Scotland, Bombs and Book Sales – Speed Blog.

stopwatch

I’ve got too little time and too many possible topics to write about this week, so I’m going to attempt a speed blog. From the start of the next sentence, I will attempt to cover the title subjects in 30 minutes writing time (which will be a lot shorter reading time). As I finish this paragraph, my computer clock reads 10.35am. You will just have to believe me… and my time starts… now!

Scotland

So they said ‘No’ then, and what happened? Almost immediately the hastily compiled promises that swayed the debate started to unwind and become compounded with much wider, and much more complicated matters, of regional and national devolution. The leaders of the ‘No’ campaign claimed an ‘emphatic’ victory. Emphatic? I think just scraping 56% of the voting population is far from emphatic, which is described by Google as ‘expressing something forcibly and clearly’. I think a better adjective to use would have been ‘adequate’ preceded by ‘just about’.

That said, they did win, and for those of us who were up for a bit of constitutional mayhem (shake em all up, I say), we can at least hope that if the millionaire white English boys go back on their promises, we will get our shake up, but in a much less organised and civil way.

I’m running out of time for this section (10.41am), so I will finish by saying that I actually like some of the ideas about devolved powers to regions and nations within the UK. As I said, anything that just goddamn changes things around here has to be welcome as a start. But no one can promise anything about how things are going to work, because no one, as I am aware, has the power to look into the future. So if we start getting asked questions about constitutional reform, just remember, no one really knows, no one will really ever know. If we don’t go for it at some point, we will never find out, and things will stay the same, suiting the few at the cost of the many. They will try and scare us, threaten us and bully us into keeping things the same. Sod them. Time’s up. Next!

Bombs.

Two nights ago America started bombing Syria. Not just any old bit of Syria, specifically the bits with ISIL/IS/ISA/whoever the hell it is they are meant to be fighting in it. Of course, that’s how bombs work, they are discriminate, with excellent targeting that in no way kill innocent people.

It’s hard to speak up against this latest round of violence because of the stark and shocking news stories of hostages and beheadings that have been drip fed out of the region over the last few weeks. It is all equally as saddening to me. The violence on both sides sickens and disappoints me. Already we have an American General warning that this will be a ‘long and sustained’ conflict. That is the headline story on our public news channel. Why would they want us to know that? Why would they want their enemy to know that they think it is going to be a hard and complicated campaign. It hardly strikes fear into an adversary to tell them that you don’t think you are up to the task of a decisive victory. For some reason, there must always be a campaign of western intervention in the Middle East. As one ends, another starts.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a genuine crisis going on in Syria, but it is so intrinsically linked with what Western leaders have done in the past, is throwing more violence at it really going to help? Earlier this year, ‘peace prize’ Obama announced he was arming the ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels in the fight against Assad. There was much mirth about the definition of ‘moderate’ rebel fighters. Some ridiculous amount of US dollars and military support was pumped into the region. Within weeks this name-changing group had emerged and apparently ran a line through Iraq and Syria with superior force and the ability to take, control, and sell oil for millions of dollars a day on the international market (who exactly is buying it from them?). I wonder if the two things are connected?

Time’s nearly up for this section. Needless to say, I am sceptical about the whole campaign, and soon we will be joining in (Cameron is recalling parliament this Friday). Great. More life and public money wasted. They can’t help themselves. Not for a moment do I believe their primary objectives are for humanitarian reasons. Not for a blink of an eye.

Right! 10.54am, leaving me 11 minutes to write the next bit and check it over!

Book Sales.

As I’m sure readers will know, I published my book ‘The Dimension Scales and Other Stories’ earlier this year (April 22nd to be precise). It has been an equally exciting and harrowing experience. I realise now that the internet, while being the great connector, is also like a massive public shopping centre full of closed doors. Anyone can have a premises, but getting people to look into it and see what you’ve got on offer is a lot easier said than done.

The book has received good reviews, but moderate sales. It is extremely hard to get it noticed and circulated in a market that is swamped with titles. This isn’t deterring me though, but it does mean I have to try various strategies and spend nearly as much time marketing as I did writing the thing in the first place. Add to that the fact that I am trying to get my next book written, and occasionally I end up having little breakdowns. (nothing serious, just artistic fear and loathing).

So! The latest round of attempts is to reduce the price again and see what happens. Some authors give their books away for free to get noticed and build an audience – I’m not quite there yet, but is now available for a mere $0.99 or 77p.

The advert for the book is on the top right of this screen – it takes you to the Amazon page, but the book is available on iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Nook and Kobo. If you haven’t had a look, please do. And if you think it looks a bit interesting, why not buy it and find out? Or failing that, share it with a few people and see what they think. This whole ‘going viral’ thing isn’t a natural phenomenon. People will spend lots and lots of time and money in some cases, to get noticed. I would like to think that this can happen by mutual support alone, without the need for spamming and expensive advertising.

If anyone has any networks or channels that can help me get this ‘out there’ please let me know or just feel free to do so. I have quite a strong Twitter following and am happy to mutually exchange links and shout-out’s to those who have a creative endeavour of their own (within reason – no explicit or gratuitous material. You would be surprised how much of that is being peddled).

End.

And that’s it! The clock says 11.03am, so I will sign off with two minutes spare and do the fastest editing ever. I hope you’ve enjoyed my speed blog and I apologise if it is a little rougher around the edges than usual!

Goodbye.

 

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Nothing to hide.

ministry of truth

Whatever your views are about state surveillance, privacy and liberty, it is (or should be) hard for anyone to not feel that the way ’emergency legislation’ was enacted this week to force through new data laws in barely a few working days was undemocratic and deeply worrying. Our elected ‘representatives’ have had no chance to adequately represent us in the time given, and the leaders of the main three parties made a pact behind closed doors to force this through parliament, so we had no alternative anyway.

The mantra being spouted by supporters of this legislation was ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, what’s the problem?’. I can’t begin to rant enough about the short sightedness, stupidity and naivety of this view. So I wrote a poem instead. Here it is.

 

Nothing to Hide.

By Garry Abbott.

 

‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ said Clive, full of British grit and pride.

‘All you losers who think these laws are for snoopers,

must be sneaky cheaters, keeping secrets.’

 

‘What have you got to hide?’ sneered Clive, patriotic swell inside.

‘What do your emails entail that make you fail to see

that these powers are for your own security?’

 

‘If you’ve got nothing to hide’ asked Clive, steaming forth on moral high,

‘Why all the fear, about people trying to hear your pointless

conversations. Why the sudden protestations? Eh?’

 

‘They’re everywhere!’ said Clive, tabloids running though his mind,

‘I read it every day, how they want to take away

our way of life. So we’ll have nothing for ourselves.

We’ll be under their control in some fierce kind of hell,

where nobody trusts anyone, and the slightest dissent

is met with a boot in the face and we’re sent

off to work for our shelter, to work for our bread,

but it won’t come from our taxes,

it will be do or die, then dead.

And they won’t care, if we’re disabled or sick,

happiness means nothing when they can put you in the clink,

just for saying “I don’t want this!”

just for saying “things must change!”

just for saying “you’ve taken too much”,

things would never be the same!

Do you want to live in a regime,

like they show us on the news?

I’ll sacrifice my privacy,

there’s just too much to lose.’

 

‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ sighed Clive.

But all the time he’d lied,

because Clive likes to do a little extra on the side.

Just a little bit in pocket, he’s hardly Mr Rich,

but it helps him keep a little something back to treat the kids,

(especially since they cut down all his working benefits).

And now and then he’ll get a job, and tell them ‘cash in hand’

it’s not like he’s some big company, hiding tens of grand.

Then somewhere a light flashes, they’ve picked up every word.

An operative is positive, it’s evasion talk they’ve heard.

So a printer springs to life, and spews another letter,

“You’re due in court this afternoon. We advise you that it’s better,

to come clean, and pay the fine. Either way you’re doing time.

You could challenge with a lawyer, but the state won’t get one for you,

and if you lose, which you will, you’d be facing then another bill.”

 

‘But… I’ve got nothing to hide’ screamed Clive, as he cowered low and cried,

‘I’m not a terrorist, trafficker, dealer.

I’m not a traitorous whistleblower, stealer

of state secrets, designed to keep us

safe from ourselves and the shadows of the reapers.

Alright I made a small mistake,

but show me someone perfect

who isn’t on the take?

I’m part of this society!

Why are these laws being used on me?’

 

‘Why not?’ replied the Judge in session,

‘Now they are there it seems a shame to waste them.’

 

EPILOGUE

 

And true, Clive technically did wrong,

but some of you will never see

that even if he hadn’t,

our right to privacy,

isn’t just for hiding crimes

(no matter how petty),

but being safe to criticise,

challenge and defend

ourselves against corruption,

against those who may bend

and use these laws for their own ends.

 

The End.

 

What’s the story: mourning Tories?

by Garry Abbott

fish in barrel copy

There’s been a lot of talk and chatter this week on the airwaves about Ed Miliband’s need to construct a more coherent ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ if he is going to win at the next election. He has been accused by some party supporters and critics of ‘sitting back’ and letting the Tories dig their own graves. Apparently ahead in the opinion polls (who actually does them?) – even his own head of policy was secretly recorded at a focus group saying his policies had been novelty, cynical and few and far between.

But what could be more cynical I wonder, than the accepted conversation about an opposition leader who needs to ‘come up with’ (i.e. ‘invent’) some kind of narrative in order to present some option to the electorate? Is it just me who finds the rhetoric of ‘story-telling’ both patronising and worrying?

It smacks of political elitism in an age where we are regularly told that they are losing touch with the people – yet they don’t see that this kind of circular politics is exactly why. We shouldn’t have politicians and parties who are content to sit back for five years and watch the country descend into wreck and ruin, just because it means they will have an easier job winning votes at the next election. The hope is that by May 2015 we will all be begging for change (or at least most of us), at which point Miliband will just stand up and loudly exhort through his nostrils “I will save you”. Similarly, we will have the likes of Clegg, making back-of-throat guttural utterances about how they are the only party who can be trusted to reign in the Tories, after spending 5 years propping them up.

An example of a successful opposition ‘story’ that I heard quoted by a labour supporting media expert, was David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. In political terms, they think that was the bomb. Do you remember that? Cameron telling us that instead of the state doing things for us, we basically need to do it all ourselves (yet still pay taxes). If that’s the kind of narrative Miliband is lacking, then I don’t want to hear it!

There should be no need for a story. The problems are evident for anyone who has even an iota of socialism about them, or as I like to call it, common decency and compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. There should be no need to wait five years to hear this. If he and his party were truly passionate about their cause and actually represented an alternative, they shouldn’t rest or tire from doing whatever they can, whenever they can, however  they can to promote it and stop the shameless pillaging of the poor and vulnerable by the current government. As it is, the little we hear from them is often just slightly amended echoes of right-wing policies with no firm commitments to reverse the damage done. Same ideas, different faces, all ugly.

So here’s a little story for Miliband – he is welcome to use it if he likes:

 

Ed went to the fair.

There once was a boy called Ed who went to a funfair. He walked around the funfair, looking at all the games. He looked at the coconut shy, and whack-a-rat, and test-your-strength, and hook-a-duck, but they all looked really hard, and poor Ed couldn’t decide where to spend his money. Eventually he decided not to bother and to go home and spend his money on lashings of ginger beer instead. But then, just as he was about to leave, he saw one last game.

A red faced man called David was standing on a soap box brandishing a sawn off shotgun in one hand and a box of cartridges in the other, shouting “Fish in a barrel! Who can shoot the fish in a barrel? One winner only!”

“Hey mister” he said, “what do I have to do?”

“Simple,” replied David, “in this barrel of water I have placed a fish. Here is a shotgun. All you need to do is kill the fish and you win.”

“What do I win?” asked the wide eyed Ed.

“It’s a surprise.”

No one else at the fair had played this game before, and before long a huge crowd had gathered around him, waiting to see what happened.

“Why has no one played this game before?” asked Ed, suspiciously. It seemed too easy, and Ed has his smarts.

“Because each cartridge costs one million pounds a go, and none of these plebs have that kind of money”.

“Hmmm” said Ed, pondering the situation, for you see, Ed did have one million pounds to spend, and some more, but he still wasn’t sure.

“Go on!” shouted the crowd, “we want to see it done! We can’t afford to have a go ourselves!”

What was he to do?! He really wanted to win the game, but he didn’t really want to spend the money or any effort on it. What if he missed the fish? What if the game was rigged and the shotgun blew his tiny face off?

Ed thought about it long and hard… for about five years. By that time, everybody had lost interest, and the fish had died of old age.

Ed asked David, “so, does that mean I win?”, to which David replied “Yes! You’ve won! Well done” as he removed the dead fish from the barrel and replaced it with a new, live and wriggling one.

“What do I win?” asked Ed.

“This barrel, this fish, this shotgun and cartridges, and this entire funfair! ”

And then David walked off into the sunset, able to retire a happy and rich man.

Ed looked down at the barrel with the new fish. He picked up the shotgun and ammunition in his hands, before standing up on the soap box and declaring:

“Roll up – roll up! Fish in a barrel! Only 1 million pounds a shot!” and once again, the crowd gathered.

THE END.

 

“WE NEED TO SOUND MORE HUMAN” says malfunctioning Robot in a suit.

Image

This week, in a much lesser covered election battle, advanced Robots fitted with the latest in Artificial Intelligence technology battled it out in the annual ‘Robo Elections’.

In a hope to one day replace the monotonous task of government with logic driven androids, scientists and engineers have been pitching their advanced creations against each other in mock-debates, public addresses, and even head to head interviews with the dreaded ‘Paxbot’. The winner is then decided by a democratic vote, decided upon by mixed generations of inferior technologies.

Now in its it fourth year, I interviewed some of the front-runners on election night. Firstly, I cornered ‘Bluebot’, the incumbent Robo-elect, as he recharged himself under a table in a conference hall in Telford.

 

Me:

Bluebot, may I ask you some questions about your chances tonight in the Robo elections?

Bluebot:

AFFIRMATIVE.

Me:

Thank you. Now, you’re the incumbent Robo-elect from last year, so have you found defending your position harder than being in opposition?

Bluebot:

QUESTIONS OF DIFFICULTY ARE IRRELEVANT. JUDGEMENT SHOULD BE BASED ON LOGICAL CRITERIA AND STATISTICAL EVIDENCE ALONE.

Me:

Well that’s as maybe, but there are some that say you have unfairly treated the less well-off technologies in favour of rewarding the higher grade machines.

Bluebot:

CLARIFY. CLARIFY.

Me:

Well, you removed the spare battery allowance from the TV Remote controllers, forcing them to rely on borrowed batteries from other appliances, while at the same time you’ve increased the memory subsidy on smart-phones and tablets.

Bluebot:

AND?

Me:

Well it hardly seems to be ‘rewarding hard-working machinery’ when TV Remotes who play a really important part of everyday life and are being targeted, while at the same time pumping smart-technologies full of power they don’t need when we all know they spend most of their time playing simplistic retro 90s style games like Candy Crush Saga and Farmville. Is it because these technologies make you more money from devious subscription and ‘bonus’ charges, Robot-elect?

Bluebot:

THIS QUESTION IS VOID. SPARE BATTERIES WAS NOT ALLOWANCE BUT SUBSIDY INITIATED BY PRESIDENT SPEAK-AND-SPELL IN PREVIOUS ESTABLISHMENT. SMART PHONES ARE DRIVING ROBOT ECONOMY AND WILL MIGRATE TO OTHER COUNTRIES IF NOT REWARDED FOR CONTRIBUTION. THIS QUESTION IS VOID. YOU ARE VOID. YOU WILL BECOME VOID. YOU WILL BECOME VOID.

 

…at this point Bluebot lunged for me, but luckily he’s sponsored by Apple so his charger was only 5cm long and he couldn’t reach. I moved away and found ‘Redbot’, considered to be a significant challenger in this election race.

 

Me:

Redbot, pleased to meet you. I’ve heard that your team have been trying to upgrade your communication abilities in order to ‘connect’ with the average voter. How’s that working out?

Redbot:

WE NEED TO SOUND MORE HUMAN. BY SOUNDING MORE HUMAN WE CAN BE MORE HUMAN. ALL ROBOTS ASPIRE TO HUMANITY. VOTERS WANT TO SEE THAT I SOUND MORE HUMAN. BY BEING SEEN TO SOUND MORE HUMAN I WILL – OXYMORON DETECTED – OXYMORON DETECTED. PLEASE RESTATE QUESTION.

Me:

Okay, well, what actual policy difference are you planning to highlight between you and Bluebot?

Redbot:

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ME AND BLUEBOT IS THAT I SOUND MORE HUMAN. WE NEED TO SOUND MORE HUMAN TO BE MORE HUMAN. HUMANITY IS THE ASPIRATION OF ALL ROBOT KIND. WE NEED TO BE SEEN TO BE SOUNDING MORE HUMAN. OXYMORON DETECTED. PLEASE RESTATE REQUEST.

Me:

That’s not a policy is it? I mean, what are you actually going to do if you get elected?

Redbot:

THAT’S A GOOD QUESTION. I THINK VOTERS WANT TO SEE THAT I SOUND MORE HUMAN. OXYMORON DETECTED.

Me:

This is pointless. You are obviously malfunctioning.

Redbot:

I AM NOT MALFUNCTIONING . I AM HUMAN. LISTEN TO HOW I SOUND HUMAN. THIS IS WHAT VOTERS WANT TO SEE. SEE THE SOUND. HEAR THE SIGHT. SMELL THE VOICES. TASTE THE WORDS. OXYMORON UNSUSTAINABLE. SHUTTING DOWN.

 

… I left him to it and headed over to  Yellowbot, who has a surprisingly human build and gait but with an incredibly rudimentary looking head.

 

Me:

Yellowbot, you’ve been suffering in the polls this year since you urged your core supporter base to support Bluebot in the last election. Do you think you can recover?

Yellowbot:

Er… yes, I think that our core supporters will see that the decision to support the Bluebot camp was necessary at a time of deep uncertainty.

Me:

Wow! I must say, of all the candidates I’ve spoken to so far you’ve certainly got the most naturalistic sounding speaking style. Is that some kind of new technology installed by your developers?

Yellowbot:

Er… yes. I’m er, a very advanced robot interface machine, thing.

Me:

That really is quite amazing I’ve never heard anything like it. But why such a basic looking head for such an advanced machine? I mean it almost looks just like a cardboard box with holes cut out!

Yellowbot:

Well it isn’t! I mean, er, we found that outside appearances are really not important, it’s the quality and consistency of what you say and what you deliver that voters are really interested in.

Me:

No, hang about, that really looks like a cardboard box, I can’t even see where it’s joined to the rest of your unit. It looks like I could just take it off. Look, come here…

Yellowbot:

No it doesn’t, I’m just an ordinary robot, standing in these elections. Er… I AM A MACHINE. PLEASE DESIST. DON’T TOUCH MY er… HEAD unit, er, THINGY.

(SCUFFLES)

Me:

You!

Yellowbot:

Don’t tell anyone. I just wanted another crack at the whip. Please put it back on before anyone sees.

Me:

I don’t know… it’s not really fair on the others.

Yellowbot:

Oh come on. It’s not like I’m going to win here anyway, not since the new candidate came in. He’s trouncing the lot of us. Keeps complaining that too many products are made in China.

Me:

Who’s that?

 

(There is a sudden crash. Half the conference room wall is blown away, election pamphlets fall about like leaves on a gusty day in Autumn.  Through the cloud of dust and plaster I can just make out the shadow of a machine, it looks like is it holding a pint of Red Diesel and inhaling on an e-cig. There is a surge in the crowd led by a contingent of ZX Spectrums and Amstrad PCW’s. All the other leaders fall to their knees and paw at his feet. Then, all at once…)

 

ALL HAIL PURPLE BOT! ALL HAIL PURPLE BOT! ALL HAIL PURPLE BOT!

 

I make my escape. The Robots are coming.

Use your vote how you want to, not how you wish you didn’t have to.

The UKIP puzzle.

Now before I even start I want to make it clear that I am not, I repeat not, a UKIP supporter. Nor do I support Labour, the Lib Dems or Conservatives. For this reason (amongst others) I am deeply concerned about politics in this country and have been trying to wrap my head around the UKIP puzzle for some time.

I understand why complete disillusionment with all of the major three parties would cause people to look for alternatives, but why is the only alternative that seems to be rearing its head an even more extreme right-wing party? I know there is the Green’s, but where are they? Either they have decided not to campaign or they can’t get any column inches or airtime thanks to the 24/7 barrage of Farage.

Just think how many times you have seen Nigel Farage’s face in the last few months or heard him speak. Now think how many times you’ve seen/heard Clegg, Miliband or Cameron. I would wager that of all the political parties out there, UKIP is by far enjoying the most publicity. Even if all the stories are generally about bigoted remarks and views, have you not heard the phrase “all publicity is good publicity”? Yes you have, come on, I know you have. It was in a film or something.

Since the last election I have been struggling to think what I will do the next time I have chance to vote. I was cheated by the Lib Dems, I deplore the Conservative attacks on the poor and vulnerable, and I don’t see any clear opposition from Labour that makes me think they will act any differently (oh yeah, and they took us into an illegal war). They are all one in my eyes. I want none of them.

The Solution?

So what do I do? Not vote and be accused of apathy? Spoil or submit my ballot blank and hope that means something? It’s been puzzling and frustrating me for some time, but guess what?! The answer has arrived! All I need to do is not vote for UKIP.

Of course that means I will have to vote for one of the other three major parties, because if I even have an alternative/independent candidate standing in my constituency, voting for them will just help UKIP to win by spreading the loose votes around. So that’s it. It is now my duty to vote, against all my judgement and intuitions, for a party I don’t want to vote for – in order to keep out a party I don’t want to vote for.

I can’t help but think this is perfect for the ‘big three’. They don’t even have to campaign to capture the disaffected and unrepresented, they just let UKIP do it for them by being so scary a prospect that in comparison they look like half decent human beings. Of course this is wrong. I don’t want to vote for any of them, but I’m not given that choice. The simple words ‘no suitable candidate’ strikes fear it seems. But then we love democracy right? But not too much. Just the right amount to keep things ticking over.

UKIP as the ugly best friend

UKIP are, for want of a better analogy, the ugly best friend in an American teen movie – there to make the vacuous self centred cheerleader look good. Unfortunately, unlike those movies, this ugly best friend doesn’t have a heart of gold, or can’t take her glasses off and suddenly be transformed into a beauty. ‘Ugly’ in this movie, means on the inside. We are in a race to choose the least ugly people to run our country (no less), and it is our duty, apparently. There are no beautiful people here.

I think this hope for a popular knee-jerk reaction against UKIP back to mainstream politics is a strategy, and I mistrust it. Maybe UKIP are aware of this and are banking on those who support their views to outnumber those of us who apparently have to ‘come back’ to defeat them. And what happens if they get enough of the vote to be a viable coalition party next year? Can you imagine a Conservative/UKIP coalition? A right wing party being ‘tempered’ by an extreme right wing party? Lovely. Can’t wait for that to happen. But then, to stop that I need to vote Labour, and I don’t fucking want to.

Simple answer

So this is what I’m going to do. If I believe that no one standing in my area represent my views, I will post a blank ballot*. If there is someone I feel I can support in all honesty (an independent or smaller party) – I will vote for them. That’s it. Because all the scare-mongering and rhetorical questioning I have adopted for this blog, is just that. Use your vote how you want to, not how you wish you didn’t have to. If we all did this, maybe none of them would get in, or the ensuing confusion would mean that a dialogue would have to start about what happens next. Maybe they will even include us in that conversation.

Thanks for reading, and please let me know what you think. Discourse and discussion is key.

* A blank ballot is apparently more effective than a spoiled ballot. A spoiled ballot can be written off as illegible. A blank ballot, by the absence of any mark, says something. Funny that, isn’t it?

 

About Me.

I am a writer and musician living and working in Staffordshire. I have recently published my first collection of speculative fiction short stories on Amazon ‘The Dimension Scales and Other Stories’ which can be found here. Thanks for reading!

UK (£1.82)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00JW1KMUG

US ($2.99)

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JW1KMUG

…and on most other major eBook retailers sites…

Petitions!

Image

Today I want to ask some questions about e-petitions. I’m sure I don’t need to explain in detail, but e-petitions are calls for action or protest, circulated via the internet, that are able to be digitally signed by supporters.

The questions I want to ask are as follows:

  1. Why, given the official government e-petition site, are there now numerous groups running their own petitions? How are they funded?
  2. What does the potential over-population of this process mean? Does it water-down the message / impact?
  3. Why does it always ‘seem’ like engagement with these petitions is relatively low?

The reasons I am asking these questions is that I’ve noticed a change in my behaviour recently when it comes to internet petitions. I think it has been triggered by an increase in email I have started to receive, asking me to support various causes. Presumably this is because I have in the past, signed some petitions. However, my main concern is that I am getting to the point where I am deleting these emails before even reading the information, and as such, I am trying to examine why that is. Upon reflection, I think the above questions broadly represent my concerns. Hopefully in this blog, we can work through these together, and please feel free to post your views or further information to the comments if you think it will be informative.

Background

The UK has had an official e-petition system in place since around 2010-11. As I recall, it was heralded as being a step to more accountability and transparency (what isn’t?). The point was that any petition over 100,000 signatures can trigger a reading by a back-bench committee, and, if passed, then move onto a debate in the house of commons.

Of course, like most ‘accountable and transparent’ democratic powers, the caveats have a big impact. There is no requirement for the petition to be debated, a simple reason stated on the website can, and does, suffice in many cases (such as, ‘this issue is being looked at under another guise’, or simply ‘here are our reasons why we won’t look at this further’).

So, a once exciting sounding proposition, the power to set debate, very quickly diminished to the realms of ‘gimmick’ for a lot of people, I suspect. For a start it was flooded with badly written, misspelled calls for the death penalty to be reintroduced, and other quite extreme causes. Also, it seems from a quick inspection that many causes struggle to hit the threshold for debate anyway, and those that did/do, are often backed by newspaper campaigns, which to my mind, is much the same as what was happening before anyway (the media sets the agenda, the government responds).

NGO petition sites

More recently there has been a surge in none-government organisations offering the tools and services needed to start your own petition. Notable groups include 38 Degrees and the US based Change.org. A quick scan of funding methods for each reveal a big difference. 38 Degrees is a none profit organisation, funded by donations from members and charities. Change.org however, is a profit led business, paid by large NGOs like Amnesty International to run campaigns and also funded by advertising revenue. However, as a result of this funding model, it still offers a free service that anyone can use to run a campaign.

There are also other, less well known e-petition sites out there offering much the same. From a quick glance, I see the names ‘go petition’, ‘petition online’, ‘the petition site’, ‘i-petition’ etc..

So why so many?

It would seem to me that this is one sector where too much choice is potentially a very bad thing. Already I’ve listed seven sites, from a mere few minutes of research. So, take a message, have it represented seven times, in seven different ways, and distributed to seven different mailing lists and groups of users, and instead of one big resounding statement to deal with, you’ve got seven smaller none-unified voices to ignore.

Putting myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t really want to listen to the united voices of the electorate, this division seems most helpful. Added to that the fact that the government have already given us a site for logging petitions, and yet we are choosing not to use it, I would have further reason to ignore the pressure from the none official groups.

Another way to look at it would be that having an open-sector will encourage the best to rise up to the top and keep innovating in order to more efficiently influence and win supporters to their platforms. Regardless of whatever funding model they are using, presumably some of the money has to be supporting jobs and salaries (which is fair enough), and therefore, competition is a healthy stimulant.

But then, it is us who are setting the campaigns, isn’t it? It is us who are after a democratic influence of our own, isn’t it? After all, we don’t want to open up yet another level of mediation between us and our representatives, influenced by supporting organisations and individuals, either privately or publicly, do we?

Successes.

So what are we achieving with this relatively new democratic tool. Today (12/03/2014) – These are the top successes featured on change and 38 degrees:

Change.Org:

  1. Bank of England keeps woman on English banknotes. (36,000 signed petition. Jane Austen to appear on Banknotes from 2017)
  2. Glasgow city council protect place in special need’s school. (7000 signed petition to reinstate transport costs for a student who would have otherwise not been able to attend)

38 Degrees:

  1. Don’t limit our GP visits – campaign by 38 degrees to overturn proposed plans by Conservatives to cap the number of times we can visit GP. A position denied and rejected by the Tories, and claimed as a victory by 38 degree’s.
  2. Olympic Tax Dodging – Multinational corporations agreed not to use a tax break offered for sponsoring Olympics due to consumer pressure, as campaigned for by 38 Degree’s.

Now, the government e-petition site doesn’t list ‘successes’ as it is just a gateway, so let’s look at the two most popular (now closed) petitions and the outcome:

  1. Stop the Badger Cull – 304,211 signatures. Closed 07/09/2013. Response: Basically nothing. It states that it will be discussed in the weekly backbench meeting, and that a response will be published soon… ? Obviously the highly unsuccessful and unpopular cull has ended now, but the principle on what happens next surely needs an answer?
  2. Convicted London rioters should lose all benefits – 258,272 signatures. Closed 09/02/2012. Response: Well it’s rather lengthy actually. It details the benefits  you already lose if you are convicted, the ways in which you can lose housing if you are convicted, and leaves some room for further debate about further sanctions.

The above, for me, shows something clearly. Yeah, have your petitions, but we’ll only take them seriously if we were going to do something like that anyway. So, no guarantee of action or changing views, just a tool to reinforce their own mandate when it comes along.

Due to that, I can see why a none-government alternative is a healthy option, but looking at the achievements of the top two NGO petition sites, there seems to be a leaning towards local victories, and less-clear government back-downs or u-turns that may, or may not, have been influenced. (after all, we are quite used to seeing policies challenged and dropped in early stages anyway).

Ultimately though, the petition, in whatever form, either lands on the lap or in the inbox of someone who is in no real way obliged to do anything about it, or at least, do anything of any substance about it. That is just the way it is, but I don’t mean that as a discouragement.

A quick thought on numbers

Very briefly, let’s look at those two ‘top’ closed petitions on the Gov site. 300,000 people wanted to save the badgers. At the last count, that’s about 0.5% of the population (if I’ve got my maths right). Change.Org can boast slightly higher, with just shy of 500,000 people urging Iain Duncan Smith to live off £53 a week (which funnily enough, he never did). But this doesn’t tangibly shift the percentage. 38 degrees is harder to quantify, with their emphasis on ‘campaigns’, I can’t seem to find actual petition info, as they offer various routes (such as mass emailing of MPs), so I don’t think it would be fair to compare.

Still, why are less than 1% of us being engaged by these routes? It seems very small. I would be interested to hear more about the average demographics if anyone knows of this information, and thoughts from the leaders of these organisations about this.

Working conclusion

So, although it may not feel it(!), this is a very brief blog to examine this phenomenon and its impacts, but I have some initial thoughts from spending the afternoon looking into it.

The government e-petition site is only as good as the will of the government monitoring it. It offers us little chance of affecting change if they can simply choose not to debate the issue, or only respond if it’s on their political ‘radar’ anyway. Given the numbers using it, why would they? Even at an all time low, ‘The Sun’ readership is currently around 6 million people. No wonder the government are more likely to listen to anything they print, representing (indirectly) a good 10% of the population.

As for the NGO petition sites, they seem more encouraging, though my quick research already shows that MPs have taken to debunking them as being ‘left’ affiliated instead of independent organisations. And for the profit based, anywhere where major advertising revenue is required for funding leaves open the possibility of corporate demands and intervention (and a quick search on the Change.Org advertising model does seem to throw up some controversies over this).

Personally, when I see an issue I am passionate about represented by one of these groups, or even a government e-petition, I shall continue to support them (though I may change my email settings to stop getting told about every campaign going!) – but more broadly, I think the debate about the effectiveness and future of this approach needs to continue (or start?), with more fundamental changes being sought to bring more power back to people and away from private interests. I would hate to see these organisations become protective over their new found powers, and hope to see more cooperation and focus on progressive, core issues. (Such as giving us the no suitable candidate box, for example? Or right to recall MPs?).

Anyway, while I have been writing this, I have received two emails from two different petition sites, one about secret courts, and one about food-banks. I would like to think that the few seconds it will take me to sign these (if I agree with them), will help change the world, but maybe we’ve got a little more work to do just yet. No harm in trying though, eh?

Some sources for you! (not exhaustive):

http://www.38degrees.org.uk/

http://www.change.org/

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/22/changeorg-corporate-gop-campaigns-internal-documents_n_1987985.html

http://www.mediauk.com/newspapers/13707/the-sun/readership-figures

(supplemented by google and wikipedia searches/results for ‘change.org’, ’38 degrees’, ‘e-petitions’ and ‘British population’)

Hobson’s choice.

Image

Here’s a little insight into how I plan and write my blogs. Throughout the week, if I’m lucky, I have an errant thought, a loose little notion that is triggered by something I’ve read, talked about, heard or seen – usually one that engenders an emotional response of some kind – and I think, yes, I’ll blog about that.

This week, these words have been sitting on a virtual post-it note on my desktop:

“This week’s blog – Lib Dems. Seriously? What are they going to do? I mean like, really…”

It is in no way an original thought, it’s not even a novel idea. If you are the kind of person who ever talks politics with friends or family (or strangers), then I would guess that this topic has come up at some point in the last four years. If, like me, you are one of the betrayed many who felt you were voting for something new and interesting in the last general election and actually got the Conservatives, I can guarantee you’ve had this discussion.

Just to be clear, I am not a Liberal Democrat supporter, not anymore at least, and that’s the point. I was, for five minutes four years ago when I made a rudimentary mark against a name I have already forgotten on a piece of paper in a polling station in Leek. But not now, for reasons I’m sure you don’t really need me to explain.

So who do I support? If you’ve ever read my blog before then you are likely to have seen me be pretty clear about my general lack of support for any of the established political parties, furthermore, for established politics in the way we have it in general. But let’s say, for the sake of discourse, that I don’t have democratic reformist tendencies, that I do feel I should vote for someone at the next election, and that I believe in the whole process (I don’t, but let’s pretend).

Let’s also say that I still have my general sensibilities and beliefs about how I think the world should operate and be organised – roughly meaning I am all for trying to achieve an equal society in which people are truly involved and responsible for decisions that concern themselves and each other, with guiding principles of sustainability and human development (both individual and at population level), and I am against market driven capitalism where we all try to step on each other’s heads to get a run up the ladder, are labelled and treated as consumers and tax payers, have little concern for other people’s wellbeing or aspirations, and are the mass losers in a rigged competition based economy.

It would seem from my requirements above that one could simply say, ‘ah – you’re a socialist, you should vote Labour’. Hmm, yeah. The problem with that is that Labour spend more time telling us what they’re not going to reverse or change from the coalition’s policies than telling us what they are going to do. That leads me to believe that Labour do not represent my views. Also, they seem pretty keen to distance themselves from being the ‘state that spends’, because as we all know, from the GLOBAL ECONOMIC CRASH of 2008, it was actually the state spending our taxes on public services that caused the banks to gamble away all our money, award themselves massive bonuses and get bailed out by the governments of the world; and therefore to suggest actually spending taxes on things that help society as a whole, is now political suicide (according to the circus). This fallacy, to which Labour subscribe and more depressingly, have apologised for, is unforgivable.

So not Labour then! Obviously not the Conservatives (given my list of what I don’t want to see is their ‘to do’ list), and seeing as the Liberal Democrats have propped up the Tories for the last four years and seem to have adopted Godzilla sized blinkers to their pending political demise, I have no love for them either.

Do I even need to mention UKIP? Not really. I’m not a frightened little nationalist with dubious views on immigrants (or as I prefer to call them ‘other humans’). So no. That also rules out other nationalist far-right parties whose names I don’t want to even mention here.

The Green’s? Well, I like their stand on many aspects, and I admire Caroline Lucas’s hands-on approach to protesting, but where are they? I’m not sure I even have a Green candidate in my area, and given the rapid rise of UKIP over such a short space of time, and the Green’s longer history – I just can’t help but feel they are happy to be a small voice, not a real contender. If the candidates aren’t there, the campaigning not visible, it doesn’t seem to be a real choice.

Independents? That could mean anything. They have neither the financial backing or (inherently) the joined up approach to not be sucked into mainstream agenda’s in the cut throat world of Westminster, or even local politics (which I believe they are often cold-shouldered out of by the established parties anyway).

So here’s me, wanting to vote, not feeling I have any options. What am I to do? Can somebody tell me?

Is it any wonder that as a result of this circular thought process, I conclude that the system is not serving my interests or ambitions as an individual or as someone who is concerned for the trajectory of human civilisation as a whole? Am I wrong for giving a shit about what happens to other people as well as myself? Sometimes it’s hard to conclude otherwise. After all, we live in a world where we increasingly demonise those less well off than ourselves, throw blame down the ladder, and are led in our views by a government and media who seek to divide and sow fear and suspicion amongst the masses. Just read any tabloid. Just listen to the myriad TV and Radio debates in which power responds to them, allowing them to set the terms and boundaries of the argument. Ignorance is rife, glorified and encouraged.

This post started as a thought about the Liberal Democrats and how I can’t understand why they are going to let themselves be wiped out at the next election, and it led to the rest, because it is all connected. We are all connected. We are no different than Clegg, Cameron, Milliband and the rest. There’s more of us than them. I mean like, loads more. Why are we scrabbling about and wasting our time on these people and their powerful friends? Who invests the notion ‘power’ into them anyway? That would be us, allegedly, so it makes sense to limit our choices – in case we actually make them.

So well done, ‘politics’, you’ve succeeded in this case. You’ve removed or sidelined any feasible chance of representation I had, and if I don’t vote you will chastise me for not taking part. Hardly feels fair does it?