Saturday, May 27, 2006

What Kind Of World Are We Living In?

It's funny how it takes a degree of familiarity before the severity of a situation really hits home. Today's news, about the man fatally stabbed on a train, really shocked me - far more than the stories of fatal stabbings that seem to have peppered the news recently. Even the story of the fatal stabbing in my region. The reason, of course, is not that such an event doesn't shock me. The fact that a train journey is something I will make on a reasonably regular basis means that the news scares me.

But when I think about it, it is easy to see how such an event can occur. When I travelled home at Easter, I had taken the effort to reserve a seat, as standing for several hours is not something I particularly enjoy. When I got to my seat, I found someone sitting in it - who then proceeded to be exceptionally rude as I tried to put my bags away, and wait for him to remove his. His effing and blinding was the more shocking for the fact that he was with his family, including a young daughter at the time.

Rudeness is something that can almost be expected in these situations now. Talking to friends today, they had all experienced similar things. When there are people who cannot keep their self-control in such situations (after all, there are signs that tell you when a seat will be occupied), then bad things will happen. Bad things will happen to a worse extent when a culture develops that accepts carrying a knife. Whether we like it or not, there are sections of the population where it is barely remarkable.

I don't know what can be done to solve it. A knife amnesty seems pretty tame to me if people don't have a business carrying them in the first place. But I'm just shocked by the news today. Something has gone seriously wrong. And when Labour talk about the lesser risk of crime, does anyone believe a word they say any more?


I hate deadlines.

I also think my last post is a telling commentary on this blog's readership. I write what I think are well-thought-out, controversial, thought-provoking posts, and get nary a comment. I write a knockabout post about the Eurovision Song Contest and everyone posts in droves!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Praise the Lordi!

Normally, with events like the Eurovision Song Contest, I like to make arguments about the cultural and political significance that is tied up in them. My interest in the desire of Lebanon to compete alongside Europe's, er, finest, for example.

What can be said today about the triumph of Lordi, then?

Firstly, despite their self-description, faithfully reported by the media, as "horror rock", if today really is the "Day of Rockoning", then there really isn't much to be scared about. It sounds pretty much like a pop-rock song by numbers to me, and the only thing remarkable about them is their costumes.

This brings me on to my second conclusion, which is that Finns are mad. What other conclusion can you draw from a country that hosts the world championships of air guitar, sauna sitting, wife-carrying, and mobile phone throwing? This isn't a stereotype; all Finns are quite possibly certifiable.

On another Eurovision note, was it only of interest to me to find out that Arsenium (yes, seriously), the Moldovan entrant, was a member of the truly excreable O-Zone, responsible for the Europop tragedy that was Dragostea Din Tei? Yes?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The IDS Factor

Much to the disappointment of Labour and Tory partisans everywhere, Simon Hughes has shown the first move towards sticking the knife in Ming Campbell's back. I can't blame him at all; had I been defeated in a leadership election only to be treated to anaemic performances every week at PMQs, to have disastrous council results, and to show little sign of coming within a mile of landing a punch on either Cameron or Blair, then I would want him out of the way pretty soon, too.

My sometime co-blogger, Richard, posts on his own site a defence of Campbell, and calls for him to be given more time:

Only in the Westminster bubble are problems like Menzies' fatal. The British public are remarkably forgiving and willing to let people grow into roles. I urge other Lib Dems to do the same.

The difficulty is that politicians operate within the Westminster bubble. I have written in the past (although Richard has since erased it from the web) about how the BBC coverage of politics is absolutely vital in moderating public opinion. Such is the distrust of politicians that it takes an independent, respected figure like Nick Robinson or Andy Marr to stand in front of the cameras and tell the public whether their latest ideas are credible or not. Failure to convince the lobby journalists is fatal for political figures.

What is notable, however, is how few Lib Dems have been willing to show their support for Ming Campbell publically. Iain Dale wrote a roundup a couple of weeks ago in which he looked at the muted, tepid response to local election results. In the meantime, I've been unable to find any Liberal Democrat who will give his full support to Campbell. Their responses, in fact, remind me far more of the reaction given to another recent political leader - Iain Duncan Smith.

If you asked Tories in 2002 or 2003, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could give support. Almost from the outset of his leadership, he was considered a laughing stock, and every attempt to give him a personality, a vision, or just some sort of respectability abjectly failed. There have been few political moments as cringeworthy as his last party conference speech - "The Quiet Man is here to stay, and he's turning up the volume".

What you would hear, however, is a dogged determination to support the leader that the party had. "He's our man, we've got to stick by him". When presented with a list of other prominent party names, however, few were willing to say that they would perform worse than IDS. The same is happening with Ming (although as yet I haven't run through the LibDem front bench with people; the lack of talent may well show through in such an exercise).

Quite simply, I haven't come across anyone yet who can convince me that they believe Ming Campbell is the right man to lead the Liberal Democrats to further electoral successes. This isn't a question of being given time to settle into a role - it is a question of being taken remotely seriously. At PMQs, Campbell is visibly nervous, and no longer has the guts to stand up for more than ten seconds to explain the premises on which his questions are based. There's a credibility factor at stake here, and no-one takes Campbell seriously. Just the same way that no-one warmed to IDS.

Campbell's political death may be a slow, drawn-out process. No doubt there will be whispering campaigns, but too many people will be scared of being seen as the disloyal assassin. But continuing with him as leader will be an unseemly business for the Liberal Democrats. He is a figure that cannot be taken seriously as a political force. And until people are willing to say that openly, then their electoral fortunes will surely suffer. It can take a while to shake off that kind of negative momentum.

The Penalty Goal

Last night's European Cup (sorry, Champions' League) final was not short of controversy. Jens Lehmann, the Arsenal goalkeeper, became the first person to be sent off in such an occasion, a decision that has caused some backlash. The problem came not so much from the decision to send Lehmann off, for it was a clear foul. The ball, however, ran to a Barcelona player, who then slotted the ball calmly into the back of the net. The early whistle of the referee prevented the award of a goal.

For a while, it looked as if Lehmann might have been a tactical genius. Arsenal were clearly the poorer side last night, and I doubt they could have won if they had fallen behind early on. Sol Campbell's goal in the 37th minute gave them the lead which they then held for almost half the game. Taking one for the team - Lehmann getting himself sent off to prevent a near-certain goal - nearly worked. Not quite; Barcelona outplayed Arsenal for most of the second half and in the end the superior fitness of 11 men playing against 10 told.

Nevertheless, the distinct possibility remains that Lehmann's professional foul could have counted in Arsenal's favour, and seen them walk home with a piece of silverware they had no right to claim. In short, the rules of the game need amending to make sure that blatant cheating is not rewarded.

In rugby, a deliberate foul that prevents a try can be punished by a penalty try - the awarding of five points, plus the chance to take a conversion kick from directly in front of the posts (ie the two bonus points are almost guaranteed, too). That way, things such as the temptation to trip someone up when a player is beaten, or the deliberate dropping of a maul that is moving too quickly to be stopped before it reaches the try-line are penalised not just through punishing the player responsible, but positively rewarding the team that had reached that position.

Should Barcelona have been denied a goal last night as a result of Lehmann's foul? Of course not; it was cynical, and Arsenal deserved to be punished by playing a man down. Football is not won and lost purely by the number of players on the field at the end of 90 minutes, however. Goals, ultimately, are the vital currency in the game. And if the undeniable skill of one team is denied by the foul play and cheating of another, then they should be rewarded with a goal. In practice, as in rugby, a penalty goal would be awarded infrequently indeed - it should only be used for a blatant foul like that of Lehmann's, or for a deliberate handball to block a goal.

In both the cases outlined above, only the illegal intervention of another player prevented a goal. Imagine if Lehmann's foul had been committed in the 89th, rather than the 19th minute - thus clearly depriving Barcelona of a rightful victory. The red card given to Lehmann wouldn't be much of a consolation then. Cheating should not get a reward; the only way to stop this is to allow the awarding of a goal when, in the referee's opinion, the intervention stopped a certain score. For an hour last night, Jens Lehmann looked a tactical genius. That to do so required a cynical foul is not right.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Recurring Nightmare

I keep waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Somehow, it is in the back of my mind that John Reid is Home Secretary and Margaret Beckett is Foreign Secretary. I thought this was some trick of the mind at first, but now I'm not so sure. Can someone reassure me please?

Monday, May 15, 2006

What's In A Name? Pt 1

Major League Soccer has a new franchise - Toronto FC. There's been much discussion over at JABS, a Toronto sports blog, regarding the choice of the name. Some think that it won't catch on, and something more exciting was needed to attract fans. Others (including the author) disagree, arguing that it is a name that respects the traditions of football, and has the particular benefit of not been contrived in any way.

I have to agree with such an analysis. One of the difficulties that North America has always had as regards being taken seriously in world football is the fact that any attempt to market it has been in a recognisably "American" format, leading to bizarre team names like the Kansas City Wiz. That, combined with their calling the game "soccer", leads them to be viewed as slightly backward cousins (tying in with a regular stereotype of 'across the pond', of course). It's even worse when they try and can European traditions and place them in an American format. Real Salt Lake? Not a chance. What links does Utah have to the Spanish monarchy!

This, I think, is one of the problems that the US has in making greater strides in world football. Partly the problem is one of the locus of power, which rests firmly in the European club structure. Without exposure to European teams, then North American football will struggle, because it will be unable to test itself against the strongest teams. Moreover, a league system based on a salary cap, and marketing techniques that de-emphasise football itself as entertainment, means that players will only go to America for a lucrative pay-day at the end of their career. This is not to say that there is not a lot of talent in North America - far from it; the US played some of the most exciting football of the last World Cup and really only lacked a striker.

The choice of names for teams, however, is interesting in the way that it can reflect the culture that people want to create. Calling the new franchise Toronto FC suggests to me that there is a desire to place an emphasis on the key selling point, the football. No frills, no nonsense, just pure football. The thrill of the competition is good enough.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mercy For Ming

Guido has a wonderful image of Ming Campbell and Vince Cable juxtaposed with the Muppets. It is apt indeed; since becoming acting leader Campbell has been nothing short of a disaster at PMQs - the one time when the leader of the third party (no matter their pretensions) is publically visible. This reached its height last week, when Blair gave Campbell the political equivalent of a bitch-slapping despite the fact Campbell had chosen to ask about the Home Office - an open goal if ever there was one.

Guido writes of Campbell today:

Today Blair checked himself as Ming went off notes and mumbled his question, Blair struggled to suppress a smirk. So bad was the meandering question that Blair restrained himself and didn't counter-punch. Professional politicians on all sides recognised that as a merciful professional courtesy to a man in deep difficulties.

I beg to differ. Campbell is so bad that Blair does not want to beat up on him. As things stand, Campbell is possibly Blair's, and Labour's, biggest electoral asset. It does not take a vicious put down from the Prime Minister for anyone watching PMQs to realise that Campbell is an incompetent old buffer - or a "statesman" in Lib Dem code.

The greatest shift that occurred in British politics during the leadership of Charles Kennedy was the repositioning of the Lib Dems as the major opposition to Labour - often opposition from the left - in the urban centres of Britain. That resulted in some surprising results at the last election, including the wins of Manchester Withington and Hornsea and Wood Green.

With a resurgent Tory party, however, anti-Tory feeling among traditional Labour supporters will undoubtedly rise, and the Liberal Democrats will require strong leadership to convince those voters to continue to back them. It would surprise me if Ming Campbell could inspire the most frenzy-filled conference chamber, let alone sceptical voters who may not for much longer see his party as the "least-worst" option.

The fact is that a weak Lib Dem party is an asset for Blair; the disaffected voters who switched over Iraq, and liked the sound of a 50% tax rate are natural left-wing voters, and will try and keep the Tories out at all costs.

Blair wasn't being merciful in not sticking the knife into Campbell at PMQs today. He was protecting his strongest asset.

Friday, May 05, 2006

My First Day Campaigning

Yesterday, I understood for the first time the real excitement of partisan affiliation in politics. Although not a party member, a good friend of mine was running for Oxford City Council, and so I spent much of the afternoon and evening hitting the campaign trail on his behalf. In my first stint, this mostly involved telling - pleasant, if uneventful.

It was in the evening that I was more actively involved, knocking on doors and generally persuading people to go to the polls. This meant, with barely an hour until the close of polls, being driven to the other end of the city in one last push for what was considered one of the closest wards.

Partially, it was the time factor, and the need for swift movement, that contributed to the excitement I got. Time was very much of the essence. But there was also a great feeling of satisfaction from managing to get just two households to vote. It was the second of these that provided the best story:

Me: "Hi. Sorry to bother you, I'm calling on behalf of the Liberal Democrats to remind you that today's the local election, and the polls are open until 10pm"

Old Lady: "My husband's been up since 4.30 this morning - he's been in London all day and he's only just got back in..."

Great. Just what I need - campaigning for a party that I'm not a member of, and I'm about to have a strip torn off me for disturbing people after half past nine in the evening.

"...but if you can get us a lift to the polls, then we'll go."

Will my experiences yesterday encourage me to find a party in which to hang my hat? I doubt it. As exciting as the experience, and as interesting as seeing the process of organising an election was, the crucial thing before pledging support is surely the policies they follow. In a city where one of the two parties I would consider supporting simply doesn't register, helping out one campaign is no problem at all. But would I have felt so easy about my campaigning efforts had I been getting out the vote against those wearing blue rosettes, rather than red or green? Certainly not.

But I can't help but have some regrets about that. I have a real sense of achievement about having given active support to two victorious campaigns, and working on a team with a shared purpose was great fun. Let's just hope by the next time I get involved in campaigning, I'll feel better about supporting any particular party!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

And As I Watched Him On The Stage...

Tony Blair's attempts to justify the chronic incompetence in the Home Office are nothing short of utterly pathetic. His only attempt at a defence is that the problem has been going on for a long time. That just doesn't hold up at all - Clarke was made aware of this problem a long time ago, and the problem intensified after he was made aware of it. Blair has to stop being allowed to get away with this argument - his party has been in power for nine years; it has had more than enough time to sort out problems within government, and it has manifestly failed.

I have been even more shocked by Blair's performance at PMQs today than I was yesterday when I learned that the man accused of the murder of a WPC in Bradford is one of those who should have been deported upon his release from prison for a criminal conviction. The only excuse for this seems to be that the man was a Somali national, and we do not return people to Somalia. What the hell is he doing in the country?

There are surely rules that any individual in society has to abide by for society to function properly. And if you do not have any intrinsic right, through nationality, to reside in Britain, then surely coming to this country to live implies a recognition of the laws that operate there? If you don't, then claiming any continued right to remain in the country must be blown out of the water. And failing to get rid of these criminals is a major stain on the government. Pretending anything otherwise is just a dereliction of duty.

If, as Charles Clarke has just admitted, there is a "systemic failure" in the Home Office, that has continued AND WORSENED beyond when he was made aware of it, then he quite simply has to resign. He is responsible for those actions, and his failure to act means that he has forfeited any public confidence in his ability to sort the scandal out. He has to go, now. Watching an attempt at a justification of this just makes me clench my hands in fists of rage. Satan's spell will continue to operate while the non-deportation of murderers and rapists is justified by the continuation of Charles Clarke in office.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Bawling My Heart Out

There's been a flurry of activity at the Touchline Bawler this week, including ruminations on the NFL draft, Big Phil, and club cricket. Go and take a look...