The Premier League: My top 20

Those that know me will also know I’m a massive football fan. I’ve been a supporter of West Ham United since I was about 15 and since then I’ve taken it pretty seriously, making sure to keep up with the ups and downs of a Premier League Season (or a Championship one, at one point) and slowly building up a passionate knowledge of the game.

There are many reasons to dislike football, whether its the obscene amounts of money, the attitude of some of the players, or the ridiculous firing and hiring of managers you can pick out several flaws. But the game itself is beautiful, the tactics and nuances of a 90 minute match are deep and incredibly interesting once you get into it. Managers may be at the whims of ridiculous owners with more money than sense, but I respect them enormously for the versatility of personality their job requires.

This year made some of the pros and cons of football more visible than ever, from the beginning of the season to the end there have been some difficult moments, some ridiculous moments and some outstanding play. Although the league table will show which teams did best in terms of points, some massively over or underachieved. This is my League, effectively, with a quick judgement on teams based on what I’ve seen and how I think they’ve performed given the resources they have. It’s all personal opinion of course, and I’m sure there are stats that will come up with a proper idea of which teams over or underperformed, but these are my impressions.

#20 – Queens Park Rangers

QPR had money, experienced and talented players, one of the best managers in England and great home support from the start of the season. But all they managed to use was the money. The players didn’t perform, Harry Redknapp left mid-way through the season through ill-health and their form away was so bad that no level of home support could keep them on a good run. Almost undeniably the biggest underachievers in the league, and deservedly relegated

#19 – Newcastle United

Newcastle are a club that frankly has been shockingly run. Mike Ashley represents all the worst things about modern football club ownership, a man bent on making the club into a money making exercise rather than something for the city to be proud of. While it’s a bit much for them to be challenging for Europe, they should never have been close to relegation. Instead they fired Alan Pardew, a man for whom I’ve always had enormous respect after he took West Ham to the FA Cup final, despite him being an excellent manager in a difficult scenario. John Carver has been an awful replacement, and they need to find someone new to take them back up the league. Pardew over and underperformed at times, but his teams never looked this bad.

#18 – Sunderland

Sunderland are a really difficult team to get to grips with. Like Newcastle they have underperformed and played poorly in plenty of games this season, but under Poyet they were at least difficult to beat at first, being the 0-0 draw specialists in the early part of the season. Then they just starting collapsing after conceding the first goal in game after game. They deserve to be higher than Newcastle, because the club is better run and has fewer resources, but I do expect much more from them.

#17 – Hull City

The first team that I think is where they were always likely to end up in the table, Hull City were always going to find it difficult to survive in the Premier League. They don’t have the resources of most other teams, had key players from last year sold off at the start of the season and had injury troubles from day one. Steve Bruce is a good manager, and its nice to see fans giving him support even though he’s close to relegation, but it was never going to be likely that Hull could stay in the league for more than a few years. The reason they’re so low down this list is the amount of money they spent this year was too high, and so overall I think they’ve underachieved.

#16 – Aston Villa

This is perhaps slightly harsh, given that they’ve made it to a cup final, but Villa have never looked like a good team this year. The occasional bright moments, such as at the beginning of the season and now under Sherwood, have never been the norm despite exceptionally high quality players such as Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke being regular starters. Sherwood clearly knows how to use them better than Paul Lambert, but that doesn’t appear to have been a hard thing to do. They found it nearly impossible to score under Lambert, then were suddenly goal happy after he left. Next season I would expect to see them comfortably mid-table, where they should be given their resources.

#15 – Everton

Had it not been for the improvement in form at the end of the season, Everton would be right near the bottom of this list. Going from Champions League contenders last year, where Martinez was getting them to play fantastic football with great defensive and offensive tactics, this year they’ve looked lacklustre for the most part, as though the whole team was out of sync. Fortunately the situation recovered, they’ve played much better football in the latter half of the season and have improved defensively in particular, but they have the resources and players to be in the upper half of the table and challenging for Europe, and should be next season.

#14 – Leicester City

Very well run club, very passionate supporters, relatively average but hard-working players and a good manager mean Leicester have performed well enough to warrant their current place in the league, despite being bottom most of the season. Their 5-3 win at Manchester United was a highlight of the season, and their winning run at the end is a fairytale ending to an incredibly difficult season. Sticking within Nigel Pearson, who was respected and liked by fans, was clearly a good move and I’m looking forward to seeing them again next season, hopefully with a bit more quality in the squad.

#13 – West Bromwich Albion

Like Leicester, West Brom haven’t really over or underperformed over the course of the season. They’re not likely to be in the top ten every year, but securing safety is always their priority and they did with games to spare. While I think firing Alan Irvine was a bit harsh, it’s turned out to be a good move to replace him with Pulis, whose fantastic record of never having been relegated continues. They have some quality players in Gardner and Berahino, and provided they keep that team together, they’ll continue to stay in the Premier League

#12 – Tottenham Hotspur

Again a season of underperformance from Tottenham. They have some of the most talented players in the league, great goal scorers and defenders, but they can never seem to put together a good run. They should be pushing for the Champions League the whole way through a season, not accepting a Europa League place every year. They need to challenge next season and buy in some better quality midfielders to give Harry Kane (if he stays) the support he needs, because he’s clearly a talented striker that could develop into a very special player.

#11 – West Ham United

I let out a deep sigh writing this. If I’d done a half season review I’d have happily, and I think justifiably, put West Ham second in this list. They played brilliant football in the first half of the season, Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho providing and scoring goals in important games, while the backbone of the team from last year was still intact and playing much better. Everything felt good, but then it came crashing down spectacularly. They’ve gone from fourth to tenth in four months, but they are normally a mid-table team and judging them over the season as a whole, they’ve not underperformed. It’s just difficult to accept that we could have been challenging for Europe and now we’re back to where we’re used to being, in a distinctly mediocre position.

#10 – Manchester United

I’ll be honest, I hate everything about Manchester United. I can’t stand seeing teams like them spending enormous amounts of money to try and effectively buy the league from other teams, massively outstripping the spending of other clubs. So to see them drop out of every cup in spectacular fashion (a 4-0 loss to MK Dons being another season highlight) and now only just scraping into the Champions League was very nice to see, for me at least. It shows you can’t just buy random players and play with almost random strategies to win, you have to be better than that. Louis Van Gaals tactics were awful at the start of the season, but he has recovered the situation somewhat, and has at least achieved the bare minimum expected.

#9 Burnley

Burnley are high up my list because I think over the course of the season they’ve overachieved. They played great football, always gave one-hundred-and-ten percent, and never ever gave up hope of being relegated. They do not have a team capable of playing in the Premier League on paper, yet they made it incredibly difficult for other teams to put them down and beat Manchester City with an admirable display in the latter half of the season. Sean Dyche is a great manager, the fans are great, and the club deserves credit for not panicking, not trying to go beyond their means, and hoping to build on great foundations for next year, where they might be able to reach the league again and then secure their status with a bit more cash.

#8 – Crystal Palace

Like Burnley, I think Crystal Palace have overachieved and played excellent football, especially since the arrival of Alan Pardew. He has made the team exciting to watch, with players like Wilfred Zaha and Yannick Bolassie penetrating defences at will. Pardew is one of my favourite managers in the Premier League, partly out of respect for his time during West Ham, but also because he’s affable and willing to try and play attractive football. He’s human, and lashes out occasionally, but Newcastle made a massive error in firing him, with Palace totally vindicated in taking him from them.

#7 – Liverpool

Liverpool overachieved last season, and this season they’ve probably done broadly what most expected them to do last year. But that expectation carried over into this year, and thats a bit unfair on Brendan Rogers and the team as a whole. Sure, there are terrible signings this year, such as Lovren and Ballotelli, but they lost Suarez and effectively Sturridge at the start of the season, one of the best strike partnerships in the history of the league. They were irreplaceable, and in reality to finish fifth would not be a disaster given the resources of the teams above them. They have great players in Sterling and Jordan Ibe, but they need to improve next season and either get their current signings performing or cut their losses and bring in some real quality.

#6 – Manchester City

Manchester City are where most people expected them to be and they’ve performed pretty well over the course of the season. The problem is the Champions League and Cup games, where they had an opportunity to win silverware and failed to do. They have had injury issues, with Aguero struggling with his knee, and some players have not performed, such as Jesus Navas and Mangala, but they certainly haven’t underperformed over the course of the season. They need to come back stronger to challenge Chelsea next season, though like Manchester United I dislike the way the club is run because they try to buy titles.

#5 – Stoke City

Stoke have done excellently in the league this year to secure a high mid-table finish, despite having at best average resources. Their players aren’t brilliant, but they’ve managed to get some great results along the way and Mark Hughes is getting them to play attractive football. The club is run well, the fans always make a great atmosphere in home games, and it’s great to see them doing well even if there are sometimes worries about the aggression levels of players like Ryan Shawcross (who has deserved an England call-up for years) and Charlie Adam. It’ll be interesting to see if they can build on this and start consistently finishing mid-table, because that would be great for the club.

#4 – Arsenal

Arsenal have done very well in the second half of the season, and reached the FA Cup final, but they need to be more consistent over the course of a whole season. I have probably more respect for Arsene Wenger than any other manager, since he doesn’t overspend, plays attractive football, develops youngsters, has a very calm manner and consistently gets the team into the Champions League without fail. If Arsenal can actually put a whole season together they could win the league with the current team, but if they can finish above both Manchester City and United they will have done excellently this season.

#3 – Chelsea

They’ve won the Premier League and the League Cup, but to say Chelsea have overachieved is giving them a bit too much. Most expected them to win the league, and while they’ve done very well I can’t really put them any higher because other teams have overachieved hugely and deserve higher places. Similarly, their performance in the Champions League was embarrassing at PSG and while Jose Mourinho is undeniably a tactical genius, his style of football is often aggravating to watch for neutrals, even if it nearly always gets results. So Chelsea are high up, but they could have been higher had they done better in the Champions League or FA Cup.

#2 – Swansea City

They could feasibly finish in the European places, they’ve reached a record points total for the season, played gorgeous and fluid football all year and never strayed from the top 8 places. Swansea are now regular overachievers in the Premier League, and it’s made all the more impressive by the fact that they’ve stayed consistent despite the loss of Wilfred Bony in January. Garry Monk still needs to prove himself over a few seasons, but he has continued to build on what Martinez, Rogers and Laudrup have achieved over the course of the last decade or so and is keeping the clubs philosophies intact while also making them a force to be reckoned with both offensively and defensively. Swansea are everything that is good about modern football, a great club with a clear vision and beautiful play that can make games exciting to watch for fans and neutrals.

#1 – Southampton

Had Southampton not had to sell virtually their entire team and manager at the end of last season they’d probably be about 7th on this list. But to push for the Champions League for so much of the season and potentially secure a Europa League place if Arsenal win the FA Cup is frankly astounding considering all that. They’ve played great football, with Saido Mane now having scored the fastest hat-trick in Premier League history, and signed some great players to replace the ones that mostly went off to Liverpool and underperformed. Ronald Koeman’s stock has risen significantly, with him having clearly picked out where the squad needed developing. Since Southampton have a rich history of producing great young players, and that is continuing with midfielders like James-Ward-Prowse, he could rely on the youth system to give him some players as well. So for me, Southampton are easily the biggest overachievers considering some were worried about relegation this season.

My 5 Favourite Eurovision Entries

Expect silliness. Expect a LOT of silliness Eurovision is something I’ve done every year as a family event. It’s great to get together, chat about the various songs and costumes, how bad or good they are and then decide on who we think should win. Inevitably Britain doesn’t, we pick awful songs, but thats besides the point. More recently though Eurovision has been…. uninspired. Songs feel a bit too close to the bog standard parts of the pop industry to really be considered “Eurovision” songs. Don’t get me wrong, “Euphoria” and “Only Teardrops” are fantastic songs but the years in which they won were, frankly, boring compared to previous ones. Conchita Wurst was a deserved winner last year, but again the competition was poor. So none of my entries on this list come from the last 5 years, nor from before 2002 when I started watching. I’m hoping this year will get back some of the madness that these entries represented, but I fear it may just be another set of typical ballads and pop bands. #5 – 

Fairytale – Alexander Rybak – Norway 2009 Right on the end of the decade, this was a great combination of silliness and songwriting that managed to get the balance perfectly. It’s only 5th on this list because other songs are sillier and a little more memorable, but it deserves a place on this list purely for that repeated violin solo. And Alexander Rybak is cute as hell, seriously. #4 – 
Leave Me Alone – Hanna Parkrinan – Finland 2007 After Lordi’s success the year earlier, there were several bands that tried to go down the rock route in 2007. Finland once again had easily the best of those entries, but that year people wanted to go back to pop songs, so she never received as many votes as I think she deserved for an entry full of energy and a fantastic rock track. #3 – 
Wolves of the Sea – Pirates of the Sea – Latvia 2008 Possibly the best example of how to do a Eurovision song while still being able to taken broadly seriously, Wolves of the Sea is a great catchy track that doesn’t try to do anything too silly but still knows not to take the competition too seriously. The costumes are great, the song is great, and Alestorm did a brilliant cover of it later. #2 – 
Dancing – Verka Serduchka – Ukraine 2007 This is what I love about Eurovision. Everyone knows this song is stupid, catchy and sickeningly garish. And it came second. 2006-2009 were probably the glory years of Eurovision, where you’d get a great number of ballads, silly songs and dramatic dances and Dancing is easily the best example of when it all just couldn’t get sillier. #1 – 
Hard Rock Hallelujah – Lordi – Finland 2006 Still the greatest thing Eurovision has ever given to European music. Lordi were totally out of whack for Eurovision, they were a controversial entry for a huge number of reasons, especially when you consider that many parts of Europe are still strongly Christian and were deeply disturbed by the demonic imagery. They weren’t a pop group, they weren’t coming with a slightly silly song or a great ballad, they were coming in with a hard rock song that had nothing else to say other than “Rock is Awesome and we’re going to shout it really loud”. The front line singer wasn’t “singing” so much as shouting, though the female backing singer was brilliant, acting as a perfect balance. They were helped by 2006 being the first year to ever have pyrotechnics, and they stuck them on everything.. You can’t actually see much during the end of the video because of all the sparks. It was probably the first time you could go into school and say “I saw this really cool song that won Eurovision last night!” and no one would tease you. They won, in style, beating the record for the most number of points (that would later be beaten by Alexander Rybak) and deservedly so.

What does Labour need to do?

As the election results came in, I was surprised as anyone that the Tories looked likely to win. I was even more surprised when the results began to suggest a majority was a possibility. And when that possibility came to pass, it seemed impossible.

I have never made a secret of my admiration for David Cameron, even if I don’t like the Conservative Party as a whole. I mean, Theresa May is going to continue being an authoritarian witch bent on culling civil liberties like badgers and Ian Duncan Smith is basically just Mr Burns incarnate at this point. But Cameron himself is slick, cunning and possibly the most able politician since Tony Blair or Thatcher. He himself appears to be broadly centre right in his values, even if the rest of the party is moving away from them, but still that gives the party an air of modernity. He played all of his opponents perfectly, with 3 of them given referenda: eurosceptics, the Scottish and the Lib Dems, and in the latter two cases he got the desired result. And after the independence referendum, he threw Labour into a fight it didn’t want by proposing English votes for English laws. Labour disagreed, but that forced them to into a horribly compromised solution that further damaged the trust of the Scottish electorate for the party. So when the election came around, Eurosceptics knew they were getting a referendum, the Scottish hated Labour, and the Lib Dems had no reforms to show for five years in government. For each of these decisions, including the coalition in the first place, Cameron was initially given trouble by one part of his party or another, and he headed each one off successfully, taking only minor, if any, damage from each one. I may not admire the mans policies, but he is a consummate politician.

Even with all that Labour still should have had some traction against the Tories austerity package, surely? There were widespread protests, celebrities who vocally disagreed and strike action by Unions every year. But it’s pretty clear that Labour couldn’t convince people that it was actually any different from the Tories. Cameron and the Tories were driving them into their fights, ones about the deficit and debt reduction. They had the option to sound like an alternative, instead they just sounded like they were “Tory-lite”, wanting to both cut and tax to get through the deficit. And while that might sound like a balanced option, that effectively means everyone has something to lose in a Labour government. If they’d consistently stated they wanted to increase taxes on the rich and corporations (something that did not appear on Ed Millibands stone, but badly needed to) and stated outright that they would cut significantly less (not just slower, which was Ed Balls favourite way of attacking the Tories) then they would have forced the Tories onto difficult ground. Instead they stayed on Conservative home soil, without realising that it was an increasingly toxic place to be for their party.

However much the traditional left may dislike New Labour for focussing too much on wealth creation rather than distribution, it worked. Had Labour not gone to war in Iraq, trust in the party is likely to have been relatively high even after the financial crash. New Labour was not something the party needed to abandon, that would be to entirely misread the issues that made Labour easily beatable in the eighties and later surprisingly beatable in 1992. It was genuinely surprisingly to hear Douglas Carswell, a member of UKIP sounding as though he understood these issues better than the higher ranking members of the Labour party on the Andrew Marr Show. People do not dislike capitalismthey dislike the way in which capitalism is being used as a funnel by both the government and businesses to increase wealth unfairly. Capitalism can, as has been proved in Germany, be a massive boon to all areas and classes of the public. But to hear some Labour supporters demanding a return to the left wing is insanity. There is clearly no desire to return to the days of Callaghan, the last truly left wing government, nor is there any love for the unions, effectively crushed under media derision and continued undemocratic strike action. Labour cannot write another suicide note as it did under Micheal Foot, it needs a strong leader, with a strong and consistent message that begins to show how dangerous continued slash and burn austerity is while providing an alternative. New Labour was an alternative to Thatcherism, not just Thatcherism-lite (as many on the left may want to call it) and the thirteen years they were in power were relatively good ones, something that was never really defended under either Brown or Miliband, again a result of fighting the battles where Conservatives had the home advantage.

The leadership choices show up this problem in stark detail. Newer members are fighting against the old guard, many of whom are supported by unions. Andy Burnham is the leading contender, but while he will almost certainly be an improvement on Miliband (very little wouldn’t be) he would not provide the message Labour needs to send out. Chuka Umunna is slick, Peter Mandelson was sat next to him on the Andrew Marr show and it’s pretty clear he’s something of a protege. If that is the case then Umunna is a better choice than Burnham, as he will be exceptionally presentable to most of the electorate, the first ethnic minority leader of a party, and broadly centrist. Tristram Hunt is perhaps less suitable, but still a better option than Burnham. Liz Kendall is also an option, but she is not quite as presentable as Umunna or Hunt, partly because of her idea of “moving on” from the Blair-Brown era (something Millibands Labour was stupidly obsessed with making a point about) and partly because she seems to lack strong support within her own party. She may well be popular enough to be a candidate, but I doubt she is popular enough to lead and keep the party together.

If I was ever going to support the Labour party, something I have never even considered doing since being old enough to vote, they would need to fight battles they could win on the centre ground. They would need to choose a leader that is presentable to the media, that can communicate with both businesses and the electorate as a whole and someone who brings a message of genuine change. Miliband provided none of these three things and never did, which is why his selection over his brother was the first movement towards failure at this election. There is also a gaping whole where support for modern civil liberties can be wrested from the Liberal Democrats, their demise opening up easy policies that have little impact on Labours overall ideology while providing obvious comparisons to the Tories, including electoral reform, nuclear disarmament, defence of civil liberties and European support. New Labour was a recognition that Labour needed to adapt, not to switch ideology entirely. Now Labour needs to adapt again, but the last five years gave them ample opportunity and they squandered it by trying to kill off the Blairite side of the party, the most adaptable members.

Personally, as you can probably tell already, I’d pick either Hunt or Umunna, probably Umunna overall. But that’s unlikely to go down well with the left of the party. But If you’re thinking “You’re a previous Tory voter, of course you’d vote for him” then you’ve proven my pointmaybe, like the Tories in the late nineties with it’s Eurosceptic elements, Labour needs to cut itself off from the more radical members of its left wing and allow them to find new ground else ware. If the left is truly to rise again it cannot do so under the banner of the Labour party, just as the Eurosceptic right is now rising under UKIP.


And if you’re thinking “You’re an ex-Tory voter, of course Umunna appeals to you” then you’re somewhat proving my point. There are currently enough Tory voters in the UK that they managed to get a majority, and sometimes the electorate needs a Cameron, Blair or Thatcher, someone for whom image is not an issue. Ed Milliband could not stop his image from being a constant problem, but Umunna is unlikely to have the same troubles while still providing a solid platform for the rest of the party.

My love/hate relationship with Chess

40k-chessThis is something of a tangental blog post, considering it has nothing to do with politics, but with the recent release of a video game called “Regicide”, based in Games Workshops Warhammer 40,000 Universe and developed by Hammerfall Games, (information on which can be found here I started to think about what Chess has meant to me over my life. Regicide itself gives you two game modes, classic Chess and “Regicide” in which certain pieces move the same as others but have special abilities in an additional phase of play.

I’ve been playing strategy games of some description for my entire living memory. I was introduced to Games Workshop and its wonderful fantasy world when I was four and my dad taught me how to play Chess around about the same time. I also played it on the computer in my spare time and ended up learning quite a lot about the history of the game, it’s grandmasters, politics and rankings as a hobby. I will maintain to this day that how I think about life, how I remember things, and how I play games more generally have all been influenced by my Chess playing in some way. Having both GW and Chess in the same package feels like a match that I’d be waiting to see for years.

But it also shows to me how fundamentally archaic Chess is in the modern world. I’m a big video gamer, with dabblings in almost every genre, but Grand Strategy and RTS games have always been my forte, from Dungeon Keeper and Age of Empires in my early days to Europa Universalis, Total War and the Dawn of War series in more recent years. Regicides two modes show this up in a more vivid way than I’m used to because I don’t normally think about chess at the forefront of my  mind when playing video games.

It’s supposed to be the most balanced and tactical of strategy games. Luck doesn’t enter the equation, it’s your skill against your opponents and any mistake is likely to cost you a game against experienced players. It taught me never to play your opponents game, to never be constantly reactive and to look three or four moves ahead. Tactics were key, almost any chess player who has researched moves will have heard of the Sicilian Defence, which at its most basic level consists of a single move by Black. Imagine reading about players like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, who took elements this simple and slowly built on them over the years to defeat opponents with decades more experience. They were game changers for a sport that hadn’t changed in a meaningful way for centuries, and thats inspiring in its own way. I took the game straight into my heart, and in hindsight I should probably have entered tournaments or tried actually making something of it. In the end, I went to secondary school and was happy to win all the tournaments there every year bar the last one (which I lost to a Year 7, who it has to be said was a great player, even if I probably didn’t focus as much as I should have due to overconfidence, a big error on my part)

But chess isn’t a sport you can romanticise about, at least not in the same way as football for example. Matches can take hours or days (even at secondary school we had games that went on for two or three hours). They are, in reality, boring to watch even if looking at the moves afterwards is a revealing insight into the thinking of the player. Moreover, those who play the game at the highest level these days lack the charisma or rebellious nature of a Fischer, Kasparov or Petrosian; Magnus Carlson is a fabulous chess player, possibly the greatest ever to grace the sport, but he is reserved and thoughtful (a common comparison to make is with tennis player Roger Federer). The notation system looks horrible, even if it’s depth and ability to show an entire game in an incredibly concise manner is amazing. It also has an image problem, being dominated by a patriarchy of male players in a way that Golf could only dream of. This was bought to a head most recently when Nigel Short stated that “It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”. I don’t have a problem with saying that female brains are wired differently. I do have a problem with “gracefully accepting” that it makes them worse at chess when opportunities for them to take it to higher levels are far more restrictive.

So, when I was younger and less involved in politics or study, chess felt like a sport that I was proud to be good at. It showed I was clever in a way that meant more to me than grades because they weren’t a direct competition with others. Beating another person at something is a great way to get a rush of good feelings, and since I was terrible at every physical sport on the planet, chess was really the only thing I could do to get that. Even if the rewards were winning the tournaments were terrible sometimes (juggling balls being the most stupid one I can think of) sometimes I received small monetary rewards, further increasing my desire to win and the feelings of competitive joy.

But the more I look at chess now, the less inspired I feel to play it. It feels old and worn out compared to the more fast paced games of the virtual world. It feels like the stereotypes of the players still exist and are still validated by its community. It’s no longer rewarding or inspiring, and it lacks character and meaning in the fast modern world. So, while I love the game of chess for the rewards and abilities its given me, it lacks the drama and character that it used to.

The Destruction of Reasonable Debate in Social Media

There is a certain irony, or even perhaps hypocrisy, in writing this post. I’m currently writing on a blog site that basically encourages the things I’m about to complain about, and I’ll be sharing the article on social media.

But I’ve been annoyed for a while about this, so lets just get it out shall we. Social media is destroying reasonable discussion. It is creating echo chambers, trolls and extremists. It is allowing groups and individuals with no purpose other than to hate or damage others gain enormous amounts of traction and exposure.

This is not an issue that relates to one part of the political spectrum. For every Neo-Nazi with a penchant for racism and homophobia there are “social justice warriors”, bearded Marxists and extreme feminists. And for each of those there are trolls with the opposite view, each in turn generating hate that could probably power the globe if we harnessed it.

Political discussion at a basic level is debating issues and finding common or opposing ground and working towards compromise. No one is going to agree on everything, you cannot engage in these sorts of issues if you have already decided what is and isn’t right because there isn’t a right answer. Plenty of movements are guilty of this, modern feminism, meninism, religious protectionism and anti-vaccination groups have all begun to start shouting nonsense into cyberspace in order to incite members of their groups into spewing ridiculous things on social media.

You cannot make a balanced or nuanced point in 140 characters. You can say something poignant, express a strong opinion or crack a joke, but you cannot say something of any value in that small space. Either you rant in several tweets or status updates, or you link to something longer that does try to address the points in a reasonable manner. It would be nice if people were more willing to find such articles and retweet them, rather than come out with unsubstantiated and offensive opinions that do nothing to move discussions forward.

And yes, I used the word “offensive” there. If you think that posting up the quote from Stephen Fry about offence somehow puts you on a moral high ground you’re someone who has clearly not thought through the implications of such a view. You’re someone who is happy to ignore the emotional state of the person on the other side of the argument and you lack empathy and basic human understanding. Being offended by something is not bad, it indicates that something at the core of your knowledge or even personhood is being hit with a blunt instrument. People who are offended by things often respond poorly, but rather than telling them their offence is worthless, ask them why they’re offended. In some cases, it’s almost blatantly obvious what the response will be, racism is offensive because a persons skin colour or heritage does not instantly define who they are for example. Misogyny or misandry is offensive for similar reasons. If it’s not obvious, in particular any case with religious connotations, try and understand the cause of the offence. Each time you make that person question why they’re offended, the more they will hear themselves questioning their own beliefs, and the more you understand why similar people feel the way they do. Why would you attack the offence that is taken and not the person doing the offending?

Ideally that question wouldn’t have a legitimate answer. Unfortunately, people who do take offence are increasingly going out of their way to find offensive things, either by reinterpreting the views of a particular writer, speaker or artist in a way that offends them or even by outright creating it by saying something equally offensive to draw attention to their cause. As soon as that is met with derision and disagreement, they claim they are being offended, oppressed or attacked. This has always been a common tactic of extremist groups, effectively garnering sympathy by claiming that moderate or opposing viewpoints want to shut them out by shouting them down. But increasingly it’s becoming common among even the most moderate of viewpoints and political parties. Instead of discussion, political and cultural debate is dominated by demagogues and sophists who will never budge from their position because they have already decided they’re in the right and everyone else is wrong. And when two of those groups meet, you get arguments that go nowhere fast.

I’m not going to sit here and claim I haven’t said stupid or unsubstantiated things in the past myself. I still do from time to time, but if someone corrects me because they’re offended I don’t go “So fucking what?” I calmly ask why they think I’ve overstepped a mark. And more often than not, the discussion very quickly leads to me learning something new about the person I’m talking to and an improvement in the relationship between us. Replying with a defensive or dismissive answer is just going to lead to a breakdown in the discussion.

But Twitter, Facebook and blogging sites encourage us to form networks that reinforce our viewpoints. And with enough reinforcement, eventually you’ve walled yourself in. No new or nuanced viewpoints are accepted, and any opposing viewpoints can be safely kept at bay in the knowledge that you have several blogs with the same viewpoint as you bookmarked in your favourites folder. This is especially common when discussing socio-economic issues, with poorly researched or blogs with twisted viewpoints garnering the most attention. If they’re right wing they’ll be focused on the benefits of capitalism and the issues with socialism. Left wing blogs will do the opposite, but neither will likely address the good points of the system they disagree with. It creates a dichotomy that appears to have no middle ground, when in reality the middle ground is exactly what you should be searching for. Solutions are not found by ignoring the other side, they are found by listening to them.

Lets face it, the internet and modern mass media has allowed people to claim things as true because they heard them through one of many outlets that lie or twist the truth while claiming to provide correct and backed up information. Fox News is a fantastic example of what happens when people see something that has an informative tone but do nothing to question what is actually being said. Hell, I could extend that to almost any news outlet in the world. I have a huge amount of respect for the BBC, but it’s not infallible and is certainly affected by the politics of the time and the media around it.

So, in conclusion, it’s down to us as individuals to find the statistics and hard facts for ourselves, to discuss them with a variety of people and to never believe that you’re going to be right about an issue. Things change and human beings are fallible, you can spend years doing all the best research in the world, but if someone finds something that does genuine damage to that, don’t respond by trying to justify your own findings in the face of the evidence. Try and incorporate it, see why it damages your view and draw new conclusions. Because frankly no one else is.

Russell Brands idealism isn’t what we need.

Last nights BBC Question Time was, in all honestly, a bore. For all it’s hype about seeing two men ideological opposed to each other sitting directly across the table and staring each other down, it ended with a sort of damp squib.

Brand is not a politician, these debates do not suit his style because he is a preacher of morality, not a speaker of political issues. The debate was really “won” by Camilla Cavendish, who was probably the only reasonable person in the room by the end. Brand later released a statement that was typical of both his grassroots activism and his desire to see a better world (and I don’t doubt that he does) in that it appealed to peoples humanity and ended on an attack on Farage for creating fear amongst the populace. What was perhaps most telling about this statement in relation to the debate as a whole was the end of the second to last paragraph.

“The Britain of the future will be born of alliances between ordinary, self-governing people, organised locally, communicating globally. Built on principles that are found in traditions like Christianity; community, altruism, kindness, love”

It is statements like these that should immediately ring alarm bells, not because they’re based in some kind of utopian vision of humanity (Brand is commonly guilty of this anyway) but because he could not get this idea across during a debate on concrete issues because of his decision to “politely sit on his hands”. When presented with questions concerning how people in power should govern, which policies they should implement or reject, Brand is like a idealistic left wing student. Tuition fees, food banks and wealth inequality are where his strengths lie (and they are important issues that he is right to raise), but when presented with an issue as fundamental as education policy a response of “I don’t know much about it” and trying to throw the question into the issue on tuition isn’t good enough. In the world of collectivized government he wants to create, how are children educated then? If the Britain of the future is to be built on the things he has listed above, he needs to give concrete reasons as to why. It’s all very well appealing to our humanity and altruism, but many of the altruists are voting UKIP as well in a desire to leave a European Union that they feel even further disconnected from than the parliament in Westminster. Convincing them that there is an alternative would have been a better line of answering. He doesn’t appear to support any one party, preferring to be wholly anti-establishment, but there will always be an establishment of some kind, and if there is the revolution he desires he will be the one people look to to form a new establishment. So far he has done little to convince that it isn’t just all philosophy, that once push comes to shove, he has very little to offer beyond clever words and joining student protests. Those are good things to have, but a bringer of change they do not make.

An answer he gave that also irked me was to a gentlemen, who it was later confirmed was a UKIP MEP’s brother, was that when asked if he was a campaigner he replied that he was a comedian. That shows something of a lack of respect for an enormous number of people who do hold him in high regard as a campaigner, particularly on drug reform, but also shows a lack of international knowledge on the power of such a position. The Five Star Movement in Italy was founded by a comedian, was anti-establishment and anti-corruption and declared “populist” by many of its detractors, in a similar manner to Brand or indeed even Farage (though to call Farage anti-establishment in any way is ridiculous. A case for him being a unintentional comedian possibly). It received a massive share of the vote, way above even pollster predictions, in the Italian elections, destablising the power structure of parliament and leading to fundamental change in policy in Italy after the Berlisconi years. Brand appeared to be using his status as a comedian to detract from his campaigning, as though the issues he is fighting for are not related to his job. That was fine in the 2000’s perhaps, but the growth of social media and the power of sites like Twitter and Facebook has fundamentally changed how you can enter into the political sphere as a celebrity. You will be held to account on the issues you campaign on, you will be challenged on the ideas you espouse and if you answer back, as Brand does to his credit, to your detractors you become the retweetable voice of those who do not have your reach. The point about Malala having so few followers in comparison to Brand shows how ignorant he is of this fact. Part of why political apathy, particularly amongst the young, is becoming such an issue is that those who are considered voices of good don’t have a political platform, and that leaves the rest with all the space they need to maneuver round most problems in government. When those that do have the reach of Brand refuse to stand in parliament out of fear is it any wonder we have the level of apathy that we do?

Which leads to the second problem the UKIP MEP’s brother attacked Brand for; why wasn’t he standing for parliament himself? Brands response was “I fear I’d become one of them” which is contradictory to his previously very idealistic statements. If we are to build a Britain that is actually better, we do not need people who are scared of political office. The people who do change politics, for better or worse, weren’t scared of being a leader in the political environment of their time (Thatcher and Blair fundamentally changed their parties to move out of what they perceived as political stagnation for example) and if Brand really is going to be held up as a voice of those most crippled by the ridiculous policies of the current government (I’m a Conservative and think George Osbourne is completely crippling this country, just for the record) he needs to step up the plate and not hide behind easily repeatable idealistic statements. We all want a world built on peace, love and understanding. But we’re also well aware that the world is a matter of gamesmanship, of gambling against others who would rather subvert it, and Brand must be aware of this.

Immigration issues are created primarily by a combination of poor policy choices by current and previous governments with regards to social housing and by fear perpetrated by the media. Benefit claimants are similar, in that they are wrongly demonised. Brand is right to regularly point out that these are a distraction from other issues, but he resorts to a common tactic of attacking the wealthy for not paying tax, something that is both a common misconception (as a percentage of tax receipts, the amount the wealthy is paying is increasing and our reliance on them for social welfare is immense) and also becoming rapidly old hat. The modern global world requires a global tax policy, but because there are so many countries that would not support one, our government included, there will never be one. America is also ideologically opposed to taxation these days. Thus you fundamentally cannot prevent companies and individuals from avoiding tax receipts if they have the accountants, lawyers and resources to do so. You can try, but you’ll always end up having a loophole somewhere for them to exploit. This is pessimistic, certainly, and does not help the issue of political apathy, but what we don’t need is the wealthy that do pay tax feeling victimized because of the actions of what are in reality a select few powerful individuals who abuse the system. Throwing the money lenders out of the temples might look morally good but if they start lending in another temple it changes very little and just makes the temple poorer. That happened in France, resulting in the current farcical situation where their president had to backtrack on the one policy that got him power because everyone who could have paid it threatened to leave. Thus he looked weak, and has never recovered since. It’s also happening right now in Japan, an increase in Sales Tax of 3%  is crippling the country after relatively good periods of growth, purely because of hysteria over price increases. The world does not work in the black and white morality of the Bible.

Politics does not need utopian idealists at the moment, however good their intentions may be. Brand is not a bad person, I do not believe he is some sort of self-centered hypocrite as The Sun might claim, but he is treading a very fine line between mad anarchist and idealistic humanist at the moment. He infuriates me not because he is “wrong”, he infuriates me because he refuses to start stating concrete ideas that can work within a political system, or at least start supporting parties that are. The Greens offer a far more reasonable alternative to UKIP, offer a referendum on Europe and have been shown time and time again to be in line with the desires of the British people. What they do not have is a successful voice. Caroline Lucas is a fantastic parliamentarian who fights for her beliefs and backs them up with policies to match, but the leader of the party Natalie Bennett is an unknown to large swathes of the population. They do not have the resources to stand members in every constituency, because they do not have the backing of unions, the rich or established politicians. That is changing, but it needs to change faster if things are going to go in the right direction in 2015. It is all well and good to claim “That the people have the wisdom, not politicians, that the old paradigm is broken and will not be repaired” when you’re outside the political scene. But as soon as he was on that stage it must have occurred to him that plenty of people disagree with him about Parliamentary politics. It is far from dead for most, it is close to dead to the left wing, whose voice in it is all but spent, but they have to take some blame for that. Left Unity is a start, but it’s still fighting against the ideologies that are now entrenched, but if Brand remains the biggest voice in opposition to current government or Labour policy (which lets face it, he is at the moment) any attempt to switch policies back to a more reasonable centralism or even socialism will fail.

Are Principles Dead in Politics?

As conference season for the two main parties in the UK draws to close, it has become abundantly clear to all concerned that the difference between them has decreased over the past five years. The politician once decried as “Red Ed” by the Tories has overseen one of the biggest switches to right wing policy in the Labour party in modern history, while the Tories see members of their party abandon ship for UKIP on the basis that the leadership no longer convinces them. Despite still consistantly polling higher than other leaders on an individual basis, Cameron is unable to convince social conservatives that he supports them.

But that shouldn’t be surprising, because it’s blatently obvious that he doesn’t. Ever since he became leader, Cameron made efforts to become the “compassionate conservative”, aware that the party needed to modernise. I supported him, and still support him, in this endevour. Allowing for two referendums to be held in a single parliament – one nationwide on the voting system, the other in Scotland on independence, defying some of the dinosaurs in his party over gay marriage and making efforts to show respect to the many cultures present in Britain through personal messages on religious festivals shows some measure of success in that regard. The party has moved towards being socially progressive in many areas that previously it was stuck in the stone age.

But having done all these things, the party is still mired in populism. Like UKIP, it sees immigration as the cause of more problems than it actually creates. Theresa May is reacting to the extremist threat of IS by making Britain seem insular and archaic. Ian Duncan Smiths welfare reforms, while being prefectly reasonable in proposition initially, have become a mess of different systems instead of one universal one. Micheal Goves new curriculum is sound and relatively uncontroversial, but almost every other element of education policy was a disaster. And George Osbournes economic policy has moved so far away from any level of economical foundation that it doesn’t bear thinking about what will happen should he keep his job in a years time.

So basically, every major politician we could vote for is either incapable of governing the country based on the last four years of evidence, or is steadily moving away from the principles that previously were the standpoint from which their parties were founded. Labour is no longer the party of the working class in any sense, promising no better than the Tories in terms of wages or tax cuts, while the Conservatives, supposedly the party of capitalism, business and free markets, are happy to ignore the rise of large companies and franchises over genuine competition. As much as people may hate Thatcher, Thatcher would likely hate the party as it is now, without rhyme or reason to it’s economic policy, without the focus on individual freedoms in a free market.

This is where that question arose. Where are the politicians, no matter how mad we may consider them, who stick to a set of principles that define who they were and why they are part of a party. In America the same applies, Obama is a fantastic orator, but he is far from a radical thinker. Arguably the most radical thinker in frontline American politics at the moment is Ron Paul, someone who can, even at his best, only be described as bonkers, but at least he sticks to what the libertarian principles in which he believes. There are still members of all three parties who do this, but they are not the ones on the front lines. Wishy-Washy think tanks like the Taxpayers Alliance dominate the fine print of news articles, yet in reality their economic policies are based on nothing more than single policy doctrines (tax cuts for all). Rather than having one school of thought dominate the system, as it was with Thatcher or the previously left-wing governments that supported nationalisation of industry, we’re stuck discussing individual issues with no reference to a grounding principle. While I may disagree with nationalisation as a government policy, it is at least based on an economic ideal that can be grounded in principles of equality, just as capitalism is grounded in the principle of freedom. What has become the standard principle is popularity, something that sways so wildly that it should really be of no surprise that people are becoming apathetic. One minute a party supports their view, as it’s the view of the majority, and the next minute they despise it in an effort to lure others to them.

Or maybe this is me viewing the past with rose tinted glasses, and the present with a murky torch. Politicians have, after all, always gone after votes. But it did at least feel as though those in the past would stick to their guns and go down with their principles, rather than betray them for votes. Even those who didn’t succeed in getting votes would also stand by their policies (Micheal Foot, Churchill, Steel etc) even if they failed. Now people seem to want rewrite the failures of the past, rather than accept and learn from them.