I wrote a while ago about the Council’s trees for years initiative, which was meant to happen this Saturday, the 2nd of February. However, because of the recent cold weather, it’s been necessary to delay this to allow the ground conditions to improve for moving the trees. It’s now scheduled to take place on Saturday 16th February, and all the details can be found by clicking here.

It’s been ten years since I decided to add a blog to my website, and I don’t think then that I expected to still be blogging ten years later. Yet here I still am still plugging away and still with a loyal band of readers who hang on my every word can’t be bothered to go through with the faff of deleting me from their feeds.

However, while I’m still blogging, the look back I’ve taken over the last couple of weeks has shown me that what we mean by ‘blogging’ has changed a lot over that time. For those of you who don’t know, ‘blog’ originates from ‘web log’, and the original blogs were essentially lists of links the blogger had found, occasionally with some added commentary. By the time I started blogging that had already begun to shift in favour of blogs being much more about the content than the links, but you can still see in my early archives that longer posts were interspersed with lots of ‘here’s an interesting link’ posts.

It’s important to remember how different things were back then – there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube and even MySpace didn’t start until a few months after I started blogging. Most people were going online via dial-up and most phones didn’t have cameras on them, let alone the ability to connect to the internet. And, of course, all this were fields, we had to get up two hours before we go to sleep and everyone respected each other in the morning.

The point I’m trying to make is that while I’ve had a blog throughout that time, the way I’ve used that blog has changed considerably. After all, if I just want to show people an interesting link or make a quick snarky comment about something, then I’ve got Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus to do that. A blog post now is something longer and (supposedly) more thought through. Indeed, I think the blog itself is much more fragmented than it was ten years ago. Back then, you tended to visit someone’s blog by going to the main page and looking through all their latest posts, now visits and links are much more to individual posts rather than the site as a whole.

The changing nature of the web has also broken down the sense of a community of blogs. Or ‘blogosphere’, which is a term that’s fallen out of favour. There’s a lot of my early posts which are on the lines of ‘in response to what X said, commenting on Y’s post about Z’s article in the Observer’ (and X and Y’s blogs have since disappeared from the web, of course) and in that sense, blogs were an early form of the public conversation that’s now moved to Twitter. In that period before the 2005 election, there was also a sense of blogs not being as partisan as they became afterwards. Sure, there were some people who seemed to be only interested in scoring party-political points, but they were in a minority with the more important division being whether you were for or against invading Iraq. I think some of that was down to the rarity of British political bloggers, though – because there were so few of us around, it was in most people’s interests to maintain good relations. As blogging grew, and little like-minded bubbles could support themselves, things became much more fragmented.

For those first couple of years, blogging was still very much a niche activity, and like a lot of internet niches then, it didn’t really interact with the wider world around it. Despite the initial idea of blogging being about finding interesting stuff and sharing it with people (the Netscape What’s New and What’s Cool lists were amongst the first blogs in form, if not in name) it became quite self-referential, with people sticking in their little bubbles and occasionally letting new people into them, but never taking more than a glance at the other bubbles they were floating alongside.

In some senses, of course, the blog won the internet. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest are, at their heart, ways of sharing content and making a log of things you’ve found on the web. However, the name of blogging remains attached to just one element of that, which has now almost entirely shed its original reason for existence. Who reads a blog for the links instead of the content nowadays?

On a personal level, it’s been very interesting to go back through these posts catching the little references to things I was doing, and remember where I was at certain points in time. It’s odd to think that I’ve had this blog in its various forms for about a quarter of my life, and it doesn’t show any signs of disappearing just yet.

So, to all those of you who’ve visited here over the last ten years, whether you’ve been coming here regularly since I started or you’re just here because Google sent you and this post has none of the information you wanted, thank you for reading, commenting, linking and sharing the things I’ve done over the last ten years. It’s been fun, it’s been interesting, it’s put me in touch with people I never would have met otherwise and information I’d never have known about, and has also justified a number of visits to various pubs, which have definitely been worthwhile.

And I promise to try and wait ten more years before doing another series of long retro posts.

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This year featured my longest blogging dry spell in my ten years, and then my decision to come back to regular blogging. Having spent the time to go through all these posts, it’s fascinating to see how much blogging has changed over that time, but that’ll be for a post tomorrow.

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There surely must come a point when everyone realises that Eric Pickles is a master satirist. He’s pulled off the routine for far longer than anyone else might have managed – Morris, Baron-Cohen, even Sellers, they could keep up a character for ages, but none ever managed anything close to the length that the ‘Pickles’ hoax has run for.

As we all know, one of his most popular routines of the last couple of years has been localism, where he delivers a speech out of two sides of his mouth at once. On one side, he talks about the joys of local decision making, how planning should be about neighbourhoods and not central targets and how central government should leave local government alone, while on the other side he’s imposing decisions on local government, bringing in planning rules that weaken local power and telling councils exactly how they should spend their budgets. The sheer joy of the comedy comes in him saying these things at the same time while apparently being unaware that he’s contradicting himself.

He’s updated the routine today, with this fantastic claim that councils who’ve played by the rules he set down are ‘dodging democracy’. When told that if they raised council tax by 2% or more they’d have to have a referendum – which Pickles would order but they’d have to pay for – councils who’ve needed to raise council tax levels have chosen to do so by just under 2%. That’s their local decision made by local councillors, and so the champion of localism has had to wade in and tell them that they’re wrong.

According to Pickles, council tax – for which all councils must send a detailed bill, including details of where it goes and how it’s spent, then collect separately – is a ‘stealth tax’ and that councils, elected by the people, just like the Parliament that Pickles sits in, have to ‘win over the public’ before raising any taxes. Councils should ‘stop treating residents with contempt’, because that’s clearly the role of Pickles and the DCLG, not councils.

You have to laugh, because otherwise you have to believe he actually means what he says, and that would be far too ridiculous.

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And now we’re getting very close to the present, with blog posts that reference issues that are still going on and less ‘oh, I’d completely forgotten that’ moments for me as I go through the blog. But still, there are interesting things back there.

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A very short post about Iraq – The Yorkshire Ranter with a succinct response to the ‘I was wrong, but’ brigade.
The less well-paid you are when you enter the labour market, the more your degree will now cost – From the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog. Under the new system of student finance “the greater your rewards from studying for a degree the less you pay for the opportunity.”
Why we need a Robin Hood tax to support councils and their communities – I suspect the potential proceeds of a Robin Hood tax have been spent many thousands of times over in op-eds and blog posts, but this is an interesting perspective from the leader of Corby council.
The HB Gary email that should concern us all – From two years ago, but a fascinating look at how fake consensuses are being generated online by mass use of sock-puppet accounts.
What If The Coup Against Prime Minister Harold Wilson Been Carried Out? – An in-depth look at some of the details around one of the murkier parts of modern British history.

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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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This year followed the pattern set by 2009, with long periods of sparse blogging interrupted by frenzies of regular posting, in this case sparked off by the General Election. It was the year I joined Colchester Council’s Cabinet, and also the year I accidentally created a Twitter hashtag that spread around the world. It was not however, despite Hollywood’s promises, the year we made contact.

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I’ve had several emails from people in Colchester about this issue. After discussing it with colleagues to get information, this is my understanding of what happens here:

The Night Shelter and the local churches have an emergency plan which is activated in severe weather conditions. I think the April Centre may also be involved. Anyone who wants a warm area to sleep in can have one. There are however some people who refuse this accommodation and prefer to sleep out for whatever reasons. The food distribution group also help to identify people who need accommodation.

There’s information here about what the Council has done in the past, and as this has been an area of concern for several people, I’ve asked the Council to update the website with the latest information to ensure people are aware. The Council also has general information on winter services as well as general information on homelessness and the Council’s housing services.

Update: I’ve been given the following information by CBC.

Our Customer Service and Housing Options team members continue to give practical advice to people facing homelessness to help them help themselves. We are tending to see over 1,000 people each month at the moment, advising them on their rights, helping them access our housing register, and giving in-depth assistance to secure accommodation.

Our Housing Options team work pro-actively to prevent homelessness in the first instance. This includes helping people secure private accommodation by helping them with deposits and rent-in-advance. During 2011-12 we successfully helped 256 households who were facing becoming homeless avoid doing so.

We offer emergency accommodation to some of the most vulnerable homeless people. We are currently spending approximately £5million to improve our temporary accommodation for homeless people, raising the standard of accommodation and ending the need for people to share facilities.

The Borough Council has a long record of assisting the most vulnerable, this year alone we have awarded £99,128 to voluntary sector organisations and charities to finance work with homeless people. This includes giving specialist advice, helping people sustain their tenancies, helping people navigate the benefits system, providing rent deposits, and includes providing accommodation.

Colchester Borough Council has a long history of providing funding for the borough’s emergency night-shelter. On top of the funding above, this year we have given a grant of £5,832 to the Night-shelter help fund their work.

Several charities and churches in Colchester organise the Winter Reserve Accommodation Project which provides extra emergency beds for homeless people during the coldest months of the year. This service has been organised this year and is currently open.

Colchester Borough Council was recently awarded £362,000 by central government to co-ordinate a new service for homeless people sleeping on the street, and to implement the ‘No Second Night Out’ initiative in Colchester and our neighbouring districts. We have just made a grant award to two specialist charities to provide this service which will commence shortly.

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2009 continued the trend from 2008 of sporadic and irregular blogging, with some months entirely missed out, and others packed full of posts. This is the inconsistent blogging pattern I’d keep up for a few years, always happy to think of myself as having a blog, even if I rarely put any actual content on there.

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