Saturday, 30 July 2016

Splitting the Labour Party

It was with wry amusement when I read in this morning's Telegraph that "senior figures" in the Labour Party (all anonymous, of course) are working through the possibility of usurping the front bench and laying legal claim to the party's name and assets should Citizen Smith fail in his leadership bid. The paper says that they plan to set up their own alternative shadow cabinet to challenge the Tories and, via parliamentary chicanery, get the Speaker to designate them the official opposition.

Colour me sceptical. Advocates of this shadow shadow cabinet were all over the media last Autumn and Winter saying they were going to do this, and it didn't happen. Far from offering a credible opposition to the Tories over and above the 'official' shadcab's efforts, they instead took the easy route and spent most of the last year moaning to the media. An approach unlikely to win them many friends among long-standing members practiced at shutting up in the name of party unity. And if indeed they have been offering proper opposition, from outside the Westminster echo chamber there was no sign whatsoever it cut through.

The second part is, of course, the legal challenge. At least no Labour MP publicly backed Mike Foster's challenge against Jeremy's right to be on ballot paper without PLP nominations. But a few would have smarted as an entirely sensible judgement affirming the clear rules about procedures was handed down. By that token, how do they suppose a legal challenge to acquire the party's property and name would succeed? Saying, for argument's sake, you have the majority of MPs in your corner and Bercow extends you the title of official opposition. From a legal point of view, which would in all likelihood affirm party rules as they stand because they already have done so, shenanigans in Parliament cannot entitle them to the rest of the party. It doesn't stand up, and quite rightly so.

The most telling thing about the perennial Jez oppositionists in the PLP is not so much their politics but a lack of sense on how to do politics. This isn't because they're especially thick, though you might suggest they lack imagination. They came into politics and acquired their seats during a quiescent period where politics was an elite sport. The masses had to be consulted every so often, and an occasional manifestation of extra parliamentary pressure flattered and/or patronised, but the game as it played out in Labour was marked by an absence of mass involvement. That has now changed utterly, and many MPs find themselves out of sorts, bewildered, and frightened. This, ultimately, is why the coup failed. Like the plotters who tried to topple Erdogan and the villains from the Hatton Garden heist, all of whom proceeded as if it was the 1980s, when the rebellion was launched it was from entirely within the parliamentary game. They had not used the previous nine months to recruit an army of "moderate" new members that would give them a base in the wider party. And nor did they even try and consult with general secretaries of the affiliated trade unions. Without them, Jeremy would have been toast. With theirs and members' backing, he was never going to resign.

And so it will prove with this splittist wheeze. It doesn't matter if they carry 100 MPs out of the party. Without the unions, the money and social ballast that brings, without the members who are no longer satisfied with just being leafleting and door knocking fodder, and most crucially without a social base in wider society, there is nothing at all going for them. The facts are Jeremy won last year, and he will win again this year. The members, rightly, have the final say. The MPs have a duty and are expected by the party to try and make it work. Jeremy might not be competent (of which more another time), but those who machinate against him have hardly convinced as capable sets of hands.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Local Council By-Elections July 2016

Party
Number of Candidates
Total Vote
%
+/- 
June
Average/
contest
+/-  
June
+/-
Seats
Conservative
   30
10,206
  25.3%
 +0.8%
    340
   -138
    -2
Labour
   27
12,211
  30.0%
 +5.8%
    452
     -42
    -2
LibDem
   24
  8,981
  22.3%
 +5.0%
    374
     -29
   +7
UKIP
   14
  2,444
    6.1%
  -6.3%
    175
   -231
    -1
Green
   11
  2,571
    6.4%
  -1.6%
    234
     -10
     0
SNP*
    0
     
   
 
     0
PC**
    3
  1,043
    2.6%
 +1.3%
    348
   +202
     0
TUSC
    0
     
   
 
     
    
     0
Ind***
  16
  2,330
    5.8%
  -2.1%
    146
   -139
    -2
Other****
    5
    451
    1.1%
 +0.8%
      90
    +45
     0

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were four by-elections in Wales
*** There were three Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of Yorkshire First (91), People Before Profit (129), Justice and Anti-Corruption (41), Christian Alliance (29), and Mebyon Kernow (161)

Overall, 40,237 votes were cast over 32 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. The Conservatives won 10 contests, Labour eight, LibDems nine, UKIP one, Plaid Cymru two, and Independents two. Conservatives, Labour, and Plaid Cymru successfully defended a seat apiece by a safe margin (500+ votes), while eight council seats changed hands in total. For comparison with June's results, see here.

As the results this month were more or less drawn from not entirely safe areas as far as the Conservatives and Labour are concerned, it's a bit of a mixed bag for them. No stunning advances and no heavy losses either. However, the big story is the best performance for the Liberal Democrats since we started tracking by-elections. A net gain of seven councillors in a month isn't something the two bigger parties would sniff at, so for the yellows it is a remarkable achievement. Again, strength isn't showing in the polls, but at least where local by-elections are concerned they're making rapid gains. Whether its a confluence of local factors or part of the post-Brexit fall out remains to be seen, but as we've noted each month for over a year, these elections far away from the Westminster watchers' eyes are telling us something. They're picking up a real pattern in contest after contest. And lo! Poor old UKIP. A collapsing vote so soon? Again, whether this has to do with the vanishing of their raison d'etre and the retirement of Nigel Farage, it's too soon to tell, but again this comes off the back of a longer term trend. And, rarely for them, beaten by the Greens as well. What goodies will next month have in store?

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Notes on Naked Attraction

We've had occasion to discuss willies and fannies on this blog, so it was only a matter of time before a programme came along and did the same. Naturally, it had to be ever-so-edgy Channel 4, and the presenter couldn't be anyone but their veteran of in-house sex shows, Anna Richardson. Naked Attraction is a dating show and works like this. The contestant is surround by six booths which gradually reveal the person inside. The twist is the reveal works from the bottom up, so we see their bits 'n' bobs before seeing their face and hearing them speak. Once the bodies are whittled down to two, the contestant gets their kit off so the viewers can check their naked bods out too. S/he then makes her pick and off on a date they go. It's enough to make Kenneth Williams blow a gasket.

What to make of it then? Some thoughts:

1. It's very of the moment, isn't it? C4 are always the terrestrial telly channel happiest displaying people in their birthday suits, though BBC2 gave them a run for their money in the early 90s. Naked Attraction wouldn't be happening if the channel hadn't already blazed a trail with reality TV. From the 'classical' phase of Big Brother (series 1-6 IMO) and mutating into all sorts of fly-on-the-walls and "real life" TV since, these shows laid bare the characters of real people who, for whatever reason, were fame hungry enough to put themselves in front of the cameras. A certain kind of nakedness has therefore been entertainment currency for the best part of two decades. Then just as interest in Big Brother was winding down, C4 moved into a wave of sex education programming that perhaps, for the first time on British TV, showed extreme close ups of genitalia. This was expanded on with vary degrees of gross through Embarrassing Bodies, which sometimes featured horrible ailments afflicting the nether regions. But Naked's immediate antecedent is the notorious 2013 Danish show, Blachman. Dubbed by the Daily Mail of all papers as "the most sexist show ever", it involved the titular host (imagine Toby Young as an X-Factor judge) sharing his sofa with a male guest and critiquing the body of a woman standing naked before them. Naked does exactly the same, but the conversation with Anna is designed not to humiliate but explore what the contestant likes, be it a tight bum, abs, curvyness, chunky legs, etc.

2. The other key context is our ever-present friend, the internet. We've talked about the ubiquity of porn heap aplenty on this blog, so for our purposes it's enough to note it's never been more readily accessible, had as huge an audience, and influenced mainstream culture to the extent it has and is doing now. You have sex, or at least the digitally mediated depiction of it always on tap. Against this backdrop is the simultaneous explosion in internet dating. Originally premised on matching profiles and getting to know someone a bit through the exchange of messages about, well, whatever, the epidemic of (unwanted) dick pics and the rise of your Grindrs and Tinders marked the mainstreaming of hooking up. Naked takes that further by putting what's hidden away up front, and letting what is usually up front come second. It's more or less the broadcast equivalent of ads in old contact magazines, but without the sleaze and with a dose of light hearted fun. Naked is the dating show perfect for this cultural moment.

3. Do we have to talk about surveillance of the body? I'm afraid so. Someone is always watching you, but it isn't Orwell's Big Brother. On the way from the train station to work, I must appear on at least a dozen CCTV cameras (and these are the ones I've been able to clock). This is pretty unremarkable. That's life in most towns and cities. Surveillance, however, is deeply rooted in Western cultures and has been so for quite some time. The monitoring of celebrity bodies in the press and magazines inculcates habits of surveillance among ourselves. They provide sets of standards by which our bodies are viewed and judged, whether we subscribe to or reject that criteria, and by our perceptions of others are filtered. Naked is very much within this tradition. The bodies on show in the debut episode were within a range of 19 to 32 years old, were multiracial, but did not differ significantly. They were slim, chiseled, and slightly full. They were waxed, shaved, trimmed. Tattooed and not, and, continuing with C4's disability acceptance theme, one of the guys had a prosthetic leg. The size of the willies, the shapes of the vag, the contours of the stomach, the tautness of the chest, the camera captures each almost as objects of contemplation and, perhaps for some viewers, yardsticks of comparison. Contestant comments were along the lines of too big, too curvy, and so on. The question is will the show stick with youthful bodies. are the over 35s allowed to get their kits off and display all? And it being Channel 4, will there be (please, no!) a celebrity version?

4. The reactions on the part of those not picked were quite funny and rather telling, if one accepts the brittle masculinity critique of contemporary displays of manliness. One guy who got rejected because his willy was too big moaned afterwards "But I'm a really nice person." Another bloke given the heave ho told the camera it was okay because he didn't fancy the contestant and she had ugly tattoos on her legs. And the last bloke, a 30-something Jesus look-a-like was almost in tears as he could believe his not being picked by the bi contestant who chose two women over him. Others came away with a spring in their step. One young lad was gleeful that his arse had been praised as a particularly fine specimen. Just don't show it off in a g-string. How future contestants will respond to body critiques will be interesting, Are we going to see more affronted men act all arsey?

5. All this said, I thought Naked was going to be awful. It wasn't.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

You Can't Crowdfund the Centre Ground

I'm old enough to remember when internet utopianism was a real thing. Back in the good old days of dial-up, Netscape, and Geocities, there was a sense the emerging global network of computers would call forth a new sensibility informed by peace, tolerance, and lovely things. Self-styled homesteaders on the electronic frontier knocked off ten-a-penny manifestos declaring the independence of cyberspace (as we cringingly used to refer it to), the freedom of the individual, and a new economy modelled on free association and reciprocity. How did that work out? Today, internet traffic is dominated by a few massive corporations whose profits ponce off user generated content and the big data sets these audiences generate. Unreason has a huge following. For example, yesterday I encountered a video with tens of thousands of views that, in all seriousness, claimed the Moon was fake because in the daytime "we can see blue sky through it". Ridiculous numbers of people hang on celebrities every posting. People use the tools we have not to make connections, but to post selfies, cat pictures, and what's on their dinner plates. And there is the never-ending spectre of internet abuse and web-based harassment. Sounds grim.

Trying to grab back a slice of that utopianism, we have the just launched More United. Billing itself as the UK's first crowdfunded political instrument, it aims to harness the power of the internet to channel monies to election candidates. Those set to receive the cash are "moderate, progressive" candidates who sign up to MU's five key principles. If politics did scout badges, this is pretty much what you have here. Respecting and celebrating diversity, protecting the environment, international cooperation and EU loveliness, empowering citizens, and, as they put it, being for "a fair, modern, efficient market based economy that closes the gap between rich and poor and supports strong public services".

The last is a strange principle to hang your creds on. For one, the sentence is entirely incoherent. Markets are engines of innovation and growth, but only because they're chaotic, concentrate wealth in a few pair of hands where a strong, interventionist state is absent, and are founded on exploitation. That isn't a value judgement, it's a simple fact that those employed to produce commodities only receive in their wage or salary a small portion of the wealth their activity generates. By any measure, surely the hallmark of any progressive person would see them deeply uncomfortable about such a state of affairs. So there is that. And then there's the curious mention of markets. It's a bit odd because, surely, it's an unnecessary adjective. A "modern, efficient economy" would have worked just as well. Its inclusion here and its positioning as the first of the five principles is a deliberate choice. It's designed to make sure those frightful Corbynites are kept at arms length so they too can be written off as awful extremists, as something our nice, nice MU people can define themselves against.

Moving on to the initiative's patrons, well strike me down, if it isn't the great and the good. The hip young gunslingers of London's tech city rub shoulders with a couple of London-based liberal heroes, London-based do-gooders, and London-based journos. There's an underlying something uniting them all I can't quite put my finger on ... And so there we have it, nothing at all to dissuade the casual cynic that this is anything other than a nice establishment outfit pushed by nice establishment people to fund nice establishment candidates.

There are two things that interest me about this initiative. First off, MU aims to be a cross-party movement to fund candidates who have broadly the same politics - as if too much similarity between the politicians doesn't partly explain the mess we're in. Fine, if you want to throw money at liberalish Tories, liberalish Labourites, and, um, the LibDems that's your business. Except, that is, should you happen to be a member of one of those parties. I cannot speak for our blue and yellow friends, but Labour takes a dim view of its members backing and supporting other candidates. Should MU decide to throw money at a candidate who happens to stand against Labour at an election, by participating in the crowd funding you're out on your ear. And rightly so. Parties aren't for jolly debates, they're about interests. Supporting anything other than a Labour candidate is, to put it bluntly, setting yourself against the interests of the labour movement. Feel free to do so, but you can't do that from inside our tent. I hope Jess Phillips MP, who's reportedly signed up to MU, gives this some thought.

The more interesting point is what MU represents, or thinks it represents. It aligns itself with the folks who went on the polite pro-EU demo after the Brexit result, and those digging deep to buy the The New European. The metro middle class types are its target market. People who think they're above and removed from the tribalism and crudities of party politics. Unfortunately for them they've misread the situation. The referendum has sparked off a mass politicisation that is, despite the bureaucratic heroics of its NEC, finding its expression in the Labour Party. People are pouring in. And all the other parties have seen an uptick in their membership fortunes too. After decades of decline, you might say we're seeing the return of the political party. Hence the people who would ordinarily be most receptive to a campaign of this kind are moving into active engagement. MU's model is premised on a politics that is done by politicians. It treats with people at the level of interested observers, and therefore comes to the scene some 18 months too late.

A less charitable reading might be that this is a liberal, middle class manifestation of the stop-the-world-we-want-to-get-off market previously cornered by UKIP. Frightened by an apparently insurgent hard right (but oblivious to its limited shelf life), and bewildered by a left insurgency that would like to see the back end of well-meaning Labour MPs just like them, they're clinging to a centre ground bending and twisting all over the place. Without an analysis or understanding of what's happening to British politics, their fate is to launch empty initiative after empty initiative in the hope of making things better and nicer, their illusions about what's going on reinforced from within the safety of the metro media bubble. They're the Jehovah's Witnesses of politics - they eschew participating fully in the messes of modern life in the hope they'll ride Armageddon out.

Except it's already upon them. The political world they know has ended and something new is up for grabs, and they've placed themselves in the right position to ensure the influence they exert over what's coming next will be negligible. Good.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

On the Nintendo Classic Mini

I didn't have time to reflect on the two big video game news stories of the last week or so. Interestingly, this blog's occasional bête noire, Nintendo, is at the centre of both. First was the gaming phenomenon of the year and probably the decade - the ubiquitous Pokémon Go. And the other is ... the sort of re-release of the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Excuse me, what? We've had occasion to scratch our heads at some of Nintendo's bizarre business decisions, so on the face of it putting out a system that turns 33 this year seems to lie in that tradition. And yet, it also makes perfect sense. Dubbed the Nintendo Classic Mini, what's being released isn't the endearingly unreliable breeze block of old, but a compact plug-in and play. No blowing on cartridges or wiggling them about in the hope of getting the bloody thing working, just wire it up and you're good to go.

Retailing at an as yet undecided figure (thanks to Brexit, likely to be a wheelbarrow of used twenties), buyers have the choice of some 30 built-in games. There are titles here that defined the NES and will be widely known - your Marios, Zeldas, Metroid, and so on. There's a handful of key third party games as well. Mega Man 2, Ninja Gaiden (Shadow Warriors to us PAL people), and Castlevania are well known and notorious in equal measure. There's some filler. Why Ice Climber and Galaga are there is something of a mystery. Tecmo Bowl was a well-received and popular American footy title over there, but I can't see it attracting many plays from UK purchasers of the Mini. I suppose Donkey Kong had to be on there (yawn), but why did Nintendo decide to license Super C over Contra (Probotector for us)? Perhaps the original game is too much of a money spinner for Konami on the virtual console. And there's a couple of titles that never made it over here, namely the original Final Fantasy and Star Tropics. RPG-tastic.

Okay, for sad sacks like me who are only truly comfortable playing video games from yesteryear (so much for the professed accelerationism), this could be a worthwhile purchase. Not all the NES games available on the Mini are easy to find or inexpensive to pick up. You'll find seven of these among my stack of carts, and I'm not willing to blow silly money on say Castlevania, which can go for over a hundred quid boxed and complete. Then again, I'm in the niche retro game market, and while it's of a size sufficient to support Retro Gamer magazine, specialist markets, and an ecosystem of independent stockists of old stuff, it alone probably isn't big enough for the Mini.

In America where, obviously, the retro scene is bigger, there's a larger core audience receptive to something like this. Lest we forget, the NES had the US video game scene locked down for years in the late 1980s. Beyond the retro freaks Nintendo is well positioned to pluck at the nostalgic heart strings of gamers who grew up with their machine. It could be one of those purchases "for the kids" that mum and dad end up spending Christmas Day playing, or something like that. And I'm sure the Mini will do well there. In Europe, which was never properly conquered by Nintendo, it's slightly different. The home computer formats, then Sega, then Sony carried all before them. In addition to retro folks, the Mini might appeal to younger gamers into their video game history and, ugh, hipsters. But enough for it to be considered a success?

As I've suggested previously, it's now possible to feel nostalgic about how we used to do nostalgia. Before the advent of popular streaming services, playing old games and digging out old albums often demanded a rummage through the loft or under the bed. This is exemplified in Umberto Eco's 2004 novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona. To help rebuild his memory, the lead character spends almost the entire book turning his grandfather's loft upside down to dig out the old comics and magazines he grew up with. Now, he'd just have to search for a few phrases and the PDFs of those old strips are at the end of a mouse click. Nostalgia then was dependent on a certain level of inaccessibility. Now, effectively, we're in the eternal present. Everything can be listened to, watched, and played as and when. Nintendo's Mini allows for the accessible to be a little more accessible by providing a reliable iteration of its classic machine. No loading difficulties. No hunting high-and-low for classic carts. No extra virtual console purchases necessary. It makes the convenient even more convenient, and adds to the effacement of nostalgia old-stylee. If you're vaguely into old games, and the price turns out to be okay, you too can do your bit in helping this process along.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Nuclear Nuance

A guest post from my friend and comrade, Trudie McGuinness. She is a member of Labour’s National Policy Forum and sits on the International Policy Commission. In 2015, Trudie stood as Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate in Staffordshire Moorlands. Here she gives a flavour of the discussions on the IPC.

You are a leadership-defying Blairite war-monger who is happy to nuke children. Or so it might be claimed if you were one of the 140 Labour MPs who voted on Monday night to renew Britain’s at-sea Trident nuclear deterrent.

The Tories did not need to secure the backing of Parliament to progress fully with the plans that are already underway for the successor nuclear deterrent programme. They did so because they wanted to pick at the scab of the wounded Labour Party. The newspapers dubbed the vote the biggest rebellion against the Labour leader to date. Yet conversely, it could seen as the biggest rebellion of a Labour leader against his party’s policy in nearly one hundred years. The vote was designed to ferment further division. We are vulnerable to attack and the Tories – indeed, all onlookers – know it.

What is also clear to see is that Labour Party members, supporters, MPs, MEPs and councillors are increasingly being judged in binary terms. We ourselves in the Labour Party are some of the harshest accusers. Blairite (nearly always pejorative), Brownite (shades of dull) and Corbynista (depends on your stand point and we only allow two) are the confetti currency of discussions.

In contrast, the reality of life is that it is full of nuance. Nuance sits also at the heart of the nuclear deterrent debate. It is not, as Ken Livingstone when he was Chair of the International Policy Commission declared, a division between the war-mongers and the pacifists. Our unity is in wanting a nuclear-free world. Our debate is in how we get there.

Labour’s NEC gave the International Policy Commission on which I sit the specific focus of reviewing party policy regarding Britain’s defence and security priorities. For the past six months colleagues and I have met and listened to fifteen experts giving insights into international strategic context, nuclear deterrence and Trident renewal and the defence sector and jobs. Their knowledge and experience carried weight. Their words and arguments carried nuance.

We were all seeking answers. We all have own starting point, with our own history and prejudices. My own starting point, as a child of the Cold War, is an abhorrence of nuclear weapons. Colleagues and I were all agreed on that. The idea of one nuclear bomb going off, let alone a full nuclear conflict, reminds us anew of the need to inject pace into securing a nuclear-free world. I was not sure, though, that replacing Trident was compatible with that. Lisa Nandy MP shares this view and reasoned to vote against Trident renewal on the basis that it sets back multi-lateral nuclear disarmament.

But does it? In Policy Commission meetings I have actively sought to challenge my own bias and have asked lots of questions along the way. It was notable that some of the experts, the majority of whose party political views remained unknown, looked deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of Britain failing to secure a replacement for Trident when it finally faces decommissioning. James Nixey from Chatham House and Malcolm Chalmers from the Royal United Services Institute warned of a resurgent Russia seeking to flex its military might. They warned months ago of the danger of Brexit and the impact that this would have on the strength of the EU and, by association, NATO in meeting the strategic challenges that Russia will present, especially now that it has form in Ukraine – a country which forfeited its nuclear deterrent.

Insight into the changing nature of nuclear weapons possession came from RAND Europe’s Paul Cornish. Stockpiles of nuclear weapons amongst known nuclear powers have reduced significantly in the past two decades, yet more states are seeking to acquire them. The risk of the use of a nuclear weapon by a rogue state has grown. The de facto understanding on which nuclear deterrence has worked is that of mutually assured destruction. This same assumption is being applied to rogue states. With rogue elements, this is applied in hope rather than expectation. So whilst there is a high probability that nuclear weapons will deter a potentially aggressive Russia, the same surety cannot be applied to non-states. Nuance emerges.

Whilst some have wavered on renewing our nuclear deterrent either on the basis of jobs lost or overall cost. I will push for a defence industrial strategy and want to see a default policy of using British workers to meet the UK’s defence and security needs. But unless a piece of equipment is needed, there can be no sensible argument for its manufacture just to keep people in jobs. As for overall cost, actual spend must be scrutinised against forecast spend. But since the defence and security of its people is the primary duty of the UK government, then if something is fundamentally needed in order to secure that aim, then it must be supplied. The central question for me was always, Is it needed?

I have come to the view that it is.

I want to see a nuclear-free world. I want us to fast-track efforts to secure multi-lateral nuclear disarmament. I do not, though, believe that scrapping plans for the successor programme will expedite that. I actually believe that right now it would make us more vulnerable to attack.

Not since I was that girl of the Cold War have I felt that our world to be so dangerous. We face terrorism and we must meet it. We face potential conflict from global warming consequences and we must be prepared. We face cyber and technology attacks and we must scramble to stay one step ahead. We face as yet unknown threats and yet we must be ready for them. Our complex world requires complex answers. It needs nuance.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Meeting Citizen Smith

I was a bit naughty talking about Owen Smith a couple of days ago. I kinda implied he was almost entirely anonymous and were it not for the public scrapping at the top of the Labour Party, I don't think he'd have gone down in history as one of our most able parliamentarians. That is not to be the case. Having been picked as the 'unity' candidate to run against Jeremy by the PLP majority, there is an opportunity now for him to seize the limelight and make a real name for himself. It's therefore time to give his candidacy the once over.

Owen's back story. Well, it's not the most compelling, is it? He followed the PR-lobbyist-MP route into Westminster which, to be blunt, is unlikely to endear him to many people. As there's an over-preponderance of such people already on our benches it's not going to help him stand out any (and yes, in case rabid Owen fans are already in existence and reading this, I'm fully aware that Jeremy is no horny handed son of toil either). Where policies go, there wasn't much to write home about until his launch a couple of days ago, of which more in a moment. Appearing on Newsnight semi-regularly, he didn't really strike me as much of an ideas man. Someone who can play the Westminster game, certainly. A politician competent in his brief and knows what to do in front of a camera (mostly), yes. But again, nothing stands out. Say what you like about last year's contenders, they each had something distinctive to offer and, yes, some substance too. I'm afraid to say that prior to his launch, all I knew about Owen was that he thought Jeremy should go and that he wants to be leader.

All that said, I think he enjoyed a very good leadership launch. It was more competent than Angela's late and unlamented affair and did what I think a challenger to Jeremy needs to do: he talked about policy from the get go. He scooped up Ed Miliband's baton (seeing as the PM relinquished all claim to it a short 24 hours later) and pledged to put equality at the heart of his policy agenda, including a totemic rewriting of Clause IV. He endorsed anti-austerity politics, a huge infrastructure fund, serious action on climate change, changing the law so Parliament decides on war, not Prime Ministers, and renationalising the rail. Who seriously can argue with such a policy line up? Perhaps the gruel I've imbibed for years is too thin, but I think it's quite a compelling platform. To win over those who fell in and out of love with Jeremy and the floating members, it needed to be. And were it on offer from the anyone-but-Jez camp last year, we might not be where we are now. However, a symptomatic reading of the launch reveals two significant silences. Trident was one, and his hankering for "progressive" immigration controls the other - positions I don't think disillusioned Jez supporters would find seductive, and by their omission Owen is aware of that too.

His big eye catcher though, which didn't get floated on the day, was his Europhilia. Calling for a second referendum on completion of May's slow Brexit (whenever that will be) is smart politics now because, firstly, the leader's support was and is mostly pro-EU, and secondly there are still millions of people politicised by, though not necessarily in a radical direction, by the referendum result. Remember, three million signed a petition calling for a re-run, and greater numbers (16 million) voted remain than has ever for a winning party of government in a general election (yes, yes, not proportionally, but the point is a substantial pool of voters are there).

Owen has problems though. While I liked his Citizen Smith pitch, his past will come up and bite him just as it has done Jeremy. Others have made hay out of Owen's involvement in PFI lobbying, on being more Blairite-than-Blair, of clapping through the academisation of schooling, and accusations of fibbing from noted Jez ally, John Mann. To me, at best this paints Owen as a politician who goes with the flow and says what he thinks has to be said to get on, much like how Labour unilateralists of the 1980s became Trident's biggest fans in the 90s. At worst, it suggests he is disingenuous. When anti-politics, some of which is informing Jeremy's support, is sick of less-than-straight politicians this is a significant disadvantage that could dog Owen over the next couple of months. Owen's second problem is his tendency to walk into rakes. The daft comment about Leanne Wood and the "being normal" silliness are quite petty in the scheme of things, but with the future of the party at stake it won't be the jibes online that do for him - it will be himself unless he gets a handle on this unfortunate habit.

His other big disadvantages, is - talking with comrades last night, both of whom are supporting Owen - that by standing as the unity candidate he is de facto the establishment candidate. His platform is a break from last year's hopefuls, but uniting party elites to beat a populist figure is what the anti-Jeremy team desperately needed to avoid. After all, pitting elites against 'the people' has worked well this year so far. The second big problem is there is little to no recognition of why Jeremy won in the first place, nor that politics and the party itself is undergoing a process of recomposition. If you cannot acknowledge that fact and think about what needs to be done, your insurgency is over before you've made the first phone call. Like the hapless coup plotters in Turkey, you cannot win if you plan for yesterday's realities. And lastly what applied to Angela's leadership bid now becomes his problem. There are forces supporting him now like a rope supports a hanging man. If Owen wins, and I think there is an outside possibility he could, he and the whole party knows he's on borrowed time. The so-called A-listers still have their designs on that office. What Owen will find hard to rebut is his being a foil for other people who'll push him aside when the opportunity arises.

And there, dear readers, is Owen Smith. Support him, reject him, praise him, condemn him. He does deserve some credit though, and this applies equally to Angela. Putting up against a popular party leader (at least among the members) is potential political suicide. He could well be feeding his career into the shredder. But in so doing he's shown more courage and leadership than all of the "big names" hiding behind his campaign, and for that I commend him.