Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The end of Blairism

David Miliband, the poster boy of the moderate wing of the Labour party and former foreign secretary, will resign his parliamentary seat tomorrow, the Daily Mirror reports. David Miliband is the older brother of Ed, the current leader of the Labour Party, who pipped him to the job in 2010. David M actually won the vote amongst the party faithful and the MPs of the party, but Ed was elected on the narrowest of margins with the help of the block votes of the trade unions.

Stepping down - David Miliband

David Miliband's resignation will certainly be a harsh blow to the moderate wing of the party, and undoubtedly, his brother Ed is now free to complete the move to the left which he has planned over the last two years. With David M leaving politics, all Blairites have either been sidelined or pushed out of politics by his brother's team.

The fraternal dissonance between the brothers pretty accurately mirrored the strife between the two party camps, one surrounding Tony Blair, the other around Gordon Brown. The irony is lost on no one that those who coalesced around the most successful Labour Prime Minister in history, Tony Blair, have now lost control over the party, whereas the group around Gordon Brown who failed to win a single general election is now fully in charge.

Separated at birth? Wallace and Ed Miliband

At the time of the leadership election, observers were aghast at the viciousness with which Ed Miliband attacked his older brother and maneuvred himself into a leadership position with the support of the unions. David Miliband's resignation will close the chapter of New Labour and finally confirm that the middle ground in British politics is being vacated. It leaves the Labour Party with a largely unelectable leader who has been (unfavourably) compared to the plasticine character of Wallace. It is now up to David Cameron to convince his party that the middle ground is up for grabs to win the next general election in 2015.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Why banks don't lend to businesses

Amongst all the smoke about the current budget, the problem of bank lending to small and medium sized businesses does not get much detailed debate. The trenches between the government and the Labour opposition are drawn roughly along the lines of trying to incentivise the banks to lend, or order the state owned banks to lend. The latter position is taken of course by many Labour politicians and union leaders who like to bash bankers for the damage done to the economy during the balance sheet crisis of 2008/9.

The Business Secretary Vince Cable has stubbornly tried to get away from these caricatures of the problem and recently outlined once again why banks are not lending. Apart from the de-leveraging that banks are currently doing to prevent any future bailout (and are required by European and British law), the main reason for their failure to lend is actually their weak presence in the local economy. British banks may have become major global players and draw much of the profits from foreign investments, but, despite their protestations and adverts to the contrary they have failed to foster strong community relationships with small and medium sized businesses in the local economy. It is here that local knowledge is generated which would allow banks to accurately assess risks of investments, and make informed choices about the financial support they grant to local businesses.

Not quite so local

This lack of local knowledge is not something that happened over night. In fact, Britain has long cultivated a different banking culture to that of Germany where banks are highly diversified and engaged in the local economy through investments. British banks have mainly drawn their income from investments in the commodity and financial markets whereas the investment functions often fell to entrepreneurial and venture capital. To turn this around and to create a more diversified banking sector is a major undertaking, and it would start with promoting more competition in the banking sector in Britain.

Friday, 15 March 2013

The unsavoury coalition to gag the press

The Prime Minister has now withdrawn from the cross-party negotiations on new regulations for the press. His argument is simple: the other parties want to muzzle the press and although there certainly have been infringements of the rights of innocent people over the last decade, the press has now accepted that a strong regulatory system needs to be put in place. Labour and the LibDem want a licensing system where journalists have to apply for to a statutory body to be able to work in a media outlet. The Prime Minister has rejected this.

There are two main reasons why I believe Cameron is right on this issue. First, with all due respect to victims of press intrusion, I don't think the victims of injustices have an overriding privilege to write legislation. The Hacked Off campaign director Brian Cathcart has already said that he does not 'want to know anything about' the freedom of the press. That does not bode well for free and responsible media.

The second reason Cameron may have called an end to the cross party charade is that the people ganging up on the press have less than honorable motifs. The motley crew of those who want to gag the press consists mainly of politicians who have misbehaved in public and faced the fallout of their misdemeanours in the press. They now think it is pay back time. Amongst others, there is Labour MP Chris Bryant who placed pictures of himself in a semi-naked state on the internet which were then published (I spare you the visual evidence). No wonder he would like to gag the press. On Wednesday, he (decently dressed this time) argued that the press should be regulated by the government through statutory law. That would put Britain on a par with Russia and China.

There is no doubt that the press needs a strong regulatory framework to operate in. What we don't need is to end 300 years of media freedom. The best thing Labour can do to reform press behaviour in this country is to come off the fence and support the libel reform law that they are trying to scupper in the upper house.

Monday, 11 March 2013

On good writing

There is a scene in The Wire (Series 5) that stuck in my mind ever since I've seen it. The editor of the local paper, the Baltimore Sun, calls one of his reporters to the main desk. 'You say in your piece that 12 families were evacuated from the building' he says. 'You cant evacuate people, you evacuate buildings. To evacuate people is to give them an enema!'

He is right of course and the little joke reveals the pitfalls of the English language. For me as a foreigner, writing in English has always been a struggle, though an enjoyable one. Learning a language from scratch in your adult years usually means to learn it systematically from the vocabulary and grammar up. And so you try to immerse yourself in rules and regulations of a distant linguistic universe until you realise that, actually, the real learning process is based on phrases and the individual memories of the context in which they are used, rather than putting words together according to grammatical rules.

Perhaps it is the sheer time and effort I had to invest into learning the English language that I now often regret seeing examples of poor linguistic skills. There is of course a close link between cultures and spoken language and I am aware that communities fashion their own dialects that may significantly diverge from 'High English'. However, I do believe that newspapers and journals should be held to the highest linguistic standard. The 'New Yorker' is an excellent example of journalism at its best: short sentences, clear meanings, and a rich vocabulary. It is simply a joy to read.

A Guardian 'blooper'...

In Britain however the picture is mixed. The Guardian, of all journalistic products, is becoming sloppier in the care it takes to eliminate typos and slippery meanings. The main reason may be its slow but steady shift from news to opinion. Over the last decade the paper's columns are increasingly filled with opinion pieces rather than news. What's the difference?

I strongly believe that news items are subjected to a more rigorous method of eliminating ambiguities and unclear language. Libel laws and the commitment of journalists to truth and impartial news production ensure that copy editors and proof readers finecomb every sentence in news items. This also goes for the BBC, where apparently lengthy discussion can ensue about the use of a single term or a word amongst newsroom staff.

Yet, opinion pieces are largely exempt from the strictures of newsreporting. And I suspect communicating personal views and opinions frees writers from what they may feel undue linguistic rigour. But as news outlets increase their reliance on opinion pieces rather than newsreports, the accuracy of our language suffers.

If this line of argument was not clear enough, then I can only apologise and evacuate myself to the next blog entry.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Vicky Pryce in the dock

The Chris Huhne saga is about to come to an end with the sentencing of his former wife, Vicky Pryce, and himself over the next days. His former wife, who had contacted newspapers with a story about a criminal offence that he had committed, has herself now been convicted of perjury. She is likely to get a (suspended) prison sentence. Her defence was curious, to say the least, and the twitter and blogsphere is full of vitriolic comments about her behaviour. Few commentators can find it in themselves to defend her. Why?

Pryce's husband had had an affair with another woman and eventually separated from Pryce. Pryce then tried to ruin his career by first making up a false story and contacting a newspaper to get it printed. The paper declined. Then she told an accurate story to the Times' journalist Isabel Oakeshott but the problem was that, if the story was to become public, Pryce herself was likely to end up in court. She had taken points on behalf of her husband and now wanted to publicise this so it would ruin his career.

The evidence in court clearly showed that Pryce was motivated by hatred and bitterness towards her disloyal husband but she was walking a fine line. If the story was to be printed, her husband's fall from grace was inevitable but so was hers.

Vicky Pryce - abusing the law to shield herself from prosecution

As the truth slowly but steadily came to light, she went even further. She thought of a curious, rarely used legal defence to spare herself jail. She claimed 'marital coercion' on the side of her husband.

Whatever you may think about a bitter woman trying to get back at her cheating husband, the legal defence she cooked up is the main reason that few are defending her now. Marital coercion is a law that explicitly supports vulnerable women who are in exploitative and violent relationships with men. The Law Commission recommended it to be abolished in 1977. It assumes the inability of the woman to freely chose her own action. In essence, it is a last resort law that is supposed to protect women (and only women) who cannot withstand the physical and mental bullying by their husbands.

Think what you may about a law that grants a privilege to one gender only, the jury did not recognise this picture in the case of Vicky Pryce anyway. The jury convicted her of perjury. What is upsetting to many (first and foremost probably feminists) is that one of the most powerful women in the country was abusing a law that was there to protect vulnerable women to get away with a criminal offence. It's Pryce's dishonesty and cavalier treatment of the law that finds few supporters.

Friday, 8 March 2013

New Welsh music with the BBC orchestra

Having your own music played by a reputable orchestra is an opportunity that probably only comes once in a life time for many contemporary composers. Four Welsh composers of contemporary classical music were in luck this week as they had a chance to attend workshops with the BBC National Orchestra rehearsing their own scores.

On the next day, Jac Van Steen and the BBC orchestra presented the results of their hard work at the Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff to the public. The pieces were impressive, the playing flawless and the event itself gave a unique insight into the joy composers must feel when their pieces are performed live.

Although of varying quality, all four pieces demonstrated real effort and quality, if not always imagination. Three of them were mostly atmospheric in character and largely in the impressionistic camp, and Yfat Soul Zisso's piece certainly stood out from the crowd through its depth and complexity. Her work is certainly one to watch, though we may not hear much of her in this country as she is Greek, rather than Welsh.

Michael Parkin's piece certainly snatched the price for most imagination, pulling no punches and almost blasting the audience into submission with an impressive crescendo.

The real star of the event however has once again been the BBC Orchestra of Wales under Jac Van Steen. The orchestra has pulled out all the stops for the last couple of years to accommodate contemporary classical music in its repertoire as much as possible. That is no mean feat given that this music does not always draw a crowd. Both Jac Van Steen and his colleagues richly deserves praise for their efforts to bring modern classical music to an appreciative Welsh audience.

The Hoddinott Hall - brilliant acoustics in pleasant surroundings

As my time in Cardiff (and Wales) is coming to an end, I also realise how much I will miss the Hoddinott Hall. Though small, its excellent acoustics make it one of the top performance venues for classical music in Britain. The clarity of sound and bright but warm timbre of the hall reminds me of Hans Scharoun's Chamber Music Hall in Berlin. It also has no contender in the St David's Hall whose sound is often mushy and noisy at best. The Hoddinott Hall is truly a marvel amongst performance venues and I hope the BBC Orchestra of Wales will grace it with its fantastic play more than ever.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The toxic legacy of Chavez

As Venezuela comes to terms with the death of Hugo Chavez, the beatification process of its former president has already started. Whatever his achievements are in terms of widening social welfare programmes to the poorest and improving access to health care and education, his followers will need his name and aura to continue his political programme of Bolivarian socialism.

Chavez in socialist pose

You may applaud or criticise Chavez for the way he has changed the country yet one misgiving I always feel when a person assumes such a central role in any political movement is that his (or her) apparent indispensability does not bode well for rational debate about future choices. The tenor of his supporters has been that they have 'lost a father'. I am not sure politicians should be 'fathers' of their electorate. It seems to me that such a role implies the subversion of the dispensability of politicians who temporarily and provisionally hold an office by virtue of them being elected.

Chavez has played the card of infallibility repeatedly, infusing his form of 'chavismo' or Bolivarian socialism with something akin to religious sentiment bordering on providence. Indeed, one may argue that this is a feature of many types of socialism where the ideological tenets usually lack political legitimacy or public support and hence cannot be exposed to reasoned argument and open debate.

The central role Chavez played himself and his charisma may just radiate strongly enough into the near future to ensure that his followers elect the current Vice-President Maduro, somebody Chavez personally anointed as his successor before his death. However, with the immediate succession resolved, Venezuelans will have to confront the harsh reality of open politics, questioning the fundamentals of Chavismo and submitting them to public debate. If they fail to do this they may preserve 'Chavismo' but it will be an ideology in aspic.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The lure of anti-politics

If the Italian elections and the Eastleigh by-election have anything in common, then it is the rise of populism. In Eastleigh, UKIP managed to come an astonishing second, beating the Conservative Party into the third place and just narrowly missing to relegatge the LibDems to runner up. In Italy, Beppo Grillo's Movement 5 received about a quarter of all votes cast and became the biggest single group in the lower house of parliament.

So, what's so attractive to voters about UKIP and the Moviemento 5?

UKIP of course has been around for a long time and, after an inglorious start in the end 1990s, smoothed its message to appeal to more moderate voters. The essential argument they put forward however has always been the same: get out of the European Union in order to re-gain control over our borders.

There can be no doubt that uncontrolled immigration can be a serious problem to any country that has to cope with a large influx of immigrants in a very short period of time. Local authorities in the South East of England faced unprecedented challenges when more than 600,000 European workers arrived on these shores in 2005. Teachers in local schools went from teaching classes with English speaking kids to classes with predominately Polish speaking children, sometimes within a matter of months. This required flexibility of resources that simply was not built into the educational system and caused serious problems for those living here already and the new arrivals.

And UKIP also has a point when it argues that the EU guarantees freedom of movement (and freedom to settle) within all member states. Yet, the scary picture UKIP paints is nevertheless simplistic. Immigration is never just a matter of who controls the borders. It is always a function of the various incentives put out to potential arrivals. They include generous welfare payments (which includes accessibility), free health care and housing for new arrivals. Despite the anti-European Union rhetoric, the British government has enormous leeway to shape these incentives and thereby to influence the number of people coming to the UK.

But the real underlying message of UKIP actually centres on something else, and this is where UKIP finds an ally in Beppo Grillo's movement. It articulates an anti-political message, expressing a widely felt sentiment that all politicians and established parties are either corrupt or incapable of reflecting public opinion. UKIP's party leader Nigel Farage never tires of saying that he is not a politician. But is this true? And what does this argument mean?

As Grillo's movement in Italy is refusing to co-operate with the 'corrupt' political elite, it forgets an age old inconvenient political truth: there is no such thing as an un-political action. Whatever you decide, operating in the political arena means that you take sides and make decisions for or against some group or other in society. Refusing to co-operate with others is a political decision, like it or not.

The second delusion of Grillo and Farage is however more serious. It concerns their disparaging of the 'political class'. They argue that politicians are not representing 'the people'. Yet democracy is always the struggle between competing visions of society, and politicians are charged not with representing 'everybody' but with representing their constituents. The essence of democratic politics is strife and argument, which leads to compromise. Decisions 'untainted' by consensus and compromise can only be had in totalitarian regimes, where some are riding roughshod over the views of others.

In addition, in democratic societies, we made the decision to be represented by our peers, selecting them from our midst to find solutions to problems that concern us all. Thus politicians are also a reflection of ourselves, the good and the bad. The alternative would be to argue for a government 'above the partisan interests of society'. The last time that call was heeded, the world tumbled into mass murder under the guise of 'the common good'.

So, where does this leave UKIP and Grillo? Dismissing the political class as crooks may resonate with our fury at politician's occasional misdemeanours but it fundamentally positions them at the margins of democratic society. Our politicians are as good or bad as we are. When we look at the spectacle of political shouting matches in parliament we see a mirror image of our own souls thrown back at us. Perhaps that's why we like to vote for UKIP and people like Grillo sometimes. We hope that our vote for them demonstrates that we are nothing like conventional politicians when deep inside we know different.

Friday, 1 March 2013

The cunning little Vixen at the WNO

Part 2 of the modern classic project, the Welsh National Opera re-staged an older production yesterday of the Cunning Little Vixen by Janacek. The opera is more than problematic and the narrative creaks at many points. However, Janacek's score is bound to win even the hardest critic over.

Sophie Bevan as the Cunning Little Vixen (Foto: Catherine Ashmore)

The main problem I had with it was the production itself. Janacek's libretto is not the most convincing and he never quite settles either for a tragic personal story or a comic satirisation of gender politics. So, the opera remains stuck in between and veers from comedic portrayals of real life to caricatures of humanity as reflected through animal lives. Whilst the setting is entertaining, the production is more in the childish category and urgently needs a revamp.

The orchestra of the Welsh National Opera however played heroically under Lothar Koenigs and showed a discipline that echoed their excellent performance of Alban Berg's Lulu. It's to them, the unsung heroes in the orchestra pit, that the main applause went and it was richly deserved.