The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘populism’

It’s All In The Timing

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 24, 2010 @ 11:47

Yes. It is.

To me, the beauty of the American political system is in its enforced renewal. Every two years, the populist House has to be re-mandated. It is this very nature that makes it populist. Meanwhile, their ultimate leader and national figurehead, the President, gets a little longer, but is not allowed to stick around for more than eight years, lest he (not yet a she) start to get ideas above his station, and become a little too attached to the trappings of office.

There aren’t many other Western political systems that have such rigorous time and term limits on everything. The rest of us, especially Westminster inspired systems, have a lot more flexibility regarding the calling of elections. And that’s where the problem begins.

Take Australia. In January, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd looked in an extremely powerful position. The opposition had just replaced its leader, in a fractious contest that split the party down the middle. His personal approval ratings were sky high. The opposition controlled Senate had just blocked a key plank of his legislation – environmental regulation – for the second time. This opened the door for Rudd to engage in some constitutional jiggery-pokery: a “double dissolution” election, which, most probably, would have resulted in a sweeping Labour victory in both chambers of the Parliament.

Instead, he decides to tough it out. And then sees everything go wrong, getting chucked out and replaced by Julia Gillard.

Julia Gillard doesn’t want to repeat Rudd’s mistake. While the polls see her arrival as positive, and the Labor Party improves its standing, she decides to seize upon the honeymoon and go straight to that election. The net result: Labor on the brink, courtesy of a terrible, back-biting campaign, and an opposition that had had eight months to prepare for this very moment.

Then there’s Gordon Brown: clinging on by his fingernails till the very last moment. If only he’d gone straight away, like so many commentators (including me) thought he should. His first job, after accepting the invitation of the Queen to be the Prime Minister, should have been to say, “And now I’d like an election to mandate this change”. He didn’t. He didn’t want to be one of the shortest ever PMs. And yet all the omens were good for them. Tories still not ready. Old election boundaries. Honeymoon period. The rest is history.

Recent evidence seems to be that politicians are not very good at choosing the timing of elections. They either worry that they’re about to sign their own death warrant, or are hopelessly optimistic about what’s lurking around the corner.

Since we should only trust politicians as much as is necessary, we should do them all a favour and back the idea of fixed election dates. Let’s take the stress off them, and in return, remove a major element of political fiddling from the system.

Though I still think five years is too long…

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When Congress Doesn’t Work

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 18, 2010 @ 09:22

Poor communicator, yes, but I guess that wasn't why he was made BP's CEO...

Anyone watching the tedium of the BP CEO attending the House Committee on Energy and Commerce session on the oil disaster could probably have only managed five minutes at best before turning off. And that’s coming from a political junkie.

I’ve seen US committees in operation in the past. They are powerful bodies, often conducting very interesting and intensive scrutiny of the evidence and their witnesses. Their power comes from the fact that all bills and appropriations have to be examined by the relevant committee. This means a seat on them is very prestigious indeed, especially if it can be used to deliver pork to one’s constituents…

This multiple role means that its members get frequent opportunities to make a name for themselves. And none of them missed the opportunity to indulge their populist fantasies yesterday. Well, all except Representative Barton (R), who licked Tony Hayward’s boots clean.

But, to me, it just doesn’t work. The way the committee works in these situations is almost embarrassing to watch. One by one the Representatives (or the Senators for a Senate committee) take their turn to deliver a pre-prepared nasty speech, full of rhetoric and invective, which the witness has to sit in silence and listen to in silence. They get a chance to reply at the end, but not before more than a dozen people have cast judgement on them… before the witness has even had the opportunity to set out their stall, no matter how unconvincing they are.

That is very uncomfortable to watch. It is not an in-depth probe, getting to the truth. It is a witch-hunt, a kangaroo court, carried out in the full glare of the media for the benefit not of the country, but for the Congress members themselves, in order to get some cheap headlines and show off their prowess to their constituents.

Such is democracy, I suppose.

Only later does it come to questions, a real opportunity to have a conversation with the witness, but even then they have all already made their minds up.

In truth, it looks more like a blood-letting than a proper investigation, with a ritualistic sacrifice from some contemporary hate-figure.

Not that Tony Hayward doesn’t deserve a thorough grilling, you understand. But the acid test must always be: did it generate anything useful? Are we any closer to solving the problem? Is America any closer to leading the way to end its addiction to oil?

The answers are simple: no. But at least it got the Congress some good headlines in the battle to rescue its shocking approval ratings, eh.

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Clarky Cat Is On The Loose

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 17, 2010 @ 11:40

And so it begins...

It is extremely unfortunate, or perhaps richly ironic, that the drug mephedrone, making headlines this morning because of the tragic deaths of two teenagers who had taken it, has the following nicknames: “M-Cat”, “MC”, “mieow” and “meow”.

Because, when I heard this, my mind turned to thoughts of yellow bentines, cake (the made up drug) and, of course, clarky cat.

Satirised by Chris Morris and the Brass Eye team almost 13 years ago, in scenes that caused great controversy at the time due to the willingness of popular figures to lend their names to a campaign that was entirely fictitious, the problem now is that satire ceases to be funny if it’s actually true.

I have no doubt that mephedrone is indeed dangerous if you stick it up your nose. I imagine snorting most things are. Cillit Bang, Mr Muscle, soap powder…

What worries me is that we are now in danger of witnessing yet another full scale moral panic regarding a drug which has been the result of no research, no previous media information, with the resulting effect that almost the entire population know nothing of it.

That is where things start to go wrong. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so too do the media.

Into this void we are going to see endless tales of the “dangers” of mephedrone. Politicians will jump on the bandwagon. There is even talking of classifying this drug as Class A, and yet you have Peter Mandelson admitting this morning that he had previously no knowledge of it.

Perhaps in a month or so, or less, we will be seeing celebrities coming out to warn da yoof about the dangers of this drug. And, naturally, the celebrities will know no more than anyone else.

Evidence. Evidence. Evidence.

I wrote about this same subject before when Professor Nutt resigned from government’s drug advisory panel. Where drugs are concerned, if we must be going down the route of prohibition (being a crazy liberal, I am unconvinced), the best we can do is to do things thoroughly. Yes, there will always be a political decision, and there will be variations in human physiology, but science is pretty damn good in fields like this, and we should use all the tools at our disposal.

But since that’s not going to happen, and with an election imminent, democracy is once again going to be exposed as a failure when it comes to resisting short-term bouts of populism. I’ll bet even the Lib Dems will find it hard to resist the tidal wave of calls for a ban. After all, would you want to look like the outsider on an issue like this?

No. Not when we’re going to have the Daily Mail and Express, with a dash of The Sun and Sky News dictating the agenda.

But still. As long as we all don’t have to live with arms that feel like a couple of fortnights in a bad balloon.

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When The Media Fail

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 8, 2010 @ 11:38

The latest developments in the Jon Venables story are extremely worrying. Not because of the “alleged” allegations spiralling around the media, courtesy of gutter Sunday press, but because I’ve just watched Sky News and witnessed Dominic Grieve, Shadow Justice Secretary, being drawn into the row in a disappointing way.

Dominic Grieve is probably one of my favourite Conservative politicians. He is cool, rational and utterly logical. A staunch defender of liberty and freedoms, winning all the arguments regarding ID cards and Gordon Brown’s pitiful attempts to extend detention without trial to 42 days with breathtaking ease.

He is no populist.

That is, until now.

He has just given an interview in which he basically demanded Jack Straw comes to the Commons with a statement forthwith to “clarify” the issues involved.

Wrong move.

The endless speculation in the papers is a terrible thing to begin with. We seem to be reaching a stage where it’s OK to print whatever you like now, because the chance of being indicted for contempt of court seem to be slim to non-existent these days.

But the real problem, both for the course of justice and for the media, is that the judiciary will not be beholden to the populism of politicians. If newspapers continue to print stories, which have ranged from merely a breach of the order, to a fight, to drug taking, and now to child porn (notice it getting worse because you can’t libel someone who has no reputation to defend?)… then if this does indeed come to trial, the defence have an extraordinarily easy case to make that a fair trial is impossible.

Fair trials. Remember those? I know we’ve sold a lot of our values and liberties down the river in the past decade or two, but the right to a fair trial has to be preserved.

Bizarrely, it would actually be in the media’s best interests if they shut the hell up. They’ll be the first ones to moan if there is no trial because a court agrees that it would be impossible to select an unbiased jury, especially if his new identity is either disclosed or leaked to a paper, who must be itching to print what they doubtless already know about Venables’ new life.

But it would also be in all our interests to make sure the trial is fair, Venables gets due process, and whatever may or may not be coming to him.

There is no alternative that is acceptable.

And to see Dominic Grieve, of all people, selling out what remains of justice’s fundamental principles, and turning this into a political football, is extremely disheartening.

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The Bulger Case

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 5, 2010 @ 11:32

Before I begin I want to make clear that I am not entering into this post lightly. This is an extraordinarily difficult issue on a horrendously sad case.

Last night I watched Question Time, as you do. On it, the discussion turned to whether or not the public had a right to know information about the activities of Jon Venables, one of the two that murdered James Bulger in 1993.

The reaction from the audience was more restrained than I thought it would be, but the highlight of the evening was the contribution from Will Self. I would transcribe it, but he speaks with so quickly that it would take me a while.

The speed at which he delivered his point, however, illustrates the clarity of his thought process. He made an excellent argument, reminding us all that actually they were children with no concept of what they were doing, and there was no sign of “malicious aforethought”. He then shared his experience from reading the court transcripts of the original trial, and it’s obvious that he is very interested in what the motivations of Venables and Thompson were that caused them to commit such a horrific act.

The question of whether or not we have a right to know what is happening now is irrelevant. Frankly, we don’t. For the same reason that we should not get our politicians involved in the legal process, neither should the public get involved in this extraordinarily delicate matter.

Some argue that they have no right to a new life and a new existence. I disagree profoundly because they were children. Will Self’s point was that people are forgetting that they were extremely young at the time of the crime, and that just because they were young it doesn’t make them somehow more evil. In fact, it makes them less evil. It makes them almost entirely unable to understand the consequences of their actions. Indeed, had they been just a few months younger, both boys would not have been able to come to trial at all for being under the age of criminal responsibility.

It is that that justifies the exceptional nature of cases like this. Children have differently wired brains to adults. That is scientific fact. They are first and foremost the product of their genes, then their families, then our whole society. Adults have had much longer to escape and change the pre-determined nature of much of what life throws at you. Children haven’t. Children invariably make no independent decisions until they’re much older.

Let us also not forget that these cases are, mercifully, exceptionally rare. There is no question of a precedent at stake here. It is not the case that we are granting someone a new identity and a new life, and we should go on and do that for all murderers. No, it is the unique nature of a child murderer that means, in a free and just society, we have no choice but to give people another chance.

The point was again nailed home on Question Time. Someone in the audience was ranting about how they have no right to privacy or a new life. Shirley Williams replied: “So what would you do?” Answer came there none.

The alternative is not acceptable. Those boys have to live with what they did on their minds for the rest of their life. They are subject to intense scrutiny, and, as in this case, are subject to recall on any offence, even technical ones.

My final thought, though, is I believe we’ve let ourselves down. By this even re-emerging in the news, we may to disrupt a difficult but necessary consensus from all politicians on maybe one of the only things they are all agreed upon. Populism is an unedifying sight when it comes to political-judicial relations, and anything that threatens to stoke the fires must be avoided.

For that, we can only blame whoever allowed this story to get out in the first place, and the Home Secretary for fanning it further by saying the public should know.

Wrong, Alan. We shouldn’t know. It doesn’t help us. It doesn’t protect us. It just feeds into our tabloid curiosity.

As the old saying goes, just because the public is interested, it doesn’t mean it’s in the public interest.

The original crime was a tragedy for everyone concerned, victim and perpetrator. We crafted a way out, the only right course, and the only one which a truly enlightened liberal society should be proud of, in spite of all that’s happened.

Let’s leave it at that.

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The Drones May Fall Into Line

Posted by The Futility Monster on January 15, 2010 @ 10:40

Well, it sort of makes sense here...

Praise be!

Our Lord President Obama has actually taken an opinion on something!

Yesterday he unveiled an opportunity to extract large sums of cash from the corporate monster that is the banking sector.

The plan itself is remarkably bold for a man who has been so timid on various issues throughout the first year of his presidency, when he should be at the peak of his mandate. And yet, it is actually a fairly modest tax that would extend over 10 years, and only be more punitive to those who deserve it the most: the ones with substantial borrowings. It should still, however, raise significant sums of money.

Bankers in the US will bleat and moan that many of them didn’t even accept taxpayer’s money during the height of the crisis; and that they will just have to pass on this cost to the consumer. Of course, that’s all just part of the PR game. First of all, no bank would be left standing if it wasn’t for the unprecedented scale of loans, investments, nationalisation and quantitative easing that has kept the sector going. They should be grateful they’re still here.

And as for passing on charges… well, many banks were planning to do this anyway in order to enhance their profitability after a couple of years of hits. Now they have a perfect excuse to do so, and can blame the government in the process. It’s all about the rhetoric.

With a bit of luck, the plans will make it through the US Senate relatively unscathed. It is an election year after all, and all the polls are still showing a great degree of negativity towards banks, bankers and their bonuses.

What will be most interesting, however, is whether other countries will react in the same way. British efforts to rein in our banking sector now look rather tame in comparison. Surely we should take the opportunity provided by Obama to copy the policy and extract our own pound of flesh? It would be a relatively free hit and wouldn’t be as damaging to UK competitiveness if our biggest rival in the banking sector is doing exactly the same.

That old chestnut of national interest, however, is probably what’s going to stop us. There is still a banker love-in going on in the City of London, and many of them will currently be wondering if Obama’s actions could lead to another round of offshoring. Maybe once our 50% bonus tax has worked its way out of the system we might be in line for even more banking jobs, and even more bonuses…

And this, my friends, is why we need global co-operation. If only Obama had told everyone last year that this was what he was planning all along, we might have got better agreements at the various G20 and G8 summits last year.

A wasted opportunity, methinks.

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The Perils Of Populism

Posted by The Futility Monster on January 6, 2010 @ 11:20

Now who wouldn't get suckered in by such a great rate!

Yesterday we saw possibly the most impressive collection of signatures in the world turned into a rather annoying little stumbling block for the British and the Dutch.

In Iceland, a quarter of the country’s population signed a petition appealing to their President to do something about a bill that had narrowly passed Parliament.

Over here, our government was very pleased at the progress of that bill. Indeed, many people here would consider it only fair. It requires Iceland to pay back several billion pounds to the British and the Dutch governments, who had bailed out failed Icelandic banks when the banking crisis was at its highest. Declaration of interest: I was one of the fools who had money in Icesave. Whoops. But thanks to Alistair Darling, I got it all back. I won’t hear a bad word said about that man!

But of course, the British government wasn’t just doing it out of the goodness of their own heart. They wanted the money paid back eventually. And so they got just a little bit excited when the newly elected centre-left Icelandic government pledged to pay back their debts and come in from the cold, joining the warm embrace of the EU.

It seems, however, that a significant chunk of the Icelandic people don’t want to pay back their debts. They have a point. Why should they pay for the actions of a few disgraceful individuals who have bankrupted their country with their stupid gambles?

In many respects, it’s like the bonus crisis over here multiplied by thousands. Everyone moans about why government owned banks are paying bonuses, but really they’re a mere trifle compared to the size of the companies themselves, and the size of our taxpayer base. Bankers bonuses are small change to the Exchequer.

Meanwhile, tiny little Iceland, population 320,000, has to pay back a much greater sum. That’s gonna be a lot of pain for their people.

And so they got angry. Their President joined them, sensing an opportunity to hog the limelight in a debate that has torn the country apart and turned opinion once more against joining the EU.

That’s a shame. Iceland would have been a fine member of the EU, but I will be amazed if it happens now.

And all because of a referendum. People power at its ultimate. The only expression of direct democracy there is.

It may sound anti-democratic, but sometimes issues are just too complex to be put to a vote. Once you start, where do you stop? Why referendums on some issues and not others?

Referendums, since time immemorial, have only ever been used to get politicians out of a hole, or used by those who are certain to win as a rallying cry to bludgeon the advocates of things that are often unpopular but usually necessary.

And so it has been proven again in Iceland. A populist reaction to an event that the country really has to bite the bullet over – because if they don’t they are going to lose a lot of friends, especially at the IMF who have bailed the whole economy out – culminates in a referendum and a chance to kick the government, boxing them in and leaving them unable to deal with a crisis.

It’s the classic case of principles versus politics. On the one hand, my principles are with the Icelandic people. On the other, if they don’t suffer in the short-term, they will never recover in the long-term.

Referendums are difficult. The idea is good, but the practicalities are hard to overcome.

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The Long Term Impact Of The Expenses Scandal

Posted by The Futility Monster on January 2, 2010 @ 11:26

I think we all need to take David Cameron's words a little more seriously. You won't hear me saying that very often...

There has been much ink spilled over the expenses debacle, but there has been an extremely disappointing lack of analysis about what the real consequences are going to be. And not just the intended ones either, like making politics cheaper, and making the political class more transparent with the taxpayers who fund them.

What’s really important to me is what the unintended consequences of change are going to be.

First off, I think we need to appreciate that most of us already knew that MPs were on some sort of fiddle. In fact, I’d be aghast if they weren’t. The world is filled with expenses fiddlers, and so politics is no different. MPs are just as human as the rest of us, usually when we “accidentally” overclaim on an expense or leave out something from a tax return. A few extra miles here, some mispriced “depreciation” on assets there, and maybe a few pilfered items of stationery. We all do it.

And the truth of the matter is that no matter how much we try to have gloriously untainted politicians, they are still human, and susceptible to all human frailties. It would be nice if they could be beyond reproach, but it takes a stunning level of naivety to believe that that is ever achievable.

Nevertheless, it was good to see MPs exposed, partially because of the waste of taxpayers money, but also because they’ve had it coming to them for a long time. The direct consequences of it have been severe, with the huge swathe of retirements and even more of them certain to be defeated at the next election.

It will probably resulting in the cost of politics coming down, at least in the short term. But the real price is likely to be in terms of the type of person who goes into it. More and more of our MPs will be of independent means, wealthy before going into politics. Will they be able to understand what it means to live on a council estate today? I think not.

The biggest change, however, will be the resulting rise in the full time politician. The completion of the past few decades work to fully professionalise the occupation. I genuinely don’t think that’s what The Telegraph intended when they started this campaign, but that’s what they’re going to get. All those accidental and part-time MPs will move on, not prepared to be put under so much scrutiny, required to account for all the hours they spend on the job.

Meanwhile, the next generation – well honed by the expectations of reality TV – will understand exactly what is required, and will be even more shameless publicity seekers than ever before. Could we see a rise in the ever more populist politician? Part of me thinks this is why the BNP is gaining ground.

And – let’s face it – we’re also going to see the rise of the squeaky clean politician. Never having done anything; never even lived just a little for fear of what tales may be outed in years to come. Spending their entire lives just waiting for the moment to join the political class, never putting a foot wrong. Honest, yes. Reflective of real life, no.

Maybe we need to be a bit more tolerant of the faults in our politicians. After all, the population of this country regularly engages in adultery, casual drug use, alcoholism, misappropriation and a little white lying to smooth over the roughest social situation.

In the past, politicians used to do all this kind of stuff and no one batted an eyelid. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, and all that. Times may have changed, but we’re often in no doubt that the politicians of yesteryear were better than the ones of today. But if they had to stand up to today’s scrutiny, I’ll bet we’d soon change our mind on a few of them.

Conclusion: let’s stop going down this path. Let’s give our politicians a bit more room to be real people. Stop them wasting our money, of course, but I think it’s time to put away our microscopes.

I would quote that bit from the Bible about motes, beams and eyes, but that would make me a hypocrite as well…

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The Politics Factor

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 14, 2009 @ 09:59

Love him or hate him, he's obviously doing something right. But will the magic work in politics?

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m a fan of The X Factor. But I am in the esteemed company of maybe 15m other people. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The X Factor is one of life’s guilty pleasures for me. I generally dislike reality TV, finding it too corny and too forced because of the desperate lengths people will go to to get on the media.

However, I love music, of all different kinds, and The X Factor has always intrigued me in that respect. There’s no doubting that year on year, they unearth incredible performers and singers who had largely gone unnoticed. And in any event, it’s an entertaining night in.

The real winner of X Factor though, of course, is Simon Cowell.

And when he tells the media that he plans “a series of big prime time shows leading up to the election in which the public would hear two sides of the argument about several issues” (not a direct quote, but from Kirsty Wark, who interviews Cowell tonight on Newsnight) they are going to sit up and take notice.

And so too are the politicians.

The concept is intriguing to me. Surely trying to make politics meld with the glitz and glamour of the reality TV genre is going to be a fail of epic proportions?

But at the same time, if anyone can do it, it’s Simon Cowell.

It’s clear the plans for this are already advanced. The next election could be just months away. ITV1 is sure to be the location of the “bear pit” (Cowell’s words)… and that would put them right at the heart of the election, which would be extremely unusual for them.

Apparently, it was Nick Griffin’s escapade on Question Time that convinced Simon Cowell that this was something the public would enjoy. The tone would obviously have to be more serious than the usual reality TV fayre, but that would only notch up the populist rhetoric as a counterbalance. Gotta give the viewers something to watch.

Is that healthy for democracy? After all, us liberal lefties would get a bit upset if a show turned into a lynch mob talking up the joys of bringing back the rope, the birch and maybe even that belt reserved only for special occasions. Weren’t some headteachers sickening?

Cowell hopes politicians would phone up and get involved. I suspect the goal is purely to engineer live, vitriolic conflict about an issue on TV. Would politicians want to throw themselves amongst that?

Of course they would. A new breed of fiery rhetoric-spouting orators is waiting to be born into this next generation of the political class; the next phase of personality politics will begin. The rest of them will either have to adapt or die.

If it works, if Cowell can produce a watertight concept, it will be worth watching out for. It may just influence the media narrative in the run up to the next election.

And losing control of that would not be a good thing for any of the main parties. Certainly not Mr Cameron…

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Will You Be Watching?

Posted by The Futility Monster on October 20, 2009 @ 08:17

A Face For Radio?

A Face For Radio?

It seems the most anticipated political event of the moment has got to be the BNP’s presence on the BBC’s flagship political programme Question Time.

It’s also the one that’s generated the most hot air.

To me, it’s pretty simple. They are a political party. They are not illegal. OK, there’s a little hooha with their constitution, but let’s be realistic, whether they admit minorities into membership is totally immaterial, since they are so evidently racist. I can’t imagine there are many blacks champing at the bit to sign up once the party’s rules have been amended…

From that premise, they have a right to freedom of speech, just like anyone in this country. Naturally, there are limits on freedom of speech, more than I would like in a truly liberal society. But broadly, as long as they are not soliciting violence or inciting racial hatred, they are just as entitled to that speech as you or I.

However, one might argue that they often do cross that. Well… yes, but that’s not for us to judge. That’s what the police are there for. I’ve no doubt they will be watching carefully. Even if they aren’t, some clever sod in one of the political parties will be firing off a complaint if Nick Griffin uses the airwaves to call for the slaughter of all ethnic minorities living in council houses. And, naturally, since the programme isn’t live, the BBC’s legal team will ensure that anything dodgy doesn’t make the final edit.

Indeed, if Griffin pushes it too far, the whole programme might consist of the other politicians on the panel and members of the public attacking Griffin endlessly without an obvious right to reply – which would seriously backfire.

They are a political party with elected representatives. Like it or not, they have councillors across the nation, and members of the European Parliament. They represent their constituents, and clearly have a mandate to voice the concerns of the tiny minority of people who have cast a ballot in their favour.

Consequently, just as the Greens and UKIP get their moment in the sun on Question Time, so too should the BNP.

It will be an entertaining affair, I’m sure. There will be much playing to the gallery. There will be a typical BBC-orchestrated moment when an ethnic minority asks the first question (on immigration policy, no doubt), and David Dimbleby will give Nick Griffin the first reply. There will be pantomime groans and cheers from the audience.

And, one thing’s for certain, the ratings will be higher than they have been for Question Time in a long time. This one has been so hyped to death (something politicians always seem to do where the BNP are concerned) that it would be amazing if there was anything less than a 50% rise in its audience.

Nick Griffin is no pushover oratorically, though. I just hope the rest of the panel are up to the challenge without pouring the usual establishment disapproval on them.

That would only play right into their hands.

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