Under Three Hundred

The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Dignity Of Labour (Part 1)

Some thoughts on what Labour should do next. Don’t know if it will make any difference, but please feel free to draw people’s attention to it if you think it might.

1) Democratically choose a new leader. Now, this sounds like a statement of the obvious, but it’s not what happened last time. And while Labour’s failure to win wasn’t entirely Ed Miliband’s fault, when someone is putting themselves forward as a potential Prime Minister they are going to be judged on their personality, and their ability to persuade, to look like leadership material. Ed failed to coherently rebut the childish lie that it was Labour’s borrowing that caused the economic crisis and not a bunch of banks mis-selling subprime mortgages to each other. (However, given that the banking sector was acting like a magic money tree during the Blair years Labour did become too reliant on that tree’s tax yield). He failed to make the story about Labour coming to the rescue to save the UK from the consequences of the crash, which is what actually happened (I was there at the time, it was definitely on the news).

The point is, it was clear a couple of years ago that Ed wasn’t making any headway with voters, that he was a politics gonk, someone who had gone from student politics, to time-serving at Labour party HQ, to a safe seat in Westminster, without ever seeing daylight. One of those people who tweets about the X Factor without having watched it. Yes, he improved over the course of the campaign, but it was too little, too late. He should’ve jumped when it became clear he was a liability two years ago. And if not, then somebody should’ve pushed him (or at least, given him a kick up the arse). Any new leader should have, let’s say, two years, and if they’re a liability not an asset, they should make way for someone who stands a better chance of winning.

Which brings me back to ‘democratically choose a new leader’. The parliamentary Labour party and the members didn’t vote for Ed for their first choice as leader, and you know, maybe they knew what they were doing. Polling your membership isn’t just a democratic act, it’s a popularity contest – a contest to find out who will be best equipped to win the general election popularity contest. You don’t ignore or over-rule such an excellent opportunity for market research (yes, I realise Labour members might not be representative of the entire UK, but remember they are not voting for the candidate they like most, but the one they think other people will like most).

2) Labour should be in favour of proportional representation. By which I mean proper proportional representation, not the ‘miserable little compromise’ of AV. For too long Labour has let the fact that FPTP gave it an advantage over-rule the fundamental principle that PR is fairer. Any party which is committed to equality of opportunity and responsibility has to be in favour of equality of voting power. Every vote should matter and matter equally. Any parliament that represents the people should be representative of the people.

And, if we’d had PR at the last two elections, maybe Labour would have been in power, as part of a coalition, so there’s that too. Thing is, there’s quite a bit of policy overlap between Labour, the Greens, the Lib Dems and even the Welsh and Scottish nationalists, so it’s more important – and more representative of the wishes of the electorate – to not have a Conservative government than to have a singlehanded Labour government.

Following on from that, until the happy day where PR is introduced, Labour should co-operate with the Greens and the Lib Dems in by-elections and future FPTP elections, in the way outlined by Caroline Lucas a few days ago. The Greens and the Lib Dems are unfairly underrepresented in parliament. Labour should not step aside in by-elections, but instead we should field joint candidates. After all, many Labour candidates are already joint candidates of the Labour Party and the Co-Operative Party, why not candidates standing on a joint Labour and Green Party ticket? The differences between the parties are so small it is incredibly counterproductive for us to be fighting each other –depriving each other of supporters, votes, and seats – when 95% of the time we’re on the same side. In any upcoming by-election, whatever party that has the best chance of defeating the Conservatives should be the one the Labour party endorses, with the other parties reciprocating where Labour is best placed. After all, if we’re prepared to work together in a coalition, we can field candidates that are standing on a coalition ticket. This is not about panicking, or cheating – it’s about making the commons more representative, and getting us to a point where we can introduce PR and such arrangements will no longer be necessary.

Obviously I think there is plenty of scope to reform/abolish the house of lords but I don’t think it’s a vote winner or a priority.

3) Policies. I might offer some specific suggestions later on, I might not, but the fundamental principle has to be this; what actually works. I’m rephrasing a Facebook post I sent to a friend here, but the thing about Labour is that it shouldn’t be driven by ideology, it should be about practicality. Pragmatism. We should be in favour of nationalising the railways not because nationalisation is a good thing in and of itself, but because when you travel in Germany, for instance, you can’t help noticing that their nationalised railways are run more efficiently and cheaply than ours, it’s like living in the future. On the other hand, where the private sector and the free market have been shown to be more efficient and deliver a higher quality service, we should be in favour of the private sector and the free market. Absolutely. Never mind ideology; do what actually works.

It’s like with medicine. You follow best practice, where it has been proven to work. You conduct clinical trials, and you act according to the evidence, not what you would like the evidence to be. It’s nothing to do with ideology, but about being rational. Scientific.

(I do happen to believe that in many cases the state sector is more efficient than the private sector, but I am open to being proved wrong and changing my mind, that is the whole point).

Ah, you might cry. But isn’t our ideology what makes us different from the Conservatives? No. The difference is that they are the ones who blindly follow their ideology over the facts. That’s what’s so fucking terrifying about them. That they believe the private sector is a panacea, irrespective of the evidence from history or elsewhere in the world, and they are hell-bent on following that belief with a fundamentalist zeal. Never mind if it makes things worse, the free market can never be wrong! Never mind if our health service gets worse, our schools get worse. They are the ones who are happy to ignore facts that don’t fit their worldview. They have often shown themselves to be hapless, blinkered and corrupt, and it’s inevitable they will again.

So that should be what makes Labour different. It’s largely the approach that was taken under Tony Blair. Never mind considerations of left and right, just do what actually works. What makes people’s lives better, what makes services better. The only test of a policy is whether it will work to address a problem; not whether it is ‘the right thing to do’, not to do something because it looks left wing, not to do something because it will piss off people who are right wing.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Conservatives are going to get a few things right over the next government. Not very many, and by accident rather than judgment, but the law of averages states that some of their policies will be effective, even if they don’t fit our ideology. And Labour should recognise that. We should change our policies to fit the facts. We should be the party of best practice, of proven effectiveness, of good management. Do what actually works. If that means nationalisation, fine. If it means a mixed economy, fine. And if it means the private sector, fine.

4) Changing the narrative. We live in a very strange world where the prices of food, fuel, cars and train tickets coming down is a good thing, but where house prices going down is a bad thing. Because they are not buildings for people to live in, but investments, like old paintings and copies of the Please Please Me LP in stereo with the gold label. When, of course, house prices don’t reflect value at all, just how much debt people are willing to take on and how much debt the banks are willing to risk them with. Rising house prices just mean, for those who are paying off mortgages, more people with a negative-equity Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, desperately hoping the ever-inflating bubble won’t burst (like bubbles ever do anything else). There are all sorts of things Labour can do with housing – adopting best practice as shown elsewhere, see point number three – but I think stabilising house prices would be a start. There’s no point in trying to help people get on the bottom rung of the ladder if the bottom rung is rising faster than the help you’re providing.

The same applies to immigration. If a company is employing foreign workers instead of people who live nearby who would cost the same, it’s the company that’s the problem, not the foreign workers. But if foreign workers are cheaper than British workers, it’s not the company’s fault, any company is going to employ the cheapest workers it can find – the problem is that the cost of living for British workers is too high. The point is, immigration is not a bad thing. But sometimes it is a symptom of underlying problems in the economy, problems that need to be addressed. But it’s important to make clear, it’s not a cause, it’s an effect. Foreign workers are doing nothing wrong going where they can find the best work; companies are doing nothing wrong employing the cheapest workers they can find.

The same applies to benefits. Is it right that the hardworking taxpayer (or, in my case, the lazy, do-the-absolute-minimum-I-can-get-away-with taxpayer – we still pay our taxes, our voices should be heard!) should subsidize multinational companies paying low wages by making up the difference through income support and housing benefit? Is it right that the hardworking taxpayer should be paying off buy-to-let mortgages and generating profits for landlords through housing benefit? Is it right that we subsidize people owning second homes when there is a housing shortage? Is it right that foreign companies get grants and tax breaks that British companies don’t get – meaning British companies are at a competitive disadvantage in their own country (doesn’t seem very patriotic, or very nurturing of business – how are British businesses supposed to become the multinationals of the future when the government is more interested in helping their foreign competitors?) You have the bonkers situation where the SNP has given Amazon a grant (far more than Amazon pays in tax) to put Scottish bookshops and mail order companies out of business. For every job they create, at least one is lost. Bonkers.

The point is, the narrative should be about ‘How do we do the best for the taxpayer and for British companies?’ (And foreign companies too as well, of course, they are not all entirely evil).

And to all the people in low-paid shitty jobs; I’m not sure Labour promising them that their jobs will be paid very slightly better but still be equally shitty, or have slightly better contractual arrangements but still be low-paid, is going to make much difference. If you’re in a low-skills job, you know that the company can always replace you with somebody else rather than pay you more or give you a better contract. I suspect making Labour the party that says ‘Never mind your current shitty job, you will be able to go and get a better job somewhere else’ might work better. I don’t know how to do that, though. I am not an expert.

Those are my main thoughts. I think if Labour adopts policies which are best practice – where they can point to examples in other countries and go ‘Look, it works over there, we are literally copying’ then they will regain support and confidence of voters. I don’t think voters are looking for the party with the most ideologically pure politics, I don’t think most voters give a shit about left wing or right wing, I think all they care about is which bunch of suits will actually run the country better. Which means a leader who inspires confidence, a party that co-operates with other parties it shares common ground with rather than arguing with them, and policies which are not pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking but which are proven to work.

Because here’s the thing. There will be another financial crisis. No matter what party is in government, the global economy is a bubble machine and there will be another financial fubar. That said, the Conservatives have managed to create their own fubars in the past, and given that we’re in for two years of uncertainty and in-fighting over being in or out of the EU, our economy is – at best – going to be in a holding pattern waiting for a decision to be reached. The Conservative’s policies are doing nothing to protect us from the next disaster – if anything, they will leave us more vulnerable – and when it comes, Labour has to be ready.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Ship Of Fools

Yesterday saw the release of another Jonny Morris audio adventure, featuring investigators of the infernal Jago & Litefoot in The Flying Frenchmen, the first in their ninth series of adventures. You can order it by clicking a series of links, starting with this one.

Obviously to tell you all about it would be to give away all the surprises. But I will say this. It is to Christopher Priest and parallel universes what The Theatre of Dreams was to Philip K Dick and virtual reality. ‘Entirely unrelated to’ being one potential answer.

One of the fun challenges about writing adventures set in Victorian times is the research. I mentioned a short while ago how incredibly helpful it was of Charles Dickens to make such detailed sketches of his time (under the guise of Boz). I should also give credit to the site The Victorian Dictionary, which I’ve had bookmarked ever since I wrote The Haunting of Thomas Brewster. It’s an invaluable  resource, particularly as it’s about documents written about Victorian life at the time so you’re leapfrogging a bunch of middle-men and cutting straight to primary sources.

Of course, Jago & Litefoot isn’t really set in the ‘real’ Victorian times, it’s set in the fogbound London of Sherlock Holmes and his ilk, a Victorian London of the imagination created in films during the twentieth century. I highly recommend Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians for anyone interested in what the 19th century was really like, and how it became mythologized. You can see the same thing happening with films now, creating a certain version of the 60s, all false eyelashes and mini metros and top hats, the 70s, all migraine-inducing wallpaper and everything being a murky greeny-brown, of the 80s, where everything, even run-down mining villages, are wildly colourful (particularly favouring salmon pink, the official colour of the 1980s).

The same applies with Jago & Litefoot, it’s set in a mythological, almost dateless version of the 19th century. Although we do specify that the stories are set in the 1890s, they don’t take place in the real 1890s, they’re more set in a sort of 1850-1900 version of the past (following the precedent of The Talons of Weng-Chiang). In reality the 1850s were as different from the 1900s as the 1960s are from today; Dickens’ London was very different from Doyle’s – but in the Victorian London of the imagination, the Artful Dodger walks the same alleys as the Baker Street Runners.

Anyway, new box set, four brand-new adventures performed by the fantastic Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin, buy it now.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

All Over The World

A new issue of Doctor Who magazine is out on Thursday, so this is my last chance to plug the current issue, for which I wrote a feature about the last ten years of the series called Ten Years At The Top, which contained the happy news that they are only the ‘last’ in the sense of being ‘most recent’, because there are probably another five years to come at least.

One of the most exciting things about doing the feature was that it contains quotes from new interviews with the great Steven Moffat and current BBC Controller of Drama Commissioning Ben Stephenson. I wanted to put together the best-possible feature to commemorate the show’s success, so I cast my net wide. Getting Ben Stephenson was a bit of a coup, but just reflects how warmly-regarded the show is amongst the upper echelons of the BBC. It’s hard to imagine Ben’s predecessors in the 1980s giving the magazine similar interviews.

The news that Doctor Who will be around for another five years or so got picked up by all sorts of news outlets, including BBC News itself. I found this a trifle unnerving, to be honest. I was worried that I might’ve misquoted someone or that I would somehow jinx things. Fortunately the article had been read, checked and approved by Steven, so it wouldn’t contain anything to upset the apple cart, but nevertheless, seeing something that means so much to so many people go so big was a bit scary. As I tweeted at the time, they didn’t make this much fuss over my Paradise Towers Fact of Fiction. I imagine it’s just me making up this stuff to amuse Tom and Peter at the magazine, I don’t imagine it actually being read by 30,000 strangers.

The brief for the article was a bit tricky, as it had to celebrate the last ten years, but not cover the same ground as Cav Scott’s feature from last year about how the show came back, and not to repeat my own feature on Doctor Who’s appeal, The Wonder of Who. So I concentrated on two things; trying to understand and explain why the show was such a success when it returned – all those things that it got right which seem obvious in retrospect – and what has kept it a success. One interesting thing was trying to nail down the difference between Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat’s writing styles; the thing is, they’re not that different at all, they both can (and do) write scripts which are unlike what might be considered their normal style, they can write in each others’ styles, there is a definite overlap. I know some fans find their approaches to be radically different, but I think that while they bring different things to do show, they are pretty much on the same page in terms of what makes good Doctor Who.

As part of my net-casting I got in touch with as many of the writers who worked on the show as possible, those who were part of bringing in back, those who have made the greatest contribution over the last decade, and those who are currently working on it. I couldn’t include all of them, with these things you always have to draw the line somewhere. But I am immensely grateful to all of the writers who were so kind as to take the time to respond – I mean, Mark Gatiss, Chris Chibnall, Toby Whithouse, they are huge names in television.

Alongside the article was a potted history of the last decade of Doctor Who, concentrating on the various ‘firsts’. For the chronology I also researched real life events, but there was no room for them (and who cares about real life?). So here they are instead:

Tony Blair wins third term as Prime Minister; Live 8 concerts held; YouTube launched.
Pluto re-designated a dwarf planet; Daniel Craig debuts as James Bond; Twitter launched.
Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister; BBC ‘Crowngate’ scandal; global financial crisis begins. 
Boris Johnson elected Mayor of London; ‘Sachsgate’ scandal; Barack Obama elected US president.
MP expenses scandal; Avatar released; Michael Jackson dies.
Chilean miners rescued; David Cameron becomes Prime Minister; Eyjafjallajökull erupts.
 “Arab Spring” uprisings; Prince William marries Kate Middleton; London riots.
London Olympics and Queen’s 60th birthday; Shard completed; Barack Obama re-elected.
Meteorite crashes into Russia; Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela die; Prince George born.
Flooding in West Country; Scottish independence referendum; Philae probe lands on comet.