Monday, 24 September 2018

Things that don't matter

I've kind of stopped the blogging.

Fair enough, for the last six weeks my life has been dominated by my holiday, three weeks in the Province of Ragusa in Sicily, wonderful, but which required two weeks of slog to clear my desk before I went and then a further week of slog to catch up on my return.

But that is not the only reason I have kind of lost interest in "the blogging". Politics is increasingly fixated on things that don't matter.

Take, firstly, the minor stushie this week when Corbyn refused to unequivocally rule out a UK Labour Government allowing a second Independence Referendum. Let's consider, just for a moment the accepted chronology here. The SNP might (big might) request "Section 30" permission to hold a second Independence Referendum before the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. But if they do then the decision on whether to allow it will be taken by a UK Tory Government. Labour's view will be irrelevant. If (big if) the SNP win the 2021 Scottish Parliament election with a clear manifesto commitment to a second referendum then that will be a big decision for the UK Government of the time but that still won't be us for at least a year. If they don't win (or don't have a clear commitment in their manifesto), then the issue goes away. The only circumstance in which the position of the Labour Party is important is if the SNP gain a clear mandate in May 2021 and the Tory Government denies them the power. Then, potentially, in the Autumn of 2021 the position of the Labour Party on this matter might be important. It is utterly irrelevant in the Autumn of 2018.

And the same goes for a "People's vote", that is a second referendum on the UK leaving the UK. How is this objective to be achieved? A referendum requires an Act of Parliament and an Act of Parliament requires Parliamentary time. Suppose even a Macedonian Commons majority, involving most Labour MPs, a minority of europhile Tories, miscellaneous Nationalists prepared to forget about other referendums (to be honest, at this point I'm given over to the absurdity of the idea but suppose anyway), what is the process? Who introduces this proposed Act as a Bill? How does it get Parliamentary time against Government opposition?  What would be the proposition put?  Most importantly, when would this vote take place given that Brexit is just over six months away and we won't know the terms of a deal (or indeed the acceptance of giving up on any deal) any sooner than November? It is shooting at the moon. Things will be resolved in the Commons and it seems pretty obvious will hinge on whether sufficient Labour MPs conclude that whatever deal  Mrs May gets is still better than a no deal and are thus prepared to back it, no matter what the position of our front bench.

Because, there will not in any circumstance be an election. The Tories have the benefit of a five year mandate. There is no way the DUP would oppose them in a confidence vote which might lead to Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister and there is no way that the Tories would volunteer to face the electorate at a time of maximum internal disarray, not least because, even if they won, it is difficult to see how that would improve things for them. Mrs May's problem is not a rampant external opposition, it is an irreconcilable internal opposition, to be fair, on both her eurosceptic and europhile flanks. How would a General Election at which Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ilk and Anna Soubry and her ilk would each remain Tory candidates progress anything?

And there is not going to be a new Party either, at least just now.  It would be fair to say that few Party members are more disgruntled with the current leadership than me. To be in a situation where the Leader can be described as a vile anti-Semite and can't sue his accusers because he would lose is an absurd one to believe to be sustainable. But it is where we (currently) are. Nonetheless when people challenge me to leave I ask them two things. Who is leaving with me and what is our position in respect of those mainstream Labour figures who won't leave? I want Pam Duncan-Glancy, Kate Watson and numerous others to become Labour MPs. I would like Anas Sarwar, Jackie Baillie, and numerous others to be in the Scottish Government. I would like Frank McAveety to be back leading Glasgow City Council. Accuse any of them of being an anti-Semite and you'd need to have very deep pockets indeed to pay the damages involved. And that's the position of tens of thousands of Party members who were in the Party before a Corbyn leadership and will still be there when his new recruits have departed back to the political fringes, or, in some cases, back under the vile racist stones, from which they emerged. And in the end the Party will come to its senses. Even genuine Corbynites will get fed up losing; those, even well to the left of me, who entered politics to make a difference will conclude you don't do that from permanent opposition and the Unions will get fed up wasting their money. It might take ten years, last time it took seventeen, but in time it will happen. My own impression possibly as soon as the next leadership contest, which might be sooner than people think.

And finally, there is not going to be another Independence Referendum before 2021. This has got nothing to do with the current internal considerations within the SNP. It is because Westminster, where the constitutional authority undoubtedly lies,  has said no and those more sensible heads in the SNP realise that the lessons of Catalonia are that "do it yourself" options have nasty consequences with no great achievement to show at the end of it.  Now, in 2020, there will be a big decision for the SNP on what to say in their 2021 Manifesto. But by then Ruth's wean will be two and we'll be in a different world. Where we'll be discussing whether, if Labour is third, which way we should jump. I may have a view at the time. But not so much in September 2018.

And so, that's why I've not been blogging. Because, in reality, there is nothing to blog about.

Unless you want to hear how brilliant are the Baroque Churches in the Province of Ragusa.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

What's Corbyn up to?

At the end of the Second World War, there was a massive displacement of peoples. Millions of Germans were displaced from East to West but so were millions of Poles, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians and, in lesser numbers, minority populations from across the former Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. There was then, in the War's aftermath, further displacement of millions as the old overseas empires broke up, most notoriously during Indian Partition.  And then, of course there were the Jews.

Each in time settled elsewhere, a good number of the Jews in the USA but the vast majority in Israel.

And, be in no doubt, that displaced other people. Golda Meir's famous slogan "A land without people, for a people without a land" had one significant drawback. It wasn't true.

During the establishment of the State of Israel, some 800,000 Palestinians left the territory Israel initially encompassed, most of them with little choice in the matter.

And, yes, not long after 1948 a similar number of Jews left Arab countries to move to Israel, many of them also far from voluntarily.

The point however is not "whataboutery". It is this. All of this was a very long time ago. And pretty much everywhere else the world has moved on.

Sure, the initial post war platform of Angela Merkel's CDU might have included the "right of return" of Germans to Pomerania and Silesia but it hasn't been their policy for more than fifty years; certainly there might have been a small terrorist war in the Alto Adige/Sud Tirol in the 1970s with reunification with Austria its objective; perhaps the wilder fringes of Hungarian politics might, even now, seek the recovery of Transylvania but essentially it is accepted that people should now have the right to live where they ended up after the tides of war receded. And equally accepted that they don't have the arbitrary right to live elsewhere. Pakistan and India might have continuing border disputes but neither suggests the right of their current citizens to "go back where they came from". That would not be a recipe for peace, it would be a recipe for war.

So, this seems to be accepted in every part of the world. Except one.

 Refugees come under the jurisdiction of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which defines refugees as those forcibly displaced from their place of birth. Palestinian "refugees" however, uniquely come under the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine, which defines these refugees, I repeat uniquely, as not only those in the former category (few and far between since they'd need to be at least 70) but also their decedents in perpetuity. The reasons for that have little to do with Israel and everything to do with letting the wider Arab world off the hook.

And this is where support for a fair deal for the Palestinians has to meet the hard reality of what a fair deal would involve.

It certainly involves the right to their own state on (broadly) the pre 1967 borders. And, unless otherwise agreed,  the withdrawal of all Israeli West Bank settlements. It also involves some sort of dual jurisdiction in Jerusalem. But it can't possibly involve the "right of return" to a Country in which the vast majority of those asserting this "right to return" have never as much as set foot. For that, in reality, involves the end of Israel as a Jewish state and the consequent displacement of Israelis who have never lived anywhere else.

Now this is where the the Arab/Israeli conflict slips into our own politics. If you are arguing for the Poles to accept the right of the Germans to return to Pomerania: the Romanians to accept the right of the Hungarians to return to Transylvania; the Pakistanis to accept that right for Hindus; or indeed (much more recently) the Croats for Serbs, then your demands would be consistent. But I know of no-one who is making that argument. If however you have chosen to single out one particular small Country for this particular obligation, then you have to ask yourself why.

And here I might surprise you. I don't think it is necessarily as simple as crude and overt anti-Semitism. It is because you are attracted to permanent lost causes. Because causes which are not lost involve inevitable compromise in their solution. And you would then be "tarnished" by accepting that compromise. As, for some on the respective extremes, peace in Northern Ireland "tarnished" those prepared to live with it. As peace with Israel "tarnished" Sadat and possible peace with Palestine "tarnished"  Rabin. As, but for the unique figure of the great hearted Mandela, the end of Apartheid always threatened to "tarnish" the ANC.

And also because "success" might show the heroes of your cause to have feet of clay. As, regrettably.  has been the case all too often in Latin America.

Take Gaza. Once the Israelis withdrew, it could have modelled itself into what a wider Palestinian state might have become. A democracy (at least of sorts) able to call in economic support by morally blackmailing the rest of the world. Proof that, in one small part at least, a two state solution was a viable end game. But then of course it might instead have collapsed into the sort of corrupt, theocratic or authoritarian regime that exists (sometimes in a combination of more than one feature) in much of the rest of the middle east. So how much more convenient that there was to be no such attempt? That the chief "achievement" of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was to allow a place where rockets would be launched randomly into Israel and border protests organised for little more purpose than hoping (and regrettably often succeeding) in provoking Israeli over reaction. No compromise but no sell out either. No tarnish. Just the excuse for continued grievance. Applauded from afar by those with little politics than continual grievance themselves. No matter what needless misery that might entail for those more directly involved.

So, is Corbyn an anti-Semite or just someone perpetually attached to hopeless causes? Probably a bit of both. In support of the former conclusion, he could for example have promoted the equally hopeless cause of the Kurds. Or the Burmese Muslims. But he has notably not done so. My principal problem however is that, under Corbyn, Labour itself has become a hopeless cause and I increasingly wonder if that is not his hope but his objective.

He's not so stupid as not to appreciate that failure to enjoy any meaningful poll lead in current circumstance bodes disaster when the Tories get their act together, as, inevitably, they will. And he must realise that the determination of some of his allies, at least, to provoke a formal split would be a lunacy that might finish off the Labour Party itself.  He surely realises that the current anti-Semitism problem is not one of his opponents' making but rather one of his own. And that, whatever its rights and wrongs, it is electorally toxic and can only be resolved by his compromise.

But perhaps he genuinely doesn't care? Had we won on the 2017 Manifesto, we  couldn't possibly have delivered on the public spending and public sector wish list that underpinned it. Compromise (and disappointed outrage) in government would have been inevitable. Never mind that, we'd have needed to sort out Brexit. Tarnish would have been inevitable. So perhaps he actually wanted to lose? Perhaps he actually wants to lose again.

For, of course, there is no need to compromise from the position of permanent opposition. You will never be tarnished.






Sunday, 3 June 2018

In praise of a happy ending

As those who follow me on twitter will know, I was a great Partisan of Susan Calman on Strictly. She went much further than anybody predicted and brought joy to a nation as she did so.

Anyway, when she got to Blackpool a galaxy of literary stars were rounded up in her support and photographed among them was the author Jenny Colgan.

It was, I confess, for that reason alone, having exhausted a Sunday newspaper some weeks later that I was drawn to an interview with Ms. Colgan. In that she commented that her real breakthrough novel was a book entiled "Meet me at the Cup-cake Cafe" about a woman who seizes the "opportunity" of redundancy to open a cafe where she bakes and sells her own cakes and, after various trials and tribulations, finds true love.

Andi is a mug for such tales and I thought it would make her a good Christmas present. Unfortunately it was unavailable in the late night garage on Christmas Eve, so Andi had instead to make do with a bunch of flowers and a puncture repair kit. And a bag of logs as a stocking filler. I told her it was the thought that counts. I'm not entirely sure she believed me.

Anyway, it turned out I'd have been wasting my money for, a couple of Sundays back, at the start of the good weather, I was sitting in the garden and had truly done the papers to death, so decided I would read a book. Only problem was that Andi's boy was back from Uni and in occupation of the spare room where my books are all kept.

But Andi's books are in a bookcase in the hall! So I had a rummage there and, eccola, there was the very legendary volume. And, on the principle of any port in a storm, I decided to give it a wee read.

And I loved it. Now, to be clear, even if you had known nothing about the book in advance, it would have been clear to you very early on that it would not end with the heroine dying of consumption penniless in a garret, or seeing all her children slain in a pitiless religious war, or even being sold as a wife at a fair.

No, from about five pages in, you knew this would be a book with a happy ending. The pleasure was just in seeing how it got there.

You see, people like a happy ending. That's why they had to have one final episode of Car Share. It couldn't, just couldn't, have ended as it did last year. The public wouldn't have stood for it! And if there is a man in the entire Country who knows what the public want, it is surely Peter Kay.

Now, you'll wonder where all this fits in to a political blog. Here's where. Really successful political projects promise a happy ending. Whether it was Attlee offering a new Jerusalem or McMillan you never having had it so good, or Blair, not so much New Labour as a New Britain or (even) Thatcher proposing a return to a more ordered way of life, all of these platforms were built on optimism about not just the country but the fate of its individual citizens.

Today, nobody is offering that. The Brexit riven Tories offer a future offering nothing certain except uncertainty; my own Party offer"struggle" (possibly mainly with each other) and, the SNP,  post Growth Commission, a country where Enver Hoxha's famous exhortation "This year will be tougher than last year, but next year will be tougher still", looks like it would replace Nemo me impune lacessit as the National motto.

Now, that's not to say optimism can be an end in itself. No matter how illusorily, Salmond, Tsipras, Trump and now the even more ludicrous Di Maio in Italy offer optimism without rationalisation. But there is no point in denying that they attracted or attract many to their banners for that reason alone.

And that is part of the problem. If the democratic centre fails to offer real hope then their ground is occupied by those offering false hope.

Ruth Davidson got this a few weeks back when she made a speech exhorting the Tories to, essentially, cheer up. Her problem is that, beyond the continued survival of the hapless Corbyn and his poisonous allies, they really don't have very much to be cheery about.

But, if someone, anyone, could come along offering real hope of a happy ending? The nation would be theirs. Without even a cup cake or a Gary Barlow song to assist.


Sunday, 27 May 2018

Growth

So, we finally have the report of the SNP Growth Commission.

Supposedly this was to set out the economic argument for Scottish Independence. Its publication has been much delayed and it was eventually virtually sneaked out on the Friday of a long Bank Holiday weekend. Having had a look at it, the reason for reticence is clear. Even honest Nationalists have ultimately to concede that there really isn't an economic case for Scottish Independence.

Nobody is saying it is impossible but then nobody on my side ever said it was impossible. We simply pointed out that it would involve a significant degree of economic hardship with no guarantee at all of ever even getting back, economically, to where we started. And, here, almost four years after we were attempted to be sold the "land of milk and honey" nonsense of the 2014 White Paper, it turns out that is confirmed by a document produced by the SNP themselves.

But others have made that point elsewhere so there is no point in me labouring (sic) it. Rather I want to look at what I think is to be welcomed in the document; the recognition that to date, and by that I mean not just under SNP administrations since 2007 but under the Labour/Lib Dem ones that preceded these, not nearly enough effort has been made under the devolved settlement to promote economic growth.

The Growth Commission rightly points out the asymmetrical nature of the British economy. We regularly deploy Scotland's fiscal deficit as an argument against independence without recognising that every one of the small nations in our Union has a per capita deficit at least as large as Scotland, as indeed has every region of England outwith London and the South East. And that is not as it should be. Indeed, as Andrew Wilson points out, it is not as it is in virtually any other Country in the developed world.

But this is something that Devolution was meant to do something about and yet it hasn't at all. In truth it has hardly tried.

It was not always thus. Scotland, at least urban Scotland, profited as much from the British Empire as did England and Wales, as indeed did we mutually partake in the benefits of the industrial revolution. Certainly, I share the criticism of late Thatcherism/Majorism and then New Labour that they were far too content for growth to be largely generated in the area of finance capital but when that tendency started the one part of the UK outside London that had its own indigenous financial sector was Scotland. Far from riding that wave, since 1999 we have actually seen a relative decline. And that despite technological advance which has effectively removed the geographic advantage of "being in the room".

And while we continued to bewail the lost of heavy industry that is never going to return, what has the Scottish Government done to support diversification? I am all for wind turbines but the capacity to manufacture them in Scotland falls far behind demand, never mind opportunity. And as for much of our food and drink industry, it survives (and prospers) against a barely concealed climate of hostility to its often "red in tooth and claw" (and foreign owned to boot!) capitalist model.

Then we have our new industries, bioscience, computer gaming (which currently astonishingly employs directly more than 20,000 people), distance learned vocational education? What Government help or support do they get? Do they even get asked how the Government might help?

And what could be done in many cases is bleeding obvious. Better links between colleges and industries; better basic education at school level. Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. A Scottish Investment Bank, certainly, but one working alongside private capital rather than giving money to hopeless projects already turned down by those with a nose for business.

Andrew Wilson gets this but he is not alone. Richard Leonard arrived in Holyrood only in 2016 but long before he aspired to the leadership he was the driving force behind the publication of Scottish Labour's new Industrial Strategy, sourced largely from experience he had gained working for one of the few Trade Unions with a significant residual private sector membership. Next week, Ruth Davidson will make a long trailed speech setting out her own ideas in this area. And the Growth Commission is an important contribution to this debate as well.

Andrew Wilson is widely regarded as one of the most thoughtful of Scottish nationalists but his wiser colleagues might ponder his hidden message. Independence would be very painful indeed if the UK Fiscal transfer was removed overnight, probably so painful that a majority will never vote for it. But if the need for that transfer was reduced or even eliminated? Well, that would be a very different proposition indeed. And the key to that is not more flags or more marches. It is more growth.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Numbers.

There was a demonstration on Saturday. Depending on who you listen to it was attended by somewhere between 10,000 and 90,000 nationalists. On any view a lot of nationalists. Having declined to put a single leadership figure on the platform for the rally which followed, towards the end of the event, the First Minister panicked and, believing the attendance to be nearer the latter than the former figure, sent, as a tweet, a single thumbs up.

And, do you know what, I really wasn't interested.

There is not going to be a second independence referendum any time soon. The constitutional position is clear, It requires the agreement of the UK Government and the UK Government isn't going to agree.

So, any attempt at such a vote will come to grief in the Supreme Court . And any attempt to defy the Supreme Court has a ready example of the former Catalan Education Minister fighting for her liberty in a different country a thousand miles away. Whilst in the meantime Catalan education policy is being run from Madrid. And nobody, even in Catalonia, seems to be that bothered about it.

But anyway, the whole, All behind a Fascist Banner event was just so much yesterday's politics. In reality, the only game in town, for the moment, is Brexit.

And the key players in that are the two brexiteers, Corbyn and Rees-Mogg.

To get a sensible deal, The Prime Minister needs a Commons majority and both are determined to deny her that. The second at least because he genuinely believes in the long term benefit of a year zero approach.

The motivation of the former however is more difficult to work out. Sure, he is no Europhile but I suspect it is also because he is, frankly, not very bright.

He simply hasn't worked out that there are no conceivable circumstances in which failure to get a Brexit deal would bring down the Government. That is because of the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. There are, from time to time, demands, from one or other of side of the great Tory European schism, for votes on the Brexit legislation to made "confidence votes". But this is the constitutional politics of a different age. If May was to lose a vote on a critical part of this legislation, the Government would not fall. She could toddle along to the Palace the next day and ask the Queen for a dissolution but that would be refused. Because the only circumstance in which a UK General Election would take place before June 2022 is if either the House of Commons passed a vote expressly declaring it had no confidence in the current Government (not incidentally to something else but in these specific terms) or if a two thirds majority voted for an early election. (As happened last year).

Now, are either of these things likely, even conceivable, particularly after the Tory experience last year? Are there really any circumstances in which the Tories would take even the remote risk of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister? Or at best of the Commons arithmetic potentially becoming even more chaotic? The answer to that is no. And that's the calculation of the 60 or so hard core eurosceptics in the Tory ranks. They think they can vote down any attempt by May to reach a compromise in the knowledge that "their" Government would survive and indeed a chaotic, no deal, Brexit be the outcome resulting. Precisely their desired outcome.

And, unless something changes, they are not wrong.

So, something has to change. And the change has to be on our side.

Britain joined the EU by virtue of the European Communities Act 1972. But the then Prime Minister, Ted Heath, did not have a Commons majority within his own Party for that legislation. It passed because 69 Labour MPs, including John Smith, defied an opportunist Labour leadership of a different political stripe to get the Bill through.

On continued membership of the Customs Union, at least, Labour back-benchers should, in the national interest, to be willing to offer the Government support. As should the Lib Dems. The detail would need negotiating but surely one of the pro European Tories could be recruited to that role. And if, in its aftermath, Rees-Mogg and his crew want to go through the division lobbies with John McDonnell and Diane Abbott to bring down their own Government? I'd believe that when I saw it.

Time the tail stopped wagging the dog.

And time we, on our side, stopped thinking politics is a game.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

La Primavera

About twenty years ago, Maureen and I decided we would go to Puglia, in the heel of Italy, for a week's Easter holiday.

The weather at home had been foul and we had both been working exceptionally hard without a break since Christmas, so by the time the holiday arrived we were more than ready for it.

There  was only one problem. It depended on a flight from Stansted to Bari early on the first Saturday of Holy Week and there was no way, that morning, to get from Scotland to Stansted in time. Indeed, since this was the first day of the holidays, there wasn't even a flight the evening before.

So we had no alternative but to drive through the night.

On my last working day everything that could go wrong went wrong and by the time I arrived home about seven o'clock my stress levels were already off the scale, never mind that in but a couple of hours I was faced with an at least six hour drive South.

But needs must and with the assistance of copious amounts of coffee, at about ten, we set off.

The rain was falling in Biblical quantities and the radio informed us this was unlikely to abate. By the time we were on the A66 and had had just about our fill of Whispering Bob Harris on Radio 2, the news bulletins were conveying police advice not to travel unless your journey was essential. But of course our journey was essential. So we pressed on.

Somewhere near Sheffield matters had got so bad that the motorway was closed by flooding and we were sent off in an interminable diversion, during which, for the first time, the thought arose that we might not get to the airport on time. Back on the A1, making the best time we could, that thought became increasingly a fear.

Still we went on. For some reason, possibly folk memory of its most famous citizen, Grantham seemed to be signposted for hours without ever getting noticeably nearer. And then, even when it passed our eventual destination seemed just as far away as ever.

All intention of stopping for a break had long been abandoned. Rain from the heavens fell torrentially but by this time was a minor irritation compared to spray and worse from the road. The "do not travel" radio warnings became ever more imperative.

We made it with less than an hour to spare. Parked the car and made the terminal, pausing only to get personally soaked to the skin in the process.

Exhausted was an inadequate word for our condition but we nonetheless boarded the plane.

Three hours later we were in the mezzogiorno.

It was still early Spring and relatively early morning at that, so the temperature was not yet the baking heat of high Summer but there was not a cloud in the sky and the Sun was shining in its full glory.

Bari Airport is to the north of the city so you initially travel south on a superstrada that takes you through the suburbs, albeit lined on both sides with Bouganville already in flower. Once you leave that urban sprawl however the road bends towards the coast and suddenly it rises and turns and you see the crystal clear blue of the Adriatic for the first time.

It was, quite literally, like a shot to the heart.

We carried on to Monopoli, where we had been before, and where we planned to lunch.

It was still to early for that so we parked and "took" a cafe and then wandered the streets of the old town.

Monopoli is a quite beautiful place, even in some of its modern parts, where it boasts a Scuola Materna dedicated to the great Anita Garibaldi, who died beside her husband while fleeing fallen Rome for surviving Venice after the failure of the rebellion of 1848. But the old town is yet more special. A Romanesque Church (what else!) a beautiful port with a small sandy beach and lanes and by ways leading everywhere and nowhere. All with the sun getting ever warmer and the sky ever clearer.

By now it was lunchtime.

We had intended to eat in the Trattoria Pierino l'Inglese  where we had eaten, exceptionally well, on our previous visit to the town (Not being Nationalists, we had no objection to its antecedents). But it was full!  And thus we fell upon the Trattoria del Porto.

One street back from the Port, it had an arched ceiling that marked it out as a one time wine cellar. It was busy but not to the degree that a table could not be found. Wine, water and bread appeared alongside the menu which we studied indecisively until the padrone appeared to take our order. "I would recommend the antipasto" was his counsel. So we agreed , together with a basic pasta dish to follow. Never has advice been so wisely accepted.

What followed was simply exceptional, Not just insalata di mare, which is kind of what we expected, but dish after dish after dish. Mussels in brodo certainly but also baked, unscraped of seaweed, in the oven. Polpo. Carpaccio di Pesce Spada! (cured raw Swordfish). Prawns, grilled and fresh. A flan, also with seafood. Sea urchins, sliced in half and to be scooped out raw. Calamari, both deep fried in batter and grilled. It just kept coming.

And as it did you slowly realised something. This was not "just" an antipasto, it was a Mezze. The Greek tradition of ever more and more small dishes until the guest cries enough.

And its origin? Well, you see, today, Puglia might be a part of Italy but before that it was part of "Magna Graecia", Greater Greece. I say before but in fact it was two thousand years before. Nonetheless, here, in the Trattoria del Porto, that folk memory had survived.

We struggled, if I'm being honest, to finish the traditional pasta dish which followed. And speedily declined the offer of a "secondo" of grilled fish. But we did have a sweet. Panna cotta. (My friends will know that if there is Panna cotta, then I will have Panna cotta).

But then something strange happened. Something I remember as much as the meal itself. I started to cry. And I couldn't stop. The Padrone noticed and, having been reassured it was not the fault of his food, inquired (of Maureen, in Italian) if I might perhaps have had a recent bereavement. I hadn't. And I wasn't crying tears of grief. I was crying tears of joy.

For Spring had come in one day.

Happy Easter.





Thursday, 22 March 2018

Tides

Although it might be a surprise to some of the newer members of my Party, in a democracy the purpose of political Parties is to win elections.

At the first by-election in which I was heavily involved, Glasgow Garscadden 1978, I encountered for the first time, the wonders of what was known as the "Reading System" so called because it had first been developed by Reading Constituency Labour Party to win that very seat at the 1945 General Election.

Now, the Reading system, primitive as it now appears, was all about data. As activists of all colours will know, contrary to the impression perhaps of the general public, canvassing on the doorstep or in more modern times over the phone, is not intended to persuade people to vote for you. No, it is intended to find out how these people are already intending to vote and then to make use of that information to best advantage. Back in 1978 that was essentially in one way, by maximising the chances of getting your voters to the actual polling stations on the due day. And that was where the Reading system came into its own.

For canvas results were collated and then marked up onto many layered street by street duplicate pads (known as Mikardo sheets in honour of our 1945 candidate) which by polling day morning had been pinned or stuck to pasting tables in the committee rooms. "Numbertakers" were then dispatched to the polling stations with the sole purpose of asking for the polling card numbers or names of those voting and that information then conveyed back to the committee rooms where the names of those Labour voters "already voted" could be scored off the sheets.

So, when the knock up teams went out to remind people to vote and/or assist them to the polls these voters could be by-passed, making maximum use of limited personnel resources. The knock up teams could also feed back voters who, on the doorstep, claimed to have voted unrecorded at the polling station, again refining the targets for a "second knock up" (and making sure you weren't annoying people by repeatedly knocking their door).

It was very homespun technology but for its time it was state of the art. So much so that the Tories quickly realised that imitation was the best form of flattery and developed a pretty similar system of their own.

For the best use of the technology of the time, whether to "Get out the vote" or persuade the public in a particular direction has always been used by political parties.

I give but a few brief examples. The first, targeted mail. The masters of this seem to me initially to have been the Liberals. Traditional canvassing created data not just about which people were voting for your own Party but also about their voting intention if they were not. This latter information was of limited use to the two big Parties but it provided an opportunity for the one in the middle. In a "safe" Tory seat, where the Libs were second, knowing the identity of intended Labour voters could be used to turn base metal data into gold. These voters could be targeted with the message "only the Libs (Lib/Dems) can beat the Tories here", initially with little more than one of their famous/infamous "Bar chart" leaflets but as the coming computer age allowed, increasingly with personally addressed and delivered communications. To be fair, the Libs were ecumenical in this, in that they applied exactly the same technique to Tory voters in "safe" Labour seats.

Next, advertising. Political Parties had used advertising agencies to limited degree since the 1950s but in 1979, with the engagement of Saatchi & Saatchi, the Tories took this to a completely new level. Their "Labour isn't working" posters scar my memory to this day but the passage of time lets me realise that my annoyance with them was based entirely on their undoubted effectiveness.

Then, the use of the Party Political Broadcast. "Forever" these had been little more than talking heads, talking up the merits of the producing Party and in passing the iniquitousness of their opponents. In 1987, Labour changed the game with "Kinnock: The Movie", boasting state of the art cinematography, directed by a top Holywood director, talking about our candidate for Prime Minister as something more than a politician and, for a few days at least, transforming what appeared like a foregone conclusion into a real contest.

But what, including the Reading system, do these four examples have in common? Their opponents,  at the time, thought them "unfair".

I'm sure, were he still in the land of the living, the Tory agent in Reading would complain that interfering with the inclination of the voter to vote, or not to vote, at their discretion, was "not cricket". Although both Labour and Tory modern digital equivalents, Contact Creator and VoteSource respectively are both truly grandchildren of Reading.

I am certain that both big Parties thought the Libs Bar charts misleading, or at least not in keeping with the spirit of a first past the post Electoral system. Indeed we still do, although both of us now use targeted mail in a far more sophisticated manner than its pioneers ever envisaged.

I am equally certain that Labour's advertising strategy, after the disastrous first try of 1983's "Think Positive, Act Positive, Vote Labour", is now based on our advertisers being better than their advertisers. Rather than that professional advertising expertise is per se a bad thing. (As was undoubtedly our 1979 response, for I was there).

And finally, the Tories rejoinder to "Kinnock: The Movie"? Ultimately it was the equally effective "John Major: Brixton boy", five years later. Scratch equally effective, for they won. Handing me the most miserable night of my political life.

So, to Cambridge Analytica.

Is this not just history repeating itself?

Obama for America was a joyous thing but its very progenitors would concede the importance of the then relatively early impact of social media in making it so. In every State, across every demographic group, streamed coverage of those wonderful early speeches were used to give rise to any number of "........... for Obama" online communities to get activists engaged for what was then, still, largely on the (terrestial) ground activity. By re-election day in 2012, the same team were boasting of their intention to fight the most micro data campaign ever. Which they then did. Online data was now king and people who understood data were overwhelmingly young and edgy and.....lefty. So the future was ours.

And less than a year ago, the surprise outcome of the UK General Election was ascribed specifically to the by passing of the "main stream media" to deliver a (literally) revolutionary message online, entirely unseen until the polls closed. Although we shouldn't lose sight that we still lost.

But that was all fair because "we" did it. When however precisely the same techniques were employed by our bitterest opponents, Trump and Leave UK, well, obviously, that must have been "unfair" in some way.

Except was it? I have struggled, in the wall of coverage, to find any actual accusation of specific illegality, as opposed to exploitation of inadequate regulation.  There are lots of implications of links to "fake news" but no actual evidence of it. The one really dodgy thing, the suggestions of "honey traps" and blackmail, is the one aspect of the whole thing that has no link to the internet at all, and is hardly news to anybody who has seen the Godfather Part 2. Which is where I suspect the big talking Mr Nix got his inspiration. Mainly the coverage consists of a complaint that no properly informed people could possibly have voted for Trump or Brexit so "something" must be up.

But maybe what was up was people rejecting the status quo. The failure of a metropolitan middle class elite (me included) to appreciate that "the system" had failed too many people who felt it was due a kicking for that failure. An earlier failure to defend what we saw as that system's self evident merits against an encroaching tide of "nothing could be worse" fuelled by little more than ignorance.

And if our opponents found a tool, within the rules, to refine and target and give voice to that rejectionist sentiment?

Labour did not win Reading in 1945 just because of our superior get out the vote strategy any more than the Tories won in 1979 just because of their superior advertising. Each victory actually depended on seizing the tide of history.

Maybe my team should stop getting madder and madder amongst ourselves about contests lost and instead start to think how we might, in future contests, get even. 

To accept that our losses were not down to the illegality of our opponents tactics as to, for the moment, the inadequacy of our own.

To start, once again, to catch the tide of history.