Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Failure To Dylan

Joe Otten's useful heads-up on Caroline Lucas and the dogma of the Church of EnvironMentalism reminds me of something I meant to blog about a while back but left alone largely to avoid overloading the world with energy stuff.

We are often reminded how windy Britain is and how much potential there is meant to be for wind generation. Heck, one Lib Dem blogger (who I will refrain from naming in order to save a fellow elected member from having their name and moron too closely associated in Google) even went so far as to say;

“It's a myth that renewables cannot provide baseload. There has never been a day on record when the wind has not blown somewhere in the UK. The point about baseload is that what you need is enough people in enough places producing electricity. The more you decentralise electricity generation the more secure the baseload becomes. “

Interestingly, two weeks before that was said, a useful little study of the actual potential of wind generation in Britain was published. Okay, most of you probably weren't reading The Telegraph when it was covered, but I would hope my constant plugs have started to focus everyone's minds on The Register, a far more sound source of technology news.

As our anonymous blogger rightly identifies, the great problem for wind has always been the difficult question of variability; that sooner or later, the wind will stop blowing. We as Lib Dems have never really worried about this because the answer, we're told, is our favourite word; decentralisation. Indeed, some have proposed that large scale wind investment should be accompanied by the establishment of a Europe-wide electricity grid, so that the areas with the best wind at any moment can sort everyone else out.

The study uses the existing Met Office wind speed database, as measured at weather stations across the country, to evaluate the nationwide wind potential over the decade from 1996 to 2005. In general terms, it finds the system susceptible to “large, rapid and frequent changes of power output.” Hardly the best of starts, but nothing like as bad as things get when we consider the extremes of Britain's energy needs.

Excluding specific events like deaths on Coronation Street and England reaching the semi-final of anything, the annual peak of electricity demand generally occurs on the coldest evening of the winter between five and six pm, as domestic demand rises after the school run faster than commercial demand tails off at close of business.

You might expect that the coldest events are associated with Arctic or Siberian winds blowing cold air into the country. What the report finds, however, is that the coldest period in any British winter occurs when a high pressure system takes up residency over the country for a period of days; the absence of cloud to insulate the nation being far more potent when it lasts for five days or more.

More importantly, however, high pressure systems not only bring no cloud, but no wind either. Perhaps the most shocking finding of the report is this; between five and six pm on February 2nd, 2006 (the peak of the electricity demand that year) the total electricity output of the UK's wind turbines was less than zero, as demand from auxiliary systems in the turbines exceeded their output. And that isn't a number from the model; it's the actual result as measured by the National Grid! What's more, such examples really aren't unusual; a five day high pressure, low wind cold snap is an annual occurrence in the UK, while a ten day low wind cold snap is probably a once in twenty year event.

As for the Europe-wide grid, the report compared their modelled wind load factor for the UK against the large existing wind farm system in Germany and Denmark;

I'm sure you don't need my help reading that graph.

The message remains as clear as it has always been; the question of our future energy supply is absolutely not intuitive and it cannot be answered by reference to bland and uninformed generalisations. There is no issue for which that old chestnut the “informed debate” is more vital.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Call Them Out Early, Call Them Out Often

I wouldn't normally blog merely to post a link from a newspaper, and particularly not a link that I got from Matt Drudge, but everyone should take a look at this piece from the LA Times because it's the point where Gordon Brown's remaining economic credibility gets flushed firmly down the toilet. In the government's spin of the global financial crisis, the most consistent line from Numbers 10 and 11 has been that we are better placed than other similar economies to weather the storm.

That is, of course, utter bollocks.

Surely none of us needed the LA Times to point out to us that the global financial crisis is exactly that; financial. And in such circumstances, the only criteria for how well you can weather the storm is how big your financial sector is and and how exposed it is to everyone else's. You don't need to be an economist to know that by those criteria, the UK is fairly firmly screwed.

Now perhaps there is something to be said for not fanning the flames, for politicians to be calm and considered at this stage. But when the government's only response to economic catastrophe is to insult everyone's intelligence, they absolutely need to be called out on it, because it absolutely calls into question their own intelligence.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Africa's Mesic Moment

And so for we keen watchers of developing democracies, the moment of destiny draws unexpectedly nearer.

It's difficult to judge the truth of the situation in South Africa; did Mbeki try to use the courts to deal with a rival? Is Zuma serially corrupt? Either way, you can but conclude that if this sort of thing was happening to any other party in any other democratic country, they'd have poll ratings that would make Gordon Brown look beloved.

And yet, in the most recent poll I could find the ANC weren't registering any real loss of support. The damage to South Africa of such a result is obvious; though the criminal allegations are unproven, Mr Zuma has not exactly distinguished himself as a leader and promises, if anything, greater tribalism in South African politics. The potential damage to the rest of the continent, however, is far more severe.

The tale of South Africa now is, sadly, the tale of most of the rest of Africa; a strong resistance party emerges, forces the end of colonial or colonist power, sweeps to power in a democratic election and becomes the occupying power itself. What's more, after the Zimbabwe experience, we're used to the idea that the occupation of power is achieved by vote-rigging, intimidation and violence, but those are the strategies of the endgame, not the opening.

South Africa may to some extent be insulated from that process by its dependence on native corporate power and Mbeki's black middle class, but the longer it remains under ANC rule “just because”, the longer it takes for it to become the example and the leader we keep wanting it to be. If Mbeki's legacy does end up being a successful transition to a Zimbabwean democracy, it will be by luck more than judgement; he was never in a position to be a leader in that standoff because his ANC is what ZANU-PF once was.

While the ANC is there, insulated from its mistakes by overwhelming goodwill, it serves as the example to every entrenched African leader that they have the right to stay in the job. A peaceful, democratic transition of power in South Africa is vital to say to the rest of the continent, “this is the way to do it”. If the current mess can help bring that about by finally puncturing the ANC's hegemony, it may be the one good thing to come of it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Unliveblogging The Leader

Apathy aside, it takes a lot to get me to miss the Leader's speech, especially when it's a leader I've so enthusiastically supported from the start making his first autumn speech. So there was an irony to my location yesterday afternoon; while Nick was before the faithful, I was with two of my Cardiff colleagues filming a quiz show (and in the first of many trailers, you can see the fruits of our labours on Monday, September 29th at 8:30pm on BBC Four).

Then again, between BBC Parliament and the iPlayer you're never far away from a repeat, though that does lead to an important semantic question; what do you call a liveblog of a repeat? Still, here goes...

The whole podiumless/noteless thing has very much become the cultural norm, but you have to be a bit careful where you head with it; there aren't enough cameras covering you on that stage and the director is the Beeb's, not your own, so in playing the crowd, you risk failing to play to the camera, which is where you're actually talking.

While we're on the visuals, something I've been wondering about all week; much as the big video screen is very nice, the fading colour scheme looks far too grey when it gets down to human height. Maybe someone decided a brashly yellow background wasn't the right note, and that's fine, but it has to look less muddy in front of those cameras.

As for content, there's spunk to start, which is what I've been looking for from that stage for a while. There's been so much talk about authenticity this week, and the one thing that Nick brings in spades that Ming sadly never could is authenticity in attack. It's something Charles had too and I hope we'll see more of it in PMQ's in the future.

Then the segue into the economy (and incidentally, does Lembit realise the damage his campaign will do to spelling of the word segue in this country?) I'm surprised and delighted that there's a specific rejection of trickle-down economics; in the whole social liberal/economic liberal battle (such as it isn't), it strikes me that the “economic liberals” support the low-end tax cuts, but they want the trickle-down cuts too. Eleven years of New Labour have largely proved that they don't work and it's a sign of the extent to which we aren't lurching to the right that that's in there.

Similarly redistributive, a word that even I as a lefty might have blanched at using; the analysis is right, but the word has become so stigmatised that there's a definite leap of faith in using it. The explanation of paying for it worked too; savings will sound to the lay person as a pound here and a pound there and pretty soon it adds up to real money, whereas in reality the big ticket items are there to be ditched.

I'll skirt over the energy section because we've had that discussion before, but I will at least admit that if you're going to follow the Church of EnvironMentalism dogma, you might as well give it the full Billy Graham treatment and he certainly did that.

From spunk we now head to anger and at exactly the right time; talk about authenticity, when you've got child number three on the way you damn well ought to be angry about children and their prospects in this country. I'm not sure I'd have channelled that anger into the crime and justice section though; it's all right if you're going to whack a personal story in there, but if you're going to spend the anger bonus on civil liberties, no-one will care because it's something you expect the Lib Dem to be angry about.

And then the soundbite happens. I don't mind the soundbite, but I would have done it the other way round; don't say you're headed for government and then explain why, explain why and then punctuate it. Still, some nice passion through the closing stages and a reasonably neat (though mildly cheesy) linkage to Make It Happen. But then that bloody lifting gesture at the end; it doesn't look quite as bad as it did with Ming, but it's still rather wooden.

All in all, a very good job; I wish the personal stories had really been personal, about Nick and his life to emphasise that element of the narrative, but the stories there were still served a purpose. The important thing is to carry it on into the next parliamentary term, to keep the anger up, to blow past Cameron's shtick as the friendly face of the Daily Mail's version of the man on the street and actually represent the needs of the people of this country.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

One Song Remains The Same To The Tune Of Another

Much has changed in my life over the two years and 101 posts of this blog's history, but my pleas of poverty when faced with the possibility of conference remain constant. And yet, while last year I enthusiastically abused BBC Parliament, this week I've found myself pretty apathetic to the whole experience.

You might conclude that this is because I, as an avowed left-winger, am unhappy about Make It Happen. Strange to report, the problem is almost the opposite; I'm unfussed either way about Make It Happen, because I'm not particularly convinced it actually changes anything.

Don't get me wrong, it's a very good document; at least one blogger described it as the best thing the party's ever produced and I wish I could remember which one because I tend to agree with that assessment. And yes, as a process geek who has had a hand in the production of an SAO's constitution, I do think the process was bad and the motion that went to conference was bad.

But I'm not convinced the poor process matters in this case because the change is so slight. For starters, we shouldn't forget that we've known about this pot of money for quite some time. Heck, back at the tail end of 2006 in my LDYS Policy Officer days, I attended an FPC meeting where Julia Goldsworthy briefed the committee about the search for this very money; indeed, I ended up getting into an row with my own Vice-President when she refused to identify specific savings despite my point that students at Freshers Fair stalls were smart enough to ask “So how are you paying for abolishing tuition fees?” and weren't going to take a vague promise of savings as an answer...

All in all, before Make It Happen we were going to save an amount of money, spend most of it on specific big ticket items and spend the remainder on that old fall back of “schools and hospitals”, an identity that in political semantics is rather vaguer than we tend to imagine. Now we've just pledged to spend that remainder on a similarly vague tax cut (probably a further increase in the personal allowance but it doesn't appear from the comfort of my sofa that it's been specified).

The importance of Make It Happen was firmly in the rhetoric, and not even in a shift to the right of the rhetoric. After the original tax paper, we got screwed with our pants on by the “what about two married teachers?” argument, and perhaps rightly so. Tax II: Attack Of The Revenue righted the policy, but by then the spin was too firmly established, that any Liberal Democrat fiddling with the mechanics of tax would screw those on middle incomes. We needed a firm commitment of an amount of money to a tax cut to change the story, to highlight the effect of everything else, and it looks to be succeeding.

There are big battles ahead, to be sure, most notably on tuition fees next Spring. But we should be clear that Make It Happen can definitely be sold on the doorstep and in the air war; that can only be a great leap forward for our party.

PS I'd link to Make It Happen directly, but as I write the Federal Party website is down. This could be a very good sign or a very bad one, but I'll leave that question to the philosophers...

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Distinct Lack Of Whispers

One thing you have to admit about Peter Black's place in the Welsh blogosphere is that he does keep you on your toes. Like Peter, I was appalled when Gareth Hughes (come on Peter, as Spike Milligan said, "that's it, name the bugger!") told viewers of Sharp End that there were concerns within the party about Kirsty Williams' ability to lead the party with small children to look after.

Now I may not walk in such exalted circles as Assembly Members, but then again we Lib Dems don't have many circles inbetween. Either way, I can safely say that in all the speculation that has gone on about the possible leadership race (and let's face it, with the timetable we've been lumbered with there's been a lot of that) I have never heard anyone say at any level in any way that the children made Kirsty unsuitable for the job.

As for the weekends rumour, I have no idea where that came from, but as once it was with Nick, a little personal story is worth noting. My most up-close experience of Kirsty at work was at a consultation session for the soon-to-be-launched education policy paper. That consultation was on a Saturday, and Kirsty drove one of her staffers and myself from Brecon to Rhayader early in the morning and led a full and fruitful day's discussion of the issues. So there.

Whatever happens in this leadership election, we are going to have a powerful female leader, and we can be rightly proud that none of the other parties in Wales are anywhere near delivering that.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Your Name Here (Subject To Bailout)

Much was made on tonight's Match Of The Day of the strange scenario at The Hawthorns, where West Brom played without a shirt sponsor because they don't have one and West Ham played without a shirt sponsor because XL Holidays went belly up on Friday, leading to this rather fetching example of the seamstress' art;

What went less noticed was that there was another club playing today whose shirt sponsor also recently collapsed. Then again, that's not entirely unreasonable, since Match Of The Day is not Newsnight* and, let's face it, amidst the shambles that is Newcastle United, who's spending any time looking at their kit?

Mind you, a few more people might be watching at Kingston Park on Sunday when Newcastle Falcons model this;

And if the rain continues to hold off, my beloved Gloucestershire will run out at the Riverside to be faced with this delightful number;

The difference, of course, is that Northern Rock only collapsed far enough for Alastair Darling to get his balls out of Gordon's pocket and do what Vince told him to. Even so, you might imagine that the newly-nationalised Rock would have cut out any extraneous spending, but apparently not.

It's entirely possible that our present Government have far too much faith in the ability of sponsorship to apply the aforementioned cosmetic product to the aforementioned porcine ungulate. Equally however, a cynic might suggest that Newcastle-upon-Tyne North and City Of Durham are somewhat more marginal than West Ham and East Ham...

Oh wait, that's right, I am a cynic...

*insert your own “Hansen and Lawro analyse Labour's woes” sketch here

Friday, September 05, 2008

Three Score Days From Now, Our Forefathers...

So what did we learn from the Midwestern love-ins of the last two weeks?

The single most salient point, I suspect, is that we should all stay away from nuclear power plants in California for the next sixty days. This whole election has been the seventh season of The West Wing for a while now; a young, oratorically gifted man from a central state making a historic run for people of his race against the wily political veteran from the west with cross-party appeal? Are you kidding me here?

But it was the two pieces of actual news from the whole process, the Vice-Presidential nominees, that sealed the deal; Joe Biden is Leo McGarry, the Washington insider who's really an outsider, while Sarah Palin is Ray Sullivan, the acceptable face of right-wing firebrandom. Of course, because of the unique way the West Wing ran the Democratic Convention, Leo never gave a speech. You suspect, however, that he'd have been about as workmanlike as Biden was. Ray Sullivan, by contrast, played the attack dog to a tee in the fictional universe.

Sarah Palin just didn't. Paul Walter got it absolutely right last night; is there anything she read off the autocue that wouldn't have been done a hundred times better by Kay Bailey Hutchinson? Rarely have so many pundits spouted so much utter guff as they have in the last twenty-four hours in trying to mention Palin's speech in the same breath as Obama's from 2004.

For the record, the two most remarkable speeches by non-principals were both on the Democratic side. Senator Bob Casey would have been the best had he gone beyond endorsing Obama despite their disagreement on abortion and made a firm statement that such disagreement does not utterly compromise the other side's judgement. As it is, the real star was Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, the best attack dog of the whole thing.

And while we're here, let's deal with the Sarah Palin issue. Yes, there are some who are attacking her out of sexism, but the vast majority of her are attacking her out of plain old hypocrisy. Does Bristol Palin's pregnancy or Trig Palin's age matter to us on the left? Of course not. But it sure as hell matters to those on the right, in Sarah's own party, and that is hypocrisy and it deserves to be called out.

In any case, I don't need to invoke sexism to know that she couldn't and shouldn't be President, a serious threat when the top of the ticket is more likely to die in office than any major party candidate since FDR. Sarah Palin isn't pro-capital punishment, pro-creationism, anti-gay, pro-gun, anti-abortion even in cases of rape and incest and (despite her pathetic protestations that she's tough on corruption) in the pocket of the oil industry because she's a woman, she just is all those things, and that is disqualification enough.

As for the experience argument, here's the comparison; would you want someone who'd served six years as mayor of Cullompton, four years for an oil quango and two years as mayor of Glasgow commanding the most powerful armed forces in the history of the world? Barack Obama was spending eight years in the Illinois Senate (a state twenty times bigger than Alaska) and four years in the United States Senate while concurrently Sarah Palin was running a town and a state whose policy priorities are oil, oil, oil, oil and oil.

Mind you, the Sarah Palin fuss has done a tremendous job of keeping the other women of the campaign out of the headlines. And speaking of sides of the same coin, the Michelle Obama/Cindy McCain contrast couldn't be more vivid. Michelle had a great convention, but it's difficult to know which group it will play to more; the sense that she'll be another Hillary as First Lady was only reinforced, but that could easily turn off more anti-Hillary independents than it turns on pro-Hillary democrats. As for Cindy, it was only really at the convention that we learned that she might almost have Michelle's credentials as an activist and humanitarian. The contrast I can't shake off, however, is the thing John is meant to have over Barack; authenticity. Michelle was an engaging speaker and looked like a human being, Cindy was dull and looked utterly fake.

And then we come to the candidates themselves, and what is still clearly the key to this election. John McCain is a decent public speaker, but he just isn't inspirational, not even at a basic level. When they go head-to-head in the debates, if Obama can turn McCain's record on its head and lead with the inspiration we have seen he can generate, we might see a different West Wing metaphor. What I am sure we have seen these last two weeks is that Barack Obama can give John McCain the sort of butt-whupping we haven't seen since Bartlet over Ritchie. And that really could be a sight to see...

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Straight Outta Brentwood

My whimsical adventures in the world of advertising were unfortunately not my only observational distraction on my way to Essex. What I saw on the other side of London put me in mind of that classic Bartletism; “Is it possible to be utterly shocked and yet not surprised at all?”

It all started at Chelmsford, where for some reason there was a delay after the train doors closed. A boy of about fifteen sporting a proto-pubescent moustache arrived on the platform in grey shellsuit and baseball cap and tried the doors to no avail. An eighteen-year-old on board the train, similarly grey from head to toe and similarly tache-laden, went to the doors and, after a moment taunting his friend, helped him prise the doors open by force. The pair then came and took up the set of seats across the aisle from me, the younger of the two swinging between the seats and asking his compatriot “You been down probation?” Ominous is insufficient to describe it...

The pair then dissected the news from the streets, which largely boiled down to the theft of someone's hat the previous night and the likelihood that its recovery would require violence. This was something for which the younger was clearly qualified, as the elder told him of the times he had hired a taxi to take him and his friends to watch their battles outside the local leisure centre in earlier days.

Conversation then turned to the strictures of the elder's probation. Not that there was any opportunity for a heart-warming warning from the wise head of the old lag; after all, the younger lad was asking his friend if anything had changed since he'd been on probation previously. The elder was trying to keep his nose clean through the probation, though his justification was the dubiously satisfactory “apart from drugs my record's clean”.

Then with our mutual destination fast approaching, they returned to the affair of the stolen hat. The elder's analysis? That violence was to be expected, as the boy in question had already seen three of his friends die. The younger lad agreed that it was surprising that there hadn't been any killings recently and the elder opined that if things did kick off as he was expecting, he would move away.

Why mention all this? To emphasise the absolute normality of the conversation to its participants. None of the violence was calculated by the individuals or the collective; it was just a normal element of the social interactions of this particular network of teenagers. They knew the dangers, they knew they had options to get away from it, but they chose not to.

Ultimately, it's that normality that we're fighting when we think about gang culture and anti-social behaviour. What is absolutely clear is that Labour's approach, the unbearable criminalisation of being, will not only fail to reach out to that peer group, it will actively reinforce its belief in its own normality. Only a radical approach has any chance of reaching beyond treating the symptoms and actually curing the problem.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Unintelligent Intelligence

Adland is a fairly mythical place and with good reason. Nevertheless, there is a fine distinction to be drawn between poetic licence and flat-out factual inaccuracy. Moreover, when the potential sinner is theoretically in the business of intelligence, proper appreciation of the niceties of reality is positively essential to avoid death by irony.

In fairness to GCHQ, the task they face in terms of recruitment advertising is enormous. MI5 and MI6 have the Beeb fighting their corner with Spooks which, while increasingly delusional (Code 9 may be the single most insane spin-off programme ever created) at least imbues the spies foreign and domestic with a little je ne sais quoi. GCHQ, meanwhile, sits in its monolith by the motorway with no action heroes or pin-ups to overcome the fundamental London-centricity of our national psyche.

Realistically, the only approach available is to turn that perch on the edge of the Cotswolds into an advantage. It's an approach that should be fairly easy to implement too; naturally biased against the place as I am, even I will admit that heading to the leafy Georgiana of Cheltenham is massively different to the sort of governmental exile that the DVLA or HMRC represent.

Unfortunately, the splendour of Montpellier and the gentility of Charlton Kings weren't enough for whichever agency is responsible for the latest round of shelter posters that were adorning the Great Western Main Line as I made my trip east this weekend. Instead of classic urban living or suburban bliss, the image we instead find beneath the vaguely pathetic but contractually required claims of coolness by association is that of a Cotswolds village. The tagline?

Work for your country. Live in the country.

It's a beautiful sentiment, but one let down by those pesky strictures of reality. Note in particular the key enjoinder of the poster, namely that the energised reader should text a word to a five digit number. It is fairly fundamental that, if your chosen method of communication is a text message, the type of person you are trying to attract is a young one; then again, the type of person you're trying to attract to a career with a poster is probably not exactly middle-aged either.

Equally, said young person is unlikely to be far along the career path and as such is being recruited to a junior post, and a junior non-London weighted government post at that. One thing that you can say for certain about such positions is that the pay isn't going to get you very far in the property market of the Cotswolds, the land that affordable housing forgot.

Still, advertising would not be advertising if there wasn't one born every minute. And yet somehow the thought of the ones born every minute being our first line of defence in the intelligence war doesn't exactly inspire confidence...