Monday, 31 March 2014

Safety valve politics


In an interview with Andrew Neil, Simon Darby speculates that the rise of Ukip is a result of a concerted establishment campaign to drive out the BNP from the British political arena. That is not an unrealistic assessment. Andrew Neil rightly points to a collapse in party finances, and consequentially membership, but Darby is not far off the mark either.  It is a combination of both.

It is hardly a co-incidence that for a time recently, not a day went by without Farage appearing on TV or in the newspapers in a broadly sympathetic (or at least less hostile) light. I have remarked on a few occasions that this is not out of fairness to Ukip, rather they are a pawn in a much larger agenda.

Darby notes that Ukip is a loose mix of "crude populism and neo-Thatcherism which will get found out".  He is not wrong about that either. Ukip all but abandoned its "neo-Thatherite" intellectual base and exchanged sustainable growth for rapid expansion by appealing to the BNP vote, capitalising on the wave of publicity afforded it by the media. It worked. 

Never one to miss an opportunity to score an own goal, Farage turned his party toward harvesting the BNP vote as he admits today, and now the real "threat to the establishment" party is but a shadow of its former self. The debate is back inside safe parameters, and now the worm turns.

Now the BNP demon is back in the box marked "unclean" there has been a noticeable change in tone against Ukip. It has done its job and is no longer useful to the establishment. For a time, far from being a "threat to the establisment", Ukip was the acceptable face of protest. A safety valve. The protest vote you were allowed to have. But now there is no mileage in Ukip, but for the the likes of Hope Not Hate (who otherwise would have nothing else to do), Ukip will now be ignored and smeared, while Farage walks into every trap set for him, and does their work for them.

So it's a big win for the establishment and a win for Farage, who now goes down as the leader who broke Ukip into the mainstream, and goes off into the sunset having had a long career on the gravy train, and will likely enjoy a nice retirement courtesy of the taxpayer (assuming he doesn't end up in jail for corruption).

The only loser is the Eurosceptic movement.  Once Farage departs he will leave a hollowed out shell of a party, in a bloody civil war, with no foundation to steer its recovery - and it will be lucky to survive the skeletons that fall from the Farage closet.  Having cleared out any natural successors the party is left with talentless yes-men and it is difficult to see how Ukip can survive at all.  Thanks Nige. Thanks a lot

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Great Debate: a defeat for Nigel Farage - and us.

EU debate: Basically a douche-off

Those with stronger constitutions than I will have watched a great deal more of last nights "debate" on the EU between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. I had some paint drying I urgently needed to watch, so tuned out half-way through.  Between them they traded numbers from the backs of their trump-cards, parroting the same tired old arguments and boring mantras.  The "debate" added nothing to our understanding of the issues and stayed within the safe boundaries of the old narratives. A wasted opportunity.

Much of what we saw could have been scripted in 1995, with little modification required in order to broadcast it yesterday - in what was an empty sideshow. What we had was two non-entity tribalists pitted against eachother for entertainment of our political class, and the profit of commercial broadcasters. The only thing missing was Simon Cowell along with a premium rate phone-vote.  

Ultimately, it was a loss for Nigel Farage. Farage was squarely defeated in the first few minutes.  He said his lines well, quoted all the right facts, and did exactly what he was supposed to do, as any useful idiot should, and that is why he (and Euro-scepticism) lost last night.  The debate was framed within a set of debating parameters that allows for deception by omission, and Farage, helpfully, allowed it to be so. The moment he started trading immigration figures (accurate or not) and car production numbers, he walked right into the trap.

This debate has never been about jobs, trade or immigration. This is a much more straightforward issue: who governs us?  Do you want us to be an independent sovereign nation, trading freely with the world and the EU, or do you want to be governed by an unelected minority elite, as a minor province of a United States of Europe. Anything else is just air-filler. It is fundamentally a question of democracy.

The EU has only one destination, and only one direction of travel.  To play top-trumps with Nick Clegg is to deny the nature of the beast (that it is an unyielding supranational vanity project) and to perpetuate the myth that our EU membership is a membership of a trading-bloc.

The debate surrounding trade with the EU has been framed by the political classes as a binary option.  By accepting the binary fallacy, Farage reinforces the view that Ukip wants us to pull up the drawbridge, which plays right into the "job fears" mantras of Clegg.  And it works. That point in the debate would have been a good time to bring to light an alternative vision for Britain, derived from a well thought-out policy base. But as we know, Ukip is a party that stands for nothing of substance.  Thus the debate remains one of jobs, trade and immigration.

More depressing than the debate itself was the fallout this morning with Clegg alleging that Farage was "siding with Putin" over Ukraine. Farage at least gets the central premise of what is happening there, though his understanding is superficial - and he was winging it as usual.  (In fairness he looks like an intellectual colossus next to Nick Clegg, whose understanding of it resembles that of a twelve-year-old who has spent too much time playing American computer games.) - But it is depressing in the sense that the EU induced travesty in Ukraine is only noticed by the media herd as it becomes a political football between two point-scoring intellectual pygmies, when this geo-political event reveals better than anything the true nature of the EU and it's supranational aspirations.

As to who "won" the "debate" among the viewers, that entirely depends on who had the largest self-selecting minority watching. Meanwhile, the real business of politics goes on elsewhere, unremarked by our infantile media who seemed more concerned with whether Farage was sweating too much, or how many sips of water Nick Clegg took. If that is the fullest extent of analysis our media can apply to a debate, on our survival as a nation no less, then whatever fate awaits us is one well deserved.

CEOcracy: legalised theft

Dave Smith: Waste of space parasite
The matter of local authority executive pay, as my Facebook readers will know, is something I keep a watchful eye on.  The runaway pay and perks of our CEOcracy is symptomatic of a deeper crisis of democracy, and is a good yardstick by which to measure the scale of the problem.  It is often a measure used to highlight the gaping pay gap that exists between ordinary workers and our betters at the top. There is a fairly typical example of such this week in the Sunderland Echo.

Sunderland City Council’s chief executive – currently Dave Smith – takes home an annual wage of £175,699 before tax, while a cleaner earns £12,435 per year for a 37-hour week. In justifying the salary level, "a report" says "the post is in line with a large city authority, with responsibility for the provision of wide-ranging services to 275,743 residents and a £678.8million service budget. It reads: “The chief officer pay policy is designed to be easily understood and be transparent to the post holders, key stakeholders and the public. The structure and level of the pay arrangements is designed to enable the council to attract, motivate and retain key senior talent for the authority.”

These same weasel words can be found in the bowels of any council website, which I believe to be derived from the same Hays Group report that gave way to this master-stroke of policy, whereby Rochdale Council awarded it's own executive parasite a pay-rise of £40,000.

As a meritocratic minded person, I am not fundamentally opposed to high pay.  The issue here is whether the taxpayer gets value for money.  In case you were wondering what we pay them for... take a look at this.
Cut-price parking has not helped to fill spaces at the barely used £1.2 million park and ride site in Stoke Gifford. In September the Post reported that the weekday fee was being slashed from £5 to £2 a day if paid by mobile phone to encourage more drivers to leave their cars in the bays off Hunts Ground Road. But a Freedom of Information request submitted to South Gloucestershire Council has revealed that it is still mostly empty - with an average of just 10 motorists a day using the car park. The BBC, who made the request, are reporting that the council said the car park, which opened in Spring 2011, was used by only 139 motorists in its first three months and raised £13,899.74 in revenue last year.
This is one of the more egregious examples of how these out-of-touch clowns spend our money, and it's my favourite go-to example (since it's on my own doorstep). But you won't need to be a super-sleuth to find such idiocy in your own back yard.  And not for the first time has such a venture in my neck of the woods been a total flop.  "Councillor Pat Hockey, in charge of environment and transport, admitted that the scheme had been a flop. "We got to the point when it was suck-it-and-see or abandon it." The suggestion was it would work, but it hasn't, so we discontinued it and we'll be reviewing the lease on the car park".

So you can see why "the level of the pay arrangements is designed to enable the council to attract, motivate and retain key senior talent for the authority".  How could we possibly manage without them? Who could have imagined that drivers would not wish to abandon their cars, miles from the city, to take expensive and oversubscribed public transport into town? (keeping in mind that Bristol Temple Meads is actually nowhere near Bristol City Centre.)  It will comes as no surprise that Ms Amanda Deeks, South Gloucestershire Council CEO, goes unpunished and remains in her overpaid role.

But back to Dave Smith. As the Guardian notes "Dave has worked in a variety of roles including social care, housing and economic regeneration. He has a particular interest in the use of new technologies to support more effective, efficient and joined-up public service delivery and has been involved in the IBM Smarter Cities programme since 2009."

So in effect he is a typical example of our revolving door public sector aristocracy, who has navigated the game, hopping between managerial posts to clock up a nice tidy little pension, having spent not a day in the private sector. A cosy little carousel that has been widely reported over many years, and yet nothing is done about it.

So if they lack the commercial experience to avoid these blunders, it must surely be that we keep them to take the tough decisions like this one, whereby councillors objected to the sale of electoral role data. Dave Smith, (coincidentally electoral registration officer for Sunderland City Council), said it had no choice over releasing the data. “The council has no discretion in this matter,” he said. “It has a legal and statutory duty to supply the information."  Yet another example of our councils being toothless policy implementation agencies of Whitehall.

I can only conclude that is not that we pay these individuals too much. It is that we pay them at all. If an elected council is not its own executive, and council executives have little or no executive power (just as well in the face of what happens when they do), what, dear reader, is the point of having them?  Sunderland Council claims the pay policy is designed to be "easily understood and be transparent to the post holders, key stakeholders and the public".  It is beyond my comprehension, so I guess this blogger must be a bit thick.

If the salary of the post is "in line with a large city authority, with responsibility for the provision of wide-ranging services to 275,743 residents and a £678.8million service budget", then that begs the question, why is Sunderland Council (of all places), providing for 275,743 residents, and why does it have a budget of £678.8million?  No entity of such scale could be considered a "local" authority in any sense of the word.

And therein lies the problem. We cannot speak of local democracy until we reacquaint ourselves with what the word means, and while we have these parasites at the top, we cannot speak of democracy either.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Shame on Aldi


Aldi: Wasting people's time

In scenes reminiscent of The Great Depression we see images of long queues for job interviews at Aldi discount supermarket.  Leon Donald, an area manager for the supermarket, told the press that a previous event attracted even more job hunters, with around 1,500 people flocking to the jobs fair.

Aldi means to say that it has such little regard for unemployed people that it is prepared to let a thousand or more people stand around in the cold, for long periods of time, when only forty jobs were on offer.  Aldi means to say that its human resources department is so inept that it cannot find forty local people in need of work on the internet - and interview them in a dignified setting that does not waste the time and raise the hopes of over a thousand people.

Such a colossal wheeze that it is to waste everyone's time in this fashion, they saw fit to do it again.  And will doubtlessly congratulate themselves for a job well done.

Of course, the Job Centre has its own role to play in this spectacle by adding ever more ridiculous targets and conditions to JSA, forcing people with no chance (for whatever reason) of getting a role at Aldi to apply anyway.  The Job Centre is wasting Aldi's time and the public's time, and Aldi seems happy to oblige.

Meanwhile the product of these events are these recession-porn stock photos, which surely serve somebody's political interests. As budgets begin to bite one might consider switching to a cheaper supermarket, but not one that has such obvious contempt for people in need of work.

Local Democracy: It's local, but it ain't democratic

Local Democracy: It's local, but it ain't democratic.
It's fast approaching April, which means my news feed will be dominated by local media stories pertaining to council tax.  Every year we see the same types of stories repeated over and over.  A typical example would be this one where in one authority alone, 20,000 homes were sent a "summons" in just six months. That's the equivalent of a small town.

We will soon see similar stories on a daily basis from other authorities, as indeed we did last year.  This is a subject I will return to as the noise ramps up, but if hauling 20,000 people in one authority in front of the courts isn't a manifest policy failure, I'd like to know what is.  But this is symptomatic of a much wider malaise in local government.  It starts and ends with a fundamental crisis of democracy, and we cannot begin to tackle it until our leaders understand what the word means.

This brings us to a piece last week, by Nick Golding, editor of the Local Government Chronicle, which as far as I can make out is the trade rag for all those anonymous officials sucking up hundreds of thousands in pay and perks each, with little or no democratic accountability.

He opens his piece with a swipe at Ukip: "One of the main reasons that a party set up to oppose the European Union will win seats on numerous councils is that the electorate is indifferent to voting for candidates representing regular parties who may have local policies but lack the ability to implement them."

That much he has right.  We may have all the furniture of a democracy, but democracy; people power, we do not have.  Golding complains "Central government imposes cuts on councils without regard to local need and councillors have seen their powers over issues such as planning and education whittled away to the point of impotence. With representative democracy looking this unhealthy, one can understand someone’s rationale for using the local elections to make a bold statement about an issue largely unrelated to local politics or indeed not voting at all."

Not much to disagree with there. Essentially, local elections have been reduced to an opinion poll on the popularity of central government, and consequently all we voters have is an opportunity to protest.  Ukip being the dustbin for those protest votes means that they will do well, assuming Farage does not blow it for them. As the numbers willing to cast a vote diminishes, for reasons Golding outlines, Ukip becomes a self-selecting minority and councils will be returned on the basis of meagre turnouts.  That is not democracy in action.

Golding goes on to ask how then local democracy can be reinvigorated. Hilary Benn, shadow Communities Minister, "proposes the extension of city deals to counties, ensuring power is devolved in more places, making it more worthwhile to vote in them. The same is true of his promise that councils will get a significant role in commissioning back-to-work schemes."

Brendan O'Neill in Spiked today says that Labourites calling for a ‘bold and radical’ agenda need a dictionary. "They say there should be ‘devolution of state institutions, by giving away power… to our nations, regions, cities, and localities’. One should always be suspicious when well-paid politicos call for the ‘giving away’ of power - you just know that, in keeping with the whole pseudo-radical modern-day devolution racket, what they’re really talking about is the movement of aspects of power from the great halls and chambers of Westminster to people like them, in think-tank offices and public-sector buildings, all just itching to exercise more political clout."

He is not wrong.  Insomuch as our politicians need to look up what radicalism means, they should check up on the word "democracy" while they are at it.  Local councils as they stand are regional development agencies working in tandem with health authorities, the Environment Agency and a plethora of quangos who are even less accountable than councils. Devolution to these regional agencies is not democracy either.

But it is curious that Nick Golding and the Local Government Chronicle is in a flap about the one true democratic control we have.  He observes that Labour is likely to retain council tax referendums "forcing locally elected politicians to navigate a prohibitively expensive and risky hurdle if they seek to safeguard services by raising bills above an arbitrary limit imposed from afar by a minister. To date no council has successfully pursued this path."

He continues "Councillors should take decisions on local public expenditure, facing grief at the ballot box if they prove unpopular. Referendums only muddy the waters of local democracy, introducing a semblance of people power which hinders representative democracy. The fact that they are only applicable to a minute portion of public expenditure – one of the few slithers of spending not centrally controlled – makes them a democratic illusion."

It is of little surprise, as he remarks, "to date no council has successfully pursued this path".  Very few have put the question of council tax rises to a general vote for the simple reason they know with absolute certainty that people will not consent to them spending yet more of their money.  How horribly inconvenient.  Of course that hasn't stopped our "representative democracy" machine circumventing the public will by ramping up charges and fines to cover the shortfall, to the point where "supplementary revenue" now accounts for a third of council budgets. Hence why these referendums are "only applicable to a minute portion of public expenditure".

But the central message here is that a council tax referendum "hinders representative democracy". That phrase embodies a misuse of the word democracy. In representative democracy people themselves do not hold power, so that system cannot by definition be a democracy.  In "representative democracy", politicians execute power on our behalf.  What Golding means is that giving people a say interrupts their agenda as revenue collecting entities.

Faced with a system that returns only dustbin vote councillors, who have little power in their own right, elected by a mere fraction of the electorate, with a total absence of any democracy in the proper sense, made up of people who think the role of politicians is to spend money, it is time we cut out the middle man and had our own say - on this, and everything else.

Golding complains "Eric Pickles regards the council tax referendum as a device to secure democracy. Well, if that is true, will the government commit to holding polls every time a decision is required on the expenditure it controls? More likely, ministers will argue their government is the democratic representative of the people, entrusted to make tough decisions on their behalf. The same argument applies to local government."

What Golding asks as though the notion were reductio ad absurdum, I say say in all seriousness.  Yes, the government should be holding polls every time a decision is required on the expenditure it controls.  The "democratic representatives of the people" cannot be trusted to take tough decisions on our behalf.  Only cave dwelling primitives could believe that they can.

Neither Golding, Benn or Pickles have any real interest in democracy. The debate surrounding council tax referendums is less about democracy than it is a pissing contest between their respective dunghills, to decide which of them may extort and squander our money.  What we plebs think is neither here nor there. That is why we need The Harrogate Agenda, and that is why, when the council comes knocking for more money, you should make it cost them.  That is democracy.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

So there was a budget.

Budget: Move alone, nothing to see here.


So it transpires that every one of my predictions came true.  My Nobel Prize for Economics is in the post I expect. But you don't have to be an economics guru of my calibre to make such lucid prognostications. The most we could ever expect from our ideas-free political class is timid accountancy. This is the age where political parties stand for whatever their surveys, focus-groups and polls says they should. Rather than standing on a foundation of agreed ideas and principles, then selling them, they drift from issue to issue without anything of substance underpinning their policies.

Doubtless there shall be endless pontificating over the various talking points, but this all resembles a flock of vultures pecking at a bare skeleton than serious analysis. News is merely entertainment.  Meagre tinkering will be presented as daring, minor adjustments will be painted as radical, and all debate will take place inside predefined, sanitised parameters. We have been conditioned to believe that things cannot change, and to be content with the mediocre.

There is no point whatsoever in trawling the detail of this budget looking for ideas or silver bullets. There are none. In almost every aspect of our lives the drag factor is the state itself.  One need not need detail the parlous state of our public finances.  One need not read the newspaper to realise there is an emerging cost of living crisis.  One need not detail the stifling tax codes and regulation issues standing in the way of innovation and job creation.  But nothing in this budget suggests our rulers have grasped this very simple dynamic.

So why does it remain the elephant in the room? Put simply, our political class cannot envisage any society where they do not hold all the cards, or any scenario where the great unwashed can be trusted to manage their own affairs.  And why should they with a bovine, conformist, obedient electorate who bat not an eyelid at the notion that 46% of their income ends up in the state coffers?  Our government will not change until the people change.

While we have elections and votes we have no actual power in the democratic sense, and without power there is only protest; and protest they can ignore.  So it seems if we want them to stop spending our money, then we shall need to stop giving it to them.  I expect George Osborne knows this which is why he has just granted the state the power to take money directly from our bank accounts.

If we wish to remain a first-world, free country, we will have to start saying no.  I certainly do.  But since that's just me, the third-world kleptocratic police-state we are descending into will be nothing less than you deserve, because you keep paying what you are told to pay, when you are told to pay it.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Budget 2014: Review in full

Pete North: The great sage at work
While the Budget doesn't actually happen until tomorrow, I thought I would get my review in first.  I thought I would astonish you with my rune-reading skills and first rate economic insight.

Amid an anticipatory atmosphere, the house listened in awe as George Osborne delivered the speech of his career that will seal his position as the future leader of the Tories. (to the few remaining members who had not dozed off). Ordinary members listened intently for anything that was not on their "leaked" pre-budget briefing.  It was a truly seismic political event (in that postal district that day.)

But what does this mean for you the voter?

Unsurprisingly, some stuff you buy has gone up a bit.  Some stuff you don't buy has gone down a bit.  Some people who aren't you pay a bit more tax, and some people who aren't you pay a bit less. Some people will have their lifestyle choices subsidised a bit more, some a little less, depending on which is the most marginal electoral constituency.

The Telegraph praised Osborne for his courageous tinkering by budging something or other down by 1p, while the Guardian criticised his rampant neoliberal agenda by "savagely cutting" something nondescript by tuppence ha'penny.

Airtime was filled on the BBC.  Andrew Neil Tweeted something and there were many retweets.  Ukippers left many comments on the Telegraph saying there was no difference between the LibLabCon, and I got four Facebook "likes" for this blog post.  The Guardian featured a special budget day recipe blog featuring Jack Monroe.

As a result of Osborne's visionary stewardship of the economy, this time next year we will only be borrowing twenty billion or so over £100bn a year, and only a trillion (and a bit) in debt.  Nobody will be filling their tanks with petrol as usual, alcoholics will have to settle for entry-level Blossom Hill, and some middle-class 40 year olds might finally have a foot on the housing ladder - by purchasing a dilapidated shed in Hounslow through "help-to-buy".

Roughly 46% of your income will still be travelling in the direction of government and we will still be spending £80bn on a train-set so people can go to that mythical place outside the M25, for reasons known only to them.  "Praise be to the fiscal prudence of the Tories who have balanced the books after the scourge of Blairite socialism. We are now truly a nation in full recovery!" said Peter Oborne as he nursed his erection.

Meanwhile, I bunked off work and watched Murder She Wrote and made a cheese toastie.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Ukip smears: they doth protest too much

Ukip: Up in smoke
If a racist bigot says something racist and bigoted, and the media reports it, is that a smear?  If a drunken sexist buffoon says something sexist and buffoonish while drunk, and the media reports it, is that a smear?  If a homophobe says something homophobic, and the media reports it, is that a smear? If a philandering crook is a philandering crook and the media reports it, is that also a smear? If a ridiculous manifesto is withdrawn on the basis that it is ridiculous, and the media reports it, is that then a smear too?  Yes to all of the above apparently, if you belong to the Ukip tribe. It's so unfair!

EUReferendum.com is less than impressed (when is he ever?).  But you know, most of that really doesn't really bother me as much as it should.  It should, but it doesn't. There is a certain amount of "let he who is without sin" about this, and I don't think I'm entirely innocent given my more robust political views in my not-so-distant youth.  I will have some explaining to do if any of my old blogs ever resurface!  And in spite of Ukip's legion of idiots, their "Nope, not hope" blog demonstrates that if you take a cross section of councillors from all parties, you will find benefit cheats, thieves, fraudsters, thugs, Lib-dems, perverts, child-molesters and a myriad of other unwholesome types that make Ukip's clowns look like saints.

It's quite clear, even to "Ukip-haters" like me, that there is a media agenda to rough up Ukip by disproportionately reporting these things, and the BBC bias against them was always brazen and unashamed.  But as I remarked yesterday, the Telegraph is broadly sympathetic to Ukip and the Daily Express is pretty much a Ukip newspaper.  The BNP never had this kind of exposure, and had a daily barrage of bad press, yet diligently ignored it and carried on winning votes, even eating into Ukip's activist base in the North.  It was water off a ducks back to the BNP.  But it seems to stick on Ukip.

There is a good reason for this. Discipline, ideas and strategy.  No revolutionary movement has ever succeeded without.  Not at any point did anyone have to question what the BNP stood for. It had an intellectual foundation (albeit a profoundly disagreeable one), a web strategy, a media strategy and it bent to no-one, never compromised, and never softened its message to woo new members.  For a time, it was a highly organised, professional outfit and was outstripping Ukip's influence by a country mile even though it was the smaller party.  Their website hits were more than all of the other parties combined.

The way they did this was by having a decent website updated twice daily, with a relevant counter-view to the establishment on the news of the day.  It had its core values and built all of its activities around them.  It included selected members blog posts and some of them were pretty good.  Exceptional by Ukip standards.  They understood what their website was for and how to exploit it.  Ukip does not.

There have been attempts to professionalise the Ukip back office operation but they have fallen flat time after time, largely because of Farage's command and control mentality - and his galactic ego.  To look at their website on any given day they have speeches by the leader (big who cares?), obscure stories barely relating to the news of the day - and Youtube videos as their lead stories, without even posting explanatory text. This fails to take account of the fact that most people browse news sites at work, where they don't have audio.  The whole web operation is ill-considered and amateurish, and it is a first port of call for no-one.  Ukip, rather than creating the news, it is reacting to it, or making the news for all the wrong reasons.

A political party communications operation should essentially be run like a newspaper and central to its activities.  It needs to be up to date, relevant and of higher quality than the media.  And as himself over at EUReferendum points out, that does have to be research driven, and it must all weave into a consistent philosophy. Through tireless research, EUReferendum.com has broken a series of major stories in the last twelve months alone, from STOR generators to the EU's hand in flooding Somerset.  One man, in one office, far from London or Brussels with no budget. And yet what has the Ukip website accomplished lately? or ever?

Ukip's web and media operation has always been lacklustre, and still shows no sign improving.  The frank and startling admission by Farage just recently that he didn't know what was on the Ukip website, and had precious little idea what was in the manifesto, speaks volumes about the man's ignorance, arrogance and incompetence.  We are dealing with a party that sees a website as an accessory rather than central to the communication strategy.

Because of this, when one asks what Ukip stands for, it's difficult to tell because it fluctuates from month to month. If you ask four different activists in twenty-four hours, you will get four different answers.  How are its activists supposed to know what Ukip stands for if Ukip iself does not know?  It no longer even has a manifesto. But Ukip will not commit to hard and fast values because that would reveal a serious strategic blunder. Were they to stand firm on their original libertarian leanings they would scare away half their members.

Many will argue that the party has broadened its appeal, but by "broadening appeal", it has quietly dropped is founding ideals and essentially taken the pressure off the Tories (so to shake off the "pressure group" mantle), but in so doing has cashed in its only bargaining chip. They have even shifted their focus away from primarily being an anti-EU party, morphing into something else entirely, having deluded itself that it can take power in Westminster.

By gearing for rapid expansion, and bending to the needs of that agenda, rather than having sustained growth of a committed activist base loyal to an idea, it has created a catch-all dustbin vote, with nothing to unite its members and activists other than a distaste for "establishment parties" in the wake of their corruption.  Meanwhile Farage, with a first class ticket on the gravy train, is bedding his aide and hushing her with public money.

The piss-poor performance of Ukip's back office and the complete lack of policy, substance and strategy means that Ukips growth is based on the Cult of Farage and his tub-thumping pub speeches, and that means when he finally crashes and burns, which was always an inevitability, the party will have nothing to unite upon and will disintegrate.

The party has absorbed the life work and devotion of many good people over the last twenty years, and it has taken a mammoth effort for it to enjoy the position it has, but soon will have been undone entirely, through just one man's actions, leaving the eurosceptic movement back at square one to watch Ukip's vote evaporate, just as the BNP's did (for similar reasons).

For Richard North it might be personal, but for me, and anyone else who has waited all their life to see Britain leave the EU, it should be personal too.  Our movement has been systematically sabotaged and destroyed by an incompetent charlatan who was only ever interested in power for himself while lining his own pockets. Remind me again why Ukip is the anti-politics vote?

Thursday, 13 March 2014

BNP: The dog that could have barked

Griffin: Short-sighted in more ways than one.
Tim Black of Spiked today offers his musings on why the BNP collapsed.  It's a superficially credible piece presenting some useful historical background, but I don't think Tim has this one quite right. 

In his words "The BNP, despite its efforts under Nick Griffin to present itself as a more moderate party, was never really going to appeal to even a significant minority of the British electorate. Rather, the best it could hope for was to capitalise on a small protest vote, not a large pro-racist groundswell. And as a result, its success was always going to be evanescent. All which raises a rather more pertinent question: why did so many in the press and in parliament feel the need to hype up the BNP as the second coming of fascism? It seems that posturing against Britain's rather non-existent far-right came a little too easy to rather too many."

But that protest vote potential was not by any means small - and even small protest votes can punch above their weight.  Even before the financial crisis, politicians were held in unprecedented low esteem, and with turnouts as they were (and still are), even a small party can do a great deal of damage in marginal constituencies, and set the agenda for the national debate.

At their peak, the BNP was forcing a debate our rulers would have preferred not to have, and the BNP didn't even need to win seats to do it. The New Labour government had established a new precedent for aloof political correctness and the anti-politics public sentiment was as acute as it is now, if not more so.  The establishment was worried by the BNP with good reason.

The BNP was the ultimate "up yours" to the establishment. It was totally unsanitised, unapologetic, the very antithesis of PC, highly organised, well disciplined, and unlike Ukip, had a consistent strand of ideology throughout all of its output - and was doing very well from it. The message to its members was you either like it or you don't. If you don't, go away. It knew itself, it knew its agenda and it was not prepared to compromise, which made it completely unique in the UK political sphere, while Ukip was running scared.

At one point the BNP website was the number one political website in the UK, it ran good stories (that checked out) and it weaved them into its own narrative. It's trolling of the mainstream media was absolutely sublime. From obscurity, it scored a million votes with no help from the media. Ukip had the Daily Express singing its praises and the Telegraph was always sympathetic, but the entire media establishment put up an anti-BNP firewall, yet could not stop its inexorable growth. The more shrill the media became, the better it did.
Insomuch as politicians did not like the upstart BNP rocking the boat, they also upset the media's agenda.
 
At the very height of the BNP surge it was eating into the Ukip vote and activist base, which is what prompted Ukip to run its ongoing anti-immigration policy. Incidentally, that is why Ukip is happy to take on former BNP activists because in many cases it is taking its own people back. The BNP was hoovering up the working class old Labour vote in the North, and to right-wingers it looked like the BNP was going places when Ukip struggled to be seen as anything but a single issue party.  There is no question about it, the BNP was breaking out of its racist cul-de-sac and was starting to turn heads.


The party had a well defined manifesto, with unparalleled detail, that a great many reasonable people could get behind.  Beyond that you would have to dig much deeper to find signs of its sinister ethno-nationalist ideology.  It may not have had the potential to turn a Tory, but it was fishing in the pond of those who had never voted, which is a large pond to fish in.  That was a threat the establishment could not afford to ignore, especially when local elections are turned on just a handful of votes.

The BNP was following the successful model of the Lib-Dems by building up a strong local activist base, with a long term strategy, building up local power-bases that the main parties simply could not hope to rival.  So what went wrong?

What killed the BNP was Nick Griffin. On the back of BNP success, Griffin, in his arrogance, changed the party constitution and made it his own personal plaything. He made himself leader for life, started running up lots of debt, and then merged party finances with his own finances. When he hit financial trouble, party donations then went to his personal creditors without them ever appearing on the party books. In the wake of this, amidst protest, he sacked his most capable activists and writers, leaving a rump of half a dozen weirdos running the show, then the activist base peeled off and the party was left with no money to operate. If the establishment wanted to hobble the rise of the BNP, they could have picked no better man that Nick Griffin to do it.

Had Griffin not been such a corrupt and foolish individual, the BNP would have wiped out Ukip and be an actual threat to the Lib-Dem's position as the third UK party, in the way that some polls foolishly suggest that Ukip is.  That politicians and mainstream journalists talked up the threat of the BNP tells us that they were taking the BNP threat seriously.  In that regard, they showed a greater political awareness than Tim Black.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

South Park: the end of an era

Stick of Truth: Flogging a dead horse

Something new for this blog, and something which I shall do very rarely.  A game review!  It probably comes as little surprise to you that I am a massive South Park fan.  It was a revolutionary series that was unashamedly conservative in a massively politically correct era.  As usual I was a latecomer to the party.  I think the show had peaked by the time I had taken an interest in it.  As a general rule of thumb, the fad is over if I take an interest.  The Wire had been over for years before I saw a single episode, and I think I was the last person in the world to join the smart-phone revolution.

At the height of South Park, I was living in extreme, self-inflicted poverty as a techno DJ, in a scene which is broadly left-wing, and about as hippy as hippy gets.  Therefore, when it came to politics, I often kept my mouth shut so as not to make myself a social pariah.  When I finally did get off the fence by making a strident defence of the BNP's right to free speech, I very soon found the gigs dried up and my name was mud.  For the record, I have never voted for the BNP, nor have I expressed any sympathy for their worldview, but freedom of speech and association have always been rights I have strongly defended.

When a friend gave me a pirate DVD of a few South Park episodes I couldn't peel myself off the floor.  Here was a mainstream TV show lampooning everything from hate crime laws to global warming and environmentalism.  At the time it could not have been more anti-establishment and Stone and Parker's reluctance to court the darlings of Hollywood made them heroes in my book.  All of a sudden, cool people were saying what I had been thinking all those years - and it was seemingly very popular.  What I couldn't say on an internet forum without being blocked and banned could be said by an anti-semitic, foul-mouthed eight year old psychopath - and be loved for it.

I believe South Park marked the beginning of the unravelling of political correctness in television.  There was a time when British comedy lead the field but as left-wing comedic dissent of the 80's gradually became the establishment narrative of the BBC, it lost its edge and it has never really recovered. Because South Park has now made conservatism the anti-establishment voice, the BBC looks wildly out of touch and its comedy output seems timid and conformist.  And it is now so insecure it cannot possibly allow even licensed dissent in the form of a token conservative comedian.

South Park was fearless and irrepressible, and it was an inspiration to me to be bolder with my thoughts and words.  But to all things there is a time.  As the writers aged, the vitality of the show waned and they had covered pretty much all the political bases.  It has not been outrageously funny for a long time.  At best it has been mildly amusing, and only worth paying attention to because the evolution of the technology, which the writers themselves have been driving, is fascinating to those with an interest in digital arts.  Even recently, while the show lacks consistency, every season still has the odd masterpiece. 

It is quite obvious by now that they have toned down the show for broader appeal in order to cash in.  And why shouldn't they?  They have said all they needed to say, shaped the debate, changed minds, and now, they're making a fat pile of cash out of it.  I would too.  That said, I have never been one for spin-off merchandise.  I find it perfectly possible to like a film or TV show without having to buy the accompanying mug and baseball cap.  Spin-off computer games have always been especially lacklustre.  But in this instance I was prepared to make an exception.  South Park Studios have just released South Park: Stick of Truth for X-Box 360.

I never in a million years expected to own a games console as an adult, but I bought one for the express purpose of Grand Theft Auto 5.  It is a masterpiece of a game with astonishing attention to detail, a fantastic plot, hilarious and likeable characters and unparalleled game-play.  It is the ultimate game for non-gamers.  It re-writes the book on computer games.

This presented something of a problem for me, since I was determined to get my moneys worth out of the X-Box once I completed GTA5 by buying other games.  Believe it or not, slaughtering policemen by the dozen gets old after three months or so.  But no game was ever going to impress me after that experience.  I dislike the whole concept of gaming and have never really felt an affinity for the medium, but without hesitation, I would call GTA5 the media experience of the decade.  Worth taking a week off work for. 

South Park: Stick of Truth didn't have a hope in hell of impressing me after that.  All it could do was to try and live up to the South Park legacy of cutting humour and immense silliness.  I could not be more disappointed.

The reason I made the exception to buy a spin-off product was because I came upon a Youtube interview with Parker and Stone describing their previous game releases created on licence by other software houses.  They described a deep disappointment with the end product - and felt a little ashamed to put their name to it. In the wake of those artistic failures they developed this game in-house, using their own software in the actual South Park production environment. On that basis I was prepared to give it a shot.

As much as the joke of South Park is in the crappy animation, it is the timing of the jokes and the dialogue that give it the unique appeal it has.  Even with the best intentions I don't think that translates well to the gaming environment.  This is especially evident in Stick of Truth.  It's just not funny.  That would be forgiveable to an extent were the game-play engaging and the dialogue at least marginally entertaining.  But it isn't.

The game-play itself is tedious.  I do not like games that make me wait.  The menus are incomprehensible, the controls are puzzling to say the least, and the dialogue is flat.  The main charachter appears not to say anything at all.  I didn't get far with this game because very early on, you get trapped on a street with no clues as to where to go next, and the entertainment value is insufficient to spend half an hour trying to solve the puzzle of how to progress.  The scenery is full of clich├ęs and hat-tips to past glories, and nothing about the game even elicits a wry smile.  Even Cartman in his role as in-game master of ceremonies is hackeyed and bland.

In short, if you are a South Park fan, do not buy this game.  If you are a gaming fan, do not buy this game.  This is an absolute stinker, I am sad to say.  The only solace I take from this is that, of the £35 I spent on it, at least some of my money will finally end up with Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  I'm fine with that since I only ever downloaded South Park episodes off Pirate Bay.  It is right that they should have some of my money in thanks for all the belly laughs.  But I think it is time to stop beating this particular dead horse.  Enough is enough.

A silent coup in Europe

At least Ukraine knows it has had a change of government.
All eyes are still fixed on the change of government in Ukraine, and the media white noise is deafening. Russia, to all intents and purposes has annexed Crimea to the outrage of the 'international community'.  From this simplistic narrative flows a torrent of misinformed, lightweight garbage. More informed analysts have made the case that the EU has sponsored a coup in Ukraine, and one is hard pressed to disagree. 

The hypocrisy is startling. But we cannot speak of a Russian annexation of Crimea without first addressing the EU's attempted annexation of the whole of Ukraine. What supposedly started as a "trade deal" was anything but.  The EU Association Agreement was a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the region, which essentially tears Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence, up to and including airspace and GPS satellite systems. As far as Russia is concerned, that puts Crimean airspace (over one of its major naval ports) under NATO control. To call this a trade deal is an outrageous understatement, and it was a threat Russia could not ignore.

This is less the product of "Western" foreign policy (as our commentariat insists on calling it) as EU regional policy.  The US and their diplomats were the clueless Johnny-come-lately's who themselves have failed to recognise the EU game plan in action. The US mouthed the usual platitudes of freedom and democracy, but this crisis started in grey offices in Brussels, not the streets of Kiev. That anyone in the European Commission thought this would play out without provoking a response from Russia defies belief.

But as coups go, this was the least successful in the EU's history.  The EU's greatest ever achievement was to establish itself as a government of a new nation (with an active foreign policy) without its population, and the United States, ever really noticing. The EU has a flag, a president, an anthem, a currency and by the back door, through (widely ignored) progressive defence integration, will soon have its own army. It is a nation in all but name, with unelected President Barosso pursuing an EU foreign policy in Ukraine.  For all that William Hague may flap his mouth, British foreign policy is merely empty, toothless posturing which entirely takes a back seat to that of EU policy.

Ukraine may have have had its government changed by an external entity, but at least they are aware they have had a change of government.  Brits are still, by and large, completely ignorant of the fact that Westminster is now a regional implementation office of a government they never elected - and never asked for either.

Bob Crow: union man


Bob Crow.  The man who rejoiced at the death of Mrs Thatcher, she who put a generation of working class people on the housing ladder, ensuring their children had something to inherit - and did not have to work down a coal pit and die early of lung disease.  Of the two, Mrs Thatcher did more for the working and aspirational classes than he who heaped endless misery and expense on aspirational people who were simply trying to get to work and earn a days pay. 

Crow spoke often of the rights of "the workers", but it was "the workers" who ultimately paid the price for his obstinate grandstanding.  And now that London Underground wages are unsustainable, his membership will be joining the dole queue sooner than they anticipated as their jobs are replaced by robots.

That said, few can say in the modern era that they were represented according to their views and ideals as well as those who followed Bob Crow.  He was anything but mealy mouthed, and refreshingly unconcerned by media image.  Unlike our modern political class, he set out his stall and brought people to him - rather than swaying whichever way the wind blows.  You don't have to respect the man's politics but there is something laudable about a man who knows his mind - and stands his ground. He did what he was elected to do. That is uncommon.

Some say that his continued occupancy of social housing, while on a salary that would make an IT consultant blush, made him little better than an NHS bed blocker.  But his view was that a decent home was an entitlement of everyone.  He lived by his own values.

He certainly wasn't the pantomime bad guy or folk-demon the Daily Mail would have us believe, but he was an economic illiterate, a Luddite and a yob. (Rejoicing in the death of anyone is an ugly trait.)  The bottom line is, he was just an ordinary Londoner of his age, and not a very bright one.  He was old enough to have lived through the worst days of British socialism, yet lacked the intelligence to see why his ideas failed, and he would have taken us back to those dark days in a heartbeat.

But beneath all that, if you can see past the persona, there was a man who genuinely cared for the vulnerable, as per his stance on the closure of ticket offices.  I happen to think that his final campaign against the closures was the right call, and for once in my life I found myself on the side of strikers.  It was a reminder that while we have put unions in their rightful place, we still need them and they do have a part to play in a democracy, inconvenient though they may be at times.

Crow was one of a dying breed and very much the embodiment of the old left, and the Left were lucky to have him.  I cannot think of an equal on the other side of the divide.  Who speaks for the right as Crow did for the left?  Answers on a postcard please...

52: No age to go

Monday, 10 March 2014

BBC funding: the writing is on the wall

BBC: Past its sell-by date

Ill-served as we are by our tax-dodging, paedophile-enabling, fat-cattery of a state broadcaster, if its television programmes don't make you weep with despair, these numbers will...
According to the most recent figures, about 70 people a year are jailed for TV licence fee offences. But the scale of prosecutions for licence fee evasion is far higher and now accounts for one in nine of all Magistrates Court cases. More than 180,000 people – almost 3,500 a week – appeared before the Magistrates Courts in 2012, accused of watching television without a valid licence in, with 155,000 being convicted and fined.
According to the Telegraph, a tabled amendment to the current legislation would mean non-payment of the annual £145.50 charge would be a matter for the civil courts rather than a criminal offence, under plans backed by ministers. Andrew Bridgen, the Consevartive MP for North West Leicestershire, who tabled the amendment, said the wide support his proposal had received showed that the government should support it.
“For those in real hardship who cannot pay the television licence fee, the current legislation is effectively criminalising them for being poor, which cannot be right,” he said. “I and many colleagues feel that the non-payment of the TV licence being a criminal offence is disproportionate. The current funding arrangement for the BBC is a Poll Tax and is one of the most regressive forms of taxation. Most of those sent to prison as a result of non-payment are the elderly and women and this serves no purpose and the huge associated costs are borne by the taxpayer."
The BBC has reacted to the amendment with predictable special pleading. Janet Daly today helpfully saves me the trouble of de-constructing their arguments.
The BBC says that it would lose a significant proportion of funding through non-payment which would result in its having to cut back its services. It refers specifically in its public statement to reducing the number of its local radio stations. It might even, it threatens, have to start charging for the now free iPlayer and maybe (the horror!) for its web content. Well, here's the thing: if the BBC were not dumping its subsidised free products onto every conceivable platform from local radio to Internet news, the commercial market might just have a hope of becoming healthier and more genuinely competitive. Independent local radio stations would have a chance to survive, newspaper websites would not be put in the impossible position of matching the mega-funded (free) BBC news website, and the web-based subscription film market would not have to suffer the encroachment of a subsidised spoiler in their midst.
Who could disagree?  There is little practical or moral reason for the BBC to enjoy the monopoly privileges it does, and criminalising the poor and conscientious objectors for not paying such a morally bankrupt, self-obsessed, corrupt, decaying media entity has no place is a modern, first-world country.

But hold your horses.  Insomuch as a criminal conviction makes you a second class citizen in the eyes of some, moving the offence from a criminal matter, (which is somewhat trivial these days since almost everything is now a criminal offence), to a civil matter, there is still potential to ruin lives and make people actual second class citizens.  The reason being that a criminal debt cannot be entered against your credit rating.  A civil debt can.

No doubt the present TV licensing system is unfair, but there is little more frustrating than the opaque world of credit scoring whereby a simple dispute over a telephone bill can prevent a person taking out a mortgage for six years or more.  The credit ratings system is the ultimate guarantor of civil obedience. It is a system where corporates hold all the cards, with few rights for the individual who has only a toothless regulator to call upon.  In some cases, under the Money Laundering Act, a credit stain can prevent an individual from taking a job in finance or insurance - and is much more damaging than a criminal record.  Moving it into the civil domain also makes it bonanza market for bailiffs and unscrupulous debt collectors.  If you thought Crapita were bad, you should read my other blog.

Some may welcome this amendment. I do not. Rather than addressing the morally repugnant position of being forced to pay for a state media monopoly, it simply shifts the goal posts. I will not be satisfied we are an enlighted society until the BBC is consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Complete Bastard road trip to Somerset

Somerset: No shortage of trees

Today I have been out and about in Somerset taking photographs.  You don't really get a feel for the extent of the flooding by driving around. It's not up until you get to the top of the "Mump" at Burrow Bridge can you see just how bad it is. To the south it goes as far as the eye can see. And it's deep too.

In some of my photos today you can see the hills in the far distance (see above). The eagle-eyed will notice is that the hills surrounding the Levels are quite densely wooded. The arguments made by "expert" hydrologists (and George Monbiot) were that planting trees upstream is preferable to dredging. This was a ridiculous argument to begin with since once the "sponge effect" is at saturation it makes no difference (even the UN NAO says so), and secondly, there's no shortage of trees on the Somerset hills.

No amount of tree planting would have made a bit of difference here. Hannah Cloke, professor of hydrology at Reading University, went on record to say that dredging would make very little difference to the floods. Seeing how much water is there, even by increasing capacity by another 50% in the rivers, ditches and drains, we would still be looking at floods. This has been exceptional weather. But the lack of dredging means that this water will stay on the Levels for the better part of the year, rather than a matter of weeks. Without the capacity, the escape rate is too slow.

The water stays on the land because the drains are at capacity, the rivers are at capacity, and the the bottom line is that there is not enough drainage capacity because of silt. At King's Sedgemoor Drain they are actually pumping from one field into another because there is nowhere for the water to go. Pumping into the
King's Sedgemoor Drain would be pointless because it has burst its banks.

Insofar as damage to homes goes, I barely saw any, but the land is ruined. What I saw today was quite serious inland silting on the Parrett and Tone, and then out at the estuary at Bridgwater; massive mud bank meanders that slow the flow into the sea. This is twenty years of policy neglect. Consequently, farmers will miss the planting season this year and any grass crops will be dead by now. At present pumping rates, there is an outside chance of clearing it before summer, but even then, the ground will still be saturated. If we get sustained summer rains the floods will return, and it will spell ruin.

It may be the case that by the time the land is usable again, the financial risk of planting (assuming the capital is available) will be too much for farmers and insurers, and the land may be abandoned. That is what the environmentalists have been hoping for all along. They would like nothing more than to see it remain as wetlands.

As breathtaking and beautiful as it was today, I was also looking at a crime scene where the unelected have made casual calls on the property of farmers without consultation. Insomuch as the dredging will cost millions, the damage done as a result of abandoning maintenance will cost several million more. And guess who pays? One seriously hopes the farmers take legal action. And win.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Politics: Life is unfair

UKIP: Crying unfair.
Ukip is again making the news for the wrong reasons.  "Lewes UKIP councillor (Donna Edmunds) says businesses should have power to turn away women and gay people." says The Argus.

Looking at what the lady actually said, I'm hard pressed to disagree on the basis that that such laws infringe on property rights, and give power to the state to police thought.  Moreover, such laws are unnecessary. If a business wants to discriminate on those grounds, which would be a witheringly small number of them, the free market would soon be the judge whether they stay in business.

It is not the role of the state to ensure people live their entire lives without being offended, nor can the state from a practical perspective micro-manage and dictate every individual moral choice. The enforcement of such laws is what makes us such mealy-mouthed, conformist curtain-twitchers - and it makes us less free. Dick Puddlecote offers a more thorough examination of the moral aspects here.

However, politics is a game with rules.  And when your back is to the wall with the odds stacked against you, the last thing you do is feed the beast with what it needs. Ukippers seem incapable of learning this lesson. When you are aligned with a tribe, everything you say reflects on your tribe, and anything you do say can and will be used against you in the kangeroo court of British media.

The art of politics, and the skill of a good politician is to pass comment on a matter without feeding the beast. Ukippers will complain that they are a straight-talking, un-PC party and is being treated unfairly, but that is a childish attitude. If you play the establishment game, you play by establishment rules.  Crying that it is unfair her words have been twisted overlooks the fact that life is unfair, politics is unfair - and politics is a dirty business. Only those in power get to change the rules. That's life.  There is a game to be played, and there are strategies for playing it if you seek to take on the establishment.

It's not the first time Donna Edmunds has raised a few eyebrows, and has failed to learn that while you or I can get involved in internet spats, those in office cannot without somebody watching. To continue to do so displays the usual lack of political acumen and professionalism from Ukip that this game requires. Effective politicians let the party do the politics while they do the donkey work, building a constituency and building good relations in the community.  And that requires party discipline and self-discipline.  Needlessly embroiling oneself in public rows does not help matters.

But having said something that could be twisted by the media, Miss Edmunds gave them further ammunition by expressing regret for her words. That is the ultimate gift to the media.  They went for a scalp, and they got one.  The correct response should be "Read what I actually said. The voters can be the judge".  By climbing down, it feeds the story by making it look like an embarrassing debacle that then prompts further damage control from the party. If you cannnot say what you mean, how can you possibly mean what you say? As usual, Ukip has played it badly, shown an astonishing naivety of how the game is played (and how the media works), and more seriously, it has shown a complete inability to learn. It should by now have a handle on these matters.

This is far from the first time a Ukip councillor has made the news for the wrong reasons. Ukip is under close watch by the media, and is under sustained attack from an establishment who perceives it as a threat. It is playing dirty games, and setting traps that Ukip helpfully blunders into time after time. These are unforced errors.  But this comes as little surprise. The party doesn't do professionalism or strategy, and that's because Farage doesn't either and Ukip refuses to see it. Were I a europhile I would think Farage was a gift from above.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Is there still a point to academia?

It's pretty.  But what is it for?

As a maturer student, at the age of twenty two, the day I arrived at university was the day I felt, for the first time, a sense of optimism about the future; that I had finally made it to a new world where I could be among my intellectual equals and betters.  I was soon to be disappointed.  Perhaps the concept of university had been mis-sold to me. I had assumed that university was a place of academic rigor where my intellect would be taxed and my mind opened to new ideas.  I don't know where I got this notion from, but was rapidly disabused of it.

Whenever a lecturer did bother to turn up, we got a disorganised introduction followed by viewings of videos readily available on Youtube, followed by assignments of such withering inanity that they would not tax an eleven year-old, on a curriculum that would cover only a month of my expectations - stretched over an entire year.  If the weeding our process, was to bore students half to death and see who is still dull enough to continue, then it certainly worked on me.

Some argue that it is not the hard skills that one takes away from university that matters.  It is the soft skills in terms of marshalling people and resources in a group-working environment.  I am sure this works in environment where students are there for genuine reasons and have an interest in the subject matter, but when your course is a cash cow and the entrance requirements have been reduced to little more than a pulse check, "marshalling people and resources in a group working environment" translates to doing all the work yourself in the certain knowledge your fellow students have not lifted a finger.  This is a life lesson I did not need to pay thousands of pounds for.

It took a couple of years to clear the debt incurred from this failed venture into the elite world of academia, and were it a commercial agreement, I may have considered legal action.  I can think of no other institution that enjoys such immunity for false representation.  To this day I struggle to comprehend why such immense value is placed upon the experience and the qualification that comes with it.

 So we have to go back to basics.  What is Academia for?  The Institute of Ideas complains that;
"It often seems that all spectrums of the education debate – whether for or against higher fees - accept the idea that university education should be to give value for money, should ‘deliver improved employability’ and increase ‘social mobility.’ Voices arguing for the value of learning in and of itself are too rarely heard and, when they are, are often shouted down as harking back to ivory-­tower elitism. Yet it needs to be pointed out that treating subjects as investments in future earnings can hardly be an invitation to study the liberal arts and humanities."
The promotion of liberal arts and humanities is for loftier intellects than mine to pontificate on. But given where I presently am in my career, compared with my graduate peers, I think it quite important to address those more pragmatic questions before we get into subjects of existential navel gazing.

Figures still point to lifetime earnings of graduates being higher than non-graduates, but can we say for sure whether the university experience has any bearing on it?  In terms of technical training, I have found better, more rigorous courses on the commercial market, which while very expensive, are still more use than a degree, cheaper than a degree and come with better course material, taught by people who have succeeded in the field - and have a demonstrable impact on income. It seems that universities are no better at providing technical teaching, and their equipment is often obsolete, difficult to get access to, and exists in an insular environment that is slow to respond to changes in industry.

I am a firm believer that institutions and governments should stick to what they are good at and leave the rest to the open market if the market proves better at providing. With that in mind, I think it time to abandon our fixation with academia, trim it back down to size and put it back in its proper context; that it is largely an elitist ivory tower, for the sorts of people who can think of nothing better than to listen to Frank Furedi giving a lecture on Edmund Burke and morality.  Let us lose our hangups about it.

If that is really what sets some people on fire then let universities do their thing, and let the rest of us attend to our own social mobility, employability and getting value for money.  Perhaps then those who are interested in existentialism, moral relativism and self-realisation can be free to sit in the university Starbucks, scratching their beards while reading 17th century literature on their Kindle - without being interrupted by us plebs and ignoramuses.

The conventional wisdom is that polytechnics should never have been turned into universities and the distinction was an important and valuable one. I could not disagree.  The academic rigour in order to pass through the doors was also a necessary function to obtaining the most from the experience.  If there is any point at all in parting with ones own money, it is to exclude the mediocre, the lazy and the stupid.  But somewhere along the way, that control mechanism has been broken down in the name of egalitarianism.  The prevailing view that brought about the Blair reforms was that universities were elitist and exclusionary. But that's the point of them isn't it? If any halfwit can enter on a whim, the whole experience is reduced to the lowest common denominator.

It was assumed the introduction of higher tuition fees would go some way to eliminate these problem.  But it seems the same morons are still admitted but instead leave in year two with larger debts. The control mechanism of academic rigour simply exists no more outside of Oxford and Cambridge - and given the people they churn out, I'm starting to have my doubts about them too. Academia certainly isn't producing people who can any longer think for themselves.

We now live in an age of zero hours contracts, with a highly mobile, fluid workforce where experience and skill matter more than academic prestige. More so now that universities have cashed in on their prestige and in many respects have jumped the shark. It seems they now exist solely to validate stupidity. It is difficult to see how such institutions improve social mobility, they certainly don't 'deliver improved employability' for the majority, and few would argue that it was value for money.  If anything, choosing a private course with ones own money de-facto excludes the mediocre, the lazy and the stupid in ways that no university ever could.

My own view on liberal arts and humanities is somewhat philistine, in that I was gifted my own mind with which to ponder aspects of morality and philosophy, and thanks to the marvels of the modern age (the dishwasher*) I have the time to sit and peruse the internet at leisure and set a curriculum relevant to my own agenda.  If there is a point to academia as it stands today, it sure as hell escapes me.

Enquiring minds will always seek enquiring minds, with or without cosseted, obsolete, archaic, failing institutions - and the internet bypasses them altogether.  Perhaps without universities, credibility will not be afforded to idiots simply because people call them "professor".  That is a world I would prefer to live in.

There was a time when universities were the custodians of knowledge and that university was the place you went to expose yourself to new ideas and seek out those with similar passions.  The internet has upset that whole apple-cart.  So I think academia must offer more if it is to survive. And it could start by offering some credible justification for its continued existence.  I sure would like to know - and so would my wallet.

*I don't actually have a dishwasher.  I have the spare time because I seldom ever do the washing up or other household chores.