Through a glass, darkly

Imagine your favourite film. Imagine you want to show it to a friend, and for them to love it too. You want them to understand. To get it. To see that this is more than two hours of cheap entertainment. This has meaning. It’s got something to say.

Now imagine you come up with a plan to get your friend to share your love. You can’t take any chances with this. It’s important. They’ve not just got to enjoy the film. You need to be sure they’ve grasped the message as well. It’s going to have an impact on their life, and once they’ve seen it nothing will ever be the same for them again. You’ve got to be methodical. You’ve got to get it right. You might only have one chance.

So you go online. You find a study guide. One that breaks down the film into it’s component scenes and analyses them one by one. It doesn’t always put the breaks in the places you imagine the screenwriter would have intended. Sometimes you’d be viewing parts out of order. But at least the two minute chunks are manageable. And by starting with the big finish, you’ll make sure they get the point if you don’t make it all the way through.

If you and your friend meet up once a week to watch a clip, there’ll still be time left over for you to recite a short lecture to make sure they’ve grasped it. It’s an interesting and famous film, so there are plenty of lectures people have written on different parts if you get stuck. You’re not convinced they all got the point (in fact you’re pretty sure most missed it entirely), but they seem like they’re cleverer than you, so it’ll probably help. Besides, some of them have made really cool little videos that look all modern and stuff, and will certainly convince your friend that this film is, you know, relevant.

Of course you don’t.

So why do we teach the Bible this way?

At SoulSpace we’ve been without a priest for nearly a year, so us laity have been running things ourselves. Preparing for today’s service, the lectionary directed me to Luke 9:51-62. It’s a bit weird. Jesus says some harsh and quite cryptic things. I was a bit stumped for what to do with it. I could use verse 58 to launch into a talk on homelessness, but that rather felt it’d be putting my own agenda on the text, instead of trying to read what it was saying. So I read on.

Instead of calling down fire, Jesus goes on to brief his disciples on how they should behave when they stay in a town. In a direct response to their behaviour in the lectionary reading, he sends them out on their own to learn the lessons he’s been teaching. They return astounded that it works. His peaceful methods actually change things. In verses 21 and 22 Jesus himself is overcome with excitement at the difference he’s making:

At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’

Or, ‘I’ve taken a group of peasants and traders and Imperial collaborators and made them revolutionary leaders. In our world, we do things differently. Nothing will ever be the same again.’

The gospels are narratives. Without that we might as well be reading pages sellotaped to the outside of our churches’ stained glass windows.

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Galloway

If Imran Hussain wins, nobody will notice. If I win, everybody will notice. The whole nation will be talking about it.

George Galloway has already fulfilled the first of his election pledges. At the hustings last week, and in the plethora of videos on YouTube of him campaigning around the city, he promised to put Bradford on the map.

Well people have certainly been talking. A lot’s been written, and a lot of claims have been made. Most of them are false. This election was not about Iraq or Afghanistan (although they were undoubtedly a factor). It was not about Palestine (although that was a factor too). It was not about Muslims, although people of all backgrounds who feel underrepresented and unheard certainly turned out in droves to give Gorgeous George their backing. It wasn’t even about Ed Miliband. The budget could well be a factor in Tory voters staying at home, but Harriet Harman’s claim that this shouldn’t be interpreted as a national precedent is not unreasonable.

Bradford West is a fairly safe Labour seat. It was on the Tory target list in 2010, but pretty low down. The swing to the Tories nationally should have seen it fall, but Marsha Singh actually increased his majority by a couple of percentage points. To anyone who was around the constituency in the last week though, the Galloway victory was really not that shocking.

With the exception of one particularly nasty specimen viewable at Lib Dem Voice, the Respect literature said more and was more locally focused than anyone else’s. It was positive about Bradford, whilst also promising change. Galloway quickly picked up on issues that matter to local people, like the Westfield and Odeon sites, while simultaneously making a virtue of being from outside of town. Compare that against Labour’s Imran Hussain, who’s speeches said literally nothing, and who’s leaflets appeared to say, “vote for me because I’m from round here, and you know my parents.”

Galloway’s assertion that a history in local politics should be a disqualification, not a qualification, for the role was one that rung true in the minds of many Bradfordians. At today’s victory rally he attributed his success to a desire to vote against the “rotten, incompetent and corrupt” council, vowing to do to Ian Greenwood what he “did to the US senate.” As local Labour activist Sean Dolat observed, that’s a perception held by many, and not just of the council as a whole, but of the local Labour Party specifically. The Guardian made some note of the so-called Bradree clan politics system, but (unproven) rumours abound of everything up to full on ballot fraud.

Ultimately, the presence of Respect changed the Bradford West campaign from a coronation into an election. The extra drama his presence bought to things made it all much more fun. For many, the theatricality alone will have made it all worthwhile, (he was cruising round town shouting from the top of a green, old style, open top bus!) but most excitingly, for a couple of short weeks, Bradford West became a democracy again. For the first time in my life, I got the opportunity to cast a vote that actually made a difference. Most people in this country never get that chance.

The reason Galloway was able to win was that he was able to convince people that he could. Suddenly my home constituency became a marginal. It was a victory of celebrity over allegiance to bankrupt party institutions. That’s what bought him home with victories just as large in white wards as in asian ones, and what gave him universal appeal. Sometimes the promise of change is enough.

So is it the start of the revolution? No. Is there a wider trend of people rejecting mainstream politics? Yes. But the next election’s only three years away, and the constituency Respect will have to fight then will be very different to the one that exists now. In the meantime, I can’t think of many people with the star power to pull off the rapid shift in public opinion described by Sean and by Nasser Butt in the Lib Dem Voice piece. Perhaps Nigel Farage. Now there’s something to look forward to.

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Without a doubt the second worst game I’ve ever played

Dragon’s Lair is one of those games that has legendary status. Originally a 1983 laserdisc arcade machine, it’s been ported to just about every format ever. Curious about a part of gaming history, I bought the iPhone version from the app store a while back.

It’s without doubt the second worst game I’ve ever played. To my knowledge, only once have boredom, frustration and outright offensiveness been combined to greater effect. While Don Bluth’s animation does look beautiful on the iPhone screen, that’s all the game is. Originally shipping on a laserdisc meant that all the game could do was play pre-recorded video clips in response to timed inputs. You have no control here. It’s singlehandedly responsible for the deluge of so-called “Interactive Movies” that blighted the mid-90s, when we all finally got the smaller silver platters in our own homes. Today it would be known as nothing but a succession of quick time events, and the iPhone version handily takes a lesson from more modern games and displays the correct button to press on the screen. Previous versions relied on guess work and memory. You die a lot in Dragon’s Lair.

The fact that arcade audiences not only paid to play this, but came back and paid to play it again and again literally boggles the mind. Avoid.

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The phone hacking scandal, and the BSkyB takeover

Dear Marsha Singh MP,

Like me, I’m sure you’ve seen this week’s coverage of the scandalous behaviour of the News of the World.

While the continuing revelations have been shocking, I am concerned that the phone hacking incidents are merely symptomatic of a deeper rot that has been allowed to permeate the British media. Watching Tom Watson’s excellent speech to House last night, I was reminded of the influence the Murdoch empire has over the British people and our politics.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation already owns 40% of British newspapers and 40% of BSkyB, the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster. In the US, Australia and elsewhere this degree of media dominance would not be allowed. There’s no one else who controls the share of the UK media Murdoch does, and I believe the phone hacking case (and the alleged bribes paid to police to cover it up) demonstrate the degree to which News International have come to consider themselves above the law.

It’s clear that the executives of News Corporation are no longer fit and proper media owners, either morally or economically. Morally, this case has demonstrated that they do not respect either the interests or law of Great Britain. Economically, their growing monopoly is an impediment to the fair operation of the media market. The concentration of influence into the hands of such people is deeply damaging to our democracy.

Please do all you can to stop the the News International takeover of BSkyB, and to make sure an inquiry starts as soon as possible. Please also make the case in parliament for a tightening of the regulation of media monopolies, so that we can prevent further scenarios like this one arising.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.

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#No2AV Lie of the Week: Part 6

It’s been an eventful week in referendumland. We got royal assent, and No to AV started on their most scandalous programme of deception yet.

Their lie of the week this week is Our country can’t afford the Alternative Vote. Now, personally I find it deeply worrying that cost would even be a factor when considering democracy, but we’ll ignore that for a moment and examine the figures they’re presenting.

No to AV are claiming the move to AV would cost the taxpayer £250 million. Their figures break down as follows:

  • £82 million for the cost of the referendum itself
  • £9 million on voter education
  • £130 million on electronic counting machines
  • £26 million on further voter education should the referendum pass

Ignoring for a moment (again) how that doesn’t actually add up to £250 million, hopefully you’ve spotted by now that the first £91 million of that won’t actually be saved by voting no. No campaign spokesman Dan Hodges admitted as much to Next Left. It also doesn’t take account of the £17 million the government says will be saved by holding the referendum on the same day as other elections.

So what about the remaining £156 million No to AV claim actually could be saved? Maybe we should consider that. Oh no, wait. We already did. If you ever meet any No advocates, and they tell you that AV requires costly counting machines, you might like to ask them how the Australians managed in 1918! The Electoral Commission have said that they are looking at modernising the voting system, but the result of the AV referendum has not been a factor in their considerations. In fact, the notorious problems with voting machines in the US relate to first past the post elections.

So the only cost remaining is the somewhat mysterious figure of £26 million on voter education. The £9 million figure from before the referendum seems to be derived from that quoted in parliament as Electoral Commission expenses. The Electoral Commission provides material explaining the electoral process before every election, so it’s unclear why No 2 AV think it would be an additional charge.

In short, No to AV’s claims are a flat out lie. Even the rabidly traditionalist Daily Telegraph admits it. I sincerely hope the electorate will see through the attempts to confuse, and instead vote on the issue: whether or not AV is an improvement on FPTP. Of course, it might be that No to AV would rather just not bother with elections at all. It would, after all, be cheaper.

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Just because Nick Clegg said it doesn’t mean it’s true

Part five in my #No2AV lie of the week series, and it’s an easy one. I thought this was something we’d all learnt by now anyway?

I’ve covered the myth of the miserable little compromise in detail before but, in short, they’re saying we shouldn’t vote for it because Nick Clegg doesn’t like it? Have they forgotten who Nick Clegg is?

No to AV seem to be getting a little less bold in their lies. I guess they ran out of imagination.

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#No2AV Lie of the Week: Part 4

I’ve left it a bit late this week. If I’m not quick they’ll have the next one up…

Another week, another bizarre lie from No to AV. This week, they’re further exposing their incoherent and inconsistent message. After last week’s near-truth, this week’s is highly subjective. It almost feels as though they’re doing this specifically to challenge me. AV, they claim, is the wrong referendum at the wrong time.

OK, so, starting with the blindingly obvious, that doesn’t tell us anything at all about which way we should vote. It might not be the referendum some had hoped for, but it’s the one we’ve got. If you need to make your mind up, you’re probably looking for facts, not for the former head of the Taxpayer’s Alliance and the defeated Conservative candidate for Brighton Pavilion dismissing your right to have a say. Nor is it the fault of those looking to make MPs more accountable that David Cameron failed to deliver on his cast iron guarantee of a referendum on Europe. If broken promises are what you care about, a Yes vote will make it easier to kick the liars out in future.

Secondly, as I explained before, those looking for PR need two changes: one to the voting system, and a second to the composition of the House. It is only reasonable that those things should be debated separately. AV is a small change to the existing system that, by raising the threshold MPs need to pass to get elected, takes power from them and returns it to the people. STV was never going to be on the table in a Tory led coalition. Some had hoped for a compromise involving other forms of proportionality, like AV+ or AMS. They were misguided, and I’m greatly relieved they didn’t get their way. Any system based on party lists would have been the exact reverse of the benefits of AV. Rather than taking power from MPs and giving it to the people, it would have taken power from MPs and given it to spin doctors and party whips with no democratic mandate from the public. And worse, because of their proportionality, they would have been seen as end points by the parties, rather than steps to further reform. Once they were in place, we would be stuck with the least democratic of all options. AV is a natural progression from where we are now, and leaves us well positioned for further reform, without having abdicated our democratic responsibility if we later decide to keep it for good.

As for the timing; well, you couldn’t hope for a better time for democratic reform. These are the kind of discussions that only get on to the table in hung parliaments. Parties with large majorities start to think the system that put them there must have been good for them, and they consider their own perceived self-interest above the interest of the electorate. Labour promised reform in 1997 and never delivered. Only now, when they are out of government, have they started talking about it again. In opposition, what’s good for the public is good for you. The expenses scandal, still fresh in the memory, reminded people that we are supposed to be the bosses, and it’s time MPs answered to us again. Unless we seize the opportunity now, it’ll be at least another generation before they do.

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28 Days Later

On 8th January, along with many other people, I wrote to my MP asking where he stood on the issue of electoral reform. That was 28 days ago.

Dear Marsha Singh,

As you may have seen from my letter in Thursday’s Telegraph and Argus, I am very disappointed that the first of Bradford’s MPs to announce his stance in May’s referendum on improving the voting system came down against the Alternative Vote.

The Alternative Vote would be the first major improvement to British Democracy since the franchise was extended to 18 year olds 42 years ago. The requirement that MPs be elected on an actual majority would give you the right to claim a true mandate for your position. I’m sure you can see, as I can, the benefits of such a system.

As one of your constituents, I’d like to know which side of the debate you are on. Could you please go to http://yestofairervotes.org/ and tell us where you stand.

Many thanks in advance.

The requirement for MPs to be elected with 50% of the vote, introduced as part of the proposed change to AV, would make it easier for the electorate to unseat MPs who don’t listen to them.

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#No2AV Lie of the Week: Part 3

Wow. No to AV came so close to stating an actual true fact this week. It only would have taken a few more words. Sadly for them, lies are what result when you run a campaign based on soundbites over substance. So on with the series!

While it would be true to say that AV is only used to elect governments in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Australia; it is not true to claim outright that those are the only places it’s used. In the British House of Commons AV is used to elect the speaker and the chairs of select committees. Every major British political party uses AV (or a system very similar to AV) to elect their leader. Local parties use AV to select candidates for election. In the US, as I mentioned last time, at least one city has chosen to adopt it every year since 2004.

Outside of government, AV is used all over the world by charities, unions and community organisations who want to ensure that every member has a say in their leadership elections. It’s used at the Oscars to decide who will get the award for best picture, because they recognise that it best allows the collective judgment of all voting members to be most accurately represented. My own passion for electoral reform developed when I was forced to learn different electoral systems as returning officer for elections at the University of Bradford Union.

In short, everywhere voters get a say in the system they use, they choose AV or something similar.

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Electoral Commission Confirms: No to AV Lying

Mark Nyack of the Electoral Commission responded to my letter about No to AV’s claim that adopting the Alternative Vote would require expensive electronic counting machines:

We are in favour of electoral modernisation and have recommended to government that new approaches such as electronic counting shout not be implemented until a thorough case has been made and implications considered.

That’s all well and good, but it didn’t quite rule out the possibility that I’d missed something. Maybe there was a reason I wasn’t aware of that the introductions of AV would change that recommendation?

I replied seeking confirmation that the above applied irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, to which Mark responded:

That is correct, irrespective of the outcome of the AV referendum.

So, AV can easily be counted without machines. The Electoral Commission are in favour of modernising the way we vote, but they’re not recommending any change to electronic counting at this time. The outcome of the AV referendum doesn’t change that.

Chalk it up as another No to AV lie then!

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