Wednesday, 28 November 2012

WE'VE MOVED!

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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

This isn’t Romneysia, Mitt knows exactly what he’s doing



It’s just a week before the biggest political event… in four years. Only eight swing states and possibly only a handful of independent, undecided voters separate President Obama and Mitt Romney.  Calculations have been made to show that an unprecedented draw, at 269 Electoral College seats apiece, is quite possible.

How did we get to this point? Just a month ago, President Obama was climbing to an almost unassailable poll lead in the wake of the infamous ‘47%’ MotherJones video. On 4th October, one forecasting site estimated he had an 87.1% chance of winning the election. Obama’s campaign had front loaded much of its campaign funding into attack ads that got their point across before Mr Romney had a chance to establish his own image (much like Bush Jr did to John Kerry in 2004). Despite a weak economy, the 47% video appeared to confirm everything the Obama campaign had said, and the game seemed to be up.

Now it’s all to play for again. This is largely down to an almost catastrophic first round debate performance from the President. Since then he has recovered slightly, but there is no doubt that in round one he was trounced. What Mitt Romney did was to pull an incredibly predictable trick and Mr Obama should have been far better prepared for it.

In effect, he lied. Ok so it’s more ambiguous than that. It depends on which comparison you want to make. Either its October 2012 Mitt vs Republican primaries Mitt; or, October 2012 Mitt vs Massachusetts governor Mitt. I have previously argued that Mr Romney instinctively sits on the liberal side of his party: His record as governor shows that he pre-empted ‘Obamacare’ and was willing to use tax increases to close a deficit. However, since Ronald Reagan, neo-conservatism has captured the American right, turning the GOP into a viciously ideological, inflexible and aggressively uncooperative party. To win the vote, Mitt Romney had to tack right.

Now he’s tacked back. Secure in the knowledge that the Republican base will be energised to come out against a black, ‘socialist’ President, he’s now appealing to independents. Mr Obama was left looking woefully unprepared in the first debate. He and his team arrogantly assumed that Mr Romney’s policies were so illogical that they could be easily dismantled by the Commander in Chief on live television. Instead, the President was left chasing a shadow as Mr Romney planted a flag on the centre ground. He literally built an elephant-shaped castle there.

The President has recovered: He could barely conceal his glee at unveiling ‘Romnesia’ as the illness of forgetting all your own policies (the video is well worth a watch, particularly for the ending). Frankly, Mr Obama’s recovery should never have been required; he should never have been left so floundering. Mr Romney’s move was incredibly telegraphed: By the very nature of the American political system, a candidate is required to win the base in primaries and then win a small number of independent voters in key swing states. The President should have been briefed that Mr Romney would suddenly change his tone.

The ‘Romnesia’ attack is effective and also hilarious, but it may be too late. With so little time left, there is only a tiny fraction of undecided voters left to play for and Mr Romney has gone some way to closing the gap with his shift in position. The President is right to paint Mr Romney as someone who sails whichever way the wind is heading; forgetting his own positions and making things up as he goes along. For a candidate who labels himself as a decisive businessman, Mr Romney has been dangerously scatter-brained in his positions. For his part, he also made an arrogant assumption that the ‘I’m not Obama’ line would get him into the White House.

Despite this, the election is in my opinion, Obama’s to lose. Notwithstanding a poor record of delivering on his promises, he has enough to boast about and he should do so. Unfortunately, it is difficult to convince people of his record by saying ‘if I hadn’t done this stuff, you’d be worse off, trust me’. However with ‘Frankenstorm’ Hurricane Sandy tearing into New York, the incumbent has a chance to draw attention away from the vicious partisan scrap and onto his (hopefully) decisive leadership as President. If Obama performs well enough in the next week, Romney won’t even have a chance to connect with voters, whatever stance he decides to take.

And what if Mr Romney wins? The most dire prediction is of a Zomney apocalypse. Hurricane Sandy makes this slightly more plausible.

Read more from Iain at Catch21.com and following him on twitter @IainWaterman

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Does British politics need rebranding? (Part II)

Occupy: Politics still matters to some people

The British political process continues to alienate ordinary people. Few people think politicians represented their interests, and even fewer trust what they say.  Voter turnout is low, and even lower among young people. Just over a week ago, I sat on the panel for a debate on how to rebrand politics. There was undeniably a consensus in the audience that the political system is innately elitist, and was disconnected from the problems of ordinary young people. Against this, Shaun Bailey, an advisor for David Cameron, argued that it was up to the individual to be the change they wanted to see. He was right to point out that our system, compared to others in the world, is relatively uncorrupted, accountable and participatory.

The debate was easily able to identify some of the symptoms of the ‘illness’ of democracy. Indeed, the causes too are being more frequently discussed in the public sphere: Labour MP Gloria de Piero has conducted a study that concluded, amongst other things, that the public feel alienated due to a lack of ‘ordinary’ people in politics. In the first part of this article, I argued that since party democracy is a zero-sum game, it discourages honesty and cross-party cooperation; I believe this is innate to the modern system, and it makes politics both exciting (for those interested) and impregnable (for those who are not). Turning to American politics, it has been argued that the two-party democratic system there is responsible for the increasingly extreme policies of at least one of the parties (guess which).  Let’s be thankful that as yet, the Labour and Conservative parties have not yet been tempted on to the extremes of the divide.

There is relatively little debate however over what can be done to reconnect democratic politics with those whom it claims to represent: the demos. This is partly because few people are looking at the problems, and even fewer people have any ideas as to how to cure them. The issues are inevitably complex and widespread, but here are a few suggestions.

Let’s take the core tenet; that the public feels alienated from politics and the political process. This is partly an issue of education – educational standards need to be raised, and young people have to be instilled with the idea that politics matters and affects them. It is impossible to ignore the fact that a (largely) left-leaning audience at the debate were in contention with an advisor to a conservative Prime Minister. Educational standards will raise the ability of ordinary people to get involved themselves, hold MPs to account and make better informed decisions, so satisfying one half of the argument.

Undoubtedly though there have to be some changes to the system as well. One proposition I have is through devolution. The more localised power is, the more the public would see how decisions affect them – people would care more because they would see more clearly how an elected candidate influenced the local area.  At the current time, we have MPs, who represent a constituency but may find their interests conflict with national ones. We also have elected councillors, but who have relatively little power.

A small change such as allowing councils to keep a higher proportion of the income and business taxes they raise, rather than sending it to the centre, would give more local incentive for growth and job creation. It would also make local politics more important, and the public would have more of a say over local prosperity. Issues such as house building would therefore be decided locally and with local needs accounted for. Local debate would be more active because the issue would be between local growth and employment in local companies versus local environmental issues, rather than local versus national needs and benefit. Councillors would also be held accountable. The government should restart the regional development fund to ensure poorer areas did not fall behind.

A re-energising of local politics would hopefully have the effect of drawing in more local, ‘ordinary’ people into politics. In any case, the public would feel that their MP or councillors were more representative of their interests if more powers were devolved from the centre. In a similar vein, the election of mayors in cities might encourage people to take interest in the political process out of pride of wanting their city to do well. This may well lend itself to personality politics and more Bojo copycats. Nevertheless characters like him are refreshing to see, and he connects with people, despite being an old-Etonian. Elected councillors and mayors can step out of the partisan political process and be accountable solely on their local successes.
The devolution of these powers would mean there was more to play for in local elections, and hopefully this would mean more vigorous marketing campaigns, more effort to engage local people and more substantial local debates coming to the fore.

This suggestion is by no means perfect. What I mean to do is look practically at what can be done to stimulate public engagement and connect politics with people, rather than simply condemning the system and those who do nothing to change it. Shaun Bailey is right – people do have the power to change things, but equally that comes with the recognition that change does need to happen. So let’s get round to changing it.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Does British politics need rebranding? (Part I)

Occupy London: Some people still get passionate about politics (©Max Nash/PA Wire)
On Saturday I was invited to represent Catch21 at a Bite the Ballot debate on rebranding politics at the Youth Enterprise Live event at Earls Court. The key issue was how politics could evolve to be less elitist and more appealing to people in order to create a fuller democracy, and whether young people could lead this change. The discussion was audience led and there were some very strong opinions put forward. Although by no means unanimous, there was a generally held view that politics was elitist, out of touch and needed to be seriously modified to reconnect with people.

My fellow panellist Shaun Bailey, who came from a council estate to having the ear of the PM, told the crowd “you don’t know how good you’ve got it” and came close to being heckled. He argued that compared to other, far more corrupt systems of government elsewhere in the world, we in Britain had the power to really change things for the better, but it was down to the individual to do this. The murmurs of discontent were understandable from an audience who sees the current system as synonymous with the highly stratified society we live in. When a teenager in the riots gets six months for swearing at a police officer, is it any wonder that London’s politically aware young people get mad when David Cameron backs Andrew Mitchell over pleb-gate?

Of course, both sides are correct. Politics does need to be rebranded and reinvigorated; it needs to be more representative of society, and matter more to more people. Undeniably however we are also blessed with a (relatively) uncorrupted system in which citizens can make a difference. Labour MP Gloria de Piero has conducted a study into why people ‘hate’ politicians and identified some core problems. She argued that the man in the street did not believe that politics particularly affected him, or that he could really change anything or get involved. She also said that people did not see politics or parties as representative of the public.

The latter problem is already well known; governments on both sides (but particularly on the right) are always keen to get more people from business into politics, in an attempt to break the cycle of career politicians. But how to do this? Party politics is not an overly appealing prospect for top business chiefs used to the freedom of dynamic private sector businesses. The former of Ms de Piero’s issues could simply be a matter of marketing. However I think both are symptoms of a bigger problem in our party political system.

Unfortunately, this problem is not likely to change very fast. British politics is a zero-sum game. The winner gains power for five years and has control of policy. It is therefore in the parties’ interests to do whatever they can to work against the other. Through this, complex issues are given black and white answers. Answers that should require nuance become a simple choice of ‘us versus them’; parties promise one thing, and then find that the reality makes their actions more complicated. Politicians defend their failure if they are in power, or condemn success when they are in opposition. All sides come out looking like liars.

I would obviously not make a good politician; I’m probably a bit too honest for my own good. I think if we saw a bit more honesty from politicians however, a bit more willingness to admit mistakes, and a bit more cooperation across the parties, the public may think that they are less out for self gain and more working in the interests of the country.  The effects may not be as damaging as politicians would fear: An interesting article from Matt Paris has argued how the cliché ‘a week is a long time in politics’ is only really applicable to a select clique of interested observers. For Joe Bloggs, ten years is a more appropriate length of time to judge parties on. The conclusion is that things such as ‘pleb-gate’ or departmental cock-ups like the West Coast rail franchise affair may not be noticed by the public as much as everyone in the inner circle fears. To draw a tangent, you could argue that if politicians were more down to earth and honest, they could gain more in their successes than they lost in popularity from their failures.

So we come back to the issue, and perhaps the solution – how to get more ‘ordinary’ people into politics; how to make more politics more representative and prevent the majority from feeling isolated. There seems to be cross the board agreement on this need. But neither ‘ordinary’ people nor business chiefs are going to be interested in playing the party game when it’s so messy and mired in slander.

In part two of this discussion, I will look at some more practical measures to draw in young people and the population as a whole, things like devolution, elected mayors and media. Finally I will look at how the nasty side of politics can actually be turned into a strength: Politics is exciting and you only have to look back a few decades to see how invigorated and passionate young people used to feel about politics. Maybe it could just be an issue of connecting politics with young people in a way that they find exciting and appealing. 

Read more from Iain at: http://www.catch21.co.uk/blog

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

David Cameron bites back



Hands up who liked David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative conference? I have to put up my hand actually, despite the ridicule I will get from many readers. I was also quite impressed by Ed Miliband’s speech though, so maybe I’m just fickle. As that may be, I thought both speeches and conferences had their good points and bad points; which makes them fairly reflective of the parties themselves. Supporters of both sides (except the Lib Dems) have reason to be happy with their leader’s speeches. Despite the good ideas I saw in Mr Miliband’s speech, it was Mr Cameron who I thought really lifted the bar and laid the ground for a (relatively) epic two and-a-half year battle going into 2015.

Conservative commentators have largely been satisfied by Mr Cameron’s speech. I was impressed by the clarity of the argument from a leader who has hitherto struggled to define himself during his premiership. Mr Cameron needed a good message with good delivery to steady a party that has been rocked (along with his leadership) in the past six months. Unlike his counterpart, he relied on notes, but as No. 10 duly noted; “he’s Prime Minister, he doesn’t have days and days to practice and memorise a speech – like you do in Opposition”. From behind the podium, he perhaps looked more Prime Ministerial than Mr Miliband’s walky-talky performance.

After Mr Miliband’s attacks, Mr Cameron needed to come out fighting. This meant that he was seen as reactionary by some, but he could not have let Mr Miliband’s accusations go unchecked, or else look weak. His response was to effectively line up all of Labour’s attacks and ‘misconceptions’ and deal with them one by one; simultaneously he was able to clarify his brand of Toryism and land some good blows on Labour.
The central tenet of Mr Cameron’s speech was well summed up by the following lines:

“We don’t preach about one nation but practise class war. We just get behind people who want to get on in life… They call us the party of the better-off: no, we are the party of the want-to-be-better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves and their families – and we should never, ever be ashamed of saying so.”

This message will do little to placate the disgust of Labour supporters towards the Tory’s economic policies but that was never the aim. Labour commentators constantly argue that “everybody” can see that the Coalition’s economic policies are failing, but unfortunately the public are equally, if not more, distrusting of Labour’s economic record. Instead, Mr Cameron attempted to deliver a unifying message to all those conservative, liberal and independent voters disenchanted with the government, but equally less keen on the opposition. If you’re a Labour supporter and you watched it and hated it, then that’s not really surprising.

The speech also included some genuinely moving words on how the Paralympics affected Mr Cameron, as a father of a deceased disabled son, as well as an attempt to clarify the ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ image with, amongst other things, a recommitment to the NHS. But the real message remained the neat explanation of how conservative values are the answer to the current economic situation. Undoubtedly Mr Cameron’s best line was his ‘Labour is the party of one notion – borrowing’ pun. Ignoring the fact that a recession has meant that borrowing has gone up, Mr Cameron stuck to his guns and backed George Osborne to continue the party’s task of taking the ‘tough choices’ for the country.

Indicative of this was the ‘sink or swim’ message Mr Cameron used to justify the difficult decisions that he has taken for Britain. This was a message that certainly needed repeating after the past six month of gaffes and incompetence that has come close to ruining the image of the government. But it was the personalised version of this message, the one targeted at the individual, those so called ‘strivers’, which I think is strongest declaration.

Labour should be wary of this message; in defining this target group Mr Cameron has also found a level of clarity at a critical point two years before the election. In backing the ‘strivers’ Mr Cameron also sums up the other big party policies: Welfare reform to guarantee no benefits claimant will be better off staying on benefits; devolution of the education system; tax breaks and loans to small businesses – given out in a ‘Dragons Den’ style.

The narrative is clear: Mr Cameron reiterated that the country is suffering short term pain for long term gain, that this was needed in order to survive in an ever more competitive world, and that Labour are too irresponsible for the job. I have previously commented on the good ideas that came out of Mr Miliband’s speech; Mr Cameron now has found his central message, and has two years left in government to put any good ideas into effect. If he would just fire Andrew Mitchell then supporters may see things looking up.



Thursday, 4 October 2012

Labour gain the momentum

Ed Miliband makes his brilliantly delivered speech at the conference. ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

So what’s the verdict on Labour? The conference had its highs and lows, and some very interesting statements and omissions for the politically interested to obsess over. As a fiercely independent, politically aware, middle-class young person who voted for the Liberal Democrats last election, I rather enjoyed being courted by Ed Miliband in his big ‘One Nation’ speech. Even the Telegraph had to admit, the speech was flawlessly delivered. Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail said Ed looked constipated in the way he walked around the stage. Others made flattering, but not especially welcome, comparisons to Tony Blair at his best.

If nothing else, Mr Miliband should get a big bounce in his personal polls, which hitherto have had him eating David Cameron’s dust, despite the crashing popularity of the PM’s party. Some may say he even looked Prime Ministerial. Certainly, Labour can begin to build some momentum from this, and why bother with policy specifics when the current government is so unpopular?

‘One Nation’ – the theme of Mr Miliband’s speech, seems a very blurry concept. Amongst all the opaque-ness there were a few specifics. There was the usual ‘we’ll put the ‘N’ back in NHS’ from Liam Byrne and ‘we won’t cut the police’ from Yvette Cooper, but there was also some genuinely new stuff too: Top of the list was undoubtedly Mr Miliband’s unveiling of the ‘Forgotten 50%’ policy – to plough money into vocational qualifications and private and public apprenticeship schemes. Not only is this badly needed, but it signals a break from New Labour’s focus on getting 50% of young people into university. Another was Mr Ball’s very good suggestion to spend the 4G windfall on new homes. The Coalition will be kicking themselves that they didn’t think of that first.

Both are also indicative of the finely balanced message of the conference. On the one hand, the party could not be too specific about what it would do in 2015, since no one knows what the state of the economy will be then. Yet neither could it ignore policy ideas entirely. ‘What we would do now if we were in government’ was therefore the middle ground. A nice bit of political manoeuvring if I do say so.

Yet when the conference finished, I was still left feeling a little unsatisfied - policy is still too thin on detail to come across credibly. ‘We’re conducting a policy review’ has become the stock detail-avoidance answer of Labour ministers recently, and this has to be improved.  On the penultimate day of the conference, the story broke that the Virgin vs FirstGroup rail franchise process had been torn up, and three civil servants suspended for supplying ministers with bad sums. Maria Eagle, Shadow Transport Secretary led the inevitable vanguard against her opposite number Patrick McLoughlin, who has redder roots than most in the Labour party. ‘Shambles’, ‘humiliation’ and ‘incompetence’ were words bounded about, but when the equally inevitable question came back, ‘we’re conducting a policy review’ was the go-to answer. Ms Eagle added that she always checked over the sums of the civil servants who worked for her.

©  Dave Thompson/PA Wire
Moreover, you can’t help but take ‘One Nationism’, that warm and fuzzy concept, with a pinch of salt when Unite union chief Len McLuskey begins and ends his speeches with ‘comrades’. The irony is almost cringe-worthy when a union leader refers to a Liberal-Conservative coalition as ‘ideologues’. Ed Balls was brave to stand up in front of the unions and say that he would not repeal the 1% wage increase cap. This will add to Labour’s economic credibility, but most other Labour ministers were all too eager to soak up the easy applause with a ‘no to cuts’ agenda.

Much of what was said was empty politicking. The beauty of being in opposition is that you don’t really have to be too detailed in what you say. But for all Labour’s criticism of Coalition indecisiveness and U-turns, it would have been refreshing for them to cut the crap and lay down a bit more of a blueprint.

As Martin Ivens has argued, it is perhaps in labour’s interest to remain a bit vague. With the current crisis and the Coalition’s lack of popularity, Labour could get in just on that. But across the Atlantic another (if entirely opposing) party is learning the lesson that an opponent’s economic record may not be quite enough to get you elected; especially when the opponent’s leader is more popular than yours.

Labour showed that they have some good ideas for getting the country moving again; it would just be nice to see more of them.

Monday, 24 September 2012

FILM SPECIAL

THE CAMBRIDGE FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW

Or the highly contested, generally divisive, utterly disorganised thoughts and opinions of Oliver Wallington, regarding Cambridge's 32nd Film Festival. Plus the winners of this year's hallowed O.C.T Awards.


LUCKY LUCIANO

Every year, The Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, Anglia's go-to Cinema for intelligent, unpredictable, Independent-friendly programming opens it's doors to Britain's best kept Cinematic secret. The Cambridge Film Festival

Along with several outdoor screenings around Cambridge and a partnership with The Cambridge Buddhist Centre, Tony Jones; the festival Director and Founder and his team of willing minions, combine forces every year to create a festival that reflects the unique tastes and interests of one of Britain's most culturally diverse cities. 

The Festival that once championed the early short films of the then unknown director Christopher Nolan, that only last year welcomed international stars Paddy Considine and Gary Oldman for intimate audience Q + A sessions, and that continues it's long-running reputation as the only festival to always show the U.K. premiere of Woody Allen's latest work, is now in it's 32nd year, and it's building momentum.
 This year, the team revealed a wonderfully curated selection of current and nostalgic features, focussing on Catalan Cinema, New German Cinema and the work of old stalwarts Francesco Rossi and Alfred Hitchcock, along with the usual abundance of thought-provoking Documentaries and a full programme of local and international Shorts and MicroCinema projects (Low-budget, high-quality feature films), not to mention the mysterious and revelatory Tridentfest. Obviously, your humble reviewer couldn't see everything on show, as often features overlapped and so I was forced to make the uncomfortable, but understandable decision to forego the occasional Period-set, Contemporary German future-classic in favour of some little known Dutch documentary about two octogenarian ex-prostitute twin sisters who still like to wear matching outfits, spank old men and occasionally, whilst giggling maniacally and voluptuously, fondle massive dildo's in public. 

After-all that's the beauty of a well programmed festival, stark variety and difficult selection decisions.

MEET THE FOKKENS

So here is my experience, complete with a brief summary of the films I caught, a briefer summary of the films I didn't and your very own Official Cromer Terrace Awards, which will be presented to the winners in virtual format and probably ignored. But that doesn't matter.

The festival opened with Woody Allen's follow-up to last year's hugely successful, award-winning Midnight In Paris, the multi-stranded To Rome With Love which follows several unconnected characters through Italy's beloved capital, encountering frustrated Opera-singers, inexplicably famous pencil-pushers, self obsessed and sexually virulent Actresses and disapproving father-in-laws. Typically this is a capable, if unspectacular affair from Allen, with a sprawling narrative structure and some utterly useless characterisation, however, everything is lifted by the sheer hilarity on show. In fact, despite the tried and tested structure of the stories and the vignette style of the storytelling, Allen still grinds out some truly surprising laughs with most of the cast performing capably and with Penelope Cruz, Roberto Benigni, Ellen Page, the tenor Fabio Armiliato and Allen himself most impressive. Not as tight or as congenial as Midnight In Paris but probably funnier.

TO ROME WITH LOVE

Meet The Fokkens was a surprisingly touching affair (in more ways than one), a beautifully shot documentary that charts the lives of Dutch twin sisters who look back on their careers in the Prostitution Industry with more than a little nostalgia, as we follow the retirement of Louise and Martine Fokkens we are immersed in a world of sex and violence, the ramifications of which stay with you long after the laughter has stopped.

Another highly anticipated feature was Walter Salles' On The Road, a beautifully shot, wistful adaptation of Jack Kerouac's landmark novel, which successfully captures the grungy, low-fi atmosphere of the New York Beat culture and features stunning performances from Viggo Mortensen, Garrett Hedlund and our very own Sam Riley. As frustrating as it's gentle pacing might be to some, the pure credibility of the visuals, the atmospheric direction and the rambling, rhythmic quality of the script makes this an unmissable book-to-screen adaptation for any fans of that period.

ON THE ROAD
War Witch (Rebelle), Kim Ngyens stunning exploration of child-soldiers in brutal African conflict is a shocking and visually stunning journey into the heart of human darkness, with perfect central performances, utterly flawless direction and a truly artistic visual sensibility, this is one of the most unique and upsetting films I've ever seen and justifiably takes the Audience Award for best feature film (and the Official Cromer Terrace Award for Best Festival Feature, more on that later.) Another surprise delight was Dax Shepard's frivolously tongue-in-cheek comedy caper Hit And Run, a comedian whose exposure in this country is relatively limited, Shepard writes, produces, edits and Co-directs this little cat-and-mouse story of an attractive young couple in witness protection, who inevitably find their past lives catching up with them, ultimately resulting in a violent and hilarious showdown between Shepard's sardonic slacker and Bradley Cooper's riotously exaggerated Rasta-Mobster. Lots of cars, explosions and fist-fights and lots of rather well choreographed laughs as well, look out for it. 


WAR WITCH


Call Me Kuchu is a harrowing documentary that explores the terrifying lives of homosexual Ugandans in a country ruled by fanatical Christianity and a government that decrees homosexuality illegal. Following the lives of several brave men and woman who want to change this, Call Me Kuchu takes you to some very dark and upsetting places without ever loosing sight of what is important, i.e. the freedom of the Ugandan people. Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size-Me returns with Comic-Con a delightful documentary observing the trials and tribulations of 5 separate Comic-Con faithfuls, littered with amusing and insightful contributions from industry legends Stan Lee, Frank Miller, Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon, Spurlock explores the changing nature of the traditionally Comic-driven convention whilst simultaneously humanising every man, woman and child who likes to dress up like their favourite characters from Mass Effect, Star Trek or Batman to heart-warming, often knowingly hilarious results.

CALL ME KUCHU
Audiences cued through the building for the always completely sold out Surprise Film - the identity of which is known only to the Festival Director until the lights dim and the credits roll... This year Rian Johnson's highly anticipated time-travelling sci-fi thriller Looper was unveiled to a packed screen1 and greeted with a unanimous hum of excitement and anticipation. A sprawling CGI-heavy action-er with Joseph Gordon-levett as the 'Looper' of the title, who waits for unknown criminal forces from the future to transport unwanted elements, bagged and tagged, for a clinical execution and disposal process. This methodical operation goes awry when he discovers that his future self (Bruce Willis) has been sent back for execution at his own hand, Looper is a relative return to form for Johnson, after the disappointment that was the overly quirky Brothers Bloom, but sadly shows none of the visual ingenuity that was promised by his excellent debut, 2005's noir-ish high-school murder mystery Brick.

LOOPER
Finally, the "True Surprise Movie" as Festival's International Programmer, Verena von Stackelberg 
described it, was the equally highly anticipated Leos Carax film Holy Motors. A well-recieved Cannes 12' Palme D'or contender, Carax's disturbing, looping, visceral opera of surreal visuals and inexplicable musical numbers is a messy, violent exploration of spirituality and identity, creating a perpetually dusky futuristic French landscape through which travels Denis Lavant's constantly transforming central character, undergoing a series of mysterious 'appointments' that will see him transform from a withered old street dweller to a terrifying Fagin-esque pimp to a ruthless assassin and plenty of other grotesque incarnations along the way. The audience is left to try and unravel the mostly unexplained happenings, grasping for any clues amongst the characters many varied interactions, wondering if the truth is hidden beneath layers of surreal narratives or if it is simply a journey through some kind of terrifying interpretation of reincarnation. Never-the-less, it's a stunning and unforgettable cinematic journey and a beautiful way to close yet another fantastic Cambridge Film Festival.

HOLY MOTORS
Of the films I sadly missed; several are recommended, via trusted co-cinema obsessives, most notably the Winner of the Audience Award for Best Short which was Dylan's Room, along with the Documentary that took the Audience Award for it's category Big Boys Gone Bananas! along with the following films; Untouchable, Lucky Luciano, 5 Broken Cameras, Grandma Lo-Fi, Yossi and Totem.

In conclusion then, we thank the Cambridge Film Festival for their stunning work in programming such a varied and intelligent selection of films, The Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, The Cambridge Buddhist Centre and various outdoor spaces for hosting such a brilliant event and we congratulate everyone from Project Trident who was involved in the planning and execution of our hallowed Overall Best Festival Film Award... TRIDENTFEST. Read on to find out more...



O.C.T. Awards

(The Official Cromer Terrace Awards)

As promised from the outset, Cromer Terrace presents it's Official Cromer Terrace Awards or O.C.T. Awards as they are now referred to by the kids on the streets. The Awards are divided into 3 categories: Overall Best Festival Film, Best Festival Feature and Best Festival Documentary. Unfortunately due to insufficient funds, the award's given out are intangible or as the dictionary puts it, "Incapable of being realised or defined" - So you'll just have to take our word for it. The Award winners will be informed of their accolade and permitted to store said intangible award in any modestly priced container.

1. TRIDENTFEST 2012 
Winner of OVERALL BEST FESTIVAL FILM
THE PROJECT TRIDENT TEAM
Easily our top Festival experience, chosen from an extremely high caliber of programmes this year, TridentFest is a mini-festival screened every year at The Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, usually completely sold out in advance, and utterly unpredictable.
The highly anticipated festival of local films from local filmmakers, with noteworthy submissions from legendary local filmmakers Carl Peck, Andrzej Sosnowski, Simon Panrucker, Ryd Cook, Christian Lapidge and Tom Martin (among many others), TridentFest is the film festival baby of the notorious Project Trident team, all championing low-budget, high-quality filmmaking and collated for this hilarious, disturbing tour-de-force of various different cinematic ideas. Complete with audience interaction, prizes, demonstrations and interviews, Tridentfest isn't just a festival of brilliant locally sourced films, but also a unique opportunity to get fully immersed in the world of emerging filmmakers, with short comedic sketches, beautifully shot music videos, hilarious horror-spoofs and mock-umentaries... this truly is a tour-de-force of unique local talent and something that sets The Cambridge Film Festival apart from it's more elitist contemporaries.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/projecttrident
twitter: @ProjectTrident
Website: www.projecttrident.com

2. WAR WITCH
Winner of BEST FESTIVAL FEATURE
As reviewed above, Kim Nguyen's wonderfully visceral, sickeningly violent, utterly breathtaking odyssey into the dark, tragic world of child-soldiers in Africa, follows a 12 year old girl's attempts to master her 'witchcraft', escape a series of cruel, abusive leaders and get to grips with her demons. The fact that Nguyen chooses to literally show her demons as menacing, whispering, white-pupiled, pale-skinned corpses just adds to the utterly absurd nature of such a brutal conflict, without distracting from the very real atrocities on show. Stunning.

3. CALL ME KUCHU
Winner of BEST FESTIVAL DOCUMENTARY
Once again, as reviewed above, Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall have created a truly unforgettable documentary that reveals the secretive, oppressed existence of a select group of homosexuals in Uganda, fighting for their rights as Africans and as human beings. A deeply upsetting film that despite several gut-wrenching twists and some frankly, hilarious contributions from irate local Christians, never forgets the plight of it's central characters and it concludes on a somber yet hopeful note that will motivate anyone to want to discover more.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/CallMeKuchu
twitter: @callmekuchu
Website: www.callmekuchu.com

Oliver Wallington is a London + Cambridge-based Artist, Filmmaker, Writer and Musician, to get his reviews of notable FILM and ART attractions subscribe to Cromer Terrace or follow him on twitter @WallingtonArt. Special Thanks go to Ellie Wallington, George Smith, Sam Vasili, Peter Bryan, Lindsey Kennedy and Lozza Anderson for accompanying me to the Festival and unknowingly informing my opinions.





Saturday, 25 August 2012

Towards a Localised Approach for the ‘Golden Triangle’: A Comparative Study of Three Different Situations


My name is Sam Vasili. I have just graduated from Manchester and having (just about) made it through the minefield of an undergraduate dissertation I am going for round 2 with an MSc. I would like to do a comparative study looking in (some) detail at the different environments and externalities of three different high-tech clusters in the South-East of England (Cambridge, Oxford and London). However, I’m not sure how realistic this is given that I am essentially working by myself and I do not have much in the way of funding…. the student loan only goes so far. Anyway, in an ideal world I would look at the different levels of ‘innovative-activity’ in each respective cluster in an attempt to make some form of policy recommendation, and hopefully identify potential areas of investment. 

It is apparent from previous academic research that there are no ‘best practice models’ that can be applied to a multitude of different regions. Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) tried and failed, and (slightly more worrying) successful innovation-intensive locations suffered as a result. Enter localism and the realisation that innovation policies should be contingent on local situations. This is good a thing. Funding is now being allocated to improve areas where we are ‘world beaters’, this is also a good thing. However, this does not mean that we should ignore the age-old problems of social deprivation, inequality and wealth distribution. Perhaps a ‘trickle down’ economy is not sufficient. As identified by Centre for Cities, there are growing disparities between cities in the North-East and university towns such as Cambridge. Even within the realms of a potential South-East super cluster (the ‘Golden Triangle’) there are clearly very different levels of ‘innovative activity’. The problem with these kind of issues is they fall into the "too hard" category. If someone had a rational way of sorting this stuff out they would probably be onto a winner. In practice, most clusters are accidental, often caused by huge government spend for entirely different objectives (e.g. funding world class academic research, organizing national defence). 

Nevertheless, we seem to be identifying areas of potential growth. However, it is also apparent that this growth will not filter out as much as we would like but will remain centered around local ‘situations’. We have identified science parks/innovation incubators/catapult centres as helpful policy tools. However, it is also apparent that polices which attempt to kick start a ‘phenomenon’ from scratch (e.g. Pfizer site at Sandwich) are a somewhat fragile entity. The exception to this (perhaps) being Sophia Antipolis – we would be hard pressed to find an environment that could compete with the surroundings of the French Riviera …. Blackpool doesn’t quite have the same appeal.   In the UK we are now in the process of selecting our ‘key players’, but the experts advising government on where to look for these ‘key players’ seem somewhat interrelated. Leading high-tech clusters are being identified but it is becoming ever more apparent that no two clusters are the same. This has left UK government with difficult discussions about where to invest and how to justify it. Societal impact is indeed a tough nut to crack. 

Having said this, there are processes, stories and ‘tricks’ that can be learnt from successful clusters. For example, the phenomenon of the ‘entrepreneurial academic’ has been a key driver in the Cambridge Cluster. This phenomenon has evolved over the last 40 years as serial entrepreneurs have learnt how to become more efficient, more commercially aware and better connected. Cambridge is now extremely well connected and it is these social interactions between the industry veteran, the second time entrepreneur and the fresh-faced university student that are so fundamentally important. As identified by academics charting Cambridge’s growth - social networking has been paramount to its development.  There is strong evidence of knowledge sharing across sub-sectors within the cluster, as in the case of Abcam (the Amazon for antibodies). Abcam learned some ‘tricks of the trade’ from companies outside of the biotech sector.  One might argue it is now essentially an online shopping site masquerading as a biotech company. Whilst I do not wish to get into a debate about the ‘credibility’ of academic research one thing seems clear - Cambridge ideas may change the world but it is the ‘market-pull’ of these ideas that generates wealth. 

So, could social networking be the secret ingredient for success? It is certainly true that knowledge sharing, knowledge spill-over and social networking has helped in some situations. That is not to say it is flawless, companies will always be wary about losing their IP, trade secrets and employees to the highest bidder. However, with the right policy measures and infrastructure in place, networking definitely helps more than it hinders. As the saying goes - it helps to talk. The beauty of the Cambridge Cluster, however, is that it is relatively compact (a radius of around 10 miles). Oxford, with its industrial development, is somewhat more spread out. This has created ‘barriers’ as travel times between ‘hubs’ of high-tech activity seem to be somewhat of an inconvenience. As a result the ‘coffee shop’ interactions between like-mined people are few and far between. The London high-tech economy again seems to be an entirely different situation to either Cambridge or Oxford… I look forward to learning more about it. Whilst connecting the dots physically with spatial development may not be achievable or particularly sustainable (however you define it), the improvement of infrastructure links (transport, broadband etc) between our existing high-tech clusters and the encouragement of social interactions between the ‘creative class’ could have great potential for growth. Where exactly this potential growth will occur and the extent to which it will reach the UK population as a whole, however, remains to be seen. 

Now I am by no means an expert on this stuff and I am really just testing the water but if anyone out there can offer any advice on what’s being done already, where to look and how to go about it I would really appreciate it. The sort of things I would like to look at are: 
  • The different environments of the three respective clusters (planning policies and restrictions, lifestyle – ref Florida, Blazer et al., transport links and connectivity, other infrastructure etc.)
  • Cluster maps (Cam Cluster, Tech City…. is there one for Oxford?)
  • The makeup of firms in each location by size (according to European Union criteria: employment, turnover and assets), sector and IP activity – the Oxford Firm Level Intellectual Property database seems like a good place to start (am I assuming IP activity is a definitive answer for ‘innovative activity’?)
   Equally, if I’m completely barking up the wrong tree do let me know. 
sam.vasili@gmail.com http://www.linkedin.com/pub/sam-vasili/4b/937/697


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Pussy Riot: Misguided Martyrs?



It could have been worse: Unsurprisingly, members of the all-female Russian punk band Pussy Riot were jailed this week to two years in custody, but the prosecution had been pushing for three. President Putin may be hoping that his statement in London that the three should not “be punished too harshly,” will be interpreted as benevolent intervention; in reality, the trial has only served to draw media attention back towards Russia’s increasingly autocratic and repressive political system. It is becoming increasingly apparent that free speech is not something that the Russian political elite are keen to hand out.

Across central Asia and the Indian sub-continent in Burma, a country that until recently matched the repression of Russia in its Soviet heyday, the military junta has astonishingly announced a lifting of the press censorship laws. Simultaneously, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy out of fear of extradition to the US, for blowing open American secret diplomatic and military documents. Whatever you say about Assange, and the sex charges he faces in Sweden, the likelihood of him ever emerging from a US jail if he enters are slim. All in all, a big week for free speech; but did Pussy Riot’s protest have any positive effect?

As seems to be consistent with Putin’s approach to the rights of the individual in Russia, he did himself no favours with Pussy Riot. As The Economist has argued “the longer the members of Pussy Riot sat in pre-trial detention, the greater their profile—and their legend—grew at home and abroad.” Since successfully winning a rigged election, Putin (and his regime) have taken several steps against opposition groups, from a law introduced in June upping the fine for street protests to £12,000, to charges being levelled against opposition leader Alexei Navalny for embezzling a state timber company.

The Pussy Riot trial is certainly not an isolated incident therefore. What they have achieved, in quite dramatic fashion, is to bring a fresh dose of infamy to Putin’s regime within the international community. Everyone from Madonna to the Sex Pistols has been queuing up to support them. However such an outspoken international reaction may only play into the regime’s hands: Inconspicuous amongst the regime’s recent laws is one that forces all foreign NGOs in Russia to label themselves ‘foreign agents’; a move indicative of the Cold War ‘foreign conspiracy’ mentality used by the regime to justify its authoritarian existence. International support for the band will only add to this.

This is especially so when the group’s actions and the charges laid against them are considered: The group chose to stage their anti-Putin protest in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, and were found ‘guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.’ Though highly successful in shocking the regime and bringing a wave of international interest to Russia, the group has received relatively little domestic support. Although recent polling by the Levada Centre shows that many questioned the court’s objectivity and saw the hand of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin in the prosecution, fewer are ready to support Pussy Riot: 51% held negative or hostile views toward the group’s actions, another 20% were neutral or indifferent (The Economist). The most significant divide is generational; support for the band almost entirely resides with the country’s young – their actions may thus serve to galvanise elderly support for the regime.

Moreover Pussy Riot may have accentuated a trend already occurring under Putin; the collusion of the United Russia party and the Russian Orthodox Church. As The Observer has said, Putin and the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill I, have “struck a deal”. Putin has returned state support to the church with aid for the restoration of churches destroyed by the communists, and the return of priests to schools and universities. Kirill returns the favour by “making support for the Kremlin kleptomaniacs a quasi-religious duty.”

Pussy Riot performed a valiantly defiant protest against the growing squeeze on civil liberties in Russia and will become martyrs for the cause; however the likelihood is that they have only given ammunition to the reactionary forces in power.

Friday, 3 August 2012

A beneficial friendship: Egyptian-US relations





Hilary Clinton’s visit to Cairo in mid July re-affirmed the United States’ support for a democratic Egypt. Clinton and President Morsi discussed, what she described as the “broad and enduring relationship” between the United States and Egypt, which has been mutually beneficial for both nations over the years. Egypt has, in recent history, been an ally of the US and has played an important role in protecting the US’ interests in the region. Clinton’s meeting with President Morsi covered a number of topics that are pivotal to the relationship between the two countries, including, democracy, stability and most importantly Israel. The uncertainty that arose from the toppling of Mubarak certainly would have worried US foreign policy makers. The aspects of the relationship have changed, the US is no longer dealing with an autocrat that can be controlled easily, but now they must deal with a democratically elected President who is charged with upholding the interests of the people he represents.

Many might take it for granted that maintaining a good relationship with the US is necessary, but in Egypt there are a number of reasons why the US might not be seen as a friend. The US has an image of being a meddler in Middle Eastern affairs, a view shared by many across the region. The strong and unwavering support for Israel serves to alienate much of the region’s population further, not to mention the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to this the strong relationships with the corrupt and authoritarian regimes in the region puts the trust of the US at quite a low level in the Middle East. Why then, should Egypt maintain a relationship with the US if all they seem to do is cause trouble in the region? Why shouldn’t the Arab world return to fighting for the Palestinian homeland?

Money is the answer. Egypt is one of the largest beneficiaries of US spending, and much of this is reliant on the peace with Israel. Even if Egypt wanted to go to war with Israel they wouldn’t be able to afford it. Egypt’s domestic issues are desperately critical. Poverty is rampant throughout and the economy is in tatters. With many tourists being put off by the scenes of a violent revolution, one of Egypt’s biggest industries has been hit hard. It is clear that now, more than ever, that Egypt could benefit from some extra money in order to stabilise itself.  This was part of Clinton’s support package and it seems that Morsi has taken it and has since give assurance to his Israeli counterpart that he will work for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The US believe that with Egypt secured as an ally, the region is stable as far as Israel is concerned, apart from the game of nuclear cat and mouse with Iran. At this point the interdependency between Egypt and the US is just as it always has been: necessary. If Egyptians were hoping for change then it will not occur in foreign affairs. It seems that some things cannot be changed by a revolution.



Thursday, 12 July 2012

Balancing Act: The future of British Banking



There have been so many scandals over the last few years that it is difficult to remember which came first: Politician’s expenses, then phone hacking, then LIBOR? Or does the new LIBOR scandal technically come first, since British banks have been found guilty of manipulating a key financial rate since back in the noughties? (Pun intended.) Just when Bob Diamond’s statement that the ‘period of shame for British banking needed to be ended’ couldn’t get any more infamous, it emerged that the banks had been guilty of pushing unnecessary financial products onto small business (who then went bankrupt), and now this. The British public have a right to be outraged; anyone observing from outside the country may be forgiven for thinking that this island, normally a bastion of law and order and ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ has suffered a severe case of moral decay. The debate has significant moral implications but is imposing regulation on the banks the right thing to do?

To backtrack slightly, LIBOR (London interbank offered rate) is essentially the rate that determines how much it costs banks to borrow money from the markets, and it underpins a market worth £350trillion. Since it is made of estimates from eighteen banks in London, it can technically be fiddled, although the system discounts the highest and lowest figures and takes an average of the rest. The scandal itself can then be separated into two parts. Firstly, during the boom years, Barclays (and possibly twenty other banks being investigated internationally), manipulated the rate by working with one another to drive it up when it was good for business. Secondly, after the crash, Barclays was found to be deliberately estimating a lower rate in order to make their business look stronger. This distinction is important to make: During the first period the manipulation was done to maximise profit, and could therefore be “the biggest securities fraud in history” (The Economist). However the second period is more morally complicated.

Since the crash, every person in the UK has forked out £19,000 to support the banks. The prosperity of them is, to some extent, in our self-interest. Barclays in this case massaged the rate to make the bank appear stronger and therefore save the taxpayer. And thus we come to the role of the Bank of England and the politicians. An on-going evolution of the scandal has occurred since Bob Diamond claimed that he had the tacit consent of the Bank of England and regulators to manipulate the rate. In the aftermath of the financial crash of course, politicians were desperate to keep credit flowing and the industry afloat.

The government seems caught between a rock and a hard place: On the one hand, if they choose to enact a ‘witch hunt’ against the bankers and bring in constricting regulation, Britain could lose its most dynamic industry, the only industry in which Britain is truly a world leader. Competition from Hong Kong, Mumbai and Dubai should be taken seriously.  On the other hand if they let them get away with it, the public will be outraged, and more than ever the government and the banking elite will be seen as sleeping in the same bed. This is especially so after the Bureau of Investigative Journalism this month revealed that the City has spent £92million on political lobbying alone in 2011. This has led to such policy successes as the slashing of UK corporation tax and taxes on banks' overseas subsidiaries, and neutering of a national not-for-profit pension scheme launching in October that was supposed to benefit millions of low-paid and temporary workers. (The Guardian)
Moreover, the government’s future policy will also be framed against the 2011 riots, an occurrence that has largely been swept under the carpet in the year since. Exemplary of the heavy-handed response was the sentencing of a student with no previous convictions to six months in prison, for the theft of a £3.50 bottle of drink. (The Week.) Any non-action against bankers will be juxtaposed against such extreme measures against the less well off. Indeed, a strong argument can made to link the financial crisis, caused by irresponsible banks, with the frustration and disenfranchisement felt by many poorer young people that spilled over last summer.  An even broader suggestion would be that Britain’s financial sector has been the driving force behind the long-term stratification of this country.
The banker’s argument, that Britain is dependent on the industry’s prosperity, is to some extent true. But would the industry really suffer such a blow if regulation was brought in? The Observer has remarked that endemic corruption will only end when bankers know they are likely to get caught and face stiff penalties – mere condemnation and calls for a change in culture won’t cut it. Across the pond, American law firms are lining up to represent clients from multinationals to Baltimore City council, who say they have lost money as a result of banking manipulation. Here, the Financial Services Authority (FSA), the watchdog accused of turning a blind eye to LIBOR fixing, has disingenuously stated that no one has any lost money.

Bagehot in The Economist has reasoned against a public enquiry: “Public anger which vents itself on individuals and moves swiftly on does nothing to make the system work better; and, if the pendulum swings too far, it may endanger the country in the long run.” Nevertheless, something substantial needs to be done. Whether it is through a judicial inquiry or parliamentary investigation, there needs to be a significant overhaul of the structure of British banking. They are essential to our prosperity, yet act increasingly antisocially. Most of all it is for British morality and justice that our financial sector needs to be reformed.

Just as the press is being held to account for its actions, and regulation reformed, so too the financial sector needs to face serious penalties: Without more regulation there is simply too big an incentive to cheat and manipulate, and there is no reason to suggest that a more responsible and regulated sector could not still compete globally. I for one am glad that these scandals keep occurring, for they seem to be the most effective way to muster public support in favour of change.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Gove's Reforms: A Blast from the Past




Michael Gove’s well publicised recent Education reforms which call for a return to a two-tier secondary qualification, akin to the old O level/CSE system, came as a surprise to many, not least to the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Not only is this yet another clear example of the increasingly ‘behind close doors’ attitude that has engulfed Britain’s governance since the advent of the coalition, it is also one of the most controversial policies. Mr. Clegg has suggested he will vote against the propositions simply because ‘he was not consulted’ (roaring passionately as he throws his toys from the pram). Cameron for his part has now, fairly limply it must be said, got behind the proposals, but Gove has since been forced to retract somewhat and pull his neck in, lest he be beaten to death by Lib Dem cabinet members with what remains of their 2010 election manifestos.

So what of the remaining proposals themselves? Most notable amongst them is a move towards a single exam board that will set standardised, cross-the-board papers, in an attempt to enact a more rigorous approach to examinations. Moreover, there will be no more re-sits, except in the key disciplines of English and Maths. Whilst I do agree with Mr. Gove that British education is in dire need of reform, I also firmly believe that this is not the way to do it. Mr . Gove wants to build an education system for the future, to compete with the likes of Singapore, France and the USA; as the White Paper of April this year argues. However, these proposals are anchored in the past. If Britain wants an education system of the future (presumably to build an economy of the future), the past is not the place to find it.

We have already entered a new age in how we communicate, work, play and interact. This is the information age and in the information age, the enlightenment notion that knowledge is power is becoming ever less important, whilst understanding is becoming increasingly so. We continue to persevere with the industrial revolution’s model of education, born out of the values of the enlightenment. This system is founded on principles of education for the masses; but what this has led us to in the 21st century is a lowest common denominator structure. Schools are run like factories; children are sculpted and taught to in the same way, treated as a batch and not an individual. As any teacher worth their salt will tell you, what works for one child will not work for another. Furthermore, why should Britain aspire to be like any other country in its education system? What is right for the children of Singapore may not be right for the children of Britain. If Mr. Gove wants to start building education reform we need to be progressive not regressive, leaders not followers and we need to think differently about what we think will best benefit our children and our society as a whole.

What I mean by this is that principles of creative, divergent thinking are what need to be taught to our children. Ironically, these are the very same principles which Mr. Gove has failed to apply to his own education reforms. An approach centered on children being encouraged into a culture of learning, of interaction, of modern skills and of personal discovery that can take them out into the world with a desire to learn, create, collaborate and improve. A lecture given by Sir Ken Robinson to TED followers ‘Changing the Education Paradigm’ rather neatly sums up this sentiment: That we need to think differently about how we educate our children if we want to move forward and Michael Gove’s proposals would certainly be a step backwards.

I will use myself as an example, I have just graduated from a Russell Group university with a degree in Politics & Philosophy. My degree result and previous application to my subject has been good enough for me to be offered a place to study for a Masters at that same institution. However, this educational success has not always the case. I finished college with reasonable A-Levels but decided late on that I didn’t want to take the university course to which I had applied (Sports Science).The ability to do re-sits allowed me to improve my grades enough to get into a higher standard of university and to subsequently to excel within that environment. This is a classic example of children maturing at different ages academically. At 19 I was among the least qualified of the students entering the course, but by the age of 21 I had developed enough to stand out within the right environment. Any education system needs to give young people every opportunity to succeed in this way, not penalise them and create a culture of failure because they are not at the same level as their peers at any given age in mental arithmetic or their ability to remember the names of the Tudor kings and queens.

Education is undoubtedly in need of reform and indeed always will be. The world changes at such a rapid pace that we need to be prepared to be constantly flexible in all our institutions to adapt and survive. If we cannot achieve this then they will fall into disrepair and generations of children will be failed. To achieve these reforms by reverting to an archaic method that simply closes down children’s options before they could even understand what they are seems unjust. Education needs change and it needs both imagination and creativity to help us to achieve this, not simply a reversion to antiquated, anecdotal notions of previous excellence. We have to reassess the most basic principles on which our model of education stands, the things that we take for granted, standardised testing, class sizes, methods of teaching, what we are actually teaching if we wish to move towards a brighter, more educated future.

J.P. CHESHIRE

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

New music film: Natalie Squance

This short film features Natalie Squance, a Leicester based singer songwriter, providing an insight into her music and the person behind it. Today it seems that there are more aspiring singer songwriters than ever, which makes it even more rare to find one that holds something unique and captivating. Natalie is most definitely part of the minority that stands out with her refreshing blend of effortless vocals and melodic narratives. Her excellent guitar playing allows her songs to flow, often unconventionally, working synonymously with her vocals. Natalie's songs possess an 'English' and fictional quality to them that perhaps stems from her fascination with old nursery rhymes and other such tales. The film shows Natalie at her house and then at Foxton Locks, a place she visited frequently as a child. It also features two live performances of 'Down the Telephone Wire' and 'Taking Tea', the latter can be found on her new début album 'In The Apple Tree' (2011).

For the full video, see: http://vimeo.com/43290980


Find Natalie's album at: http://natalie-squance.bandcamp.com

Ed Wirgman is an aspiring film maker from Winchester.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Putin's Russia:Parallels with Al-Assad


The first part in a new series on Russia, its internal politics, and its role in International affairs.

The recent news that a Russian cargo ship, bound for Syria, has turned back after having its insurance to move through British waters revoked by the government is troubling. On board the MV Alead reportedly were three Mi-25 Helicopter Gunships and a new advanced air defence system; the perfect tools to fight a civil war and to deter any potential interference from the outside world. The ship, which was flying the flag of the Dutch-Antilles, is now likely re-sail under the Russian tricolour as a sign of the Putin regime’s determination to support Al-Assad.

In such a case, any attempt by the British authorities to prevent the passage of the ship would be highly prevocational and illegal. Instead the significance of the matter remains with the actions of the Russians: Putin’s determination to defy the western world is indicative of his deep paranoia over internal opposition and of the continuance of his outward-looking KGB Cold-War mentality. Indeed the recent wave of protests that have accompanied Putin’s re-entrance into the Kremlin have provoked a difficult situation for the regime. The propping up of Assad is becoming increasingly reflective of the domestic situation in Russia, as the Oligarchy resorts to intimidation and oppression of opposition forces, fearing a movement reflective of the Arab-spring.
Pro-Democracy protests against Putin's rigged re-election to the Kremlin: New laws against protests are indicative of the police state characteristics of Putin's internal and external policies (more on the protests in Part 2) 

This paranoia is compounded by the paranoia of the ruling elite, who see every attempt to challenge them as part of a wider western-led plot to overthrow them. Luke Harding, in his book Mafia State has estimated that up to 77% of the political elite could have FSB ( (Russia’s post-Soviet Intelligence agency) and/or KGB backgrounds, including 42% of leaders who are already known to have had. Such a makeup goes some way to explaining the action of a regime that has moved to solidify its position internally through oppression, whilst simultaneously remaining belligerent in its diplomacy toward democracies. It is therefore unsurprising that despite the moral-bankruptcy of his position, Putin continues to block UN resolutions towards Syria, considering the immediate parallels that can be drawn between the protests in Syria and the Arab world in general, and the protests against Putin’s recently rigged return to the Kremlin

Aside from explanations centred on the backward and autocratic mentality of Russia’s political elite, and the parallels that can be drawn between Syria’s revolution and Russia’s own internal opposition (more to come in a future article), the regime’s actions can be viewed as an attempt to remain a big game player on the international stage. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs has stated “my deep conviction is that Russia has not cared about its international image for a long time.” This may be true, to the extent that Russia does not care what the west thinks of it. But Putin is desperate to revive the strength of his Russian state; which means being taken seriously by both internal opposition and the West.

The support of Syria is just one on a list of actions that share inconspicuously the common theme of highlighting the strength and autonomy of Putin’s regime from the West. The murder of the KGB defector Alexander Litvineko by FSB agents in London in 2006, which was likely to have been ordered, or at least endorsed, by Putin, is another such example. In the aftermath of the assassination, the Putin regime refused to give up the supposed killer, Andrei Lugovoi, and even endorsed him for political office. The invasion of Georgia to humiliate the country and its president, Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008, for their pro-Western stance is also indicative of this.

A posed picture as part of Putin's carefully cultivated 'Strongman' image
The message of Russia’s actions in Syria is simple: ‘We don’t need the West and we do as we please.’ But as The Economist has argued, Russian defiance should not be seen as an insurmountable bar to action: It did not prove to be in Kosovo in 1999. The UN Security-Council should thus move to outmanoeuvre Russia, and sideline it from resolutions, particularly if China’s position softens further. My personal suspicion is that Putin does care about Russia’s international image, just as he cares so obviously about his domestic one. Just as he wants to return Russia to great-power status, so too does he want to project an image of strength. The response therefore, should be strength from the West against him; to be ignored in the case of Syria would be a humiliation for Putin both internationally and at home.

Putin’s legitimacy had been quashed in the wake of the election-rigging scandal and his oppression against opposition and his support of dictatorial regimes is reflective of this domestic context. With his regime’s position so morally-bankrupt, western leaders should not allow him the pleasure of playing such a major, and disruptive, role in international relations.

Upcoming:

Part two of this feature will deconstruct Putin’s so called ‘Mafia State’ and assess how Putin’s ascendancy to power has corresponded with the formation of an autocratic oligarchy. Part three will question whether, with the centennial anniversary of the 1917 revolution soon coming into view, popular opposition forces will have the strength to enact a new revolution.