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...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Day 5168: An Elephant's Eye on the Election

Tuesday:

You may not have noticed that there's an election coming. They've been keeping rather quiet about it.

A number of people have said that this year's election is "too close to call" or "too complicated" but I think that, even this far out, the results are pretty obvious.

The Liberal Democrats will come fourth in vote share with probably about 16% and win two-hundred and nine five-way marginals. Nick Clegg will become Leader of the Opposition as Al Murray is swept into Downing Street, made Prime Minister as leader of the Stop Farrago Alliance of Labour, Tory and SNP.

Okay, maybe it won't QUITE happen like that. It might be two-hundred and EIGHT – get down to Hornsey and Wood Green because we CAN win there and help keep Lynne Featherstone as MP for Awesome.

Okay, okay, maybe not two-hundred and eight either. But there are reasons for OPTIMISM. Maybe not quite as much optimism as Auntie Caron managed to muster in telling the Westminster Hour we could hold all fifty-seven of our current seats, though you've got to admire her for saying it with a straight face.

I think we can hold at least half, probably somewhere in the mid-thirties, and maybe a gain or two as well.

The reasons for this are, of course, complicated, but come down to the weakness of Mr Milipede's Hard Labour and the split vote on the right.

LABSERVATIVES


We only HAVE about 15 seats facing challengers from Hard Labour or Nasty Nationalists – well, we have a couple more than that, but no one is taking Charlie Kennedy or Alistair Carmichael's seat without Viking Longboats. Most of our seats are a fight with our so-called partners in Coalition the Conservatories.

In order to counter the PERCEIVED threat from the Party they REALLY want to be in bed with, the Kippers, Mr Balloon has been not so much tacking to the right as galloping for the starboard flank as fast as Master Gideon's little legs and Theresa May's kitten heels can carry him. Policies like deep cuts in benefits, targeted at the young and the fatshamed; the obsession with cutting spending deeper and harder than necessary – while promising vast and unfunded give-away tax cuts, not to mention remaining highly dubious in their attitude to possible tax evasion especially by their rich supporters; their increasing security paranoia, with Civil Liberties infringements verging back towards New Labour era; above all the frothing venom over Europe and immigration… all these are painting them as the Nastier-than-Ever Party.

It makes it all the more desperately important than ever that Liberal Democrats hold the centre ground, not because we're wishy-washy and moderate, but because we're the Party with a radical social conscience and grounded, practical, old-fashioned British COMMON SENSE.

Fortunately for Britain (not to mention us!), Mr Milipede's cohorts appear to have decided that he's already lost. They have wasted the last five years conspicuously failing to come up with an alternative plan to Osborneomics-lite while ostentatiously avoiding any engagement with apology for the catastrophe that overwhelmed them in office. In much the same way as Mr Vague's disastrous 2001 election odyssey descended into "Save the Pound! Save My Job!", they are reduced to pitiful wails of "Save the NHS! Save the Milipede!"

It isn't that they don't have any policies. It's just that they don't have any policies that would make anything BETTER.

Take the latest mini-spat over TUITION FEES. It's clearly ALL about the POSITIONING. They want to be able to play the Nick Clegg card AGAIN, so they want to wave a policy that LOOKS totemic (but isn't) so that they can wave Lib Dem pledge cards around (please no one notice Labour pledges). Except first it means pissing two-billion quid up the wall and Mr Balls can't find the cash, and second, more importantly, it's a give-away to the RICHEST students, and doesn't actually HELP people who need it. Whereas the as-good-as Graduate Tax that the Liberal Democrats negotiated has ACTUALLY helped a huge increase in the numbers of people from the least well off backgrounds making it to University.

(The man responsible, Tristram Hunt – surely that's a silly nickname? – is clearly a total liability, whether it's announcing that he's PRIVATISING SURE START – which I remain astounded has not received more coverage; though not at the total lack of synthetic outrage from Pollyanna Toytown – or insulting all NUNS. That's no doubt why he's convinced himself he's got a shot at Mr Milipede's job.

Though to get it, he'll have to get past Mr Woodchuck Umunna, whose face can currently be found next to the Wikipedia definition of "ambition".)

Meanwhile Mr Balls, while remaining the man who most people blame for the crash, has recently managed to forget the names of Labour's business backers and suggest that every window-cleaner needs a paper audit trail. Bill Somebody and get a Receipt, you might say. Mr Ball's position is, er, erratic to say the least, oscillating between occasional adherence to the terrifying splurges of Modern Money Theory (or Magic Money Tree economics) and back to flat out austerity and refusing any of his colleagues the cash to fund their endless lists of not-quite-pledges.

So the rest of the Shadow Cabinet are all "on manoeuvres" rather than campaigning to win. They expected to inherit the Coalition's position on the green benches, but if they can't do that they'll settle for inheriting Milipede's seat instead.

That's where the Liberal Democrats need to press hard that we remain the ONLY Party that stands between the country and a terrifying Tory majority. Hard Labour just aren't up to the job. The last five years have shown that Liberal Democrat ministers and back-benchers have got the guts and determination to hold the line against the Tories.

SICKLY GREENS


One response to Mr Milipede's shambles has been the Green Surge. No, I don't mean BARFING.

The Greens would be more admirable if their one MP hadn't been more loyal to the Labour Line than many of Mr Milipede's own alleged colleagues. (Apparently the Green Party's own slang is "Watermelon" – Green on the Outside, Red on the Inside – but this is probably RACIST to watermelons.) Seeking to capitalise on Labour's weakness and to outflank them on the left they are standing as a Syriza-like anti-austerity ticket, though that might not play out so well now that the real Syriza have apparently capitulated to European Union demands to stick with the austerity programme.

(Thus probably saving Greece, but SELFISHLY denying us the service of demonstrating the Farrago Folly by proving that dropping out of the Euro actually COULD make things extremely very much WORSE.)

What I REALLY object to, though, is how much of an Ed Balls Up the Greens are making of selling the policy of a Citizens' Income, a policy that apparently I, a stuffed elephant, understand better than the Green Leader Ms Notaclue Bennett.

There are many positives to be gained from providing a basic flat rate cash stipend to every single person in the country, potentially saving a lot of bureaucracy, protecting people from abusive employers, rewarding carers and housewives/husbands for their contribution, and greatly simplifying and maybe even SAVING some people's lives. But it's neither cheap nor simple to get there and it needs a good, strong PLAN that you can lay out to get to all the upsides. What you absolutely cannot do is KEEP going on the radio and the tellybox and waving your fluffy feet in the air saying "read the website, I don't remember this bit!"

NASTY NATS


The OTHER response to the Great Miliflop is the rise of the tide of nationalist parties. "Blame-the-other-people" parties always do well in difficult times, and the economic times we've been through have hardly been difficulter.

And after five solid years of Labour supporters screaming blue murder about the Liberal Democrats for working with the Conservatories, it is quite a BITTER IRONY that they find the exact same tactic being turned upon them by the Scots Nats for supporting the Conservatories and other pro-Union Parties in the Referendum Campaign.

There could hardly be a better demonstration of the FLAWS of our First Pass the Port electoral rules (and how STUPID our journalists are) than what is happening in Scotland. The press appear ASTONISHED that the LOSING side in the referendum seems to be doing so well in the prospects for Parliament. But it's simple MATHS.

Under ANY system of alternative voting, the pro-Union votes transfer to block the minority Nasties. Which is what happened in the Referendum.

But under First Pass the Port, the LARGEST LOSER WINS.

Because there are SEVERAL Parties that want to keep the United Kingdom, the winning side is DIVIDED; because the Scots Nasties are ISOLATED, they hoover up all the anti-votes. Ironically, this is the tactic of MARGARET THATCHER, who they hate.

Hilarious as it is that the Nasties are probably going to deprive Mr Milipede of any chance of an outright majority, the worse outlook is that they might ALSO deprive him of enough seats to form a Coalition with the remaining Liberal Democrats.

KIPPERS


Channel Four's mockumentary "UKIP: The First 100 Days" has received record numbers of complaints. Mainly because that's what Kippers do best: complain. In fact, it's difficult to know if they do anything else. Except make on-camera racist remarks.

Though also, it was RUBBISH.

There was almost no sting to the satire, no ring of dangerous truth to the warnings. Police snatch-squads and brutalisation of innocent minorities were treated much more DAD'S ARMY than SECRET ARMY. Economic implosion didn't seem to affect anyone's standard of living, in spite of all the factories closing. And the nice lady UKIP parliamentarian turned out to be nice in the end, so that was all right. We didn't get to see the follow-up scene where it's explained that she's "had a breakdown" and she's carted off to Broadmoor in one of those coats that ties up the back while her family are on a one-way flight to Karachi.

No, if anyone should be complaining it's the OTHER PARTIES for this far too nice portrayal, that seems to imply we could get away with electing a bunch of RACISTS without it all going Nuremberg on us.

Of course, the last thing Farrago wants is to actually WIN. Winning means having to do something other than complain. Worse, it means being the one who is complained ABOUT. No, he likes his nice cushy Euro-job where he gets paid a fortune and doesn't have to show any results. Or even show up!

Still, lucky for Nigel our electoral system is so horlicksed that he probably won't have to face his nightmare scenario of being everyone else's nightmare scenario.

LIBERAL DEMOCRAT GOVERNMENT


The PLAN for the Liberal Democrats has always been to show that Coalition WORKS, and that we can be TRUSTED in Government. We've certainly shown that a Coalition CAN last five years. Remember, almost EVERY SINGLE commentator in 2010 expected a second election within six months. We've proven them wrong once already. Whether we can be TRUSTED is… a slightly other matter, unfortunately.

It's difficult to see how we can continue in Coalition with the Tories. We've largely used up the areas of policy overlap, not to mention the GOODWILL, between our Parties. Equally though, many people have suggested that a period in Opposition, licking our wounds, might serve the Party well.

Maybe it would, but would it serve our Country well?

I still believe that the purpose of political parties is to be in Government, getting things done.

(Not the Labour Party's urgent desire to be in Government just to be in Government; not the Conservatories belief that they are entitled to be in Government because they are entitled.)

A Labour/Liberal Coalition, with Vince Cable as Chancellor (finally!), would be a better outcome for the Country (AND demonstrate that Coalition can remain stable even if the larger partner transitions) than a feeble minority Labour administration, with Scots Nats and Green demonstrating the real meaning of "propping up" (where they can take ALL the blame and get no policies at all enacted). And another Liberal/Tory Coalition, could one be bodged together in the wake of the election tearing strips out of each other (probably around an agreement that WE will run the country while Mr Balloon plays Euro-referendum) would STILL be better than letting the nutters run the asylum on their own (with the Farragistas not so much propping up as pushing to topple over).

But the real choice belongs, quite rightly to the British people.

And we've only just begun.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Day 5060: DOCTOR WHO: Remembrance (Day) of the Cybermen*

Saturday:


There’s one central idea here done superbly well: the Master is just doing all this to get her friend back.

Alex once wrote a piece – one I fully endorse – titled “The Time Lords are Gits and Always Have Been”, chronicling their use and abuse of arbitrary power from “The War Games” on.

And suddenly, watching this, I realised that it’s the Doctor who is the fallen Time Lord, not the Master. The Master, Missy, just wants him to see that they are supposed to be ruling the cosmos and then he’ll come back and play with her the way they used to.



Michelle Gomez is really good at this. Properly bananas as her character says. Even in handcuffs. (Eat that, River Song!) The horrible brutality of killing Osgood the cos-play fangirl – for no reason – is exactly the sort of thing that the Master needed, to underline that she is not just some suave giggling loon, but really properly evil. And grounded in a solid motivation (and decades of “shipping”), the character is a better, more worthy adversary than she has been in years.

It’s not a novel observation to say that “Dark Water”/“Death in Heaven” is Moffat doing “Army of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” his way. Ghosts or skeletons that are revealed as Cybermen; a global invasion; a twist halfway to introduce another old enemy (the Daleks even get a cheeky name-check); even the hand-brake turn last-minute twist to stop the heartbreak ending being too much.

Nor is it a secret that Moffat is not very fond of two-parters: he hasn’t done one since “The Rebel Flesh”/“The Almost People”; hasn’t written one himself since “The Pandorica Opens”/“The Big Bang”; and even when he has, it’s usually to perform a big scene shift to a second part that is often hugely different in location or scope or tone.

But Russell clearly got something right when he minted the new series with a spectacular two- or even three-part finale at the end of every year.

The success of the individual stories is less of the issue here, than how they round out the seasons. For the record, we love the Mister Master in his “Last of the Time Lords” trilogy, and of Russell’s five finales, only “Journey’s End” and “The End of Time” bellyflop into disappointing us, but your mileage may vary. What I’m saying is that the Moffat era could be characterised by series – six, seven a and seven b – that come to an end without coming to a climax.

So it’s some sort of irony that Moffat’s here using the form to write what is ultimately a pretty good story that is also a seriously good capstone to the series arcs, for a series where those arcs have been based in character rather than plot. It seems that Steven is just better at re-writing Russell “but better” than he is at his own stuff.

The other fantastically good scene here is, of course, also a collage of Russell moments, which is Clara’s farewell (even though it isn’t… what is it with Moffat-era companions not being able to say goodbye?).

The way that it’s prefaced with Danny’s inevitable self-sacrifice (a voice from the other side, riffing on Rose’s summons to Bad Wolf Bay in “Doomsday”) and intercut with the raw emotion of the Doctor assaulting the TARDIS in grief that the Master lied and Gallifrey is still gone beautifully composits the information that the audience needs to understand what is happening.

Coleman and Capaldi have been brilliant all year, but never better than in this goodbye that caps off the emotional arc of (this year’s version of) Clara Oswald where all her lies have finally come back to bite her on the bottom, only for her to finish by telling the biggest white lie of all to spare the Doctor just as he does the same for her.

If only all the moments could be as good. Or at least not so cripplingly disappointing.

When I said last time that I thought I’d been spoiled, it wasn’t about the slow, careful, clever build up to the revelation of the Cybermen in “Dark Water” being blown in the teaser at the end of “In the Forest of the Night”. Although it was.

(Of course knowing there would be Cybermen, it was obvious that they were Cybermen, to the extent I didn’t even realise it was meant to be a surprise and so the slowly draining tanks reveal seemed a bit pointless. But I didn’t spot that the 3W logo was a Cyber teardrop until the doors closed to reveal them as a pair; I’d been thinking of it as a “map” of the Nethersphere touching the larger sphere of the real universe as it were as the City of the Saved.)

But I had a much bigger problem with “Clara Oswald has never existed”, because to me that suggested a retrospective redemption of the whole Impossible Girl arc and too-good-to-be-true Clara of season seven.

With Missy, as everyone guessed, turning out to be the Master and also, as everyone guessed, the “woman on the phone” who gave Clara the TARDIS telephone number, along with the drop-in scenes suggesting that Missy “chose” Clara for the Doctor… the expectation rose that Clara was either a construct of the Master’s, like Seb, or maybe the Master’s TARDIS (remember how Clara and the TARDIS did not get on in series seven?), or even the next regeneration of the Master herself (Missy = Miss C Oswald… apparently, nahh). (Or was Oswald the Penguin!)

Having Moffat’s companion be the most specialist ever, who jumps into the Doctor’s timestream to save him and so meets him (and beats him!) everywhere smacks just a teensy bit of “Mary Sue”. But having the Master wrap him/herself around every point in the Doctor’s timestream because… “a Universe without the Doctor scarcely seems worth imagining”, now that would be properly epic. In fact, it would be an almost perfect reversal of the “they turn out to be the same person” ending that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had in mind for their “Final Problem”, and incorporate elements of the Reichenbach Fall ending that Saward and Holmes planned for “Trial of a Time Lord”. It would even be satisfyingly timey-wimey for a Moffat story.

Really, the only other way to go would be for Clara to turn out to have been the Doctor all along.

Oh.

The twist with Clara turns sour because it is so obviously a fake-out, and such a waste of a terrific idea.

It would be such a great story to do, too: the end of season switcheroo reveal that Doctor and companion were actually the other way around. But having done it for false now, how can someone do it for real?

But you couldn’t have done it at the end of this season eight. You couldn’t have done it after seeing Matt Smith turn into Peter Capaldi, or after the scene in “Deep Breath” where Capaldi’s Doctor remembers the phone call made by Smith’s. You couldn’t do it after a season that included “Listen” that expressly takes the present Doctor back to his childhood on Gallifrey. You couldn’t do it after a season that included “Flatline”, a story about Clara trying to be the Doctor. (Though wouldn’t that have worked differently in retrospect if she’d turned out to be the Master!)

What you needed was to end “The Time of the Doctor” with Clara (or “Clara”) returning to the TARDIS and meeting Capaldi, and he knows nothing about who he is so she tells him that he’s this man called “The Doctor” and then season eight is about her setting out to teach him how to be this Time Lord, this hero.

(And – suggests Alex – we could have cast that jobbing actor, even though he’d been in it before, who’s been in tons of things and was very respected but really became well-known when he got a bit older and got all crabby and sweary and was in a sit-com. He meant “A Very Peculiar Practice” and “Waiting For God” of course…)

In order to work, it needs some things to be more ambiguous. The fake Doctor can’t fly the TARDIS alone, for example, so can’t keep materialising at Clara’s home to collect her. And he can’t rely on pulling knowledge or Gallifreyan superpowers out of his hat (though you could slyly imply that Clara does – perhaps having her seem to appear somewhere out of nowhere, the way Missy appears to shift at super-speed when she makes her move and grabs Osgood).

There was a chance there to have done something jaw-dropping. But instead, Moffat burned that idea. Tossed it away for a gag. It brings to mind his engineering the Doctor’s regenerations so that he could be the one to confront the “thirteen regenerations limit”, only to blow it off with “and the Time Lords gave him some more lives”.

Burning up ideas like TARDIS keys, Moffat is closing the box on other people using these ideas to tell much better stories, and I think that’s a real shame. Russell used to throw out ideas for people to tie up in better stories – the Fall of Arcadia, the Moment – so it’s a good job no-one’s used those up in half-baked fan-fic…Hang on…



The Cybermen were, obviously, totally wasted. Where exactly did all those metal suits come from, I ask? Gallifreyan technology, says Alex and fair play to him I’ll give him that. And I suppose you could say that just for once in her lives, the Master teams up with a monster menace only to betray them before they betray her!

But really, do we have to believe that every single human was willing to delete their emotions and turn bad, unless they were so specially-wecially as to be in love with Clara Oswald (or the Doctor… see below). Seb tells us the Nethersphere is emptying and we see the lights going out. And yet only two Cybermen out of all of humanity resist the conversion.

Again, it’s the better story not told. The Cybermen are never (apart possibly from “The Tenth Planet”) treated as individuals. They all just become an army of grunts. (Ironically, when the season’s been trying so hard to tell us that soldiers have personalities too.)

Whatever Danny might say about the Doctor being an officer and a general, he’s lying to himself if he thinks he’s not doing exactly the thing he condemns when he orders the Cyber-army to their deaths without compunction. Though to be fair, he’s probably had Clara delete his compunction.

As for his big soldier speech to the Cybermen – was anyone else just hoping they’d reply to “love is a promise” with “we don’t care; we’re Cybermen, you moron!”?

Still it could have been worse. Oh wait. It was.



I’d really expected that the Doctor would use the TARDIS to save Kate from falling out of that airplane – as he’s done to save River Song at least twice. It’s not like he was going to be late for getting to Clara in the graveyard in his time machine. And at least it would have spared us the Cyber-Brig. Oh for shame, they even painted his handles black to make him a Cyber-leader.

The Brigadier’s passing in “The Wedding of River Song”, the Doctor missing it, and learning a lesson about mortality, was understated, tasteful and a last nod to a beloved old friend. So why the need to bring him back? And as a Cyberman?! What is it with Moffat-era companions not being able to say goodbye?

(And while we’re at it, “permission to squee” is up there with burping bins and farting Slitheen as… something I will have to get used to.) I’m glad to say that Alex enjoyed it, though. Mainly because the Master immediately shot him.

If there’s one tiny sliver of redemption for the whole wretched idea it’s this:

“Who will save your soul, Doctor?” Well who is it who is always there to shoot the monsters so that the Doctor doesn’t have to?

But, having got all that out of my system, let me return to the story that was actually there, rather than the stories I thought might be there or hoped might be there, because the one that Steven does tell is still a good story.

The genius of it is this: all season we have seen Clara trying to be the Doctor, trying to keep up with his breakneck lifestyle, trying to match his moral ambiguities. And all season the Doctor has been asking the question that Clara should have been asking herself, practically shouting it in her face: am I a good man?

How often do we stop to interrogate our own actions? Or do we, like Clara, keep on doing what we’re doing – telling the little lies to cover the bigger ones – because it’s simpler to keep following the path rather than stopping to think, really think if it’s the right path.

We all like to think we are “good men/women/choose your own label or none”. We are all the heroes of our own story, as the saying goes; and as Moffat has said, Clara thinks the show is called “Clara”. But the Doctor’s answer is a good one: it’s too hard to be a “good man”; it’s okay to recognise yourself as a silly one, one just muddling through with a box and a screwdriver, trying to help. That’s actually quite liberating – the freedom from the obligation to “do good”; and the avoidance of the total harm that “do-gooding” can do (take heed, politicians of all stripes).

The Master thinks only in absolutes. She takes the logic of being good to the max: obviously you want an army raised from the dead and slaved to your will because if you are going to be “good” you need to do all the good, stop all the evil, destroy all the monsters.

And that’s bananas.

We, as a society, seem to have gotten ourselves stuck in a place where we are all expected to work harder, increase the productivity, deliver more. We are trapped in a World of “The Apprentice” where we have to give it 110%. And that’s the same logic that the Master uses. It’s not okay to be just okay.

I like that our hero, the fallen Time Lord, wins with the simple, welcome realisation that it’s okay to fall short.

So forgive me for demanding better stories. It was wrong, when the lesson of this one is so good.

Also, somewhere, presumably, Rory has just come back from the dead again as a Cyberman.

Next Time: Santa Claus? Santa Claus! Dammit we’re British! He’s Father bloody Christmas!

Start the Wham! It’s “Last Christmas”.


*May not contain actual Cybermen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Day 5098: You Can Prove Anything With Statistics Un More Temps

Tuesday:

Ho ho ho Merry Christmas, and here’s Pollyanna Toytown in the Grauniad telling us that the Conservatories want to eat babies.

Polly’s clearly getting worried that Mr Ed won’t be delivering her cushy peerage a victory for social democracy anytime soon, as her language gets less believable by the day.

Today she’s claiming that “Only one in forty new jobs is full time”, citing the Workers Revolutionary Party(!) rather than the press release from TUC who came up with this statistic, presumably because the TUC use the word “Net” rather than “New”, a small difference but a significant one.


The TUC have arrived at their figure by taking the Office for National Statistics numbers for the amount of people in employment in summer 2014 and comparing them with the numbers from the start of 2008, before Mr Frown’s Government ran face first into the biggest crash in history.

The Coalition government like to do this too, because it shows that a million more people have jobs now than before the economy was wiped out under Labour.

And the figures do show that twenty-five thousand more people are in full time employment now than in 2008, which is indeed 25,000/1,000,000 or 1/40 of the total increase.

Think about it for a moment and see if you spot the flaw in the reasoning before I tell you.

Yes, that’s 1/40 is of the extra new jobs, not all new jobs.

This makes the TUC’s headline somewhat hyperbolic, but at least with a figleaf of honesty in that, pardon me, “safety Net”.

To switch the “net” for “new” makes the headline say a whole other thing.

So the question becomes, is Polly stupid or lying? I have to say that citing the Workers Revolutionary Party – when she is neither worker nor particularly revolutionary, and not much of a party animal either; despite her aspirations to influence, the defector to and then from the SDP usually ends up in a party of one – suggests that she was looking for the headline to match her prejudice.

For Pollyanna’s claim to apply to “one in forty new jobs” she would have to be saying that not one single full time job has been lost under the Coalition.

It seems unlikely that Ms Toytown’s message is that the Coalition are paragons of preservation when it comes to employment.

In fact, Polly – and the Labour Party – put it about rather a lot that the Coalition have caused the loss of a great many full time jobs (by implication “proper” jobs) and replaced them with part-time zero-hour (substandard) serfdom. And that is what this “one in forty” claim is trying to back up, to make you think.

But the figures actually show that just as many people (actually slightly more) have full time jobs now than before the Credit Crunch.

And there are a lot more people in part-time and self-employed jobs, who were previously without work at all.

Of course it’s not that simple. Some people who were in full-time jobs have lost them and not got new ones are now in part time work or unemployed. There’s genuine hardship and suffering about. And the real value – after inflation – of the wages from those full-time jobs may not be as much as they used to be in 2008 because we’ve been sharing the pain so that fewer people lose their jobs. We mustn’t forget that.

But Hard Labour cynically seek to capitalize on this politically by calling it their “Cost of Living Crisis”.

The recent cross-party report on hunger in the UK was remarkably fair and non-partisan. But again, almost immediately Hard Labour went for the self-interested spin and started crying crocodile tears over the “shame” of Britain’s Food Banks. (Germany, in fact, has more people using food banks.)

This point-scoring for their own ends undermines efforts to help end hunger. Labour don’t just put their own interests ahead of fixing things; they actually make things worse.

Polly Toynbee no doubt justifies her mendacity with the thought that Labour are “good” and so anything to get them into power, no matter how dishonest or harmful, must be “good”.

No doubt David Milipede justified British complicity in CIA torture with much the same reasoning.


Previously, Statistics Part Un

and Part Deux

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Day 5092: What Price Justice?

Wednesday:


When members of Maggie Thatcher’s Cabinet are telling you “whoa, that’s a bit right wing”, you might just want to rethink your plans for Judicial Review.

Of course, since Mr Christopher Greything usually responds to people who disagree with him by trying to abolish them, we might finally see some Lords Reform.

But the Coalition, particularly its Lib Dem ministers, are supposed to be a listening government. Let our Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians take this opportunity to say they have listened to the concerns of their Lordships and of our own membership and thought again and drop this dangerous bill.


I was ashamed – once again – at the long list of Liberal Democrat MPs voting to strike down the Lords’ amendments to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. People ask me to justify that. I can’t.

Was there some deal? Was it part of an arrangement to get Liberal Democrat priorities like infrastructure investment, apprenticeships or anti-tax-evasion measures through the Autumn Statement? Whatever it was, the deal’s clearly off now that past-master of the political attack George Osborn has “declared war” on the Lib Dems, saying taxes would rise if we’re in government (clue: this is not a secret, Master Gideon).

Heroically, the Lords – for shame, the House of Lords! – have once again ridden to the rescue. To lose one vote in the Lords may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose one hundred smacks of absolute bloody-minded stupidity.

But there is no shame in listening. We’ve been here before with the Snoopers’ Charter. (And look to be here again with the Snooper’s Charter II, but that’s another gripe.) Take on board that there are serious and well-founded concerns with the Bill and accept the changes. It’s not in the Coalition agreement. If you can’t bring yourselves to vote against it after you’ve voted for it, all that is necessary is to say Liberal Democrats will abstain.


This isn’t about defending our traditions of justice. Magna Carta, did she die in vain etc etc. People who insist on calling Judicial Review a “foundation stone” of our democracy are both overstating and undervaluing its position. Far from defending our traditional systems this is about enshrining necessary new ones. Our system is woefully short of checks and balances and far from being an ancient right, long taken for granted, this is a much-needed modern addition to our unwritten constitution, and not one to be tossed aside.

You might like to trace it back to the King’s Writ, but that’s a fig-leaf for a legal system that places much store on precedent. Really it is a judge-made development, taking off in the Nineteen Eighties, when somebody had to stand up to a government that was unrestrained by Parliament by dint of a huge majority, with much of its force added by way of the Human Rights Act, granting the courts the power, indeed the duty, to oversee the government’s compliance with our basic human rights.

In fact it’s not really compatible with Parliamentary Sovereignty – which is why Parliament keeps writing new and sillier laws to grant itself permission to ignore one judgment or another – but incorporating independent third-party review of legislation is a vital step towards properly holding the executive and legislature to account.

But that’s not the point.

And it’s not about humiliating the Secretary of State, Mr Christopher Greything, a Tory too dull to be described as a Sinister Minister of Justice, but who just won’t be told when he’s in the wrong.

It’s not that I don’t have any sympathy for a Department of Justice facing the austerity squeeze, that’s already cut legal aid to the bone. The numbers of Judicial Review cases have tripled since 2000; they’re very expensive; and, given the large percentage that the government wins, you can see how someone might think they are often vexatious or at least time-wasting.

There’s certainly a case for arguing that justice is already far too expensive: the courts are a rich man’s playground (and I do generally mean “man”), because taking any kind of action is prohibitively expensive for anyone without thousands – if not millions, just ask former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell – to toss around. Most people cannot even think of going to court unless forced to by the most horrible of circumstances. Changing it from unthinkably expensive to impossibly expensive is surely address the problem in dramatically the wrong direction, though.

But that’s not the point either.

We came into the Coalition with a huge mandate for reform of Civil Liberties after years of Hard Labour eroding them. Detention without trial. Fingerprinting children. Almost the first thing we did, even before that Rose Garden Press Conference was nuke the idea of I.D. Cards.

Since then it’s been one rear-guard action after another, usually against Tin-Pot Theresa of the Home Office.

But Civil Liberties are not just some abstract legal discussion. Today’s revelations about the CIA only underline that unchecked power leads directly to abuse, and even torture.

So, the point is this:

Access to justice, standing up for the citizen against the bullies, protection against “The Man”: these are the things that my Party is supposed to be for!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Day 5053: DOCTOR WHO: Damp Water

Saturday:


That which is dead cannot die…

(Yes, we were in New England for the first broadcast of “Dark Water”.)



Re-watching the two-part season finale has helped me to appreciate it. My first viewing, I realised, had been overshadowed by expectations and inferences drawn from the previous week’s teaser. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I was, for the first time, spoiled by a “next time” trail. Not “spoilers” in the River Song sense, but spoiled in that the trailer constructed a story in my head that was better than the one we ended up with.

(I fear it’s not the first time – or the last – that I’ve thought of a better story– I remember doing it for a ‘Mr the Supreme Dalek’ back in Russell’s day, but I think it’s the first time I’ve done in in advance!)

Just to warn you, I’m going to range freely over plot points from both episodes, though I’ll generally focus on the Cybermen for this review and more on the Master in what I write about “Death in Heaven”. But maybe not in my titles!

I would have liked to say that “Dark Water”/“Army of Ghosts” (whatever) is the very definition of a Curate’s Egg, except that I recently learned, via comments on Mr Hickey, that this would actually mean it’s properly rotten but I’m finding good things to say in order to crawl to Steven Moffat.

So instead I’ll stick to saying that it’s “good in parts”, and mean it.

And I’ll start with the good parts, because that’s pretty much what “Dark Water” does. Because clearly, the best of the episode is the first ten minutes, up to Clara’s desperate face-off with the Doctor on the Star Wars volcano planet. That turns out to be a dream. Or (in context of this series’ themes) a lie that the Doctor is telling her.

And everyone knows the best line of the whole year was: “Do you think I care so little for you that betraying me would make a difference?” Probably best we didn’t use that in our wedding, though.

After that it descends into more ordinary larks with Cybermen. But larks that are very much informed by where we’ve just come from.

“Dark Water”, you see, is going quite a long way towards exploring just why people might turn themselves into Cybermen: it touches on Clara’s grief and anger and denial; it explores Danny’s guilt and regret; it glances at the possibility of life continuing after death and the fear of what that means for bodily decay and violation.

The death of Danny Pink, in an ordinary, boring car accident, is an incredibly powerful and brave way to open this story.

Whatever you think of Danny’s complex character, whether you think he was the abusive controller or the abused victim of Clara’s lies, he was a real, complicated, normal person trying to do what he thought was right. And the awful suddenness of his death is both terrible and true. He’s there and he’s gone. There’s more of a lesson about death in that silence at the end of the phone than any number of disintegrations or Daleks can teach.

Funnily enough, I’d been saying just that day that no one had really done a Cybermen story properly.

The Cybermen are the fear of death. They are people so afraid of dying that they replaced everything that makes life worth living just to carry on existing and then buried themselves in Tombs so that they would not pass on. It’s a well-established horror trope that the modern zombie is a death-metaphor: gruesome, shambling and inescapable. And, particularly in Steven Moffat’s interpretations – from “The Pandorica Opens”, but re-stated with a vengeance here – that is exactly what the Cybermen are: corpses in shiny armour; hi-tech zombies.

The first Cyberman story, “The Tenth Planet”, hints at this through techno-mummies wrapped in plastic bandages, but is tied up in fears of the machine, the intrusive penetrating replacement-part surgery taking away that which makes us human. After that they are quickly relegated to robo-commies – the faceless army of infiltrators who want to take away our freedoms and take over – as substitutes for the tin-pot fascists the Daleks for face offs against the second Doctor’s “destroy all monsters” crusade. Later Eric Saward will fetishize them as machismo incarnate, all “Man” and no “Cyber”. And Russell Davies’s scoop-and-serve brain-in-a-can versions seem to recognise the iconography without getting the idea behind it. To be fair to Moffat, at least he seems to “get it”.

And yet “Dark Water” still doesn’t tell that story. For some unknowable reason, it just skips the punchline, straight past it (well, straight-ish now she’s genderqueer, I suppose) to hilarious shenanigans with the Master…

(Not that they aren’t really good shenanigans – that reading the scrolling text is an hilarious reference to the opening of “The Deadly Assassin”; Missy pretending to be a robot is surely an insane in-joke about the robot Master played by Derick Jacobi in “Scream of the Shalka” – but even so…)

We almost have to infer that that story, that better story takes place. Sure, the Doctor gabbles something during “Death in Heaven” about the Master preying on the fears of the rich to set up the 3W tombs, but we’ve just missed all of that story entirely.

And that’s a shame because surely that was the whole point. If the Cybermen taking us unwilling from the grave is the zombie form of the Undead, surely the flip side is the vampire making the devil’s bargain: foreswear love (emotions) for eternal life. That is the deal that Danny is offered but it feels… unconnected to the 3W plot even though it’s central to their operating procedures.

It’s typical of why I feel I am ambivalent about these episodes. While they are pretty good, occasionally brilliant, they leave me with the nagging feeling they could, indeed should have been better.

And, of course, it’s typical of Moffat’s writing, to expect the viewer to fill in the blanks for him, whether that’s a sign of how much confidence he has in his audience or just an example of his flighty jumping from idea to idea without ever developing them to their potential. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The entire plot seems to hang on a kind of “voodoo”. (Maybe it’s Faction Paradox technology.)

Why bother with all the bones and the graves at all if you can just put any mind in any tin can? It’s clear that the minds of the dead have some genuine connection to their mortal remains through which they are able to animate their cyber-converted body.

Which means that Missy really has harvested the minds of millions of dead people.

The BBC were – for very good reasons – quick to come out and say that it was all a big fib by the Master, that this really isn’t what happens to people after they die…

…except, that’s really not what the episode is saying at all. We are presented by the Doctor with the possibility that the Danny that Clara is talking to is a fake, a projection from her own mind psychically scanned by 3W… but to the audience, Danny is clearly real: he’s been having an independent story of his own. Likewise, the boy who Danny is revealed to have killed while soldiering could similarly be a fake from reading Danny’s mind. But why bother when it seems that the dead can be found in the Nethersphere for real. And really, if you need a load of minds for your Cyber-army, what would be the point of faking them?

It seems very clear that whether there is a real afterlife or not, Missy has interposed her Matrix data slice between this life and the whatever or nothing that comes hereafter. And is torturing everyone she brings there with real or simulated post-death agonies to get them to agree to deleting their emotions.

Which brings us back to Danny.

Of course death is not the end. Not in a Moffat story, anyway. Thought if death was the end, there wouldn’t be a story. And while it may turn into yet another lurve-conquers-all schmaltz in “Death in Heaven”, at least the ending of “Dark Water” suggests a more interesting ambiguity that Danny’s guilt over the boy he killed is simultaneously pushing him towards deleting those emotions and keeping him from doing it, because to do so would be a betrayal of the very feelings that are driving him.

A better story – and I’ll look more at the better stories not told next time – a better story would have explored that ambiguity more. Because that’s the line that separated human from Cyberman.

When the White Guardian (aka God) threatened the Doctor with existing without changing I said that that was death: the icy, frozen death of cold logical perfection. And put like that, it’s obvious that that is what the Cybermen are. They bury their emotions and carry their own tombs with them in the form of that armour.

Of course, the Cybermen get thrown under the bus yet again, as they are turned into an army of boring robots once Missy comes out in all her bananas glory.

Next Time: “Death in Paradise” starring Ben Miller. No hang on, wasn’t he in a different one?

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Day 5085: Master Gideon’s Mission to Mars – Some Thoughts on the Autumn Statement

Wednesday:


Do we really want another stimulus for the housing bubble? Really?

Raising some taxes is good (bankers and Starbucks, though… well, how amazing brave to pick those targets).

But hasn’t Chancellor Osborn sworn he wasn’t going to raise any more taxes? I dectect the hand of Danny Alexander; it’s of a piece with his efforts to tackle tax evasion and reduce opportunities for tax avoidance.

The extra funding for the NHS appears to have come from… underspedning in the NHS. Master Gideon as Baron Munchausen will thus clear the deficit by pulling himself up by his own bootstraps.

And there’s a distinctly Janus-faced feel to some of the Conservative’s pronouncements, crowing over our outpacing of other European economies while simultaneously whining about how this makes us too attractive to those waves and waves of immigrants, coming over here fixing our plumbing and so on.

Equally it seems very off to boast that our GDP is going up but our contributions to the European Union are going down in the same statement where you complain that Amazon’s profits go up but the tax they’re paying go down. Sauce for the Christmas Goose, you would have thought.


Ed Balls has some good questions, but no answers.


Why is it that the tax receipts have fallen short of expectations? Ignore the flashy rabbit-from-hat Stamp Duty give-away; this is the central question of the Autumn Statement. The Chancellor boasted that he’d be reducing the deficit in spite of falling revenue, but that’s not the same as having an explanation. Could it be that Mr Balls is finally right about something, and below inflation wage increases have hammered the Treasury’s income too?

I remain convinced that having more people in work but with lower wages across the board is a fairer way of sharing the pain of economic disaster than the ‘Eighties approach of dumping the bottom three million on the dole; nevertheless, it does point to Balls having a point, and it plays well to crosslink Labour’s “cost of living crisis” narative to the Tories failure on their own terms to cut the deficit.

And while it might be fairer, it might not be good politics to give everyone a resentment against the government instead of just a minority who you can marginalise. Labour have clearly been trying a number of formulae – “squeezed middle”, “one nation Labour” whatever it was Mr Milipede forgot to say this year – to try and saddle this resentment to their political cause.

(It’s ironic that the non-Labour left have largely undermined this by shreiking and carrying on that marginalising a minority is exactly what the government is doing – helped, it must be said, by the Tories’s rhetoric and Iain Drunken Swerve being allowed to continue to exist.)

But low wage inflation isn’t the whole story. The dramatic fall in the oil price – generally welcomed by the Chancellor as a good thing, not least because falling energy prices makes Labour’s energy price freeze policy look rather silly – has a knock-on effect in terms of treasury income as it reduces the fuel duty, VAT, petroleum tax, supplementary charge to corporation tax and even the climate change levy.

(And while we’re at it: building a whole load of new roads is hardly in line with the “greenest government ever” line, and rather more school of Mr Balloon’s “drop the green carp”. And, as Jennie reminded us, probably counter-productive – if you want to improve travelling by road… spend the money on public transport. The number of road users is a function of price and convenience versus the alternative, so you would reduce congestion by making it preferable for people to tavel by train. The government appears to be doing the opposite. I suppose it might drive receipts from petrol taxes back up.)

Plus the UK’s economic growth has not yet translated into a boom in consumer spending, again forestalling a surge in VAT receipts at HMRC. In fact, largely the growth seems to be being directed into the housing bubble, which brings us back to point one.

Even so, granted Mr Balls has some grasp of some of the cause of the government’s income not coming up to scratch, it’s still a bit of a leap from there to “and Labour will fix this by…[insert policy when we think of it]”.

George Osborn has some answers that need questioning


Which leaves us clinging to nurse in fear of something worse. Though what could be worse than nurse being revealed as Master Osborn in a pinafore?

The Chancellor’s promise to clear the deficit by 2018 – although more realistic than Labour’s “sometime” in the next Parliament aspiration – is undermined not so much by his already having failed at this once (seriously, giving the finite nature of British Parliament’s you have to start out with a plan for one term at a time; given the slow reveal of the scale of the problem, the Coalition’s cautious approach balancing cuts with stimulus – again at Danny Alexander’s urging – has trod a fine line that has ended up closer to the Liberal Democrats timescale for cutting the deficit than the Tory’s and seems to be paying off, at least at the moment), but much more by the frankly fantastical idea that almost all the remaining cuts can come from the benefits, largely in-work benefits, paid to working age people.

Employment is already at record high levels. (This is a good thing!) But without some unforeseen huge increases in wages – again, see Mr Balls point – it is difficult to see any substantial ability to cut the support we need to give to keep these jobs viable.

On Sunday, on the Andy Marr show, the Chancellor was challenged on the way that spending cuts have fallen largely on not merely “welfare” but specifically on working age benefits. Pensioners have largely weathered the economic storm protected by the Coalition’s triple lock. The Tory Treasury team have clearly war-gamed this one, as Master Gideon came out with a very convincing-seeming answer: “Oh but I have hit the pensioners – I’ve taken half a trillion out of pensions by raising the retirement age”. Well, that’s quite an impressive hit against your core vote, isn’t it?

But take a moment to think about it: raising the retirement age does not affect existing pensioners; it’s actually another blow to those of us in work saving money by putting off the day when we will be able to claim back some of the fortune we are currently paying in.

And of course these cuts depend largely on the Tories being in power after the next election. Vince Cable – who has been quietly getting on with the business of being business secretary: increasing investment to manufacturing and boosting apprenticeships (notice the National Insurance cut to help more there) – has written to the Office for Budget Responsibility to ask them to point out how the Tories’ “no tax please were the British Tea Party” approach is wildly at odds with the Liberal Democrats’ fairer, balance tax and cut policies.

Overall, this was a typically theatrical financial moment from a Chancellor who has learned all his lessons from Gordon Brown. The splash of largess to catch the headlines; the smoke and mirrors over where the money comes from; some nasty medicine in the details; the hidden hand of the Liberal Chief Secretary trying to steer us a little away from full-throated Thatcherism and a little towards more social justice.

This is the course we are committed to now: from here on it’s full tilt towards the General Election and (subject to Nigel Farage and the Tory suicide-squads on the back benches derailing them onto Europe again) this is the ground that the Chancellor has laid out. It is, as President Clinton used to say, the economy, stupid.

And believe me, George Osborn is the economy… and stupid.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Day 5079: The Image over Rochester

Thursday:


This time last month, we were on our way to New England, setting for “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by (unspeakably racist) HP Lovecraft, wherein it turns out the locals have been (spoilers) interbreeding with immigrants.

This time last week, the locals of Rochester and Strood were cheerily chucking out their incumbent Tory MP and re-electing him as a Kipper. This despite him revealing that his new Party’s policies are entirely as anti-immigrant as we suspected.

This time in July, Ed Milipede was giving one of his relaunch speeches claiming he “didn’t do image”. And on Thursday, he proved it.


Mr Milipede’s preposterously over-the-top faux-outrage firing of Emily Thornberry for her “Image from Rochester” tweet put the (probably tin-foil) cap on the whole ridiculous affair of a by-election win for “A Plague on All Your Houses”.

The tweet itself was a relatively innocuous picture of house decked in flags and white van, with neutral comment. It was only possible to interpret it as a passive-aggressive attack of snobbish contempt because of the febrile atmosphere that economic post-Armageddon has brewed, one to which Labour have contributed more than a little, encouraging the “us v them”, “Westminster bubble”, “plebgate” contempt for all things elected and establishment. As in Scotland, Labour’s taking for granted of the people they are supposed to most represent comes back to haunt them. As they reap so they sow.

Am I snobbish about the man the Sun has dubbed “White Van Dan”?

No.

I’m repulsed by the policies he espouses and profoundly depressed by the ignorance that informs them.

Bash the benefits; block the immigrants; spend more; tax less; and bring back the cane. If these things worked we’d have solved all of society’s problems by now. And why the reactionary paranoia about burning the poppy when no one is even doing it?

But “point and laugh” tactics particularly from a Metropolitan Liberal Elite Minority like me, never mind Ms Thornberry, is not the way to engage with this kind of thinking. In fact, it’s massively counter-productive, lending “Dan” the fake credence of being “against The Man”, when in fact he’s expressing exactly the sort of white cis straight male privileged oppression that generations of genuine outsiders have been struggling to get out from under.

But while Ms Thornberry’s tweet may have been revealing, the response by Labour’s spin team was nothing short of astonishing. The suggestion that the Labour Leader was “more furious than he’d ever been” was beyond ludicrous.

More furious than over phone hacking, Ed? More outraged than by tuition fees? More angry than at the bedroom tax?

The sad thing is he probably was more furious over an incident that did damage to Labour’s image than by any of those things. There’s a reason why Miliband’s leadership is not seen as “genuine”. It’s because it’s not.

Maybe it was a typo: “The Labour leader is more fatuous than he’s ever been”?

And yet, in one way, he was actually right. The sacking of a shadow cabinet member over a photograph was a massive distraction from the appalling reactionary lurch of British politics.

It’s what the Tories used to call a “Double Whammy”, with on the one fluffy foot more ludicrous Security Theatre and on the other more Anti-immigration nonsense.

It is surely a co-incidence that the Metropolitan police are warning commuters to “Run, Hide, and Tell” and trying to convince the City that saw off the Luftwaffe that it’s facing its “worst threat ever” just as the Home Secretary is trying to sex up her TPIMS, exclude British citizens who’ve been to fight in Syria, and raise her Snoopers' Charter from the dead.

Only this week we’ve heard evidence that the Security Services had information on the killers of Lee Rigby and still failed to stop them. It’s no good trying to pin the blame on Facebook; demanding access and retention of even more data only makes a bigger haystack to lose the needles in.

And as for cancelling the passports of British terrorists who’ve gone to fight in Syria and Iraq: washing your hands of a problem is a shockingly weak abrogation of responsibility, not a strong stance against terror.

And the Liberal Democrats’ principled opposition has… melted away.


Meanwhile, the Tories received a well-deserved humiliation for their failure to deliver on an in-so-many-ways stupid pledge to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands.

And yet we hear Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary – surely that’s Michael Howard in drag not Yvette Cooper – saying: “It isn't racist to be worried about immigration or to call for immigration reform,” before announcing more guards on the frontiers.

While her counterpart Rachel Reeves at the Department of Work is saying she will deny benefits to EU migrants.

Only to receive support from Nick Clegg, for goodness’ sake!

It isn’t racist to be worried about immigration… UNLESS YOU GO ON TO BLAME THE IMMIGRANTS!

Please, I urge you, particularly if you happen to be Deputy Prime Minister, go read the inestimable Mr Hickey on why it’s both morally and tactically suicide to follow the other Parties down the road to UKIP-ised xenophobic populism.



People who think that UKIP are popular because of their policies are frankly morons, who make “White Van Dan” look like Aristotle.

UKIP’s popularity is entirely independent of any policy they may have from moment to moment, as amply demonstrated by the way Farage simply re-writes their manifesto every single time he finds himself on a sticky wicket without any apparent impact on people’s opinion or his Party’ poll ratings.

“Privatise the NHS? No, I meant preserve the NHS! Lower business taxes? No, I meant higher business taxes! Transitional arrangements? No, I meant concentration camps…er, is this on the record?”

No one seems to care that he’s winging it, contradicting himself, saying anything he thinks the voters want to hear, because after all he’s Nige, the bloke with the pint, and he’s sticking it to the Westminster elite, isn’ee.

There used to be a sense that the Westminster Parties were there to make things better for people, for you!

Labour would give you better public services; Tories would lower your taxes; Liberals would stand up for your rights and freedoms. What happened to all that?

In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” – and it’s well worth a read if you can get over the flagrant fears of miscegenation – the protagonist finds, to his existential horror, that (spoilers) he himself is of “questionable” heritage and is turning into one of the monsters.

Here’s the irony. In Britain we are all immigrants somewhere up our family tree. Unless you’re descended from a Woolly Mammoth! (I’m saying nothing!)

And yet, we have the choice: are we capable of being brave enough not to turn into Monsters?



PS:

For clarity:
“Two large and protruding eyes projected from sockets in chameleon fashion, and it had a broad reptilian mouth with horny lips beneath its little nostrils”
is Lovecraft’s description of one of the Deep Ones, and not, as you might think, of Nigel Farage. Who, if anything, is one of the Shallow Ones.