Monday, 1 September 2014

Five Most Popular Posts for August

The most read this month were:

1. When Genocide Is Permissible
2. Critiquing Doctor Who: Deep Breath
3. On Bombing ISIS
4. The Social Significance of Ian Botham's Penis
5. How Not to Write About Rotherham

August's most-featured-in-the-news tops the page view tally for this month, followed not too far behind by the Doctor's return to our screens in Peter Capaldi's skin. Does having an openly Scottish Doctor indicate a clandestine contribution by BBC Wales to the Better Together campaign?

Yes it's been a busy month on the blog, the most buzzing it's been since December 2013 no less. And my choice for the couple of posts that didn't make the cut? There is UKIP's General Election Prospects. Written before Douglas Carswell's defection, everything said here still applies, but even more so. My second selection wouldn't shock long-term readers either: The Top 100 Dance Songs of the 1970s. Never miss an opportunity to inflict your music taste on the internet-going public.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Critiquing Doctor Who: Into the Dalek

That was a good episode. Thrills 'n' spills aplenty. Lovely. There were the introspective moments, where the Doctor pondered the morality that fires him. And, achieving almost the impossible, there's a bit of character development for Clara too. Now she is no longer a plot device for inserting Steven Moffat's influence into the pre-reboot canon, the character is open to new directions. The possibility of romance with a conflicted new character perhaps? On this occasion I'm going to steer away from the Moffatisms (was it really necessary to comment on Jenna Coleman's body, twice?). Into the Dalek is the season setter-upper, the overarching themes of what is to come were all foregrounded here. 

Okay, quick recap. The Doctor is tasked with repairing a malfunctioning "good" Dalek. Him, Clara, and three soldiers from some future time are miniaturised and head off for adventures inside the psychotic pepper pot. The malfunction is repaired, "Rusty" turns evil and goes on a killing spree. The rest of its brethren turn up and more people die until Clara reverses the polarity and makes the Dalek see beauty. After a mind meld looking into the Doctor's thoughts it turns good and massacres its erstwhile comrades, vowing to return to the fleet to carry on its murderous work. The moral ambiguity is that it learns to hate its own kind from sampling CapaldiDoc's own thoughts. Ouch. Much angst.

This episode is a meditation on war or, rather, soldiery. As everyone knows, the Doctor is a big old liberal middle class lefty. He's the sort who'd put Benecol on his morning muesli to keep his two hearts healthy. He abhors violence, hate suffering, is opposed to war and, as such, is suspicious of soldiers. If this couldn't be underlined enough, when asked by Lt Journey Blue to take her with him he rules it out simply because she's military. This I think is the leaping off point for a veiled polemic we can look forward to over the course of the series. The Doctor encapsulates the liberal pacifism of a layer of people for whom soldiers are something to be reviled, as automatons trained to kill in exchange for a modest wage and perhaps the skills for a trade, as per army recruitment ads. Bag a terrorist, learn carpentry. I expect by the end of this season his attitude will have grudgingly changed and maybe Lt Blue will come back either as a recurring character or future companion.

Idle speculation? Yes, it is. But not without further supporting evidence signposting this destination. Like last week, we're running parallel story lines. The Dalek is your wehrmacht and einsatzgruppen rolled into one. Unlike real life they are crack troops and death squad, utterly pitiless yet incomparably formidable. The Doctor knows what he's dealing with: he wiped them out, once. And yet he is intrigued by the possibility that this one might have broken with Dalek essentialism. He speculates the malfunctioning of its life support system may have altered its consciousness. Eventually his team locate the source of the problem: a radiation leak. He seals it up and, quelle surprise, it returns to type and everything goes to hell. Even then as it starts killing the Doctor still gives the Dalek his time. He knows the good memories are still there, albeit repressed. They just have to be liberated and perhaps it can be turned back. This is done successfully as the Doctor and Dalek share minds. It learns beauty from the Doctor once again, it relearns that the destruction its race visits upon the universe is pointless because the cycle of life and rebirth never ends. But it also sees the Doctor's own hatred of and reverses inflicted on the Daleks. His hate joins with the Dalek's hate, his disgust powers the Dalek's emerging rage against its own people. In trying to change the Dalek, all the Doctor has managed to provide is a new enemy for it to fight against. It's still a soldier, still a creature who lives by and revels in violence. It cannot be changed. All military personnel are permanently damaged and scarred by death.

And then there is Danny Pink. He's the yummers new maths teacher at Clara's school, but with a lot of baggage on his back. Socially inept and shy, he initially refuses her offer of a drink after a trying day in the classroom. You see, it turns out he's ex-military. His inner turmoil not-so-subtly hinted at by the appearance of a solitary tear when asked if he'd killed any civilians. You can see how this is being set up. After the Doctor's experience with the Dalek, his belief in the rigidity of the martial character has been reinforced. And yet coming along is a potential love-interest for Clara destined to challenge the doctor's prejudices. Here's a man who's broken with his army programming and wants to atone by helping kids achieve. It's sadness and guilt that drives him, not bloodlust. One assumes that as the full complexity of his character is brought out, the Doctor will learn that military-types are just as changeable as anyone else, that they are more than the sum of their grim experiences and actions. And to drive the point home? Clara and Doctor stomping around prattling about "the lesson learned today", and much more emphasis on her character as a teacher than before. Soldiers are more than Dalek killing machines, and the desired learning outcome for the rest of the series is getting him - and you - to appreciate this.

Why take this line of flight? Who knows. Maybe Moffat is hitting back at the liberal, feminist lefty types always pulling him up on dodgy gender politics. Perhaps he wants to reposition the Doctor as someone who's dealt with his own war demons and more sanguine about violence. After all, there were several occasions SmithDoc went unperturbed by deaths he caused/contributed toward. Taking pacifism and rubbishing it might be up his street. There's one in your eye, lefties!

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Saturday Interview: Howard Fuller

Howard "Howie" Fuller is a PCS activist from London. Among his sins are a penchant for comics and prog rock. He blogs at Howie's Corner and has proven so far resistant to Twitter's lure.

- Why did you start blogging?

I actually came to blogging by accident rather than design. For several years I had run (and still do) an e-mail list in the PCS union which managed to get up the noses of the Socialist Party/Left Unity leadership. So much so in fact that in late 2012 I received a phone call from John McInally, a PCS Vice President (and SP Grandee) asking me to desist in my criticisms of them as “my e-mails were being used against them” by Francis Maude apparently. I found that hard to believe and in any case I would not allow myself to be censored by the comrades who have wrecked PCS as a union. To cut a long story short he got PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka involved who sent me a series of letters demanding I desist. And although I ran a very public campaign against this attack on free speech which gained a lot of support from ordinary members, I did end up going on-line at home.

Ironically the e-mail list got larger as a result and they still go to the same recipients. Censorship never works comrades.

The cheapest and easiest way on line was the “Google Chrome Book”, which amongst other things allowed me to set up a blog. Being able to write about matters other than the union appealed to me and Howie’s Corner was born.

- What's been your best blogging experience?

To be honest simply finding that there was an (albeit smallish) audience for my views.

- Have you any blogging advice for new starters?

Remember to proof read after spellcheck! I still forget sometimes after a hard day at work…..

- Do you find social media useful for activist-y-type things?

Yes, but try not to over-rate its potential. For example just “liking” a post for a campaign does not mean anything if the majority subsequently do nothing. That new Left Unity organisation is a prime example. 10,000 “likes” but too few actual members in comparison. Seems to have gone quiet on that front. Must be because Tony Greenstein resigned ...

- Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

What motivates me is the desire to be free rather than follow any individual writer, politician or theorist. I do not subscribe to any “ism” and would describe myself as a “free-thinker” happy to listen to people from across the political spectrum and make my own mind up. There are certain things that inspire me though. The stand of King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae was not only brave but in my view was a major turning point in history. If early Greek thinking had been wiped out the world might never have developed democracy. Fortunately we’ll never have to find out. Winston Churchill in the thirties and Second World War was a figure one could admire. Not perfect, and yes ultimately a Tory but no-one else could have played the role he did.

Depending on how you define “intellectual, I would add Peter Cook and the Monty Python Team. Without humour there can be no humanity.

- What are you reading at the moment?

Just finished History of the Mongol Empire by John Man. A visit to Waterstones is due.

- What was the last film you saw?

The Sorcerer's Apprentice with Nicholas Cage.

- Do you have a favourite novel?

The Lord of the Rings.

- Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

Socialism. Even without the appalling history of the Soviet Union, China and Pol Pot, the inability of the comrades to tolerate dissent inside their own ranks let alone work in one united organisation based on mutual co-operation, which I would have thought was the basic tenet of their creed, warns me that these crimes against humanity would simply repeat themselves again. Political expediency rather than basic human rights was at the centre of the way the SWP dealt with the “delta” affair. Appalling people.

- How many political organisations have you been a member of?

Growing up in deepest Surrey the Young Liberals were my earliest choice in 1973 at the age of 15. It wasn’t until I became a student that the left had any appeal and joined the Labour Party in 1978. Through this I got drawn into the remnants of the IMG in the form of the Socialist League in the 1980’s and wrote for Socialist Action and Labour Briefing until the group fell apart with its permanent faction fighting. Due to the presence of so many SWP members in my then social circles I gave them a brief try. Big mistake. My “friends” became part of a “shared mind” culture in meetings, but this experience which lasted just a few months destroyed any faith I might have had in the socialist project. Never looked back. In the late eighties I did get involved with the Greens, even standing as a council candidate in 1990, but when I moved in 1992 I forgot to renew my membership so decided to concentrate on my trade union work. I have no desire to be involved in a political party again.

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

Secularism, and not just because I am an ardent atheist. Politics and religion do not mix well at the best of times, but religion and the state should be separated at all levels.

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Religious fundamentalism, and I don’t just mean the Islamists about whom I write about a great deal. The so-called Creationist movement in Christianity bothers me with its blatant and wilful ignorance. I also think we might need to cast an eye or two on developments in Hinduism in India too.

- Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

Not since I ceased being part of the “left”. Books about dialectics, historical materialism and other ideological whataboutery have no hold over the way I see the world. I prefer to learn and read about history of various types from “normal” historians such as Orlando Figes, Bethany Hughes, Anthony Beevor and Tom Holland.

- Who are your political heroes?

The unnamed ordinary men and women who stand up to tyranny and oppression.

- How about political villains?

That would be a rather long list both in historical and current terms. Can I include peoples imaginary God(s)?

- What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

Defeating religiously inspired terrorism.

- If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Renationalising the railway networks. It makes no sense to me to pay more public money to private companies than was ever given to British Rail.

- What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

Islamism.

- What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

So long as part of you remains childish you will never grow truly old.

- What is your favourite song?

That varies all the time . In the seventies I’d have said Hold Your Head Up by Argent, at the moment it would be Pinheel Surfer by Scandal

- Do you have a favourite video game?

I don’t play video games. Being old fashioned I prefer board games, particularly Talisman.

- What do you consider the most important personal quality?

A sense of humour

- What personal fault do you most dislike?

Indolence

- What, if anything, do you worry about?

Retirement as it approaches ...

- And any pet peeves?

Since you ask, cyclists. As a pedestrian and user of public transport I find them the most selfish of road users. Oh and noisy neighbours!!

- What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Please don’t drink so much.

- What do you like doing in your spare time?

Relaxing and reading comics.

- What is your most treasured possession?

My rather large comic collection

- Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Model railways

- What talent would you most like to have?

The ability to draw sequential artwork so I could do my own comics!

- If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

Just to be happy would be fine.

- Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

I would build a large model railway with a house around it.

- If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Actually I’d settle for a candle lit dinner with Kylie Minogue, but since the missus would hardly approve I would choose: Stan Lee the creator of Marvel Comics, Steve Ditko, Spider-man’s co-creator and one of my favourite all time comic book artists (who is a total recluse, not even willing to give interviews) plus the satirist Peter Cook.

- As a non-Labour labour movement person, do you think Labour will win next year?

Yes and I think everyone should be aiming for that result. We cannot afford another 5 years of this coalition shower.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Why Clacton Matters for Labour

A very quick something bashed out for LabourList this morning and published here. In case you missed it ...

Make yourself a cuppa, pull up a comfy chair, and watch. Since Douglas Carswell’s surprise/no-surprise defection to UKIP yesterday and the forcing of a by-election in Clacton, there will be some in the party tempted to adopt this attitude. And not without good reason. Consider the previous by-election outings over the last year or so.

In Eastleigh, a Liberal Democrat/Tory marginal, from nowhere, became a LD/UKIP marginal. The Conservatives were dumped into third place and our vote stagnated at just under the 10% mark.

Consider Newark this June. Always something of a no-hope seat for Labour, the UKIP surge was never going to be enough to see off the Tories but it did make sure our party came a distant third. Our vote share slid by almost five percentage points as the two main combatants framed the contest as a UKIP-Tory fight.

In Eastleigh we selected a relatively high profile candidate, which enjoyed modest support from the national party. In Newark our established candidate and CLP was more or less left to their own devices. With UKIP throwing everything they have into Carswell’s re-election, and the Conservatives virtually moving their entire national operation to Clacton for the durĂ©e, the national leadership might wish to continue hoarding resources for the election proper next year and pass on fighting the good fight.

This would be a very big mistake.

Anecdotally, doorstep conversations and reports from Newark suggested the emergence of something new and potentially significant: an anti-UKIP protest vote. Protest voting against the ‘official’ protest party is novel, but it is not entirely without precedent. After all, Hope Not Hate, Searchlight, and Unite Against Fascism have expended a great deal of resource down the years encouraging an anti-BNP, anti-fascist vote to keep them out of office. In Newark, it is quite possible that a chunk of the missing Labour vote did not cross the floor to UKIP but rather transferred to the Tories to thwart Roger Helmer’s ambitions.

Labour needs to be the repository of the anti-UKIP protest vote.

The reasoning is quite simple. Up and down the country there are dozens of swing seats we need to win back from the Conservatives. On paper, the additional factor of UKIP makes more of these seats winnable. As they eat away at Tory associations and mobilise previously loyal Conservative voters, so the threshold of Labour victories are reduced. Yet voting is not a mechanical process. All kinds of uncertainties come into play. Like the anti-UKIP vote. While it is true people will be voting for a new government next year, just as some will stubbornly stick to UKIP and other parties with no chance of forming one, so an unknown number of voters will cast their ballots for the candidates they think are best placed to defeat UKIP. Assuming Carswell wins, and I think he will, UKIP will have added momentum and be more of a concern to moderate voters. What this means for Labour is that in Tory and LibDem marginals, it is quite possible that a sliver of voters will plump for their incumbents as a means of keeping UKIP out. It doesn’t matter that they may not have a realistic chance of winning that seat: people generally think about general elections in national terms, not the political intricacies of their own parliamentary constituencies. They see the grotesqueries of Farage, Nuttall, Hamilton, O’Flynn, etc. strutting about on television, and vote accordingly.

In Clacton then Labour has to put in the work to win over this vote, and not let it casually be scooped up by the Tories. Yes, while the seat today is a very different beast to the one our party used to hold 1997-2005, it’s full of the people we need to win over to win in 2015. And it’s not as though we do not have a policy agenda that does not speak to white, working class retirees. The NHS is our strongest suit here. But we also have plenty to say about pensions, utility bills, and housing and opportunities for their children.

Labour’s appeal does, or at least should, lie in it being the antithesis of all the rotten things UKIP stands for. We can be the natural home of anti-UKIP protest votes, and should be prepared to fight for that label wherever their ugly head is reared. Because if we don’t, it might cost us – and the people of Britain – dearly no too far down the line.

Local Council By-Elections August 2014

Party
Number of Candidates
Total Vote
%
+/- July
Average/
contest
+/-
July
+/-
Seats
Conservative
9
2,528
  27.1%
 -2.2%
     281
  -160
   +1
Labour
8
2,551
  27.4%
+1.7%
     319
    -89
     0
LibDem
7
1,732
  18.6%
+7.5%
     247
    -11
    -2
UKIP
7
1,685
  18.1% 
+2.8%
     241
    -30
   +1
SNP*
0
    
 -1.0%
   
  -595  
    0
Plaid Cymru**
0
       
 -0.4%
     
  -228
     0
Green
5
   687
    7.4%
+3.5%
     137
   +25 
     0 
BNP
0
       
      
 -0.1%
      
    -58
     0
TUSC
1
     16
    0.2%
+0.1%
       16
     +2
     0
Independent***
2
   127
    1.4%  
 -5.9%
       64
  -179
     0
Other****
0
    
 -5.8%
   
  -349
     0

* There were no by-elections in Scotland.
** There were no by-elections in Wales.
*** There were no independent clashes.
**** No 'others' stood this time round.

Overall, 9,236 votes were cast over nine local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison see July's results here.

A very quiet month to be sure. Who wants to fight by-elections in holiday season? But still interesting for all that.

First off some morale-boosting joy for the Liberal Democrats. 18.6% is a ridiculous vote for them these days and fully reflects the swings and roundabouts of local by-elections. Some months a disproportionate number of contests fall in seats not favourable to a particular party. In others they take place in super safe areas. Nevertheless, this month is the first time the LibDems have beaten UKIP to third overall in a very long time. An accident of geography? Yes, in all likelihood. The polls still consistently report poor figures for the yellow party. Whether this is a blip or not shall be answered in the fullness of time - though the fact they lost councillors to the Tories and UKIP might point more toward the former.

Apart from that, there is very little to talk about. After last month's walk-on bit part, the BNP have disappeared again. TUSC have stuck around and increased their average vote by 2 to a massive 16. Keep it up comrades.