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March for the Alternative

March 27th, 2011

Meet the Big Society:

[swfobj src="http://www.tomroyal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/march_pan.swf" height="500" width="640"]

The March for the Alternative, as viewed from the Royal Festival Hall as it set off around midday. Move mouse over image to pan.

So yesterday I went to protest the Government's agenda of public sector and welfare cuts. About 400,000 of us marched slowly and peacefully through London to Hyde Park, although from reading the papers today you'd think that we all took part in some kind of riot. Here's what it looked like if you were actually in the crowd.

The March

March for the Alternative

That's the march passing under Waterloo bridge at about 12.10pm. It had been moving for some time, but there were so many people that it would take us at least 90 minutes to get to that point ourselves. As you can see, lots of union groups, Labour party groups and so on, but also thousands of individuals and smaller non-aligned groups: I was marching with, if I can remember this correctly: two local government employees, a handful of teachers, a musician and another writer. Behold the terrifying face of British political extremism.

There were many families, many kids and, because this is a British protest march, lots of jokey signs ("Down with this sort of thing", "Careful now", "I'm not best pleased", jokes about kettles and tea, and so on). Believe it or not, none of us felt compelled to start a fight with the police, smash a window or two or throw any paint about. We didn't have any paint, of course, only coffee and chocolate buttons.

"I'm not best pleased"

So, we joined the march. And marched. And stopped. And started. And marched some more. There were bands, and a bike playing terrible music very loud (cue derisive comments from the crowd when Linkin Park came on). At one point it rained a bit. We made some placards with biro, lipstick and abandoned card. A few hours later we passed Westminster, where approximately one million police were standing around waiting for trouble that didn't occur. As we passed Downing Street, the whole crowd did some pantomime-style boo-ing. We passed the Cenotaph, which was of course untouched, and Trafalgar square.

The Occupation of Fortnum and Mason

As we came up towards Fortnum and Mason it became apparent that something was happening – a squad of riot police ran past the march, sirens sounded and some smoke went up in the distance. The march ambled on, passing at this point some banks that had been Jackson-Pollocked by some paint-throwing types earlier (coloured splotches, a smashed glass door, police outside). As we were passing F&M, UK Uncut protest signs appeared in the windows:

Fortnum and Mason

.. and then a flag waved from another just to the right. We stood and stared up, and you could see that there wasn't exactly a riot going on inside: the protesters just stood by the windows. Police blocked the doors below.

Videos and photos taken inside the store make it clear that those inside were peaceful and did not cause any damage to the shop or its goods – they stood or sat aound on the floor, mostly. The whole stunt has seen a so far largely negative reaction, though, with many citing the charitable work done by F&M's owners as making it an unsuitable target.

I can't say I agree with that – giving to charities you like isn't an acceptable alternative to paying taxes to help the country as a whole – but I do think this one backfired. UK Uncut has done well at drawing media attention to companies participating in tax avoidance, but in this case all it managed to do was attract attention away from a larger – and, in my opinion, more important – demonstration. The reaction from some parts of the press to the "occupation" has been ludicrous, but I nonetheless wish they'd protested another day. But that's my 2p worth.

Anyhow, we – and the rest of the march – bumbled on. We waved at the tourists. Some took photos of my "CATS NOT CUTS" placard. There was some jokey chanting. Eventually, about four hours after starting, we arrived at Hyde Park. The speeches had long passed, but the march stretched on behind us.

March for the Alternative

After a while I dragged myself back across town and home. At this point, it looked like things had gone off relatively well – a huge turnout to demonstrate the vast number of people who don't buy the coalition's lie that its cuts are the only way forward – with few distractions for the right-wing press to focus on.

Didn't quite work out that way, of course.

The Square

I wasn't in Trafalgar Square yesterday evening, and have yet to read an account that I find entirely convincing. Whatever did all take place there to kick it off, though, transpired around a protest entirely separate to that of the 400,000 people marching earlier in the day.

It's normal to see a couple of angry-smashy-fuckwits appear at any left-wing march, and they showed up as per usual earlier in the day, but the events in the square, like the UK Uncut action earlier, seem to have been quite different to that – this was a bunch of young protesters sitting about in a square until it all went sideways. Instead yesterday's big problems seem to be a case of well-intentioned protesters not realising the damage they could cause the the overall message of the day if their secondary actions ended up going awry.

And, for whatever reason, awry they went. Meanwhile, many millions of people will be reading about a half-hour of scuffles in a square rather than the 400,000 people – this gentleman included – whose voices were drowned out by more noisy and photogenic events elsewhere.

March for the Alternative

Cameron's "complicated AV" con

February 18th, 2011

David Cameron, today, on the AV system:

Yes, there's a superficial simplicity in getting people to rank candidates in an order of preference…

…and redistributing votes until someone gets fifty percent.

But it's a lot more complicated than that.

Here's a passage from a book detailing how the Alternative Vote system works:

"As the process continues the preferences allocated to the remaining candidates may not be the second choices of those electors whose first-choice candidates have been eliminated. It may be that after three candidates have been eliminated, say, when a fourth candidate is removed from the contest one of the electors who gave her first preference to him gave her second, third and fourth preferences to the three other candidates who have already been eliminated, so her fifth preference is then allocated to one of the remaining candidates."

Do you understand that?

I didn't. And I've read it many times.

This could mean one of two things. Either Cameron is a liar, and does in fact understand that paragraph perfectly well, or he's not really very smart. I'd tend towards the former.

But more to the point: this whole argument is a straw man. What the paragraph he quotes really means is simply this:

If several rounds of counting fail to identify a candidate with a majority, then people who managed to vote for all the least popular candidates may find that their lower preferences are counted.

.. which is, of course, really quite simple and obvious in a system that takes account of second, third (and so on) preferences. Quoting a needlessly technical explanation in an effort to scare and confuse people is simply pathetic.

Eric Pickles declares war on the War on Christmas. Also, Narnia..

November 27th, 2010

Eric Pickles is the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He is also, it seems, prone to parroting any old bullshit from the Daily Mail. Viz: "Councils should take pride in Christmas celebrations".

"The War on Christmas is over, and likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous deserve to be in the dustbin of history.

Mr Pickles explained that the Christian festival has previously been ambushed by those intent on re-branding Christmas as a bland 'Winter festival', insisting that multi-cultural Britain can enjoy Christmas without abandoning its underlying Christian heritage in a misguided attempt to appease these politically correct 'Grinches'.

Honestly, where to fucking start with this. Let's do Winterval (Birnimgham, 2001), which wasn't Christmas – it was a period through December and the new year. An interval in Winter, if you will. Council spokesperson says:

"Far from not talking about Christmas the events within Winterval and the publicity material for it are covered in Christmas greetings and traditional images, including angels and carol singers."

So Winterval "replaced" Christmas in much the same way as December does. Curse the Romans and their foreign PC calendars!!1!

As for Luminos (also 2001, Luton), it was a town festival held on a weekend in November between Diwali and Christmas. There was a funfair. Oh my fucking god SAVE US FROM THE EVIL PC NOVEMBER FUNFAIR. The Sun worked itself into such a happy froth over the whole thing that it repeated the story in 2004, a whole three years after the actual event. Oops.

And "Winter Lights"? That was Lambeth, 2005. Council: "it was certainly not a council policy that we should call the lights winter lights … [it] was an error basically". Damn this massive conspiracy of occasional, localised publicity errors.

Anyhow, bah, humbug. It seems that Winterval comes earlier every bloody year. Does Pickles not have anything important or at the very least real to turn his attention and department budget to? If not, he might as well declare war on Narnia (Sarah Palin would probably lend a hand).

Lewisham East Candidate Expenses

July 20th, 2010

You've probably seen Channel 4's report on campaigning expenses, and Zac Goldsmith's rather bizarre attempt to ignore every rule of media training in addressing the allegations made against his campaign. In any case, once he did finally turn to the matter at hand, one of Mr Goldsmith's key arguments seems to be that the methods he used in his campaign – apportioning a percentage of costs for signs bearing his name and face to council elections, for example – are standard and have been used across the country. At the very end of the interview he even notes, of the Electoral Commission:

"Or they'll look at it and find something wrong. In which case, we'll need a repeat general election, because the rules that I adhered to are the same as the rules for other MPs".

This doesn't entirely make sense – as if he has adhered to the rules there'll be nothing for the commission to rule against – but the point's clear. Apparently every MP out there has been apportioning some costs off to local elections, leaving their short campaign expenses within the limits.

Only one way to find out, then.

As Mr Goldsmith claimed to have taken advice from Conservative Central Office, I figured it was worth checking the Short Campaign expenses of our local Conservative candidate, Jonathan Clamp. And, just to see if the other parties might be up doing the same sort of thing, I also checked the records for his opponent – Labour candidate, and now MP, Heidi Alexander.

The Short Campaign expenses limit in Lewisham East for the General Election 2010 was £7,150 plus 5p per elector. I took the electorate figure of 64,880 from the Lewisham council website, making this £10,394.40. Interestingly both candidates had worked to different figures, based on different numbers of voters, but not by much – we all believed the limit to be around £10,400 to £10,600. So, what did they spend?

Jonathan Clamp

In Mr Clamp's case, it's all rather simple. His expenses were neatly tallied up with receipts, and having spent around £400 on advertising and £7225 on direct mail his total was barely above £8,000. Should anyone wish to check I've created a PDF of his short campaign expenses here – note that I've redacted his home address from the one document where it appears. There are a few costs on the print receipts not included in the Short Campaign tally, but those were all accounted for in his Long Campaign expenses (examined, but not reproduced here). So far, so good.

Heidi Alexander

It might be argued that, as a third candidate in what is largely a two-horse race between Labour and the Lib Dems, Mr Clamp had little incentive to really push his campaign as hard as possible. So, I checked Heidi Alexander's expenses also. Again, I've created a PDF of the short-run receipts, which you can download here. I've redacted Ms Alexander's home address, her website username and a few bank account details from some receipts, and skipped the inside pages of BT phone bills.

These are rather more tricky to check, with hand-written documents and more receipts. The summary page lists a total spend of just under £6,000 – even less than Mr Clamp – although looking at the Spending Breakdown you can see that many items are marked with an "amount paid" significantly greater than the "value of item" that was included in this total.

In some cases this disparity makes sense, as for example it appears that £200 of a £400 sum paid for balloon gas was a deposit, but it's not always as clear. Nonetheless, assuming the worst case scenario – that the entire Amount Paid should have been accounted for in every case – the total expended works out at £9190.03, which is still some way below the maximum.

And that's it – a lot of ink and a few badly photocopied receipts, but not much else. I look forward to seeing what the people checking other constituencies come up with, not to mention what the Electoral Commission decides with regard to Mr Goldsmith's signs.

The Defenders

May 23rd, 2010

Galaxy Magazine, Vol 3 No 5, 1953

While waiting for the film to start yesterday we had a rifle through the south bank book market outside the NFT, and I came across this. It's from early 1953 and contains one of Philip K Dick's earliest published short stories – it's listed seventh in my rather battered copy of Beyond Lies the Wub, which is a must-buy if you like his stuff. The cover art is by Ed Emshwiller.

The story (or 'novelet', as it's billed)  includes three black-and-white illustrations, also by Emshwiller, which you can see scanned nicely in this Project Gutenberg edition (HTML). It's a classic cold war science fiction piece in which humanity has retreated underground while robots fight on their behalf up above, and was used as the basis for his novel The Penultimate Truth.

(Massive spoiler warning here – if you haven't yet read the story, please do so!)

I first read this story in maybe 1993 – in fact, I tore through the entire anthology, and then the next three volumes. I still have the books, although they're now so faded that it took a while to find them this morning. I can remember enjoying the clever twists in so many of these early tales, including The Defenders, but what leaps out reading them over 15 years (plus most of high school, a degree and a few jobs) later is the political context.

The story was published in the middle of the McCarthy Senate Committee era, and yet portrays a conclusion to the cold war (it's not even thinly disguised – one side is American, the other Russian, both have spheres of influence in Europe) in which, having nuked the hell out of one another, soldiers from the US and USSR are convinced that it's in their best interest to set aside weapons and differences and work together:

The Russians waited while the Americans made up their minds.

"I see what the leadys mean about diplomacy becoming outmoded," Franks said at last. "People who work together don't need diplomats. They solve their problems on the operational level instead of at a conference table."

The leady led them toward the ship. "It is the goal of history, unifying the world. From family to tribe to city-state to nation to hemisphere, the direction has been toward unification. Now the hemispheres will be joined and—"

Taylor stopped listening and glanced back at the location of the Tube. Mary was undersurface there. He hated to leave her, even though he couldn't see her again until the Tube was unsealed. But then he shrugged and followed the others.

If this tiny amalgam of former enemies was a good example, it wouldn't be too long before he and Mary and the rest of humanity would be living on the surface like rational human beings instead of blindly hating moles.

"It has taken thousands of generations to achieve," the A-class leady concluded. "Hundreds of centuries of bloodshed and destruction. But each war was a step toward uniting mankind. And now the end is in sight: a world without war. But even that is only the beginning of a new stage of history."

"The conquest of space," breathed Colonel Borodoy.

"The meaning of life," Moss added.

"Eliminating hunger and poverty," said Taylor.

The leady opened the door of the ship. "All that and more. How much more? We cannot foresee it any more than the first men who formed a tribe could foresee this day. But it will be unimaginably great."

The door closed and the ship took off toward their new home.

I think I'm going to have to go back and do some re-reading of his other stories – who knows what I've missed.