Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Margaret Thatcher 1925-2013

My tribute to a great Prime Minister.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Uninspiring party politics isn't the only reason party membership is in freefall

In his article for Friday's Telegraph, Fraser Nelson repeats a previously-made claim that Britain is interested in being members of political causes, just not the main parties, using the following examples:
Britain is an intensely political country, and there is no shortage of support (or donations) for the right causes. Over the past two decades, while the Tory party’s membership has fallen by four fifths, the National Trust has seen its membership double. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more paying members than all political parties put together.
While he's right that Britain is supporting these causes, it is not entirely clear that it is doing so for the altruistic reasons Nelson suggests. The membership packages he compares offer distinctly different things.

If I join the National Trust, I get "free access and parking at over 300 historic house, gardens and countryside and coastline spaces", a members' handbook, a thrice-yearly magazine and an unspecified free gift.

If I join the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, I get free entry to over 100 nature reserves, a quarterly magazine, a member's pack and a choice of free gifts.

If I join the Conservative Party, I get invitations to dull fundraisers that I have to pay to get into, regular requests for leaflet delivery, and every now and again a letter begging for donations. (And on the two occasions when I joined, I wasn't even issued a membership card - despite repeated, and acknowledged, requests for one to CCHQ.)

These are all at comparable annual prices (in fact the RSPB lets you join on a monthly basis), so if you're on a limited household budget, careful about what you spend your money on, would you go for one of the choices that saves you money on a pleasant family day out every now and again, or the membership that gives you a bit more to toil over when you get home from a hard day's work?

Nelson then goes on to list rising support for the Taxpayers' Alliance, Big Brother Watch and 38 Degrees. Well you know what, membership of all of those organisations is free. And I'll bet many of the people who signed up have already forgotten they'd done so, with their emails either unsubscribed or relegated to the spam folder long ago. (I've certainly registered my support for a few organisations like that.)

The political parties' model of membership is totally outdated for the modern age, and if they don't want to carry on in decline, they're going to have to choose between a model where members get something back for what they put in, or a more diffuse model where members can get involved without having to pay anything at all. That alone isn't going to inspire people, but it's an important step towards reviving participation in British party politics.


Friday, June 1, 2012

The Whimpering Voice

Danny O'Donoghue in his Victorian busker years
I've been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride with The Voice UK. When it was first announced that the BBC had paid a mouth-watering £22 million for the rights to show what is technically a Dutch* import but ostensibly a US one (bidding for the UK version only came into life following the massive Stateside hit featuring Christina Aguilera), all that crossed my mind was the thought, "sigh, not another TV singing contest". "It'll be just like X Factor" I would lament, especially in light of all the reports that they were approaching dejected X Factor judge Cheryl Cole. (Or worse, it would be the BBC's take on X Factor, which brings to mind their take on its Pop Idol predecessor, the abominable Fame Academy.)

I used to watch X Factor, from the very beginning, and by the second series it had developed into a trashy, yet compulsively addictive show that I couldn't allow myself to miss - and as each series went on it got trashier and yet the compulsion to watch grew perversely stronger. The music itself was pushed to one side as it became a platform for:
  • Simon Cowell's smug proclamations about music - a subject he knows a great deal about, having brought us records from such luminary artists as Zig and Zag, Robson and Jerome and the Teletubbies - though to his credit he was always rather more plugged in about the quality of the singer in front of him than the airheads sitting next to him, in the earlier series anyway (his standards seemed to slip as the years went by and his pockets got fuller)
  • Various obvious deceptions, eg that 150,000 people had auditioned in front of the single panel of diva-like judges
  • The inane witterings of Louis Walsh, a man who would otherwise be unemployed by now if not for TV fame (I can't imagine how much contestants resent being in "his" category)
  • Unthinking ageism (once you're over 25 you're "past it"?)
  • Talentless novelty acts like Chico, Wagner and Jedward (in fairness, I like Jedward now, but they were awful on X Factor, and they still can't sing)
  • Cheryl Cole (not her music but her, er, "personality"?)
  • Artificial drama, usually carefully co-ordinated with the tabloids
  • An even-numbered judging panel that more often than not deferred to the public vote, thereby rendering the sing-offs a complete waste of time
  • Pretending that nobody on the show is gay (thankfully this has improved in the last two years) 
  • Promoting shallow qualities like physical appearance and manner over talent and singing ability
  • Premium rate phone voting (so the results would be determined by people with more money than sense, usually voting more than once)
  • The exploitation and abuse of mentally ill people.
It was the latter that caused me to break the habit of a lifetime and simply stop watching - specifically the treatment of Ceri Rees, a tone-deaf widow who kept going back onto the show thinking she had a chance and being publicly humiliated. The production team who pre-vet all contestants should have known better than to send her on, but apparently they actually gave her false encouragement in the name of creating yet another classic in Syco's patented line of Crap Auditions. After all, it's only because of contestants like this that the "Susan Boyle moment" worked.

Of course a string of winners I thought were unworthy of the infamously constrictive and unrewarding record contract (Leon? Seriously?) - and my favourite acts being knocked out in early stages of the public voting - had also frustrated me, but I'd never liked the Crap Auditions, I thought putting them in front of a live audience only heightened the cruelty, and it was for this reason that I stopped watching X Factor and had no plans whatsoever to give the Voice a look-in.

But it only took a few minutes I caught of the first episode of The Voice to hook me in completely.

It was very different to what I expected. This was no X Factor knock-off - the audition format was truly innovative, the spinning chair element nowhere near as silly as it seemed on paper. There were no bad singers, and a strict limit on the number of auditionees a mentor was allowed to pick - and, while a Syco producer might have thought having only good quality singers would put a strain on the 'fun factor', this actually made the show exciting. People were being judged purely on the quality of their voice, or at least the style of their music, and living and dying by it. For the most part, only the cream of the crop were getting through - and decent singers (including some very good looking ones) would fail to progress simply because they didn't meet the high standard. And the judges - all internationally famous singers themselves - had real, constructive comments about the singers' performances, why they did or didn't get picked, and how they could develop their voice in the future.

The audition format was enormously compelling, but there was a nagging doubt at the back of my head. How will the show sustain itself into the later stages? The central conceit of "the judges don't know what the singers look like" was gone, but it's proven rather innovative so far, maybe they have some more twists up their sleeve?

Sure enough, the next stage was the "Battle Round". It was actually rather merciless, using a set dressed up like a boxing arena to pit contestants against one another so as to eventually whittle their number down by half. It did seem unfair at times, almost arbitrary, to put two singers against each other and judge them entirely by one performance of a duet they sing together - and there were a number of cases where some of the better singers lost out because they were pitted against the best singers - but because the standard overall was so high, the performances were actually wildly entertaining to listen to.

So the first two rounds were excellent TV - although to my mind it suffered from a few scheduling issues. The audition shows were an hour and twenty minutes each - about twenty minutes too long for a show without ad breaks - given there were only four of them you'd think they could have spread the auditions over six weeks instead. And then the Battle Round episodes were even longer, at one hour forty each - and broadcast in two installments over a single weekend! It got a little tough to endure the whole thing by the time it got to the twentieth duet.

While that may seem like a minor quibble, spreading those shows over a longer period of time would have protected the show from the disaster that followed. For the live shows seemingly offered very little in the way of difference from X Factor. I say seemingly because there were a few token differences, but every single one of them was worse.

Firstly, there were too many contestants. Something that couldn't be better highlighted than the fact that they had to split the line-up over two weeks at a time for the first four weeks. There are twenty contestants, and it's rather difficult for the audience to develop a connection with any one of them when they get seen very briefly once every fortnight for a month. And the short schedule of just six weeks meant that in three of the six live shows, including the semi final, 50% of the contestants - four out of eight each time - were sent home! (In fact it was ridiculously poor scheduling given that in the first two shows, they sent off just one contestant from each team - they would have been rather better off sending off two from each in the first two shows and then one from each in the middle two.) Whoever eventually wins (and with the favourite having been voted off last week, after being given the 'death slot' of the opening number for no discernible reason, it's already looking quaintly disreputable) will not benefit commercially from having had a huge profile on The Voice in the way an X Factor contestant normally would.

Secondly, for all the talk of the judges "building their teams" in the earlier stages of the contest, these teams never actually go against each other, and are instead torn apart by internal division. Okay, that's overstating it slightly, but what actually happens - and it's never formally acknowledged on camera - is that the process of whittling down the individual teams continues into the live shows, and the "teams" only go against one another when each is reduced to one, in the final. This of course perpetuates the "too many singers" problem, as well as the problem of letting better singers go at the expense of stronger singers for arbitrary reasons. And the fact that it's never formally acknowledged means that, in the semi final for example, people could potentially vote for both singers on the same team without realising that each vote they cast just cancels the previous one out.

Then there's the basic presentational issues. The staging looks like a relic from Top of the Pops - specifically the Andi Peters version that killed the brand. Complete with an internal mosh pit of brainless audience members who cheesily wave their arms along to every performance regardless of whether it's any good or not. There is a staircase and balcony at the back that as far as I can recall has been used exactly once (for a completely weird number involving a long microphone cord). And, perhaps because so much money has been ploughed into the show they feel like they ought to make it look like it's been spent on something, a screen at the back displays poorly-conceived animations and graphics of the contestants as they perform.

Meanwhile, for reasons that are never quite clear, the show requires the services of two presenters, and they have gone with the first two they could find in the bargain bin of presenters the BBC already had on contract, who turned out to be Holly Willoughby and Reggie Yates. (I suppose we should feel some relief that we didn't get lumbered with Fearne Cotton, who with Yates could have reformed the team that killed off the aforementioned TOTP.)

The biggest problem, as it transpired, and as the photo above might suggest, is that one of the mentors is not actually very good at music. Dull song choices and uninspired arrangements let his team down - and when he came to perform with his team (continuing the pretence that they were up against the other "teams") he proved to be the least capable singer on it. Which might seem like a stretch of irony, but the performance was just bad. That, along with the fact that Tom Jones doesn't seem to have much to contribute besides name-dropping, drags the whole judging panel down. (I ought to note that despite my initial reservations, is actually the most insightful panellist, as well as having the most creative use of language, and he's kind of proven himself by having the de facto strongest team of contenders.)

What the live shows really needed was the sort of innovation you saw at the audition stages. Group numbers and duets with pop stars are things we've seen before, and it all drifts away from that supposedly central theme of "the voice". Producers must think about this sort of thing in future series - while they also do something about the numbers problem. Perhaps we could see contestants do their own individual takes on the same song during a show? At the very least that would set it apart from everything else that's out there.

*And by the way, the Dutch version is weird. Not just because they all sing in English and then speak in Dutch, but there's also a pair of judges who share a single button and a massive seat between them, like some kind of Siamese Monarch.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Where's the Beef?

So the "Pasty Tax" U-Turn comes (or as I call it, the Sausage Roll). Rather too late to help the Tories through their little local election difficulties.

Paul Goodman has written a powerful piece giving a number of excellent reasons why the government shouldn't be u-turning - it would have raised much-needed revenue that the government will now have to find elsewhere, it makes ministers look weak, it makes loyal backbenchers (who've already voted it through) look ridiculous.

It was, however, inevitable that the government would have to buckle on this. It was an ill-considered policy, apparently foisted on the coalition by the Civil Service while they were asleep at the till (or in Osborne's case, on holiday). How do you judge whether something is "warm" or not without taking the temperature of every item? What is "room temperature" defined as? How many degrees from that temperature is an acceptable margin of error? Those conditions would have been difficult to comply with, but more importantly, they would have been impossible to enforce. (I'm not sure what the Civil Service was thinking of - perhaps issuing thermometers to HMRC inspectors?)

Nigel Lawson was wise enough to sidestep this quagmire when he first introduced VAT on hot food, writing:
"It does not apply to food and drink which has cooled to room temperature by the time it is sold, or to things like pies and pastries which are sold warm because they happen to be freshly baked, and not to enable them to be consumed while they are still hot."
Liberal Democrats are claiming victory on this, but I am rather suspicious. They have been in a bit of a muddle on this from start to finish - local candidates claiming the pasty tax was a Tory initiative (and that it would hurt "the Cornish pasty industry" - in spite of all the evidence that the only disadvantaged business would have been the Newcastle-based Greggs) when it was Lib Dem MPs who voted for it and Sarah Teather being the first politician to come out and justify the tax increase on Question Time.

In fact Teather's defence of the change was so thorough and heartfelt I wondered at the time whether this might be a Lib Dem initiative - after all it has all the hallmarks of a Lib Dem policy, a tinkering tax hike in the name of their warped sense of 'fairness'. On last Friday's edition of the Daily Politics, Toby Young gave some credence to this with a more developed theory of his own:
"I blame the Lib Dems. My theory is, we saw the Damian McBride blog in which he said the Treasury constantly produced this list, this wish list, of various taxes which he and Gordon Brown used to bat away. But I think what happened was, George Osborne announced quite late in the day that he wanted to cut the top rate of tax, so Danny Alexander and his team huddled with some Treasury officials, they said "well what can we ask for in return?" and the Treasury officials said "funny you should ask. We've got this list..." And then that's what the Lib Dems demanded as the price of accepting the tax cut."
It rings true to my ears...

Monday, May 14, 2012

Stranger Things

For a long time now I have struggled in any kind of public situation. I feel especially uncomfortable in the presence of anyone I don't already know, usually regarding them with a degree of suspicion that pervades far beyond those initial encounters. This is a profound issue which has created all sorts of problems that have seriously hindered my life since childhood. On the other hand, one of my friends, when I put this to him, retorted (perhaps as a kindness) that avoiding strangers is "just common sense" and "what British people do". Still, I can't help but feel that I've missed out on a lot because of it.

Last week I remembered something interesting, which makes me wonder if this is where it comes from. It was something that happened to me when I was five years old, in my first year at primary school, and the fact that I still remember it (and particularly the way I remember it) suggests it was quite a formative experience in my development.

It was the lesson about paedophiles.

Not that the teacher (who I otherwise remember as being especially lovely) ever explained what a paedophile is, what he does, what he wants, nor even used the word 'paedophile' - all quite understandably - it is only in retrospect that I understand what this lesson was really about. It was explained to us by the teacher, with a series of illustrations to guide. The illustrations (now forgive me - I was five years old and have only the vaguest memory of most of this) depict a man driving up to a child and offering the child some sweets.

The word used?


We were told again and again, "don't take sweets from strangers!" That line, along with "never talk to a stranger!" were repeated to us ad nauseam so our little five year old minds took the message to heart - I don't remember if we were told why we shouldn't do these things, those obviously weren't the key messages. Just avoid the horrible strangers. Got it.

There was something else about the day of this lesson, the first lesson of the day indeed, that was also notably memorable. This was the day that a new girl started in our class - Elaine, I think her name was. As I recall she was understandably a little meek as the teacher introduced her at the start of the day. I can only imagine it got worse, about midway through the "strangers" lesson.

"Never talk to a stranger!" the teacher repeated, before mindlessly running straight into the next sentence: "Now, when I met Elaine this morning, she was a stranger..."

If there was subsequently a qualification given to this remark, I just don't remember it sadly. This is the version that is forever etched on my memory, and the definition of a 'stranger' was clear in my mind: it could be anyone.

And hence I never talk to strangers.

But I do take sweets from men who drive their cars up to me. It's a strange world.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Mid-Term Blues: Ignore Them At Your Peril

Given Bruce Anderson's apparent proximity to Downing Street, this is an extremely depressing piece. If Labour had stuck their heads in the sand about dreadful council results like this, complacently accepting their losses as "mid-term blues" rather than evidence of a wider problem, they wouldn't have adjusted their activities in order to win their second or third terms, and they wouldn't have held the Conservative Party back from winning a majority in 2010.

The problems are threefold:
1) An unappealing and indistinct policy platform
2) Poor presentation by unpopular ministers
3) A dismally ineffective electoral machine

The fact is that when someone asks a canvasser "why should I vote Conservative", they are returned a blank expression. I couldn't think of a compelling reason (other than the excellent work of the sitting councillor, which sadly wasn't enough). There seems to have been a decision at the top that the Conservative Party should stand for nothing in particular, but to ordinary voters that has translated into "the Tories stand for no one, and certainly not us".

And the latter part of that is amplified when an extremely well-off Chancellor stands up at the despatch box, freshly returned from his American holiday, to announce that he's giving the highest earners an apparent tax break (although not by enough to return the rate to what it was two years ago and thereby silence his critics, thereby rendering the act both costly and pointless) while slapping VAT on the cheapest hot food on the high street (in the middle of the longest winter of recent memory). The troubles caused by Jeremy Hunt and the Home Office over the past couple of weeks wither in comparison to those caused by the Treasury.

Meanwhile, the party organisation is a basket case, particularly in the cities (those same cities that last week rejected Cameron's proposal of elected mayors), which are mostly comprised of constituencies without Conservative MPs, where the highly motivated union troopers outnumber the humble Tory leafletter by 14-1.
It occurred to me during the run-up to the last election that if the Tories can't run a party operation competently, how on earth can we expect them to run a government? Sadly it seems that fear was a justified one.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Arm-Wrestling to Horrify

The Cabin in the Woods is one of those films where the less you know about it beforehand, the more you will get out of your first viewing. (I’m not actually inclined to believe there is any other kind of film, or any other kind of story-oriented experience – but it’s particularly true in this case.) So if you haven’t already seen it – stop reading at this point, and go and see it!

I’ll be sidestepping the big reveals as much as possible, unlike certain other reviews floating around out there (I’m looking at you, Village Voice, with your ruin-the-entire-ending opening sentence), but this piece really is meant as a talking point for people who’ve actually seen it.

(Continued in full at Bleeding Cool.)