Saturday, 23 May 2015

He's Big and He's Fookin' Hard...

The great lie Sky sold the British public in the 1990s was that they love football just like us.  We got Sean Bean adverts and Soccer AM to prove that their love was just like ours. And in the world their love like ours created we now have a game dominated by financial behemoths and the glamour of the Premier and Champions League, the only silverware that matters. The FA Cup, League Cup and lower leagues are mere sideshows to the main events now, whatever nostalgic journalists of a certain age say. For those clubs with the resources to contest the league title the FA Cup is a mere bauble, something to aim for to give a league title an extra resonance. The preponderance of doubles in the 1990s (four) took some of the lustre from the competition, what became a predictable dominance by the top clubs (Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea) meant he competition lacked the surprise element for which it had been renowned. A series of finals either turgid, one-sided or both didn’t help.  And the rotten cherry on the stale, rancid cake was the ever growing quantity of top division matches Sky were showing from the top division -  no longer were FA Cup games the special occasions they once had been (it’s a similar case for international matches). Amidst all this only the biennial tournament routine retained status, and even then arguably only the World Cup was truly glamorous.

Yes, my wife's *always* had strange taste in men.


Such is the case when the forces of commerce drive the game’s development. Their love is, of course, nothing like a fan’s love.  Fan love is, by and large, an irrational thing unattached directly to a club’s wealth (though ease of transport and far wider media exposure of modern times means it can to some degree be related to success).  It can originate in many ways, from being a local club, through family connections or through chance events at an impressionable age – for instance, my wife’s support of Ipswich is entirely down to a strange crush on Paul Mariner, developed when finding a discarded Panini sticker in the street.  You can make a case that with wealth increasingly being a factor in picking up top players, trophies and therefore wider exposure that it is some factor in the tribal fan love of big clubs, but I’ve yet to hear of anyone whose head was turned directly due to their club’s bank balance or stock exchange value.  Sky’s love of football is almost entirely down to its ability to make money for them, be it from paying their monthly subscription fee or selling advertising space (that it makes money both ways renders their critiques of the funding of the BBC amusing).  For their purposes glamour sells, the glamour of the world’s best players and trophies rolling in.  It would be wrong to suggest that they’ve been entirely bad for the sport – their large and repeated injections of cash has created the conditions to bring top quality players to the Premier League in a way repeated deals with the BBC or ITV just couldn’t have – but it’s created a small, wealthy elite who carve up the glamorous trophies while reducing the rest to essentially a sporting cast, all while calling it the most unpredictable league in the world. In truth, within the parameters of wealth allowing large, top quality squads to be maintained it’s almost entirely predictable. All the Premier League champions come from clubs who’ve made a large and sustained investment in playing staff over time (not even Arsenal’s triumphs come close to disproving this – their initial success under Wenger was fuelled by a well-timed injection of funds from Danny Fiszman). There’s little variety in the clubs who get sent to the Champions League each year – one appearance each by Spurs and Everton aside the only variety to clubs appearing in the Champions League over the last decade was Liverpool dropping out for the newly rich Man City due to financial problems and Liverpool returning for United due to the latter’s post –Ferguson issues.  And even there Everton’s appearance is arguably largely due to Liverpool sustaining two long cup runs with a relatively small squad where Everton lost both cup games they played. It’s a club of wealth that’s tough to break into, and with the current structure the title looks beyond two, possibly three clubs for the foreseeable future.

The first obvious signs of this were the initial dominance of the Premier League by United.  For all the talk of Fergie’s Fledglings and the Class of ’92 the sides which won United their initial dominance of the league were expensively (though shrewdly) assembled for the time – Roy Keane, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Gary Pallister didn’t come cheaply, though the subsequent rapid inflation of the value of footballers won’t tell you this at a glance (Paul Tomkins Pay As You Play and his Transfer Price Index are invaluable here).  Blackburn’s largesse was well documented at the time and the only new names engraved on the trophy this century are the teams that received sudden, massive foreign investment.  Chelsea were a club hanging around the top four at a cost which was within a few weeks of bankrupting them before Roman Abramovich’s billions pushed them upwards to a title within two seasons and City were a perennial sleeping giant before being banked by a sovereign wealth fund that granted them practically matchless resources. The long term effects of UEFA’s much touted Financial Fair Play (FFP) policy here remain to be seen, though immediate thoughts indicate that these regulations will merely prevent more of these takeovers at a later date rather than restricting clubs already there.  We’ve therefore reached a point where the title is harder than ever (near impossible in fact) to win for clubs not already having billionaire backers and long term sustained success.  Even previous windfalls which led to the rise of clubs now thought of as giants – United in the early 1900s, Liverpool and Everton with the Littlewoods pools money in the late 1950s and early 1960s – did not allow such dominance to happen. Clubs could rise from the second tier and challenge or even win titles (Ipswich in the 1960s and Forest in the late 1970s being the obvious examples).  In the Premier League era only Keegan’s Newcastle came close to that.  But with more money being in the game, the differences in club incomes, previously relatively minor in terms of prize money, has grown exponentially. Whereas in previous decades the relatively low incomes meant the differences were correspondingly less significant, now the incomes from league wins and Champions League participation made the difference between regular first and second place finishers and fourth or fifth place finishers huge (of course, fourth place now earns a Champions League spot).  

In such circumstances Liverpool find themselves in an awkward position.  When the Premier League began they, like United, were in an ideal position to secure their position in the top four.  But whereas United sensed the opportunities the new era offered, expanding their stadium, floating on the stock exchange and supplementing that extraordinary Class of 92 with judiciously chosen big purchases, Liverpool under chairman David Moores became stuck in a perceived ‘Liverpool Way’, an admirable commitment to remaining a local club. After Shankly had shaken up the club in 1959, modernising the training ground, training methods and ultimately Anfield itself the club had maintained a forward thinking ethos, particularly under chief executive Peter Robinson. They were, for instance, the first club to accept a shirt sponsorship deal.  In that light the jibes directed down the East Lancs Road look a touch ill-founded – Liverpool had done what they needed to do to consolidate success; in the 90s United had taken the baton and sprinted into the distance in terms of both financial potential and on-field success.  Liverpool could remain relatively competitive whilst their rivals were United, Arsenal and Ken Bates’ overdraft, but the turning point in the modern era for them remains Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Chelsea in 2003 coupled with a disastrous couple of summers in the transfer market.  Chelsea’s extravagant summers underlined that a club funded by the Moores family, gate receipts and TV money would ultimately struggle to compete for the biggest trophies in the new era of largesse. They now needed three clubs to slip, not two and regular European football meant they couldn’t take advantage of extra games tiring the other squads out.  The odds against a long awaited title lengthened further. 

All that was concealed by the appointment of Rafa Benitez and the subsequent extraordinary European Cup victory.  Football history records it as one of the most extraordinary major Cup finals of any era; given the state of the club behind the scenes, the events along the way and calibre of opposition mean it might well be the most extraordinary triumph in the competition’s history.
They clearly remain one of the nation’s richest and best supported clubs but the odds are against them winning trophies.  Even though they retain their place in the world’s ten clubs they struggle to win trophies as four of the other richest clubs also play in the same league. Against this backdrop Liverpool may well have struggled to attract the players that made them so great in previous decades. They would certainly have found it tough to maintain a dominance in the Premier League, a feat only really achieved briefly this century, once when Mourinho first combined with Abramovich’s billions and once when Cristiano Ronaldo reached his extraordinary prime. It’s the great misfortune of Steven George Gerrard to have his career coincide with the periods at which Liverpool have been least likely to win the league.  

Today he plays his final game in a Liverpool shirt, away from the home turf that seemed to add an extra few inches in stature, an extra few pounds in muscle and an extra few yards of speed. He’s already departed the sacred land of Anfield for the last time, unable to raise his beloved team from mediocrity while they lost 3-1 to an energetic Crystal Palace side who merited their win (whilst benefitting from arguable decisions on all three goals). With Liverpool having little to play for bar league positioning the occasion was all about him, welcomed to the pitch by an extra powerful rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone and eventually serenaded off with the chants sung by the Kop for so long. In a long career of odds defying feats he even managed not to shed a tear as he left. But then this perhaps sums up Gerrard’s career, a potent mix of emotion and noble battling against seemingly predetermined fate.  Of all the great players of the Premier League era – the likes of Lampard, Terry, Henry, Vieira, Cantona Scholes, Giggs, Keane even Shearer – Gerrard was the only one who revelled in underdog status.  Only Matt Le Tissier, Southampton’s indolent genius, came close in terms of loyalty and battling to maintain a club’s status and at The Dell he never had the intense focus that always seemed to be on Gerrard.  The rest of the greats, congregated at the biggest clubs, gathered trophies, accolades and titles as if they were fallen leaves. Gerrard preferred the struggle.  Gerrard, more than any of the others, wanted and needed to be the heart and soul of his club. 

From the start his story seemed too good to be true.  He broke into the Liverpool team in the wake of Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher; along with Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman the club had perhaps the finest collection of Scouse talent in its history. Gerrard making it had extra resonance; his cousin was one of the youngest victims of the Hillsborough tragedy.  Even if he’d made that one appearance, a stoppage time replacement for Vegard Heggem at the end of a comfortable 2-0 home win over Blackburn, that would have been a magnificent story. But there would be more.  There would be 17 seasons of more. 

The details and games are well documented, etched on to the memory.  A 35 yard piledriver against United.  A key role and a goal in England’s 5-1 win in Germany.  Driving Liverpool to Champions League qualification in 2003/04 with the club falling apart around him.  Olympiakos.  Istanbul.  West Ham vanquished in Cardiff.  Disappointment in a second European Cup Final.  Pushing a Ronaldo inspired United all the way in 2009, captaining the team that put four goals past Real Madrid and United inside five days.  The free kicks, the hat-trick against Everton, dropping deeper to help inspire a title challenge before that slip.  That last red card against United, seconds after coming on, a late winner against QPR… and then, in his final game at Anfield a party spoiled by an energetic Crystal Palace side. For all the acclaim and great moments those moments of fallibility, the slips, the careless backpasses and rushed of blood were also a hallmark of Gerrard’s career.  Gerrard was a footballer of world class ability; power, pace, a wide range of passing, a fierce tackle and a hammer of a right foot. His energy and unpredictability meant he could pull a team completely out of shape.  But all the mistakes reminded us he was human in the way Messi and Ronaldo never appear to be.  He could seize a game in an instant if given an opportunity but he could also lose it with a daft mistake.  Superman and Clark Kent rolled into one, but with no costume change it could be either one of them out there.  Mostly the former, obviously, but the latter could turn up without warning.

I had the privilege of being there for his most crucial goal, sat on The Kop for the first time.  Back row, just to the right of the posts with two good friends. We took our seats early, quietly confident given Olympiakos’ appalling record away to English sides.  Rivaldo soon shattered our confidence.  After a half where the crowd had castigated him for his tendency to fall over easily he stepped up to score one of the free kicks.  Halftime 0-1. Liverpool had managed three goals in five and a half games and now they needed to score three more in 45 minutes.

I have still never experienced a night like it in 28 years of matchgoing. From halftime the singing was relentless; choruses of You’ll Never Walk Alone mixed with the almost metallic harshness of the chant of ‘Attack! Attack! Attack Attack Attack!’.  No-one sat down on the Kop that entire second half.  The team needed lifting or they risked drifting out of Europe’s premier club competition, with financial issues it might even have ended up a long term absence. Florent Sinama Pongolle came on, his pace and energy resulting in an almost immediate equaliser. For 35 minutes or so afterwards Liverpool toiled manfully, as so often that season unable to penetrate a stubborn defence. Gerrard saw a goal ruled out, could easily have been sent off for a daft kick at an opponent.  But he wasn’t. And then, after 80 minutes another substitute, Neil Mellor, scrambled home after Nikopolidis had saved from Nunez.  Was it on? Did we have one more push left?  Penalty appeals came and went; the crowd remained as relentless as the team.  Five minutes left. A throw in, some scrappy play out on the left wing. The ball falls to Carragher. Carragher floats up a high cross, Mellor wins an unchallenged header, knocking it down diagonally for a player on the edge of the box.  I remember craning my neck, looking to see who it was dropping to, the contact of boot and ball and…

Bedlam. The crowd surging towards the huddle of players, everyone seeming to go six rows forward. Hugging the guys next to you you’ve never met before and never will again, whose names you don’t know. An eternally beautiful moment, a stadium exploding in joy and relief. This team may not be the finest it has known but it’s got fight and willpower.  And if there’s one thing Scousers can respect it’s cussedness. And at the heart of it, the man who’s just delivered another dream to the fans, the Scouser whose gone from good to great with one flick of his right leg.   Not only had he rescued the club, he’d rescued the club in incredible style.  He was very good before, but that night made him iconic. It was a moment that even caused staunch Evertonian Andy Gray to go wild in the commentary box, such was the purity of the strike and emotion.  At the time we thought no further ahead than perhaps another glamour tie or two, much needed cash swelling the club’s coffers… in all my time as a Liverpool fan I don’t think there’s ever been a more unlikely or wonderful run in a competition (though the 2014-15 season was close) and, unless that elusive Premier League title comes home, doubt there will be again.

What a hit son! What. A. Hit.

In the end all our times pass, and all we have are memories. Other players have more medals or scored more goals.  But few have contributed so much to one club, particularly a club that’s always been their club from childhood.  Steven Gerrard gave his all for Liverpool Football Club from the start to the end, gave us League Cups, FA Cups, a UEFA Cup and, of course, Istanbul.  He clearly cared so much for the club he was the focus of opposition songs even when they weren’t playing Liverpool.  Is the lack of a Premier League winners medal a blemish on his career? Perhaps, but given the circumstances it’s hardly one he can personally be held responsible for.  Is he Liverpool’s greatest ever player? It’s an unanswerable pub debate but that he’s even in contention tells you much about how good he’s been for so long. So, even in his footballing dotage, I’m going to relish the chance to see him in Liverpool’s colours one more time. We will find new heroes to give us new memories, but will always cherish the indelible ones provided by the old soldiers.  Gerrard, like Shankly, deserves to be remembered as a man who made the people happy.



Thanks Stevie.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Friday Morning Prime Ministering (UK General Election 2015 musings)

With the typical inventiveness of the land of hucksterism and hustling the Americans have a pithy phrase for those who are wise after the event.  ‘Monday morning quarterbacks’ are the guys (and it’s generally the more loudmouthed guys) who can tell you exactly where everything went wrong and what should’ve been done so that their team won.  They’re the greatest coaches, they know more about the sport than anyone who plays it for a living.  It’s all so easy according to them, in the heat of the moment they’d have made the right decisions so why didn’t the players and coaches?
We really need an equivalent phrase for political geeks over here – perhaps Friday Morning Prime Ministers might work.  Over the past week and a half much bandwidth, airtime and many words have been devoted as to why Labour failed so catastrophically and how the Tories managed to gain a majority. All sorts of explanations have been proffered, ranging from Ed Miliband’s incompetence, why the British electorate hates socialism, through to ‘shy Tories’ and just which specific policies held most appeal. The election’s been sliced, diced and dissected, we’ve learned that really Labour weren’t that confident and the Tories always thought they’d get a majority and that this is what they did wrong and this is what should have happened. 

None of this may be total nonsense (except the bit about socialism – anyone who read the Labour manifesto and thought it socialist is either a US Republican or doesn’t remotely understand the concept of socialism).  There are probably grains of truth in many of these explanations.  But the analyses are being written and narratives formed at precisely the wrong point, in the aftermath of victory.  Narratives are fitted to outcome rather than properly examined.  Everyone’s racing to get their point of view across – as a rule, Labour’s  is self-flagellating and related to the post-election balance of power in the party, the Tories and SNP is triumphalist, UKIP’s and the Greens’ is frustrated and the LibDems is mournful and elegiac, a five year lament. We now have the narrative of an inevitable Tory victory and, history being written by the winners in the immediate aftermath, that’s how it’ll be written up with David Cameron the agent of his own destiny. Anyone saying Cameron would be back in Downing Street is now a savant, even if their analysis has largely been assertions and swivel-eyed ranting based on their party political stance (or personal dislikes).  England loves the Tories, and all is well in the southern sea of blue.  We always knew you’d vote the Right Way.

This is all very well but barely anyone expected a Tory majority until the David Dimbleby announced the exit poll at 10pm.  Labour and LibDem grandees scrambled to deal with the imminent yawning catastrophe, Paddy Ashdown’s millinery munching declaration being the night’s great Canute-like act of futility (though of course Canute’s act was deliberate), whilst the Tories didn’t deviate from the tactics of their last election night of declaring victory whatever the final numbers said. Much of this may be down to innate caution, but David Cameron’s words the next morning, that he didn’t expect to be returning to Downing Street that quickly, indicated no-one was confident enough of the majority.  Whatever the claims being bandied about, the words of William Goldman about Hollywood were perfectly repurposed about this election by David Hepworth on Twitter: no-one knows anything.

George Osborne, heading for Europe, of course claimed that he now had a strong mandate for his party’s European policy, that the result vindicated his austerity rhetoric (not always matched in policy, but that’s a different debate).  Much was made of Cameron being the first party leader in power to increase his vote share since 1900 and that uplift, even a tiny one of 0.8% is no mean feat. Both of these are true on at least a technical level – the Tories now command a majority in the House of Commons by democratic means and their vote share also went up. What both ignore (quite deliberately) is the crucial factor in the election, our ‘first past the post’ electoral system.  I’m not going to attempt to directly analyse the party politics and why voters in key areas voted the way they did (there will be elements of that, but it’s not the main point).

In brief, our electoral system currently divides England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into 650 constituencies with each one of those constituencies returning a Member of Parliament to represent them. All this is done by a simple method of which candidate polls the most votes in the constituency (so a seat such as Knowsley where George Howarth recorded 78.1% of the vote counts for the same as South Belfast where Alasdair McDonnell won with a record lowest share of the vote for an MP of 24.5%.  The former result argues that in certain circumstances the electoral system still functions well – where a party is dominant or where it’s a straight choice between two parties. By and large it’s representative of the viewpoint of the majority of the constituency.  The latter shows the weaknesses of the system – when there’s a genuine split across the constituency it’s a ‘best loser’ scenario which doesn’t reflect that the constituency’s electors haven’t overwhelmingly endorsed one candidate.  The strength of first past the post is that it’s a relatively simple system which allows every person some form of representation (even if it’s by someone they disagree with politically) and in recent decades has tended to produce a decisive majority for either Tory or Labour parties. The weakness is that it doesn’t cope at all well if any sort of third element is introduced.
This is demonstrated at several points in UK history. First the Irish Nationalists, who allowed Gladstone to govern. Then with the rise of Labour in the early part of the twentieth century.  And finally in 2010 where the Liberal Democrats achieved 23% of the vote. Lynton Crosby, who ran the Tory campaign, was quick to damn his opponents and laud his own party (naturally). I’d agree that overall the Tory strategy was superior, even if their actual campaigning tended to be lacklustre and uninspired and seemed to emphasise a disconnection from the electorate.  The essential secret of the Tory election success lay in their understanding of the electoral system and how they exploited the collapse in LibDem support.

At this point it’s necessary to go back to the last General Election.  You can often understand the most recent election by looking back at what happened at the last one.  One of the key points of the election was Clegg’s pledge to oppose an increase in tuition fees for students. In terms of the campaign it was a brilliant move which, for obvious reasons, raised their popularity amongst students.  The problem came in negotiating the coalition agreement. Given the student fees pledge was such a high profile promise it really should have been one of the ‘red lines’ in any agreement. For whatever reason, it wasn’t.  The LibDem negotiating team were persuaded to accept a policy that would allow universities to raise their fees up to £9,000, a threefold rise.  Apparently there was much shock in the LibDem ranks when universities, funnily enough looking for more money to fund themselves, raised their fees to the full amount.  I’m not here to debate the merits or otherwise of that policy but from a LibDem perspective the politics of that were appalling. They had a potential source of younger voters who they could persuade to vote for them in the long term and, almost as soon as they had a hint of power, they sold those voters out. Former LibDem supporters turned on them, culminating in the National Union of Students organising a ‘payback time’campaign  which branded the party as liars.  That’s an awful lot of students saddled with a potential £40,000 of debt who wouldn’t be voting LibDem again for a long time, if ever. Apologies don’t tend to have any value when contemplating a scale of large long term debt. Clegg may have protested in response that his party was only 8% of the House of Commons so didn’t have much power but given his bloc of seats enabled the coalition government a Commons majority he seemed to lack an understanding of how crucial that was.  His negotiators allowed electoral reform to be watered down to a referendum on a compromise system and Clegg took the post of Deputy Prime Minister instead of one of the great offices of state where he or a colleague might make an impact (seriously, has anyone actually explained what a Deputy Prime Minister’s job entails?).  The LibDems comprehensively made all the mistakes a small party going into coalition could make, compromising on a lot of policies and not appearing to achieve much in return. They gambled on being able to demonstrate their ability to rein in a Tory government and appearing noble.  Let’s not beat around the bush on this, it was idiocy.  You need concrete achievement at elections, not hypotheticals about what you stopped. It’s also as if they were unfamiliar with the notion of confidence and supply (a means whereby they will generally vote with the government but aren’t tied to them on less pleasant policies).  Result?  A party that goes from 8% of the House of Commons to 8% of the country’s vote and 8 seats.  The biggest wipeout since the Fat Boys met the Beach Boys. Clegg and his party had become toxic; even those like Simon Hughes who’d deliberately distanced themselves from the Tories. What had been a genuine nationwide third party with just under a quarter of the vote collapsed completely, destroying the years of hard work put in by David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and the former Social Democratic Party. Merely a rump left, the scale of defeat emphasised by the quirk that to be nominated for the leadership a candidate needed endorsement by 0.8 MPs. Some of us rather hope that leads to each remaining MP standing to emphasise the absurdity of the situation.

And this is where the means the Tories used to secure a democratic mandate come in. Let’s go back to the Tory boast, that Cameron secured a rise in his party’s vote (from 36.1% to 36.9%). If he had been leading a solely Conservative government it’d be worth remarking on. But he wasn’t.  He led a coalition government where his partners immediately toxified themselves by reneging on a high profile pledge. The Coalition itself had a good claim to being the most legitimate government in decades, claiming 59.1% of the votes cast at the election and having a clear Commons majority.  By pretty much any definition that’s a democratic mandate satisfying both a definition by the popular vote and the legislature. The last UK government with an equivalent mandate? 1931 (though MacMillan and Eden were just shy).  The LibDems may have paid the price for their decision but isn’t democratic legitimacy like that an argument for co-operative government? Fast forward five years to Osborne’s declaration of having a strong mandate.  Cameron’s government (as opposed to party) saw its vote share dip from 59.1% to 44.8% (Conservative 36.9%, LibDem 7.9%). Granted, part of this was down to the issues peculiar to the LibDems but it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for your government to lose 24 seats overall and 14.3% of their vote. That’s not a popular endorsement of your policies, despite the Telegraph, Times and Sun rushing to shore up a narrative of mass endorsement.

What it is though is the key to the Tories winning.  The First Past the Post system took a hammering at the last election as it failed to fulfil its supposed virtue, providing a strong government with a clear mandate for its policies. Much of this, as I’ve said, was due to there being a national third force with a significant share of the national vote. The vote in seats splits, becomes messy. This election there wasn’t that true third force – the LibDems have a small but significant share, the SNP likewise and the biggest party in terms of votes, UKIP, merely scrambled to 12%.  For all the share of the main parties has retreated from their respective heydays under Blair and Thatcher that’s still a very distant third. With only two parties competitive nationwide First Past the Post now has a chance of determining a winner. It’s at this point that the genius of the Tory strategy kicks in.

One of the accusations the Tories threw at Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader was that he stabbed his brother in the back when claiming the leadership.  You can take this as true or not depending on your viewpoint and how sympathetic you are to Miliband. This fades into insignificance when compared to the Tory ruthlessness in pursuing a successful election strategy. The Tories were in government with the LibDems for five years. You can dismiss the sniping during the election between the parties as simple electioneering, part of the showbiz for grey people that comes up once every five years or so. What the Tories realised was the LibDem vote was likely to collapse, partly due to the student vote and partly as their left wing credentials were almost completely undermined by their co-operation with the Tories. So, whilst shoring up their vote in marginal constituencies the Tories campaigned hard in the LibDem seats they were the main opposition in last time. They used social media to spread their word (apparently specifically targeting Facebook as the most popular medium and disdaining the ‘elitist’ Twitter. I certainly recall seeing a lot of Tory advertising on Facebook during the election, apparently tailored toward me.  How effective was that strategy?  Of the Conservative gains on the night 27 were former LibDem seats. 27 of 28 net gain. The crucial margin that took David Cameron from coalition Prime Minister to Conservative Prime Minister was essentially stabbing their coalition partners in the back.  That’s simply the ruthlessness of British politics, the willingness to do what it takes within an imperfect system to wear the crown. The Tories simply saw that they needed to marginally increase their vote share in the right seats and otherwise pursue their core vote – as you could see from the red meat they were tossing out to their right wing base during the campaign with lower taxes, smaller state, European Union referendum and repeal of the Human Rights Act. It’s simply playing the electoral system to your advantage, something Labour were either unwilling or unable to do.  It provided access to the levers of power for another five years.  That isn’t illegal, nor immoral, it’s simply what had to be done to win.

Noticeably afterwards there were a surfeit of commentators proclaiming this a democratic decision that couldn’t be complained about (particularly Dominic Lawson who dismissed any need for electoral reform). They’re correct in it being a democratic decision under our current system but it’s one that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, much as it did when Tony Blair took his last majority on a 35.2% share of the vote. Nearly two thirds of the electorate didn’t vote for these policies and their voice is effectively denied. UKIP and Green voters are essentially almost locked out of politics with one MP each. Similarly the SNP are comparatively overrepresented by virtue of dominating one area of the UK.  In all honesty it’s something of a mess. And despite Labour upping their vote share they lost a huge chunk of seats (in truth the SNP surge wasn’t a cause of their defeat, it merely made it look worse and took Miliband’s position from shaky to untenable). However you disagree with these parties it’s unrepresentative. It’s not unreasonable for the Tories to have the largest number of seats, but it’s difficult to justify them having an absolute majority on their vote share.

It’s at this point that I’ll divert briefly to point out the sheer idiocy of defending First Past the Post on the basis it produces strong governments. That’s an absolute nonsense unless you’re fortunate enough to be a partisan of the winning side.  In theory a government can have carte blanche for five years. That’s a fair amount of time to put agendas in place or, indeed, your version of electoral reform. The Tory version of electoral reform is to make things ‘fairer’ by levelling population differences. Quite coincidentally this notionally provides 20 extra seats for the Tories and stacks the chips in the Tory favour for the next election. It *was* originally meant to streamline Parliament to 600 or so MPs but strangely, with MPs nervous about voting themselves into non-existence that’s gone by the wayside.  It’s gaming a system which is already stacked toward the Tories even further. And fairer? The system may have favoured Labour before, primarily due to the Tory vote being concentrated and Labour being strong in Scotland which requires less votes per MP to gain seats, but that rationale becomes a nonsense now – in terms of votes per seat the Tories were comfortably ahead of all but the SNP.  If this was a football game the Tories would have tilted the pitch thirty degrees or so and be playing downhill.  Whatever the merits or otherwise of the current Government First Past the Post is clearly open to being gamed by either of the major parties.  An electoral system should defend against selfishness, stupidity and madness from any of the major parties and, on current evidence it would be incapable of doing that if either were at the height of the political cycle and inclined to go on some Caligula style orgy of repressive legislation (well, theoretically there’s the House of Lords…). And, for all the fears of coalition government (something the Tories tried to exploit in the election) didn’t the actual coalition we’ve just had function perfectly well? In past decades Italy was always raised as a monster that proved proportional representation didn’t work, proven by the number of governments since World War 2 (currently: 64).  Thing is, that’s a simple selection of the worst possible example.  Germany, arguably the most successful country in Europe, has long had an element of proportional representation to its elections and only one government in recent history has had an absolute majority.  And they’re doing quite well…

In short then I think in a modern world where there’s a lot of emphasis on participation and having your say then the most important lesson of the election is that change is needed to address the deep flaws in our system.  The trouble is that our current system leaves the major parties with no real motivation to change a system that ultimately favours a rotating power structure. We’ve got a binary political debate with two loud voices shouting at each other.  That leaves fertile ground for populist dissatisfaction with modern politics, something UKIP and (to a lesser extent) the SNP have exploited.
So what does it need to change to? The Alternative Vote, a shoddy cobbled together compromise, was rejected in 2011 after the Tories campaigned against it. I’m not sure how total reform on the legislature would work – the House of Commons (or whatever replaces it) needs an Upper House with checks and balances on it.  If we retain First Past the Post then perhaps this chamber at least could be subject to PR rather than the result of an often shabby honours system.  But does that also leave that chamber vulnerable to the whims of populism?  Whilst I’ve criticised First Past the Post here it should be recalled that studies have shown there to be no perfect voting system when trying to deal with more than two parties.  Some form of proportional representation seems to be a solid basis to start with, but then we need to hammer out questions of how these representatives would be allocated to constituencies, or if the constituency system would continue.  D’Hondt? Plurality voting system? Cop out as it is I’m not going to offer answers as they’d be woefully underinformed against anyone who’s properly studied the subject. I’m merely taking the view that if we exclude a viewpoint from being represented we to store up trouble from people who feel unrepresented. Equally though, there needs to be checks and balances against extremism, corruption, selfishness and groupthink madness.  Theoretically a PR system would make it harder for any of those to affect the governance of a country than one which tends to produce absolute majorities.  But then the UK’s hardly been a hotbed of extremism in its history… 


One thing’s for sure, it’s not a decision currently best made by politicians.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

What I've Caught Up On in April

As per previous posts, the cultural detritus I've been rummaging through during April...

Shooting an Elephant – George Orwell
Daredevil: Marked for Murder – Roger McKenzie & Frank Miller
Warlock Part One - Jim Starlin
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Nicholas Meyer
The Blue Angel - Paul Magrs & Jeremy Hoad
Ride A White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan - Lesley-Ann Jones
The Magic Whip – Blur
1989 – Taylor Swift
Kind of Blue – Miles Davis
Phantom Power – Super Furry Animals
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City – Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
Searching for the Young Soul Rebels – Dexy’s Midnight Runners
Radiator – Super Furry Animals
Mwng – Super Furry Animals
Forever Changes - Love
Dexys: Nowhere is Home
Inside No 9
W1A
Ballot Monkeys
Nathan Barley

The Artist

Friday, 3 April 2015

What I've Caught Up On in March

Regular readers will know the drill by now... things I've been partaking of during March in no particular order:

Cucumber
Banana
Top of the Pops 1980
Doctor Who - Series One (for pedants: The Eccleston Year)
Shoot This One - Javier Grillo-Marxauch
Russell T Davies T is for Televison - Mark Aldridge and Andy Murray
The Blizzard Issue 16 - edited by Jonathan Wilson
Howard the Duck - Steve Gerber et al
The Avengers: The Children's Crusade -Allan Heinburg et al
The Monster Show - J R Southall
The Waste Books - Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
In The Club - Kenickie
All Over the Place - The Bangles
Kind of Blue - Miles Davis
The Race for Space - Public Service Broadcasting



Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Friday, 20 March 2015

The Embuggerance of Mortality

It’s funny, but even if you think you’re braced for someone dying, it’s no easier than if it comes out of the blue.  The difference is only in the initial shock, the process of adapting to the hole left in our lives remains one of life’s harsh realities for those left behind.  This applies whether it’s close family or idols we’ve never met.  I remember spending much of  the afternoon of 26th October 2004 reading the BBC announcement of John Peel’s death, closing it and reloading it as if to make sure it was true, as if there’d be a big ‘MERKED!’ there instead, that it’d be a dark joke.  Of course it wasn’t. Of course it was true. And we had to readjust to a world without Peel, without the man who’d somehow managed to last 37 years on an explicitly youth focused radio station.  Radio One paid tribute and adjusted, we who’d known him paid tribute and adjusted, perhaps even noting real life lacked a notion of dramatic subtlety by having him die at a point when arguably his primary role of introducing new music to a wide audience was being made redundant by the rise of the internet.  Or maybe it robbed us of the ideal curator for all these opportunities at exactly the wrong time.  It was the same when Douglas Adams went, when (at a younger age) Kurt Cobain died. On a grander scale the same was true of Princess Diana’s death, the country at large seemingly being dazed and confused and not knowing quite how to react.

I had the same reaction last Thursday, when I came back from lunch to find out that Terry Pratchett had died.  Pratchett’s death wasn’t as sudden or unexpected as those already mentioned, his early onset Alzheimers had rendered him increasingly and ever more noticeably frail. Death is, of course, an inevitability of the human condition but it’s a very different thing to know of your own mortality and being confronted with it, knowing that your personal end is near. For many that’d be an excuse to turn in on yourself, become maudlin and turn away from the world.  It’s a natural reaction.  Pratchett’s reaction was phenomenal.  In keeping with his books it was a reaction born of a peculiarly British strain of rage, one which eschews tantrums about the unfairness of life for keeping buggering on.  Pratchett dismissed the degenerative brain disease as an ‘embuggerance’ and went about raising the debate of the profile about assisted dying, making a memorable BBC documentary about it. Typically for Pratchett it confronted awkward questions about the subject, about the general societal belief in life imposing a painful, undignified existence on some.  It’s the sort of question his novels asked so well, the ones no-one really wants to confront.* Pratchett confronted it and refused any attempt at comfort or sugar coating. Like the best of his work it led us to a dark place, the evil witch’s cottage at the heart of the forest, but unlike the fiction it didn’t see the need to lead us out again.  It was a one-sided argument, a dark polemic. Unlike his books it didn’t lead us out again, it simply confronted the arguments about quality of life and the reality of assisted death head on.  As with his books, it left us wiser for hearing the argument.  Neil Gaiman pointed out, in a Guardian article about a collection of hisnon-fiction, that for all the imagery of Pratchett being a grandfatherly looking old chap writing fantasy the reality is he’s a tremendously angry writer. And he quite happily lets us know why he’s angry.  The difference with his anger and the venting that fills much of the internet is that Pratchett could weave this anger and darkness into beautifully told stories with wit to spare.  There was no incoherent ranting, more a calmly angry facing up to the realities and how they might be dealt with.  This ranged from how the most trivial ‘embuggerances’ are the ones we pay most attention to even though, in the long run, they don’t matter to a practical philosophy of how to cope with what we do doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.  It’s the act that separates the great storytellers from the merely good ones, the willingness to push a question beyond logical limits, no matter how absurd.

Of course, with his chosen settings tending toward the fantastic, Pratchett had plenty of latitude to be absurd and get away with it.  The main gift Pratchett gave to literature was a rediscovery of the principles of Jonathan Swift, of what could be slipped past the reader’s conscious mind if they’re laughing about daft tales of witches, wizards and sentient luggage. The reader has already bought into the inherent absurdity of the world so it’s quite simple to make the apparently sane seem equally as absurd by introducing it here.  It’s a trick that science-fiction had been using for decades, one prevalent around the time of the early Discworld books (the best relevant examples of the British strain of this tend to come in the long running comic 2000AD). Many writers have followed the template of absurd ideas in an absurd world, the trick most of them missed was grounding the characters as well as Pratchett did.  No matter what their exterior – male, female, orang-utang, troll, dog, god, anthropomorphic personality – they were all recognisable to us in their reactions.  Human is simultaneously the right and the wrong word for it.  Characters we could believe in, whose reactions weren’t illogical in any way but the very human way we’re all illogical, were what kept the Discworld spinning. Characters were more than a simple set of reactions – Rincewind more than a coward, Granny Weatherwax more than the hardened wise woman, Sam Vimes more than the cynical old cop. They were more complicated than that whilst actually being that simple.

After a random encounter with Equal Rites in the local library I eagerly devoured Pratchett for the next twenty years or so, snapping the books up as they came out.  Naturally I even met him once, popping into the Worcester branch of Waterstones after watching the 1995 FA Cup final.  I’m sure he’d heard it a million times but I still got to say thank you, which perhaps matters as much to the fan as to the writer. My wife could go one better, having run the Concussion convention in Cardiff with Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and having plenty of anecdotes about it (minor one: that convention apparently inspired Soul Music, certainly one of my wife’s very good friends is the inspiration for Death’s daughter Susan).  In the social media age the death of the author** has become a mass wake, the modern equivalent of sitting round the campfire and retelling our stories and I spent much of Friday reading through and listening to tributes.  And virtually all of them had some little nugget of truth in, some insight what made Pratchett so popular.  My favourite was a simple one, and one in the relatively quiet corner of the internet that’s my Facebook page.  It came from an old schoolmate of mine, who reminded me that decades ago I’d  pressed a copy of The Colour of Magic on him and insisted he read it.  On the Friday he said that this was what had properly got him into reading, something he hadn’t enjoyed doing before.  Obviously this was a grand and glorious compliment to my good taste, equally obviously it was also a bigger compliment to the quality of Pratchett’s books. By opening up the vistas of literature, a gateway to stories, he made my friend a little wiser and more joyful.  And ultimately that’s his finest legacy.  No-one’s ever been made stupider by reading a Pratchett book and Pratchett never lied to his readers, even when it might have been of comfort. 
Ultimately he knew that life always went on, even when individual lives didn’t.  And in this case his books will always be there, sentient missives from Pratchett’s mind, as alive and dangerous as any in the Unseen University library.  They’ll always be there ready to take the unwary mind through the deep dark forest, but crucially always ready to lead them out again, to remind us that if you know what it looks like, and you look hard enough, you can find light.*** Somewhere, in the corner of millions of mind, there’s a little Pratchett amused at our failing and railing against our stupidity.

And for that little Pratchett in the corner of my mind, I’m profoundly grateful.


* This is where he differs from fellow Wodehousian descendant Douglas Adams.  Adams provides the same sort of absurd angles as Pratchett but, until Last Chance To See converts him to the cause of conservationism, restricts himself to pointing out humanity’s foolishness.  Pratchett tells you why foolishness, stupidity and ignorance are bad and dangerous things and why they need stamping out.

** Actual death rather than amusing conceptual corner of postmodernism   

*** Assuming you’re not stuck down a mine without a lamp.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

D'yer wanna come with me?

It's a decade ago tonight that this aired...


It's not the episode itself, it's the trailer.  We all knew the show was coming back and roughly when, but we hadn't seen a frame yet (unless you'd been impatient enough to download the early copy leaked on those naughty torrent sites).

This made it all real.

There was the new Doctor - Christopher Eccleston.  Christopher. Bloody. Eccleston, a proper heavyweight actor.  The new TARDIS.  The new companion.  And an irresistible invitation.  It's still pretty much as excited as anything on TV has ever got me.  This was Doctor Who, my favourite show since childhood, back with the budget to make it look as magnificent as it had always deserved to, back as a proper flagship show.  I could even forget that I knew the tunnel where Eccleston was filmed running from a fireball so well and lose myself in the excitement.  

Everything about this trailer is long gone.  Eccleston only lasted a year, the TARDIS set departed with David Tennant.  Billie Piper's performance was so good no-one mentioned that brief pop career by the end of the first season, she's matured into a fine award winning actor but happy to return to celebrate special occasions for the show.  The show's moved studios twice, the one I used to walk past on the way to work having been a warehouse and now offices.  Even the underpass is long gone, blocked up and filled in as part of a redevelopment of the area around the station. Only the show is still here, and that's as it should be.  Change and development's always been part of Doctor Who's DNA and ten years on we're five Doctors (yes the War Doctor counts!), two showrunners, three TARDIS sets and a daft number of title sequences and rearrangements of the theme down.  Only Murray Gold's music remains after ten years.  Younger generations have their Doctors, their memories and all the monsters they can handle.  It's the natural reference point for when anyone in Britain talks about SF and it's bigger around the world than it's ever been.  And all thanks to Russell T Davies, Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper.  Back then we were grateful beyond words, delighted that we'd have one last season to reward our patience over a decade and a half with just one new episode (but shitloads of books and audios).  Despite the talent we weren't sure whether it'd be any good.  The trailer was the first sign that not only would it be good, it'd be good beyond our wildest dreams.  Did I want to go with him? More than ever.  I still do.  And when they promised the trip of a lifetime?It's been all that and more.

2005? Tell you what.  I bet we're going to have a really great year.

Oh, and spoilers... we got all this next...