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Saturday, 2 August 2008

'Mirror' gives book on McFool's demise

Never let it be said of the Mirror that they let their editorial protestations of support cloud their obligation to get their readers into the betting shop. The book's open on McFool's downfall and the Mirror are reporting the following prices on his successor:
Next Leader of the Labour Party: 2-1 David Miliband, 10-3 Harriet Harman, 6-1 Alan Johnson, 13-2 Jack Straw, 8-1 Ed Balls, James Purnell, Jon Cruddas, 10-1 John Denham, 16-1 Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, 20-1 Andy Burnham, Ed Miliband, Douglas Alexander, 25-1 Jacqui Smith, 28-1 Caroline Flint, Ruth Kelly, 40-1 Charles Clarke, 250-1 Tony Blair.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Hunger for Labour's blood grows apace

There's little respite for McFool today as the Telegraph reveals his popularity has fallen to a new low. Public anger is palpably simmering in the summer heat; any public group seems ready to erupt into rage. The cashpoint queue, the supermarket aisle and the station platform have an edgy feel to them in a way that would provoke a bouncer to comment that 'it could all kick off at any moment'. There's an impatience and a new intolerance in the air.

Labour have failed at everything they've defiled with their poisoned touch. A huge social gulf has opened, social mobility is dead and the divisions are coming into sharper relief. Short-term contract workers are realising the weakness of their position for the first time in a decade and are looking resentfully at permanent staff; permanent staff are regarding the boss who earned three times their salary in 1997 but who now takes six times their pay with a silent bitterness, but both groups still with salaries are being viewed with open hostility by the failed Welfare slaves of Labour's client state. I wouldn't risk queuing at the checkout of my local Tesco with a case of Champagne in the trolley today. I really wouldn't.

Here in Zone 2 things have always been a bit grainy and on the edge and indeed that's long been part of the attraction, but things are changing very rapidly and there's a feeling of sauve qui peut in the air. Neighbours are trying to remember how to set the burglar alarm. There's no longer a feeling that we're all in it together. And it's all the result of Labour's inept attempts at social engineering on the back of the spendthrift plunder of the nation's wealth; the country's most incompetent Chancellor has become its most loathed Prime Minister. The Poles are going home, leaving the 20,000 Africans who have arrived here in the last decade arguing in knots on the street, and the arguments are always about money. The store credit has suddenly dried up and the insanity of credit card companies who'd give a card and an instant £1,500 limit to every Nigerian in London has come to an abrupt halt.

McFool is insulated from all this behind the two inch ballistic glass of his government Jag and the narcissistic self-delusion of a third-rate intellect. For the rest of us, Labour's failure is coming into sharp focus. It's not going to be easy and it's not going to be pleasant. And we want Labour blood.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

The folly of the banners

Humans are infinitely resourceful. When the Nazis overan Europe one of their first actions in the occupied territories was always to confiscate all the radios. Within a couple of years, the continent had manufactured hundreds of thousands of home-made crystal receivers and were twiddling their cat's whiskers to tune in to the BBC. Even in the POW camps each block pretty well had its own radio.

Ban alcohol and in two minutes every second shed will have a bucket of something fermenting. Stop hundreds of tonnes of herbal cannabis entering the country and in five minutes the inner cities turn to horticulture. Ban printing and folk will start carving potatoes into serif blocks. Ban hunting and hounds will kill more foxes than ever.

There's probably an equation somewhere that quantifies the relationship between the complexity of the banned technology or process, the risk of getting caught and the strength of desire for the outcome of the banned thing. Freedom of expression and communication is a pretty powerful driver; those who imagine that the government can effectively regulate the web through the ISPs are away with the fairies.

The internet was designed to be the ultimate Samizdat medium. Digital packets that can be routed and shunted around a million resilient connections and coupled up again into coherence. Every 12 year old knows how it works. The final copper or fibre optic cable that connects most of us is just the most convenient option, not the sole option. And just as Europe became expert builders of radios out of old scraps of copper wire and cotton reels in WWII, in no time at all whole populations could establish clandestine web access that bypasses the ISPs. If they have to.

Just ask the security services whether they'd prefer the current unregulated arrangements or an underground interweb running beneath a tightly regulated 'official' web through compliant ISPs. Idiots.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Miliband - too weird-looking to win

There's something very wrong with Miliband's head. It looks as though it's been sculpted out of plasticine by someone who has studied human physiology but not art. It doesn't connect. It looks weird and a bit alien. Everything's in slightly the wrong place and slightly the wrong size. If he got on the bus, you'd hope he wouldn't sit next to you, in case he revealed he was an anarchist and had a nail bomb in his rucksack. It's not a head that ordinary English people subconsciously recognise and trust. His electoral prospects are therefore somewhere around zero.

Harriet Harman's head is the right shape - she looks like a trusty care assistant from the local nursery - but unfortunately it's filled with rubbish. She's the sort of person who thinks the Da Vinci Code is a documentary, the moon landings were faked and Lee Harvey Oswald didn't shoot JFK. Straw always looks like a weasel who's laid a trail of silent farts. Only Alan Johnson looks normal and English; if he walked up your path with his postie's sack over his shoulder, you'd damn well better be grateful and don't even think about complaining about the red rubber bands he leaves on the doorstep. I could like Johnson.

Anyway, with Miliband's piece in the Guardian this morning, the leadership race is on. I think Miliband is destined to be Labour's Portillo. Harman will scupper her own campaign. Straw will be too cunning for his own good. All Johnson has to do, really, is not mention the leadership race at all, tell a few Yorkshire cricketing anecdotes, be pictured drinking a pint from a dimple mug and let it be known that he's an angler. He could also drop the words 'common sense' into soundbites, something the public won't associate with Liliband because he's a weird ideologue or Harman because she's an empty-headed ninny or Straw because he's a duplicitous bastard.

This could turn out to be a decent summer after all.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

George Howarth leads Brown revolt. Who?

The Standard's lead tonight is the momentum gathering around efforts to depose McFool. The story runs:

A former minister told the Evening Standard: "Brown is proving an unmitigated failure and there is no shortage of MPs who are willing to go public with that view. I have spoken to several members of the Government who say they will resign if it proves necessary to provoke a change of leader before it is too late. There are probably at least 10. There are other MPs, like me, who will sign a letter asking the Prime Minister to stand down. We cannot go on to the general election with the Government in such a hopeless state. We know there are candidates who would be an improvement, such as David Miliband or Jack Straw."

So who is this 'former minister'? Are we talking Charles Clarke here? Blunkett? Erm, no. The Standard gives the game away a paragraph or two later:

Former minister George Howarth is collecting names for a letter to the Cabinet from MPs wanting a change of leader - a move that would massively destabilise Mr Brown's position.

Well, Howarth served from 1997 to 2001 as a Parliamentary Undersecretary of State, so I suppose at a pinch he could be called a 'former minister' albeit a junior one.

Yes please, anyway. An October / November election would be just the thing.

Good riddance, Starbucks

As I've posted previously, I buy my coffee from Auchan and last time it cost £1.17 for a 250g packet. That works out at 5p a mug; say 8p a mug including a half teaspoon of Demerara sugar and a splash of creamer. So I've always quailed at paying £2.50 or so for a cardboard mug of indifferent coffee from Starbucks and its clones.

Now I know this places me beyond the comprehension of the iPod generation who can't seem to walk anywhere in London without a Starbucks coffee in one hand and a water bottle with a baby's teat fitted to it in the other, but I prefer to drink my coffee from a plain porcelain mug sitting in comfort with a cigarette or two. And though I'm quite happy to buy expensive alcohol from pubs and bars without arguing that I could ferment my own more cheaply, it's not the same. Starbucks has made a fetish out of coffee and has forced perfectly ordinary English people to sound stupid when ordering any of the fetishistic Starbucks versions of coffee. Even coffee from which all the essential coffee-ness has been extracted.

So the news that Starbucks is closing thousands of branches across the world is nothing but honey to my ears. Civilisation is reasserting itself; the world is moving back onto its proper orbit.

Now if only we could get rid of those baby-teat water bottles ...

Crime mapping - for those that can read maps

This cow is small. That cow is far away. Small. Far away.....

I always tend to assume that everyone can read maps, plans and charts as well as I can. The old OS inch to a mile with its web of thin brown contours reveals to me a 3D topography as clearly as an aerial photograph; construction plans spring to life in my mind as tangible as a model, and a chart (with a consciousness of current, wind and tide) quickens into a living liquid landscape. An old-school designer I used to work with taught me it was often a mistaken assumption to presume this ability was universal. He used to explain very slowly and carefully to clients what they were looking at. "This is a plan. We're looking down from directly above at the ground floor. Here's the entrance door ...". The key rule of writing a script for a documentary is not to tell the viewer what they're looking at; the key rule for narrating a plan is to tell the viewer exactly what they're looking at.

I've worked with crime maps in London for some time, and they can be as misleading as they are useful. The data on which they are based is taken from the Met's CRIS crime reporting system, often with data from the CAD disturbance call-out recording system. The software then plots shades of crime concentration on a base streetmap - termed hotspotting - in shades that range from deep dangerous reds to benign light primrose. Overall, they show what you'd expect; crime is concentrated in busy town centres, and in other scattered shopping areas or transport nodes. Not greatly telling. Shoplifting, thefts and thefts from vehicles, vehicle offences, drink-associated crime, assaults and disturbances are naturally concentrated in high streets. We know this already.

Now if you can exclude the town-centre crime from the map, and overlay the location of council estates, the thing will provide a revelation. The hotspots are all in shopping areas or tube or train stations within running distance of the council estates.

Burglary is also interesting. A single burglar can be responsible for scores or even hundreds of burglary offences and a typical drug-addicted burglar will generally operate within 400m of his own dwelling; I saw one dramatic hot-spot map for two successive years that showed burglary in one neighbourhood going from puce to primrose, claimed as a major strategic success. The Sergeant explained to me quietly that in reality they'd accidentally caught a prolific burglar, he'd been sent down and the crime rate for this offence plummeted.

And finally, the crime maps will often not gel with the public's experience. This is the same difference as between the British Crime Survey and the recorded crime figures. People may fear crime if there are visible groups of teenagers hanging about, and will expect to see high crime rates. In reality teen nuisance is often actually nothing more than teen presence - they gather for their own safety, not to cause crime.

So crime maps are fine for those that can read them - and have the ability to customise data display and add overlays of other data. Otherwise, they may be little more than a disincentive for the police to record crime.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.
There is no shame in trying and failing. And if the stress of continuing to strive is killing you, leaving your two young boys without the father they need to grow up with, the greater sin is continuing to strive. That you have tried your best is enough; well done, thou good and faithful servant. It's time now to put your life before your Party. Take a long break. Write a book. Come back to take your seat in the Lords when all the fuss and change is over. You can serve your country better now by calling it quits; despite Prescott's silliness, you're not indispensible - no-one is. And not even your political enemies would relish the corpse-pallor of Rowson's cartoons becoming a reality.

Virtual youth work - no escape for the kids

When I was a kid, youth work was something that happened to other people. I was vaguely aware that there were two sub-species of youth worker; the ones in torn leather jackets with copies of 'Socialist Worker' jammed in their back pockets, and the nasal ones with cropped hair and inappropriate track suits who 'groomed' innocent kids for ping-pong in the local youth club. Neither variety seemed particularly keen on water, with or without soap, and since we spent large parts of our unsupervised leisure time on or in water that ranged from the brackish to the fully saline we were always pretty well immune to them.

These days when kids have made their own online places, you'd imagine they'd be equally safe from grinning idiots bearing down on them with ping-pong paddles, but no such luck. UK Youth Online - subheading 'Towards Youth Work 2.0' - is a site for youth workers to share information to track down kids on the internet and, horror, 'engage' with them.

So just when young Justin or Camilla are hiding on Bebo agonising over the trauma of turning into an Emo, in bursts Kevin to demand breezily 'Right, who's for virtual ping-pong, then?'

Honestly, have they no heart?

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Harman damns Brown with ridicule

In a BBC interview, Harriet Harman said:
You know, people ring up Gordon Brown to get advice from all around the world on economic circumstances.
To come: Harriet confirms that the world's top comedians constantly contact Brown to get advice on humour, the Gurkhas rely on him for advice on courage, the US' 'Top Gun' course has engaged him to lecture on instant decision making, Simon Cowell consults him on charisma, Las Vegas gamblers pray to him for luck and the Lord Chief Justice has unbounded admiration for his sense of judgment.

Time to rethink Welfare Housing

Good to see that Newmania has found time in a busy breeding cycle to start blogging again, and no surprise that his last couple of posts see him on brilliant form. Including this post on council housing. Now, whenever I post about council estates being modern rookeries, secure retreats for the criminal underclass, I usually get at least one comment or email along the lines of "I grew up on a council estate in the 1960s ..." or "Mum still lives on a council estate". So I need to make clear that I'm not condemning anyone on the basis of personal association with council housing, that small blocks of council houses in the country don't count as estates in this sense, and that, yes, many better people than me have made their way in the past from council estate to grammar school to Oxbridge in a realisation of personal potential and demonstration of social mobility of a kind I wholeheartedly support.

Council housing used to be allocated on a waiting list basis; anyone could go on the list. Council estates were therefore socially mixed places, and in many cases teachers lived next to welders and civil servants across the road from train drivers. All that changed when council house allocations became needs-based; overnight those most adept at playing the Welfare system went to the front of the queue and large metropolitan council estates rapidly became
Stews of Hogarthian squalor, idleness, ignorance, disease and want. The Hills Report, commissioned by government from the LSE and quietly buried thereafter, catalogues a litany of failure in Welfare Housing;
  • The economic cost to the country of subsidised welfare rents is £6.6bn a year
  • We (the taxpayer) own £400bn in capital value of welfare housing, but our return on capital after management and maintenance is barely 1% per annum
  • It's a myth that council tenants all want to be owner occupiers; given the choice, 39% would prefer to stay as subsidised tenants
  • Barely a third of heads of welfare housing households are in full time work
  • One in eight private house moves are work related, but just a very few thousand moves a year amongst 4m welfare tenants are for employment reasons
  • Welfare tenants stay put in the same house for a very long time. Over twenty years, they will enjoy the benefit of subsidised rent worth £65,000 at Net Present Value.
  • Despite subsidised rents meaning that in theory it's much easier for a welfare tenant to move from benefits to work than for a private tenant, very few do so.
Amongst those of working age on welfare estates, around half are without paid work. Two groups predominate amongst these; those on incapacity benefit, and single parents. The higher-rate disability benefit is the holy grail of the long-term claimant.

The system itself, including welfare housing, actually creates the disadvantage and deprivation it is meant to tackle. The LSE report finds that if you have no qualifications, you will be 43% likely to be workless if you live in non-welfare housing, but 70% likely to be workless if you live in welfare housing. 35% of single parents outside of welfare housing are without work, but 64% of those in welfare housing are out of work.

Moving from benefits to paid work should be very much easier if your rent is only £35 a week; common sense suggests that those in private rented accommodation paying 3 times this at market rates should be the ones 'trapped' on benefits. Yet it is those in welfare housing that show a minimal propensity to make this move.

And these new rookeries command a disproportionate part of our taxes; they suck in police, criminal justice, health, social services, education, public health, regeneration and social care resources, yet unless the populations are broken up and dispersed there is never any real improvement.

Yet welfare housing is still the shibboleth of the socialist central State, the elephant in the room. And as Newmania comments "Any reform of the Coucil house citadels brings New Labour into direct conflict with Old where they have been dug in for generations. Picking fights its a delicate business and this poisonous turf war allows scandalous waste to go on unreformed"