Tuesday, September 30, 2008 

On knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

For all the undoubted benefits that the internet has brought, one of its most malign effects has been on the state of journalism in this country. The big bloggers can moan all they like about the dead tree press, but without the dead tree press those self-same bloggers would have far fewer stories to write about. For that, without question, is what the MSM does: it provides the facts; the bloggers provide the views, very rarely indeed breaking stories, or at least stories that penetrate into the mass media.

More on which in a moment. Something that can also be linked to the rise of the internet, but more resultant on the multi-channel digital/satellite/cable boom and the decline in advertising is today's announcement
by ITV that it will be cutting an astounding 430 staff working in regional news. Just last week Ofcom rubber-stamped this apparent inevitability, disregarding completely a slight thing like the public interest. ITV is to condense its 17 separate news regions down to just 9, with the massive area which was previously the Border region, Tyne Tees North and Tyne Tees South to be"rationalised" into one, with those in the Borders region not unreasonably protesting vigorously about the likely outcome. Additionally ITV will only have to give over 15 minutes a week to regional programming in England, or a derisory 13 hours a year, all part of an attempt to save £40 million a year.

These cuts would not be so bad if there were other organisations that could pick up the slack. The "rationalisation" process however is not just limited to TV, with both the BBC and ITV cutting back on both local and national news, but also to the local press and the wire agencies. Where once local papers ran training schemes, with reporters subsequently spring-boarding to nationals, these have almost entirely dried up. Instead graduates are thrown in almost entirely at the deep-end, on pitiful wages and with excessive, monotonous hours spent in the office, rather than out cultivating the sources which are vital for any reporter to be able to present an accurate picture of their respective patch.
Nick Davies ably describes how this came about in Flat Earth News, with the benevolent families that previously owned the regional press selling out to the "grocers", whose only instinct is to make a profit, endlessly cut costs and make payouts to shareholders. The wire agencies which once had dozens of reporters covering the courts and elsewhere have either disappeared entirely or been cut to the bone, while vast areas of the country such as Greater Manchester are now covered by just five reporters for the Press Association, while Scotland has just 15. It's worth also pointing out that the local journalist and their sources are even further threatened by the prosecution of Sally Murrer and Mark Kearney, ostensibly on the grounds of "aiding and abetting gross misconduct in a public office", but almost certainly because of their role in uncovering the bugging of Sadiq Khan MP whilst visiting Babar Ahmed at Woodhill prison.

In an apparent attempt to add insult to injury, Ofcom justifies the cuts on the basis that it will provide "credible means to sustain quality national and regional news services on ITV1." In other words, ITV was laughing at the regulator which has no clothes: it can't do anything about ITV cutting back, and so provides apologia on the basis that these cuts will allow it to keep broadcasting quality services despite reducing the funds to them. Confused by such contradictions? You're supposed to be. You're also supposed to be glad that this guarantees local programming until 2012, when the digital switchover will be complete and presumably the waste of time and money on such mundane things as local news will be abandoned altogether.

After all, aren't there other things that ITV could cut back on rather than on news production, which provides a undoubted public service? ITV has for example 3 digital channels, which for the most part broadcast block repeats. Possibly the two most notable original productions for ITV2 are
Secret Diary of a Call Girl, the ludicrously shallow, badly acted glamorous prostitute drama starring Billie Piper, and a "reality" show which turgidly and stupefyingly follows around Katie Price (aka Jordan) and Peter Andre as they showcase their mind-numbing stupidity to the world. It makes BBC Three look like BBC Four by comparison. Who knows how much could be saved by shutting down just one or two of these channels, let alone all three, and instead concentrating on just one brand, but the first casualties are always the worthy things that are considered expendable, while the stuff which gets media attention and the one-handed brigade excited are untouchable. ITV could also cut back on its "superstar" pay packets: fittingly, Ant and Dec, stars and culpable in the "fixing" scandals of last year signed up to a £40,000,000 contract, while Simon Cowell has a three-year £20,000,000 deal. Not bad money for humiliating those with delusions of fame with scripted put-downs.

The National Union of Journalists seems to be ready to strike over the cut-backs, but their chances of forcing a rethink are tiny to non-existent. This is the way that both TV and print journalism is going, typified by the thinking of the likes of Richard Desmond who upon buying the Express and Star thought that posts such as health correspondent could be filled by someone getting all their stories off the internet.

The irony is that is exactly what is now taking place, as Davies' rules of production are increasingly followed. You'll have probably noticed it on news sites: the latest decree from on high is to go big with celebrity stories, which draw in massive amounts of hits and and boost sites
up the ABCe tables accordingly. Up until very recently the Guardian website for example punched way above its weight because of its early investment in the internet; since then the Daily Mail has come out of almost nowhere to reach very nearly the highest reaches in terms of hits. This is partially because Paul Dacre famously originally said "bullshit.com" to the idea the internet was the future, something he has since changed his mind over. It's also though because the Mail Online concentrates on celebrity and entertainment stories which can be quickly copied off wire services, and which gain most of their hits from overseas. Seeing this was working, the idea has since been pilfered not just by the other tabloids, but by the likes of the Telegraph as well. Even the Independent is currently running the Britney Spears sex tape story which was the front page splash on today's Daily Star, economic news being far too depressing and boring for paper's demographic. Again, this wouldn't matter so much if other resources were still being placed elsewhere, but increasingly this is where the funding is going.

A case in point was the recent revival of the Satanic panic, this time in Russia.
The Mail, Sun, Times and Telegraph all published the gruesome details of a group which had apparently murdered four other teenagers and eaten some of their remains, having stabbed their victims exactly 666 times. The natural sceptic will immediately wonder about the truthfulness of such claims, and a quick search for an original source proves futile: there doesn't appear to be one, neither a news wire source or one from Russia, so where on earth had they came from? An investigation suggested that the story had in fact originated on that notoriously factual Russian newspaper site, Pravda, but the story has even disappeared from there. Searching Google now still doesn't turn up a Russian source, and searches on the Moscow Times and Russia Today sites also turn up nothing. Wherever it came from, no one actually seems to have done any checking whatsoever other than repeat the claims completely verbatim. After all, contacting the authorities in Russia would doubtless be costly, and if it turned out the story wasn't accurate, that would mean that a sensationalist story that would naturally bring traffic to a website couldn't be published. The changing rules of journalism now in fact mitigate against the original purpose of the craft: to report facts. Ninja turtle syndrome, where if somewhere else is reporting something, everywhere has to report it, is becoming the norm.

One Telegraph hack has become so concerned with what they are now tasked to do that they wrote to Roy Greenslade with their anxieties:

The growth of blogs and online communities seems to be contributing plenty in the way of opinion, of which there's already plenty and not much in the way of facts. This is creating a brand of journalism in which it doesn't really matter if you get things wrong.

Again, it's becoming all too clear at the Telegraph, whose online business plan seems to be centred on chasing hits through Google by rehashing and rewriting stories that people are already interested in. Facts are no longer the currency they used to be.

I don't have a particularly rosy view of the past and I am all too well aware that many of the things I've loved about papers, particularly the craft of putting them together, are becoming obsolete.

But I do worry that without the professionalism of the career journalist, society will be much less well equipped to hold the powerful to account and that serious and intelligent debate will be lost under a global shouting match between anonymous partisan supporters of particular opinions or interests.

As the journalist also relates in a paraphrase of C.P. Scott's quote, comment is cheap but facts are expensive. To pull out and slightly paraphrase another quote, this time one of Wilde's, we are in danger of knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing. As the media becomes ever more "rationalised" around London, those outside the bubble become ever more enraged by media which they find no longer represents them or even tells them anything that they are interested in. All politics may be local, but the news no longer is. There was no golden age, but what is certain is that now is as far away from that as it seems possible to get. As the Telegraph journalist states, this isn't based on parochialism, it's based on the fact that as news retreats every further into the obvious and cheap, while the comment becomes ever louder and brash, we risk completely losing the ability to hold the powerful to account, and fundamentally, democracy itself is and will be undermined. The really depressing thing is that things, especially with the "credit crunch" and the increasing flight of advertising to the web, are only likely to get worse.

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Monday, September 29, 2008 

Our new overlords.

If the Liberal Democrats' conference was overshadowed by "Meltdown Monday" two weeks ago, the Conservatives hardly seem to be cursing their luck for suffering the same fate. Even with the polls suggesting that Labour's conference, or rather, Gordon Brown's well-received speech, has given the government a boost, the edict from on high was obvious: try not to look too triumphalist.

Accordingly, even if the swinging dicks in the party are on the inside brimming with confidence which only the most expensive private education followed by Oxbridge can provide you with, their faces and actions must be the opposite: stern, determined, serious. It's almost reminiscent of a faintly apocalyptic sect that are constantly reminded that they are living in the last days, and that The End could come at any time; when it does, they must be ready, lest the outsiders be put off by their exuberance at being saved whilst all around them are set to burn in economic hellfire.

The deeply depressing thing, apart from that fact that all the banks are going to collapse tomorrow leaving us in a Threads-like future eating rats to survive, is that the Conservatives truly do look like the government in waiting. A party flush with cash and the knowledge that they probably already have the next election in the bag is always likely to be able to put such a powerful show on, but that it's so apparently natural is what digs in and inspires anxiety. Not only are they appealling aesthetically, but also on policy they are finally starting to cobble together something approaching the beginnings of a manifesto. Their plan to set-up an Office for Budget Responsibility to monitor government spending is one of those simple ideas which is all the more effective for it. The announcement that they will not build a third runway at Heathrow and instead opt for a high-speed TGV line between St Pancras and Leeds was a master stroke - pissing off all the right people while further underlining their "green" credentials. It's hardly likely to win over the real greens, but those worried about about the contribution of flying to CO2 emissions will likely be impressed.

Take as a further example George Osborne, who ought to be on an absolute hiding to nothing. He's young, resembles a caricature of the smarmy, upper-class snob that spent his tender years smashing up restaurants when he wasn't shovelling white powder up his nostrils, with a face so punchable it's a marvel that he hasn't got a broken nose and a good number of teeth missing, knows next to nothing about economics, and has all the charm (to this writer at least) of a self-portrait of Kate Moss drawn in lipstick and Pete Doherty's blood. Instead his speech was pretty much as good as it could have been: for a party that has been absolutely anonymous on the economic fall-out of the past two weeks, he came across as ready to take over the reins should become available. The message about the cupboard being bare with there being no possibility of sharing the proceeds of growth, as they promised and as Vince Cable mocked them for, with a recession about to bite may have been stating the obvious but was still jarring. He declared that the party was over, and while you somehow doubt that is by any means the thinking within the Tory party, he undoubtedly meant it. While acknowledging the party's own role in deregulating the City while encouraging the housing bubble, he attacked the bankers "partly responsible" harder if anything than New Labour has ever dared to or would dare to.

There was of course chutzpah along with the clarity, Osborne hilariously claiming that they were "not bedazzled and don't fawn over big money", just as a Dispatches documentary showed that a donation of £50,000 to the party brought membership to the Leader's Club, where they could argue the toss over Champagne with Cameron, but the right tone had been struck. It will though be the promise of a two-year council tax freeze that gets the headlines, despite the cupboard from where it was presumably pulled being bare. This has all the makings of being just as much a con as the inheritance pledge was, with many being under the illusion that they will benefit when they most likely won't, as councils will have to decide to take part, before you even bother to actually look at the figures. None of this though will matter, just as the IHT pledge didn't last year, as the Conservatives are getting away with their promises barely being examined, as Labour's invariably weren't prior to 97.

This was further apparent when Andrew Lansley stepped up to the lectern, holding forth on the NHS just as Osborne had stated that the party was over. His big promise was a single room for any patient who wanted one, despite the unlikeliness of there being any extra cash to deliver such a bold pledge. When you consider that the NHS cannot even currently deliver single-sex wards, this was the sort of unachievable ideal that the Tories would have once criticised, and which Labour would have been crucified for as yet more wasted spending. He had previously promised to end the constant reforms under New Labour by introducing even more reforms, but this time ones which will democratise, empower and free the staff, as if Labour hadn't sold their constant rejiggings on exactly the same buzzwords. The contradictory, contrary thinking would have been mocked normally, but these are not normal times, and with the economy taking precedence over everything, Lansley and the party will probably be glad that few will take much notice.

There's likely to be more such flummery tomorrow, when the favourite Conservative subject, the "broken society", will be the main topic. Dominic Grieve, fresh from attacking multiculturalism as he enters one of the most multicultural cities in the country, will apparently offer changes in the law to help "have-a-go heroes" who are supposedly being prosecuted for daring to interfere when they see crimes occurring, often highlighted by the tabloids who hardly ever report the full real story, such as when they were outraged by the man and son who were arrested after they performed a citizen's arrest on a boy who had err, allegedly committed a crime the day before. He will also look to change health and safety laws supposedly stopping the police from doing their jobs, highlighting the case of Jordan Lyon, which err, involved community support officers, and as this blog has previously noted, was not the scandal which it was made out to be, as the boy had already disappeared from sight when they arrived and the police themselves were there within a few minutes of that.

The underlings though have been thoroughly overshadow by Osborne, just as they will be also by Cameron. While Osborne ineffectively threw back the "novice" tag at Gordon Brown, something not shown in many bulletins, his "stop go" soundbite will have a struck a chord with those tired of a government which has just one strength remaining, the experience of Brown in a crisis. This, lamentably, may be the end of even that.

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Up the arse corner.

Mark Clarke is #2.

This blog tries not to dwell too often on tittle-tattle, but the story about one of the "Tatler 10", Mark Clarke, is improved dramatically by a comment from Sarah Gill herself on Recess Monkey:

Ok, now that i have gone on the record about Mark I would like to say that I am NOT doing this because I am “scorned”. Frankly the fact that I had a relationship with this man leaves me feeling soiled.
I have gone public because I think this man needs bringing down a peg or two. If I thought that speaking to the Tories would do the trick I would have done so but I fear they would just close ranks. (sorry Justine- didn’t want to implicate you-Mark told me you tried to get him deselected - beware- he is indiscreet about who and what he tells people. Glad you are now friends.)
Everything I have said is true and Mark knows it. He has many characteristics which in my opinion (as a Tory and a constituent) make him unfit to be an MP.(God help us if he ever gets the title “honourable gentleman” after his name….)Let’s face it, who would you believe, me who has nothing to lose or gain or a highly ambitious man. He has a lot riding on becoming an MP, afterall he gave up his six figure salary to persue a life of public service…. (meanwhile happy to enjoy the generosity of his cash poor girlfriend!)
One thing I never accused Mark of is lying but having seen his response to the article that can be added to his list of characteristics.
Oh, about the girl who he slept with to get back at his friend. We were having a discussion about the saying “revenge is a dish best served cold” (or Mark’s version- revenge is a dish served hot over many courses”). He told me that he shagged her up the arse and boasted “I was FIRST”.
Mark was SO right when he said that we weren’t right for eachother- I prefer my men decent and with integrity.

The Conservative conference theme is "Plan for Change". It would be immeasurably improved if it was "The Conservatives - Taking revenge by shagging your friends up the arse."

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Saturday, September 27, 2008 

Weekend links.

It looks possible that before Monday we could have another people's bank, this time the Bradford and Bingley. Robert Peston is optimistic that if taken into public ownership, B&B's mortgages could eventually yield a profit, something that no other bank at the moment is willing to countenance. I'd be more inclined to let it go bust - but then I'm not in the government that will take the blame.

Speaking of which, Question That explains why the US bailout, at least in its apparent current form, is just a sticking plaster. It says something of where we've come that I'm in agreement with a libertarian on this - even if for completely different reasons.

Plenty of comment, as could be expected, on last night's presidential debate. Most of the pundits seemed to call it very narrowly for McCain, but it seems that some voters may well have been turned off by McCain's attitude towards Obama, who if anything didn't attack McCain anywhere near as hard as he should have done. Michael Tomasky is confused, Juan Cole has four fisks of McCain's various distortions and lies, while Dan Kennedy concentrates on McCain's apparent contempt for Obama. Freemania both stayed up and live-blogged it, for reasons known only to himself.

Paul Linford delivers his weekly newspaper column on why Gordon's figthback may have begun on Tuesday, but there's still a very long way to go. Jennie Rigg on Lib Con links to a piece by someone at the sharp end of the immigration reforms and introduction of ID cards for those we don't much like or care about, who persuasively makes the case against New Labour. The debate is also well worth a gander. Matthew Parris writes on why the Conservatives ought to, in Vince Cable's words, stop kicking the twitching corpse, while Giles Coren comprehensively proves that he simply cannot write comedy, except unintentionally.

Over at the Scum, the story of the week has been the amazing exclusive that Omar Bakri Mohammed has a daughter who's rather fruity. Anorak recreates the conversation that probably took place between the Sun and Bakri himself, who for a Islamic extremist seems to be remarkably restrained about his daughter's "kufr" ways. Probably complete bullshit is the Sun's follow-up which claims that Bakri paid for her breast enlargement with money from benefits; or that if he did, he must have been saving up for a while for to get the supposed £4,000 which it cost. Notably the paper doesn't seem to have asked him to confirm this, despite being easily able to contact him for the previous report. Over on the Sun Lies Aaron Heath looks at just how piss-poor Jon Gaunt is.

Finally, the Yorkshire Ranter reminds us that yesterday was Stanislav Petrov day, the 25th anniversary of the Soviet lieutenant colonel quite possibly preventing nuclear holocaust when he decided, rightly, that the five missiles flashing across his radar screen were a malfunction rather than actual warheads. Worth remembering that a false alarm could have potentially killed billions, especially when so many today try to tell us that the terrorist "threat" is far above anything that the Soviets ever threw at us.

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Friday, September 26, 2008 

On the jihad in Iraq and online.

By almost all accounts, the extreme-Salafist takfiri jihad in Iraq is not going well. Down mainly to the Awakening movement, which started when the Sunni tribes tired of the sectarian bloodshed, indiscriminate murder and imposition of the most harsh and ridiculous interpretation of Sharia law rose against the Islamic State of Iraq (formerly al-Qaida in Iraq and the Mujahideen Shura Council) and its allies, over time attracting other former insurgents, and to on a much lesser level, the US troop surge, the few remaining sanctuaries are Mosul in the north and Diyala province in the centre of the country. Along with the continuing ceasefire by the Mahdi army (and its eventual dissolution), which for a time had been the main cause of casualties to US troops in and around Baghdad, combined with the effective ghettoisation of the capital into sectarian enclaves, the drop in violence has resulted in the number of troop deaths falling to its lowest since the start of the war, with just 13 killed in July. Civilian deaths are still though rarely below three figures a week, even if the suicide bombings which were once a daily occurrence in the capital have fallen significantly.

Away from the real war, the online propaganda war is also, if you listen to some of the hyperbolic jihad watchers, in trouble. The most prominent jihadi forum, al-ehklass.net, has been down for almost two weeks, and its front page currently resolves to a domain bought place holder. Also down, or at least were, were three of the main four forum sites, with only the most exclusive, al-Hesbah, remaining up, but even that at the moment appears to be down. Why they are down, or rather, who is responsible is equally unclear; those who have formerly and continue to involve themselves in removing jihadi material from the web have refused to comment or denied it. The main point of taking down the forums was to deny as-Sahab, al-Qaida's media arm, from being able to distribute their yearly video marking September the 11th. Not only was this successful, but when the video was eventually posted for distribution and mirrored across the net, the password to the archive was wrong, further delaying and disillusioning those waiting for it.

The Islamic State of Iraq would still presumably prefer to be in as-Sahab's position. As it becomes apparent even to the most deluded and dedicated of its supporters that it faces a battle for its very survival, even if still clinging on in Diyala and Mosul, its media releases are increasingly being derided. Their "Two Years with an Islamic State" video claimed that they had chemical warheads capable of reaching Israel, something which not even the most die-hard supporter of the group or most swivel-eyed jihad watcher could possibly believe.

For as ISI declines, a group that had existed in Iraq long before al-Zarqawi's organisation pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden continues to punch well above its apparent weight. Ansar al-Islam, first formed in 2001 and active in the autonomous Kurdish north, and which may well have sheltered Zarqawi before he moved south and established the forerunners of the ISI, continues to impress (if that's the right word) both those in the "online jihadi community" and observers of it. While sharing almost exactly the same ideology as the ISI, the same brand of extreme Salafi Islam which led it to carry out one of the most notorious atrocities of the insurgency, the execution of 12 Nepalese hostages, it has never allied with the group, even if they have often carried out operations together. More recently the group, previously known as Ansar al-Sunnah, reverted to its original name, and with it established a media arm based on both As-Sahab and al-Furqan, al-Ansar. Their latest video, The Earth Rain, is even by the high production standards of those two "media organisations" especially ambitious: featuring a host, translated, apparently non-Googlish English subtitles and credits at the end, it attempts to document last year's American "Arrowhead Ripper" operation in Diyala province. Whether Ansar al-Islam with this new approach intends to become a rival to al-Qaida in general remains to be seen, but the aspiration appears to be there.

The bringing down of the jihadi forums though, however satisfying for those in the short-term who seem to imagine that doing so is striking a blow against the movement in its entirety, is by no means necessarily a good thing. Putting matters of censorship aside, it not only makes things more difficult for those on them, but also for those with the equally important task of monitoring the forums. Whilst doubtless the intelligence agencies have moles on the inside and at probably the very highest levels of the administration on them, not every activity on them can be monitored by the security services, which is why civilian organisations that do so have sprung up. While these tend to be rabid and completely overstate the level of threat from takfirist jihadists, their role is still a noble one. It isn't just the monitoring of them for potential threats though which is important, they're also a goldmine for the also vital research into who exactly it is that is most likely to become a jihadi sympathiser. As the leaked document from MI5 showed, this is an area in which the stereotypes generally don't apply. Only through delving into more backgrounds and the lives of those on these forums might we improve our ways of targeting and stopping radicalisation before it takes place. Just knocking the suppliers down while not targeting the source itself will do nothing to help in that.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008 

Won't someone please think of the Catholics? (and the women...)

I think I can leave you to come up with your own clichéd analogy - rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, fiddling while Rome burns, etc - all of which would more than apply to the ludicrous proposed constitutional reforms of removing the barrier to a Catholic becoming monarch, while also allowing the first successive heir, regardless of gender, to ascend to the throne.

You would have thought it was patently obvious, but you cannot improve an institution based on the hereditary principle and the accident of birth by making the rules ever so slightly less discriminatory. In fact, doing so brings it even further into disrepute: modifying the monarchy at this stage to make it slightly more equitable and less openly bigoted gives the government's seal of approval to the head of state being anything other than elected. It gives the impression of both fawning and respect to a bunch of inbred half-wits whose only modern function is to be propaganda props for the army, having failed to find anything else to do with their lives, whilst giving the nation's tabloid journalists something to write about when they spend the other part of it falling out of London's more exclusive clubs and bars.

It's not even as if there is any great need to modify the religious rule, as the royals themselves have already figured out a way to get round it: Peter Phillips, 11th in line to the throne, was still so desperate to retain the chance of becoming King should a bomb drop on Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle or Harry or someone else go postal ala the Nepalese Crown Prince, that his fiancée, baptised a Catholic, swiftly converted to Anglicianism. If these unimpeachable scroungers are so desperate to remain royalty, let them convert, however cynically, to the Church of England.

Unfair perhaps though may it be to pick on just one person for their response, but you really would expect the Liberal Democrats to be a little more circumspect in giving it the OK:

Lynne Featherstone, the Lib Dems' spokeswoman on equalities issues, said: "This is an overdue but welcome move. Whilst the hereditary principle itself is obviously still a bit dodgy, at least this modernisation ends the outrageous discrimination against Catholics and women."

Quite so. I mean, there's nothing outrageous whatsoever about a dysfunctional family receiving at the very least £40m a year from the taxpayer just because of who they were born to, it's the fact that this wonderful institution discriminates against Catholics and women that we should really be concerned about.

If we aren't going to rid ourselves of the entire shower, then surely we can at least make the whole charade slightly more accountable. Let's take a leaf out of the management cost cutting guide and get each member to reapply for their "job" every so many years. There won't be any chance of them actually losing it of course, but at least reading their self-justifications might be good for a laugh. Alternatively, we could call the bluff of those who so seem to love the royals over politicians and get them to job-swap and see how they fare in their respective tasks. Who knows, we might even be so impressed with the results that our first president could be Princess Eugenie. Well, she couldn't be worse that the next generation of Milibands....

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Three horsewomen of the apocalypse.

After having performed her essential role as little more than a fluffer for her husband, but for which she was given the sort of praise and coverage that most politicians would kill for, Sarah Brown went across the pond with Gordy and attended a women-only dinner for the White Ribbon Alliance, "aimed at improving the health of mothers and babies around the world". This was the result:

For the uninitiated, that's Wendi Deng, aka Mrs Rupert Murdoch, on the far right. Also in attendance according to the Telegraph, was Queen Rania of Jordan (where women can be taken into "protective custody" to protect them from "family violence", rather than offering voluntary shelters), Elle Macpherson, and the Duchess of York.

With friends of mothers and babies like those, who needs enemies?

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008 

Kelly's gang.

Few tears will have been shed at the departure of Ruth Kelly, one of those government ministers that never came across as anything other than grimly approaching competent in all of the jobs she did. The only really remarkable thing about her time in the government was that she was thought to be an appropriate choice by Tony Blair to be equalities and women minister, despite having never voted in favour of gay rights, almost certainly down to her staunch Catholic beliefs. Her disingenuousness, both regarding her membership of Opus Dei, which she never actually confirmed, and her views on homosexuality, where she also refused to answer whether she regarded homosexuality as a sin, were hardly likely to have been tolerated had she been of any faith other than Christianity. One of the other alleged reasons why she has left government is that she would have been required to vote for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill, something that the ideological dogma of her faith would not have allowed her to do, leaving no room for rationality or the genuine scientific considerations involved.

Kelly's stated reason for departing, to spend more time with her family, is also always seen as instantly suspect. Alan Milburn claimed he was leaving the government to spend more time with his family back in 2003, but this desire to be with his family more didn't stop from him taking up directorships with companies or fatefully becoming Labour's 2005 election supremo, before the party was forced to turn to Gordon Brown for help after it initially floundered. While Kelly has 4 children, all of them are of school age; far be it from me to suggest to someone else how to bring up their family, but one would have thought that more time and effort would have been required when they were youngest, rather than now, although she may well be making up for lost time.

None of this though really matters; what's more important now is the apparent leaking by someone, possibly disgruntled over Kelly's lack of support for Gordon Brown, of her immient decision to go. Accusations have been flying between the two camps of Blairites and Brownites, like cats squabbling in a sack. They're all going to drown, it's just a matter of when. The most likely explanation is that a junior official appears to have been indiscreet, possibly while tired and emotional, and in the vicinity of a Newsnight reporter, who swiftly speculated that Kelly was leaving and that Geoff Hoon was off to Europe in place of Peter Mandelson.

The Blairites claim this all of a piece with the Downing Street stategy of late, with flushing out Siobhan McDonagh and David Cairns because of their disloyalty, while leaking to the News of the Screws Ivan Lewis's mid-life crisis, which involved him leaving his wife and sending indiscreet text messages to a civil servant, who complained. This is denied categorically by Brown's supporters, and at least this time round their explanation is rather more convincing. After all, why would Downing Street carry out a purge on the night after Brown's big speech, denting the overwhelmingly good coverage it received? The Tories also seem to have been acting mischeviously at best, and downright underhand at worst.

That such a breakdown of relationship between the different factions has now undoubtedly taken place is hardly good news for the party as a whole, especially considering a YouGuv poll for the Sun which shows that the bounce given by the Labour conference has narrowed the gap to the Conservatives to 10 points. Whilst hardly a ringing endorsement of the party, so grim have the polls and news been that it's probably the best news for Labour in ages, and suggests that it could still be possible for the difference to be made up. There will surely be no chance of that however if Brown is still to be forced out, which the Kelly debacle seems to have again raised to the fore. Labour has to decide whether it wants to lose the next election to a landslide and leave the Conservatives to make the running for the next ten years, or whether it actually wants to at least go down fighting. The attitude of some gives the impression that they don't seem to care what the new Blairite Conservative party will force through - and that ought to make every single one of us concerned.

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Nadine Dorries just cannot stop lying.

What is it exactly that causes individuals to lie and mislead when they know full well that their untruths are likely to be quickly exposed? Is it because they genuinely can't help themselves or that they've got so used to repeatedly bending reality that they come to believe it themselves? I ask only because a repeated serial offender has been caught once again lying through her teeth:

Today I have received a letter from John Lyon CB - the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards - in response to a complaint made about my blog by a Liberal Democrat (sic).


For the record, John Lyon's letter to the complainant states the following:

"The position is that no Parliamentary resources have been used to fund Mrs Dorries' weblog. Questions about whether its content is consistent with the rules in relation to Parliamentary funding do not therefore arise."

He goes on to state, "No further action on any point is required, and therefore consider your complaint now closed."

Yes, we're referring to the glamorous and flagrant Ms Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for mid-Bedfordshire, and the complaint made against her by Sunny Hundal regarding her blog being funded out of the incidental expenses allowance (since changed to the communications allowance), which expressly forbids such funds to be used for party political activities or campaigning. Sunny was good enough at the time to put up for all to see the complaint and the evidence which quite clearly showed that Dorries was apparently abusing the allowance, especially regarding her vindictive attacks on female Labour MPs in marginal seats who had a record of voting not to lower the time-limit on those seeking an abortion.

It was therefore a surprise to learn that John Lyon had dismissed the complaint so apparently out of hand when the evidence was so transparently damning of Dorries' conduct. Despite not claiming to know who Sunny was, and also erroneously describing him as a Liberal Democrat, Unity noted that Dorries or her web-hosts had subtly altered the site after the complaint had been submitted, removing the text which suggested that the site was funded out of the inicidental provisions allowance, and ostensibly moving the blog away from Dorries' constituency website, although it was quite obvious that both still used the same address. At the time Unity wondered whether she was going to plead ignorance and apologise, but by the account give by Dorries herself this apparently wasn't necessary, as John Lyon had cleared her entirely.

Except that wasn't the case at all. Sunny, having been busy with both preparing for a well-earned holiday and also attending the Labour party conference, hadn't had time to post himself on the response of Lyon to him regarding the complaint. He now has:

A few months ago I submitted a complaint, with the help of some Liberal Conspirators to the Parliamentary Standards Commission against Nadine Dorries MP. In short, it was regarding her blog. Last weekend I had a response.

The most relevant parts of the letter stated:

The rules of the house, however, do require Members to make a clear distinction between websites which are financed from public funds and any other domain. At the time of your complaint, Mrs Dorries’ website did not meet that requirement. Nor was it appropriate that she use the Portcullis emblem on the weblog given its contents. And the funding attribution on Mrs Dorries’ Home Page should have been updated to reflect that the funding came from the Communications Allowance and not from the Incidental Expenses Provision.

To these three technical aspects, our complaint was upheld. But, the Commissioner adds:

I am, however, satisfied that Mrs Dorries has take effective action to rectify the situation, for which she has apologised…. She has expressed her regret for the confusion caused.

In other words then, the complaint to all intents and purposes was upheld, and not only that, Dorries had apologised for the confusion caused. Presumably because Dorries provided evidence that showed that the blog had not been funded out of the incidental expenses provision after all, as the site claimed, Lyon decided to accept her apology and take the matter no further.

All of this though is rather different to the complete bill of health which Dorries gave her own readers the impression she had been given. She failed to inform them she had apologised or that she been upbraided on 3 separate counts, even if the complaint was not subsequently upheld. Iain Dale, the inventor of blogging, therefore took this up on his own site:

I have waited a few days to see if he might do us the honour of posting about it on Liberal Conspiracy, and maybe apologising to Nadine for the smear. But not a bit of it. He's remained silent on the matter.

There is no apologising to be done because the complaint itself was, as Lyon in his letter to Sunny makes clear, fully justified on almost all counts. Iain though seems to have been mislead by Dorries herself by yet again not revealing the full facts of the matter, and trying to make out that she has been the innocent party through blatant omission of them. Dorries ends her post with the following:

I think this has been a most revealing episode as to his type of politics - it's certainly not mine.

Dorries is of course quite right. Sunny and Liberal Conspiracy made a completely legitimate complaint about a member of parliament apparently abusing their allowance, one which the parliamentary standards commissioner agreed was wholly justified in bringing, and which was upheld on 3 counts, with Dorries herself apologising. Ms Dorries on the other hand has yet again lied to the very people that she is meant to be serving -- her constituents -- through omitting those facts and only revealing the parts of the letter which apparently exonerated her. It shows her up to be fundamentally dishonest, which has been the most overwhelming feature of her politics up till now. I think it's well worth repeating again the final paragraph of a previous post of mine:

Out of all the MPs that this blog has covered over the last few years, it's safe to say that none (with the exception of dear Tony) has been as underhand, as genuinely unpleasant, manipulative, vindictive and dishonest as both Dorries has been and apparently is. She is both a disgrace to politics as a whole and a liability to the Conservative party.

How many more examples of exactly the above does the Conservative party need before it takes action against Dorries for her behaviour? Perhaps that's one that Iain Dale could answer for us.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008 

The joy of new comments on old posts.

Many thanks to grumpy old man, who saw fit to dump this on an old Scum-watch post involving the Polish stealing our benefits:

This scottish dictatorship is intent on flooding our once great country with surly,criminal minded,foreign spongers.Wake up Joe Public and lets get rid of Gordon Macbrown and his bunch of incompetent arseholes before the immeasurable damage already done becomes terminal.I dont want to live in a multi cultural society surrounded by blockheads and spear chuckers.They dont like us and I sure as hell dont like them.

One can't possibly imagine why those individuals Mr Grumpy refers to as "spear chuckers" wouldn't immediately take a liking to such a gentle and welcoming elderly gent.

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Brown's speech.

For almost the first 500 words, Gordon Brown managed to deliver the speech that few felt he had in him: passionate, personal, introspective, admitting mistakes, and setting out what he believes, what he thinks and who he claims to be fighting for, with a clarity and purpose that he has seldom managed in the past. Ignore the fact that he still can't bring himself to call a spade a spade and refer either directly to the poor or to the working class, instead relying on those "on middle and modest incomes", and this was as powerful a rallying cry to Labour's core as has been delivered for quite some time.

Words, however, on their own do not make things better. The speech had three somewhat major policy announcements, almost all leaked in advance, and none were really satisfactory enough to back up the rhetoric. An extra billion to go towards childcare for those over two is welcome, but too late, the decision to give vouchers to the poorest without computers or internet vouchers screams of both being a gimmick and a potential vast waste of money, and the making of prescriptions free for those suffering with cancer elevates one disease above all others, hardly the equity that Brown was promising elsewhere.

After the excellent start, the speech quickly faded, enlivened only by the sycophantic, needless clapping which seemed to happen approximately every minute and a half. He received two standing ovations during it, both of which again seemed to be mainly because the delegates were applauding themselves and how great their vision and policies are rather than that of their leader's. Brown attempted throughout to insert a personal touch into what was otherwise the ever familiar reading off of brilliant successes, with the minimum wage providing a dad on security shifts with the extra money for a birthday party or the mother who doesn't have to visit the loan sharks to pay for Christmas. Both of these imaginary individuals would presumably like the minimum wage to be an actual living wage, providing them with the ability to save rather than just continually splash out, but that still is beyond the thinking of New Labour.

Almost every cabinet or junior minister got a mention, perhaps to instil the idea that they're working together as a team, or perhaps more cynically, to give them pangs of guilt if they are shortly to take their part in the coup, despite being praised by Gordon in his conference speech. David Miliband, interestingly, was mentioned, but only as part of how he and Douglas Alexander along with Brown will be helping to "bring justice and democracy, to Burma, to Zimbabwe and to Darfur", presumably again with a magic wand and the words "izzy wizzy let's get busy". Included also was the obligatory attacks on the Conservatives, mostly weak and blunt, but the two assaults that were not directly on policy were the strongest: attacking Cameron for using his children as "props", even though Brown's wife had introduced him prior to his speech, and that these times most certainly don't require a novice - targeted just as much at Miliband as at Cameron.

Did it do anywhere enough to secure Brown for now? Almost certainly not. It was a speech going through the motions, just like the conference as a whole, resolute but without any convincing backbone or the confidence that the party is not already doomed. There was nothing here that will make the plotters think twice about a political assassination, and it might come a lot quicker than some are anticipating.

Update: I wrote this in something of a hurry before going out, but I think it stands up pretty well regardless. It's always fascinating how different people can see entirely different things in a speech - according to Polly Toynbee he delighted the hall but that certainly wasn't clear when the BBC themselves asked some of the delegates what they had thought, when it was notable that they were evenly split between those that thought it was great and those that still felt Brown should go. The Sun, typically, sees some vast left-wing conspiracy which simply doesn't show up in absolutely any reading of the text. One of the least enthusiastic, or perhaps resigned was Jackie Ashley - probably the most identifiable Brownite commentator in the press. The less said about Denis MacShane and his ridiculous denunications of 80s leftists the better.

One thing I didn't mention above is just how weak Brown actually was on the one thing that he ought to be defining on: the state of the economy, or at least should be, if we were to believe those including himself demanding he stay on because of his immense experience as chancellor. It's worth quoting his five-point plan in full:

Tomorrow I and then Alistair will meet financial and government leaders in New York to make these proposals:

First, transparency - all transactions need to be transparent and not hidden

Second, sound banking, a requirement to demonstrate that risks can be managed and priced for bad times as well as good

Thirdly, responsibility - no member of a bank's board should be able to say they did not understand the risks they were running and walk away from them

Fourth, integrity - removing conflicts of interest so that bonuses should not be based on short term speculative deals but should be a reward for hard work, effort and enterprise

And fifth, global standards and supervision because the flows of capital are global, then supervision can no longer just be national it has to be global too.

Have you ever come across such a set of vague platitudes from a supposed serious politician on perhaps the ultimate issue of our time? Any vision for how Brown intends to implement these brilliant proposals on taming the market tiger was completely absent, as was likewise any real attempt to say anything of any merit on the bills which will shortly be dropping onto doorsteps, more likely than anything else to further hasten the demise of New Labour via the ballot box.

Perhaps the one thing that Brown can take heart from is that David Miliband has either been successfully making a fool of himself, with pictures splashed all across the papers of him dancing at a fringe meeting, bizarrely holding a banana and finally pulling a face whilst shaking Gordon's hand that makes Brown's own horrible, shit-eating forced grin look normal, or contributing to his own damp squib of a speech by being overheard saying he couldn't have gone further because it would have been seen as a Heseltine moment. As Simon Jenkins notes, perhaps he too like Heseltine might have overreached himself too early, and fail to pick up the position which he covets as a result. Or he could be in office within 2 months. Stranger things have happened.

Elsewhere, Justin, Dave Osler, Paul Linford and the Bleeding Heart Show all provide more comment, should you for some strange reason desire even more of a very bad thing.

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Monday, September 22, 2008 

Dawn of the Dead comes to Manchester.

According to Nick Clegg in his conference speech last week, we have a zombie government. That probably isn't entirely accurate; more appropriate is that we have a zombie Labour party. We aren't here talking about the sort of zombies depicted in certain films that acquire super-human strength despite being dead, being able to rip apart the living with their bare hands to feast on the gooey treats within, but rather the sort of undead creature that is to all intents and purposes dead but refuses to give up the ghost, like Norman Tebbit or the Queen Mother in her final years. To stretch the analogy even further and refer to undoubtedly the greatest zombie film of all time, Romero's Dawn of the Dead, the conference attendees are even reflecting the behaviour of their fictional cousins by taking over a fortified building, somewhere that reminds them of what they used to do. The difference is that this time there's going to be no Roger, Peter, Fran and Stephen to evict the zombies before themselves being forced to leave by looters on motorbikes.

There is little doubt that the stench of death pervades the Manchester Central conference centre. This is a party, truly, desperately going through the motions, pretending to the outside world that everything is going swimmingly, that the economic crisis has given them an opportunity they perhaps didn't have a week ago, that it can still be turned around, and that in the words of David Miliband, the party should "prove the fatalists wrong". It's probably not worth going by remarks which can be misconstrued by those overhearing them, but Miliband's apparent suggestion to an aide that he had toned down his speech because he wanted to avoid a "Heseltine moment" speaks volumes. Ostensibly, the entire event is building up to Gordon Brown's speech tomorrow afternoon, which supposedly is meant to help determine how much longer he might have in office. The reality is that the conference has became so stage managed that reading anything into the immediate reaction is almost as pointless as the entire sojourn itself. Long ago was anything that might really trouble the leadership stripped out; now delegates just vote for policies that will go before the party's national executive committee, where they'll be sharply rejected.

All that's left therefore is for ministers to announce the odd new policy, if they can be called that, in otherwise soporific speeches which nonetheless bloggers and commentators rate because they simply have to write something. Accordingly, David Clark asks whether Miliband is "the English Obama", hopefully rhetorically. Likewise, Lance Price, an ex-spin doctor, asks whether James Purnell is "Labour's Theo Walcott". No reason here to not respond bluntly; no, he's a right-wing Blairite that chose the wrong party to join, and if he's another leadership candidate, then Labour is not just undead, it really has passed on. Jacqui Smith additionally emerged yesterday and revealed the plans for "reform" on prostitution. While these are not quite as bad as they might have been, Labour still intends to try to make kerb-crawling illegal, enhance powers to both police and local councils to close down brothels if prostitutes are being run by a pimp or are trafficked, which in other words will most likely mean anyone who fancies ridding their neighbourhood of the moral scourge will more easily succeed, whilst men who pay for sex with women "who are exploited", i.e. controlled for another person's gain, which again means either run by a pimp or trafficked, will be able to be prosecuted. This should at least lead to some interesting conversations in brothels up and down the land, where the punter questions the worker before handing over the money and dropping his/her trousers about their working conditions. If anything proves that New Labour is still just as illiberal, idiotic and distant from the realities of the real world as it's always been, then this must be it.

The award for the most chutzpah though must go to both Alastair Darling and Brown himself for their various utterances over the weekend and today. Only now that the proverbial horse has firmly bolted do they dare to mention the inequity of the City bonus culture or suggest firmer regulation of the City, but even now such a simple little word as "greed", one even used by John McCain in the United States, is too obscene to pass their lips. Simon Hoggart has already referred to Brown's vision of the reform needed to correct his own reforms which got us into this mess as the Theseus defence: thanks to his magic thread, we'll all be OK, which is reassuring. Even these slight sops to the left though are in keeping with the pretence being kept up by the party of doing something whilst actually doing nothing, as we all know that they don't mean a word of it, nor is there much in the way of legislating which can be done to stop CEOs and board members from awarding themselves such pay deals. Instead we must be thankful that the government stepped in last week and allowed Lloyds TSB to take over HBOS and create an behemoth of a bank, a merger that would have otherwise have been rejected by the competition commission as likely to become a monopoly. Doubtless we will be just as thankful in a few years' time when the bonuses are again being ramped up whilst the difference and diversity on the high street will be even further restricted and diluted.

Does it really seem five years ago that Brown made his barnstorming, defining speech whilst chancellor about being "best when we are Labour", which made some of us hope, probably beyond any reason, that a Brown premiership would be different, bolder, better than Blair's? There won't of course be any repetition of that tomorrow, nor should there be. He needs to get the balance right between introspection, admitting he was wrong over the 10p rate, that he has made other mistakes over the past year and that he needs to improve, and setting out something approaching a vision of how he intends to lead both the party and the country from now on. He could do worse than go along the lines of suggesting that the economic crisis is a paradigm shift or an epoch making moment, even if it isn't, suggesting that the time when the party leadership would ask how high when the CBI said jump is over, and build from there. Moreover, he ought to confront the "elephant in the room": the challenge to himself. Directly ask the party what they will replace him with, and just how much difference there really is between what he is offering, both to the party and the country, with the so-called contenders. It won't stop them from overthrowing him if it's what they've already decided upon, but it might strike a chord with some in the nation itself. If you're going to go down, you might as well do it with both some glory and some dignity, and when neither of those qualities have been present in Manchester at all, that really might make some sit up and take notice.

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A special plea.

If anyone attending the Labour party conference happens to come across that fat Republican twat Frank Luntz, would they kindly knock him over and repeatedly jump on his head until his skull shatters, so that the nation can be spared the pointless, meaningless, boring and beyond endurance focus groups which he keeps holding for Newsnight? Thanks in advance.

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A declaration.

I support this message.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008 

Weekend links.

The Labour party conference is getting under way - and how better to set the mood than a truly dreadful Gordon Brown article in the Grauniad. Even that isn't the worst of it - the theme for the conference is apparently "fair chances for all, fair rules applied to all", which surely must be there with the most vacuous statements of the New Labour era. No wonder that Diane Abbott isn't even bothering to attend.

Meanwhile, JK Rowling has unfathomably given Labour £1m, on the ostensible grounds that she "believes that poor and vulnerable families will fare much better under the Labour Party than they would under a Cameron-led Conservative Party." Well, they couldn't possibly fare much worse, could they? Justin comments further.

Craig Murray is being threatened legally by yet another uptight businessman, this time friend of Tony Buckingham David Weill. Our Craig certainly knows how to put the wind up those with interests they rather wouldn't be made public.

Mr Eugenides reports on an attendee of the RNC who after advocating the bombing of Iran on camera returned to his room with a woman who swiftly drugged him and disappeared with $50,000 worth of his personal effects.

Alix Mortimer and Paul Linford both comment on the Liberal Democrat conference.

Chris Dillow on what the left's response to the financial crisis should be. I think I linked to it yesterday but Naomi Klein's belief that this is by no means the end of the free-market ideology is also an excellent read. Flying Rodent's post from Thursday on Fuckyounomics is also worthy of your time.

David Semple rounds on intellectual masturbators and Ed Balls (connection there, possibly?) in two masterly posts.

Finally, all week long the Sun has been bigging up the march against knife crime taking place in London today, claiming that up to 100,000 would be attending. By most accounts it seems that a few thousand at most have actually gone. Considering that right-wingers (especially at the Sun) have long derided peace marches that actually might achieve something and disputed the numbers attending those (often erroneously), I hope you'll excuse my schadenfreude on what is a worthy cause - just not one that necessarily extends to marching against. You can put pressure on a government; you can't on someone carrying a knife because they're concerned for their own safety.

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Friday, September 19, 2008 

Taken from the bleakness to come.

The week began with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, and the commentariat decreed that this showed that the Fed was no longer prepared to bail out anyone who came running begging for mercy. The week ends with what might be the biggest dead cat bounce that the FTSE has ever seen, leaping nearly 9% in one day, all on the back of the Fed announcing a plan which will to all intents and purposes involve the nationalising of all the losses and bad debt that has led to this week's banking crisis. Dsquared in the comments on Blood and Treasure probably sums it all up:

What a fucking unbelievable day. I haven't seen a man eat his own head yet, but I have now, officially, been present on the trading floor during a melt-up.

Despite all the hyperbole which is floating around like the effluent in a festival toilet, this week's financial meltdown and then the melt-up probably is the once-in-however many decades event which so many have suggested it is. It is not however, necessarily, the end of an epoch, or even a turning point, as Larry Elliot believes it might be. No, it seems to be something quite different: this isn't the end of the neoliberal consensus which has undoubtedly directly led us towards this huge default, it's probably just the very beginning of it.

To go with a cliché, all the chickens have came home to roost. The deluded dream of the everyone a home owner society, coupled with the complete abandonment of anything even resembling financial regulation and the evisceration of the manufacturing sector, all of which you can blame both the Conservatives and Labour equally for, has reached the nadir which many that have long been derided as Cassandras always said it would. Some have been left to go to the wall, but the vast majority have all instead been either taken over or taken under the wing of the state, the same state which those in charge demanded to get out of their boardrooms and to inexorably lower the burden of.

For what we have now clearly came to is not socialism for the poor, but socialism for the uber-rich, all of whom are incredibly likely to get off scot-free, or even more amazingly, even with golden goodbyes for their part in the crisis. The irony of it all is also completely overbearing; a Republican government in the United States that cut taxes for the super-rich and which continues to believe in the smallest of small states has probably just involved itself in the biggest nationalisation project of all time. Things have of course over here not yet reached such a catastrophe, but the takeover by Lloyds TSB of HBOS is a similar example of all the usual rules being broken; conspiracy theorists might even reason that some of those involved in the short-selling of what the vast majority concluded to be a solvent and viable business just might have something to gain from a bank which will now own 1 in 3 branches on the high street.

It then has to be asked: who exactly is going to pay for all of this? It certainly doesn't seem to be those that got us into this mess in the first place, unless we blame the humble taxpayer for going along with everything that was offered him in good faith. We see Gordon Brown claiming that he is now going to clean up the City, but who on earth honestly believes it? This after all is the man that has helped deliver us here, a leading member of the party that accepted all the cheques courtesy of numerous businessmen now involved up to their arm-pits in this crash, that promised to abolish boom and bust and has succeeding in abolishing boom while nationalising the bust, all for his fair-weather friends in the City that howled and squealed and got everything they asked for but still complained that levels of corporation tax were slightly higher than in Ireland.

As others have noted, this ought to be the greatest opportunity for the left potentially for decades. If Keynesianism ended in 1976, then surely Friedmanism has now been left similarly low in 2008. The Labour party, the party that ought to be the one to lead us out of this mess, instead signed up completely and utterly to neoliberalism, declared that there was no alternative and set about emasculating the welfare state, and if anything, it's only likely to continue at a far faster pace now. After all, how else is the government going to pay for all those shortly going to be claiming jobseeker's allowance if it doesn't cut to the bone those that are genuinely sick? As for your pension, well, might as well forget that. All the more reason to accelerate the privatisation of the health service and close down those failing schools so that our friends in the business and voluntary community can re-open them as academies.

We can all point to those that should share the blame. What might really come to matter is that we force them to take it. Some, as stated, will see an opportunity; I see only the bleakness to come.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008 

The Liberal Democrats: getting better, but not enough.

The Liberal Democrats rarely succeed in getting themselves much attention at the best of times, so their sojourn to Bournemouth, unfortunately occurring at the same time as the implosion in the financial markets has been rather glossed over.

That's doubly unfortunate, as with Labour in dire straits financially, intellectually and electorally the Lib Dems ought to pushing against an open door, trying to communicate with those betrayed and abandoned by New Labour, whether they be the long ignored working class or the clichéd middle-Englanders that turned out in 1997. On the surface, they ought to be doing fantastically well; which other party can boast that it has long predicted the exact conditions which have so overshadowed their yearly show-piece and also the policies to deal with it? Compared to both Labour and the Tories, they're still the only one of the big three that is daring to suggest that actually the prison population should not be inexorably growing, that there is an alternative to the casual authoritarian consensus on criminal justice and that perhaps we shouldn't be wasting billions on renewing Trident.

Instead one poll has them on the depths of just 12%. Considering the poll has the Conservatives on a similarly ridiculous 52% it most likely is and will be written off as a blip. Even so, the party otherwise has been flat-lining just below the 20% mark for quite some time, and the defenestration of Ming Campbell last year has done nothing to alter that. Nick Clegg's performance as leader has hardly been stellar: the most attention he received was his "confession" to Piers Moron that he had slept with around 30 women, and he did himself no favours this week either when he thought that pensioners somehow manage to get by on £30 a week. He's also had to cope with being effectively the second Liberal Democrat that the media turn to, such has been the demand for the dancing demigod Vince Cable, merely because he unlike legions of other politicians can actually answer a question and knows what he's talking about.

Much was in evidence at the actual conference. Clegg's speech, despite some of the reviews of it, especially from the Labour-leaning bloggers, was probably about as good as it was going to get, getting the mixture just right between knockabout, talking of a "zombie" Labour government whilst attacking the Conservative party that doesn't have much left to it once you have taken the unpleasant bits out, and the deadly serious, the economic reforms which are much in order and also the proposed tax cuts for the poorest and middle earners which dominated the week. He might have made the mistake of trying to be too much like Cameron, despite the brickbats, and the wandering about and waving of arms is surely one innovation at political conferences that is not here to last, but it was what you expected: middling, strong in places and weak in others.

All eyes though were again on Cable, and his speech was little short of barnstorming. Delivered in his usual understated fashion, with by far the most wounding criticism against the Tory tax policy of "sharing the proceeds of recession" yet made. This could have quite easily been a speech by someone decidedly old Labour, from a bygone age, attacking tax evasion, demanding that socialism for the rich does not become the new religion, and calling for the poorest to be lifted out of tax altogether, while abandoning the bureaucracy of tax credits. Some bits were needlessly populist, like the idea that everyone earning over £100,000 in the public sector should have to re-apply for their jobs, which will hardly be fighting needless waste in the short-term, but this was the sort of thing on the whole you wished that the party of government should be proposing.

They could of course go further. One of the things not mentioned by Cable was the disastrous public finance initiative, with its around £100bn of debt off the Treasury's balance sheet, which needs to abandoned forthwith. On education the Liberal Democrats are still a much of a muchness, the "pupil premium" being all well and good, but not when they don't oppose the deeply authoritarian nature which much of the erroneously named academies adopt. When some schools resemble something out of 1984 and provide courses of training in working in a call centre, the equivalent of adopting pessimism as the school ethos, something has gone deeply wrong. On foreign policy they ought to dare to be different and potentially be unpopular by calling either for a withdrawal from Afghanistan or for a complete reappraisal of the current ahistorical campaign which cannot possibly either win local hearts and minds or beat the increasing insurgency with the number of troops deployed.

These might help win other a few more supporters, but you also have to be both realistic and fatalistic about their chances at the next election. They face a Conservative party which doesn't just pose a threat to Labour but also to them, especially in the southern seats, which is doubtless where the tax cutting policy has been aimed directly at. It's a risk worth taking, but it's unlikely to pay off. For those of us who have no intention of voting either Conservative or Labour at the next election, which leaves us roughly with a choice of either the Lib Dems or the Greens, the conference won't have done anything to actively turn most people off, but when the election will be fought primarily on Labour's unpopularity and giving them a kicking rather than actual policy, it means that a reversal of 1997 with a huge Conservative majority this time round looms ever closer.

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Let's sabotage the Newsnight vote.

Boy oh boy, if there's one thing that we most certainly need more of it's pointless votes. The latest is being hosted by Newsnight, which asks you to vote for the best post-war prime minister. As Unity says, this is a pretty much naked attempt to get stories out of the fact that Gordon Brown is almost guaranteed to come last.

Well, two can play that game. Considering that it's likely to be a straight fight between Thatcher and Attlee, let's go completely into leftfield and choose Thatcher's old nemesis Grocer Heath for the top spot, as Anton Vowl suggests. Go for Gordon Brown for second just to truly stuff the whole thing up, and then put someone like Anthony "Suez" Eden in third for further potential comedy. Attlee can go somewhere in the middle, and Blair and Thatcher can go fight it out for last place.

Who's with me?

Update: Guess it's just me then.

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More murder/stabbing porn.

Hands up - I was wrong in my prediction that the Mail would put the first photographs of the murdered Larbi-Cherif sisters on the front page today. "Skatey Kate" after "Foxy Knoxy" instead took precedence. The Metro though, owned by the Daily Mail and General Trust, did indeed go with another photograph of the sisters on its front page.

Not that such use of photographs of murdered/critically injured young women is confined to the mid-market tabs. Here's the Sun totally not tasteless announcement that the first photograph of Lucy Yates, the young woman randomly stabbed in a supermarket has been released:

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008 

The other winners.

You probably won't have noticed, but the Paralympics are over and Team GB (sic) has finished second in the medals table, behind only China, having won 102 medals, including 42 golds.

I say you won't have noticed, because the coverage has been absolutely abysmal. For all the hype and glamour of the original Olympics, with almost 12 hours or more of coverage some days on BBC1, the Paralympics have had to make to do with an hour long highlights show, if that, on BBC2 in the evening. As for coverage on the actual news or even in the sports sections of the broadsheets, you may as well have forgotten about it.

At the heart of this it's pretty obvious what's going on, no matter how we try to gloss over it or deny it, so let's face it: no one really cares if spastics win medals, as after all, they're still spastics and they're competing against other spastics. They might use the same equipment, be trained in the exact same places by the exact same people, but they're still never going to enter the public conciousness purely because they're not "normal" individuals taking part in the "normal" events. You'll probably have troubling naming a single athlete that's taken part, and Dame Tanni Grey Thomson has retired so doesn't count. Darren Kenny won four golds and a silver; Dave Roberts picked up four golds; and David Weir for example won four medals, including two golds, but all will still struggle to be remembered even by sports journalists. We will definitely remember Rebecca Adlington and Chris Hoy though, and even more so when they most likely receive honours for their efforts.

If indeed our showing in Beijing during August showed that the claim we were leaving in a broken society was piffle, then the sentiment can be doubled on the back of these achievements. It's just a great shame they won't get the recognition that they undoubtedly deserve. The full list of winners, incidentally, is here.

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Gentlemen, get your dicks out!

There are few constants in life. Benjamin Franklin famously suggested that all we had to be certain of was death and taxes. To that can be added a more modern and media-oriented certainty: sex sells. Even if an initial invention was not thought up with the possibilities of how it could be used to either record, display, document or assist in the pursuit of sexual congress, it quickly becomes subverted to do so. From the royals shown the first moving pictures that quickly enquired whether the makers could move from more worthy subjects onto the very first hardcore shoot involving street prostitutes, to the role of the American porn industry in condemning Betamax to obsolescence, right up to how the internet has not only vastly increased the easy access to every conceivable fetish and perversion but also made it far easier for individuals themselves to meet up to partake in such activities, innovation and technology coupled with sexuality equals a licence to print money.

Where then does that other old institution, the newspaper industry fit into all this? Long ago, a newspaper moved beyond the more subtle shots of nubile teenagers and those in their early-twenties displaying their assets covered by skimpy clothing and decided there was little difference in said willing participants taking their tops off. Who knows how effective in the long-term page 3 was in establishing the popularity of the fledgling Sun, but it's one that was widely copied by the Daily Mirror (long since abolished), and taken to new depths in both the Daily Star and Sport. Today it's been further brought right up to date, with the yearly ordeal which is Page 3 Idol, and unfortunate unforeseen occurrences like this year's winner committing suicide are unlikely to bring an end to it.

For the mid-market tabloids though, such clearly lower-order obsessions are distasteful. Until recently the Daily Mail had a policy where if there was images of individuals in states of undress printed, their more private parts tended to blanked over, which included women's nipples mysteriously disappearing, lest any middle-Englanders get over-excited at breakfast and end up walking around the rest of the day quite literally half-cocked. No, the Daily Mail more than understands that sex sells, it just tries to be ever so more slightly subtle about it.

One of the most popular ways to do this is also one of the most downright odd. Nothing moves more people than the deaths or disappearances of young people, especially attractive young white females. Look back through the cases that have gained the most media attention in recent years and it's no coincidence that most will name at the top of their lists Madeleine McCann (even creepier), Rachel Nickell, Sally Anne Bowman, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman and Amanda "Milly" Dowler, all of which can be ably illustrated with numerous photographs alongside the walls of text. So noticed and prevalent has this become that it's been formally called missing white woman syndrome. Probably not foremost in the minds of the responsible editors and journalists is that some will be so turned on by such images that they will masturbate to them, but it can't be denied that in some cases that is the ultimate conclusion, amply shown by the details of the Bowman case:

When Dixie was arrested, nine months after the murder, police found a digital camera among his possessions. On it, they found a video file showing a pornographic film being played on a television, while a man records himself masturbating over a copy of the Daily Mail bearing a photograph of Bowman.

Police later discovered a copy of the Daily Mail of March 22 2006 which had a "sticky substance" on the front page featuring Bowman.

The Daily Mail itself strangely didn't mention that it had the honour of providing the image of Bowman which her killer had performed an act of onanism to.

No surprises then that the Mail's website is currently leading with the hugely important news story that the first photographs of the two young sisters murdered in Birmingham have been released or found. It's doubly good news because the photographs of them show what must have been deeply hoped for: that both women were suitably fruity, and despite being Algerian, they're not of the "dusky hue" which the Mail imagines that its readers won't warm to. Who's willing to bet that tomorrow's front page is occupied by the main photograph?

The same sort of contradictory relationship goes on over paedophilia. Paedophiles are of course the most evil individuals to ever walk the planet, and very few tabloids will ever suggest that measures such as Sarah's Law, even diluted versions such as those now being trialled, are likely to increase the danger to children rather than contain it. When it comes to young stars growing up however, they tend to be fair game. There's the infamous Daily Star double-page spread, on one side marvelling at how Charlotte Church had "become a big girl" at the age of 15, while on the other decrying the sick Brass Eye paedophilia special. The Daily Mail earlier had a somewhat similar moment. First up on the sidebar was the paper ogling the 14-year old Dakota Fanning:

My, hasn't she grown! Dakota Fanning passes the awkward phase with flying colours

Child actress Dakota Fanning seems to have come through her awkward younger years just fine.

At the premiere for her controversial new film Hounddog, the 14-year-old unveiled a mature new look showing she's well on her way to being all grown up.

Whilst further down the Mail was reporting the outrage of the BBC daring to dramatise a 15-year-old being "groomed" by an older man on EastEnders:

Scores of complaints as EastEnders shows scenes of a paedophile grooming a teenager

If we want to be more accurate, then attraction to underage but post-pubescent children is not strictly paedophilia but ephebophilia, but that very distinction has been lost in the general paedophile panic, ruthlessly encouraged by the self-same tabloid newspapers that are now horrified when park attendants decide their latest role should be asking lone adults what their intentions are in wandering through our green and pleasant land.

There's only one way to try to further sell sex, and that's to combine it with violence. The murder of Meredith Kercher then has been a god-send. Not just involving one attractive young but sadly dead woman, it involves another: the American Amanda Knox, or as she's known to every tabloid, Foxy Knoxy, the moniker she rather unfortunately chose to describe herself as on MySpace. It really doesn't get much better than this, not just for the tabloids, but for also the
priapic Roger Alton over at the Independent. Not only is this happening in Italy, meaning that journalists don't have to be worried about little things like contempt of court or not demonising suspects that have not even been charged yet, but the Italian judicial system is so long-winded and elongated that the whole case has been dragged out for almost a year, and probably will for at least another yet.

The matters and details of the case though don't really matter so much: it's all about Foxy Knoxy. Not since Carla Bruni visited British shores have newspaper editors and journalists left so wide open their carnal desires: no bones about it, they desperately want to fuck Miss Knox. Not only is she according to the Mail's hatchet jobs the kind of liberated young woman that they so love to hate while actually deeply envying, she might be dangerous with it! If right-wingers are deeply turned on by the idea of Sarah Palin, and some were more than open that they were, then Knox is a similar fantasy made large. What news editor can possibly resist the evil American libertine with the smouldering beauty that might well have slain our delicate but also blossoming, gorgeous English flower? Why, she's even playing up to the role; look at the little minx, daring to coquettishly wear that white lace-edged blouse as though she's the innocent party! Oh, she so *wants* it!

That Knox is probably absolutely nothing like the caricature which has been painted of her in the gutter press is of no consequence, much like how the relatives of the murdered and missing often come to resent the media for their constant intrusion and refusal to let things go. Nickell's boyfriend deeply wanted her killer to be caught, but he moved to France purposefully to get away from the repeated use of her image and the constant enquiries with no thought whatsoever for his personal feelings. Everything is infinitesimally more tragic when you're beautiful and your image can be sold, whether you're a page 3 girl, an aspiring model, a missing child or an accused murderer. In the words of Viz magazine, gentlemen, start your nuts.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008 

What happened to the vision we had?

Hands up everyone who prior to today had heard of David Cairns, not including those that have the privilege of him being their constituency MP. Exactly. Whether you agree or not with the proposition that the 2006 September rebellion against Blair was Brown inspired, most will agree that at least that uprising had a few recognisable names involved. If you want to be even more disparaging, it's not completely ridiculous to argue that this rebellion appears to amount to Siobhan McDonagh and her relatives and friends. Cairns used to be one of McDonagh's researchers; more amusingly, and possibly completely inaccurately, according to the Grauniad Diary, David Evans, who was defending McDonagh at the World at One on Monday, has two cats, which are apparently called Siobhan and Margaret, after McDonagh and her sister, the former Blairite general secretary of the party.

As alluded to on Friday, this putsch might have more weight behind it if the protagonists themselves were offering something approaching an alternative, but they aren't. They're not even near to deciding who should replace Brown if their attempt at pushing for a leadership contest is successful. Presuming that Brown himself will be fighting to keep his job, just who exactly will square up against him? Will someone who seriously fancies their chances of leading the party whenever Brown's tenure ends step up to the plate, to use that horrible American phrase? Or will we instead have a stalking horse candidate, with Charles Clarke or perhaps John Reid standing for the unreconstructed Blairite continuation project?

If anyone was hoping that Fiona Mactaggart, one of the very few "big" names that has signed up to the idea of a leadership contest would perhaps articulate what she thinks Labour should be doing outside of taking on the Tories and the most vague declarations of finding a new "narrative", then her addition to the current trend of writing 600 words which are so aimless and indistinct that you forget within 5 minutes what they amounted to proves otherwise. In fact, you can dispense with the entire thing except for the closing paragraph:

The leadership problem that Labour must address is the opposite: we offer means without a bold and inspiring set of ends. Labour MPs can't just hope something might turn up - that would let down the people who need us most.

Ah, so that's it! Labour's got the means; all it needs are the ends! In other words, this is the narrative nonsense all over again. The sudden espousal of this idea of a narrative would suggest that previously New Labour had one. At best, what New Labour has done over the last 11 years is string together a succession of plot devices, based around increased spending on the public services, a strong economy and reacting as quickly and efficiently as possible to whatever it is which is on today's Daily Mail/Sun front page, all tied together by the presence of Teflon Tony himself. While the Conservatives were weak, which is more or less up until 2006, this could still be construed as a defining agenda; it was left to the more pretentious in the commentariat to complain loudly that there was an exceptional vacuum at the heart of New Labour. Now though, with Brown made to look like an idiot every time the news bulletins replay those endless successions of him foolishly claiming to have abolished boom and bust, the country moving towards outright umbrage at the level of tax, and especially the taxes which are funding the busybodies which are now apparently fining people for farting out of turn, and an team in 10 Downing Street which seems to be fighting itself more than reacting to events outside, the claims that Labour is even offering anything approaching means, let alone ends, ring ever more hollow.

Both sides are still of course pointing each other and shouting either "Blairite!" or "Brownite!" at them, and indeed, I have been more than prone to doing so myself. If ever there was a time when this could not be more irrelevant, it's now. Back during the deputy leadership contest, the achingly Blairite Hazel Blears tried to argue, pathetically, that there was no longer any Blairites or Brownites, there was just Labour. It wasn't true at the time, but a year and a few months on it's suddenly applicable when you realise something: neither the Blairites nor the Brownites any longer have any differences over policy; the disagreement is instead between those that think Brown is doomed and needs replacing and those that think it would do nothing whatsoever to restore Labour's standing in the polls. Indeed, if anything all the squabbling is likely to do is further show the party to be divided at a time when most would expecting that clunking fist to be making itself present.

Like with Cruddas and Rutherford last week, the only part of the party that still appears to be both thinking and operating is the left, with John McDonnell making the exact above point. Even he though is resigned to the idea that Labour has lost the next election: he's instead concentrating on how the Labour left as a whole can stay afloat, even if the rest of the party is wiped out by the Cameron advance, sketching out the beginnings of a plan on how to do so.

The moment of truth might well be if one of the bigger names mentioned by Paul Linford in a similarly downbeat post also resigns. Other comparisons have been made to the demise of Thatcher in 1990, but that analogy doesn't really seem to fit either. In 1990 the cabinet were split on Europe and there was fundamental disagreement also over the poll tax. No one can claim at the moment that Brown's cabinet or the wider parliamentary party is split over such defining matters; instead, it's all about Brown himself, his failure to weave the narrative and the Conservative resurgence. The fact of the matter is instead that Labour itself has failed. It has grown too puffed up, too complacent, and like all parties of government eventually do, became the establishment. It still believes that all it needs to do is fight the Tories better and it can still win. Instead, what's apparent is that even if it could fight the Tories better, it would still lose because it has lost the veneer of cover that the economic "boom", built upon unsustainable debt provided. All that's left is for those still in an seat come 2010 to fight it out for the bare bones of a party destroyed not by Brown, although he has certainly contributed to it, but the overweening arrogance of Blairism and its attempt to wield total political control.

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The freedom not to be locked up for six days.

Excellent article over on CiF by Rizwaan Sabir, one of the two men arrested and held for six days for having in their possession an "al-Qaida training manual" which Sabir had downloaded from of all places, the US Department of Justice website. As this is of course CiF, a few posters then spend the rest of the comments trying to justify his detention; apparently if you have a Muslim name you shouldn't be doing research into jihadists, as that's just asking for trouble. Similarly, it seems that such documents are apparently comparable to child pornography, even though you can purchase said document from Amazon as a paperback. This is meaningless though, because there are plenty of illegal items that can be bought online, and after all, even "Spycatcher" was once banned in England.

All this handily ignores the very point that Sabir makes: the study of terrorists and terrorism is vital, not just to understand it but also in order to be able to fight it. Not just academic freedom but personal freedom to be able to read such sources and watch videos made by those sympathetic to the aims of al-Qaida without the fear of being arrested by police and locked up for the best part of a week ought to be an accepted right in any country worthy of being described as a democracy. It is not the views and opinions themselves that are dangerous, but the individuals that espouse them. Until we accept that, there'll continue to be such raids that only make a mockery of both the police and the laws which they have to enforce.

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The latest over on the Sun Lies.

Sharia law has been established and it's all the fault of the government, even though it's a result of err, the Arbitration Act 1996 which the Tories brought in.

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Monday, September 15, 2008 

Football, circuses and the credit crunch.

One of the more astute remarks on the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the wider economic turmoil was made by thomas over on Liberal Conspiracy:

Does anyone see the strange correlation to how the scale of borrowing is in direct proportion to the weekly wages of footballers in the premiership. Now look at the sponsors of football clubs. Football is the circus of our day.

In fact the comparison can go even further than that, directly to how some of the clubs in the Premier League have and are being run and the deals with the sponsors which they proudly display on the breasts of their shirts.

Most notoriously there's Newcastle United, who continue to be sponsored by Northern Rock. Despite the protests against Mike Ashley, which are based on his treatment of the "messiah" Kevin Keegan and Ashley's imposition of a continental style of management, with Dennis Wise in charge of scouting and selling and signing players, his reign at the club has been a time of recovery after the excess of the regime of Freddy Shepherd, which had gone into masses of debt in order to sign players. As Ashley says in his statement announcing that in accordance with the fans' wishes he will be looking to sell the club, he points out that he had spent a quarter of a billion pounds before he had so much as paid any of the players a penny, half on buying the club and the other half on paying off just some of the debt:

But there was a double whammy. Commercial deals such as sponsorships and advertising had been front loaded.

The money had been paid up front and spent. I was left with a club that owed millions and part of whose future had been mortgaged.

This was probably why Ashley and Wise, behind the back of Keegan, attempted to sell both Michael Owen and Joey Barton, but failed in both cases. Newcastle fans will doubtless disagree, but Ashley, as he says, may well have saved the club from the fate of Leeds United.

Also applicable is the tale of West Ham United. Until Saturday their sponsor had been XL; come kick-off the company's logo was strangely missing from their shirts. As their opponents West Bromwich Albion are also looking for a new sponsor after their contract with T-Mobile expired, both teams played without a sponsor on their shirts, something which probably hasn't happened in the top division of the football league for a good few years.

The decision to quickly cancel the sponsorship deal with XL might have been less to do with the embarrassment of having a failed company on their shirts while tens of thousands of customers were stranded abroad courtesy of them than the fact that as well as being the team's sponsor, the team's owner, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, the majority shareholder in the Icelandic bank, Landsbanki, was reputed to have invested heavily in XL.

Indeed, the travails of Landsbanki and the bite of the "credit crunch" have much to do with Alan Curbishley's recent decision to resign as manager of the club. Like Keegan, his hands as manager had been tied as a result of financial considerations: he was told he would have to sell in order to buy. Partly this was down to the excess spending under the previous chairman Eggert Magnusson, who had his share of the club bought by Gudmundsson, for which Curbishley was not blameless, having spent large amounts on notoriously injury prone and volatile players such as Craig Bellamy and Lee Bowyer. Again though, like with Keegan, it was clear that transfer policy was being agreed and debated above Curbishley's head. Having Anton Ferdinand sold without his approval to Sunderland, he thought that was the end of this year's transfer affairs, only for George McCartney to follow Ferdinand to the north-east. Curbishley tendered his resignation shortly afterwards.

Finally, there's the link between the latest company begging for funds to keep it afloat and the world's biggest club, the insurance giant AIG and Manchester United. Manchester United's huge financial debt is probably more well-known than that of Newcastle or West Ham's. Having been bought by the US magnate Malcom Glazer in 2005, the club now owes creditors an astonishing £764m. Far from purchasing the club on his own terms, Glazer borrowed at least £374m from various financial institutions to finance the deal, including £152m which is now owed to hedge funds. The more sentimental, and dare I say it, fans that didn't arrive within the last two decades furiously protested the deal, which resulted in the setting up of FC United, on the model of AFC Wimbledon after the Dons were cynically moved from London to Milton Keynes. The deal with AIG to sponsor United came after the contract with Vodafone was tore up by the Glazers, on the rationale that more money could be obtained in a further attempt to lessen the debt taken on by the Glazers to buy the club. The deal with AIG that could potentially now be in doubt was a four-year contract worth £56.5m.

There is though one difference between football's bubble and the other bubbles which are so obviously being pricked all around us: football's is unlikely to pop just yet in its entirety. The takeover of Manchester City and the purchase of Robinho is evidence of that, and while West Ham may yet be sold, there will be doubtless another whole gaggle of potential suitors lining up to takeover, as there apparently is at Newcastle. As long as fans continue to buy their season tickets and they continue to buy their subscriptions to Sky and now also to Setanta, it seems that the already mindboggling wages paid to players and the top managers will continue to grow expotentially. Football may well be the circus of our time, but no one seems to want to throw the Premier League to the lions yet, recession and credit crunch or not.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008 

Weekend links.

Torygraph has an animal-centred pictures of the week.

Pollyanna T remains deluded about Labour's chances at the next election, although she's completely right that we don't need yet another centrist party - Clegg's Liberal Democrats.

Paul Linford thinks that Labour might at last be setting out some sort of vision. I think that's rather optimistic too.

Though Cowards Flinch - Rebels without a cause. David Semple on the latest sad parade of no-hopers challenging Brown while offering no actual alternative.

This week's questions answered by Chris Dillow.

David Semple again - Death to Jade Goody

Anton Vowl presents the Richard Littlejohn drinking game.

Wardman Wire - This paedomania must end.

Matthew Parris argues unusually poorly that Labour must end compassion.

The Scum gives the Islamist moron Anjem Choudary the air of publicity, then demands that he be deported from the country he was presumably born in for daring to say things that no one other than his band of pathetic followers and likely MI5 would have known about had they not decided to bring it to public attention.

Flying Rodent - ZaNu-Labour's Elitist Contempt For The Hard-Working British Coward

Jihadica - On the letters Zawahiri apparently sent to the Islamic State of Iraq.

Finally, the Daily Maybe and Douglas Johnson cover Sarah Palin's in equal measure hilarious and terrifying first media interviews.

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Friday, September 12, 2008 

Mutilating the corpse.

First things first - despite all the hype and spin, not necessarily down to Gordon Brown himself, but over enthusiastic briefers desperate to try and turn the corner and resorting to hyperbole, the "relaunch package", if it was ever meant to be one, has been an utter disaster. First the feeble attempts to get the housing market moving again when the only thing the government should be doing is to ensure that the fall in prices does not turn into a rout were rightly derided, then yesterday's utterly pitiful package of methods meant to deal with the rise in electric and gas bills fell apart with 24 hours, and as usual, was typically summed up by Steve Bell. With the energy companies warning they will indeed pass the cost onto the consumer and thumb their noses ever harder at everyone other than their shareholders, Downing Street is probably bitterly regreting not enforcing a windfall tax, which could have at least gone towards real across the board help which might have made something approaching a difference.

Brown then still has his reverse midas touch in full effect, with everything turning to shit the moment he looks at it; touching isn't even required. This hasn't though resulted, until today, in anything approaching an uprising against him. Some of those who previously looked as though they might have overthrown him during the summer holiday have instead fallen back and at the least decided to give him the benefit of the doubt until the end of the conference season. Charles Clarke's intervention last week, where he offered absolutely nothing other than a irrelevant reappraisal of Blairism, was dismissed and forgotten by the beginning of this week, such was the lack of gravitas which the former home secretary now suffers from.

In fact, Clarke's failure to articulate what Labour should be doing which it is not now seems to be a symptom that all those that want Brown to stand down now or to face a leadership challenge appear to share. No one could have probably predicted that it would be a whip that would be the next to speak out against Brown, but it could have been what views the individual that did has previously had and still has now. No surprises then that Siobhain McDonagh, formerly PPS to the ultra-Blairite thug John Reid has herself not once voted against the government (perhaps not quite true - it appears she voted moderately against the smoking ban, or at least wasn't there for a couple of votes). Some might see such blind sycophancy as an asset - others, considering the very worst excesses of New Labour, will see it as both tragic and nauseating.

Like with those that have given their names to an article in tomorrow's Progress magazine, which is of course the official Blairite journal, McDonagh doesn't offer anything even approaching an alternative way forward for Labour. They all want Brown to establish a "narrative" that will get us through the credit crunch, but they themselves don't want to articulate what it is. Their only suggestion is that Brown himself is not up to task, and must stand down and be replaced by someone equally ill-prepared to do anything other than sink further into the sand.

When considering what is such an alarming lack of lucidity and rigour, I can't help but be reminded of something that Alastair Campbell mentions in his diaries when it came to the media attacking Stephen Byers. They weren't just satisfied that they'd succeeded in killing him - i.e. by forcing his resignation - they had to desecrate and mutilate the corpse as well. So it is with the Labour party at the moment. They aren't just satisfied that they've completely destroyed it, probably as an electoral force for a generation if not for good through the disaster of Blairism, they want to gouge out its eyes and jump up and down on its brain as well. How else can you possibly account for such a pointless exercise as changing the leader yet again? Getting rid of Brown will not save the Labour party, especially when no one in it apart from the likes of Cruddas and the smarter brains of Compass when they're not devising windfall taxes has any idea as to what needs to be done to at least begin rebuilding general support, but it will further show the public that all the party cares about is infighting. Cutting one head off the corpse and replacing it with another, whether it's Miliband's or anyone else's, will not reconnect the blood flow. The one thing that might staunch the blood loss is a change in policies - but not a single one of those calling for Brown to go has suggested a single one that needs to be changed. They've brought Labour this low and they still don't get it. They are the problem - not the solution.

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Not everything the Sun does is instantly condemnable...

Considering that I'm probably one of the Sun newspaper's most trenchant critics, it deserves to be said that today's front page splash on a party held at Holloway prison is a fully justified and shaming incident which really ought to raise wider questions about what those in authority in such institutions really think is and is not acceptable. The fact that it was a Halloween party adds to the incredulity, but honestly, when is any sort of officer-approved party apart from perhaps at Christmas or when someone long suspected to be innocent is finally released acceptable, especially when it involves the other inmates apparently being neglected so that it could be monitored?

Apart from no doubt further disgusting the relatives of those killed by some of those featured in the photograph, it will also further push the idea that prisons themselves are cushy establishments where punishment is often the last thing that takes place in them. The fact that is often as far from the truth as it's possible to get - with women's prisons especially often filled with the mentally ill and the drug addicted, where self-harm and suicide attempts are an everyday occurrence - is ever harder to argue when such evidence of largesse, insensitivity and downright stupidity by those meant to be in charge comes to light. For once you can't possibly blame Jack Straw for reacting instantly to a headline, ordering that any such incidents be shelved immediately.

There must be some credit paid to the Sun also - the paper could have really gone to town with such an exclusive if it had wished to - instead only publishing this rather mild in the circumstances leader comment:

KILLERS go to jail for punishment.

They are not banged up to enjoy fancy dress parties.

The sight of convicted murderers having a Halloween knees-up in Holloway prison will heap untold anguish on their victims’ relatives.

A civilised nation will be astonished at this lax regime — at taxpayers’ expense.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw must take charge today by cancelling plans for any more parties in jails.

And sacking whoever was responsible.

Very little that can be disagreed with.

It would be remiss though not to comment also on this latest apology from the Sun, even if it is to a former highly unpleasant Big Brother contestant:

WE would like to make clear Big Brother contestant Alexandra De Gale was not issued with a six-month restraining order by Croydon Magistrates, has never physically threatened former colleague Laura Barnes or any of her family and is not involved in a relationship with Courtney Hutchinson nor any other member of the PDC gang as we reported on June 7.

We apologise for the mistake.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008 

Those new Tories.

All this week the Guardian has been treating us to a series of articles on the "new Tories". It's very tempting to dismiss the entire idea immediately out of hand, as has been New Labour's execrable policy, and to go by the briefing from such socialist luminaries as James Purnell, this is still the emphasis which the party is going to continue with. It's true that by no means has the Conservative party had anything approaching the reflective soul-searching which resulted in the New Labour project, nor has there been such a decisive if shallow message that the party has changed akin to the abandoning of Clause 4.

Such gestures however have not been necessary because of Labour's incompetence and failure to learn from its mistakes. When considering the new Conservatives, what has to be remembered first of all is that it was a very old Conservative policy, the promise to abolish tax on inheritance for all but the very richest estates which catapulted the Conservatives back into the opinion poll lead, bringing Gordon Brown's short-lived honeymoon to an abrupt end. Ever since it has been one disaster and fiasco following another, combined with the economic downturn which has made Labour so incredibly unpopular. While many now see David Cameron as the best man to lead the country, what has not been shown is that same country is in any sense agreeing with the party's solutions - rather, they have become fed up to the back-teeth with a Labour party that has become socially authoritarian, economically illiterate and which has abandoned any attempts at deciding what it stands for or, more pertinently, who it stands for.

The tension, disengagement and pessimism which this has cast on whom should be the party's natural supporters was evident at this week's TUC conference. The unions are now according to some reports funding the party by up to 90% - accordingly, you would imagine that such influence would be causing the party to shift leftwards. Instead, if anything, the party is more craven and broken when it comes to addressing big business than it has ever been. While I personally do not believe that the case for a windfall tax on the energy companies' gross profits has been made, you would have expected that the party could have wrung far more concessions from them than they actually did. Instead what Brown has delivered has been little more feeble than the supposed attempt to get the housing market restarted. While that was a futile exercise, no one can possibly describe reducing the bills of the poorest and elderly this winter in such a way. Really sticking in the claw though is that there is both mass public and media support for taking on the energy companies - whilst the Daily Mail might not have supported a windfall tax, it has been just as angry if not angrier than papers on the left as what it sees as the obscene profiteering and greed in the City, and would have been livid if the companies had attempted to pass the costs back onto the consumer. With Brown's proposals, any chance of there being a simply response if they do exactly that is unlikely to say the least.

There was though another incident at the TUC conference that did show that the Conservative attempt to sell itself as new is only worth so much, and that was Harriet Harman's announcement of yet another quango to investigate social mobility. It wasn't that though but rather than an article went round beforehand which used the "c" word which so exercised Theresa May. You can expect the Torygraph to start screeching about class war, but for Theresa May to do so in almost the exact same language when her own party is currently trying to sell the idea that it believes in greater equality and is the real "progressive" party was pure chutzpah. The real issue is that Labour has long since abandoned calling a spade a spade; whilst the Mail, as Dave Osler points out shouts from the roof-tops about the middle class and the Torygraph invents the "coping classes" to laughably describe its readers, mention or allude to the working class and suddenly we're back to the class war. This is partly because all the main political parties have liked to pretend for some time that we are all bourgeois now, or come up with euphemisms or other identifying features to target voters, but it's also because few of them even seem to want the working class vote, or if they do, to say that they do. Class, above gender, race, sexual orientation or anything else is the main signifier of how you will get on in life and where you will get in it. Labour has demonstratively failed to improve social mobility, but for May then to suggest that Harman also hasn't done anything to tackle gender inequality when she only recently announced plans for positive discrimination, even if you don't agree with it, is plainly churlish.

This is where the idea of the new Tories so falls down. It's not that Cameron and his supporters don't mean what they say - they plainly do, and it's not that he's a shallow salesman, which he is, but then so was Blair. It's that their ideas are contradictory, flawed and less likely to work than Labour's. Jonathan Rutherford and Jon Cruddas have effortlessly identified this in their "Is the future Conservative?" essay from the pamphlet of the same name (PDF). First Cameron repudiated Thatcher by saying there is such a thing as society - it's just not the same thing as the state, then they moved on past questioning the economic position of society, which was not in the position it is now, to instead challenge the breakdown in society, or as they call it, the broken society. In fact, the Conservatives have hardly anything approaching an economic policy, with their only real commitment to "share the proceeds of growth". When Northern Rock failed, the Conservatives didn't have any idea how to respond, except to oppose nationalisation and attempt to paint Labour's delayed decision to as another throwback to Old Labour. Along with this has been their supposed commitment to "making education an adventure, giving children ‘the chance to take risks, push boundaries and test themselves outside their comfort zone’", whilst supporting the academy project which in most areas is doing the exact opposite of this with their almost regimental emphasis on discipline, curriculum, uniform and conformity. Just read the horrifying description of the Evelyn Grace academy in Brixton in today's Grauniad, which sounds almost Orwellian with its slogans of "excellence, endeavour and self-discipline" on posters on the walls. Their decision to recognise marriage in the tax system, with up to £20 a week being the mooted break being given, is both cynical and an incredibly simple non-solution to what is an incredibly complex problem. They have also increasingly moved from so-called compassionate conservatism or Cameron's own description of himself as a liberal Conservative to the old hectoring against the feckless and overweight, whether from Cameron himself or even less subtly from Andrew Lansley. And finally, whilst trying to suggest that they are the new progressives, the new intake of Conservative candidates for parliament are profoundly socially conservative, with their solutions to the "broken society" also being even more punitive than Labour's criminal justice policies.

Cameron has succeeded because he has adopted the language of empathy, of insecurity and of change. He has abandoned the "Continuity IDS" faction while still managing to take them along with him, much like Blair took the wider left along with him in their desire for power. The comparison is apt because rather than being genuinely new Tories, Cameron's Conservatives are instead the unapologetic new Blairites, able to do what only Blair and the even more Blair than Blair Blairites dreamed of doing. The only point on which I disagree with Rutherford and Cruddas is that they suggest the future is for the left to lose. On the contrary, the left has already lost. The Labour party has shifted so far to the right, and indeed, is controlled by those on the centre-right that it is simply impossible to believe that it could ever readjust to the policies which Cruddas and Rutherford propose in response to the new Conservatives. The sooner that the left realises that the Labour party is dead the sooner it will be able to challenge the new consensus which exists between the old new Labour and the new Blairite Conservatives.

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Crying over spilt liquid part 4.

Almost certainly the last post on this for now, but Lewis Page over on El Reg has written an excellent piece going into great detail on why the liquid bombs plot in his opinion was viable. Considering that he was a mine clearance diving officer and knows his stuff and I on the other hand have never so much as touched a chemistry set, I'll more than take his word for it.

There are of course still considerations to take into account though. There was, as we know, no evidence they had concocted a viable bomb, although Sarwar does seem to have boiled down the hydrogen peroxide to the right dilution. That still doesn't mean that it necessarily would have exploded - I would have expected they would have wanted to test it first, something more feasible than testing the bombs which the 7/7 and 21/7 attackers made. Considering it took the boffins as Page calls them 30 attempts it wouldn't be surprising if Sarwar had to make a similar number of efforts before getting it right, and even then it wouldn't be certain that he would have got it right for every single one of the devices they were going to make. It has to be remembered that Sarwar had a finite amount of HP and a finite amount of time, although he did have a decent quantity. It does also make you wonder if indeed he had failed repeatedly whether they would then have considered changing their plans to targeting something other than planes, if indeed that was what they were plotting to destroy. Again, then there's still the problem of getting through airport security, and Charlieman on Lib Con thinks this would have been potentially more difficult than Page does.

None of this affects however the trial itself, which didn't rest on their ability to make bombs - although it was certainly a matter of question whether they truly could have done, and one which most certainly needed looking into as I attempted to do - but on the fact that the prosecution, police and the politicians all claimed that they were to explode these bombs on aircraft causing "mass-murder on an unimaginable scale". That still was not justified, nor has it been proved in a court of law, and nor could the plotters have done so due to the amount of surveillance they were under. Exaggerated then yes, a potential threat to our liberties through over-reaction yes, but completely impossible? Definitely not.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008 

Wolves in sheep's clothing.

If you put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig. Strangely though, if you put lipstick on George W. Bush, and squint hard enough, you might just see Sarah Palin. After all, victory is coming to Eye-raq!

(In fairness to Bush, I'm not sure even he supports the teaching of creationism in schools or opposition to abortion in cases of rape or incest.)

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Crying over spilt liquid part 3.

The Crown Prosecution Service is rather unsurprisingly seeking the retrial of all 7 men in the "liquid bombs" case, on all the charges which the jury couldn't reach a verdict on. While this was always likely, the question has to be asked: what makes the CPS so certain that a second jury won't come to the same verdict if there is no new evidence presented to prove that the plot was to explode liquid bombs on aircraft? As noted ad nauseam already, the actual amount of evidence pointing towards the targeting of transatlantic flights is relatively slight. Originally this was brushed off as being down to how the police and security services had to act quickly due to the arrest of Rashid Rauf, but today a "security source" said this to the Grauniad:

"Even if [the surveillance operation] had gone on for a few more days we would not have found anything better as evidence than what was found in the first 24 hours," the source said.

This is surely either bluster or an attempt to heal the wounds with the Americans, notoriously prickly about their own counter-terror and intelligence efforts. If this plot genuinely was going to target aircraft, surely if the plotters had purchased tickets or had all received their passports that would have made a huge difference to the prosecution case. As it is, one jury has already failed to be convinced by the evidence which this source thinks couldn't have been surpassed.

To go onto more speculative territory, you have to wonder whether this case might help persuade the security services that it's time that intercept evidence was made admissible in court. Considering the breadth of the operation which was undertaken to monitor the suspects, and as yesterday's Panorama showed, this more or less entailed following the main players wherever they went, it would be difficult to believe if they hadn't been bugging their phones or otherwise. While it might not provide the ocular proof if they were as guarded as they may have been, the continuing refusal to admit such evidence becomes more and more untenable as time goes by.

Then, finally, there is Rashid Rauf himself. Does anyone honestly believe the story that he happened to escape whilst being allowed to pray in a roadside mosque, or even that the policemen were bribed into letting him go? His lawyer has suggested that he believes he might have been taken into the black hole which is the ISI's detention, but is it so outlandish to imagine that he might have instead been transferred into US custody and is now languishing in one of their remaining black sites? A few years back that could of easily been dismissed as a fanciful conspiracy theory, but can we completely rule it out now? The lack of condemnation from our side, despite our apparent willingness to arrest two separtists which the Pakistan government requested in return for Rauf might speak volumes. Then again, perhaps Occam's Razor should be applied until there is any compelling evidence to prove otherwise.

We should of course wait and see what this second jury decides. If they do reach the same lack of a verdict which the first did, it will then be highly significant what decision is then taken as to what should be done with them. More compelling evidence could potentially still be revealed. It's hard not to imagine however that if a second jury "fails" in the same way which the first did, that it may well mean the introduction of the very measures which Peter Clarke so boastfully but also sinisterly mentioned we had not yet resorted to yesterday.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008 

Crying over spilt liquid continued.

You'd have to say that the response to the ignominious end of the "liquid bomb" plot trial has been little short of remarkable. I've just finished watching the Panorama special on the plotters, produced with an incredible amount of co-operation with both the police and the security services, which was most likely sitting there waiting to be shown as soon as the jury reached their decision, no doubt hastily re-edited yesterday and today to be in line with the conviction of only three and then not for conspiracy to cause murder through explosions on planes.

It, like almost all the rest of the media, didn't question in any great detail the idea that the plotters could have pulled off the plans that we're told they had in mind, because again, there was little to no evidence presented that they themselves knew what the targets were going to be, and very little dispute that they were almost ready to go. The evidence for the targeting of planes amounts to, as mentioned yesterday, the fact that one of plotters had downloaded information of transatlantic flights to his memory stick, the details from the diary which suggested getting the devices through security, most likely airport security, and that two of the plotters were heard discussing different holiday destinations in line with which were the most popular for British tourists. The questioning of the readiness of the devices themselves amounted to the presenter Peter Taylor asking a government scientist whether what the suspects planned was possible. Mindful of his words and being as non-committal as possible, he said yes, and said that it would have been possible to blow an airplane out of the sky with one of the bombs in a bottle.

Just in case we didn't get that, shown on news bulletins throughout the day on the BBC has been their own experiment using a bomb apparently made to the same specifications being placed inside the hull of an aircraft. It explodes, and punctures the hull successfully, which you can see here. The problem with this is the same as with the other government tests shown to the jury: that these are professionals with experience of what they're doing with the best available materials. It also doesn't take into account the circumstances in which the bombers would be working: the bomb made for the BBC appears to have been put together almost on the spot, something that the bombers would not have done. As Charlieman points out on Liberal Conspiracy, TATP is incredibly volatile and begins to degrade very quickly. This was part of the reason why the 21/7 bombers' devices failed. The liquid bomb plot would have involved even higher dilutions of the hydrogen peroxide, increasing drastically the danger of it going off prematurely while also decreasing its "shelf-life". Additionally, it's by no means certain that such a bomb on board an aircraft would even then have the catastrophic consequences which the police and politicians claimed it would: only recently we saw the consequences of the explosive decompression on the Qantas flight, which managed to land safely. An even worse ED was suffered on Aloha Airlines Flight 243, which also managed to land with the loss of just one person and injuries to 60 others. One of the few other new facts added by the Panorama documentary was that Sarwar, the alleged bomb maker, had successfully boiled down some of the HP to the right dilution. Again though, the programme didn't bother to point that the bombs had still to assembled, that they had not constructed a viable device and that when you consider the difficulty involved in doing so they were still a long way from creating just one, let alone the 7 which the prosecution claimed there would be.

It isn't just however the security services and the police that found the verdict of the jury "astonishing", as spooks' friend Frank Gardner put it, it's also been sections of the media who are incredulous at them not convicting all the men for their obvious murderous ambitions. The Times for one went absolutely overboard, not just enlisting Peter Clarke for an tendentious article on how the "surveillance society" works just wonderfully, but also their lead article, which includes this nugget:

The jury’s indecision in the face of a detailed Crown case raises questions about the public perception of the terror threat that could undermine government attempts to introduce further security legislation.

They just don't seem to get it, do they? You could apply that reasoning to both the hacks and the public. We're told by the Times, Peter Clarke and the security services that this was "strong evidence", "a detailed Crown case" and "the strongest terrorism case ever presented to a court", but they seem to have started believing their own hype. Yes, there was a very strong case here for the men being involved in some sort of terrorist plot, which is why three of them have been convicted of conspiracy to murder, and will likely be sentenced to very long terms of imprisonment, in line with the likes of Dhiren Barot, who had even more laughable plans than those of the non-existent ricin crew. There was however very little hard evidence that planes were the targets, as has been discussed. What seems to have happened is similar to that in cases of miscarriages of justice: the briefers have been out briefing and the journalists' sources have been whispering furiously into ears about the obvious guilt of those on trial, and when it doesn't go according to plan, they respond by blaming everyone other than themselves, with the journalists also flummoxed.

Hence along with the Americans getting the blame for ordering the arrest of Rauf, also being fingered are the jury themselves. The fact that there was a two-week break in proceedings for holidays, that some members of the jury were sick and otherwise is regarded as significant enough to be commented upon, especially by the Daily Mail, referring to it as a "farce". That those involved have given up nearly six months of their lives to hear an incredibly difficult case and then have to come up with a verdict is of no consequence; since they've come to the wrong one they're apparently fair game. They're also hardly likely to be able to defend themselves, as the only jury members I can recall speaking out recently were some of those involved in the ricin case after those acquitted were subjected to control orders, and then some of those involved in the original case involving Barry George, who had changed their minds over time.

It's perhaps a little over-the-top to be concerned immediately about the prospect of jury trials in terrorist cases being curtailed as a result of this verdict, but what if another jury also fails to find the men guilty of conspiring to cause explosions on planes? As the Times also reports, the man completely acquitted of all the charges, Mohammed Gulzar, is now likely to be given a control order. That's justice for you: a jury finds you not guilty but the state with its secret evidence tribunals disregards that entirely. I'm sure I won't be the only one to find potential menace also in the words of Peter Clarke, especially in these two paragraphs:

Take this case. To save the lives of the innocent and convict the would-be killers we used all the tools in the security armoury. Deeply intrusive surveillance, informants, CCTV, DNA, telephone call data and so on. This was not about collecting information for its own sake - it was to secure evidence to put before a court.

Some critics fail to understand that sophisticated, modern evidence gathering has allowed the most complex terrorist conspiracies to be tried in our criminal courts in front of a jury. No need for military commissions or the juryless Diplock courts of Northern Ireland.

And yet despite all of this evidence the jury were still failed to be convinced that planes were the targets. In any event, what Clarke is describing is a false dichotomy between surveillance and security; nothing that the police did broke the current rules as they were, and in fact, in their breaking into the "bomb factory" and planting bugs and live cameras they were using the oldest tricks in the book. It's the implication though in the second paragraph which both needles and worries. To begin with, it's not as if we're some wonderful place where every alleged terrorist is subjected to a court trial: just above we mentioned that Gulzar is likely to be given a control order, where the evidence against him will be heard in secret and not given to his lawyers. It wasn't so long back that we were locking foreign suspects up indefinitely without charge, and Clarke himself was at the forefront of pushing for support for 42 days detention without charge. What though if ever more complex cases keep coming before juries and they keep failing to reach the "correct" result? Are we really so potentially far away from military commissions or Diplock style courts? After all, juries in some fraud trials are already mooted to be abolished. Just how many more cases like yesterday's will it take before populist politicians with an eye on the standard of debate in the tabloids decide that this "farce" should be brought to an end?

Clarke continues:

And what if we had failed? What if the prosecution case was right, and half a dozen American airliners were to be brought down by British terrorists, operating from Britain and in effect using the UK as a launch pad for an attack on the United States? What would have happened to the UK and indeed the global economy? What would the impact have been on UK/US relations? What about the pressure it would have placed on Muslims in the UK? A very senior politician, at the time of the arrests, told me he thought it could have led to a breakdown in the community cohesion that had survived the attacks in 2005.

But these are all suppositions. The security services and police had been aware of these men and were documenting their every movement. There was never the slightest possibility they were going to be allowed to even take the first steps towards actually carrying out an atrocity. The only reason the arrests were brought forward was because of Rauf's arrest, and the possibility of the disruption of the plot. Less plausible is something Clarke says at the beginning of the article:

More worrying still, if they were tipped off to the arrest they might panic and mount a desperate attack.

As we have seen though, the devices simply weren't anywhere near ready, and even if they had the right amounts of diluted HP, there's still no indication that their attempts at constructing the bombs in full would have been any more successful than the government scientists' ones. And please, Clarke really should spare us the spurious concern for community cohesion: he was directly involved in the Forest Gate raid, which did more damage to the rapport with British Muslims and the actions of some in their communities than anything else has.

Should the restrictions now be lifted on liquids then, as Virgin Atlantic has called for? While as I've attempted to document, the dangers are vastly overstated and the problems involved in creating liquid explosives are manifold, I still think it's probably right for the moment for caution to be erred on, although the limit could perhaps be lifted from 100ml bottles to 250ml or above, and the idea that babies' bottles could be used is ridiculous.

Most of all however, the conclusion of this case should not cause panic amongst politicians or security agencies as to whether the public has become blase towards the terrorist threat. They clearly haven't. What is apparent however is that many are increasingly concerned about the febrile exaggeration of such cases, including this one and the claims of mass-murder on an unimaginable scale which simply are not backed up by the facts, and which is often for short-term political gain. The Panorama documentary also completely established that John Reid had long been aware of the "plot", meaning that his speech damning civil libertarians for not getting it just the day before the arrests was cynicism of the absolute worst kind. We don't like it when concerns about terrorism lead jumped-up police officers and community support staff to order people not to take photographs of public buildings, and we also don't like it when the threat of terror is used wholesale to justify the removal of ever more liberties, as the failure to reach a verdict in this trial could yet do. There is a terrorist threat, but it's not going to lead to the demise of this nation, and it doesn't even begin to amount to the that posed either by the Nazis in 1940 or to the Soviet Union during the height of the cold war. The same newspapers and media which want us to be scared are the same ones, ironically, that want us at the same time to have Churchillian resolve in the face of it. We need neither, and that has to be emphasised.

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Murdoch for McCain.

It's interesting to note that the New York Post, essentially the American version of the Sun, has today endorsed McCain for the presidency. It's something of a surprise, mainly because it's come so early, with the election still two months away, and also because of Murdoch's flirting with Obama. The Sun notably has lavished great praise on Obama, while little has been written of McCain. It took the vice-presidential choice of Sarah Palin to excite the tabloid to any extent.

As always with Murdoch, self-interest is paramount. He recently commented that he had preferred Obama to Hillary for the Democratic nomination because he would sell more newspapers. The emergence of Palin may now have affected that equation: it would be interesting to see whether newspaper sales shot up last week in line with the huge amount of chatter which the choice of Palin launched online. We also have to keep in mind that Murdoch backs winners; again, up until the picking of Palin, McCain's campaign looked dead in the water. Since then it's been re-energised, with the latest Gallup polls showing him getting a huge bounce from the RNC, and taking a large lead. A one off perhaps, but something that may well have affected Murdoch's thinking.

More likely though is that Murdoch made his decision based on two things that the NYP also lists as the most important factors: national security and taxes. We all know about Murdoch's views on the Iraq war, and the "success" (mostly down to the Awakening movements, with the other insurgent groupings turning on AQI/ISI) of the surge, which McCain backed to the hilt, and we also know that Obama has promised to cut the taxes of the poor and middle classes, while McCain has turned away from his former denouncing of the Bush tax cuts for the rich to now support them.

As one of the commenters on Greenslade's piece notes, the early announcing of who the NYP is backing is probably down to the uncertainty of who is going to win. If in two months' time Obama triumphs, it'll most likely pretend that this never happened. If McCain wins, then it'll probably be the NYP that wot won it. Whatever happens, Murdoch is as ever, likely to prosper.

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Monday, September 08, 2008 

Crying over spilt liquid.

There will be more than a few surprised people tonight, both in the media and outside it, at the verdict reached by the jury in the "liquid explosives" trial. The case, after all, had been presented, as George Tenet famously said, as a "slam-dunk". Here were 8 Muslim extremists, caught red-handed with quantities of hydrogen peroxide, used by both the 7/7 and 21/7 bombers in their attacks, having recorded "martyrdom videos" and with apparent plans for the blowing up mid-flight of an unspecified number of transatlantic planes. There were shrieks of initial incredulity then horror from the press, all liquids in containers above 100ml were banned from planes as a precaution, with mothers having to taste their babies' milk, apparently as a result of claims that the bombers were prepared to blow up their children and use their bottles as containers for the explosives, and from both the police and the politicians, accusations and boasts that they had successfully foiled mass-murder on a grand scale.

Two years later and at the end of the £10,000,000 trial, just three of the suspects have been convicted of conspiracy to murder, and even then not on aircraft. One man has been acquitted altogether, while five others will most likely face a retrial after the jury failed to reach a verdict on their charges of conspiracy to murder. Already we have those with close contacts with the spooks being highly defensive: Frank Gardner on the BBC more or less suggesting that the security services were outraged that the jury had failed to reach the right verdict. The Sun tomorrow has a very similar, defensive editorial from what I've seen.

All of which brings to mind the fiasco of the "ricin" trial, where as everyone now knows, there was no ricin, and where only Kamel Bourgass, who murdered a police officer whom was attempting to arrest him, was convicted of any conceivable plot. The analogy is not quite right, because while the ricin plot was laughable and absurd, this one was clearly not, and what else is clear is that at least the three today convicted of conspiracy to murder were deadly serious. What is similar is that both appeared to have ideas way beyond their station, that they imagined they could pull off an incredibly dastardly and fiendish, murderous plot, despite their own inadequacies and lack of training.

If you examine the actual prosecution against the men somewhat closer, it soon becomes apparent that the case for planes to be blow up in mid-air was if not completely weak, hardly robust. For all the surveillance work that was undertaken on the men, which seems to have amounted to hundreds of hours, they don't seem to have at any point caught them directly discussing the plot, let alone the idea that they were going to blow up planes, or if they did, we don't seem to have been given the access to it which the jury was. The only evidence that convincingly points towards airplanes being the target was the flight times which were found on a memory stick in one of the men's possession, and the diary notes made by the alleged ringleader, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, that give the impression that the materials which were to make the bomb were to be smuggled through security at airports. It's little wonder that the jury failed to reach a verdict, as such evidence was hardly likely to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt of their guilt, as the prosecution and security services surely knew.

There have been reasons from the very beginning to doubt that even if the plot was to mirror that of Project Bojinka, dreamed up by Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that these individuals would have been any more successful than Yousef in their attempts. The story at first was that the ingredients for the bombs were to be taken on the planes and mixed in the toilets, which was quickly laughed at by scientists for its impracticability. Instead what the prosecution set out to prove was that the bombs were instead to be manufactured at the flat beforehand, then smuggled onto the planes in soft drinks bottles, before being detonated mid-flight using hollowed-out batteries filled with the explosive HMTD, with cameras or mp3 players used as the power source. To this end the prosecution showed the jury film of government experts detonating bombs to this specification, and as could be expected, they packed a mighty wallop. Those videos were replayed again today, accompanied by an American video of an aircraft being torn apart by an explosion, supposedly again via similar explosives, although no real explanation about this test was given. What was not as well reported by the media was the fact that the explosives expert giving evidence admitted that it had taken them over 30 attempts to construct a viable bomb, and that the one they showed had been one of a series, doubtless the most powerful. They also had to admit that the components were so volatile that the detonator had to be added by mechanical arm, rather than by a human, lest the mixture go off in their faces.

As I wrote at the time that this evidence was given:

So, as yesterday, this is the experts who know what they're doing using the exact same materials as the rank amateurs were meant to, and the danger of rather than explosives blowing up a plane but instead going off in the face of the bomb-maker was so great that the detonator had to be inserted using a remote-controlled machine. We're meant to assume that if this plot was going to come to fruition that the 8 men were going to overcome the volatility of the materials they were using, something the experts couldn't, succeed in smuggling the bombs onto an airplane without the explosives going off prematurely on the journey to the airport and then the plane, and then again manage, after fully constructing the bomb, to detonate it without anyone else noticing what they were up to with an explosion so successful that it would result in the deaths of everyone on board.

Additionally, the prosecution also admitted that no viable bomb had been constructed by the men, although this was supposedly only a matter of time.

Quickly, now that the trial has reached a somewhat ignominious end, the security services are searching for an acceptable reason other than the over-egging and exaggeration of the plot. Being fingered are the Americans, for upsetting the applecart in the first place. It was they who apparently ordered the Pakistanis to arrest Rashid Rauf, who is alleged to have links to al-Qaida, and who is wanted here in connection with the murder of an uncle. This arrest apparently either would have alerted the bombers to the unravelling of the plot, and so have gone forward with it, despite the apparent lack of readiness, with some of the proposed bombers not having passports, and with no viable bomb actually constructed, or would have led to them destroying the evidence. Indeed, some have suggested that there was a message received from Pakistan for the bombers to "go now", again despite their inability to be able to do so. The difficulty in confirming this version of events is obvious: Rashid Rauf mysteriously "escaped" from custody in December last year, although the charges against him had already been thrown out.

For all these reasons it was prudent to be sceptical about the ability of the men to carry out such a complicated and spectacular attack. Again, there have been repeated accusations of links to al-Qaida, with Ali apparently in Pakistan at the same time as Mohammed Siddique Khan and the ringleader of the 21/7 attacks, but this is hardly conclusive evidence of al-Qaida membership. Despite the success of 9/11, al-Qaida has generally stuck to the tried-and-tested lone bomber or car/truck suicide attack. The difficulties with replicating such tactics here are that the explosives which make those attacks so relatively simple and cheap to pull off are not readily available. The fertiliser bomb plot has been the only recently foiled terror attack which was to involve the more conventional ammonium nitrate. The 7/7 and 21/7 attacks instead involved the boiling of hydrogen peroxide and mixing with other household items to create either TATP or HMTD, both of which are extremely volatile, especially when boiled to the dilution required for the bombs to pack a large enough punch at 500ml. The plotters did have decent quantities of hydrogen peroxide, probably well beyond what they needed for 8 500ml containers. We also now know that they had apparently sought out other targets, including nuclear sites. al-Qaida generally prides itself on its technical abilities; if this was their doing, would they really have been so set on a Project Bojinka style plot where it was by no means certain that it could be pulled off, especially with hydrogen peroxide rather than nitroglycerin? Why not instead go in for a repeat of the 7/7 attacks, or step it up slightly and go for a car bomb targeting another soft target, like the Glasgow airport attackers, but with actual explosives?

All of this ought to have sown doubts in the minds of the jurors over the bombers' intentions. Just to stress again, it's clear that some of these men were potentially highly dangerous, especially those convicted of conspiracy to murder. They were certainly takfirist jihadists, or at least some of them were. Again, this is undermined somewhat by the doubt over just how far the plot had gone along: only one will was found, and the prosecution only seem to have said that Ali was certain to die in the attacks. If they hadn't been arrested or been under surveillance, they may well have gone on to take part in an attack which could have killed innocent people.

Once again though, it's difficult not to be shocked by the incompetence, arrogance, egotism and extreme exaggeration which took place both before and after the disruption of the "plot". It's worth remembering that just the day before John Reid had delivered a speech ridiculing civil libertarians as not getting it, when he most certainly knew that very night that raids were going to be taking place to bring the accused in. He and police officers then delivered bloodcurdling claims that this was to be "mass murder on an unimaginable scale", already potentially affecting the possibility of the men getting a fair trial. As Craig Murray notes, the most diabolical hyperbole was spread about the men potentially killing their children and using babies' bottles, when this was nonsense as the trial showed. All along, they knew just how weak the case was but are now most likely again likely to blame the jury instead of themselves. Then there's the media, which swallowed wholesale from the very beginning the whole idea that such an attack involving liquid explosives was possible, even while experts were disputing it. The coverage of the trial was an absolute joke, as evidenced by my attempts to get to the bottom of the claims about the explosives themselves: different papers and sources seemed to be inclined to provide only one different fact between the lot of them, with the BBC mentioning that up to 30 attempts had been made by the experts before they succeeded, something not reported elsewhere, and the Telegraph reporting on the volatility of the bombs, while only the Press Association and the Guardian mentioned that the men had not succeeded in building a viable device. Half the reason why there will be so much surprise at the verdict is that they failed to bother to report almost any of the defence case apart from the stunt and documentary one. Even much of the prosecution case was ignored.

Some will doubtless argue that if the men had been left longer more damning evidence would have emerged against the men. Most likely it would. That still however leaves the open quandary of the expertise needed for viable bombs to be made, which further gives the impression that they may well have abandoned the Bojinka style plot further down the line, if indeed they had at any point planned to blow up aircraft. None of this however justifies the politicising of the raid by New Labour at the time, the idiotic and reprehensible briefings which accompanied it about the casualties that would have been involved, and the general assuming of guilt which is now common place in terrorist cases. It has to be remembered that cases like this are the ones being used to further dilute our own liberty, the apparently limitless amounts of information which the group had pointed to for why 42 days or longer is needed, all without there being anything approaching a real, immediately dangerous plot being disrupted. We have comprehensively failed to keep the terrorist threat in perspective: it's true that we have to be lucky all the time and the terrorists only have to been lucky once, but this needs to be seen in the context of the failures which are now totting up. First 21/7, which was extremely lucky, then this plot, which was ridiculously overblown, then Abu Beavis and Abu Butthead, with no explosives but plenty of petrol and canisters. Add in Nicky Reilly and what we see are fantasists, unable to live up to their ambitions. If these are the pick of the al-Qaida crop from this country, do we really have so much to fear? It's time that we looked more realistically at the threat and demanded that the age of spin and politicising of it came to an end. Only then might we then learn more about how to more effectively fight it before the raids become necessary.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008 

Weekend links.


Bloggerheads - The Daily Mail responds to the "Julie Moult in an idiot" meme

Unity - Rounding up the peasants on the Lib Dem MP John Hemming

David Semple - Weighing in on the windfall energy tax

Lee Griffin - You can be a feminist and oppose choice, actually

Independent - Is the party over for UKIP?

Paul Linford - New Labour's prophets of doom

Chris Dillow answers this week's questions

Pollyanna T - Unseating Gordon Brown may be Labour's last chance - says the woman who previously thought that Gordon Brown was Labour's best chance

Grauniad - Carol Ann Duffy responds in verse, brilliantly, to the censoring moron who succeeded in getting one of her poems removed from GCSE English anthologies

US Presidential stuff:

Ed Pilkington on Sarah Palin's history in Alaska

Dave's Part - Sarah Palin: the British right learns how to love again. The ghastly Jon Gaunt also added to the hubbub with his paean to Palin, on how wonderful it would be if we had politicians like her.

Lenin - No, we can't - on the general rubbishness of the whole campaign

David Semple again - Town vs Country in the US election

Freemania - Majoring in soundbites

Political Punch - Palin needs time before she can answer questions from the media. Presumably she'll need the same time to acclimatise to becoming president should she and McCain be elected and something unfortunate happens to him.

Shuggy's blog - On class, prejudice and culture wars

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Friday, September 05, 2008 

Nobody screws more prostitutes than the government.

It is however still undoubtedly New Labour that holds the undisputed record for its gross and continuing addiction to unnecessary and illogical illiberalism.

So it continues to be on the intractable problem of prostitution. It wasn't so long back that the party was considering the idea of "red light zones", where prostitution would be tolerated and potentially supervised to make it less likely that sex workers would be abused, and the setting-up of "mini-brothels", where 2 or 3 women could work together and protect each other, all ideas which have now been most certainly dropped. The latter was the work of Fiona MacTaggart, who while distinctly opposed to prostitution and who wanted tougher penalties for kerb-crawlers accepted that there was no possible way the government could stamp it out, and also accepted that making the buying of sex illegal would achieve nothing in the long run except making those dependent on selling their bodies even more vulnerable and desperate. She may since have changed her views, and did previously suggest an amendment which would make buying sex illegal.

MacTaggart has since the left the government, and policy on prostitution has increasingly come under the influence of the Harriet Harman, who has made quite clear that she is much inclined towards just the policy which MacTaggart opposed. Like with all the politicians and campaigners down the ages, whether complaining about video nasties, declining moral standards or otherwise, few want to be seen as stopping adults from choosing their pursuits as they see fit. Instead, there has to either be someone or something that is being affected by the pursuit the adult chooses which can instead be used as the justification to stop it in its entirety. With video nasties it was that children were watching them and being either disturbed or corrupted by their contents. With drugs it's that they're either getting more powerful, that the side effects are increasing or that the working classes and less educated can't handle them. With prostitution they now seem to have finally found a reason why the buying of sex should be made illegal: trafficking and the resulting sex slavery.

Harman is using this exact argument and has even had an opinion poll commissioned to help back her up. It unsurprisingly found that more than half of both men and women were in favour of making buying sex illegal if it would help reduce people-trafficking. It does also though, contradictingly, show that both men and women still think that buying sex should be made completely legal, something that Harman strangely didn't emphasise. The obvious problem with this is that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that making the purchasing of sex illegal would help to decrease it; while there is some evidence which points towards the complete legalisation of prostitution increasing sex trafficking in countries where that has happened, the held-up example of Sweden offers no real definitive evidence that it has helped stem the trade. The most it suggests is that prostitution in Stockholm fell after buying sex was made illegal, which proves little as it may well just have been that prostitution had increased outside of the capital and pushed it further underground, with those practising less easy to come across.

Similarly, we also don't know just how big a problem sex trafficking actually is. While politicians have adopted the stance of making it illegal to stem this "modern-day evil of slavery", the first police operation designed to combat it, called Operation Pentameter, rescued a compartively tiny number of 88 individuals. Its follow-up, Pentameter 2, rescued a further 167. The police themselves claim that they think up to 18,000 trafficking victims might be being forced to work as prostitutes. If so, that shows that the attempts to combat it have been a miserable failure. If in fact those estimates are wildly excessive, which seems a much more reasonable assumption, then it suggests that the problem is being wildly overstated, and that it's being used a tool by those ideologically opposed to prostitution to outlaw something which they detest for moral reasons.

Harman's poll was further commissioned to come alongside a report by the Eaves charity, which runs the Poppy project. A follow up to their 2004 Sex and the City report, Big Brothel (PDF) is meant to present a realistic picture of the scale of prostitution in London. To say the entire project is incredibly biased towards prohibition would be an understatement: it calls former prostitutes who gave evidence "survivors", and in the press release (PDF) the co-author, Helen Atkins, has this to say:

It has been said that we are never more than six feet away from a rat in London. Apparently, something similar applies to brothels, places where thousands of women are regularly exploited by men who buy sex.

Instantly then we are presented with the conclusion that women are being exploited by men who buy sex. That this is far from proven, or indeed provable is no issue to either Atkins or Harman. For all the attempts of both to present the report as shocking, it in fact hardly tells you anything that most with more than a passing knowledge of the sex industry know already: that the number of different nationalities involved reflects the multicultural nature of London more than it does the idea that foreign nationals are increasingly being trafficked; that the price of penetrative sex fluctuates wildly from as little as £15 to £250; that sex without a condom costs roughly double that of protected sex; and that most premises are in residential areas with a discreet appearance. Indeed, it tries to have it both ways; prostitutes selling sex on the streets are undoubtedly in the most potential danger, yet the report suggests increasingly that off-street sex is becoming the norm, which ought to be a cause for celebration, that perhaps even without legalisation sex workers are getting together and working indoors in order to be safer. Street prostitutes are also most often those that can't work in brothels because of their drug habits; if they're becoming rarer, it perhaps brings encouragement that drug abuse and dependence is becoming less of a signifier of sex workers.

The report is aimed at taking on misconceptions, such as those arising from glamorous and unrealistic productions like Secret Diary of a Call Girl. It goes without saying that such programmes are ludicrous, and provide only a picture of the very highest realms of escort work. The reality of prostitution can be seen in almost any genuinely pornographic work, where it's more than apparent that sex is one of the least arousing activities around; there is very little that is less erotic than the idea of a woman having sex with 20 different men potentially in a day, of the pain, numbness and withdrawal from real life that has to be taken on board for such a person to survive and live from day to day.

It is however equally dangerous and also completely wrong to assume that an overwhelming majority of those involved in prostitution do not choose it, especially those from abroad, which estimates suggest now make up 80% of those in sex work. For those with families back home, it provides more money than any menial labour job will ever do, and it's one that some indeed choose to do without any coercion. The report tries to challenge the idea of this as a myth, but it fails miserably:

“Women choose prostitution.” It is a choice through lack of choice. A significant number of women involved in street prostitution were groomed as children. Many enter through marginalisation, dependencies and/or economic necessity.

But here the report is trying to have its cake and eat it. This is after all a report on prostitution within brothels, not on the streets; most street prostitutes as we have already mentioned are indeed the most vulnerable who can't work in the premises which the report is investigating. They would have undoubtedly benefited from teaming up in the way that MacTaggart proposed, or through the red light zones, but both have been dropped and are doubtless opposed by those behind this report. It sets up other straw men and then knocks them down, such as the following:

“Anti-prostitution feminists are against women in prostitution.” One of the more convincing lies coming from the pro-sex work lobby is that feminists who define prostitution as ‘abuse’ are against the women themselves. Abolitionists are supportive of women in the sex industry, but against the institution of prostitution (e.g. FCAP, 2008).

Who here after all is in denial? Those who genuinely believe that prostitution can be abolished and that define all prostituition instantly as abuse or those that realise that most feminists are unwilling to accept that those involved in pornography or prostitution are doing it out of free choice or even because they personally find it empowering? After all, it also tries to claim it's a myth that women can also exploit men as much as the men can also exploit the women; it's undoubtedly the case that prostitutes are abused, both physically and sexually whilst selling themselves but those who favour making buying sex illegal will only make this more likely and less actionable by pushing the trade further underground.

It's this that makes the stance of the government so infuriating. Full legalisation is not on the agenda, and considering the potential pitfalls of it, it's probably not anything approaching a solution in the first place. Likewise though, criminalisation of those who buy sex penalises not just the men that are not instantly exploiting the women through their lack of ability to either get into proper relationships, or those that buy it whilst married or in relationships, but also the prostitutes themselves that do choose to work in the industry and would like further protection rather than lectures from women that refuse to openly state their opposition to prostitution as a whole and hide behind the exploited in order to do so. Sex is never going to be something most are going to be able to take openly about, let alone the buying of it, but the hiding behind others, something this government has done repeatedly to quash ancient liberties, is not just politically and morally bankrupt, it's also downright cowardly.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008 

The SNP: even more socially illiberal than New Labour.

If you thought that New Labour was socially illiberal, spare a thought for those above Berwick:

Scotland is considering a ban on alcohol sales to under-21s in a bid to make "the streets safer and communities better", Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, said today.

The SNP is considering the ban on alcohol sales outside pubs and clubs as part of its legislative programme for the year ahead.

This idea is the absolute worst of all worlds. It not only discriminates against those who are above the legal drinking age but don't especially want to go out of an evening, it also instantly means that those who are even over 21 have their legal right to buy alcohol potentially curtailed if they don't bother to carry ID around with them the entire time.

In any event, most stores already operate a scheme where those who look under 21 are required to take ID with them. This on its own prevents those who are borderline-18 from being able to drink, and it's much the same in pubs and clubs. The problem with underage drinking has not been with them buying it - but with their older friends and family, including their parents buying it for them. Additionally, now these schemes are being extended even further as the moral panic about binge drinking and general youth crime continues apace - some stores are now requiring all alcohol transactions, including by those who are clearly above the age limit, to be confirmed by ID. Others have raised the age limit to those who look younger than 25 requiring ID, and not because a distinct minority of those who drink are causing trouble, but due to the cravenness of politicians to the idea that something has to be done.

Which is exactly what this is. It's ludicrous because it still means that those under 21 can go and get smashed in a pub or a club and cause potentially just as much trouble either in the venue or outside of it on the way home, but that's somehow regarded as being less bothersome than a group of teenagers daring to drink either in suburban areas or somewhere where they might be seen other than in a town centre. The obvious unfairness in this is palpable, and it's because the young are partially regarded as an easy target that this can even be considered. As someone has already said, this means that a 20-year-old who wants to buy a bottle of wine to have with his girlfriend at home while they watch a film isn't able to, but that those who go out with the intention of getting paralytic are in no way hindered. It regards all those under 21 who buy from off-licences as morons who are potentially a danger to both themselves and others, while putting no imposition on happy hour promotions or other special drinks offers which encourage people to drink more.

Similarly daft is another potential policy also still in the bill - minimum price setting by unit of alcohol. You don't need to be a polymath to realise that this means drastically increasing the price of bottles of spirits, often drank in moderation and over time, if of course you're not now too young to be able to buy one from a supermarket or off-licence. The high-strength lagers and ciders are affected, but only slightly, and as a news article pointed out, it also doesn't affect the price of Buckfast, the tonic wine which like the so-called "alcopops" has been singled out for special attention by politicians that ought to know better.

To complete the trifecta of idiotic, ineffective and illiberal social policy, the SNP also want cigarettes to be taken off general display, lest anyone see the highly seductive sight of packets of fags with "YOU WILL DIE IF YOU SMOKE THIS" in huge bold lettering on them and think it'd be a pretty wizard idea to take up the habit. This really is almost beyond parody - it does nothing whatsoever to help those who already have the habit, except to make life more difficult for both the shop-keeper/assistant in getting the brand which you want and making it take longer while they dive under the counter as if they were selling you the latest animal porn shot in Bavaria featuring blonde German maidens swallowing horse cock. What it does do however is further stigmatise the smoker, as if they weren't already demonised and isolated enough due to their filthy habit. Rather than suggest to them that they really ought to give up, all this does is promote victim status, and quite rightly too, with the person even less likely to kick the habit.

While things have not got as bad for the drinker as the smoker and are unlikely ever to, it is the senseless drip-drip of measures, always attempting to out-do the last cure-all which deeply rankles with the average person who just wants to be left alone and treated like an adult when they dare to want to imbibe intoxicating liquor. If the SNP were serious and wanted to be something approaching fair, they would raise the age limit across the board on alcohol to 21. This though is already shown to be a complete joke in America, where it is completely unenforceable, just as it would be here, ostracising the under-21s from clubs and pubs where the majority tend to drink more sensibly, and instead pushing them towards house parties where the opposite is usually the case, where the alcohol has been purchased by those old enough or those who can get away with it.

There are two measures that will help with the attitude towards alcohol which the young increasingly are characterised as having: stop perpetuating the idea that all youngsters should abstain entirely until they are 18 and instead encourage families to introduce them to alcohol as they are growing up, and that includes not going over the top when the latest figures lead the tabloids into a frenzy over the increasing numbers of the young drinking however many units a week; or, alternatively, increase the tax on alcohol as a whole across the board proportionally according to market fluctuations, i.e. increase it when it's falling and reduce it when it's rising so that the price is stable but high, while discouraging the discounting and offers in both supermarkets and pubs/clubs. If it isn't obvious, my preferred option is the former. Fundamentally though, what also needs to be examined is exactly why so many in this country drink to get drunk or similar every weekend, which can't just be put down to our attitude towards alcohol and how it differs to on the continent. That might however involve the unpleasantness of examining the daily grind for the average person and how little there is that is otherwise offered in the way of pleasure, something which no politician can ever pretend to solve with the waving of a magical, populist, but completely draconian policy.

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Lance Price and the safety elephant.

Meanwhile, over on CiF we've been treated to the comedy stylings of ex-spin doctor Lance Price, riffing on Charles Clarke:

Gordon Brown and his team have a bigger fight on their hands than they seem to realise. They cannot ignore Charles Clarke. He's a heavyweight if ever there was one.

I would at this point say in more ways than one. However, I'm unsure whether this is Price making that self-same joke and me missing it, or he confusing being morbidly obese with Clarke's complete lack of any support whatsoever.

What we are seeing is the stock response to an ex-minister who steps out of line. Brown's allies are dismissing Charles Clarke as embittered; a failure who offers no alternative solutions and is only damaging the party he claims to want to help.

But, err, he is offering no alternative solutions whatsoever. In both his interviews and in his New Statesman article he doesn't so much as mention one policy which Brown ought to institute or change, at least not directly, if we count his disapproval of Trident renewal. He undoubtedly is embittered, as he was after his defenestration by Blair also; it's just that he hates Brown a lot more than he hates Blair. All he's doing is damaging the party, reopening the wounds of early summer whilst not saying what the government should be doing to correct its course outside of the vague platitudes of stronger leadership etc. That instead has been left to Stephen Byers, who rather more constructively suggested that low-paid workers such as cleaners and catering staff should get above inflation pay increases by cutting the raises for senior executives.

If Clarke and what he represents can't be squashed, can it be squared? It may be too late by now, but Charles Clarke himself was eminently squareable for a very long time. He would have willingly returned to government or to a powerful party position in which his implicit claim to be able to chart a new and successful political direction for Labour could have been put to the test.

Except there are plenty of suggestions that Brown did offer Clarke a job or jobs, all of which he turned down. He's preferred to become the "maverick" outside the tent pissing in rather than the opposite, even when he's been fundamentally contradictory, having told Brown to (rightly) drop 42 day detention without charge for "terrorist suspects" when he himself helmed the battle to get 90 days on the statute book. His apparent feelings then against such illiberality didn't stop him from defending Blair.

Brown has been seriously considering offering a senior job to Alan Milburn, another ex-minister who shares Clarke's analysis. Only the chancellorship would do. If the offer is made and Milburn accepts we will know that the prime minister does intend to square his critics if he possibly can. The prospects are not good, however. The last time the two men tried to work together, in the run up to the 2005 election, it just ended in more acrimony.

Could that possibly be because Milburn's stewardship of the Labour campaign was widely regarded as disastrous, with Brown himself having to come in to save to day from the guy who came up with the brilliant slogan "forward, not back"? A long time ago it was, but most felt that it was through the implicit if not stated sentiment that if you voted Blair you would in fact get Brown, a soundbite which the Tories backed off of because it was actually something most were partial to, that helped towards the 60-plus majority. Milburn and Clarke had nothing to offer then and they have even less to offer now.

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Panic on the streets of London.

There was consternation today after a gang brawl involving spades, screwdrivers, bars and sticks was captured by a innocent paparazzo on his way to attempt to get a up-skirt shot of Julie Christie.

The terrifying scene, with kitchen utensils and DIY logistical tools being used for purposes far beyond their intended design has been seen as yet another vignette showcasing Britain's inexorable global decline.

Said one onlooker: "What sort of example does this set to the rest of the world? Once again we've come out bottom of everything, this time in the gang fight stakes. Where was the choreography of the great gangland battles which Los Angeles, Tokyo and Sicily have provided us with? Where were the knives and guns which the newspapers inform us every youth now has easy access to? The best we can manage is a pointed stick, a screwdriver and a Wellington boot. It's no wonder no one goes out at night any more; they're terrified of being attacked by youths armed with bits of 2 by 4 and buckets and spades from the seaside, rather than the Glocks, machetes and Uzis of our foreign cousins."

What do you think? Do you think this shows that Britain has lost its place in the great urban battles league? Do you think that I should stop attempting these feeble attempts at satire? Do you think the Daily Mail would have given a shit if this hadn't happened outside Julie Christie's house? Don't leave any messages, as I'm liable to censor them all.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008 

More shameless self-aggrandisement.

18th on the left-wing list; 60th on the full list, up from 195th last year. Major congrats also to Anton Vowl and 5cc, both of whom broke into the top 155, and Question That, who just broke into the top 200.

Again, huge thanks to everyone who voted for me. It really does almost make it all worthwhile.

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The safety elephant returns.

As much as some will deny it, a lot of us get our kicks from watching the suffering of other people. Call it schadenfreude when it involves our enemies, call it rubbernecking when we go past a road accident, call them gorehounds when they enjoy horror films or searching for the real equivalent online, call it what you will, most of us either enjoy or at the least, are fascinated and intrigued by it. Most of us however don't get the urge to join in with the activities, or want to be in the car accident.

Charles Clarke seems to be one of the individuals who lives in this vicarious fashion. He's never seen a battle involving the Labour party and also Gordon Brown that he hasn't wanted to join in on. Early last year he along with Alan Milburn launched the incredibly short lived 20:20 vision site, which many saw straight away as being an attempt to flush out a "modernising" candidate to challenge Gordon Brown's unopposed ascension to the top job. A little over a month later he was again angered to speak out because Brown and the deputy leadership candidates were daring to undermine the Dear Leader at a "time of international crisis". His last missive was back in the dog days of December, when he (quite rightly) criticised Brown's "British jobs for British workers" line but then went off on tangents about Brown not supporting his ministers enough and his appointment of Mark Malloch Brown as a foreign minister. This isn't to mention Clarke's most notorious blast against Brown, whom he accused of having "psychological issues", of being uncollegiate, deluded and a control freak, after the supposed 2006 September coup attempt against Blair.

It was then perhaps only a matter of time before Clarke spoke out again, and his timing it has to be said is meticulous, coming after the poor response to yesterday's housing measures and before the expected announcements on fuel. The only surprise is that he has in effect kept his powder dry with an article in the New Statesman, which for the most part covers Clarke's other pet peeve, the on-going labelling of the various factions as Blairite and Brownite.

Matters aren't helped by the fact that it's a highly confused and hardly illuminating piece to say the least. The vast majority of it is given over to defending Blairism and Blair's legacy as he sees it, whilst at say time attempting to argue that the labels no longer mean anything now that Blair has exited the scene. This would be more convincing if Clarke himself was offering absolutely anything beyond a slightly more left-wing version of Blairism, but he isn't. He says that "[E]veryone in Labour needs to stop obsessing about the past and to start obsessing about the future," then spends the next 500 words doing exactly that by going over again the well-worn path of Blair's political journey. He opens the article with by saying that the term Blairite is being used, misleadingly, to "characterise the policies and personalities of some who question the party's current direction and urge Labour to face the future," but how else should they be described when the likes of David Miliband, an undoubted Blair protege, and those backing him at least in the shadows are undoubtedly former Blair loyalists? It's not even as though all those challenging Brown over policy are being tarred with the same brush: the likes of Compass aren't being called Blairite, because they're not. Clarke complains that "Blairite" was how Brown's team apparently responded to Miliband's article in the Guardian, but probably a better and more accurate response would have been to call it crap, which is what it was.

It's not worth the full bother of picking through Clarke's version of what Blairism was, but there are a couple of examples of absolutely barking nonsense and other things that need to corrected:

Liberal interventionism must be underpinned by military force, but its moral authority was undermined by the glacial progress in preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the ill-considered determination to renew Trident.

This is an incredibly selective account of what undermined liberal interventionism. Surely what actually undermined it was the fact that there was never any moral authority to begin with over Iraq because the US and UK could not get UN approval for the war. This authority was then reduced further due to the abysmal decision-making once the war was won. Then there's the little thing of the ever spiralling numbers of dead; those that thought liberal interventionism was meant to save lives must be rather surprised that the war and resulting insurgency have left at the very least 150,000 dead. It also doesn't help when you base your case for war on weapons which subsequently turn out to have been destroyed years before, confirming that Saddam for the most part had been complying with the UN resolutions which even now the few remaining supporters of the war cling to as their defence for action.

The rise of terrorist atrocities, including London in 2005, identified Tony Blair with tough efforts to strengthen security, sometimes at a perceived cost to liberty.

Sometimes at a perceived cost? You have to admire the nerve of Charles Clarke in writing this sentence, considering he was the one that helmed the push for 90 days detention without charge for "terrorist suspects". Blair pushed through the illiberal and ineffective control orders, set-up a British version of Guantanamo in Belmarsh until the House of Lords ruled against indefinite detention without trial for foreign citizens, established the new laws on glorifying terrorism, introduced section 44 of the Terrorism Act of 2000, banned demonstrations within a mile of Parliament without permission from the police and fought to introduce ID cards, to list but some of the deprivations of liberty which happened under his watch. The one that can be said somewhat in his defence is that Gordon Brown picked up his chalice and ran with it by reintroducing 42 days, only to be humiliated by having to depend on the support of the DUP to get it through the Commons, with the Lords certain to reject it.

Economic "Blairism" was also defined by opposition to increasing taxes. This reflected the Reagan/Thatcher economic consensus, reinforced by Labour's 1992 shadow Budget, that tax-raising political parties lost elections. This belief underpinned the disastrous and unfair basic-rate cut, financed by abolition of the 10p rate, of Gordon Brown's 2007 Budget.

This is just wrong. The start of the second term was defined by the raising of national insurance to pay for the increased funding of the NHS. The campaign for re-election in 2001 was essentially based around the fact that taxes would most likely be raised to do so; to pretend otherwise is just as myopic and deluded as the statement in the 20:20 vision manifesto which claimed that both Britain and the world had become better and fairer after 10 years of Tony Blair.

The only conclusion that can be reached is that Clarke wrote this pap just so he could get to the final three paragraphs and his wider point:

This past week, Alistair Darling rightly said that the "coming 12 months will be the most difficult 12 months the Labour Party has had in a generation". Blairism as a concept offers little by way of rescue. It is certainly not a guide to action. Equally, however, it is inaccurate and misleading to dismiss as some kind of Blairite rump those who fear that Labour's current course will lead to utter destruction at the next general election.

There is no coherent Blairite ideology. Many of us who were proud to be members of Tony Blair's government had differing approaches even then, and certainly propose differing prescriptions now.

It is of course perfectly true that there is no coherent Blairite ideology. How could there be when so much of Blairism was focused on responding to whatever the current issue on the front pages of the tabloids was. Blairite ideology took Thatcherite economics and combined it with the populism of increasing funding to the public services, leading to endless debilitating reform which has dogged both the NHS and the education sector for the past 10 years. Socially Blairism involved being even more socially authoritarian and intolerant than the very worst excesses under Michael Howard, in effect handing over criminal justice policy to the Sun, without ever learning the lesson that you cannot possibly be populist enough on law and order to satisfy them. Brown has somewhat learned this lesson, but even he has been criminally stupid enough to hand over policy on cannabis to Paul Dacre.

Clarke is equally right when he says that Blairism is no answer and that it's inaccurate to suggest that just the Blairites think Labour is on the path to disaster. How could it just be the Blairites when the entire Labour party knows full well that it's doomed, including Alastair Darling and Brown himself? Where he comes unstuck is in that Clarke hasn't offered a single suggestion for what Labour ought to do to get itself of this mess. He's spent the entire piece examining Blairism then comically denies that it has anything to offer or that it's Blairites behind the plotting. It's in the conclusion that he finally gives the game away:

Similarly, there is no Blairite plot, despite rumours and persistent newspaper reports. There is, however, a deep and widely shared concern - which does not derive from ideology - that Labour is destined to disaster if we go on as we are, combined with a determination that we will not permit that to happen.

And just who is it that will not permit that to happen? Why, it couldn't be Clarke himself and that non-existent Blairite plot, could it? Let's be clear here - while it may not be the Blairites themselves that will wield the dagger, it will be they who have the most to gain from it. The rest of the party is already defeated, resigned to losing and being out of power for the years to come. It was Blair that brought the party to where it is today, not Brown, who was too cowardly to force him out sooner, and still they aren't satisfied with the corpse of the party which is left. That want that to be stamped out too. The triangulation of Blairism has led directly to the complete lack of significant difference between all main three political parties, squabbling over an ever decreasing part of the centre-right spectrum, and still the agenda supported by the Blairites and the post-Blairites, if that's what Clarke wants them to instead be referred to is unimpeachable. They've become the new establishment, convinced that they have a divine right to keep governing even while the natural party of government steals their clothes. Winning elections is not the key; serving the people is. All today's politicians have lost sight of that, none more so than Charles Clarke.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008 

New Labour's "Black Wednesday"?

It's probably an exaggeration to suggest that today's events could well be New Labour's Black Wednesday, as by no means is the OECD's forecast that Britain will slip into recession over the next two quarters akin to the catharsis which was the swift exit of the pound from the European exchange rate mechanism. It is however most certainly something resembling a turning point: an international organisation with a reputation beyond normal pundits predicting that the UK economy is heading for a recession. Again, this wouldn't be so damaging if it wasn't for two reasons: firstly that New Labour's message ever since the so-called credit crunch started biting in August of last year has been that the UK is "uniquely placed to weather the financial storm", or statements to that effect, and secondly that none of the other G7 nations are as yet likely to go into recession, or at least so quickly.

We can perhaps soften the blow of this slightly by pointing out that the OECD report (PDF) notes that the economies of Japan, Germany, France and Italy all contracted in the second quarter of this year, and that the OECD still predicts that this year's growth will be 1.2%, with only the United States and Germany likely to put in a better performance, but none of this will be of any real significance if the OECD prediction becomes reality; we will still be the only country to be by most definitions in recession. Additionally, you can also argue that things really can't get any worse for New Labour itself as a whole: after you're 20 points behind in the polls, it doesn't really make much difference how much larger the gap becomes, because either way there's only one inevitable outcome come polling day.

For Gordon Brown personally however, this furthers throws his leadership into question. All summer long we've been told that the economic re-launch, starting today with the annoucement of the much anticipated stamp duty holiday, would be the beginning of his fight back, with presumably the attempted stabilising of the house market to be followed by measures aimed at insulating lower income families from the massive rises in the costs of fuel. Instead what we've witnessed over the past four days has been the Alastair Darling show, with quite possibly the most boring man in politics coming out of his shell to deliver glad tidings of the doom to come. On one level, you have to admire his decision to invite a hack to stay with him while he holidayed on a Scottish island, having formerly eschewed interviews almost entirely. His answers to the questions posed by the Grauniad's Decca Aitkenhead were surprising because he didn't cloak them in the usual familiar way of suggesting that the glass is both half full and half empty at the exact same time. No, we were facing possibly the worst economic conditions in 60 years, the voters were pissed off with them, and he was hardly effusive about the Supreme Leader himself either.

Even if you accept that Darling's words were somewhat mangled by the Grauniad, when what he actually said was that the world economic conditions were the worst for 60 years, something not quite as lacking in rigour or reality as us personally in the worst condition for 60 years, and that instantly also means that what he said was no different from what other politicians from Labour have also stated, it's still caused a predictable storm that Darling himself has had to attempt to calm. He, rather than Brown has had to go in for the masochistic strategy of facing the press. It also somewhat tempers what would otherwise have been something else to admire: a politician being frank with the public, which the current poll on CiF has 82% backing for. Instead, he's been damned and blamed for yesterday's slump on sterling and for jittering the markets, as if the markets need the excuse of someone not talking out of their hat for panicking, something they habitually do at the slightest sign of trouble.

Indeed, it would be remiss not to highlight the media's own role in this whole sorry economic saga. The same newspapers which have so encouraged the house price bubble while at the same time permanently predicting impending doom were the ones crying loudest for a stamp duty holiday, possibly one of the most ineffective measures out for stabilising the market. As soon as the government let it be known that it was considering that exact thing, the media started the hue and the cry that this was further undermining the market by not doing it straight away and so putting off sellers from going through while they waited to see what would happen. Now that the holiday has duly been announced, they'll doubtless say that it either isn't enough or that it's a stop-gap measure which will do nothing more than create yet another temporary bubble.

Today's measures are of course exactly that. They're government doing something to be seen to be doing something, because something must be done. At the very most the holiday will save someone £1,750. A sum not to be sniffed at it, it must be said, and I'd be happy to have that sort of money sitting in my bank account; when however you are buying a house that costs £175,000, that sort of sum looks like chickenfeed, which it comparatively is. Nationwide's last survey of the housing market said that the average house price had fallen by nearly £5,000 in just a month. As the holiday is supposedly aimed at the less well-off and the first time buyers, it makes far more sense to wait until the market finally comes back to some sort of equilibrium, rather than rush in because the chancellor's promised that you'll save £1,750 if you buy now. The only people who are going to benefit then are those who have no choice but to move now.

At the heart of all this quite obviously is that the whole economic boom which we've so enjoyed for the last 14 or so years has been based on the housing bubble. For all the talk of creating a skills and knowledge economy to replace the manufacturing one which we've abandoned or increasingly disowned, what's really been driving wealth creation has been the home-owning obsession, leading directly to the sub-prime crisis driven by the lunacy of the likes of the over 100% mortgages. The popping of the bubble is the only way in which we might come back to some sort of sanity, which is exactly why we ought not to be interfering any further in the housing market at all. The long-needed adjustment which is now taking place will in fact be far less painful and extended if we leave it to pan out of its own accord. The real story ought to be that for all the increase in the top grades in both GCSEs and A-levels, still almost 50% of those at 16 are not getting 5 decent grades at GCSE, despite, or perhaps because of the incessant meddling with the school system. The academies which all three political parties now apparently support are despite all their extra money, emphasis on selection and differences in behaviour and ethos policies failing to do significantly better than the schools they replaced, and in some cases they're even doing worse. That's the real failure to prepare for the future which ought to be getting the attention, not on the spending policies which the Tories either failed to oppose or which they can't say how they would have handled differently.

It's still impossible to know whether Brown will see out the end of the year, or even potentially the end of next month as Labour leader, but today has certainly put yet another nail in both his and his party's coffin. Whether it will come to be seen as New Labour's Black Wednesday moment also remains to be seen, but for the former chancellor to be shown to be so decidedly humiliated whilst his own chancellor is in the spotlight may well be the final straw that broke the camel's back.

Slight addendum: I ought to have said that it's obviously not an exact analogy to Black Wednesday in that it doesn't expose government incompetence, rather that it's the exposing of a government's insistence that everything is going to be alright, honest. The difficulty as always is in finding the balance between talking up the the situation when all is apparently not well and in going over the top in Cassandra-like bleakness for the future. New Labour most certainly has not found that balance.

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Must have been those Kegel exercises.

Not to dwell much longer on the whole Sarah Palin fandango, but this is quite possibly the funniest thing I've seen involving a politician for a while, which you'll have to click to read I'd imagine:

Connected somewhat, it looks like the rumours suggesting that Palin's daughter might have been the real mother of Trig may well have been started by those well-known political experts over on the Something Awful forums. Good to see that SA hasn't completely given up the mantle of trolling and general meme creating to 4chan, I suppose, at least.

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Shameless self-aggrandisement.

It would be remiss not to mention that creator of blogging Iain Dale's yearly rankings of left-wing blogs have just been released, and your humble narrator is doubly humbled and really rather staggered to have jumped from 72nd last year to 18th this. A huge thank you to everyone who voted for me, especially considering this is the first I've so much as mentioned the voting here.

For the most part I don't think anyone will have any problem with the results, but doubtless the boycotts which some bloggers, including Justin and Bob Piper advocated hurt them in the rankings when both should have most certainly ranked higher than I did. I really didn't see the point of such boycotts; just look at it as a bit of fun which really doesn't mean a great deal, or at least put aside the differences some have with Iain Dale over it, as it's quite apparent that he's not cooking the figures. It doesn't do any harm, and it most certainly does promote UK political blogging, if not perhaps over the long term.

Anyway, thanks again, and hopefully next year I'll drop to a more anonymous position once more.

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Monday, September 01, 2008 

All virgins are liars honey.

I haven't blogged much about the incessant background chorus which is the US presidential election mainly because I'm probably one of the few political creatures that isn't fascinated by the whole thing. The Democratic convention last week didn't help matters: it takes something to make our political parties' soirées at the seaside look meaningful and not like an exercise in navel gazing which both the politicos and the journalists spend getting lashed, but last week's convention and its screechingly mawkish sentimentality, which featured Obama's daughters on the stage talking to Daddy whilst he was elsewhere, the Hillary and Bill show where the least likable couple in political history failed culpably to get over their sour grapes at losing, and then Obama making a thunderously overrated speech, like all the rest, surrounded by a Roman-Greco backdrop which the Republicans themselves couldn't have constructed if they'd wanted him to look like a pseud, succeeded admirably.

All this was meant to have set-up McCain for what would have been a fight-back; instead what we've seen has been natural disaster and, well, human disaster. You can't plan for events like Gustav disrupting your enthronement, but McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate must in the pantheon of political choices go down as one of the worst of all time, without hyperbole, although who knows, come November I may be eating my words. This was a shockingly cynical but also shallow choice, at a stroke rendering the Republican attack on Obama as inexperienced dead in the water. If this was a further sop for the PUMAs, then it was one based on a flawed idea of what the average Hillary supporting Democrat was after: Palin doesn't just oppose abortion, but also opposes it for rape and incest victims. She has thanks to her reputation as an evangelical, NRA-supporting, global warming sceptic appealed to the Republican Christian conservative base, but on every other ground she comes up short.

To be completely juvenile and dwell on irrelevancy for a paragraph, that includes on naming her children. I mean seriously, Bristol, Track, Trig, Willow and Piper? We expect celebrities to call their children stupid, pretentious things, whether it be Peaches, Pixie, Apple, Shiloh, Romeo, Brooklyn and all the other assorted nightmares, but politicians generally have slightly more sense. Except for David Cameron, of course, but then he fits the profile alluded to. Bristol is apparently named after Bristol Bay in Alaska, which I am reliably informed by someone who used to live 12 miles from where Palin was formerly mayor is a huge salmon processing place which always smells like death, but Wikipedia informs us that it was named by James Cook in honour of the Admiral Earl of Bristol, so it takes its name from our own delightful city. Anton Vowl alludes to where next if Palin was to have any more children she could take influence from - Swindon, Bradford, Middlesbrough, to which I can only add that I don't think anyone has yet thought of calling their offspring Scunthorpe, Cockermouth (which is actually a rather lovely little town) or Llanfairpwllgwyngyll.

The issue that has emerged has however not been Palin herself having any more children, but that of her daughter, the aforementioned Bristol who it has been revealed is 5 months pregnant. Whether this was released because certain left-wing blogs in the US were scurrilously and completely erroneously alleging that Bristol had in fact given birth to Palin's last child, Trig, who was born with Down's Syndrome, is unclear, but it has nonetheless rather energised comment as only something resembling a scandal involving a politician can.

This shouldn't as some have already argued be either something to score points over or to even mention for fear that it will be seen, quite plausibly, as the lowest form of politics. The facts however do speak for themselves: Palin is an opponent of "explicit" sex education and has supported abstinence only education in its place. After all, if a politician's own daughter's experience appears to suggest that abstinence only education doesn't work, isn't that something that ought to be highlighted? Plausibly, but it will still be seen as it ought to be of bringing family into something that most will highly sympathise with; after all, we all make mistakes and this is one that Palin's daughter most likely bitterly regrets. There might be more in it if Palin additionally opposed contraception, but she doesn't. Probably the best case I've seen for it to be any sort of issue is made by innerbrat.

More pertinently I think that the real issue here, away from the fact that Palin doesn't seem to have been properly vetted by McCain's people, further suggesting that she was on-the-cuff choice designed to also pull some of the attention away from Obama's speech, is that it's been swiftly announced that Bristol will also be marrying the father of the child. Considering that she's already 5 months pregnant and there doesn't seem to have been any sign at all that there was to be a marriage prior to Palin's swift ascension to being McCain's number two, this seems to be even more cynical than our own Tessa Jowell's swift separation from her husband after the mortgage debacle. Quite aside from whether this is her daughter's own wishes and whether getting married at 17 is even anything resembling a good idea, it also rather exposes Palin's opposition to same-sex marriage, which she detests to such an extent that she supported a constitutional amendment which would have denied state health benefits to same-sex couples. The familiar argument against it is that it debases marriage and the sanctity of the institution; what more actually offends the institution than shotgun weddings in this day and age, either to appease a Christian conservative base or to spare a vice-presidential candidate's potential blushes?

Now, it might possibly be that her daughter fully intended to marry the father, and that theirs is a loving and committed relationship. Maybe I'm just being too cynical over potential cynicism, or then again, maybe I'm being realistic about the sort of relationships which most 17-year-olds have. In any case, Obama's campaign has quite rightly said that it won't be so much as mentioning it again. That doesn't matter though: already both left and right are squabbling online as only they can. The real question is exactly what those who previously hailed Palin as their sort of person based on her beliefs really think when they're not required to mind their language. As Michael Tomasky points out, Karl Rove thought that the revelation about Bush's DUI cost him three or four points with evangelical voters. We all know that such rigidity of dogma can only result in inevitable hypocrisy, but those self-same conservative warriors might not think too highly of her mother's skills as a parent, and that might just be enough to put the nail in the coffin of McCain's gamble.

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Millie's cookies.

As well all know, the Sun deeply loves "Our Boys". This love, which is in no way two-faced, simply used in a desperate attempt to sell newspapers, or unrequited, is on such a level that the Sun has quite selflessly offered to support the Ministry of Defence in setting up a yearly award ceremony to celebrate the diligence and sacrifice of our armed forces. The name chosen for this venture? The "Millies".

The announcement of these awards and the Sun's sponsorship has gone down spectacularly well with two important groups: the Sun's readers and the armed forces. Here are just a few samples of their gratitude for the Sun's truly remarkable gesture:

looks tacky.. it's like some sort of MTV award

Our Forces are wonderful and I'm proud of them. This award thing is far too tacky for them, and reeks of self-promotion.I award it a golden raspberry.

A trashy tacky idea that lacks any taste what so ever!

Terrible idea. And highly cheesy. Thanks but no thanks, a pay rise would be a better award

Words fail me.............Is this another project so that the Sun get more readers, a really tacky idea and one which Senior Officers in the MOD should never have agreed to. God help us.


A load of old cobblers by a sad rag

If it wasn't being done by the Scum, I might be in favour of it. However, the Scum is so two faced, I see it as a way for them simply to gain dirt more easily.

Shocking positively shocking.

Newton-Dunn, what a total prick.

Why the fcuk have they let that t1t rag sponsor the awards? It just trivialises the whole thing.

I personally think its a massively tastless idea. The only thing that could have made it worse is if they were proposing a phone vote.
Really really cant see any benefit to this other than the Sun's ego.

I think it is Insulting to the troops.

Hidious idea and the sun should be made aware that it is(have e-mailed but no reply!)
Cheap nasty self-promoting scheme!
A national petition to get it banned before it starts would be a way to fire a shot at the tacky paper!

No, no, titter ye not (thanks, Frankie). Millys all round, please. Then we can all compare our lovely new gongs at Remembrance Day, oh how proud it will make the old boys.

How about an award for cam & concealment, they could call it the "Maddie"

There should be an annual "Lets keep our noses out of what the armed forces do day" instead where the press/senior officers/government/Royality can just leave the lads to either go to work and do what needs doing or have a lie in.

The Millies'. God help us. This is truly, truly horrible. We've been reduced to the tacky ranks of luvvies and 'celebrities'. Any person or unit who has the misfortune to get one of these tasteless and pointless awards can look forward to having all their dignity stripped from them at some bloody awful 'awards ceremony'.

It's our own fault. While the Sun has for years made play of supporting 'our boys' when it suits them and then turning on us with any whiff of a scandal or punch up within 15 miles of a barracks - still the most common rag to find lying round the NAAFI or brew room is the good old Currant Bun.

At the risk of being banned from Liverpool like Boris Johnson and others I must say that the unequivocal response of the Scouse nation to the Scum's reporting of the Hillsborough disaster - reducing the circulation in that city from over 200,000 to less than 10,000 overnight and maintaining the boycott today - is one of the few things that endear me to the current Capital of Culture.

If you buy it, let your mates buy it, read it/look at the tits in it then you only have yourself to blame. Only a complete military boycott of the Scum would send the message and make them fuck off and stop bothering us.

As for the categories themselves:

1. Best Recruit
2. Support to the Armed Forces
3. Lifesaver Awards
4. True Grit: Individual
5. True Grit: Group
6. Best Armed Forces Animal
7. Most Outstanding Sailor or Marine
7. Most Outstanding Soldier
8. Most Outstanding Airman
8. Overcoming Adversity
9. Best Unit
10. Judges Award for Special Recognition.

Yes, they really are giving an award to an animal.

On ARRSE it's already been suggested that these could be added to, with biggest ginge, worst bit of kit and biggest bluff as additional awards, but I'm sure we could add to those as well. There could be the "best joystick skills" for the spotty urchin in America directing the Predator drone to its target and accidentally inflicting some collateral damage on the civilian population. Likewise, there could be an award for the soldier responsible for killing the most civilians after the calling in of a air strike results in a 1,000lb bomb being dropped on a mud-hut which contains no Taliban or jihadists but which does unfortunately hold 90 civilians. mostly women and children. Or the best friendly fire incident, which each year is automatically awarded to the Americans for their seasoned skill in killing those on their own side then ensuring that those responsible never so much as give evidence to the resulting inquest. There could be "finest civvy street incident", where the undisputed brilliance of soldiers on home leave or at weekends at starting fights or leaving the middle of small towns in ruins is celebrated, and "most outstanding reticence in face of provocation" for the soldier which doesn't kick the crap out of those throwing abuse at them following the edict from the prime minister and the Sun newspaper that they should be wearing their uniform at all times whatever they're doing.

Finally, there could be the "most shameless coward" award, which automatically each year would be awarded to the Sun newspaper and the prime minister of the day; firstly for the Sun's own role in ensuring the senseless waste of life in Iraq took place on both sides through its own support for that elusive $20 barrel of oil, and secondly to the prime minister whom against all reason keeps the troops in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which have no military solution, whose presence in the former has ceased to have any justification whatsoever long ago and which in the latter is against all rhyme and history. Seeing as all three political parties support the war in Afghanistan, this should be an award that'll be given out for years to come.

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