Legal Highs still immune? Still deadly..

We are living in a time where there is more evidence than ever before to suggest that the current direction of drugs policy is not having the desired effect. That effect being to stop lives being ruined and ended prematurely by drug addiction and abuse.

Decisions by politicians about how to deal with drugs in society is showing few sign of being informed by this promising evidence. The latest report commissioned by the coalition government looks set to become the latest in a line of ignored data.

It’s now apparent that the US led ‘war on drugs’ has cost a fortune and, for decades, failed to prevent cartels and gangs from continuing to operate seemingly at will whilst turning over huge profits; whenever the UK government has a chance to adopt more evidence based policy it panics, backs away and often resorts to fiddling with the classification of drugs in a way that only serves to confuse the public.

There is very little evidence to show that making a drug class A rather than B or C has any real impact on those who have already made a decision to use the substance in question.

Similarly, there is good evidence to show that tough sentences make little difference to rates of drug use.

Legal highs now present a very real danger (government calls these NPS – new psychoactive substances). These mostly synthetic chemical compounds which, ironically, often contain substances which are illegal – despite the name are being presented as safe and sold on high-streets and online, mainly to young people. They remain largely unclassified despite over 60 reported deaths in 2012, and growing numbers of young people reporting having tried them.

The UK has signally failed to take a responsible stance, as demonstrated by the New Zealand government which has begun to regulate these drugs, policing imports, screening these drugs to ensure they are ‘safe’ and forcing manufacturers and suppliers to become publicly responsible.

Cautious scepticism should be maintained towards some of the arguments and campaigns for relaxation of drugs laws, and whole-scale changes to drugs policy.

Pressure groups and personal interest groups should never be allowed to ‘own’ the facts or be presumed to hold the moral or ethical high-ground no matter how principled or emotionally resonant their arguments. The same scrutiny must apply to the ‘legalisation’ position as is regularly directed at legislators, by those of a liberal persuasion.

There is some valuable history to heed, when doing so.

These campaigns really got their wings back in the 60’s, in the UK and US (although we can trace the roots of anti-prohibition back to the early 20th Century in America).

In fact during the prohibition era, it is worth noting that evidence suggests alcohol consumption had fallen by around one-half by the 1930s; so something about this could be said to have worked, if one’s goal were agreed to be a reduction of use (and that is a pretty well agreed aim, even regarding today’s drug problem, at least in regards to drugs like heroin and crack cocaine, which are widely agreed to be highly dangerous in and of themselves).

Yet, isn’t it interesting that the case for liberalisation and those rallying to its cause has at various points over the years waxed or waned in momentum, whilst we have watched the tide of legislation steadily, ineluctably, go one way – tighter classification and more punitive measures for possession?

When the previous government’s former adviser on drugs David Nutt tried to explain why this was the wrong approach, and how a more liberal approach could be implemented, without risking attracting youngsters to drugs, he was fired. He has been warning, recently of the threat legal high’s have become.{hyperlink}

The circumstances and substances are, of course, different, in many ways from 20s and 30s America.

The country was largely influenced by a puritan sense of conviction and strong ties to organised religion. Of course, some of those values remain to this day and are still considered by many to be essential for maintaining the gossamer-thin moral fabric of any decent society. But, generally speaking, the west is far more secular today.

For our part, in Britain, we have had our own history with uncontrolled and dangerous alcohol consumption and drug use, stretching back before the Victorian era, but made notorious in modern culture by depictions such as Hogarth’s Gin Lane and stories of a devastatingly rejected underclass in towns and cities, living in abject poverty and drinking themselves senseless to simply survive the horror of it all.

Global trade increased and the world became a vast market-place exchanging culture, goods and, indeed, their distinctively rich brand of narcotics.

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, greater ease-of-access to all manner of new and exotic substances, many with great potential for pain-relief and genuine healing qualities, was made possible to many thousands of ordinary people in the west; a by-product was that drug use and misuse became mainstream.

We should not waste time on patronising retrospective sneering, sitting here as we do with 20-20 hindsight and all the advantages of advances in psycho-pharmacology and medical science generally.

Little was then understood of the dangers of addiction, to individuals, communities and society more widely, certainly not by the average man or woman on the street, who had access to opium, amphetamines, cocaine and more. Doctors prescribed some of these drugs to their patients and extolled the health benefits and they were widely available at parties and in the home.

Now, we have ministers leaving (see Norman Baker) and advisers forced out for advocating a more nuanced approach, with better emphasis on treatment for addiction and less oppressive rules on possession; this is only likely to happen when the black market is squashed. For that looser legislation, not more, is key.

Future generations will surely look back on current drugs policy and find it anachronistic that people are criminalised for smoking cannabis (generally not even accepted for medical use in the UK) whilst criminal gangs continue to thrive.


Toys R.. not for Children?

Toys R Us have pulled a line of ‘Breaking Bad’ action figures after an American Mom launched a petition for their sale to be stopped.

The ‘dolls’ are merchandise from the hugely popular (and breathtakingly intense) 5 season drama which, if you’ve not seen yet (and I was a late convert too!) – do it, that’s what Netflix is for; just make sure you clear a couple of weekends in advance, you’ll need them, once you’re hooked. And hooked you will be.

The figures depicted stars from the show ‘Walter White’ and ‘Jesse Pinkman’, which included accessories including a bag containing money and drugs. To be honest I’m with the ‘Mom’ on this one; this simply can’t be a good role model for kids.

In fact Aaron Paul (aka Pinkman) seems to hurt his own case in pointing out that Barbie is damaging too:

“(Toys R Us) still sells Barbie..I wonder which is worse”.

Yes, Barbie is an unhelpful figure. The reason for that? It sets an example for young impressionable girls (and boys) that this is what women are supposed to be/look like. It creates and reinforced already trenchant gender roles.

But Paul can’t have it both ways. If Barbie sets a bad impression then why wouldn’t an action figure (surely portrayed as a ‘hero’ figure, who carries a bag of drugs and money be equally harmful to children, as a focus for what is acceptable and admired to adults?

That it was in the ‘adult‘ section of Toys R Us sounds like nothing more than a paradoxical misnomer to me; so grown men/women are the target audience? Really? I’m even more concerned if adult men and women are purchasing these things, frankly. They must, it seems to me, be fairly naive, disturbed and potentially as vulnerable to hero-worship and being impressionably misguided as the kids to want these things.

It’s a bit like the alcopops we see in shops/bars etc – producers will swear blind that they’re aimed at adults but then the product is brightly coloured and full of sugar and marketed in a way that appeals to a young audience..which gives the lie, somewhat.

It strikes me that one particular problem with the toys is there’s no context, in the way there is, actually, with the drama itself (as those who’ve seen the show well know, much of the drama and excitement comes from watching Walter’s downfall – a direct consequence of his choices, and actions). It is generally accepted that when showing dangerous or undesirable behaviour on TV or film one of the most effective ways of making this acceptable is to show realistic, often negative consequences, for a given course of action.

As a fan of Breaking Bad, I would say that there is less risk of glamourising drug dealing and that lifestyle by showing the characters in that full way, rather than in the form of a doll/action figure, which is devoid of context, except that it is marketed alongside a bunch of ‘cool’ looking personalities and figures from pop culture etc. which seems, to me to be sending the wrong message (or at least a restricted version of it) about Walter White’s life.

It is a matter of being honest and using common sense about the way toys are marketed and sold. No one is going to persuade me that these things were aimed purely at ‘responsible’ adults and once we accept that toys are highly likely to fall into the hands of children (god forbid!) then we ought to recognise the potential for these to become unhelpful, in the lessons they teach those children.

No, not all children will be adversely affected; indeed studies are still conflicted about the impact they have (similar to the nature of watching violent films and playing computer games) but this is an unnecessary gamble. Walter White on his own, without the bag of drugs and money? Why not? it simplifies things and what is lost as a result?

Not beneficial…

Labour’s latest jobseekers’ policy

Oh dear. You will probably have seen Ed Miliband’s announcement that Labour would cut Jobseekers Allowance for 18-21 year olds? It seems that he fears being seen as not tough enough on benefit claimants. I think this is a mistake.

Now, there is some interesting evidence to suggest that what is known as Generation Y (those born in the 1990s) have a strong sense of self-reliance and reportedly do believe benefits aren’t always the answer. So maybe this new policy from Labour has been carefully ‘opinion polled’ and proven a winner, with a chunk of the country it most affects. Maybe.

But what it certainly does is move Labour onto Conservative territory. It becomes “who can be toughest on benefits”. That argument is incompatible with the rest of the Labour message. It comes at a time when one of their key ‘talking points’ on the economy is still the ‘cost of living crisis’ and the squeeze on living standards. If Labour are convinced that Tory policies are hurting middle England then, surely, this change would only exacerbate that?

How much young people would receive (if anything) depends on the skills they have and, crucially, parents income. Those who do not have the qualifications to give them a reasonable chance of getting a job will be offered a ‘youth allowance’, but only if they complete further study. There seems to be some sense in this. It may encourage young people to get the skills and qualifications they need to succeed in the workplace. However there is more, and this bit more controversial.

There is still a debate over what this would do to the overall benefit bill; Chancellor George Osborne has already taken to the airwaves,to claim it will send social security bill up. If so it is likely not by much. The real problem is the burden the policy places on parents. It will be means tested, so if the person in question is part of a family with income of more than 42,000 they will not be eligible. It is ironic that the Labour party would choose to means test this area. There are others where it is appropriate. But to do so here risks infantilizing young men and women, creating a reliance on parents that is the reverse of the independence that responsible parents will be trying to encourage.

And, worse, these are those very same ‘squeezed-middle’ families Ed Miliband has apparently been so keen to protect! We keep hearing that Labour and Miliband need to win the communication war with the Tories. This does not help with that.



Am I good, or bad? Google it…

So Google has become the moral arbiter of all European internet users. This seems odd.

Why are we now trusting the people whose very real interests it’s in, as a competitive company, to have all search results available?

In fairness the latest EU ruling by the Court of Justice, in Luxembourg, does not only apply to Google, but also Yahoo and any search engine provider operating in Europe.

But how will it work?

Basically Google create a ‘special committee’, whose job it will become to assess the validity of individuals requests to have the links to websites which refer to them taken down. It has become known as the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling and it threatens to change the way tech companies operate in Europe, if not the world.

Google have already relented from an initially combative stance toward the decision, and agreed to develop new protocol. This involves creation of a page where users can apply online to have the links to information about them removed. It has been up and running now since Friday and it had already attracted 20,000 fresh requests. It doesn’t take much imagination to assume that this service will be pretty popular.

And there’s another of the problems: Google have, probably rightly, pointed out that this is a manageable inconvenience for them. The size of their business dictates that they can allocate the necessary resources to cope with the new demand. The same is not true for start-ups, with very limited finances (and personnel resources for that matter); therefore the ruling is likely to damage innovation in Europe by hurting the competitive advantage for IT/Tech businesses seeking to get started from European countries.

And this is before we even get to the very real threat to freedom of speech and a free press. Despite what Google have clearly said, about the way the special committee will incline towards refusal of requests from professionals and those in the public domain who seek to cover up their malpractice, one cannot help but fear for the impact on restrictive internet regulation and transparency.

An interesting opponent of the ‘right to forget’ has appeared, in the form of Conservative MP and Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, who has warned of the dangers for internet freedom, saying:

I have a real reservation about the idea you can somehow eradicate your past, that news organisations are forced to sanitise their archives, that search engines are forced to direct away from difficult stories for people.”

He clearly believes the move will be a step backwards, away from freedom for the press. He went on:

“We live in a world of press freedom. We live in a world where people should be accountable for the mistakes we make. I think the EU as a whole needs to ask some serious questions about whether this is really the right way forward.”

There is a debate to be had about the way the internet is to be regulated and this is almost certainly a misstep, then, from the European Court. Google’s Larry Page certainly believes so (unsurprisingly!). On the impact of the ruling on internet freedom he said:

“It will be used by other governments that aren’t as forward and progressive as Europe to do bad things. Other people are going to pile on, probably . . . for reasons most Europeans would find negative.”

Google accept the ruling but admit a chance was missed to engage the public in this debate in advance of the ruling. They have vowed to make up for this and to become more prominent as a company operating in Europe.

As Page now acknowledges:

A very significant amount of time is going to be spent in Europe talking.”

Of course, the panel will not be the last line of defence. Individuals and companies who fail to get the desired outcome with a request to the search engine directly can still go to court, and there are already many more cases pending in the European courts.

In fact, the European judges made clear that in their view the EU data protection directive already established a “right to be forgotten”. This appears to pre-empt lengthy negotiations within the EU over a new data protection directive which could establish a limited “right to be forgotten”.

But surely, then, we should be paying some attention to who is on this special committee. After all Google has certainly considers this new system to be a significant development. Larry Page again:

“as we regulate the internet, I think we’re not going to see the kind of innovation we’ve seen”.

Perhaps the most concerning part of this response is the line: “as we regulate the internet.”

Yes – that’s really what Page is acknowledging here. Google are officially responsible for adjudicating over what we can find online. Sure, they’re already controlling what we see, to an extent, by creating and controlling the algorithms that determine how search results are ordered. But this is a shift, to an active, interventionist role. Can that be a good thing?

Remember – Google are a publicly listed company, responsible first and foremost to their shareholders. Their product is only weakened by reducing the totality of search results, of course. So a tension between their new ‘officiating’ position and their vested interests as a competitive company exists.

One prominent member of the new panel will be Wikipedia founder and internet legend Jimmy Wales. He has already spoken scathingly of the ruling:

I don’t think it’s workable; the ruling applies only to Europe and the internet is global.”

Which pinpoints yet another limitation of the ruling. Yes, another flaw evident from the court’s announcement, that it doesn’t apply outside the European jurisdiction of the court. So anyone going through, say, the US servers will still find links to the excluded information.

So a lot of problems, then. But maybe it will be self-balancing, to an extent, at least. We know that Google will be keen to keep as much of the material searchable as possible – it enhances their reputation to offer a ‘complete’ reflection of what is online; this will be tempered by a panel of professionals who recognise that some results no longer benefit anyone by remaining available (such as the drunken teenage facebook pages, which are likely to be removed on request).

Mining not minting

Mining not minting

How decentralised money systems are actually quite exciting…

Two meetings happened yesterday which, when considered together, offer an interesting insight into the financial industry of the UK, present and future.

One of these meetings took place in the City of London where politicians, bankers, lawyers and other luminary masters of the universe gathered to hear the Managing Director of the IMF Christine Lagarde speak. Ms Lagarde has, in the past, served as a cautious voice regarding the British economy, urging that lack of government spending and failure to lend by banks threatens to choke off the recovery and harm small and medium sized business from growing and flourishing.

This meeting was held for the Inclusive Capitalism conference where Prince Charles was another of the speakers and members of the G20 gathered to discuss the progress for reform of the banking sector since the economic crash in 2008.

The mood was not of a congratulatory nature and that is probably just as well. Again, Ms Lagarde felt the need to be quite scathing in her assessment:

Although some changes in behaviour are taking place, these are not deep or broad enough. The industry still prizes short-term profit over long-term prudence, today’s bonus over tomorrow’s relationship.”

Few of the reforms outlined in the post-crisis analysis have been implemented at all, let alone embraced by the industry. If you want to understand how those involved view the causes of the crash and the subsequent fall out this article is excellent, especially for those of us who can never quite remember how their interest rate derivatives differ from a collateralised debt obligation.

The article highlights how vast the UK (really mainly London, sadly) financial sector has become.

It is split into three distinct areas; Canary Wharf houses the investment banks, the City is where brokers and insurers live and swanky Mayfair where is home to the hedge funds and private equity firms. And no-one really understands how it works. Not even those who work there, not really. One of the bankers interviewed for the Guardian banking special says:

If I leave my desk and walk 10 yards, I have no idea what the people sitting there do. I’m on one floor of a huge, multi-storey building, and each floor is the size of a football pitch.”

And this is part of the problem. Many of the companies have thousands of people working under the same vast roof, in increasingly ‘silo-ised’ and specialised departments. Too big to fail has, quite literally, become a reality, with such fears of significant job losses should even a single institution go down that banks who have behaved irresponsibly and are compromised were then propped up by the taxpayer.

And it’s not just size, but the mentality which is worrying. The industry has grown separate and distant from the culture and society it is supposed to serve. A senior banker, insisting on anonymity, offers an illuminating description:

The banks are here (in the UK), but almost everything they do is not here,” he says. “I’ve got no clients in this country. I’ve got clients in Russia, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, Switzerland. That’s very normal in the City. The City doesn’t service London and the UK; it starts off in India and goes all the way to Ireland, then up to Russia and down to Cape Town.”

So their focus is outside the UK, they operate in a closed world, where security is high to prevent outside interference, using a language that is incomprehensible to most.

The lack of transparency, of accessibility, is stark and concerning. Most notably since this has shown no signs of changing since the massive fall out of the economic crash, where malpractice was revealed to be widespread. What other industry could operate this way and get away with it?

In 2010 a group of young professionals was asked to draw up a manifesto for the banking industry, intended as a guiding vision for how they would like to see their world become, in 5-10 years – working practice for the next generation (which suggests, as many agree, that it’s too late for the current one, who refuse to change and resist reform wilfully). The group came up with this mantra, amongst their suggestions:

A part of society, not apart from society”.

Which has a nice ring to it but also dives right to the heart of why the banks and some of the individuals within it are now feared, envied and loathed in equal measure. Ordinary members of the public do not understand the industry and are not encouraged or invited to. This sense of otherness (felt both from within and by those outside, who might seek to make sense of it) fosters mistrust and, at a time when faith and confidence is in short supply, this is all the more unhelpful.

Especially when business owners and individuals are struggling to get credit, buy a house or find a savings account with a reliably decent rate of return.

Which brings us to the other meeting that took place yesterday (Tuesday 28th May), at the Watershed , in Bristol.

This one was called: ‘Bitcoin: An introduction’ It was for new and existing members to come along and learn about this relatively new crypto currency. One reason for the recent local interest is that Bristol is about to get a Bitcoin ATM installed, at the Superfoods shop on St Stephens, street, Bristol, from next Monday (2nd June).

For those unfamiliar with the new currency there is a guide which will explain it far better than this author; what I do know, however, is that this is proving to be quite an interesting experiment by the designers and promoters of Bitcoin and it is another coup for Bristol to have such an involvement, at what are still early days.

One of three machines (known as Robocoin) to be installed by start up company SatoshiPoint (after the currency’s creator Satoshi Nakamoto) and is the only point outside London. The ATM, will allow users to buy and sell bitcoins for pounds sterling, and the company says it will charge a flat 5% fee over the online price. SatoshiPoint’s MD Jonathan James Harrison said:

SatoshiPoint wants to take bitcoin mainstream in 2014 and believes that bitcoin ATMs are essential in making this a reality. Bitcoin ATMs provide a familiar and consistent way for normal people to get hold of bitcoin fast, or sell it quickly for real world physical cash.”

This ultra-modern, high tech currency comes to a city which has already proven its willingness to innovate where money is concerned, in the form of the Bristol Pound CIC, a local currency set up in 2012 as a not for profit partnership with Bristol Credit Union and run largely through voluntary means.

Bristol Pound already has around 680 traders who accept the money, across Bristol, in various business sectors and 1,100 active members are signed up to use the currency. Individuals can then top up their account online and via the Credit Union. Many more may be using the paper money, although this is harder to establish.

How should these breakthrough currencies be understood, in relation to one another, and how will they do, operating in the same marketplace?

Firstly, they are, by no means, naturally direct competitors; bitcoin is a primarily digital currency whose main advantage is how easily and conveniently it can be exchanged freely across the world.

Bristol Pound’s whole raison d’etre is to be a local form of money, which stays in the community and works harder for the people and businesses of that area.

Bitcoin is in the vanguard of a range of digital currencies which may yet go on to reshape the way we look at, and use, money altogether. It offers a method and rate of exchange that is global, transparent (anyone with the mathematical formula, or a template, can interrogate every transaction ever made) and – this is the crucial, exciting part – it is decentralised.

That’s right – no single institution controls the bitcoin network. Individuals create the money digitally, by ‘mining’, using computer power in a distributed network. Therefore it is not anchored to any tangible value, for example in the way the £ and $ used to be based on gold.

This principle has been used by bitcoin’s detractors (including banks and governments – including our coalition government and the central bank) to criticise the currency, although clearly questions around their vested interests in maintaining the status quo have a bearing here.

But that same ‘institutional freedom’ is also seen as a huge potential advantage by many.

Bitcoin operates, then, on the principle of subjective theory of value, which means it really is free from the meddling hands of central bankers who have political pressures to complicate their involvement and ‘greedy’ bankers, who always have a vested interest in controlling the money’s supply and demand.

But that bitcoin has arrived at about the same time as the Bristol pound is not by accident; it seems that they are, certainly in part, both responses to some of the problems faced by the huge, often faceless, financial institutions operating in the City – they just differ in how they address the issue.

The Bristol Pound places a strong emphasis on community, bitcoin’s market is global.

Yet they have the shared goal of seeking to share the benefits of financial exchange and helping it to work better for people and business, not just the huge banks.

Martin Wolf, in his FT article setting out his thoughts on the way the financial sector needed to reform, said:

The transition to a system in which money creation is separated from financial intermediation would be feasible, albeit complex. But it would bring huge advantages. It would be possible to increase the money supply without encouraging people to borrow to the hilt. It would end “too big to fail” in banking. It would also transfer seignorage – the benefits from creating money – to the public.”

These financial outliers won’t, of course, replace the City and it’s institutions. But, in different ways, it seems they do have a part to play in our increasingly complex global financial system. They actually make it simpler. Because what they do very well is give the people who are responsible for them, and the people who use the money, a stake in the currencies’ respective success.

One of the repeated complaints voiced in the Guardian article about the City is how it has evolved, was that as the institutions grew in size they stopped putting their own money on the line. Since the infamous ‘Big Bang’ in the ’80s, when the Thatcher government set about deregulating the industry, layers of bureaucracy were stripped away; this was good in the way it reduced nepotism and collusion but it had an undesirable side-effect, which is directly responsible for accelerating the 2008 crash in the UK, and probably beyond.

The City went from a group of relatively small, manageable banks and institutions which were primarily family run and controlled to these enormous, ruthless, shareholder-led behemoths, which are no longer even risking their own money.

When viewed that way a lot makes sense; if it isn’t your money on the line you’ll always play a riskier hand; like playing poker for matchsticks, the game is incomparable to when playing for live stakes. The same principle applies in global finance – but here the consequences are catastrophic.

Even the Coop bank has recently been in the news, with an apparent 150 million black hole in its balance sheet. Which is bad, no doubt, but it simply should not be the only example we look to for ethical, local banking. Where are the mainstream alternatives?

The nature of small, local banking and money exchange systems is clearly becoming more popular as a result.

More people than ever are turning to Credit Unions, including cabinet ministers, well one at least! Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has urged people to consider them:

Credit unions can offer some of the best rates on the market for loans and dividends for your savings. But saving with a credit union can provide more than a financial return, as you will be investing in your local community.”

One reason is that the bond of trust has been broken with traditional banks; they see the names on the high street as ticking time bombs and, evidence suggests they’re at least partly right to do so.

Germany (as ever, we can learn from the ‘powerhouse’ of the European economy) has a strong network of local banks which has provided a valuable source of credit to individuals and small businesses since the crash in 2008.

Historically Britain’s high street banks were just that, there to service the needs of customers at a local level, without the dangerous co-habitation with the ‘casino’ structures making high risk, extraordinarily complicated transactions at lightening speed in the modern global financial markets, operating out of the City and across the world and co-opting the public’s financial rectitude along with them.

It is not a matter of closing down the City. We couldn’t if we wanted to; it reportedly brings in 12% of GDP to the UK (depending on where you look and who you ask). But it must surely be time to seriously explore alternatives and start to offer customers and smaller business, in desperate need of support and access to a viable, safer finance.

Bristol Pound and bitcoin are two examples of inventive, elegant solutions to a problem which shows no signs of being addressed from the top, by those in power (politicians and the banking industry have too much interest in keeping things as they are); and it seems there are classic bottom-up solutions.

Local currency is already being tried elsewhere with some interesting results. That we are still at an experimental stage should be all the more encouraging – there are people out there with good ideas to put to the market.

Some will do better than others but the fact that many people, who believe that small is beautiful (as E.F Schumacher would say), and want to experiment with a new form of financial transaction, one which doesn’t come with the technocratic, bureaucratic baggage and puts some control back in the individual’s hands is very welcome.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, in mid- 1800s:

“Decentralization has, not only an administrative value, but also a civic dimension, since it increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs; it makes them get accustomed to using freedom. And from the accumulation of these local, active, persnickety freedoms, is born the most efficient counterweight against the claims of the central government, even if it were supported by an impersonal, collective will.”

I bet you a fiver it catches on?

Party Lines


So it’s Party Election Broadcast time once again, in advance of European Parliament Elections on 22nd May. Whilst few people know or care how many MEP’s are sent to Brussels from each of the parties there are certainly things to learn from the politics of this campaign – in advance of next year’s General Election.

This week we have seen packages from BNP and UKIP and they have both been illuminating, in fact, for one reason – immigration.

Yes, the BNP broadcast was discomforting for the usual reasons and had the amateurish feel of an undergraduate Media Studies project. But they also addressed the theme which, currently, seems to be sending politicians, advisers and the press into a spin in Westminster.

Nick Griffin and his BNP claim to be the only party who will truly deliver on the promise of getting out of Europe. Now of course this is, to coin a phrase, two-fold nonsense – they won’t be in power to deliver on any promises (thankfully), whatever their intentions. The other claim they make – to unveil the lies and corruption of the mainstream parties is laughable; their appropriation of the Armed Forces is equally ridiculous not to mention disingenuous.

But they do strike at the heart of the debate which resonates much more meaningfully currently taking place between the main parties and UKIP: Immigration.

The UKIP broadcast was released this week too – in the midst of what appears to be a real popularity bounce for the party – hitting 26% popularity by some pollsters.

Now, a couple of years ago there were some uneasy predictions that the BNP vote was on the rise and that a Fascist element might enter mainstream politics in a way not seen for nearly a century. In the end this just didn’t happen; as scrutiny intensified on the ‘Nationalist’ party and people, presumably, had the chance to see just how unpalatable and devoid of serious policy the BNP were, any popularity sank dramatically. There is speculation that the same will happen with UKIP (even without the ultra-Nationalist aspect to weigh them down) particularly when voters feel it really matters, as in General Election.

In (not so) private the Tory campaign strategy has been well anticipated – an all out attack on the policy and personalities of Farage and fact, some say this has already begun and if so, well, failed miserably..they both come from ‘the right’ but they are undeniably at very different places on the political spectrum.

The antidote to BNP and UKIP just might not be the same, it seems.

Ever since the debate with Nick Clegg (Lib Dem leader), Nigel Farage and his party seem to be riding a wave, attracting positive media attention which has provided a platform to play to their pet themes of leaving EU, limiting runaway immigration and, quite simply, just not being one of the other three main parties. With the Lib Dem vote still languishing below 10% some would say that really means just Labor and Conservative, now. Maybe so, but unless either party can achieve a majority (not currently looking likely) the Liberal Democrats are still going to have a part to play.

What impact can UKIP ultimately have though? Even given the resounding success predicted in May 2014, will this translate, for example, to seats in Parliament next year?

That these questions are even being asked let alone discussed in such serious terms as we have seen recently is testament to the shifting political landscape. Nigel Farage,with his notoriously sensitive political antennae, has sensed an opportunity to make progress on what has been a (political) lifetime’s work and he’s determined to make the most of it. He even turned down the chance to run in the by-election – a seat vacated by the humiliated Tory MP Patrick Mercer this week – Farage is thinking strategically, playing the odds.

The Tories meanwhile seem to be panicking and bickering – despite the improving economy and the advantage that would seem to give them; genuinely afraid that the UKIP vote will prove an attractive ‘protest-vote’ alternative in 2015, Cameron has been forced onto territory he would rather avoid – not least because the split in his own party over Europe is surely the single most unpredictable and distracting factor when it comes to fighting a general election.

Most commentators feel that this is pulling the Tories further to the right than where they want to be, when fighting the election. Even if voters don’t care about immigration anything like as much as UKIP would have us believe (as polls actually show to be the case) they do respond to Farage’s straight talking sentiment which promises to ‘bring back control of laws from Brussels to London’.

That a more open debate than ever before seems possible on the immigration issue is welcome but it is simply foolish for either Cameron or Miliband to even engage with UKIP on that issue. By appearing to agree that immigration is a problem – in accord with Farage – but then not being able, or willing, to offer a similarly substantial solution they paint themselves into a corner. The best the Tories can do is promise a Referendum; even this has proven too much for Miliband, apparently a committed pro-European.

With this in mind a Lib-Lab coalition appears the more natural coalition partnership (more so, were it not for the fact that many Labour shadow cabinet members dislike Clegg with quite a fierce passion). A Lib Dem leadership challenge could surely not be ruled out.

Ed Miliband must be hoping that this debate rumbles on, Tory MP’s and traditional voters continue to split and in the chaos Labour can scrape through on their own core vote (polled at somewhere around 36% – close to a majority if they all come out. If not close enough the Lib Dem’s could make up the numbers for the second coalition in succession.

Either way all four parties with a stake in the outcome would do well to remember that this issue, valid a political argument as it is, will not be the main deciding factor when most people come out to vote in 2015.

For that one would do well to remember the classic and immortal line: it’s the economy stupid.





Local elections 2014-style

A green streak amongst the red and purple…

In the 1950s two main parties took nine out of ten of the votes cast across Britain. That’s now more like two-thirds. That former dominance from Labour and Conservatives meant it was possible to gain 40% in general elections – often seen as the winning line for significant Commons majorities, last seen from Labour in the 90s.

It is clear we have now entered the era of four party politics.

In the local elections that took place across the country last Thursday Labour had modest gains, Conservatives saw similarly steady losses and the Liberal Democrats lost out heavily; these elections are, patently, not a general election and so cannot be used to directly predict what will happen next May. There are, though, still some interesting lessons to be learned and the results we have seen and the consequent analysis will have an impact on the wider political narrative and public opinion which will resonate across the political spectrum over the next few months – probably right up to party conference season, in the autumn.

With now less than one year to go until the general election the campaign to decide the next government has officially begun. Following the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 we know the date in advance (set for 7th May 2015) which is also having a bearing on the way parties are behaving, particularly in terms of policy announcements.

Here we’ll look at Bristol, partly because that’s where I am, but also because it offers an intriguing insight into the 2014 local elections, and that merits some attention.

The voter turnout in Bristol is estimated at 27.5% which sounds low (and of course, regrettably, it is low, but not unusually so for local elections) and is, in fact, even lower than the national average – which indications show to be 36%. This is somewhat surprising, considering Bristol’s reputation for political activism (it was also one of the few cities to elect a mayor, in 2012). So it would be a mistake to suggest that Bristol is an ideal bellwether for the rest of the country; in some ways it reflects what has been happening elsewhere but there are also departures from the general picture.

Thursday’s vote saw Labour’s share of the vote grow to give it a strong control of the City Council, with 31 councillors; this is 15 ahead of second placed Liberal Democrats – who despite losses did not fare as badly here as elsewhere. That should not some as a huge surprise, as the West Country has traditionally been good to the Lib Dems.

The Conservatives actually gained one seat (in contrast to the steady, if not shocking, losses seen elsewhere) and Ukip made gains in Bristol too, gaining it’s first councillor and pushing both Labour and Tories hard in some contests.

The other stand-out result was for the Green Party. And it’s worth noting this because it is mentioned very little elsewhere – the ‘Farage phenomenon’ continues to mesmerise our political media in seemingly trance-like fashion. One victim of this recent Ukip success is the BNP and Nick Griffin who, sounding more hopeful than confident, claimed on the ‘Daily Politics’ programme last week that his party would be: “ready and waiting, for when the Ukip bubble bursts”. No such luck, Nick. Perhaps we’re better off as things are, after all then?

To return to the Greens though, and what has, rightfully, been called a ‘surge’ by party leader Natalie Bennett, because her party won two more council places, taking their number in Bristol up to 6 and gaining 23 nationwide. This means they now have 162 councillors spread across 56 councils – quite an impressive feat, for a party who’s political machine is far inferior – in terms of funding, at least, even to Ukip.

How did this happen? Obviously a disaffection with the main parties (and with the Lib Dems now in government they have been heavily tarnished by that classic political ‘law of diminishing returns’ affecting those in power) will help the Greens, as they acknowledge, but it then seems an unlikely result at a time when Ukip are in the ascendancy.


Surely the protest vote, if that’s what it is, and many commentators and politicians now contend it to be more than that, would be soaked up by the party who’s leader is charismatic (in an anti-hero, man of the people, sort of way) and currently enjoying implausibly good publicity in the media across the country?

Maybe not, though. One reason why the Green Party and Ukip can flourish in the same electoral climate is that they’re going after two very different parts of the electorate. Much has been written about the overlap between Ukip vs Conservative and Ukip vs Labour and the way in which Nigel Farage and his party have so effectively carved themselves a pretty hefty chunk of the right-wing political pie. Here is one such exposition.

The Greens are in bullish mood, this week, about their prospects, this is Natalie Bennett talking on BBC News site:

We are becoming more of a national party”

This is true, although, just like Ukip, one suspects they will have to improve their performance in London in order to make the next leap forward. In the capital the party political machine is king and neither party have yet got one to contend with a typically sophisticated and more politically cynical electorate. Nonetheless the Greens have two councillors in London and ran candidates in the four mayoral elections taking place at the same time.

Only Labour made real gains in London this time around. Taking 11 seats, holding Ukip and Lib Dems off in several key boroughs and they even stole the Conservative favoured council of Hammersmith and Fulham from the Tories, which will likely frustrate Cameron, who recognises the totemic importance of these battles in the run up to 2015. But despite this most analysis puts Labour at a 31% vote share which most commentators agree is not good enough to be comfortable in next year’s general election.

And that discomfort will be felt across all three main parties. With the Lib Dem support haemorrhaging they are effectively in crisis avoidance mode but are likely to play a key role as coalition politics looks set to continue. It’s not just one party – Farage’s self-proclaimed ‘fox among the hens’ who are threatening to draw voters away; if the consensus is that Conservatives must be most afraid of Ukip, as the battle for the right intensifies ground is also becoming busier on the left and Labour could find their own bete noire in a resurgent Green Party. Either way Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will spend the next year looking over their shoulder.pollingstation