...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Day 4932: You Can Prove Anything With Statistics Part Deux


This time it’s Tom Clarke writing in the Gruaniad to assert:

“How the Tories chose to hit the poor”

(and just look at all those buzzwords in that URL!)

“George Osborne claims to have cut inequality,” adds the sub-editor. “But look behind the figures and it's clear the Conservatives can't take any credit.”

To summarize: the existing data points do not agree with his thesis so he says that they don't count and makes up what next year's figures will say instead.

It seems Iain Drunken Swerve isn’t the only one for whom denial is a preferred tactic.

The implications of the piece are that the CHOICES of the Coalition are bad ones, and therefore that any beneficial outcome is accidental. To come to that conclusion it is necessary to downplay, ignore or indeed run away and hide from the contribution of the Liberal Democrats to Coalition policy.

Inequality, measured by the Office for National Statistics figures for 2011/12, FELL in the UK under the Coalition, and the new 2012/13 figures show that fall has not reversed.

As Lib Dem Voice reports, the Institute for Fiscal Studies have commented that inequality is now lower than since before Tony Blair brought Labour back into government in 1997.

This is a fact.

A startling one but indisputably a fact. Startling not just because this is the first fall in inequality for nearly three decades, but also because it is unique among Western nations.

Is this a beneficial outcome?

What has happened has happened in the worst way. I – and I think most Liberals – would prefer to reduce inequality by raising everyone up, not grinding the richest down. Making the rich pay, that’s Labour’s way. In this recession, everyone has had to take a hit, including hitting some of the least well off, but proportionately the better off you were the more you’ve been asked to pay – from each according to their means, as it were. And it must gall Labour and the left that this Coalition has been more socialist than the socialists ever were.

But if, as Labour do, you subscribe to the “Spirit Level” thesis that more equal societies are happier, healthier and better then you would have to say this is a beneficial outcome. Even if you don’t subscribe, you would have to accept that the cost of the Crash had to be borne by someone, and these figures show that the better-off have shouldered their share of the burden. Those better able to pay have paid and as a result there has been a slight rebalancing of income after tax and benefits.

So is this just by accident or does it down to the choices we have made in government?

It is not difficult to see how it’s happened. Salaries were frozen or even reduced, whereas, at the insistence of the Liberal Democrats, benefits continued to be increased*, and with a triple lock pensions – more than half the Social Security budget – were and still are increased by even more.

(*Full disclosure: for the period covered by these figures, benefits were increased in line with inflation. For 2013/14 benefits were still increased, but we could not stop George Osborn capping many increases, but not pensions, at 1% – a cut in real spending power as it is below the rate of inflation. Because pensions increase by more than inflation, the impact of this is uncertain, but it does, of course, form the basis of Mr Clarke’s speculation that inequality will rise again in next year’s official figures.)

Add to that the effect of the flagship Liberal Democrat tax policy of raising the personal allowance, a tax cut directly aimed at the less well-off earners.

And the Liberal Democrats also required, in the price for Coalition, that Capital Gains Tax – a tax largely paid by the well-off – be increased from Labour’s inequality-creating low level of 18% to a more reasonable 28%.

Furthermore, the Lib Dems would not let Master Gideon reduce the top rate of tax from 50% to the 40% rate that it was under Labour.

Remember when Labour raised the top rate to 50p… for a MONTH. The Coalition because of the Liberal Democrats has a rate of 45% that is still higher than under any budget presented by Gordon Brown.

Remember when Labour DOUBLED the tax paid by those in the lowest band, and how Mr Balls still wants to reintroduce the 10p starting rate? The Coalition because of the Liberal Democrats gave those people a ZERO starting rate and took them out of paying income tax altogether!

You can see the theme here: Labour under Mr Blair and Mr Brown – who, if you recall, were in the words of Mr Peter “Prince of Darkness” Mandelson: “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” – saw inequality rise like a rocket. The Coalition, because of Liberal Democrats’ fair tax policies, has seen a remarkable fall.

For that fall in inequality to come about because “the Tories chose to hit the poor” IS. NOT. POSSIBLE.

Remember Labour’s COMPLICITY in the Great Crash of the Twenty-Nothings. It wasn’t ALL down to a few “rogue bankers”. I’ve written before of how Labour’s “borrow and spend” economic policy buoyed the bubble, how their “let the good times roll (on tick)” philosophy cheered on many millions of small borrowers to risk more than they could afford on the (fictitious) promise of a never-ending supply of cheap money lent from China – how often did Gordon Brown say “no more boom and bust”? What did he think he was encouraging people to do?

Remember how Labour were taking bungs and favours from everyone from Bernie Eccleston to Rupert Murdoch. They were deeply entwined with the really filthy rich.

Remember the facts of what Labour really DID, not the fairy story of good times that they want you to believe in.

Labour, even when they nationalised a bank or two, were only ever socialist by accident; we have achieved this by design.

In this crash (which, whatever the causes, you have to admit happened on Labour’s watch) everyone has done worse. But Liberal Democrat choices have made good on the Chancellor’s promises of being “all in this together”.

And that’s important to us because we CARE about a Fairer Society as well as a Stronger Economy.

The impression from his article is that Mr Clarke appears not to care that Labour never really cared at all.

"…so when the truth finally outs, what will be the response?"

Practically an admission there that he doesn't know that either. So he’s just making that answer up too. Not necessarily an unreasonable prognostication – Mr Drunken Swerve has form – but still not in fact fact.

The 2013/14 data – when it comes out next year – may (or may not!) undermine the Chancellor's current statement, but at least Mater Gideon is basing his words on the facts as they are known now. Mr Clarke and the Graun are not.

And the confirmation bias of 450 below the line CiFers nodding and saying “he’s right you know” does not count as supporting evidence.

Mr Clarke touches their G (for Grauniad) spot again by referring to the 2008 crash as “Lehman Brothers' implosion” pinning the blame on the bank and definitely not the profligacy of any governments that might have supposedly had oversight of the economy at the time.

And again we have the lazy accusation against the Coalition of “a government that has lurched to the right”.

Then there is this:

"This week's data only takes us up to this point, the financial year that began in April 2012"

This is such a weirdly constructed sentence that I have to wonder if it's deliberate. If you are talking about the point that the data takes us to, then surely it only makes sense to talk about the *end* of that Financial Year, so April 2013.

By using 2012 (whether by accident or design) it conveys the impression that the data is even more out of date and only covers maybe a year or so when the Coalition were in charge, rather than 60% of the current Parliament.

If you are going to criticize the use of statistics by others, then you must take the greatest care that no distortion creeps into your own version – that he has failed to do so critically undermines his argument.

I realize Mr Clarke has a book to sell – it’s actually advertised right there in the article (or “advertising feature” as these things used to be called) and "oops I have no evidence" doesn't help with that, but really this is just hiding from the facts.

Inequality has fallen. This is not because the Tories chose to hit the poor. It’s because the Liberal Democrats chose to defend the poorest-off where we could and to raise fair taxes from the rich.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Day 4931: Most Right-Wing Government Evah…


Number One in a series of lazy clichés that need stamping on…

Again and again you see this snide little assertion slipped into an article or among the comments. It’s a nasty little code phrase for sneaking around Godwin’s Law (for who would the Coalition have to be more right wing than?) Rather than addressing why a policy might be bad, it’s used as a “joker” to declare any policy simply to be bad because of its authorship, rather than outcome.

And of course it’s just not true!

This isn't even the most right-wing government of the last TWO!

In the last 30 years…

The Coalition gave us Equal Marriage; the Thatcher Government gave us Section 28, and you think the Coalition is more right wing?

The Coalition gave us cash back with a tax cut for basic rate taxpayers, and the first fall in inequality in 30 years; Maggie gave us the Poll Tax and Major gave us Back to Basics and Cash for Questions, and you think the Coalition is more right wing?

The Coalition gave us an end to child detention, scrapping of DNA databases, reform of the libel laws (and Nick Clegg blocked the Snooper's Charter); the Blair government tried to give us ID cards and 90 day detention-without-trial, and you think the Coalition is more right wing?

The Coalition acting under International Law and with a UN Resolution used minimal force to defend Benghazi from Muammar Gadhafi’s air strikes; Labour invaded Iraq.

The Coalition gave a triple lock to pensioners; Gordon Brown gave them 50p. The Coalition achieved the Millennium Development target of 0.7% of GDP in overseas aid; the Brown Government gave a massive bailout to bankers, and you think the Coalition is more right wing?

The Coalition were faced with quite simply having a lot less money to spend and has managed this very difficult very painful loss of income without it all ending in a Winter of Discontent or a year-long strike and with only one major bout of rioting.

You don't have to be right-wing to be financially responsible.

Running up a mountain of borrowing means transferring money from future generations to the present bankers. Labour might believe that it is left-wing to throw away our children's money, but that’s probably why they’re still in such a pickle over the economy; where I come from selling kids into slavery is the very worst sort of Victorian values.

And if your response to the above – looking at you, Mr Balls – is “but Master Gideon is still borrowing”, are you really saying that the Coalition has not been “right-wing” enough?! The Coalition has curbed but not conquered the deficit precisely because they are on the moderate and not the extreme right.

Have there been right wing proposals? Sure. Theresa May and Michael Gove can hardly shut up, except to take chunks out of each other. But when they get to the Quad, Nick Clegg says “No” and that’s the end of the matter.

This is the most liberal, centrist government since the post-war consensus ended in the Seventies.

Isn’t that depressing enough?

Coming soon: "30 years of Neo-Liberal consensus – the only Liberal Conspiracy is that there isn’t one"

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Day 4916: You Can Prove Anything With Statistics


(Warning: Contains Maths!)

I've seen a couple of people linking to this story: "British public wrongly believe rich pay most in tax, new research shows".

It claims that most people want a tax system that is fairer (good) but that they are wrong to think it's fair now (bad!).

Of course, this is a piece in the Grauniad cherry-picking from a report for The Equality Trust cherry-picking data from the Office for National Statistics and before you can say "confirmation bias" it's proved to the Internets that the Evul Condums are Evul.

Except, of course, it's not true.

Obviously, there's the usual exaggeration by some Graun sub-editor in the headline: we've lost the nuance of "as a proportion of their income". Of course the rich pay most in tax. 35% of more is obviously more. The question is do they pay a higher SHARE (we'll not even get into SHOULD they pay a higher share; we'll take that as read).

Then there's the point that the Equality Trust's research is actually a poll into public perceptions, NOT research into the effects of the tax system.

Just because they're a charity doesn't mean that we should not be cautious of this sort of polling – it's very similar to the sort of puff piece that marketing teams place in papers all the time, you know the sort of thing: "90% of housewives say sunny days are nicer says poll for insert name of suntan lotion retailer here". It's about getting their name in print – i.e. advertising.

Another point that's interesting is that the ONS data excludes Capital Gains Tax and Inheritance Tax, which amount to about eight billion quid between them, not a lot in the grand scheme of things – about 2% of all taxes, but more than cigarette duty which the figures do include – and these are taxes that tend to impact the higher earner more. But the report's methodology does say they specifically do mention Capital Gains Tax when asking poll respondents to think about the taxes that they pay. So you're asking people to remember a tax paid mainly by the better-off that you then exclude from your calculations.

In addition, the ONS figures show that most households benefit "in kind" mainly from state-provided schools and health service equivalent to about seven-and-a-half thousand pounds (which again is less for the top earners, I'd guess because of higher take-up of private schools and health insurance by those able to afford it). The Equality Trust report does not include this benefit in the "total of benefits and income" which they use to compute the tax rates. You may say "fair enough" (and I'd probably agree), but it is still a bit dodgy to ignore SOME of the ONS data you claim to be using.

And there's the very serious fact that the figures are based on EARNINGS, rather than WEALTH. Earnings at least demonstrate some work being done. It may not be entirely USEFUL work, but at least it's being done, whereas wealth, particularly when tied up in land, is more often a dead weight or leads to rentiering.

But, if we move past all of that there is still this BIG problem: the central assertion that the public believe that the tax system is fairer – and that they would like it to be fairer still (nicely coinciding with the aims of the Equality Trust, of course, but fair enough) – and that this belief is WRONG.

This rests on the claim that the tax system actually isn't fair. In fact, the report says in these words:

"The UK’s tax distribution is not only less progressive than the public’s perceived and preferred distribution, it is actually regressive when comparing the richest and poorest 10%"

This is, at best, in error and more than likely actually deceitful.

A regressive system would take money from the less well-off (in this example the lowest 10%) and transfer it to the better-off (i.e. here the top-earning 10%).

And that is very clearly NOT what is happening.

Why not? Because the way they have sliced the data is to compare income INCLUDING BENEFITS against taxes paid.

Here's now the report puts it:

10% of households with lowest income:
Total Income and Benefits: £10,253
Total Direct and Indirect Tax: £4,424
Income after taxes: £5,830
Effective tax rate: 43%

10% of households with highest income:
Total Income and Benefits: £101,291
Total Direct and Indirect Tax: £35,627
Income after taxes: £65,664
Effective tax rate: 35%

Cue shock and outrage!

But let's cut that data up a slightly different way:

10% of households with lowest income:
Total Income: £3,835
Total Benefits less Direct and Indirect Tax: £1,994
Income after tax and benefits: £5,830
Effective tax rate: -52% (yes, that's a negative tax rate of MINUS 52%)

10% of households with highest income:
Total Income and Benefits: £101,291
Total Direct and Indirect Tax: £33,424
Income after tax and benefits: £65,664
Effective tax rate: 34%

Clearly there is a net cost to the top 10% and a net benefit to the bottom 10%. Actually, all the lower four deciles (or 40% of households) receive more in benefits than they pay out in taxes.

The combined tax/benefit rates for all deciles are as follows:

Bottom: RECEIVE 52% (receiving more than paying)
2nd: RECEIVE 49%
3rd: RECEIVE 26%
4th: RECEIVE 13%
5th: PAY 9% (paying more tax than receiving benefit)
6th: PAY 15%
7th: PAY 24%
8th: PAY 30%
9th: PAY 33%
Top: PAY 34%

On that basis the tax and benefit system is pretty positively progressive.

Far from being wrong because the system is unfair, the public hugely underestimate how much the least-well-off are helped. (And probably just as vastly underestimate just how little the least-well-off get paid!)

Does this just mean we're playing with numbers matter? Does it just mean you pays your money and takes your choice? As Obi-Wan Kenobi puts it: "it all depends on a certain point of view". I don't think it does.

To ignore the fact that benefits are a part of the government's effect on household incomes is absurd; worse, it distorts the picture entirely. It suggests that the lowest-earning households actually pay more in tax than they earn altogether, which is clearly impossible.

It matters that statistics are used to tell a story that is true. And by abusing the ONS's numbers this report doesn't just discredit their own version – they discredit mine. People will just go (as my title suggests) "ugh, maths means nothing". Far too many CiF commentators are ready to leap to their own prejudices that Evul Condums are Evul and they pick the numbers that support that story.

(And there's enough "maths blindness" in the world as it is, without deliberately reinforcing it.)

As a Liberal I am anyway naturally wary of putting a society that is "more equal" ahead of a society that has more freedom.

I want to lift people out of poverty so that they are free to live their life the way they want; I care less about how much they earn after that, so long as it's a fair return for their work.

I do think that the tax system does need to be a lot simpler and clearer – it would be fairer if it were easier to understand what tax you pay.

And if we are to balance the government's budget then – like Cap'n Clegg – I say that it's right to ask the better-off to be first to contribute. I'm just not sold on raising taxes – particularly not to punitive levels – as a "good" in themselves. There MAY be something in "The Spirit Level" idea that more equal societies are healthier ones, but I find they (too) pick their evidence to agree with their case.

If we deplore – and we do – Tory (and Labour) ministers pushing the lie that "scroungers" and "benefit fraud" are bankrupting the economy, then we must equally deplore the reverse when I'll have to label them broadly "the left" say that the government are ripping off the poor to pay to the rich. We should not endorse wrong figures from either end of the spectrum.

It is GOOD that the public want and endorse a fair, progressive tax system. Lying to them about it will only induce more apathy and KIPpery. Let's not.

I encourage you to check sources:

The Equality Trust's report [pdf]
The Office of National Statistics data

Friday, May 30, 2014

Day 4898: Infinity Percent Better than Expected!


In purely mathematical terms, it could have been worse. But not by much. The voters' ongoing desire to give the Liberal Democrats a pummelling for giving them what they voted for saw us losing another swathe of councillors and all but one of our Members of the European Parliament.

Unsurprisingly, there have been calls for Cap'n Clegg to step down, many from friends.

And, despite suspicious leaks from "usual suspects" in the Grauniad (who are NOT our friends), most of them have principled reasons for wanting him to go.

But I disagree with them. I still agree with Nick. And here's why:

Firstly, Cap'n Clegg is a Liberal.

The idea that he's a pseudo-Tory is absurd. In fact, he's one of those soggy, left-wing, interventionist Liberals – you can tell can he believes in the power of the State to make things better from the way he always, but always, puts education first: pupil premium, more apprenticeships, free school meals.

Could he be a BETTER Liberal? Who couldn't? He thinks first of the State as an agent of change for good, before remembering that it can be abused which is why he occasionally fumbles the pass on civil liberties issues (though to be fair, once he sits down and thinks about it, he comes to the right answer). He's against the establishment, but it's not his first instinct to tear it down. His first thought is usually how can we HELP people, rather than how can we got out of people's way.

Secondly, Cap'n Clegg is actually saying Liberal things.

The "Party of In" campaign was the right thing to do, it was the Party being unashamed of the policies and positions we are trying to sell. The debate around more draconian penalties for knife possession – not even knife CRIME – was a needed standing up to of the Home Office, while Labour and Tories continue to try and outflank each other to the right. Free School Meals – a policy based on EVIDENCE, supported by TRIALS – is absolutely the right sort of thing we should be doing. The economics of the Coalition – shifting tax away from the incomes of lower earners and onto wealth and green taxes is entirely Liberal.

Thirdly, he's by far the best we've got at communicating Liberal things.

Town Hall meetings, Call Clegg on LBS, TV debates: Cap'n Clegg is really very good at delivering the message. The case against him is that no one is listening. I would dispute that. No one who writes for the Grauniad is listening; no one who writes for the Tell-lies-o-graph is listening. But Pollyanna Toytown and Dan Hannan sticking their fingers in their ears going "lalalala" does not mean that everyone else is deaf to our appeal. But equally, it doesn't seem likely that they'll suddenly start giving a fair hearing to any other Liberal Democrat. We have always had to struggle to get our message past the gatekeepers of the meeja. I'd rather have someone who's good at doing that still on board.

Fourthly, the Coalition's policies look like they might just be starting to work.

There are signs that we are turning the economy around, benefiting people at last. Do we really want to derail that by letting the Tories take charge while we go into a tailspin? Which is more important: serving the public trust or serving the Party's re-election? Yes, I realise we will need to get re-elected to keep on serving the public, but we must never fall into the trap that Hard Labour has: existing ONLY to get themselves elected.

One of the few good things the press pack are willing to say about us is that we've held it together in the face of, well, them being pretty beastly to us. I'm sure our opponents would love it if we tossed that aside. ("Oh they betray everyone, and then themselves too in the end", they would say. You know they would.)

Fifthly, he does actually listen.

Nick's office is far more open and accessible to the membership than previous leaders (excepting, possibly, Paddy pre-Blair-love-in-bunker phase; don't worry, he got over it). Telephone conferences, video interviews, question and answer sessions at conference, interviews with bloggers… he's been very much more open to interacting with and responding to the members. I was part of the phone call that turned Party policy around on internet snooping. Did they get it wrong? Yes. Did they put it right? Absolutely.

But if – as the complaints go – the leader's office / Party headquarters are supposed to be "disconnected" and "not listening", why hasn't that been fixed? It takes two to tango. We've had two rounds of Federal Executive elections now where a slate of candidates promised to mend that relationship. So if it's still wrong, why haven't they? No one is saying the FE should be considering their own positions for their share of this supposed failure; but equally no one ON the FE is in any position to be calling for Nick to go either. (We've failed so he should go! Not very edifying, is it?)

I try to avoid the negativity of a small group of people commenting intemperately on Lib Dem Voice – or rather accusing anyone who voices disagreement with them, including Auntie Caron of all people, of being part of an "Orange Booker" conspiracy! – who leave the campaign to replace Nick appearing sadly tainted.

So I've stayed away from the purely pragmatic reasons for not dropping the leader at this stage. You know what they are: the timing isn't good; it damaged the "brand" when we dropped Charles (arguably that act cost us seats in 2010; not Cleggy's leadership); it did so again when Ming stepped down; there's no evidence that anyone else would get any fairer hearing than Nick does; why if you believe we're going down to inevitable defeat next year (which I don't), make someone else carry the can. Most importantly, why should we ditch the leader who took us into government on the say so of, frankly, a conspiracy in the pages of the Grauniad? (Reminder: they are NOT our friends!)

We DO need greater coherence – and a great deal more what is technically called… oomph! – to our message; we need to talk louder about tearing down the system that has herded people into voting UKIP; we need to earn back a reputation for fairness and honesty.

I don't see how stabbing Cap'n Clegg in the back helps with any of that.

We lose a lot by getting rid of him; we gain more by keeping him.

I think he should stay.

Yes, Daddy was there in the 'Eighties when Captain Paddy went from 0.0% to 0.4% and his Spitting Image puppet was appearing in a cross-wipe, neither in the previous sketch nor the next one but somewhere in between… He – Puppet Paddy, that is – promised us then that a similar increase at the next election would see him elected Emperor of the Universe… oh, those were the days to be a humiliated Liberal Democrat!

Friday, May 09, 2014

Day 4876: The Day Labour Admitted They Have Lost


Wednesday night's Partly Political Broadside from Hard Labour seems to have got a lot of people talking.

Dan Hodges thinks Hard Labour have gone insane.

Owen Jones thinks it's lacking in hope.

(and it takes some doing for Mr Milipede to look like a less mature grown-up than my fellow Stopfordian!)

While the New Statesman thinks it means Labour are going all out for a majority.

Personally, I think that that last analysis is 100% wrong.

Because self-indulgently playing to their CORE VOTE prejudices is a sure sign that Labour are now falling back on a CORE VOTE STRATEGY.

Sure, Hard Labour supporters may all be very tickled with the "LOLS". But guess what – they were going to vote Hard Labour anyway!

EVERYONE ELSE is going "Well, that's a bit SHI—, er, negative!" And if you want to ensure a majority, then it's EVERYONE ELSE you should be talking to.

You need to be reaching out to floating voters and your rivals' supporters. You know, like that thing that Captain Clegg has been doing with his "we're the Party of IN", building a – dare I say – coalition of people because they support our actual POLICY on Europe, even if they've made up their mind to blame the Captain for not having given him a majority Liberal Democrat government in 2010.

Of course, to do that you do have to have some actual POLICIES to sell them. And it turns out that Hard Labour are coming up empty. Sort of a Hard Up Labour, in fact.

OK, Mr Milipede did have ONE policy – that "energy price freeze" lark that touched the media's sweet spot last year. But that is looking SO 2013, now that the energy companies have hiked their prices and announced their own eighteen month "price freezes" – just like Mr Ed and everyone else said they would – and the meeja have decided La Farage is their new darling.

And – in an obvious effort to strike it lucky with the same card twice – they have now announced they're in favour of rent controls as part of a continuing effort to try to REINTRODUCE THE CORN LAWS: i.e. to artificially depress prices thus cutting off SUPPLY making everyone worse off, rather than trying to address the real need which is increases in DEMAND.

To underline their paucity of ideas we have Mr John Crude Ass Cruddas (trying to get the silly names right…) – Mr Milipede's "policy co-ordinator"; an easy job when they've only got two policies, I suspect – writing in the Grauniad that: "Labour will pioneer the post-industrial economy" off the back of a new "Digital Revolution". So that's "post-industrial" in the sense of no one having any jobs? Do they really believe we'll all be e-commerce entrepreneurs and app-store millionaires? That's quite an upskilling they're promising. Or is it just an acid flashback to the dot-com bubble of 1997? And how did that work out, can anyone remember?

But it's all very thin stuff, dressed up with an anti-Farrago fringe of "No we ARE against the Kippers REALLY!" I guess it's because Cap'n Clegg's been questioning why their leader is not standing up for Europe against UKIP. Not so much "Where's Wally?" as "Where's Milly?". It must have really hit a nerve.

Vague promises of "devolution to our cities and regions" and "renewing the bonds of trust" and "new ways of doing politics" though will give anyone with even a passing familiarity with Lib Dem policy a profound sense of déjà vu.

It seems WILFULLY PERVERSE to depict Nick Clegg as NAKED just as you are trying to steal his clothes!

Oh yes, back to the barely-coherent "plot" of that election broadcast that sees a not-very-Clegg-alike "shrinking" as his promises are undermined by a nasty pseudo-Mr Balloon. It attacks Nick with all the usual old catalogue of allegations while simultaneously depicting him as being forced to do it all by the evil Tories. Well, make your mind up, boys: is he victim or villain?

I even feel some sympathy for the Conservatories in this. Absolutely they've made some pretty poor choices and there has been much pain, often falling on people who should NOT have been let down. But the Tories – and we – didn't do it for "teh Evils"! It was because Labour left behind a situation that was damn near IMPOSSIBLE.

The sort of Cameron-caricature depicted in Hard Labour's ad is the sort of thing you expect from Tweenie Trots in fashionable student debating clubs. But it's not proper politics, is it.

If you want to reduce some really complicated economic factors and impossibly hard decisions to Dr Evil stereotyping, then expect to see LABOUR BROKE THE ECONOMY coming right back at you. That's what everyone believes anyway, no matter how many times you trot out "No, it was like that when we found it, it was the bankers, it's not FAIR!"

In some ways the worst of all is the sheer ARROGANCE of the ad's conclusion that the British people will just drop a Happy Ending into Hard Labour's lap without the Milipedes, Ballses or Crude-asses having to DO any actual "labour" at all.

And in a way, they might. Because Labour's core vote strategy is to try and leverage the unfairness of the electoral system and scrape a majority out of the bare 35% of people who voted them in last time they were "elected", back under the old war-criminal Lord Blarimort.

Because it's quite clear now that they don't expect anyone else to vote for them. And why would they? There were no reasons to vote Labour here, no reaching out to the electorate, no "vision".

Their cartoon-Clegg might be naked on screen, but it's Hard Labour who look like the Emperor with No Clothes.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Day 4846: Joining the Blog Tour – a convenient way to make my excuses for where I’ve been…


Someday's you're just walking down the street and our of the blue a perfectly nice strangers say: "don't you write Millennium's diary?"

(Hello, by the way!)

And the answer is: "Not so's you'd notice recently." And "Sorry!"

But then, quite flatteringly, I got invited to join The Writing Process Blog Tour, a kind of Internet chain letter between writerly types on the web. And I say flattering because there're some actual real quality people doing this.

The idea's a simple one. Each writer in turn answers four questions about their work and then pass the torch to someone else. My invitation came from Lawrence Burton, who is a friend and artist and author of the wonderful and remarkable Faction Paradox novel "Against Nature" which I reviewed here. He was also kind enough to create the cover art for my own book.

Previous entries on the tour are from Lawrence (obviously), Nick Sweeney and Sharon Zink and so on back.

And so this is me:

1 What are you working on at the moment?

I am writing an SF novel called “anarchy rules”.

Or to be more strictly accurate, the first volume, “before dawn”, is finished, and ready to publish, but most of the feedback I have had, while positive, has it as only whetting the appetite without delivering. And that’s fair enough, because it is very “prologue-y”. So I’m writing the second volume, “gods & men” (and occasionally parts of the third “there are no forevers”).

Volume two should start to have real story in it.

A bit.

But, the bad news is it’s looking like being about twice as long as the first volume, so it’s going to take longer to finish. It’s about half done now.

The worse news is that I have a full-time job which is taking ever-increasing amounts of my time, so what I’m mostly writing at the moment is incredibly dull, because it’s a set of monthly accounts.

Should I have any time of my own, though, that’s what I’m doing.

2 How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Philosophically, I’d say it’s because I’m a Liberal.

You need to start by saying who I’m like, I suppose. The people who I admire, and I guess try to emulate, are the likes of Douglas Adams, Iain (with or without an M) Banks, Charlie Stross, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Lawrence Miles… People with an incredible density of ideas on the page; people whose world-building is as vast and intricate as anything by Tolkien or Martin but whose starting point is a skewed version of our own sliver of reality.

But there is a tendency in this line to be a bit of a lefty, well just look at the list. Or worse, there are others who are full on Randian right-wingers. I’m trying to plough a Liberal furrow.

In practical terms, it’s all about stories within stories. The books are very much written as anthologies, seven short stories – ten to twenty thousand words apiece – within a framing device, and with other asides and spin-offs, that, as a whole, form a bigger picture: the first volume, say, the completed one is at its heart “origin stories for super-heroes gone wrong”. Then the three volumes together form a bigger picture, of order descending into chaos because you can’t give people godlike powers and expect that to end well. If it goes beyond that, there’s a bigger picture still to explore.

3 Why do you write what you do?

In a way, this question perplexes me, a bit like asking “why do you breathe oxygen?” Writing is as necessary as breathing and these ideas are the atmosphere I happen to be writing in.

My background, my student days as a mathematician, my politics, my partner, my preferred television – Doctor Who, the Avengers, Babylon 5 – the people who’ve inspired me (Andrew, Lawrence) and what they write about, the times we live in… all of these things combine to infuse me with the ideas that my stories are built out of.

I suppose there is a single overriding concept at the root of “anarchy rules” – I’m not going to say what it is because it’s part of that bigger picture to explore that I mentioned, so it’s not ready yet – but there’s a lodestone there that draws in the other ideas and sets them in their orbits, begins to accrete plot, and directs the overarching story.

That concept means writing a story that is a “story about stories”, about worlds within worlds, and about what is real and what is imagined and what is real because it is imagined.

4 How does your writing process work?

Like a magpie building a nest.

You start gathering lots of shiny things. Pop science, culture, faces seen in the street, news items… they are all sources of possible ideas, BBC Radio4 – now I’ve discovered a lot of their output is available as podcasts – is a terrific resource. And reading. Lots of reading. You’ve got to see how writing is done to know how to do it. (And then you’ve got to write a lot to work out how you can do it.)

Then from all the shiny things, you start to throw them together and see what sort of structure emerges. There’s an idea about a plot – that is a sequence of events that you’re going to hang this story around – but that’s actually remarkably fluid early on.

For each bit you write there’s direct research. Start on the Internet: Wikipedia (yes, afraid so) and Google Maps are incredible tools for the writer wanting to look quickly at a subject or a location. And again, your old fashioned actual books. More reading.

As you write, you start to get the feel of what your characters want to do, and that may be go off in a different direction than you thought. Keep on writing and connections will emerge that you weren’t aware of to begin with but you’d clearly been thinking of. You can trust to your subconscious a lot.

But also keep reading it back and don’t be afraid of chucking it out if it’s rubbish. Or just if it no longer fits. Keep the pieces, there’s always a chance you might be able to recycle them later. Keep writing stuff. Doesn’t matter if it’s crude to start with. Rereading it will give you the chance to hone your language. You can make sure your imagery and metaphors reflect and foreshadow once you know where you’re going to end up. Try not to write exactly the same thing twice. For me, I’m trying to show reflections, parallels, similarities in the stories, but time they do have to be slightly different every time.

I am, however, rubbish at finishing things. I flit from one story to another as bits of idea catch my eye. So there are seven stories to write and only one is finished. Another is getting nearly finished. A third was making good progress but hasn’t seen me for a while. The fourth is a framework, the fifth a skeleton, the sixth just a cloud of words and the seventh not even that, existing purely in my head as a location and a bit of a twist.

So in the meantime, here is a song…

We welcome you to Goblin Town
Where the king wears sunshine for a crown
We dance and sing for the pleasure of the king
And so will you when he's around

We welcome you to our Unselie Court
Where pleasure bent is our every thought
To play some more is the whole of the law
And we'll have our way in wicked sport

We welcome you to the place of feast
Where you'll love the taste of juicy meats
We'll have you for dinner too
For everything is good to eat

Welcome to our labyrinth of gold
Where jewelled trinkets overflow
You'll be amazed in our crystal caves
And vaults that hold you till you grow old

You're welcome too to iron and ire
To furnace hot, and forge and fire
Far from the sun our tunnels run
To the house of pain that ends desire

Welcome then to the heart of stone
Where gods of chaos make their throne
Where talk of rules is the song of fools
And you find yourself left all alone

Welcome last where the Deep Ones swim
Where the fires fail and the light grows dim
There's no coming back from the heart of the black
From the darkest hole where you've fallen down
We welcome you to Goblin Town
We welcome you to Goblin Town.

Now I suggest you go and check out Mr Andrew while I try to rope some more folks into this tour larks!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Day 4833: In and Proud


Did you miss me? I've been EVER so busy (definitely NOT sulking. JUST because I'm a TEENAGER now!)

Tonight we'll be supporting a POSITIVE case for IN, cheering on Captain Clegg when he faces off against evil former-banker Mr Farrago, aka Dr Nigel No, Chief Kipper of the UKPNuts.

And HOORAY! for that! It's been AGES since I was so PROUD of the Liberal Democrats*. Just watch the video:

Doesn't that WARM your FLUFF!

It's certainly woken Daddy Alex up. He's written some NEW words to help the Captain out: Putting #WhyIAmIN Into What the Lib Dems Stand For!

And, like BAGPUSS, when Daddy wakes up, all his fluffy friends wake up! (Don't be RUDE! I mean ME!)

Like Daddy, I've had another look at my answer to his challenge last year and like Daddy I've added more guff included even more good Liberal values!

“The Liberal Democrats stand for freedom.

Freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity.

Freedom for every individual, family, group, community, society or nation.

Freedom from inheriting the financial and environmental mistakes of earlier generations.

Freedom to live your life enjoying the rewards for your own endeavour, governed by your own choices – with equality before the law; without harming others.

To deliver these freedoms, for today and the future, needs both fairness and practicality; opportunity and compassion.

  • An economy that is stronger, and sustainable for the future, where everyone also pays their share.
  • A society which is fairer and that recognises that we work better together, together locally, together in the UK and together in Europe, to fight crime, ensure fair trade, tackle climate change and break down barriers to understanding.

The Liberal Democrats believe in a better future. That’s why Liberal Democrats are working to build a fairer, freer society and a stronger, greener economy, enabling every person to live the life they want.”

With all that help, I'm sure that Captain Clegg will do well.

*What has a Liberal Government ever done for us, eh?

Apart from being the only Western country with falling inequality, obviously, what have the Lib Dems in government actually done for us?

That is apart from falling inequality and getting through the worst recession for a hundred years with falling unemployment, falling inflation and a falling deficit, what have the Liberal Democrats achieved?

You know, set aside the falling inequality, strengthening economy, and raising the personal allowance so that millions of people on low and average earnings have had a tax cut (while taxing the rich more), can you think of anything that the Lib Dems have actually done?

Because and obviously we're not mentioning the falling inequality, strengthening economy, fairer taxes and sorting out the pension system, with a triple lock to maintain the value of current pensions, with better provision for everyone in future AND trusting people with their own money when they retire, can you think of any reason we should be proud of the Lib Dems in power?

I mean, not counting falling inequality, strengthening economy, fairer taxes, better pensions, and turning Labour student loans into what is effectively a graduate tax when graduates will pay less each month and that has seen more people from less well-off backgrounds than ever before going to University, what use have the Lib Dems been in the Coalition?

So if we ignore the falling inequality, strengthening economy, fairer taxes, better pensions, wider access to University, and of course free school meals… and ending child detention … and the world's first green bank… and apprenticeships… and no I.D cards… and the pupil premium… APART from all that…

What HAVE the Liberal Democrats done to make us feel proud?

Oh, and before we all have a Miranda moment, we got equal(er) marriage too.