Wednesday, May 31, 2006

We are the tables

As the upload of Robert Wyatt's A short break completes, I have now ripped my entire CD collection; rather smaller than my vinyl collection, but it still amounts to 2690 songs (or seven days and 20 hours, as iTunes helpfully informs me). So let's do this properly. Hit it! (And for a bonus point, name two Talking Heads songs where David Byrne uses that un-David-Byrne-like expression.)

Step 1: Put your media-player on random play.
Step 2: Write down the first line from the first 20 songs that play.
Step 3: Let everyone guess what song the lines come from.
Step 4: Cross out the songs when someone guesses correctly.

Same rules as before: no instrumentals, no sampled spoken-word, no songs with the title in the first line and nothing I don't recognise myself. Also no repeats from the first time I did this - in fact, nothing from the same album as anything that came up the first time round. And no two songs from the same artist. Simple, really. I don't know why we don't do this kind of thing more often.

Update 17th June - remaining beans spilled.
  1. "You're the only woman I need, and baby you know it"
    - Amen Corner, "Bend me, shape me"
  2. "Ar ol llond poced o fadarch roes ti'r ty ar dan"
    - SFA, "Dim Bendith"
  3. "My eyes burn naked, my black cold numbers, my insecurities, my devious nature, make it go away"
    - Underworld, "Sola Sistim"
  4. "The last message you sent said I looked really down"
    - Franz Ferdinand, "You could have it so much better"
  5. "See me comin' to town with my soul"
    - Beck, "E-Pro"
  6. "Did you ever hover in the distance?"
    - Robyn Hitchcock, "Oceanside"
  7. "Nobody feels any pain tonight as I stand inside the rain"
    - Bob Dylan, "Just like a woman"
  8. "I want to chill, want to sit real still, want to sleep like the dead on a bed of roses"
    - the Divine Comedy, "Bad ambassador"
  9. "Last night your shadow fell upon my lonely room"
    - the Electric Prunes, "I had too much to dream last night"
  10. "Alcohol, heroin, THC, care in the impotent community"
    - Fatima Mansions, "Chemical Cosh"
  11. "Over an ocean away, like salmon, turning back for Nayram"
    - Robert Wyatt, "Maryan"
  12. "You've been away so long, too long, what's wrong with us today?"
    - Lightning Seeds, "What if"
  13. "I'm on a roll, I'm on a roll this time"
    - Radiohead, "Lucky"
  14. "I don't want to lose her, I don't want to hurt her, I don't want to lose her"
    - Mull Historical Society, "Her is you"
  15. "Sitting in the classroom, thinking it's a drag"
    - Brownsville Station (covered by REM), "Smokin' in the boys' room"
  16. "There's a farm called Misery, but of that we'll have none"
    - Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, "Jollity Farm"
  17. "Here comes Johnny Yen again"
    - Iggy Pop, "Lust for Life"
  18. "I saw two shadow men on the Vallance Road"
    - the Libertines, "Up the bracket"
  19. "Reporting damage, it is soft rock shit"
    - Cornershop, "Lessons learned from Rocky I to Rocky III"
  20. "Damn that television!"
    - Talking Heads, "Found a job"
  21. "When the last frost of Winter has thawed"
    - Nothing Painted Blue, "Career Day"
  22. "Hi, we're your weather girls, and have we got news for you!"
    - the Weather Girls, "Why don't you eat carrots?"

Definitely more representative of my collection than the previous take; I think it might be easier, too. Over to you.

Update 2nd June: I realised when I got to the end of this list that I'd missed one out. So now there are 21.

Another update, 5th June: Paul (comments) has me bang to rights - there were actually two that got missed out. Oh well, make it 22.

The Wehrmacht never got in here

Chris has a point:
Whereas Britain pursues overseas expansion, England stays at home. The great statements asserting the rights and the dignity of the ordinary man - and it was the Englishman G.K. Chesterton who said there's nothing ordinary about the ordinary man - are all English: Magna Carta, the Putney debates, Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard. England is about cultivation, improvement and the assertion of liberty. Britain is about conquest, albeit often in a good cause.
England stands for freedom, Britain for conquest. England stands for quiet dignity, Britain for glory. England is grown and natural, Britain is imposed by the ruling class.
Britain, he might have added, is Great (originally to distinguish it from Brittany, the lesser Brétagne, but never mind). By contrast, England is Little.

But being a little Englander has never really been respectable. The spectre of the little Englander haunted last year's debate over the EU Constitution, and doubtless would have got more of an airing if we'd had a chance to vote on the damn thing. Little England means isolation rather than co-operation, conservatism rather than progress, nationalism rather than federalism: to be a little Englander is to cling to the myth of autarchic national sovereignty in an interdependent world.

At least, it is now. For the original little Englanders - Chesterton among them - the connotations of the stance were quite different. As Patrick Wright wrote in 2005, referring to Chesterton and co-thinkers like Hilaire Belloc:
Their beleaguered "England" was on the side of the people against industrialism, monopoly capitalism and the rules and bureaucrats of what Belloc called "the servile state". Chesterton and Belloc would join the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in seeking to preserve traditional "thatched" roofs against the big businesses that could spend fortunes pushing synthetic alternatives. Yet if theirs was emphatically a "little England", this was also because it entailed a strong rejection of British imperialism. Chesterton elaborated on this aspect of his Englishness in an article entitled "On Rudyard Kipling and making the world small", included in his book Heretics (1905). Here he took issue with the epigram in which Kipling asked "what can they know of England who only England know?" It was, contended Chesterton, "a far deeper and sharper question to ask, 'What can they know of England who know only the world?'" As an imperial "globe trotter", Kipling may certainly "know the world; he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice." Insisting that Kipling's devotion to England was the outcome not of love but of critical thought, Chesterton values it far less than the "real" (by which he means instinctive and unreflected) patriotism of the Irish or the Boers, whom Kipling had recently "hounded down in South Africa".
This attempt to dissociate "England" from the British empire may indeed sound attractive. Yet it remained a thoroughly defensive definition of Englishness - one that was formulated in bitter awareness that the world was actually moving in the opposite direction. Its anti-imperialism was less a critical engagement with the British empire, than an act of retreat and even denial.
The last point deserves making, just as it's worth bearing in mind that Chesterton and Belloc were reactionary Conservatives of a fairly high order. But the main point remains: so far from resisting encroachments on British sovereignty from trans-national federalism, the original Little Englanders were against the imposition of British sovereignty on large tracts of the world. It's almost a 180-degree reversal, with 'little England' counterposed to two different 'Britain's. What has remained constant is the fact that 'Britain' represents a long-term governmental project - and a project which may take precedence over mundane everyday concerns such as the welfare of the people who live here. This, I think, is the heart of Chris's opposition between 'England' and 'Britain'.

Oddly enough, the original form of the 'little England' slur has been making a comeback recently. Here's Nick Cohen from 2004:
The beneficiary of the great left-wing revolt against Blair has turned out to be the right. The Tories are doing better than they have done for a decade. Voters disillusioned with established politicians are turning to the United Kingdom Independence Party rather than to the left. The reactionary shift should not be a surprise. The only unanswerable anti-war argument was the generally conservative, Little England case that it is no longer in Britain's interests to tag along behind the United States.
And here's Nick again from last week:
It is not at all clear that modern, middle-class, liberal-leftists are either liberal or left wing in the old senses of the words, although they will always be middle class to their bones. Many of them are becoming little Englanders, all for human rights and democracy at home but not abroad.
The argument in the first extract isn't so much constructed as free-associated: to argue that Britain should not take a subordinate role to Bush's USA is to be a 'Little Englander', to be a Little Englander is to be a conservative, ergo the anti-war movement was in some unspecific way stirring up conservatism. (Presumably CND were to blame for Thatcher.) The second extract is more straightforward: if you care about human rights and democracy then you should sign up to the Euston agenda, endorsing Bush and Blair's strategy of promoting those causes by military force. If you don't, you're a little Englander.

The 'ethical foreign policy' of our period bears a distinct resemblance to the 'enlightened imperialism' of Chesterton's; once again, we seem to find ourselves between England and Britain. Chris: England is about cultivation, improvement and the assertion of liberty. Britain is about conquest, albeit often in a good cause. On that basis, you can call me English. (And part-Welsh, but that's another story.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

You can bring your friends

I hate to admit it, but some of these Tories talk sense. I heard a Conservative IT guy (Richard Bacon) dissecting the proposed NHS computer system on the radio today, and there wasn't a word I could dissent from. If you're designing and building a huge IT system, you just don't do it like that.

I find I can agree with Tory critiques of the government more and more often these days. I'm not sure why - it could be that the Tories are making an overdue pitch for the libertarian Marxist vote, but I somehow doubt that. Or it could be that I'm, classically, moving Right with age; I doubt that too (but look at the evidence - I'm 45, I've got a mortgage and two kids, the effect's got to kick in some time...) It could be that Labour's moved so far to the Right that even the Tories have got to attack them from the Left - certainly Mr Bacon's voting record compares well with that of my own Labour MP. Or it could just be that the last days of Blairism are such an extraordinary panorama of authorianism, incompetence, populism, venality and desperation that they're an open goal for almost anyone.

But I do say 'almost'. The Daily Mail are never going to get it right. "Italians dub Blair 'The Scrounger'", the Mail on Sunday told us two days ago:
The Mail on Sunday has learned that Downing Street has tacked on an 'official' meeting with new Italian Premier Romano Prodi, prompting questions about whether taxpayers will be forced to subsidise the Blairs' spring break.
This time last year, the Prime Minister - whose fondness for free holidays at other people's homes has earned him the nickname in the Italian media of 'Lo Scroccone' ('The Scrounger') - flew to and from a similar Italian vacation on a Royal Air Force jet from the Queen's Flight.
This is either wrong or wrongheaded in just about every way. The Italian story does offer grounds for quite a powerful critique of Blairism, but this isn't it.

Start with Blair and Prodi. The implication of the Mail's story is that Blair is getting chummy with Prodi just as he did with Berlusconi: Blair goes on holiday, Blair meets an Italian Prime Minister, the British taxpayer picks up the tab. But what's interesting about the meeting with Prodi isn't that it's tacked onto a holiday trip. What's interesting, as the FT pointed out, is that it's likely to be an extremely frosty meeting.
The most awkward part of Mr Prodi’s round of Euro-diplomacy is likely to be on June 2 when he meets Tony Blair, Britain’s prime minister, in Rome. Mr Blair had little respect for Mr Prodi when he was Commission president – although he initially nominated him for the post – and spent the last five years courting Mr Berlusconi as an Atlanticist ally. “Our policy is devoted to getting back to the role traditionally played by Italy in European politics,” Mr Prodi said. He would support a pragmatic policy programme in areas such as research and energy but would also back EU integration more than his predecessor did.
Romano Prodi is a former Christian Democrat; he leads the centre-left coalition, but for himself he's an economic liberal, a time-served Eurocrat and a careful, long-game-playing machine politician. He's about as much of a leftist as the late Roy Jenkins, in short. But Blair doesn't get on with him; he won't be coming to dinner at the villa. Someone else did, though:
San Gimignano (Siena), May 29 - "I'll have dinner with Tony Blair tonight: a man who has been a friend of mine for years. Therefore, it is a pleasure for me to be here with him and his family" Silvio Berlusconi told journalists shortly before entering Villa Cusona (San Gimignano) few minutes before 8pm.
Berlusconi, whose massive stake in the Italian media should have disqualified him from government in the first place; who would have had a hefty criminal record by now if he had been tried in the English rather than the Italian legal system; and whose actions in government were conspicuously dedicated to maintaining his business empire and warding off criminal prosecution. Berlusconi, who likened himself to Napoleon, described his political opponents as admirers of Mao and Pol Pot, and spoke favourably of Mussolini. Berlusconi, who refused to admit that he had lost this year's election until two weeks later, refused to congratulate Prodi even then, and who is still talking about one more heave to get the election result reversed. That Berlusconi. Right now I don't see how any principled Conservative could tolerate Berlusconi as a dinner guest, let alone a leader of a party that's ostensibly on the Left. But the Blairs still invited him.

For the Mail, though, the story is all in that word scroccone - which made me wonder where it had come from. It's all over the English-language Web, for sure: googling without Italian sites (blair scroccone -site:it) brought back "Results 1 - 100 of about 569". It seems to have appeared first in the Independent, from where it was picked up and amplified by assorted blogs (Blairwatch adds that the nickname is used by "the Italian press (left and right)"). Search for sites under the .it TLD only, though, and it looks a bit different: I get "Results 1 - 42 of about 61", and most of those are references to films whose titles include those words. Trawling through all the results, I only found three pages which actually called Blair a scroccone, and one of them was from a comment thread. Of the other two, one was a leader column unambiguously headed "Tony lo scroccone"; unfortunately this appeared, not in any of the high-profile national dailies, but in a September 2004 issue of a paper called Il Corsivo, which was published in Cagliari (Sardinia) and went bust in February 2005. The Corriere della Sera furnished the second example, which initially looked more hopeful:
hanno affittato gommoni, si sono dotati dei più potenti tele-obiettivi, lo hanno fustigato dandogli dello "scroccone"
Which is to say:
they've hired rubber dinghies and fitted themselves out with the most powerful long lenses, then they've laid in to him and called him a scrounger
The context here - as with the Il Corsivo comment - is Berlusconi's 2004 visit to the Blairs' holiday retreat. Unfortunately the 'they' in question are English journalists. The Italian press don't call Blair a scroccone; what they do report, occasionally, is that the British press call him a scrounger.

Italy's a bit too close for us to talk about Orientalism, but something similar seems to be at work here: a kind of romance of the swarthy peasant whose rough common sense lets him see through the pretensions that we urban sophisticates fall for, and whose blunt plain speaking lets him puncture them in ways that we would never dare. It's nonsense, of course - we're the ones who put the words into the swarthy peasant's mouth, so we get to say what we want to say, play at being unpretentious and plain-spoken, and congratulate ourselves on our sophistication, all at the same time. It's awfully useful nonsense, too - properly invoked, it gives an aura of unarguable rightness to any old myth or prejudice.

Or, in this case, any old red herring. The problem with Tony Blair isn't that he's a scrounger; the problem is who he scrounges from. If it's hard to realise quite how right-wing Blair is - quite how removed from the values and culture of the party he leads - one reason is that neither his friends nor his enemies on the old Right have any interest in acknowledging it. Last Monday's dinner date is a handy yardstick.

Q: What kind of politician is Tony Blair?

A: He's the kind of politician who, a few days before his first official meeting with Romano Prodi - little more than a month after Prodi narrowly won the most bitterly-contested Italian election for decades - would invite Silvio Berlusconi round for dinner.

No further questions.

[Italians and New Labour - I'm nothing if not predictable. Philosophy tomorrow, I think. Philosophy or 1970s jazz-rock. Terrors of the earth, I'm telling you.]

Friday, May 19, 2006

Yesterday's men

The latest from Italy is that Prodi's government has survived a vote of confidence in the Senate. Which is good, as Prodi would have had to resign if he'd lost. The result was never in much doubt - the Unione majority in the Senate is small, but it's still a majority - but the seven independent senators-for-life could have made trouble for Prodi if they'd wanted to. Of course, they didn't want to - these are the 'seven wise men' (or rather, six and one woman), veterans of decades of machine politics with a combined age of nearly 600. When the youngest of the seven (Francesco Cossiga) was born Mussolini was in power; when the oldest, Rita Levi Montalcini, was born, Mussolini was still a socialist. If you've got that much political survival behind you and the choice is between voting for a quiet life and voting for a constitutional crisis, it's not hard to guess which way you'll go.

Berlusconi's reaction to the final (God willing) extinction of his dream of reversing the election result was typically gracious: "What they've done is immoral." Berlusconi's allies backed this up by shouting and jeering at the life senators as they crossed the floor of the Senate. This treatment wasn't reserved for longstanding political enemies of the Right such as Oscar Luigi Scalfaro; old friends like Cossiga and Giulio Andreotti got it too, not to mention the outgoing President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi - who was treated by the Right as the next best thing to the Pope, for as long as it looked as if they might be able to get something out of him. The 97-year-old Montalcini was spared, but only thanks to a pre-emptive ticking-off from the leader of the Senate.

It's depressing stuff, but what really got me down was the reaction of Piero Fassino of the Left Democrats. Not so much his denunciation of the Right's behaviour, which was on target, but his conclusion: Non hanno il senso dello stato. Well, no, Piero my ex-Communist old mate, they don't have the sense of the state. But do you know what? They never did.

Let's go back to 1978 and Leonardo Sciascia's book on the Aldo Moro kidnap. The Communist Party at that time held to a hard line on negotiating with the Red Brigades - harder than either the Socialists or a fair part of the Christian Democrats, notably including Moro himself (who was, after all, President of the party). The senso dello stato got repeated outings back then, generally in the context of criticisms of people whose willingness to negotiate with terrorists demonstrated that they lacked it. But this was very much a Communist Party theme, which didn't find much resonance on the Right, let alone the rest of the Left. Sciascia:
Neither Moro nor the party he presided over had ever had a ‘sense of the State’. The idea of the State, as it had first been menacingly bandied about by some representatives of the Italian Communist Party the previous May [1977] — an idea which seemed to derive ... from Hegel, and the Right rather than the Left of Hegel — had probably only crossed Aldo Moro’s mind in his youth [i.e. under Fascism] ... what has attracted and continues to attract at least a third of the Italian electorate to the party of Christian Democracy is precisely the absence in that party — an attractive and reassuring absence — of an idea of the State
Let the Communists talk about the noble duties of the Italian state and the glorious aims of the Constitution (and they did, they did). The Christian Democrats were out for what they could get, and if you were out for what you could get they were the party for you.

Twenty-eight years on, the alliances have changed - to see Andreotti and Cossiga lining up with the ex-Communists brings that line from the The Leopard forcibly to mind - but the themes remain the same. On the Right, Berlusconi is that attractive and reassuring absence made flesh; on the Left, the old Communists are still in thrall to their sense of the state - and they're still more comfortable with the right than the left of Hegel.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

You guys are crazy

All you've ever wanted to know about the Italian elections, if not more: my inaugural return post at the Sharpener. Ite, legete.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The age of intuition

As a brief postscript to the local elections, here are some tips for successful canvassing.

1. Do introduce yourself, even if you're a local MP - or rather, especially if you're a local MP. Do give the person on the doorstep (hereafter 'the punter') a chance to tell you they're not interested. Don't just launch into your spiel, like a Jehovah's Witness or an npower salesperson. Yes, they can see the rosette. Yes, they can always shut the door in your face. Not the point.

2. If the punter disagrees with you or expresses opposition to your party, do say something mollifying about how you understand their concerns or appreciate their point of view before resuming your attempt to gain their support. Don't argue back. Some examples:

2.1. Punter complains about communications with your party (wrongly-targeted mailshots, unanswered letters etc).
Do say: "I can't recall that particular letter, but I will look into it for you and make sure we respond to it."
Don't say: "When did he send it? Well, you can't expect us to have acted on it by now."

2.2. Punter complains that your party's campaigning was negative.
Do say: "I appreciate your point of view, but I think we did have a strong positive message in the area of..." (and complete as appropriate).
Don't say: "No it wasn't!"

2.3. Punter complains about the absence of appeals to ethical principle in party's campaign literature.
Do think of something. ("I understand your concerns, but...")
Don't say: "Like what?"

3. Do talk to the person in front of you. You may have a particular voter on your canvass list, perhaps because he/she has told an earlier canvasser that he/she intends to vote for someone else. If you find that the punter isn't your target voter, do ask him/her whether you can count on his/her vote. Don't make it look as if you don't care about anyone who's not on your list.

3.1. In particular, don't do this when your target voter is male and the punter is his female partner. Really, really don't.

This guy has a good voting record at Westminster, but his doorstep technique could do with a bit of work. Manchester was one of the few areas where Labour did well last week; they gained four seats from the Liberal Democrats. I'm slightly disappointed, but I can't say I'm surprised.

And when I have destroyed you

This is the country where I grew up:
The half-sheet of neatly typed paper is still where it has been for the last 40 years, tucked under the perspex cover of a map table in an underground operations room beneath a nondescript suburb of York.

"Thirty minutes after the above occurrence the DC is to check Display A to see if the burst designation has been underlined in Yellow Chinagraph pencil, indicating that the first and/or amended communication has been incorporated in a MIDDD BB message. If not, enquiries are to be initiated to rectify the omission."

If there had been a failure in the yellow pencil department, that would probably have been because the observers who phoned in reports of nuclear bombs falling on the moors and dales of Yorkshire, and the operators who took the messages in the bunker, were all dead.

"This bunker was designed to contain a full complement of 60 people for up to a fortnight, but it couldn't have withstood a direct blast or even one reasonably nearby," said Kevin Booth, curator of the building, whose steel door will soon be thrown open to the curious for the first time. "It's perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I'm not sure how well it would all have worked."
It's all there. There's the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, coupled with the (well-founded) suspicion that the government's main priority in responding to this threat would be to ensure that its own bolt-holes were in working order. I was too young for the first Cold War (although I heard great things about the destruction of RSG 6), but in the 1980s Protect and Survive made radicals of us all - and War Plan UK made a lot of us into conspiracy theorists. Then there's the atmosphere of insanely detailed bureaucracy and jobsworthery (enquiries are to be initiated, indeed) - and that's coupled with the lingering suspicion that none of it, when push came to shove, would have actually worked.

It was a strange country, Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. I miss it, sometimes.

There's more on the Holgate bunker here (visiting times) and here (pictures); this page has more about English Heritage's bunker estate (and there's a phrase I never expected to write).

Some things remain from that distant post-war landscape. There's the pottering enthusiasm of bright-eyed antiquarians like Kevin Booth; small-town museums, bookshops and tourist attractions have been staffed by people like him for as long as I can remember, and it's good to hear that a relic of the Cold War will receive the same kind of care. And there's understatement - blessed British understatement.
"It's perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I'm not sure how well it would all have worked."
I do like that 'perhaps'.

Friday, May 05, 2006

I get so tired of my room

[Updated 19th May - all is revealed.]

Jim: I decide to go hunting for a musical blog meme.

Cheers, Jim - don't mind if I do.

Step 1: Put your media-player on random play.
Step 2: Write down the first line from the first 20 songs that play.
Step 3: Let everyone guess what song the lines come from.
Step 4: Cross out the songs when someone guesses correctly.

Here goes. Like Jim, I've excluded instrumentals and songs with the title in the first line; I've also excluded tracks I didn't recognise myself and, arbitrarily, a version of "Auld Lang Syne". I haven't ripped very many CDs, so the list that follows is biased towards certain categories of music - primarily a) things I really like and b) things from freebie CDs that I wanted to throw away. (And no, of course I'm not saying which is which.)

  1. I saw you in your wetsuit, you were watching from the shower
    - Orange Juice, "Salmon fishing in New York"

  2. Belly up in a sea of love
    - Doves, "Rise" (Paulie)

  3. An address to the golden door
    - the Shins, "So say I"

  4. I come home in the morning light
    - Cyndi Lauper, "Girls just wanna have fun" (Paulie)

  5. I saw a boy’s t-shirt today
    - the Earlies, "One of us is dead"

  6. Put in your pocket for a rainy day, sing your song and you know you’re wrong now
    - the Beta Band, "the House Song" (Rob)

  7. Clouds so swift, rain won’t lift
    - Bob Dylan, "You ain't going nowhere" (Jim)

  8. All I wanted was your time
    - Espers (or Durutti Column), "Tomorrow"

  9. One-way system, smooth and commendable
    - Half Man Half Biscuit, "For what is Chatteris" (Jim)

  10. Well, she’s all you’d ever want
    - Tom Jones, "She's a lady"

  11. You say that your love was just for me now
    - Toots and the Maytals, "True love is hard to find"

  12. I’m just a common-or-garden guy
    - Peter Blegvad, "Magritte"

  13. Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street
    - Joe Jackson, "Is she really going out with him?" (Paulie)

  14. Hey, you - you wouldn’t make a phone call if it didn’t serve you
    - Hamell on Trial, "Go fuck yourself"

  15. We pulled up with three miles to go
    - James Yorkston and the Athletes, "Banjo #2"

  16. Waiting for the break of day
    - Chicago, "25 or 6 to 4"

  17. Practice doesn’t make perfect when you’re interbreeding
    - Blur, "Villa Rosie" (Justin)

  18. I could be pouring my heart out, I still don't think that you'd hear me
    - King Creosote, "Marguerita Red"

  19. The lunch bell rang at one o’clock sharp
    - Barry Booth, "The hottest day of the year"

  20. Oh, the towering feeling
    - Vic Damone (and doubtless others), "The street where you live" (Larry)

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Your complaint is my mandate

So, if you aren't going to vote Labour (and I really hope you aren't), who does that leave?

For myself, I'm not voting Liberal Democrat. On the national level the party remains some way to the Left of Labour, but that's not saying very much. At the local level their campaigning is truly abysmal. The last councillor they got elected around here did a lot of old-style pavement-level campaigning before he was elected. The current councillor-elect, though...
I am returning this questionnaire uncompleted. As a disaffected left-wing Labour voter, I have been tempted to give the Liberal Democrats my support on a number of occasions.

However, I have been deeply disappointed in recent communications from your party, this questionnaire included. Firstly, the ‘personal details’ section of the questionnaire has been pre-completed, with the names of both the adults living at this address and our phone number. While I realise that this information is in the public domain, we have not given it to the Liberal Democratic Party and have no wish for it to be held on the party’s database. Please remove our details.

The questionnaire itself is a really dreadful piece of work, full of leading questions and generally calculated to produce a public endorsement of the local party’s existing positions. Questionnaires of this type are thoroughly dishonest; I’ve complained to the local Labour Party before about their use of this form of sharp practice, but nothing they’ve circulated has been as bad an example as this one.

Lastly, this questionnaire suggests that the Liberal Democrats have given up on opposing the two major parties in the area of law and order, just when a principled opposition is most needed. Labour, in particular, are currently proposing some startlingly reactionary and authoritarian policies on crime and ‘anti-social behaviour’. In the past the Liberal Democrats have raised a voice of sanity, tolerance and liberalism against these developments. It’s deeply disappointing to see the party trying to compete with Labour for the Daily Mail vote.
I sent them this letter on Tuesday. They phoned up today to ask if they could count on my vote. Joined-up campaigning!

I won't be voting RESPECT, either; I'd find it very difficult to vote for them in any circumstances, but they've saved me the trouble by not standing in my ward. Or, indeed, in any of Manchester's 32 wards, with the exception of one: Rusholme. As Andy Newman says in the piece I quoted yesterday,
Respect’s strategy outside East London is to throw all their resources at a limited number of target seats. This is a viable and rational strategy, if not necessarily the only one. In some areas like Manchester this has caused local controversy, as the tactic has been poorly applied. Respect are standing in a ward never contested by the left before and are abandoning the admittedly small base they had established elsewhere in the city. And they are standing against one of the very few Labour Left candidates.
Meaders dismisses the idea that RESPECT is running any kind of 'communalist' campaign - but it's difficult to see what other justification there could be for focusing on Rusholme. (Rusholme is currently represented by three Lib Dems; the Labour candidate this time out is John Byrne, who has in the past gone unchallenged from the left.)

I can forgive RESPECT a lot for the consternation they're causing New Labour and its sympathisers. Patrick Wintour's efforts to avoid mentioning the elephant in the room were particularly amusing:
Labour is expected to hold on to Greenwich, Barking, Hackney, Newham, Lewisham, and Haringey, but Tower Hamlets is unfathomable. In the west of London, Hammersmith and Fulham, Hounslow and Ealing all look vulnerable. Croydon and Merton in the south, which were once deemed marginal, are now gone.

But much will depend on turnout. The Tories are confident about voting intention thanks to David Cameron, Labour's activists are thin on the ground, and much effort is being put into black church congregations, who are regarded as likely to vote. Mr Blair has held big, successful rallies with black Christians. In Brent and Harrow the Hindu vote is loyal to Labour. But elsewhere the traditional Labour vote is likely to stay home, or go elsewhere.
(Black Christians, Hindus, who does that leave? OK, never mind.)

But ultimately if you vote RESPECT you get the SWP, and I've been on the Left long enough to find that a really distasteful prospect. Meaders is a good bloke, Mark Steel has some good lines and even Richard has his moments, but I can't put any trust in the party. So RESPECT wouldn't get my vote even if they were standing in my ward, which of course they aren't. (And we're back with the reasons I don't trust the blighters.)

And I'm not spoiling the ballot. This isn't on principle - I respect the old Bennite argument about keeping faith with the people who fought for the vote, but I don't think casting a vote to maintain the status quo really qualifies. I think I can keep faith with them better by doing something that stands a chance of bringing about change. So a mass NOTA campaign would have been good - but it hasn't happened, has it? In the absence of concerted ballot-spoiling, I'm not going to risk my vote getting filed under 'apathetic' - or 'too contented to bother' (one of Prescott's, if I remember rightly).

I guess it's the Greens again, then.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Ship's a goin' down

The word on the streets:
"Even the most loyal Labour voters look embarrassed and look away. Others just laugh. Now, I've never had that before," says one leading MP.
Loyalty to the Labour Party runs deep. You don't just vote Labour or support Labour, you are Labour. "We're Lib Dems" is a statement of principled, idealistic affiliation; "we're Conservatives" is similar, but without the principle or the idealism. But "we're Labour" is a statement of identity - it's an adjective, not a noun. (Of course, this may just be because Labour is the only major party whose name isn't already an adjective.)

Many of us on the Left used to be Labour, and many of us would quite like to be Labour again. The thought of voting for a Labour councillor, given the alternatives, is tempting. Many people who are still Labour are revolted by what they've had to accept since 1997 - since 2005, even - and have stayed with the party nevertheless. For them, a vote for a Labour councillor is an easy way to keep faith with the party - a party which has always meant much more than the policies of some clique of MPs.

But it's time, if it will ever be time, to abandon ship. Andy Newman:
The degree to which the party has changed is disputed, but it is certainly not a natural home for grass-roots trade union or community activists; the party no longer gives voice to its working class supporters; and within the party there is no significant ideological strand that prioritises the cause of organised labour as distinct from other interest groups, except an historical and financial legacy with the trade unions. What is more, the Blair/Brown victory over constitutional questions within the party means that the triumph of the right in the Labour Party is probably irreversible. Even under Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party had a vigorous internal life, and although much ward level and constituency activity was mind-numbingly boring, the national conference gave real expression to debates within the movement, with input from the trade unions and constituency parties, as well as the MPs. This will never be seen again.

It is significant that the government have not implemented even the modest promises of the pre-general election Warwick agreement with the unions. ... New Labour fully accepts neo-liberalism, but they are pragmatic, and largely work around organised resistance, rather than provoke confrontations. So their privatisation of the NHS, and their attacks on education are long drawn out and exhausting battles, not Thatcher style set piece battles. The stop go dance of the public sector pensions crisis shows how New Labour could wear out the resistance, unless the union leaderships lift their game.

The background therefore is that the Labour Party has a broadly progressive electoral constituency, and historical links with the trade union infrastructure, but it is in continued antagonism with both of these elements. Nevertheless, although the Party no longer articulates the aspirations of these support groups, they do provide a constraint upon it, and mediate the transformation of the Labour Party, so that it appears less dramatic than it is.
The key word here is 'appears'. That, and 'electorate': given the New Labour leadership's control over the party, Labour as a party is now significantly to the Right, not only of its union activist base - that much is old news - but of its own voters. Moreover, the fact that those voters keep the faith with the party - the fact that so many people still are Labour, even now, nine years down the line - has an effect on the image of the party: it mediate[s] the transformation of the Labour Party, so that it appears less dramatic than it is.

My father was Labour, and not on the Left of the party; he'd backed Gaitskell against Bevan, for instance. He died in 2001, and wasn't much interested in politics for the last year or so. Still, he saw Labour take power, and he saw what they did with it - and he was convinced that the "New Labour" turn was a stratagem adopted to gain power, and that Blair would eventually steer back to the Left. "He's going to surprise us all," he used to say. What Andy Newman's argument suggests is that for people like my father to back the party under its current leadership is strictly a one-way bargain. The longer Old Labour loyalists give New Labour the benefit of the doubt, the easier it will be for New Labour to retain control of the party, to retain the support of the party's voters - and to continue to remake the party in their own image. Nothing will make New Labour actually listen to Labour voters - nothing, that is, except losing their support. In 2006, that's all they deserve - and it's gratifying to see that it's beginning to happen. It's time to abandon ship.

PS Elsewhere in the piece quoted at the top, Polly (for it is she) writes:
As each new crisis eclipses the last, leaving no fewer than seven cabinet ministers in some trouble, their one comfort is in finding no great enthusiasm for Tories or Lib Dems either. The won't-votes or the anything-but-Labour voters are motivated by a negative push factor away from Labour with little positive pull towards anyone else. Expect the lowest turnout ever, according to seasoned observers. The Institute for Public Policy Research is dead right to call for compulsory voting, but this is hardly the week for Labour to press it.
Negative push factor away from Labour ... little positive pull towards anyone else ... dead right to call for compulsory voting. The thought processes here are a bit too obvious. What Chris says of Geoff 'Buff' Hoon appears to apply to Polly as well:
He hopes compulsory voting will raise the Labour vote disproportionately. He hopes a disaffected Labour voter – the sort who stayed away from the ballot box last year – who is forced to vote will figure: “well, since I’m here, I might as well vote for the party I’ve always supported.”

This, I guess, is the only way New Labour can get votes now.

It's just getting light

He's gone - a mere 21 days after losing the vote. Phew - it was looking close for a while back there.

We're back - looking rather good, I have to say. Check it out.