Saturday, 29 March 2008

Tall women, short men

According to reports today, tall women tend to go for short men: Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy, Penny Lancaster and Rod Stewart, Sophie Dahl and Jamie Cullum. I can confirm that this is absolutely true. At 6'3'', I have never been pursued by a super-model- ever. I always wondered why.

Some are suggesting that Rod Stewart and Nicolas Sarkozy have other attractions apart from their height....being President of France or a rock mega-star might also have something to do with it. But Jamie Cullum?!!???

Friday, 28 March 2008

Video games and violence

Final post today I promise, but there's so much.....

A great article by Daniel Finkelstein about the weak proven causal link between video games and violence. Gaming just means a different thing to the yoofs than is supposed by us crusties. But the response that some wit posted is worth re-printing:

"There is clearly a correlation: I spent my youth playing Super Mario Brothers, and I'm now an Italian plumber."

You get a better class of contributor on The Times web-site unlike the self-regarding belligerent liberals you get on the Guardian site....

I have to confess to watching the odd gangster film (just last weekend I watched American Gangster- highly recommended.) It should be seen as the pathetically guilty escapism of the post-modern, post-macho male rather than any predilection towards gratuitous and psychotic violence. Video gaming equally is the refuge of the alienated and repressed adolescent. Oh, and I imagine that they are great fun too.

Should we be worried? I think there is far more to be worried about if the gamer or the DVD viewer can not distinguish between what they are seeing or experiencing and real life. We have real problems if they can't...

Post script: I'm watching The Wire Series IV. Breathtakingly complex, subtle, and provocative (and yes, there is quite a lot of violence....) It briefly dealt with video gaming in episode 3. One of the street kids goes into his room, switches over the Baltimore Mayoral debate (clearly delinquent) and plays Halo 3 instead. Now this kid is doomed to a life of drug-dealing, homicide, incarceration.

Of course, his dad is inside and has got him a job running for a dealer on a corner, his mother is proud of his links with the drugs world, he spends his time with a group of lads who earn their cash by drug dealing, lives in abject urban squalor in West Baltimore, goes to a sink school, in a city run by institutionally corrupt police and a criminal Mayor. My guess is that Halo 3 is not the biggest issue that he's facing.....

On-line democracy?

An interesting piece from Anthony Barnett on Comment is Free about how the net can enhance democratic participation raises a number of important issues. I don't really agree with his argument- people just don't use the web like the techno-elite who do things like write blogs do.

He makes a good point though when he says you have to go to where people are already congregating and they already have commitment to get them to engage. Well, what is wrong with doing that at a local level and through established democratic institutions like parish or local councils?

There is a whole industry of creating new forms of democratic engagement from on-line consultations to citizens' juries, to public bodies engaging in community consultation. I'm not saying that any of these are not worthwhile but they are no replacement for good, strong local democracy. In other words, you can only guarantee accountability if you can vote at the end of the process and someone's position depends on it.

Primary Care Trusts, Police Authorities, regional bodies are busy trying to demonstrate that they are democratically accountable and responsive to local needs. Why not put all these bodies under local (or regional) democratic supervision and then have local elections that really matter to people?

The web is a collective space, it offers new opportunities to engage, but there is no substitute for genuine, responsible and responsive local democracy.

Hackney too rich for Leona Lewis

She won X-Factor. She is top of the US charts. She has a great new album. She's stunningly beautiful and charming. But this Hackney girl is going to have to leave her old Borough. Why? The house prices are too expensive.

Sorry girl, Hackney's moved on from you now. Why don't you try something a bit more trashy? Go for Islington or Chelsea. Hackney's not just for any old pop star you know. You really have to be someone to live in Hackney now.

Hillary 'kamikaze' Clinton?

There has been a great deal of discussion over the last few days about whether Hillary Clinton now has election 2012 in her sights. She has reconciled herself to probable defeat and is now looking to damage Obama so badly that he is unable to win against McCain in November, giving her another shot next time. An article by Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post analyses this and also considers some recent polling data that shows Hillary's poll ratings suffering along with Obama's. In a post last week I discussed this apparent effect and the fact that Obama and Clinton's destiny is apparently tied.

If there is any hint of a 'kamikaze' strategy then the Democratic party elders are going to have to step in to narrow Clinton's room for manoeuvre. It has to be done in a way that if she behaves irresponsibly it will cause herself collateral damage. The time to do this will probably be after the North Carolina and Indiana primaries on May 6th.

The good news for Obama is that the damage that he is sustaining from the Jeremiah Wright row is steadying. He has reasserted his poll lead overall. He is stretching ahead in North Carolina once more and it looks like he is starting to gain in Pennsylvania also (though he won't catch Clinton.) It remains to be seen how toxic Hillary Clinton's embarrassing exaggerations will be for her campaign. We will see in the polls over the next few days.

Post script: Joe Klein described this part of the primary race as silly season. With April Fools' Day approaching fast I had to check the date on his 'draft Al Gore' article. No, it's not April 1st (do they have that in the US?) Get 'Jimmy' Carter is what I say.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Condoleezza Rice to balance John McCain's ticket?

Well, the Democrats will be making history with either a black or female candidate? How do you go one better? Well, you put a black woman with formidable foreign policy experience on your ticket. There's quite a bit chatter about the possibility of Condi Rice balancing John McCain's ticket. It's seductive.

The main problem? The election becomes about Iraq and US foreign policy. Oh, and there's the small matter of the fact that's she's as tied to George W Bush as it's possible to be without being the man himself. Also, John McCain's weakness is not exactly foreign policy expertise. It's economics. Depite his warm words for Ms Rice, this one should be treated with some scepticism as it just doesn't seem to stack up unless we're only looking at things through that racial/ gender prism which occasionally obscures our view in this remarkable election.

Blog Wars

Blogging is a big deal in US politics. Here it is a bit of a geeky side-show but that will change. The Democrats have the edge on the web whereas the Republicans, certainly right-wing blusterers have the best of talk radio.

The two main US Democratic party blogs, MyDD and Daily Kos, are at loggerheads in much the same way that the party itself is torn by the candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. MyDD is pro-Hillary. Daily Kos is pro-Obama. Hillary supporters even threatened to go on 'strike' from his site a few weeks ago.

Now war has broken out. Jerome Armstrong who established and runs MyDD has threatened to tighten membership of his site to more carefully moderate users. He put up a full-blooded post yesterday attacking Obama's support in so-called 'red states' (i.e. states that normally vote Republican.) It showed Obama way behind. A little later in the day he had to admit that Hillary would perform as badly if not worse than Obama in these states.

Meanwhile, Daily Kos has officially endorsed Obama (though he has long been vocal in his support for him.) Though this is not as significant as Governor Bill Richardson's endorsement, the addition of an Obama fundraising button to the site will be very worthwhile. And no, I don't think that Kos will be on the short-list for VP nominee.

Watch what happens on these sites when the nominee is finally decided. Just a cursory browse of the sites' discussion boards will show you how divisive and venomous this race has become (amongst activists at any rate.) The media certainly will be watching....

Post Script: For more on the US elections on the web see this post.

Post Script 2: Liberal Conspiracy is reporting that MyDD's Jerome Armstrong has been hired by Brian Paddick campaign for London Mayor. He was over here a while ago at the Lib Dem Spring conference. It's a bit late in the day for Paddick's campaign but the Lib Dems will definitely pick up some tricks from Armstrong.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Barack Obama bleeds, Hillary Clinton's whoppers

Peggy Noonan, Chuck Todd and others discuss the impact of the recent race rows on Obama on this week's Meet the Press. The consensus seems to be that the short term hit is steadying but the long term impact is that Obama now is mortal, can no longer walk on water, he bleeds in other words. The rules of the political game are now 'normalised' (see a post from a couple of weeks ago about the impact of a prolonged race on the putative Obama candidacy.)

As for Clinton, more whoppers about her foreign policy experience. The Washington Post has given her 'four Pinocchios' for her account of a visit to Bosnia- the highest whopper rating you can get. See Dick Morris on her Northern Ireland schedules as well. Her story is that she was sent into Bosnia because of the security risk to the President. I guess that's why they sent Sheryl Crow with her as well.......

One final note: watch out for Indiana, could be a pivotal state and takes place on May 6th- the same day as North Carolina. Could May 6th be the day that seals it for Obama or gives Clinton a new surge of momentum?

Post script: A video is doing the rounds showing Hillary dodging bullets, maternally protecting her daughter by ensuring that she didn't walk in the line of fire, and Rambo-style saving Bosnians from the evil Serb forces, on the visit that Hillary was refering to in her much criticised comments. Apologies to Hillary once again. The video is below.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Compulsory voting? Electoral reform?

The Government is consulting on the introduction of compulsory voting and changing the voting system for Westminster elections. Are either of these things a good idea? On balance, I favour the introduction of preferential voting (where second or third choices are re-distributed to the leading two candidates) but I am opposed to compulsory voting. I've come to two opposite conclusions but for the same reason.

There is only one good reason to change our system of voting. That is democratic engagement. Political engagement is weak in the UK and is getting weaker. Local organisations of all the parties are failing to motivate voters to either vote or participate in the democratic process. That harms politics: it makes political decisions seem remote and imposed and that further feeds disillusionment. Politics is something that is done to people rather than done with them.

I have always been sceptical about electoral reform- I never bought the arguments about 'fairness' and I do still have concerns about handing disproportionate power to minority parties in Government (that can happen in the current system of course and is more likely to when you have a third party with 50 seats or more as the Lib Dems currently do.) But the gains to be had from an electoral system that forces parties to engage locally with 70% or 80% of the electorate rather than 45%-50% are considerable and parties that fail to widen their appeal will face electoral defeat. So I am in favour of the Alternative Vote system for Westminster elections because the democratic benefits could be considerable and the risks are not monumentally greater than the current system.

But compulsory voting is another matter. The 'liberal' objection, that to force people to express an opinion is wrong doesn't quite fly. We force people to do all sorts of things (including registering to vote, for example) when there is an overriding community benefit. But voting rates have been declining, give or take, for a considerable period of time. It is something that politicians, local or national, should be deeply concerned about. Compulsory voting would mask this fact and therefore would allow politicians to feel that they were engaging competently when the opposite could well be true. That would only further feed disillusionment. If you want to really anger people then introduce state funding for political parties at the same time...

So the Alternative Vote could improve democratic engagement and compulsory voting could harm it. I am for the former and against the latter.

Post script: How would the parties benefit from change? Labour would benefit most from compulsory voting (its voters have a lower propensity to vote.) In the current context, Labour would also benefit to a certain extent from electoral reform in terms of seats won (though coalition politics would probably then determine whether it was in or out of power.)

It is worth seeing some research from a year ago about the second preferences of Liberal Democrat voters.

Conservatives on balance would favour the status quo. Liberal Democrats have much to gain from any type of proportional voting system. Compulsory voting is neither here nor there for them. I bet on the basis of this analysis, you can predict how each of the parties' will vote on the overall package.....the question is whether the Conservatives can prevent the changes coming in before the next election by crying foul at a Government changing the rules of the game.....It will be a brave short term political decision for the Government to try to force these changes through in time for the next election.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

David Cameron- 'cycling menace'

The Daily Mirror tailed David Cameron on Wednesday and caught him violating four road laws on his cycle ride to the House of Commons. Red lights ignored, one-way streets transgressed, bollard flows flouted, the Leader of the Opposition, a 'cycling menace', according to the Mirror, is hanging his head in shame.

Actually, only four traffic violations on route shows him to be a relatively responsible cyclist. Compared to the standards set by most cyclists anyway. On the same route I reckon your average London cyclist breaks a dozen or so. London is slowly being adapted for cyclists without any real thought about the consequences for pedestrians, public transport users, or cyclists themselves. Cyclists don't have to know the Highway Code, they don't have to pass any sort of safety or proficiency test, they don't have to take out insurance, there is no real enforcement of road safety laws when it comes to cyclists. So it's a bit of a ridiculous (and dangerous) situation really.

It is impossible to walk from my place in Hackney to London Fields station without walking on a cycle lane or taking a detour. From time to time, I'm barked at by a cyclist on the way (yes, despite the fact that they have no training, London cyclists tend to be very vocal), only to be nearly mowed down by a cyclist bombing down the pedestrian lanes in the Fields. How many times have you been on a bus crammed with 100 people or so crawling behind a single cyclist going at about 3mph?

All the Mayoral candidates want to expand provision for cyclists in London. Can I suggest that they properly think through the consequences for all Londoners before they do so? In the dash to look green and appease a vocal pressure group, nobody has given this issue proper strategic consideration.

A friend once described cyclists as smug, self-satisfied, narcissists. I thought that was very harsh even if their number does include the Leader of the Opposition and Boris Johnson, the Tory Mayoral candidate. But a bit more consideration of the consequences of turning London into a cyclist's post-industrial nirvana wouldn't go amiss.

Post script: Why don't I cycle? Have you seen the way I drive? If there are others on the road who are that bad then it is just not safe at all. And have you seen how silly those helmets look? No, thank you.

Post script 2: You can WATCH David Cameron's traffic violations here! God bless the Daily Mirror.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Into the Wild

Good Friday seems like a good time catch up on a couple of movies. I like Sean Penn so 'Into the Wild' is first up. I like Penn mainly because he happens to have appeared in three of my favourite movies: Mystic River, 21 Grams, and Carlito's Way. Into the Wild is directed by Penn.

The (based on a true) story tracks an naively idealistic young man, Chris McCandless, who walks away the expectations of material and academic progress to a life on the road and a mission of self-discovery. We get a taste of McCandless through a quick scan of his bookshelf stacked with Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Jack London (Call of the Wild.....duh.) If the portents weren't worrying enough, he then renames himself Alexander Supertramp. Straight 'A' student, he leaves behind his tunnelled existence to pursue his great Alaskan adventure. For much of the film, it is difficult to escape the feeling that Chris is the young man that Sean Penn wishes he had been.

Who wouldn't sympathise with a young man rejecting the awful fate of Harvard Law School? Potentially, we have a guy here who is wise beyond his years. By the time he parts with a young flame with the words, "You are magic. If you want something in life then reach out and grab it," you are kind of feeling that some time at Harvard Law School might actually have done him some good. Or time at another sort of corrective institution perhaps....He reduces the young girl to tears. And you have to sympathise with her really.

McCandless charms a cast of characters through South Dakota, Colorado, Reno, Arizona. Finally he leaves behind an elderly friend, who wishes to adopt him as a grandson and reaches Alaska armed with a machete, a book on edible flora, and his belt. Having eaten a poisonous plant which inhibits digestion (having misidentified it in his book) and induces slow death by starvation, he finally comes to wisdom. Happiness is something that is better shared. In failing to provide for an escape from his self-imposed exile, perhaps the thing that McCandless was in search of was not wisdom at all but just some basic common sense.

The main character, brilliantly portrayed by Emile Hirsch, rather than a paragon of liberty, is rather less likable than the people he meets along the way. One can't help feeling that the story of his sister who is the film's narrator would be rather more affecting. Or even his hypocritical, driven, bickering parents. But they live in West Virginia so the breathtaking cinematography swishing through Atlanta, the Hoover Dam, Alaska, and Colorado would be lost and that would be a loss indeed.

Whereas one suspects Penn wants us to heroise McCandless, we are left to reflect how far he falls short of the type of flawed (male) icon of American liberty that we find in Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, John Updike or Richard Ford. In fact, were we to meet him in some hippy commune somewhere we'd probably want to shake him to his senses. And he'd probably reply with some pseudo-religious platitude.

Governor Bill Richardson to endorse Barack Obama

There has been much speculation about who former Clinton cabinet member and Presidential candidate, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, would endorse. It's Obama.

I've speculated recently about the suitability of Bill Richardson as a running mate for Obama (experienced, Clintonite, foreign policy expertise, Latino, Southern.) I've yet to hear a good argument against him. Watch this space.

Now, where are John Edwards and Al Gore? Now is the time to get this closed off before more damage is done.

At the same, time Clinton's foreign policy experience has once again been questioned following the release of her White House schedules. It is a pity that the claims that she has made have been so overblown because it seems that she did make a contribution. But certainly nothing that readies her to answer the '3am call' more than her opponent.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Fernando Torres, Rafa Benitez, and Andy Gray: the (very) good, the great, and the ugly

Time for a football post....

Torres.
The following documentary by Michael Robinson, former Liverpool striker and now Spanish TV presenter, is excellent. Fans of Fernando Torres enjoy.



Benitez. There is some revisionism on his management this year. Whatever happens from here on in Liverpool have beaten AC Milan, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Chelsea....in the last four seasons. Great record and here is an article backing Rafa that should be read in The Irish Independent.

Andy Gray. His commentary on the Inter v Liverpool game was a sackable offence. At the very least, he should not commentate on any more Liverpool games as he is incapable of objectivity (though it only surfaces occasionally, it festers for a few games, then rears its ugly head from time to time.) See here for the reaction on Merseyside.

Jeremiah Wright row hurting Obama AND Clinton?

A couple of polls published over the last few days have suggested that the row over Barack Obama's pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, could be hurting both the Obama and Clinton campaigns. Again, this has to be of great concern to the Democrats. Look at the following poll shifts:

McCain v Obama

Rasmussen (14-17/03)
McCain 48 Obama 42

Rasmussen (10-13/03)
McCain 45 Obama 44

Gallup (12-16/03)
McCain 46 Obama 44

Gallup (7-11/03)
McCain 44 Obama 46

McCain v Clinton

Rasmussen (14-17/03)
McCain 48 Clinton 42

Rasmussen (10-13/03)
McCain 46 Clinton 44

Gallup (12-16/03)
McCain 46 Clinton 46

Gallup (7-11/03)
McCain 45 Clinton 47

All data from pollster.com.

Let's assume that the main reason for the shift is the row over Reverend Wright (what else is it over the time-frame that we are looking at it?) Two conclusions emerge. Firstly, there is an statistically insignificant difference between the poll standings of Clinton and Obama against McCain. Secondly, their fates appear to be locked together currently.

So what is the rational strategy? Well, if Clinton was eyeing the main prize, the Presidency, she would avoid negative attacks on Obama as they hurt her also. But, unfortunately, she is currently and significantly behind Obama (read Dick Morris on this- I have the same guilty pleasure reading Dick Morris as I do watching Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear.)

The bad news for the Democrats is that the rational short term strategy for the Clinton campaign is to encourage and launch attacks on Obama. In so doing she will hope: (i) To de-couple her fate from Obama's (ii) To hurt him more than she will hurt herself. At the moment she's hurting them both pretty much equally.

Surely, now is the time for a John Edwards or an Al Gore to step in- perhaps in unison? The nomination is almost certainly Obama's. Give it to him. If this is not resolved he could be severely wounded- perhaps fatally. To deny it to him could well hand the election to McCain (any nomination secured on the basis of super-delegates will be a flawed victory.) We cannot afford four more years of neo-conservatism. America can't. The world can't.

Finally, it would be one of the cruelest ironies if Obama's campaign, having been based on unity and hope, founders on racial division and cynicism. What would that say about America?

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Barack Obama on race

The full video of Barack Obama's brilliant speech is now available below.

Barack Obama on race- a bigger man than his critics (and some of his friends)

It is worth spending a few minutes reading Barack Obama's speech on race that he made in Philadelphia today rather than just relying on the sound-bites. This is a powerful rhetoric of renewal and unity. It posits the American republic as not perfection but opportunity. Ultimately, it confronts division head-on, acknowledging where injustice has cause, and how justice requires understanding and recognition. Rather than pretending that race can be ignored or those who feel a sense of grievance can be dismissed, it understands suffering and presents a common mission to combat deprivation, develop inclusive public services, and build a society based on mutual support.

As we grapple with how to confront thorny issues of ethnic divisions within Britain itself, it is worth reading this speech and learning its lessons. At the end of eight years of Bush, it is rather easier for Obama to be honest about the plight of black, brown, and white alike. But if we are to diffuse divisions in our own society which have economic as well as security causes, there needs to be a language of common struggle that unites. Perhaps that would be a better foundation for a discussion about Britishness in the 21st century?

Alistair Darling's Budget- a few days later

Wading through the Sunday Times poll at the weekend which including some more detailed data about the Budget, a couple of stats caught my eye. 74% of voters believe that 'green' taxes are just an excuse to raise more money and 85% say that higher alcohol duties will not curb binge drinking.

Alcohol consumption and carbon burning are not necessarily free choices other than at the margins. The reality is that the people who will be dissuaded from drinking or buying Chelsea tractors are those who aren't that bothered either way. There are more people who 'need' alcohol either through addiction or lifestyle than 'need' 4x4s or SUVs so the impact will probably be greater on the purchase of high carbon emitting vehicles than on alcohol consumption. Besides the overall cost of a pint of beer is still relatively low when compared to an SUV. It is easier to stomach a 4p price increase than a price differential of a few hundred pounds!

Applying a differential carbon tax on higher emitting vehicles will have some impact as there are good choices of vehicle that are not so polluting- people who aren't that concerned about whether they have the latest (non-hybrid) Lexus 4x4 will go for something lighter on emissions or maybe even a hybrid. There is a risk though that the people who will be hit are those who do need a bigger vehicle, i.e. those with large families.

But applying higher duty on alcohol will have almost no impact on binge drinking (those that drink less will probably be those that don't drink that much anyway and are more sensitive to price.)

So the suspicion that the changes announced in the Budget will be more successful in raising revenue than preventing harmful behaviour is probably about right. That doesn't make them bad measures necessarily. We do have to raise revenue from somewhere. The congestion charge in London has had some impact. But it's real value is the revenue it has raised to invest in public transport. The overall impact of the charge combined with investment is a reduction in car journeys by a third in the charge zone. Very good policy.

There is a broader point here. In a post last week I discussed the relationship between alcohol and violent crime. The problem with the Budget is that public policy objectives and revenue raising tend to get confused. That is why people are cynical about the motivation behind changes in the Budget. My own view is that this could be made more transparent and more effective by making most decisions about tax and duty in alignment with, for example, the need to break the link between alcohol and violent crime.

The Budget could draw together announcements about public policy decisions that had already been taken. It would become more of an economic statement and strategic statement. Then we could be honest. The Chancellor could say: "I'm putting up alcohol duty because I need to raise some more cash and I'd rather tax booze than raise taxes on income or entrepreneurship."

Post Script: Alan Milburn writes in this week's Sunday Times imploring Gordon Brown to 'trust the people.' The Giddensian analysis is quite familiar. But is the suggestion of introducing vouchers for schooling, health, social care etc the best we can do? What is the point of introducing vouchers without price? If price is not introduced then you just have a system similar to the current system but with a different bureaucracy. And the notion of schools charging different fees or private schools competing for public resources is a step too far that will benefit the well-resourced over the poorer in society. The problem we have is that not everyone can go to the best schools so we have to find a way of rationing places in a fair way. So vouchers aren't the solution: better overall quality, fair admissions, local priority are more important in ensuring choice AND quality.

Mr Milburn also suggests more local direct democracy. Well, why not improve the local representative democracy that we have and empower local authorities with responsibility for health, policing etc? This will be a major area of debate in the coming years and the implications of genuine devolution and democratisation need to be thought through and soon.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

John McCain gains on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

Well, it was expected but a McCain surge has begun. There are two reasons behind this: the continuing rancour between the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns and Ralph Nader entering the race.

Yes, that's Ralph Nader, green and consumer rights activist who takes on powerful vested corporate and political interests and stands in Presidential elections, taking enough votes from Democrats to put George W Bush in the White House. A true hero of the left......and prize wally. I've heard that Halliburton has a Ralph Nader bust in the reception of their US HQ in Houston. Workers plant a respectful kiss on his right cheek as they arrive for work every morning. The biggest new business generator in the company every year receives the Ralph Nader Shield. And high-flying new graduates are placed on the 'Nader Leadership Program.'

Anyway, this is all rather frustrating. Clinton and Obama are heading for an almost dead heat with Obama's nose just ahead (he has gained another 8 or so delegates in Iowa for example who were previously uncommitted.) But will either of the campaigns have the energy and momentum to prevent a third term for the neo-conservatives in the White House?

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Top blogger in town

One of the pioneer US bloggers, Jerome Armstrong, has been in the UK. His website http://www.mydd.com is a must visit and must visit often. I recently mentioned Jerome in my review of 'The Argument.' It seems that the Lib Dems have been trying to get ahead of the game on the e-communication front. I worked on the 2001 new media campaign for Labour- a campaign that was later described as 'the first election in which the internet influenced electoral politics.' I don't actually agree with that (said by no less than Alastair Campbell.) But the next election could be.

(Shameless plug alert) In my book, Viral Politics, I discussed how the point wasn't the technology, it was more about understanding how people would communicate in a new media environment. Well, people like Jerome Armstrong are taking the theory and putting it into practice. Who will be the first to 'get it' in the UK context? No-one has yet...

Friday, 14 March 2008

Jacqui Smith reprieves Mehdi Kazemi

Well done, Home Secretary. See article here.

Worth keeping an eye on the re-trial.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to re-run Michigan?

This news story has just appeared on MSNBC. There can be no complaints if Michigan is to be a full re-run primary. There can be no way that Michigan's delegates are seated as it stands given that Barack Obama's name wasn't on the ballot. A full re-run is a good way of doing it. It's 128 delegates as opposed to 158 in Pennsylvania so another big state in the mix?

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Hillary Clinton's tepid response to Geraldine Ferraro

Well it seems that I didn't go far enough in my criticism of Hillary Clinton over the Geraldine Ferraro outrage. This guy goes one or two steps further:



But probably the most damning thing is to listen to Ms Ferraro herself (I couldn't actually listen to much of it, it is so bad):

Mehdi Kazemi

Surely the case of Mehdi Kazemi, a gay Iranian student, who could well face execution should he be forced to return to Iran, is what the asylum laws were designed for? We have to sincerely hope that the Home Office does whatever it has to in order to prevent this gross injustice. Mr Kazemi's former partner, 'Parham', was executed for the Iranian crime of sodomy in 2006 and it is believed that Mr Kazemi's name was passed to the authorities during the interrogation prior to that conviction. He cannot be made to return.

To read Mehdi Kazemi's statement see this site.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Geraldine Ferraro- oh dear

A few weeks ago I saw Geraldine Ferraro on one of the morning news shows in America. It was surprising, given that she is a former Vice Presidential candidate, just how inarticulate and fairly unsophisticated she was. Well, that club also includes Dan Quayle, Vice Admiral James Stockdale, and Spiro Agnew so it's not necessarily a particularly select club. But it is a club that has also contained Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson so can't be all bad...

Now, Ms Ferraro has attributed Senator Obama's success to the fact that he is black (go figure...!!!) and Senator Clinton's difficulty to the fact that she is a woman. The mistake that Ms Ferraro makes in her comments is precisely the mistake that Trevor Phillips made a couple of weeks ago. That is, to view events in the primaries almost exclusively through the prism of race. Ms Ferraro's assertion that Barack Obama's success is because he is black is plainly absurd and deeply offensive. There is a viewpoint on the left of politics (it has a mirror image on the right of politics that is quite differently motivated) that sectionalises people then takes that as a starting point for political, economic and social analysis. And it is highly dangerous mode of interpretation. Not only is it almost always inaccurate but it is deeply divisive. Interestingly, Ms Ferraro seeks to justify her racial analysis by genderising her own success. The same flawed thinking underpins both no matter how paradoxically you choose to argue your case.

In the case of Barack Obama his race is of course part of his identity and people respond to that in different ways. There is no doubt that an exceptional black candidate has an appeal in the African American community. But the key word in the previous sentence was not 'black.' It was 'exceptional.' A small minority across all groups will vote on racial grounds. But this does not go anywhere near to explaining the success of Barack Obama. He is successful because he has proved to be a highly convincing candidate backed up by an incredibly well-organised campaign.

I doubt that 'race' or 'gender' are particularly useful explanatory variables for the performance of either Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John McCain for the matter. They are marginal at best. This is not to say that there is no racial or gender consciousness- one only has to look at exit polls to see that there is (see the polls from Mississippi last night by way of example.) Or that there is no racism (we've seen examples of that...) or sexism (we've seen examples of that too...) It's just that these things are in the mix with so many other factors that to single them out is a very dangerous and divisive game to play.

So bad show Ms Ferraro and bad show Ms Clinton for your pathetic response. To say that it is, "regrettable that any of our supporters on both sides....say things that kind of veer off into the personal," is either to deliberately misunderstand the nature of Ms Ferraro's comments or completely misinterpret them.

Why can't you just be straight? The quote should read: "I completely disassociate myself from comments of this nature. No-one in or connected with my campaign should be under any illusion that this type of flawed and, in all probability, offensive analysis shall be in any way sanctioned or tolerated by my campaign. I will be vigilant but let's not dwell on this any longer and move on so that we can get back to deciding who will be the best Democratic nominee and future President of the United States......on nothing but merit." There, that's not so difficult is it?

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Darth Vadar- time to show some respect!

Right, this has gone on long enough. There has been a recent spate of satirical digs at Lord Vadar and it's got to stop! Do people not realise what happens when you mess with a Dark Lord of the Sith and the Commander-in-Chief of the Galactic Empire? It won't be pretty I assure you.

So Eddie Izzard beware.

You too, Taff Wars. Lay off the Welsh too.

Think of the rest of us. It will all end in tears. Remember what happened to Han Solo. You have been warned.

Budget 2008- breaking the link between alcohol and violent crime

Pub landlords are worried. Beer sales are declining. Pubs are closing. They want a freeze on beer duty. Should we be sympathetic towards them? On one level no. Consumer tastes are changing and if the industry hasn't adapted to that as a whole then it only has itself to blame. I certainly don't think that people are not drinking as much beer because of a few pence on the price (no matter what the landlords' elasticity graphs show!) Preference for wine (when was the last time you managed to buy a decent glass of wine in a pub???!!???), restaurants, some public health messages getting through, drink driving laws, people wanting to avoid town centres at night, all of these things have had an impact and they are by no means all negative.

But on another level I do have some sympathy. Pubs do, in the main, provide a safe and controlled environment for drinkers (obviously there are exceptions.) They are certainly more controlled than off-sales.

One of the key public safety challenges is to break the link between alcohol consumption and crime, particularly violent crime. This is a whole package of measures partly fiscal (levying off-sales to a greater extent mixed with anti-smuggling measures and tougher enforcement), partly about good licensing practice and good coordination with the local police. All these things cost money so it is strange to have a separation between the alcohol duty system and licensing system. Alcohol duty, though its expressed objectives are public health, is really about maximising revenue for HM Treasury (if you tax too much people smuggle or even stop drinking which lowers your revenues!) Licensing is more concerned with public order.

There needs to be a better coordination between the two. Public order and enforcement is expensive so the local licensing regime may need to be more flexible in order to ensure that sufficient revenue is available to local Councils and the police. That would make licenses more expensive so perhaps HM Treasury needs to be willing to accept less revenue from duty. So to break the link between alcohol and public disorder, we need to re-balance in favour of local enforcement and incentives over central revenue.

Perhaps the level of alcohol duty should not be a Budget decision at all? It is about making a combined decision about public health and public order and designing the duty/ licensing regime in accordance with that. Over to the Chancellor....

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Barack Obama doesn't win in primary states? UPDATE

Doing the actual calculations on whether Obama is weaker than Hillary Clinton in states that were Democratic in the previous Presidential election made me suspicious. That allegation doesn't stack up so what of the other claim that his support is just down to caucus states and not primaries? Well, it turns out that while his relative performance is better in caucuses than in primaries, his absolute performance is better that Hillary Clinton's in both types of selection.

So, putting this data together with the data from yesterday:

- Senator Obama is ahead by 1066 pledged delegates to 1055.5 in states that have held primaries. He is ahead by 307 to 171 in states that have held caucuses.
- He leads by 15 to 12 in states that have held primaries with a further victory expected in Mississippi on Tuesday.
- Senator Obama is ahead by 11 states to 5 in states that voted for Democratic Presidential candidate, John Kerry, in 2004.
- He is also ahead by 49 pledged delegates in the same states (737-688).

A pretty healthy picture wouldn't you say from Senator Obama's perspective? Not only is the Clinton campaign's attempts to count only certain states where they did well divisive and dismissive, it turns out to be completely wrong as well.

The data sources that I used are here:


Barack Obama can't win in Primary states?

I have just completed the analysis on this. I will put up more later but it shows that Barack Obama leads by 1066 to 1055.5 in primary states. Another myth it would seem.....

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Barack Obama can't win in Democrat strongholds?

A current line of attack coming from the Clinton campaign is Barack Obama's alleged limited appeal in states that are traditionally Democratic, i.e . the base. An article in the Washington Post today elucidates this argument. I have done an analysis on whether this is, in fact, true. Looking at the results from 2004 and the results so far in terms of delegate count, it is possible to calculate how each candidate has performed up to this point. It is pointless looking at popular vote when some states have primaries and some caucuses- I'm afraid it's apples and oranges whatever the Clinton campaign may say.

In the 17 states won by the Democrats in 2004 (where there have been primaries or caucuses so far), the results are:

Barack Obama 11
Hillary Clinton 5
Tie 1

In terms of total pledged delegates the results are as follows:

Barack Obama 737
Hillary Clinton 688

Obama ahead by 49.

So the Clinton argument is a nonsense it would seem. Barack Obama performs better than Clinton in states that were Democrat in 2004. Her campaign makes the point about how she has more appeal overall amongst white, low income, middle class, Democrats, women and Latinos. But why are these groups considered the Democrat base while African Americans, educated, middle class voters etc not considered part of the base? The reality is that both candidates have different appeals to different groups. But Obama has greater appeal with independent or Republican voters. My view is that Obama's case is stronger in this particular fracas.

So when Rep Frank Pallone Jr says, "A lot of states [Obama's] winning are states that we are not going to win in November," he is presenting a very distorted picture. Obama is also winning more states that are the Democratic firewall. Oh, and he's also winning swing states such as Virginia and Missouri.

Larry David, Northern Ireland and tactics

Northern Ireland. A couple of weeks ago I expressed surprise that 'helping the peace process' was a central element of Hillary Clinton's presidential cv. The issue has come up again following comments by Lord Trimble. The Washington Post also did a 'fact check' on Hillary's role in Northern Ireland a while. Friends tell me that I was a bit too dismissive of Hillary's role. She is certainly a popular figure in the nationalist community as is Bill. But instrumental she wasn't so her claims are still misleading. The Washington Post gave her a one Pinocchio rating out of four. I would give her two (see scale here.)

Obama's tactics. On Thursday I discussed how Obama should just keep going but with some tactical calibration. I said there is a risk that if this race goes on for too long Obama could become 'normalised.' David Brooks has a very good analysis of the tactical challenge that is faced by Senator Obama in today's New York Times. What he's doing is working, stick to it, and he will in all likelihood be the Democratic nominee.

Larry David. The man is a comedy colossus. Read his thoughts on Obama and Clinton here.

Post script: What a remarkable day in the FA Cup. Congratulations to Barnsley and Portsmouth though it always painful to see Manchester United and Chelsea knocked out of the cup. Fernando Torres is still on fire for Liverpool. Gosh he's good.

Friday, 7 March 2008

BNP defeated

After a long day in the field yesterday, I am pleased to say that the BNP were comprehensively defeated in a County Council by-election in Rugby, Warwickshire (for a good analysis please see this article.) Despite the low turnout they managed to score only 14%. Rugby is a town that is very settled and comfortable with its diversity and despite a vigourous and aggressive BNP campaign they were successfully held off by both Labour and the Conservatives who succeeded in not being drawn onto the BNP's territory.

But there can be no let up. There is clearly a reservoir of discontent as reported by the BBC yesterday and extremists such as the BNP will prey on that.

It is up to the mainstream parties to not let that happen. How do they do it? Well, by becoming obsessed by the people they serve rather than by obsessing about the BNP. That means coming up with good local ideas, delivering them, communicating effectively, working hard. All the things that local parties should be doing anyway (but often do not.)

So last night's result in Lawford and New Bilton says great things about Rugby. But the work needs to continue and to intensify.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Delegates, Momentum, McCain, Popular Vote

On another website yesterday there was a discussion about whether Obama had done well to get so close in one of 'Hillary's states.' It is intriguing how easy it is to get diverted by opinion polls. But no-one 'owns' a state until they have won it. Only four things matter at this stage in this order:

i) Delegates
ii) Momentum
iii) Head to head with McCain (admittedly based on polls)
iv) Popular vote

Now, as reported yesterday it is almost impossible for Hillary to win on the delegate count. That is why Obama's campaign sent out an email entitled 'The Math' yesterday. David Plouffe says:

Anthony --

Our projections show the most likely outcome of yesterday's elections will be that Hillary Clinton gained 187 delegates, and we gained 183.

That's a net gain of 4 delegates out of more than 370 delegates available from all the states that voted.

For comparison, that's less than half our net gain of 9 delegates from the District of Columbia alone. It's also less than our net gain of 8 from Nebraska, or 12 from Washington State. And it's considerably less than our net gain of 33 delegates from Georgia.


The delegate numbers on Real Clear Politics don't quite stack up with this email but David Plouffe's point is still the same and it's a strong one. Hillary can't win on the delegate count.

But she can win on momentum going into August and the head to head with McCain (though she has been consistently behind up until now.) She can also grab the overall popular vote as explained here. It's a slightly unfair comparison given that a good portion of Obama's success has been in caucus states. The Clinton camp would argue that this demonstrates that Obama is less successful when facing the popular vote. There's not a lot of evidence for this- he would be behind overall if that were true and at this stage he's narrowly ahead. It is more likely that he happens to be popular in many states that have caucuses rather than primaries. Difficult to say either way.

So what should Obama do to remain ahead on the popular count? Actually, what should he do to stay ahead period? Well, what he's doing seems to be working. In fact, what he's doing seems to be working amazingly well. He needs to tactically calibrate- maybe focus a bit more on economic issues, beef up a bit what political change will actually mean in concrete terms, but we are talking emphasis rather than strategy at this stage. All of the Clintons' negatives are well established so there is no real gain in going there anything other than occasional or when he needs to parry. It is probably worth drawing attention to her credentials to be Commander-in-Chief (what real experience does she have? honestly?)

Yesterday, I estimated that Hillary's chances of success were 25%. That means Obama's are 75%. A 3/1 odds-on bet is worth taking. So Obama should stick to the strategy and drive towards the finish.

Post script: See this article for the latest state of play on Florida and Michigan. There might be a re-run....

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Hillary Clinton- can she win?

So the results last night lead us potentially into the scenario I predicted (feared) yesterday. You know the old film cliché? The one where the good guy fails to finish off the bad guy through some misguided act of mercy or misfortune. Then the bad guy comes back bigger and stronger. Sci-fi, superhero, western, boxing, gangster movies all follow the same narrative path. And now the Democratic presidential primary is following suit.

I'm not going to say who is the good guy and who is the bad guy but Hillary and Barack are locked in a contest where neither is able to land the knock out blow. Even after last night, however, it is not clear how Hillary can win this nomination without inflicting severe damage on the Democrats' chances in November (this, as you will see below, is not a criticism just a likely scenario.) Unless Obama's candidacy implodes through some horrendous gaff that completely discredits him, the numbers stack up in Obama's favour. Formidably.

Once the final delegate tally has been calculated, Obama will have a lead some in the region of 140 pledged delegates (let's leave the super-delegates to one side for one moment). There are only 641 pledged delegates still to be distributed. On that alone, Clinton would have to win 60% or so of the delegates to catch up Obama. He will in all likelihood (given what has occurred previously) win states like North Carolina (he has double digit leads there already), West Virginia, Mississippi and Oregon. Assume a lead of +20 in those states, that will leave Clinton needing +160 or so from 400 odd to win. She would have to win the remaining states 70-30 or so to win. It's just not going to happen.

Ah but wait. There is Michigan and Florida. Remember, these delegations have been barred from the convention and Clinton won them. Obama didn't even put his name on the ballot sheet in Michigan. So to seat the delegates from these states' primaries would clearly be unjust. What will the DNC do about? Well, they may run caucuses again in those states.

Let's assume that Clinton won those caucuses 55-45 (VERY generous numbers). She could end up with a delegate haul of +36 from Florida and Michigan. Clinton would still need to net 58% of the delegates from the remaining primaries and 67% from the remaining primaries if Obama wins North Carolina, West Virginia and Oregon.

So the sums just don't seem to add up for Hillary. So why on earth is she not conceding?

Politics is about momentum not numbers right? There is a scenario where Hillary could plausibly win. If she starts to win consecutive primaries. If she starts to eat into Obama's base. If she wins one or two surprise states- something like a North Carolina. If she regains her national poll lead and starts to perform better than Obama in head-to-head polls with McCain. Then she could plausibly go to the Democratic Convention in Denver and say to the super-delegates, "I had a tough early campaign. Obama came from nowhere. But as soon as I got back on my feet, I was unstoppable. I have the momentum. I am the candidate most likely to beat McCain. Give me your support."

That is a plausible scenario. That is why she is not quitting. If I was her I wouldn't quit either. She probably has no better than a 25% chance but when the prize is so big it is absolutely worth playing.

For what that may do to the Democrats chances in November please see my post yesterday. But don't blame Hillary. She has every right to fight on while there is still a chance of success and after last night there is still a chance.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Army Cadets

I was fascinated to see that the Tories are considering a proposal to introduce the army cadets into every secondary school as reported by the Evening Standard tonight. You can take the boy out of Eton, but you can't take Eton out of the boy.....

Now I don't know what others' experience was of the Combined Cadet Force (as it was called in my day) but I remember feeling faintly ridiculous marching around the school playground for no apparent reason. I went once. Then played football instead for the rest of the year. That's not quite true. I went one more time because we were going to get to fire a machine gun (c'mon- that IS fun) but ended up being thrown in a river. That was it- back to football and hiding from detention.

Anyway, good one Team Cameron. Can't wait to see the reaction if the idea goes any further. What else? Dunkings for failing exams? Bring back fagging? School song and recantation of the Latin motto every morning?

POST SCRIPT: Nick Clegg was atrocious on Newsnight tonight- stroppy, incoherent, flustered. I am told by people who have known him for years that he does have talent. Surely he could have picked a policy area where his party isn't so ridiculously divided and tactically perverse for the first public demonstration of his leadership abilities?

POST SCRIPT II: Arsenal were absolutely fantastic tonight. Hats off to them. Manchester United were mediocre and still don't look the part in Europe.

Democratic nomination decided today?

The honest answer is that I would be absolutely amazed if it is. Clinton maintains a smallish but consistent poll lead in Ohio. Obama's poll lead in Texas is minuscule and may now actually have reversed in the closing stages of the campaign. It is down to turnout and how the early voting has gone. My gut instinct is that Clinton will win Ohio fairly comfortably and Texas will be almost a dead heat with Clinton winning by a squeak on the vote and Obama winning more delegates (it's to do with the apportionment- see my piece in Tribune this week for further background on that).

See also an analysis on www.mydd.com about early voting and the poll numbers that are coming through. It's inconclusive but tends to suggest a narrow Clinton win in Texas.

Where would the scenario above leave us? In a really bad situation for the Democrats. For five reasons:

i) Obama is still likely to win on pledged delegates but will have to endure months of the type of negative Clinton campaigning that he has experienced in Texas over the last few days. McCain can just sit back and enjoy.
ii) Obama will be drawn into battle over issue after issue. This will tarnish his reputation as the change candidate and make him look 'just like the rest.'
iii) Michigan and Florida. Clinton's people will try to get the Democratic National Committee to re-seat the delegates in Denver in August. There will be a row about this and the Democrats will look incompetent and undemocratic. As Bob Shrum described it, the primaries in Florida and Michigan were like 'a Soviet style election- there was only one candidate.'
iv) The nomination will be decided by the super-delegates. If they go for Clinton when Obama has more pledged delegates that will severely damage a Clinton Presidential bid. Perhaps fatally.
v) Clinton and Obama will start to drift leftwards as the key state of Pennsylvania becomes Obama's last chance at a knock-out and Clinton's final firewall. Eight weeks of hedging to the left will be a further gift to McCain.

Overall, if Obama fails to win Texas on both the popular vote and delegates it will be an awful situation for the Democrats. Whoever emerges as the candidate in August could and probably would be severely handicapped against McCain. Obama stands to lose the most. If the process 'normalises' him which it will start to do then his momentum is punctured. Should he win Texas, no matter how narrowly, I hope that the Clintons do the responsible thing. The chances of that? Start at zero then work back.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Share Liverpool FC

I have today committed to investing in Liverpool FC. Rogan Taylor is trying to organise a fans' buy-out of the club in a fascinating experiment in supporters' democracy. A number of Spanish clubs such as Barcelona are run by their supporters already. By my calculation 100,000 supporters or so will have to commit £5,000 each for the bid to be successful. A tall order but who knows....

Sign up at Share Liverpool

POST SCRIPT: It seems that Dubai International Capital have submitted a best and final bid to Gillett and Hicks. We should know in the next couple of days what the outcome of that will be. I do not have the faintest idea what DIC's plans are for the club. Just one private equity deal to another.....

Lisbon Treaty Referendum

A campaign for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty sends you a letter and a ballot paper. You are against the idea of a referendum. Why would you bother to return the ballot paper and give credibility to the exercise? You very probably wouldn't.

Magically, 88% of those who responded to iwantareferendum's private plebiscite voted for a referendum. 89% were against the Lisbon Treaty. Hmmmm.....eerily similar wouldn't you say? (Though I would love to know what the motivation is for the 1% of respondents who seem to not want a referendum but don't support the treaty....)

So we can dismiss this whole exercise.

In order for the European Union to be able to move on those issues where common action is critical- climate change, employment rights, international aid, economic development and many others- institutional reform is necessary. The same architecture does not work for 27 as it did for 15. So it is about European nations being able to face common threats and challenges and remain masters of our own destiny. That is why the Lisbon Treaty is so important just like the other reform treaties that have gone before it since the inception of the EU. Without support for the treaty it is impossible to craft a realistic policy on issues such as climate change. The Tories seem to have fallen into this very trap.

The BNP

I enjoyed a very pleasant meal with friends last night in Rugby where there is currently a County by-election. The by-election is the first time that the British National Party has fought in the town and is a tester for them to see whether they can get a foothold after failures in neighbouring towns such as Nuneaton. Rugby is a diverse but very settled town so they are unlikely to make much headway.

As the conversation progressed something struck me. Instead of talking about education, equality, social justice, we were talking mainly about issues of identity and race. And that's the BNP's gain. Because that's how they operate by making issues that were previously of minor concern or irrelevance or just plain nonsense seem far more contentious and challenging than they actually are.

The importance that voters give 'immigration' as a set of issues was negligible a decade ago but is now one of the greatest concerns. It is very interesting to contrast the reaction of Britain and the US to terrorist attacks (and the attacks of 7/7 are undoubtedly a catalyst.) While the US turned its ire on the external world, we have turned in on ourselves. For me, it demonstrates that we have a long way to go before we have a settled and unifying view of ourselves. We have to find a way of articulating a modern sense of Britishness and reconcile ourselves to that as a nation. Politicians are not up to the job alone quite frankly. It needs to be one that also engages historians, musicians, writers, the business community, religious groups, and all.

Until we find a way of understanding ourselves as individuals in the context of a modern and diverse nation then groups like the BNP will continue to have the capacity to divide us. They may not have electoral success but they will still inject their poison into our consciousness in a way that will drag other parties onto their ground and keep us divided as a nation. That can and should be avoided.

Saturday, 1 March 2008