The Big Society and the Big Con

This has not been the most inspiring of elections. Three broadly similar parties are fighting for the right to manage the inevitable post-crunch spending cuts and this leaves precious little wiggle room for anything philosophical, creative or inspiring.

That said, the Conservatives have at least pretended to try something new with their “Big Society” shibboleth. The name is stupid and vague, and the negative connotations of the word “big” (cf. “big government”, “too big to fail”) are poor. So far it’s gone down like a lead balloon. Even Cameron’s own people aren’t keen on the idea.

Nevertheless, I’m intrigued. While the Tories’ views aren’t going to chime in with my left-wing sympathies, doesn’t the Big Society at least have a chance of appealing to my anarchist/governments-should-fear-their-people politics, right? So I read the full proposal (PDF). And this is what I think are the three main tranches of it:

  • More money for grassroots and community organisations – in part funded by a new “Big Society Bank” funded from unclaimed bank assets.
  • Create and train an ‘neighbourhood army’ of ‘community organisers’ – to form neighbourhood groups where there are none.
  • Allow these neighbourhood groups & communities to form social enterprises and take control of public services – local people can run their own schools, libraries or prisons (alright, maybe not that last one).

What’s not to love about that? Well, plenty. Quite apart from the fact most people aren’t interested in doing the government’s work for them, it looks a pretty convenient way of palming off responsibility. It will be our worst schools and public services that get dumped on the doorstep of these social enterprises, and despite all the talk of funding, the sums involved are paltry. How much money the Big Society Bank will get is not specified – the ‘hundreds of millions’ figure seems rather hopefully plucked from the air without any real commitment.

Then there’s the question of who will run these groups. The Conservatives used to say that there’s no such thing as society. Now they appear to be saying there’s no such thing as community. Reading this proposal, you could be fooled into thinking that there are no community organisations in the country and so they’re going to train everyone up to rediscover this long-lost art. This is of course bollocks – there are plenty of existing community organisations and societies out there. Shamefully, there is not a single mention of the words “union” or “co-operative” in the entire document, and the word “mutual” is only used in the conceptual adjective “mutuality”.

The Big Society seems to ignore these already existing bodies and institutions and is instead hell-bent on creating a ‘neighbourhood army’ to usurp them. 5,000 people will be trained up – quite who they are, and who will train them, and what on, isn’t covered in great detail. And do we even need to train people on how to organise communities? The Conservative Party cites Saul Alinsky and Barack Obama as inspirations, but Alinsky’s model of community organisation was created in the 50s and Obama’s work in the 80s and early 90s, before the Internet and the power to organise without organisations.

But finally, the biggest reason why the Big Society is such a big con, is the lie that it is devolving power. Ironically, the Big Society is going to be hardest to implement in Wales and Scotland, as the devolved governments there have the relevant powers, not Westminster. Instead, the Conservatives make it quite clear that these ’empowered’ services are going to have to subscribe to their worldview from the start. On page 1 of the Big Society proposal:

We have developed a detailed framework for opening up public services to new suppliers, and improving accountability and value for money through techniques like payment-by-results, competitive tendering, publishing performance information, and giving people the opportunity to choose between competing providers.

So the rules of the game for anyone wanting to join the Big Society are made clear – conform to our New Labour Conservative brand of politics, or don’t bother trying. No wonder they need to train up 5,000 community organisers – someone needs to ‘educate’ people into doing things their way.

Big Society has taken a bit of a back seat in the campaign recently – with opinion poll results showing a reasonably even split between the parties. And last night in a Party Election Broadcast, the Tory fear machine went into overdrive – horrified that 33% of the vote will not give them 100% control of government, they launched an execrable spoof ad for the “Hung Parliament Party” Conveniently ignoring the fact that we already have a hung parliament operating in the UK for the past three years, north of the border, it’s also curiously anti-politics, slating politicians for doing deals behind closed doors, ignoring the fact they are politicians themselves and are currently begging us to give them the right to make backroom deals for another five years.

In this PEB lies the plain and ugly truth about the philosophy behind the “Big Society”. The Conservatives try to give the impression they want to share power with ordinary people, but it’s clear that under absolutely no circumstances do they want to share power with anyone but themselves. “Big Society” is nothing more than an attempt to shirk responsibility for the work of government onto the poorly-funded and inexperienced, while keeping all the power themselves. This is not devolution, or empowerment. It’s a con.

Some bits and pieces on the #debill

The Digital Economy Act is now law, after being rushed through in the washup in the last days of a now-dissolved Parliament. Even though the final result was by and large a crushing disappointment – the level of debate and interaction with the bill online has been remarkable. For me, it was the first time I watched a House of Commons debate live with close interest since (I think) the 2006 Terrorism Act (something which helped dwindle my interest in politics somewhat. By now we’ve all gone over a million times the various nasty aspects of a law that will prove counter to free expression and the economy, but indulge me with a few final thoughts.

Parliament’s processes are broken
The wash-up is a truly ludicrous process; while I can just about see the point of making sure finance bills and the like are approved so that the Treasury still has money to spend while Parliament is dissolved, rushing through any sort of complicated or controversial legislation is madness. But of course, the wash-up is only the symptom, not the problem itself. The state opening of Parliament was on November 18, and this session of Parliament could only have lasted five months at best. Yet 16 bills were proposed by the government, only two fewer than the previous year’s full session. Allowing the government to produce such unwieldy programmes, and to make Parliament sit for less than half a year is ridiculous; as is having letting the government determine the timing of an election. A fixed-term Parliament, with elections and state openings timed sensibly to allow full programmes of debate, would have prevented this débacle.

Much hoo-har has been made about the low attendance at the Bill’s second and third readings. By the end of the third reading I estimated there were about 75 MPs in the House chamber. Yet 240 voted; Phil Gyford has attempted to come to their defence saying they may have had other work to do; sadly, as Bill Cash pointed out during the debate, the vast majority of those voting were waiting outside, some in the bar, having been told by the whips to turn up as and when. It’s ridiculous to expect MPs who did not attend a debate to be have the right to vote in it; you could have some form of swipe card system – they can clock in and out of debates and committees, and unless they spent, say, at least half of their time in a particular reading or committee stage for a bill, then they can’t vote in the division. Intrusive surveillance at its finest, but then they should get a taste of what the rest of us go through.

And don’t even let me get started on the lack of proper representation in the Commons, the undue influence of the whips, or the special interest groups. A few dodgy expenses seems pretty mundane in comparison.

Some Parliamentarians are actually alright
From the above, you might expect me to have a loathing resentment of MPs and this is where I have a go at them for being ignorant corrupt bastards etc. Actually, I was quite pleased with the quality and level of the debate of the third reading; it’s easy to dismiss the Commons as a bunch of old white men who are out of touch, but many of the debaters in the third reading showed either a decent understanding and experience of the complexities surrounding the bill, or if they didn’t have the technical know-how, they at least had the humility to argue it should be given greater scrutiny in committee by those that did. Digital rights mensch Tom Watson quite rightly gets the majority of the plaudits, but Nick Palmer, John Hemming and (I never though I’d say this…) Bill Cash were among those MPs who argued cogently and constructively.

Support for the third reading, apart from the government, by the way, was pretty thin – Stephen Pound trying his best to show off his groovy dad credentials by talking about finding the next Stiff Little Fingers, and Denis MacShane stumbling in after a long dinner and rambling about how all socialists should combined together to save journalism or some other such nonsense. My idea above for forcing MPs to sit in the debates they vote on could have the disadvantage in stuffing the benches with a lot more stooges spouting equally irrelevant rubbish, I suppose, so I won’t claim for one minute that it is the only solution to fixing things.

Nick Clegg blew it
The Liberal Democrats had a real chance to secure the support of a huge clutch of educated, savvy and vociferous voters tired of the usual politics and angry with the parliamentary process, possibly for a generation. Instead, he blew it. There was no strong and principled line against the bill from the Lib Dems and it was a clear sign of lack of leadership from Clegg (about whom I already had doubts); he let his spokesman for culture, media and sport jointly propose with the Tories an utterly illiberal amendment into the Lords. After a backlash from their own party members, Don Foster tried to rally a rearguard action in the Commons, but the fact only 18 Lib Dem MPs out of 63 bothered to turn up for the final vote showed how little the party leadership really cared.

You might argue that the other 45 Lib Dem MPs were busy doing something else with an election coming up, but then again, this was midway in wash-up week – they should be in the Commons to work. And this was a division where Ian Paisley turned up to vote. Yes, that Ian Paisley – 84 years old, about to retire from Parliament and politics for good to spend more time with his collection of Dana records. It was the last vote of his Commons career and he had nothing to gain from it, but even he found the principles to oppose it and made the effort to mark a vote against.

While I discreetly encourage you to reward the Lib Dem MPs who did bother to turn up in the forthcoming election (but probably not the DUP in North Antrim, it has to be said), the 45 who didn’t, and the party in general, do not get my endorsement, nor will I be voting Lib Dem this coming election. It was the final straw, and an especially poor show in the same week the Lib Dems smugly paraded their Labservative campaign, the leadership showed they lack the stomach to fully oppose something illiberal.

Ed Vaizey – what a tit, eh?
I shouldn’t just have a go at the Lib Dems. After all the Conservatives are the official Opposition and made their objections to the bill’s many flaws but agreed not to oppose the bill in an almighty stitch-up. A promise to re-review the law after they get into power at the election will probably dissolve away if they win, I’ll wager. But nothing summed the Tories up more than the dreadful Ed Vaizey and his waste of the House’s time using the debate as an excuse for a partisan and highly personal attack on those moving the amendments, rather than details of the bill. It was pathetic. Exactly what I meant when I said “rotten from the top down“. Yet Vaizey and his ilk (on both sides of the House) will be happily returned to Parliament after the election to bray for another five years.

#debill does matter
Coming back to Phil Gyford’s post on the outrage (which is one of the best post-#debill posts I’ve read) – he’s right to point out some of the shriller and more ridiculous anti-bill coverage on Twitter, like the “I choose not to recognise #debill” wankery going on – you can’t choose not to ignore a law you don’t like. But why are people angry about #debill? Is it just because we don’t want our toys taken away from us. Or is it because many of us, our livelihoods as well as our hobbies and pleasures, have come about because of the digital revolution? The music and film industries (which let’s remember are more distribution than creative) may contribute heavily to our economies (about US$5/6bn each), but that’s tiny compared to what can be affected – the telecomms industry alone in the UK is worth about US$65bn.

Start factoring in the value added to many other industries that an open, free and vibrant internet provides, and you can start seeing how frustrating it is to see the debate framed as merely being a fight to “save” our creativity from piracy with no side effects. This does not mean sacrificing all of the content distribution industries on the altar of an unrestricted internet, but it does require a realistic realisation that copyright infringement is inevitable but it is possible to survive and even thrive in a post-digital world. The digital music market is starting to turn the corner – online music sales are now outstripping the loss from physical purchases, but going back to old model of treating ordinary people like thieves and scum is not going to make them any more popular.

What about the “big” stuff?
No lawmaking procedure has gone under more scrutiny by citizens in the UK online than the progress of this bill. You can quite rightly wonder what would happen if every bill was given the same level of scrutiny. More cynically, you could point out how bad all the other bills must be, and accuse the UK digital & media community of being only concerned with their own lot and not the issues that “really” matter like schools or hospitals or wars. There is some truth in that, perhaps, but it’s not true to say the UK digital community don’t care about other aspects of how the country is governed – the #welovethenhs campaign being one example.

It’s also not true that the digital-haves are in a world of their own. I know people who are teachers, doctors, civil servants and military personnel who use services such as Twitter, delicious and Facebook to share and say things. However thanks to the responsibilities of their job, and the rules and ethics they are bound to, it makes publicly criticising or bringing politics into their workplace less easy than those of us in the digital industries (not to mention that often these sites are blocked at workplaces). From my recollection, by and large all the early bloggers working in public services were pseudonymous – and though some have voluntarily ‘come out’ and been welcomed in their organisations, others (like Night Jack) ended up being disciplined for merely telling the truth about their jobs. Stepping out of line can have its costs.

In contrast, those that had better knowledge of the digital economy and its workings occupy this space much more comfortably and a lot more of the time. And as this is a newer and more loosely-grouped alliance of interests, the people scrutinising the bill have not been able to yet create powerful trade associations or unions (not for one moment discounting the excellent work ORG have done). It’s no surprise they turned to the channels they were more familiar with to carry out their protestations. On the other hand, doctors and teachers have more established organisations such as the BMA and NUT through which they can make their own representations to government collectively without compromising professionals individually.

So just because a non-digital bill receives less scrutiny from the digerati does not necessarily mean every bill we pass receives less attention than the Digital Economy Act, especially when scrutiny may be applied through channels other than the Internet. But in principle, it would probably be a good thing if all legislation was given the same level of public dissection by experts as the Digital Economy Act. Doing so would hopefully help raise awareness among the wider public largely turned off by politics in exposing the flaws of the political process, yet be constructive at the same time – pointing out not what only was wrong but ways of improving it. This applies particularly in a Parliament which was not being hurried through the wash-up and bad legislation stood a chance of getting a more timely look by MPs.

So to produce this better scrutiny, how do we organise ourselves so that in future the experts on whatever bill is being debated, whether it be about schools, hospitals, law and order, get better access to the same tools the anti-#debill protesters had, without compromising their ability to do their jobs or their position of trust? Much of the data are there, like TheyWorkForYou and Public Whip, but no-one has quite yet built the tools or organisations to bridge these vastly useful repositories and APIs with how other, less digital, professions work and campaign. Even with the information available, the complex legal language bills are written in, and Parliament’s own quirks of procedure, are further obstacles to understanding the process and educating a wider public. Experts of all kinds – technical, legal as well as those in whatever fields the legislation affects, need to be brought together to make the information out there work to its full potential, and to make our politicians more accountable.

What would happen if we killed off BBC Have Your Say?

If BBC Have Your Say didn’t disappeared tomorrow, would its users have invented it? As in, would they have set up their own site, community blog or forum, come together and created a site like it. Alternatively, if tomorrow the BBC HYS site fell off the earth, would its community of users come together to replace it?

Probably not. We may bang on about how the blogosphere has transformed UK media and that 13 out of 10 Britons have a blog (or whatever), but BBC Have Your Say fills a rather large gap that ordinary blogging & commenting does not. Why is this? Here’s a few reasons:

  • Lack of resources – it takes work to set up a blog and to maintain it. Not to mention the costs of hosting and the costs of moderation. Easier to leave it to the BBC & the licence payer to cover it.
  • Lack of time to write – to write regularly, to contribute regularly on a blog or community and help keep it alive, is a whole level of contribution from the much easier short comment the BBC offers.
  • Lack of tech-savvy – even the simplest of blogging systems such as Blogspot or WordPress have relatively complex backend UIs, not to mention the hassle of knowing HTML, choosing a nice template, etc. The BBC’s relatively plain and simple design takes that all away
  • Too general – the best communities have a unifying theme or topic, from supporting Raith Rovers to spotting electricity pylons. The latest news can be pretty much anything, so there’s no simple, unifying hook to bring that community together.
  • Too atomised – some communities don’t have specific unifying themes, but they do have unifying personalities – Mat Howie of Metafilter or Kevin Rose of Digg. But HYS is more anonymous and less personality-led.

For these reasons, a HYS-style site independent of the BBC is unlikely to come about, and it’s for these reasons Have Your Say is so insanely popular. And for Have Your Say, read any newspaper’s comments section – but there’s particular focus on the BBC here. Only the BBC has a public duty – to “inform, educate and entertain” – and this public duty gives them extra responsibility. But is Have Your Say a good thing? What are the consequences of giving everyone “their say”, and does it create a better or worse civic space?

The easy answer is ‘no’. HYS is quite famous for being regarded as low-quality. After all, there are no blogs devoted to the best of BBC Have Your Say (I even checked), but there’s at least one blog devoted to very worst of it, as well as a regular mocking in Private Eye‘s “From The Messageboards”. I sense the same attitude is held in much of the industry; at the recent(ish) Amnesty Technology and Human Rights seminar Kevin Anderson remarked that he considered the most animosity on the web came from the comments section of news websites, and from private conversations with colleagues and others, I get the feeling the view is shared by many.

But is this just snobbery? Are the ‘digerati’ like me and those who I mix with, who are technically capable and able to produce nice shiny blogs, just looking down on the plebs who comment on news websites with disdain? Is it all too easy to sneer?

Well, without trying to sneer or patronize too much, let’s look at what consequences the characteristics of Have Your Say outlined above have on the subsequent conversation:

  • Lack of resources and time – with time being brief, it’s easier to lapse into snap judgements. Shorter time also means less time to read up, research or otherwise gain a fuller perspective of what you’re talking about.
  • Lack of tech-savvy – on your own site, you control what it looks like and contains. But when the design and context that your contributions are placed is controlled by someone else, there is significantly less incentive to consider the place something you own.
  • Lack of specificity – without a topic or focus for the community, nothing is off-topic. And if nothing is off-topic then you can easily spin away into whatever bee there is in your bonnet, no matter how irrelevant it is.**
  • Lack of community – while news sites do force you to have a login and profile, most go no further. For those that do offer profiles (such as HYS or CiF) there is no incentive to build a profile; even if you do, profiles are usually little more than usernames, avatars and a history of comments; hardly something to be building a digital identity around, unlike a Twitter profile or account on a vBulletin-powered forum.
  • Lack of accountability – even sites like Metafilter or Digg and Reddit, those in charge have to respond to their users’ wishes given sufficient protests (and indeed pride themselves on it). For the large part, news sites like HYS leave their moderators anonymous (not even pseudonymous) and their internal workings opaque, which only created further resentment from users when they make an unpopular decision.

With these factors combined, you’re left with an awful lot of incentives for commenters (metaphorically) shit on their doorstep; there is no incentive to keep the site on-topic or relevant, nor is their any disincentive to maintain a coherent or courteous digital identity, coupled with an atmosphere of mutual hostility.

Incidentally, this is not even taking into account the users’ prejudices, or any agenda they may have for or against the politics of the news site in question (cf. the rabid resentment of the licence fee on BBC HYS). And then there’s the design of the site as well – a flat unthreaded commenting system combined with filtering by fellow commenters’ recommendation encourages herd thinking, polemic rather than conversation, the more controversial the better.

While those who design and run news sites may not have quite have analysed the news site comment as much as I have, they will know the TLDR version: controversy and bile brings about more hits! The Jan Moir Stephen Gately article was probably just intended to be the views of its author rather than deliberate linkbait, but it (and the limp PCC judgement that followed) had the undesired side-effect of showing what a bit of controversy can do for your hits. As long as you don’t break the law, there is no real short-term sanction for a media owner to stir up any controversy, no matter how inane.

But it also had a side-effect in undermining further our trust in the mainstream media in general. For all the mockery about Tweeting Twits or bloggers in their mothers’ basements, on the whole I find the social media world a more civil place than comments on news sites; this is partly by choice – there are some awful, awful gobshites out there in the blogosphere, but I can follow and subscribe to people I like to read (whether their views are congruent with mine or not) rather than have reactionary circle-jerking foisted upon use, glued to the bottom of nearly every news article I read.** It might spell more hits, but the law of diminishing returns hits in pretty quick.

Finally, back to the BBC. It is particularly relevant here, because while the degrading of a news platform’s reputation is bad news in the long run for Murdoch’s media empire and Lord Rothermere’s bank balance, in the case of the BBC it’s the degrading of a national institution, something we all have an interest in. Have Your Say, as it stands, is quite lacking when it comes to informing and educating, and only entertains in the sense of providing fodder for worst-of blogs. And it’s not as if the BBC needs the hits or ad revenue (in the UK, at least).

So why not stop pretending that anonymous bile about anything and everything counts as genuine ‘interactivity’ and take a lead in providing better managed communities around coherent topics, more well-focused user-generated content that rewards intelligent and civil debate, and provide interactivity with a purpose to inform, educate and entertain, rather than endlessly milking controversy for hits? Kill off Have Your Say, let the users flock elsewhere for their squabbling, and instead work on a platform that does something more constructive. The other news media might not follow, but after all, it’s the BBC’s job to be bolder than the rest.

* The best/worst example I can think of recently was this excellent Times article about German geeks trying to reassemble Stasi-shredded files with computer technology, prompting some utter knobhead to respond: We had better order half a dozen machines for us here in the UK Sooner or later (alas, probably later) we shall discover the full extent of NuLabours passion for “misinformation” and “misleading briefings” And it’s the top-rated comment, for fuck’s sake.

** The Readability bookmarklet is a wonderful boon to get rid of all the crap around articles, include the inane commenting, by the way.

Were you affected by this article in any way? Maybe you have an opinion of your own you would like to share. If so, then piss off and write it on your own blog. Just kidding – comments below welcome as always (as long as they’re on-topic)

Rotten from the bottom up

This is part two and a counterpart to yesterday’s blog post, “Rotten from the top down

Yesterday I had a good long rant about the political system and “those at the top”. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of examples of this poverty of progressive ideas at the bottom.

Here’s one. Last week the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI announced a visit to the United Kingdom later this year. Almost immediately the National Secular Society came up with a petition that the Vatican should pay for the cost of the security for the trip. I voiced my unease at the whole thing on Twitter and promptly provoked a strong reaction from others.

For the record, I’m a sky fairy-averse atheist with strong views on a secular society; I think the Lords Spiritual should be scrapped, the state should stop funding religious schools and the ‘religious hatred’ laws repealed. But even I think that throwing a hissy fit and demanding that the Pope pay his own way is reactionary idiocy of the most backwards kind.

Let’s get out of the way first the obvious – the Pope is both a head of state and head of a religion and convention is that host states provide security for visiting dignitaries, regardless of whether it’s an official visit or not; indeed states are obliged to ensure the safety of any foreign visitor – tourists are protected by our laws and justice system, and don’t get billed by the police if they are in need of assistance. To demand that someone be barred from this country unless they pay extra, purely because you don’t like their beliefs, is as backwards and discriminatory as the Pope’s own views on homosexuality.

Quite apart from the double standard, the real idiocy is that the basis for this objection is not the principle, but the attitude: “Well, I’m a taxpayer, I don’t like it, so why should I pay for it?” Because once you start to think about it, there are lots of things your tax money goes on that you’d rather not be spent. Personally speaking, I’d rather we didn’t spend money on subsidising the arms trade, illegal invasions of Middle Eastern countries, or on an ID card system that won’t work.

But in each of these cases, the fact that money spent on them isn’t the basis of my objection to them. Why I object to is the affront to my principles and the consequences of those policies, whether it’s the the needless deaths of foreign civilians or the continued intrusion into our lives or the adoption of useless technologies. The money “I” have spent on it is secondary. Of course, tax money should be spent as efficiently as possible and those in charge of it must be held to account, especially when the sums are in the billions or more. But the debate on how to allocate resources should be based on the costs and the benefits, not merely on the snark “well this is going to cost me money, isn’t it?”

(Aside: it goes without saying we can never perfectly foresee all the costs, benefits and consequences of every government policy; but we should at least try our best to properly plan and account, else there’s no point to doing anything at all, ever).

This money-obsessed reactionary griping has its roots in Daily Mail-land, with endless stories of what you will have to pay, even if it’s being spent on people you don’t like. This is often cheerfully fuelled by mendacious right-wing think-tank, the Taxpayers Alliance. Of course they don’t represent all taxpayers (I don’t ever remember signing up to join them), and some of them don’t even pay tax themselves. The TPA’s aim isn’t to debate about what tax should be spent on, but to avoid paying tax as much as possible, and these “what a disgraceful waste of your money” stories are the easiest ways to get the misanthropic, aggrieved and generally selfish on their side.

This obsession with “why should I pay rather than them?”, rather than the reasons for how the money should (or should not) be spent for the national good, ends up poisoning the entire discourse. No government is ever going to spend every penny in a way that is agreeable to any specific person. And once you start picking at something you dislike, focusing on the cost rather than any of the reasons for actually having it, then anything is fair game. You end up not only obsessing about every aspect of government spending that displeases you but anyone’s spending whatsoever, whether its lottery funds or a public figure. You even start joylessly complaining about how much a spell of snow or a Friday off work will cost the economy.

Why do people do this? Well, paying tax is not like going to the supermarket. You can’t pick or choose which bits of the budget you’d like to support; the system is designed to cater for the things the market alone cannot fairly or sufficiently provide. The means of control and influence on this process is not as simple as switching brand of washing powder or baked beans, and for ordinary people it’s often a lot less direct and timely – whether it’s the ballot box, petition, the media, a pressure group or writing to your MP or another way.

And this is where the web comes along. The web’s instantness and wide audience create a natural home for venting impotent rage at the powers-that-be. An indignant “why should I pay?” on BBC Have Your Say or the Number 10 Petitions site is an easy and quick way of connecting yourself with a policy and its consequences. Garnering a rapid response of agreement from like-minded knee-jerk reactionaries acts as a soothing substitute for the lack of timely action through the more traditional channels.

To be fair, the political system is partly to blame for this lack of proper response. But by playing along with it, the antagonists are playing their part in debasing the debate. Crying about how it will cost you money is not only self-indulgent, but solipsistic; putting the cost to you at the centre of the debate precludes any sort of intelligent discussion about what the actual policy is, what the costs are to the country as a whole, what the benefits and savings are, who the beneficiaries are, what the cost of inaction is, or what better alternatives there could be.

This is probably a deliberate tactic by those who choose to do it. With many of the examples of it in action, whether it’s paying for the Pope’s security, fighting global warming, housing asylum seekers or having a day off work, the objectors are conveniently avoiding examining the issue or any sort of structured argument for their stance; resorting to the objection that this is costing them and they are outraged acts as a convenient smokescreen for their own prejudices.

And most ironically of all, by whinging about the costs and not the reasoning behind the policy, it’s also the surest way of making sure ideas and policies never get challenged or changed. Which might suit you fine, if you’re the kind of person who thinks moaning about your tax bill alone counts as a reasoned opinion, and if it weren’t for that would probably struggle to validate your political stance, or even your very existence. But I’d expect more from progressives and secularists than I do Daily Mail readers – sadly it seems in this case they’re slipping the same way.

Rotten from the top down

This is one of a pair of related posts, the other is called “Rotten from the bottom up

I got into a political argument the other day. I don’t often do it these days, and looking back on it, I now know why – there is a poverty of ideas at the top when it comes to political debate.

I was talking to an assistant to a backbench Conservative MP who demanded to know that, as I held leftist and socialist principles, why I didn’t I always vote Labour. My answer, that I will stop voting for a party that abandons the principles I believe in, was met with accusations I was a floating voter. On hearing I used to live in Scotland, the demand changed to why I didn’t vote the ‘Scottish socialist alternative’ in the SNP; the fact I never would because I don’t believe in an independent Scotland, was met with further mocking of my flaky political worldview that was incapable of identifying with a political party and that I was incapable of influencing the process of political power.

Naïve though they were, it did betray an interesting example of how still the party political world works from an insider’s point of view. You’re poor or leftie, you must vote Labour. You’re rich or rectionary, you must vote Tory. You’re moderate on everything, vote Lib Dem. You live in Scotland, vote SNP. The prevalence of all of these stereotypes who how irredeemably tribal political parties are, and the discourse of modern politics bears this out – inevitably, come any political talking point on the television and radio, the discussion will soon become tainted with one side labelling it as “typical Labour” or “typical Tories”.

Take the recent bit of puerile and light-hearted fun, the mashups & spoofs of the new David Cameron poster on MyDavidCameron. Of course, it wasn’t long before it was picked up by left-wing bloggers and some of the spoofs were by Labour supporters, but for once the Labour party never attempted to own or control it officially. Inevitably, however, was the reframing by Conservative supporters as a Labour-backed smear, even though the site’s designer, Clifford Singer, has no political party affiliation; headlines such as “Who’s the nasty party now?” started appearing, and it provoke this hilarious, if it wasn’t be so tragic, riposte from an unnamed (as always) ‘senior Tory source‘:

“It’s typical that Labour felt they needed to airbrush our poster with this trickery. Clearly Labour spin is alive and well.”

It’s argument by numbers. It’s lazy, cynical and so typical of the day-to-day political discourse of British politics. Of course, this kind of tribalism in British politics isn’t a modern phenomenon; the adversarial nature of the House of Commons and a winner-takes-all approach to elections means it’s a practically inevitable feature, not a bug. But what has been a contemporary phenomenon is that increasingly, there is so little to split the parties, in terms of both their policies and the way they conduct themselves.

Take, for example, this gem from Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling at the last Conservative party conference (sorry for the anti-Tory bias in this post, by the way, but fuck it, there’s no better time to kick someone than when they’re on the up). News has just broken that former defence chief General Richard Dannatt has been signed up by team Cameron and promised a future ministerial role; Grayling mishears the interviewer and thinks that he has been signed up to join Gordon Brown’s cabinet and, well see for yourself:

There are three things that make this execrably awful for any intelligent observer. The first is the monotonously-delivered mix & match soundbite at the start – several easily-identifiable components assembled without thought. It starts with a fawning tribute to the military, something which is compulsory whenever discussing Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s followed by the mealy-mouthed “I hope this isn’t a gimmick”, when the truth is he’d love it more than anything else in the world to be a gimmick. Then there’s putting the boot in properly at the opposition’s tactics – Gordon Brown and his PR and the government’s suspicious motives.

The second, and arguably worse, thing is his retracting in the second half of the clip. He knew he’d been made to look like an utter tit. He knew he’d been found out. And yet he still had the barefaced cheek to say he was ‘delighted’ rather than sceptical by the appointment and he regretted that he couldn’t have given a ‘more enthusiastic’ welcome – when he had been nothing but enthusiastic to put the boot in on first mishearing the news.

Thirdly, and finally, and this is worse in a different way, is that the context behind the gaffe. It doesn’t matter which party is which. Both Brown and Cameron have made it clear they like appointing of unelected experts to their cabinets; both party machines know the value of a publicity stunt, and both parties have stock phrases for attacking each other for doing so. So no wonder Grayling thought it might have been a Labour stunt rather than a Tory one; and the same could equally happen in reverse – substitute ‘David Cameron’ in for ‘Gordon Brown’ and ‘opposition’ for ‘government’ and you have a Labour frontbencher attacking the Tories. It’s almost too easy to picture.

This comes at an odd time in politics, as the economy begins to recover from the most destructive bubble and bust of modern times. Often, one of the the legacies of economic and political crises is that new political lines and ideologies form; yet in the uneasy atmosphere after the crash, there has been no hardening of political divisions or clear water put between parties. If anything they have become closer; the coming election will be fought largely by politicians all promising the same thing – Cameron’s original pre-mockery poster promise has little difference to what the other parties are offering – public services good, public debt bad. During the MP’s expenses scandal, politicians of all colours were the subject of public scorn and rage – “they are all the same” was the common refrain.

The post-Thatcher economic model that has dominated the 1990s and 2000s relied on creating growth from ever-increasing levels of debt – either borrowings to be spent on consumer goods, or heavily leveraging that debt to buy businesses and homes – often to be paid for not by the future income from those investments, but on the capital gains from their putative rise in value. It didn’t just keep the banks in gravy and swell the Treasury’s coffers with tax receipts in the 1990s and 2000s, it was also what millions of Britons did to get rich as well; often the same middle-income swing voter Britons that political parties need to appeal to, and it is exactly this tame and materialistic worldview was what David Cameron was aiming for when he gave this speech a fortnight ago:

A fair society is one where everyone who works hard and plays by the rules has a chance to fulfil their dreams whether that’s owning a bigger house, taking a holiday abroad, buying a new car or starting a small business.

Actually, I lied. He didn’t say that. Gordon Brown said it. But it doesn’t really matter who did – that’s the point. With no ideological or visionary differences within mainstream British politics, and with traditional political grassroots seemingly abandoned for millionaire’s favours, what we’re left with is politicians competing for the right to manage the country and at best tinker with an economic model that almost destroyed itself. The differences are tokenistic at best (viz. the Lib Dems’ laughably populist and unworkable mansion tax) and leave a vacuum where other questions are unanswered. Is this really the best we can do? Are the ideals of the politicians’ middle-class managerialist culture all that we have left to aspire to?

Of course the politicians we elect should be reasonably competent at running things (although the onus should really be much more on the civil servants that execute their policy on a day-to-day basis, and the politicians’ skills in delegating). The problem is when management becomes not just one quality in a government, but championed as the sole quality for our politicians. We end up confusing good management with good governance, which in turns lead to a political class over-managing, convinced that their desired outcome is possible; if you could just get the system right, everybody will fall in line just right (vis. George Osborne’s love affair with behavioural economics). Those that get forgotten in all this are the actual people who you’re elected to serve – they will end being nothing more than datapoints, catalogued, indexed, surveilled and treated as statistics and targets to be logged in league tables, often at great cost and with little success (take the ongoing ID card and NHS IT system debacles).

The systems that the post-Thatcher consensus created have broken badly. So far in Britain there is little political will to reform them, or many of the other aspects of our society that need fixing or preparation for change ahead – I’ve talked about the economy but it could equally be global warming, energy security, an ageing population, the digital revolution, the rise of rival developing economies. Qualities such as creativity, bluntness, open-mindedness, humility and independence have largely become absent from politicians (of course, there are of course honourable exceptions, but none of them sit on the front benches) and they are essential for the challenges that lie ahead.

But let’s not blame it on them. We get the politicians we deserve, we elected the ones who conformed to the post-Thatcher consensus that was good while it lasted and we ignored the hidden pitfalls. Now those pitfalls are apparent, it’s time to start reconsidering the whole deal.

Facebook’s loosening sense of privacy

I am quoted in this weekend’s Financial Times, in Tim Bradshaw‘s article about Facebook’s new privacy settings [registration may be required]:

Chris Applegate […] was dismayed to discover that applications installed by his friends could see his data unless he chose to opt out, an option not given in Facebook’s latest reminder. “I’ve always kept a tight rein on the apps I install. But it only takes one friend to install a malicious app and . . . my information is compromised,” he said. “There is a great potential for leakage.”

Tim & I had quite a long chat and obviously he couldn’t include it all, so here’s a bit more information about the situation. It all came about from a chat on Twitter I had with Kathryn Corrick; a few days ago I had seen a popup dialog on Facebook asking me to update my privacy settings; I could keep the old ones or (as suggested) I could make more of my Facebook details public.

I’ve taken care to keep much of the private data on my Facebook account properly private; my public profile is quite limited and only friends can see anything I want to keep personal. Seeing no reason to change this, I kept the settings as they were and left it that. But then a few days later, in our conversation Kathryn warned that there were new privacy settings added in, so I checked it out. And lo and behold, there’s a section I hadn’t seen before, in the “Applications and websites” section, called “What your friends can share about you through applications and websites”:

Facebook's friend's applications and website privacy settings

I am nearly certain this page did not exist before (this comment on Mashable remarking on its newness seems to agree). I try out a lot of Facebook apps and then ditch them, so I periodically check my settings to make sure they’re not still enjoying privileges on my data (Facebook apps retain permission to access your data even after they are uninstalled, presumably in case you want to install them again). I don’t recall seeing it then, and I definitely was not asked about these new privacy settings in the migration process, during which I just asked to stick to my old settings – as this how-to or indeed Facebook’s own tutorial video bear out.

Allowing my friends to look at my status updates & interests via the web or mobile interface is fine by me – else Facebook is pretty useless to them. But allowing apps or websites they have installed or allowed to access this data is another level entirely; all it would have taken would have been one friend who is not so tech-savvy to install a malware-infected app and my data would have been at risk, regardless of how careful I am with what I install. Even more alarmingly, the default options are to be very open about this information; Facebook assumes you want to share nearly all of this data with your friends’ applications by default – as you can see above, only two of these (Family/relationship & religious/political views) are excluded from being ticked.

So my advice? Re-review your privacy settings, especially the applications and websites section; pay special attention to the applications you have installed – the ‘Learn more’ button is a misleading link which eventually leads to the page that allows you to check these; pay extra-special attention to the ‘what your friends can share about you’ page and uncheck all the boxes you are not comfortable sharing with applications your friends may install (depending on how tech-savvy your friends are and how much you trust them to not install anything malicious) – I strongly recommend doing this part especially.

To round off, it’s worth remembering that Facebook is not a charity; it is a commercial venture that has always existed to take the userdata it has acquired and sell advertising based on it, a very old-school way of making money on the web. Whereas on the other hand, for years the more enlightened have been talking of open web services and APIs and the ability to mash up data from a variety of sources, and creating value from that. In many ways the Facebook application platform is fast becoming a combination of the worst elements of these two differing attitudes – the craving to make money no matter whether it might endanger their long-term interests, and the craving to share data without any respect as to what that data is or who it is meant for. Facebook are not being evil or stupid, but they are being remarkably casual with user privacy; they ought to remember that no-one running a site that relies on the goodwill of its users can afford to take them for granted for too long before their users find somewhere else to go.