“Reassurance Labour” and post-Blair social democracy

Globally, the centre-left is enduring a period of public weariness and dissatisfaction. In Australia, a relatively unpopular government battles on against a red-blooded Opposition Leader, with the spectre of a leadership context lingering unerringly in the background. Between Kevin and Tony, there’s not much free air for Julia to articulate what she is about and why she deserves more time. In the United States, the ramshackle cavalcade of the Republican presidential primaries rolls on. As we collectively chortle at the successive victories of the likes of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, dividing the centre-right, we also quietly question whether Barack Obama will be able to ride home this November on the same wave of good will and anti-Bush sentiment that served to swell his support in 2008. Across Europe, the political cartography doesn’t lie: in 23 of the 27 EU nations (24 if you include the six party (!) coalition in Belgium), the centre-left does not control the government.

A couple of weeks ago, David Miliband, former foreign minister and the exiled elder brother of Labour Opposition Leader Ed, contributed a rambling “vision” piece on social democracy to the New Statesman. It’s the kind of piece that was self-evidently designed to be high-minded without being too controversial, to try and add something to the debate without undermining his brother, or being so practical as to indulge in any policy specifics. It would have floated by altogether, unremarked and soap bubble-like, if Miliband had not taken the opportunity to take a heavily padded pot-shot at former Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley and his recent piece [PDF] with Kevin Hickson for The Political Quarterly:

He is convinced that there exists an obvious instrument for putting social democracy into practice – the central national state, whose strength has been underestimated, he argues, in a rush of market fundamentalism on both left and right. His fundamental point is this: that Labour in the past 20 years has been scared off the most potent vehicle for the expression of its values, and in the process has come to be seen as ineffective as well as unprincipled.

For some, this will be seductive. It is what I shall call Reassurance Labour. Reassurance about our purpose, our relevance, our position, even our morals. Reassurance Labour feels good. But feeling good is not the same as doing good – and it gets in the way when it stops us rethinking our ideas to meet the challenges of the time. And now is a time for restless rethinking, not reassurance.

“Reassurance Labour”, in short, is just the latest rhetorical salvo in the ongoing war between the hardminded, working-class socialists of the 1970’s and early 1980’s and the so-called “Third Way” Blairism of more recent years. Historically, the centre-left has sought to make its values manifest through the wilful manipulation of the gears and levers of the state, with the national government perceived as being the preeminent mechanism through which this can be achieved. Since then, the world has changed, but how much has it really changed? Miliband clearly feels that any renewed embrace of this top-down approach would be misguided, despite the strong emotional connection that most people on the left have with the proactive welfare states of yesteryear.

The Australian political scene seems to be operating in a slightly different world to the one where this debate is blundering on, in part perhaps because Labor is currently focused less on any grand thematic vision for the future than keeping its head above water in the run up to the next election. Government – particularly when you’re struggling in the polls – will do that to you. Looking back over the last few years, however, one gets the sense that the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments have dipped quite a bit into “Reassurance Labour” economics, pursuing interventionist tax policies on climate change and mining, and betting the farm on the success of the National Broadband Network project. In the current climate of fiscal uncertainty, after all, nothing says political conviction quite like pumping tens of billions of dollars of public money into a nationwide infrastructure project. It’s a bold policy, and it is quite difficult to imagine a UK government of either political stripe dancing down a similar path in the current climate.

I am unsure about whether this implies the Australian bodypolitik is somewhere ahead or somewhere behind the debate going on in the UK, but one thing is certain: nobody can in practical terms define themselves as being simply “pro-state” or “pro-market” anymore. Governments are increasingly being pushed towards the middle ground by market entities and forces with more unhinged pulling power than themselves, and indeed by pockets of the impotent shouty filling the space vacated by mass political parties and organised participatory democracy.

Despite his departure from the scene, we are all still living in what we might one day call the Blair era – named not for any whizz-bang political dynamic dreamt up by Tony Blair and crew, mind, but the prickly, atomised, tabloid-oriented political environment that created and crowned him.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Where is Australia’s Joey Barton?

For the uninitiated, Joey Barton captains and plays midfield for the Queens Park Rangers (QPR), a newly promoted side in the Premier League. He enjoys a certain amount of infamy in British sporting circles; having worked his way up through the ranks at Manchester City and been capped for England, he went a little off the rails and was jailed for assault at 25 in May 2008. In the same year he launched a vicious assault on teammate Ousmane Dabo during a training session, for which he received a suspended sentence. So far so typical, I guess we might say. Every other rugby league team these days seems to have one or two lads who sport shades of the Joseph Anthony Barton of 2007/2008.

Since then, Barton has not divorced himself completely from controversy, but he has turned his life around to a remarkable extent, becoming in the process one of the most interesting and polarising sportspeople in Britain. He is a prolific tweeter (@Joey7Barton), racking up 4000 tweets and boasting over 1,000,000 followers, covering all manner of sports, religion, the media, politics and touching often on his appreciation for George Orwell and The Smiths. He has become an avid reader, started writing a regular column for The Big Issue, and has recently offered some explosively challenging but common sense commentary on the John Terry racial abuse trial to be heard in July this year.

It is difficult to think of a single figure in Australian sport who is both willing and able to combine his or her efforts on the sporting field with a public intellectual life as well. Our sportspeople seem to be either not trained at all to be public professionals, or trained so ruthlessly to focus on the physical aspects of their work and their “media image” that they end up coming across as bereft of personality and without a non-sporting opinion to their name. Polymath truly is a dirty word in Australian public life.

Surely it is time for some of our sporting superstars to stand up for the nation and play a larger role in the public discourse that extends beyond their muscles and physical attributes. As a sporting nation, are we all really so “white bread” – so single-minded in our individual physical pursuits? Perhaps its time to change the widely accepted definition of what it means to be a successful sportsperson in the 21st century. I’d much prefer to hear what Australian’s next big swimming star thinks about the republic or gay marriage than who their next lucrative sponsorship deal is with.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo

David Cameron’s socialism by some other name

Whither Keynes? For the past six to twelve months, the big philosophical imponderable doing the rounds in British political life has been the extent to which the government should intervene in the market in order to stimulate the national economy. The Conservative/Lib Dem government’s “Plan A” to cut, cut and cut some more is flatlining; growth is stagnant. Unemployment has risen to 8.4% – the highest it has been since 1995 – as the jobs that the government’s austerity programme has ripped from the public sector and wrung from the strangled charity/NGO sector are not being replaced in the for-profit sector as hoped.

This is by every empirical measure imaginable a failing fiscal plan, but Plan B remains firmly off the agenda. And why? Keynesian economics is not policy anathema, but it has become political anathema. Central to the fable being spruiked by Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives is that Labour’s clunky and interventionist approach to economic matters is to blame for the mess that Britain now finds itself in. If the Tories were to take a backward step from their “Plan A”, the economic dogma they’ve peddled since May 2010, they would be letting the Opposition off the hook. They would also be pricking the bubble of fallacious confidence that George Osborne et. al have, in effect, hitched a ride with throughout their war on public spending. It’s easy to forget given all the sanguine polling doing the rounds, but this is a government sustaining itself not through success in matters of policy, actual popularity, or anything resembling hard work, but merely ego: a reserve of confident bloody-mindedness that the market will eventually prove them right and that those on welfare should be punished.

The rigid stance adopted by the government on economic stimulus is particularly galling when one considers some of the moral peccadillos that the Tories apparently feel do warrant some intervention. This is a government that has no qualms about pulling levers and interfering with the market like a bunch of cardboard cut-out social-engineering lefties when doing so will slap and tickle their upper middle-class conservative base. A crusade to cap welfare benefits, directly impacting the lives of some of the nation’s most needy children has in recent days seen support for David Cameron soaring to a 22 month high. Jobs may be disappearing into the ether by the thousand across the country, but as Allegra Stratton alluded to in The Guardian recently, Cameron’s willingness to engage in blinkered market intervention has been plainly evident for some time now:

In a WH Smith not far from Westminster, there are no Terry’s Chocolate Oranges on sale at the till but there’s every other calorie and additive on offer. This stroll to the newsagent counts for political research because if you listened to David Cameron six years ago, flogging cheap chocolate to captive targets was an exemplar of immoral capitalism run amok.

“As Britain faces an obesity crisis, why does WH Smith promote half-price Chocolate Oranges at its checkouts instead of real oranges?” Cameron protested. Through the bully’s pulpit of office and opprobrium, he sought to change it.

In America, they would call out such a protest as socialism. In Britain, it would just be an all too typically fluffy intervention into the market on behalf of the morally conservative, rich or powerful, while the brutalisation of the truly needy by the market continues, wholly aided and abetted, in the background.

Occupy London: radical or conservative?

For almost two months now, the Occupy London camp has remained firmly entrenched outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, having been banned from the private grounds of Paternoster Square, where the London Stock Exchange is located. After winning its philosophical “huddled masses” tête à tête with the St Paul’s authorities, the movement is preparing itself to tackle its next challenge: eviction proceedings being brought to bear by the City of London Corporation. The formal hearing is scheduled to take place from 19th December.

It certainly feels that despite its raison d’être being as self-evident as ever, Occupy London is on the cusp of an existential crisis. In the coming weeks and months, the camp will need to fight for the right to maintain its most visible presence in the British capital, one of the world’s international finance hubs. The storm of publicity attracted during the movement’s disagreement with the St. Paul’s hierarchy has died away, and with it, many of its most effective tendrils of engagement with the general public. Amidst all the background noise of day-to-day news and political developments, the debate is slowly and steadily shifting away from the question “are the international Occupy movements right about modern capitalism?” and towards the question “is it time to finally get rid of all those tents outside of St Paul’s?” We all know how hungry the 24×7 news cycle beast can be; it would very much like another dramatic (and hopefully violent!) Dale Farm style confrontation between the authorities and people who purportedly shouldn’t be where they are.

In short, it is difficult to see what the next step for local branches of the global “Occupy” movement should be. Turn radical, and they stand to grab some more publicity and potentially reinvigorate their campaigns for economic justice – but they also stand to turn large swathes of the law-abiding general public off their arguments. The current tack, at least in the London context, seems to be rather more conservative; just last week Occupy London published an “Initial Statement of the Corporations Working Group”, effectively a press release. It sure sounds high-falutin’, but it’s all a tad banal frankly: here are the three key points:

We must abolish tax havens and complex tax avoidance schemes, and ensure corporations pay tax that accurately reflects their real profits.

Legislation to ensure full and public transparency of all corporate lobbying activities must be put in place. This should be overseen by a credible and independent body, directly accountable to the people.

Those directly involved in the decision-making process must be held personally liable for their role in the misdeeds of their corporations and duly charged for all criminal behaviour.

Laudable sentiments, yes, but hardly visionary ones, and my, what a vague and middling way in which to express them! If the purpose of the Occupy movement was to establish an amateurish tent city of students, interested passers-by and disenfranchised Liberal Democrats, firing occasional uncontroversial missives into the offices of news organisations across the country – they have succeeded. But it’s clearly not the right path.

Occupy London needs to find a new, creative way of continuing to express its message, or risk fading inconsequentially into the background static.

Ed Miliband’s centre-left: not drowning, waving

Party conference season here in the United Kingdom has come and gone during the last few weeks; the Liberal Democrats kicked off in Birmingham, followed by Labour in Liverpool and the Conservatives in Manchester. There was much grumbling in the media about the cost of sending vast teams of correspondents north to cover the proceedings of each conference on site, amidst a general fuzz of indifference amongst the general public. The raison d’etre of the “party conference” is after all, under siege in the modern era: today’s mass political party does not tolerate serious debate or disagreement. The energy of conference instead tends to be expended on stage-managed set pieces and the gormless totting-out of phrases crafted by snake oil merchants and wet-eared graduates untouched by the realities of modern working life. The appearance of Hugh Grant at all three conferences – despite his very good anti-tabloid journalism motivations – says something a little too poetic about that.

Amongst the liberal media, there was a clear expectation that Ed Miliband needed to “punch through” with his conference speech (video | transcript) in order for Labour to reassert itself as a credible force in Opposition. The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government has made enemies across the country in the last year and a half, paying lip service to David Cameron’s “Big Society” whilst forcing draconian spending cuts on the public sector and local councils, strangling charities and hoping inanely for the private sector to storm into gear and lift the economy from the doldrums. Labour should be doing splendidly under these conditions, but at best, it is only doing satisfactorily.

There is an endless array of reasonable explanations for Labour’s current woes, from the “honeymoon effect” currently still enjoyed by the Conservative / Lib Dem Coalition, to the sprawling five year terms that bequeath UK governments the luxury of time to plan and deliver, but oppositions only early-term echo chambers that are un-fillable with policy. At some point, of course, it is the leader of the party who must ultimately take responsibility for their party’s performance, and the vultures, if not exactly circling Ed Miliband, have at least spotted him looking a bit bedraggled on the horizon.

Miliband’s conference speech this year was, in a couple of parts, very good. The “quiet crisis” narrative that he wheeled out, quite accurately describes the biggest problem facing modern capitalism in affluent societies:

But you know there’s a quiet crisis which doesn’t get the headlines. It’s about the people who don’t make a fuss, who don’t hack phones, loot shops, fiddle their expenses, or earn telephone number salaries at the banks. It’s the grafters, the hard-working majority who do the right thing. It’s a crisis which is happening in your town, your street and maybe even in your home. It is a crisis of the promises made over the last thirty years. The promise that if you’re in work, you will do better each year.

The promise that if you work hard at school the doors of opportunity will open up to you. The promise that if you teach your kids the difference between right and wrong and bring them up properly, they will get a good job, and a decent home. These crises point to something deep in our country. The failure of a system.A way of doing things. An old set of rules.

Instinctively, most of us living in relative but perhaps not absolute comfort in places like Australia can relate to this. The promise of modern capitalism – the social bargain – is that if you do well in school and work hard, you can make a comfortable life for yourself and your family. It is a bargain that promises much to all, but today, only delivers to some. Today, we all know of people who are brilliant at their jobs –educators, nurses, police officers, people working a trade – who don’t get out of society what they put in. We all know of people who are doing the best they can in life, but for whom buying a home in their hometown necessitates either dumb luck, a large inheritance, 80 hours a week in a “profession”, unscrupulous activity, or a combination thereof. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the recent housing crisis protests in Israel seem to be manifestations of this broader system problem, that most political parties and vested interests are predisposed to ignore.

In other parts, the speech was ill-judged. Very, very little was offered by Miliband on the policy front, with one of the few policy snippets offered tanking particularly badly; a limp pledge to reduce university fees from a maximum of £9000 to £6000 a year. Good luck marshalling emotional fervour amongst the student population for Labour’s cause with that pledge! Former RBS chief Fred Goodwin was personally hoisted up once again as a kind of political piñata, and thrashed about in a way unbecoming a prospective national leader. Miliband’s characterisation of himself as an “outsider” trying to shake the tree of the “insiders” had some promise, but come out sounding a bit grandiose, as his speechwriters tried desperately to connect who their man is with who and what he is fighting against:

What’s my story? My parents fled the Nazis. And came to Britain. They embraced its values. Outsiders. Who built a life for us. So this is who I am. The heritage of the outsider. The vantage point of the insider. The guy who is determined to break the closed circles of Britain.

But perhaps the clincher, at least for me? Listening to Ed Miliband read a conference speech is like listening to an excited prefect with a headcold hold court at school assembly. It sounds shallow (and is), but this is democracy in 2011, and your ability to capture and hold an audience matters. Even if Labour’s leader manages to orchestrate some good policy formulation with his team over the next 12 to 24 months, it is very difficult to see him punching through and connecting with ordinary voters.

At least for the time being, under “Red Ed”, Labour are pinning their hopes on the Eurozone crisis and fiscal bloody-mindedness of the Tories running the economy into the ground. They’re not going to win on their own merit at this rate.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Up philanthropic creek with a funny paddle

Early this evening London time, Little Britain’s David Walliams clocked off after a mightily impressive feat, swimming 140 miles of the toxic Thames over eight days in aid of Sport Relief. In the process he has managed to raise over £1,000,000, which will be invested by UK charity Comic Relief in a number of worthy causes, including mental health, refugee and asylum seeker support, and local community programs. Along the way he has had to contend with Thames tummy, some typically mediocre British Autumn weather, and even managed to save a drowning Labrador. If he has successfully managed to avoid sustaining some serious health problems as a result of his swim, he can probably count himself lucky.

The whole venture speaks eloquently to some of the challenges facing charitable organisations and governments in the twenty-first century. The usefulness of the collision between charity and celebrity certainly bears some consideration. It is difficult to envisage any ordinary person or any politician managing to achieve the level of media coverage and attention that Walliams has managed to reel in for Comic Relief through his superhuman aquatic efforts. Yes, it was a stunt, and it has been a little self-aggrandising, but frankly this is the sort of public-spirited self-aggrandisement that both the United Kingdom and Australia could do with a lot more of. As wrong-headed as some of them may be, the least a celebrity can do with all their stardust and whimsy is to set some of it aside for some worthy causes.

The flipside in this particular case, of course, is that the amount of money Walliams has managed to pull in arguably could and should have been much greater. £1,000,000 is a lot of loot, but considering the extraordinary pools of wealth many individuals and corporations have at their command in the United Kingdom, it feels like a slightly understated amount. Perhaps it is a function of this “age of austerity” that we live in, but it seems in this case the rigour of the stunt has not been outweighed by the amount donated. Playing the devil’s advocate for just a moment: why not just get together with a bunch of other wealthy celebrities and businesspeople, donate £100,000 each and achieve the same result?

The fiercest irony? In the same era that boring old democratic governments with their unexciting processes, procedures and “rule of law” are being pestered by much of the public to lower taxes and withdraw from society – a comedian swimming up a shit-addled river is able to extract some willing silver from all our pockets. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…. the future!

You can support David’s Sport Relief efforts here.

End days for dead paper and “Murdochracy”?

The intensity may have reduced since James and Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks appeared before the UK Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee, but the crisis besetting News International is still burbling along in the background, bunted doggedly onwards from time-to-time by The Guardian and the BBC. As the embarrassing allegations continue to slide out, one gets a clear sense (as Kim has observed) that things will never by the same for the tabloid press again – in the UK, at least. The saga has been that rare civil society event that unites everyone from all walks of life in moral outrage (whether real or confected) – from Nick Griffin’s BNP and David Cameron’s Tories, through to Ed Miliband’s Labour, the Greens, and everyone in between, even including the Murdochs themselves!

There are a few key interlinking threads here that I think invite some serious discussion: the state of the Murdoch brand, the UK media context and finally the Australian media context.

The News International media brand, in the United Kingdom at least, has been positively smashed, perhaps irrevocably. When News of the World published its final edition, with all proceeds going to charity, it had trouble finding charities willing to accept its money. The details of recent formal and informal meetings between the Prime Minister and the Treasurer with members of the Murdoch family are now being pored over with genuine distrust and disdain in the public, rather than the indifference that is typical. James Murdoch, the youngest Murdoch scion (strangely relatively unknown in Australia), has had his character brutally tested and his reputation as an executive dragged through the mud by all the allegations of wrong-doing on his watch. Rupert Murdoch’s image has morphed instantly from the powerful media mogul to end all media moguls into a tottering 80 year-old man who you wouldn’t be overly surprised to find in your local nursing home. Corporate dynasties suddenly seem just a little “last century”, relics of a more feudal, slightly more despotic capitalist era. If I were a financial advisor or a stock market activist, I would have some serious concerns about the transparency of the dealings of the various family members perched around the top of the News hierarchy, and advising my clients accordingly.

In the UK, the phone-hacking scandal has emerged in an age where circulation is in decline and newspapers seem on the fast track to extinction in their current form. Prices are being forced down (The Sun is just 20p!) and so is quality. Travelling on the underground in London, it quickly becomes apparent that the majority of people who bother to read a newspaper read the Metro, a free rag churned out by Associated Newspapers, who own the right-wing Daily Mail. Dead paper is – let’s face it – nice on a lazy weekend, but in this age of portable, wireless technology, really quite dumb. Personally, I’ve just subscribed to the Guardian Kindle edition – and boy does it make massive sense: cheaper than the paper edition, more convenient (downloads automatically each morning, readable on a packed train), and so much more environmentally friendly to boot. Is this the future of news?

If indeed it is the future of news, from what I can gather (admittedly from several thousand miles away), it might take Australia more than a little time to catch up. Australian newspaper circulation is of course also in long-term decline. Evolution in the Australian publishing market is also restrained by its diabolical levels of concentration; Fairfax and News Limited dominate the scene to such an extent that their half-life as newspaper publishers in the traditional sense is probably going to exceed that of their UK counterparts. I am not getting the sense that the Daily Telegraph or the Herald Sun are suffering from any significant amount of backlash from the exploits of the News of the World (please correct me if I am wrong in the comments!).

Will this saga be the watershed for publishing and the media/political nexus in Australia that it seems it will prove likely to be in the UK?

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Johann Hari’s interview “augmentation”

Most readers at some point will have come across the writings of Johann Hari, a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Independent here in the UK. Hari has a distinctive, uncommonly direct writing voice; he is known for his strident left-wing views and for speaking out in the international media on a wide range of issues, from the immorality of some aspects of capitalism through to climate change, gay rights and the war on drugs. He is also known for his compelling interviews with global players.

It is this latter oeuvre that has landed Johann Hari in hot water. In the last twenty-four hours, it has emerged that the methodology he employs in conveying the responses of his interviewees may leave a little to be desired. Blogger Brian Whelan has discovered that some verbatim passages from Hari’s interviews attributed to the interviewees are textually identical to previously published quotes. Co-incidence? Well, no, as Johann bravely and perhaps a little naively decided to clear up himself on his blog:

When I’ve interviewed a writer, it’s quite common that they will express an idea or sentiment to me that they have expressed before in their writing – and, almost always, they’ve said it more clearly in writing than in speech. (I know I write much more clearly than I speak – whenever I read a transcript of what I’ve said, or it always seems less clear and more clotted. I think we’ve all had that sensation in one form or another).

So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech.

The debate has since exploded on Twitter, (#johannhari, #interviewsbyhari), with many or most contributors seemingly allowing their political views or sparkling Twitter-wit to addle their judgement. Editor of the Indy Simon Kelner has been forced to weigh in but has so far declined to act decisively, somewhat meekly noting that he has not received any complaints about Hari in the decade for which he has written for the paper. CJ Schuler has contributed a blog to the Indy website that also somehow manages to miss the point, neglecting to mention Hari’s confessional blog post.

Is Hari a great writer and iconoclast of the left? Yes. Can his occasional “rewording” (sans explanation) of the responses of his interviewees be justified, whether in the interests of clarity and flow or for any other reason? Not a chance. When I read an interview, I should have the right to assume that what it has been reported that the subject contemporaneously said is what they actually said. It is surely a prime obligation of the interviewer to make clear to the reader where any obfuscation or alteration in their presentation of the remarks of their subjects has taken place. I don’t necessarily need to read the subject’s “ums” and “ahs”, but what is conveyed to the reader needs to align as closely as possible with what they actually said. If it is permissible to substantively diverge from this for stylistic reasons, the whole point of conducting conversational interviews is called into question. What is the point – so that a hyper-edited amalgam of the subject’s best ever quotes can be published together with a bit of journalistic “over lunch”, “he shifted in his chair” wrapping?

It’s not for me to judge what The Independent should do, but I would be very surprised if the paper didn’t move immediately to implement guidelines explicitly banning this sort of practice. Johann’s interesting but ultimately self-destructive mea culpa on his blog surely would probably not have warmed the cockles of his various editors, publishers and professional colleagues. Given how unedifying this episode has been for all these folks and arguably the broader journalistic profession, one would have to think that a firm public reprimand is in order for Hari, together with some further organisational consideration regarding the rights and responsibilities of journos who blog.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Violence, democracy and the mass media

It can hardly be denied that violence has a peculiarly vicarious allure in the modern mass media environment, regardless of whether we are talking ratings, book sales, ticket sales, clicks, or good old-fashioned circulation. Think James Patterson, the “world’s best-selling author”. Consider the amazing proliferation of “acronymy” crime dramas (CSI, NYPD, SVU, …) showing in primetime across the globe, the drooly critical praise for programs like The Sopranos and The Wire, and of course the Underbelly phenomenon in Australia. We might not “like” violence; indeed many or most of us despise it, but it sure does tend to get our attention. As notionally interesting as the latest deliberations of parliamentary sub-committee D31 are, we can’t expect our [yawn] elected representatives to seriously compete for our time and interest with this week’s fictional serial killer, can we?

The supremacy of violence (perhaps rivalled only by sex) as an attention magnet in today’s information-saturated world poses some serious questions of old-fashioned peaceful protest in the democratic tradition. Arundhati Roy, speaking to Stephen Moss in The Guardian about her ties to Maoist guerrillas in India, sums things up quite succinctly:

Does she condemn that violence? “I don’t condemn it anymore,” she says, “If you’re an adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience?”

Violence attracts audiences. When up to 500,000 people marched peacefully through the streets of London in opposition to the Conservative Government’s cuts agenda in March this year, most people outside the UK only heard about it because of the violent actions of a tiny minority of self-styled anarchists and thugs. And whilst peaceful protest has underpinned most of the populist movements of the so-called Arab Spring, violence has clearly had a role to play, from Mohamed Bouazizi’s defining act of self-immolation in Tunisia, through to the mortar attack on President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s compound which looks likely to prove decisive in Yemen. The magnetism of violence has arguably even created a perverse imperative for protest movements to “bait” governments into responding disproportionately, in order to attract the attention of the “great and the good” and the global mass media. Only escalating violence forced the global community’s clumsy fist to swing in Libya, and sadly it appears that only comparatively violent escalations in places such as Bahrain and Syria are likely to provoke serious, co-ordinated global responses there.

It is a paradox that in the largely peaceful, meticulously ordered societies most of us live in today, individual acts of violence are proving to be as effective a tool for attracting attention as they have ever been. Perhaps in retrospect, following 9/11 and the culmination of a decade-long international obsession with Osama bin Laden, this really shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

The alternative vote (AV) referendum

Here in the United Kingdom the nation is waking up on Thursday May 5th, the day of the alternate vote (AV) referendum and some would say, judgment day for the political career of the Liberal Democrat Deputy PM Nick Clegg. The referendum was arguably the most politically important concession extracted by the Lib Dems from David Cameron’s Conservatives as part of their coalition agreement. Victory for “Yes” case proponents will deliver meaningful and overdue electoral reform, together with a substantive apologia to the British people for the oft craven capitulation of the Lib Dems to the Tory policy agenda. Victory for “No” case proponents will leave many Liberal Democrat supporters baffled as to just how their party has profited from their “deal with the devil”, and progressives more pessimistic than ever about serious democratic reform in the United Kingdom.

Recent polling strongly suggests that the latter scenario will come to pass, with likely serious implications for the health of the coalition agreement and Nick Clegg’s already comatose leadership. The “No” campaign has been heavily backed politically by the Conservative Party and financially by regular Tory donors, and the Labour Party is offering only partial support. The Labour leadership under Ed Miliband supports the “Yes” case, but many influential “Old Labour” figures have sided with the Tories and are urging a “No” vote. In short, the lack of broad, bi-partisan support for change which arguably killed off the majority of referenda put to the Australian people since Federation looks set to do the same for the alternative vote in the United Kingdom today.

For me, the AV campaign was summed up by a single image yesterday. The Conservative Party’s headquarters is located at Millbank Tower at 30 Millbank, a short, languorous stroll south from the House of Parliament in Westminster. Walking past it on my way home from work yesterday, I was a little surprised to observe outside a bright purple open-top double-decker bus, emblazoned with “No 2 AV” slogans. The open top of the bus was filled with a rabble of young Tories (presumably supplied by party HQ), waving signs emblazoned with checked boxes in support of FPTP, and making a cacophonous and indistinct noise. The bus proceeded to drive slowly up Millbank towards the Houses of Parliament, as the Tories onboard desperately tried to attract attention, cheering when the occasional passing motorist sounded their horn, whether in support or opposition.

Passers-by seemed to be scratching their heads. It was a classic case of sound and fury signifying nothing, wholly representative of the sort of meaningless froth and colour that looks set to seal victory for the “No” campaign, which lest we forget, has been orchestrated from go to whoa by the Conservative Party.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.