly the moment for him to bail out and try to make amends. There are many ways he could have done that - perhaps he could have humanised the situation by asking her about her daughter, and then used her answers as the basis for some lighter, whimsical, self-effacing humour (which he is certainly capable of) to suggest ways in which she might like to get revenge on him for being so nasty. And then having hopefully smoothed away some of the awkwardness of the situation (without the need to alienate the rest of the audience from her, or vice versa) he could have apologised in a way that didn't compromise his right to be edgy and offensive in the future.

Instead, he did something rather different. Although he conceded it was the "most excruciating moment of his career", he then told her that she had paid to come and see him and that she should have known what to expect, and that as it was his last tour "he didn't give a f***". In making the latter comment, he was essentially inviting the rest of the audience to conspire with him in making her an object of mockery, and that is what's truly despicable. He probably only did it because he was so horrified to find himself in that situation and was relying on his comic instinct to get him out of it - but that's not much of an excuse.

So while incidents like this tell us nothing one way or the other about Boyle's talent as a stand-up comic, in this instance I'm very glad he got what was coming to him - and let's face it, 9 times out of 10 the celebrity in that situation would get away with it, with the person he's trampled over being left with no right to reply. Another small triumph for the equalising power of the internet.

The irony is that he meant it

Thanks to DougtheDug on the previous thread for linking to a brief 'profile' of Stuart MacLennan at Edinburgh University Labour Club, presumably self-penned given the now-familiar 'ironic' prose style -

"Stuart is an ageing hack who just won't go away. He's worked on almost every losing by-election campaign in recent history and the few that he's stayed away from have been the ones Labour has won. Maybe he should adopt that policy more often."

Hmmm. Judging from some of the photos I've seen in the papers, Willie Bain probably wishes he had.

Beneath the profile, there are a couple of posts by MacLennan, which includes one particular unintended gem -

"How student’s can get involved in the 2011 manifesto."

By urgently mastering the correct use of apostrophes?

One thing that's been slightly unexpected over the last few hours has been the backlash against the sacking of MacLennan. His defenders fall into two broad camps - one group are adamant that he's been misunderstood, while the other group are concerned about the detrimental effect this could have on politicians' engagement with the public on social networking sites, especially Twitter. The fear (expressed by Toby Young among others) is that instead of being authentic and spontaneous, politicians' tweets will in future become as sanitised and relentlessly on-message as other forms of political communication. That ignores a couple of points - a) most politicians' tweets already fit the latter description rather well, and b) it is actually perfectly possible to 'let your hair down' and show a little personality on the internet without going to MacLennan's extreme of referring to the elderly as "coffin-dodgers" and train passengers as "chavs" (one in particular as "the ugliest old boot I've seen").

As for the other line of defence, yes, I think most people are capable of spotting that these tweets were intended to be seen as 'banter', ie. someone for comic effect adopting the persona of an individual with excessive self-regard, sneering at everything that moves. In fact, the first thing it reminded me of was Spectator journalist Alex Massie's (very funny) tweets during Scotland's semi-final win over Canada at the women's world curling championship a couple of weeks ago -

"Desperate Canucks calling for a measure: that looks like a motherf*****g three beaver-munchers..."
"that last tweet was punctuated poorly. Not 'three beaver-munchers' but 'looks like three, beaver-munchers'"
"Scotland 10 Canada 3. Gold-medal game here we go. Take that, moose-munchers."
"Jennifer Jones may be all silicon, nae tit."
"Bring on the Krauts!"

The problem with the 'tongue-in-cheek' defence for MacLennan, though, is that many of his targets for abuse were political opponents and left-wing Labour MPs, ie. it's suspiciously rather close to the views that you'd expect a typical young New Labour activist to actually hold. And while it may be possible to use phrases like 'coffin-dodger' for genuine comedic effect (indeed it's one of Sir Terry Wogan's favourite phrases) it could hardly be said to be meant affectionately in this context - he's laughing at people rather than with them. MacLennan's brand of humour seems to fulfil a need to escape to a comic-strip world in which he's ten-feet-tall and everyone else is two-feet-tall - not an unusual fantasy, admittedly, but the desire to publicly broadcast it is generally confined to fourteen-year-old boys and posters on Guido Fawkes. So never the ideal choice of candidate for Labour, then, even in this most hopeless of seats for them.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Murphy's sanctimony comes back to haunt him again

Firstly, I'd just like to sincerely thank Labour for ensuring that the first big scandal of the general election campaign has occurred in a safe Nationalist seat, thus guaranteeing that the London-based media are forced to acknowledge - at least in passing - that the SNP do actually exist (always something of a painful process for them).

Secondly, I'm struggling to see how it can be denied that Jim Murphy has just flunked a very big judgement call. Reading through the original story on Stuart MacLennan in the Scottish Sun, it's very hard to see precisely what 'further information' could possibly have been required to determine that this man was not a fit person to be a parliamentary candidate.

Thirdly, I think we might just have heard the last from Scotland's Supreme Spiritual Guide, the Venerable Brother Murphy, on the subject of 'disgusting CyberNats'. Certainly, he's not going to have a lot of credibility in ever again trying to hold the SNP leadership responsible for the uncontrollable actions of a handful of anonymous supporters on the internet, when he is asking us to accept that it is perfectly plausible that he had no idea about the bile one of his own parliamentary candidates was pouring out on Twitter, in spite of the fact that the person in question was brazenly doing so under his own name, and that his followers included several prominent Labour figures, one of whom was the wife of the Prime Minister.

Incidentally, I also look forward to hearing at length from David Maddox about 'CyberLabs' for a change. (Sounds suitably sinister, like the sort of thing Tony Blair was desperately hoping might turn up in Iraq one day.)

Why Scotland 'doesn't matter' in this election

One of my pet hates at election time is the tendency of politicians and commentators alike to treat the electorate as a whole - whether at a local or national level - as a kind of mystical collective entity expressing its will, rather than as a group of thousands or millions of individuals making individual decisions that are then aggregated to produce an outcome. Earlier this week we had Anthony Howard rubbishing the prospect of a balanced parliament (statistically far more likely than in most previous elections because of the relative strength of the Liberal Democrats and nationalist parties) on the grounds that the British people always "prefer to come to a clear decision". Well, I'm sure they do. The problem is that 34% could come to a clear decision that they want a Labour government, 38% could come to an equally clear decision that they want a Tory government, and the net result would be a balanced parliament. The closeness (or otherwise) of the final result really isn't much of a commentary on the 'decisiveness' of the individual voters concerned.

On a similar theme, we had Danny Finkelstein's bizarre theory eighteen months ago that history proves the electorate always come to the 'right' decision no matter what. In truth, it's not all that surprising that a moderately right-of-centre commentator who was once an Owenite member of the SDP (ie. someone very close to the political centre of gravity in middle England) would feel uncannily comfortable with the result the electorate of middle England delivered on each and every occasion. So Heath "didn't deserve" a second term, Labour had failed to prove they "got it" in 1992, but had by 1997, etc, etc. What Finkelstein doesn't seem to have spotted is that he's only getting these 'right' results because UK general elections just happen to draw an arbitrary circle around an electorate with the 'right' kind of demographics and political orientation. Run precisely the same historical election contests with that circle drawn arbitrarily round a different electorate and you get very different outcomes. Run them only in Scotland, say, and rather than Finkelstein it would be a centre-left commentator contentedly noting that the electorate always get it right, and that everybody knows the stupid Tories deserved their sequence of humiliating defeats in the 1980s because they simply didn't "get it" about social justice and the need to protect industry. Run them in England only, and we'd presumably be hearing about how Heath's re-election for a second term in 1974 was "well-merited". And so on.

Reading Jeff's post on Tuesday on the subject of electoral reform, I felt that he was perhaps falling into a similar kind of trap. His contention was that the Electoral Reform Society was being disrespectful to voters by suggesting that first-past-the-post generates hundreds of safe seats that effectively disenfranchise voters - in Jeff's eyes it's the voters themselves who deliver those safe seats. If Glasgow voters want to elect Labour MPs time and time again by mammoth margins, that's a matter for them, and their decision has to be respected. The problem is that this argument rests on viewing the Glasgow electorate as one of those mystical collective entities expressing a common will. It really isn't like that. Glasgow, just like everywhere else, is comprised of individual voters making a colourful variety of individual choices. Unfortunately for those people, first-past-the-post arbitrarily traps them in a geographical box which preordains that their personal decisions count for nought. The crucial thing to understand is that this utter powerlessness applies even if they vote Labour. It is completely irrelevant whether there is a 10% swing to Labour or against Labour in these seats - the outcome will always be unalloyed Red, rendering each and every individual change of heart between elections superfluous. And of course it isn't just Glasgow - whole swathes of the UK live with a concept of 'democracy' that is to all intents and purposes as nominal or dormant as in a one-party state. The net effect is a disgraceful inequality whereby a very narrow group of floating voters in English marginal seats hold all the power in elections, and everyone else can be safely ignored. This in turn translates into a more concrete social and economic inequality as politicians do what comes naturally, and shower the bulk of their election bribes on the 'empowered few'.

Incidentally, that's precisely what commentators are getting at when they smugly assure us that Scotland "doesn't matter" in this election. It's got nothing to do with Scotland having only 9% of the population, and therefore a similar proportion of seats. It's instead a reference to the fact that Scotland contains very few Labour-Conservative marginals, and therefore has far, far fewer than 9% of the voters who will actually select the next government.

Proportional representation as proposed by the SNP (and admittedly the Lib Dems and Greens as well) would of course set this outrageous state of affairs to rights at a stroke. For the avoidance of doubt, the majoritarian Alternative Vote system proposed by Labour categorically would not.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Obfuscation, perpetration, and no proportional representation

Gordon Brown always comes across so much better on the very rare occasions when he answers questions directly, even at the risk of showing a degree of fallibility or vulnerability. A good example was when he admitted on the Piers Morgan programme how embarrassed he had been by both the footage of his infamous YouTube appearance, and also of him air-kissing the wives of assorted world leaders. You'd think he might have drawn some lessons from the positive reception that programme received, but it appears not. Tonight, in his Channel 4 News interview with Gary Gibbon, he was very much back to his old ways of pretending not to have heard questions (instead answering the one he wished had been asked), and of flat-out denying reality.

First he was asked if a simple increase in income tax rates would not, just as much as an increase in VAT, have been a viable alternative to the planned National Insurance rise. He pretended that he instead had been asked "Gordon, how successful have Labour been at keeping income tax rates down since you came to power?". Gibbon failed to press the point, but well and truly put Brown on the spot later on by asking why he was proposing a change in the electoral system now, given that - according to Paddy Ashdown - he had been the roadblock to change in the aftermath of the 1997 election. Now, this was a question that would have been very interesting to have heard a direct answer to - I, for one, have always been deeply sceptical about Ashdown's version of events. My guess is that Blair was using Brown's intransigence as convenient cover for the fact that he was no reformer himself. But, naturally, no elucidation on the true sequence of events was forthcoming - instead, Brown essentially lied through his teeth by claiming that the reason why the 1997 manifesto commitment to a referendum on PR had been broken was that the Jenkins commission had "failed to reach agreement". Funny that, I thought they had produced a thoroughly detailed proposal for change.

Anyway, leaving Brown's obfuscation aside, it appears that Labour now have a fairly meaty programme for constitutional reform in this election. Ironically, the one big exception to that is on the electoral system, where they seem to be intent on perpetrating the confidence trick of convincing liberal-minded voters that they're proposing proportional representation, when in fact they are sticking with a firmly majoritarian system - indeed, one that might in some circumstances produce an even less proportional result than first-past-the-post. However, Labour are now - albeit for tactical reasons - pretty firmly committed over the next five years to a wholly elected House of Lords, fixed-term parliaments, and to the implementation of the Calman report in Scotland, all of which would represent significant steps forward. Much as it sticks in my throat to say it, therefore, I'm increasingly of the view that Labour perhaps represent the lesser of two evils in this election.

But our great fortune in Scotland (and in Wales) is that we have a clear alternative to voting for either evil.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Rules are rules, but not when they don't apply

With the starting-gun for the UK general election finally about to be fired, it's a bit rich to see Labour's Paul Martin in the Herald demanding that the SNP government should not break the 'purdah' rules in the forthcoming weeks - ie. that major policy announcements should not be made in an election period. The first problem for Martin is that it's far from clear that such rules even apply to the Holyrood administration during a UK campaign. The article notes -

"As a General Election approaches, Whitehall goes into so-called purdah and the machinery of the Civil Service can no longer be used for making announcements which could be construed as electioneering.

The same applies to the Civil Service in Scotland ahead of a Holyrood election.

However, the rules are less strict when it comes to what each administration can do during the other’s election period, amounting only to advice from the heads of the Civil Service."

And can anyone seriously imagine the UK government bothering to adhere to these 'rules' during a devolved Scottish election? If anyone complained about the timing of a government announcement, they'd get a familiar haughty response along the lines of "perhaps the SNP feel that the governance of the whole United Kingdom should shut down for a few weeks just for their convenience".

So there's equally no reason why the governance of Scotland should grind to a halt for a month just for Labour's convenience. And frankly, given the outrageous stitch-up that threatens to completely exclude the SNP from much of the highest-profile TV coverage of the election campaign, I'm not going to be terribly impressed by any sanctimony provoked by the SNP making a little use of the one very small advantage they have over the London-based parties during the campaign period.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Borders of the 'good enough'

I'm extremely heartened to read in Scotland on Sunday that the SNP are failing to obediently genuflect towards the narrative that "everything has been settled" on the televised leaders' debates (how can 'everything' have been agreed by 'everyone' when the majority of parties with parliamentary representation weren't even involved in the discussions?). To start with there'll be an appeal to the BBC Trust, and the article strongly hints that if all else fails, legal action still remains very much a live option -

"The letter, which will arrive on the trust's desk tomorrow, represents the SNP's last attempt to get the BBC to change its mind on the issue before the party resorts to legal action."

Some people (mostly, it has to be said, those who can't seem to understand what the issue is here) have suggested that the SNP would be making a tactical blunder if they took the matter to the courts - better, they contend, not to 'make too much of a fuss'. However, the stakes are simply too high to treat this as a game of cricket - crucial precedents are about to be set for future Westminster elections. My own view is that legal action only becomes unnecessary if one of the following occurs -

a) The broadcasters agree to the additional fourth debate suggested by the SNP and Plaid.
b) The broadcasters make space for special programmes to compensate the SNP for the bonus coverage their three rivals will be receiving. For the avoidance of doubt, these must be programmes featuring the SNP only - the Scotland-specific debates that would have happened anyway are utterly irrelevant to this question.
c) The SNP and Plaid are given some kind of direct access to the main debates, even if it is not on an absolute par with the other parties.

Of course, none of these options would represent anything like fairness and balance, but they would - in an imperfect world - perhaps be just about enough to be worth settling for. However, if none of them are agreed to, there would be little doubt left that the requirement for balanced coverage of the election campaign has been flagrantly contravened, and in those circumstances the SNP would be crazy not to test the matter in court.

In other news in the same paper, it seems there's some truly bizarre political cross-dressing going on. There was a time when the easiest jibe in the world to make against the SNP was that they wanted to "erect border posts at Gretna Green". The SNP's pro-Europeanism has of course long since consigned that prospect to history, but now, jaw-droppingly, it's Labour who seem utterly hellbent on imposing unnecessary passport controls at the border. It's really not a great side of the argument to be on. I hope for Labour's sake this is just yet another case of Chris Bryant unilaterally shooting his mouth off - but I just wonder.