In which we need to talk about piggate

All this week the Daily Mail has been publishing extracts from Lord Ashcroft’s unauthorised biography  of David Cameron, which has included some potentially relatively serious political stuff about Cameron’s knowledge of Ashcroft’s non-dom status and relations with military leaders for example. However, none of that sent twitter into a apoplexies. The bit that sent twitter over the edge was PigGate. Now if you’ve got this far in life without hearing about the pig, then I very strongly suggest that you look away now. It’s one of those things that, once heard, can not be unheard and, believe me, you’re happier in ignorance.

 

 

Seriously, you read on at your own risk.

 

 

 

Still here? Are you sure?

 

 

 

Right then. Well it was your choice. PigGate, for those who don’t already know, relates to the accusation that, while at university, David Cameron took part in a initiation ritual for some form of posh boy club that involved putting his – oh god, I’m not sure I can even type this – his… erm… gentleman sausage, shall we say, in the mouth of a dead pig. Now let’s be clear this is an entirely unsubstantiated claim from someone who has a major grudge against Cameron. Let’s proceed on the assumption that it’s not true (for reasons of both lack of evidence and really not wanting to get sued.) So, if it’s not true, does it matter?

Well, yes. Unfortunately for Cameron the reaction to the allegation does matter, and, from my very unscientific reading of the twitters, that reaction seems to break down into three basic types:

Type 1 – It’s an uncorroborated rumour. People shouldn’t take it seriously;

Type 2 – Well it was probably just youthful japes and high jinx. Didn’t we all do stupid things at university?

Type 3 – Any one of a range of jokes about ham face and apple sauce.

Type 3 is inevitable. I mean, it’s a rumour that the Prime Minister did adult-fun stuff with a dead pig – it would almost be rude not to make up and share as many off-colour jokes as you can think of. Type 1 is very sensible, and Type 2 is something of a worry, but what none of these reactions do is rely on the notion that the idea of the PM engaging in the sort of ritual suggested is simply implausible and unthinkable of such a fine and upstanding chap. And that, I suspect, is at the heart of Cameron’s public image problem.

Let’s be realistic – Cameron doesn’t have a BIG public image problem. He’s won one and a half general elections, and has already said that he doesn’t plan to lead the Tories into another. All he needs to do is maintain sufficient popularity to be able to choose his time of departure rather than be pushed. But Cameron’s personal public image is all tied up in the idea that he’s a new Conservative. He’s the Conservative who can be trusted with the NHS, because he knows first hand what it’s like to be the parent of a severely disabled child. He’s the Conservative who cares about ‘hard-working people’. He’s spent a lot of time trying not to be seen as an old Etonian rich boy, even thought that is absolutely what he is. And the lack of disbelief around the PigGate story suggests that he hasn’t quite pulled off that particular smoke and mirror trick.

And that is, potentially, damaging in a way that it probably wouldn’t be to a politician like Boris Johnson. Boris has never tried to downplay his fundamental hooray Henry-ness, so stories of him Bullingdon-clubbing it up fit with and reinforce a public image with which he’s comfortable. Cameron runs the risk of looking like a man who’s not really at ease in his own skin. And that’s never been a problem in the past because he’s been in competition with opposition leaders who made personal discomfort into a national spectator sport. Gordon Brown trying to do a relaxed smile or Ed Miliband shouting ‘Hell, yeah’ were moments of inept image management that turned the six o’clock news into something to be cringe-watched from behind a cushion. All Cameron has ever had to do before was look more at ease than that. But, during the Labour leadership election Jeremy Corbyn certainly looked entirely comfortable with who he is – whether the Labour party publicity machine allows him to retain that or media trains him into oblivion is yet to be seen, but looking inauthentic is, potentially, Cameron’s Achilles’ heel, and it’s not one he’s been punished for so far.

In which I wonder if we’ve got it all wrong about… taxation

Taxation is a big issue in any election. Nobody likes paying tax. When Daniel Defoe coined the phrase ‘Death and taxes’ it was probably with the awareness that the latter is scarcely more popular than the former. Lower taxes are the classic carrot that politicians can dangle in front of the electorate, but in this election David Cameron has gone even further. He’s not only promised not to raise income tax, VAT or national insurance but to pass legislation ensuring that a Conservative government would be prevented from raising those taxes.

That’s crazy. It’s crazy because he’s basing his own policy on the notion that he can’t be trusted unless he passes a law to stop himself, and it’s crazy because essentially what he’s promising is that nothing unexpected will happen during the next five years. By binding his tax raising powers, he’s guaranteeing that nothing will happen between now and 2020 that might cause the government to need to raise more money. There will be no wars, no need to increase our national security, no pandemic diseases, no population spikes, no financial crises. Everything will absolutely definitely trundle along as it is now. Now if I thought that guaranteeing that was within David Cameron’s powers, then I might consider voting for him, but that would imply that he’s not merely a unusually shinyly foreheaded politician, but also a time-traveling wizard master. And who wouldn’t vote for a time traveling wizard master? That sounds way cool.

Despite it being crazy, Cameron clearly thinks that this promise is going to be popular though, because an insane leader is preferable to a leader who tries to raise income tax. There’s a wider political rhetoric in this country that uses the phrase ‘tax and spend’ as if taxing and then spending that money was a wholly terrible thing for a government to do, rather than the one key thing that all governments exist to do. The accusation of being the party of ‘tax and spend’ has been used as a stick to beat politicians, particularly Labour politicians for years. Here’s a little example from 2002. The accusation ‘You’re just going to tax and spend,’ can be thrown at politicians and not one of them has the good sense to say, ‘Well yes. So are you. That’s what governments are for.’

And the problem here is that politicians don’t say that, because they think that voters won’t like it. They think that we are sufficiently dim to prefer to shiny shiny carrot of ‘We won’t raise….’ rather than being bright enough to recognise that no politician can guarantee that, because they’re led by events and changing circumstances just as much as everyone else. Are we really that stupid? Do we really not understand the basic notion that if we want schools, and hospitals, and police, and street cleaning and all the other terribly useful things that are just sort of there without us ever really thinking about them at all then that costs money and governments raise the money they spend through tax?

There are some basic campaigning truths. You don’t say you’re going to raise taxes. If people then notice that that might mean you’re going to cut services, you make it very clear that you’re only really going to cut those services over there, you know the ones that only affect other people. And if people try to look over there, then you wave your big shiny carrot* in front of them instead.

And those I my election musings for today. Come back tomorrow when it’ll be all about coalition building. Whoop-de-doo.

* Not a euphemism**

** No. Really. Seriously. Not a euphemism. I’m talking about David Cameron and Ed Miliband here. What sort of weirdo do you think I am? Ew.

In which I, firstly, have a plan, and, secondly, lack a plan

I had a plan for this week’s blogging. It was twofold. Firstly the blogging was definitely going to happen yesterday and secondly it was going to be about how David Cameron announcing that he doesn’t want a third term as prime minister isn’t news, and doesn’t demonstrate in any way that he’s a stand up guy who’s not motivated by ‘glory, ego or wealth’.

I would have been a good blog post; basically it would have pointed out that by ruling out a third term Cameron has created a whole chunk of news coverage based on the unspoken assumption that he’s going to win a second term, and secondly I’d have argued that Cameron is vulnerable to a leadership challenge straight after the election if he fails to win an outright majority for the Tories. At the moment an outright majority for any party looks like being a tall order, and so Cameron is shoring up his own position by discouraging potential rivals from challenging the incumbent leader too soon. Why would they risk it, if he’s going to stand down in a few years anyway?

But, having failed at the first part of my plan, a whole 24 more hours has now elapsed, so the tiny political hoo-ha feels even less like news, and I have become distracted by other things – primarily by how I think I might be doing social media wrong. I’ve suspected this for a while. Every time I find myself gathered with writing chums, either at conferences (occasional), places with cake (frequent) or, indeed, online (bascially all the time), the conversation invariably turns, at some point, to social media and How To Do It. And every time, I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I do not have a strategy. I basically live on facebook and twitter, and I do post links to blog posts and new book releases and I RT book related stuff that looks interesting, but mainly I just tell the world about my lunch or the shiny thing I’ve just seen and then sort of chat to people. I don’t have a system for checking who’s followed me or unfollowed me or isn’t following me back. I don’t really schedule tweets or statuses, although I use TweetDeck so I totally could, but it would involve deciding what I wanted to tweet more than 4 seconds before I tweeted it, and I don’t know what shiny thing I’m going to be looking at in the future, do I?

Somehow I seem to have found myself embracing social media in a weirdly luddite sort of a way. I like just chatting. I like seeing pictures of the weird stain that random people on the other side of the country have found on their carpet, and musing about what it might be and how to get it out. I like feeling that if I RT or share someone’s post it’s because I think it’s interesting and not because I’m trying to get a certain number of reciprocal retweets every day. I like having a place (albeit a virtual place) where people who spend a lot of their time sitting on their own in their pyjamas can feel like they’re slightly connected to the world. I even quite like getting outraged en masse about some minor thing that does not matter at all, and then sort of sheepishly sidling away when we all calm down. Basically I like being social and chatting to people; I don’t really like to have a strategy for how I’m going to chat to get the most benefit out of it. Chatting to people is the benefit.

And here endeth today’s lesson. I had a blogging plan and I failed. I have no social media plan at all, and therefore can’t even say if I’m failing or not, which is nice I guess. How about you (especially you writer types)? Do you have a system for social media-ing and how does it work?

If you enjoyed these random musings and would like to read more by me, I also write actual novels and novella. Details here.

In which there are still three whole months until the general election

I generally consider myself to be a person who is quite interested in politics. I can usually generate a blog post about an issue of the day if pressured to do so. I have opinions on all sorts of things: page 3 – no; fox hunting – definitely not; same sex marriage – sure, if you want to. But I’m finding that three whole months away from the General Election I already have election fatigue.

I’m feeling, already, as though the bulk of the political news that I read or hear is washing over me like white noise, and, I think, the reason for that is simple – the news, as it is reported, is nebulous. There are precious few actual facts in there to get hold of. Take this story from the BBC as an example. The headline, technically speaking, offers factual information – David Cameron has been challenged about his claim that a new Tory government wouldn’t cut per pupil education funding, but the fact is simply that some people have said some things, and some other people have said other things.

The story itself jumps between announcements about per pupil education funding and announcements about numbers of schools becoming academies – yes those are both to do with education policy, but they are quite distinct issues.  That’s not my problem though. My problem is that essentially the entire article is made of up X said, ‘…’ but Y said, ‘…’.

To be fair, there’s a handy video clip from the Prime Minister’s speech at the top of the article so you can see for yourself a little bit of what he actually announced. That’s good, but watching the clip just makes the article itself look worse. For example, take this paragraph: ‘Mr Cameron, speaking at Kingsmead school in north London, said that every secondary school in this “requires improvement” category would be expected to become an academy.’ Well maybe he did say that at another point in the speech, but in the clip attached to the article he talks about schools that can’t ‘demonstrate the capacity to improve themselves’ – that might not be the same as ‘every school’ at all, or it might just be waffle to obscure the ‘every school’ element. There’s no way of knowing from this article.

This isn’t BBC bashing. I just happen to have picked a BBC article. I could have gone for pretty much any newspaper, tv station or website, because what we have here is a very normal example of current journalism. It’s journalism without the skills, or time, or inclination, or incentive, or possibly backbone, to do very much actual journalistic work. It’s a process that goes something like this:

1) A politician makes a speech. A journalist picks out a few choice quotes, or possibly just accepts the few choice quotes picked out by the party in the accompanying press release.

2) The journalist knows that’s not enough. Their story needs balance, so they add a few quotes from opposition politicians disputing the thing the first politician said.

3) If they’re feeling really dedicated they probably have some notion that they should be looking into the politicians’ claims, so they add another quote from a relevant trade union or academic or random passer by who’s prepared to reckon something.

4) They publish their story.

There’s nothing actually wrong about it, but the process of filtering all those quotes through a professional news reporting organisation hasn’t added anything. There’s nothing that goes above or beyond what the people giving the quotes wanted to say. None of those claims or quotes get checked or probed, because the story is simply the reporting what each of the people quoted said, and it’s definitely true that they said it, so that’s all fine. The problem is that nobody reading these articles actually knows anymore about what is true than before they started reading. If anything, they know less because of all the additional white noise they’re now carrying around in their heads.

Of course we need reporting on what politicians say they’re going to do, and what rival politicians see as the problems with those plans, but the reality is that not everything that is reckoned, even when it’s reckoned by a front bench politician, has equal value. Lots of things fall into the grey area of opinion or projection, but lots of other things don’t. Some things are simply true or not, and without a mainstream media prepared to call anything at all as ‘true’ or ‘false’ it’s left to each of us to filter out the white noise. The danger with that is that the vastness of the range of information and opinion that washes over us leaves us overwhelmed and in a position where, when faced with a ballot paper, it’s very easy to wrinkle our brows and just give up on the whole idea of being able to make any sort of informed choice at all.

So maybe that’s a thing I could do to try to break through my election apathy – my own little mini fact checks right here in Alison Blogville. It’s an idea, anyway.

In which I do a little bit of a politics catch up

During my period of non-blogging, on account of all the book-finishing and holibob-going, a range of politics has occurred. Three things in particular caught my wandering attention: firstly, David Cameron had a little cabinet reshuffle; secondly Sayeeda Warsi resigned from the government; and thirdly Mark Simmonds resigned from the foreign office.

The cabinet reshuffle was generally seen as a pre-election attempt to move aside some of the less popular figures in the government, notably Michael Gove, and to bring in some new blood, specifically lady blood, on account of how David Cameron is totally down with equality, at least now it’s been explained to him that holders of a uterus are also allowed to vote. What the reshuffle was trying to say was that the cabinet are modern; they’re in touch with the normal people; they’re just like us. What would be quite poor, from a PR perspective, then would be to lose one of your most prominent female, and most prominent non-white, minister shortly after the reshuffle.

Baroness Warsi resigned in protest at the government’s failure to come out with a strong response to Israel’s military action in Gaza. Since quitting she’s been pretty vocal about the difficulties she feels she experienced within cabinet in terms that only serve to exacerbate the image of a group of privileged, out of touch, old public school boys unable to engage with the wider world.  But that’s just one person’s opinion. So long as it’s not followed up by another minister complaining publicly about how terribly hard done by he is by being paid shedloads, I imagine David Cameron will probably still feel that things are going ok.

Oh dear.

On August 11th, Foreign Office Minister, Mark Simmonds, resigned citing the impossibility of housing his family in central London on his meagre expenses allowance as his reason for stepping down. Now I actually feel that it’s really important that MPs are reasonably paid and remunerated for their costs. If they’re not, then politics really does become an avenue only open to people who are already wealthy. However, this is Mark Simmonds, who was employing his own wife as his office manager on a salary of £20k+ on top of his own £89k salary, and refused to consider the horror of renting a property in outer London. This is an expenses system that allows for 30 return trips per year from constituency to London for MPs’ family members, and would have allowed Mr Simmonds around £28,000 per year towards rent on a London property. The reality is that however ‘intolerable’ Mr Simmonds found his situation, most people, in a country where food banks and rough sleeping are things that happen, will struggle to sympathise with someone bemoaning the meanness of only being allowed slightly more than the national average salary to pay for his second home.

So, if you’re a Prime Minister trying to look open to diversity, modern, in touch with the country at large, I would have to conclude that it’s not been a great couple of weeks. Having said that, part of me is slightly cross with myself for writing this post. If I’m going blog about politics it probably should be about stuff that matters: like education; or the NHS; or the feeble international response to the situation in Gaza.

But actually I think the other stuff – the stuff about perceived privilege and lack of equality – is more than just PR and Westminster bubble vacuousness. We are supposed to be a representative democracy, but the people who are supposed to represent us don’t reflect the range of people in the country, and I think that does matter. Diversity is one of those concepts that people pay lip service to. ‘Yes, it would be great to have more women, but they don’t apply.’ ‘Obviously we’d be open to more disabled candidates, but there are practicalities to think about.’ ‘Of course we want more black people, but they just happen not to have made it through the selection process this time.’ More diversity in government gives you a broader range of experiences to pool into policy making. That gives you a broader range of ideas, and a broader range of expertise. That gives you a much better chance of coming up with a good idea, and of spotting the flaws in the terrible ones. It makes decision making less cosy, but ultimately better, and that should be what matters – that our politicians make the best decisions and pursue the best possible policies for the whole country and for the gloriously diverse mixture of people who live in it.

So that was day 4 of the Week of Awesome Blogging. Come back tomorrow for some more, when I shall be writing about something. I have no idea what. Jolly good.

In which I try to work out what British values might be

So it’s been decided that we ought to be teaching British values in our schools. Michael Gove and David Cameron are absolutely agreed that this is a whizz bang idea, and will no doubt be cracking on with that forthwith. Worryingly, I don’t violently disagree with the values that Gove and Cameron are spouting so far. They generally involve vague notions like equality and democracy and tolerance, all of which seem peachy fine.

However, there is, I think, a problem here, and it comes down to the fact that the whole notion of teaching British values sounds a bit, well just a bit earnest. There’s no obvious self-depreciating humour or social awkwardness about it. The notion that we have values that are worth teaching feels a bit self-important. My gut reaction is that any attempt to teach British values should include a section where the teacher looks a bit embarrassed and mutters, ‘Or not. You know, it’s up to you really,’ and then stares at the floor.

And secondly, let’s take a minute to consider what it was that caused Gove and Cameron to decide that equality and tolerance and democracy are of sufficient import to be proactively promoted in schools. Was it a response to the fact that the pay gap between men and women is still around 15% (and much much higher in some professions)? That would make sense – maybe Gove and Cameron recognise the importance to teaching business leaders of tomorrow to value their staff equally. Was is a response to news that police forces in the UK received nearly 8000 complaints of racism over the last 8 years and upheld less than 1%? Maybe Gove and Cameron think the only way to tackle ingrained racism is from the cradle with the next generation. Or was it in response to the fact that in 2012-13 over 42,000 hate crimes (crimes linked to race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender reassignment) were recorded in the UK? Maybe they believe that that sort of prejudice and ignorance fueled violence needs to be tackled from school onwards by promoting tolerance and equality.

But no. None of those things were are the forefront of politicians’ minds when they came out with their ‘British values’ soundbites. They were reacting to the Birmingham schools ‘trojan horse’ affair, where it is alleged that muslim governors attempted to ‘infiltrate’ extreme values and teaching into schools. That might make a person question the sort of tolerance and equality that were discussing here. It looks at though Gove and Cameron think it’s important that people who look or think differently from them learn to value tolerance and moderate their own views accordingly. The sorts of intolerance and inequality that are long-term and chronic and form part of our status quo are fine to carry on as they were. Or maybe I’m being to cynical. Maybe promoting equality and tolerance is a good thing, regardless of the impetus.

Well, this was intended to be a jokey sort of post where I commented on the British penchant for humour and self-depreciation. With hindsight, it seems to have got away from me a tiny bit.

Anyway, no doubt good spirits will be restored by next week, and if you can’t wait until then I’ll be doing my writerly thing in Worcester tomorrow (21st June 2014) along with Sue Moorcroft, Christina Courtenay and Liz Harris when I host the Worcestershire LitFest and Fringe’s Author Panel. Tickets and downloadable festival programmes here.

In which I think about words and their toxicity or lack thereof

This morning Maria Miller MP resigned as  Culture Secretary. This was not unexpected. She’d clung on for a week since being forced to apologise to Parliament for over-claiming expenses and for failing to co-operate fully with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ investigation into her expenses claim. Many column inches will now be spun out on every conceivable element of this story: precisely how much Miller should have had to repay*; whether the loss of one of his very few female ministers will be an electoral blow for Dave and his massive shiny forehead**; and whether the press launched a vendetta against Miller, the minister tasked with seeing through changes in press standards and complaints procedures***. So I’m not going to expend any more energy on all of that.

What did catch my attention was a single sentence in this morning’s Today programme report on Miller’s troubles. The reporter described the word ‘expenses’ as the ‘most toxic’ word around in discussion of MPs and politicians. And he may have a point. ‘MPs’ expenses’ has become a shorthand for the general perception of sleaze and dishonesty around our elected representatives. But is it really that toxic? Since the expenses scandal broke in all its duckhouse and moat-cleaning how-the-other-half-lives glory in 2009, seven cabinet or junior ministers (including Miller) have lost their posts as a result, twenty-one MPs were either deselected or chose to stand down, and six MPs and two Lords have been found guilty on criminal charges, all relating to expenses. All in all it’s been a pretty poor show, and yet the word we use is ‘expenses’, which, when you think about it is a pretty benign sort of a word compared with some of the alternatives.

Let’s think about a couple of much much more toxic words for a moment. Fraud. Now there’s a nicely toxic word, but it isn’t the word we usually use when talking about MPs’ expenses. We say ‘expenses’ and we roll our eyes, or we say ‘scandal’ which brings to mind heavily stage managed photo opportunities where wronged wives stand by their high-profile man. It doesn’t bring to mind individuals routinely and dishonestly claiming thousands of pounds of public money. Dishonesty. Forgery. There’s two more toxic words, both of which appear in criminal charges brought in relation to MPs’ or Lords’ expenses claims. Cheat. That’s another really toxic word.

In the same week that Miller was clinging by her fingernails to the last tiny threads of both her reputation and her job, her cabinet colleague, Ian Duncan Smith was announcing yet another crackdown on people who overclaim welfare benefits. If we’re applying the same standards to those overclaimers as to Miller, I’m assuming that Duncan Smith’s ‘crackdown’ will involve a system whereby people stand up in the waiting room at their local JobCentre+ apologise briefly for their mistake and then pay back around about 10% of whatever they actually owe. It would only be fair, and we are all in this together, after all. But that isn’t what will happen, because when it comes to the pot of public money we call welfare benefits we’re very happy to use words like fraud and cheat, and those words have force. Those words make us think of deceit and criminal intent and those things lead to condemnation and punishment.

In the heat of the expenses scandal the same logic was applied to MPs. Criminal charges were brought. Jobs were lost, but more recently, the heat has gone out of the conversation. Miller has resigned as cabinet minister. I’d be stunned if she stood down as an MP, and David Cameron has already expressed the hope that she will return to cabinet at some point in the future. The  language about Miller from Downing Street uses words like ‘mistake’ and doing ‘the right thing’ by apologising. So maybe ‘expenses’ is the most toxic word bandied about at present in relation to MPs and politicians, but maybe, it isn’t quite toxic enough.

 

* £45,000 like the Parliamentary Commissioner said

** Hopefully

*** Possibly, but morally it’s all a bit pot-kettle at this point

 

And if that’s enough politics for one day and you’d like to branch out into some of my made up musings instead this is the place to go buy books.