Friday, July 30, 2004

It’s better to lose…
( Self mocking, yet curiously intellectually snobbish and elitist and therefore ineffective warning: This is an attempt to write political commentary in the style of David Eggers and or David Foster-Wallace c. Infinite Jest/A heartbreaking work of staggering genius period.)

One trusted standby of the political commentators art, employed today by the Guardians Economics Editor Larry Elliott is to suggest that such torments, disasters and miseries lie in wait just around the corner (or, just after the next elections) that it is preferable for the party you support to lose the election, since the aforementioned torments, disasters and miseries, being unavoidable, will visit your friends should they be so unfortunate as to win whereas, if they lose, the said T, D & M’s will be inflicted on your opponents who will fail so miserably in trying to combat them that their victory will be seen in retrospect as a disaster, while your defeat will be a kind of pyrrhic defeat, by which I mean that more defeats with heavy losses like this and you will have won.

This presumably means that in a declining nation “failed state” the best you can hope for is to inflict victory upon victory on your miserable opponents who will in time be begging to try and lose the elections themselves in order to cast off the burdens of the T, D & M’s and the sundry difficulties that are attendant in governing a failing state, while your party will be smiling politely and saying “terribly sorry but I’d rather not” until the elections turn into a strange sort of “After you, Paul” game, where the parties are desperate for their opponents to win so that they will be ruined politically in perpetuity and so run adverts denigrating themselves and praising their opponents. Curiously this kind of reducto ad absurdam has never actually happened but is rather appealing nonetheless.

In identifying this unusual phenomena of winning when it would be better to lose, (which isn’t actually a pyrrhic victory because it is not accompanied by staggering losses at the time of the victory itself*.) political columnists tend to identify two elections as being better to lose, being the 1928 US presidential election and the 1992 UK General election. Commentators not in the US/UK political tradition may point to others but as I can’t read any other foreign languages and can’t think of any examples off hand I’m not even going to bother googling them.

Now my first thought is if we assume a 20th century timeframe there have been 25 US presidential elections and 27 English General elections. So out of 52 elections, less that 5% are even considered as having been “better to lose”, yet every election is accompanied by the suggestion that it might be better to lose.  So on that basis 95% of all these comments are bound to be wrong.

But even in these cases, can it really be said that it was better for the losing side to have lost? Firstly the assumption is that these are disasters that are political in their cause so that blame will be laid at the door of the government, yet also unavoidable and unmanageable. E.g., the prerequisite for this type of scenario is an imminent disaster that you can do absolutely nothing about yet will still be blamed for to exactly the same extent as your opponents.

Certainly I suspect Al Smith and Neil Kinnock might have had something to say about this verdict on their abilities to avoid or ameliorate the effects of the great depression and the ERM debacle respectively . For example, would a Kinnock government have been quite as rigid in their defence of ERM in office as the conservative government was or would they in fact have faced an earlier currency crisis, blamed the whole thing on the Conservatives and carried out a more swiftly executed and more believable policy about face? Indeed, would an ERM devaluation been such a terrible event for a Labour government that inherited the ERM from the Conservative party.

In fact, in making this counterfactual, “phew good job we lost that one” assumptions assumes a powerlessness of government, and paradoxically, an inability of the public to distinguish between a politically caused disaster and one that would strike down any government.***

For example, the 1928 election was a landslide victory for the Republicans. As the depression mounted, Herbert Hoover stuck to his minimal government approach to the depression and was summarily ejected from office in 1932. Yet if Al Smith had won would we have seen the same approach or a more active and interventionist approach that while perhaps not preventing or reversing the Great Depression seemed to somehow try and deal with it and certainly do so more effectively that the more economically conservative Republicans who would presumably be decrying the Smith “New Deal” as Smith himself later did when a politically marginal figure trying to build the Empire State building.

So in order to make the case that to win is to lose, the following assumptions need to be made, first that the disaster is unavoidable. Second that it is hard to see it coming, since if it was easy then presumably some action would be taken to avert the disaster or at the very least there would be some debate about the huge and inevitable disaster approaching. Then we need to assume that the this unavoidable disaster will be be thought to be the fault of the innocent and guileless government, no matter how long they have been office, what actions they took to prevent the disaster and the fact that it was totally unavoidable and hard to discern and so forth. Then we need to assume that even if this all occurs there is no chance for the  Government to actually do anything to effect or ameliorate the impact of the disaster even if not in fact but in Public perception.

However what really depresses me about this type of speculation is that it presumes that no Government in their right mind would want to be in office during a crisis, that this is to be avoided at all costs and frankly it’s better to give the whole problem to your enemies  in the way of throwing a hand grenade to someone you dislike, while true public spiritedness would require at least consideration of holding onto the grenade and taking as much of the blast as possible yourself, and so being metaphorically self sacrificing, the political equivalent of which should be so obvious that I don’t need to point it out.

* Having said that it is a pyrrhic victory in common, or at least in columnist, usage so perhaps I shouldn’t be so achingly keen to show off my superior knowledge of the topic at hand compared to those who earn more, get read more and frankly have better things to do with their time than to get sniffy about common usages of popular phrases since they are no doubt aware that words are variable signifiers and not fixed meanings.

** For some reason, the 1929 General Election isn’t considered, even though the consequences for the winners were awful (Party split, reduced to just 50 seats at subsequent General Election). Perhaps this is because the party that actually won the 1929 election in vote terms lost the election, so that in order to make the argument work you need to state it’s much better to lose an election when disaster is imminent unless you win the election but then are denied victory by  quirk of the electoral system in which case it is better to win but be foiled by the patently unfair electoral system than to lose and gain power. Or perhaps the whole thing is just too confusing because even though it was 1929-31 Labour government endured a disastrous term of office, it did clearly establish Labour as the alternative to the Conservative party and therefore doesn’t quite seem to clearcut as it might seem. Or perhaps they just don’t think about it.

*** Note however, that this does not apply to terrorist attacks, invasions, or natural disasters,  which seem to fall into another category entirely and caust the populace to rally round for reasons that when compared to the assumed public reaction to economic catastrophe seem rather irrational

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Thursday, July 29, 2004

I'd like a little list...

Since Conservative Central Office is now briefing that they don't expect to do well in Hartlepool, and are rolling out the "not natural Tory territory" line to defend their decision not to break up the summer holidays by talking to voters, could someone from the Conservative Party kindly let us know in advance which by-elections  they would try to win?   

Hat tip to Guacamoleville here, which is first with all your Hartlepool, Seaton Carew and the headland news.

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The essence of all political debate, condensed.
"You are stupid and evil and do not know that you are stupid and evil"

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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

How Blogs are changing American politics.

A lot of nonsense is talked about this topic, but two bloggers at the Democratic National Convention have summed up what the power of the Blog truly is

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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

North Korea, torture, chemical weapons and us.

Tonight, the BBC will be running another programme on claims of homicidal medical experimentation on political prisoners in North Korea.

I hope you watch it, but if for some reason you aren't able to, please read some of the books setting out the genocidal nature and brutality of the Pyongyang dictatorship. The Aquariums of Pyongyang is a good starting point for the non academic reader.

The last time they produced an excellent programe on this topic, it generated some outrageous comments from the great British public. 

Of course,  there are those who don't get too outraged by the North Korean stalinist dictatorship. I really hope they watch the BBC tonight.

(Of course, the BBC is asking "why is it right for us to intervene against Saddam Hussein but not against Kim Jong-Il?" It's a fair question -with good answers, some of them invoving mushroom clouds and Seoul- , but it only makes sense if you accept that there are some crimes regimes should not be allowed to commit, and that if they do commit them there is a duty to intervene where possible. I don't suppose many opponents of the war in Iraq concede that premise.) 

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What on earth is happening to the Conservative Party?

I wanted to produce a sophisticated, nuanced analysis of the malaise affecting the Conservative party, but after I came up with the mental image of headless turkeys
voting for Christmas I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

All together now, It isn’t the leader, it’s the policies.* It’s symptomatic that this latest storm has been generated by arguments over selections. Right. Like that’s the problem.

*Though the leader is responsible for the policies. But as no-one but Portillo is contesting the policies anyway**, the statement holds true.

** Except from the right, but I want to offer those people every encouragement anyway so ssshhhhhh be verrry quiet and let that nice Mr Tebbitt speak..

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Monday, July 26, 2004

Hartlepool update..

It may be an election without a date, but the jockeying for position has already begun- and already there’s bad news for the Tories, as their 2001 candidate, flamboyant local businessman Gus Robinson, is considering standing as an independent saying “I’ve learnt that the people of Hartlepool won’t stomach a Conservative Candidate”. Robinson is something of a local celebrity- a builder, boxing promoter, former Labour supporter and if I recall correctly, once appeared on Newsnight playing his guitar in the 2001 campaign. Candidate or not, expect that quote to appear on opposition leaflets.

On the Labour side, the current speculation is that the independent mayor of Middlesbrough and former Hartlepool Robocop Ray Mallon may be the candidate.  The former leader of Hartlepool Labour Group and a left wing former MEP have also tentatively put their names forward.  

Personally I’m dubious about the Mallon speculation. He’d have to resign as Mayor of Middlesbrough, which he’s repeatedly said he’s committed to, and while incredibly popular is certainly controversial- for example, would he pass a Labour National Executive panel for by-election candidates- after all he disagrees with several key Labour polices. However, if he was the Labour candidate, you’d have to put him as a massive favourite. He'd certainly win the anti-crime vote.

Finally, there’s Robert Kilroy-Silk- or Roy Kilroy-Silk as the Hartlepool Mail’s on deadline reporter described him. As has been remarked elsewhere, UKIP scored 19% in the Euro-Elections in Hartlepool and Kilroy Silk would make a real impression- and as Peter Mandelson would be leaving for Europe, the by-election campaign could credibly be framed around that issue.

One interesting thought- Each of these people- Robinson, Mallon and Kilroy-Silk, is grey haired, flamboyant and aggressively charismatic. If they are indeed candidates, this election could turn into the battle of the 50-something alpha males.  They could suck attention away from any campaign.  Candidate choice will be vital for all the main Parties.

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