Friday, April 30, 2010 

Ricin, the Aryan Strike Force and the continuing delusions of the ultra far-right.

It's somewhat odd that the conviction of Nicky Davison on three counts of "possessing records useful in committing or preparing acts of terrorism" seems to be attracting more coverage than the successful prosecution of his father, Ian Davison, did. Davison senior, you might remember, had triumphed where those racially inferior jihadists had failed, managing to produce the poison ricin, which was found in a jam jar in a kitchen cupboard. Despite beating Kamel Bourgass at his own game, Davison sadly didn't reach critical mass in the media, almost certainly as a direct result of having both the wrong skin colour and presumably the wrong religion.

We do though now know just which far-right organisations Davison junior and senior were associated with, having been skirted over during Nicky's father's trial. Both Davisons were members of a tiny neo-Nazi groupuscule calling itself the Aryan Strike Force, centred around the website, currently being squatted by a Wordpress spam blog. Unfortunately there's not much in the way of archives of the site, the Wayback Machine only having caches of the forum set up there from March, April and May of 2008, none of which contain much in the way of material, with just a few threads available to browse. One of the few revelations is that the ASF thought it had struck up an alliance with the better known Racial Volunteer Force, itself a splinter from Combat 18. The RVF has an especially fetching website, and currently has an poster up advertising a gig in London at the end of May, the text appearing on top of a photograph of Rudolf Hess. One of the threads of note on the April cache is titled Enemies, and features poster AngrySoldier getting both the wrong end of the stick and carried away with himself:

Muslims......and believe me there are LOTS in my area, (Hounslow)
The jews are the most important enemy, i personally think we should take out the jews before any of our other enemies as the jews are the most dangrous

This is especially revealing of how the extreme far-right tends to think. While the likes of the BNP and the English Defence League, desperate to banish the bad old Holocaust denying days of the past increasingly focus their efforts on Muslims, those on the outer reaches who find themselves being abandoned by their former brethren continue to obsess themselves with Jews, or in what passes for modern Neo-Nazi ideology, the theory of Zionist occupied government, or ZOG for short. The prosecution in both cases claimed that one of the aims of the Aryan Strike Force was to ultimately overthrow our own ZOG, although few of the pages still available freely now formulate any such out there ideas. More their style it seems was potentially targeting left-wing and anti-racist groups, a large number of their properties being listed in a thread titled "Courtesy of the BPP".

The BPP is presumably the British People's Party, another sect of a sect of a sect, most notorious for previously having Martyn Gilleard amongst their number. Gilleard was convicted back in 2008 of having nail bombs and much the same idea of carrying out the violence which the more respectable sections of the far-right has moved away from, namely bombing mosques. Oh, and much to the BPP's embarrassment, just the 39,000 indecent images of children.

For what was such a small grouping, the Aryan Strike Force had tentacles reaching out far into the other tiny neo-Nazi sects. Arrested at the end of last year on separate offences but similar charges also relating to ASF's website were Trevor Hannington and Michael Heaton. Michael Heaton is especially notable for having been heavily active online, under the name "WIGANMIKE", as seen above, as well as off the internet with other far-right organisations. According to Edmund Standing, author of two reports on the far-right, Heaton was the leader of the British Freedom Fighters, a skinhead gang with their own piss-poor blog, not updated since January. Heaton was also formerly active on YouTube under the account NSMIKE266, according to an especially helpful post on Indymedia by Malatesta, which as well as featuring videos of his almost customary Rottweiler, also has clips from various EDL protests he presumably attended. Hannington and Heaton's arrests were noted on the Vanguard News Network forum, where Heaton had also posted under the name WIGANMIKE. In another thread commenting on the progress of the younger Davison's trial, the (slightly) more moderate right-wingers there were especially stinging in their criticism of their more boisterous brothers:

These idiots were told repeatedly by a LOT of people that they were being retards. Did they listen? No. Do they ever? No. Bunch of morons who actually did NOTHING remotely positive or conducive for the cause other than shout about killing Jews on their 'ops' - if these people didn't actually exist the state would HAVE to make them up!

These are the WW2 Fantisists which Griffin did not want in the BNP. Theres a good few of these 40 year old unemployable Mummys Boys sitting at their PC with a Kaiser's helmet at their PC'S claiming to be Aryan Warriors. You have a good few of these Numpties on SFB.

As before, it's difficult to tell just how dangerous the Davisons actually were. One report in the Times claimed that the jar of ricin in the Davison household had sat there for two years. Whether he was truly preparing to go from fulminating on the internet with other like minds to launching attacks with pipe bombs and the ricin he had, or rather doing what other far-right militants have claimed, namely to be preparing for the inevitable race war, is equally uncertain. The conviction of Nicky Davison, simply for possessing the usual array of cock-eyed, out of date and more dangerous to the owner than anyone else explosives manuals, including the Anarchist Cookbook (the reports say Anarchist's Cookbook while the infamous widely distributed book is the Anarchist Cookbook; is there a difference?) which is still freely available from Amazon, while always likely, is especially shaky. His claim to be acting out of allegiance to his father didn't convince the jury, but sounds reasonable. Undeniable however is one of the messages which he left on the ASF forum:

"I know my aims. I don't care if I am fighting an unwinnable battle.

"I would rather die fighting than let the scum of the earth walk over us."

All depends on whether he was truly prepared to put those words into action.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010 

Scum-watch: Tits out for the Human Rights Act!

It's long been clear that far from opposing the Human Rights Act because it's either a criminals or terrorists' charter as it has repeatedly claimed, the real reason for the Sun's antipathy for the HRA has been down to its potential to affect the paper's, and indeed the entire tabloid media's business model through Article 8 and how those clauses have been subsequently interpreted by judges.

Even while it's been their excesses and lies that have repeatedly resulted in their appearances in the courts, the Sun and its parent company News International have despite loathing it, always been prepared to use the HRA for their own hypocritical ends. The Times was in fact the very first to test it out after it was enshrined in UK law, a case which it won. More recently the highly esteemed chief lawyer for the News of the World Tom Crone objected bitterly to Tom Watson appearing on the culture, media and sport committee grilling the NotW over the phone-hacking at the paper because of a then on-going libel battle between him and the Sun, claiming that the HRA precluded him from appearing. And today, finally, the paper's biggest assets made clear how the HRA meant they had to be seen if not heard:

That's right, the HRA means that page 3 girls have the right to get their tits out and there's nothing that those interfering politicians can do about it! The same "hated" piece of legislation leading to
"madness that is horrifying the country" is according to the four brains on display the only thing that stands between them and their being forced to put some clothes on! Can't these young women see that the HRA is an existential threat to the paper? Don't they know how it puts the rights of criminals above those of victims? How could they possibly defend a piece of legislation that the Conservatives are committed to repealing? Are the Tories going to put in their British Bill of Rights (sic) a specific clause which means that no spoilsport politician will ever be able to stop glamour models from expressing themselves in the only way they know how? It's the ultimate terrifying vista of a hung parliament; no more breasts in a newspaper. How will the Sun ever be able to balance its opposition to the HRA now?

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010 

The logical conclusion of Labour's bigotry.

There's only one real consolation that Labour activists especially can take from today's unparalleled clusterfuck: that Brown didn't say something much much worse about the instantly famous Gillian Duffy, as doubtless he has about other people he's met while on the campaign trail once they've gone, and as almost certainly every politician and canvasser has. In what seemed like a real time episode of The Thick of It, except without the jokes or pathos, we went in a matter of hours from an average Labour voter being branded a "bigoted woman" to the prejudiced pensioner in question calling upon the services of a PR firm to handle the demands of the media.

Most bewildering of all was that the 5-minute long conversation Brown had with Duffy wasn't anywhere near the disaster which he felt it had been. He in fact handled her questions well, only slipping up on the immigration question which he didn't attempt to properly answer, but then Duffy's observation that

You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're saying that you're... all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?

was not exactly the most eloquent of sentiments. It was, to use the horrendous political terminology for a event which isn't stage-managed, thought through and thoroughly vetted, approaching "genuine". The real poser, for me at least, is just why Brown felt it had gone so badly; if anything, it wouldn't have been used for the reason that it was well within his comfort zone. Without wanting to descend into amateur psychoanalysis, if Brown is currently that uncertain, that incapable of knowing when he's coming across well, how is he managing to keep going with the minituae of campaigning in general? Is this the real reason why he seems to be spending almost all of his time visiting schools and other "neutral" places where he's unlikely to find any views more forcefully expressed than those of Mrs Duffy's?

To judge by the completely unscientific method of the BBC's brief canvassing of views in Rochdale itself, this might not be the catastrophe that Brown, Labour and the media think it is. If Duffy's views actually had been bigoted, then who knows, Brown might even have gained some legitimacy from saying so, even if it wasn't to her face. If Blair had commented in a similar fashion about Sharon Storer, the most obvious recent comparison, then you could have also have understood it more. That was the kind of haranguing, which while cathartic for Storer, was something that Blair himself could do almost nothing personally about, and which The Thick of It satirised effectively in the episode in which Hugh Abbott was confronted by the woman demanding to know whether he'd ever had to clean up his own mother's piss. This though was just the average sentiment of an ordinary person (sorry Justin), someone you would have imagined that Brown has talked to repeatedly over the length of the campaign. He might well have felt the same afterwards, and said much the same, and it could have just been the build-up and frustration of repeating himself over and over again. He might well have felt, like Hugh Abbott, that ordinary voters are sometimes the equivalent of an alien species; the Westminster bubble can do that to a politician, especially a prime minister or minister that doesn't do much in the way of constituency work. But after three weeks?

In a way, this has been Brown and Labour's downfall in a way much more than just the obvious. While the view that you can't talk about immigration without being branded a racist or a bigot has always been nonsense, as we've talked about little else for decades as needs to be repeatedly pointed out, this has been a government that has deliberately time and again gone out of its way to appease the right-wing consensus on immigration. We've had not only David Blunkett talking of local services being "swamped", but the open equation of those seeking asylum both with criminals and with "illegal" migration, as well as open collusion with the likes of the Sun over "asylum madness" campaigns. It has to be remembered that the wave of eastern European migration that we've had since 2004 did not happen, as the tabloids would have us believe by design, but by mistake: the estimate of only 14,000 coming to work here was based on the assumption that all European countries would open their borders at the same time, only for all other EU member states apart from the UK, Ireland and Sweden to delay doing so. Why didn't Brown, instead of glibly asserting that the same number had left the country when they haven't, make the case for migration, not just in the crude economic sense, but in the terms that it has enriched both our nation and culture to such a degree that it has become completely unmeasurable? By not defending immigration Labour has connived in exactly the truly bigoted Little Englander attitude which says the country is full and that the drawbridge must be immediately slammed shut. It has reaped what it has sown.

It's not then going to about how Brown was two-faced, doing exactly what Labour have been alleging David Cameron has been doing in its adverts when the camera isn't on, but rather on how he's proved the point once and for all that you can't say anything about immigration, even something relatively mild, without a politician privately regarding you as a terrible bigot. This is going to be framed in the terms of what the "little" person thinks against the behemoth which is both the establishment and the Westminster consensus, which is laughably what that very pillar of it, the right-wing tabloid press, has always tried to set it as. It's what the chattering classes, the Guardianistas and those who will never feel the effects of it have imposed on the rest of the nation, and at last the bare truth has been exposed. It's going to result in the last seven days of the campaign doubtless being centred around the immigration question, with the Sun especially pouring that old favourite, the bucket of shit, all over Brown's head.

If the days events had ended with Brown, head in hands on Radio 2 realising what he'd done, it might just have been salvageable. Instead we have Brown emerging from Duffy's house, grinning from ear to ear, looking like a mixture of Richard Nixon and Chamberlain declaring that he had a piece of paper with Herr Hitler's signature on it that meant peace in our time, delivering only the second most insincere statement of the day (Alastair Campbell's blog sadly doesn't seem to have permalinks), about being a "penitent sinner". Making confident predictions about this election has so far proved to be a fool's game, but it's difficult to shake the feeling that Gordon Brown might just have sealed the Labour party's third place finish.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010 

Hung parliaments and personality based campaigns.

If this general election has been all about personalities rather than policies, as an increasingly desperate Labour party spent much of the weekend and yesterday touring the self-same studios focusing on the personalities to make their point, then the biggest one of all also made his first major mistake of the campaign.

The reasons for why Nick Clegg first gave the impression that he wouldn't work with a Labour party that came third in the share of the vote, later clarifying and making clear that he instead couldn't do a deal with a Labour party where Gordon Brown continued as the prime minister were hardly ignoble. As a hung parliament looks increasingly likely as the rise in support for Clegg's party holds, and as tactical voters mull over just who to vote for in either an attempt to get Labour out or keep the Tories out, there was always a clamour and also a case for the Liberal Democrats to give an indication as to who they would go into a coalition with, what their conditions would be, and just who would potentially get or lose a specific job. The danger inherent in doing so however was that it made Nick Clegg look like he was already doing the cliched measuring up of curtains for 10 Downing Street, all on the back of nothing more than a short series of potentially dodgy opinion polls. By also giving the impression that he couldn't deal with a Labour party that came third, he doubtless turned off many of those fleeing to the party as a left alternative to Labour who would never countenance the Lib Dems jumping into bed with David Cameron.

Understandable as it was, surely what Clegg should be pushing for is to win outright, as outlandish as that still seems. While by all means think about and drop hints on just what you would do if the hung parliament becomes reality, the time for the actual decisions to be made and to categorically rule one party in or out is on May the 7th. It also provided both Labour and the Conservatives with a wonderful opportunity to score points, the Conservatives on how Clegg was already going to stitch up power behind the scenes in an unaccountable back-room deal, Labour with how a vote for Clegg would be by proxy a vote for Cameron.

As desirable as a hung parliament remains, especially as an alternative to a Tory majority and with the potential for proportional representation then to be brought in to put right the unfairness built into the current system, and as deeply unconvincing as the attacks on it by Cameron and sections of the right-wing press have been (today's page 3 girl was vexed by the very possibility) it's equally important not to fetishise it as a panacea. If it happens, it almost certainly is going to result in some appointments and deals which those currently so vociferously in support of it are going to find difficult to take. While it's nonsense that the markets will take fright, as they're convinced that regardless of what happens the cuts they'll demand will take place, it does run the risk of falling apart spectacularly, especially when we have so little recent experience of coalition government. A second election, which you have a sneaking suspicion that the Tories would love to be able to force in the event of them winning the largest number of seats, could yet be the ultimate result and is a depressing thing to behold, almost certainly to be fought around one issue with a derisory turnout to go with it.

Away from the surmising, isn't it curious how Labour are so convinced that if the broadcasters decided to focus on policies rather than three white men that they would suddenly be fighting a far more effective campaign? After all, hasn't that been Labour's campaign plan? Most of Brown's time has been focused, not on making speeches or policy launches, but on those homily, down to earth visits to community centres, workplaces or even supporter's houses, all thoroughly stage-managed, and all without any apparent real connection to winning votes. As one worker posed when questioned by Jonathan Freedland, "I can see what we got out of it, but what did he get out of it?" Even more curious is that the policies themselves are either so weak, so similar to that of the Conservatives or just a continuation of what we've already got used to. Labour's main plea for support, that they got all the decisions right on the recession is by the same standard, also the main reason not to support them: that it was the decision to bail out the banks in the particular way Brown and Darling did that created the massive deficit which so few of the parties have been prepared to talk about.

And as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has had to point out, no party has even begun to come anywhere near to explaining just where the cuts are going to have to fall and how deep to bring the deficit down to the levels promised over the life of a parliament. While Labour will take some of the blame, whether in power come May the 7th or not, and while the banks also will, it's going to be those administering the cuts that are going to have to take the most. As pointed out before and by so many others, this has always been an election that it might be better to lose, which only puts into perspective just how badly it seems all three main parties still want power, for whatever sake. The Liberal Democrats, despite often assumed having the most to gain from proportional representation, probably have the most to actually lose: after all, why vote Liberal Democrat in a system where protest votes and tactical voting are no longer necessary? The nightmare for those on the left is that after five years of austerity under a Lib-Lab coalition, with a proportional system now in place, the Tories romp home and form a government with support from UKIP and others which doesn't put a Cameron-type gloss on their policies. We might, after everything, still want to be careful what we wish for.

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Monday, April 26, 2010 

In which I get my head cut off (or: the Pope, that memo and religion).

It's probably got something to do with the Private Eye-style "immature" satire which, when done well, amuses me so much, but I found the leaked memo from the Foreign Office on what the Pope could do here on his state visit to be highly amusing. The less knee-jerk inclined commentators such as Jack Valero thought it was simply "a joke that has gone wrong", and that surely was what it was meant to be, a joke, written on a Friday afternoon which nonetheless got passed around Whitehall and eventually leaked.

Why then would then "Foreign Office forces" later brief that it was in fact that dreaded thing, "blue sky thinking", "trying to think the unthinkable so they could identify everything that was thinkable"? It almost looks as if this is an attempt, rather than admit that it was a group of junior civil servants larking around on a lazy Friday afternoon as doubtless happens in offices the length and breadth of the country in both the private and public sector, and for which those responsible have been demoted or reprimanded, to instead pretend it was serious and that time and expense at the cost of the taxpayer was not being wasted. Everyone (or at least almost everyone) can appreciate a joke, yet a joke stops being funny when it turns out that rather than acting like idiots those responsible actually are idiots, which is what the Foreign Office seems to be attempting to claim.

In any event, which is the more ridiculous? A man elected by men claiming to be the flying spaghetti monster's representative on Earth, whose utterances on faith and morals are meant to be infallible, or that the current incumbent might elect on his visit to perform a few forward rolls with children or launch his own brand of condoms? All the Foreign Office needs to do now, in these times of desperately needed equal opportunity offence, is issue a memo on how when the Hidden Imam arrives for his state visit he could open an art exhibition dedicated to images of himself, or alternatively crack a few jokes about Muhammad's predilection for 9-year-old girls; get Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to preside over a hog roast; and lastly urge the Dalai Lama to open the new Chinese embassy (bit weak this, always difficult to get gags flying about both Hindus and Buddhists) and we'll be err, not laughing.

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Saturday, April 24, 2010 

Bass music Saturday.

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Friday, April 23, 2010 

The second obligatory debate post.

Yesterday's debate was clearly inferior to the first, both in the questions posed and the substance offered by all three of the leaders of the main parties (transcript PDF). Maybe it was partially down to the novelty of the first having worn off, but even though both David Cameron and Gordon Brown had clearly improved on their showing in the first debate, the event was hardly electrifying. It did have its moments, especially when Brown told Clegg to get real over Trident, which was less disingenuous than one of the other lines he had noted down to use, and when Cameron did his usual unrighteous indignation act at Labour misrepresenting Tory policy, which always seems to make him far angrier than anything else, especially when they are far more worthwhile things to be furious about, and lastly when Clegg seemed to be almost flirting with the woman who posed the question on political reform, but for the most part it dragged along.

Part of the blame for that surely has to be laid at Sky's door. For what was meant to be at least partially a foreign policy debate, two questions, one on Europe and one hypothetical about what we might do if there was another "multinational operation to remove al-Qaida ... from a failed state" was pathetic. Were there seriously no other questions posed on foreign policy which were worthy of discussion, such as their stance on maintaining the "special relationship", on foreign aid, on Israel/Palestine, on Russia, on energy supplies, on African development, on tackling violent extremism, on the exporting, promotion and collusion with torture and rendition, even on North Korea or Iran? Instead we covered ground which had already been gone over in the first debate, both on immigration, with the question posed naturally by an immigrant as seems to be required now, and on political reform. Important topics both, but not ones which couldn't have been sacrificed for questions on what the debate was actually meant to be on.

Not that Sky seemed to have any interest in even pretending to be impartial. I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed just how much the camera seemed to love David Cameron in contrast to both Clegg and Brown, but it was becoming so obvious at one point that it was getting beyond a joke. Time and again the shot focused on Cameron head on, slowly zooming in as he made his point, with even the director presumably realising he was over doing it by then also giving Clegg and Brown the same treatment in the last half hour. It may just have been how the cameras were set up and how the three were positioned, but Brown seemed to get the brunt of the unflattering shots, with him often being shown in profile, his jowls dangling and his crumpled, cavernous face being emphasised, while Cameron's jokes resulted in cutaways to laughing audience members, despite Brown getting by far the biggest laugh of the night with his polarising line about the other two squabbling like his children at bath time. Then there was Adam Boulton, a far less effective moderator than Alastair Stewart, whose smugness when asking Nick Clegg about his appearance on the front of the Telegraph, likely to have been a breach of the debate rules, was insufferable. The only thing Clegg and Brown can take is that the camera did at least still see just how unhappy Cameron looked at times when not answering a question, grimacing and almost certainly not enjoying the event, even if his overall performance was better than before.

Despite not gaining the clear victory that he did last week, Clegg just needed to do well again to keep his party's profile high, and even if he took up positions on occasion which were inadvisable, such as defending the EU on the grounds of cooperation on crime and repeating the nonsense which is that by being in Afghanistan we're somehow preventing attacks here, he still stood firm on Trident and an amnesty for illegal immigrants, making the obvious point that you can't possibly deport 900,000 people even if you knew where they lived. He came out of it looking again like a real alternative, and when the polls suggest that they could even win the largest share of the vote, that's all that was being asked of him. Cameron did better, but nowhere near as strong as his sessions at prime minister's questions have on occasion been, and again banged on endlessly about the jobs tax while mentioning very little of the policies actually listed in his manifesto, only bringing up the "big society" in his closing statement. Brown defied his unpopularity by either drawing level in most polls or only being a short distance behind the others, and even if he plumbed the depths on occasion, especially in accusing Clegg of "anti-Americianism", he's standing firm and doing far better than many predicted. It remains Cameron that's lagging behind the others in expectations, and while he has not been "found out" or shown to be shallow, the Tories must continue to disappointed in his failing to rise above one leader of the past and one upstart as they have so often been depicted.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010 

Media empires and the rise of the Liberal Democrats.

Very occasionally an incident takes place which tells you absolutely everything about the organisation which those involved represent. When James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks decided yesterday to storm into the offices of the Independent to remonstrate with editor Simon Kelner over a series of fairly innocuous adverts which the newly relaunched paper had been running, which involved the legend "Rupert Murdoch won't decide this election. You will" it can hardly fail to illustrate not just the self-importance and arrogance of the pair, but also the power which the likes of News International can and will wield if you deign to step even slightly out of line.

Their justification for confronting Kelner concerns the old Fleet Street rule that dog doesn't bite dog, and that proprietors especially are meant to be off limits. In practice, this rule is nonsense, and always has been: newspapers attack each other on a regular basis, especially if one publishes a piece felt to be overly critical or which hits too close to the bone. There might well be separate "non-aggression" pacts between the likes of the Mail and Express, and there was a wonderful example of newspapers closing ranks when the former executive chairman of News International Les Hinton phoned round all the other titles asking them not to cover Rebekah Brooks' (nee Wade) separation from Ross Kemp, but for the most part, and especially highlighted by the Guardian's coverage of the phone-hacking at the News of the World, while it isn't a free-for-all, testy criticism is regularly made.

What then did Murdoch and Brooks think they were doing? Did they seriously expect to just waltz onto a paper's editorial floor, berate the editor in strong language, with Murdoch alleged to have shouted "[W]hat are you fucking playing at?" and for none of the hacks that witnessed this to not instantly get on the phone to other titles? NI and the Independent have, predictably, made no comment, but then they didn't need to. This was, as Murdoch's biographer Michael Wolff has it, one way for empires to end. What was a mild advert for anyone else, pointing out the obvious, was for a former editor of the Sun, the paper that claims to follow its readers' views and not enforce its own upon them, the kind of truth which couldn't go without a response.

The empire symbolism is even more pertinent when it comes to the uniform right-wing press smearing and attacks on Nick Clegg this morning. Here is an entire section of the press, fully behind either the Tories or small c conservative in nature, all deciding that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats need to be brought down to size after a week in which they've threatened to bring the old two-party system crashing down. A press, whose true level of influence has always been difficult to ascertain, and all increasingly having to follow rather than lead as a new media which no one can control lets loose, which knows full well that if the polls become reality in two weeks then they're in a place which they haven't experienced in half a century, having little to no control on one of the major parties of government, that simply can't afford or allow that to happen. And this isn't just about their favoured masters not strolling to victory as they had predicted and hoped for, but in the case of the Sun it comes down to their personal dignity and decision to back the Tories so early; it comes down to Brooks and Murdoch personally persuading Murdoch senior to back Cameron, to the Sun always backing the winner while under Murdoch ownership. The humiliation of the Sun especially if Cameron doesn't get his majority is going to be total, and they will get the blame just as they claimed the victory for Major's win in 1992. That the support for the Tories has dropped ever since the Sun came out for Cameron is a happy coincidence more than being the reason, but it's one the paper must be incredibly touchy about.

Who knows whether there was the hand of Andy Coulson behind some of this morning's front pages, as the Prince of Darkness himself suggested, who knows whether, despite the denials, Murdoch junior and Brooks were at the offices of the Mail to see someone other than Kevin Beatty, what we do know is that the right-wing press is speaking, unusually, with one voice. What needs to be remembered is that this is the same right-wing press that has been so outraged and disgusted by various Labour attempts at smearing its opponents. Yet here we are, only two weeks from election day, and the Telegraph runs with a story which fell apart under the very slightest of examination which made incredibly damaging personal allegations against Nick Clegg, while the Daily Mail splashes on an article which Clegg wrote 8 years ago which was perfectly reasonable and which only the Mail could have any deep objection to. The Express, as usual, ties itself in knots by complaining that the Liberal Democrats want asylum seekers to work while there's 2.5 million unemployed at the same time as it bangs on alarmingly about scroungers, while the Sun at least decided to go on other policies even if they were weak beyond belief.

When even Iain Dale thinks that the campaign, coordinated or not, to get Clegg or to "kill Klegg", is likely to lead only to the opposite, and that the media is only showing itself up for what it is, then you know that it's in trouble. Never could this have been expressed better than by the Mail itself, via Alix:

There can be only one credible explanation for the utterly irrational outpouring of support for the Liberal Democrats after a mere 90 minutes of X Factor-style TV politics: the public, disgusted by the near moral bankruptcy of the last Parliament, is looking for revenge.

Yes, that's just what it is: an irrational response rather than a thoroughly rational one to two parties whose policies are almost indistinguishable, both led by individuals who were shown up by an insurgent in the first round. It couldn't possibly be a public deciding that it's time, once shown what a third party has to offer, that it's time they were given an opportunity rather than returning to the dead end of a duopoly. It couldn't possibly be an electorate deciding that it's time a fetid, overblown, parasitical and poisonous press stopped forcing their own opinion down the throats of both the readers and the public in general. Never has a part of the media been so terrified of what its own customers and readers seem to want, and how desperate they are to ensure that they turn them round before it's too late, regardless of how it's done. Empires may depend on it.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010 

The panicking right-wing press.

The greatest thing about the spike in Liberal Democrat support is just how terrified it's made the right-wing press. Yet another leader in the Sun about how you can only be sure of getting rid of Labour by voting Tory, ignoring how that's hardly going to help in places where the Tories have no chance, a front page about "Lib Dumbs", and how's about this, via Angry Mob, from the Daily Mail, clearly not panicking at how they could win the largest share of the vote:

Like the Conservatives themselves, they were convinced Cameron was going to walk it. The real reason why it's making them so nervous is apparent: they have no control whatsoever over Clegg and the party in general, and also seemingly over the public themselves. It's one thing to not be able to understand the polls, it's another to not understand why they have turned so decisively. Instead, they're flailing out in all directions, trying to hit an invisible target. If the tabloid press especially has no power and also no influence, then like the Labour party without a moral crusade, it is nothing.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010 

What the bloody hell is going on with this election?

Tom Freeman has put it most succinctly, and has probably also taken the right decision on what to do in response: what the bloody hell is going on with this election? His answer: to go outside.

Envious as I am of him, I'm not going to give in that easily. Besides, the sudden insert cliché here in Liberal Democrat support is not just bemusing, but also incredibly amusing. Not in the sense that support for them is funny, but at how both Labour and the Conservatives and their media forelock tuggers have decided to respond. The Sun, for instance, having completely ignored the Liberal Democrats for years, has just dedicated two editorials in two days to them, even if today's is ostensibly about how David Cameron is the real candidate for change. Last night the Tories scrapped their planned party political broadcast and instead went for a hastily recorded one-to-one with Dave, which seems to be an especially odd response: if anything, it looks like the personality cult which the Tories have tried to build around Cameron which is being rejected far more than actual Conservative policies. Meanwhile, Labour bloggers, or at least those sympathetic towards the party have been trying to attack the Lib Dems from all angles, whether it be over their local alliances with the Tories, Clegg's resemblance to Tim Henman, their plans to slash public services, or over how the sudden change in public mood superficially looks similar to the response to the death of Princess Diana.

Fact is that absolutely no one, even the most learned psephologists, have any clue where this insert cliche here rise in Liberal Democrat support has come from or is about. We can however make something approaching educated guesses. Certainly, this isn't just about Nick Clegg's performance on Thursday: it simply wasn't that good. It was good, it was easily the best of the three, but that alone doesn't account for a 10 point rise. Indeed, the polls suggest that the rise in Liberal Democrat support was already there before Thursday, and that can only be linked both to the party's manifesto and to the coverage it received on Wednesday. Again, the manifesto wasn't that great; it was adequate, and again, the best of the three, but not brilliant. Rather, I suspect that the initial bounce which the party received both from the manifesto, media coverage and then Nick Clegg's debate performance has been boosted dramatically by two outside forces: firstly by the sudden realisation that the Liberal Democrats could actually come somewhere other than third, or even win, something that no one, even the party themselves could believe prior to Thursday; and secondly that Clegg is now the true change candidate, the insurgent that Cameron has so desperately tried and continues to portray himself as, and which now looks to be as laughable as it always should have been.

For surely the sudden implosion of the bubble surrounding Cameron is just as much the story as the increase in support for Clegg's party is. Although Cameron has had shaky periods while leader, and been derided in the past including by the Tory press for some of his more woolly ideas, he's never been so completely exposed to the public as he was on Thursday. If Clegg shone rather like Cameron's forehead did, then Cameron's actual performance was dull and jaded by comparison. At times he resembled not this modern, thrusting, comfortable in any setting man of the people but the bar room Tory bore of old, with just as many hoary old anecdotes. Clegg made them as well in the faux attempt to suggest that they as leaders of political parties actually had some kind of relation with real people, but they were less grating and obvious. For many, it was doubtless the first really long look they had taken at Cameron outside of his natural element, and they didn't like what they saw. It doesn't matter how many numerous "Cameron Direct" meetings he'd done where he'd come across as everything that his advisers and spinners have set him up as, when it came to when it really mattered, to enter performance cliché, it just didn't work.

Hence the hysterical response of the likes of the Sun, continuing to make Cameron out to be an amalgamation of Christ, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. For the first time in the last few years, the Tories are completely behind the curve: they don't seem to understand that a hung parliament now appears to be what a majority of voters actually want, with all the connotations that it carries, and so spent the last few days desperately swimming against that tide. Now they've gone on the attack with a spectacularly ill-judged ad, calling for the benefits of those who refuse work to be cut. This rather overlooks that this is already in action, and also far more pertinently that there are still tens of thousands of people out there that would take absolutely any job offered, but simply can't find one. What does this say to them? What does this say about the Conservatives when confronted for the very first time with the hard truth that it looks like they're not going to win even a slight majority? Rather than keep with the positive campaigning, they head straight for one of the easiest targets, and also one of the most vulnerable. It's dog-whistle politics of the most pernicious kind.

As for Labour, it's no wonder that they've been so relatively complacent with the Liberal Democrat surge. They're looking at the projections if the polls stay the same way, no matter how ridiculous that seems even now, and they're realising that thanks to the insanity of our electoral system, they're still going to end up with the most seats even if they come third and win only around 28% of the vote. The problem is they're making assumptions about how this will obviously mean that Clegg and Cable are more likely to work with them than the Conservatives, when it will surely, as Dan Paskins points out, mean an end to any sort of real control on government. Far more difficult is attacking them from the left as Dan also proposes: even if some of their policies could conceivably be described as to the right of Labour's, and these are few and far between, such as the cutting of tax credits and the child trust fund to fund the shaky rise in the income tax allowance to £10,000, this isn't necessarily about policies themselves. If anything, it's about giving both Labour and the Tories a kicking, with the young and those who abstained last time in the vanguard, with those still undecided slightly behind. Only those firmly in Tory and Labour camps appear to be sticking with their first choice.

It remains to be seen whether this rise in Liberal Democrat support can possibly be sustained for another two weeks, or even if it will actually translate into votes themselves. I continue to suspect that there's many out there that are still embarrassed to admit to supporting the Tories, or even Labour although on a lesser scale, and that the polls aren't reflecting that. It's difficult not to be carried away though by just how quickly things have changed, and just how exciting it's made an election that was threatening to be only about the false change offered by Cameron and the "jobs tax" that bored everyone into submission in the first week. There are still another two debates to go, let alone endless pratfalls which any of the three parties could make. Clegg could look just as much of a tit in the next two as Cameron did in the first; he could, like Vince Cable has done, outstay his welcome and overdo the saintly bit; his party could implode like it did when power also looked likely back in the 80s. Normal service might well be restored, but for now we should perhaps, as Clegg himself hoped to do, simply enjoy it.

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Monday, April 19, 2010 

Iraq, the insurgency, and the death of Omar al-Baghdadi.

To get an indication of just how many times it's been claimed that either Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, now apparently positively identified as Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi, and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the two key leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq, more properly known now as the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, have been killed or captured, you could do worse than look at my post from April last year commenting on the apparent arrest of, err, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The Iraqi government claimed at the time that it was definitely al-Baghdadi, or al-Zawi, but today's press conference by none other than Nouri al-Maliki himself, along with the usual tasteful images of the corpses of those killed, and the approving comments from Joe Biden, suggests that this time they actually have been assassinated.

If the insurgency in Iraq was in decline in April of last year, buffeted both by the surge but far more effectively by the Awakening councils, which both revolted against the Sharia law based tyranny which the "Islamic state" imposed on the areas under its control, as well as its fratricidal nature, turning on other insurgent groups which it had once worked alongside, then a year on the position for the most extreme group of jihadis is even worse. It has to be remembered that at the height of its power, al-Qaida in Iraq, as it was relatively briefly properly known, had all but a stranglehold on the "Sunni triangle", control of major parts of Baghdad, and tentacles stretching right up to the northern city of Mosul. While it is probably still the most active Sunni insurgent group in the country, it has now been reduced down to a rump, forced back into a few remaining strongholds, and able only to carry out the multiple, coordinated suicide bombings it became infamous for, especially in Baghdad, mercifully, on far fewer occasions.

The reasons for this are not just that the Iraqi security forces have been increasingly growing in strength, coupled with the surge and Awakening councils, but also that the stench of defeat has been in the air ever since the insurgency turned decisively against the "Islamic State" back in 2008. While the other Sunni insurgency groups, especially the Islamic Army, prided themselves in being wholly Iraqi in origin and were mainly nationalist in ideology, the "Islamic State" depended on foreign jihadis to make up the majority of their willing suicide attackers, or as jihadists prefer to call the result, martyrdom operations. Compared with other areas where the jihad appears to going relatively well, such as Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia, Iraq suddenly doesn't seem to be such an attractive proposition. Fighting what appears to be a lost cause, even if the end result is still the much yearned for martyrdom, discourages potential jihadis across the board.

Likely to be seen as the leading cause of the eventual downfall of what had been by far the most successful al-Qaida "franchise" was that al-Zarqawi's notorious brutality left the Islamic State with few allies, almost all of whom were absorbed into the "State" itself, but dozens of enemies. His determination to foment a civil war, by declaring all but total war on the Iraqi Shia, symbolised by the bombing of the al-Askari Mosque, apparently even caused Ayman al-Zawahiri himself to blanch. After his own death at the hands of the Americans, rather than change strategy, the leadership of the now formed "Islamic State" continued with the suicide bombings and sectarian killings, as well as imposing the strictest form of Sharia law on the areas they controlled and finally, turning on the erstwhile insurgent allies who had helped them into the position of strength they had at the beginning of 2007.

Just as al-Zarqawi's death did nothing to stop the insurgency, the killing of both main leaders of the "Islamic State" is hardly going to stop it dead in its tracks. Far more effective has been the political process itself, with the number of Sunnis voting in the elections earlier in the year, having mainly boycotted the vote back in 2005 vastly increased. If the US Army is to be believed then Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi in any case was only an attempt by al-Qaida central to give the "Islamic State" an Iraqi face, al-Masri being an Egyptian protege of al-Zawahiri and the State's true leader, identified previously as the State's war minister.

Just as al-Zarqawi was replaced, so will Masri and Zawi. The problem remains to be the Salafi jihadi ideology itself and the narrative which it provides, not the leaders that espouse it, however important bin Laden and Zawahiri have been in the past and will remain. The ultimate victory of 9/11 was not that it was a spectacularly successful attack, but that the Americans and ourselves walked straight into the trap of permanent potential involvement in Afghanistan, and as it seemed for a time, Iraq as well, radicalising a whole new generation in the process. The battle remains against the ideology itself, which we are still nowhere near being able to counteract effectively, just as much as it is those preaching it.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010 

Bass music Saturday.

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Friday, April 16, 2010 

My head just exploded.

Via Jamie, I see there's a correlation between an awful politician having a truly dreadful website. Is there anyone from the three main parties with anything worse than Phil Woolas' abomination? It's as if Geocities and MySpace had a love child.

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The obligatory debate post.

It's fairly typical that just a day after I attack Nick Clegg for not being able to strike the right tone or have the gravitas which his role requires that he turns in such an assured, rounded and really rather impressive performance just when it really did matter. Admittedly, it doesn't take much to be able to come off as the brilliant outsider when you're standing alongside the jowls of Brown and the shiny head of Cameron, but it wasn't just his success in casting himself as different to the other two that has led to him being declared the undisputed winner of the debate, it was also that he came across, whisper it, as genuine. As Alix Mortimer has already identified, this was most clear when he actually bothered to answer Joel Weiner's (aka the Jewish lad who was also on Question Time when Nick Griffin made his appearance, and who now has approaching 7,000 fans on Lamebook) question about how school students were being tested too much and not taught enough, while Cameron and Brown just took the opportunity to bleat on about their schools policy.

As has been repeated ad nauseam, it's true that Clegg was always going to be the big winner: being an equal alongside the two main leaders in such a setting gave him the most exposure a leader of his party has been given since the revelations of Charles Kennedy's drink habit and Paddy Ashdown's affair with his secretary. He could however have still just been seen as the also-ran, given a welcome into the big boy's club just to be shown up. Instead, while you wouldn't exactly say he either humiliated or gave Brown and Cameron a kicking, he came across as the relaxed alternative with policies to back him up. He said beforehand that he was just going to try to enjoy it, and that seemed the best way by far to approach it.

Cameron, by comparison, looked close at times to being sick. The reaction of both the Tories and ex-Tories is also instructive: Michael Portillo on This Week having an outbreak of sour grapes at how Clegg being invited along at all, Michael Gove today banging on about "eccentric" Liberal Democrat policies. Clegg at least made reference throughout to his party's policies; Cameron, having launched a manifesto which had by far the biggest actual innovative political idea of any of the main parties seemed to have abandoned the "Big Society" as soon as it had been launched. Throughout he instead he settled on being the biggest populist of the three, referring to possibly mythical "commoners" who he'd encountered on his journeys around the nation who supported him. It was however his closing statement which really stuck out as being completely lacking in anything even approaching substance, expressing the vacuity that voters should choose "hope over fear". For someone who has been so keen to market himself as the heir to Blair, he looked and spoke throughout as closer to Major than our own past Great Leader. Some will undoubtedly prefer the homely demeanour rather than the extravagance and mendacity of Blair, yet it was almost as if he'd forgotten everything which he'd undoubtedly practised beforehand.

Brown, more simply, was Brown. He did little more throughout than how he's approached PMQ's, but he did so with a magnanimity which has been undetectable in those sessions, and at times even looked as if he was enjoying it as much as Clegg, making one of the few jokes and smiling and laughing without coming across as he did in that infamous YouTube video. More pertinently, while Cameron has often had Brown rattled and angry when they've faced off across the dispatch box, much to the delight of the Tory mob behind Cameron while Labour MPs have sat in surly near silence, here he failed to let anything rile him and often came out on top on the substance front. One suspects that if Brown had been the insurgent rather than the incumbent his scores afterwards would have been far ahead of Cameron's, and that it was only the general dislike for him, both justified and unjustified, as well as how many have just switched off whenever he speaks that either put him equal with Cameron or slightly behind.

More depressing was the politics espoused: starting off with a question on immigration, only Clegg saying that we needed some, even if he put it in the awful Brass Eye like fashion of there being good and bad immigration, the contempt showed by Cameron for the Lib Dem policy of limiting prison sentences of 6 months or less, and the tendency, especially of Cameron, to focus on the irrelevant, shallow or relatively frivolous instead of actual detail. 90 minutes was also far too long, and the secondary responses could have bit cut down to fit in more questions, or even, horror of horrors, some further audience participation rather than simply posing the questions. Besides all this, it was clearly an unqualified success: it may have just been because of the novelty, but an audience of 9.6 million for anything to do with politics, and that's not counting those who have watched it online today, is well worth celebrating. If it does also lead to a fully justified increase in the Liberal Democrat share of the vote, Clegg will have even more to thank the other parties for.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010 

Political conformity and the fall of a swear-blogger.

Who would ever seriously want to be a politician? Not only are you viewed as lower than a tabloid journalist, as all the same and only in it for yourself, but you are also now submitting yourself to the kind of media-led vetting that picks occasionally on the most innocuous, at least in personal discussion terms, previous utterances that you were silly enough to leave a record of. Stuart MacLennan's tweets were inadvisable and occasionally offensive, and he should have realised that eventually some bored hack was likely to look at his history, but it was hardly a sackable offence. Even less justifiable was the prying into Ellie Gellard's previous comments to find that she, shockingly, had thought that Gordon Brown maybe should go and that Margaret Thatcher slipping on a skateboard might be humourous, accompanied by reporting which was typically sexist, along with the active drooling from the usual priapic morons. Her far bigger crime was that she calls herself a socialist, even a stilettoed one, and yet presented a manifesto that is about as socialist as David Cameron's eyebrows.

And so who next enters the media's disapproval of grassroots potential politicos saying anything even vaguely controversial? Why, it's that lovable rogue, Chris Mounsey, better known as the man behind Devil's Kitchen, and now the leader of the Libertarian Party UK. Compared to MacLennan and Gellard, Mounsey is admittedly on a whole different level of endlessly inventive invective, extending his insulting of politicians and hangers-on to almost poetic levels of lyrical violence. My objection to swear-blogging, of which I think DK was the undisputed master and on a whole different level to some of the more recent entrants to the genre, was the peril you ended up a one-trick-pony, or more seriously, spreading yourself too thinly, targeting individuals that either weren't worthy of such abuse, or who actively didn't deserve it. You also run the risk of people falling into the belief that your online persona, this furious, incisive, whirling dervish of fury is your actual personality, when hopefully it isn't. I have very occasionally indulged in some poor swear-blogging myself, such as here, but only when I felt that it was fully justified. It's not just that such diatribes aren't really me, however much I'll swear at politicians on the television, it's more that repeatedly calling someone a cunt or even actively wishing for their death isn't very pleasant.

Some then will take active pleasure from Mounsey, or DK, coming so unstuck after being invited onto the Daily Politics as the leader of LPUK. He claims, quite understandably, that he was only going to be asked about his party's policies, but he surely must have known there was a possibility he was going to be asked about the more out-there personal attacks on his blog. As it was, after initially putting across LPUK's economic policies, Andrew Neil moved onto the smallness of the LPUK, which was a bit of a tautology considering that the section is devoted to the more minor parties in the election, although considering how little support LPUK has outside a vibrant online libertarian blogging community that has always punched far above its weight it was just about justified, and then onto a specific post by DK dedicated to the trade unionist Chris Keates, which he was unable to read almost any of but which this blog has no qualms about repeating:

Go fuck yourself, Chris Keates: I hope that the massive black dildo — with which you while away the hours between raping babies and destroying the dreams of the young — ruptures you and you bleed to death out of your disgusting, filthy, piebald cunt.

As DK's swear-blogging went, that was probably one of the less eloquent posts. DK could however have still attempted to justify it, on the grounds that he was just indulging in his persona and that he didn't really mean any of the above, although he was entirely serious about his main political point. Instead, he apologised and backed down, and that really was it. DK has since, after also receiving a phone call from his boss, removed the entirety of his past output, including that of guest posters, and set himself up anew. And with it, as Chris says, the public sphere and definitely the UK political blogging scene will be duller.

I think, frankly, that DK has over-reacted. There was certainly no need to remove all his past material; he didn't even need to clarify it. If anything, his reaction on the DP has just shown that he has very little in common with the actual character that he has played, should anyone of thought so, and perhaps that might well be slightly liberating. Blogging has always been for me about catharsis, expressing at times what is boiling anger about the injustices which our politicians have foisted upon us, and even if we're often coming at it from completely different political angles and writing stances, my guess is that's been the same with DK. As he writes, he might well have been moving away from the swearing in any case, but feeling forced into it by an uncertain performance when ambushed was perhaps also an admission that it wasn't who he really was, or at least isn't now.

While Chris has suggested that this is the media repressing any alternative to the main three parties, I think that could have been done far more effectively by just pretending the likes of LPUK don't exist. The BBC had no need whatsoever to invite DK on, but who knows, perhaps there was someone motivated behind the scenes by a previous screed against them. Clearly though, if you want to get any sort of attention without qualification you have to come to some sort of compromise; while wishing Thatcher would fall over and die is one thing, actively expressing depraved fantasies, however non-seriously, is simply not going to come across well. Also, if you give it out as DK has for so long, you also have to prepared to take it. As limited as our political debate often is, and as joyful as it would be to have voices from across the spectrum rather than just from the dead centre, the real thing that prevents that is not the media, although they have a role, but rather the electoral system itself. Make every vote count, and you remove the insanity of chasing the marginals which leaves us with this body politic that involves complete allegiance to the leader and leaves alternative thinking strangled as a minority pursuit. Mounsey's victims might well be enjoying schadenfreude at his defenestration, but his silencing and the loss of his archives is still a great shame.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010 

The Liberal Democrat manifesto.

There's a school of thought inside the Conservatives, and one that even I have to admit that I'm partial towards, that thinks their entire campaign, rather than revolving around the "Big Society" or fixing our broken society, should instead entirely focus on Gordon Brown. Not in the way that their truly dismal "attack" adverts did, featuring Brown and his various "triumphs", but instead simply asking whether they can bear the thought of another 5 years of Brown.

The obvious problems with this approach are not just the negativity and personal nature of campaigning in such a way, nor that 5 years of Cameron and Osborne is an equally appalling vista, but that there is alternative to both Brown and the Tories. This is the area that the Liberal Democrats' relatively limited campaign finances have tried to home in, with probably the most success of any of the advertising campaigns thus far, melding both Labour and Conservatives into one whole, emphasising the 65 years which the two have spent in power combined. It's certainly been different to anything else thus tried, and has also been incredibly difficult to spoof, both major bonuses with us political obsessives but perhaps not with those potentially confused by the whole thing. When you remember the polls suggesting that a majority (60%) are unable to identify Nick Clegg, it further hits home the difficulty the party has in attracting attention, gaining recognition and also successfully registering their distance from the opposition.

In that sense, their advertising up till now has been a far greater success than the manifesto launch was today. In an election where the other two parties are trying to outdo each other in their claims as to just who will make the country fairer, with neither prepared to use that dreaded socialist word equality regardless of whether it's what they mean or not, Nick Clegg spoke of his ambition to make Britain... fairer. He also did so with all the rhetorical weight and forced passion of Nick Griffin laughing at the accusation from a member of the public that he was a racist. The problem, which has been ever present since Clegg assumed the leadership, has not been the relative wealth of policies which the party has, which are of much the same, high, reasoned standard as they have always been, but the simple fact that Nick Clegg does not seem to be comfortable in his own skin, that he can't seem to decide just who it is that he, rather than party, is appealing to, and that on the big occasions, whether it be his speech to conference or his performance today, he doesn't manage to strike the right tone or have the gravitas which his role requires.

There is of course absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to base your campaign around fairness, it's just that when you're fighting to get the attention of what seems to be a highly apathetic, and with reason, electorate, you need to be saying something other than what the others are only in a slightly different tone and order. Understandably, everyone is focused on the economy, although even that seems to be slipping slightly as most appear to be optimistic about the growth figures shortly to be announced, but just when the Lib Dems needed to be distinctive they came up short. Even more infuriating is that they dumped their best case for drawing a line of difference between themselves and Labour and the Conservatives onto the Guardian's front page, something which they could instead have easily appended onto the manifesto launch and got full television coverage for. Here was their case for promoting liberty, attacking New Labour's authoritarianism, with Clegg's brilliant observation that their manifesto didn't once mention it, although it did claim that they were "proud of their record on civil liberties", which just shows how perverse a once liberal party has become, and it just became part of the background noise.

This is, sadly, reflected in the manifesto itself. It alternates between the great and the not so good, almost as if the party are convinced they need to counterbalance some of their best policies with ones that either haven't been thought through or, although nowhere near as awful as though proposed by Labour and the Tories, aren't much better. Following on from Nick Clegg's truly insipid introduction, which is so nondescript that it doesn't really invite further comment, you encounter a style which is by far the cleanest and most eminently readable of all three manifestos, straight-forward while in places becoming forthright. It also goes further than the other two parties in getting at the very heart of the problem in sections, as it does early on here:

At the root of Britain’s problems today is the failure to distribute power fairly between people. Political power has been hoarded by politicians and civil servants; economic power has been hoarded by big businesses. Both kinds of power have been stripped from ordinary citizens, leaving us with a fragile society marked by inequality, environmental degradation and boom-bust economics.

As a brief description of what's wrong with Britain today, it would be difficult to be more succinct while also painting a broad enough picture of the nation's problems. Perhaps the media and especially the tabloid press could be added to those hoarding political power, but it's difficult to disagree or qualify much else. The Liberal Democrats are also the only party that pledges to break up the banks, separating the retail sides from the investment operations, the only real proposal likely to prevent a re-run of the 2008 crisis. It's not exactly declaring a philosophical opposition to neo-liberalism itself, but as an attempt at reform, it goes far further in the right direction than the mainstream is prepared to go.

On far less solid ground is the obvious attempt to replace the formerly totemic policy of a 50p top rate of tax for those earning over £100,000. Ever since it was dropped they've struggled to replace it, and while their proposed raising of the income tax threshold to £10,000 on the surface seems a step in the right direction, in practice, and as the Fabians in Labour have showed, because the very poorest do not earn above the £10,000 level, the main beneficiaries are not the poorest fifth the Lib Dems have been complaining pay a larger proportion of tax than the richest fifth (also a shaky claim) but rather those on middle incomes, exacerbating the income gap ever further. While most can agree that Labour's main method of redistribution, tax credits are bureaucratic, cumbersome and in fitting with the party in general, they are also targeted in a way which helps the poorest in the way that a threshold rise does not. Add into this how the £17bn which needs to be raised to fund it is partially based on the admirable aspiration of cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion, which is far harder in practice when those tasked with finding loopholes are being paid vast sums themselves to do so, and you have a policy which falls apart once you even begin to probe it. That wasn't true of the 50p rate, and isn't usually true of the Liberal Democrats in general. The sloppiness is deeply regrettable, and it makes you wonder whether the centralisation which has happened under Clegg and Cable hasn't directly affected the discussion within the party over policy which previously took place.

This nagging sense of doubt is what stops the manifesto from being very good rather than simply adequate. Why not go all the way on so many things rather than stopping at a half-way house? Why not scrap Trident altogether rather than pledge to not build a "like-for-like" replacement? Why not axe the national curriculum altogether and trust teachers rather than putting in place a slimmed-down "minimum curriculum entitlement"? Why not abolish SATs or Key Stage 2 tests altogether than scaling them down? Why connive in the stupidity which is putting more police "on the beat" when it doesn't cut crime? Why not have a general amnesty for illegal immigrants rather than one with silly and unworkable conditions? Why not make the case for immigration rather than apologise for it while copying the points-based nonsense, even if making it regional is more an improvement? Why not be wholly critical of the insanity which is our involvement in Afghanistan rather than a critical supporter?

Of the three main party manifesto published this week, there's no doubt whatsoever as to which is the best, which poses the most unanswered questions and which is the political equivalent of treading water. The shame about the Liberal Democrat manifesto is that the policies are far more convincing than the politicians, and that it's sadly the latter rather than the former which will be the most scrutinised. This should be, and is, Lib Dems' greatest opportunity in those 65 years they talk about, greater even than that which the Liberal-SDP alliance had in 83 and Charles Kennedy had in 05, and there's still every chance that they could hold the balance of power. Holding them back is their failure to recognise when to go further, and most pertinently, their leader himself.

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