Sep 042012

That’s not the exact phrase I was looking to quote – but, paraphrased inexactly as it is, it’ll do.  A very wise thinker whose name I do not recall right now said something along these very lines.  I have often considered this matter.

Now I’m not going to make myself very popular with what follows – but I would ask you to think about it with an open mind, even so.

Just as opposition politicians often end up acting in much the same way as government politicians … just as trades unionists construct secretive hierarchies that mirror their secretive companies … just as pre-fight boxers growl cruelly at each other … just as little children love and bully each other in equal measure … so the victors of the Cold War – those freedom-loving heroes of the West who spoke of liberties unbound to generations of downtrodden and persecuted Communist masses – are beginning to look more and more like their one-time, and allegedly vanquished, competition.

And how could it be otherwise?  Of course it was always thus.  You spend decades constructing systems and mindsets to protect you from that which threatens your very existence.  What’ll happen to all those vested interests once the real reason for their existing simply fades away?

Not the end of history at all.

Just the end of humanity.

Whilst we could blame the “other side” for being the devil we didn’t know, we chose the devil we did.  And, even, perhaps gladly so.

What now, then?

Whither can we go?

Who can rescue us from the shell of oppression that used to oppress the oppressors – a shell which now has only one subject to house?

Life was never so good as when they had the Communists to concentrate their ire on.  Now they’ve no one so convincingly awful to blame (terrorists and hackers and copyright infringers notwithstanding), it’s almost as if an entire society is looking flailingly to position its hardened warriors in some acceptable role or another.

Only these roles don’t really exist.  The threats are not half as big.  Communism has never really been replaced with as effective a bogeyman as – in retrospect – it clearly managed to represent.

It’s not that as a civilisation we’ve become soft.  It’s, rather, that as a species – through education, the spread of a generalised knowledge and widespread and sustainable information access – we’ve learnt that the warrior classes sustain each other more than they would appear to sustain our liberties.

And now without one side even stumbling to make their case, the other side – our side! – is unable to do anything but slowly and surely consume itself; slowly and surely consume its own citizens.

Does it really have to be like that?

And is it really too late for those at the top to properly understand the lessons of historical progress?

Or are we condemned to fight unnecessarily amongst ourselves – even as we fail to see how we might live in a century where enemies are surely no longer needed?

Neither for educated citizens to want to stick together – nor for societies to be able to work in efficient agreement …

Jun 272012

Chris concludes his post today in the following damning and depressing way:

[…] Miliband says, correctly, that Labour became “disconnected from the concerns of working people.” This is not just a political problem but an individual one for those of use who jumped through the Govean hoops of “rigour”: we become socially isolated, geeks, weirdos and nerds. Academic success has big drawbacks.

It could, then, be that the costs of rigour outweigh the benefits.

If I understand the implications correctly of his conclusion, academia and politics simply don’t mix.  Academia is for a world where evidence is valued.  But the problem politics has with such an approach – quite at the margin of whether we should trust our current leaders and give them the benefit of the doubt in what they do – is that most ordinary people don’t seem to value evidence at all.  In much the same way, in fact, as most political actors in charge – who don’t seem to either these days.

I’ve recently had occasion to criticise politicians for being medieval (more on the greasy-pole theorem here), but Chris’s piece today makes me wonder if I’m being unfair.  What if politicians are right to use prejudice to move the mountains of voters?  What if nations cannot be usefully moved in any other way?  What if we are condemned to a society and civilisation where “the concerns of working people” unhappily equal attitudes constructed on the sands of prejudice instead of solid opinions based on the realities of careful study?

If – as members of political movements, as promoters of evidence-based social and mainstream media and as thoughtful people in general – we are foolishly swimming against an ultimately unstoppable tide, perhaps it is time we admitted that voters are on the whole not scientists, researchers nor PhD students – and prejudice-based politicians who intuitively press our buttons know far more about the business of politics than we, in our white plastic towers of iPads and connected gadgets various, will ever know.

It’s a saddening thought though, isn’t it?  A saddening thought.


Further reading: a couple of websites which have come my way recently and which attempt to inject evidence and objective information into the hackneyed debates of politics.  First, Political Innovation‘s new project Who Funds You?: a sharp attempt to make absolutely clear which political and business ideologues are funding which allegedly – and in some cases superficially – even-handed think tanks.  Second, a new blog from Andrew which looks at how an overarching superstructure of attitudes, behaviours and hows might inform any British government, whatever the political inclination.

Apr 262012

I’ve seen this and other pieces on how the fight is not over yet for that or the other.  They horrify me.  It seems that the belligerent amongst us have finally got their way.  Those who run corporate vessels as if they were battleships – and I assume this will be the vast majority of CEOs – have finally turned our civilian society, that democracy which once stood healthily apart from business and its conflict, into a test-bed and simulator for their clever and destructive mindsets.

I speak so sadly today partly because I am three-quarters through a short piece of political clarity called “Common Sense” (no, not that one – but related to and influenced by, of course).  It’s written by Dan Hind, and it reminds me of a lot of what you will find on my own blog – both currently and over the years; except, of course, that he writes far more to the point than I ever manage to do and with the intelligence that real learning brings.

My writing, unfortunately, is often tangential brainstorming and unfinished.

There is nothing unfinished nor tangential about Dan’s.

Nor does he ever give the sensation of an unknowing thrashing-about-in-the-dark.

The piece is compressed and pincer sharp – and clearly understands the enemy.

You can find more about its writing and publishing here at his site, as well as initial observations on process from myself over at my gently moribund progressive-publishing blog here.

In its short and succinct overview and analysis of where the public domain of democracy now lies, it shows us exactly why we have reached the point of inflexion that is this year – a year which has dramatically followed the Occupy movements of the last.

I believe the last quarter of this “Common Sense” will tell us what we can now do to recover our ability to fashion, engineer and enjoy a proper democracy.  In this sense, I am sure it will provide us with the means to brighten up our shared futures – if we so wish.

In the meantime, I do ask myself if democracy must equal that civilian war I feel we are now immersed in.  Can we not contemplate a mode of discourse which allows us to relate to each other as sentient adults?  Do we have to be forever on opposing sides of the political fence as far as our rhetoric is concerned …  whilst, when atop the greasy pole, on the same side as far as filling our deepening business-influenced pockets is concerned?

Can we not make one final effort to get process properly and constructively in its place, so that democracy really does represent the cumulative voices of the public?


Further reading: you may be interested in a post of mine on why the Occupy movements’ time has not yet arrived.  In the light of Dan’s “Common Sense”, I’m beginning to wonder if I was in fact right.

It’s time may already be upon us.  It may come sooner than we think.

Dec 202011

Paul Evans writes profoundly – even if too occasionally of late – over at Never Trust a Hippy, shares more than he should at (his periodically emailed newsletter is always interesting and full of magnificent leaps of faith) – and the little of his company I have been privileged to share has led me to understand how very little I properly know about this world.

With his Political Innovation project, maybe a five-year mission at that, he has been bravely going where few politicians currently dare to go.  If combative politics has always to a certain degree been characteristic of Westminster, and crossing the parliamentary line of trench warfare a real no-no, the truth of the matter is that as the rest of the world begins to embrace collaborative dynamics – from crowdsourcing in general to open source licences in particular – London-centric political activity of the high-level and stratospheric sort seems evermore anchored in a dated and highly lawyerly-laced interpretation of how far an outstretched hand should be shaken in good faith or – alternatively – surgically excised at source.

Paul’s strengths, therefore, lie not only in his ability to see this wider tendency, conclude that politics is missing the boat dangerously and care enough to want to do something about it but also in his capacity to cross those parliamentary lines in the interests of sharing his truth: we cannot make this complex and intertwined 21st century world function if we do not learn to engineer a very different kind of body politic.

Chris, over at Stumbling and Mumbling, has recently described how politicians are becoming irrelevant and whilst I don’t entirely agree I can see what he is getting at.  But where Paul goes further than any of us in this matter is in his firm and evidenced conviction that something can be done about the process whereby traditional politicians (those I describe as visible in the news: the ones we vote for via the ballot box and expect to some degree to choose to represent us) are ceding ground to the highly undemocratic lot who are creating all the mini behind-the-scenes and self-contained dictatorships which revolve evermore powerfully around what we used to understand were our democratic institutions.

Paul may realise or not that this is where he is directing his efforts: I, however, can see it as clear as the light of a brightly clear winter’s morning.  If our body politics cannot recapture for themselves the concept, act and implementation of the very essence we call democratic discourse, the instincts and impulses which have led so many freedom-loving people over long and sustained periods of history to participate in and engage with such ideas will simply shift their focus away from politics as we have known it to other areas of human endeavour.  And whether this endeavour involves communicating across thousands of miles of virtual community in order to construct new worlds of information and emotional exchange at the margins of what we understand to be political activity or – instead – revolves around new ways of actively expressing a sense of sustained and total disengagement with everything and anything our elders and not so elders have cared to fashion on our supposedly democratic behalves, the loss will seriously belong to our existing power structures who will lose entire generations to future activity.

Democracy is as much a human need as food, shelter, education and health.  And if traditional political structures can no longer supply the channels to allow it to develop as it must, then we will all begin to look elsewhere to satisfy this inherent human need – in companies, in local pubs and clubs, in social media, in virtual relationships of all kinds, in diary-writing, in amateur journalism and more generally in the psychological stroking that is liking, retweeting and hyperlinking.

Just because our democracies don’t work any more doesn’t mean we will give up on making democracy operate somewhere in our lives.  As a by-the-by, it may in fact be working as well as it ever did in the past – but those of us who are moving on, the perhaps now excessively educated consumer-producers of the early 21st century, have simply outgrown what those power structures were formerly prepared to allow us.

And Paul and the Political Innovation motto – “For anyone who has ever asked themselves ‘why is politics still done like this?'” – realise this like no one else seems to care to at the moment.

If politics doesn’t get it soon, those of us who believed in impassioned, informed and intelligent public debate will either be unproductively spending our days despising the mini dictatorships I describe in my previous post and above – or will find ourselves sheering off from traditional politics into other worlds of entirely our own making.

Neither tendency would be good for a wider social cohesion – both would lead to greater inequality and trench warfare-like impulses across the political divides; not only those already on stage but also those surely waiting more than eagerly in the wings.

If, then, we are to save politics from itself, we need to explain this broader society – this inherent democratic instinct and need – to a sad, stumbling and mumbling political class which fails to see where the vast majority of society already finds itself.

And Paul has known this for far longer than he has cared to let on to.

You can always trust a hippy.

At least as far as profundity of thought and the requirement – one day – to intertwine it with deed is concerned.

So if you’re interested in beginning to save politics from itself, register for this event now – for the first in a series of translation layers which will serve not to distance ourselves from the matter to hand but bring us ever closer to a clearer understanding of how out-of-time and very near our sell-by dates we have allowed ourselves to become.

And one very important point to begin wrapping up today’s post: remember that in Paul you have not only a leader of the cleverest kind but, also, interestingly and surprisingly, a teacher who is prepared to allow you to believe the bright ideas were originally yours.

That not only shows a rare and generous intelligence, it also demonstrates the supreme – where not arrogant – confidence that comes out of being incredibly knowledgeable.

To be honest, I really don’t know where to start.  But at least, via Paul’s gentle shepherding, over the past couple of years I’ve realised we need to start somewhere.

At least I now know a start is absolutely essential.

So my final question is: what about you?  What do you now think we should do?

Sep 292011

There’s been a lot of comment on Ed Miliband’s speech the other day.  My own reactions have been mixed.  I first saw it in terms of a conversation rather than a declamation.  Then I interpreted what I called a soundpeck – “something for something” – as an example of Miliband turning his back on the very long tradition of socialist altruism (“from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”) (though I imagine someone out there will point out that such an idea has nothing to do with altruism).

A lot of the negative comment seems to focus not only on the content of the speech but – perhaps “more importantly” – its delivery.  And I wonder if there aren’t comparisons which we can make with new art and literature – and their initial reception.  Don’t you ever remember having the experience of seeing a film or reading a book – and not being able to quite capture its wavelength?  One dear example I recall is the brilliant film “White Hunter Black Heart”, whose critical reception was almost as high as it can get but whose box office performance was pretty dismal.  I recall the film so well precisely because I watched it with my wife – and her response was: “How slow!”  Yet, I luxuriated in its measured rhythm; and its references to John Huston and “The African Queen” were a movie buff’s delight.

I’m sure it is a film which will stand the test of time.

Another piece of industrial art which had the exact opposite initial reaction is Hitchcock’s “Psycho”:

Initial reviews of the film were thoroughly mixed.[121] Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “There is not an abundance of subtlety or the lately familiar Hitchcock bent toward significant and colorful scenery in this obviously low-budget job.” Crowther called the “slow buildups to sudden shocks” reliably melodramatic but contested Hitchcock’s psychological points, reminiscent of Krafft-Ebing’s studies, as less effective. While the film did not conclude satisfactorily for the critic, he commended the cast’s performances as “fair”.[122] British critic C. A. Lejeune was so offended that she not only walked out before the end but permanently resigned her post as film critic for The Observer.[123] Other negative reviews stated, “a blot on an honorable career”, “plainly a gimmick movie”, and “merely one of those television shows padded out to two hours.”[121][124] […]

Meanwhile, box office behaved as follows:

The public loved the film, with lines stretching outside of theaters as people had to wait for the next showing. It broke box-office records in Japan, China and the rest of Asia, France, Britain, South America, the United States, and Canada, and was a moderate success in Australia for a brief period.[121] It is one of the largest-grossing black-and-white films and helped make Hitchcock a multimillionaire and the third-largest shareholder in Universal.[126] Psycho was, by a large margin, the top moneymaking film of Hitchcock’s career, earning $11,200,000.[127]

In the first case I mention, then, the box office was poor and the critical reception was grand.  In the second case, however, the critics initially misunderstood the film – and yet the public, unbound by a stuffy attachment to the permissible, loved the transgressive nature of Hitchcock’s art.  So much so that the critics were eventually forced to change their judgement.

Now I’m not saying Ed Miliband has succeeded where Hitchcock did decades before: transgression is not quite where most British politicians are to be found these days.  But I do think, in an analogous way, that – in his recent speech at Party Conference – Ed Miliband was at least attempting to break certain moulds in quite a courageous manner.  The very fact that many people felt obliged to criticise his delivery – and not see his register as conversational rather than traditionally declamatory – does make me wonder if this poor man doesn’t have the hardest job in politics: to sell grassroots collaboration to a political party wary of, and thus resistant to, all such similar promises.

A political party which claims to be the very essence of grassroots politics – and then consistently finds itself in search of yet another charismatic group of fixers.

A political party which could be perfectly positioned to create a new kind of political, social and business environment (as, indeed, Miliband in his speech promised to fight on behalf of) – and yet which generally finds itself dodging and fudging the most insistent contradictions and incongruences inhabiting its core.

Is Ed Miliband’s speech going to be a Hitchcockian achievement?  Misunderstood on its first outing by those who claim to know – yet generally, in the future, to be well received by those who can only vote?  Battling against those “vested interests” which make economies in their own image and for their own purposes is an issue he is courageous to raise.  In a sense, then, perhaps we could say – with his conversation – that Miliband proposes nothing more nor less than that neo-New Labour I was unhappy with the other day: but in a better and far more constructive register; that is to say, all the unfinished business which New Labour was never brave enough to get round to effecting.

First, Rupert Murdoch.

Next, all kinds of “vested interests”.

Finally (who knows …), both an open democracy for all and a conversational politics which actually works.  Which actually makes it possible to sustain adult conversation from generation to generation – in a way that current business, and therefore political, practice would seem to make impossible.

In a sense, I can empathise with Mr Miliband in the context of my blog.  I know I get readers – the stats are there for me to see.  But, rarely, for some strange reason, do they seem to want to comment.  What’s missing from Miliband’s speech, then, is the real dialogue which would make it that conversation I’m convinced he’s looking to have.

All in all, if we’re looking to be reasonably kind, not such a bad week for Miliband.  And if I’m right, and he is intelligently – intentionally – pursuing a different kind of politics, the results, whilst taking their time to properly bed down, may still serve to add a significant value at some time in the future.


A footnote to this curate’s egg of a post about what some have called a curate’s egg of a speech.  If Miliband is not able – finally – to implement this sea change in the way we do politics, and Cameron was really looking to guarantee his future after the 2015 general election, the latter could do worse than to take note of the lessons of Miliband’s strategy.  For in conversational politics, there’s far more of a future – and far more of the 21st century – than the traditional mode we’ve all been used to till now.

Sep 272011

There’s an interesting thesis over at Total Politics at the moment, as they headline Ed Miliband’s speech this afternoon in the following way:

Ed Miliband attempted to outline his narrative for Labour in his second conference speech as leader. But it felt like a story of many voices, rather than a singular, personal one

They continue the theme by arguing that:

It felt like the work of a focus group – where 12 people Miliband likes sat in a room and came up with a considered thesis on how to regain power.

It didn’t feel like him alone, a single voice that speaks for Labour and the nation.

Labour Politics 101 for Ed might start with Murdoch or the NHS.

But maybe Labour Politics 101 needs to start with Ed.

I’d place a different interpretation on it:

Isn’t Ed Miliband having a conversation instead of giving a speech? And in a TV age, isn’t that just what he should do? #lab11

Declamatory politics – ie the traditional sort – inevitably places greater emphasis on and underlines the importance of the orator’s skills in geeing up the audience.  It makes the individual performance more important.  It makes it just that: a performance.

But Ed Miliband may have been attempting something different today: to play to his strengths and use the Internet generation’s preferred mode of communication.

Dialogue and conversation instead of grand and florid oratory.  Not a performance but a bringing together of many democratically threaded ideas.

Inevitably, the commentators – anchored in their traditional landscape of pyramidal politics – will interpret Miliband’s speech today as weak; not a fail perhaps – but definitely not a win.  I’m not so sure, though.  As you might have guessed already from this post, I don’t think his intention was to give a speech at all.  After the recent riots, he spoke of the need for a “national conversation”.  I think the register he chose for today’s event was precisely in line with that need for conversation.

He was conversing with us out here – not speechifying the people at Conference.

And so an Internet generation communicated to its own – not a declamation at all but, rather, a threaded dialogue of the many.

As I said this morning whilst watching him strut his stuff: he may not ever become PM but he sure knows where the hearts and souls of good people lie.

And if on no other basis than this, he deserves a further opportunity.

Jan 082011

Just a couple of thoughts on this sad evening.  Firstly, this article, which came my way via Oliver Revilo, talks about the dangers of spreading “eliminationist rhetoric”.

Secondly, the dangers of such rhetoric should worry not only the Americans – for we, too, here in Britain, are guilty of such foolishnesses.  In this case as recently as December 2009 through the right-wing Tory Bear website (you can also click on the below to see the full-size screenshot).

The more we seek to import US ways of being, the more we should examine the downsides of such attitudes and behaviours.  Are we really looking to encourage the rhetoric of violence in our politics to such an extent that politicians and those who would serve the public find themselves obliged to fear for their personal safety?

I don’t think so.

Not here in the UK.

The words and pictures we use do matter.  The power of communication is not to be exercised casually.  We must be careful how and what we choose to say.  Responsibility and respect for one’s opposition must go hand in hand.


Update to this post: the BBC‘s Mark Mardell had some considered thoughts last night on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.  More here.  Meanwhile, this advert brought to my attention via the Political Carnival website (and posted in horror in many other places) which was used by Giffords’ opponent Jesse Kelly in June last year, simply supports Mardell’s assessment of American politics as febrile.

At the very least.

Dec 162010

Paul has a pretty bitter piece here.  I am surprised that it has not raised any comments as yet.  So today I found myself obliged to make this rather long and possibly mildly bombastic one – as I tried to counter his thesis:

You talk of the Lib Dems as if they were one whole. I don’t think this is true. I think they are currently suffering from immense internal strains as Clegg does a Blair – but a hundred times over, and over a far shorter gestation period.

Yes – the Lib Dems have always been *opportunists*.  But that’s because they’ve had very few opportunities to define themselves on a public stage where this did not mean fighting two fronts.  The two larger parties have always had the luxury of being able to pretend they didn’t know the Lib Dems even existed – and concentrate their fire on one single opponent.

Which in itself showed a deliberately tremendous lack of respect on the part of the big boys.

Always much easier to define yourself cogently when you only have to look in one direction.

That doesn’t make Labour and the Tories any less opportunist – or less deserving of the same criticism.  It just makes them *apparently* more principled.  But I’m not sure, in reality, they are.

You’re disappointed in the Lib Dems because – like many people – their distance from real national power allowed you to put them on some imaginary pedestal.  “If only,” you said to yourself.  And the “if onlys” of this world allow us all to ignore a multitude of concurrent and very real sins.  The higher we place them, the further they have to fall.  We assume, quite naturally, that the Tories and Labour will trash representative democracy every which way they can – we don’t expect any more.  But the Lib Dems were a finer lot, surely. 

Well.  I think quite a lot of them are – as I might say the same of many members of my own party; and, even, at this awful juncture, a number of the Tories.  It’s just that the internecine war in British politics that is now our daily bread doesn’t allow for the conversational politics you would like to implement.

Civil war doesn’t allow for the dynamic of approachability.  Rather the opposite, in fact.

What am I trying to say then?  Find it in yourself not to *blame* the Lib Dems.  Their leaders do only what other leaders, when within sniffing distance of power, have done throughout political history.  And a party is always far more complex, far more compelling and far more important than those leaders of today – who will soon become the weary and solitary has-beens of a yesterday consigned to painful history.

What do yous all think then?  Can – and, indeed, should – the Liberal Democrats be rescued from those who choose to disparage them out of disappointment?  Is it fair to disparage them thus?  Is it reasonable to express such a dissatisfaction because we expected – perhaps unjustly – far more of them than we cared to do of the others?

Ought anyone ever to be blamed for not living up to the perceptions we choose to fabricate around them – cocoon-like and unreal as a Hollywood movie?

Disillusionment may set in at any moment on a political journey.  If Paul had used the word “Clegg” every time he wrote “Lib Dems”, I’d understand his piece better and be far more sympathetic.  But using the broad brushstroke of “Lib Dems” to describe the sins of a power-hungry liar of monumental proportions is really not on.

Is it then?

Or am I completely wrong now – and entirely worthy of the same disparagement too?

Dec 152010

Bryonny makes some sad points on the back of a couple of articles you can find on the New York Times  and Slugger O’Toole, both of which deserve to be read and reflected on.  I am taken by her comments towards the end of her post, where she points out – quite accurately – that:

There is a rather reductive political tendency (ahem cough cough Labour party) to assume that lack of money is the sole factor in influencing what marginalised people are able to do.  Putting all the focus here misses out the mass of invisible barriers that serve to lock down things like access to university.  These are things like access to childcare, lack of assistance for mature students, and bureaucratic barriers like who can provide a reference.  There are fears of not fitting in, of not having the ‘right’ academic habits.  It isn’t plain sailing once enrolled either: one of the biggest issues the equity advisers I knew battled was how to help students get their study done when their families neither understand nor sympathise.

She then concludes (the bold is mine):

Fees have probably trebled.  It’s nothing to applaud.  It is something that now needs to be lived with and the agenda of those who supposedly care about disadvantaged students must turn towards supporting their participation rather than reiterating that they simply can’t go.  Being poor in Britain is a constant process of being told that you can’t.  Change doesn’t happen by having more voices say it.

I was reminded of the incomprehension from without that I suffered from when, at the beginning of the Nineties whilst living in Spain, and from a depressing and impotent distance, I experienced the war in Croatia.  And I was moved to respond to her view of what’s happening in Britain at the moment in the following terms:

I’m not sure we’re yet at the stage of understanding the unhappy common sense behind your last point.  When regimes change, many good things are undone – and hope is the last thing we lose.  Now you suggest that we should lose hope in order that cooperation – or participation, at the very least – is the only alternative.  But we are not ready to lose the hope we must one day lose that awful things may yet be prevented – if not within and via the confines of Parliament, then through demonstrations and other non-Parliamentary activities.

That time will come, mind – if the Coalition doesn’t fall apart in the meantime (another hope many in the most tribal reaches of the Labour Party will hang grimly on to). 

When we do lose all hope in protecting the achievements of the last decade, the conversational discourse you mention will have been successfully imposed from without.  And we will have no alternative but to sit round the table with the enemy.  But that’s because regime change on the scale we now have in Britain is actually a civil war of sorts.  And war is a completely different matter.  You have to go through bitter conflict before it becomes too painful to ignore the inevitable end-game.

And if I must be rigorously honest, in answering Bryonny’s reasonableness, I find myself hunting down my own truth.  The Coalition have declared war.  This is clear now.  They believe they will be on the winning side – that history, in a way, for many reasons (some yet unclear), will support them in their almighty battle to turn upside down what had seemed so certain; to disembowel a whole society.

They may, indeed, win; they may, indeed, lose.  I suspect a more likely outcome – as with most civil wars – is that a broader society in general will suffer and skip a generation, will have to come to terms with outrageous mistakes on all sides – and eventually, as I point out above, sit down at the same table as their sworn and terrible enemies.

Our current dynamic in British politics is arguably couched in the discourse of such a war.  But until we lose almost everything, I doubt anyone will care to have that conversation.

Until we lose almost everything, we still hope we can fully overcome and destroy the opposition.

Of such awful stuff is true civil war made.

And that, in figurative and dialectical terms, is the future we are headed for.

Nov 152010

Mick has a nice overview here at Slugger O’Toole of his and Paul’s very own Edinburgh unconference, held last Saturday and organised by Political Innovation (further coverage from Holyrood magazine can be found here).

One of the observations Mick makes in his piece and underlines most usefully is that online commentators are in the habit of providing a much needed “crankery” which helps to contextualise the world of politics, technology and – I suppose by implication – those more generalised tendencies to a kind of “corporate whitewash” (whether this comes from businesspeople or politicians themselves).  Or, rather, as Mick more kindly, as well as perhaps more wisely, describes them, those “pre-prepared political narratives” most me-too journalism and journalists – as well as political and business leaders – lazily prefer to go along with.

Not thinking from scratch any time you see or hear something different is a sad condition to acquire and maintain.

So the strength of this kind of unconference lies in its bottom-up approach, in allowing the “crankery” to flourish.  Nice to see a healthily real world approach to organisation too, as Post-Its fluttered galore.

But one point I tried quite unsuccessfully to make during the plenary session Q&A section was in relation to one of Mick’s own questions as posed later in the Slugger O’Toole piece I’ve already linked to:

Can this conversational space be made more conversational?

I tried to point out towards the end of the session that blogging has, in my opinion unfortunately, moved on from being that easy and breezy pub conversation in the global village which it started out as exemplifying – with all the advantages of ambiguity that such a state conferred upon the process – and has become a kind of substitute publishing.  Instead of speaking to each other, we are now writing for each other.  We yearn to become proper journalists even as we fail to understand we were worth far more to society as gossips and diarists of the moment. 

If, as Mick suggests, we may want to consider making this conversational space more conversational, we’ll have to decide pretty sharpish whether we’d prefer to take on board the tenets of traditional publishing – with all its upsides of branding and reputation and all its downsides of legal entanglements – or whether we’d rather preserve our freedom to exchange and develop ideas in a perpetually fluid cauldron of busy and fairly amateurish discourse.

I know which I’d prefer.

What about you?

Oct 252010

Kate makes an impassioned appeal for common sense and coherence over at Hangbitch, published yesterday.  Meanwhile, the Guardian publishes this opinion poll today:

A majority of voters are convinced that the consequences of spending cuts will be unfair, according to a Guardian/ICM poll.

But the poll suggests there is no full-scale revolt against the coalition measures after last week’s comprehensive spending review, with Labour slipping behind the Conservatives for the first time in the Guardian polling series since July.

The Conservatives have turned a two-point deficit in the Guardian’s last ICM poll into a three-point lead, 39% to 36%. The government also retains a strong lead on economic competence.

That will come as a relief to ministers who feared the immediate political impact of the massive cuts in spending could be far worse.

Two things are clear: firstly, Britain is not France and secondly, the French will always surpass the British in their passionate expression and experience of political engagement.  We on the left may be right about what we say: the recent spending review may be the most regressive tool to have hit this country for decades, the financial services sector is taking us all for an almighty ride and the poor will suffer – as they always do – disproportionately the consequences of the errors of the rich. But being right is not enough.

Nor will it win the public over.

Winning the public over means dialogue and understanding.  It means trust.  It means engagement.

None of which a boycott of the 35 companies Kate mentions in her piece will ever achieve.

When Stuart Rose intervened in the last general election by signing a similar letter (Vince Cable apparently found the intervention “nauseating” at the time), I suggested to my wife that we should stop buying in Marks & Spencer.  Her reaction was interesting.  She idly wondered if I wasn’t heading for another nervous breakdown like the one I suffered during the lead-up to the Iraq War seven years ago.

For simply suggesting that I might wish to disengage with a corporate behemoth in a structured way, I was giving off signs of being on the verge of mental collapse.  The implications are astonishing.  But, to be honest, if today I dared to suggest a similar boycott to my work colleagues, or, indeed, to my apolitical friends and family, I can’t see the reaction being all that different.

I’m not sure exactly what’s happening, but what I suggest might be taking place is a process of normalisation, of internalisation, of a taking on board of the terrors of our time.  It would seem that certain boundaries are being moved by the regressive nature of the spending review.

Its awfulness will take time to kick in for people who do not work directly in the public sector, whilst anyone who is immediately affected will – I fear – tend to blame the economy in general and not the Coalition in particular for their condition.

Or if they blame the Coalition, they will not have the media support to allow them to voice that opinion.

The Coalition, especially the Tory part of the Coalition, have understood for a while that whilst it is absolutely essential to fight over the centre ground of British politics, it is not entirely impossible to move that centre ground to where you may feel more comfortable and at home.

I know some of you may have been unhappy with my references to the Nazis yesterday, but this process of normalisation which I fear may be on the point of happening – and which the Guardian/ICM poll mentioned above already seems to indicate is taking hold – reminds me most unhappily of that creeping process of becoming accustomed to the unacceptable that Nazi Germany exemplifies most clearly.  The horrors of National Socialism are obviously in a league of their own but this government’s penchant for propaganda, for brazenly saying one thing before an election and quite another after, is really not all that different from Herr Goebbels’ unhappy achievements in communication.  Blaming ethnic minorities for the miseries of late 1920s Germany is really not all that removed from blaming the poor for being poor in early 21st century Britain.  Especially when the poor are now so very much poorer precisely because of the actions of the rich.  The very rich, that is to say, who managed to so comprehensively mess up the delicate balances in high-rolling finance – and then had to get bailed out by governments which really couldn’t afford such benevolences.

Thus it is we have to accept that in the midst of all this horror, we didn’t keep our eye on the ball at all.  As Paul so rightly says:

The wider conservative milieu conducted an incredibly successful assault on the legitimacy of representative democracy in the closing years of the last government. One that Labour were unable to resist because it didn’t occur to many of them that it was happening. And the results have been stunning.

As a twenty-year old ultra-Thatcherite Bullingdon Club member, Osborne could never in his wildest dreams have believed that he would achieve everything he went into politics for within six months of taking office. And he would have thought you were mad if you told him he wouldn’t even need to win an election to do it!


Yep.  That’s what we need more of.

Patience, goodness, a moral high ground and political efficiency.  That is the mix we need.

In Britain, conversational politics must always be our most violent weapon.  It’s the only way to win over the British in the end.  Being so savagely unlike them never worked.  Not long-term.

Sep 172010

Political Innovation is doing an excellent job of bringing new ideas – essentially a different register and metalanguage – to the British body politic.  On Tuesday, it was Andrew Regan’s turn with a proposal – already up and running – to create a system which allows for assertion-tracking and correction of political rhetoric and blogging in general.  Today, meanwhile, a lovely idea from Ivo Gormley – that is to say, the use of video and film communication strategies to engage the public in non-partisan debate:

I propose that as part of the development of a white paper which is likely to result in a social impact, an ethnographic documentary exploring the lives of those who will be affected should be produced. This documentary would be based on existing research and would allow a more accessible and jargon-free way of engaging with the issue.

Following the television or web broadcast of the documentary there would be a defined period of time for public debate and feedback. The documentary and the public feedback would then be inputted to a policy design meeting at which the policy’s stakeholders could also be present.

He goes on to say:

By focusing on the existing experiences of the user, or those affected, an ethnographic documentary commissioned from inside government departments, could provide a platform for informed public debate and collaboration between state and citizen in a way that would side-step party-political leanings.

The approach will both qualify and invite comment at the same time: a publicly aired exploration of the real lives of those who will be affected by a policy provides a level playing field for comment and idea generation. To an extent, it also educates viewers in the policy context and so qualifies them to comment. Crucially, it would often bring useful evidence into the process from sources that are not usually involved.

In a digital-camera era, though, I would be inclined to go even further.  Probably in partnership with existing enablers and communication hubs such as YouTube, though bespoke structures could also be engaged and developed, we could quite easily contemplate setting up tools to allow for the two-way exchange of such documentary material that Ivo suggests should form the basis of consultations of this nature.

It would then be the remit not only of the government departments to produce the video and film evidence in question but also the right of the participating public to reply and develop with similar material.

For it’s my own personal experience and belief that general levels of literacy in British society these days are much higher than they ever were in my time: the only difference is that rather than reading books, our younger generations are far better versed in the arts of reading images.

As well as generating them.

Don’t give me a pile of documents.  Give me a reel of film any day.  Only then will we have a fighting chance of altering the states we currently find ourselves in.

Ivo’s suggestion deserves a far wider audience.

Partly because, for quite a real change, he suggests adapting process to people and not people to process.

Sep 152010

Andrew Regan described yesterday how his website could have the tools to hand to allow readers to flag up prejudices and unsubstantiated assertions made by all kinds of online writers, from bloggers to paid journalists, from MPs to local councillors.

Such a collection of tools would have two functions: firstly, to engage directly and hopefully constructively with writers so that prejudice and bigotry could be gently excised from the body politic in a consensual manner, through a persistent and persisting set of interactions between writers and audience; secondly, to lay bare the actions of those writers unwilling to engage productively with the outside world, so that at the very least prejudice and bigotry would not be able to continue to figure as reasoned, rational and objective argument.

Assertion-flagging, thus conceptualised, would serve to create a more widely shared reality which could form a starting point for a new body politic based on evidence, facts, data and logic. It would, however, also place in the hands of those readers who might choose to act out of bad faith an immense power to derail continued debate and exposition by those bloggers less willing or less able to face up to the kind of absolute scrutiny such a proposal would bring about.

Essential to any such assertion-flagging process would, therefore, be an obligation on the part of the reader who questioned an assertion to provide – at the same time – the relevant evidence to the contrary: that is to say, a reasoned argument of their own to justify the flagging of the assertion in question. Of course, knowledge is power and noble assertions can be made which are worth making which – nevertheless – might not stand up to scrutiny of the kind Andrew proposes, if the asserter does not have the relevant knowledge to hand. That is why I would like suggest that a second tool or website – what I am inclined to call a for thought – should become an integral part of any broader set of assertion-flagging tools. is a music site which scrobbles, or records, your musical preferences as you play your musical collection or as you request – online, via a dedicated streaming radio station – types of music to listen to. In the light of such preferences thus defined, it then provides you with other music of a similar kind – already appropriately tagged by a crowdsourced community of followers – and, like a stain of ink spreading slowly outwards on blotting-paper, gradually expands your musical horizons. You can favourite or block any track you hear at any time of course, which gives you greater control over what the system continues to throw your way, and allows you to limit the spread in question, if you are so inclined.

I would therefore suggest that a similar set of data-mining tools be used to inform the assertion-flagging process Andrew has laid out in the first essay of this series on assertion-flagging – but in this case, instead of music, the content to hand would be thought.

As previously mentioned, the kind of assertion-flagging process proposed involves an involuntary scrutiny which all writers must submit to, whether they like it or not. The power that this kind of tool places in the hands of readers who are so inclined to flag assertions left, right and centre, just for the troll-like pleasure of it, should not be underestimated. A tool such as the for thought I describe above would, on the other hand, allow all writers, whatever their depth of political knowledge, free time available or general inclination, to access a broad range of political DNA at the keying of a tag or series of tags, and thus provide a necessary counterbalance to the potential downsides of assertion-flagging. It would also, incidentally, allow readers themselves to better prepare their responses and help them deconstruct more efficiently assertions of a professionally rhetorical nature.

For the Internet is not only plagued by shrill bloggers. It is also damaged by shrill commenters. With assertion-flagging, let us create a level playing-field for both sides of the debating chamber – not only examining the bloggers who deserve the scrutiny Andrew proposes but also the commenters who help shape the recognition and visibility that a blogger achieves.

Create the flagging tools to empower the reader, by all means; but also devise a system – the for thought I refer to – to allow the blogger so engaged in debate to also respond constructively and meaningfully: to respond calmly when he or she is able to easily find – via the educating and horizon-expanding tools we implement – the evidence required; to retire gracefully when that evidence is not found to be forthcoming; and to develop, alongside the support and focussed interest of commenters from across the political spectrum, ideas initially couched in a partial logic and rational thought – which are, even so, deserving of further analysis and discussion by both parties.

Scrutinise and educate, fix and develop, delineate and grow.

That is to say, writers and audience: let’s deal with both sides of the debate.

Footnote to this post: since I wrote this essay in the summer, both Andrew and myself have concluded that the framework and tools to engineer, provide and support such a for thought already exist within  All we need now is for people to want and understand the opportunities and possibilities enough to want to implement and use it. 

The final objective, of course, being to make concrete all our desires for a far more conversational politics.

Aug 312010

The website and conversational politics project launches rather more officially today with this piece by Mick Fealty, published simultaneously in the Telegraph and Slugger O’Toole amongst others.  There is also a nascent Facebook and Google group site you can join – both of which I can’t recommend too highly.

First I must declare an interest in all of this.  I’ve had an on-and-off fascination with creating a repository of all kinds of political DNA for quite some time now – ever since I first thought up the idea in my MembersNet days.  The idea came to me, in fact, after two weekend seminars I attended on Labour Party thought.  I found them fascinating and felt that – in an ideal world – such an experience could be automated via online tools, extended to all thought from all sources and shared amongst a much wider audience.

In the real world, of course, corporate sponsors (whether straightforwardly capitalist or more labour-related) would probably insist on the incorporation of only certain kinds of thought into any such web-based database.  The broad and unrestricted content I would far prefer where possible would never attract the rather more limited interests of such philanthropists.

Even so, I wondered if it couldn’t be worth pursuing as an idea – worth pursuing as a project.

This idea, essentially an academy of online thought, then transmuted into something else rather more complex when I came into contact with the music website – a powerful data-mining site which has the ability to learn your likes and dislikes and suggest appropriate content for future listening.  Similar in many ways to quite a few web tools out there, it’s nevertheless a most effective encapsulation of what I suddenly realised could be done in the field of political thought.

An automated online tool for learning, debating and stretching horizons.  Not simply a provider of what you’d like to listen to but an expander of what you might one day become interested in following up.

Without wishing to steal Andrew Regan’s thunder, most of what this concept I hoped could lead up to has already been achieved – and quite mightily I might say – in the website  And if it is not exactly there in current functionality, it could, quite easily, with an appropriate demand and support, become a constructive and conversational element of an educated and educating British body politic.

Conversation across the whole political spectrum, in fact.

That is what this project is looking – bravely and wisely – to achieve.

It should, in a world of evermore strained political relations and yet evermore shared fates and destinies, receive the most generous welcome we can possibly offer it.

If you find yourselves intrigued by the web and its potential application in constructive politics, please find it within yourself to get involved in

For this could lead to a much brighter future for us all.

And, God knows, we need it right now.