Thursday, April 29, 2010

Yes, but which substance, Brown?

Bigotgate: the morning after

Fifteen years ago today, Labour approved its new Clause Four, and the party soared to even greater heights of popularity. The following week, Labour scored a massive victory in the local elections. How things change.

So, here’s one response to bigotgate – which, I have no doubt, will top the lists of election gaffes for decades to come:

Gordon Brown probably read more than he should have into Gillian Duffy’s comment: “You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're saying that you're... all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?”

This remark, made amid a series of other complaints to Brown, was dumb: of course many people - and many newspapers - can and do express views hostile to immigration all the time. (And where does she think Eastern Europeans are going to be coming from – South America? West Africa?)

I don’t think it’s hard to construe this as ignorant and intolerant. But, in what Mrs Duffy went on to say today, she seemed more reasonable and didn’t even make the connection between her immigrants remark and the possibility of bigotry. So who knows what significance she meant to attach to it? I certainly don’t. Maybe Brown just leapt too far to his conclusion.

And of course most of us can think of plenty of times when we’ve come out of a frustrating meeting and mouthed off about a disagreeable person – to whom we’ve just had to be all sweetness and light – in theatrically extreme terms. Brown just had the grotesque carelessness to get caught. I note that Cameron and Clegg have been pretty minimalist in their comments on this – there but for the grace of God go they?

And here’s another response:

If Cameron had been caught in a similar mess, and then followed it up with a series of painfully flailing attempts to apologise and explain, what sort of blog post would I be writing?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


So: is this going to be like the time John Prescott punched the guy with the mullet in 2001? I remember thinking that he’d surely have to resign within the day, but that shows you how bad my instincts are.

Likewise the bullying allegations from earlier in the year: I thought they looked terribly damaging but they did Brown no harm in the polls.

That said, this looks to me more like the time* in 1987 when Neil Kinnock smeared excrement in the Queen Mother’s face and then kicked her until all her ribs were broken. That didn’t go down at all well in the marginals.

* Fictional

It’d be a funny turn of events for Brown to be ultimately destroyed by saying something that may well have been justified, given the woman’s remarks.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mr David Cameron opines upon the British electoral system

I had the good fortune to find in the street this lunchtime a draft of Cameron’s opening statement for this week’s debate:

I want to keep our first-past-the-post system. It produces strong majority governments, which is what the country needs. That’s incredibly important. Unless you mean a strong majority Labour government. That would be a constitutional outrage.

But our system does produce clearly legitimate results. Unless it gives us a hung parliament, as all the polls suggest. But that would be a terrible con trick by cynics who refuse to vote the right way, and in those circumstances I’m sure we would be able to rely on our brave Armed Forces to deal with such an awful threat to our democracy.

You see, what I love about our great nation is that it’s usually been run by my party. And I want that proud tradition to continue. That’s why I propose real political reforms that will, by curious coincidence, shaft the Labour party. But I wouldn’t want you to think I was being partisan, as if I were some sort of politician or something. Heavens, no. My reforms will even-handedly shaft any party that has lots of MPs in Scotland, Wales and poorer parts of England, and any party that gets funding from any membership-based organisation set up to promote workers’ rights. What could be fairer than that?

At the end of the day, I believe in trusting people. But trust has to go both ways. So you have to trust me as well. If you don’t – well, it’s funny how accidents can happen, isn’t it? Oops, your society seems to have been broken there. What a shame.

My manifesto was titled ‘Invitation to Join the Government of Britain’. Alas, such is the state of the Royal Mail under Labour that the only acceptance letters I’ve received back have been via the Conservative Central Office internal mail. So it’ll have to be me, George, Ken and the rest of the gang. But maybe that’s for the best. I want to bring our whole nation together, and I can only do that by shutting everyone else out of power completely.

We’re all in this together. And that means you do exactly what I say.

Subbing blog

Cathy Relf has a great blog on sub-editing. I particularly recommend her post on spatial awareness training for editorial staff.

Oh, and while I’m on the subject of People Being Crap With Language, the other day I was editing something that contained the phrase “female parents”. I’ll never know how I managed it but I was, eventually, able to trim this down to a single word.

And, just as I typed the above, my colleague C came across this gem: “The venue also offers baby-hanging facilities.”

Update 15/7/10: I've closed comments on this post owing to a plague of spambots.

What Brown should say: we’ll take whatever result you give us

Gordon Brown is right to say that politicians should “not take the people of this country for granted” and not “be arrogant enough to assume that you can start talking about after an election”. But he should go further.

Last year, it became obvious that we in parliament had been letting you down. Too many individual MPs had been playing the system when they should have been working for you. And collectively, by tolerating this system for too long, parliament was guilty of thinking it knew best, and not respecting you.

I’m sorry. We have to do better and we will do better.

But some politicians still think that they know best. There’s been a lot of talk about how post-election deals might work and how certain sort of results would be unacceptable.

Well, this just won’t do. You’re the voters and this is your election – not mine, not David Cameron’s, not Nick Clegg’s. We’ll make our case, but in the end we have to accept that you know best and you will vote whichever way you want to. And then we, the politicians, will have to accept whatever result you give us, whether we like it or not.

I know what result I want to achieve. I’ve been going around the country, talking to people about what we need to do to protect our schools and hospitals, to nurture the economic recovery and create jobs, to fight crime and reduce poverty. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. That’s your call.

So here’s my post-election deal. It’s a pact I’m making, in public, with you, the voters.

You vote the way you want to. And in return, whether Labour comes first, or second, or third, or fourth, or fifth, we will do everything we can to move towards a fairer, stronger Britain. I can tell you we won’t always succeed. And I can tell you the other parties won’t, either. But whatever result you give us, you’ll have a parliament full of fallible human beings, and a government run by fallible human beings. We’ll do our best to achieve as much as we can.

Now, I’d rather spend the rest of the campaign talking about policies, not polls – about jobs in the economy, not jobs in the cabinet. Let’s get on with it.

(OK, the wording’s not great. But then, nor are most of his speeches.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Clegg tells Lib Dems: vote Labour to stop Cameron

Nick Clegg now says he won’t deal with Labour if the party comes third in the popular vote, as several polls have suggested. This means that Lib Dems who don’t want to prop up David Cameron now have reason to switch to Labour, pushing the party up into second – and the Lib Dems down into third.

According to ComRes and YouGov polls, far more Lib Dem voters would be happy (and far fewer unhappy) with a Lib-Lab arrangement in a hung parliament than with a Lib-Con arrangement.

So, in giving a bit more clarity about what he’d do in a certain type of hung parliament, Clegg has also given many of his own supporters a bizarre but real incentive not to vote for him. He told the BBC yesterday:

It is just preposterous the idea that if a party comes third in terms of the number of votes, it still has somehow the right to carry on squatting in No 10 and continuing to lay claim to having the prime minister.

A party which has come third… cannot then lay claim to providing the prime minister of this country.

And many recent polls do put Labour third in terms of votes. So, if that happens, Clegg will make sure Cameron becomes PM. Lib Dem voters who don’t want that thus have reason to stop Labour coming third. If they want to do that, their course of action will depend on the constituency they live in.

If it’s a competitive Lib Dem vs Tory race, then of course they should still vote Lib Dem. If it’s a competitive Labour-Tory race, they should vote Labour. Standard tactical voting drill so far.

But Clegg’s refusal to deal with a third-placed Labour changes everything else. Those who prefer a Lib-Lab government will need to push Labour’s vote up into second – and the Lib Dem vote down into third. Perverse, but that’s the situation Clegg has created.

In a safe seat – held by any party, with any other party a distant second – they should vote to boost Labour’s overall vote share.

And even in a competitive Lib-Lab seat, they now have reason to switch to Labour: one fewer Lib Dem MP would hardly alter the balance of power in whatever coalition, but fewer Labour votes will guarantee Cameron in power.

(Of course, Labour coming second in votes wouldn’t mean a Lib-Lab deal was certain; it would just create the possibility.)

So there we are. I doubt Clegg meant for this to happen, but this is the logic of what he’s said. Now you know why he’d been so keen to keep it vague. Luckily for him, this is hardly a line Labour can use in its campaign: ‘Vote for us so that you don’t push us into third place and then there’s a chance you can do a deal with us rather than the first-placed Tories’? Can’t quite see it…

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The fantasy of immaculate legislation

I’m not a violent man by nature, but woe betide the next person who suggests that there’s any possible election result that would not lead to government jobs being filled, and decisions being agreed, by politicians.

And that goes double for the next politician to imply this.

Orange prose

The Lib Dem surge has brought us, this weekend, the best and the worst opening paragraphs to newspaper columns that I’ve read in a long time. I hope it’s clear which is which.

Polly Toynbee:

Get real. Keep your head screwed on. What result do you want? I will assume, dear Guardian reader, that like me you have two prime purposes. One is to prevent Cameron walking into Downing Street on 7 May. Equal first is to secure electoral reform so that we are never again presented with such a disgraceful voting choice. If that's not your view, you can save time, stop reading here and push off to some Murdoch organ that will amply satisfy your needs.

Nick Cohen:

It says much about the tastes of Conservative politicians that, at the suggestion of Oliver Letwin, they have taken to comparing the struggle for power in Britain to the fight for control of Middle Earth. Rather than mock their addiction to sword-and-sorcery epics, I will gently remind them that in the final battle of the Lord of the Rings the Dark Lord Sauron realises that he has been looking the wrong way. Hobbits so small he has failed to notice them are preparing to drop the ring of power into Mount Doom. Sauron's giant red eye swings towards the new danger as "the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril".

He got rhythm

Jon Bernstein says, of the new Tory posters, “Time to boot up Photoshop?” Thanks to a template from Tim Ireland, I am happy to oblige with another spoof:

(Thanks also to Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis for the line.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

If we want ‘elected prime ministers’, let’s just have them

This is stupid:

Unelected prime ministers would be forced to hold a general election within six months of taking office, under proposals being announced by David Cameron today.

Let me reply with a précis of something I wrote a couple of years ago:

There are two-and-a-half interacting quirks to the British political system's psychology…
First, we think as though we vote for parties when we actually elect individuals…
Second, we think as though we vote for a government when we actually elect a parliament…
[And] while we think of parties over individuals and governments over parliaments, one of the major factors in choosing which party to vote for is the identity of its leader…
The effect of all this is that we often think as though we’ve got an executive-focused electoral system

But we don’t. The UK has never, never, not once, had an elected prime minister. We have elected MPs, and the balance of power in the Commons determines which party leader becomes PM. Yes, even in a hung parliament.

If the governing party changes leader, why is the personal mandate of every MP from every party suddenly rendered null? Why a forced election if the PM changes but sticks to the same programme as their predecessor, but not if the sitting PM replaces their whole cabinet and rips up all their manifesto pledges?

Cameron, always a fan of building media-powered populism into the constitution, is trying to create a pseudo-presidential system. Well, why not just go the whole hog?

I increasingly think – and the barely coherent frothing about ‘wasted votes’ and ‘vote X, get Y’ reinforces this – that electing MPs and the PM separately would save us from a lot of pointless bullshit.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A quick thought on turnout

Mike Smithson says:

Clearly a combination of the TV debates and the hard-to-predict outcome is adding to public interest - all of which point to a high turnout. On top of this we have the news of a big late rush of applications to get on the electoral register.

That’s plausible. But think about this:

A late rush to get on the electoral register will mostly consist of people not usually interested in voting. If the various novelty factors in this campaign have worn out come polling day, these are the people most likely to stay at home. So a rise in registration could be setting us up for a fall in turnout.

(Although, of course, I mean turnout relative to the number of people registered, not the absolute number of people voting.)

Indecision, drift and weakness

David Cameron is right to warn about coalition governments, in which politicians stitch up deals behind closed doors rather than letting the public have their say.

Pictured is the last time such a thing happened. And what the hell did they achieve?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The power of a vote

Completely contrary to received wisdom, people are wildly optimistic about how much voting power they personally have.

In truth, it’s vanishingly unlikely that your vote will make a difference between a candidate winning or losing. Only 14 constituency results since 1918 have been majorities of under ten votes; just one of these was in the last 35 years (Winchester in 1997, by two votes). There are no single-vote wins on record.

But an unnoticed finding in an ICM poll this week was that a really quite huge 48% of people think that their vote will make a difference to which candidate wins in their constituency. This figure is pretty consistent across different demographic groups.

Delusional, but heart-warmingly so. And good for turnout. Let’s not tell them.

Going down the Tubes

I got one of the new Victoria Line trains this morning. I hadn’t even heard about these. My first impressions:


  • Cleanliness. Obviously, they will always stay this clean.
  • They announce which side the doors will open when you get to the next station. Handy.
  • Engine sound is more high-tech. Good for creating a sense of progress.


  • Smell of burning rubber. Hmm. Will have to look at the wheels next time I get on one.
  • Piercing, stressful warning signals when doors open (ambulance-type siren) and close (hellish shriek).
  • New robotic announcer woman unbearably smug and exuding far too much phoney cheeriness, which just intensifies the resentment and pissed-offness felt by actual passengers. Really, it’s not worth trying to create a sense of occasion about approaching Highbury & Islington.
  • Shape of internal walls makes it awkward to stand pressed up against them; had to tilt my head forwards or sideways.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

People don’t want a government

For months, David Cameron has been telling the public to “vote for change”. Oops.

One reason the Lib Dems are doing so well is that a lot of people don’t really want a government.

Normally, although we in fact elect (half) a parliament, but we think as though we’re electing a government – at least, Labour and Tory supporters generally vote with this in mind. Lib Dem and minor party voters know that their lot won’t take power, so many more of them vote to promote a pressure group, or endorse an idea, or make a statement about their political identity.

But what are the prospects for government now? We’re regularly told that there are years of nasty tax and spending decisions ahead, whoever’s in charge, and it’s understandable if a lot of us prefer not to think about the details.

And the two normal contenders for government have borne most of the anger at the expenses scandal. What’s more, this affair has made people take a keener interest in the Commons as a group of representatives rather than as the body that produces a government.

So there’s less interest than usual in who forms the government, and for voters who take this view, the only way to get something meaningful from the election is to vote on other grounds. With Nick Clegg’s attention-grabbing debate performance as a pretext, people have rushed to an option that seems to let them do something different.

It looks as though this general election, for more people than ever before, will be – call it what you will – a protest vote, a demand for something else, a frustrated cry of ‘not in my name’.

If this is true, then attacking the Lib Dems as not credible to govern will miss the point. And arguing that in these tough times we do need a government with a clear plan will just make people suspect more pain to come. The best way to clear the air of this orange ash – from an eruption that, although unexpected, had been building up for some time* – is to convince people that Clegg and his party are just ordinary politicians.

* I am now the millionth commentator to use a volcano metaphor for Lib Dem poll ratings, and as such am required to commit ritual suicide.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sticking to what I’m good at

You know that feeling when you have a bright idea and jot it down, then come back to it a while later and try to work it up something coherent, and you go over it again and again but it just doesn’t come together?

I seem to be getting that a lot lately. So here’s where I stand today:

What I don’t know:

  • What the bloody hell’s going on with this election.

What I do know:

  • It’s sunny outside.

See you later.

Update 21/4: Septicisle valiantly tackles the question, and oh, what the hell, I've had a go now too.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Is YouGov push-polling? No

Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy asks: “Is YouGov ‘push-polling’ for the Tories?”

I came across this story a couple of hours ago via Craig Murray, who believes the answer to be yes – specifically, that YouGov is conspiring with the Murdoch press against the Lib Dems. He quotes a comment made on a post at PoliticalBetting:

Just done a YouGov, Mostly about Clegg & LD
Here was one of the question
“Nick Cleggs says the other parties are to blame for the MP scandals, he has taken money from a criminal on the run, many of his MPs have been found guilty of breaking the rules and his own party issued guidance on how to fiddle the expenses system?”
I’d say that was fairly direct!
There were some 17 other questions re the LD

Murray goes on to conclude:

The proposition above is, obviously to anyone, not really a question but a set of dubious propaganda statements designed to influence the interviewee.
Plainly this is a deliberate attempt to produce a poll which shows the Lib Dem surge as a blip, and thus discourages potential Lib Dems voters.

He also reports:

Anthony Wells of YouGov (known henceforth as YouGove) admits YouGov asking these "questions, but claims the voting intention question ought to have been asked first. He also points out that the antiLib Dem questions were "Not for publication".
I bet they bloody weren't.

Hmm. The Anthony Wells comment that Murray sort-of quotes seems to be this one:

Firstly, neither those VI or those question were anything to do with polling for newspapers or publication. Secondly I’ve brought the poll up on the system now to double check, and voting intention was the first question as it should have been. The other questions were right at the end of the political section of the poll, as they should have been.

It appears that Murray has utterly butchered part of that comment and ignored the rest.

I think that this is one for John Rentoul’s collection.

(Oh, and ‘push-polling’ is not attempting to skew a poll by asking leading questions; it’s a dirty campaign trick in which you call up swing voters and ask them ‘If you had heard that [opposing candidate] had done [utterly fictional scandal], would you be more or less inclined to support him?’ This creates a deniable rumour, smearing your opponent.)

Update: Anthony Wells has commented further, although rather obliquely, on the survey asking lots of questions on the Lib Dems. Somebody - not News International - is clearly testing some attack lines, but there's nothing scandalous about that.

The parties have drawn their battle-lines

I can exclusively reveal to you the key messages that the party leaders will be pushing over the next few days, in this strange new post-debate atmosphere:

Cameron: “If you vote for Nick Clegg then I might not win, and it’s MY TURN. Plus it was MY IDEA to copy Tony Blair’s style. It’s NOT FAIR.”

Brown: “I think people already accept that I have made the tough decision to be less engaging than David Cameron. But now it’s important to show that I also have the determination, strength and courage to be less engaging than Nick Clegg too.”

Clegg: “What, you mean I have to follow it up with something?”

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Meet David Cameron – new poster

I do like the Cameron Anecdote Generator, where you can find out which probably fictional yes-men and –women the great man has met recently.

I’m a couple of days behind the curve on this, but even so, another (yes, another) spoof poster has leapt to mind:

(I promise that I will stop doing these. Just as soon as the election is over. Probably.)

‘Did the earth move for you, darling (you foul temptress)?’

Iranian Ayatollah Kazem Sedighi has been doing his bit to make the Vatican look sane:

Many women who dress inappropriately... cause youths to go astray, taint their chastity and incite extramarital sex in society, which increases earthquakes.

(Hat tip: NWW)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Clegg effect pushes Labour into third (and first) place

Well, we didn’t have to wait long. YouGov tonight gives us (changes from yesterday):

Con 33% (-4), Lib Dem 30% (+8), Lab 28% (-3)

Astonishing. If we imagine a 65% turnout, this poll implies nearly two and a half million people switching to the Lib Dems overnight. All based on the discovery that a man they’d not paid much attention to actually comes across as a bit more reasonable than the two men they already knew pretty well.

It’s at times like these that I wonder whether ‘voting intention’ polls really do measure actually existing voting intentions and not just which party has made the best impression lately. We’ll have to see whether this can be sustained – I doubt it, but either way, it’s the most fascinating poll shift that I can recall during an election campaign.

The curious thing, though, is what this means for the outcome for seats in Parliament (using Electoral Calculus and assuming a uniform national swing).

The previous day’s poll (C37, L 31, LD22) would have given the Tories 287 seats, Labour 271 and the Lib Dems 60 (Tories 39 short of a majority). But this new poll – because the Tory lead over Labour has narrowed, and because there aren’t that many seats where the Lib Dems have much of a shot – would actually put Labour in front with 263 seats, the Tories 254 and the Lib Dems 101.

And you wonder why they want electoral reform...

Sorry, the new ComRes poll is still worthless

I don’t mean the limited poll of debate viewers, which recorded an implausibly massive swing to the Lib Dems. Obviously that’s worthless outside its own very narrow context. I mean the national figures that they’ve produced this lunchtime: Con 35% (unchanged from Wednesday), Lab 28% (down 1), Lid Dem 24% (up 3).

These numbers look a lot more credible – you’d expect a Lib Dem boost after Clegg’s performance – but they’re still not valid.

The methodology (via John Rentoul) was not that of a standard poll. ComRes did not survey non-viewers of the debate. Rather, they took their poll of 4000 pre-recruited debate viewers and extrapolated it to all 10 million viewers, and then combined this with the data from their normal poll from Wednesday to cover people who didn’t watch the debate.

There are two problems here: it doesn’t allow for the possibility of non-viewers being influenced by coverage of the debate, or indeed by anything else since the previous poll; and it assumes that all viewers of the debate will have responded in the same way as the small minority who watched it knowing that they were due to receive a call from a pollster afterwards.

ComRes appear to have been completely honest and open about their methods here, but what this means is that we can’t compare these numbers with other polls. We’ll have to wait a little longer to find out the impact of the debate.

Leaders’ debate: the real winner

If just one person has learnt where to put the apostrophe on a plural possessive, it will all have been worthwhile.

Leaders’ debate: the real loser

Moderation comment:

“Ha ha, yes, I did make the three of you look good in comparison, didn’t I?”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Labour vs Tories on ‘parent power’

Here are two education policies (or the rough outlines, at least):

Tory manifesto:
Drawing on the experience of the Swedish school reforms and the charter school movement in the United States, we will break down barriers to entry so that any good education provider can set up a new Academy school.

Labour manifesto:
Where parents are dissatisfied with the choice of secondary schools in an area, local authorities will be required to act, securing take-overs of poor schools, the expansion of good schools, or in some cases, entirely new provision. Where parents at an individual school want change, they will be able to trigger a ballot on whether to bring in a new leadership team from a proven and trusted accredited provider.

These are both attempts to give parents who aren’t happy with their local secondary schools the power to do something about it, rather than just hoping that the government or council will take notice and get something done. The Tory policy has been around for a while; the Labour proposal, as far as I know, is new.

Three things have always troubled me about the Tory plan (even if we assume that parents in areas with poor schools will be up to the task of organising a new one). First, creating a new school from scratch to compete with one that already exists is going to cost a lot: the initial costs will be huge and then the resulting overcapacity will need to be funded unless and until the old school closes down.

Second, it takes time to establish a new school, and while this is happening, the failing school is not just going to be left alone to fester. If the latter can be improved in time, the efforts that have gone into setting up the new one will have been needless.

Third, if the new school does turn out to be much better than the old, then the process of shifting kids out of one and into the other will be slow and sporadic – disruptive in the short-term for the children whose parents switch them and demoralising for those that remain where they are in an increasingly unpopular sink school.

The Labour plan, while still letting local parents set the ball rolling, avoids these flaws. Replacing the leadership of a school, or making it part of a federation, can be done less expensively and more quickly than creating a new, rival school, and the benefits will be felt by all the children of the once-failing school without their parents having to decide when and whether to jump ship.

And so it’s a better plan. It may not be a sneaky way of undermining LEAs (which the Tories have long been in the business of), but it’s a better, faster, cheaper, more efficient way of overhauling the local choice of schools when parents think this is urgently needed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tories tell Labour’s success stories

Two great cities that have thrived under a Labour government and Labour councils:

Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland, and home to 13,000 businesses, including some of Britain’s most successful firms. For example, eight of the ten largest insurance companies in the UK have an office in Glasgow, and the city is also home to leading technology, energy and creative businesses. Glasgow is the hub of an important entrepreneurial sector, which includes innovative start-ups in fields such as mobile telephony and computer games. Glasgow’s commercial strength also extends to manufacturing, and the city continues to be a global leader in hi-tech ship building.

Manchester was the epicentre of the industrial revolution, and the first industrialised city in the world. Today, the city is a national symbol of successful urban regeneration. Over the past three decades, Manchester has undergone extensive urban renewal, transforming the city’s canals, mills and warehouses into vibrant new commercial, residential, and cultural spaces – including the creation of the Imperial War Museum North. As a result of this regeneration, Manchester is one of Britain’s most dynamic cities, and has been voted amongst the best places in the country to locate a business.

At least, that’s what the Conservative Party manifesto says. So it must be true.


I like Sophie Elmhirst’s attitude:

First, society is "broken". Then it's "big". Then, there "is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state". So is society big and broken? Shouldn't we mend it before we make it big? Or will it only be fixed once it's big? And if society is broken, but not the same as the state, does that mean the state isn't broken? So why don't we stick with the state? Why do you want us - society (are we society? I'm not sure any more) - to do everything if we're so bust and malfunctioning? Apparently under the Tories there are going to be "community organisers" to build the "big society". I hope they know how to fix giant abstract things whose meaning changes all the time.

Her splendid Election Guffwatch service also advises Gordon Brown not to mix his metaphors.

Personally, I was delighted to see the Tories finally give some detail in their manifesto launch. For weeks, I’ve been seeing this ‘vote for change’ slogan and wondering exactly what change they were proposing. Finally, we have the answer, and I think you’ll agree that it’s a radical and quite unexpected idea:

(Although, to be fair, it is impressive that the manifesto itself is going to make things better, without them actually having to get into government and do stuff.)

Hell is other people

The Conservative Party is inviting me to “join the government of Britain”.

Here are some of the other people they’ve sent invitations to:

  • My boss
  • My boss’s boss
  • Kerry Katona
  • Piers Morgan
  • Cab drivers
  • Estate agents
  • Bankers
  • Disgraced former MPs
  • Nick Griffin
  • My weird neighbour
  • That kid I hated at school
  • Those bastards who still haven’t been convicted of Stephen Lawrence’s murder
  • People who find the ITV early evening news too complicated to follow
  • People who apply for all those incomprehensibly-titled public sector jobs in the Guardian but get turned down because they’re too petty-minded
  • The tenor in the Gocompare ads
  • In fact, everyone involved in producing any insurance ad
  • Jan Moir
  • Simon Cowell
  • People who feel that they really understand what it’s like to be poor because they’ve had to give up the gîte
  • People whose prejudices are as 1950s as the radioactive sunset on Labour’s manifesto cover

What could possibly go wrong?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ask a silly question

The opposition parties are, or claim to be, very worried about whether Labour’s cancer leaflets were sent out to people selected using personal NHS records to which a political party could not possibly have access:

shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said he had written to Gordon Brown to ask him to confirm that no confidential information had been used to select the recipients. He said the leaflets raised "a number of serious questions about who authorised the potential misuse of personal data and who was involved in the production of the cards".
Lib Dem treasury spokesman Vincent Cable said there needed to be an investigation to see if there had been any abuse of data protection laws.

When in doubt, raise bogus possibilities and call for an inquiry.

Me, I’m far more concerned about the Tory campaign leaflet showing a photo of a bloody machete. Never mind that the UK Statistics Authority has comprehensively smacked the Tories down over their use of these dodgy crime numbers before – what about the picture? How did the Tories get this photo of a bloody machete? Are they fraternising with criminal gangs while out on stabbing sprees? Or did they even stab someone themselves and then capture it on a cameraphone (‘happy stabbing’, as I believe it’s called)?

I think we need a full public inquiry. Perhaps even a police investigation.

Ukip: as the poster, so the party

John Rentoul tackles the question of whether Ukip’s latest effort is the most effective poster yet. The answer, it turns out, is no.

However, I think that it’s actually a pretty good spoof poster. Just as Ukip is a pretty good spoof party.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Looking for an article on voting rationality

I read an article – possibly from an American magazine – a couple of years ago, arguing against the idea that it’s irrational to vote because there’s only a tiny chance that your vote will make the difference between winning and losing. It was saying something vaguely like: you don’t know what number of votes your candidate will need to win nor how many they’ll get other than your own, so you don’t know which individual vote will push them over the winning line, and so it makes sense to stockpile as many as possible, including yours. Only more coherent and substantial than that.

I remember thinking it was interesting but not whether I was convinced. I’ve tried Googling some likely terms but with no luck. Does anyone know what this article was?

The new Doctor: OK, but not really the point

Watching Matt Smith Geronimo-ing around the sinister Starship UK on yesterday’s episode, I suddenly realised something: I like the programme Doctor Who much more than I like the character of the Doctor. And that’s always been true. The programme, the settings, the mysteries, the baddies – that’s why I watch it. The Doctor, as much as the TARDIS, is a plot device for bringing us these glimpses of other worlds and dark secrets.

I’ve never quite understood why a lot of people are so scornful of Sylvester McCoy and/or Colin Baker and/or Peter Davison. Sure, they were hardly Tom Baker (whom I barely even remember other than from repeats), but I was perfectly happy with the programme when they were in it. And the reason, all of a sudden, is clear to me: the Doctor – for me, at least – isn’t the point of the programme.

Friday, April 09, 2010


Office friends talking about the election just on the edge of my earshot. Trying to resist getting involved.

(Me + political discussions = not good)

Of course their bloody sums don’t add up

The parties are arguing, with desperate earnestness and pitiful fury, about whether each other’s ‘sums add up’. And they’re conducting this argument while all standing on a huge cloud made out of guesswork, evasiveness, ignorance, wishful thinking, secrecy and fiction.

There are two reasons for this miserable predicament.

First of all, Labour’s published plans (such as they are) contain a colossal amount of vagueness. However, because they’re in government, and can publish their numbers on Treasury headed notepaper, these count as ‘official’ and get treated as the baseline against which everyone else gets measured.

Look at this chart from the IFS, showing the government’s proposals for fiscal consolidation:

The green sections in the final two years represent ‘unknown’ changes to tax or spending to reduce the deficit. But there’s more doubt than that: Labour have not done much to explain in detail how the rest of the reduction will be done, other than to say what will be tax rises and what will be spending cuts (although they’ve been clearer on the former).

Then there are the Tories and Lib Dems. If they want to reduce the deficit faster than Labour, they thereby inherit all the uncertainty in Labour’s plans plus any extra uncertainty about the further work to be done. So they’d have even more to explain. They have given some details here and there, and indeed the recent bickering about Tory efficiency savings and National Insurance is to do with the moderate extra vagueness that’s been piled on top of the big underlying vagueness.

So we don’t really know how any of them would do this. Do they?

And none of them can attack the others for ignoring the scale of what’s needed, because of the Fart Principle: whoever raises this problem will be saddled with the burden of explaining their – painful – solutions first (or, in playground parlance, whoever smelt it dealt it).

The second reason that the ‘sums add up’ debate is a mutually convenient charade is that, as Helmuth von Moltke didn’t quite say, no fiscal plan survives contact with the economy.

Economic predictions rank somewhere between meteorology and astrology for their accuracy. As Chris tells us, even in economic good times, Treasury deficit forecasts for the year ahead are out by over £6 billion half the time (and by over £12bn a quarter of the time). For comparison, this week’s spat is about the Tories wanting to use £6bn of extra efficiency savings this year to cut the deficit.

For the year after, forecasts are out by over £15bn half the time and over £21bn a quarter of the time. And three years away? Four? Don’t ask.

So even if all the parties had reams of precise tax and spending plans, audited by the IFS and Stephen Hawking, they’d still be largely hypothetical. And, of course, no party wants to be the one to say they only have the dimmest idea of how their proposals would really work out. They need to project an image of certainty, and the media enjoy judging them harshly for failure – while mostly ignoring the impossibility of the whole enterprise.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Introducing our election coverage

We at Freemania are proud to unveil our programme of 60/60/24/7 rolling coverage of what promises to be the most important, closely fought and thrilling 2010 general election the UK has ever seen.

Our campaign pledge to you is that we will cover the election with a thousand types of shiny sheen, each more ephemeral than the last, and then liquidise it and use the latest in hosepipe metaphor technology to cover you with the election. You won’t know what’s hit you!

  • Dayjob Tumbleweed, our top political correspondent, will bring you the very latest developments as they’re reported to have happened. Whether it’s a press conference with Bob Ainsworth, a photo-op in a Luton supermarket car park by Chris Huhne, or the executive summary of a policy document that has a digital scan of Theresa May’s signature at the bottom, you can be sure that Dayjob will hear about it somewhere and pass it on.

  • Our panel of pundits – Harpy Bloodshot, Bumptious Hasbeen and Drone Otherhand – stand ready to provide pre-instant analysis of each other’s commentary. They will explain why their own parties’ margin-of-error ups and downs in the polls are due to adhering to/departing from what they’ve been saying all along.

  • Speaking of polls, we’ll have regular updates from expert psephologist Professor Blip Hornrimmed, renowned for his eight-dimensional hyperswingometer and his lucid explanations of not only what’s going to happen next week but also why what he said last week didn’t really count.

  • Creative guru Pony Onetrick – founder of edgy brand consultancy cutPaste-newFont – will be producing witty and insightful spoofs of all the latest campaign tweets, and roving reporter Shortstraw Cliché will spend the campaign on the trail of the elusive swing voter, who is believed to be holed up in a basement somewhere in the West Midlands with five weeks’ worth of tinned food and bottled water.

  • Finally, our resident blogger, Glint O’Selfawareness, will be trying to fill space and urging those fools in all the rest of the media to focus more on issues than personalities, without actually having to know very much himself.

Stick with us and we’ll make sure that, come election day, your yearning for death is matched only by your inability to remember which end of the kitchen knife is the stabby bit!

Frank Blunt
Star columnist and Acting Editor-in-Chief, Freemania

Monday, April 05, 2010

Tory recovery plan poster

(I can’t stop myself any more...)

I don’t like it nearly as much as my last one, but it’s the best spoof of this real Tory ad that I could think of.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Cameron and Osborne’s spin cycle

Congratulations to Jacob Quagliozzi for winning Labour’s ‘design a poster’ contest.

Here’s my own effort:

(Click for larger image.)

Too wordy to work on a billboard, methinks (and technically not that great), but the quote is rather the whole point of it. And I do love that quote. And yes, he really did say that.

Real proverbs

  • He who laughs last is slowest to get the joke.
  • Absence makes the heart unable to pump blood around the rest of the body.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, unless the beholder has an oozing stye.
  • Easier said than done, especially for vows of silence.
  • Familiarity breeds web-footed children.
  • Many hands make giant horse.
  • Honey catches more flies than vinegar, though fewer than a big net.
  • In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is going to have real trouble finding someone who takes care of their appearance.
  • The Isle of Man is an island.
  • Rome wasn’t built under a Private Finance Initiative.
  • You can lead a horse to water, so build your glue factory next to a lake.
  • A bad workman gets more commissions because he’s cheap, and that’s why so many things are crap.
  • If wishes were horses, then horses would be Christmas every day, when the kids start singing and the band begins to plaa-aayy.
  • A journey of a thousand miles? Fuck that.

Any more, anyone?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Provisional Neighbourhood Army

I agree with Norm that the Tory slogan “the Big Society” doesn’t really come across the way they want it to. They’re also proposing a “Big Society Bank”, which involves the ingenious use of the words “Big” and “Bank” to name an institution that people are supposed to trust.

Another dud, to my ears at least, is “neighbourhood army”. It’s meant to describe a group of professional community organisers, but it sounds just a bit too IRA for my liking.

Condoms: 0.0000003% more mass murder

It’s the turn of Vincent Nichols, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, to try to say something about condoms that’s consistent with dogma but not obviously atrocious. Never an easy task, and another reminder that organised religion has more in common with party politics than it likes to admit.

Just to be helpful, I thought I’d make a chart showing how very much damage condoms cause to potential human lives:

And now, those of you familiar with my sense of humour may be able to guess which song is on the other end of this link.