Belief and doubt after the Charleston church shootings

There’s a Carole King song I first heard as a child, which tells of a deranged man’s arrest and now makes difficult listening. Smackwater Jack, he bought a shotgun, ‘cause he was in the mood for a little confrontation. He just let it all hang loose, he didn’t think about the noose. He couldn’t take no more abuse, so he shot down the congregation.

You can see why Jon Stewart had nothing. In a kinder and saner world, the Emanuel AME massacre would be a joke: satirists like Stewart would ask, incensed, what racists in the US had to do for their motives not to be whitewashed. Demand apartheid? Mourn the Klan? Shoot black people in church? Even then, they’d maintain, someone like Dylann Roof would be labelled ‘unbalanced’ and ‘disturbed’. Audiences would cheer, knowing the punchline to be true – and now it is. The joke has sprung itself, and nothing about it is funny any more, just forcefully, sickeningly absurd.

Unlike the subject of King’s song, Roof was not just deranged. With Charleston now home to that collision of US anxieties, a racist gun crime in a church, small wonder conservatives are scared to discuss it honestly, but nothing Roof did was random. It’s one thing to attack a church, another to assault a black church in the USA – another still to shoot worshippers at Emanuel AME, known for its role in civil rights struggles. ‘I chose Charleston because it is [the] most historic city in my state,’ writes Roof in a summary of his views, and you can be sure equal thought went into selecting Emanuel.

At its most radical, black Christianity in the US has always seemed to me more drawn to the second coming than the resurrection, songs promising that come the day, the oppressor will have nowhere to hide. If tacitly materialist, it’s a liberation theology, suggesting that until chained or handcuffed bodies are free, the soul’s release is meaningless. Perhaps this helped make pastors so crucial in Ferguson and Baltimore, and perhaps it’s what Clementa Pinckney, murdered this week, preached after Walter Scott was killed – certainly it was this promise of ultimate justice, as well as Emanuel’s congregants, on which Roof opened fire.

The whole thing is a nightmare of belief and doubt. Judging by his statement, Roof believes white people are the real oppressed – otherwise, perhaps he’d have sensed that after the last year, black Americans (Christian or not) didn’t need another shooting for belief in salvation to be challenging. The right refuses to believe racism deserves to be talked about after a neonazi gunned down black people he sees as animals, thinking instead that he must just be the unbalanced sort, while like Jon Stewart, those of watching from far off feel it’s ventured beyond a joke. Charleston presents an unbelievable atrocity, yet I can believe every word.

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Who is the seven kingdoms’ worst fanatic? Religion and atheism in Game of Thrones

If like the Internet you’re a Game of Thrones fan, last week’s episode may be weighing on you. (I’m about to discuss it with spoilers. If you’re not up to date, stop reading now.) About two thirds of the way in, Stannis Baratheon, now with an evil beard, makes a burnt offering of daughter Shireen, desperate to improve his army’s odds somehow. Elsewhere during the hour, Myrcella Lannister avoids being killed and Arya Stark comes close to a man who preys on the underage. Juxtaposed with these plots, Shireen’s death proves one character to have been right last year: everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.

000With Stannis all but silent throughout, it’s noticeable how, amid his faceless mob of troops, the sequence shows religious cruelty from three female viewpoints: the girl Shireen’s, ambushed by the reality of martyrdom; mistress Melisandre’s, lighting the pyre with strange lyricism, and wife Selyse’s, caught between the two. As Shireen’s mother, until now more of a believer than her husband, comes to her senses all too late, emitting a low, guttural scream, her character appears partly redeemed, delusion vapourised in contact with a flame. It is she more than poor, deceived Shireen who undergoes a baptism of fire – and, indeed, blood.

The scene, a deviation from the source novels, feels lifted from the Book of Judges, where Jephthah, also a would-be ruler, trades in his daughter’s life for victory. (We can but guess whether she, like Shireen, changes her mind on the way to the stake.) Game of Thrones’ fifth season has scrutinised religion more than any before, and the princess’s death puts me in mind of how the series treats belief. Before acting, Stannis gets rid of Ser Davos Seaworth, who thinks ‘mothers and fathers made up the gods because they wanted their children to sleep through the night’ – a tactic that seems to have backfired in at least one case.

Seaworth’s philosophy is the unbelief of an everyman: when Stannis sends him from the camp refusing to argue, he banishes a voice likely to erode the belief that proves both cause and consolation for infanticide. Beside Ser Davos, I can think of just one character to claim atheism outright. In season three, Petyr Baelish memorably declares the gods an illusion, rubbishing all ideas of a natural order. A classic Machiavellian, he is the mirror image of Davos – both are well worn atheist tropes, and while Littlefinger is the more negative cliché, I have a lot of time for him, as I did for the nymphomaniac bisexual Oberyn Martell.

The real secular viewpoint in Westeros is George R. R. Martin’s. Asked his religious stance, the author calls himself an atheist or agnostic, and like his Catholic past, it shows. None of the series’ many believers, even the worst, are cardboard characters – there is a kind of social realism in how Martin shows religion, as there is in his choice (unlike Tolkien) to show it at all. At the same time, none of this world’s many faiths appears truer than the rest. Competing religions seem equally able to perform miracles, perhaps implying some shared power source in the natural world, and each is shown as a product of its society more than vice versa. [Read more…]

Marx and the meaning of godlessness: a radical atheist’s response to Kris Nelson

There’s a passage from Marx’s critique of Hegel that antitheists like to quote and defenders of faith like to quotemine. In a piece titled ‘3 Myths That Make Navigating the Radical Left as a Person of Faith Difficult’, Kris Nelson notes Marx calls religion the heart of a heartless world as well as the opium of the people, claiming to ‘open up . . . the full quote, and not just the snapshot used to pick at those who dare let their god(s) lead them’.

In fact, Nelson – ‘a queer trans witch [who] runs an online store . . . where they sell handcrafted wirework jewellery, crystal pendants, handsewn tarot bags and pendulums’ – is the one peddling a misrepresentation. The actually-full quote (translation mine) reads:

The discontent of religion is at once an expression of and protestation against true discontent. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, heart of a heartless world and soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. To overthrow the bogus happiness they find in it is to demand they be allowed true happiness; to demand disillusionment with a condition built on delusion is to demand its end. And so to criticise religion is, in embryo, to criticise the vale of tears of which it is but an apparition.

Such critique has not shredded the imaginary flowers on people’s chains so as to leave them chained without solace or fantasy, but so that they might cast away their chains and gather real flowers. It disillusions people so that they might think, act and shape their own reality, as does anyone brought to their senses – so that their lives might revolve around them, people being their own true suns. Religion is no more than an illusory sun, revolving around people whose lives do not revolve around them.

The point missed on all sides isn’t that religion is either a bad habit or a source of hope – nor is Marx saying it’s one in spite of being the other. The meaning of ‘Opium des Volkes’, a metaphor Nietzsche and Bernard Shaw would later recycle, is that faith is comforting and delusional, easing the pain by clouding the senses: Marx labels it the courage of a heartless world as part of his attack.

There’s a lot I could say about those lines, which never fail to move me. Unlike new atheism’s figureheads, I’ve been a believer – I could say I remember not having enough to eat, going to church with a single mother and meeting other oppressed creatures; remember the cost of the church’s help, belief spinning out of control, abuse and mental illness taking hold; remember the bogus happiness, then finding poetry in the real world.

000I could say that as an apostate on the left, my skepticism serves an instinct that, in Chomsky’s words, ‘the burden of proof for anyone with a position of power and authority lies on them’ – that my atheism will never be separate from the fight for a just society – and that my antitheism will never, ever be divorced from compassion for those on the margins. I could even accept, though I think his argument survives it, that there’s room to criticise Marx – either in that his presumption to dismantle strangers’ beliefs rings paternalistic, or inasmuch as leftists can and do repurpose God for their own ends.

For now though, Nelson’s post.

Calling oneself a person of faith feels like setting light fingers on ‘person of colour’ – a move less tasteful still when apostates whose former religions have a marked ethnic dimension are among the most stigmatised, frequently smeared as race traitors. Mentioning one’s spirituality – ‘We’ve all got one!’ – likewise resembles the language of sexuality. While it’s perfectly true certain religious groups are ostracised, constructing believers in general as an oppressed class is putrescent – if Nelson finds religion a fraught topic on the left, it’s because of its role as oppressor, and it’s hard to see how conflating the ‘struggle’ of Baptists and Anglicans with those of Jews and Muslims in the west does any good. [Read more…]

Out of the blue: what now for the Labour Party?

When the wrong Miliband became leader, Tories rubbed their hands gleefully and named Ed M the heir to Michael Foot. Seeing them vindicated hurts, and yet I don’t regret voting for him in 2010. That Britain glanced at Foot and instantly preferred Thatcher is a fiction – before the SPD split the left vote and the Falklands lionised her, Labour had poll leads nearing twenty points, predicted a landslide, and Miliband’s failure was no more inevitable. The tragedy of Labour’s loss last week is that the coalition years were a unique chance for a leftish platform to succeed: but for his lack of confidence and failure to convince voters, Miliband’s strategy of cornering the anti-Tory vote might well have worked. Ed blew a chance that won’t soon come again.

000His leadership wasn’t without its achievements. Miliband unified a bruised party when internal spats threatened to explode, moved perceptions on from the Blair-Brown era’s most loathed missteps (not least Iraq) and saw strong local election performances. His campaign, albeit futile, put living costs on the agenda and exposed, perhaps unwillingly, the extent of media bias in the UK. Nevertheless, he’ll be recalled as the leader who managed to do worse than Gordon Brown – a fate all the crueller because till the eleventh hour, everyone in the game expected him to be PM. Experts are asking where the polls went wrong, but while left and right fight over what cost him victory, neither has longitudinal data: whereas certain events demonstrably harmed Brown’s support, we have no way to know if Miliband’s numbers were ever accurate.

Labour still needs a strategy, and predicting the next election’s trials will do more good than wondering what went wrong. 2015 shows a fractured electoral map, most of whose distinct battlegrounds broke the wrong way for them – red versus yellow in Scotland, red versus purple in the north, red versus blue in the midlands and capital, blue versus purple in the south, blue versus orange in the west country. Scottish losses weren’t offset by new English seats – even if Labour made extraordinary gains north of the border, where full recovery will now take it a decade or more, all their work would still be ahead of them. To win again, Labour must wrestle traditional votes from Ukip and the SNP, plus swing votes from the Tories in the south, fighting on two contradictory fronts.

The pill is as bitter for me as the rest of the left, but there is no sugaring it – this time around, Labour has to court more right-leaning votes. At the same time, it must shore up and recover grassroots support, broadening its left-leaning base – all on redrawn boundaries that extend the Tory advantage from 99 to some 125 seats. With the road back to power all uphill, how can Labour go the distance? [Read more…]

After abject defeat, what comfort for the UK’s left?

000Labour lost yesterday, and lost disastrously. There is no getting round that, and it hurts – not least because unlike last time, no one saw defeat on this scale looming. In a hung parliament, Gordon Brown trailed the Tories by forty-eight MPs; this week Ed Miliband, who just resigned, placed some hundred seats behind a Cameron majority. On that result, it would be more humiliating not to quit.

The shock is all the more pronounced because no one – not even, I believe, Cameron himself – expected this. Arriving in his constituency, the PM’s eyes showed a mix of confusion, disappointment and relief: until twenty-four hours back, every poll pointed to a Miliband minority government. Now as in 1992, a long, confused debate among statisticians will come. While recriminations are taking hold, data before last night was so consistently, completely wrong that nobody can say why Labour lost – we have no way of knowing if polls were ever accurate, and thus what impacted the vote.

000Whether by starving or deporting them, by depression or untreated disease, this government will kill people just as the previous one did. Already people are taking deep breaths, poised for the onslaught and pledging to keep each other warm, unwilling model citizens of a regime in which empathy is a private enterprise. It’s easy to call Thatcherism sadism, but the truth is magnitudes more grotesque: the Tories starve, evict and jail the vulnerable in the sincere belief it’s best for them – and that they, archshrinkers of government, get to decide what’s best, nurturing generosity with meanness, compassion with state contempt.

Amid all this, with Labour routed and the Lib Dems culled, what cause for hope? The outcome of this election is dire – we have yet to see just how dire, and any pushback must begin by accepting the depth of that failure. It’ll take courage too, mind you, and there are things which give me pause. This parliament will be a nightmare, but might be much harder than the last one for the PM. [Read more…]

Election 2015 Live Blog – rolling comment throughout the night

This post provides rolling election coverage – refresh every few minutes for updates.
I can’t promise I’ll be on top of comments here – find me on Twitter instead!


2.35am – Conservatives hold Castle Point

…against Ukip. This was the seat where Farage launched his party’s campaign – it’s the first target seat of theirs we’ve seen announced. I and any number of other observers expect Ukip to ‘melt away’, in Peter Kellner’s words.


2.23am – Douglas Alexander scalped in Paisley

Sure to be the first of a series of high-profile losses – both in Scotland and elsewhere. All but ten Lib Dems MPs are set to be ousted, while Ed Balls seems to be endangered.


 

2.13am – SNP gain Kilmarnock

First Scottish result we’ve seen so far, and first SNP gain – no doubt of many.


1.58am – Dimbleby suggests a Tory majority is possible

Moments later, Andrew Marr says Miliband’s leadership is on the line.

Not a good night in general, then.


1.51am – Conservatives hold Nuneaton


1.23am – Conservatives hold Battersea

It now seems the exit poll was broadly correct – Labour aren’t generating the swing they need, and so far they’re not making the gains in London they expected.

If this continues, there’ll be a long conversation about why absolutely no polls predicted this. My first guess is that voting intention nationwide – what most opinion polls measure – hasn’t accounted for how regional power battles play out. (For example, the SNP are set to gain about four percent of UK votes but just under a tenth of seats.)

The question for the left will now be how to handle the next parliament. Fixed five year terms are likely to prevent a Conservative government holding a second election – it may be that Labour can capitalise on being in opposition by chipping away at Cameron’s support in by-elections, paralysing the government while it convalesces.


1.13am – Labour holds Tooting

Sadiq Khan, Miliband’s right hand man, has held his seat.


 

1.08am – Labour holds Newcastle upon Tyne East

Another strong showing for Labour in the north east – as Nick Robinson suggested to Dimbleby, what this election seems to be showing are exaggerated regional schisms. The north east is as steadily red as ever; Scotland has gone nationalist; the south east has deepened as a centre of Tory support.

More results to come in ‘thick and fast’ very soon, beginning seemingly with Tooting and Wandsworth.


0.58am – Conservatives hold Putney

Justine Greening retains her seat, the first result in London we’ve had. Worryingly, we’ve yet to see any results that contradict the exit poll.


 

0.50am – Alan Johnson erroneously claims Labour gained Swindon North

Speaking to Dimbleby, Johnson claims ‘the Swindon North result was a Labour gain’ – unless I heard wrong, no it wasn’t.


 

0.40am – Tories hold Swindon North

The BBC’s analysis shows Labour failing to compensate for Scottish losses with gains from the Conservatives – this is a result in England that, while just one seat, seems consistent with that.


0.21am – Greens forecast to take Norwich South

Further to the previous update here, Jeremy Vine’s examination of the exit poll predicts Norwich South will be a Green gain.


 

11.50pm – Could Natalie Bennett be the new Green MP?

I doubt it. I think we’re looking at a Green hold in Brighton Pavilion and a gain in Norwich South or possibly Bristol. Note that this is one area where the exit poll isn’t a turnup – both it and previous polls point to one or two Green seats.


 

11.39pm – Ed Balls says if Cameron can’t pass a Queen’s speech, he’s out

Ed Balls is wrong. Based on Fixed Term Parliaments Act from 2011, only an explicit confidence vote – not a failed Queen’s speech – can push a government from office. Should the exit poll prove correct, what we may be looking at is a highly insecure Conservative-led government which could lose parliamentary votes if even one MP rebels.


11.37pm – What happens if Nigel Farage loses?

An unnamed source says via Nick Robinson that Nigel Farage may place third in Thanet South. Based on his past statements, that seems like an almost certain end to his party leadership. If the exit poll’s right, that means a Conservative-led government – the question is, how would the situation with the EU be reshaped?

Nick Clegg seemed to suggest during this election campaign that he’d opposite an EU referendum, meaning that – if the option were there – Cameron might rather work with the DUP. (This is assuming they’d agree to one, and that he insisted on it.) Without Nigel Farage, the biggest voice for a Brexit during the next few years, how would the debate look?


11.30pm – Labour holds Sunderland West

Labour continues to sweep Sunderland. Not much else to add right now.


11.17pm – Labour holds Sunderland Central

As in Sunderland South, a five figure majority with almost five thousand votes again. I’m wondering how the exit poll will tally with the regionality of this election – it might be that of its 20,000 respondents, most voted Tory by a wide margin… but how are those people distributed?


10.55pm – Ukip in second place in Sunderland South

Ukip has kicked the Tories into third place, with the Lib Dems losing their deposit. (Less than a thousand votes!)

My prediction is that in lots of northern seats like this, Ukip will do well – but not well enough to win.


10.51pm – Labour holds Sunderland South

…and it holds it decisively – we’re looking at a majority of something like thirteen thousand for its candidate.

We can’t take only one seat as a bellwether on the accuracy of the exit poll – but Sunderland South does seem a good indicator of sentiment in the north east. This is a very limited sign, but to the extent it spells good news for any party, it’s good for Labour.


10.37pm – Peter Kellner on the exit poll

Speaking to Dimbleby, Peter Kellner of YouGov (who gave Labour a four-seat plurality) gives four interpretations of the exit poll.

  1. The exit poll is right and all the other polls are wrong.
  2. The other polls are right and the exit poll is wrong.
  3. There’s been a seismic shift in the last day. (He discounts this.)
  4. The Tories have done better than predicted, but not by as much as the exit poll says.

I keep saying this because there’s little else to say, but we just have to wait and see.


 

10.30pm – Sunderland result in ten minutes?

Tellers in Sunderland, traditionally first to declare, hope to have a result in ten minutes. This is a seat Labour should hold – if they don’t, or if it’s uncomfortably close, a bad night is ahead.


10.23pm – Harriet Harman is scrambling

The exit poll, she says, shows the Lib-Con majority unworkable. It doesn’t – the fact is, if this poll is correct, Cameron is the clear winner electorally. Our only hope is that it’s not.


 

10.18pm – Paddy Ashdown: ‘I’ll eat my hat’ if the BBC exit poll is right

One can only hope Ashdown goes hungry – it’s a comforting thought that the BBC may have got it wrong. I don’t see how they can be right despite a consensus among all polling companies – but they might be, in which case statisticians will face a long hard, look at themselves they did when John Major won. We simply don’t know at this point. Sit tight, everyone.


10.10pm – Michael Gove says the exit poll shows the Tories will ‘increase their majority’.

He means their plurality, of course.


 

10.08pm – What’s up with that exit poll?

So… how do we process that exit poll?

My first instinct is that if eleven different polling companies with different methods were all equally way out – something is very, very wrong. That might be the case… or the BBC’s forecast might be wrong.

I don’t think we’ll know till we’ve had a certain number of results.


 

10pm – Exit poll: Tories 316, Labour 239

Well here’s a turnout: the BBC’s exit poll predicts a staggeringly larger Tory lead than anyone else has. On these figures, Cameron will walk back into government.

Fuck.


 

9.50pm – Five minutes till the BBC exit poll?

The BBC’s election coverage – Dimbleby’s last stand! – begins in five minutes. I’m expecting we’ll have an exit poll fairly quickly, which will be the last point at which expectations could be upturned – except by actual results.

As it stands, all eleven major pollsters show either an explicit Labour-Tory tie or a one or two point difference:

BNG: Tie
TNS: One point Tory lead
Opinium: One point Tory lead
ICM: One point Labour lead
Panelbase:
Two point Labour lead
YouGov:
Tie
Survation:
Tie
ComRes:
One point Tory lead
Ashcroft:
Tie
Ipsos MORI:
One point Tory lead
Populus: 
Tie

We’re looking at a convergence of many different polling methods around a tie – if an exit poll shows something else, I’d be inclined to question it, but we’ll have to see.


 

9.40pm – Which seats will be a challenge for the SNP?

A friend tells me Kirkcaldy, Gordon Brown’s old seat, will be a key battleground in Scotland – one wonders (hopes) they’ll manage to unseat Scotland’s one Tory, at the least. (Further insight into this year’s regional conflicts from YouGov’s Anthony Wells is here.)

I’d love to say I want to see the SNP take all Scotland because they deserve to – but the truth is that I’m neurotic. If they end up with fifty seats out of the fifty-nine I’ll deal with it; if they win fifty-eight, hair will be pulled out.


 

9.33pm – It’s not overtly political, but…

…since Channel 4 are advertising it, I’m excited for George Miller’s new Mad Max film.


 

9.26pm – Television is giving me royal baby jokes.

The biggest and worst joke is naming a royal Charlotte (Elizabeth) Diana. It’s one thing being named after a divorce; it’s another being named after a constitutional scandal.


9.21pm – Channel’s 4 ‘alternative’ coverage…

It’s all a bit – ahem – laboured, isn’t it?

Sit tight – we’ll switch over to the BBC at ten when the exit poll arrives.


 

9.15pm – What are each party’s goals tonight?

We come down to it then – realistically, in light of what predictions and projections we’ve already seen, what is each party’s best hope in this vote?

Labour is the insurgent party, poised to overtake on the inside. Neither its leaders nor the Tories seem capable of winning outright, but Labour’s odds of assembling a majority with other parties are preferable – how their desire to keep the SNP at arm’s length survives that need, we’ll have to see. The party’s best hope is to inch a precious few more seats than the Tories win, lending them public legitimacy; short of being locked out of power, being the smaller English party and dependent on the SNP is their worst case scenario.

Cameron’s Conservatives have a tough ride ahead. The PM is said to have owned up privately to being unconvinced he can win – the likelihood is that to stay in power, he’ll either need another pact with endangered Lib Dems or find himself daring Labour and the Scots to vote down a minority Queen’s Speech. That’ll be a question of who blinks first, and not one I see him being keen to ask.

The Lib Dem campaign has focused on damage reduction. For Clegg and co, the good news is a seemingly quite healthy vote in Lib Dem/Tory marginals – if he can maintain half his current seats, not least his own, the annihilation pundits predicted won’t come to be, and like Ed Miliband some weeks ago, his tribe will benefit from exceeding expectations. Another coalition looks unlikely based on the maths, but Lib Dem votes might help either Cameron or Miliband (who might prefer them to SNP ones).

The SNP has little to worry about electorally. North of the border, its landslide is all but guaranteed – the question is whether Sturgeon’s party win all Scotland’s seats or just most of them. Their challenge lies instead in parliament – whatever the result, a game of chicken with Labour is probable, in which each party will dare the other to put the Tories in power and alienate supporters. From a left point of view, one can only hope things don’t escalate too much – for if either party should win that game, progressive politics will lose.

Ukip want a good handful of MPs, five or six, say, from their main target seats. The whole situation’s unreadable, largely because their success in elections is so new – we don’t really have any idea what normal behaviour looks like with Ukip’s vote. That being said, I don’t think they’ll do as well as is hoped and feared: the variables are so many, the Ashcroft polls so consistent, that I’d be surprised if Farage’s lot managed more than three seats.

The Greens, meanwhile, would do well to finish with two seats – and it’s entirely possible (though not what I’d bet) that Caroline Lucas will lose hers. Sadly, the Green Party has zero nous for strategy, substituting Lucas for a far less effective leader and spreading out resource it should concentrate.

Plaid Cymru is now a party people outside Wales know about. They’re probably happy enough with that.


 

9.10pm – Jeremy Paxman thinks I’m a moron…

…because I didn’t vote this year. (Or rather, his joke writers do.)

If you’re wondering why – and why I don’t think I’m a moron – you can find my post all about it here.


 

9.08pm – Is this the Isner/Mahut of UK elections?

I was 18 at the last election in 2010 – that night’s worth of kebabs and Coke and still feels fresh. Comparisons between that election and this have been made already and will go on; I want to make one a different kind.

I’m not much of a sports fan, but can enjoy Wimbledon. Five years ago, only weeks after Clegg and Cameron entered Downing Street, John Isner and Nicolas Manut clashed at Wimbledon – a match whose eleven hour duration remains an unbroken record. Neither, at least as far as I’m aware, is a legendary champion like Federer or Nadal, but over those two days (on the second of which I turned nineteen), each played so tightly neither could achieve an advantage. In the end Isner won, but by that point it wasn’t about that – the players hugged because they knew the match would be remembered.

Cameron and Miliband, if anything’s certain, won’t hug, but this election looks set to be the political version of that match. Over a gruelling seven week campaign, neither side made any progress at all – whyever, whatever the plan, the polls remained an almost exact tie.

Over the coming night, perhaps in the week and certainly this month, one leader or the other – neither likely to be mythologised – must outperform their opponent somehow. How that’ll we, we’ve yet to see, and a latent terror in me still whispers Cameron’s name. Whatever happens though, this election will be in school textbooks, and I’m glad to be living through it.


9pm – Let’s get ready to mumble

Hello and welcome, those who are reading. Last night I announced I’d live-blog the UK election, so for the next eight hours, I’m all yours. Buckle up, buckle in and calm your nerves; smoke your cigars. Open your night’s of jelly babies. Now let’s get ready to mumble.

I’ll be watching and reacting to TV coverage all night, starting with Channel 4’s for the coming half hour and sticking, most likely, with the BBC’s from ten. Posts here will include breaking news, commentary and stray thoughts on politics in the slow bits – if there are any.

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Oxford student Ed Miliband wore compulsory Oxford exam dress while at Oxford

I never went in for the arcane bollocks at Oxford. On three occasions in my four years there – matriculation, prelims and finals – I wore a gown; my college had a canteen rather than Latin-prayer meals, and I had my degree sent in the post rather than formally conferred. The rituals struck me as tiresome, a waste of time and thought, and the Daily Mail seems to agree – the one thing it dislikes more than Oxford’s strange quirks, in fact, is any will to reform them.

In my third year, when exam dress was made gender-nonspecific, the Mail told its readers wistfully:

For centuries, the sight of Oxford students in their distinctive academic gowns has been as familiar  in the city as its dreaming spires. But the ancient university has been forced to rewrite its traditional dress code – to avoid upsetting transgender students. From next month, men will be allowed to wear skirts or stockings to exams while women can choose suits or white bow ties.

Under the old regulations, male students were required to wear a dark suit with dark socks, black shoes, a white bow tie, and a plain white shirt and collar beneath their black gowns when attending formal occasions such as examinations. Female students have to wear a dark skirt or trousers, a white blouse, a black ribbon tied in a bow at the neck, black stockings and shoes.

The dress code is strictly enforced by the university’s authorities, which have the power to punish students deemed in breach of the rules. Punishments range from fines to rustication – the suspension of a student for a period of time – or expulsion, known as ‘sending down’. However, the university’s council, headed by Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton, has dropped any distinction between the sexes by deleting all references to men and women.

For my finals, which followed soon after, I was one of the first to wear an ordinary necktie instead of the white bow – an adjustment that made the whole silly ensemble conventional if not quite normal. (Knowing that were men to wear skirts, Oxford’s very pillars would turn to salt, I stuck to slacks.)

In two weeks’ time students will vote on whether to ditch subfusc outright. Should they scrap it, as I’d have liked, the Mail will no doubt moan cultural Marxist youths have ruined one more tradition they ought to respect, but today’s polling day, and so for now it thinks Oxford students who follow the exam dress code are lackeys of the bourgeoisie – not least Ed Miliband, confusingly the son of a real Marxist. [Read more…]

Election 2015: live blogging from 9pm and early predictions

000Death might not frighten me, but I’d rather leave too early than meet my end, as singer Errol Brown met his, on the eve of an election, denied knowledge of the result – like being forced to leave the world cup final at half time. (Brown was a Tory, it turns out. I’ll say no more.)

In a few hours the UK goes to the polls for the closest election in a century. I’ll be up all night live-blogging results – visit this site from 9pm London time for a running commentary. For now the numbers point consistently to a dead heat, no party winning a majority: the coming days and perhaps weeks, all evidence suggests, will be a race to Downing Street via minority government. Second-guessing elections, let alone this one, is asking for egg on one’s face, but I’ll tentatively predict the following:

The Tories will again be the largest single party. The real question, if the polls are right (and there’s no reason to think otherwise) is not if they’ll have more seats than Labour but how many: some forecasts show Miliband’s party trailing Cameron’s by several dozen seats, others by one or two. This will affect not just who can assemble a majority, but who’ll be seen as more entitled to by the public. Update: YouGov’s final seat projection gives Labour 276 seats, the Tories 272 – so maybe not! (Good thing I like eggs.)

Scotland’s revolution will be both live and televised. As with the wider national picture, a wide variety of pollsters with different methods all predict the same – it looks like most or all Scotland’s Westminster seats will fall into SNP hands, scalping a number of Labour and Lib Dem higher-ups, Jim Murphy and both Alexanders (Douglas and Danny) among them. [Read more…]

Why I’m not voting in 2015

When I vote it’s for one of two reasons – because a party I like can win or because one I dislike needs help beating one I hate. When you think like an anarchist, all voting’s tactical: I’d vote Labour in Sheffield Hallam, Lib Dem in Oxford West, Green in Brighton Pavilion, SNP in a heartbeat in Scotland. I’d stay home in a Tory/Ukip marginal or a safe seat. I’m staying home this year.

000Last time round I voted Labour in Oxford East, then a swing sweat with a Labour majority of 963. Copeland, where I’m now registered, has had four MPs, all Labour, in the last eighty years, who’ve always done better locally than their party nationwide. Labour is sure to increase its vote share this year, so I’m convinced incumbent Jamie Reed will too. Ukip may be a problem – it’s their sort of seat – but my sense is they’ll take at least as many votes off the Conservatives, his real competitors. Factoring in the Lib Dem collapse, I don’t think Reed will need every last vote, so I’m not giving him mine.

[Read more…]

(Almost) live tweets from the leaders’ debate

In case you didn’t know, the UK has an election next month. Just under an hour ago, the first-ever debate between seven of our party leaders finished. (Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party has been called the winner. I don’t disagree, but more on that soon.) Video is below – skip to 4.05 for the debate.

Since our site doesn’t let me live-blog, here are my tweets from during the programme from those who care.

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