Today’s the day. Now is the time. It’s been five years since we had the chance to elect a representative government, fighting hard for our right and privileges, and for the good of every single one of us.

We ballsed that one up good and proper, didn’t we? Time to give it another go.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I have the cliches here in my cliche bingo box. Voting never changed anything. Whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. If voting did anything, they’d ban it. Blah blah blah HOUSEYYY.

Of course voting changes things. The democratic process is the thing that gave us the forty day working week, paid holidays, the right to tribunal and a fair trial, an end to slavery and discrimination, the vote. In a dizzying period of change between the 1850s and 1970s, the society we know and take for granted was built by people on the streets and in the House of Parliament, who believed that we deserved better and were prepared to risk everything in the pursuit of that dream.

Now, of course, we think we know better. The system has broken, favouring the entitled few, open to abuse. Who’s in charge of changing that? They are. So what’s the point? We protest, and we’re ignored. So best to hide out, grumble a bit and give up.

Anyone that saw the recent BBC documentary series on the inner workings of the House Of Commons would, like me, have been slack-jawed at how out-of-date and out-of-touch the place seemed. Our system of government is filled with loopholes, stifled by tradition, unwilling to change. So what’s to be done?

Well, duh. We vote, and we vote for the party that best covers our needs. If we can’t find one that does, we vote tactically to kick out the people who don’t. If we don’t feel that anyone in government is on our side, we put a big black cross through the ballot paper. It’s called spoiling, and the great thing is that it’s still counted.

A third of the British electorate didn’t vote in 2010. That’s 15 million people who felt so disconnected and disenfranchised by the system that they decided not to be counted. That was the worst thing they could have done. If that 15 million had spoiled their papers (or as I choose to call it, choosing the “none of the above” option), it would have sent an incredibly clear message. We choose to vote for none of you. You don’t represent us. But deciding not to be counted meant that the 15 million chose to be ignored. And that’s a real shame, because 15 million no-votes would have beaten the votes gathered by Labour and The Conservatives. 15 million people rejecting the current system would have been the majority vote.

Imagine the shockwaves that would have sent through the Houses Of Parliament, and then tell me that voting is meaningless.

The thing is, career politicians are terrified of elections. It’s the one time when they have to justify themselves to the public, the one time when they actually have to do something to keep their jobs. The smug, over-stuffed bloater who keeps knocking at your door and shoving leaflets with his smug over-stuffed face through your letterbox? That’s your MP, who you haven’t seen in five years. Guess what? He needs you to vote for him. So don’t ignore him. Open the door. Have a chat. Ask him an uncomfortable question. Look at the fear in his eyes*. That’s the power of democracy.

Now tell me that voting is meaningless.

Today, we have a chance to change the political landscape. We can support the MP who works hard for his constituency, or help to bin the smug fuck who’s put through his second house on expenses. This time, the field is wide open. There’s a chance to get independent voices into Parliament, or to make safe seats less so. If you’re not sure who to vote for, there are a ton of online tools that’ll match your needs and values to a party. You might be surprised at who you support. Even if you just cross out every choice on the ballot paper, you’re making yourself known.

So get yourself to the polling station today. They opened at 7. They’ll be open till 10. You have no reason not to take the time. Today is the day. Now is the time.

You’re in charge. Enjoy the feeling.
*Notice I’m describing your MP as male. The gender skew in Parliament is still deeply biased towards men. Is that a bad thing? Well, it’s certainly unrepresentative to a population that’s pretty much half and half male to female.


Liable To Deprave And Corrupt

The UK Government's attempts to nanny up the images that we are allowed to make and view just took a new and twisted turn. Under amendments to the outdated Obscene Publications Act, which have already passed the Lords and become law on December 1st, there's about to be a major clampdown on the legality of extreme imagery—one that should worry every British film-maker.

I've made my disapproval of state control on the moving image clear in the past. If people want to bring a camera into the bedroom, that's their business. But, in using worries over child porn to pass ever more restrictive legislation, lawmakers have gone too far.

The existing rules are already open to abuse, and cases with laughably thin evidence have already gone to court—thankfully, usually to be thrown out. A recent case featuring an unfortunate young man found to have a beastiality video on his phone hit the headlines when the animal in question turned out to be a bloke in a tiger suit, who finished off with a cheery thumbs up and a Tony The Tiger-style “that's grrrreat!” Hilarious, right? Not for the poor sod in question, who lost his job and suffered two years of approbrium. Turns out the film was sent to him by a mate. I wonder how strong that friendship turned out to be…

The new amendments seek to legalise (gee thanks) the depiction of normal sexual activity on screen. And therein lies the problem, of course, because we now have a government intent in codifying what constitutes normal sexual activity and criminalise anything that isn't—at least, on screen. God help you if you like a bit of bondage and the rules and safe words that you and your partner worked out in advance aren't on there at the beginning as a kind of censor's warning.

So let's look at those amendments, just in case you think I'm over-egging the pudding. The new restrictions make it illegal to show torture with instruments, bondage with no clear sign of consent, realistic depictions of rape, and dismemberment. Which are terms so vaguely drawn that they could describe almost anything. Certainly, most horror movies made in the last 50 years fall into those definitions in one way or another. As does art-house fare like Gaspar Noe's Irreversible and Lars Von Trier's Anti-Christ. As does the work of prominent directors like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. As does last week's episode of Marvel's Agents Of SHIELD. As do recent episodes of Eastenders. At a rough count, thirteen nominees for the Best Picture Oscar over the last 20 years would be illegal under these new laws, including five winners and the current holder of the award, Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave. In short, any film that shows any gore other than a gunshot squib or a blood-pack stabbing, or any captive tied up against their will will be subject to prosecution under these new laws.

Except, of course, there's a handy little out-clause. Anything with a BBFC certification is exempt from the rules. Hollywood breathes a sigh of relief. But where does that leave the film-makers who choose not to go through the hoops and expense of the Soho Square tango for a short film they made for zero budget in their shed? Where does that leave the horror enthusiasts who show at festivals like Horror-On-Sea or Grimm Up North? Where does that leave talented film-makers like my mate Mike Tack, whose work is based on just the kind of extreme imagery that Westminster wants to ban?

The law as it stands has sent innocent people to jail and ruined their lives for entirely consensual activities. Now that law is tightening its grip on independent film-makers who choose to use rubber and corn syrup, or CGI, to create films that will shock and disturb, but also get us to think about our lives and the frequently fragile grip we have on them. I could talk at length about the importance and history of horror, and how we love to be shaken and stirred by the dark arts. There should be no need.

There should also be no need for legislation to reach this far, or be worded so vaguely that it can be used on nearly anything on which the police care to prosecute. It appears that in fact, police are increasingly using the Act when they can find no other way in which to charge people, as Jane Fae points out in a recent politics.co.uk article (which at least opens up a little hope that this law may be quashed in the court). In the meantime, indie and underground film-makers are on the verge of discovering that their work has made them lawbreakers.

Let's end with a fun game. Take a look at the Charging Practices section of the new Obscene Publications Act, and see how many films you can prosecute!







Documenting disorder: a riot aggregator

I think the last thing we need today is another under-informed commentator spraying ill-thought opinion around like a muskrat marking it’s territory. I’ll stick to aggregating some of the more interesting output I’ve seen over the past 36 hours,

As a sign that things have turned upside down, the most cogent and thoughtful early analysis came from the Telegraph. Mary Riddell’s piece “The Underclass Lashes Out”, nails the financial meltdown, the failings of the Met and the complacency of the government as equally contributory factors. The always provocative Laurie Penny is even starker:

People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night.

Meanwhile, anger at the riots was coming from the most unexpected of sources. National Treasure Danny Baker’s Twitter account seemed to have been taken over by one of his listeners.

That tweet got his show on Radio London shut down for the day, and he remains unrepentant. I can’t condemn his reaction.

Meanwhile, news that the mobs, taking a cue from student protestors and UK Uncut, were mobilising via Blackberry Messenger led to calls for the system to be opened and searched for clues. RIM, unsurprisingly, are less than keen, and as Boing Boing report, a bunch of hackers calling themselves Team Poison hacked into the company website and left threatening messages.

Squawks of outrage at the use of technology during the unrest were quashed as Twitter and Facebook users united to clean up the streets on Tuesday morning. This picture summed up the attitude, and the intent to keep the streets clean and safe.


That effort, of course, continues. The best one-stop shop for info on how you can help is riotcleanup.co.uk.

Technology is also helping to spot and stop the miscreants, and the Met have set up a Flickr group to help users identify looters. Photoshoppers have also entered the fray, and the Photoshop Looters Tumblr is doing a great job of making the fools look more foolish. My personal favourite:


Homes, families and businesses have all suffered as a result of the unrest. But the riots have been potentially disastrous for small UK independent record labels and DVD distributors. Their stock was mostly held in one central warehouse, the Sony DADC distribution centre in Enfield, which was burnt to the ground on Monday night. Labels like Sub Pop, Matador, and Domino, and DVD labels like Artificial Eye, Dogwoof and Guerrilla, have all lost their entire stock catalogue. This is a horrible situation for small, dedicated businesses trying to bring a little bit of art and independent thought to the music and film scene.

There are ways in which we can help. Brendon Connelly of Bleeding Cool has compiled a comprehensive list of sites where you buy downloads of films from the stricken distributors. Meanwhile Boomkat has an easy-to-navigate list of MP3 or FLAC purchases you can make from the labels of the PIAS catalogue affected by the fire. It’s worth spending a little time and money helping these guys out.

In fact, now more than ever, community is the keyword. Whatever we think of the riots, the rioters, their root causes and their likely after-effects, we are all in this together. It’s a platitude, I know, but I don’t have any easy answers. In fact, I’m not even sure what questions to ask. Like I said at the beginning, all I can reasonably add to the discussion is a bit of context, and a little help. You don’t need my liberal hand-wringing, or my reactionary howls for justice. I’m with David Allen Green, to whom I will give the last word:

…the realization came that people with political opinions tend to find exactly what they want in any civil disturbance.

Radicals and leftists find underlying socio-economic causes for certain riots, and mass vulgar prejudice for others. In turn, conservatives from Burke onwards tend to see any civil disturbance as being a failure of “law and order”.

The actual riots are rarely predicted; but when they happen, people with political opinions tend to immediately know why they happened – what really caused them.

…In fact, civil disturbances are invariably used to validate political opinions which people already hold; no conservative or radical will ever say, “Gosh, that riot changes the way I think about society. Perhaps my principles or my policies are wrong?”.

In this respect, civil disturbances are profoundly reactionary: they tend to reinforce rather than challenge views which already exist.

Big Society Blues

With all the hoopla, furore and general whoop-te-doo surrounding the Murdochs, Sky and a newspaper industry that’s looking more like a badly run spy network everyday, it’s important to keep your eyes open for the other news announcements. The ones that get sneaked out while everyone’s looking somewhere else. Even if they’re not bad news, you have to wonder why the story has to come out at that moment.

The latest example of this has been David Cameron’s renewal of the Big Society pledge. This is the coalition’s attempt to bring public services up to speed by allowing volunteer, charity and business interests to compete for their provision. Competition is, after all, a good thing, leading to more choice and value for money.

Well, yes and no. I agree wholeheartedly that the volunteer and charity sector is vital to the well-being of the country. I’m completely behind the notion that communities should help each other out, that local knowledge trumps diktats from a remote central office. And I also believe that we can see when there is a need for community action, and are able to quickly unite to solve problems. We Brits are also a charitable bunch – look at what we do every year for Comic Relief, for urgent DEC fundraising efforts in places like the Sudan. Frankly, we already get The Big Society.

The thing is, I’m not sure that Cameron and the coalition government do. Savage cuts to council funding have already started to bite the very groups on which this new strategy is supposed to depend. Across the country, these groups are scaling back services or are forced to close just at the point when they are being asked to take on a more frontline role.

And that’s the thing that worries me most. Charities and volunteer groups should enhance and complement, not replace existing local services. When councils decide to displace, for example, trained professional librarians with a squad of volunteers, there’s clearly no understanding that it’s a complex and labour-intensive job. It’s not simply shelf-stacking, and you can’t pick it up in an afternoon. Worse, what is supposed to happen in deprived areas where people simply can’t afford the time to help out?

I’m not alone in thinking this either. Oxfam’s trading director David McCullough has already spoken out on the issue after the charity was approached by other councils for advice on using volunteers. He says:

“A vibrant, engaged community starts from an investment in infrastructure and skills, which can then be supplemented with a willing volunteer base. Cutting jobs for trained staff and hoping to fill the space with volunteers will not deliver a stable, long-term solution.”

I think that while there is nothing wrong in principle with The Big Society idea, there are big problems in the way it’s being implemented and managed. And I also can’t help but agree with critics who suspect at a time when local councils are having to cut budgets by 27% over four years, placing responsibility on local residents is just cover for cutting council services. When the budgets for the groups who are supposed to take up the slack are being cut as well, you have to wonder who’s in charge, and what they think they’re playing at.