Archive for the ‘action’ Category

Mark Ballard of Computer Weekly is trying to get the details of government meetings with the IT industry, and struggling. Among other things, this seems to be yet another use case for an enduring Freedom of Information Act request. It’s also one of the reasons why I like the idea of a central contacts register. Back at OpenTech 2009 I said to Tom Watson MP, just after he resigned as a minister, that it wasn’t just useful for citizens to be able to find out who officials were contacting – the government itself might benefit from keeping track of who was lobbying it, maintaining a common line-to-take across different departments, and the like. Hey, even the lobbyists might benefit from knowing who else was lobbying.

Of course, there’s an argument that the government quite likes having pathological relationships with its suppliers. But that’s one of the points where as soon as you get radical enough to understand the situation, you’re also too cynical to do anything about it. Watson’s been campaigning about this, and the Cabinet Office recently released some data. With the embarrassing bits taken out.

The bulk of it is here, it looks like they’re planning to split the disclosure between departments as this only covers ministers in the Cabinet Office (i.e. the PM, DPM, Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Leader of the Commons and the whips). It’s also on data.gov.uk but it’s going to need reparsing. At least it’s not a PDF. It’s a bit thin, presumably because the bulk of meetings with external organisations go via officials or bag carrier MPs – DEFRA’s is rather chewier.

Well, that was grim, wasn’t it? I refer, of course, to the new government. Having read through the coalition agreement, I’m almost convinced by Charlie and Jamie‘s argument that it’s really not that bad. Almost. I’m not particularly worried by the supposed 55% thing either, for reasons well explained here – it’s fairly obviously an attempt to self-bind, a costly signal of commitment to cement the deal, and it’s probably content-free.

On the other hand, there’s the NAMELESS DREAD. It’s pre-rational, emotional, Lovecraftesque…political. And look at some of the gargoyles and Queen’s bad bargains in the government. Also, Vince Cable at the Mandelsonministerium is a reasonably good idea, but couldn’t we have got at least one real job? Obviously, the Tories couldn’t have worn a Liberal foreign secretary for ideological reasons.

What went wrong with this post? I think the key unexamined assumption was that the Labour Party could be treated as a united actor for negotiating purposes; I didn’t take into account that significant numbers of backbench MPs wouldn’t support a coalition or wouldn’t support an electoral reform bill. I still believe that significant numbers of Tory backbenchers will rebel, but the coalition whips have more leverage over them with the Liberals as a reserve pool. Obviously, it’s telling that the Labour whipping operation would pick this moment, rather than – say – March 2003, to break down.

It’s also telling just who was lobbying the Labour backbenches; David Blunkett, John Reid, and Charles Clarke! The three monkeys of Blairite authoritarianism, a sort of negative triumvirate of failed home secretaries. Because, after all, as I said about identity cards back in 2004, we are going to win. That is, in fact, the only good thing here; the achievement of NO2ID and Phil Booth is that all political parties except one went into the 2010 general election pledged to abolish the National Identity Scheme. And, crucially, the civil service gets it – I hear that IPS is actively looking at contingency plans as to what to do with its officials when the NIS shuts down, how to cancel the contracts, disposing of office space and kit, that kind of stuff.

Hilariously, my dad spent quite a lot of time trying to get the IPS to give him an identity card, in order to demonstrate various flaws in the process – he was eventually issued one after the intervention of the chief of identity cards. He’s now trying to decide whether to sell it on EBay or frame it. Does anyone have suggestions as to what to do with an British National Identity Card?

So, no ID cards, no NIR, no ContactPoint. Home Office junior ministers have swung from people like Phil Woolas to Lynne Featherstone. I should be delighted. But then, yes, nameless dread. I agree that it wasn’t so long ago that it looked like we’d get Dave from PR with a majority of 100, so I should be pleased that the damage control exercise has been a success. But, no. Perhaps I should concentrate on MySociety stuff; perhaps I should concentrate on London politics. I have no idea if I’m going to stay a Liberal member.

One thing that will be happening is a new blog patterned on Boriswatch that will be covering our Stable and Principled new government, especially the unstable and unprincipled bits. Check out our statistical model of coalition survival, which is currently showing them sticking it out for the full five years…yup, nameless dread all right.

One outcome of all the MySociety work for this election was the survey administered by DemocracyClub volunteers to all candidates. The results by party are graphed here, with standard deviations and error bars.

Some immediate conclusions: Surprising egalitarianism. Look at question 1, which asks if the budget deficit should be reduced by taxing the rich. Only the very edge of the error bar for the Conservatives touches the 50% mark; the only parties who have any candidates who don’t agree are the BNP and UKIP. Also, question 4 (“It would be a big problem if Britain became more economically unequal over the next 5 years” – agree/disagree) shows that there is a remarkable degree of consensus here. The three main parties of the Left – the Greens, Lib Dems, and Labour – overlap perfectly, and even the lower bound on the Tory percentage is over 50%. Only the ‘kippers and the fash even skim the 50% mark at the bottom end of their distributions. This may actually not be a statement about far-right thinking, because of…

Extremist internal chaos. On every question except the one about immigration for the BNP and the one about the EU for UKIP, these two parties have huge error bars for every question. As soon as they get off that particular topic, the error bars gap out like the bid-offer spread in a crashing market. Clearly, they agree about very little other than their own particular hate-kink. So the result in my first point could just be because they always have the widest standard error and deviation.

Immigration, or a field guide to identifying British politics. If you’re a Liberal, Labour, or a Green, you’ve got no problem with immigrants. Even the upper bounds only just stroke the 50% line. All the parties of the Right, however, overlap around the 80% line. Need to identify someone’s partisan affiliation quickly? Wave an immigrant at them. The other culture-wars question about marriage is similar, although the gap is smaller and the error bars bigger.

The consensus on civil liberties. Everyone, but everyone, thinks there are far too many CCTV cameras about. All parties overlap at between 68-78%…except for Labour. Labour is the only party that supports CCTV and it supports it strongly. There is just the faintest touch of overlap between the top (i.e. least supportive) end of the Labour error range and the bottom (i.e. most supportive) of the Tories’.

Trust and honesty. Liberals, Labour, and Conservatives all think politicians are honest. No doubt this is because the respondents are themselves politicians. Interestingly, the exceptions are the BNP and UKIP. Very interestingly, the BNP is united in cynicism, whereas the UKIP error range gaps-out dramatically on this question. The Greens’ error range converges dramatically on exactly 46% agreement – they are almost perfectly in agreement that they don’t agree.

Art and culture; only ‘kippers, BNPers, and a very few extreme Tories don’t support state funding of the arts.

Britain is a European country and is committed to the European Union. You can’t argue with the data; the Tories and Greens average between 20-30% support for withdrawal, zero for the Liberals and Labour, and even the upper bound for the Tories is well under the 50% line. Obviously, the BNP and UKIP want out, which is obvious and after the election result, arguably trivial.

Pacifist fascists; bellicose conservatives; divided lefties and ‘kippers. OK, so which parties are least keen on military action against Iran, even if they are caught red-handed building a nuke? The Greens are unsurprisingly 86% against with minimal error – perhaps the only occasion they would turn up a chance to oppose nuclear power! The other is the BNP – 82% against. Who knew we would find a scenario in which the BNP would turn up a chance to kill brown people? Labour, the Liberals, and UKIP would split down the middle – they overlap perfectly around the 50% mark. The Tories, however, are the war party – 39% against, with the lower bound well clear of the other parties. The UKIP result is strange – you’d expect them to be basically like Tories or like the BNP, but they are most like Labour on this issue, although they have a tail of happy warriors. The BNP is also the party most opposed to continuing British involvement in Afghanistan – even more than the Greens. Labour, the Liberals, the Tories, and UKIP overlap heavily around being narrowly in favour, although UKIP as usual gaps out when it’s not discussing how much it hates the EU.

Even the Toriest Tories say they support UK Aid. This one’s fairly clear – even the upper bound for the Tories is well below 50% and everyone else serious is much lower. UKIP and the BNP are strongly against, but their error bars are quite wide – clearly, they’re not sure whether they hate foreigners enough that paying them not to be immigrants is a good idea.

Summary: We’re a broadly social democratic European nation, with a few nutters for comic relief. And Chris Lightfoot’s Political Survey results (the primary axis in British politics is liberty-vs-authority, strongly correlated with internationalism-vs-isolationism, and the secondary axis is egalitarianism-vs-libertarianism, but there is surprisingly little variance along it) from 2005 appear to be confirmed.

I’m actually quite pleased with our little demo. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic when we assembled in Trafalgar Square, where various speeches were made of which not one word was audible (note to the various orgs involved: I’d happily spring for some batteries for the loud hailer. I mean, my student union would have got that right, to say nothing of the SWP…). And Morrismen kept invading our space.

I originally thought this was some regrettable, Lucky Jim example of sandal-socks liberalism. Actually no; I’m informed by Tom from Boriswatch that this is actually our mayor’s idea of culture, and actual taxpayers’ money is being paid out to them. Perhaps it’s a sort of defensible-space gambit to make it harder to protest there.

Eventually, Billy Bragg – for it is he! – suggested from the platform that we march to Smith Square and picket the Local Government Association building, where the Lib Dem MPs were meeting. This basically turned the demo around, and at least it stopped him singing; off we went down Whitehall, snarling up the traffic, calling on the recently expanded camp around Brian Haw’s pad, hurling abuse at the Sky News media-slum in College Green, flanked by policemen radioing each other to work out where we were heading.

Smith Square is not roomy; this is why those TV pictures of Tories celebrating outside Central Office always looked like more of a party than they probably were. So the crowd looked bigger and the shouting was louder. And, well, we stuck around yelling until Nick Clegg came out to speak. Again, I couldn’t hear a word, and we actually found out what he said via Twitter on Tom’s BlackBerry. Which made sense, as a major aim of the demo was to get onto the TV streams and RSS feeds the MPs would no doubt be obsessively monitoring.

It wasn’t a big demo, but it was targeted – the LGA building was already staked out by a huge media presence, with the steps of the church opposite festooned with camera crews, reporters buzzing around like flies round shit, and a big ambush of photographers and more TV cams on the LGA’s steps.

This was crucial – as we were arriving during the meeting, there would be nothing for them to report on or film other than the outside of a decentish Queen Anne block, which is better architecture than it is telly. All it took was for the camera gang on the steps to swivel through 180 degrees to get a perfect angry-mob shot, while the ones on the church had a reverse angle view of a crowd apparently besieging the building. Cropping in to emphasise the speakers would tend to compress the scene, giving the impression of a more dramatic confrontation.

The results? Well, we got far more news than I expected; and we seem to have traumatised Kay Burley.

The expression on her face at the beginning is priceless. How dare they! This wasn’t on the autocue! There’s more here; later in the day, I was with Boriswatch and his charming son, Alfie, who seems to be training as a Dickensian pickpocket (he relieved his father of a £10 note with positively Sicilian panache), in the Westminster Arms, which offers its customers two TV screens, one locked on Sky News and the other to BBC News-24. With a bit of neck-craning, you could just about watch both simultaneously in a sort of split brain media experiment – what was telling was that there was more Shannon-information in the BBC feed, far less repetition, the BBC didn’t deliberately misquote Nick Clegg in all its on-screen graphics, and the BBC didn’t insist on informing me every three minutes that Mohamed Al-Fayed had sold a rather unfashionable department store.

Seriously – yesterday of all days, Al-Fayed’s sale of Harrods was in the top three stories on Sky News for at least two hours. And, as a hint, Nick Clegg didn’t say the Tories had a “right to govern”, which they repeatedly asserted as a direct quote; he said that the largest party had the right to be consulted about a coalition first, which is far from the same thing.

So here’s the plan; it looks like Bush vs Gore 2.0. Bullshit, bluster, and fake it ’til you make it. This is actually incredibly outrageous – we’re in the middle of a contested election and one party doesn’t feel itself bound by what is, effectively, the constitution. And the original version of the Grauniad story in the print edition was considerably worse; it included quotes from a “Tory frontbencher” being actionable about the Cabinet Secretary on the grounds that he worked in the Treasury, was in fact Treasury Permanent Secretary, at the same time as Gordon Brown. Among other things, it is terrifying that the “frontbencher” is so ignorant about the Civil Service that they didn’t know that it’s entirely normal – even expected – for the top man to be a Treasury civil servant.

This seems relevant, not to mention this; I’ve been slipping into a deep sense of fear and loathing all week, rather as you might slip into a silk nightgown.

So I’m going to launch my own counter-narrative now. The answer to “we won we won we won” is “resist the stitch up”. And, as soon as the polls close, I want to get this out as much as possible. As soon as you read this, kindly go and use the phrase.

Update: Sunder Katwala; there’s already a Twitter hashtag and a provisional date for a demo – 2pm Saturday, Trafalgar Square.

So you might remember that Thai demonstrators invaded the brand-new airport there a while ago, establishing a huge Ballardian protest-camp among the glass walls and retail space and soft-xray terrorist detectors. Their movement went on to spray the prime minister’s house with their own blood, collected in buckets by their medical wing. Clearly, they have a certain style.

Which made me think when I saw this BBC story; how much science-fiction would you need to get from being stuck at the same airport due to northern Europe getting a fine dusting of Iceland, while the Redshirts and the cops and the No Colour Movement – colour revolutions have clearly reached some sort of logical end point – duke it out downtown, to actually getting the queues involved in the revolution? (The other way round is much easier, and amounts almost to a cliche.)

I think he is frit!

Hammond failed to declare £3m in dividends from nursing home developer Castlemead Ltd.

(Canonical link.)

hey,  they certainly scare me

(Canonical link.)

Does anyone know if Lord Ashcroft even exists?

(Canonical link.)

you ain't seen nothing yet

(Canonical link.)

You know the rules.

Metafilter! I love you all. I needed a crowd, and you brought me a mob. It’s been a four-figure day for the blog by 10 a.m., and more importantly created a truly superb boom in Dave from PR remixes. Looking at the detailed server log from TYR Classic, loads of people are googling for things like “blank david cameron” – a telling comment in itself – and “cameron poster generator”. You will be infected. It’s worth noting that it’s not just posters; I am aware of three poster generator sites – Andy Barefoot’s, the Cameronizer, and MyDavidCameron.com, whose domain name is a minor classic in itself.

Do I look like Obama? The terrible secret of space. Inevitably, Cthulhu made an appearance, as if enough malevolent alien gods and unconscious drives too eerie to even think about hadn’t been in the original. And again. Kittens. The truth. This one is brilliant:

The Conservatives: rather like bog roll

Others: Watching. Bicycle. 400 years without sun. Pong. Love the colour blue, lies, and broken promises? Vote Conservative. Worst-case scenario. Dignitas. How is babby formed. Cameron vs. Withnail & I. New in town and eager to please.

Here’s another of mine. He voted for it

Lessons? For a start, the Vital Importance of Stable URIs and REST. When Andy deployed the feature that produced a stable URI for your poster, there was an explosion of creativity. Two reasons – first, you could show them off, share them with others, promote other people’s work. Links introduced the social dimension. Secondly, it got rid of several steps in the process – download the image, re-upload it to flickr/somewebhost/whatever, then pass it around. Making it a Web service gave the user instant results.

Less technically, the poster and its fate tell us something about Dave from PR. The whole project of Cameron is essentially a drive to implement all the most satirised features of Tony Blair; they’re working on the theory not just that the 1997 campaign was an effective model for getting elected, but that the public actually likes media manipulation and verb-free sentences and trust-me face and truthiness and faintly Jesus-y canned emotion. It’s not the ad campaign – it’s the product.

As a result, everything about him has the odd over-perfectly stylised quality of that poster, and is therefore permanently poised on the edge of being self-satirising. It may be our last best hope to push him over it at every opportunity.

Today, I love all the people. (Although, so did Erich Mielke. So don’t kid yourself I’m going soft.)

There is a fascinating paper here on how people believed that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qa’ida. Essentially, if you give people enough free-floating emotional energy, they are likely to decide that if you care so much, then there must be an explanation for the holes in your logic. It’s called inferred justification, and it surely explains why the global Right are so keen on content-free mobilisation. Keep’em teabagging, in short, it stops them thinking.

Something similar is at work in this quote in a Conor Foley post at Crooked Timber:

Crime offers the imagery with which to express feelings of loss and social decay generated by these other processes and to legitimate the reaction adopted by many residents: private security to ensure isolation, enclosure and distancing from those considered dangerous

Strategies of neuro-politics; how do you keep other people from thinking, and indeed keep yourself from thinking? In the first study I mentioned, only 2 per cent of the people interviewed altered their beliefs based on new information, and 14 per cent of those who said they believed in a link between Al-Qa’ida and pre-war Iraq in the survey later denied it.

So what are we going to do about it? If the best idea anyone has on the Left is a High Pay Commission, we’re not getting anywhere. I’m against this for a couple of reasons: first, the obvious work-around is to stick to the money as profits, and if necessary, to reorganise at least part of the company so the super-high earners are shareholders or partners. It wasn’t many years ago that Goldman Sachs was still a partnership, after all.

Second, it doesn’t do very much for the office cleaners, even if it manages to offend the investment bankers. It doesn’t even bring in any tax revenue, nor does it hold out any hope of higher wages for the poor rather than marginally lower ones for the rich.

But what it does do is provide a focus for indignation; something to get worked up about, or in other words, a piece of politics-without-thinking.

If that’s no good, neither is the guy who’s trying to bill companies for the time he spent consuming their products; a clever conceit, and probably fun, but tragically art-knobber at bottom. (But then, as the inventor of ContentFree Comment, who am I to talk?) As Owen Hatherley remarks in a cracking interview:

Criticising consumerism is what people do when they can’t quite stomach criticising capitalism.

So, what to do? I was impressed by this guy‘s style – as well as the .38 and the giant TEABAGGERS = FAIL sign, check out all those neat data visualisations on his banner! If Habermas and Hunter S. Thompson had collaborated, wouldn’t it have looked a little like that – the gonzo public sphere…but clearly this isn’t practical or even desirable on a large scale.

The big question, I think, is how to define the Left as the side that’s fighting for positive liberty, and to work out how we operationalise that. Chris Dillow is right that stronger unions, not high pay commissions, are the answer to that particular problem. But I’m also interested in things like this – politicised DIY, basically and this, and of course neurogenesis.

We won’t get anywhere, however, as long as the incredible revolution in our understanding of cognition is reduced to a set of buzzwords (nudge, Taleb, etc) used by the Tories to misdirect attention anyway from the ugly truth.

If it’s possible to get Americans to start a string of minor riots in order not to have at least $80bn worth of national healthcare, surely it must be possible to start a good row about whatever it is the Conservatives have in store for us? We stand to lose at least that and more. I ask in the light of this post at Bickerstaffe Record, which suggests, not stupidly, that making an Aunt Sally of the credit rating agencies might be a good idea for a demo.

After all, it’s very true that they played a key role in the great crash, and before that in the post-dotcom Enron/telecoms fraudfest. As Eavis & McLean point out in The Smartest Guys in the Room, the rating agencies were in the best possible position to work out just how much debt Enron had hidden down rabbit holes and in other people’s wheely bins – because every time Enron pulled another fancy dan financing, they had the ratings agencies rate the bonds that came out of it.

We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.

And, strategically, this is always going to be a problem, because unlike all other forms of credit risk assessment, the agencies make their money from the party issuing the debt, so it’s always in their interest to be optimistic. (Similarities with this little beauty of a deal are entirely appropriate.) When they are dealing with private clients, that is; if it’s Argentina or Britain involved, they just go ahead and shoot. John Quiggin has an excellent post on their failure and their role in pushing PFI in Australia.

But I have my doubts that any such action will change their opinion; in fact, it wouldn’t be the aim of such an action. The point would be rather to render their opinion less relevant and alter the conditions under which it is formed. However, I have just ordered the domain name standardispoor.com, and I welcome suggestions for what we might do with it.

More broadly, what worries me is that the Tories will pull some horror out of their back pocket in the financial year 2010-2011, and by the time it’s passing through the House, we’ll just have started getting angry. This is one of the historical lessons of On Roads; if you really want to stop something, you need to start earlier than you think.

This is why, by the way, projects like FreeOurBills are important. If there’s no point protesting about a road project after it gets into the national programme, the answer is to shorten the feedback loop and react quicker. This is much more interesting and important – real citizen technology – than Twittering for Iran, DDOSing low value Russian Web sites, or any of the other manifestations of the fake version.

So this is one of the few good features of open primaries I can think of; they provide an opportunity to put together an organisation early in the game, which is roughly how Obama dunnit. In a parliamentary system, though, this is much less important.

Shouldn’t we be getting our lists together now, rather than waiting for the Tories? I agree that this implies giving up on the elections, but then, who wouldn’t, and who doesn’t suspect that a surviving Labour government wouldn’t be just as bad?