Thursday, January 31, 2013 

Ever fallen in love..

Interesting to read Iain Dale's post on how he's falling out of love with politics, along with a couple of equally thought-provoking responses.  My own take on why apathy seems to have become the default response to politics is similar to Paul's, in that it leads back not to Thatcher, but rather to the surrender to the markets of the late 70s, exemplified by Denis Healey's going to the IMF and James Callaghan's statement that Keynesianism was no longer an option.  With that surrender has come the failure of politicians to offer anything approaching a vision of a better society: all they promise now is either shallow aspiration, a belief in the fallacy of meritocracy, or more simply, that they'll do a better job of managing the country than the other lot.

Let's face it: the main political battle since the sub-prime crisis has been over who will cut what and when.  The choice on offer has been either cuts now, or slightly less deep cuts over a longer term period.  In fact, such has been the coalition's success that their programme for deficit reduction is now practically indistinguishable from that of Labour's, albeit Miliband 'n' Balls would do things slightly differently, whether through their jobs guarantee or cut in VAT etc.  The only real resistance to this inexorable narrative has been from the Occupy movement, who in this country at least seemed determined to ensure their own irrelevance from the outset.  No leaders, no real suggestion as to what the alternative should be, just that corporations aren't people, bankers aren't very nice and that everyone should pay their fair share of tax.  Inspiring it wasn't.

When politicians won't even provide the merest outline of how they want to make things better, or won't in terms that aren't technocratic, you can't be surprised that so many switch off.  Which brings me to another explanation that is far more prosaic: there's never been so much to distract yourself with as there is today.  When in 1976 there were only 3 television channels, extremely primitive video games and VHS systems still a couple of years away, politics was something to involve yourself in even if you weren't particularly vehement in your views.  Today if you so wish you can avoid hearing almost anything of the news let alone politics, and you can't really blame those who choose to do so.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013 

Do we have to go through this again?

There really isn't much to add to the entire furore over Gerald Scarfe's cartoon in the last issue of the Sunday Times.  No, it clearly isn't antisemitic, unless you think as the Israeli ambassador and the Board of Deputies of British Jews apparently do that you can't portray an Israeli politician and blood in the same image for fear of invoking the blood libel.  It doesn't matter that there is nothing in the cartoon that even begins to highlight the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu is Jewish, or any suggestion that those encased in the wall are anything other than Palestinian, the majority of whom are Muslim rather Christian, it simply seems to have been down to how the cartoon was published on Holocaust Memorial Day that it's been so taken against.

At least when Steve Bell's cartoon of Netanyahu was accused of being antisemitic the only action taken was that the reader's editor suggested cartoonists shouldn't "use the of language of antisemitic stereotypes".  Considering the breadth of antisemitic literature and the hundreds of years of pogroms and prejudices, you can fairly easily find yourself completely unintentionally echoing old stereotypes, as Bell did by showing Netanyahu using Tony Blair and William Hague as puppets, or as Scarfe has now done through daring to suggest that Netanyahu might have some blood on his hands.  For the Sunday Times to essentially accept that it should never have ran the cartoon, purely because of the use of blood and because it was insensitively published on HMD, although Scarfe apparently hadn't realised that was the case, is utterly pathetic.

It's obvious though that this is both Murdoch's doing and the paper's new editor Martin Ivens having to follow where his master leads.  The paper at first rightly defended the cartoon as legitimate comment and as being typical of Scarfe's body of work, but this seems to increasingly mean nothing when it comes to the way some want to shut down debate.  On Newsnight last night Hugo Rifkind took issue with Steve Bell's bringing up of how Scarfe had also recently depicted Bashar Assad as drinking from a cup marked as containing children's blood, as though Assad and Netanyahu were comparable.  Clearly they aren't in the sense of democratic legitimacy. or the brutal methods they've employed, yet the point surely is, as always, that we expect more from those who receive massive amounts of Western aid and make great play of their being the only democracy in the Middle East, however out of date that claim now is.

To suggest there's been an awful lot of cant involved in this latest outbreak of accusations all but goes without saying.  Yes, it is indeed the case that there is a very fine line between antisemitism, anti-Zionism and vehement criticism of Israel, and it's also true that the apparent rise in recorded incidents of antisemitism is very worrying and has to be tackled.  The left does have a case to answer here, as that line has been breached in the past, and antisemitism when it comes to criticism of Israel has at times been tolerated when it would never be otherwise.  This said, it's also apparent there's an stark element of racism within Israeli society which goes under reported: in the past few months there's been reports of Ethiopian women being forcibly given birth control injections before being allowed in to the country, of fans of a football club campaigning against the signing of Muslim players, and most pertinently, Israeli politicians using disgusting language about African migrants.

This makes it all the more difficult to take when Daniel Taub effectively tries to halt an unpleasant but not unwarranted critique of his prime minister by crying racism.  People will always take offence and are perfectly entitled to, but when it's actual state actors that are attempting to close down legitimate debate it really is about time we sorted out this nonsense once and for all. 

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013 

All going to according to plan.

Everything is going exactly according to plan in MaliIn have swept the French, and out have swept the Islamist rebels. Of course, that means things are going exactly according to a classic guerrilla warfare plan, where a weaker force withdraws from territory it knows it could never hold only to return later with hit and run attacks designed to wear down both support from the local population and the morale of the conventional forces, but let's not split hairs.  The rebels have retreated, ordinary Malians are delighted, if some are now taking revenge on the Tuaregs, and only a few irreplaceable antiquities have been destroyed in the process.

It's therefore perfectly understandable that the government wants to send 330 troops to the region, principally to train Ecowas soldiers in how to keep the peace and how not to act like the UN forces in the Congo, for instance. Considering the claims being brought by 200 Iraqis today at the High Court that might seem a bit rum, but let's not be cynical about this. After all, that we've gone in the space of a couple of weeks from saying there would be no boots on the ground to planting them firmly in north Africa doesn't mean we should be worried about small things like mission creep.  It's not as though this is how many other counter-insurgency campaigns have begun in the past.

To drop the annoying sarcastic tone, there's a clear disparity here between Cameron's rhetoric of a decades long campaign against extremism in the region and our sending only of training forces. It would certainly be lovely if we could just train the Ecowas forces and then leave, but all these things take time. The French intervened as they felt the rebels would have overrun the country if left to their own devices until September, the planned schedule for the Ecowas' deployment, and only now have some of those forces began to arrive in the country.  Supposedly those sent out to train the soldiers won't be combat troops, yet if a full-blown insurgency does break out, as the Islamists are reported to have fled to the mountainous region in the north east, isn't there always the possibility they'll be forced into helping out, especially as the French want to quickly draw down their own combat forces?

Certainly, we don't seem to be offering much else other than a small amount of funding.  We can't apparently spare any drones, as they're all still needed in Afghanistan, despite the continued stories of how wonderfully things are going there now and how we're meant to be out in any case by the end of the next, and so yet again it seems as though it'll be down to the Americans to take out any targets from the comfort of bases back home.  Already there's news of a deal through which a drone base will be set-up in Niger, and one has to presume it will involve the same fundamental lack of accountability that has defined the drone wars so far.  There is also as yet no discussion of anything approaching a political solution, of an attempt to at last deal with the Tuareg grievances that have fuelled their repeated rebellions, this time with international consequences.

All this said, Mali could yet turn out to be relative success story, at least by the standards of past interventions.  The rebels are relatively weak, and have split further since the French mission began; the territory still held by the rebels is if anything even less hospitable than that in Afghanistan; and they also don't have support from state actors, as the Taliban have allegedly long enjoyed.  With help, AFISMA could quickly be up to speed and ensuring that the Islamists are kept on the run.

The problem is that all these things are very big ifs, and we could equally quickly found ourselves drawn into another seemingly unending conflict against a foe that is highly mobile and determined.  The coalition should be deciding which approach it's going to take: either that suggested by Cameron's first response after the In Amenas attack, or the one suggested by Philip Hammond in the Commons today, of a relaxed role in which we contribute but don't do much else regardless of what happens.  It's obvious which one would make the most sense, but then as the past decade has shown, sense has very rarely entered into our response to the post 9/11 world.

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Monday, January 28, 2013 

Britain - it's shit!

There are plenty of government policies that make absolutely no sense.  Michael Gove's latest wheeze to hive off AS levels as not counting towards a full A level while also abolishing modules is spectacularly stupid and opposed by practically everyone, but then every single thing Gove has done as education secretary seems designed to annoy anyone who isn't Toby Young.  Just as dumb would be criminalising khat, although as there hasn't been any movement on that yet perhaps the Home Office is having second thoughts.  Also daft is capping benefits at one percent, which while potentially making political sense is unconscionably ignorant on an economic level.

None of the above or any of the other myriad examples of waste or foolishness quite come close though to the idea of taking out advertisements in Romania and Bulgaria telling everyone there how shit Britain is and why they shouldn't come when they gain free movement across the EU later in the year.  It's a brainfart so dense it makes the inside of your head hurt as well as stink.  What's more, even on the most basic level it falls flat on its face.  One of the oldest advertising tropes is that first off, you tell your potential customers they can't have what it is you're selling, with the obvious intention of increasing their desire for the product when you do make it available.  If we're saying they shouldn't come, they'll think, why exactly is it that they shouldn't?  Is it because Britain is in fact a land of milk and honey, benefits on tap and an atmosphere so welcoming that it resembles one of those mythical, glowingly warm pubs where everyone instantly knows your name and your pint's waiting for you?  After all, what sort of government would actively want to say their country's horrible?

Secondly, it's a tabloid idea in every sense except one.  It is the equivalent of an UP YOURS DELORS, or the Sun putting out a special French edition castigating Jacques Chirac for daring to oppose the Iraq war, or the Sun (there's a theme here) taking out an advert in the Argentinian press in revenge for President Kirchner's open letter advert to David Cameron.  Moreover, it's an idea that has been motivated by the tabloids, who've been running articles for years now scaremongering about the imminent invasion of gypsies, organised criminals and other assorted stereotypes.  Stereotypes coming over here to do battle with our stereotypes? Never!  Except, of course, actually going through with such a tabloid idea wouldn't placate the tabloids, which is presumably the intention.  Even so much as saying the idea is being thought through is the equivalent of the government saying, yep, you're right, we're about to be swamped, thereby giving them the ultimate authority to run another umpteen articles about the coming tidal wave.  Look, the government's so concerned they're taking out negative adverts!

Third, it's a mess of the government's own making.  Despite having attempted to remove targets from other parts of the public sector, whether it be the police or the NHS, with very mixed results so far, the Conservatives stupidly promised to reduce immigration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands.  Not just that they would reduce immigration, but would do so down to a round figure.  It's all well and good pledging to do something popular, as long as you know how it is you're going to achieve it.  The Conservatives haven't had a clue, and so have flailed around all over the place instead.  Hence the attacks on "bogus" colleges, which has had the effect of discouraging foreign students from coming here at all, the ever tightening rules on bringing back spouses, and the latest farce, the new citizenship test which expects applicants to imbibe the High Tory view of recent British history.  Undoubtedly it's a great advantage for immigrants to know more about their adopted country than the majority of those lucky enough to be born here, but isn't this getting things rather arse backwards?

Fourth is that it's completely inconsistent.  A couple of weeks back two of the spare parts of the monarchy drove a Mini through the Brandenburg Gate as part of some inane promotion of the best of British, and that wasn't even part of the government's "Britain is Great!" campaign. Add in the Olympics and the government's Britain is open for business rhetoric and the messages being sent are decidely mixed. Yes, they want investment and not unskilled labour, but either we're signed up to free movement within the EU or we're not.

Lastly, it's an idea motivated by the notion that we must be seen to be doing something, no matter how futile or counter-productive. There simply isn't going to be a repeat of 2004, when only Ireland and Sweden opened their borders at the same time as we did to the accession states.  Those wanting to try their luck elsewhere will be able to choose from the other 24 EU countries, and we're unlikely to come top of the bill when Germany is both nearer and has a growing economy.  Some undoubtedly will come, but the numbers are likely to be negligible.

Instead of pointing this out, the government seems to have actively set out to inflame the issue, delighting those who love to whinge on both about how awful this country is and all the bloody foreigners.  I'm quite partial myself to the odd bout of the former, but not to the point where I want those worse off to know all about it by sticking it on billboards.  In any case, the coalition is never going to be able to really capture the occasional grimness of this country in such a campaign, or showcase us properly without using a slogan along the lines of "Come to Britain - where even the dogs have neck tattoos!". Alternatively, they could just get this strip from the latest Viz blown up and plaster it everywhere.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013 


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Friday, January 25, 2013 

You ain't seen a double negative yet.

No growth whatsoever last year, the snow over the last week bound to lead to a decline in the first quarter of this year, and still the government wants to persist in removing some of the automatic stabilisers through the 1% cap on benefits. It's almost as though the coalition wants to completely crash the economy.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013 

Britons urged to leave Benghazi.

"Freedom is untidy" - Donald Rumsfeld. 

In other news: 
George Osborne calls IMF a bunch of "socialist bedwetters" 
Idiot ex-footballers paid for their opinions justify kicking ball boys
Crime falls for umpteenth year - must be time to make another drug illegal

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013 

If, if and if.

If there's one thing to be said for David Cameron's long-awaited, twice postponed speech on Europe, it's that it's almost certainly the best of his premiership so far.  The chief reason for it being so good however is precisely its weakness: to call it vague on detail is an understatement.  It reminds of the countless articles written by opposition politicians, all promising to do something but not spelling out how they would do so if given the opportunity.  The only actual EU directive he suggested he would like to re-negotiate or renege from was on working time, otherwise going after the usual bugbears of regulation and red tape.  Put it this way: apart from that specific detail, there was little in the speech that anyone apart from the most ardent Europhile or Eurosceptic could possibly disagree with.  We all want an improved, more streamlined EU, and if this was genuinely what Cameron was seeking, substantial reform rather than renegotiation, he'd deserve cross-party support.

Except he isn't.  Cameron and his party only care about Europe in the sense that they mostly like the economic benefits while loathing everything else that comes with it.  Those economic benefits have since been somewhat undermined in their eyes by the Labour government's decision to opt into the social chapter, which brought in new workplace protections that we never had previously.  This is the view shared by some businesses, although not by all, many of whom reach the view that the positives of the single market and free movement of labour within the EU outweigh the negatives of increased worker protection.  Cameron's gamble is that business as a whole will get behind his bid for renegotiation, and won't be unnerved by the potential for the eventual referendum to result in a big fat no.  For the most part so far they've kept relatively quiet, almost certainly for the reason that they doubt it's going to actually happen.

After all, who at the moment is willing to bet that the Tories will still be in government after the next election?  Anything can still happen, but the polls aren't in his favour.  Indeed, another strand of Cameron's strategy is that going for the in/out referendum will trap Labour and Ed Miliband, just as Osborne previously aimed to with his benefits cap. The polls haven't moved, and while it would be foolish to say they also won't this time, it's likely any Tory boost will be shortlived.

Where it could have more of an impact is on the rise in support for UKIP. While much of their improved polling is down to protest votes, the offer of a referendum could well be enough to win over some of those who've become disillusioned with the Tories. If we're to believe Lord Ashcroft's polling though, much of the UKIP hardcore appear to think we live in a dystopia much like that imagined by Richard Littlejohn in his sadly overlooked To Hell in a Handcart novel; nothing short of bringing back hanging, the birch and the black and white minstrels is going to return them to the fold. The whole point of UKIP in any case, as Sunny notes, is to get out of the EU altogether, not make it slightly more acceptable as Cameron claims to want. Besides, Cameron's gambit has led to Nigel Farage taking as much credit as the prime minister's backbenchers, a spectacular result for a party leader without a single MP and fewer councillors than the Greens.

Equally clear is it's those backbenchers that are the other main victors, at least for now.  The Tory leadership has gone in the space of a year from voting against an in/out referendum to promising exactly that.  The only explanation for this latest u-turn is just how restive the party has become, as a report in the Sunday Times last week suggested.  Quite why Cameron has given in when the stakes are so high is difficult to properly ascertain: although they don't seem to realise it, Cameron is about the only asset the Conservatives have.  Defenestrating him and installing someone further to the right is not going to win them the next election, regardless of how some despite everything believe they would have won the election outright if it wasn't for Cameron's liberal tendencies.  Tony Blair repeatedly took on his backbenchers until they ended up hating him regardless of their electoral success; Cameron has thrown in the towel at the sight of the first punch heading towards him.

The problem for both them and Cameron is that regardless of what they might say when asked specifically on it, the vast majority of people don't care about Europe and the EU.  They are concerned about immigration as a result of the EU, or the European Court of Human Rights, but Cameron clearly isn't intending to renege from open borders when business is often in favour of no limits whatsoever, while the ECHR is part of the Council of Europe rather than the EU.  They also care when politicians obsess about an issue that they feel has little bearing on their lives, as the Tories have in the past.  Rather than stopping his party from "banging on about Europe", Cameron has just started off an utterly tedious debate that could potentially last four years, and will involve us seeing much more of such bores as Peter Bone, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bill Cash.  The idea that this will instantly result in a swing back to the Tories or even win them the next election is naive.

My personal view has long been that there should be in/out referendum, both to settle the question for a generation and for the reason that I've long thought we would vote to stay in given the option.  We don't need to wait four years to do that; we could have it within six months.  My gut instinct is should the Tories win the next election (a huge if) Cameron probably would succeed in getting something back in a treaty renegotiation, mainly because the Germans clearly want us to stay in and they're going to continue holding the purse strings in the EU for years to come, with the 25 other countries going along with it.  He could then say he's done what he said he would and go to the country.  The obvious problem then is, if he's achieved something even remotely close to what the Eurosceptics who want to stay in say they want, what's the point of the EU if it works only for business and not for anyone else?  Already the shift amongst the Eurozone countries has been to effectively outlaw Keynesian economics, and with Cameron and friends repeatedly saying we're in a race where in their view workers' rights are outdated, it's not too outlandish to imagine that there could be movement on the social chapter as well.

What though if Cameron doesn't get anything approaching what his backbenchers want?  Will he still campaign for a vote to stay in?  Cameron might have caved in to his party as it makes things easier for him in the short term, but he knows full well business will mutiny if he hardens his position any further.  This is why Ed Miliband has been right to refuse to support such a referendum, not only because of all the hypotheticals involved, but as it's pointless if you're not the one doing the negotiating.  Yes, the public should have a say and soon, yet surely they should know exactly what it is they're going to be voting either for or against.  The next election, despite Cameron's navel-gazing, won't be about Europe, it'll be about living standards, the economy, the state of the NHS and whether austerity has worked.  In all probability, and for those very reasons, Cameron isn't going to be doing anything other than sitting on the backbenches himself come 2017.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013 

On horror remakes and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.

Ever since the beginning of the 00s (noughties?) those of us who for whatever reason fell in love with the old, grimy exploitation fare of the 70s and at least have a certain affection for the slasher boom of the early 80s have had to put up with seeing those old films remade by some of the worst directors and financiers Hollywood has to offer.  There have admittedly been a few decent attempts amongst the dreck: Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake is fine as a straight zombie film, as long as you ignore that it credits Romero's script, as the film does absolutely nothing with its mall locations, and Alexandre Aja's update of The Hills Have Eyes is similarly workmanlike.

Neither though has followed up properly on these efforts.  Snyder's 300 was hysterically awful, Watchmen completely failed to capture the depth or the nuance of the graphic novel, and then there was Sucker Punch. Coming soon is his take on Superman, and the heart frankly sinks (even if the script is co-written by Chris Nolan).  Aja's trajectory is different as his breakthrough was the brilliant Haute Tension, about as good a modern take on the slasher template is likely to get. Since THHE he's sadly gone backwards, making the little seen Mirrors, directing the update of Piranha, starring Kelly Brook and an ex-porn actress, and most recently co-wrote the script for the remake of Maniac. To which you can only say: what? Why? The remakes of Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave weren't exactly well received, so why update another of the scuzziest and most disreputable films of that era? How can you possibly out-do Tom Savini's ramshackle but wonderful effects, or even attempt to emulate Joe Spinell's performance as the titular maniac?  

Nonetheless, in spite of the critical response and the increasing disdain of the fans, the machine keeps churning the retreads out.  As well as the forthcoming Maniac, this year will also see the release of the long delayed remake of Evil Dead, and a couple of weeks back the second attempt at redoing the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre opened, this time with added 3D. 

Perhaps though there's a case for reassessing the impact of the glut of remakes, a notion that came to me last night as I was very belatedly watching All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, a slasher that came out here in 2008.  At least with the remakes there's the possibility that having come first to Michael Bay's traducing of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Rob Zombie's fouling up of Halloween, some are bound to think, well that was awful, and then go and watch the original to see why the makers bothered to "update" the film in the first place.

If instead all we'd had over the last decade were "original" productions, the overall picture if anything would be even bleaker.  There would have been the remakes of the J-Horrors, almost all of which are uniformly terrible, the whole "torture-porn" sub-genre, which with the very odd exception of the first Saw and the second Hostel are even ghastlier in retrospect, and then there's Paranormal Activity and all its knock-offs.  Sure, there's the occasional Slither, Wolf Creek or Descent, but the good or better are very few and far between amongst the rehashes, misfires and downright dreadful flicks that have piled up.  Imagine a world where Rob Zombie's Devil's Rejects (which I have to admit to liking at first), a film in which Mansonites without the charm are turned into anti-heroes suddenly isn't as despicable or retrograde as it seems now, and you almost want his remake of Halloween to exist. 

The reason I took against Cabin in the Woods, which in the main was well reviewed and liked, was that there was so much potential there that went unmined.  The director and writer are talented, the cast are fine, and Evil Dead can still be parodied even if err, Sam Raimi did it himself first.  It was that there was just nothing there, or what was there was so perfunctory, so smug, so charmless and supercilious.  One of the key conceits was that we could all see what was coming, and yet the characters couldn't, as though they'd never seen a horror film and so didn't worry about going to a cabin in the woods even after being warned off by a creepy guy at a gas station.

With Mandy Lane, it's as though neither the writer or director have seen any horror movies.  Obviously, they have, it's just there's no evidence of this whatsoever in the film.  There's all the classic elements there, a young cast, a scene where they stop at a gas station, a great location in a ranch, it's just they do absolutely nothing with any of these things.  Imagine a film which is based on a faded facsimile, or decades old memories of other films and you're close to how it feels.

What is there is if anything even more problematic. Much has been written and discussed about the slasher genre and what it says that one of its key motifs is the characters are usually older teenagers drinking, using drugs and having sex who are then apparently killed for doing so, and how it's usually the more innocent female character uncomfortable amongst the debauchery that survives to the end.  In Mandy Lane it doesn't suggest the teenagers other than Mandy are being killed because they're doing these things, although in part they are, it's that all teenagers other than the few that don't fit in are like this.  It reminded me of Stewart Lee's take on Skins, or Mark Kermode's worries about Superbad, and how they thought both gave this utterly unrepresentative view of young people as self-obsessed narcissists who either have casual sex or think about nothing else, and are generally incredibly obnoxious and unpleasant at the same time.   

Essentially, the entire plot is the male characters are competing to be the one to deflower Mandy, something their female friends are complicit in, while they hate both themselves and each other, and then a killer enters the fray.  One of the female characters worries she isn't pretty when she is and so calls her friend fat, which she isn't.  The latter mocks the other for "having a forest down there", which leads to a scene later on where she duly corrects this with a pair of scissors.  Not that it's just the girls: one of the boys is mocked for having a "small package" and is so angered he flounces out, which in turn leads to the demise of his girlfriend when she rushes off to apologise, although only after she goes down on him and he fails to reciprocate.  The usual point of having unpleasant characters in a slasher is so you enjoy it when they meet an inventive end, and so still care about them despite disliking them; Mandy Lane doesn't even achieve that.

Note that I'm not naming any of the characters, as they're so poorly defined in the film other than Mandy and her very slightly geeky friend Emmet that they're just sketches not worth even dignifying with handles.  There's no tension, no scares, and there's not even any potential interest for the most ardent of gorehounds, as the violence itself is pathetic and the tiny amount of splatter on display is laughable.  The implication once you learn the identity of the killer is that there's something Columbine-esque going on, but it simply isn't developed or fleshed out in any way, which is a great shame.  There's massive potential for a horror film which does explore why and how children can be motivated to kill their classmates, something that Battle Royale and the Hunger Games have skirted around, just not approached head on.  There is one moment when Mandy tenderly ensures that one of the girls is OK and looks longingly at her, and you think for a moment that something radical is going to happen and it'll turn out the real reason Mandy's come on this weekend away is in fact she's in love with this girl, which would turn everything on its head.  Sure, it'd still be the male fantasy of two pulchritudinous young women getting along famously, but that's better than the film only existing because Amber Heard is staggeringly beautiful and she's pleasant to look at.  Naturally, it comes to nothing.

When the real twist does come, as every horror film now simply has to have one, you see it approaching from a mile off.  It of course doesn't make any sense whatsoever despite the fact you saw it coming, as it doesn't need to.  Suffice to say, it makes the twist in Haute Tension which many people have an understandable problem with seem perfectly reasonable.  There are two things you can praise, in that Amber Heard puts in a subtle performance as Mandy, and despite only costing $750,000 to make, the film does look quite good.  Other than that, it's stultifying, and I was bored within half an hour.  Not even wondering about how the film implies all "popular" young people are shagging each other senseless, snorting Ritalin and constantly smoking weed could relieve the air of crushing dullness that pervades it. 

The point is that while Mandy Lane and its contemporaries have been awful, it can't be said that they're popular.  It's possible that Saw could in time become a cult, if only because the later films aren't so much narratives as gore set-pieces slotted together, and if the plotless Guinea Pig series of movies can become so well known then almost anything can happen.  The likely course is that the remakes will be forgotten or disregarded while the originals will live on.  If only that was the case elsewhere.

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Monday, January 21, 2013 

Deja vu.

The first duty of any government should be to protect their own citizens.  With this in mind, don't you feel safer knowing that we have such fine, rational beings as David Cameron and William Hague in charge of our foreign policy?  Who could possibly demur from Cameron's conclusion that the threat from Islamists in north Africa is so severe that it could continue for decades, and that a global response is absolutely necessary?  How could anyone disagree with Hague when he says that rather than our intervention in Libya exacerbating the conflict in Mali, had we not "saved lives" through our enforcing of a no-fly zone it's likely the insurgency there could have made things even worse?  After all, just because the French dropped weapons into the country from the air, who knows where the rebels would have obtained arms from if they hadn't?  And in any case, Somalia clearly shows what we have to avoid in Mali as well as suggesting a model for the future.

It's really rather staggering how little we've learned, the only consolation being that Cameron has slight overall influence.  The most obvious lesson from both Afghanistan and Iraq is that when you start talking about decades long conflicts, put foreign troops on the ground and talk of "conquest", as the French have been, you're inviting a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Western intervention is the equivalent of a red rag to a bull to jihadists: the insurgency in Iraq could not have been sustained for so long if it hadn't been for foreign fighters and funding, the chief attraction being the opportunity to try to kill Western soldiers.  With the draw down in Afghanistan fast approaching, Mali could well turn out to be the most attractive place for those suitably inclined to travel to.

As Jason Burke explains, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is a tiny section of the franchise, estimated to have only several hundred fighters.  It has shown no inclination to attack the West, unlike al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, even if the death of Anwar al-Awlaki has had an impact on that section.  Similarly, despite having previously been involved with AQIM, Mohktar Belmohktar is more of a bandit than an out and out ideologue, and the chief aim of the attack was likely to have been monetary, as it has been in the past.  Whether they bargained on the Algerians launching such a deadly assault or not, their managing to hold out for three days is bound to excite opinion on the jihadi forums.

As for the Islamist groupings involved directly in Mali, it seems dubious as to whether they had or have any international ambitions, although we were right to be concerned of the potential for a safe haven to have been established for jihadis had they took full control of the country.  This said, despite all the warnings about the Somalia and the initial success of al-Shabaab there, there's little to suggest that any Westerners who travelled there to train and fight have since returned with designs on attacks here (although the group did claim responsibility for an attack in Uganda).  After years of exaggeration, we have reached a point where even the most hysterical of terror "experts" admit that threat has been significantly lowered.

Why Cameron then wants us to think that we've got to start over again only this time in north Africa is perplexing.  He has no intention of doing anything in Mali beyond giving the French moral support and the odd supply plane, and yet he seems to be implying that the threat posed by these disparate groupings, almost all driven by nationalist rather than internationalist motives, are an "existential" threat.  It may well damage British business in the region, which seems to be the only thing that Cameron and the Tories truly care about, as his frequent fluffing trips with arms companies suggest, but the attack on In Amenas will be difficult to replicate, such will be the increase in security at similar operations.  It's certainly nothing that the oil and gas companies' balance sheets can't handle.

All of which leads one to suspect that Cameron's finally discovered his inner Tony Blair.  Having started out ridiculing Blair's doctrine, he's come to the conclusion that things are so grim on the home front that he has to radiate leadership abroad instead.  Never mind that Blair came to be loathed precisely for this reason and it increased Gordon Brown's control over policy on home affairs, by projecting an image as a strong figure on the world stage, especially when Brits are caught up in things they know little of, Cameron hopes to shrug off his otherwise falling ratings.  After all, it can't be that he really believes what he's saying, can it?

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Friday, January 18, 2013 

Music takes you.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013 

Sex on the state must stay secret.

There are some posts you really don't need to add anything to.  This one, from the Heresiarch on the Mark Kennedy sex spying case, is one of those:

Are undercover police allowed, or even encouraged, to sleep with "targets" as a means of gaining intelligence on environmental protesters and other political subversives?
One would hope not.  Such a practice would be deeply unethical. It would represent a fundamental violation of trust and an invasion of privacy and cast senior police officers in the role of pimps. The people (mainly women) targeted in this way are human beings, and citizens. It's not just sex on the job, and it's not just "crossing a line": we're talking about the emotional manipulation of people when they're at their most intimate and vulnerable, what one lawyer has described as "the sexual and psychological abuse of campaigners for social justice". It can't be right.
But that's what spies do, though, isn't it? Sleep with sources. Everyone knows that. It works for James Bond. That's what Mr Justice Tugendhat apparently thinks, anyway.


Here's what he said (at paragraph 177):

James Bond is the most famous fictional example of a member of the intelligence services who used relationships with women to obtain information, or access to persons or property. Since he was writing a light entertainment, Ian Fleming did not dwell on the extent to which his hero used deception, still less upon the psychological harm he might have done to the women concerned. But fictional accounts (and there are others) lend credence to the view that the intelligence and police services have for many years deployed both men and women officers to form personal relationships of an intimate sexual nature (whether or not they were physical relationships) in order to obtain information or access.

In other words, he went on, at the time that RIPA was being passed "everyone in public life would have assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the intelligence services and the police did from time to time deploy officers in this way." So yes, RIPA authorisation probably does extend to sex - provided that the relationships themselves are not "degrading".


If Bond is a reliable guide on the appropriateness of undercover police officers indulging in sexual relationships with people they are supposed to be investigating for political protest, why wouldn't the officers equally at liberty to liquidate their sources when they cease to be useful? 007 has a licence to kill, after all, and regularly uses it to bump off his conquests. Many members of the public believe that secret agents behave like that anyway, and I don't think Parliament has ever explicitly forbidden it.

Another thing: apart from a short report in the Guardian, today's ruling has had very little media coverage, despite its potentially huge consequences for the rule of law. I realise, of course, that agents of the state engaging in sexual manipulation against peaceful, and essentially law-abiding, protesters matters far less than what some people on Twitter said about what Julie Burchill said in the Observer about what some other people on Twitter said to Suzanne Moore about what she'd written in the New Statesman. You'd think, though, looking at it from the outside (as I do) that the actual fucking police literally fucking duped activists and then using an obscure legal procedure to deny their victims open justice would interest people who call themselves radical and progressive rather more than a throwaway remark made by one self-identified feminist journalist, or even the genuinely offensive comments made by another high-profile feminist journalist a few days later in her defence, which is at the end of the day just words. You'd think so.  


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Wednesday, January 16, 2013 

The latest stop on our world tour.

And so to Mali.  One of the wonderful things about commentating, and indeed blogging is that everyone's an expert.  I know precisely jack about Mali, the Tuareg people and their repeated rebellions aimed at gaining an independent state in the north of the country, and yet here I am typing out a post on a country I have never visited and almost certainly never will.

At least I'm setting out in advance that my knowledge on the country as a whole is limited in the extreme, as have some of the other more honest people.  The same sadly can't be said universally, with some naturally turning straight to their usual positions when it came to the French intervention.  Not that this necessarily means they don't have a point: there is something in Glenn Greenwald's instant jump to conclusions that this will be seen once again through the prism of the war on terror and as an attack on Muslims.  How can it not be when those the French are fighting are an alliance of Islamists, the more secular Tuaregs of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad having been themselves driven out by Ansar Dine and an offshoot of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb?

It's also absolutely true that this is a conflict affected massively by our own intervention in Libya.  How much blame, if any can be assigned to our leaders and their decision to back the rebels against Gaddafi is however very difficult to ascertain.  The Tuareg leadership was indeed involved with Gaddafi, and they made up a significant percentage of his army.  Also apparent though is that the smuggling of arms to the fighters in Mali has not all been the work of the Tuaregs: some weaponry has been provided by the rebels in Libya themselves, who have also been (allegedly) supplying the likes of Hamas and the FSA in Syria.  As we saw in Benghazi, there are plenty in Libya of an Islamist bent who would have no qualms in helping out the likes of AQIM with supplies from seized Gaddafi stockpiles.  The French also have to take some responsibility: they apparently simply dropped weapons into the west of Libya during the intervention, an act of utter stupidity bound to lead to a free for all.

Paul Cotterill is therefore completely right to say this is a situation we should have seen coming months ago, and which could have been planned for.  Of course, we don't know properly what's been going on behind the scenes, but it's dubious whether much in the way of contingency planning for a march on the Malian capital of Bamako by the Islamists took place.  The French were apparently spurred into action by the threat to the town of Sevare, and the nearby military airport, which if taken would have left the only usable airstrip for heavy aircraft in the capital.  It must also be noted that there have been successive UN security council resolutions authorising intervention by the Economic Community of West African States; whether it covers active intervention by the French is dubious in the extreme, just as UNSC 1973 most certainly didn't authorise regime change, which is what we imposed in Libya.

This made clear, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that at least for now the French intervention is wildly popular with the Malians in the south of the country, and why wouldn't it be?  When the majority follow Sufi Islam it's little surprise they loathe with a passion the brand of sharia imposed by the Salafist rebels, with the banning of music and desecration of holy sites, both reminiscent of the era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.  They also prefer their former colonial masters to the likes of the soldiers from the other West African states, again hardly irrational considering the past record of meddling by neighbouring nations, as well as the tendency of some peacekeepers to flee at the first opportunity when deployed previously.

Nonetheless, the current goodwill could turn out to be shortlived, especially if the belief spreads that there are ulterior motives at work.  Should the Islamists have continued southwards, the threat to Niger and France's access to uranium would have been further exacerbated.  It's also the case that Algerian fears of a strengthening of AQIM may well have come to the fore: despite their colonial history, France has good relations with the country, and the Algerians favoured the election of Francois Hollande over Sarkozy.  It also follows the pattern of only those nations that have something to offer ending up enjoying a Western military presence: Iraq and Libya with their copious natural resources, while Syria, Iran and North Korea have all for now avoided the fate of the former, if for very different reasons.

The dangers are also manifold.  As Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, it's easy to go in only for it to turn out to be very difficult to get out.  Even in the case of Libya, the intervention took months longer than was first thought, while in Syria the downfall of Assad has been continuously prophesied only for the Ba'ath regime to hold firm.  It's difficult to make any real judgement based on the first few days, but it seems as though more resistance has been encountered than was anticipated.  Any intervention by the West where jihadists are involved also acts as a rallying call: while there might be plenty of places at the moment for those suitably inclined to go (they can choose from Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia to name but three), the opportunity to attack foreign troops usually takes precedence.  As the kidnapping today in Algeria has also made clear, and it's difficult to believe it isn't connected with Mali, there's plenty the groups involved can do in the region to strike back, even if they haven't the capacity to launch attacks here.

It may well be as Mark Malloch-Brown just said on Newsnight that the intervention by the French is the least worst option.  It could also be that the danger of a march on Bamako was overstated, and there was still time for a vastly preferable joint effort by African states to try to push back the rebels to be put together.  Whichever way it turns out, it's undeniable that our intervention in Libya had knock-on effects that we did little to counteract, and that we find ourselves yet again supporting a mission in which we'll attempt to bomb a country better.  We may still know little of Mali, but the people there will soon know plenty about us.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013 

This is the end.

This is the end.  So begins Adele's Skyfall dirge, which on Sunday won the Golden Globe for best song.  Not too much should be read into that, as last year Madonna's "Masterpiece" won, a song so forgettable that it will only ever be recalled for the fact it soundtracked W.E., one of the worst films the inestimable Mark Kermode has ever seen.  Skyfall's opening line and victory is none the less all too apposite, coming just a day before HMV announced that it was calling in the administrators, and with it all but bringing to a close the record shop on the high street.  Amongst all the reasons for HMV's eventual failure, the triumph and reverential praise given to mediocre artists, whose albums were piled high and sold cheap by the supermarkets forcing the record stores to try to compete only to fail is the most infuriating.  As the film critic Pauline Kael bitterly observed, she didn't realise when she championed trash culture it would end up becoming the only culture.  The exact same thing has happened with music.

Obviously, that's something of an exaggeration.  There's still great music out there; you just have to work ever harder to find it.  HMV's demise will make this even more difficult.  I hold no affection whatsoever for the brand, I should make clear; if there was an independent record shop where I live then I would have gone there instead.  There isn't though, and for millions of other people around the country this is also the case.  I also realise that certain branches of HMV were/are better than others: my local one still has three quarters of its top floor dedicated to music, and so almost always had the new releases and obscurities in stock on day of release.  If they didn't, they were invariably in the next time I went in.  HMV did build up a deserved reputation for charging over the odds, but in recent years they've become far more competitive, and in any case, I'll always pay more for a CD than I will for a digital download.

The clear fact is that I'm increasingly in the minority.  All the same, it simply isn't true that there's no longer any place in town centres for record shops or DVD outlets: it might well become true in a few years' time, but for now physical albums still outsell digital ones.  HMV still has a significant market share, which suggests a buyer will be found, and I really hope one is.  After all, if Game can continue to trade when video gaming is going all digital at a remarkable rate, surely HMV can keep the doors open for a while yet.

This said, the warning signs have been there for an awfully long time, as others have pointed out, and the management was incredibly slow to react to changes.  The ones they have made were foolhardy in the extreme: it's one thing trying to specialise in headphones, something that no one else does, but don't then give over floor space to tablets and all the other electronic gumpf that's sold by everyone and their dog.  You also only need one or possibly two pairs of decent headphones, and if you take good care of them they should last you at least 5 years.  Customers spending over £100 (if that) with you every 5 years doesn't make for a grand business model.

It's not simply a case of HMV being responsible for their own downfall though.  Take a look at the other major retailing story of last week, that will be essentially shutting down and only continue to operate as a portal for other sellers.  The Channel Islands VAT tax dodge that gave and other online retailers such an unfair advantage over bricks and mortar stores was closed far too late (yes, was based in Jersey too, but it was never enough to make a difference).  Then there's Amazon, and its only recently publicised corporation tax avoidance scheme, something else HMV couldn't compete on.  Add in the often exorbitant rents demanded by landlords, especially in the main shopping centres, and all the other costs, and it's turned into a struggle where the opposition hold all the trump cards.

Then there's the impact of piracy.  Some will doubtless vehemently disagree with me on this, and I've been just as guilty of it in the past as everyone else, but it really is now the case that 16-year-olds expect to get almost everything they consume online for free.  Sure, they might spend 79p on the odd song from iTunes or wherever, but pay £8 or £10 for a CD?  They wouldn't dream of it.  Having everything instantly available via a search on Google won't kill the music industry as a whole, or any other industry for the matter.  What it will eventually do is kill some of the things you love, whether it be the Guardian or Independent, the indie band that made a great debut album that simply didn't sell and so won't get a chance to record another on the same scale, the DJ/producer who gives up on pressing vinyl or even releasing tracks as he can't make money out of it, or any number of other things.  The same thing that's happening on the high street will happen on the internet, the big names squeezing out everyone else, the odd one occasionally being replaced by something new that improves on an old format.  Those of us who did illegally download music and had our tastes expanded as a result, leading to us buying albums we never would have discovered previously are now sadly in the extreme minority.

And yes, I hate the big 4 as much as everyone else, and I can't stand successful artists pretending to care about upcoming bands having the same opportunities as they did when in reality all they want is their own royalties to keep rolling in, yet the fact is this can't carry on for much longer.  This cartoon from The Oatmeal went around as though it was the gospel truth of what needs to happen next, when it's anything but: musicians cannot get by on a few people personally paying them $5 or the equivalent for an album without drastically increasing the price of tickets to concerts or club nights, just as the $10 monthly Spotify fee isn't going to amount to anything other than fractions of a penny to individual artists.  

Streaming is something I personally don't understand (unless it's actual radio): it's fine when you're out somewhere and where quality doesn't matter so much, it's true.  Back home I want to be able to listen to music in the quality I want, preferably in a lossless format I've ripped from a CD or vinyl I can do whatever the hell I like with as I actually own it.  Failing that, a lossless download is fine.  320 mp3 for the odd track not available anywhere else is pushing it.  For a whole album, regardless of the price, forget it.  And if I want to try something first, it'll almost certainly be up on YouTube, or the artist's soundcloud or wherever else.  It feels really strange to have almost overnight become weird (or weirder) for wanting to have a physical product, rather than something that is never really yours, or which can be lost if it isn't in the "cloud" when things go wrong.

Without the likes of HMV, fewer albums will almost certainly be pressed to CD in the first place, except for the ultra limited editions we'll have to get ever more accustomed to.  Moreover, it will damage high streets as a whole: if my local branch closes, I'll have no reason to go anywhere near the town centre unless there's something at the cinema I really want to see, a far rarer occurrence than my regular trips to HMV to pick up the new releases and anything else that tickles my fancy, which will in turn harm the market traders as well as the other shops I might have popped in to.  On this at least I'm far from alone, and a major impact is bound to be felt.

Ultimately, it does come back to the music industry and all its hangers-on.  Another of the reasons HMV didn't have a good Christmas is that last year was one of the worst for mainstream music in recent memory.  When mediocrities such as Adele and Florence Welch are celebrated and praised as though they were the saviours of music itself, when every other song sounds almost exactly the same, when the perfunctory results in the biggest reward (Emeli Sande's album was the biggest selling of last year), you can't be surprised when consumers start turning their noses up.  Let the sky fall?  Hasn't it already?

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Monday, January 14, 2013 

Oh, for goodness sake.

Of all the things I don't understand about this world, the Twitter flounce out only to return 24 hours or so later is one of the things that perplexes me most.  It's the kind of thing I used to do on games forums when I was 15; when you're 55 you really ought to be over it.

This said, you can't help but sympathise with Suzanne Moore, if not with those who decided to come to her defence.  Short story is Moore contributed an angry, excellent essay to a Waterstones anthology in which, in a throwaway exaggeration, she suggested women are meant to aspire to the body image of a Brazilian transsexual.  Rather than take this in the good humour it was clearly meant, Moore was lambasted on Twitter for her crime of "transphobia", the chief complaint being that Brazil has a terrible record when it comes to hate crime against trans women and Moore's comments were therefore unhelpful and offensive.  It didn't seem to matter that I doubt the New Statesman (which reprinted Moore's piece) is among the foremost media outlets in Brazil, or indeed that there are far worse slurs in common usage (shemale, for instance), such is the nature of Twitter and its echo chamber effect that the entire issue was soon making waves.

Moore herself wrote a reply piece in the Graun, which again is fine, although she does enter into hyperbole again when she says this government makes Thatcher look like Shirley Williams.  Her point, that she doesn't care whether you were born a woman or not and that she meant no real offense, even if she also states that some "trans people appeared to reinforce every gender stereotype going".  Which again, is in my eyes a fair enough comment.  Controversial, not necessarily correct, but not offensive.

Enter stage left Julie Burchill, who has dedicated her entire journalistic career to being a contrarian.  You could call her insincere, except she appears to genuinely believes everything she writes, regardless of how it's intended to challenge, or more usually, offend, or at least seems to at the time.  She has therefore variously slandered John Lennon (someone's got to do it), supported the Iraq war so vociferously that with her partner she wrote an entire book about the hypocrisy of those who opposed it, and gone from finding God and becoming a Lutheran to apparently contemplating converting to Judaism, mainly down to her love for Israel as a country.

With friends like Burchill, Moore clearly doesn't need enemies.  Burchill's piece for the Observer, since removed from Comment is Free, was essentially one long tirade against transsexuals in general, rather than those who took offence in the first place.  If it had been posted as a blog on Burchill's personal site then there clearly wouldn't have been an issue: you can rant on about "dicks in chicks' clothing" and how transgender people telling Moore how to write "looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black and White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look" to your hearts content there, not least as that's what they'll expect from you.  The Observer giving it a home suggests no one at the paper actually read it, which wouldn't be surprising considering the fact it's now put together by two interns and a three-legged pussycat.

Honestly though, it's difficult to be offended by anything Burchill writes as it's just so obvious, and more pertinently, boring.  It's fine that she enjoys low culture; I really like certain aspects of what's considered low culture, such as exploitation films.  It's that she completely ignores how the same people she champions, the "chavs", the working class and celebrities are exploited by those she claims to loathe for the very things she defends, such as Big Brother.  The reason why she's found it so difficult to find a regular home for her columns in recent years is down to how she's become predictable, with the people who used to snap back against her having realised that she's a prime example of the commentator as troll, in the same way as all the other Glenda Slaggs.

For Lynne Featherstone to call for both Burchill and the Observer editor John Mulholland to be sacked is just grist to the mill.  That Featherstone happens to be a minister in the coalition that Moore so denounced may have influenced her decision, but it's also that Featherstone is one of those politicians who thinks nothing of calling for people to resign when the full facts are not yet known, as she did during the uproar over the Baby Peter case.  Interestingly, I can't find any indication that she made a similar call over Jan Moir's article on the death of Stephen Gately, although once she became equalities minister she did mention it in a speech to LGBT conference on Gay Pride.

Quite obviously, no one should lose their jobs over Burchill's column (as a freelancer, Burchill can't exactly be sacked in any case).  After all, the PCC didn't so much as chastise the Mail when it printed Moir's article, as she'd been careful not to use any pejorative term for homosexuals, which is key when it comes to breaching the PCC's clause on discrimination.  Whether or not Burchill's piece breaches the code isn't quite as clear cut: her riffs on "dicks in chicks' clothing" and "screaming mimis" certainly come very close to the line.  The PCC also tends to be harsher on the ex-broadsheets than it is the tabloids, so it wouldn't be wholly surprising if it did act.

All of this nonetheless rathers prove Moore's original point: that rather than organise opposition and resistance to the coalition's attacks on the most vulnerable in society, we're all too busy focusing on ephemera.  Austerity hasn't worked, yet there's very little anger, or when there is, it's directed at politicians in general rather than those who are imposing it.  Solidarity has partially broken down precisely because class is no longer the identity it once was.  Ours is an age where we label ourselves and gather in ever smaller cliques, often without seeing the wider picture.  It's one where anger's fine, as long as it isn't directed at anything that actually matters.  This sorry saga has ended up saying far more about the left in general than just about any newspaper think piece, and it's a deeply depressing picture.

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Friday, January 11, 2013 


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Thursday, January 10, 2013 

Bumford and Sons.

There's very little point in getting worked up over the Brit awards.  Every industry simply has to have a ceremony where the biggest successes of the year are celebrated, if only to ensure Jimmy Carr can keep stashing his money offshore.

This said, Mumford and Sons in three categories, including best album?  Really? Really?  And Paloma Faith in any category at all?  Thank heavens for small mercies: the Vaccines are completely ignored, as is Nicki Minaj.  Just a shame the same can't be said for Muse.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013 

Couldn't organise an audit in an accountants.

It says something about just what a pig's ear the coalition is making of almost everything at the moment that it can't even get the launch of an audit into itself right.  If you thought that Monday's mid-term review was pointless and self-indulgent rather than illuminating of what the government's achieved over the past two and a half years, then this is the political equivalent of Peter Jackson imagining that everyone would dearly love to see a short book extended into not 2 but 3 separate films.  Monday's review was 52 pages no one was ever going to read; today's audit is 122, and it's effectively a re-hash of the review except with a little more often completely irrelevant detail.  

You can understand completely why there was discussion within Downing Street as to whether it should be released or not, as it seems designed to annoy everyone.  For a start it doesn't keep a tally of which pledges have broken, as this would apparently have been "too simplistic"; translated that means would have given hacks an easy negative headline.  Not doing so though has just pissed them off instead, as they've had to do it themselves, with differing results.  The Telegraph this morning claimed 70 pledges hadn't been kept, while Andrew Sparrow has calculated it at around 33.  Either way it's meaningless as this is the coalition marking its own work, hence why there is again no mention of the double-dip recession or the lack of growth, while it brushes over the failure to meet the "supplementary element" of the fiscal mandate, that debt as a proportion of GDP should be falling by 2015-16.  In fact, as Jonathan Portes has argued, "Plan A" as a whole is effectively dead, Osborne and friends just haven't admitted as much.  

When Cameron then claimed that the audit would be "full, frank and unvarnished" he was as per usual, talking out of his hole.  The whole idea of this pledge system was foolish in the first place, especially when in all the government made hundreds of the damn things.  It was especially pointless when the coalition had no intention whatsoever of keeping some of them: look at the one pledging no further top-down reorganisations of the NHS, which was promptly broken within weeks.  And as you might expect, the ones that have to be marked as failures are mostly the major ones, whether it be on civil liberties where the government is doing the opposite to bringing an end to the keep of internet records without good reason, on child poverty, protecting those on low incomes, Europe, or increasing capital gains tax to a level similar to that of income tax.

What use the document will have beyond this initial sniggering, as that is frankly all it's produced, is dubious in the extreme.  An MP can't direct a constituent to it as they'll wonder what on earth it is they've been told to read, while it's far too subjective to be used by anyone else.  More to the point is that pledges are worthless when they're pledges to introduce bad policy, something the coalition has done to abundance, a case in point being the police commissioners no one wanted and almost no one voted for. 

Much the same can be said of today's announcement from Chris Grayling on the privatisation of the probation service.  Anyone who isn't Grayling looking at the problems this is bound to throw up would think a major pilot scheme (the long-standing scheme at Peterborough jail is no indication of how how it would work nationwide, with many different providers) would be in order, not least because of the failures both of the Pathways to Work scheme under Labour and Grayling's own Work programme, neither of which bode well for the success of further payment by results schemes.  Add in that we're dealing with public protection, which in the past has been the downfall of many past home secretaries, and caution would be the obvious option.

Not for Grayling though.  There are times when you simply have to do something, and this apparently is one of those.  It's certainly true that re-offending rates are far too high, yet there isn't the slightest indication that private firms will be any better at stopping those out after serving a short sentence from re-offending than the state is currently.  Indeed, that the probation service will continue to look after the most serious and high risk offenders is hardly a vote of confidence in the capabilities of those that will shortly be submitting bids, and you can guarantee it'll be the same old companies that have cocked it up so marvellously in the past: G4S, Serco and Capita will almost certainly be first in the queue.

As Harry Fletcher argues, it's difficult not to see this both as purely ideological and to cut costs to the bone.  If it wasn't the former, then Grayling would have expanded the pilot scheme; if it isn't the latter, then there's no reason whatsoever why the probation service can't also take control of the new requirement to monitor those out after serving less than 12 months.  Regardless of the motive, the responsibility will still lie with the secretary of state, and anything with the potential to bring Grayling down can't be all bad.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013 

Caught in their own welfare trap.

It's fair to say that I've been rather despairing of the ever increasing attacks on benefit claimants, both those in work and out of it.  The BBC has joined in, surveys seem to suggest ever hardening attitudes towards those both sick and unemployed, there are numerous first-hand reports of those in wheelchairs being accused to their face of faking their disability for payments, and then there are the people who have died while waiting for their appeal against being declared fit for work by ATOS to be heard.  Recessions and hard times almost always result in those one rung down the ladder being kicked by those above them, but the way in which those at the top, whether in politics or the media, have upped the ante over the last couple of years has still managed to shock.

Today marks the end point.  The Conservatives have overreached themselves to such an extent through the benefit uprating bill and the rhetoric surrounding it that the only result will be the undermining of the entire narrative.  It should be remembered that the current popular attitude towards welfare is not the work of either the Tories or the tabloids, it's thanks to Labour's helming of the system.  Not, as the tabloids and Tories have it that they failed to reform it, but rather that they set in motion the exact reforms the coalition have supercharged.  The work capability assessment was Labour's invention, as was replacing incapacity benefit with employment and support allowance, while abolishing income support.  All this was put about with the equivalent of a nod and a wink, which while preferable to the "strivers vs skivers" of late had the same end result: encouraging the tabloids to print ever more articles about scroungers or the very few claiming huge amounts of housing benefit.

This shaming of claimants has been so successful that Labour has completely gone along with it. Faced with Osborne's wheeze of freezing benefits at 1%, they've wanted to talk only of the effect on those in-work, as if those out of work aren't striving for a job, or the sick and disabled making do on their meagre payments aren't worth an in line with inflation rise. Those on the right of the party balked at even this, imagining they were walking straight into Osborne's trap.

As so often in the past, politicians have once again underestimated the public.  Osborne felt certain this would be just as popular as the benefit cap, the undeserving poor put in their place, with minimal impact on those claiming tax credits.  Depending on how the question is asked you get different results, but overall it looks as though opinion is close to evenly split on whether the move is justified or not.  It's certainly nowhere near the 75% support the £26,000 cap receives. What's more, this is the point at which support is going to peak.  Once everyone fully realises how either they or their friends and family will be affected, the number in favour will drop further.

More than anything else, the Conservatives and Osborne continue to mistake their showing in the polls for actual popularity.  The fact is, almost anything government touches is instantly passé: once you're completely open in your loathing for the poor and poorly paid in general, as opposed to the underclass or those taking the taxpayer for a ride, the fightback begins in earnest.  When the politics are so base and so transparent that you're putting up billboards denouncing Labour for daring to say the low paid, the sick and the out of work should see their benefits increase with inflation, something they agreed with last year when Osborne said the same people deserved the rise, you're inviting the parodies and vandalism that will inevitably follow.

It's still come to something though when it's David Miliband, of all people, who exposed his party's cowardice in not going all the way in denouncing this bill for what it is.  It is rancid, and the Liberal Democrats should never be allowed to forget that they supported it. Miliband showed where the money to fund the rise could come from, and even dared to say the problem was unemployment, not the unemployed, underlining just how far the debate has moved from reality when something so obvious has to be pointed out.  When there are simply not enough jobs to go round, where is the fairness in expecting those on JSA to make do on an extra 71p a week?

Even if the Tories are regretting their attempt to create a dividing line, as the likes of Andrew Sparrow and others are implying, and are now attempting to tone down the rhetoric, it's far too late.  The damage has already been done: it's a measure highly unlikely to win many votes, especially coming 2 years before an election, despite the Tories seeming to believe it's just around the corner through the billboard campaign, and it will reinforce amongst those who are claiming what the Tories really think about them.  This is a government that demands responsibility above everything else and yet it refuses to take any itself, whether it's on the double-dip recession that never merits a mention, or the humiliating failure of the work programme.  As Liam Byrne said, in opposition Iain Duncan Smith made clear that "Conservative policies have to work for Britain's poorest communities and ... must be measured by that standard".  Duncan Smith presumably agrees then that the spread of food banks is a wonderful example of the Big Society in action.

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