article 6So, as the last comic book fan with a blog to express an opinion about Captain America: Steve Rogers No.1, I thought it’s probably necessary that I have a suitably clickbait-style headline so that people might pay some attention. For what it’s worth, though, I do believe that the current treatment of Peter Parker is worse (more disrespectful to the character, less interesting and less smart) than what appears to be in store for Steve Rogers, and I’ll come back to that at the end. On this new Captain America, I think that some of the reaction to what is, after all, the first chapter of what seems planned to be an extended story has been ludicrous. And some of the responses to the fact that Captain America utters the dread phrase “Hail Hydra” (and seems to mean in) in the final panel seem to have missed or deliberately ignored everything else on all the other pages of the book. In fact, given the approach to extremism displayed so far, I’m quietly hopeful that this comic is going to go somewhere worthwhile and, perhaps, will deal with extremism in an interesting way rather than blandly restate the usual vapid comic book platitudes. Continue reading

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A quick follow up to my last post. I’ve had people insist to me that it is perfectly valid to compare the latest local election results with the 2015 elections. So I want to make clear why this simply isn’t true.

Here are the results from the latest local elections presented in a map (see it in all it’s glory at Democratic Dashboard):

2016 actual local election results

2016 local election results

As you can see, there’s a lot of white space on this map. That’s because not everyone in the United Kingdom had the opportunity to vote in these elections.

That’s the main reason why trying to compare this election to the 2015 general election is silly. It’s different boundaries, a different electorate and, in places like Scotland and Wales, it’s even different electoral systems. It is, like your primary school teacher told you, wrong to try and add apples and oranges.

But the other thing it’s worth doing for Labour Party members (at least those who are genuinely interested in getting a clear view of where the party now stands and what we really need to do to win in 2020) is to look at those white spaces and think, for a minute about what kind of England they represent. Continue reading

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I don’t want to be one of those people in the Labour Party who constantly moans about the leadership. My natural instinct is to loyalty. I want Labour to do well because I believe the people I care about do better when Labour is in power and I think that constant infighting is, literally, self-defeating.

However, I think it’s also important that the Labour Party is honest with itself. I understand the desire to present the latest election results in a positive way, but it’s important that – as the dust settles – that we look plainly at the figures and assess where we are. And, the truth is, that we’re in a very bad place if our goal is to replace the Tories as a party of government.

The first thing to note is that, while it made sense to spin the election result as a step forward to journalists, being able to point to an increased national vote share of 2% since 2015 is a “good news story” – especially when you’re a leadership under pressure – it is not an honest story and we shouldn’t let the story we tell others lead us to delusions.

We have to set aside the spin when we, privately, look at the results and what they mean.  Comparing a general election to a set of local elections is like comparing apples with oranges. Not every part of the country voted yesterday, not everyone voted using the same electoral system and, despite the temptation to believe otherwise, local politics and local candidates do matter.

The only fair comparison is not with 2015 but with 2012 – the last time these specific wards and elections took place at the same time. And when we look at that, the picture is much less encouraging. Since 2012 Labour’s share of the vote has fallen, dramatically, everywhere:

-9% in Scotland
-8% in Wales
-7% in England

Yes, the 2012 result was a good one – the omnishambles budget – had the Tories in significant disarray. But this year’s Tory party – with another disastrous budget and constant bickering over the EU, a strike in the NHS, the steel industry’s implosion and everyone in the cabinet positioning themselves for the coming leadership contest – is hardly in a better position than it was then.

And yes, you can argue that it’s not fair to compare the performance of “peak-Miliband” – almost 2 years into a parliament and his leadership – with Corbyn only 8 months in the job. But comparing Corbyn’s performance with the 2011 election (when Miliband was in the same stage of his leadership) doesn’t do this performance any favours either. In 2011 local elections Miliband increased Labour’s national share of the vote to 37% (up 2% from the previous general election, 10% from the previous cycle of local elections) – a significant step forward in a way this very definitely wasn’t.

So, what next?

Corbynism isn’t going anywhere. He (or someone with the same beliefs) would walk a leadership election held in the foreseeable future. Fantasies of a coup are nothing more than fever dreams.

Labour needs the team around Corbyn need to do better. The last eight months have been littered with self-inflicted public relations disasters and a basic inability to identify, stick to and deliver a campaigning agenda that strikes a chord with the public outside their core supporters. Yes, they face a hostile media, but so do all Labour leaders, and their often inexplicable choices have made things worse. Someone needs to be ruthless with people who are plainly not up to their job, and everyone needs to do better.

And, for god’s sake, stop talking about foreign policy.

And the wider circle of people who support Corbyn need to realise that not all criticism is disloyal. Sometimes it’s okay to apply a critical eye to what the party is doing, no matter how much faith you have in the leader.

Of course there are also those whose constant moaning and whinging needs to take a less hysterical, less publicly damaging form. If some of those who oppose Corbyn devoted as much time to building a credible, intellectually coherent and popular alternative to Corbynism as they do to screaming insults, the Labour Party would be in a better place.

But, to the public (and it is the public, after all who will decide the future of our party) it is the leadership that matters most, and that means the leadership has got to look at these results and recognise that things are going badly wrong have to change.

The bunker mentality that has developed around the Corbyn leadership will, if it continues, lead Labour to disaster. No matter how important you consider your principles, there’s no way to win an election in the UK by pursuing only a core of ultra-committed supporters. Especially not for a Labour Party that has lost Scotland (and has only narrowly avoided a disaster in Wales).

I didn’t vote for Corbyn. I don’t think he is the best leader for the Labour Party. But since he is the Labour Party leader, I would like him to be the best leader of the party it is possible for him to be.

So, be honest Corbynites.

Look the situation we’re in and – privately, if not in public – start to address the fact that this week was a very bad result and, that if you really want to be a party that replaces the Tories, you’ve got to do better.

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One of the defining features of modern conservative politics is a fixation with the building of walls.

In America some of these walls are real – the notion of “securing” the US southern border with a physical wall, no matter how medieval that sounds, is now mainstream politics. It’s not just the wild rantings of Trump, all of the remaining prospective Republican candidates are committed to some form of a physical barrier between the USA and Mexico. So popular are walls amongst Republican activists that Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin and mayfly pursuer of the GOP nomination, went so far as to suggest a mirror project that would seal off the lower 48 states from the terrifying threat of marauding Canadians.

In Europe the walls are mostly, so far, symbolic. The disastrous crises in Africa and Asia have created unprecedented pressures that are far beyond anything any of our institutions were designed to manage. Faced with the horror of mass human suffering, many European conservatives have sought to retreat behind border restrictions and threats to rebuild legal walls that have been eroded by nearly seventy years of ever closer union. Continue reading

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Back at the end of 2010 I interviewed David Rain for the British Science Fiction Association’s Focus (no.54, 2011) – a magazine for writers. David was programme leader for the MA in Creative Writing at Middlesex University, which was at that time unique in having a science fiction thread to its teaching, and I was a freelancer. David passed away this week after a long illness. In one of those weird quirks, I now teach at Middlesex in the same department as David – though I never really got the chance to get to know him. However his loss has had an obvious impact on those who he worked with and taught.

David had written the Orokon fantasy series as Tom Arden and had been twice nominated for the British Fantasy Society’s Awards and had also written a number of well-received literary novels under his own name

Anyway, I thought I’d put the interview up on the blog as a small, inadequate remembrance. Continue reading

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War has always been a topic that has caused the Labour Party problems and it seems increasingly possible that whether or not Britain should bomb Syria has the potential to create deep, and possibly irreparable, splits in the modern party. There’s a particular oddness in this situation, since Britain’s capacity to have any significant influence in Syria is almost zero. But the symbolism is crucial, I suppose. It is, however, depressing that this moral debate has become a weapon in the battles of Labour factionalism.

Over the last week I have listened to those who oppose war at any cost and I wonder if some of them are aware that people are dying in their thousands at the hands of ISIS and Assad (and, indeed, those who are opposing both of these regimes). As long as they don’t have anything darkening their conscience this group seems willing to turn a blind eye to slaughter done by others. Not so much “Stop The War” as “Stop Some Wars”. By the same token, I listen to some of those who support intervention and I hear no realistic plan to achieve meaningful change in the region – nothing that dissuades me from the belief that, for many, bombing Syria is about satisfying a desire to smash someone, anyone, in frustration at not being able to do anything useful. Continue reading

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So, in my last post I responded to a post that claimed that there was a resurgence of Labour support identified in local election results. I thought I’d follow that up with a more detailed look at how things are going.

Labour local election results

The chart above tracks the change in The Labour Party’s share of the vote in local authority by-election results since the beginning of October and the trendline marking the overall direction of travel.

The most recent results show a very definite decline in Labour’s electoral fortunes.  Continue reading

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A recent article in Tribune claimed that: “Big swings to Labour are being reported in a number of council by-elections since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the party.” As far as it goes, it’s certainly true that some swings to Labour in local authority by-elections have been good, but the article then goes on to claim “Labour’s surge in membership at grassroots level is starting to pay off in getting councillors re-elected and in one case gaining a seat.” And that masks a somewhat more complex truth about the current electoral situation.

In the last month there have been 21 local authority by-elections. In three Labour didn’t stand: Hellingly (Wealden), Chatteris (Cambridgeshire) and Aird & Loch Ness (Highlands) and one, Bolsover South, was previously an uncontested Labour seat so change figures are meaningless.

That leaves seventeen contested local authority by-elections in the last month. In those by-elections Labour’s vote went up in nine and down in eight. Continue reading

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The Bees CoverWhy would an author write a story in which the main characters are bees? One reason might be simply that bees are interesting little creatures – fascinatingly social, successful, widespread and apocryphally busy – and we are intimately familiar with them. Their hives and lives offer the writer useful opportunities for allegory and metaphor. Or, perhaps, though we are familiar with bees their experiences are so entirely outside our own that they can also play the role of exotic aliens – seeing the same world as we do but in a radically different way. A third reason might be that as the bee struggles with environmental disruption – climate change, disease, pesticides – these little bugs offer the writer an opportunity to comment on humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with nature.

Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, uses bits of all three of these elements, and part of its weakness is trying to do too much without being convincing about any one point, but it’s worth starting by discussing what the book does rather well. In imagining the bee society – dominated by females and with a central character driven by a powerful maternal instinct – this book’s most interesting aspect is the prominence it gives to the female view. The peculiar institutions of the hive are driven by sisterhoods and the central character’s concerns are distinctively womanly. Some reviews compare the book to Margaret Atwoods’ The Handmaid’s Tale and, while it’s a comparison which doesn’t do this slighter novel many favours, some resonances are clear. Continue reading

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Untold riches and global celebrity? Whatever it was that possessed Oliver Langmead to write Dark Star, we must hope that it was neither of the above. Because who, in their right mind, writes a science fiction/noir detective story (and it is very noir, almost pitch black) in the form of an epic poem? And who, in their right mind, buys such a book?

Reader, I have no answers to any of these questions. Indeed Dark Star is a riddle I have totally failed to solve. In many respects it is a very conventional novel. Its science fictional part – a human pioneer society gradually devolving on a strange planet – is every bit as familiar as its detective elements – a burnt out cop caught in a web of corruption that’s far above his pay grade. The setting is pleasingly peculiar – the story take place on Vox, a city on a world that circles a star that emits no light. Darkness presses in on all sides and this has created a society where light has become a conspicuous sign of wealth and privilege. There is an underclass, condemned to perpetual darkness, who are desperate, vaguely threatening, but ultimately helpless. This weirdness, however, is undercut by familiarity – the streets our protagonists (Virgil and Dante – I know, right?) walk are not alien, they have been worn smooth by the shoe leather of ten thousand hard-boiled shamuses who passed this way before. This rubbing together of the strangeness of place and the conventional familiarity of the detectives’ milieu – corrupt colleagues, dodgy dealing city officials and unworldly scientists – results in a whole that is an uneasy and not always satisfying compromise. Continue reading

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