Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Fundamental Opposition

Richard and I listened to the new Pet Shop Boys album Fundamental last night. It’s good, as many reviews have said. A lot of the songs have a very ‘big’ sound often previously associated with the Pet Shop Boys, as many reviews have also said. What I wasn’t expecting is just how political it is, nor how serendipitously timed; released two days after Doctor Who showed us a world of terrifying Cyber-conformity, while the targets of the final song are New Labour and their ID cards and register, it might have been written as a soundtrack for the Cybermen.

There’s another Doctor Who connection, for me at least, as every Saturday we discuss the new Doctor Who story (doesn’t that just sound great?) and then Richard always beats me to a review when he writes up thoughts in his guest pieces for Millennium. While normally Richard is more the PSB fan of the two of us, the other night, I found I could remember all the Pet Shop Boys albums when he couldn’t; I felt like Stuart Alan Jones naming the Doctors. Perhaps it was a rite of passage on the way to, this one time, beating Richard to a review. I suspect Millennium will still find plenty to say about it – he might mention the remix album we’ve not heard yet, he’ll be wittier than I am, he’ll have a different scary pop video image to put in your head and, last and probably least, I’d lay money that he doesn’t mention Tom Robinson.

A dozen years ago, when Richard and I first met, both of us had favourite gay artists that we used to listen to a lot, but there was quite a wide gulf between Tom Robinson and the Pet Shop Boys (not least that I quite liked his and he was not at all taken with mine). What’s surprising about Fundamental is that it’s almost as if my political punk and Richard’s dispassionate electropop have finally joined forces. It’s all about politics and sex.

Open up the CD case, in midnight black with neon lights, and appropriately enough it starts off with the threatening sound of Psychological; insidious rather than inviting start, though its studied creepiness still isn’t as terrifying as the world-conquering power of the final track (but more on that later). The big sound and arch religion of The Sodom and Gomorrah Show “Sun, sex, sin, divine intervention” – is fast, upbeat, poppy and very Pet Shop Boys, as in a quite different way is the familiar quiet regret of I Made My Excuses and Left, conjuring up the awkwardness of ‘bumping into the ex and their new lover’ so perfectly that anyone who’s been there can’t help but wince. The title of Casanova in Hell pretty much says what you’ve going to get, as does Minimal, harsh electronica with a good beat to it that I rather enjoyed. The quiet, gentle Luna Park reminds me of a quietly haunting Gerry Rafferty song, I think, though it remains tantalisingly just too far out of reach for me to check.

There are several songs on the album with a distant echo to me of other songs that took a while to place; when I first heard I’m With Stupid, I knew it reminded me of something, but it was many listenings later that I realised the melody recalled the Tom Robinson Band’s We Didn’t Know What Was Going On, a fierce track on the dangers of the government taking away freedom. Coincidentally, now the Pet Shop Boys are doing the same. After I’m With Stupid’s take on Mr Blair and Mr Bush, Numb begins with an orchestra and the cry “Don’t wanna hear the news…” from someone who finds it all too much and doesn’t want to hear any more, just as Twentieth Century sings of “one hundred years of inhumanity”. Perpetual point-scoring attacks on asylum seekers are quietly rejected in the lover-as-refugee song Indefinite Leave to Remain (just to confuse the ‘big sounds’, the gentle, understated tailing-off at the end is reminiscent of ELO’s Mr Blue Sky, which was all grand orchestration). However, the biggest song in every respect is the show-stopping climax, Integral.

I wonder just how daring their record company is going to be? Integral is by a long way the best track on the album, and the one that sounds most like a single: great tune, stunning orchestration, catchy chorus first appearing as the opening hook in the best She Loves You style… But it’s also a naked assault on New Labour both in its lyrics and in its terrifyingly triumphalist power. Sung as if by a swivel-eyedly Blairite choir, it’s again a familiar style of polemic from Tom Robinson to take the point of view of your opponent and make their creed curdle your blood, most famously in the spoken interlude from Power in the Darkness (the latest version, a 2004 remix, follows a news broadcast on the tasks of detaining suspected terrorists and returning to ‘spiritual and moral freedom for the British people’ with Tom’s Blairalike “Freedom to depose every unpleasant government / To do whatever needs to be done / Freedom from NATO and the United Nations / Freedom for the missile and the gun / Freedom from legality / Freedom from reality / Freedom from alternative views / Freedom from sanity / Freedom from humanity / Freedom from the likes of you…” You won’t have heard it; it wasn’t so much released as escaped, but I liked it all the same).

The whole project
It’s brand new
Conceived solely
To protect you
Strident and terrifyingly confident in its righteousness and its right to force everyone to be the same for their own good, this is an outstanding pop track with a particular appeal to Lib Dems – and you don’t get many of those to the euro. Will listening to this on your earpod be banned at Westminster? Will the sound of Integral blasting out of an office become the new way to spot another New Labour loyalist sickened and turning to revolt? Or are the irony levels of Labour’s identical army set so low that they’ll take it as an anthem, like Michael Portillo listening to Shopping in the ‘80s?

If you've done nothing wrong
You’ve got nothing to fear
If you've something to hide
You shouldn't even be here
You've had your chance
Now we've got the mandate
If you've changed your mind
I'm afraid it's too late
We're concerned
You’re a threat
You're not integral
To the project
The ruthless, committed conformity the track proclaims is blatantly targeted at the government, but when we heard it last night the hairs rose on the backs of both our necks. It sounds even more like a rally by Cybermen than by Mr Blair’s true believers. After Saturday’s The Age of Steel, this is so apposite that it’s a shame it wasn’t out early enough to be a backing track on Doctor Who Confidential. Thanks to the pervasiveness of the vocoder in electronic pop, the bridge – by chance, the lyric most suited to the Cyberman ideal of preservation by making everything exactly the same for ever – even sounds like it’s sung by Cybermen.

One world
One life
One chance
One reason
All under
One sky
One season
Should this be released as a single, I don’t know what the video might involve to avoid being banned for political bias. I know the image that shot into my mind as I heard it, though: Mr Blair on a clifftop, heroic, towering, implacable, the wind running through his thinning hair, his armies of Cybermen on the march behind him. Some years ago there were a number of videos in circulation where rapid-fire clips from Doctor Who stories were set to appropriate pop songs. I remember particularly The Time Warp (obviously), A View to a Kill, and songs by the Pet Shop Boys such as Left to My Own Devices, Too Many People and Can You Forgive Her? Reader, if you know the person who created such things, beg them to come out of retirement to create the Integral Cybervideo. They’re needed.

Mr Blumic, I think that’s a vote for free will.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006


They’ve Just Incinerated Jennie Bond!

Happy John Stuart Mill’s* 200th birthday (hat-tip: Richard Huzzey), and if you want to celebrate by seeing just the authoritarian dystopia the world could be without him, tune in to BBC1 tonight at 6.35 to watch Doctor Who: The Age of Steel, as the Cybermen take over. Yes, it’s on nearly an hour earlier than last week. For another frightening dystopia, tune in to News 24 at any time and listen to Mr Blair.

Alert readers will notice I’ve just updated my sidebar; it’s now a mix of recent entries and the older ones I thought were any good. I’ve still got several blogging ideas rattling round in my head, but after the past few days I’ve at least caught up a bit. I notice I’ve actually pounded in fourteen entries since Sunday, most of them not short, so it seemed an opportune moment to end the session. Besides, my sidebar was still suggesting my most recent posts were in April; when I set this blog up, I decided to put in lists of recent entries manually, and it had come back to bite me on the bum. So why did I bother making more work for myself? Two reasons, really – I thought the way the ‘automatic’ list came up looked ugly, and I decided I’d like to split them into political and other (usually TV-based) posts. I kept the numbers down (ish) to twenty of each, and what you have now is an index of most of the recent posts, plus those older posts I thought were the best (Richard guffaws at this and suggests I invite you to take notes and return for a test later). They’re based entirely on what I feel about them; at some stage I mean to set up a hit counter, but not just now, eh?

I won’t be doing much blogging this weekend, partly because I have other things to do and partly because my eyes are going a bit blurry from being at the screen so much during the week. Richard and I have been scurrying around doing the Saturday housework this morning, and – watching out for Doctor Who trailers the BBC still aren’t showing, hiss – I’ve found myself drawn into Great British Menu on TV in the background. I feel slightly guilty watching the Queen’s posh food porn, but it all looks so tempting (well, not the beetroot). Still, at least one of the chefs has just done his best to set light to the BBC’s oleaginous royal correspondent. My appetite has been so whetted that I’ve finally broken my caring-for-my-shattered-teeth embargo and opened that Thorntons Easter Egg with the Special Toffee friends gave us over a month ago. Mmmm. Number of fillings lost this morning: 0 and counting.

Hurrah! It’s just finished, and they’ve finally remembered to plug Doctor Who. Appropriately for a thrilling concluding episode, the clip used for the teaser is of the Doctor lunging toward the camera to declaim, “This ends tonight.”

Meanwhile, I’ve managed to do a little reading that’s been neither Doctor Who nor politics. Years and years back, I picked up a second-hand copy of Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia and was bowled over by it; more recently, I saw a collection of his short stories as The Rediscovery of Man, and have just made a start. The opening story Scanners Live in Vain was written about sixty years ago, yet rather scarily it’s impossible to tell (not least because the main characters are, in effect, Cybermen who communicate using txt spk). I’ve also just read the first of Robin Jarvis’ Wyrd Museum stories, The Woven Path, which was given to me for my birthday by a dear friend. “But surely,” you might ask, “your birthday was last October?” In this case, sadly not. I’m not actually sure when he gave it to me, but though I’m relatively confident the year began with ‘20…’ I’m quite certain that it didn’t conclude in ‘…05’. Anyway, it’s an entertaining slice of fantasy involving a boy whisked back in time to the Blitz and a terrible demon recovering its old strength, with a feel very reminiscent of Doctor Who. In part it’s that much of it seems to pre-empt Steven Moffat’s The Empty Child of last year, and that the scariest death echoes Mark Gatiss’ Nightshade, each fine and terrifying stories. But largely it’s just those three essentials, time travel, whimsy and lots of death.

Just as my long-awaited copy of Andy Murray’s Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown - about which I’ve heard great things - finally arrives in the post, I see from Nyder’s blog that Val Guest has died. He was writer and director of some terrible and some marvellous films, and though Mr Kneale might put them in the former category I’m enormously fond of his two Quatermass adaptations, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2. I understand Andy’s next project is about another writer, one almost as spellbinding but with a better-humoured screen persona…

*Nice to see Harriet Taylor Mill getting co-credit for On Liberty in the first comment in the blog Richard Huzzey hat-tips, incidentally. I seem to be the only Lib Dem who ever does that, despite Mill always saying it was hers; my suspicion is that Victorian publishers refused to credit her because she was, ugh, a flibbertigibbet girlie, and therefore couldn’t possibly have any views in her fluffy little head, and that view has lasted ever since. What a shame everyone still parrots it.

Friday, May 19, 2006


Stick ‘Green Action’ on Every Leaflet Ever

‘You can’t sell national messages in every FOCUS’.

Health issues like asthma or illness from poor housing
Rubbish in the streets
Clean air
Overseas aid and charity
Action by your local MP, MEP, MSP, Welsh or London Assembly Member
Abandoned cars
Water supply
Cuts to the trains
Animal welfare
GM crops and other food scares
Traffic jams
Clean buildings, walls and pavements
Air pollution, river pollution and sea pollution
Yes, you can.

On every page of our Manifestos there’s a box marked ‘Green Action’.

Just do the same with every leaflet you ever deliver.

In almost every Lib Dem leaflet I’ve ever read, at least one of those issues above has been mentioned – let alone the ‘big issues’ such as global warming, nuclear power, renewable energy, energy efficiency, air travel…

It’s not rocket science.

If you want a short, simple, clear, cheap way to get across our big message in your local area, every time you mention those issues, stick a ‘GREEN ACTION!’ flash on your FOCUS next to it and get the added value of local campaigns all showing the same national principle.

The biggest problem we have with our green message is not that voters don’t like it when they hear it but that the media aren’t interested in reporting it. So do what we always do, and go local with it. FOCUS was adopted around the time I was born to get our message into homes when the media ignored us, and has been fantastically successful. The concentration on local issues where others arrogantly ignore them is rightly praised, but when it’s still often the only way that people see a Liberal Democrat message, there’s a value-added boost available from national messages that often gets lost. It’s easy to make the mistake of one grundging election-time leaflet on entirely national issues that fail to pick up on local loyalties, and others with all-local content that fails to move people with a national or international agenda, and I’ve made both mistakes in my time. This is a simple way to combine the two messages and reach the parts neither can on their own.

We all know most FOCUS leaflets have some sort of environmental action on them already, and it’s easy enough to make it all of them. If you give them the same ‘Green Action’ tag every single time, coupled with local headlines within that, there’ll be an added value of people concerned with ‘the environment’ in general that right now we miss, quite unnecessarily, because they don’t make the connection. It might make people realise part of, “Oh, that’s what the Lib Dems are for, and I like it.”

We’re brilliant at acting locally, but you rarely see much global thinking in a FOCUS. We have to talk ‘environment’ all year round and in big headlines, so that drip by drip we establish ourselves as the natural choice for action on the environment (by implication making the Green Party mere protest), perhaps with a strapline at the bottom of each box just to make sure everyone gets the message, “The party for action on the environment, not just hot air”. If you have a lean month, pick a paragraph on a Lib Dem environment policy, or national press release, or something your MSP, GLAM, MEP or the like has said, or a health story like ‘Pollution means diseases like asthma have shot up in our area’. Oh, yes – and print your FOCUS on recycled paper, and say so, every time.

The important thing is, tap away at that Green vote without a single pause, because if you wait until election time they will always trump us on the issue. Leave it ’til the ballot paper, and we can’t compete with their name. Establishing ourselves as their natural home between elections is the only way to target them, using sheer, ruthless familiarity. The party’s attempts at integrated campaigning have never been able to get us all singing from the same hymn sheet, but if I could tour the country’s Lib Dems – or, if you’re reading, Mr Huhne, if you’re reading, ALDC – I would urge one thing on every Liberal Democrat leaflet that ever rolls off the presses (apart from a graph that shows why we’re best-placed to beat our main opponents, of course): a box marked ‘Green Action’ that should always, always be there.

To paraphrase David Penhaligon, put it on a piece of recycled paper and stick it through a letterbox. Pass it on.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


I’m With Stupid

The Pet Shop Boys had a new single out last week. Richard’s always been a big PSB fan, we knew they’d turned against Mr Blair over ID cards, and we knew it was going to be about the special relationship between Mr Bush and Mr Blair. We finally got to watch the DVD single tonight. It’s unexpected, and fab. More unexpected, and still more fab, is the extra track The Resurrectionist. I knew what that sounded like; I couldn’t believe it, but it was. Come on and get the driving synth riff of ‘Burke and Hare: The Upbeat Dance Mix’. Fantastic.

That’s not to undersell the main track, which is recognisably Pet Shop Boys but quite a new style for them (both more sinisterly hardcore and a little bit Human League), and takes the conceit of framing disgust at Mr Blair doing everything for Mr Bush within a love song, which is both disturbing and funny. So is the video, which features Mr Walliams and Mr Lucas of Little Britain forcing Mr Tennant and Mr Lowe to watch a fan re-enactment of two of their best-known videos. It’s every bit as strange as it sounds (and owes not a little to a David Walliams / Mark Gatiss sketch of a few years back in which they kidnapped Peter Davison).

Richard was determinedly PSB from the first, but – though, having been a Catholic schoolboy who’d just worked out he was gay in 1987, it was impossible for me not to love It's A Sin – the first of their albums that really got me going was Very in 1993. That’s the bright orange and blue one where in videos for Can You Forgive Her? and Go West the Pet Shop Boys dressed in futuristic jumpsuits and improbable hats and appeared to inhabit their own, surreal, computer-generated world. These were such iconic images that they’re naturally the ones subjected to low-budget amateur treatment in the latest video while, tied up and watching, Mr Lowe has come as that Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys in the shades and baseball cap but top-hatted, black-clad Mr Tennant appears to have come as a resurrectionist.

Some might say the real reason behind all this is simply that the video can show people in a bare space wearing orange jumpsuits without Mr Blair trying to ban it.

The Resurrectionist is one of the strangest uses of the story of Burke and Hare, along with Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Hammer’s stylish, gleefully unsettling mix of body-snatching, Jack the Ripper and Dr Jekyll, and even a Doctor Who audio play. That one, Medicinal Purposes, has an intriguing setup in Edinburgh 1827, an excellent cast including a forceful Colin Baker, a barbed Leslie Phillips and a scene-stealing David Tennant, but the story loses it a bit. Still, it all makes a change from Boris Karloff doing it straight, doesn’t it?
“We’ve all got to earn ourselves a living / All it takes is a little bit of digging…”

Bit of an ‘80s comeback week, really; what with the sex and soundtrack of The Line of Beauty – in which I pointed out Caroline Blakiston to Richard, as I seem to do weekly in several things we watch from the ‘60s onward – and the return of the definitively overused-in-the-‘80s Doctor Who monster the Cybermen, at the hands of that decade’s most talented Who director for a story whose urban wastelands, rich and poor and sinister security forces makes it seem like an alternative Earth where Thatcherism never fell. Two ‘superb’ and one ‘pretty but I’ll wait for it to get going’ isn’t a bad hit rate, either…

All in all, it’s a shame we didn’t get hold of the single earlier (a few cock-ups later – I meant to get it for him, wasn’t well, couldn’t get out, etc), but we’re looking forward to the forthcoming album Fundamental. Building on their ‘why Neil started voting Liberal Democrat after being a luvvie for Labour’ statement that “The Pet Shop Boys think we should try to increase our freedom, not limit it. They don't believe ID cards are an effective way of countering terrorism,” the song Integral is to also set to attack ID cards directly. Hoorah.

No one understands me
Where I'm coming from
Why would I be with someone
Who's obviously so dumb?

Love comes
Love grows
And power can give a man
Much more than anybody knows

Is stupid really stupid
Or a different kind of smart?
Do we really have a relationship
So special in your heart?

Oh-oh, I'm with Stupid
Oh-oh, I'm with Stupid

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The Green Vote and British Politics

Following on from yesterday’s post largely about the impact of the Green Party on local elections, today I’m looking at how the Liberal Democrats might take them on nationally, along with the newly minted green pretensions of Mr Cameron (blimey, that’s good timing, I thought, as news broke this morning of our latest climate change policy launch). The Labour Party’s record on green policies and, it seems, inclination to attract greener voters is so insubstantial and irregular – I might say chameleonic, if that didn’t suggest some purpose as opposed to occasional spasms of interest – that they’re pretty irrelevant.

Vote Blue, Get…?

With Labour’s only significant foray into environmental politics at the moment being Mr Blair’s pre-emptive nuclear strike, it’s a useful question to ask what it’s intended to pre-empt. Is it the government’s own yet-to-report energy review, to which the Prime Minister is listening with his usual patience and consideration? Is it to pre-empt claims that he’s no longer in charge? Or is it, as Peter Black suggested yesterday, designed to make life difficult for Mr Cameron’s green credentials: does he agree with the Prime Minister (in which case it’s just ‘me too’, and loses much green support), or oppose nuclear power (splitting his party and being accused by Mr Blair of turning the lights out, particularly when he’s opposed wind turbines)? Peter also looks at the problems Mr Blair might be causing for Labour’s Welsh Assembly Government; of course he wants them to rule out Prosiect Y Blaidd Drwg, but Rhodri’s looking a bit tubby these days, isn’t he?

Though Mr Cameron made himself look a bit silly by having his green bike followed round by its own car, or by using huskies only after he’d laid a long trail of air pollutants, he did his party a lot of good with his continuing series of green pronouncements and photo-opportunities, after which groundwork I can imagine many people nodding when it was finally turned into a political slogan. I said on Richard Allan’s blog that ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ was the most persuasive Tory Broadcast I’ve seen for about fifteen years (and probably the only positive one in that time, too). The approach of ‘person on the street who doesn’t look like a Tory raises an issue’ followed by ‘and here’s something lovely that a Tory council is doing on that very issue’ worked - if you took away the little children’s cartoons, it could have been any Lib Dem council elections broadcast from the last ten years - but did a better job of linking their party to the environment than we’ve managed, astonishingly. James Graham compares it favourably to what he calls our “dreadful “litany” of “safer, greener, fairer”… his slogan was intended to convey the message that the Tories had changed but also that the Tories had a good record in local government with regard to the environment. Our slogan was just a jumble of things we thought people thought were important… Cameron managed to develop a strong national message that complimented both the narrative he is developing and local campaigns; we should have done the same.”

This campaign had one, essential, underlying message: ‘come back, middle class voters – we are no longer evil’. The happy byproducts are the implication, both in the choice of issue and in emphasising what a good job they do locally rather than just how cheap they might be, that the Lib Dems are unnecessary (and, to further erode our vote, even a hint that voting Green is OK). The effect was striking. Opinion polls now show the Conservatives in a strong second place just behind us on which party is most trusted on the environment.

So what can we do about it? Well, Labour’s instinct is to go negative and target the man. Yes, Mr Cameron not being as green as he poses is amusing, but I find attacking personalities a huge turn-off. Besides, when the Conservatives are one of the parties we’re hoping to co-operate with as well as compete with to find the best green policies (yes, even Iain Paisley is more progressive than Labour on this. Wince), name-calling is surely as unproductive as it is unattractive. The line of attack that may help us both to attract more environmentally-minded voters and to force the Tories to take a more genuinely green position – a win-win scenario – is simply to take them to task for having no policies, and positively promote ours. As Millennium and then Ming put it, where’s the beef?

What’s wrong with the Green Party?

I’ve made a case from electoral concerns, but the environment is one of the main things that brought me into the Lib Dems in the first place, and I believe a Lib Dem government would do a better job on it than any other party, Greens included. That makes the Greens’ relative success under one of our other favourite things, proportional representation, all the more irritating. It’s ironic that after so many years of advocating PR, our focussed, small-scale electoral techniques are so ill-suited to it. List systems in particular favour impulse votes based on a couple of simple words rather than any actual work, and to many people ‘Green’ (or ‘UK Independence’) just pushes their button.

As I said yesterday, the Greens are chasing very much our sort of voter, which helps explain why we always tank in Euro-elections. The height of this was of course in 1989, the first country-wide elections I helped in after joining the party, where, um, purely as a scientific experiment the Lib Dems decided to write themselves off so badly that we could see what might happen if we weren’t there at all. We nearly succeeded, coming fourth with just 4%, which is why I didn’t weep copious tears at the alleged disaster of ‘only’ getting 27% and pushing the government into third place a fortnight ago. In our virtual absence in 1989, the Greens simply filled the vacuum, zooming from nowhere to 15% and carving a niche they still hold in the very Southern areas where we could now do with a little extra boost to keep pace against the Tories. It’s not rocket science to see those Toryish conservationists as well as ex-Labour Green voters as an opportunity. Mr Cameron certainly does.

Rather than wailing “It’s not fair!” when we work hard and the Greens get votes out of nowhere without deserving it, we of all people should recognise that no party has any votes by right. Part of the hostility that the Greens direct towards us in particular is down to this: both of us genuinely believe we’re the only ones who really mean it on the environment; and both of us believe we were here first. Unfortunately, the theological / historical questions of exactly what the Liberal Party and the Ecology Party said and when aren’t going to sway a lot of voters, or even me. While we shouldn’t be ashamed to say we’re the best, bar none, for those who’d still put the Greens first, there are tactical cases, practical cases and sheer familiarity to try.

The main options in attempting to swing people away from the Greens are, it seems to me, to attack them directly over our differences, to say ‘they’re not altogether bad, but they can’t win and we’ll actually get things done’, or to treat them as if they don’t exist and simply proclaim how good we are. That Liberal Democrats tend to like it when Labour and the Tories take the former strategy and feel bruised when they try the other two should tell you which is more effective! I’d go for the third option by preference, with the second if pressed and the first only when going head-to-head - it’s useful to have the ammunition if, for example, you’re facing a Green candidate in a debate. On a national level I think attacking the Greens directly would do more harm than good: aside from my general distaste for overly negative campaigns, I suspect another thing that the Greens and Lib Dems have in common is that we’re both seen as ‘nice’, and the ‘nice’ party that attacks the other ‘nice’ party isn’t going to be seen as the nicer one. The other issue to consider is that it makes them seem bigger than they are and talks them up – why publicise them? You might well ask, looking at Lib Dem blogs like this one, but bear with me.

Although I wouldn’t advocate making the points into a national campaign, it’s useful to have reasons why Liberal Democrats would actually be better for the environment than the Greens so as not to let them gain the moral high ground by default, and several Liberal Democrats have indeed set out why the Greens’ plans would be less successful than ours. For example, give people power to make their own small-scale decisions instead of banning everything in sight with preaching and overregulation. Make the market do the job instead of ripping it up and starting again. And make the EU do a better job instead of ripping that up and starting again in bizarre Euroscepticism that makes Tory proposals seems realistic and embarrasses even the Greens’ European partners (few of whom are against the euro, unlike our home-grown lot who think you can save the world in one country).

The excellent David Howarth MP wrote an article on the subject for the Green Liberal Democrat magazine Challenge, focusing on George Monbiot (who seems knee-jerk anti-Lib Dem more on personal than political grounds), but along the way looking at the many views and policies the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have in common – including “commitments to environmentally-friendly forms of transport, taxing pollution and carbon use, encouraging energy efficiency and renewable forms of energy production, the empowerment of local government, proportional representation and opposition to the war in Iraq,” then considering fault lines. The Green Party claim not to believe we mean the policies we espouse and have long taken more flak for than they ever do; the Liberal Democrats tend to doubt the Greens’ commitment to civil liberties and political freedom, “a party for which ends matter far more than means”. But, says David, the two biggest issues we can agree that divide us are trade and Europe (on both of which he points out Mr Monbiot has changed his mind and swung from fundamentalist opposition to be in favour). “The idea of the European Union, founded on the fundamentally Liberal idea that free trade increases the degree to which we depend on people in other countries and thus promotes peace, appals them. The euro, the main point of which is to facilitate trade, is, for Greens, a bad idea not because it might not work, but because it plainly does work.” Like John Stuart Mill, I’ve never believed in free trade as an article of faith, but as a practical means of delivery, intervening to make it work more fairly and cleanly works a lot better than the state trying to build a completely new system of planning by diktat.

You’ll have noticed Joe Otten putting the boot in in an even more forceful manner as he attacks the Greens’ socialist planning and hostility to trade or science, and calls for us “to point out the moral shortcomings of the Green position.” Richard Huzzey, similarly, thinks their “authoritarian, apocalyptic response” will be unattractive if exposed, along with the “vast hinterland of extreme and unsettling policy, which goes unnoticed, I'm sure by most of their voters.” You’ll recall that I recoil slightly from attacking ‘moral shortcomings’ as a strategy, and Richard Huzzey also recognises this can sound “overly-partisan and bitchy”. In defence of both of them, though, in those very few areas like Sheffield and – particularly – Oxford, where there are Green Party councillors who have proven they can win and who do some work rather than just appearing as spoiler candidates, the approach must be different, as talking them up matters less when they’re already seen as credible.

My general view, though, is that a lot of people – even if they don’t know many Green Party policies – do get a sense that they may indeed be scary extremists who’d do all sorts of damage if they got in, but, ‘So what? They’re not going to win, so we can vote for them and salve our consciences’. It’s the same sort of effect observed in Tony Benn’s uncanny popularity with blue-rinse Tory ladies in the shires now that he’s retired and just plays old tunes instead of threatening to eat their children. So if scaring people away from the Green Party won’t work, how about something positive instead?

The Liberal Democrats have a better answer

We really can’t say that enough. We’re not just the best of ‘the main parties’ – we’re the green party that would actually make things work, though as no party’s ever going to be perfect, we have to keeping looking out for improvements. My suggestions on Tuesday were a contribution to that debate, and if people in other parties or none come up with better ideas, we should always be prepared to look at them, test them and nick them. It’s also a national message that the Liberal Democrats have indeed been hammering away at consistently and hard. Both Ming and Charles before them made the environment the topic of their first ‘themed’ speeches as Leader, and I can remember the two big issues that Mr Paxman hammered Paddy on as far back as the 1992 election – eco-taxes and gay rights. We’ve got better since on both. With green issues running right through our Manifestos, I know how many precious morning press conferences were devoted to the environment during each of the last two General Election campaigns. The trouble was, as with so much of the Lib Dems’ national message, that journalists simply aren’t interested in reporting it. I suspect that the launch of our package for making ‘The Green Switch’ was only getting even the sixth headline this morning – behind the latest Tory policy-free PR exercise – because the environment is flavour of the month.

So making the case nationally is hard slog and will only get intermittent attention – we know that, we’ve been doing it solidly for two decades, even if the Tories have stolen a march on us by getting it into their main slogan. I’m a little less hostile than James Graham to a ‘litany’ slogan, but since the year 2000 I’d argued (and usually lost) at the Federal Policy Committee that each of our manifestos and pre-manifestos should have something green as part of their ‘three words’ (usually losing out to trust / honesty, which I always disliked as a hostage to fortune). Perhaps it’s because there’s no populist buzz-word ending in ‘y’ for line-ups like ‘Freedom, Justice, Honesty’ or ‘Freedom, Fairness, Trust’ - yes, our 2001 and 2005 General Election Manifestos had essentially the same theme. I always quite liked ‘Free, Green and Fair / Free, Fair and Green’ (having proposed one of those varients as a Manifesto title since about 2000, usually to deaf ears), though I notice for the local elections we managed to include ‘greener’ but ditch freedom for ‘safety’, about which Ben Franklin had a thing to say.

Something else we’ve done solidly over the last decade is to emphasise the green backbone running through our policies by putting a ‘Green Action’ box on every page of our General and Euro-election Manifestos. We’ve done a much better job of translating the environment into catchy voter appeal than we have individual freedom, though the two are intertwined: freedom needs good health, which must be safeguarded by a decent environment both for people today and for future generations, or, for the more economically liberal-minded among us, because damage to our environment impoverishes economies too. I’ve contributed to the last three rounds of General Election Manifestos, and though I know how occasionally a ‘Green Action’ point can seem forced into a policy area or two, the vast majority have been highly effective.

Don’t just take my word for it (or the Green Party’s less charitable analysis). I wasn’t a candidate in last year’s election, so I don’t have comparative figures to hand – if any reader can enlighten me, please post a comment – but that ‘Green Action’ had a major impact on our 2001 Manifesto. In a comparative test, Friends of the Earth gave it 37.5 out of 50, against Labour’s “feeble” 23 and the Tories’ appalling 6.5, with the Greens only just ahead on 42 and, as you’d expect, on some issues we beat them. To come bang up to date, according to Greenpeace's Executive Director Stephen Tindale, Ming’s latest big environment speech “set the gold standard for green speeches”. Update: and as well as useful Lib Dem pieces on ‘The Green Switch’ from Joe Otten and Joe Taylor, it’s received good notices from Friends of the Earth.

It’s easy to pick away at individuals, and if you read some of the comments from correspondents more favourable to the Green Party on yesterday’s piece you’ll spot plenty of it, whether partisan or entirely fair. Where one party has nearly 5,000 councillors and makes real decisions and the other has nearly 100 and, er, doesn’t, it’s bound to be much easier to find Lib Dems that are dodgy than Greens (though it took them a while to live down David Icke, obviously). We shouldn’t swallow every accusation uncritically, but equally, when anyone – partisan or not – points out our imperfections we should give them a serious look and see if we can’t do better. I know that I’m a very long way from perfectly green; I’ve got Donnachadh’s book, but not yet dared read it, and I’ve just this very morning placed a large ‘kick me’ sign on myself on Ian’s blog about 4x4s (I replied to both his replies to me at about noon today; the trouble with moderated blogs is that you can wait a very long time for the editor to publish your contribution to the conversation). Don’t undersell our achievements in local government, though; if ALDC have any remaindered copies of Free, Green, Fair & Honest – A Liberal Democrat Action Plan for the 2002 Local Elections, grab one. As well as making an excellent case for why we take a green approach, it’s got lashings of ideas for how to make your council greener, all taken from Lib Dem councils in practice. I remember being gobsmacked when writing it at how good the ideas coming out of Eastleigh Council were, for example. Oh, er, didn’t I say? Well, all right, I wrote that one, but I’m sure their more recent ones are just as good ;-)

To finish on a cheery note, you may have seen a brace of issue-based opinion polls during the local elections. With Labour’s NHS plans booed by nurses and fantastic Tory publicity on green issues, the Conservatives had gone into a close second place on health and on the environment. In each case, though, they were behind us. Yes, the Liberal Democrats are the party most trusted on health and on the environment. How do we capitalise on that lead, if a couple of decades of the Lib Dems nationally talking solidly about the environment has us just ahead, but still lacking the commanding lead we deserve?

What we can do nationally is come up with a good, green ‘unique selling point’. For years, we’ve tried to come up with a green equivalent to clarity of the ‘penny on income tax’. It’s been jolly hard – I know that, of all the ‘Ten Reasons to Vote Liberal Democrat’ last year, coming up with one really strong green one as opposed to our already strong holistic programme was particularly difficult. Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve said for some time we should be clearer on reducing taxes on the lowest earners with the proceeds from higher environmental taxes, and that seems to be what our Environment Spokesperson feels too. Another alternative might be on power generation if, as I suggested a couple of days ago, we come up with a really strong alternative to nuclear. However, though I don’t have a ‘magic bullet’ policy, I do have an instinct for where it might be found – if we can find a powerful policy that links the environment to health. Not only does it combine two issues on which the Liberal Democrats are already rated highly, but health is probably the biggest opportunity to make the environment ‘sexy’ to people who don’t usually let it bother them. Year in, year out, opinion polls still also tend to show health as the most important issue to people, and problems like pollution have a strong bearing on people’s health. Why not say so? It’s common sense that good health must be safeguarded by a decent environment, and many of us have used campaign lines like ‘Green action to help our health’. If we’re serious about tackling the causes of ill health, preventable illnesses tend to come from pollution, poverty and poor housing, so it could just be the missing link in our message.

So that’s my national prescription; be positive, keep plugging our own alternative policies, but make them sharper, and always watch out to see if we can get better. But for Liberal Democrats, the national message is never the whole story. The last of these articles will reveal that there’s another way to gain the green vote, and doubtless to your great relief, it’s short, simple, and you can even do it from home…


RIP The West Wing

After seven years, the final episode of The West Wing was shown in the USA last weekend. We’ve had its third and fourth seasons on DVD for ages, and this has prompted us finally to start watching them. I remember when we first caught it, part-way through the second season; it was so arrestingly brilliant that we dashed out to buy the DVD of the first season straight away. We watched it faster than anything else we’ve seen; usually we’ll only watch one episode of any one show in a day, but we galloped through all eleven in a weekend. As they initially released the seasons in halves rather than complete sets, we then had to gnaw our knuckles over our addiction while waiting three months for the next eleven episodes to be available on shiny silver disc. Including my favourite episode, Let Bartlet Be Bartlet – one which I’d still encourage everyone aspiring to elected office, and particularly everyone who wins, to watch – it was well worth the wait, if the wait was torture. Sharp, witty, and with a not-quite-wish-fulfilment liberal, intellectual but not always successful President, it was gripping television.

So how come it’s taken us so long to start on the rest? Well, we saw the third and fourth years of the show on TV well before the DVDs came out, and I’m sorry to say that it suddenly felt like the life had gone out of it. I think it was towards the end of season three that we realised it was only just starting to gather pace, and that the rest had felt like it was treading water. Not bad, exactly, but no longer reaching out and seizing our attention. It’s a shame, but we didn’t feel in a rush to watch it again. In the meantime, though, later seasons we’ve never seen have been released - and, yes, we are trying to avoid plot details of them - so now we’re catching up. Having not seen the fantastic first two years for a long time now, will the third any better without the weight of expectation?

We’re just three episodes in so far, and one’s a one-off, slightly uneasy attempt to deal with 9/11. The real start to the season was the two-part story Manchester (NH), a non-linear account of the month following President Bartlet’s twin announcements that he would run for a second term and that he had multiple sclerosis. It’s… all right. It feels a bit stretched, with the same arguments running over and over, and a running thread throughout of preparing for Bartlet’s big speech to kick off his campaign, which at the climax he finally strides out to deliver.

What we hear of the speech – entirely in snippets as it’s written and argued over – made me realise two things (in addition to Martin Sheen’s fantastic comic timing, but I knew that). The first is tragic. When a draft talks of the United States being the greatest civilisation, the greatest force for peace, the envy of the world and so forth, at the time it seemed merely over-the-top, as several of the characters pointed out. After the Iraq War it seems no longer amusing but ludicrous in an ugly way, just as the references to the military base at Guantánamo Bay can now never be heard in the same way again.

The other thing I realised is that – well, truth be told, I knew this too – I am not an ordinary television viewer. The speech is trailed through 42 minutes of high-class soap, followed by another 42 minutes of high-class soap, because that’s what viewers wanted. Not this one. I sat through two episodes of high-class soap, but seethed with annoyance when it faded to the credits as Bartlet finally got up to speak. Because, dammit, right then I wanted to know what he said, and I wanted to hear a 42-minute speech, not just the trailers.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006


The Green Party and the Local Elections

With Mr Cameron’s ambitious attempt to seize the green mantle, a continued firming-up of the small but awkward Green Party vote on May 4th, and now Mr Blair’s macho commitment to nuclear power, environmental issues have rarely been further up the political agenda. For Liberal Democrats who’ve been plugging away on the green agenda for years, it’s ‘Be careful what you wish for’; the only party not being talked about is us. No wonder one of the big debates that the local elections sparked up in the Lib Dem blogosphere is how to tackle (trans: obliterate) the Green Party.

Liberator published an article of mine on what to do about the Greens a couple of years ago – I won’t repeat it all here, but I wrote it after Lib Dems topped the poll in my patch but won only 7 councillors to Labour’s 11. The small, ‘ignorable’ Green vote never had a hope, yet if we’d attracted it instead, we’d have more than doubled our seats to 15. We’ve all spent so long fighting to make the two-party battle a three-party one that it seems unfair to have to watch over our shoulders at fourth, fifth and sixth parties. The truth is, though, that among the smaller parties jostling for position, one is both a problem and an opportunity for us.

We used to attract protest votes on any old thing – now we don’t, probably for two reasons which are both good and bad: we’ve been more successful, so we look more establishment and don’t get so many anti-establishment ‘give them all a kicking’ votes; and we’ve got more of an ideological profile, which is bound to turn some people off. Liberal Democrats can’t in all conscience sound remotely like UKIP or the BNP, and while in many ways Respect is trying to hoover up some of the voters we’re after for their opposition to the Iraq War, we shouldn’t try to ape Mr Galloway’s hysterical demagoguery (let alone their peculiar brand of theocratic Trotskyism). Of all the ex-Labour voters likely to share similar views to ours, we should go after the Greens.

This hasn’t just emerged on May 4th – the example I quoted was from the 2002 London locals, not this year’s. It’s become an uncomfortably reliable pattern: their local results show their effect as spoilers where they manage to try; in every PR election, Greens are polling strongly to the detriment of the Lib Dem share, where it’s difficult to show them as a wasted vote; and a small number are now sticking with them even at a General Election, where they grow even when squeezed. The Green vote seems to be tidal, coming in further under proportional representation and falling back without it, but each time finishing a little further up the beach. It helps that the media give them an easy ride and report uncritically the most misleading Green spin instead of treating their spurious claims with the same cynicism as the rest of us (look at the way Green gains to, oh, still not 100 seats nationwide received better coverage than the Lib Dems holding 4,700). Even they recognise that their main job is to eat into the votes we’d normally expect, if their record of spending more time attacking the Lib Dems than any other national party does is anything to go by.

I’ll return to what to do about the Greens on a national level in a later post, but first I’m breaking my usual habit of making everything up as I go along by presenting a digest of the analysis from fellow Lib Dem bloggers, most of which I agree with and which – if you missed it first time round, as I did until catching up at the weekend – is food for thought (I hope they won’t mind some selective reprinting).

It springs from a discussion kicked off by James Graham in which he notes that “In numerous wards, the Green vote made a difference between who won and who lost”; adding to the results I noted in 2002, Anders Hanson comments on the rise of the Greens costing us seats in Sheffield, and one of the comments to Richard Huzzey from a Lib Dem in Merton volunteers the same effect again. Angus J Huck comments to James: “A fresh menace is the Green Party. A vastly increased Green vote cost us control of Islington, and probably other places, too. We need to know why people vote Green and what we can do to get them to support us instead.”

Former Green Party activist Joe Otten picks up the ball to ask why people vote Green and what we can do to get them to support us instead, offering his analysis of the Green Party rather than just Green support:

“It is essentially socialist, albeit not "central planning" but "local planning". Solutions to almost everything involve more government spending and more regulation… Hostility to trade, and in particular an impractical vision for third world development that would achieve very little. (The desire to support development is genuine.) The evidence is that trade and prosperity go together, and evidence beats dogma in my book. Opposition to medical research on animals. I am clear that benefits to humans, and for that matter to other animals in the long run make this research a morally good thing…

“At the heart of Green thinking there are more problems. Ambition for spending on public goods and redistribution is not reconciled with a shrinking pie as the private sector is squeezed. There is considerable hostility to science, from various philosophical perspectives. Yet it is science that makes environmental problems comprehensible, and scientists who have led the way. "Conventional" progress is rejected, but there is little clarity as to what to replace the idea with - giving a somewhat directionless culture to an appropriately leaderless party.”
His answers to ‘So why do people vote Green?’ include “to send a clear message that the environment should have more priority; if you are a socialist; as a protest vote; in response to good local campaigning; if you actually know and agree with the policies.” He thinks people voting for a socialist alternative should be left to do so, but “As for the rest - we need clarity. Clear and effective green policies, not one snippet per page of the manifesto, but few, simple, substantial commitments. We need to make the case for trade - that millions of lives are at stake worldwide if development is impeded by anti-traders. We need an optimistic vision of the future.” He also says in response to a comment that “All I would expect from us is an honest and principled position, and to point out the moral shortcomings of the Green position.”

Richard Huzzey, who faced the Greens in his central Oxford ward, continues the chain on ‘Beating The Greens’, agreeing with Joe’s piece and applying his own experience of Greens as an established force in Oxford:

“The Green party has a tiny vote from people who actually want to vote for eco-communism. However, for the vast majority of people who vote Green, it seems to me that they think they're ticking a box to say "I care about the environment". It is frustrating for Lib Dems that we talk so much about the environment, but rarely get any media coverage or credit for doing so, simply because the press have historically found it a boring topic. But… an authoritarian, apocalyptic response from the Greens will score very poorly with most voters, compared to Lib Dems' attempts to green modern life through smarter solutions.

“On a second point: those who vote for the Greens to express their passion for environmentalism will often do so because they think a single-issue party is the best way to do that. The irony, as Joe notes, is that the Greens are not a single-issue party. They have a vast hinterland of extreme and unsettling policy, which goes unnoticed, I'm sure by most of their voters.

“There is a danger of sounding overly-partisan and bitchy in attacking the Greens in this way. Indeed, "when people know what they're really for, they won't vote for them" is a taunt often made against Lib Dems. However, I do think the Greens occupy an unusual position, in that people vote for them in the belief they are prioritising a single issue, rather than actually choosing a political party, with its own political economy and policy positions.”
Stay tuned for what I think we should do about all this…

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Blair Goes Nuclear – Alex Doesn’t

In the latest instalment of our government by advance leak, it’s just come on the wireless that (to no-one’s surprise) Mr Blair is to come out strongly for the building of new nuclear power stations in a speech tonight. He’s wrong. The arguments are very well-rehearsed in the Liberal Democrats, but here’s a summary: we have to reject nuclear power generation as a means of achieving reductions in CO2 emissions because of the ludicrous expense to the taxpayer, risk of accidents, the long-term legacy of waste and the danger of terrorist exploitation of nuclear material. The positive alternative? Needs work, but if existing nuclear stations to be closed at the end of their safe operating lives and not replaced, something credible needs to go in their place.

With climate change the greatest threat facing the planet, whatever replaces nuclear power in UK generation has to be part of a low carbon strategy. Of course, we should be calling for much greater energy efficiency, but we need to set out in more detail how we’d achieve that. People still want to know where the actual energy will come from. Well, the answer is renewables – encouraging them on a large scale and on a small and local scale. The UK is particularly well-suited to a mix of renewable sources, including biomass, wind, wave, tidal and solar.

There is, however, a problem. Although in theory renewables could supply Britain’s energy needs, a lot of people don’t believe they’re reliable, and to a certain extent they’re right. The main problem is one of storage, in that fossil and nuclear fuels are stored-up energy to release in one way or another, but renewable energy is gathered as it comes – so what happens on a cloudy, windless day? I’ve speculated about this before, and it strikes me that to take on the arguments of our bull-headedly pro-nuclear Prime Minister seriously – without sounding like we might let the lights go out – we need to talk about serious investment not just in research and development, but a large building programme to exploit technology that’s already available to make our energy supply both green and continuous.

The main sort of storage ‘buffer’ around now can be seen in operation in Scotland and Wales and relies on potential energy and water. An alternative could be oil-rig-style offshore platforms that use windmills / tidal power to electrolyse water, converting that natural power into hydrogen, which can then be stored and burnt more cleanly than fossil fuels. Either way, just wishy-washily saying nice things about nice power no longer cuts it, and if we’re to be the serious green party that gets things done, we need to make tough choices.

I suspect advocating such a building programme won’t be popular – but neither will new nuclear power stations, and this has the advantage not merely of being low-carbon, but low-waste, low-accident, low-terrorist-risk and there must be at least a chance that, unlike nuclear, it might not be so absurdly expensive that the market can only be involved in it through massive, monolithic state subsidy picking up all the costs.

Update: Mr James Graham has added a fifth reason against nuclear power which, naturally, I should have put in in the first place and Richard also came up with straight away. As well as being enormously expensive, accidents having appalling long-term effects (remember those programmes documenting the continuing problems on the twentieth anniversary of Chernobyl just three weeks ago?), creating hugely dangerous waste that can only be ‘safely’ dealt with by being contained for about as long as the recorded history of human civilisation and being the terrorists’ best friend… When Mr Blair’s speech talks about nuclear power as an alternative to reliance on foreign supply for our energy needs, what is he on? Uranium isn’t home-grown, either, and there’s not much of it about. James also writes a thoughtful and sympathetic article about Mr Blair’s state of mind.


What Links Politics, Football and Doctor Who?

When ‘your team’ wins, it takes a heart of stone not to feel a rush of tribal jubilation at the victory. I’ve spent my entire life having no interest at all in football and actively resisting school and family pressure to gain one, but I can more than understand the ‘group loyalty’ feeling that comes with it. I didn’t watch the Cup Final on Saturday, but for once I rejoice in it as part of the same ‘team’ as Doctor Who: high ratings for both gave ITV1 its lowest Saturday audience share of its entire 51 years. Deleted; relegated; – or, as across the afternoon its share of those watching fell to a mere 4.7% (behind BBC2), political readers will understand that ITV1 lost its deposit.

Across the whole day it managed just 11.8% of viewers to BBC1’s 36.4% (though both the football and Doctor Who hit well above that). The football averaged about six and a half million viewers, with over eleven million at its height, while the return of the Cybermen to Doctor Who was watched by an average of over eight and a half million viewers, peaking at nine and a half. ITV1’s top-rating programme crawled in at under four million. Though ITV spokespeople have called it a “blip” due to the Cup Final, it’s just three weeks since their third worst Saturday ever – on which the Doctor Who Victorian werewolf episode Tooth and Claw received over nine million viewers, one of the ten highest-rating programmes of the year so far – and the previous couple of records broken were just last year, when the likes of Live 8 and (again) Doctor Who left viewers deserting ITV1 in droves.

I’m reminded of last year’s Dead Ringers ‘ITV1 continuity announcer’ when, following ITV1’s highly promoted ‘answer to Doctor WhoCelebrity Wrestling falling below two million viewers, an eager voice invited viewers to watch Celebrity Coffin-Nail, where z-list celebrities would take turns to hammer the nails in ITV’s coffin.

I know it’s unseemly to rejoice in such a rout of a defeated enemy, but it’s satisfying, no? I remember when Doctor Who was being hammered in the ratings instead of the third-most-watched show on TV, and while it’s not quite ‘seeing the Tories being thrashed at last in 1997’, at least this time my side are winning rather than just the others losing. I’m also taking the opportunity quickly, as the BBC are doing their best to stuff up the Doctor Who audience next week. The high ratings so far have been a particular miracle when you consider that usually the best way to torpedo a programme is to muck about with its timeslot, so people don’t know when to tune in for it: in five weeks so far, Doctor Who has been shown at four different times (7.15, 7.20, 7.00 and 7.23 on Saturday, held back from 7.00 because of extra time in the Cup Final).

This Saturday, Doctor Who is to be broadcast at 6.35.

Unlike last week, the BBC’s not even promoting it with trailers that might inform the potential audience that if you tune in to see the next episode at the same time the last one started you’ll have just missed the whole thing. Last Saturday’s delay helpfully meant that BBC3 had to knock back their tie-in programme Doctor Who Confidential (goodness knows what they filled the space with, and they still managed to start it before the main show had quite finished) and BBC4’s further tie-in programme Machine Men just started anyway, meaning it was half-done before most of its audience turned over. Kudos, though, to them for doing a documentary on robots as an excuse to promote Cybermen and their own A For Andromeda, both of which are jolly good but neither of which are robots ;-)

My main hope for audiences coming back anyway is that they’ll have been so excited by Saturday’s Rise of the Cybermen that they’ll make to the effort to check the time for the concluding episode, The Age of Steel. If you missed Saturday’s, it’s repeated on BBC3 this Friday night, and though I’ve rarely been all that sold on the emotionless man-machine hybrid Cybermen, they bowled me over. Very well-written, very well-acted by lots of familiar faces, very well-directed with an atmosphere of building menace, though for me it’s often the music that does it, and here the score comes in to great effect at two memorable points. One is as the homeless are led away for the brutal operations that will convert them into Cybermen, over a sinister montage of industrial piping shots (the director’s trademark) the overseer plays ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ to drown out the screams, which is memorably horrible and makes me glad I’d not seen it before the dentist last week. The other is building up to the climax, as the newly created Cybermen go on the march, where they not only look terrific but have a stirring theme made up of a remorseless thump overscored with a sinuous, almost oriental melody. This leads up to a particularly pitiless cliffhanger; for once, there was no ‘NEXT TIME…’ trailer in the credits to reassure you that our heroes will be running around next week, and while I’m usually unimpressed by the sort of tantalising end where the monsters declaim ‘Destroy them next week,’ this took pains to have already eliminated the usual get-outs. The cavalry aren’t coming – they turned up, their guns were useless against Cybermen, and now they’re surrounded too; and the Doctor isn’t going to talk his way out of it, because he’s already tried that and failed, too. I'm on tenterhooks for Saturday, and desperately avoiding finding out what happens next.

You might also have noticed that the rather nice Mickey appears as near naked as they could show on a Saturday tea-time, meaning that despite Rose being called “naked” a few weeks ago when a t-shirt and jeans weren’t sufficiently Victorian, it’s all the male TARDIS travellers since the series came back last year that have actually been stripped in the show…

Update: woo hoo! The final viewing figures boosted Rise of the Cybermen from over 8.6 million viewers to more than 9.2 million, a 44% share of those watching at the time. It was the sixth most-watched programme of the week on any channel… A chart placing which Doctor Who has only bettered once before, and that was in 1975. Gosh. Oh, and ITV1 stayed at the bottom.


Muppet Arms Revisited – Red and Blue Tories

Given my reckoning that the Labour vote’s about as low as it can go, Andy Darley has responded “Oh, I dunno - they haven't reached the point that the Tories did, where they poisoned an entire generation of people like us from ever voting for them ever again, under any circumstances…” – which in some ways is true, though my point is that, with all they’ve already done, I don’t know what they could do that would be worse. Iraq ‘poisoned’ quite a lot of people from voting Labour, even if it’s becoming a less impassioned issue for many voters, and many people regard them as arrogant and crooked, while I feel ill every time another minister announces something that in many other countries would smack of fascism (surely Labour is ‘poisoning’ a great number of liberal-minded voters, yet I fear many of them will be too fair and understanding to the authoritarian gits for their own good). Yet they’re still flatlining ‘only’ at about the level they got in 1983, and surely they’d have to do something unthinkably calamitous to go any lower?

Mind you, as you say, it’s happened to other parties before now, and not just generationally. One of my most vivid by-election memories (even more than dogs sinking their teeth into me) is canvassing at Christchurch, where a tiny old lady listened as I asked politely if we could rely on her vote. “Well, I’ve always voted Tory,” she began hesitantly, then leaped up to seize me by the shoulders and shake me, “but you’ve got to get the bastards out!” And the counter-argument to Labour’s arrogant ‘Iraq is fading as an issue’ is that I remember Conrad Russell telling me that, as he was wrestling with a move from Labour to Liberal half a century after the First World War , his father told him that “he could never vote for the party of the Somme”.

In many ways that Tory ‘poison’ is still Labour’s greatest asset. The Tory recovery, limited and South-dominated as it is, is dangerous to us not just because it directly threatens our seats – in the kind of hand-to-hand fighting we’re now seeing, I don’t think the Tories should be anywhere near as confident of Lib Dem defeats as they pretend to be – but because people in the Labour seats in which we hope to progress still hate and fear the Tories.

Even fighting a safe Labour seat in 2001, where Mrs Thatcher at the height of her success hadn’t come within a mile of winning and when I was challenging in a year that the Tories were about to suffer their second-worst defeat since 1832, half the voters I spoke to that would have liked to have voted for me said they couldn’t because they were afraid the Tories could get in. It’s a spin that every Labour canvasser, candidate and Cabinet Minster uses shamelessly, and it works. I don’t have any answer to it – save that “It’s a lie! It’s a lie! It’s a great big lie!” – but if there’s a strategic message the Lib Dems need to work on, it’s an answer to that fear of the Tories now that they’re slightly on the up. I don’t think they threaten our seats anywhere near as badly as most commentators say, but they threaten our progress against Labour terribly.

Ironically, then, a large part of the answer to ‘Why didn’t Labour do even worse?’ must be that everyone knew the Tories were starting to do better, and unhappy Labour voters were simply too scared to leave the fold. I can’t see Labour doing much worse soon because I can’t see the Tories collapsing back soon to their 1990s nadir.

I’ll go back to thinking about positive suggestions for what Lib Dems could do next. I have three swirling round in my head for later, particularly on a party I've not mentioned yet…

Oh, and good luck to the lovely Andy that his poorly blog might be up and running again soon. I like to read it.



A typical morning in the Wilcock-Flowers-Dome household; all is quiet and still save my post-nocturnal groans and sneezes, the hissing of the shower and the intellectual strains of the Today Programme (“And now, a skateboarding duck”).

Suddenly the most dreaded words known to the morning are heard – even worse than “Jack Straw after eight o’clock” – that “it’s time for Thought For the Day with Anne Atkins”. Adrenalin gives me instant energy (note to ed: can we get that effect from The Six Million-Dollar Man here?) and within seconds the radio is off and a CD is spinning. Yes, I always think it should be The Imperial March, but Madonna was on one of the piles to hand and “I don’t wanna hear, I don’t wanna know… I heard it all before and I can’t take it any more” seemed appropriate to crank up loud to drown out the brain-dead bigot emanating from the bathroom, where my shower-trapped beloved was unable to reach out and stop her.

Urrggghhh. Adrenalin worn off now, and reaching for a Lemsip in lieu of a bottle of healthy Vitex (TM).

I wonder if our neighbours have spotted the pattern? “They’re normally quite considerate about noise – loud music at ten to eight? It must be another Anne Atkins morning.”

I look forward to the day when intelligent design of radio / music players can automatically switch at the words ‘Thought For the Day’ to a suitably satirical alternative tune.

Perhaps they could do it with the sports news too.

Monday, May 15, 2006


Never Watch the Full Stops

While The Avengers regularly hits the top ten of BBC4 ratings (such as they are), their reliable chart-topper has been the intelligent and amusing Stephen Fry not-so-much-a-panel-game-more-a-way-of-life QI, so it’s no surprise that – with QI off the air and their Avengers run having finished last week – the channel is gagging for a replacement. From the saturation advertising, Julian Fellowes’ Never Mind the Full Stops was clearly meant to be it. It’s not. With Ming doing superbly on Question Time also last Thursday night, we recorded the new show to watch later. It was our sacrifice so you needn’t.

It’s difficult to express just how badly this ghastly train wreck of a show failed. I first saw Julian Fellowes in the superb 1987 drama Knights of God – I was about the only one who watched it – set in an authoritarian Britain of, oh, about now, I think, where the charismatic leader had a messiah complex and was slowly going off his trolley while Mr Fellowes played the ambitious number two who was desperate for the top job and finally broke into open rebellion. Put this way it sounds like an everyday story of New Labour folk, but this one was set after a North-South civil war and the religious fascists in charge were at least played by more compelling actors (it turned out everything was saved by the monarchy, but I still think it’s terrific. How’s that for a recommendation? I must look out my blurry, ancient VHS copies taken from even more blurry, ancient Betamax copies sometime, or hope for a DVD). Anyway, after the scheming Brother Hugo, Mr Fellowes went on to play a succession of slimy, scheming Tories (you may remember him as not-Reggie-Maudling-goodness-me-no in Our Friends in the North or his rather more sympathetic laird in Monarch of the Glen), then surprised us all by writing an Oscar-winning script, making a new career as a charming raconteur and coming out as, gosh, a real and active Tory, when I’d assumed his diabolically effective caricatures marked him as a secret Marxist.

On the face of it, then, Julian Fellowes sounds a good candidate to host a prissy, intellectual but entertaining BBC4 show. My pedantic soul was delighted by all the trailers pointing out punctuation mistakes and misspellings, and I popped the programme on with high hopes. Conducting our post-mortem later, Richard and I found we’d both realised something was wrong before the first word was spoken. A set drenched in almost unbroken scarlet (glowing incandescently and with the occasional gold highlight) was clearly meant to be kitsch but looked simply horrible. Richard said ‘brothel,’ while I thought ‘kebab’. Either way, it wasn’t attractive. Even Julian’s chair was all wrong – a baroque metallic monstrosity reminiscent of Tim’s chair from The Goodies but barely rising above his back, making it too gaudy to be tasteful but not big enough to be glamorous.

Once Mr Fellowes and guests Ned Sherrin, Carol Thatcher, Janet Street-Porter and David Aaronovitch opened their mouths, little improved. Julian’s script was woefully ill-suited to him, desperately wanting to be QI, but not as warm, not as funny and not as clever, with too much shovelled in as off-cuts from Have I Got News For You. His unease was so palpable that I wonder if someone had said immediately before the cameras rolled, “You do know you’re hosting a show named after a punk rock group?” “It’s time for a round called ‘Apostrophe Now’,” he announced at one point with a look of great pain. “Oh, it’s marvellous, some of the stuff I’ve got.” Too often, rather than aping Mr Fry’s smug but endearingly posh and intermittently very rude style, Mr Fellowes came across as an angry old man railing at everything – the programme began, unflatteringly, with ‘Pet hates’ – and only came across well when reacting to still more intemperate guests. “You just like the sound of your own voice…” began Janet Street-Porter at one point, laying into him, only to be disarmed by “Well, it’s true – I adore it.” “That’s because I’m an old fart” was another moment where you sensed a more engaging Julian Fellowes breaking through, with no help from the script.

The panel game itself was pitiful. Rather than come up with an amusing caption by the end, their Have I Got News For You-style task was set in a more schoolmasterly way as devising a mnemonic for that not-very-tricky word ‘arithmetic’. If you’re watching BBC4 at all, let alone at 10.30 at night, you’re probably able to spell the word anyway. The rounds progressed slowly through simple punctuation, name-dropping, buzz-words – “A few years ago, this show would have been ‘cutting edge’. But not any more, oh no” was probably an unwise line about a programme that would fit right in to 1962, minus a few mildly rude words and a hideously garish set – and the obligatory mockery of John Prescott to rewriting passages with euphemisms and cacophemisms (perhaps cacophonisms, though my 1792-page dictionary makes no guess). The latter round displayed a particularly surreal take on the English language, as while I can accept that a cacophemism is the opposite of euphemism, making words blunter and more damaging than they need be, the word euphemism was here redefined as ‘absurdly positive spin’ rather than ‘making something unpleasant more palatable by making it less meaningful’. Still, at least I learnt that a ‘caret’ is one of those little upside-down Vs to indicate you’ve omitted a word.

The final round was introduced with “We end our show as always with the quick-fire round,” raising the hideous possibility that they’d recorded half a dozen of these and were showing the best one first. After the fairly random winners were announced, Mr Fellowes turned to camera and haltingly announced that “Well, we just actually have some time…” as if we were back to live broadcasting straight from the Fifties and he’d just been told to fill in for a minute. It turned out he was actually blowing his cue to introduce some ‘amusing’ spelling mistakes pictured around the country. Admittedly, the road-painters who’d produced giant ‘SOTP’ and ‘SHCOOL’ daubings were the most entertaining things in the whole half-hour, but being mean to a restaurant that had put up a hand-lettered notice with a couple of misspellings across a couple of dozen or so words seemed, well, simply mean. Like Mr Fellowes’ chair, it wasn’t a big enough disaster to be amusing.

Don’t tune in to see what this show is like. Amateurish and hectoring when it aims to be witty and incisive, it’s not ‘so bad it’s good’ – merely shoddy. Let’s hope they get the rights to air the black and white Mrs Peel Avengers stories or the Tara King episodes soon.


Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic! Aaarrgghh (Muppet arms)!

…is the understated press and Lib Dem response to disappointing local election results, complete with another absurdly destructive bout of Leadership whingeing. Hey ho. The election results were only disappointing because we expected to make easy gains and instead found ourselves holding our own in dogfights. To those MPs whispering that Ming isn’t a widely known and popular Leader, there’s only one response (other than ‘shut the **** up’): none of our Leaders have become widely known and popular overnight, not Paddy, not Charles, and if you wanted one for the local elections you shouldn’t have ditched him. Sigh.

Charles had many qualities Ming doesn’t, but the reverse is also true, and by all accounts the party at ‘the top’ is pulling together better (despite the whispering). But it’s ludicrous to set a deadline for a Leader starved of publicity – as ours always are compared to the other two – to build a brilliant profile. In 1994 Mr Blair was a phenomenon, but that was due to an already huge media presence and being talked up by pretty much every commentator. He took a large slice of Lib Dem support overnight from which it took us nearly a decade to recover. Mr Cameron, despite a highly effective slogan in ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, six months of virtually unbroken great publicity in a mass of media cheerleading led by the BBC bias of Nick ‘Mate of Dave Cameron’ Robinson, and having taken over from an unpopular predecessor, still has several mountains to climb; people hate the Tories less than they did, but they’re still not prepared to like them much. No wonder people haven’t paid a lot of attention to Ming, but really, you need to think back to some real disasters to put ‘momentum puttering to a stop’ into perspective.

Yes, I was disappointed with the local elections, too, but I wasn’t gobsmacked. On the bright side, we’ve still got 4,700 councillors, we still beat Labour in the vote, and we still gained a council or two overall. On the downside, we said we’d make gains and didn’t, our vote slipped slightly from our best ever, we didn’t have a thrilling national message (James Graham, another activist turned a bit of an armchair general like me this year, makes some good points on narrative, though is rather more pessimistic) and, obviously, we’re still rubbish at spin.

The Tories still don’t have it all their own way. We made about as many gains from them as they took from us, their vote share’s still much lower than they need, and their strategy of breaking back into urban areas where they were embarrassed by having not a single seat has largely failed – if not completely, as I know from my new Tory councillors. David Cameron was so rattled when the interviewer tried to spoil his triumphal appearance on the next morning’s Today Programme by mentioning the Tories’ loss of Richmond to the Lib Dems by an even bigger majority that he had to make up counter-jabs that the Tories had cost us control of Kingston and Sutton. Neither of which were true. Today being not much cop, obviously, he wasn’t called on fictitious results, but it’s a tendency to watch for; he displays a marked tendency to fall apart under tricky questioning (though not ‘hostile’ questioning, which plays to his ‘nice’ pose).

The real story for me was how Labour held up, on a night that was terrible for them rather than suicidal (though the strategy of ‘blame everything on the previous fortnight’ doesn’t seem to have fooled anyone), partly perhaps because of overambitious targeting meaning we were pushed back in areas where we might have held our own or made just modest gains.

So I wouldn’t call the Lib Dem result ‘consolidation’. It looks from a distance like trench warfare – many shots fired but leaving both sides stuck in the same positions – but, if I may switch tasteless war analogies, it seems we were really stuck in dogfights round the country, hard-fought, close-quarters and with uneven casualties on all sides. For fifteen years or so we’ve had the relatively positive terrain of one or other of our opponents being on the slide and picking up at their expense. I reckon Labour’s as low as they’ll go, and the Tories’ll take a while for the shine to come off. That means holding our nerve for probably harder work and more limited short-term ambitions, and that the party nationally has to come up with something easy and persuasive to make people think, “Oh, that’s what the Lib Dems are for, and I like it.”

Of course, we’ve been looking for the last thing for about a decade, but that does mean we’ve come up with some goodies along the way that we might rediscover rather than starting from scratch. More on that story later.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Let the Fun Begin

Funland begins tonight at 10.30 on BBC2. After airing last year on BBC3, it was nominated for a BAFTA last weekend – Bleak House beat it to Best Drama Serial, but it was an impressive debut. It’s disturbing but very funny, and every episode starts with someone in a gorilla costume plummeting to their death from Blackpool Tower. How can you resist? If you want one reason to watch, it’s Judy Parfitt – a fantastic actress given the role of her life as the most monstrous and cunning villain. Some might notice there are attractive people with their kit off, too.

Back to the BAFTAs, and wasn’t it fantastic to see Doctor Who win Best Drama Series, with two related awards besides? The best it had previously done was, as far as I can make out, to be beaten at the height of its brilliance – the dark fusion of horror, wit and religion of 1976-7 – by Noel Edmonds, and that was only for a children’s BAFTA. I hope that means the sneering’s been given a good kick goodbye.

At the risk of sounding a heel, though, I’d like to argue against the win for an actress who was not just excellent in the role she won for but as a memorable Doctor Who guest star last year. So, much as I liked Bleak House’s Anna Maxwell-Martin, I’d have given Best Actress to someone else. Fellow nominee Gillian Anderson almost stole that show, but I love a great villain. Just as Charles Dance should have won Best Actor for his magnificent Mr Tulkinghorn but wasn’t even nominated, Funland’s Judy Parfitt didn’t get a nomination for Best Actress but should have walked it (if you’ll forgive the pun). In the year Doctor Who finally returned, her character Mercy Woolf was the most fabulous monster I saw on TV. I was gripped by many of Funland’s seedy thrills, but Mercy is awesome. Tune in and watch her.

Just don’t watch with Mother.


Questions You Don’t Want to Hear…

…From your coach driver as he takes your ticket.

“Are you going to Stockport?”
“Do you know the way?”

I gave the directions. We got there.
I didn’t get a discount, mind.

I’m gradually becoming less of a zombie and able to blog for a bit again, thanks to that trip last week. Yes, some might say 200 miles is a bit far for even an NHS dentist, but I’ve been with them since I was four, and besides, it gave me a chance to see my Dad for his birthday and my Grandad in hospital. One out of three being fun wasn’t bad… Anyway, the short version is that a few days ago I had two fillings and the infected tooth taken out – though that under-describes a process that took well over an hour. I'm now back from visiting the family, and now only knocked out by a cold rather than pain or painkillers (I never made it to Leyton on polling day – keeled over on the tube, struggled home and am still feeling guilty about the councillor who lost his seat by a handful of votes) but if you’re not the squeamish sort, I’ve recorded all the gory details elsewhere.

I’ve been trying to catch up with other Lib Dem blogs and spotted several things I want to hold forth on. After a bit of flippancy, I’ll dive in to some of the debates, if a bit late. In my absence, I notice I’ve had a reply from Mr Luntz, though of course Millennium noticed before I did.

Oh, and how irritating is American TV channel ABC? Not only is it crammed with ghastly adverts, but it stops broadcasting on Freeview dead on 6pm – or, today, slightly before. Which means it cut off today’s episode of schmaltzy Presidential soap Commander in Chief before it finished. Grr! Anyone know what the end was? One second Mac’s Chief of Staff Jim was half-naked, the next he was gone – we don’t even have a V-chip…

Thursday, May 04, 2006



I said I’d reveal Russell T Davies’ secret message across the new season of Doctor Who. And here it is…


Yes, we spotted it at once when, five billion years in the future on New Earth, even the slimmest human in the Universe is served by a sentient Chip, and that wasn’t a one-off. By School Reunion, there were posters up saying ‘Eat More Chips’ and it was a proven fact that eating chips makes you more intelligent (albeit when cooked in super-evolving alien fat). But what about Tooth and Claw, you ask? Well, that’s more insidious, and shows just how long Russell’s been planning this. I’m not going to talk about chips of wood, or boiled mistletoe being an early version of mushy peas, or even the werewolf eating half the cast like a bag of yummy fried tatties. No, the subliminal message was in the following episode of Doctor Who Confidential: it’s the second story of the season and there’s another documentary heavily featuring dishy director Euros Lyn, so what else could go through our heads – other than, ‘Euros! What have you done to your hair!’ – but the second story of last year’s season, also with a documentary heavily featuring dishy director Euros Lyn. And what was the final scene of that story? “I want… Can you smell chips?” asks Rose. “I want chips.” “Me too,” replies the Doctor. The association was so strong that, despite Richard just having cooked dinner, we rushed out to the chippie to supplement it. I’m telling you, it’s proof. Now I’m wondering how they’ll manage to get them into the 18th Century…

So that’s the message of Doctor Who. It’s all about the chips.

(What’s that, Millennium? ‘Torchwood’? Nonsense!)

Meanwhile, I’m trying to work out if I’m feeling so sleepy after spending yesterday tramping round busy, inner-city Hampstead and stately, picturesque Southwark with various Lib Dem candidates, or if it’s just the Very Strong Painkillers (TM) that have ‘these’ll make you drowsy, idiot’ printed on them. It’s a toughie. Still, I’m just back from the doctor’s with a new set – he wouldn’t give me the same ones I got from A&E at the weekend because they’re addictive, tsk – and am about to head out to sunny Leyton, so I have the same experiment to repeat today.

Good luck to all those lovely Lib Dems standing for election, and remember – chocolate and chips have zero calories if eaten with 15,000 FOCUS leaflets.

Monday, May 01, 2006


School Reunion (Early Draft)


SARAH: He took me to the far, far future, and –
ROSE: – And it was the end of the Earth!
(They stare at each other. Beat)

SARAH: I met this terrifying robot, but –
ROSE: – But I was the only one who realised it had feelings, too!
(They stare at each other. Beat)

SARAH: We even went to this great big space station, and then –
ROSE: – And then found ourselves back there in a different time, when we were travelling with this cute military guy too.
(They stare at each other again)

ROSE: Does the cheesy bastard take us all on the same dates, or what?

The things that pop into your head when you’re awake with toothache (again)…

Wasn’t School Reunion lovely? First Doctor Who on TV I’ve ever cried at (though I wept buckets at one of the books). I might even review it when I get a non-zombied day. Hat-tip to Simon Guerrier for the idea of an extra scene, when he solved a niggling mystery from the brilliant Tooth and Claw. But he's not the only clever one. Oh no (sleepy wink, taps nose). Coming soon: I reveal Russell's secret message across the new season of Doctor Who.

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