A new post on LabourList provides a useful summary of the various alternatives to our current system of First Past the Post (FPTP) for elections to the house of commons currently being hawked around in much of the vaguely left-of-centre press, especially in the Guardian and the Observer. Polly Toynbee in particular seems quite unable to write a column without including a commercial for Proportional Representation. However, the advantages and drawbacks of each of the systems discussed in LabourList seem to me (and to at least one other reader of LabourList who has commented on it) to be somewhat skewed in favour of a change in the electoral system, over-stating some of the arguments in favour and omitting some of those against.
I have appended the following rather lengthy comment to the LabourList post in an effort, probably doomed, to help correct any imbalance. This can usefully be read, if anyone’s interested, in conjunction with what I have written previously on the subject:
This otherwise useful summary of the various options omits any mention of a (to my mind) crippling defect in all the systems which involve transferring votes: in AV, the only votes that get to be transferred are the second preferences of those whose first preference went to a candidate who has been eliminated (because he/she has come bottom of the list at the first or subsequent recount). In many (most?) cases, the candidates who come bottom of the poll and are eliminated in the early counts are frivolous egotists and exhibitionists, other weirdos, or candidates of far-out extremist parties or causes. It’s not clear why those who give such no-hoper candidates their first preference votes should have their second preferences given so much more weight in the eventual result than those who gave their first preference votes to mainstream candidates, and whose second preferences will never even be counted if their candidate is never eliminated. Votes cast are thus treated unequally, those for eliminated candidates given more weight (by virtue of the redistribution of their second preferences) than those cast for candidates not eliminated. This hardly qualifies as ‘fair’. The same unequal weight objection applies, mutatis mutandis, to the Single Transferable Vote system.
There are in addition serious drawbacks to having more than one MP for each constituency (as STV would entail), notably that it breaks the invaluable convention that a single MP, once elected, represents the interests of all his constituents, not just those who voted for him (or her).
There is also the obvious illogicality in all preference vote redistribution systems of pretending that first and second (or even third) preference votes are of equal weight, simply in order to be able to claim that the winning candidate has had the ‘support’ of the majority of the votes cast, whereas (unless he or she won more than 50% of the votes at the first count, in which case no second preferences need to be redistributed other than to the other candidates in multi-member constituencies) it’s obvious that on the first preference count, which is the only one that accurately reflects voter choice, a majority of the votes were actually cast against the eventual winner. The fact is that nationally, and in most individual constituencies, no single party ever commands the support of 50% or more of the electorate, and this is inevitably reflected in votes cast at elections. Fiddling around with redistributions of votes from one candidate to another can’t magically transform this reality into an apparent overall majority for a particular candidate. A voter who has cast a first preference vote for candidate A can’t meaningfully be said to have voted ‘for’ candidate B, even if B is eventually given his second preference vote when preferences are redistributed. Thus the principal argument generally advanced in favour of redistribution systems such as AV and STV, namely that they ensure that every MP has had the support of a majority of the votes cast in the relevant constituency, is bogus.
The objections to any party list system, an essential element in the horrendous proposals by Roy Jenkins and his Commission, are obvious. They put even more power into the hands of the party apparatchiks than they already have, enabling them alone to decide which politicians are included in the list and which are excluded from it. Guess which independent-minded, maverick members of each party’s awkward squad are going to make it onto the list! The electorate has no say in the matter, even if the list is an ‘open’ one in which voters are allowed to express preferences as between the various names on the party list. This objectionable system is one of the many reasons for the abysmal turnout at elections in the UK to the European parliament, conducted inexplicably under the party list system. The last thing we should want is to introduce it as part of the system for electing members of the house of commons, and thus for electing governments.
But above all the objections to any system that will always deliver coalition governments (as true PR always will) are surely decisive. It will always empower a party which has won fewer seats and votes than either of the two main parties to decide which of those two main parties is to get the keys to No. 10 Downing Street. Both the parties which come in first and second will have to bargain, after the voting has finished, with the minor parties in order to negotiate changes or additions to their election manifestos sufficient to guarantee enough support from one or more of the minority parties to secure a majority for the coalition (whether formal or informal) in the house of commons. Thus the government taking office will have a programme that has been drawn up or finalised only after the election has taken place and for which not a single voter can have voted. The majority partner in the resulting coalition is then permanently at the mercy of its minority partner(s), who can bring the government down at any time, on a whim or following a personality clash, and put the other main party into office instead, without a single voter having any say in the change of government. It’s no good saying this doesn’t happen in practice: it has happened at least once in Germany since the war and is a permanent feature of the system in Israel, where moderate centrist governments are constantly held to ransom by right-wing extremist minority parties on whom they depend for their continuing majority support in parliament.
Finally, a change in the present electoral system (tendentiously referred to as ‘electoral reform’!) is far too momentous a constitutional change to be introduced, or even to be submitted to a national referendum, without the broad agreement of all the main parties across the political spectrum. It certainly should not be imposed by one party on the rest without their agreement, for the temporary political advantage of the party in power. If a referendum is to be held, it should be preceded by a lengthy period of consultation and information in which the pros and cons, especially the cons, of each of the options can be extensively debated and publicised. Simply to ask if one is in favour of electoral ‘reform’ is almost to guarantee a Yes vote, and that’s liable to land us in an even worse mess than we’re in already.
It’s easy to pick holes in First Past the Post, but few commentators in the current febrile atmosphere seem to be willing to point out the even bigger holes in every one of the alternatives. As Churchill said of democracy, FPTP is a terrible system; it’s just that all the others are even worse.
Apologies for the length of this.
J and I are still reeling from the effects of the film Katyn, the latest product of the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda, and indisputably a masterpiece. Watching it is a gruelling experience, but a hugely rewarding one. Although theoretically on general release in the UK, it’s not easy to track down any of the few cinemas currently showing it; some Googling may be required for British movie-goers.
The film follows the impact on four fictional Polish families of the all-too-real tragedy in the Katyn forest in Russia of the –
mass murder of thousands of Polish military officers, policemen, intellectuals and civilian prisoners of war by Soviet NKVD, based on a proposal from Lavrentiy Beria to execute all members of the Polish Officer Corps. Dated March 5, 1940, this official document was then approved (signed) by the entire Soviet Politburo including Joseph Stalin and Beria. The number of victims is estimated at about 22,000, the most commonly cited number being 21,768. [Wikipedia]
For years during and after the second world war the official Soviet (and therefore also the Polish Communist party) line was that the massacre had been perpetrated in 1941 by the German SS when the Katyn forest area was under German occupation. It was however widely known in Poland and in the west that in fact this had been a Soviet NKVD crime, committed in 1940 when the Katyn area of Russia was still under Soviet control. During the war western governments refrained from placing the blame for the massacre where it belonged, on their war-time ally the Soviet Union, for fear of the consequences for the war-time alliance against Hitler in which the Russians were playing such a vital part. After the war, with Poland under effective Soviet domination, the fiction was maintained for a long time, and in communist-governed Poland it was a serious, potentially capital, offence to allege that the murder of the flower of the Polish intelligentsia and its officer corps at Katyn had been the work of the Russians, not the Germans. During my own time in Poland (1986-88, just before the collapse of Soviet communism in Europe) we would visit the Warsaw cemetery to see the officially-erected Katyn memorial where the reference engraved on the memorial to the Hitlerite fascists as the perpetrators of the massacre was constantly defaced or gouged out by Polish patriots and the correct (and damning) date ’1940′ inscribed or painted in its place, thus indicting the Russians. On All Souls Day the Poles would gather at the memorial and hold a candle-light vigil, softly singing patriotic Polish songs and hymns; they probably still do:
In 1981, [the] Polish trade union Solidarity erected a memorial with the simple inscription “Katyn, 1940″ but it was confiscated by the police, to be replaced with an official monument “To the Polish soldiers – victims of Hitlerite fascism – reposing in the soil of Katyn”. Nevertheless, every year on Zaduszki, similar memorial crosses were erected at Powazki cemetery and numerous other places in Poland, only to be dismantled by the police overnight. Katyn remained a political taboo in communist Poland until the fall of the Eastern bloc in 1989. [Wikipedia]
The name Katyn thus has a terrible resonance in the minds of all Poles.
Wajda’s intensely moving film won’t always be easy to follow for those unfamiliar with the Katyn story or with Polish geography, requiring especially a rough understanding of the areas of Poland occupied in the early part of the war by the Germans and the Russians respectively. There are of course many accounts of the Katyn massacre on the web and I would recommend refreshing one’s memory of the principal facts and dates before seeing the film by reading one or other of them, unless you’re already fully au fait with them. The Wikipedia account is probably as good as any. But on no account miss this moving and gripping movie by one of the great masters of the cinema. (Watch out for sign-posts in the film to some of its tragic themes: the theatre to which a young woman sells her hair for use in a stage wig, in order to pay for a memorial stone honouring her Katyn victim brother, is staging ‘Antigone‘, as we learn from a poster glimpsed in the foyer: the young woman, we suddenly realise, is re-enacting Antigone’s tragic role but in real life.)
Wajda is now 83, so there may not be too many more masterpieces from him.
Bloggers who entrust their political views and comments to the blogosphere must expect to be misrepresented, misquoted, misunderstood by-mistake-on-purpose, quoted out of context and otherwise have their case distorted by other bloggers of a different political persuasion. So there’s no point in complaining when it happens. But there’s currently an interesting example of distortion by omission and misquotation, in a blog by an obscure Conservative Councillor who is also ‘commercial director’ at the Conservative Party’s campaign HQ. You can read his blog post here.
You will see that the Councillor purports to reproduce, and attributes to me by name, my own blog post in Labour List of yesterday (also available on my own blog) in which I joined the growing chorus of criticism of the Labour leadership’s “Tory cuts, Labour invests” line as being fundamentally misleading and defying belief, thus damaging the government and the party — but in which I also set out a suggested four-point alternative Labour line that would highlight the government’s effective actions and policies for dealing with the recession while exposing the dangers and follies of the Conservative party’s corresponding economic and fiscal policies. Predictably, the Tory Councillor’s version of this on his own blog reproduces in full my criticisms of the current Labour leadership line but completely omits my positive and constructive suggestions for an alternative pro-Labour line, including my condemnation of Tory policy for dealing with the recession. Thus the basic thrust of my own post is effectively reversed by the Tory blogger. You’d need to have eagle eyes to spot the three faint dots which alone indicate the very substantial omission, and a rare political insight to guess what it contained. Not only is the central core of what I wrote slyly omitted: our Tory Councillor has also unobtrusively re-named it ‘A Labour Member for 50 Years Writes About Labour’s “Simple Minded Dishonesty” Lies…’, although the words ‘lie’ and ‘lies’ don’t appear anywhere in my post (except as part of the words ‘families‘ and ‘earlier’). That’s misquotation with a vengeance, especially as the mangled version of the text purports to be by me — so it would be natural to assume that the title is by me as well.
There are several interesting things about our Tory Councillor and his blog, including its title (“CllrSSD’s Blog“) and the fact that nowhere in it does the Councillor’s name appear — even in the section headed “About Me and My Blog“.
There are various clues here and there, including the initials SSD; even a contact e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org), but no name. Rather odd, you might think, for an elected Councillor. In fact our man is one Scott Seaman-Digby, who engagingly if slightly mysteriously describes himself (and reveals his name) in his potted autobiography on his Twitter page as “Local Councillor, CCHQ staffer, generally nice guy, having fun online and keeping in touch with family, friends and resident [sic]“. CCHQ evidently stands for Conservative Campaign Headquarters. Elsewhere we learn that “Scott was elected Chairman of the London Borough of Hillingdon Conservative group in 1999 and in the same year he joined the Parliamentary Candidates list as an approved national candidate.” He’ll surely make a grand MP.
I have submitted the following comment on Mr Seaman-Digby’s blog post — the one that’s represented as being by me:
Selective extracts from my blog post, designed to expose the dangerous folly of Conservative policy for dealing with the recession, have been reproduced here without my prior agreement. I note that the section of what I wrote setting out the merits of the Labour party’s actions and policies, compared with the glaring defects in Tory policy, has been completely omitted. This kind of distortion by omission is very poor practice, but comes as no surprise.
This comment is presumably still awaiting the Councillor’s approval; at any rate, it hasn’t yet appeared below his, or my, post on his blog. But since by his own account he’s a “generally nice guy”, I expect he’ll approve my comment in due course and put it on his blog. And if you find that later today (Tuesday 7 July) it still isn’t there, you can always send him an e-mail asking what’s happened to it: email@example.com should find him. He quotes that e-mail address himself on his blog, and since he has no qualms about selectively reproducing my blog post (with the heart of it cut out), he can hardly object to my reproducing just an e-mail address from his. [Update: My comment has now appeared on Cllr. Seaman-Digby's blog, together with his own conciliatory reply and (soon, anyway) my further response: please see http://www.barder.com/ephems/1846#comment-87163 immediately below.]
The indefatigable Guido Fawkes had earlier spotted my Labour List post and commented on it in reasonably balanced if pungent terms, including brief quotations from it to illustrate both the criticisms and the constructive suggestions. Perhaps that’s where Mr Seaman-Digby came across it in the first place, unless he’s a loyal reader of Labour List and saw the original there.
But then, as I said before, bloggers have to expect what they write to be distorted by selective (mis)quotation, quotation out of context, and other tricks of the trade of the practitioners of the dark political arts. So I’m not complaining — just recording an amusing and instructive example. No doubt there’ll be many more before the mainstream media and the Tory bloggers get bored with (or ‘of’?) the subject.
PS: For an example of another impeccably fair and balanced comment on my post in Labour List, written by (of all things) a Daily Telegraph blogger, James Kirkup, look at this (including “particularly telling is his (accurate) observations on how some fancy footwork by the Tories turned Andrew Lansley’s original “10 per cent” mis-step into a tactical victory.”)
Some disconnected thoughts on the present discontents:
David Cameron’s merciless, if tiresomely and unnecessarily repetitive, dismembering of the prime minister in Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) over the latter’s obstinate refusal to admit to Labour’s plans for stiff future cuts in government capital spending has been widely remarked on. Gordon Brown’s apparent fixation with his favourite slogan, “Labour investment versus Tory cuts” has long ago ceased to cut any ice. Everyone knows that whichever government is in office when Britain begins to come out of recession will have to act to reduce the huge volume of debt incurred as a result of the measures taken to deal with the financial and economic crisis. Obviously even a gradual start to paying off this unprecedented and unsustainable amount of government debt will entail higher taxes and big reductions in government spending. Why Brown should have persisted for so long in his claim that government capital spending under Labour would actually increase in the next three years, when the government’s own published figures show that it will fall, is a mystery. Another recklessly conceded own goal! Is there no-one in the prime minister’s entourage with the guts to tell him to stop telling porkies — if not in obedience to his much vaunted ‘moral compass’ as a ‘son of the manse’, then at the very least because of the utter certainty that he will be instantly found out? Hasn’t Peter Mandelson warned him of these elementary truths? Perhaps he has, but the prime minister can only hoist in advice that he wants to hear. A sure recipe for the kind of humiliating disaster that struck him on Wednesday.
* * * * *
It’s doubly regrettable from Labour’s point of view that Gordon Brown should have handed the Tories such a weapon of mass destruction when he could easily have deployed an effective and truthful attack, pointing out that the Tories sneered from the sidelines at the radical measures taken by the government at an early stage of the crisis, both to prevent the collapse of the banking system and to provide a sharp fiscal stimulus to prevent the economy descending from recession into slump; and that the government’s measures have been widely praised as correct and courageous by international economists and governments. Cameron and Osborne have throughout been loudly calling for immediate cuts in government spending, while the country is still in recession, which could only make the recession deeper and more prolonged. The recession itself forces any government to spend more (on social security for the increased number of unemployed and homeless) while seeing its tax revenues sharply reduced (because of the falls in profits, earnings and spending), thus increasing the deficit in a double whammy — the so-called ‘automatic stabilisers’, unintentionally ironical term. Large-scale borrowing has thus been necessary and right if total calamity was to be avoided. Labour can credibly claim that that under a Labour government, when the time comes for cuts in spending, the most vulnerable and most heavily dependent on basic public services will be protected as far as possible, with the well-heeled bearing the heaviest burden in higher taxes. The Tories, by contrast, are already committed to embarking on expenditure cuts far too soon, even before we have begun to emerge from the recession, and to applying them in a recklessly indiscriminate way, with flat rate cuts apparently to be imposed on almost all public services except the NHS and overseas aid. But it’s probably too late now to launch that kind of offensive: the prime minister’s credibility has been shot to pieces.
* * * * *
Coming back (reluctantly) to Wednesday’s PMQs, I found it impossible to watch and listen to the proceedings without squirming in shame and embarrassment at the tribal baying, the pathetic planted questions (memorably called ‘Dorothy Dixers‘ by the caustic Australians) and their pre-paid replies, the feeble attempts at point-scoring, the ludicrously over-acted audience reactions — raucous laughter, theatrical groans, squeals of approval, frantic nodding like those toy dogs in the back windows of cars — and the almost universally contemptible level of the debate, if one can call it that. This was the display of tantrums of the nursery, not even the quarrels of the primary school playground. Will the new Speaker be able to do anything to restore PMQs to its place as a forum for MPs of all parties to seek information (including potentially embarrassing or revealing information as appropriate) from the head of the government? By my calculation PMQs were more than half-way through before the first such question was asked.
There were a few encouraging signs: Speaker Bercow delivered one especially memorable appeal to an over-excited Member: “Order. Mr. Fabricant, you must calm yourself. It is not good for your health. I call Paul Farrelly.” He interrupted one interminable intervention in mid-flow and invited the PM to reply, even though no question had at that point been asked; and he reminded another questioner that it was out of order to ask the prime minister questions about Conservative policies. Perhaps in due course he will stop the practice of MPs delivering long speeches converted at the last moment into questions by the addition of “Does the prime minister agree?”. He might even stop the prime minister answering every other question by lambasting the Opposition, reminding him that he is there to provide information about the government’s actions and policies, not anyone else’s. Cameron is principally to blame for these weekly displays of bear-baiting, but Brown is almost as much to blame for unfailingly taking the bait; and almost all MPs on both sides of the House are certainly to blame for the childish baying and general tribalism. The expenses scandal isn’t the only reason for sensible people of all political persuasions to despair of both politics as currently practised, and all too many of the present crop of politicians. And, like poor Mr Fabricant’s excitement, this disillusionment with politics and politicians isn’t good for our collective health. It’s quite a short step from this to some form of populist fascism.
* * * * *
One dimly encouraging sign is the new Speaker’s appearance in the Chair in an ordinary business suit and tie, in ordinary shoes, his special status marked only by a black academic-type gown of the kind worn by American judges. OK, it might make him look like a rather diminutive schoolmaster, but better that than the absurd pantomime costume affected by his predecessors. Some of the fake-medieval flummery attending his ritual procession through the lobby at the start of each day’s proceedings could helpfully be dispensed with, including his train-bearer, hardly necessary now that there’s no train to bear. The exotic language used by MPs in debate to refer to each other could usefully be brought up to date. Is it really necessary for every utterance to have to pretend to be addressed to the Chair? Why on earth do members have to waste hours of everyone’s time by trooping through the lobbies to vote when quite simple electronic voting systems are used in most comparable assemblies and have been available for years? Why is the order paper unintelligible to anyone who hasn’t studied the arcane mysteries of Commons procedures for at least ten years? Why are the parliamentary ushers, who show visitors to their seats and shush them when they make a noise, dressed like warders on loan from the Tower of London, or possibly toast-masters? Even more radically, what’s the benefit of a layout in the House of Commons that accentuates the adversarial element in our politics and actually encourages the sort of infantile tribal behaviour seen at its worst in PMQs? Why not a horse-shoe-shaped seating arrangement that would reflect the nuances of members’ political positions instead of a Manichean in-versus-out, us-versus-them dichotomy? There’s plenty to be done, Mr Speaker.
* * * * *
Even the choice of John Bercow as the new Speaker was basically an act of political tribalism, estimable though he might be — certainly preferable to the majority of the other candidates. But there’s no disguising the fact that although he is, or was until elected Speaker, a Conservative MP, the great majority of his fellow-Conservatives cordially dislike him (mainly apparently because his political views have shifted from far right to slightly left-of-centre since he very sensibly married a socialist). Virtually the whole of his support, in an unprecedented secret ballot, came from Labour MPs who still of course have a comfortable majority (for the time being, anyway). Were those hundreds of Labour votes cast for Bercow based on a sober assessment of his Speaker-like qualities of patience, courtesy, gravitas and natural authority, long experience in the House, and acceptability to a wide range of opinion on both sides? One would like to think so, and that Bercow voters were behaving like grown-ups. Or was this one last chance to cock a snook at anti-Bercow Tories, using their majority to impose him on his unwilling party colleagues before the Labour majority disappears from under them some time within the next eleven months? If so, how will a likely Tory majority in the next parliament be tempted to get its revenge? Business as usual, sadly: all the brave talk of the need for change and reform was strictly for the birds, all along.
Last autumn our most debased and shameless tabloid newspaper, Murdoch’s Sun, denounced with its usual fake indignation a ‘comedy workshop’ at an English prison, attended by a convicted Muslim terrorist and other assorted evil-doers. Did the minister responsible, the so-called ‘Justice Secretary’ patiently explain to The Sun the reasons for restoring prisoners’ self-respect by teaching them valued skills that would reduce the chances of their re-offending after their release? Here’s a clue: the Justice Secretary is one Jack Straw, former Home Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, and half a dozen other exes. Now read on:
By JOHN KAY, Chief Reporter
Published: 21 Nov 2008
AN al-Qaeda terrorist involved in a plot to bomb London was taught how to be a stand-up COMIC at his top-security prison, The Sun can reveal. Evil Zia Ul Haq was enrolled on an eight-day “comedy workshop” at Whitemoor jail, along with murderers and rapists.
An inquiry was launched today by the director of high security prisons to consider whether further action was needed, the Ministry of Justice said. A spokeswoman added: “The director general of the National Offender Management Service is personally briefing governors from all prisons on the need to take account of the public acceptability test in relation to prison classes.” Once they “graduated” they were due to get a certificate and display their new talents with a comedy show for fellow lags and guards.
Last night Justice Secretary Jack Straw canned the “totally unacceptable” course after The Sun alerted him. He also vetoed a plan by the Category A Cambridgeshire prison to set up its own comedy club.
[The Sun, 21 November 2008 (emphasis added)]
The Daily Telegraph helpfully expanded on the Justice Secretary’s prompt remedial action:
…[J]ustice secretary Jack Straw stepped in and closed the course after three days, The Sun reported. “As soon as I heard about it, I instructed it must be immediately cancelled,” he said. “It is totally unacceptable.” Senior managers in the Prison Service, who were also unaware of it, take the same view. “Prisons should be places of punishment and reform. Providing educational and constructive pursuits is essential but the types of courses and the manner in which they are delivered must be appropriate.” … A spokeswoman added: “The director general of the National Offender Management Service is personally briefing governors from all prisons on the need to take account of the public acceptability test [in relation to prison classes].”
[Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2008 (emphasis added)]
This was too much even for Mr Murdoch’s down-market Times, whose columnist Libby Purves wrote:
A month ago … I recorded the dismay spreading through the UK Prison Service as a result of Jack Straw’s banning of a well-established comedy course at Whitemoor Prison. Some nasty little toe-rag outed it to indignant tabloids looking for something to get cross about.
The result, you may recall, was the Justice Secretary’s ruling that comedy in prison is “totally unacceptable”, “not a constructive pursuit”, and that all inmate activities – even if not funded by taxpayers – “must be justified to the community”. Comedy sounded too much like fun…
A PSI – Prison Service instruction – followed this, laying down formally that all activities must now be judged not only by whether they do any good but by how they “might be perceived by the public”. Sir David Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons and patron of several prison arts projects, robustly described the PSI as “lunacy”. Organisations that take arts into prison … were scared, disheartened and in some cases had projects abruptly cancelled by understandably nervous governors. Nobody, after all, has defined the parameters of a “public acceptability test”… Even obviously humane projects bringing together prisoners and families found themselves threatened. It has been a difficult time. It still is. And it shouldn’t be. Prisons should be free to do whatever contributes to rehabilitation, purpose and human connection. The “public acceptability test” still needs harpooning. [The Times, March 2, 2009 (emphasis added)]
Ms Purves’s column went on to praise, in moving terms, a production of the great musical West Side Story by a mixture of prisoners, prison officers and a few professional actors from Pimlico Opera, in Wandsworth prison, the biggest in the country. The production, said Ms Purves, sent two vital messages. The first and most obvious one was about the futility and cruelty of street gang violence:
That second message is about work: co-operation, learning, taking direction and how it takes the sweated patience of theatre to create, in a live moment, a magical emotional unity between audience and performers.
Similar praise for what was evidently an outstanding and deeply moving production came from Fiona Maddocks in The Observer on 15 March:
Rejoice in these jailhouse blues
Jack Straw is clamping down on arts inside prisons. If he’d been at HMP Wandsworth last week, he might just change his mind …
Between his Wagner performances at the Royal Opera House last week Bryn Terfel slipped into Wandsworth prison in south-west London. He had a free afternoon and responded to an impromptu invitation. After visiting a few cells, the world’s most famous bass-baritone volunteered to join a group of inmates in a song…
Together they sang “Somewhere”, the yearning ballad from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. For anyone incarcerated in one of the largest prisons in western Europe together with 1,643 other male offenders, the lyrics have unbearable poignancy: “Peace and quiet and open air/ Wait for us/ Somewhere…/We’ll find a new way of living/ We’ll find a way of forgiving/ Somewhere.“
Even the austere Financial Times was moved, Peter Aspden writing:
We were, of course, all expecting the barnstorming “Officer Krupke” to be rich in dramatic irony (“Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset; We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get. We ain’t no delinquents, We’re misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good!”) and so it proved, especially when the last verse was sung extra-lustily to the prison project’s patron, former cabinet minister Michael Portillo, smiling sheepishly in the stalls.
There was still more poignancy in store when the entire male chorus, inmates every one, sang the lyrics of West Side Story’s loveliest melody: “Some day, somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living…” It can’t be often that the mise-en-scène of this particular musical is as moving as its substance, but that was certainly the case here, where its theme of redemption passed for much more than mere romantic conceit. [FT, 6 March 2009]
A friend who works as a volunteer at Wandsworth prison was also there:
[L]ike Libby Purves, I was at the opening night of this amazing show last Friday … Those of us who work as volunteers (monitoring day-to-day conditions and events in prisoners’ lives in HMP Wandsworth), know … about the inestimable value of drama and the other arts in prisons … And [Libby Purves is] absolutely right too about the quality of the production — the audience wouldn’t stop applauding at times — and what it must be doing for the prisoners taking part. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry much of the time — so, like many other people, I did both. Just imagine prisoners singing: Gee Officer Krupke….We never had the love every child oughta get…We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood.. Deep down inside us there is good…! And: He don’t need a judge he needs an analyst’s care…It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed… He’s psychologic’ly disturbed…! And so on. Hilarious stuff. But I wondered about the men singing it. Did they sense the irony? What did they feel? Learn?
I’ll try to find out from some of them in the near future when reality re-imposes itself.
Jack Straw’s ignorant, cowardly fiat, surrendering instantly to The Sun’s bullying, very nearly caused the abandonment of this hugely worth-while project. He didn’t, you’ll notice, attempt to defend the ban on ‘inappropriate’ courses such as training in comedian’s skills in prisons, nor to deny their potential value as rehabilitation tools, boosters of morale and self-respect, bonding and community spirit. His sole concern is whether any activity is publicly “acceptable” — acceptability, it seems, defined not by what is acceptable to Lord Ramsbotham or to others who understand that the punishment of being sent to prison is the withdrawal of liberty, not ill-treatment and mindless deprivations while behind bars: acceptability defined purely, or impurely, by what is acceptable to The Sun newspaper. How low can a minister entrusted with ‘justice’ sink?
But what should we expect of Mr Straw, Justice Secretary — indeed also Lord Chancellor in his spare time? He was the Foreign Secretary at the time of the Blair government’s illegal attack on Iraq, the senior minister whose own department’s legal advisers had warned him in writing that an attack on Iraq would constitute the crime of aggression, but who apparently had not had the courage to relay that warning to his Cabinet colleagues (we would have heard about it by now if he had) nor to resign when it was brushed impatiently aside by Mr Blair. He was the home secretary who, as recorded by Wikipedia, “brought forward the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, increased police powers against terrorism and proposed a reduction in the right to trial by jury. These policies won praise from Margaret Thatcher who once declared ‘I trust Jack Straw. He is a very fair man.’ They were deemed excessively authoritarian by his former students’ union, which in 2000 banned him from the building…” He was was responsible for allowing General Augusto Pinochet to return to Chile. In 2000 he turned down an asylum request from a man fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime, saying “we have faith in the integrity of the Iraqi judicial process and that you should have no concerns if you haven’t done anything wrong.” Only Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and Jack Straw have served continuously in every Labour cabinet since Labour’s triumph in 1997. We have accumulated ample evidence by now of what kind of politician the Justice Secretary is. Nothing that he does should surprise us.
Twitter isn’t the tedious waste of time and energy that Facebook is (in my view, anyway). Twitter is like a shared mini-blog in which every item posted is short and pithy and you decide for yourself which pieces posted by other people you choose to glance through, and if you want to, you can also control who reads your own. It’s a negligible commitment — you can Twitter, or Tweet, as much or as little as you like, and read as many or as few of other people’s Tweets (very short messages, never more than 140 characters long including spaces and punctuation) as you like, or none at all. For examples — which you can read without signing up — have a look here, not that my own efforts are by any means the most entertaining or informative in all Twitterdom.
The always sensible and readable India Knight underwent a convincing conversion in yesterday’s Sunday Times:
I wrote sniffily about Twitter a few weeks ago, saying it was needy and megalomaniacal and plain weird for any sane person to spend the day posting random thoughts onto a public site. I’d like to eat my words. I was completely wrong: Twitter is amazing.
I’m relatively new to it, but it does three things brilliantly. One, it reminds you that people, complete strangers, are basically clever, funny and nice. This may seem a small thing but it’s an important and life-affirming one, especially with the amount of anonymous bile elsewhere online: Twitter puts you in a good mood.
Two, it’s an incredibly useful resource, which is why some people even use it as an alternative to Google; aside from the fact that Twitterers are everywhere and often break news as a result, you can ask a question – where to have dinner in Minsk, whether the baby’s rash is sinister, if an exhibition is worth seeing, or whatever else you like, from politics to engineering via making noodles and the finer points of construction – and know you’ll get succinct, informed replies.
Three, it makes you feel connected in a way that is hard to describe but that I’d miss terribly if Twitter died overnight. My hippieish streak finds it beautiful to have these little insights into other people’s lives. Two weeks ago I’d have called that interest prurience. But there’s a difference. So: total U-turn. Come and say hello. I’m @indiaknight.
So to read India Knight’s recent Tweets, just click http://twitter.com/indiaknight.
There’s a useful step-by-step guide to joining and using Twitter, recommended by India Knight, here — it’s actually much simpler than perhaps that makes it look. Signing up only takes a couple of minutes and you can provide as much or as little information about yourself as you like. If you forget all about it for weeks, it doesn’t matter. (But if you do join Twitter, do please point it at http://twitter.com/BrianLB, or, in Twitterese, “@brianlb”, and click ‘Follow’: I’ll then get an automatic message to say that you’re following my Tweets, which will enable me in turn to follow yours.)
PS: If you’re already a veteran Twitterer, please accept my apologies — and please “follow” me so that I can “follow” you. And if you have some useful tips for getting the most and best out of Twitter, do post them in Comments below this. Finally, don’t be put off by the twee in tweeting and twittering. It’s pretty adult, in fact, depending of course on whose twee– er, messages you choose to read.
Brian (aka @brianlb)
It’s not very often that an outstandingly good and enjoyable movie gets so many lousy reviews, both public and private, and so many expressions of delight and admiration too. A friend of long standing and impeccable taste wrote in a recent e-mail, for example, about Australia:
We saw ‘Australia’ in Athens but I’m afraid I can’t share your enthusiasm. It had some good moments — e.g. the cattle stampede — but overall we thought it was curiously amateurish — ultra-corny plot, stilted dialogue and surprisingly inept direction; we were disappointed.
By contrast J, who has bionic antennae for the bogus or sub-standard, wrote the other day:
Yesterday we went to see Australia, which we both enjoyed enormously notwithstanding stupid articles by the likes of Germaine Greer. It is an epic film of the ’40s, 50′s Hollywood variety with Australia’s extraordinary inland scenery providing fair competition for Monument Valley, cattle drives to equal those in any Western, the bombing of Darwin resulting in Gone With The Wind Atlanta scenes and a sentimental story with a happy ending. This isn’t a spoiler: you can tell from the whole spirit of the film that it has to have a happy ending. There were just one or two moments when Nicole Kidman produced a shrill giggle as from her Chanel Number 5 advertisement, ‘I love to Daaaance’ (also directed, like Australia, by Baz Luhrmann). But most of the time she was lovely and not at all like the Botoxed character portrayed by some of the critics. Hugh Jackman is also lovely. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and the swelling chords of Nimrod, bring a tear to the eye. Baz Luhrmann is true to his generation of Australians in a desperate effort to put Aboriginal culture, problems and solutions in the forefront of any film about Australia. It certainly makes a contrast to the treatment of indigenous peoples in most of the great Hollywood westerns, made of course in a different era. Some might think that Lurhmann defeats his purpose by too much repetition of the old man standing on one leg, a bit of a caricature, but you can’t fault him for trying. At least, unless you’re Germaine Greer, you can’t.
There’s a much more perceptive review or article than Professor Greer’s here, which differs from Germaine Greer’s in spotting that Australia is not a documentary, nor a history, nor a political polemic, nor a naturalistic romantic drama, although it combines elements of all these. As Luhrmann himself says, it’s a cinematic smorgasbord, with a heavy emphasis on the cinematic: the film has enchanting echoes of immediately pre-and post-war Hollywood epics, including most obviously Gone with the Wind and numerous Westerns; of magic, fable and fantasy, drawing explicitly on The Wizard of Oz; and illuminated by familiar Luhrmann directorial signatures, most obvious in Moulin Rouge! – a film which incidentally I disliked, but whose highly individualistic style comes off magnificently, I think, in Australia. As the New York Times review put it, -
Baz Luhrmann’s continent-size epic, “Australia,” isn’t the greatest story ever — it’s several dozen of the greatest stories ever told, “The African Queen,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” included. A pastiche of genres and references wrapped up — though, more often than not, whipped up — into one demented and generally diverting horse-galloping, cattle-stampeding, camera-swooping, music-swelling, mood-altering widescreen package, this creation story about modern Australia is a testament to movie love at its most devout, cinematic spectacle at its most extreme, and kitsch as an act of aesthetic communion.
Roger Ebert’s finely balanced review in the Chicago Sun-Times expressed all the right and necessary reservations, but concluded:
“[Gone With The Wind],” for all its faults and racial stereotyping, at least represented a world its makers believed in. “Australia” envisions a world intended largely as fable, and that robs it of some power. Still, what a gorgeous film, what strong performances, what exhilarating images and — yes, what sweeping romantic melodrama. The kind of movie that is a movie, with all that the word promises and implies.
J and I lived and worked for altogether seven years between 1973 and 1994 in Australia, a big fascinating country with a big-hearted, larger-than-life population that deserves to be celebrated by a really big film like Baz Luhrmann’s. Admittedly I would gladly watch a three-hour movie consisting exclusively of the beautiful Nicole Kidman reading extracts from the Sydney telephone directory; but it’s not only, or mainly, a devotion to that outstanding actress that impels me to urge you to go and see Australia and to judge it for yourself. Just don’t judge it as something it was never meant to be. Go and see Australia, too, with the same proviso.
It looks as if YouTube and its owner, Google, may have come up with a revolutionary new idea that could save classical music from extinction in the digital internet age. If you have ever been moved by a string quartet, an opera aria or a cello concerto, you should give a warm welcome to the birth of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, announced on 1 December this year (2008) and launched at the New York and London offices of Google. “YouTube Symphony Orchestra” looks at first sight like a sort of oxymoron, but don’t laugh. If it all goes according to plan, a symphony concert at the Carnegie Hall in New York in April 2009 will mark the culmination of an extraordinary global collaboration between both professional and amateur musicians that is going to use the power of the internet to marginalise constraints of distance and time change to produce a symphony orchestra and even an original orchestral performance of a completely new kind.
The idea is to bring together a collaborative orchestra online by targeting as many musicians as possible around the world, made possible by the internet revolution. For the project, Tan Dun has composed the “Internet Symphony No 1, ‘Eroica,’” a piece which attempts to conjure a “21st century sound,” and which features hubcaps in the percussion section. By going to www.youtube.com/symphony, you can watch his performance with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Then anyone from Tasmania to Timbuktu, from Trenton to Tokyo, is invited to audition online now until January 28. Just download the part of your choice – violin, flute, bassoon, whatever – and play it with Tan Dun giving you the downbeat. You must also submit a video that shows off your musical and technical abilities. Hundreds if not thousands of entries are expected.
Then a panel made up of experts drawn from the LSO, the Berlin Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and other leading orchestras, will choose a group of semi-finalists in February 2009. This is eventually winnowed down to the lucky finalists in March – determined by vote on YouTube. The democratisation of classical music has never been so palpable.
Perhaps even more strikingly innovative, Gramophone adds that
In addition to the culminating Carnegie performance, the most impressive videos submitted will be “mashed together” to create a YouTube Symphony, presumably watchable online.
You can watch and hear Tan Dun, who has composed the inaugural symphony, and his collaborators talking about the project here. And Tan Dun conducts the LSO in a performance of his symphony — including the hub-caps and car brake disks used as instruments — here.
If news of this project doesn’t energise flagging music departments and school orchestras all over the world, nothing will. Classical music purists (including me) may raise a sceptical eyebrow or two at the idea of choosing the orchestra performers at the final stage of the selection process by popular vote on YouTube, a palpable concession to the current vogue for ‘reality TV’ and shows such as the Popstars series, America’s Got Talent, Dancing with the Stars, and Celebrity Duets, in which winners are ‘selected’ by the votes of viewers. But if this increases popular interest and involvement in the whole project, good luck to it. Anyway, since the earlier stages of selection will be in the hands of professional musicians, there should be no risk of the final outcome being corrupted by what one might call the John Sergeant effect.
So get that dusty viola down from the attic, all you musical geniuses out there; polish up the long neglected clarinet, and get the old piano tuned. Then download your score from YouTube and get practising. And if you’re a school music teacher, now’s the time to expose your star pupils to a spot of global competition. Who knows? They might yet be on the plane to New York to start rehearsing next March. The danger that the glories of classical music might have lapsed into oblivion in 20 years or so might yet be kept at bay.
I ought, I suppose, to declare an extremely indirect interest in all this. The prominent classical music promotion and consultancy firm 21C Media Group, based in New York, has been involved closely with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra project since its conception about a year ago (see the press release on its website here). I have no financial stake in 21C, only a proud paternal one, explained here.
Whatever you think of Iain Dale and his Tory politics, you'll probably enjoy responding to his annual invitation to help choose the UK's top 100 political blogs by sending in your choice of your own top ten. It's all set out more colourfully here, but the main points are these:
Guide to Political Blogs 2008-9: Vote for your Top Ten Blogs
Take Part & Win £100 worth of Political Books!
In early September TOTAL POLITICS, in association with APCO WORLDWIDE, will publish the 2008-9 Guide to Political Blogging in the UK. It will contain articles on blogging by some of Britain's leading bloggers, together with a directory of UK political blogs, and a series of Top 20s and Top 10s. The book will be available at the Green Party, TUC, Labour, LibDem and Tory Conferences, where TOTAL POLITICS will have exhibition stands.
We're asking for your votes to decide the Top 100 UK Political Blogs. Simply email your Top Ten (ranked from 1 to 10) to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have a blog, please encourage your readers to do the same. I'll then compile the Top 100 from those that you send in. Just order them from 1 to 10. Your top blog gets 10 points and your tenth gets 1 point.
The deadline for submitting your Top 10 is Friday August 15th. Please type Top 10 in the subject line. Or you can of course leave your Top 10 in the Comments on this post [nb. not please on Ephems! -- BLB] .
Once all the entries are in a lucky dip draw will take place and the winner will be sent £100 worth of political books!
The rules are simple:
1. Please only vote once
2. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents are eligible or based on UK politics are eligible
3. Votes must be cast before Friday 15 August
4. Blogs chosen must be listed in the Total Politics Blog Directory.
5. You must send a list of TEN blogs, ranked. Any entry containing fewer than ten blogs will not count.
6. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name
So, once again, the email address to send your TOP TEN BLOGS to is…
The Comments on Iain Dale's post, 56 of them at the last count, are worth a visit on their own, including some contributors' lists of their Top Ten, although so far, unaccountably, none seems to include any votes for Ephems. Perhaps my army of fans are both sending their votes in by private e-mail. Canvassing for support doesn't seem to be outlawed by the rules, but might be thought to be bad taste, so I'll gracefully refrain.
Once again, please send your top ten blogs list to email@example.com, not to this blog, whether as a comment here or as a private message from Ephems.