Fear of change

The final leaders’ debate on TV last night was perhaps the most illuminating of the three, partly because it focussed on the economy, forcing Brown, Cameron and Clegg to be a bit more specific about their plans, but mostly because it was clear that the parties had settled on the message they were going to project in the last week of campaign.

Cameron and Clegg continue to offer the prospect of “change”, though the credibility of their promise is rather undermined by the fact that, as rich, white, ex-public schoolboys, they are clearly members of the political elite they affect to disdain. Clegg has the advantage of leading a party that hasn’t been in power for a century, which might persuade voters that he will bring a new perspective to running the country, but Cameron can truthfully say that the electoral arithmetic means that only he can realistically aspire to form a majority administration and actually put his program into practice.

Brown mentioned “change” a lot too, but only to highlight how risky and scary it was. He was by far the most negative in the debate, attacking his opponents’ plans rather than promoting his own. As incumbent he can’t promise lots of reform, as people will only wonder why he hasn’t got round to it before now, and in the current financial climate he won’t want to draw too much attention to his record. The strategy he seems to be adopting is to tacitly admit that mistakes have been made, while asserting that the other lot would mess things up even more.

I think that Labour party stategists must have realised that they have no chance of winning a majority of seats, though the way their vote is concentrated means that it is possible they will be the biggest single party even if they poll relatively poorly. What they have to avoid is falling to third in share of the popular vote; the Lib Dems would find it very difficult to enter into a coalition with Labour in those circumstances, paving the way for a Lib-Con pact, or, more likely, a minority Conservative administration. To this end Labour are trying to get their core support to turn out by raising the spectre of a return to the dark days of Thatcherism.

This might just work. No one who lived through the early 80’s in a working-class community will have forgotten the pain of those grim times, and hatred for the Tories still runs deep. The prospect of another Tory government, especially one headed by an obvious class enemy like Cameron, may be enough to motivate traditional Labour supporters to overlook recent history and vote for Brown.

So it’s still all to play for. I don’t want to make any guess about the outcome just yet, but I will put my prediction on the record sometime before polling day.

New media, new politics?

The Daily Telegraph ran an interesting story yesterday, entitled, in typically wordy fashion, “This was meant to be the internet election. So what happened?” The article argues that social media have proved to be next to useless as campaigning tools, noting that none of the main parties have really embraced Twitter, Facebook, or blogs, and it has fallen to the old-fashioned medium of television to capture the public imagination by means of the leaders’ debates.

It’s true that, from the point of view of a party manager trying to run a tight campaign, the new media present as many hazards as opportunities, particularly in a parliamentary election where there are hundreds of candidates, with varying levels of political experience. If a party leaves its candidates free to blog and Tweet as they please, it’s guaranteed that there will be some well-publicised embarrassments, but if the central office tries to impose some editorial control it runs the risk of being accused of standing an army of brainwashed clones. It’s a bit easier in a presidential-style campaign, where attention can be focussed on one individual’s carefully-scripted output, and this seems to be the pattern that the main parties are following, hoping, no doubt, to emulate the success of @barackobama.

On the other hand, as many comments under the article point out, what’s (supposedly) been new and refreshing about this election is the way that the old parties have lost control of the debate, and ordinary people have seized control of the agenda. In this version of the story social media has been a vital weapon in the armoury of a newly-energised populace, and is set to change political discourse forever.

People have been saying this sort of thing for years; I remain sceptical. Social media may be good for the rapid dissemination of particular stories, but, by its nature, it needs a constant flow of new material, and doesn’t allow for reflection and consolidation of ideas. It can also create the illusion that one is participating in a political movement when in fact one is merely a spectator. Twitter and Facebook may have lowered the threshold of entry to political activity, but if that activity never goes beyond clicking or retweeting it’s unlikely to produce significant social change.

I guess the extent to which social media have influenced the course of this election campaign will be argued about long after the results are in, but my feeling is that while the electorate, or at least that proportion of it that is digitally connected, may feel that it has been more in control of the flow of information, real power will have remained in the hands of the financial-political elite.

Liberal Distraction

The economy had been rather sidelined in the election campaign over the last week or so, as the media obsessed over the prospect of a hung parliament and speculated about the possible makeup of potential coalitions. A cynical observer (like me) might conclude that the attention given to Nick Clegg and the unlikely rise of the Liberal Democrats has been designed to distract us from the fact that all the main parties have essentially the same prescription for reducing the deficit, one that involves sharp cuts in public spending.

The intensity of the coming pain was hinted at in a report released today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which predicts a return to the sort of austerity not seen since the 70’s, or, in the case of the Tories’ plans, since the war, and notes that all the leading parties have been less than forthcoming on where the axe is going to fall.

The whole thing is rather dispiriting, though I guess it’s just about possible to imagine something good coming out of it all eventually. If the opinion polls are accurate and the election result is inconclusive, then one or other of Labour or the Tories will have to court the Lib Dems, who are likely to demand electoral reform as the price of their support, and a fairer voting system will give left parties more of a chance.

The austerity measures, when they come, are bound to generate some sort of public reaction, as we’re seeing in Greece. If we can do some work now to establish the framework of a left-led anti-cuts campaign, we could be in a position to make an advance when the next election comes, which might be sooner rather than later if past experience with hung parliaments in the UK is anything to go by.

So Nick Clegg might end up being an agent of real change after all, in ways he never intended.

Virtual Epiphany

I spent the best part of the weekend reading about the Woodbury saga on various blogs, until late on Sunday night, half-way through a particularly dense screed, I had a sudden Moment of Clarity. “Why,” I asked myself, “am I wasting my time with this nonsense?”

The really sad thing is that I have a good idea what the answer to that question is, as a result of one of the other Second Life-related projects that I am squandering my limited intellectual capital on, the psychological profiling of the typical SL resident. (I have a rough draft of this ready, but it may be some time before I get round to working it up into anything coherent enough to post, assuming I don’t get distracted in the meantime.)

Anyway, to shake this SL fever I’m going to take a break from obsessing about virtual events for a while, and pay a bit more attention to real life, specifically the election. The country may be standing on the verge of the biggest political realignment in a generation, which I guess will probably be of more lasting interest than the ephemera of Second Life.

Прощай Woodbury

On the very day that it emerged that Linden Lab was facing a lawsuit accusing them, among other things, of failing to respect the property rights of Second Life residents, it was also reported that the Lindens had been flexing their absolutist muscles by summarily terminating several sims connected with Woodbury University, as well as banning numerous individuals allegedly associated with the group.

I’m not going to get into the debate about the guilt or otherwise of the WU; it’s easy to find stories of their alleged crimes, as well as more positive accounts of their activities. The bigger point is that a virtual world that purports to respect the values of bourgeois society should have a rather more transparent system for the administration of justice, instead of the secretive Star Chamber that hands out punishment at the moment.

Whatever the truth in the accusations of griefing, I’m sorry to see the Woodbury sims go. I’m not usually a big fan of Soviet-chic, especially when it is entirely devoid of political content (for the WU are not communists, or even particularly left-leaning, whatever Prok says), but I liked their big Hall of People’s Deputies or whatever it was, and the submarine, and the big bear. The grid will be a slightly duller place without them.

Revolutionary Litigation

Tateru Nino at Massively is reporting that the Lindens are facing yet another lawsuit, this one accusing the Lab of fraudulently representing the nature of property relations in Second Life by suggesting that ownership of virtual land and objects rested with users, when in fact everything on the grid, in the final analysis, belongs to the Lindens (as is made clear in the newly-revised Terms of Service). The plantiffs allege that they have been expropriated without due process, contrary to the provisions of Californian Law, and have hired a lawyer with experience of virtual-world litigation to argue their case.

This case is, in effect, an attempt to impose capitalist social relations on the feudal landscape of Second Life. We have of course been advocating this for a while, though what we had in mind was an indigenous revolution rather than inviting a foreign power (in this case the State of California) to invade and reform the system by force.

Happy 4/20!

We haven’t had a marijuana-themed post for a while, mainly because my life is far too burdened with responsibility to allow me to smoke much these days, and when I do blogging is the last thing on my mind, but I couldn’t let International Stoner Day go by without some mention of the noble weed.

None of the main parties contesting the UK election are unequivocally in favour of legalising cannabis, but the Liberal Democrats, currently riding high in the polls, have historically been open to the idea of decriminalisation at least. Their manifesto does promise that their drugs policy in government would follow scientific advice, which is increasingly coming out against prohibition.

It would be nice to think that the Nick Clegg is a secret toker who would make legalisation of pot a red-line issue in the coalition negotiations that would occur in the event of a hung parliament, but sadly this seems unlikely.

There are more promising developments across the Atlantic in California, where a ballot initiative proposing the legalisation of marijuana is due to be voted on in November. One of the driving forces behind the measure is the Golden State’s ballooning budget deficit; supporters claim that regulating and taxing pot sales could raise up to $1.4 billion annually. If the bill passes and the money starts rolling in it may be hard for a cash-strapped government over here to resist the temptation to grab a piece of the action.

The final piece of the puzzle may, paradoxically, be the emerging evidence that links cannabis with serious mental health problems. This was the rationale given by the Home Secretary when harsher penalties for cannabis possession were reintroduced in 2008, against the advice of the government’s own advisers. However the counter-argument, that the risks associated with cannabis make it imperative that it is properly regulated, and treated as a matter of public health rather than criminal justice, will hopefully gain ground, especially if our Californian cousins lead the way.

These things move slowly though, and I doubt that we’ll be able to light up legally by next April 20th, whoever wins the election. I can only hope that it doesn’t take too long, and my dreams of spending my retirement tending my own little patch of green can come true.

Chronicle of a TOS Change Foretold

I’ve hitherto refrained from commenting on the new Second Life Terms of Service, because, well, life is too short, and anyway all the salient points are covered in the official announcement, and the accompanying discussion.

However I do feel compelled to say that one of the “new” clauses that people seem to be focussing on – the one that stipulates that “buying” virtual land doesn’t mean that one “owns” anything, merely that one has been granted a (limited) licence to use the service in a particular way – shouldn’t be news to readers of SLS, as we pointed out that this was the case as long ago as 2007.

Liberal Renaissance

It has been a beautifully clear day today; no sign in the blue skies of any of this volcanic ash that is blanketing the country. It’s slightly unnerving to think that a big chunk of our transport infrastructure can be paralysed by invisible dust high above our heads. Maybe this will give a boost to the idea that we should give up going out of the house, and do all out travelling in virtual worlds instead.

Back on the ground, the media is digesting the performances of the main party leaders in last night’s televised election debate; there seems to be a consensus that, while nobody landed a knockout blow, Gordon Brown did as well as was expected (that is, not very), David Cameron’s vague promises of change were unconvincing, and Nick Clegg stole the show with his honest straight talking.

The positive reaction to Clegg is interesting; he and the Liberal Democrats have made much of the fact that they are willing to spell out in detail exactly how much pain we are going to have to endure to get the economy back on track, while the other parties promise to cut the deficit but don’t want to scare us by revealing what that might entail. The Lib Dems are banking on the hope that the respect they win from the electorate by treating voters as responsible adults who can face reality, and not children who have to be shielded from the truth, will outweigh the aversion caused by the cuts they are proposing. The initial poll results might seem to back this up, but I wonder if people really are ready to be that stoic, and if over the course of the campaign there might be a swing back towards the “Trust us, we’ll sort things out, you don’t have to worry” message coming from Labour and the Tories.

I found the event more illuminating than I was expecting. There is a tendency on the left to characterise the main parties as differing only in the degree of their support for capital, and it is true that on one level the debate was three rich white men arguing over how hard they have to hit the workers to make sure there is enough money left in the state coffers to keep the bankers happy. However the bulk of the electorate don’t look at things this way, and for them it would have been clear that their day-to-day lives over the next few years are going to be significantly different if the vote goes one way rather than another.

My personal assessment is that Brown did enough to plant seeds of doubt about how grim things could get under the Tories to start people thinking that perhaps five more years of Labour, or a Lib-Lab coalition, might not be so bad after all. There are still three weeks of campaigning, and two more TV debates, to go of course, so everything is still to play for, but the election isn’t going to be the Tory landslide that looked inevitable even a few months ago.

Like Pompeii (or Herculaneum)

The skies have been unusually quiet today, as the ash plume from the volcano below the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland has spread over northern Europe, closing UK airspace to commercial aviation.

This evening the sky has turned a deep red. Those of a superstitious nature might take this as a positive omen for the left in the coming elections, but it may take more than intervention from Loki to swing things towards Labour. Perhaps the picture will be a little clearer after the leaders’ TV debate tonight.

My first thought for musical accompaniment to this post was something by Ash, but that seemed a bit obvious, so here’s something appropriate by the B-52’s.

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