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Jackie Ashley

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About Jackie Ashley

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  1. We do not live in the age of technological revolution

    Davos in Switzerland is where the great ones of the world gather to sniff each other's aftershave. There you find more ego-stroking, back-scratching and mutual grooming than in the average colony of jungle apes. So when politicians, editors and tycoons excitedly echo one another in hailing the new democracy of the internet, and promise that it is upending the old order, a little scepticism is required. If they really thought they were about to be overthrown by bloggers, would they sound quite so cheerful about it? Sitting next to Rupert Murdoch, whose global power depends on old-fashioned newspapers, television stations and cinema, Gordon Brown, whose power in Britain depends on old-fashioned voters, a party structure and parliamentarians, declared politics was now in the slow lane of the super-information highway, and would have to wise up. "A few years ago the debate was about whether the media controlled politicians or whether politicians controlled the media. Now it is about how we are all responding to the explosive power of citizens, consumers and bloggers. The new focus on the environment is the result of that. The Make Poverty History campaign was the result of that. Citizens are flexing their muscles," he said. Over in the US, the Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton is promising to campaign for the presidency largely on the internet. David Cameron gained huge coverage in the old-world newspaper and TV media for his weblog. Every serious newspaper has dived into the internet age, even though it is not yet clear how they will raise the revenue they need as their print existence shrivels. Much of this is merely practical, the result of a technological shift nobody can halt or resist. But it comes with a grand-sounding manifesto about bringing in a new age of democracy, and that's really what needs to be questioned. For instance, though it is true you can find out lots about global warming by Googling away, it not clear that our new environmental politics are much to do with the internet at all. They are clearly to do with hard work by serious scientists - and the campaigning of groups - which has persuaded politicians as it has been disseminated to the rest of us, including through films such as Al Gore's, books, and newspaper coverage for about a decade. Had the internet not existed, would we be worried about global warming, and would politics be responding to that? Of course. Make Poverty History was an alliance which brilliantly used the internet. But even it depended on the old-style glamour of rock stars, the old-fashioned force of mass demonstrations, and the behind-the-scene backing of old-world politicians such as Brown. The super-information highway helped, but the cause of Africa pre-dated it, as the original Live Aid campaign, and the BBC news films by Michael Buerk, demonstrated. The net helped. It didn't create. So what? Does it matter that politicians are getting a bit over-excited about the web? This is, after all, a wonderful new way of spreading ideas, information and argument. It has drawn plenty of people into political debate who would never have gone to a meeting, or even bothered to write a letter to a newspaper. It has allowed people who might never have visited a library to search out facts for themselves. Aren't citizens "flexing their muscles" as Brown says? Well, yes and no. Some are. But the first thing to remember is that a large slice of the population is completely missing from this brave new internet world. According to the latest official figures, just under 14m households have internet access, or around 57%. This means 43% don't. And we know who they are - generally speaking, the poor and the old. There is also a clear geographical bias, with the south-east of England having 66% household use of the web, against lower figures in the north, falling to just 48% in Scotland. That, though, is just the beginning. The vast majority of people using the internet are using it to communicate, look up friends, visit porn sites, play games or shop. The politically enfranchised, active internet community is very small indeed. If Guardian sites are any guide, bloggers tend to be disproportionately young, male, angry and rightwing. Busy parents, people working long hours and pensioners are rather less likely to be flexing their muscles by blogging or searching political sites. Again, you could protest: isn't that just like pre-internet politics? Labour party meetings were always dominated by people who happened to have the time to get to them and - because they had to be motivated too - by people who were more committed and angrier than the average voter. This is exactly the point. In the old days, nobody really thought Labour party meetings, or Tory constituency associations, were representative of the country at large. A party which wanted to win power had to search out and try to convert the others. The danger is that we forget that old lesson, and naively think of the internet and the bloggers as the only voice of the people. In practical terms, this could privilege the better-off and younger against the interests of working-class and older Britain. Old media - television, radio, newspapers and even meetings - all remain essential, and the old arguments about who controls the media remain as valid as ever. If Murdoch is lauding the internet it is because he is buying it up, trying to recreate digitally the monopolistic power he sought all his life in the paper, ink and broadcast world. There are other dangers too. We should be nervous when politicians start boasting, as they are, that the net allows them to bypass irritatingly persistent, difficult interviewers such as John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman. Obviously, they need to be scrutinised and cross-questioned by well-briefed interrogators, secure enough in their jobs to push the point. Democracy demands it. Putting up your own website, conducting online question-and-answer sessions, is a doddle by comparison. They allow the politician to control the terms of the exchange and never face a public challenge on questions they don't want to answer. This is not a call to ignore the net or stop using the excellent research tools online. But we need to avoid easy hype. Most people are not cyber-citizens, they are living real, complicated lives in the real world. And that's where politicians should be too, rather than trying to surf off down the superhighway. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...2000911,00.html
  2. The Corruption of New Labour: Britain’s Watergate?

    The cash-for-peerages story is turning toxic. Downing Street and the Metropolitan Police seem to be mud-wrestling about fair play and who's leaking what. We hear a blow-by-blow account of each and every stage of the investigation. The press is excited enough to have elevated "Yates of the Yard", the man leading the inquiry, into a national hero. Labour's national executive has been brimming with anger. And serious questions are being asked about the role of the attorney general. Behind all this is a political backstory that is murkier still. There's no doubt now that the Blair camp thinks John Reid can beat Gordon Brown for the leadership, and that Reid is making quiet preparations. There are still plenty of ministers, caught between their dislike of the chancellor and fear of him, to swing either way. Yet the Blairites think a Reid challenge is only plausible if the contest is delayed until the second half of next year. They need the Labour party to have its second thoughts before the leadership election. This means they need Tony Blair to stay in position until the summer, or even the early autumn. And cash for peerages threatens all that. The police are getting rather more help with their inquiries, it seems, than anyone had expected. The questioning of the cabinet and of Blair's closest staff about their knowledge of loans to the party that might have been followed with recommendations for peerages is unprecedented in modern times. There is a momentum here. Either Blair somehow manages to halt it, or it will overwhelm him. Some conclusions follow so obviously, it shouldn't be necessary to repeat them. After the Hutton report and all the accusations that followed, it is essential that this inquiry be seen to be entirely impartial and above board. There must be no hint of political involvement. Of course Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, should stand aside. He is a friend of the prime minister, and indeed owes his job to him. Goldsmith is no doubt a fine, honourable, independent-minded fellow. Surely he understands the perception problem, though. We know that Blair has not gained financially in any way, and that this is about a widespread political failure, touching all the parties. Politics has become hideously unpopular. In the struggle to pay for it without further infuriating taxpayers by legislating for state funding, the party leaders have had to go begging to businessmen. But the way New Labour has been run has made things worse for everyone involved, including Blair. Since the mid-90s, all Labour decisions have led straight to "TB" and his inner clique. All business - including funding, including honours recommendations - has been personal business. It isn't hard to imagine a different way of doing things. There should have been entirely separate party fundraising, with absolutely no connections to No 10. Donors would not therefore have had the personal touch from the most powerful man in Britain, and the fundraisers would have had a harder job. It would have forced them to reach down, below the fat cats, to party sympathisers and members. The galas, quiz nights, appeals, 0800 phone numbers and pestiferous mailshots used by charities would have been in play. Meanwhile, by now we should have had a properly reformed second chamber dependent on election, or at the very least an entirely independent nomination system, so that the issues of who legislates and who pays were kept properly separate. In his rush to legislate on hot-button issues identified by pollsters, such as law and order, Blair has always been impatient with the "processology" of constitutional reform and the wearisome bureaucracy of party management. Lord Levy and friends provided a short cut. We are only beginning to understand the full price being paid. Cash for peerages has helped feed a rancid cynicism and hopelessness about parliament. In recent selections for top Labour target seats, which once would have attracted 40 or 50 would-be candidates, there have been no more than three or four applicants. People are becoming wary of going into politics. Here is part of the new agenda for Gordon Brown to cope with. He too has been very keen to keep in with his favoured business people and newspaper tycoons. He should be careful: if he is to turn round opinion and beat David Cameron, he will need to obliterate the notion that patronage still plays a big part in politics and that money talks. It cannot simply be achieved by new rules. It needs a new example, too. Meanwhile, the biggest issue around the cash-for-honours scandal is weirdly under-discussed: the involvement of businesspeople in schools. It's the stockbrokers, property developers and entrepreneurs putting cash into academies who should provoke the real argument, particularly inside the Labour party. The motivation behind the academies is wholly good. There are far too many children stuck in failing schools in poor areas, and the statistics on the numbers of teenagers unable to read, write or perform basic maths are truly shameful. Radical action to try to turn round such schools is central to Labour's purpose. And you might well say that if it takes the involvement of the odd car salesman with Christian fundamentalist views, or a blue-chip financial company, or some millionaire who'd like to put something back into his area, then that's a small price to pay. But while most of those funding the new academies may well be doing so for the right motives, it certainly raises the possibility of more favours being sought or expected in return for such beneficence. We seem to be turning back the clock, while across the world countries have moved from relying on the whims of local benefactors to an age of tax-funded local accountability. If we are tossing all that to one side, is it not worth rather more of a debate? In the end I cannot help thinking that cash for peerages is the wrong issue for Blair to be skewered on. Yes, it shows up the deep flaws in his way of government. But look across the Atlantic. Bush has just been smacked across the face, at last, for the Great Disaster: Iraq. That has been a cleansing moment for America. And here? It's all loans for ermine and a deputy leadership contest, without a whiff of any great debate or change of direction. This autumn's cash-for-honours blockbuster is another symptom of political failure, not political renewal. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...1946282,00.html
  3. Blair to be ousted as PM?

    John Reid was at it in yesterday's papers, warning against the "appeasement" of terrorism. He attacked John Reid was at it in yesterday's papers, warning against the "appeasement" of terrorism. He attacked Cameron for waiting to see which way the wind is blowing until he risks getting "blown away by the gale". And Gordon Brown has been harping on the importance of security, being pro-business and staying close to Washington. Meanwhile Cameron and his shadow chancellor, George Osborne, are doggedly determined to resist the calls of rightwingers for tax cuts and for new promises to claw back public spending. It isn't even as if the voices of the right are extreme by Conservative standards. They are asking if it would be, ahem, possible, please, for the Tory leader to mention the European superstate, inveigh against illegal immigrants and give them the chance of lower taxes. And they have a point: if the Conservatives aren't about those things, what are they for? It is only a year since the party conference where Cameron made his mark and considerably less than a year since he became leader, and yet he has transformed the political landscape. The Labour leadership has responded with jibes about his lack of experience, substance and policies, and his obsession with spin. Speech after speech at Manchester made the same hackneyed point that Cameron is all about image. Well, I wonder where he learned that from? So far Labour looks flat-footed and supercilious, underestimating Cameron as radically as Thatcher was underestimated by Jim Callaghan in the 70s. Cameron is at least as good a performer as Blair was in his early years and is following the New Labour war book page by page. He's untried, he doesn't have substance? He has several years to grow. He doesn't have policies? He has set up all those policy reviews, already turning out detailed ideas. Even if he rejects half of them, he will have plenty of policies by the time of the election. Even so, both Labour and Conservatives are taking huge risks by making politics more fluid than at any time since the Blair/Brown ascendancy began. New Labour was all about sidelining the traditional interests of the core vote, and wooing the middle classes, to the point where the party was left with hollowed-out inner city organisations, which began to fall to the Lib Dems. Now that they are losing the liberal-minded middle classes too, the situation is perilous. But there are equal risks for the Conservatives. The weekend polling that showed their lead over Labour falling away again was dismissed as a post-conference bounce (though it's hard to see why last week's conference, with all its divisions, would have boosted Labour support). More likely, the poll showed a growing Conservative unease about Cameron and what he stands for. Core Tories are now voicing their worry and irritation more openly, and there is clearly more to come. What may be happening is that Cameron is attracting liberal middle-class support from Labour, but losing traditional voters. It is worth just standing back and reflecting what this means for our democracy. On the one side, millions of disgruntled traditional Labour voters who feel they have no one speaking for them any more. On the other, an army of traditional Conservatives who feel the same thing. In the middle, a mobile, fickle group of mildly liberal middle-class voters being desperately scrabbled over. Whatever this is, it isn't representative democracy as we used to know it. And probably the process is just beginning. Labour is positioning itself so much as the party of security and the state that it has almost no option but to pitch openly for the Daily Mail vote and the neoconservative Murdoch press vote (the Lord help us all). Cameron's strategy of focusing relentlessly on urban marginals means he is committed to going further in rebranding his party as environmentalist, caring and liberal. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...1885373,00.html
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