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Archive for the ‘Events’ Category

A Change of Programme

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on July 9, 2012 at 7:22 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox – @polar_ii

Today the government faces the threat of defeat on a high-profile piece of legislation: Lords Reform. Specifically, the government are looking vulnerable on one particular programme motion. Ed Miliband says he supports the principle of Lords reform, but that the government should not limit discussion on the bill to 23 days, which is what the programme motion would do. Mark Ferguson at Labour List, in this article, correctly to my mind, reads this not as an opportunity to beat the government at the somewhat tedious game of Commons divisions, but to stick to principles. He exhorts Miliband to reverse his decision, stick to his principles and vote for the programme motion.

Now, the issue is only salient because 100 or so Conservative MPs are threatening to break their party whip on the programme motion. This means that the government might well lose the vote on the programme motion; and the last time a Lords Reform Bill had its accompanying programme motion defeated, the whole Bill had to be scrapped entirely. Hence Ferguson’s exhortation to vote for the programme motion – while Miliband can inflict a momentary defeat on the Coalition have a tremendous laugh about it, such an action would risk undermining Labour’s commitment to an elected Lords. Ferguson thus invokes the supremacy of principle over short-term political gain to advocate a change of course.

However, this is to ignore the arguments against the programme motion. They centre around the fact that the Lords Reform Bill is a constitutional motion; moreover, it is a constitutional motion of some importance. Previously, bills that made significant changes to the constitution have not been time limited, to allow full discussion on the floor of the Commons, rather than limiting it to a bill committee with a limited timeframe.

This is particularly important considering the range of issues that haven’t been fully discussed. Are there sufficient safeguards for the primacy of the Commons? Ought there to be a referendum on such a substantial change, as Labour have argued? Will the new composition of the Lords secure the same representation for minority groups as the current composition (see, e.g. this piece on ConHome that argues that disabled people will be less well represented)? If new Senators are elected to 15-year non-renewable terms, how does the electorate hold them to account?

These are clearly not specious questions, though they may be deployed speciously against the programme motion. The 100 or so Tory rebels are 100 or so Tories who do not want to see the Lords become elected. Miliband is undoubtedly leading his 250 odd Labour MPs against the programme motion to allow these 100 or so Tories to spend hours upon hours arguing against their government on every conceivable point, creating an impression of disunity in the Coalition and frustrating the remainder of its legislative programme. These 100 or so Tory rebels would dearly like to make life hard for Nick Clegg, who, by abstaining on a confidence motion, made life hard for Jeremy Hunt.

So what really niggles me is that these procedural arguments – though they may be tedious, they are exceptionally important – are taking second fiddle to the realpolitik of the situation. It’s easy to see why. But we simply assume that there are 100 Tory MPs voting against the government solely to spite the Lib Dems, that Labour MPs are voting against the motion simply to spite the Coalition, and no-one is actually thinking about the content of the programme motion itself. There are definitely MPs on both sides who want this bill to pass with proper scrutiny, and they arrived at this conclusion without the influence of realpolitik. It’s doing a disservice to our MPs to assume that all they are interested in is getting one up on one another; Miliband may actually have an embarrassment of good reasons to be opposed to the programme motion while supporting the second reading of the Bill.

David Cameron used the argument in the Commons today that we have talking about Lords Reform for 100 years, so now’s not the time to have yet more debate. We have also been debating the disestablishment of the Church of England, a European Community of Nations, the Monarchy, Ulster, Scotland and many other important constitutional questions for 100 years. That the issues have proved complex and intricate, contentious and important for a substantial period of time is no argument for curtailing debate on the questions: if anything it demonstrates that more and more careful thought is required. Especially when a government committee as promised in the Coalition agreement could not find anything approaching a consensus, and the current bill has been shot down by a Join Committee of both houses.

The instinct – to shut down the issue within 23 days and move on – betrays a government that is eager to get many things done, but also one that does not welcome the scrutiny that should be brought to such an important question. I would speculate that this is because, in our age of 24-hour news, politicians have lost the knack of carefully considering and reworking proposals; after all, if there was a news vacuum, a small change in an important bill might look like weakness.

I happen to be against this particular Bill for reforming the House of Lords. Perhaps that’s why I have time for the procedural points on the programme motion. But I would like to think, if there was a major constitutional change I did support, I would at least have the time to appreciate the importance of the matter and the patience to listen and take on board objections, and not guillotine debate. Debate on the Lords Reform Bill should not be guillotined; constitutional matters are too important to be rushed. That, Mark Ferguson, is a point of principle also.

Living on a Prayer

In Events, Home Affairs, Judicial Spotlight on February 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox –@polar_ii

So today, we learn that it’s not legal for district and town councils to say prayers before their sessions. In fact, it’s illegal, apparently, for them to do anything which isn’t “calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions.” (Section 111, Local Government Act).  As far as I can see, it’s also now illegal for the council to begin their session with a rendition of the national anthem, or with a reading of a post-colonial poem.

But I want to argue that prayers are conducive to the discharge of a council’s functions. By ‘prayers’, I mean some sort of time for reflection, without an overtly Christian flavour (although for ease, some words from the Book of Common Prayer, I suppose, could be used). The explicit Christianity of Bideford Town Council’s prayers were what initially led to the objection. And I can see why some people might find explicitly Christian observances off-putting in their place of work. But the ruling on the question has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

The ability of town councils to ascribe a period of reflection is important for two reasons. Firstly, if a council wants such a time, it should be able to have it. A council having the ability to set its own agenda, as far as I can see, is certainly incidental to its statutory functions (it needs this freedom in order to determine, at minimum, what services to debate), and probably conducive too: the more control the council has over the terms of its debate, the more it can have more constructive debates and make better decisions. The more it functions as a body that is certain that it can debate matters without being over-ruled, the better the deliberations will be.

Secondly, I would argue that a period of reflection is also conducive to constructive debate and better decisions. An opportunity to pause and reflect takes any heat out of the situation, and gives people space to focus on why they are in a council chamber. For religious people, that may well have something to do with their god. For non-religious people, it might be an opportunity to reflect on the interests of the people they represent, and this is equally true of religious people. Everyone can reflect on the manner in which they will approach the upcoming debate and decisions; hopefully leading to something less confrontational and more constructive.

And just to show that it’s not just me who thinks this, in the House of Commons there are prayers (not always led by the CoE chaplain) and in the Scottish Parliament there is a time of silence. Yes, these are throwbacks to a previous time, but they are throwbacks that are appreciated by the people who use the space to reflect. No less a figure than Gladstone said that prayers were the most important business the House of Commons undertook.

As the hymnwriter says:

“Drop the still dews of quietness
Til all our striving cease:
Take from our souls the strain and stress
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.”

Take the ‘thy peace’ out of the hymn and replace it with ‘true peace’ or ‘a peace’, and you have a poetic stanza that most people would agree with. You don’t have to believe in god to believe that quiet moments of reflection are beneficial to people. In the heated, intense, ordered council chambers up and down this country, there is a strong case to be made that a quiet moment of reflection will actually benefit (albeit in an unquantifiable way) the council’s deliberations and decisions.

For those reasons then, I think that there’s plenty of room for times of reflection (whether or not they are called prayers) to be included on council agendas. While having times specifically focussed on one religious tradition risks alienating people, the space for rest and reflection can only help councils in discharging their functions.

Miliband Wordsearch

In Economy, Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on January 10, 2012 at 2:56 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox – @polar_ii

Here’s a ‘wordgram’ from Guido Fawkes of Ed Miliband’s set piece on the economy. The bigger the word, the more times Miliband said it. What words are missing that should be there?

1) Squeezed Middle

Yes, Miliband’s definition of ‘middle’, which encompasses 95% of the population, is probably a bit off. But the idea has legs. Most people (unsurprisingly) consider themselves average in terms of income, so talking about ‘the squeezed middle’ enables a large number of people to identify with Labour’s message. Since most people (according to polling) think the cuts are unfair, this idea is one that Labour can make easy headway in pursuing. Miliband has particular reason to pursue it because it was his initial idea.

2) Producer v Predator

Again, a Miliband theme which has some potential. People are clearly in favour of companies that ‘contribute’ to the economy and against those that ‘strip’ it. Again, let’s ignore difficulties in defining which companies are goodies and which baddies; it’s an idea that people makes people say “Ed’s on my side” and “Ed want an economically and morally healthy economy”. No gold in this speech however, as ‘Kremlinology’ (one mention during Q&A) gets a look in ahead of ‘predator’ (no mentions).

3) Vision

The word doesn’t need to be ‘vision’; it could equally be ‘goal’ or ‘future’ or ‘plan’ or even ‘hope’. Miliband does have some good points on the ‘fairness’ theme, but these will ultimately not carry home when the public thinks the cuts are necessary (see link above) and Labour is not really offering a detailed plan, nor offering a vision of where the future of the country lies. The lack of vision is the most important factor, I think, in why the Labour party seems so ethereal. It is concerned more about the future of Labour than the future of the country. This is particularly brought home by a recent BBC headline: Miliband has ‘a clear plan for the Labour Party‘ – he is focussed on the party not on the country. It’s not an inspiring or winning strategy.

Miliband needs to risk something beyond the bland, managerial pitch (the words here are certainly managerially bland) and go for a full-on idealistic vision. At this stage, it doesn’t matter that the rhetoric – whether on Squeezed Middle, Producer v Predator or a vision statement – doesn’t quite correlate with specific policies or even reality. Ed Miliband needs to do more than capture our attention. He needs to capture our imagination.

A Collection of Thoughts

In Economy, Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Party politics, The Media, Uncategorized on December 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm

By polarii for the Daily Soapbox – @polar_ii

So here’s time for a big apology to any regular readers – between us all at the Daily Soapbox, we haven’t had any time to put down some ideas for a blog post. That’s not for want of things to say (and how much we have wanted to say!), but for lack of time. So it’s our fault for not finding time. Sorry.

If you want the blog to be fuller, and you enjoy what you read, and maybe even reckon you could do better, why not join us? Email: dingdongalistic@gmail.com and we’ll set you up as the latest Soapbox contributor.

So to kick us back off, here’s a couple of thoughts from my ice cave in the Arctic… or Germany, as everyone outside the BBC calls it.

Euroscepticism

Why has everyone forgotten Cameron is a bona fide Eurosceptic in his own right? Sure, he doesn’t foam at the mouth with quite the aplomb of Daniel Hannan, but this is a good thing. In the Conservative leadership election (in the heady days of 2005), he was elected on and later delivered a promise to take the Conservative party out of the EPP and form a soft-eurosceptic bloc, which was further than David Davis (who is more ‘right-wing’) was prepared to go. While ConHome and others have been whingeing about the lack of a referendum, Cameron has managed to a) move the European issue to a more central stage while b) uniting his historically divided party behind a moderate Eurosceptic stance and c) not banging on about it. Clever or what?

A further thought: Labour wouldn’t have signed up to these agreements either, but that’s not half the fun of it. These agreements will enforce a statutory deficit-limit stricter than the ones in the Maastricht Treaties. The Maastricht Limit is 3% of GDP, so presumably the Merkozy limit will be 2% or 2.5%. But Labour’s ‘Darling Plan’, even on their own (overly optimistic) reckoning, will only halve the deficit over four years. Our deficit is currently about 10% of GDP. In the event that Britain was bound by the Maastricht or Merkozy Treaties, Labour would have no plan to bring the deficit within the legal limits. Brussels would throw Labour’s budget back in their faces, impose hefty fines, and tell them to follow Osborne’s plan. Now who thinks Merkozy’s scheme is in our national interest?

Euro

The charge levelled against Cameron is that he has left Britain without allies. This is, of course, untrue, because most every country outside the EU is taking a position very similar to Britain’s, especially the United States.

But even within Europe, he isn’t as isolated as some claim. Mads Persson correctly notes that the Irish, French, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Hungarians and Poles all have not insignificant problems with the agreement as posed (see also this surprisingly excellent Indy graphic). But then, let’s look at some other countries, particularly Italy and Greece. There have been close votes in both parliaments on European issues, and it is not an unreasonable parliamentarian who, having been subjected to EU budget targets for the next ten years, objects to handing over control of their country’s budgets over to the EU for the rest of history. Rebellious parliaments can rebel again, and it’s hard not to imagine Eurosceptic parties like LAOS (Greece) and Lega Nord (Italy) doing quite well in upcoming elections. Of course, I could be completely wrong. But I wouldn’t write anything off either.

BBC

In case you missed the gratuitous sideswipe at the BBC in the preamble, it’s coming again. If you didn’t miss it in the preamble, I am actually going to make a point. The BBC is getting into the habit of presenting things out of context. I’m normally annoyed that the BBC displays institutional (but not conscious) bias against Conservatives and Christians, but others complain about biases in other directions, which I assume means the BBC is doing a decent job (since it’s clearly not doing an atrocious one).

However, there were two glaring errors in this week’s programming. The first was coverage of Cameron’s veto. The one report suggested that the EU was suggesting the UK was separate and even inferior because Cameron was the last to sign Croatia’s accession agreement. The context: all countries sign in alphabetical order. The United Kingdom, being the last country alphabetically in the EU, signed it last. Snub? Hardly.

The other error caused me less apoplexy, but the public more. David Attenborough juxtaposed an Arctic female polar bear making an ice-den (in which polar bears give birth to their cubs) with some polar bear cubs in a den in a zoo in Germany. The seamless transition implied to many people that the BBC was actually filming wild polar bear births. Which is stupid because the cameraman would certainly have his head bitten off if that were the case. Nonetheless, in both cases, the BBC failed to properly explain the context of what was going on, and in each case, their coverage suffered because of it. The BBC is slowly metamorphosing into an institution that doesn’t care about the truth, rather sensationalism.

Leveson

Did you know who Neville Thurlbeck was before the Leveson inquiry? If you did, you read the News of the World regularly. Shame on you (unless you were his colleague or his relative).

On a serious note though, I’ve come to the conclusion that the public doesn’t care. This was evident because, although Ed Miliband made hay with it during the summer, the polls didn’t budge. And neither BBC Parliament nor Sky News is broadcasting Leveson live. It’s a Westminster Village thing.

Miliband

Ed Miliband is a completely unsuitable leader of the Labour party. Everyone who wasn’t in the Labour party knew this as soon as he was elected, yet only now have the socialists collectivised their brain cells enough to realise it. Read around, with people like Dan Hodges getting incredibly close to calling for him to go, if you still think Milibland is cutting the mustard.

However, who is going to run against him? If Ed Balls runs, everyone will laugh. If Yvette Cooper (aka Mrs Balls) runs, she cannot dispose of Labour’s least helpful asset, her husband. If David Miliband runs, Cameron can drag out the feuding brother story indefinitely – a back-to-backstab if you like. The only plausible candidate is Jim Murphy. “Who?” I hear you cry. “Precisely”, say I. Labour don’t have the talent or the policies to win the next election.

Osborne

So now let’s do the same for the Tories. Boris will win London 2012 (somehow), and will step down in 2016. He will win a by-election by 2017, which will give him time enough to be well positioned enough when Cameron goes sometime between 2019-2022. After a term and a half of Boris (for all I admire him, I don’t think he has a sufficiently grand vision to drive the country), the natural choice is Jeremy Hunt, a man of such impeccable composure that it is truly inconceivable he should never be leader of the Conservative Party. For all they seem worlds apart, both BoJo and Hunt are suitably amicably placed with George Osborne and William Hague to mean that they can come in without wholesale change of the top table. Osborne’s best bet is not to run himself, but pick the winner, keep the political strategy as a sideline, and go down in history as the kingmaker and the chancellor who fixed Gordon Brown’s mess.

Unemployment

Once again, I find myself in a statistical quandary. ONS says unemployment went up 128.000 people in November. Yet it says only 3,000 people signed on to Jobseekers’ Allowance. Which gap have those 125,000 people fallen into? They are either a) retiring early, b) decided not to work for the next few years and make home instead, c) in receipt of a sufficiently generous redundancy package to make claiming JSA unnecessary, or d) moving their labour into the ‘black market’ – taking cash payment and not declaring it to the Exchequer. Now, most people won’t be doing a) given how poorly pensions pots are performing. The general move of our culture has been away from b) for some time; there can’t be too many people who worked for long enough at a high enough wage to be in position c), so thousands of people are in position d). Really? Or are the unemployment figures inflated by people who otherwise wouldn’t be reckoned as part of the workforce (e.g. students) taking part-time jobs and then losing them?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the more important figure is the JSA claimant count, which is about 1.60 million. So hardly as bad as the 2.64 million Labour like to moan about. Incidentally, in 1992, pretty much everyone who was unemployed according to the statistics was also a JSA/Unemployment benefit claimant. By 2001, the gap between unemployed and claimants was 0.5 million, and now it is now over 1 million. I’ve had no brainwaves about why this gap is increasing so quickly. Any ideas?

The legacy of 9/11 has weakened liberal democracy, not strengthened it

In Events, Foreign Affairs, Law And Order on September 9, 2011 at 8:58 pm

James Bartholomeusz

Predictably, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York City has provoked an orgy of reflection on the ‘war on terror’ decade. After ten years of war, we must ask ourselves, is the world a better place? Has the life of the average Western or Arabic person been improved enough to justify the actions taken? Neo-cons and liberal interventionists alike have adopted the Arab Spring as evidence that toppling dictators is beginning to catch on in the Middle East – failing to mention, obviously, that the two most high-profile autocrats were until last winter funded and supported by the West. Whilst the democratic revolutions of this year have been welcome, it is a tempting but treacherous line which is drawn between these uprisings and the supposed victories of the ‘war on terror’. In fact, liberal democracy is looking sicklier than perhaps at any time since the 1930s.

Across the Western world, the birthplace of liberalism, we have witnessed the steady erosion of our rights and liberties. To take two British examples, detention without trial and stop-and-search legislation have undermined the fundamental concept of innocence until guilt is proven. Blair’s draconian 90-day proposal for the former was, thankfully, halted by a rebellion in his own party, whilst the additional powers afforded to police by the latter have been used disproportionately on the young and non-white, often with no regard for the potential Islamist credentials of the suspect. What is perhaps most striking about these developments has been that they have achieved cross-party consensus. After Bush and Blair, part of Obama and Cameron’s appeal was the prospect of democratic reinvigoration: progress has been almost non-existent, with Guantanamo Bay still open and Britain’s authoritarian state apparatus remaining intact.

Furthermore, in an age of multiculturalism, Islamophobia is more widespread and more acceptable than ever: Islam has been singled out as having ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts, as if that made it unique amongst religions or ideologies. The renaissance enjoyed by the far-Right, though mostly to do with the effects of globalisation, cannot be divorced from the apparent tolerance of anti-Islamic views. The EDL in-particular is opposed specifically to Muslims, and yet it shares with the mainstream Western establishment the sense that there is something uniquely barbaric and murder-inducing about Islam. In a report last year by a former Scotland Yard counter-terrorism operative attributed hate crimes against Muslims to “a negative view of Muslims . . . acquired from either mainstream or extremist nationalist reports or commentaries in the media”, and even went as far to suggest that “Anti-Muslim crimes have not been afforded the same priority attention [that] government and police have invested in racist hate crimes”.

And let us not ignore the ostensibly ‘stabilising’ effects of Western intervention abroad. In Afghanistan, the civilian death toll from 2006 to 2010 is estimated at over 8,000, whilst 70% of southern Afghans think that the intervention has had a negative effect on the country. Iraqi civilian deaths have not been recorded, but estimates place the total at almost 1.5 million. As campaign organisations have consistently pointed out, torture has become commonplace treatment for those detained by NATO forces in war-zones. Extraordinary renditions – the illegal movement of humans against their will from one country of custody to another – have become the norm, as prisoners are passed from the Middle East to North America and back again. Meanwhile, profits of arms companies have soared to levels as-yet unseen, so that Afghanistan is now one of the most militarised areas of the planet: to give just one statistic, in the period 2008-10 the UK exported £32.5 million worth of arms to the country. And yet even by its own standards of murder, torture and profiteering, the West is failing. Having broken Iraq and tossed it aside, we are now in the middle of a protracted withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a compromise with the Taliban, once derided, is now looking increasingly likely.

Another unwanted effect in the Middle East of the ‘war on terror’ has been the loss of Western credibility at a time when local people sorely need support: the Arab Spring. The democratic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya were hailed by Western leaders as a fulfilment of the aim of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since February this year, a collective amnesia seems to have descended on the Western establishment, conviniently omitting from memory the West’s long and ongoing support for authoritarian regimes. The Arab people, however, are not likely to forget the scene of Blair embracing Gaddafi, or Hilary Clinton referring to Mubarak as “a close personal friend”. Neither are they likely to forgive the lack of serious reprimand towards Israel, despite it holding the illustrious position as the nation to have violated the highest number of UN Resolutions (along with the tacit assumption that centuries of Jewish oppression entitles successive Israeli governments to ignore Palestinian human rights). Perhaps the most egregious example of this duplicity was in Iraq, where NATO funded and armed Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s whilst he was an asset against the USSR, and then bombed him in the 1990s and 2000s when his own expansionism began to threaten oil resources. There was no miraculous change in the Bathaist regime’s morality to merit this U-turn: the human rights of Iraqis did not enter the discussion at all until humanitarian aims became usefully (and accidentally) aligned with economic ones. It was pure hypocrisy.

By no means would all of us describe ourselves as ‘liberals’ – most Brits would probably opt for ‘conservative’ or ‘social democrat’ as a label – but we cannot escape the fact that the ground on which our political intuitions are built is that of liberal democracy. Few Westerners would refuse to pay at least lip service to the fundamental ideas of individual liberty, freedom from abuse and equality before the law. And yet, as a decade of war fought to protect our way of life draws to close, Western society looks less liberal and democratic than it did ten years ago. The legacy if 9/11 has given new credence to the old truth that, in war, opponents are often far more similar than either side would like to think.

Refinding Labour

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on August 16, 2011 at 1:34 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

For those of you that didn’t already know, before the riots cluttered out all other political commentary, an almighty tiff was going on over at Labour List. So almighty, that it makes the Brown-Blair relationship look like a well-functioning friendship. Which is saying something. James Purnell, erstwhile of the cabinet, and a thinking Blairite (surely not, I hear you cry!) made the suggestion that certain benefits, like Winter Fuel Payments, should be means-tested. In the Liberal or Conservative Party, this is not an unheard-of suggestion. People would thoughtfully weigh the political consequences and moral dimensions of such a move against any likely financial saving that would be achieved.

Not so at Labour List. Articles have flown off the iPads, variously chastising Purnell for his rabid not-left-ness or defending Purnell for his pragmatic attempt to cast the welfare state in a more positive light. The strongest called Purnell a ‘heretic’ and demanded he leave the party. Presumably he won’t be burnt at the stake any time soon, though – this, other than a VAT cut and a ban on circus animals, is the only substantial policy suggestion to have made it into the sunlight this summer.

Leaving aside our actual views on what the policy may be, it is revealing about the status of discourse in the Labour Party. Ed Miliband is (apparently) holding a policy review, and he seems to have left absolutely everything on the table. We don’t know if the party intends to join the Euro or not. We don’t know if the party approves of the withdrawal date from Afghanistan. We think we know that the Labour party supports Alistair Darling’s deficit reduction plan, but both the Leader and Shadow Chancellor campaigned against it in their leadership bids. And even if they have come round to reason, we don’t how they would implement it. And just what is post-neo-classical endogenous growth theory?

In fact, the whole policy review seems a bit vague. Labour, apparently, has working groups on policy. Where are they, with what responsibilities, chaired by whom? Go on the Labour website – I’ll be amazed if you can find a coherent articulation of policy. For sure there are the odd snippets of anti-this-or-that, but nothing united. If you go to the Conservative website, you can find all the policy you want (just click on the policy button at the top of the page). There is no such button on the Labour website.

Contrast with the Cameron policy review. Committees were established and publicised; people knew who the chairmen were, and anyone was invited to contribute. Certain policies were established as beyond the scope of review – opposition to the Euro, an increase in the aid budget, and more. The Conservative party retained a platform from which to make objections and contributions. It retained a political stance in the perception of the electorate. It gave the party a nucleus around which to gel; it resulted in a rather odd fusion of One-Nation Conservatism and Thatcherism, that could somehow cast the ultra-Thatcherite Iain Duncan-Smith as doing something so obviously in the interests of the nation that no-one has mounted criticism against the overall plan (remember welfare reform, without cuts, would have happened had the economy not gone tits up).

And despite the huge gulfs there were in the Tory party – over Europe, over tax cuts – it somehow stuck together. And no-one was called a heretic, no-one was encouraged by members to leave the party (although Quentin Davies did leave of his own volition). The same is pretty much true of the coalition; by forming central pillars on which there is substantive agreement with an electoral mandate, other issues can be pushed to the side – married tax cuts, nuclear power, Europe.

Any evidence of this in the Labour Party? Certainly not on Labour List. The division between Blue (Old) and Purple (New) Labour grows daily more pronounced, and more visceral. Wait for Ed Miliband’s first reshuffle where his hands aren’t tied by shadow cabinet elections. I expect a butchering of the Blairites. Much unlike the cohesive cabinet Cameron constructed, which includes Ken Clarke and Liam Fox, people who were previously regarded as holding unworkably distant views on every important topic.

I’m not going to presume to advise Ed Miliband on policy. He can find my articles here if he wants to pilfer any of my ideas. But when James Purnell makes a sensible suggestion, that is well grounded in pragmatic politics – even though it may be ideologically objectionable – he should be invited to contribute, not shut out. He is one of the more respected Labour figures in the country – opposition to Gordon Brown tends to lend at least an ounce of popularity.

Ed Miliband needs to give Labour a platform to stand on, rather than simply picking and choosing where he thinks the government can be made to hurt most. Tory strategists are looking at the Labour lead of 8 points and laughing. The Tories should be scraping the low 20s – not the high 30s. This is the worst moment in the strategy; the cuts are biting and the economy is at its slowest. 8 points is eminently closable. Particularly when no-one knows who Ed Miliband is, nor what his signature policies are.

So, Ed should define a policy or two. Doesn’t particularly matter what so long as it is big, and ideally mostly cost-free, and something people don’t expect the party to commit to. Commit to raising the Minimum Wage. Commit to a permanent bank or oil levy. Commit to capping commercial interest rates or energy prices or EU migration. Whatever you can argue has a mandate, or, has a really good reason rooted in the party ethos. Ideally, this should tie neatly into to something the party articulated – or something it can be convinced it was trying to articulate – by his election.

But this may be the problem. Much like William Hague in 1997, Ed Miliband was elected on an ooh-err mandate: the party didn’t want to back the left option of Ed Balls, or the right option of David Miliband.  Hague was unable to control Portillo and got slammed by Heseltine after a rebranding exercise led to a complete mish-mash and inclarity after the situation necessitated U-turns on the minimum wage and Bank of England. Blair had a nicer economy than Cameron, so Hague did not gain a single seat for the Tories. Due to the ending of the Liberals as we know them, Miliband will not do that badly. But if local election results are anything to go by, the Tories will continue to gain seats despite the cuts.

At least the encouraging view from the comparison this implicitly invites is that Ed Balls and Harriet Harman will not become leader.

Just a thought on the leaders’ response to the riots. Cameron has been on top form. Iain Duncan Smith has turned into political gold-dust. The ‘Broken Britain’ theme has been an essential part of the narrative (to use a Blairite term) that Cameron has wanted the nation to buy into. It’s a theme the aforementioned have been careful to include just enough, every now and again, for the  past ten years or so. They have their analysis of the problem, and, importantly, they have policies and policy ideas ready to go to solve the problem they see.

It doesn’t matter whether the ‘Broken Britain’ motif is true or not. The likelihood is that politicians will never be able to encapsulate something as multi-faceted as the recent riots into one or two campaign slogans. But the Tories have a narrative. Labour does not. Miliband can huff that the Prime Minister is coming to knee-jerk judgements. He can huff that the causes are more complex than ‘Broken Britain’. Maybe they are. But as long as Miliband cannot impose a narrative on them, he will lose the political argument. If Cameron has any sense at all (and he does), he will let the Labour Party hold its own inquiry. He will let Miliband gaze very intently at his own navel, while Cameron gets a few months, unopposed, to shape the issue in the public consciousness and suggest and even implement the solutions he proposes. Then Cameron will pick the Miliband review to pieces using the Home Affairs Select Committee review. He will get especial pleasure from this, as Home Affairs Select is chaired by a Labour MP.

This ‘lack of narrative’ has been true of the Labour party even before the riots. The government is cutting ‘too far, too fast’. May be true, but it’s not a narrative. It defines no positives that enable the electorate to understand the world. The Tories have a narrative about spending cuts: it begins with a profligate chancellor (who happened to be advised by most of Labour’s top team), and progresses to economic hubris, followed by a catastrophic collapse, and then the Conservative Party rushes in as the knight in shining armour, to deliver an economically stable and successful Britain. Labour’s attempted narrative is “something went wrong somewhere else. It’s a bit complicated. But basically, it will be fine.”

It doesn’t particularly matter which one is true. What both Conservative narratives have is a problem, an evil, and they are the solution, the hero. Labour’s narratives, on the riots and the economy, don’t really have a problem. Because if it did, people would ask why they didn’t get round to it in thirteen years of government. But no problem means no solution. The Labour party isn’t the solution because there is no problem – or if there is a problem, it was of no-one’s making, and no-one can really fix it. Labour just happen to be slightly more fluffy and loveable than the Tories. 

It’s hardly a compelling narrative. It’s a narrative that will consign Miliband, and his party, to utter irrelevance until beyond the next election. No matter how good Miliband’s policies are. 

This all comes back to this thing about policy. In 2005, Cameron had a narrative about Labour, about Britain. It was sketchy, true, but he built his policy around that narrative. In 2011, Miliband does not have a narrative. Consequently, his policy will be a hotchpotch. Contributors, like James Purnell, are unclear what the vision, what the narrative is for the country. So they take a stab in the dark at what they think it might be. And everyone else, who thinks it’s something else, screams.

James Bartholomeusz has written on this site before about Blue Labour, which I categorised above as ‘Old Labour’. It is not quite ‘Old Labour’, but something that attempts to re-carve a narrative from the very deep memories of the party’s past. Cameron did a very similar thing with his ‘Broken Britain’ narrative – recast deep Tory instincts and fashioned them around the present. It is maybe too early for Blue Labour – it took the Tories to their fourth go to find a fresh yet old narrative. Miliband doesn’t seem keen, either. His instincts have been to centralise the Labour party, abolishing shadow cabinet elections and hiring business men to streamline the party structure, rather than take the more decentralising options offered by Blue Labour. But the ‘Broken Britain’ narrative was at least there in skeleton by the time of Iain Duncan Smith. Maybe this narrative will someday come to the fore.

And if you think that all this stuff about policy and narrative and coherence is just my thoughtless musing, I leave you this exchange from the Queen’s Speech, 2000:

Rt Hon William Hague MP: In more than 20 years in politics, he has betrayed every cause he believed in, contradicted every statement he has made, broken every promise he has given and breached every agreement that he has entered into… There is a lifetime of U-turns, errors and sell-outs. All those hon. Members who sit behind the Prime Minister and wonder whether they stand for anything any longer, or whether they defend any point of principle, know who has led them to that sorry state.

Rt Hon Tony Blair MP:  He started the fuel protest bandwagon, then the floods bandwagon; on defence it became armour-plated, then on air traffic control it became airborne…. Yes, the right honourable Gentleman made a very witty, funny speech, but it summed up his leadership: good jokes, lousy judgment. I am afraid that in the end, if the right honourable Gentleman really aspires to stand at this Despatch Box, he will have to get his policies sorted out and his party sorted out, and offer a vision for the country’s future, not a vision that would take us backwards.

Soapbox Debates: The future of British media

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Soapbox Debates, The Media on August 5, 2011 at 11:20 pm

James Bartholomeusz, polarii, Stephen Wan, Elliot Ashley

In light of the phone hacking scandal, how would you change the UK media; its composition, its accountability, and its relationship with government?

James Bartholomeusz

The phone hacking scandal which has engorged our news output over the last few weeks is best understood as the third in a series of shake-ups over the last five years. The first, the financial crisis beginning in late 2007, dealt a grievous blow to our economy and the market fundamentalist ideology of the last thirty years. The second, the MPs expenses row dating from 2009, decimated the remaining faith of the British public in modern politics and our constitutional settlement. In all three scandals, what had previously seemed like insurmountable pillars of the British establishment were exposed as hollow oligarchies. In all three, men and women who had posed as respectable custodians of the state of the nation were revealed as incompetent and corrupt. And in relation to all three we might still ask the question ‘has anything really changed?’

This is because we have allowed bankers to reform banks and politicians to reform parliament: we cannot allow journalists, least of all Murdoch’s News International, to reform the media. Though the media never had the reputation of the City of London or the House of Commons, the public outrage to the phone hacking allegations shows that no one knew of the depths Andy Coulson and his ilk have descended to.

The prospect of the imminent collapse of Murdoch’s press brigade is to be welcomed (and even celebrated) – and forcing the closure of the newspaper which hacked the phones of 7/7 victims can be seen as a victory in itself. But these events should not fool us into thinking that Murdoch will not strive his utmost to retain his position as arbitrator of British politics. It’s hardly a secret that, since media laws were blasted open by Thatcher, News International has had exploited its influence to ensure the election of a compliant government. It has become a common sight for an aspirational leader to make a pilgrimage to prostrate himself before Murdoch’s throne. This is not the place to explore the fundamentally undemocratic essence of Murdoch’s power; suffice it to say, any opportunity to curb it should be seized.

I propose three reforms which should begin to ease Murdoch’s stranglehold on our media. Firstly, the Press Complaints Commission should be replaced by a much more vigilant regulatory body, allowing members of the public to set up citizens’ tribunals (advised by independent experts) to take on the corporate media when necessary. This would help make our media accountable to the British people and reassert the idea that we are not just consumers of news but active participants in current affairs. Secondly, our monopoly laws need to be much stricter: the fact that Murdoch taking a majority stake in BSkyB was even considered shows how lax our regulation has been made by the continuous barrage of corporate influence on government. Thirdly, we should consider ways in which to resurrect and protect local/regional media. A major problem in our current media settlement is the narrow middle class London background from which journalists are drawn, particularly noticeable, for example, in the patronising coverage of council estate tenants. Competition from national media has driven smaller outlets into oblivion – the return of a strong, independent local media would allow for greater representation of diverse voices outside of the elite which still controls our economy, politics and press.

polarii

Contrary to the rhetoric, there are very few serious problems with the UK media. There is a diverse plurality, with newspaper readers being able to choose between newspapers owned sustainably by six different groups (News International, Trinity Mirror, Guardian Group, Lebedev Group, Telegraph Group, Associated Newspapers), with television viewers being able to choose their news from BBC, ITV, C4, Sky, and other channels available on Freeview stations. The internet is a hive of uncensored opinions, and streams foreign news providers, such as CNN. The only medium that presents an effective monopoly on news is radio, where the impartial BBC holds sway. Even if we look at providers across media – the largest the BBC and then News Corporation – we can see that these fall well short of a monopoly across all media taken together. More competition is always welcome; this can be achieved by reducing the number of services on the BBC, and a News Corporation monopoly will be prevented by its outlets suffering reputational damage from phone hacking.

The media is accountable to itself. The Telegraph, Independent and Guardian (not to mention Private Eye) united to expose phone hacking at News International titles. The diversity that exists enables fierce competition, which ensures accountability. It is a risk for government to establish an independent regulator – newspapers should stand or fall on their own stories and sources, as the News of the World has. The Press Complaints Commission needs bulking up; but this should be done by the industry, not the government. Perhaps the industry should agree that it can issue unlimited fines. Wrongdoing by the News of the World was exposed by competition, and other titles, even outside News International, will follow. But a free press, to paraphrase Churchill, means a press that has the option of sometimes being foolish. For areas where the media has broken the law, the courts are blissfully independent.

A change of relationship does need to occur between media and government. When government values style over substance, when it judges its policy by focus group and not by results, it is always going to pander to opinion leaders. Murdoch, the most politically flexible of the news proprietors, sold a cunning lie – that he and his papers controlled the balance of opinion within the country. Yet the Sun never won it: not in 1992, nor 1997, nor 2005, nor 2010. It is the fault of politicians, not the press, that they bought it. It was Murdoch’s contacts in the government and police that prevented full and thorough investigation in the first instance; again, in an area where style dominated substance, detectives and ministers were more concerned with the good words of the Sun than any morality or legality. The police and politicians have to recognise this imbalance of priority, and not fall into the trap again. Other media moguls in the history of this country have taken fixed positions, and still failed. The media-centric method of politics and policing – pioneered by the Blairs Ian and Tony – needs to go.

Newspaper moguls have risen and fallen throughout the entire history of media in this country. Murdoch is the latest in the pattern: Rothermere, Beaverbrook, Maxwell. In the 1990s, there was no legislation about phone-hacking – it was not illegal to listen in. Phone-hacking is a legacy of that culture. Time, scandal, and the law will expunge these practises. The media will retain its self-regulation, and the British public is wise enough to ensure market plurality. The future of British media may well be online as opposed to on paper or on TV, but the framework doesn’t need much change.

Stephen Wan

The UK media cannot continue to operate as it has been doing – with impunity, arrogance and without consideration of the social damage it creates. Whilst recent focus has been on the phone hacking scandal, far more crimes have been committed – trials by media, such as during the Joanna Yeates murder case, risk perverting the course of justice, and routine scaremongering fuels ignorance and paranoia. The phone hacking scandal marks a turning point in public opinion of the UK media, and this is a good thing.

It would be easy to say the problem is with us: “We buy the newspapers – the UK media is reliant on our willingness to buy its coverage of the news. They merely pander to our tastes, supplying our insatiable demand. If we want to change the practises of our newspapers, then let us do so by using the power of the purse, altering the media we consume – in an age of information technology, accessing alternative sources of information has never been easier. Boycott the worst media corporations, and they will either reform or collapse. One could say that the News of the World was closed down due to public outcry and pressure placed on News Corporation. Ultimately, the UK media is accountable to us.”

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The relationship between the public and the media is better characterised as a symbiotic relationship, where media outlets rely on the public to consume their content, and the public relies on the media to distil information and set the news agenda. Because of this, we are as influenced by the media as they are influenced by us. Negative feedback loops occur, and as the news agenda degenerates to trivialities, the media resorts to ever more extreme methods to obtain the latest gossip. Phone hacking was not the result of a few journalists gone rogue – it was institutionalised, widespread, and a direct consequence of how the media market is structured.

It follows then that institutional change to the UK media is required. The current system in place is self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission. This has not worked – their website reads almost as satire, extolling the ‘commitment of the newspaper industry to tough and effective self regulation‘. A solution, as advocated by our leaders, would be for the government to establish an independent watchdog. A further idea may be to establish an information source database – when a journalist writes a newspaper article, they must cite in a separate report all the means by which that information was obtained, to be entered into the database after approval by the editor. Access to the database is available to the independent watchdog only. This will ensure full disclosure of the means by which stories are obtained, ensure good research practise, and prevent editors claiming to be unaware of dubious practises in their own newsroom.

How would I change the UK media? Enforce good media practices. The rest can follow.

Elliot Ashley

When looking at the deepening crisis facing the print media industry it is hard to see how it can recover. It is unlikely that newspapers can, or indeed will bounce back fully from the phone hacking scandal. Readership has been steadily dropping over the last two decades, as broadcast and online outlets for the news are becoming easier to access around the clock.

One could enter this argument: that the fault lies in a self-regulated industry that clearly needs to be more strongly controlled, with the likes of fines such as those issued by Offcom or Offgen. However it is the public that have initiated the collapse of News International and, as time can only tell at this point, possibly other large news companies also.

If the public had not continued to pressurise journalists, editors and media barons to produce in their publications ever increasing drivel on the latest celebrity affair, or a diet that two days previously was good for you and now carries a high risk cause of cancer (all this being in the public interest); then it is possible that papers such as News Of the World (NOTW) and others may have avoided stooping to the level of hacking into the voice mails of everyone from members of the Royal Family to Z-list celebrities.

This simple, yet under the counter method of collecting stories, or starting blocks for them, is inevitably widespread and probably largely unknown to the wider world. It would have continued had it not emerged, in a rival newspaper, that the NOTW and News International had gone a step too far in their quest to provide the public with its quota of gossip and scandal, by hacking into the voicemail of murdered school girl Millie Dowler.

The outrage and distrust that was caused by this has begun to unravel the rapidly disappearing mystery and power held by the fourth estate. Even if readership does start to increase in a few years, it is likely that the financial pressures placed upon publishers and editors of UK newspapers (and indeed the greater print media), by legal cases and investigations, will probably see the daily papers disappear from shop shelves. Perhaps just a select number will remain to provide news of every interest, from sport to motoring and holidays to gardening, on either a Saturday or Sunday.

Print media within the UK does has a future, but right now it is bleak and far, far different to what experts from the industry were envisaging a year ago.

__________

If you are interested in participating in a future debate, feel free to email David Weber at dingdongalistic (at) gmail (dot) com, or leave a comment underneath this post.

The Big Society, the market, and society: why deficit reduction might actually be a good thing

In Economy, Events, Ideology on July 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm

David Weber

I must admit that I originally intended this to be a full response to James Bartholomeusz’s recent article on working class politics and welfare reform. However, while reflecting on his various arguments, my response to his comment underneath the article quickly became feature length, and an article in its own right:

The problem is, [the Big Society] dovetails a little too nicely with the market fundamentalism that got us into this mess, and the tough deficit reduction plan which has ostensibly been forced upon the government against its will. [emphasis added] Read the rest of this entry »

Cameron Should Have Been in the Commons Today

In Events, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, The Media on July 11, 2011 at 10:46 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Most days, the Prime Minister doesn’t turn up to the House of Commons. Most days, he doesn’t have to. Most government policy-making and implementing occurs outside the House. Not today, however. The business today was Education Questions, the Public Service Reform White Paper, Jeremy Hunt’s Statement on Phone Hacking and the last stages of the Europe Bill – as well as a debate on crime victims in the EU and an adjournment debate, both scheduled so late (crime started at 21:00) to make any movement supremely unlikely. Cameron had reason to attend all the important business of the day.

Education questions [WATCH] were the least important to attend, but the Conservatives have by far the most comprehensive policy on education. Michael Gove has made some strong announcements on school discipline of late, and Cameron would only benefit from being associated with those. Michael Gove is also an amusing performer, and it would have done Cameron no harm to laugh at some of the more witty jokes.

Cameron pre-empted the public service bill [READ] at a press conference in Wapping, of all places (where, famously, News International is based). Oliver Letwin then got up in the House [WATCH] and did it better. While Cameron should not have led on the paper (after all, he didn’t write it), it is an important plank of the Big Society agenda. Since this is the least understood part of the Tory position, Cameron should have attended the presentation of the paper that builds on his signature themes: people power, choice, decentralisation. While his press conference brought the move some initial publicity, it was buried in the live feed of Hunt’s statement.

And he should really have been present for that one. Ed Miliband was planning to turn up, as was half the house. To be seen during Hunt’s statement [WATCH – SHORT] [WATCH – LONG] – or even giving a statement additional to Hunt’s – would have made him appear strong. He would have been vulnerable on points about Andy Coulson, and may even have had to say that Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff, did not communicate concerns about him, or else face total embarrassment. But, as it was, Alan Johnson was able to make a wise crack about the monkey being present and not the organ grinder, and Hunt was unable to provide answers on points about the Prime Minister’s staff. Hunt, for his part, performed well, despite the rather pathetic set of cards he had to play, and even made some purchase against Ed Miliband’s rather shrill attack by saying that the matter transcended party politics. This tactic would have played even better if the Tory backbench had got the hint and not taken to asking partisan questions. Cameron’s additional gravitas would have helped the backbench get the message, and would have enabled him to at least put a brave face on the matter and face down Labour’s criticisms, even if he only provided a politician’s answer.

The Europe Bill (Lords Amendments) [READ] is a more extended piece, and Cameron need only have stayed for the first few speeches. Europe is an issue on which the Coalition may fracture, and is an important issue for those on the right of the party that he has, as yet, been unable to carry with him. His presence would have given the impression that he remained concerned about Europe, like many backbenchers and party members.

Cameron missed a trick by not making a statement directly following Hunt’s. He will take questions from the Commons on Wednesday, and unless Greece or Italy defaults on their debts or Birmingham falls into a black hole, Coulson will dominate. If he had answered questions today, he would have fulfilled his duty to the House to answer questions, and be able to present Labour, as Hunt tried to do today, as excessively partisan. Labour MPs brought half a dozen points of order saying that Cameron should come to the House for a statement – while the Speaker does not have the power to compel the Prime Minister to come to the House, it is bemusing that journos now regularly get in ahead of MPs, and on different days, doubling the amount of negative headlines for Cameron.

In short, Cameron today gave Labour an open goal, and missed several opportunities to bolster his brand, and, while he was at it, the House of Commons and the political class. Jeremy Hunt appeared weak and isolated, with senior cabinet members, such as Osborne and Hague, also conspicuously absent. This undermined Hunt and the government. It would have been worse risking embarrassment, even if he had turned round, said that he got that one completely wrong, and would not make that mistake again. Honesty is, usually, the best policy. Hiding behind other news stories just delays the inevitable bollocking.

This climbdown is liberal, not Conservative

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order, Party politics, The Media on June 21, 2011 at 11:53 pm

David Weber

I respect Ken Clarke, as a politician and more importantly as a political thinker, but some of his reforms weren’t liberal, just as much as they weren’t Conservative. At the heart of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was a scandal, one which should have been obvious even underneath the noise and fury that erupted over Clarke’s ill-informed comments about rape, but has still gone largely uncommented on, which is deeply troubling. I refer to the damage that would have been done, to a fundamental principle of justice, by the proposal to cut sentences by as much as 50% in return for an early guilty plea.

This is precisely the proposal which the Guardian, in a typical bout of sheer missing the point, described as “a sensible move to relieve the pressure on Britain’s creaking courts”. The latter may be true, but the policy can only be described as sensible from a cold, bureaucratic, and morally corrupt perspective, the perspective of those who care nothing for justice and everything for money above all else.

Has the Guardian considered the stigma which is already attached to being falsely accused of a crime — particularly the most serious and horrifying of crimes? Has it occurred to the sadly anonymous writer of its editorial that there are already numerous incentives for the accused to plead guilty, not out of honesty, but as a gamble for the sake of an easier future? It should have, for such nightmares are frequently reported, and even more frequent in real life. Not only does plea bargaining already exist, but it actually goes far too far. In reducing the cost of justice it perverts the cause of justice, bargaining away the right to a fair trial. “Innocent until proven guilty” becomes “do you want to risk being proven guilty?” Far from it being “sensible” to increase plea bargaining, it would actually be “sensible” to abolish or at least reduce it — at least from a perspective of moral sensibility.

One would hope that it is for these principled, and most definitely liberal reasons, that David Cameron et al have decided to abandon this “reform”. One has to be sceptical, particularly given Ken Clarke’s reputation for liberalism, and the association of the Liberal Democrats with his agenda for reform in the Ministry of Justice. I suspect that if No. 10 had been motivated solely by liberal principles, it would have held back from interfering with Clarke’s agenda due to a mistaken association of liberalism with the Liberal Democrats. Additional policies announced at the same time, such as a new mandatory prison sentence for certain knife crimes, are distinctly conservative in nature.

More likely is that a tipping point of unpopularity with Conservative backbenchers, and with certain parts of the general public, has been reached; and that the rewriting of Clarke’s bill is a conciliatory gesture in the aftermath of the rewriting of Andrew Langsley’s NHS bill. It is certainly true that the bill had numerous “Conservative” objections to it, not least because the halving of sentences in some cases could have led to very short sentences indeed, for very serious crimes. But this merely demonstrates that conservatism and liberalism are not always mutually exclusive, and that liberals should not be associated with a policy just because conservatives are opposed.

But despite Downing Street’s arguably cynical motivations, the u-turn on this bill is something Liberals should be thankful for, not morose. Liberal Democrats should put their party’s ego (sorry, ‘influence in government’) to one side for a moment, and actually consider if, were they not in government, they would be supportive of or horrified by this particular proposal. Then they should put that response in front of any regrets they might have about their influence in the coalition, and whether the prevailing direction is conservative or liberal, because at the end of the day, it is more important. Real lives, real injustices, are always more important.