what would you do?

i’ve recently travelled quite a lot of miles for The Day Job and as a result i’ve been listening to LBC. now, some of the presenters are quite annoying and right wing and many of the callers are clearly nutters. however, a call in session last week particularly caught my attention.

last week the police cleared the Democracy Village from Parliament Square after the Police Reform and Social Responsiblity Bill was specifically amended to cover this protest. specifically amended. [note – this action was targeted towards the Brian Haw encampment but there is another group which has an injunction against them being moved so there are a few people still there]. now this legislation was amended specifically to allow the police powers to remove the protesters from Democracy Village. it also includes bans on protest in other parts of London included Whitehall, Bridge Street, the QEII Conference Centre and Westminster Abbey. so here is a piece of legislation which received Royal Assent in September 2011 that specifically limits the opportunity for members of the public to protest against actions taken or to be taken by the government of the day. prompted by this story in the news, the call-in session focused on this question: “In the UK, if you found the actions of the government of the day so gut-wrenchingly awful and abhorent, what can you do to legally register your digust and opposition at said actions?”.

depressingly the host of the show and the majority of the callers struggled to come up with an answer. i suspect this was the point of the question – the straightforward answer is: “very little or next to nothing”. let’s brainstorm:

  • start a twitter campaign
  • join a facebook group
  • write to your MP
  • write to your local authority
  • go on strike (not an option for everyone i admit)
  • write to the PM
  • wait for an election
  • start an online petition
  • start a local campaign using social and traditional media
  • start an online petition on the No.10 website (hoping to get it above the threshold of 100k signatures)
  • join a political party, run for election, get elected, serve as an MP and vote against the government (ok, so that one is a bit of a long term option …)
  • protest – but how?

now for me that is quite a depressing list. most if not all of those actions are easily ignored or dismissed by those who they are supposed to target. twitter and facebook, despite the one off instances such as the Trafigura incident, are very easily dismissed as online and untangible and let’s face it, although we on twitter like to think we are important and doing something we aren’t really. at all. so what else do we have… write to your MP or the PM – again likely ignored or responded to with a form letter. write to your local authority – forget it. go on strike – apparently the only group of people for whom this works is London tube drivers who manage to threaten strike and then get huge pay rises, but often this doesnt even work – how successful have PCS and Unite been at reversing the UK government’s austerity drive? start a grassroots campaign in your local village, write to councillors, the town council, get a twitter and facebook going … again somewhat effective against local issues – planning decisions can often be swayed by such campaigns, but the impact on national governmental decisions is likely neglible.

so what is there left on the list – protest. now we come to it.

  • 1 million people marched against the war in iraq – still happened
  • 1 million (?) students marched recently against the rise in student fees – still went ahead
  • the Occupy London group have recently been moved and also – ignored

with the passage of the PRSR Bill one could argue that the last opportunity to register your opposition to the actions of the government is to wait for an election or break the law. one of the first callers to LBC last week suggested chaining yourself to the gates of Downing Street … an action that would get you arrested within about 20 seconds and would result in you likely going to jail, your cause and protest being forgotten and overshadowed by stories of security failures. so what is left? how can we effectively protest or register our opposition? ok, so registering opposition is relatively easy, but how to protest as the state shuts down avenues for protest?

i would go as far to say that the passage of the PRSR Bill marks an enfringement on our democratic freedoms. if that is the case, what is left?

one of the few things that protest may change?

a somewhat depressing thought to finish on i agree, but if anyone has any great ideas that i’ve missed feel free to jump in!

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ok, time to own up

ok. i feel i need to come clean somewhat.

i have set out some of my more liberal credentials and beliefs in previous posts on this blog. i certainly would not describe myself as right-wing or even right of centre. i would hope that people would describe me as a bit of a lefty. i have previously blogged about that great line from the west wing when santos talks about picking up the label of liberal and wearing it proudly as a badge. i am not going back on this.

but.

the thing is, i am noticing that as the political rhetoric around public sector pensions, the future of the public sector etc etc intensifies, i struggle to understand why the left apparently have to defend the public sector to the hilt? why can one not be a bit lefty, but also work in the private sector and be realistic about the public sector and what it can do?

let’s just be clear:

  • the public sector does not create wealth
  • the public sector does create employment opportunities
  • there are examples of huge waste in many public sector institutions and organisations
  • there are examples of excessive payments and general excess in the private sector
  • there are lots of hardworking people in the public sector. there are also lots of people who are not hardworking
  • there are lots of hardworking people in the private sector. there are also lots of people who are not hardworking

i would like to see the NHS deliver the best healthcare in the world (i certainly do not want the American healthcare system pre-Obama) but i am not precious about who delivers it. if a private sector partner to the NHS can deliver great services, free at the point of use, then fine – let them do it.

i work in the private sector. i have previously worked in the private sector. the problem has come about, as per usual, as a result of extreme (in many cases) political rhetoric. the dialogue which abounds in the media, online and in the blogosphere appears to try to demonise some parts of the private sector (the private sector has become interchangeable in my view with “the bankers and the banks”) and idolise the public sector.

so now we have a situation where to even suggest any reform of the education or health system is so incredibly heinous you have to go live in a cave somewhere and never see anyone ever again. i should say here that i think the Lansley Health Bill is ridiculous, mainly because it is confusing and a mess and no-one really knows what it is for. i am not against reform or even introduction of some partnerships with the private sector – if they work, if they can deliver good or better services and if they safeguard the future of the NHS as a national health service.

i remember studying political rhetoric at university and one of the classic devices in rhetoric is to construct heroes (angels) and villains (demons). so we have angels (nurses, doctors, teachers, carers etc) and demons (bankers, consultants, private sector managers etc). and because of this artificial construction and differentiation between the two to even suggest reforms or changes is, as i said above, heinous and heretical. and of course politically, it becomes somewhat of a vote / confidence loser if you start suggesting attacking / changing things for the angels or putting them out of jobs (see Cameron reaction to all the health unions and spokesgroups ganging up on Lansley).

let’s be honest – if we were going to design public services from scratch we probably wouldn’t end up with what we have got now. but i think it is pretty clear that in order to even get started on reform we need to start thinking about how we differentiate between the public and private sectors. we certainly shouldn’t be constructed one against the other, demonising and then idolising the other.

so, in conclusion – just like sam says in the west wing – teachers should be on six figure salaries, schools should be palaces – i just haven’t worked out how to do it yet.

the policy of administration and the administration of policy

i think that this scene from Yes Minister where Sir Humphrey Appleby appears in front of a select committee out to get his department and his minister is one of the best pieces of satire i’ve ever seen on screen. i’ve referenced in professionally and i’ve experienced it after reading notes from civil servants and one hears it when one listens to politicians. one of the reasons that this remains one of the best things i’ve seen is that it continues to be relevant (and funny).

Appleby clearly sets out the problem when he draws the distinction between ministers being responsible for the policy (of administration) and civil servants (in this case, the permanent secertary of the department) who are responsible for the administration (of policy). so the problem arises when one tries to establish who is responsible for a mistake – is the minister and a failure of policy (is it unimplementable?) or is it a failure of the civil servant (to adequately implement the policy)? and should the minister check up on the civil servant or should the civil servant front up to the minister and tell him or her what is going on?

the number of stories that have come out of the Public Account Select Committee in recent months appears to be never ending – failure to deliver on projects, projects running over time and over budget but yet with no responsibility (i won’t focus on the fact that the bulk of the stories seem to relate to IT projects – that is enough content for another blog post) taken by ministers or civil servants.

the most recent story concerns the Firecontrol programme enacted by the last Labour government. this was an attempt to integrate emergency fire services across the UK in 9 regional centres. this was another major IT project which went horrendously over budget. my issue with all of these stories is responsibility.

speaking after the PASC report was published, the Chair of the Committee, Margaret Hodge MP said:

“The project was rushed, without proper understanding of costs or risks. The leadership relied far too much on external consultants and the frequent departures of senior staff also contributed to weak management and oversight of the project.

[…] No one has been held to account for this project failure, one of the worst we have seen for many years, and the careers of most of the senior staff responsible have carried on as if nothing had gone wrong at all and the consultants and contractor continue to work on many other government projects.”

so, we have poor leadership, external consultants (which to my mind means that there is inappropriate experience within the civil service and questions the value of “career civil servants” who have no “real life” or real world business experience). the day after the report was published and after Hodge had been on the radio, the former minister (and now Lord) John Prescott was on the radio, getting his defence of himself in very quickly. he made it very clear that he would take responsibility for the policy, but not the administration of that policy or its implementation.

ok, so i’m not a massive fan of john prescott and i don’t think that he has gone far enough in admitting and owning his share of the responsibility, but my real concern here is the civil service. why was the permanent secretary of the department called in front of the committee and asked questions? where is the civil servant who was responsible (the Senior Responsible Officer) and why is he not on the radio or the news owning up for his responsibility and taking ownership of the mistake?

this is by far a comprehensive analysis or breakdown of the issues here, but it seems to me that, whilst it is somewhat cliche to say it, in the private sector if someone had made a mistake of this magnitude (and let a project go off budget by at least £400mn) then they would be out of a job pretty quick. furthermore that person would likely experience difficulties in getting another job in the same field. my problem with the civil service in this instance is that there appears to be no accountability. and accountability handed out in private or behind closed doors without recourse to elected representatives such as the PASC is surely not true accountability, especially when one is talking about handling vast sums of public money.

so, a solution? it really comes back to making sure that the select committees of Parliament (and we are seeing this a bit now) increase and strengthen their powers to call individuals (and not just ministers) to account. and finally, why shouldn’t the same standards (success / failure) be applied to to the public sector as are applied by employers in the private sector?

an attempt to identify a political brandjack

a former professor of mine – quentin langley – edits a really interesting news website at brandjacknews.com which looks at news from around the world (not just communications or PR stories, but marketing, adverts and global affairs as well) and examines how known “brands” (including anything from names, picture etc) get “jacked” in order to promote something else entirely. this quote puts it much better than i –

“brandjacking is when an organisation loses control of the social media conversation around its brand to someone else”

this idea and concept is really interesting – there are a lot of examples around on the net when you start thinking about them and it got me thinking about political brandjacking and if an idea could get brandjacked and if so, what would that mean. it is a coincidence at this stage that it was whilst at uni working on quentin’s work that i really started to develop my interest in US politics – a subject i ended up studying with him. so all of this has conflated into a blog post about an article i read here which talks about how an idea / belief / assertion, “being american” has, according to the writers at politicususa.com, has been jacked by elements of right wing republicanism in the US. just before i get to what is hopefully going to be the interesting bit, it should be noted that in the best traditions of US politics, the website that i’ve looked at here is quite partisan, but i’m going to try and divorce myself from that aspect of it and instead look at the story itself.

just by way of a quick summary, essentially a group called “Generation Opportunity” (and here i am actually with the writers of the piece, the name of this group sounds too constructed not to be directly connected with the Republican party) has put up a Facebook page called “Being American”

now interestingly if you put “being american Facebook” into Google (other search engines are available) then you get quite a lot of pages which have been up in opposition to this one.

the original article goes on to outline how polling information has been skewed by people clicking the “like” button this page – as they put it, who wouldn’t “like” being american? i was really intrigued by this because Generation Opportunity (the non profit organisation behind the page) have essentially take a phrase – an idea, the idea of being american, and used that idea to drive a party political agenda. apparently by clicking “like” on this page you are subscribing to the ideology and policies of the right. and via the “endorsements” that the “like” button gets for their page, they are able to describe themselves in certain ways and note that they have a number of followers and giving credence and credibility to, yes let’s be honest here, GOP talking points (in some instances i would go as far as saying Tea Party talking points as well).

the polling outlined by the Pew Research Centre here appears to indicate that young people are actually opposed to many of the talking points which “Being American” and Generation Opportunity are distributing.

so what we have here is kind of interesting, even if it isn’t a real brandjack in the truest sense of the word – someone will undoubtedly correct me if that is not the case – we have  a Facebook page set up by a political but non profit organisation, but an organisation with discernible party allegiances (albeit non-disclosed allegiances) which taps directly into young people’s “hopes and dreams” (for want of a better phrase). i would imagine that every American citizen likes being American to some degree, and certainly it is not a stretch of the imagination to think that young people in America would likely identify themselves as American before anything else (perhaps), so by extension is it fair to say then that Generation Opportunity have scammed all those people? or are they clicking on the “like” button in the full knowledge of who and what is behind it and what their agenda is?

of course there are young people who are right wing, but i definitely think that using the idea of being American (and there are wider issues here potentially about whether a national identity is political / a-political / party political or not) to push or promote a party political agenda is a really interesting one – and one, dare i say it that we might not see in national politics in the UK (interestingly apart from the BNP perhaps). this website / Facebook page seems to be saying, if you don’t like “being American” (or like being right wing / Republican) then you are un-American.

would we get that in the UK or in devolved politics? can one being English and be any political colour? can one be Welsh but not a nationalist? interesting times certainly.

the dangers of dehumanisation

at the risk of annoying people / offending people with this post i should say at the start – what happened in Norway a few weeks ago was terrible, shocking, awful and can never be justified. what i would like to think about briefly is how the perpetrator has been treated / is being treated in the press / in discussions.

 

it is dangerous to start thinking of breivik as a “monster” or “mad” or “insane” as some have already described him. if we think of people who commit these kind of crimes as a monster then we instantly de-humanize them and refuse to consider the more difficult questions and issues – how can another human being commit these kind of acts? what is the potential for others / me to be like this? if we de-humanize people in this way we instantly remove them from the human race – they are not like us, they are not proper people and therefore (potentially more dangerously) we are not obliged to think of them in the same way, or treat them in the same way.

this is not a modern phenomenon however. this is something which has been happening for a long time – the creation of monsters in the public / general consciousness is a common theme in literature, politics, rhetoric and life in general. by identifying those people who have transgressed the accepted laws of the culture in which they live and exist as “mad” or “monstrous” is essentially the same as identifying them as “different”. by categorising people like Breivik or Himmler as monsters, we are making them into the unknown and scary “other”. by doing this it makes “us” (the “normal” people) feel comfortable – we can explain away the actions of these people by their “monstrous” tendencies and the fact they are ill adapted to society and don’t know how to behave because they are “other” or “animals” and it gives us an easy, non-problematic explanation – they did that because they are like this.

unfortunately by dehumanising people like Breivik we remove the onus from ourselves to consider the implications and real reasons for his actions. the fact is that people like Breivik and Himmler are / were human. their actions, whilst clearly wrong and impossible to reconcile with living within a human society with modern enlightened values, were the actions of men and as the Bard remarked – “the evil that men do lives after them”. it is now for us to reconcile, think and contemplate the actions of Breivik in Norway a few weeks ago, but whatever conclusion, whether it be medical, legal, cultural or philosophical, it must be remembered that they were the actions of a man and we must remember that the “evil that men do lives on and on” and will remain with us now as part of our culture and who we all are.

whatever conclusions are reached about this man, we cannot and should not simply dismiss his actions as that of a “mad man” or a “monster” – to do so is simply too dangerous.

we are all history

thinking about the news headlines recently i cannot but be struck by the historical nature of events i am living through and i’m only 26. now i know that everything is history as soon as it happens – by definition it is the past and the moment is also passed – but i have been particularly struck by the nature of events. now unfortunately the events and moments that are remembered by history and written about at some future point are those events which often do not show humanity in its best light – the 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 bombings in London or the shocking and horrific attacks in Norway most recently.

however there are events of my recent past that do give me heart – the coming to the end of the shuttle missions, whilst poignant and sad as it is the end of man’s exploration into space (at least in the short foreseeable future) and the overthrow of  the egyptian president in a generally peaceful way and in the more passed past the Good Friday agreement and of course i cannot forget that i have seen a black man elected president in America. these are events will be remembered as history and i have lived through them. now this all sounds quite grandiose but it is meant to be thought-provoking in a way – those of us alive now are living through events which will be remembered as that “proper” history which is recorded in great tomes and works of academic prowess in later years. these events are shaping and have shaped my current existence and will likely continue to shape my future – i now for example, live in a world where international terrorism is a reality in a way which it was not before September 11 2001. i live in a world and a time where the micro-blogging site Twitter “saved freedom of speech” in the Trafigura / Carter Ruck affair and these events have inevitably shaped my existence in some way – although i will likely not feel the effects directly or personally.

thinking about it, it is an odd thing to be living through history in this way, with so many momentous moments having happened in a relatively short space of time. i’m not comparing my existence to those people who have really lived with and experienced these moments first hand, but having experienced them in some way it is striking just how much is going on around us! everyone lives through history and in there are always historical events going on around everyone, no matter when they were born or when they die, but i just got to thinking, even though we are all history and even this lowly blog post will be history just as soon as its finished, how much of history is experienced and how much is forgotten?

what happens to those smaller more personal but nonetheless important historical events which have shaped our present and future but have been forgotten or, more accurately, were not and have not been remembered? what have we as a collective forgotten to remember?

the question of greatness

in a departure from some of the things i have written on here previously i wanted to think about gaming for a while.

now i’ve always been a bit of a gamer, right back to the SEGA master system and duck hunt, through to the SNES and super mario brothers, to the N64, goldeneye and zelda: ocarina of time, to the PS2 and metal gear solid and currently an xbox 360 and fallout3, mass effect 2 etc. and when i recently saw the television advert for the re-release of zelda: ocarina of time on the DS, i was genuinely excited and was trying to work out a way of playing that great game again (managed to borrow a game cube copy and go at it on the wii – brilliant), and it got me thinking about great games – what makes a great computer game?

clearly there are lots of possible answers to this, but i was moved out think of a few:

  1. i dont think its the graphics. clearly that helps and playing games now on the xbox 360, some of the cinematics and gameplays are stunning – some of the detailing is beautiful and it can help you to enjoy the game, but having played a fair share of games that have not been as visually stunning (usually as i have been hampered by technology), i can say that graphics are not essential, but they do help. look at the fantastic example of fallout 2 (no not the one on the xbox 360), but the one on the PC which came out in 1998 developed by black isle. by 2011 standards the graphics are relatively shocking, but the game play and PLAYABILITY is unbelievable.
  2. a gripping story helps as well. it has to be compelling, not neccesarily believable but it has to grab you – just as any good novel / fiction / fantasy story would in traditional book form. but furthermore the characters you are playing must be able to fit into that story and you must be able as those characters to effect changes to the story as you go along – again the fallout series is fantastic here as is the mass effect story. and i would humbly suggest that the final fantasy series has set the bar in terms of story line and complex character dramas – although i do think that the linear nature of some of the games has limited their greatness.
  3. the shape of the game is another contributing factor – is it strictly linear – do you have to go there, do that, kill that character or interact and then do the next thing? or can you wander the Capitol Wastelands and go wherever you want, moving the storyline on as you see fit? however, again, this is not a strict science. take for example the best game ever released for N64 and never equalled despite the names on other platforms – goldeneye. even watching a short video of this game is exciting. now this is a different kind of game – straight forward shoot-em-up, FPS, with a limited story line and is incredibly linear – you literally just go through the levels (although the different difficulties do add complexity) and the graphics (due to the technology – early release on N64 etc) are not great – but the game as a whole is brilliant – playability, replayability, quick to pick up, challenging, excellent multiplayer – everything that you could want.

now i’m still catching up on my modern games – mass effect 2 and fallout 3 i think will eventually rate up there as great games, but in the mean time i think it is fair to say that as with other parts of life, greatness really does come down to an x factor.

a war on culture

listening to radio 4’s interview with justice minister jonathan djanogly this morning i was struck by his use of words. we often hear politicians talking about a “compensation culture”, a “binge drinking culture” or a “benefits culture” and he was sure that he was going to tackle the “culture of suing” and of “compensation” which has apparently led to public authorities and private companies selling on details of car accident victims so that other companies can convince them to take people to court and make money – the issue highlighted by jack straw recently.

what i thought was particularly interesting was the assault that the justice minister was going to lead on a particular culture, which he has said is the cause of the problem. now culture is a tricky thing to not only define, but also to attack or in this case legislate against. culture is what we are and what we do and how we do it and who we do it with, it is abstract and definite and, at the risk of sounding really pretentious – everything and nothing. we create it and we are bound by it and we cannot exist outside of it, except in a state of death or psychosis (love it when i get to use knowledge from my undergraduate degree). so what exactly is the government planning to do about this “compensation culture”?

now i know that mr djanogly was using the word in the way that i am describing above, but the issue remains important. how can a government legislate or change regulations to change behaviour and force a shift in the “culture” (for want of a better word)? i think what is meant when people say we want to change the “drug / drink  / benefits / compensation” (delete as appropriate) culture, what they really mean is – we’d like to please convince everyone that what they are doing is bad / costs money / damages their health / hurts the economy and we’d very much like them to stop doing it … problem is – never heard of anyway of doing that that would be legal or democratic.

the dirty “r” word

i want to say right at the start that i did quite like the royal wedding – i got caught up in it and watched it etc etc. there was a nice feeling etc. however as i said in my blog post about it i was a bit concerned about the sheer level of media coverage and i set out my position in relation to the royal family – not wildly popular i wouldn’t have thought especially given the apparent love for the royals at the moment – irish visit, royal wedding etc.

i am certainly not advocating the violent overthrow of the monarchy as these people seem to be saying – i dont think that is at all the way forward. furthermore i think that site has a clear party political focus on it and that was not what i wanted to talk about or read about.

this week in Wales the queen et al came to Cardiff Bay to officially open the Fourth Assembly – semi interesting from a professional point of view and quite funny watching the great unwashed cheering from behind barriers and the funny hats that the Welsh well to do women picked out for the occasion, but more than that i was particularly interested in the sheer amount of flak that some members of Plaid Cymru (the nationalist party – the clue is in the name) took on various social media outlets about deciding not to turn up for the event. now personally if it had mean me i would not have given interviews to the press or made a song and dance, i would have simply got on with other things – constituency work and the like and gone about my business.

that’s right – i said it. oh dear. if i was an Assembly Member (for a ficitional party that i have apparently now joined – or even an independent, that might be better) i would not have turned up for the official opening today, because, and i am not embarassed or feel weird about saying it – i consider myself a republican. (please note – definintely not in the sense of the republican party in the States – simply not a royalist). and furthermore i do not see the problem in being a republican.

n.b – just to add that i also think that the swearing an oath to the queen in order to sit as an Assembly Member would have to be changed – Assembly Members are, are they not, first and foremost, answerable to their constituents?

as i said at the beginning of the post, i am certainly not advocating the violent removal of the royal family, simply that i do not believe that they should be the official head of state and certainly i wouldn’t be genuflecting any time soon. i have made my position clear about what role the royal family could play in British life in an earlier post. at this juncture i can do no better than to quote Samuel Vimes from the Discworld series:

“Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees”

and furthermore, i saw this quote from one of my regional Assembly Members do the rounds on Twitter. i thought it excellent:

“We like to think we live in a meritocracy. We don’t. If we did, all children would be able to aspire to be head of state. Under a monarchal system, they can’t.”

and finally, i would also just like to say that i do not see anything offensive or morally wrong with the position and declaration of being a republican – just in case anyone was going to throw that back.

and finally finally, i would like to say well done to those Assembly Members who did not attend the official opening today in protest.

nuff said

what? a life without books?

just a very quick, short one really. this story came to my attention today about how three in 10 children in the UK own no books and well, to be honest it made me quite sad and downheartened. as a person who was brought up on books and had every opportunity to read and still reads a lot and reads as part of my work life i could not imagine a life, let alone a childhood without any books.

“The survey of 18,141 young people found that four in 10 boys did not own any books, compared to three in 10 girls. Children who did not own books were two-and-a-half times more likely (19%) to read below their expected level than children who had their own books (7.6%), and were also significantly less likely (35.7%) to read above their expected level than book-owning children (54.9%).”

i recognise that i am in this instance coming off as quite middle class, etc, having books and having the time / chance to read etc and i was lucky enough to have a home life and family situation which encouraged reading and good teachers who did the same, but i think this is a really important issue.

we know that education, in the words of an oft quoted television series favourite of mine, “can be the silver bullet” and oftentimes a doorway into education is through reading.

i dont think i have anything more to say than this – a life without books is unthinkable to me, and i know that there are more important things in life – a stable and loving family, having enough money to heat and eat etc, but feeding the soul and captivating the imagination of young people is just as important and if there could be a “donate a book day” or something like a free library van that goes round and gives books to families that don’t have them that would be  a start and i’d certainly support it.