Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Voting day in S. Carolina

Posted 21 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

It is, really, quite hilarious that Newt is making another comeback in the USA. I’ve long argued that Obama has a very tough ask in the approaching election, and he’s in many ways dependent on little more than the state of the economy. But… the GOP really do seem to be doing all they can to destroy their own chances. And Newt – well, he could never be likeable, but I’m really enjoying watching him go nuclear on Romney. In many ways, he’s like a caricature of the worst, most malign, most vindictive politicians out there. When he will drop out of the race? Never. He’ll keep going ‘til the last, until everyone but him appreciates that every stab at Mitt helps Obama and no-one else. And he’ll keep going, because the hate and the competitiveness and the thrill of it really drives him on. Brilliant stuff; he’d make a wonderful character for a TV show. I don’t think he’ll win, ultimately, but I bet he takes South Carolina tonight, and snaps at Mitt for many a month to come.

My prediction for tonight:

1. Newt Gingrich 35%
2. Mitt Romney 31%
3. Ron Paul 21%
4. Rick Santorum 13%

I’m always wrong with these things, mind.

Food politics

Posted 08 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

This is a fascinating and troubling insight into the government’s Change 4 Life campaign, which is supposed to promote healthy eating and living.

In reality, the advice offered by their literature is uninspiring at best and borderline unethical on the other. As Matt Fort, on his Fort on Food blog, points out, a thin veil is drawn over the government’s partners, but it doesn’t take long to spot the involvement of Bernard Matthews, Danone, Dole, Mars, McCains, Spar and Tesco. Indeed, the Food 4 Change website links directly to another website called www.mysupermarket.co.uk, which in turn delivers consumers directly to the online stores of Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Boots, Superdrug, Waitrose, Ocado, Virgin Wines and Majestic. Marvellous. Here’s Matt: 

In other words, the Change 4 Life, both directly and indirectly, serves as a portal to, and therefore as a marketing arm of, major corporations. There is a tacit endorsement of what they sell and how they sell it, thus undermining the principles they’re supposed to be upholding. This seems at best bizarre, at worst cynical and corrupt.

This is not the first Government to have found easy accommodation with the supermarkets. Successive ministers have found it easier and more rewarding to guard the interests of large corporations than those of the electorate. Change 4 Life fits neatly into that pattern.

It would be entirely reasonable, I think, to expect much better from the government on this type of thing.

[edit: I still don't much like look of this campaign; but one of the comments below the line is well worth reading, and it makes a lot of sense. Here it is reproduced:

“Serious Bollocks” reads like many blogs; the author assumes that everyone has the same access to the Internet as them. Quote: “It’s almost impossible to believe that whoever designed and approved this actually lives in the digital age.” What about the 23% of UK households without Internet access who represent a significant proportion of the target demographic of this campaign? The website isn’t important – it’s just there to appease sponsors who pay for the leaflets.

Thanks for that useful comment, internet stranger.]

Misrepresenting Santorum

Posted 04 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

The urge to demonise the American Right is almost impossible to resist, no? Poking fun at the Republican presidential candidates basically takes up about 70% of my conversation these days, as this blog attests, but the duty to be accurate mustn’t be ignored. Perhaps surprisingly, the contributors to the Guardian’s comment pages, and a number of reporters on the BBC have done a pretty woeful job of reporting the US election with an objective eye for detail. A good example is the flurry of features in the last couple of days which inaccurately describe Rick Santorum as an ‘evangelical Christian’.

Now, there is a story here, it’s just that they’ve missed it. Santorum is deeply religious, and has run a very right-wing campaign, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that his extreme opinions on contraception, same-sex marriage and abortion have endeared him to the socially conservative voters of Iowa (a hell-forsaken place, seemingly, if these views are rife). But what is interesting is that Santorum is not an evangelical Christian after all, he’s an orthodox Catholic, and in previous years an orthodox Catholic would generally be said to have a greater chance of passing through the eye of a needle than of winning the support of an evangelical constituency.

Now to those of us with no religious instinct, the differences between a hard-right Catholic and an evangelical Christian might not appear too great, but the two movements are quite different, with social justice much more central to the former branch of the faith than the latter. Accordingly, Santorum has, in practice, been much more willing to allow the state to intervene in addressing poverty than, say, a true evangelical like Michelle Bachmann. And although he himself is pretty hardline on topics like global warming (he’s a solid denier) and evolution (he says he believes in it, on a ‘micro level’), his church is far more tolerant of dissent on these topics than the famously fundamentalist evangelical Church.

So why conflate, or confuse, the two religions? It’s tempting to speculate its just bad research, and more tempting too to wonder if it’s a deliberate attempt to ignore the nuance so as to provide a simpler, less complex narrative. Either way, it’s bad journalism.

What would be really interesting is to ask if these evangelical Christians, so united in their disdain for Roman Catholicism in previous elections, why they’ve taken Santorum to their hearts. The answer would probably be complex – pragmatism, social conservatism, disillusionment with the other candidates – but it should be enough to nail the story that evangelical Christians care more for scriptural accuracy than they do for their innate conservatism. Accordingly, one wonders if on on one level or other, the press doesn’t continue to underestimate Santorum; we’re told, wrongly, that his natural constituency is evangelicals, which is why he did well in Iowa -  when in reality it may be somewhat broader.

For the record, I don’t think so. He’ll have a tough job convincing the people of New Hampshire, even the Tea Partiers, that birth control is the number one issue they face. But having said that, an orthodox Catholic with a chequered record of fiscal conservatism would be said to have had a hard job winning over evangelical Christians. But he did it.

If only the media would explain as much.

Poll-driven consultant-guided Mitt

Posted 03 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

Oh, Newt has let rip… ace. Here he is, asked if Mitt is a liar for claiming no responsibility for the attack-ads.

He’s not telling the American people the truth. It’s just like his pretense that he’s a conservative.

Here’s a Massachusetts moderate who has tax-paid abortions in Romneycare; puts Planned Parenthood in Romneycare; raises hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes on businesses; appoints liberal judges to appease Democrats; and wants the rest of us to believe somehow he’s magically a conservative.

I just think he ought to be honest with the American people and try to win as the real Mitt Romney, not try to invent a poll-driven consultant-guided version that goes around with talking points.

I’ve really got my fingers crossed for a close Mitt/Newt run-in. Can’t see it, but think of the fun…

On limited interventions

Posted 09 Dec 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Development, Politics

This article, by Timothy Garton Ash, is a must read for anyone out there who still does occasional battle with conflicting arguments for and against the liberal intervention principle. Like most people on the left, I was an unqualified supporter of an ethical foreign policy, generally supportive of the government’s right to intervene in other nation’s affairs if and when the situation demanded it (cf. Kuwait, Kosovo, Rwanda etc), and then had horrible second thoughts around the time of (or in my case, shortly after) the invasion of Iraq. These days I hum and haw, prevaricating my way around stating a firm case either way, grimly conscious that there’s so much I do not know. I’m no longer so angry about Iraq, at least.

Anyway, Garton Ash is I think my favourite journalist of international affairs, and this piece takes an insightful look at two threads of the argument – that we can either judge liberal interventions by whether or not they achieve a stated and limited objective (for example, averting a massacre), or in the long term, by helping to establishing a free nation. Garton understands that the latter must prey on our minds, but essentially recognises the necessity of the former. He writes:

Liberal, humanitarian interventions must be rare, exceptional responses to extreme, inhumane circumstances, and should be judged above all by their achievement in averting or reversing the disaster.

Click here to read the whole thing.

The promotion & the destruction of the family

Posted 08 Dec 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

Your latest despatches from this awful awful government.

Michael Gove – who has I think disappointed more than any other member of the cabinet (save of course, for his Lib Dem colleagues) – has announced that free schools and academies will be directed to promote marriage and the conventional family unit in their teaching. As the Telegraph puts it,

“The agreement is a distinct change from current guidelines which state that children should learn the nature and importance of marriage and of stable relationships for family life and bringing up children. The reference to “stable relationships”, which alludes to couples living together outside marriage and homosexual partners, has not been included in the model funding agreement documents.”

The documents also take care to inform headteachers that it is their duty to ensure that students are “protected from inappropriate teaching materials”. On the face of it that sounds fine, but I’m deeply suspicious of just what Gove considers inappropriate. I fear I know the answer.

Secondly, I note with alarm that, according to Zoe Williams, there are some deeply troubling things in the government’s proposals in the welfare reform bill for employment support allowance (ESA), which is the social security payment replacing incapacity benefit. According to the proposals, “If, after a year, you’re still unfit for work and your spouse or live-in partner earns £25,000 or more, you will no longer be eligible.”

This is disastarous, mean-spirited and unfair. As Williams points out, it actually provides a rationale for couples in this sad situation to consider splitting up, so gross is the penalty for being in a relationship while disabled. Williams says:

“There’s a bullish senselessness to this that is puzzling to the observer but terribly stressful to those whose benefits are under threat. The charity Rethink told me about one man who has already approached Dignitas; he didn’t want to split from his family and live alone, but felt guilty about the burden he would present if he didn’t.”

Whether we think that the implementation of the ESA would actually result in such a dreadful result or not, it seems simply extraordinary (and yet somehow entirely in keeping with this government’s philosophy), that it should seek to openly attack the mentally, physically or terminally ill and their families.

While promoting families on one hand, they clutch at their throats with another. Truly awful.

~

“Awful, awful government”. In the heady days of PFI and Iraq, I used to use the same phrase, out of sheer frustration, to describe Tony Blair’s Labour administration. Hmm.

Freebies that hurt

Posted 30 Sep 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Environment, Politics

Good god I hate the Tories, but they’re not daft. Labour’s big policy before their conference was that under them students would pay £6,000 a year, 3k more than their manifesto outlines. The tories’ two announcements have been ‘don’t worry about recycling‘ and ‘drive faster‘. Neither policy will make people’s lives any better, but here’s the key – people believe that they will. These are the kind of pre-conference promises that feel like freebies. Labour’s felt like a cost. That’s why I’m far from confident that Labour will win (outright) the next election. Bah.

On the (ridiculous) policy of more rubbish collections…. Sarah Ditum sums it up well in the Guardian.

Waste is awful. The Tories are so completely anti-waste. David Cameron has personally declared “war on waste”, meaning that it must be at least as bad as terror. From opposition to government, Conservative rhetoric has been marked by an insistence that other people – the Labour government, local authorities – have been leaking taxpayers’ money with jolly profligacy. And there’s a sturdy seam of moralising to all this: when Cameron gave his conference speech on government waste in 2008, he said “Britain needs good, honest housekeeping from the Conservatives”.

The only problem with that analogy is that, when it comes to the domestic level, the Tories are more than keen for everyone to overconsume, overspend and sling the excess in the wheelie bin. As secretary of state for communities and local government, Eric Pickles has been loudly berating councils for wastefulness – and equally noisy when it comes to defending the throwaway habits of individual households.

Last year, he told the Mail: “It’s a basic right for every English man and woman to be able to put the remnants of their chicken tikka masala in their bin without having to wait a fortnight for it to be collected.” He criticised the use of “slop buckets” (or, as normal people might call them, “compost bins”). It earned him so much fin-flapping popular applause at the time that the Tories have returned to the “right to rubbish” theme again this year, ingeniously flourishing a surprise £250m to help fund weekly bin collections in England, just in time to get supporters warmed up for the conference.

Ugh.

Ed’s confidence problem

Posted 24 Sep 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

Quick round up of stuff I’ve been reading; and given that the Labour conference is just around the corner it’s hardly surprising that domestic politics has been high on the reading list. Over on Twitter I mention often that my favourite political journalist is Allegra Stratton; her Guardian articles are presented in the new pages rather than in comment, and as you would expect her writing is grounded in real reporting, usually insights gleaned from attentive sleuthing from political sources. Nevertheless, she never fails to draw together the threads and provide some conclusion, which she does meticulously and with great care. As usual this week’s column was a cracker, segueing from illustrative gossip about coffee wars in the Shadow Cabinet to insights into Ed Miliband’s likely positioning during conference week, to some very clever analyses of his strengths and weaknesses. Excerpt follows: It’s a great read.

Miliband has two endearing character traits that are sadly not serving him in good stead here: he is a very nice man, and he is really quite self-assured. He thinks his nice man-ness exudes, and it does compel those with whom he has personal contact. But since it is not connecting with the broader public, it ends up being an anti-asset – encouraging complacency. Similarly, the deep well of confidence that comes from the tips of his toes desensitises him to those moments when something really should be done.

It’s this latter point that Ian Leslie picks up on in a post over on his Marbury blog. Ian has been consistently skeptical about Ed’s electability, and Stratton’s article gets him thinking.

A deep pool of self-confidence is a great and indispensable asset for successful politicians, and Miliband, whatever his other weaknesses, has one. It’s what enables him, the week after a disastrous PMQs, to get up and appear confident under Tory fire. It’s what makes it possible for him to face the public while hearing, day after day, that they find him ‘weird’. When things are going badly for an opposition leader, as they have for most of this year for Miliband, there can be no more punishing job in politics. You could see the confidence drain out of Neil Kinnock or Iain Duncan-Smith. I haven’t seen that with Miliband and I don’t expect to. He has the blithe self-assurance of an adored younger sibling, endlessly confident of his own place in the world.

He goes on to cast doubt over whether such self-confidence is such a great thing without a counter balancing anxiety about failure. I think he – and Stratton – are onto something. I hope the people around Ed are pressing him and reminding him how important this week is. Anyway, Ian’s post is definitely worth a read.

Like many on the Labour left, I continue to like Ed M and think he is capable of improving. That’s not to say that I don’t wish we had his brother back on the frontline and fighting for Labour principles – utterly disheartened to hear that he won’t be attending the Labour conference. Others continue to deride him as a Blairite, but (a) I don’t think he is, and (b) I thought his appearance on Question Time the other week confirmed his intellectual authority and personal appeal. Meanwhile, this is what Blair’s up to.

Let’s not get started on that.

All the real running, politics wise, is happening in the US, of course. I’m completely engrossed with the GOP race (where I think Romney is building reassuring momentum), so more on that later.

Left v Right redux

Posted 22 Jul 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics, Visuals

I’m a big fan of the Information is Beautiful blog, and increasingly coming round to the value of infographics as a pedagogic or communicative tool. But even by that blog’s high standards, this is terrific – created by its author, David McCandless, in association with London-based designer Stefanie Posavec – it’s a map of left and right in the world of politics, taking into account beliefs, instincts and ideals. One can probably tell it comes from an author of the left, but I’d like to know what right-wing readers think of it – it may not be particularly fair and balanced to me, but it’s a decent effort at itemizing something intrinsically complex and hard to prove. And of course, it’s very nice to look at.

Click to enlarge – or rush out and get a copy of today’s paper to get a nice print out of it.

On hackgate #1

Posted 18 Jul 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

The real question about #hackgate is, I think, just how irresistible the momentum is on this thing. It looks increasingly like it won’t stop until all the dominoes have fallen, and the undeniable fact is that the run ends not with James Murdoch – who, if John Yates resigns today must surely be the next to go – but with David Cameron. It still looks utterly fanciful that this will kill him, but the question is, if it doesn’t, how does this end?

The answer is that it doesn’t – if Cameron isn’t forced to resign this week, then the deep reservations which the public now hold about the company he keeps will continue for years. Blair escaped from the Ecclestone drama, but arguably he never completely recovered his reputation. For Cameron, things are far, far worse. There’s a domino poised just behind him, and he’ll be glancing over his shoulder for the rest of his tenancy at number 10, wondering if it’ll fall.

It doesn’t help him that the two men most likely to profit from his demise – David Davis and Nick Clegg – are, unlike most of the rest of the coalition – squeaky clean on this stuff. If I were David Davis right now, I’d be taking to Lib Dems constantly. He needs to be reassuring them that although he’s a creature of the right, his civil liberties credentials are right up their street. Could he hold a coalition together, if it came to it?

And one more thought – how has George Osborne kept out of this??

A very strange interview

Posted 12 Jun 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Daft, Politics

This is the loveliest thing I’ve come across today. Courtesy of Wowser:

Why not get Wowser to do you a drawing?

Fear of failure

Posted 06 May 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

One thing that really strikes me about the whole question of whether US forces were right to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan is the thought of how the combatants must have felt. Specifically in relation to fear – not fear in terms of their own lives (although of course, even for highly trained personnel, that must have been huge) but fear of failure. An inability to know what was in the next room, and when the mission was beyond the point of failure. That’s where I half-sympathise with the decision to pull the trigger. Imagine if, having arrested bin Laden, the soldiers had found themselves up against unexpected circumstances which saw him freed. In ten years this was by the far the closest US intelligence had ever got to bin Laden, and this was their chance. To have let that chance go would have been a tragedy. They must have known that, and must have known that more important than their own safety was the fact that Osama bin Laden must not have been allowed the opportunity to escape. Sadly – and while I can’t rejoice at his death – I can understand why dispatching him must have seemed vital in that moment.

Curtis off the boil

Posted 05 May 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

Well, it’s impossible to let the week go by without a mention of Osama bin Laden. And I find, to my surprise, that I’m not feeling too liberal-wet on this one. Of course a summary execution, in almost any other circumstances, would be appalling, but in this case – when you spent ten years looking for someone, and don’t yet know what’s around the corner, you do what you have to do. The thought of the world’s media nourishing itself on the extended trial and eventual execution of Osama is too awful to imagine. Anyway – predictably enough, lots of stuff has been written on Osama, Obama and the West’s involvement in the Middle and Near East – much of it very good and lots of it pretty useless. Honourable mentions in this latter category to Andrew Murray and – sadly – Adam Curtis.

The former has always been pretty idiotic, but the latter is someone I very much admire. His take on Osama, however, is out-dated, non-specific and lacking insight. He is adept at identifying narratives in contemporary history – a great skill – but his own rhetoric leads him into daft conclusions. In this instance he ends up implying Al-Qaeda was a relatively passive enemy, hoodwinked into enhanced status by devious politicians. Well; they killed tens of thousands. Curtis is occasionally as daft a consipiracy theorist as, say, Glenn Beck. That’s not to say he isn’t right about many important things. But this hasty bit of journalism, cobbled together out of a desire to make a single event illustrative of a grand thesis, sinks.

He has a new documentary in the works. Hope it’s better.

Dominating the argument

Posted 20 Apr 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

One thing that this coalition government has done is seriously upset our perception of which roles are important in politics. And it’s one of the coalition government’s biggest achievements. Right now, who is the most senior figure in British politics? Well, as is always the case, it’s the Prime Minister. Ordinarily, one would automatically say that the 2nd and 3rd most important figures, depending on which is most in the ascendency or the doldrums, are the leader of the opposition and the Chancellor. So that would be Ed Miliband and George Osborne, would it? Well, I’m not sure about that. For a start the role which Nick Clegg occupies as DPM elevates him way beyond the seniority occupied by, say, John Prescott (even if his influence is hard to ascertain). And Osborne, although his fingerprints are all over government policy, is arguably a less visible figure than Hague, Lansley and Gove.

This is mainly because Cameron is a very different Prime Minister to those that came before – he is a manager, far more like a CEO than a traditional PM, and his stand-offish, almost detached manner both deflects criticism onto his junior staff (Gove, Hague and Lansley have all suffered from this in a way quite different to their counterparts under Blair and Brown) and makes it difficult to set up an obvious top-table image of him and Osborne ruling the roost. Both have, in this respect, played a blinder – portraying themselves as above the horse-trading which characterized policy formulation between Blair and Brown. It’s worked well for Cameron, as it makes him look more presidential, and well for Osborne – whose public image was so toxic before the election that it’s made fine sense for him to keep a low profile.

And then there is Vince Cable. Widely seen as the wild-card of the cabinet and the weak link, I think he’s had a terrific few months and I very much doubt that he’s giving Cameron any sleepless nights. As Ian Leslie points out on his Marbury blog, Cable serves a very important function in the coalition: he gives the Tory/Lib administration the

“ability to be their own opposition. If the public comes to believe that this is a Tory-led government that is kept in check by an independently-minded partner, then the real opposition will come to seem rather redundant.”

Right now, if the government announces an unpopular policy, who are we most likely to see complaining? Ed Miliband? Far from it. We’re more likely to see Vince Cable or Simon Hughes, Tim Farron or Chris Huhne, looking uncertain and straying delicately off-message. This means the coalition continue to dominate the news, forming a narrative of their own design, and keeping the two Eds (of whom Ed Balls seems a far more effective combatant than his leader) away from the headlines. This is really bad news for Labour, and really good news for the Coalition.

That’s not to say that they’re not making lots of mistakes. Gove and Hague are performing well below par, and Lansley is a sacking waiting to happen. Clegg could hardly be less popular. And public opposition to the cuts continues. But I’m very sorry to say that I think this a government in control of the agenda – even if it’s an agenda which is alienating the country – and Labour need to do a great deal more than bicker amongst themselves about how best to tie up the white working class vote (all this blue labour, purple labour is beyond infuriating). Miliband in particular needs to acquire stature. Right now he’s a long way from being the 2nd biggest name in UK politics – and with a government this unpopular, that’s nowhere near good enough. In the dying days of the Major administration, Blair had absolute control of the news agenda – a talk from him would get top billing on the 9 o’clock news. Somehow, if Labour are to make the sort of advances they need, they have to break-up the Cameron-Clegg-Cable triumvirate which excludes them from the conversation.

The fall and rise of Glenn Beck?

Posted 07 Mar 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

Following on from Dan’s article about US conservative radio (although I’m not implying there was a connection) it’s interesting to note from today’s Guardian that speculation is rife that, when his contract runs out later this year, Fox News may decide against renewing the delightful Glenn Beck’s contract. I find Beck oddly, grimly, fascinating – he’s obviously nuts, but there is some truth in what the Guardian notes in today’s article; that amongst a ton of desperately simplistic commentators on Fox, there is a certain intellectual rigour about him, although it’s applied chaotically, sporadically, and often in the service of pure menace. When he stands in front of his blackboard, apeing a professor, he asks his viewers to engage in a way most talk show hosts don’t.

But each time I see him on the air he reminds me less and less of the political commentator he once was and more and more of a kind of religious preacher – he’s operating further and further outside of the conservative mainstream; and there are two interpretations. One is that he really has gone mad, and I say that in comparitive seriousness. He’s a kind of paranoid conspiracy theorist, convinced he can take people with him on his strange and deeply misleading semantic journey. The other is that’s he’s transitioning towards a more lucrative, more influential career – in the world of religion rather than the world of politics. The truth is that the he’s just too odd for Fox News, and yet as a religious leader? Well, it worked for L Ron Hubbard and Jim Bakker.

Here’s Beck at his oddest and most interesting – launching into a long, largely incomprehensible chalkboard rant. This is mainstream, peak-time TV, remember. Bizarre.

Republican candidate bingo

Posted 03 Mar 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

OK, anyone want to have a stab at telling me who’ll be the next Republican candidate for President of the United States? We’re getting close now, and right now the field seems wide open to me. Who’s gonna win it? The only thing that seems obvious to me is it isn’t going to be Palin, and it probably won’t be Mitt Romney either – although in reality the latter is probably the most plausible paper candidate.

But I think that Romneycare will do for him, and as much as he interests me, I just don’t quite see how John Huntsman – a pragmatic figure who probably stands to the left of Romney – fits into the 2012 version of the Republican party (unless he radically re-aligns himself as his campaign develops). Someone who does fit the mold – but who is a lightweight – is Mike Huckabee; but he’s intimated he won’t stand, as has John Thune. While we’re dispensing with long-shots, it’s crazy to imagine that Donald Trump is really going to stand. But it looks good that he is seen to be *thinking* of standing, as it helps cement the perception that he is a serious person, a leader of note – when of course really he is nothing of the sort.

So who does that leave?

Well – there are plenty of other candiates – Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniel. The Republican I like the look of (after a fashion) is Chris Christie, who is confident, articulate and forthright, but he’s said repeatedly that he won’t stand. I reckon Obama is probably hoping that he’s not bluffing. He’d be a tough opponent. Barbour is the right candidate for the GOP in some ways – old school, deep south, corporate through and through – but I doubt he could beat Obama. The young Florida senator, Marco Rubio, possibly could – but he’s a more realistic candidate in 2016 than 2012 – In theory it’s too soon for him.

But….

My point is, I think, that name recognition isn’t the issue here. The big names – Romney, Palin, Huckabee, Gingrich – don’t have the momentum you’d expect from presidential candidates at this stage. Every single one of them is either treading water or going backwards. Whereas the less well-known candidates – Huntsman, running as the GOP’s Obama, Christie running as the confident hard-hitter, Rubio running as the fresh face – you could really see flying if they get their campaigns right. The big candidates are vulnerable – even more vulnerable than Obama. The only factor you can’t predict is just how influential the Tea Party are going to be in this race.

Anyone prepared to call it early?

In Defence of Fairness

Posted 24 Feb 2011 — by Dan
Category Politics

What little idea I had after downloading an app for my Phone that I would not only find myself drawn into the world of US radio but into the combustible and divisive discourse that prevails in modern American society…
[blogging by Dan]

People shouting at each other

I don’t have a digital radio set. So all I wanted was a way of listening to my favourite stations at home and on the move. Downloading a mobile app – TuneIn Radio – recommended by friends, would, I thought, cheaply solve my 6Music shortage problem, and allow me to listen to the World Service at any time of day. It didn’t really occur to me that I would also be able to listen to just about any station in the world that has taken the initiative to broadcast online.

After downloading the app and quickly saving as bookmarks the stations I had initially bought it for, I soon delved deeper into the ‘browse’ function. The program enables you to browse through stations dedicated to a variety of subjects – such as Sports, Music, Language and Talk. I chose Talk and here the options widened further – to include Business, Conservative, Religious, Public and Progressive. It is this menu which gives away TuneIn Radio’s American roots, and which, I soon realised, led to a more succinct insight into US public discourse than almost anything else available this side of the Atlantic.

I chose Conservative immediately. Partly through inquisitiveness and also because of familiarity. Exposure to the news is enough to make anyone familiar with the names Hannity, O’Reilly, Beck and Limbaugh. But perhaps also I was in an argumentative mood and as I already knew that my generally liberal sensitivities would be confronted by stations labelled ‘Conservative’, that’s what I chose to listen to. After all, where would be the fun in choosing ‘progressive’ and listening to someone extolling the virtues of Medicare, expressing opinions with which I largely agree.

On the conservative talk stations, the shows are generally based around carefully selected news items, which are explored exclusively through the filter of the host’s decidedly fixed ideological slant – more often than not little more than his or her gut instinct. Callers are then invited to phone in and – for the most part – say how much they agree with the host, pointing out further things that he or she might have forgotten to mention in the initial rant. Where callers disagree, challenging the simplistic analysis favoured by the presenter, they can be met with some pretty stern words, and are sometimes shouted down in a surprisingly aggressive fashion.

The hosts are clearly not experts in any particular field (Rush Limbaugh has no qualifications, having dropped out of High School) but instead seek to define themselves as the everyman standing with the caller against Washington and their shared perception of the increasingly shadowy world of big Government – an oft repeated right wing concern.

A few evenings of listening to the internet feeds of various ‘Conservative’ stations is enough to leave the listener in very little doubt as to the standard of their general content or, more precisely, their entire raison d’être. AM and now FM stations, many of which in the US still use their four letter call signs such as KRLA, KNET, WNTP (how do people not get these confused?) regularly host syndicated shows from parent broadcasters with presenters such as Sean Hannity and the increasingly delusional Glenn Beck.

Parts of their mantra are already familiar. Age old Conservative bugbears, such as abortion rights and gun control are ever present, but they have been joined by more recent obsessions – 9/11, the current deficit debate, Obama’s place of birth, perceived liberal propaganda in US high schools, and the supposed socialisation of Medical care. Their arguments are non-challenging to those who already hold broadly conservative views – and they react with fury when a fellow traveler of the right expresses nuanced rather than strident views. The level of debate is designed to offer the listener confirmation of their beliefs and stoke their ire with highly selective, often misleading opinion, with innuendo often masquerading as fact.

As with much US media, adverts are frequent and, in another sign of deregulation, the presenters themselves will occasionallypersonally recommend a product or a service – a facet of broadcasting which is outlawed in much of the rest of the Developed World. There is also, maddeningly for liberals in the US and without, a market imperative to the existence of these outlets. People tune in. If you are willing to provide – ceaselessly – what people want to hear on the way home from work, you have an audience (and no little power) right there.

Subjects covered by the stations I have dipped into over the last few evenings (corresponding usually with Drive Time in the US) have included “traitorous” trade unions in Wisconsin, how convicted Somali pirates ought to be taken to Guantanamo Bay instead of the “luxury” of a Federal prison (the host clearly was unaware of the reputation of such institutions overseas) and, most astonishing of all, how one female LA-based host thought Donald Rumsfeld was “hot”!

America’s fascination with its current weaknesses, and a paranoia about the country’s place in history ironically seem to take up a lot of airtime. I say ironically because it’s clear from listening that although it is a constant bone of contention for the right wing, there’s little to suggest that they have formulated anything approaching a decent analysis of the problem.

First, they completely fail to see the extent to which Reaganomics, Neoliberalism and right-wing dogma – policy lines they ruthlessly promote – have compromised and weakened America’s global reputation, and second they apply desperately simple historical analogies to illustrate their points – showing up their own ignorance. In the last few days alone I’ve heard several school grade standard knowledge accounts telling of the declines of the Roman and British Empires, and how they can be related to the present day US, especially in relation to the acknowledged rise of China.

The constitution is also endlessly picked over – seemingly for clues for which direction the country should take. There is even, I learned, a conservative organisation which distributes pocket-sized constitutions free of charge to members of the public who request them. America’s current heightened level of fascination with its constitution (is there any other people on Earth that have the slightest clue what’s in theirs?!) is partly due to a school-led indoctrination, giving it quasi-religious status and gravitas, but it is also because of current insecurities and infighting within America itself.

After an hour or so of listening each evening I had had my fill, to be honest, frustrated I couldn’t make a transatlantic call and join the discussion, though I feel my input may have been rejected. The lack of checks and regulations on what was being said (and what I suspect is being said on both sides of the discourse) left me feeling quite worried about its effects.

Fairness Doctrine

The labels ‘Progressive/Liberal’ and ‘Conservative/Libertarian’ can be applied to much of the media in the United States today. That wasn’t always the case. But in the 1980s the ‘Fairness Doctrine’, a policy of the Federal Communications Commission which stipulated that both sides of an argument during debate must be aired, was repealed. The scrapping of this policy was led by Republicans who saw it as an affront to free speech and in contradiction of the country’s constitution. Various attempts at reinstating the doctrine or versions of it, mainly lead by Democrats, have all since failed. In the meantime the American media has gradually polarised into two opposing camps.

This has had a massive knock-on effect in the social and political sphere of a country that is having, at present, to face up to some of the greatest challenges in its modern history. Throw into the mix the nation’s first black president (something which a troubling number of Americans remain ill at ease about) and the divisive and often misreported nature of some of the reforms he wishes to instigate, and the battle lines are drawn.

Movements such as the committed – yet loosely constructed – Tea Party groups have been directly inspired, and spurred on, by several leading conservative talk show hosts. These groups have made large and quick strides since their establishment and in the recent US Midterms have even pushed aside more moderate Republican candidates and installed men and women into the US Congress who are largely untried and untested representatives of public office. In response to Tea Party marches there have been Liberal marches in opposition, most notably Jon Stewart’s recent ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ in Washington DC. This unusual outbreak of ideological marching has only served to underline the gulf that has opened up in political discourse in the US.

Though it’s easy to dismiss such extreme right wing (and indeed in cases left wing) manifestations of public debate as being wantonly provocative, the 20 year drip-drip of this nature of discourse on both radio and – increasingly – US television is beginning to have a lasting and irrevocable effect. Any population of otherwise rational and educated people would inevitably be influenced by such unrelenting propaganda – whoever instigates it. This is not just a problem in the United States. In other countries too media can prove divisive, though in the case of the UK at least media is much more stringently regulated, meaning that such variances in discourse are kept to a traditional battle between newspaper proprietors.

Americans do have other choices. Despite erratic funding the NPR network of Radio stations produces excellent and fairly balanced programmes. The majority of the free to air national TV stations remain largely free of overt political bias. Therefore surely a concentration on the merits of America’s overwhelming ability to produce globally inspiring output would be far better than passing laws that only lead to a great country shouting itself apart.

The United States, of all countries, should know that with free speech come responsibilities and that free speech on its own, without reason or context can very easily do harm. So please, America, calm down and reinstall the Fairness Doctrine, Ok, so talk radio will be tamer and Fox News duller, but look on the bright side – the increasingly insane Glenn Beck will be out of a job and your political discourse will be enriched and productive once more. America will then surely stand infinitely better equipped to face the challenges that the future will bring.

Easier Listening

Commondreams.org – An article bemoaning the loss of the Fairness Doctrine

Washington Post
– Article about ‘National Institute for Civil Discourse’ to be opened at Arizona State University. The Centre is to be Co-Chaired by former Presidents George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton. It was set up partly in response to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in the state in January.

Wikipedia
– A history of Talk Radio in the US

[thanks Dan!]

Cameron the arms-dealer

Posted 23 Feb 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

It seems quite extraordinary to me that David Cameron thinks that it is, in the current climate in the Middle East and Arab world, appropriate for the British PM to spend time hawking the British Defence industry in Kuwait. That’s right – he and eight senior representatives of the UK’s arms manufacturers are conducting an arms-sales trip to the Gulf at the exact same time that the regimes of Bahrain and Libya are firing on their own protesters using weapons (from tear-gas canisters to sniper rifles) which we have sold them. And Cameron sees no problem: any sales, he tells, us are “covered by assurances that they would not be used in human rights repression” – when the evidence from the Arab world flatly contradicts this fact. Let’s face it, if this arms-fair had taken place in early January, we would have been selling weapons to Mubarak – and do we think he would have refrained from using them when his (richly-deserved) troubles began?

Some think it’s fine for the British defence industry to sell weapons to states which may use them against whomsoever they choose. Cameron certainly does. He says

“There is an argument to be had about whether it is right to be involved in the defence trade. My view is that you cannot expect every country in the world to provide for its own defence and so it is perfectly logical and sensible that there should be a trade in defence. Kuwait is a good example of a country that has been moving in an open and participatory direction.”

Just for a moment let’s accept his argument as valid – Britain has been selling arms abroad for decades and it’s unlikely it will ever stop. In these straightened times it is the role of the PM to encourage trade which benefits the UK economy, and we’ll accept his implication (for now) that so long as there is movement away from repression and violence in the countries we sell to, we should not be troubled by ethical concerns.

So, accepting all that – that it’s essentially OK for the British to arm the regimes of the Arab world – are we still entirely happy with his decision to choose now of all times to launch this sales-push?

Now, OK, the Kuwaiti arms-fair is a long-standing calendarised event for which the likes of BAE Systems, QinetiQ and Rolls-Royce have been preparing for months – and presumably Gerald Howarth, our Defence Minister, needs to be in attendance. Perhaps under ordinary circumstances it would be reasonable for the PM to go along too (presumably Prince William and Beckham – who normally handle this sort of crap – were busy). But when North Africa and the Gulf States are being torn asunder by despotic regimes punishing their citizens for daring to demand their rights, and when hundreds and possibly thousands are dying at the hands of the people we have been busy selling weapons to for years, surely it makes sense for Cameron to take a back seat on this one.

To use this time to profit is morally repugnant. There is little question that more arms trading will happen than ever at the Kuwait weapons-fair this year, and that is purely because Gulf states who regarded their internal situations as secure this time last year are now scenting, fearfully, the prospect of chaos in the air. And here Cameron is, stuffing their money into his trouser pockets.

And let’s row back on our argument. I said a moment ago I’d been willing to accept his premise that arming states which are ‘moving in an open and participatory direction’ was ethically justified. Well – it’s not. Put simply, we should not be selling ANY weapons to ANY undemocratic, despotic or dangerous countries, allies or not. Bahrain is moving ‘in an open and participatory direction’. In the years since Libya came in from the cold, it’s been ‘moving in an open and participatory direction’. But this slow, uncertain, unreliable movement is not enough. In both of those countries British weapons are being employed to gun down the very people who are protesting for an end to corruption and the opening up of democratic processes. These weapons are being used to shut down, not encourage, a trajectory towards peaceful democratic statehood.

And for that reason, Cameron (who isn’t to blame for all those arms deals under previous governments, of course), is taking the absolutely wrong approach in driving more deals with more uncertain states forward. If those guns, tanks, tear-gas grenades and riot shields are used against peaceful protesters again, he will have to take some very small (but not insignificant) part of the blame, and he will have dragged the international reputation of Britain – which is already a long way from perfect – through the gutter once again. We have to decide, is this the kind of country we want to be? One that arms the nation’s bullies, or one that opposes them? I really don’t see how we can be both.

Bahrain next?

Posted 15 Feb 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East

If a government sends the army in to fire on a crowd, and kills somebody in the process, and then the next day, at the person’s funeral, sends the army in to fire on the crowd, and kills somebody, are they just putting into a place a cycle which will play out every day until only the army and the government is left?

This is Bahrain. It’s a testament to the crazyness of 2011 so far that it could easily be pretty much any one of the country’s Arab neighbours. Who will be next?

Caroline Lucas at St Nicholas Church, Brighton

Posted 22 Jan 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Environment, Politics

Me and Lyndsey went to see Caroline Lucas giving a talk at a local church in Brighton last night, and it was very interesting indeed. Not a party political meeting at all, this was a chance for Caroline to bring some of her constituents up to speed on what she’s been up to since she was elected to Parliament and explain how she has been orienting herself in her new workplace.

The first observation made was terribly simple, and hardly original – what a likeable, down to earth and straightforward politician Caroline is. Although I and many other Brighton residents would in theory lean more towards having a Labour than a Green MP, she remains terrifically electable. What right-thinking, left leaning social democrat would not want her on their side? Well, doubtless many partisan politicos and local activists could find arguments against her, but like I say this was a largely apolitical meeting – more of a half-term report than anything – and on the first test there’s no faulting her.

Her default style is laid-back, plain-speaking, and at times wryly amused at the situation she finds herself in. As a new MP there are many things about Parliament which she makes no effort to disguise she finds pretty ludicrous. She clearly sees herself (and the majority of the new intake, she was at pains to point out) as being apart from the professional political class and, as such, well-placed to take on a reforming mantle. And it’s true that the only time she really feels like the kind of measured, career politician we’re so used to (and tired of) is when she talks and feels the need to illustrate every nuance with hand gestures, as if every point she makes is rendered understandable only by a pointed finger or a roll of the wrist. Goodness knows how politicians got their arguments across when their primary medium was radio.

Of her time so far, there was nothing shocking. She’s pleasantly surprised by how willing politicians from across the spectrum are to collaborate on shared ideas (she’s spent much of her time with rightwing Tories working on PR and Jeremy Corbyn on anti-Nuclear – hard to imagine which is less appealing), she’s tabled a few motions but not had much luck with legislation, and is perplexed at how antiquated our systems are compared to Brussels. She never ranted, but is firmly, rationally opposed to much of the cuts agenda and animated on the privatisation of the NHS. She struck me as exactly the sort of person we want us representing Brighton, and it is only a shame that she is isolated as the only Green MP.

Walking away afterwards, Lynds and I debated the point. As admirable as Lucas is, I argued, having an environmentally conscious Labour MP might actually prove more productive when it came to drafting legislation. Yes, Lyndsey agreed, but perhaps Caroline’s status makes her uniquely well-placed to collaborate across the benches. And limited though her influence may be, she acts as a lightning rod for attention, ensuring green issues far more coverage than a Labour representative might manage. Then, we wondered, who would find it easiest to gain an audience with Ed Miliband to discuss environmental matters? The leader of the Green party or a backbench Labour MP? We honestly didn’t know the answer.

Other residents – unsurprisingly – were more vexed with local questions. Every point, every subject, which Caroline raised was national; the NHS, green energy, the privatisation of our forests, Higher Education. Every point raised from the floor seemed to center round parking fines and council matters. Just once or twice I thought I detected her stopping her face from falling. Her mind is on bigger things. And her heart – on the evidence of last night’s relaxed chat – is in the right place.