» jennie rigg ¦ What You Can Get Away With

It’s federal election time! – Probably only of interest to Lib Dems, but Jennie Rigg will be doing questions for federal committee candidates again, and wants your input on what to ask them.
Utter scumbags – “What I cannot accept, however, is the properly grotesque argument which this contemptible, reckless, immoral and intellectually bust Conservative Party is running to justify and explain its human rights plans. In Grayling’s thumping rhetoric to the grinning faithful in Birmingham, you do not see a meaningful and serious-minded parliamentary deliberation on the contested understandings of human rights, but an abject and irresponsible failure to engage in any intellectual or morally credible way with fundamental rights ideas.”
So The Lib Dems Have A Glee Club Where They Sing A Rude Song About Tony Blair – Buzzfeed are, I think, the first media outlet to actually understand Glee Club, and not use it to prove some agenda or other is correct.
In Spain, Politics via Reddit – Interesting look at the way Podemos is using the internet to transition from movement to party.
Understanding UKIP: Identity, Social Change and the Left Behind – The authors of Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin have a new paper on UKIP’s voters and supporters.

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Too much democracy? Time for 21st century democracy. – An introduction by Martin Smith and Dave Richards to some of the themes of their book Institutional Crisis in 21st Century Britain, which I’m working through at the moment.
Forget quotas for women MPs – time to limit the number of men – Rainbow Murray flips the debate on representation.
Making policy for the policy invariant – How do you make policy if the people don’t care what the results of that policy are?
Public Statement on the Readmittance of Lord Rennard to the Liberal Democrats – Jennie Rigg says exactly what I would say.
Do political parties make any difference? – Alex Marsh with details of some new academic research that’s relevant to my interests, and also contains some information on the party’s stance on immigration that’ll be of interest to activists.

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Where Are All the Female Bloggers: a Series of Questions that require answers – something discovered during my trawl through the blogging archives. A post by Jennie Rigg from three years ago, but still very relevant.
What next for the Liberal Democrats? – An interesting perspective on the party’s situation from Irish blogger Jason O’Mahony.
Let more women report how the country is run – Mary Ann Sieghart in the Independent points out that political reporting is just as male-dominated as politics itself.
Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax – A very bizarre story about a star American college football player and the story of his dead girlfriend who appears to have been entirely fictional. (via)
Why are Local Parties important? – From a Lib Dem perspective, but an interesting nugget in terms of people’s engagement in politics. (via)

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Jennie’s already beaten me to it, but I thought I’d share some thoughts on Ad Lib magazine, the party’s replacement for Liberal Democrat News, as it arrived in the post this morning. (I would advise reading Jennie’s post as well, of course – her points about the gender balance of contributors are very important)

To start off, it turns out that what was advertised as a magazine…isn’t. For me, magazine has certain connotations, and they tend to revolve around it being A4 size, and if it’s smaller than that it’s pretty big and sturdy. This is A5 and 40 pages, so I’m not sure it’s much more than a pamphlet. The point about Liberal Democrat News was that you could conceive of it appearing in a newsagents – this doesn’t give that impression.

As for the title, I suppose it’s better than going for something like ‘Coalicious’ or some focus group inspired ‘inspirational’ title, but is something that means ‘making it up as you go along’ really the impression the party wants to give? According to the ‘message from the editor’ inside, the answer is that it ‘is an appropriate tone for the magazine to strike’. That’s not an inspirational start, though it might explain what we find inside.

We start with an interview with Shirley Williams. Well, it’s billed as an interview, but it feels more like ‘a quick chat about the SDP’. There’s nothing new in there, and I can’t see any reason for it to be in there other than someone deciding ‘people like Shirley, so let’s put her in’. Following that, we get three pages of by-election news which read like the same story written four times. Why not just concentrate on one by-election (and perhaps even one where we didn’t win?) and tell a story, give us a feel for the area and what the Lib Dems are doing there, rather than giving us four pieces that could come from anywhere?

There’s a page on shared parental leave that really feels like it should be more – how did we achieve this? What were the challenges? What will the effects be? – but it’s just a page that reads like a press release. This is a problem that keeps occurring – everything in the magazine feels too shallow. The Nick Clegg interview that follows is the same – it should be an in-depth talk with John Kampfner, but instead it just floats over a lot of the usual topics and then ends. (Though it is the only article in the magazine to mention the Corby by-election – or indeed, any election other than council ones)

Desert Island (picture of a disc) – as Jennie says, BBC copyright lawyers ahoy! – tells us Tessa Munt’s eight favourite songs. Great, but whenever I’ve listened to the radio programme I’m sure they didn’t take the title and format from, the music is only part of the story. It’s a hook to ask the person involved more about them and what drives them, here it’s just filler for another page.

The Guardian does an interesting thing in its Saturday edition where they get two people on opposite sides of an issue to talk about it, debating points back and forth. That’s often interesting to read and brings out interesting points, whereas the simplistic ‘Should we ban page 3? Yes or no’ ‘debate’ in Ad Lib doesn’t do anything other than rehash the same old points with no actual interaction.

The rest of the magazine’s the same – articles that could be interesting just peter out into nothing. There’s an article about how a Lib Dem councillor led the process to boost recycling in Conwy council which is a subject that would interest a lot of people, but after a few paragraphs talking about that goes on to discuss elections and campaigning. The article about the American election descends into a lot of process chatter about election strategy and rather than talk about the content of Nick Clegg’s conference speech, we get an article about how it was written.

There’s some interesting content in there – Alison McInnes’ article on improving conditions in women’s prisons stands out – but the rest of it just feels hollow, far too reliant on running off to the Lib Dem safe zone of talking about leaflets and door-knocking instead of discussing actual politics or policy. Why is there a page given over to cooking? Why does the upcoming events page only detail events taking place yesterday, today and tomorrow? Even if the magazine had come out a week ago, that would still be far too short a notice for many people to make plans for.

I’m sure the team behind it are doing their best to put the magazine out while having to do a hundred other things, but that this is how the party chooses to communicate with its members speaks volumes about how the leadership sees us. Some effort and investment could have produced a magazine that people might want to read, or think about passing on to non-Lib Dem friends to show them something of interest. Compare Ad Lib to the magazine I get regularly as an Amnesty member, or the communications organisations like the Woodland Trust send out to their members, and it looks terrible. Did anyone look at other magazines before putting the basic idea of this together? I subscribe to New Humanist magazine, which can’t have that huge a subscriber base, but they manage to put together a vibrant and interesting magazine that gets read, noticed and talked about. Ad Lib feels like something that’s not going to hang about long on the journey from letterbox to recycling.

The idea of having to pay an extra £35 a year to get this sent to me monthly is something I’m not contemplating. If members are going to get two issues a year automatically, that’s asking for £3.50 an issue which doesn’t feel anything like value for money, especially when a year of Liberator‘s just £25.

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The Problem With Liberal Democrats In Government – That sound you hear? Jennie Rigg hitting a nail perfectly on the head.
Let’s end this Christmas Psalms Race – Jim Jepps has some entirely reasonable suggestions for keeping Christmas entirely within December.
Welcome to Pyongyang – Simon Titley discusses Liberal Democrat internal democracy on Liberator’s blog.
The rise of UKIP: what does it all mean? – Analysis from Dr Rob Ford on Political Betting.
Is politics impossible for ordinary people? – “Can an ordinary person sustain the disdain bordering on hatred directed at politicians (of all parties) mixed with the irrational and overly emotional expectations of modern voters?”

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Why was turnout so abysmal in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections?? – Great post by Jennie Rigg looking at the reasons.
Spoilt Ballots in the PCC Elections: What Do the Numbers Tell Us? – And following that, some data on just how many ballots were spoilt, and for what reasons.
Don Jimmy Gambino OBE – Archie Valparaiso on how Jimmy Savile’s activities in the 50s seem more like those of a mob boss than a DJ
The Lib Dem Activist Blues – Jennie Rigg sets them to music.
The curious question of Tory nationalism – Simon Titley writes for the new Liberator blog. “Yet here we are, 56 years after Suez, and most of the Conservative Party (along with UKIP) continues under the delusion that Britain is still a superpower. It is expressed in terms of a go-it-alone braggadocio, with a corresponding disdain for Johnny Foreigner. It is the politics of the gut, not the brain. And it is completely and utterly counter-productive.”

And as a special bonus, a fun quote from here: ‘the ideal Labour supporter’s article now consists of the words ‘One Nation” repeated several hundred times, with an occasional “audacious“, “Ed Miliband“, “transformational” and ‘details need to be explored further” leavening the one nation pudding.’

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Jennie Rigg and James Graham have both written posts recently that have touched on issues that have been concerning me. To quote Jennie:

And because people are just generally pissed off with politicians, political media, and elections this feeds into the perception that there is a lack of meaningful choice – if all politicians are the same and they are all venal scumsucking money-grubbing bastards, why bother to try to choose between them? It won’t make any difference.

And James:

What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours

(Read the whole thing from both of them, of course)

We’re sleepwalking into a democratic crisis in this country. In fact, we may already be in the middle of the one. I know there’ll be lots of ‘whither democracy?’ articles floating around the ether after the PCC elections, but they were just a symptom of the ongoing issues that are affecting the country, not the cause of something in itself.

The problem is that in many people’s perceptions democracy has become conflated with ‘voting for things’. We forget that democracy is meant to be an ongoing process, not just something you turn up and do periodically and then forget about. To borrow from Michael Bywater’s Lost Worlds:

The core of democracy, for its inventors, was participation. You not only voted, you served in office when called upon. Now, perhaps, a gentleman might think it poor form to discuss politics; his Athenian forebears would think it idiotic not to. Literally idiotic: those who ‘kept out of politics’ were risible, contemptible, ‘The Selfers’, idiôtes, foolishly self-absorbed and out of the swim.

Now, this could be a rant about people not getting involved and not voting. How dare they sit at home when we’ve given them things to vote for! Why would they not want to take the time to have their say about whether they want someone as their PCC who’ll cut crime or someone who’ll priorities crime cutting instead? But that’s definitely not the issue: the problem isn’t that voters are idiots (under any definition of the word) but that the system insists on treating them like they are. People discuss politics and political issues, they do it often and in great depth – they just don’t feel any connection to the political systems that are supposed to deal with these issues. To quote from Jennie again:

The causes of this are many and complex, but a large part of it is the electoral system which forces there two be two big broad church parties of disparate people BEFORE an election rather than coalitions forming after; a large part of it is the media who love to take politicians down and misrepresent them for sensationalist reasons; some of it is a lack of education on politics and its processes; and some of it is the dishonesty of politicians in not admitting that actually, there is very little difference between any of the main parties precisely due to the above effects.

And as James points out, ideology is being slowly removed from British politics in favour of a form of competitive managerialism, where people don’t compete on vision and ideology but on who can best hit a set of ill-defined targets.

And the reaction to this disengagement between the political system and the public is to promise more disengagement. PCCs, like elected Mayors before them, come from the rather Mussolini-esque belief that too much democracy – lots of people discussing different views and coming to a joint conclusion – is horribly inefficient (and nothing’s worse for a managerialist than perceived inefficiency within a system) and we’d be better served by a single leader making all the decisions because – for reasons no one can quite explain, but seem to revolve around the ability to vote them out in several years if they choose to stand for re-election – that one person will be ‘accountable’. Again, this is managerialism in action, where you set one person a group of targets to meet and assess them on whether they make them or not. The problem here is that I’ve never met a voter who makes their decision based on that sort of criteria.

This is why I’m concerned about a democratic crisis in this country, as voters become more and more disengaged from the system, and the system responds in ways that only deepen the divide and invite contempt. As well as government, though, there’s a crisis of trust in many institutions in the country: the police after Hillsborough and other events, the BBC after Savile, the press after phone hacking, and so on. Add to that all the problems of the economy and austerity and we’ve got all the precursors for a complete collapse of confidence in all institutions in place.

My fear is that we’re in a position similar to Italy’s in the early 90s, and all we’re lacking is a Berlusconi to come along and take advantage of the situation. The main political parties are all seeing their membership dwindle and their capacity to engage the public be correspondingly reduced, and there’s a huge vacuum waiting to be filled. People want to be engaged in politics and political discussions, but they’re not getting that from the system at the moment. As I wrote a few months ago, the parties have reduced politics to a big game, and people want more from it than that. Given the right message, the right funding and the right figurehead, a British version of Forza Italia could bulldoze the other parties out of the way – and thanks to our electoral system could be swept into a huge majority and near-absolute power. We might be lucky and get a movement led by someone who wants to be a benign dictator in the style of De Gaulle, or we might be unlucky and find ourselves like Italy after the early 90s, finding we’ve got rid of one damaged system to replace it with one that’s worse.

That’s where my fear comes from – that this perfect storm of crises might be used by certain forces to bounce us into a system of government that’s a long way from where we are today. Scotland might be lucky enough to get away from it if that were to happen, but what of the rest of us?

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