Saturday, 25 April 2015

Antisocial media

I’m taking a break from blogging about the election (about which there is not much of interest to say at the moment anyway) to reflect on something which, whilst not new, seems to be a growing phenomenon. It’s prompted by an experience whilst waiting at a large train station in London the other day. Nearby, there was an information stand at which sat a young woman in a smart uniform. Every few minutes, a passenger would approach her with some query or other and each time she would, after a moment, look up from her mobile phone, answer the question, and then immediately go back to the phone. I watched for a while and it seemed to me that she could hardly bear to look away from her phone for even a few seconds.
I’ve also noticed – again, it’s not an original observation, but recently it seems to be one I make more frequently – how the students I teach seem to find it all but impossible to go through a class, or for that matter a few minutes, without looking at their phones. One thing that seems particularly strange about this is that students invariably complain about the lack of class contact time, especially since the introduction of tuition fees in English universities, and yet in that time that they do have they absent themselves. There’s been quite a bit of research which suggests that phone-addiction is becoming increasingly common, including studies of students.
By phone addiction, of course, we really mean addiction to the internet and social media. It’s quite an alien world to me, and I’ve posted elsewhere about my views of twitter. I’ve never had a Facebook account – let alone Pinterest or Instagram - and although I do use my phone for email and texting I regard it primarily as just a phone. I don’t much like using it as the connection and comfort never seem as good as a landline and, horror of horrors, I leave it turned off for days at a time.
That’s not, or not just, middle-aged Luddism. I do wonder what the effects of this apparent addiction are. Some are all too obvious as when people walk through busy streets, oblivious to everyone around them, glued to the phone. Indeed there are increasing numbers of accidents as a result, as in this report about Tokyo, but I guess the same would be true in any large city. It’s also obvious when you watch commuters using phones and tablets to play games. Recently, a British politician was criticised for playing the game Candy Crush during a parliamentary committee. Less obvious effects include the report this week that levels of myopia amongst children are rocketing because of the amount of time spent indoors at computers and mobile devices, and in China steps are being taken to prevent this. Or, to take another example, phone use whilst driving is an increasing cause of traffic accidents.
There seems something infantile about all this; the inability to pay more than momentary attention, the compulsive need to play. More than that, it seems as if the social media addiction in particular comes at a great cost to social interaction. In connecting us it also disconnects us from ‘real’ relationships, as many commentators have noted. It is also – connecting with the example I began with – being reported that workplace productivity is being damaged by the obsessive need to connect, with one recent survey identifying it as the main cause of timewasting at work.
I realise that this sounds puritanical, and perhaps it is – perhaps, though, there are some virtues in puritanism? And of course there are downsides to all forms of human interaction, whether virtual or real. But it does seem to me problematic that increasingly we are unable to live in the present and the here-and-now. I’ll close with another recent observation, of a couple sitting at a restaurant table each engaging not with each other but with their phones. Or perhaps not, for it came into my head that for all I knew they were actually connecting with each other via their phones in preference to talking. It seemed not just possible but ineffably sad.

Friday, 17 April 2015

British election: the second leaders' debate

In this latest post on the British election I will write about the most recent leader debate, televised last night. This was again dominated by the format. Because of the complex negotiations over these debates neither David Cameron nor Nick Clegg were present. Instead, it was a debate amongst the ‘opposition leaders’: Natalie Bennett, Nigel Farage, Ed Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood (see previous post for party affiliations). This made for some odd dynamics. All were opposed to the absent leaders, and could freely attack them, although interestingly only Cameron was attacked; Clegg was not even mentioned. Within the five, one could configure the alliances as the four on the left versus Farage; the three women versus the two men; Farage and Miliband as the only pro-nuclear arms leaders versus the rest; Miliband as the ‘mainstream’ leftist versus Bennett, Sturgeon and Wood; Miliband as the only potential Prime Minister versus the rest; and many other permutations.
The prime axis of debate and the dynamic of most interest was between Miliband and Sturgeon as the increasingly likely pairing to form the next government. Both had a difficult task. Sturgeon had to show electors in Scotland that they can still avoid a Conservative government even if they don’t voter Labour, and that there is a deal to be done with Labour if they do, but that it won’t involve too much compromise. Miliband had the even harder job of trying to appeal to left-wing Scottish voters without frightening floating English voters; and frightening the Scottish voters into thinking that he won’t do a deal with the SNP whilst leaving open the door to such a deal given that it is probably the only way he can become Prime Minister. The consequences of the Scottish independence referendum, which I wrote about at the time, are still evolving in complex ways.
One consequence of this is that whereas many people, including me, though that the main issue to watch in this election would be how UKIP fared in fact that is beginning to look like a sideshow. There is no UKIP surge in the polls, if anything a slight falling off, and it is looking increasingly unlikely that they will win many seats or will have a role in the post-election negotiations. In the debate, Farage made little impact and was consistently outgunned, especially by Wood, Sturgeon and Bennett. And he made one enormous, but revealing, error when he attacked the audience as being left-wing and reflecting what UKIP regard as BBC bias. In fact, as David Dimbleby, the chair of the debate, immediately pointed out, the audience had been selected on a proportional basis by an independent organization, not the BBC.
Apart from being a tactical error, this reflected two other important features of UKIP. One is their propensity for paranoia and victimhood, fed by their belief that they speak for a ‘silent majority’ and its collision with the fact that, as the opinion polls suggest, they only speak for something like 10-15% of the population. The other is more interesting and hasn’t been picked up in the media discussion about the debates. It is that UKIP have made big play of their claim to speak for, and be supported by, the traditional Old Labour Left. They are to some extent right in that, which is not surprising because there has always been an element of the Old Left that is nationalistic and anti-immigrant. But if that is their pitch, then attacking the audience on the basis that it was left-wing seems contradictory. Either you are beyond such distinctions or you’re not.
For me, as in the previous debate, Nicola Sturgeon was the most impressive performer. She has a clarity that the others lack, and seems at once on top of the facts and figures of political debate but also human and empathetic. Farage seemed out of his depth and uncomfortable, and although he will surely have appealed to his core supporters, as he would come what may, he didn’t make the break out from that group that he would have wanted to. He seemed isolated and marginal. Leanne Wood again stuck mainly to her Welsh credentials, which was surely sensible tactics. She has done well in these debates, without dominating them. Bennett made lots of interesting points, and as in the last debate didn’t collapse in the way that her performances earlier in the campaign might have led people to expect. But the fact is that it is difficult for her to be the alternative voice when that ground is occupied so effectively by Sturgeon and, anyway, it is highly unlikely that the Greens will have many - or even any – seats in the next parliament. Miliband I thought was wooden. There has been much talk that he has been having media coaching and, if so, it shows. In a way he has become a better presenter, but at the expense of appearing synthetic. I also thought that he seemed uncomfortable when challenged from the left about being too close to the Tories because I suspect that, in his heart of hearts, he agrees. He has shifted Labour just a tiny fraction to the left of where New Labour was, but he dare not go further because (to be charitable) he knows that this would led to him being destroyed by the right-wing press, by sections of his own party, and losing votes in key English marginal seats.
Maybe the most interesting moments came right at the end, when the three left of centre women embraced, and then went to shake Miliband’s hand, whilst Farage stood alone, sweating and tired-looking, at – with an obvious symbolism - the far right of the podium. There was a sense here – if we leave aside the positioning of post-election negotiations – of a new kind of politics for the UK. For the first time in ages a confident Left, cautiously approaching a cautious Labour Party emerging from the shell of New Labour; an absent, patrician landlord in the form of the Conservatives; and a resentful, baffled split-off from the Conservatives in the form of UKIP standing alone, moaning about bias.
I should say that the polls on the debate disagree with me. The Mirror/Survation poll immediately after scored Miliband the winner, with 35% saying he had won, 31% saying Sturgeon, 27% Farage, 5% Bennett and 2% Wood. A CityAM study of the social media response ranked the participants in this order: Wood, Sturgeon, Bennett, Miliband, Farage. It’s worth saying that Survation polls routinely over-estimate UKIP support compared with other polls whilst CityAM, because of its London demographic, might likely to underestimate UKIP (I am not sure what methodology is used).
As for the election opinion polls, these continue to show Labour and Conservative neck and neck, and the probability is still that there will be a hung parliament. At that point things will get really interesting. My take at the moment is that there will be a minority Labour government supported by the SNP. Actually, there’s nothing controversial about that as a prediction, although if it happens it will surely lead to claims that it is somehow 'illegitimate'. But I also think that Miliband will be pleased with such a scenario, as it will enable him to pursue the agenda he wants and to sideline the New Labour elements. If this happens, then the Tories are likely to fall into crisis and shift to a strongly Eurosceptic stance, I would guess under the leadership of Liam Fox. This will neuter UKIP and make the main political faultline in the 2020 election one between Labour/SNP and Tories pursuing an EU Referendum. It’s crazy to look so far ahead of course but if Labour are smart they will hold a referendum themselves and would in all likelihood win it on a stay-in ticket. All pure speculation of course!

Monday, 6 April 2015

British election: All change and no change

On the tenuous basis that Easter is a time for new beginnings, I’ve given this blog a minor facelift. The headline font is changed to orange which matches the book cover better. I’ve also updated my profile and the picture, much as I would like to remain forever youthful. Exciting times, but now back to the election.
I wrote in my last post that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP was widely seen, including by me, as having been the best performer in the Leaders’ debate. She arrived back in Scotland to a rapturous reception. It is interesting to see the response to this from the British media, which has not attacked either Leanne Wood or Natalie Bennett who are not seen as a threat, but have gone to town on Sturgeon. Saturday’s Daily Telegraph led with a leaked story that Sturgeon secretly supported the Conservatives to win the election. This would, of course, be very damaging to her if true and she immediately issued a denial. The supposed leak is now being investigated.
Meanwhile in another right-wing paper, the Daily Mail, Sturgeon is depicted as “the most dangerous woman in British politics”, accompanied by a suitably scary picture in an article dripping with contempt and fear. The line of attack is two-fold. One is that she is a supposedly rabid left-winger (actually she is what in other European countries would be seen as a mainstream social democrat) who would try to “impose big-state socialism” on a Miliband government. It’s an odd accusation since the Mail has always depicted ‘Red Ed’ Miliband as a red of the deepest hue, not least in its despicable attack on his father, which I posted about at the time. Why, then, would Sturgeon need to “impose” such and agenda? The other prong of the attack is slightly stranger, but possibly more potent and we are likely to hear more of it if the current opinion polls hold. It is that it would be illegitimate for Scottish MPs to affect British politics against the wishes of the English, and were it to happen it would cause a crisis for the political system. But that does not begin to make sense. The political Right, including the Mail were all out against Scottish independence at last year’s referendum, insisting that Scotland should remain in the Union. How, then, can it be illegitimate for Scottish MPs to shape British politics? And, after all, Scotland in the 1980s had to accept Tory governments which had almost no electoral support in that country. Yet that was seen as perfectly legitimate: it was the overall national vote that counted, not the way it was composed as between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
There’s no great surprise in any of this. The British press is for the most part relentlessly right-wing and has for decades launched vitriolic attacks and character assassinations on anyone remotely departing from the Conservative Party script (as with former Labour leaders Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock). In that way, I can understand the situation of those who I otherwise disagree with. New Labour’s courting of the mainstream media and UKIP’s resentment of it both make sense. But I wonder whether it any longer holds the power it once did. People now get their news from multiple sources, mainly from the internet. Even in the heyday of the print press it was said that the majority of Sun readers voted Labour, despite the paper’s anti-Labour editorial stance. Now, I would think that the print media is even less influential. And the Mail article, the opening sentence of which referred to Sturgeon's "stilettoes and new hairstyle", was curiously dated (gosh, she's, you know, one of those women) as was the patronizing follow-up on how she has become "sexier with age". At all events, the opinion polls seem to have been unaffected by the leaders’ debate and its aftermath.

Friday, 3 April 2015

British election: the leaders' debate

This is the second of my posts on the British General Election, this time on the televised debate between the party leaders which was held last night. This is only the second time there has been such a debate in the UK, and the format was different to last time. In the 2010 election only the leaders of Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour participated. This time, following various political machinations, they were joined by the leaders of the Greens, SNP, UKIP and Plaid Cymru (the Welsh national party). Thus the full cast was Natalie Bennett (Greens), David Cameron (Conservative), Nick Clegg (LibDems), Nigel Farage (UKIP), Ed Miliband (Labour), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru). The debate lasted for two hours and was organized around four questions on the economy, the health service, immigration, and the future for young people.
In many ways it was this format that had the biggest effect. It meant that each leader had relatively little time to speak and when they did it was highly structured. There was little audience participation (I think by instruction from the broadcasters) and it was hard for any of the leaders to really get a sense of audience reaction – there was little applause, no catcalling and just one heckle towards the end. In short, the atmosphere felt quite sterile. Certainly it was difficult for any single leader to dominate proceedings, and none did.
Opinion polls and comments since the debates suggest that no one emerged as a clear ‘winner’or ‘loser’, although Nicola Sturgeon has been the most widely praised. I think this is deserved: she gave a strong, calm and confident performance. One quite likely permutation of the election result is a Labour minority government supported by the SNP and if so that will be an interesting outcome, since Sturgeon is some way to the left of Labour and would be likely to push strongly against austerity economics.
As for the other leaders, David Cameron, who had been resistant to the debates taking place, seemed somewhat ill at ease and disengaged. He can be an accomplished speaker and expectations would have been quite high that he would stand out, so I would think his supporters would be disappointed. Ed Miliband, by contrast, started against low expectations since he is widely seen as lacking charisma. Thus it was relatively easier for him to exceed expectations, so his supporters may be relieved. It would be hard to say that either of these two – the only ones with any expectation of becoming Prime Minister – decisively defeated the other.
Nigel Farage will have had high expectations from this debate. He is often an accomplished and effective speaker, skilled in projecting an image of straight-speaking normality. But his style relies a lot on the use of humour and bombast, and the rigid format and stage-managed audience weren’t a good format for these. He wasn’t able to dominate proceedings as he might have done in a head to head, and it was notable that Cameron and Miliband barely addressed him, treating him as almost an irrelevance. He was also the only one of the leaders who looked physically uncomfortable. His supporters profess themselves pleased but there was no breakthrough moment of the sort they would have hoped for.
Of all the leaders, Natalie Bennett started with the lowest expectations given recent painful media performances (which I discussed in another post). To exceed them all she really had to do was not implode, and she easily exceeded that bar. Leanne Wood was probably the least known of the politicians to a national audience and gave an assured performance, albeit one which (not unreasonably) mainlined on Welsh rather than national issues. Sturgeon, by contrast, had tended to emphasise the role SNP MPs could play in Westminster politics. But it was Wood who garnered one of the few rounds of applause of the night, in a sharp put down of Farage’s claim about immigrants using the health service.
Nick Clegg’s performance in the debate has been less commented on in the media than that of the other leaders. It was actually quite punchy and fluent. But whereas at the last election debate his was the runaway success, attracting by far the most praise and interest, the context has now changed and he has neither the edge of being a newcomer challenging the political establishment nor the significance that attaches to the prospective Prime Ministers.
Overall, we didn’t learn very much that was new, and it seems unlikely to me that many viewers will have changed their voting intentions on the basis of the debates. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating evening and, again, this was because of the format. Firstly, there was a far wider range of views represented than has been normal in British politics, and with each leader being given the same amount of air time these views were represented as all having equal weight. That felt like a refreshing change following an era which, as I wrote in my last post, has been dominated by the shared neo-liberal orthodoxy of Conservative and Labour parties. Secondly, the dynamics of the debate felt changed by the presence of three women – who, relatedly, each represented ideologies at odds with neo-liberalism. Since Margaret Thatcher’s departure, British politics has been heavily dominated by white men in suits and suddenly that domination has evaporated (as regards the men, but not the white bit). It was Thatcher who coined the phrase ‘there is no alternative’ (to free markets), otherwise known as Tina. But Tina, for one night anyway, was banished by Leanne, Natalie and Nicola.