Monthly Archives: March 2013

There used to be a Labour Party there, once

In 1984, Tottenham Hotspur won the UEFA Cup.  Their manager, Keith Burkinshaw, had won promotion, two FA Cups and now a European trophy while in charge of the club.  After this last victory, he was sacked without ever leading the club in another match.  Famously, when leaving White Hart Lane for the last time, he remarked “There used to be a football club there, once.”

After reading the news this morning, I feel much the same about the Labour Party.

Last month, two people won a court case against the Department for Work and Pensions where they had been forced into doing unpaid work for businesses.  Leaving aside the moral, ethical and indeed business related reasons why the taxpayer should not be subsidising massive companies with free labour, the fact is that the Government lost and the people won.  If they wanted to carry on with the scheme, the Government would have to change their rules going forward.  Again, this is how the world works, the rule is wrong in law, you change the rule so it is right, and then carry on.

Yesterday, the Government announced emergency legislation that would change the rules retroactively.  The rules that were found to be illegal last month will now suddenly, magically become legal at the time.  Basically, I’ve burgled your house, been caught, convicted and then the law changed so that not only can I burgle more houses in the future, but I get to walk away with all your stuff.

It is the kind of utterly bullshit ploy that I’m come to expect from this Government, who have taken on the worst habit of the Bush Administration, in that reality is what they say it is.  If a law says what they do is illegal, then it is the law which is wrong and not them. (Effectively politicians see themselves as above the law, which is a very dangerous thing indeed.)  If there are 400,000 jobs in the UK for 2.1 million unemployed, then the laws of mathematics must be wrong because we are frequently told that everyone who is unemployed can get a job.

(You know, a job at Poundland, Tesco, Matalan, Argos or somewhere, where they will happily pay people to work for them instead of, I dunno, picking up labour for free and having it subsidised by the taxpayer.  But what do I know? I didn’t have the finest education money can buy.)

Now this isn’t a go at the Tories.  I’d expect this sort of cuntery from them, the sort of inbuilt reflex that means they have to kick a poor person when they walk past them.  The crucial bit about this, and I’ll quote directly from the Guardian article:

The Guardian understands that Labour will support the fast-tracked bill with some further safeguards and that negotiations with the coalition are ongoing.

There you have it, folks.  If the past few years haven’t demonstrated that democracy is dead in this country, then the sight of the party of the common man, colluding to change the law in an Orwellian fashion in order to deny the jobless of much needed benefits and force them to work for free stacking shelves.  And I say Orwellian in the meaning of the Memory Hole. Not only was the Government right, it always was right.

It often goes unremarked that the Tory treatment of the disabled, the poor and the jobless is merely an extension of Labour policies in the early 2000s.  It was Labour who introduced ATOS tests, free schools.  They forced marketisation of the NHS.  They opened the door to workfare and closed it on civil liberties.

Ah yes, civil liberties.  In a week when Theresa May made noises about demolishing the Human Rights Act, who should spring to her support?  Former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett.

I’m a big believer in the law of unintended consequences being applied to people who are mendacious and stupid. Article 1 of the HRA, for instance, is the right to protection of property.  Article 14 is the right not be discriminated against.  If David Blunkett wants to repeal the HRA, I propose a new law that strips disabled former Home Secretaries of their home and all their possessions.  Just so people can shout at him in the street going “DO YOU GET WHY SOME THINGS ARE IMPORTANT, DAVE?  DO YOU SEE WHY YOU CAN NEVER RELY ON IT NOT TO HAPPEN HERE?”

You know what, I think that I’ll try to get it retroactively applied as well.

Of course, we can always rely on a little stunt or two.  Labour introduced a Mansion Tax bill into Parliament, an exact duplicate of the Liberal Democrats manifesto proposal.  This had the amusing sight of the Liberal Democrats rushing to vote down something they themselves support.  Now ordinarily, I’m a big supporter of that kind of stunt, but I’m afflicted with the disease of consistency, which means as I am against the Bedroom Tax, I have to be against a Mansion Tax.

You see, it is simple.  The Bedroom Tax basically says that if you receive benefits on Friday, and your house is above a certain size, you will be punished by receiving less benefits on Monday.  Through no fault of your own, your house has been deemed above an arbitrary limit, regardless of circumstances.

The Mansion Tax says that if your house is worth £2m on Friday you are fine.  But if it is worth £2m on Monday, then you will be forced to pay a tax.  Through no fault of your own, your house has been deemed above an arbitrary limit, regardless of circumstance.

See? Consistency.

(I’ve no problem with changing the rules going forward, but not punishing those for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

Of course, if Labour had actually thought through their Mansion Tax stunt, they could have used this argument to demonstrate the invalidity of the bedroom tax, but I’m attributing to their leadership a level of intelligence that they, quite frankly, just don’t have.

You see, this is the problem.  There is no use even pretending that Labour and the Tories have any real differences.  It is all a matter of degree.  Labour introduced free markets into the NHS, ATOS testing, privatised many things that shouldn’t have been privatised and turned a blind eye to bank regulation.  All the Tories have done is taken that to its logical conclusion.  Michael Gove, Ian Duncan Smith and Jeremy Hunt are smashing up schools, the welfare state and the NHS like gleeful vandals allowed to roam free, but Labour let them in the building to do it.  Theresa May is attacking fundamental civil liberties, cheered on by one of the most authoritarian Home Secretaries of all time.

All the time, ordinary people, not just the poor or the jobless, but the working people who vote Labour watch in horror as the people they voted for sit back and let the lunatics take over the asylum.

Of course, we could try and show our protest at the polls, voting every one of these idiots out.  But then I’m in a constituency where the Labour majority is 16,000.  Of course, we could have had the Alternative Voting system, which would have been a truer reflection of how things stand.

But then David Blunkett campaigned against that, too.

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I wanna be (re-)elected

I am currently watching The West Wing for the first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  Therefore HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to and including Season 3, Episode 5.

After the, frankly, quite depressing two part season opener up in Manchester, NH we are now in the cut and thrust of a re-election campaign, with Our Heroes fighting on several fronts. First up the investigation into the cover-up of Bartlets’ MS, then we have the struggles of passing legislation with half an eye on the effect on the reelection chances of not only the President, but his Party and finally the day to day running of the most powerful country in the world.

Not a lot to keep an eye on then.

The last two episodes (“Ways and Means” and “On The Day Before”) have shifted the tone from a passive, reserved White House to focus on more aggressive tactics. I like shows with this sort of politicking – to be honest it fits my preconception of the show before watching it, less soapy drama, more backstabbing.

This aggressive stance is shown with Bartlet using his Presidential Veto for the first time against an estate tax (shades of the current UK mainsion tax and estate tax debate) whcih basically turns round and tells the rich to shut the hell up in their $2m mansions. Of course, nothing is ever quite that simple and the gang run the risk of losing an override vote – as their own side in Congress thinks that the Bartlet administration is weak and threatens to derail the whole thing.

This aggressive “our way or the highway” seems to be the way forward in this series. Just as “Manchester, Parts 1 and 2” felt depressingly harsh, these two episodes are also much more confrontational.

None of this is more apparent than with CJ. In the first two seasons, I’ve really enjoyed her character, delivering smart putdowns under incredible pressure and being one of the main sources of humour. She has always, however, had the undercurrent of being one mis-spoken phrase away from falling apart, and when it happened in “Manchester”, her plaintive cry and upset was some magnificent acting from Alison Janney.

From the other side has emerged Kickass CJ. First, she realises that they need to pick a fight with somebody, anybody and goads the House Republicans into opening their own investigation into Bartlet. Secondly, she destroys, live on national TV, an air-headed showbiz reporter who found herself in the White House instead of her usual fashion beat. I can’t help but draw parallels with the treatment of the radio show host Doctor in that a minor character is introduced for the sole purpose of being the recipient of some venom from one of the principal cast but her comeuppance is earned by the end of the episode and CJs comments show the steel behind the sometimes fluffy and klutzy side exterior. It also emphasises that the White House briefing room is a tank of sharks, both behind the lectern and in front.

Speaking of sharks, there was a nice piece of direction and body language when Sam and Toby double-teamed one of the Congressmen with it definitely felt like they were circling their prey. I don’t think we’ve seen too much of Toby and Sam working as a pair (Sam being clearly subordinate) but it was interesting to see the comparatively soft-edged Sam rather than the explosive, harder Toby be the one to suggest that they screw their own side and work with the softer Republicans to get their way.

So, with every main character being a hardass, it is interesting to see where we go from here.

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Manchester. No, not that one.

I am currently watching The West Wing for the first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  So HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to and including Season 3, Episode 2.

Thus we start Season 3 with the two part “Manchester”, starting with the Presidents straightforward answer to whether he would be seeking re-election (“Yeah”) and flowing, via the occasional timeline jump or two up to his formal announcement of running for a second term.

And a very fractious 80 minutes it is, with everybody, well, shouting at each other.  In come three characters to fight the re-election, the spiky Connie, the spikier Doug and the so spikier he should be a hedgehog, Bruno.  They are introduced to a West Wing staff that is clearly stressed out and worried.  Throw in some marital strife between the President and the First Lady and we’ve got a whole lot of bickering going on.

Special praise for Stockard Channing, by the way, who has floated in and out of S1 and S2 like a force of nature.  Feisty, fast and often railing against the protocols and niceties that go with the job of being First Lady.  Loved the various scenes where she was every bit the political equal of her husband, especially when working a crowd on his behalf.  Great to see her promoted to the opening credit sequence for S3.

In the end, it turns out that the reason everyone is shouting is because they are pissed at Bartlet for hiding his MS.  To be honest, I don’t really buy it.  Not because of the performances from the actors, I just thing they were dealt a bum hand with these two episodes.  Things take place outside of the West Wing, in Manchester, NH.  A school room, a bar, Air Force One.  It just adds to the entire feeling of unfamiliarity.  Toby is pissed at a mislabelled poster, which would never have really happened.  CJ is looking to resign after screwing up.  Although the motivation wasn’t right, it was interesting to see the two Bartlets and Leo in full on hardass re-election mode, not realising that their staff were coming to terms with a disease that they themselves had made peace with a long time ago.

It is a hard watch, like I say.  Didn’t really work.  I can see what they were trying to do but… no.  Put it in the can and move on.

Special mention for a sizzling moment of dialogue from the awesome Toby Ziegler, which I think came from the end of Season 2.  Toby and Josh are discussing the various reactions to the news that the President has MS.  Can’t find the exact quote, so I paraphrase:

Josh: Does Donna know?
Toby: Yeah, she knows.
Josh: How did she take it?
Toby: Better than some around here.
Josh: Was that aimed at me?
Toby: Actually. I think it was aimed at me.

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Blimey, where did the fluffy go?

I am currently watching The West Wing in its entirety for the very first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  So HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to the end of Season 3, Episode 2.

I see the story framework of flashbacks and two parters that I liked so much about the end of S1 start of S2, was kept for the end of Season 2 and start of Season 3.  Thematically, it was a very different 120 minutes and in fact, was a pretty difficult watch.

In reality, the end of Season 2 builds a couple of episodes before “Two Cathedrals”.  The storyline of Bartlet suffering from MS reared its head again.  Originally, I thought the appearance of the disease in S1 was a little hokey and unnecessary.  Whether it was intended to set up the story arc for S2 and S3 I’m not sure but it became the focal point of the season climax.

The problem I had was that it wasn’t the focal point.  The writers threw in the dramatic reaction of the likes of Toby Ziegler, who, in a surprise turn, lost himself in front of the President so much I suspected some kind of MS-related guilty secret. The build up to Tobys discovery was superbly handled in a fantastic pre-credits sequence as that magnificent political brain in a bald head slowly pieced together the clues.

Additional to the MS plot line and the decision to both tell the staff and then the world, there was a crisis in Haiti in contend with, a tropical storm threatening the East Coast, bailing out Mexico and then, with sudden swiftness, the death of Mrs Landingham.

It felt like too much was piling in on the story.  I know that the various plot strands of an episode interweave, but the “big” stories are usually given focus and time to breathe and when several stories move together, they tend to be lighter.  These episodes piled crisis upon crisis and when Charlie told Leo of the death of the Presidents secretary, my reaction was “Not that as well!”

I think that trying to carry all their weight overwhelmed things.  The S2 closer, “Two Cathedrals” is a great 40 minutes, but not exactly a fluid one.  It functioned less as a story and more of a series of set pieces.  We are whizzed back and forth in the timeline, between young Jeb being introduced to the middle-aged Dolores Landingham (brilliantly played by Kirsten Nelson) back to the preparations for the public admittance of MS, the funeral of Mrs L and the decision whether to stand for re-election.

“Two Cathedrals” may not have been a story that flowed, but made up for it being being comprised of several fantastic moments, none better than when Bartlet asked for the National Cathedral to be sealed, before delivering an angry tirade at the Lord Almighty.  It is brave speech to put on TV, not least for having part of it in Latin and calling God a “feckless thug” in prime time?  The act of defiance with a cigarette is a great touch – as is the final parting shot at what Bartlet thinks God deserves, his vapid Vice President – “You get Hoynes!”

Then a moment of sheer theatre, a conversation in the Oval Office with the now dead Mrs Landingham. A great little two-hander than left me wishing that the character of Mrs L had been expanded more, instead of being a slightly quirky focal point for comedy.  Her depth was intimated in the S1 episode “In Excelsis Deo” and I thought we could have done with more of that.

Would it be wrong to interpret a conversation with a ghost as Gods reaction to Bartlets earlier rant in the Cathedral?  Why not, I suppose, given the injection of magical realism into a resolutely realistic and grounded story.  The Ghost of Mrs L is the thing that persuades Bartlet that he still has job to do, despite the personal cost to his health and possibly his marriage.  What else was going to get him to change his mind?

Finally something that is a cliche, but when done well, is incredibly powerful – the President deciding to speak to the nation set to music, in this case Dire Straits “Brothers In Arms”.  That piece of music has been used before in my favourite scene in, of all things, the TV series of Miami Vice.  As the West Wing staff anticipate the “No” decision, we are left with the cliffhanger which really isn’t, as everyone knew we would have a Season 3.  Rewatching the clip again, I love the little touches, the way the West Wing staff fall into line behind the President, CJ’s humour and calm (“I can only answer 14 or 15 questions at once”) and then Leos “Watch this…”

Next blog post will be about the two part opener to Season 3 and taken as a triumvirate, I think S1/S2 worked better than S2/S3.  The stories were more focused, the flashbacks less forced and hurried.  As 120 minutes of drama, “Two Cathedrals” and “Manchester” did not reach the heights scaled by their predecessor, but when adding up the individual moments over a 40 minute timespan then “Two Cathedrals” is definitely the standout episode thus far.

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Conflict has never been so perky

I am currently watching The West Wing from the start, for the first time, and blogging my thoughts as I go. Therefore HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to Season 2, Episode 17.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned the disappearance of Mandy, a spiky spin doctor who was the ex of Josh Lymon and whose appointment was against Joshs wishes because she was clearly good at her job. As the series went on, Mandy disappeared into the background and it became clear no-one had an idea what to do with the character.

Early in Season Two, we are introduced to Ainsley Hayes, a spiky lawyer who is appointed against the wishes of Sam Seaborn because she was clearly good at her job. Well, as second attempts go, it wasn’t exactly subtle. However, the writers do seem to have got a better idea what to do the second time around.

Hayes is very memorably introduced as the other talking head on a Washington TV show. Sam wanders onto the set, full of chirpy cockiness, sees the young, blonde, female Republican opposite and proceeds to get his arse utterly kicked by her in a debate. This is a source of hilarity for the rest of the West Wing and brings her to the attention of Leo McGarry and the President, who offer her a job.

As plot devices go, it was a little clunky. Why would they offer a Republican a job in a Democrat administration? Why would she even take it? (And no, I don’t really believe the “because the President asks” – even in 2000 things were utterly divided.) But in comes Hayes as a member of the regular supporting cast.

And I like her, a lot. She is clearly there to provide “the other side” in a debate, perhaps even to provide some kind of “balance” for the writers and producers when attacked by the Right wing media. (Which I should rant about at length at some point…)

The character works, in the way Mandy didn’t. Despite appearing as the sort of Republican fem-bot that would end up reading an autocue on Fox News, she can easily hold her own. She also has some interesting little character quirks. In her second episode, she turns up for her first day and is given a crappy office by Leo, way down in the basement – I was wondering her treatment was McGarrys idea of a cruel joke, which seemed out of character for him. As the day progresses she is victimised by just about everybody, – her new boss, the distrustful regulars and then, eventually, her own side, who consider her a turncoat.

It is her own sides action – the delivery of dead flowers, with the note “bitch” – which spurs Sam into realising her poor treatment and arranging for it to be made up to her. (Which yet again, portrays US TVs obsession with HMS bloody Pinafore. I’ve never understood that – it comes up here, it comes up in Cape Feare…) The denouement is a little cheesy, but a relief have what was a little bit … not exactly harrowing, but it wasn’t a nice, fluffy watch.

Since that point Hayes has receded a little into the background. From being a tough cookie, she has been used a bit for comic relief – she was in the State of the Union episode acting a little oddly. The adrenaline high after appearing on TV would be plausible, if she hadn’t been so composed in taking Sam apart on Capital Beat a few months earlier. Same with her attacks of nerves on meeting the President. They seem out of character. At time of writing, she has just popped up in “17 People”, giving an argument against the Equal Rights Act and it is here where the character shines – quickly rebutting Sams arguments and standing up for her point of view, without ever really getting into cliche.

Ultimately, a more than adequate replacement for Mandy. And her obsession with food is hilarious.

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