After discovering that the University library had Biteback’s ‘Why Vote 2015′ books on the shelves, I thought they might be interesting to read to get an idea of the parties’ policies and presentation before the official manifestos come out. This plan was somewhat scuppered by the library not having a copy of the Green book (which seems to have been produced after the others, possibly when they started rising in the polls), and the UKIP book having already been checked out for the Easter vacation by someone else. Still, that left me with three books to look at, and the probability of UKIP’s policy remaining the same between the manifesto launch and election day, let alone between the book and the manifesto, being rather slim.

However, even amongst those three, there’s a question as to how much two of them actually represent the policy of the party they’re ostensibly about and how much they’re just about the author pushing his own agenda and settling some scores. This is the problem with entrusting a book like this to a single author: how much are they going to let their own views eclipse those of their party?

whyvotelabThe one that doesn’t fall into this trap is Why Vote Labour, where Dan Jarvis has written the introduction and conclusion, but in between has got various Labour people, including several Shadow Cabinet members, to contribute chapters on their areas of interest. This makes both for a longer book than the other two, and a more interesting one as it can actually go into more detail in some areas, and you’re confident that what’s being discussed actually is Labour policy.

Some sections are more interesting than others, but I suspect each reader would have their own opinion on that. Personally, I found Stella Creasy’s chapter on people power and Steve Houghton on localism an interesting insight into the broader directions Labour might go in the future, while Rachel Reeves’ chapter on work was of her usual tenor in that one could imagine Iain Duncan Smith contributing a near-identical chapter in a Tory version of the book. The chapter titles – ‘An economy for all”, “Supporting modern families” and “Aspirational Britain: Empowering young people” amongst them – show the sort of studied slogan neutrality that mean they could just as easily be plastered on a podium from which David Cameron is speaking or a Lib Dem policy paper without change. There’s little in the book that’s too radical (assuming the claim that ‘Under Labour, our classrooms will be at the centre of a cultural revolution’ (p75) is a sign of someone not being up on their history of China) but it at least gives the reader an idea of Labour policy.

whyvotetoryBy contrast, Nick Herbert’s Why Vote Conservative is much more one person’s vision of what Tory policy should be. Herbert has been a Government minister during this Parliament – he was responsible for steering through Police and Crime Commissioners, amongst other things – but is now a backbencher, apparently because David Cameron didn’t share his view that he should be promoted to the Cabinet. According to Tim Montgomerie’s quote on the cover, it’s ‘a compelling reminder that the facts of economic, social and cultural life remain Conservative’ which only goes to show how easy it is to persuade him of anything. I found it more of a compelling reminder that for all Tories might talk about responsibility, they’re masters of whinging and blaming the problems of life on anything but themselves. Everything is either the fault of the previous Labour Government or occasionally, if the present one hasn’t achieved something, the Liberal Democrats, and it seems the Conservative Party only needs to take responsibility for good things.

The book is so dominated by blaming Labour for everything that you almost feel glad when he gets to a policy, except that policy is often just defined as ‘whatever Labour don’t do’ or appears to have been cut-and-pasted from a report by the Reform think tank Herbert used to run. What policy there is appears to be privatising anything that’s not nailed down then putting out a lucrative nail-removal tender before getting to the rest while stripping rights from everyone. Now, that may well turn out to be the Tory manifesto, but I suspect they’ll at least make a better job of presenting it than Herbert does here.

whyvoteldWhile Herbert is offering a slightly idiosyncratic take on Tory policy, his book at least bears some resemblance to the party’s actual policies. The same can’t be said for Jeremy Browne’s Why Vote Liberal Democrat. As Alex Marsh points out in his more detailed review of the book, Browne appears to be more interested in putting forward Coalition policies than Liberal Democrat ones, and the book feels more like an advocacy of voting National Liberal, but unfortunately published in a world where they no longer exist.

I’ve previously written about Browne’s Race Plan, and this is a better book than that but that’s mainly because it is – in the words of the old quote – both good and original. The parts that are good are pretty much Lib Dem boilerplate and could have been taken from hundreds of manifestos and party documents over the year, while the original parts are little more than Browne making the same points he does in Race Plan, with some added extra sneering at the Labour Party bolted on. As Alex puts it “the argument pretty much amounts to saying: scratch the surface of Ed Miliband and you’ll find Tony Benn underneath.”

The choice of Browne to write this book, and releasing it a long time in advance of a general election whose date has been known for some time, is one of the curious decisions that make these books a lot less useful than they could have been. As we know now, Browne’s not going to be an MP in the next Parliament, regardless of the result in Taunton Deane, and anyone reading his book isn’t going to find out much about what the party might want to do, or the range of opinions with it. Herbert’s still a backbencher, without much clamour heard for his return to Government, and these two books feel like they’ve failed to answer the question of their titles. It perhaps explains why Dan Jarvis is seen as a rising star of the Labour Party, in that he’s willing to work with others to deliver a vision, not assume that all people need to support his party is hear from him in more and more detail. If the others had followed that approach, then not only would their books have been more interesting, but their Governmental careers might have seen more success.

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Not Watching This Weekend: Find Me A Writer!

"You might already know that these are books. But what you might not know is that the words inside them are made up by people."

“You might already know that these are books. But what you might not know is that the words inside them are made up by people.”

The Pitch: There’s been a lot of complaint that TV mainstream doesn’t have much, if any, programming about books (rather than just being based on them). This show aims to change that by finding Britain’s Next Top Writer in a primetime show. Having made one giant leap of originality by doing a show about books in primetime, the rest of the show will be a complete ripoff of other talent formats. Thus, one round will feature wannabe writers reading a small sample of their work to celebrity writer judges, who’ll be sitting in the chairs from The Voice that have been badly modified to look ‘writerly’. Writers will be expected to jump across genre, style and form at a moment’s notice. (An amateur playwright protesting they know nothing about novel structure being berated by an angry Salman Rushdie will become a YouTube favourite) The life of a writer will be presented as effortless luxury, casually dispensing bon mots at cocktail parties between dashing out a newspaper column and being showered in money by benevolent publisher.

The climax will come in a live final at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff where a book-wielding audience of thousands will watch as the four finalist writers discover that the hours they’ve spent sweating over their work, carrying out every edit and demeaning video diary task ordered by the producers, was utterly wasted as the executives have discovered no one really likes reading books, so they’ll be engaging in It’s A Knockout style contests with a vaguely books-that-have-become-well-known-movies theme. The winner will discover that there book was already published for free as a sample on Amazon that morning and they’ve made £2.35 from the millions of downloads.

Initially planned judges/mentors by the producers: JK Rowling, that one who wrote that thing that we were all reading last year in Tuscany, what was it, look, just get me JK Rowling. What do you mean, she doesn’t want to do it?
Actual judges: A generally confused looking Salman Rushdie, three other authors who could be made to look vaguely presentable on camera and are happy to appear on The One Show and regional radio programmes on an almost daily basis to plug this.
Likelihood of actually boosting book sales across the nation: Low

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Not being one of the privileged elite of Lib Dem bloggers, I didn’t get a review copy of Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan, so I waited until it turned up in the University library before reviewing it. It was worth waiting for it, as if I’d laid out money on actually buying a copy, I’d have felt extremely ripped off. It was obviously meant to be a provocative book that would force a debate within the Liberal Democrats and make people realise the correctness of Browne’s ‘authentic liberal’ views, but instead it’s just the same boilerplate ‘classical liberal’ pabulum one can read on blogs and think tank websites for free.

It feels like a book that was written in a hurry, and that shows in the lack of citations or justification for many of the claims Browne makes. There are many sections full of assertions that need some sort of explanation or evidence to back them up, but none comes. This is evident in the two central assertions of the book: that it’s “an authentic liberal plan to get Britain fit for ‘The Global Race'”.

Browne’s description of his ideas as ‘authentic liberalism’ isn’t based on any sort of discussion of liberal ideas or their relevance to the modern age but merely presented as self-evident truth. It assumes – like most who claim to be heralds of ‘classical liberalism’ – that there is some Platonic ideal form of liberalism and any versions that deviate from this are inauthentic or fake. It completely ignores the idea – as I discussed in my series of posts on Russell – that liberalism should be concerned with power, or that it can adapt to meet the times. It’s an assumption that liberalism was somehow perfected in the nineteenth century, and nothing needs to be added to it. Browne doesn’t have anything to say about power, except for expecting everyone to prostrate themselves in front of the power of the market and the ‘global race’.

The ‘global race’ is the second of Browne’s major assumptions, and again he doesn’t seek to justify this concept, just assumes it to be the case. For those of you who forgot, the ‘global race’ was the centrepiece of a David Cameron Tory Party conference speech and like many big political ideas before it, wasn’t one that became part of the national vocabulary. Browne, however, latches onto it with all the vigour of a Conservative Central Office intern looking to get in the leader’s good books, but doesn’t stop to explain why he thinks it’s a good idea, or even if in a globalised world the idea of a race between nation-states makes any sense. It feels like international relations by Sellar and Yeatman: Britain must be Top Nation again, then history can come to an end.

Browne’s inability to question his assumptions, and the generally rushed nature of the book mean his proposals aren’t original and rest on some very weak evidence. He talks about school vouchers as though they’re a thrilling new idea, not something that have been a feature of seemingly every right-wing screed on education since the 90s, and assumes they will work because competition. No, that’s pretty much the argument – school vouchers bring in competition and competition always makes things better, thus school vouchers will make things better. Mind you, this comes after an argument where he purports that the single biggest reason for the relative success of independent schools compared to state schools is parental choice. Not increased levels of funding and the ability to spend more on teachers and facilities, just choice.

Later, we’re told that London needs a new airport because ‘a global hub city needs a global hub airport’ without giving any meaningful definition of what either of those things are, making the whole argument a frustratingly circular one. Like much of the book, it feels like nothing more than Browne pushing his personal desires and assuming that they need no evidence to back them up. It betrays the idea that his ideas aren’t radical, but have been floating around on the right for years to such an extent that that the true believers don’t need proof or evidence to assert them as true.

In this vein, he asserts that the size of the state should be between 35 and 38% of GDP, based on a discussion of a handful of countries and Britain’s experience between 1997 and 2001 (though I think the figure he uses excludes all the off-the-books PFI spending, which would weaken his argument even more). It feels like a figure plucked from the air, and just when you would expect him to bring out some form of evidence to back it up, there’s absolutely nothing. It’s just put out there as something Browne believes to be true, and used to justify a whole load of lazy man-in-the-pub bloviating about supposed government waste. Browne seems to believe that running a government is just like running a supermarket, again parroting the prevailing view on the right that everything can be reduced to businesses and markets.

It amuses (but also slightly scares) me to see people thinking that this book makes Browne a deep thinker or a radical. The ideas in it aren’t original or radical, and the thinking behind them is wearyingly shallow. Browne’s style is akin to that of Thomas Friedman, firing multiple factoids and wows at the reader, hoping to hide the lack of a detailed argument. For instance, Browne often waxes lyrical (well, semi-lyrical, his writing rarely rises to any great heights) about Chinese skyscrapers and other infrastructure, comparing them to Britain’s Victorian engineering triumphs, but neglects to think about how these things there were built. The human cost of this building, and the vast armies of poorly paid labour without any rights that build them isn’t mentioned at all.

Likewise, as he urges us to work harder so we can be part of the ‘Asian Century’, he handwaves away any mention of climate change and its potential effects. This is something that’s going to dominate the century in a much more fundamental way than anything Browne focuses on, but the few mentions of any potential environmental problems assume they can be simply solved, and nothing will get in the way of the irresistible growth of the economy. Browne trumpets his experience as a Foreign Office minister, but the overview he gives of foreign affairs doesn’t reveal any particular depths and I worry if the Foreign Office’s work isn’t focusing on the potential global risks climate change creates.

I’ll be honest and say that from all the descriptions and reviews I’d read of it, I didn’t expect to agree with this book, and I generally didn’t. What I didn’t expect, though, was for the arguments in it to be so weak and resting on so little. It’s a testament to the paucity of debate and thinking within a lot of the party that something argued as weakly as this can be seen as being a bold challenge. What disappoints me most of all is that it has nothing to say about power, and how people can get that power back from globalisation. Instead, he merely envisages a capitulation and surrender to the prevailing mood in the name of competing in the ‘global race’, when what we need is a liberal challenge and a vision of how things could be done differently. A truly radical and liberal plan for the twenty-first century would challenge the orthodoxy, but Browne’s plan is just for more of the same, dressed up in supposedly liberal clothes.

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The Man In The High Castle on Amazon TV?

I wrote a few years ago about the BBC’s plans to adapt Philip K Dick’s classic novel The Man in the High Castle
for TV. As with so many TV projects, it seems that fell through but news has now come out that while we’re not in the universe where it got made by the BBC, we may be in the one where it gets made for Amazon TV.

Sadly, it appears that while Ridley Scott’s production company is still involved, the script is no longer being written by Howard Brenton. As I wrote four years ago, one worry I have about any adaptation of The Man In The High Castle is that it’s very easy to see it as just a relatively simple what-if story about the Axis winning the Second World War and how the US would be if it was divided between a victorious Germany and Japan. While Dick does create an interesting story about that, as with many of his books, the more interesting part of The Man In The High Castle is its exploration of the nature of reality. It’s a tale of three different worlds: the world where (most of) the book is set, the world Abendsen writes about in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and our world, with the question as to which one is really real and how the I Ching links them all. Stepping back, there’s also Dick’s belief that we are living in a flase reality and ‘the Empire never ended’ – our reality is possibly a hallucination of a Roman-dominated world.

There’s been plenty of interesting new TV that’s willing to take risks in the last few years, and the online services are definitely willing to try something new, so perhaps Amazon will be willing to contemplate getting their viewers to question the nature of reality. One lesson from most previous Dick adaptations is that the complex philosophical discussions of the nature of reality are the first thing to be jettisoned in favour of the high concept, but maybe we’re in a reality where that sort of TV is possible now.

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russellliberalismAs those of you who follow me on Twitter will have already seen, I’ve recently re-read Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. It was originally published in 1999 as part of a series of ‘Intelligent Person’s Guide To…’, though they now seem to be out of print and are hard to find. I found it a fascinating read, and as it is so hard to find, I thought I’d try and provide a summary of it, which will hopefully prompt some other thoughts.

Read the rest of this entry

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Me, elsewhere

You can see my summer reading choices at Liberal England.

Thinking about The Political Brain


One of the first books I read this year was Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which I’ve found absolutely fascinating. Westen is a clinical psychologist and a supporter of the Democrats in the US, who had been progressively frustrated over a period of years by the party’s inability to fight back against the Republican method of doing politics. In The Political Brain, he sets out to examine politics and political communications from a psychological perspective, and to propose ways in which Democrats can fight back.

Westen’s main hypothesis (as reflected in the book’s subtitle) is that emotion is a key component in successful political communication. One of the reasons Al Gore and John Kerry lost their elections was because they didn’t connect emotionally with the American public while George W Bush did. Both men believed that they had the right answers to the questions that faced America, but they were too busy convincing the voters of that case intellectually to make the case emotionally. The Republicans, on the other hand, exploited emotional appeals – especially to fear – perfectly, and thus swung the elections their way.

However, Westen isn’t arguing for Democrats to ape the Republicans in fear-mongering and demagoguery. What he does instead is look at significant academic research into how the brain works to explain why certain types of messaging are effective and others aren’t. He doesn’t argue that Democrat policy should change, merely the way that policy is communicated. The book was originally written in 2006, so there’s very little mention of Obama in it, but the point is made effectively in looking at Bill Clinton. Because he could make a powerful emotional connection with voters either through TV or one-on-one, people felt an emotional connection to him they didn’t feel to his opponents or rivals. (One thing I’ve heard in various accounts of people meeting Clinton is that no matter how trivial the encounter, he always gives the impression that listening to that person is the most important thing in the world to him at that moment)

One of Westen’s principal arguments is that the core of any political communication has to be a narrative about the party and/or the candidate, and that while having a list of worthy policies is important, they need to fit into an overall framework. However, that doesn’t mean that just any narrative will do. Westen sets out a set of rules for effective narratives that I think often get missed by people who appear to have read the book. A narrative can’t just be ‘we’re for nice things and against nasty things’ and it shouldn’t designed to appeal to everyone. Any compelling narrative has the structure of a story, and that needs antagonists to work. For instance, Westen points out that the successful Republican narrative in the US relies on demonising a ‘liberal elite’ who want to stop the brave Republicans from making America great again. Westen argues – quite persuasively – that Democrats need to take the fight back to the Republicans, though that doesn’t mean going in the same low vein as them.

In that spirit, he provides notable examples of what defeated Democrat candidates could (and should) have said in some famous circumstances. As he points out, the responses of candidates like Dukakis, Gore and Kerry to attacks on them were factually correct but didn’t connect emotionally. This was originally written and published before the 2008 US election but one key to Obama’s victory then and last year was that he was willing to take the fight to the Republicans.

Westen explains that our brains work by making networks of associations between people, concepts, images and ideas. Political communication needs to activate certain networks to be more effective, and the most effective way to activate networks is through the use of emotion. People are mostly making emotional judgements about candidates and parties based on what they perceive as their narrative long before they make ones based on specific policy points.

What’s also important about the book is that Westen writes as an academic who’s moved into politics, not as a political operative trying to justify his viewpoints and angle for more work. Usually, when he makes a point about the effectiveness or not of certain tactics and language, it’s because there’s evidence to back it up, and his wide knowledge of psychology means he can bring in studies that weren’t explicitly political but have an important bearing on the subject.

I heartily recommend reading The Political Brain to anyone with an interest in politics and political campaigning (and buying it through the link above makes me a few pennies) but it’s also prompted some thoughts on British politics in the light of it. It’s clear that there are people in British politics who’ve read The Political Brain – and some of them have even understood it – but a lot of it hasn’t broken into regular discussion yet.

I was going to take a look at some of Westen’s points and how they relate to British politics in this post, but it’s already getting quite long, and I think they’re best put into a separate post to follow this before it turns into a book in itself.

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