Talking Politics
  • Nearly every day someone shouts the word 'balanced' at me. If I write a comment piece people agree with I'm told it's balanced, which it plainly isn't. If people disagree, they tell me it's not balanced, which is accurate and also uninteresting. In the comment section of a newspaper or website, these assessments are simply misguided. But in the news pages they are proving increasingly proving harmful to political debate. The search for 'balance' is misguided, confused, unhelpful and ultimately impossible.

    Its prevalence in our discourse is partly a legacy of our parliamentary system, where balance is actually very easy to achieve. In parliament there are a set number of parties with set views on whatever topic is being discussed. It is easy to achieve balance because it is a closed system. Political debate outside of parliament, on the other hand, includes thousands of views, an endless complexity of opinion in which balance is impossible. After such a long period of parliament

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  • What difference do the Occupy protests make?

    Photo: AFP/Getty ImagesBy Dr Matthew Ashton

    The left has been comprehensively outmanoeuvred in Britain over the last 30 years. They need to reconsider their tactics.

    Today sees the 100-day anniversary of the Occupy Movement in Nottingham. So far the mainstream media has focused almost all of its attention on the Occupy London movement, and in particular the camp set up outside St Paul's. As a result most of the arguments have been about their right to protest there and not their criticisms of capitalism.

    In Nottingham there has been a small camp based in the main city centre square for over three months now. Made up of several dozen tents, they've been a continuing presence throughout the winter. For the first time I actually went to see them yesterday to ask them what they were trying to achieve. As I pointed out, 100 people in the centre of a medium-size East Midlands city wasn't likely to bring capitalism to its knees any time soon.

    The protesters I spoke to took this in good humour and argued that their

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  • Trusting our politicians is hard at the best of times. Letting them take care of the interests of the country is, as we have seen repeatedly, more than enough of a challenge for them. Is it too much, then, to ask them to take on the interests of the unborn, too?

    That's the idea behind a radical new report by the Green party's thinktank, Green House, which is worried that there is a chronic failure among the political classes to adopt anything remotely resembling a long-term outlook. On climate change alone, it's argued, the need for politicians to be forced to take the interests of future voters as well as present ones into account is pressing.

    Of course, under the present system they are only accountable to their electorates. So report author Rupert Read, a former Green party candidate who lectures in philosophy at the University of East Anglia, has come up with a rather far-out idea. He proposes a super-jury, randomly picked from the public, whose solemn task it would be to make sure

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  • A massive threat to our online freedoms

    By Nick Pickles

    We have to take a stand against plans to record all our emails and web activity.

    Website blacklists, storage of all your emails by intelligence services and routine monitoring of your internet connection may sound like something from a science fiction novel — or an authoritarian regime — but the truth may be stranger than fiction for Britain in 2012.

    Perhaps this is what China meant when state media praised Britain's 'new attitude' towards the internet at the end of 2011.

    Today Big Brother Watch's website has been replaced by a shut-down message. We've voluntarily joined many US organisations including Wikipedia and Reddit who have gone off-line to defend freedom online. Like many UK websites, companies and individuals, some of the services we use online pass through America and the proposed laws currently being discussed in Congress would absolutely impact on our work.

    The US legislation — namely the PROTECT IP Act (Pipa) Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) — as it stands

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  • In most respects Ed Miliband is unlucky. He does not photograph well, he has an odd, occasionally unconvincing manner, he leads a divided and rebellious party and faces an almost uniformly hostile media. His only real assets are his ideas. When he has the stomach to stick to them, they are popular and uncannily in tune with the murky political reality of austerity Britain.

    On phone-hacking he expressed moral and political bravery by coming out against Murdoch before it was the safe thing to do. His conference speech was damned as 'left-wing', but within months David Cameron was echoing its rhetoric.

    It is a shame, then, that he fumbles the ball on the big one. The policy shift Labour implemented since the new year — vigorously attacked by union leaders and party backbenchers this morning — eliminates his advantage by forsaking his ability to express distinct ideas from the government. It reduces opposition to management style

    On the surface, it appears sensible. After all, acceptance

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  • Ed Balls’ biggest problem may be his wife

    By Dr Matthew Ashton

    As the political vultures continue to circle around Ed Miliband's leadership, thoughts are already beginning to turn to who his successor might be. The obvious person next in line to the throne is Ed Balls, but despite the fact that he obviously wants the job there are a host of reasons that make him an unlikely choice. Yesterday he seemed to go out of his way to upset the unions over the issue of cuts and the need for a continued pay freeze. His desire to prove that Labour have a 'credible' economic policy could potentially mean they just end up mimicking Conservative spending plans while alienating their own base.

    Ball's problems go deeper than that though. While no-one doubts his intelligence or political experience, many question his judgement. The moment he starts attacking the banks or talking about social justice, anyone with access to Google can find speeches he made before the credit crunch praising the banking industry and financial sector for their

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  • By Richard Heller

    "Mr Speaker, I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in paying tribute to Private John Everyman of the Midshire Regiment who was killed in an explosion in Afghanistan. He was a very brave and dedicated soldier, deeply respected by all his colleagues, and we owe him a deep debt of gratitude…"

    We have been hearing tributes like these at prime minister's questions since the Iraq war, and sadly, we can expect more of them this year. Of course, the most important aspect of these tributes is their impact on the comrades and friends and families of the victim. No one would deny them in their loss any comfort and pride which they might take from hearing the name put on record in the House of Commons.

    But all the rest of us are entitled to our feelings at such moments, and I wonder if I am alone in mine.

    It makes me angry to hear politicians — whoever they are — reading out prepared phrases about soldiers they pretend to have known. I cannot stop thinking that

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  • Photo: AFP/Getty ImagesLondon may have seized the initiative in the Scottish independence referendum debate, but it has by no means made certain it will get its way.

    Yesterday the Scotland Office launched a consultation paper on Scotland's constitutional future, outlining the way in which it proposes to give the people of Scotland their say on this key issue for the United Kingdom's future.

    Its biggest play is its attempt to scotch, once and for all, the distinction between a 'binding' and an 'advisory' referendum. This, according to Scotland Office officials, is nothing but a red herring. Whitehall lawyers believe they have a cast-iron case which they believe would stand up in the supreme court: any referendum held by the Scottish parliament would be illegal, full stop.

    That would be a huge setback to the Scottish National party, which has been sniffing around the issue of an advisory referendum for some time. Take its 2007 paper on the issue: "At present the constitution is reserved, but it is arguable

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  • The problem with Ed

    Journalists are doing the government's job for it, so much so that David Cameron's last TV interview saw him defending Ed Miliband's performance. The range of attack dogs growling against Miliband is simply astonishing. This morning the Labour leader tried to relaunch his agenda in time for 2012. There was little there to significantly change the course of events.

    He appeared on the Today programme, where John Humphrys relentlessly told him to apologise for Labour's economic record in office before insinuating he was too ugly to connect with the public. Online, political commentators were as crude as possible, attacking his tone and his language as if sizing up a blind date.

    By the time journalists had gathered for his speech, they began attacking the lack of bacon sandwiches. The Labour leader was late, sparking a wave of increasingly vitriolic attacks on him. "Never seen a speech go down so badly before it's even been given," one online commentator remarked.

    It all highlights the

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  • By Dr Matthew Ashton

    So far David Cameron's coalition government looks like it will be remembered mostly for its austerity.

    However the news today that the Cabinet is in talks about allowing a binding referendum on Scottish independence could completely change that. If true then this would be possibly the biggest gamble of Cameron's leadership with the future of the entire UK at stake.

    Essentially he's trying to out-bluff Alex Salmond, which as any political expert will tell you is a pretty difficult task.

    Salmond has long spoken of his desire to hold a referendum, but only on his terms. By offering him the option of a binding referendum, but only within a very limited timeframe, Cameron is asking him to jump now or not at all. I'd also be very surprised if Cameron doesn't attempt to work it in his favour - for instance, deciding when the referendum will take place.

    While Salmond remains extremely popular with the Scottish electorate, the credit crunch has had a serious impact on his

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