Nothing to see here, folks

April 30, 2008 at 6:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I’m afraid there won’t be too much intelligent thought emanating from this blog tonight, but I’ll try to present a few low-interest morsels of information, if only for the sake of appearances. Here’s a live session Okkervil River did for pitchforktv.

from pitchfork.tv posted with vodpod

Update: Okay, they actually murder the song in this video. It sounds far, far better on record. Promise.

Preparing for the worst: what the US ‘Netroots’ can teach us about rebuilding a broken movement

April 29, 2008 at 9:51 pm | Posted in British Politics | 4 Comments
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As the gloom continues to grow over Gordon Brown’s stewardship of both the Labour Party and the country, it’s understandable – if a little premature – that some of us see the awful poll numbers, the bleak prospects in the local elections and the complete saturation of negative media coverage and deduce that it’s time to prepare for the prospect of a Tory government. David Semple recently argued that the left must indeed start preparing for opposition, ditch the diminishing returns of Blairism and return to its left-wing activist roots. Writing here, Martin Bright has called for a new manifesto for the liberal left, a restating of principles and a return to advocating policies for a fairer Britain. These are ideas worthy of debate, and whilst I’m not really one for signing up to whole manifestos, anything that inspires new thinking about how we can revitalise our agenda must surely be welcome.

But new manifestos and political rebranding alone won’t be enough to take Labour back to power. The past decade has seen the party’s membership collapse, their share of the vote dwindle almost everywhere and their much-abused allies in the Trade Unions haven’t fared much better, either. For Labour to be in a fit-enough state to return to power, it must work to reverse these trends, and if the current party is anything to go by, they can’t be trusted to do it for themselves.

Thankfully, there’s another political movement that’s endured some hardships in recent years and has only recently begun to enjoy a revival. With that in mind, I wonder whether it’s time we began paying closer attention to the alliance of progressive Americans described as the Democratic Party’s ‘netroots’ and investigate whether there’s anything they’re doing right that we need to learn from.

Continue Reading Preparing for the worst: what the US ‘Netroots’ can teach us about rebuilding a broken movement…

Taking their Hooters elsewhere

April 29, 2008 at 1:15 pm | Posted in Feminisms, Sheffield | Leave a comment
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In a stirring victory for feminists and aesthetes alike, this lovely little development:

Leopold Square, Sheffield.

Will no longer be spoiled by this godawful crime against common decency.

Now I can get back to trying to persaude people that Sheffield is the best city in Britain. I’ll certainly have more joy than those poor fuckers in Nottingham.

Photo by Flickr user egoboss (Creative Commons)

FAO George Osborne

April 29, 2008 at 10:16 am | Posted in British Politics | Leave a comment
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If your Dear Leader’s going to waste his days chasing Labour’s mantle as the ‘Party of the Poor’, it’s not a great idea to spend the very next day invoking Thatcher and threatening to further undermine the Unions when they’re fighting for their members’ pensions. This might shock you, but outside of the chino-clad golf clubs of Cheshire, there are some people who don’t like Maggie and a lot of them happen to be the poor people ‘Dave’ wants to ‘stand up for’. So by invoking one of the most divisive ideas of the 80′s to reassure your comrades-in-caviar that you’re not in for all that tie-dye, hoodie-hugging nonesense, you come across as a wee bit… devious.

Glastonbury

April 29, 2008 at 8:18 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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Even for this old, embittered indie snob, the leaked Glastonbury line-up is far better than I’d imagined. Sure, there’s still much soul-numbing tedium to stand through (James Blunt, KT Tunstall, Shakin’ Stevens, The Verve), and NME-endorsed mediocrity (The Enemy, Editors, The Gossip) to endure, but there’ll be plenty of exciting artists who’re well worth standing in a field for (The Hold Steady, Vampire Weekend, The National, Jay-Z, Band of Horses, Stars).

Do I regret not getting a ticket now? No, I’ll regret it if I’m stuck in Sheffield with nothing to do whilst Vampire Weekend rattle-off their album to a blissful, sun-kissed field of revellers:

Vampire Weekend

Photo by Flickr user Gilberts (Creative Commons)

Update: The line-up is ‘wrong’ apparently, which serves the Times right for assuming the NME includes any proper journalists

Update #2: The official line-up. Promise.

Late Night Recovery #11: insubstantial edition

April 28, 2008 at 10:01 pm | Posted in Late Night Recovery | 1 Comment
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Yeah, I was going to post something more substantial today – one of those epic, self-indulgent rants that groans under the weight of its own internal logic and has the writer dancing around his room like an undefeated champion, proclaiming “No one will ever pick apart this ingeniously-constructed argument. I am the Greatest Political Commentator IN THE WORLD!!” (Sadly, I am only half-joking)

Luckily for you lot, life got in the way. By the time dinner’s done with, the Google Reader’s been emptied and I’ve made time for a phone call from a friend, somehow enough hours have passed to make sleep an imperative.

This song has little to do with sleep, or being the Greatest Political Commentator In The World. But I guess it has plenty to do with life.

Wilco

PS: Since you all deserve some forewarning, the more substantial post will appear sometime tomorrow. It’s big. You might want to go to the picures, or something.

Flying pigs for Obama

April 28, 2008 at 3:05 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment
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File this one in the gallery of the absurd. From the AP’s report on Roger Waters‘ headline performance at Coachella:

Waters’ biggest prop was an inflatable pig the size of a school bus that emerged while he played a version of “Pigs” from 1977′s capitalism critique, “Animals.”

The pig, which was led above the crowd from lines held on the ground, displayed the words “Don’t be led to the slaughter” and a cartoon of Uncle Sam wielding two bloody cleavers. The other side read “Fear builds walls.”

The underside of the pig simply read “Obama” with a checked ballot box alongside.

Well, if nothing else, it at least counteracts that whole ‘Obama is a Muslim’ smear…

The audacity of hype

April 28, 2008 at 1:57 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, Democratic Party Presidential Primary | Leave a comment
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For those of you who’ve been following the “Obama in crisis” myth that’s been doing the rounds, Sunny rightly reubts by pointing out that unless a massive majority of the uncommitted superdelegates decide en masse to disregard the popular vote, alienate their party’s most dependable voters and ‘roll the dice‘ in favour of a woman with more baggage than Terminal 5 and a bigger electability gap than Gordon Brown, the Illinois Senator remains the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the challenges Obama faces, nor can we easily-dismiss the weaknesses in his electoral coalition that’ve been exposed by both Clinton’s kitchen sink strategy and the Republicans’ nomination of John McCain. To be specific, his weakness among older voters, the white working class and hispanics, whilst exaggerated, is certainly large enough to be exploited by an opponent who enjoys considerable goodwill amongst these groups.

This isn’t something that’ll damage his electability too much if he balances the ticket with a Vice Presidential pick whose presence can win enough reluctant working class and/or hispanic voters who haven’t been impressed by him thus far. Unfortunately, there’s probably only one man in the entire party (aside from the Clintons) who can claim to have a genuine appeal amongst both groups, and electorally he’s something of a busted flush. Which narrows the choice down to these two men; both strong, experienced and effective politicians able to win over considerable number of voters in his weakest areas and not only be genuine assets to the campaign, but to the country once elected.

I believe they call this a win-win.

Life in a glass house

April 28, 2008 at 11:12 am | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment
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Courtesy of Marko Attila Hoare, here’s Exhibit A of why the ‘Decents‘ come across as so utterly alienating:

Anyone who follows the politics of the ‘anti-war’ left will long ago have learned that the Iraq War is The Most Evil Thing That Ever Happened. The Nazi Holocaust; Stalin’s terror-famine and mass purges; Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution; the Rwandan and Darfurian genocides – all are viewed as fairly minor misdemeanors in comparison to the US’s invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein without UN Security Council authorisation.

Yes, yes, all thoroughly insulting and you’d be tempted to react with rage and righteously demand he name just one of these people.

But there’s also great amusement to be had here. Only a few paragraphs later, Hoare then has the audacity to accuse someone else – in this case, Peter Wilby – of erecting a ‘straw man’.

Well, he should know…

“A polemicist, not a political philosopher”

April 27, 2008 at 8:01 pm | Posted in Christopher Hitchens | Leave a comment
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Photo by Flickry ensceptico (Creative Commons)

For those among us who’ve wondered – worriedly, despairingly, even angrily – why a man who spent so much of his life in the uncompromising defence of left-wing ideals could support George W. Bush over John Kerry or John McCain over both Obama and Clinton, this section towards the end of Prospect Magazine’s profile of Christopher Hitchens is particularly instructive:

He has sought to resist any appeal from a liberal centre. “I’ve never been impressed by middle-ground or art-of-the-possible stuff,” he says. “Why would people bother with politics if that’s all they wanted to do? If you weren’t trying to see if you could expand the art of the possible, break the limits of the feasible, redefine it, expand it—why would you bother? Who wants to be just a manager?”

One answer to that may be: those people who actually want to improve conditions for the underdogs—an attitude dismissed by Hitchens as “Christian charity.” Hitchens becomes impatient when asked what has become of his views on economic or social policy. He says he no longer has preconceptions: “whatever works; wherever the evidence leads.” On the international stage, he has carved out post-ideological positions for himself that are still illuminated by the clarity of an ideological mind. Elsewhere he descends into a multitude of contradictions.

He says he now thinks that nation states are essential for democracy, but also remains in favour of a supranational Europe. He says he no longer believes redistribution works—a view that places him on the outer reaches of the free market right in Europe—yet also advocates the “Sweden formula”: that you should be able to tell nothing about the status and wealth of parents from their children. He believes the extreme income gap in America is intolerable, not out of an interest in equality but because “solidarity with others is mandated by self-interest.” He hates the “law and order” style in politics, yet approves of Rudy Giuliani’s record in New York. He has no opinion on migration because “I don’t know enough about it.” But Hitchens is a polemicist, not a political philosopher or a policy wonk.

When you add this to his to his earlier admission of being a ‘single issue’ voter who views the fight against “the intensifying menace of clerical barbarism” as the sole issue that’ll win his vote, it makes perfect sense that Hitchens would prefer the Republican over the Democrat. Never mind that the Democrat might be more likely to help the most disadvantaged in American society; never mind that the Democrat might take active measures to combat climate change; never mind that the Republican is a member of a party that practices the most egregious kind of destructive religious politics. No, if all you do in office is take an approach to Islamic fundamentalism that invokes just a measure of Hitchens’ own reactionary zeal, then you’ve won his vote.

In fact, it’s probably the most easily-won vote in Washington.

Photo by Flickry ensceptico (Creative Commons)

Peter the prophet

April 27, 2008 at 3:42 pm | Posted in Idiot Hall of Fame | Leave a comment
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Ah, those Hitchens boys and their messianic resolve. This time, it’s the runt of the family:

I sometimes wonder why I bother being a prophet. All my predictions of horrible things come true, and nobody does anything about any of them.

It’s hard not to sympathise; I’m sure Joseph Smith, L Ron Hubbard and David Koresh all suffered similar bouts of ennui as they tried to save the ungrateful masses. If only we’d ignored their narcissism and laughable fairytales and paid attention to the divine prophesies they tried to pass on.

But if Hitchens is a prophet, there’s got to be some kind of antichrist to warn against, right? Yup. Lots of ‘em, in fact. They all happen to be single mothers and their routine failure to keep their legs closed is responsible for the downfall of everything from the Roman Empire onwards. Here’s how he explains the terrible cost of their cheap morals:

The consequences, in terms of crime, drug abuse, welfare parasitism, educational disaster and social chaos are predictable and miserable and will end in total national collapse and bankruptcy.

Holy shit, they’ll kill us all! So how much longer do we have before our descent into hell? A few months? A year? A few years? A decade? Is there any point saving up for that conservatory?

Alas, he doesn’t say. Why can’t our prophets be more bleeding specific?!

It’s always possible, I suppose, that one day we’ll be so debased we elect as Prime Minister a 30-year-old grandmother of 10 who’s had more men in a year than that suave man-slut Nick Clegg’s had in a life time. And I suppose it’s also possible that she’ll use her power as Premier of ASBO Britain to have the welfare state subsidise free ferraris, alcopops & holidays in Ibiza. And yes, I suppose one day these alcohol-addled, parasitic poor people could suck so much life from the country that it becomes a wretched, pathetic insult to its former greatness.

If that day ever comes, I’m sure those who remember the Good Old Days will paw over Hitchens’ writings and wonder ‘why didn’t we listen when we had the chance’? On that day, he will be elevated alongside Smith, Hubbard and Koresh as one of the visionaries of his age.

Alas, I don’t either he or I will live long enough to see it happen.

Getting out of jail

April 25, 2008 at 10:11 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Prison Reform, Working Class Britain | 3 Comments
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Photo by Flickr user vinduhl (Creative Commons)

The reason I’m writing about ‘Cushygate‘ in two separate posts is that whilst there’s always fun to be had at the expense of the right’s overheated hysteria, our criminal justice system seems so broken, so socially-destructive and so utterly unfit for purpose that we need all the serious words we can muster. But if seriousness was the intention of Glyn Travis as he took to the airwaves on Talk Sport & Radio 4′s Today programme, he failed miserably, merely succeeding in adding fuel to the right’s fire about the Prison Scum who suck on the soft teat of the taxpayer.

Since he made no direct reference to the dozens of more desperate ailments afflicting the prison service, what you’ll find at the core of Travis’ argument is a non-too-subtle demand for more staff, greater resources and higher wages. These are all demands I have sympathy for, which makes it so frustrating that he insists the main problem is those unemployed, undereducated, mentally ill and addiction-addled inmates in its care somehow have it too easy – as if any of them have ever had anything easy.

Had he encountered better-prepared interviewers, they might have asked him whether the recent damages awarded to inmates who suffered beatings and racial discrimination at the hands of his fellow prison officers was an example of the ‘cushy’ life they enjoyed. They might have asked whether last year’s 22,000 cases of self-harm was just because inmates were upset they couldn’t get Pay-per-View boxing on Sky. They might have asked why, if his workplace is such a Centre Parks that inmates never wish to leave, was the 2006 suicide rate 33 times higher than the rest of the country, and if the 92 people who killed themselves last year on his members’ watch only did so because they didn’t like the croissants that came with their breakfast in bed. Finally, they might have asked Glyn Travis why he thought it best to ignore these serious problems in favour of playing the Prison Scum card to an eager media. Sadly, we probably know the answer to the last question; it’s in his members’ interests.

So where do we go from here and how do we hope to grapple with the problems caused by decades of ‘get tough’ governing that’s seen the prison population rise to record levels? I’m sure there are countless approaches we can take, not all of them easy nor without their flaws, but we must surely get past the idea that simply locking offenders away is an effective long-term crime prevention strategy. As I wrote earlier this month:

As much as some of us might wish to lock all criminals up for life, the reality is that only the most violent, most dangerous offenders stay incarcerated for that long, and they are a tiny minority of the prison population. Like it or not, the rest of them will one day be released. And if they’ve been released without help finding accomodation or a new job, without help with whatever mental illnesses they may harbour, whatever drug or behavioural problems they may be battling, whatever skills or education they lack to find employment, they are much more likely to offend again.

Sure, stepping-up our efforts to rehabilitate offenders is a fairly standard liberal policy, but these words by criminologist & former prison governor David Wilson got me thinking about a way we could achieve that:

Prison has become the functioning alternative to the welfare state and, as such, the only institution in this country where, as a matter of right, you can get almost immediate access to a doctor, a dentist, a drugs counsellor, a teacher, advice about homelessness, help in applying for jobs, and where these rights are enforceable by the courts.

[...]

Quite simply, there are never going to be enough prison officers to control a jail through sheer weight of numbers, and every jail therefore runs with the consent of those who are being locked up. If prisoners withdraw that consent to be governed – as they did during the lead-up to the riots at HMP Strangeways – then our prison system comes to a grinding, crashing, juddering halt.

The tension apparent in this relationship between prisoner and prison officer – the inmate whose well-being is dependent on the care they receive and the prison officer whose job depends on the co-operation and good behaviour of the inmate – certainly indicates that prison could be a place where productive rehabilitation can be achieved.

If you’ve committed crimes against others then you’ve infringed upon the values of peace and freedom that exist amongst all liberal democracies, and if a court rules the crime to be serious enough to revoke your own freedom, you should serve the sentence given to you. But whilst you have a duty to yourself to make sure you never offend again, the state has a similar duty to those citizens who pay it money to enforce & uphold the law to make sure you never offend again.

To that end, yes, we need more prisons – lots more – but they should also be a fraction of the size of those we currently pay for. And if we had smaller prisons and more prison guards per inmate then maybe we’d reduce the amount of drug smuggling, stop a few suicides and attempts at self-harm. Then, who knows, perhaps if we staffed these smaller, more secure prisons with as many drug therapists, psychiatrists, fitness trainers and educators as there are security guards, there’d be an opportunity for those inside (who, let’s face it, are a bit of a captive audience) to overcome some of the root causes of them being banged-up in the first place.

That couldn’t be the end of the matter, of course; you’d still need to revamp the probation service to ensure that those being released could find both accommodation (for homeless inmates are far more likely to reoffend when released) and an occupation and none of this is an adequate substitute for investing in safer communities, better public housing and education in those areas that most need it.

As I said earlier, no approach is perfect, but there are alternatives to this country’s current Judge Dredd approach to crime that – if framed in the right way – could be sold to the waverers from the ‘hang ‘em & flog ‘em’ approach as being in the whole country’s self-interest.

Nobody goes to prison for a cushy life, but a lot of people end up in prison believing crime is the only way to get there. Prison might be able to provide proof to the contrary, but only if we work for it.

Photo by Flickr user vinduhl (Creative Commons)

HM Prison and Holiday Inn

April 25, 2008 at 3:38 pm | Posted in British Politics, Prison Reform, The Daily Wail | 2 Comments
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We live in testing times. Banks are breaking under the burden of bad debt, food prices are rising and fuel costs are soaring. With our bulging overdrafts, credit cards and mortgages, we all have to be a little more careful with our spending – give up on some of life’s luxuries and make sacrifices we never would’ve considered.

But what if there was another way? What if you could quit your job, sell your house and live a life of luxury at the expense of other people? What if you could reside for years in spacious, well-furnished accommodation complete with kindly guards to protect you 24/7? If this life of stress-free leisure appeals, you’ll be pleased to hear there’s an organisation offering all this and more: Her Majesty’s Prison Service (and Holiday Inn).

Or at least that would be the impression you make upon reading today’s stories in the Mail and Express on the ‘cushy life’ inmates enjoy in our nation’s jails. According to Glyn Travis, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officer’s Association, “prisoners receive a wage for being in prison”:

“They receive a bed, a TV in all cells, Sky television in most areas for recreational use, free telephones, breakfast in bed on many occasions, cash bonuses for good behaviour, and prison staff are forced to deal with them in such a subservient way it’s ridiculous.”

Fantastic! Who do I have to kill to get myself some of that?! So where, I hear you ask, did Travis make these startling claims? Was it on Radio 4 or Newsnight, a Commons committee or a journal on penal reform? Ermm, not quite:

He told Talk Sport radio that taxpayers would be “appalled” if they knew of the conditions enjoyed by criminals, including Britain’s most notorious rapists, murderers and paedophiles.

He told Talk Sport! A radio station where talking is indeed a sport and one where whoever barfs the most bigoted, homophobic, right-wing bile is cherished as a champion. A radio station which statistics would probably show to be the most listened-to among that hate-filled demographic of rapists, murderers and paedophiles who Travis accuses of living the high life. A radio station which is barely qualified to debate whether Gerrard or Lampard should fill the England midfield, let alone the issue of prison reform. Talk about preaching to the converted – it’s like having the Daily Express read to you every minute of the damned day.

For the papers who frontpaged this rant it offered the perfect chance to practice the kind of low-cost, high-reward Churnalism for which they’re famed. No need for an expensive investigation into prison conditions or to waste time verifying the accuracy of Travis’ remarks; just cut & paste the transcript, embroider with some catchy phrases like “jails so cushy that criminals are trying to break IN”, add a few politicians’ press statements and ta-da! One sensationalised news story ready-made to wrap tomorrow’s fish ‘n chips in.

Still, you shouldn’t see these papers as too one-sided in their coverage. You see, right at the end of the story, just when most of their readers have turned over to the next item of barely-concealed rage masquerading as news, they quietly include this statement which makes Travis’ claims seem somewhat, errm… exaggerated:

The Prison Service confirmed that drugs had been smuggled into Everthorpe Prison by an outside dealer, but said immediate action was taken and prisoners were never in a position to escape. A spokesman insisted inmates are not given “breakfast in bed”, but are handed a “breakfast pack” to eat in their cells, or a hot breakfast to take back to their cells.

Television in cells is an earned privilege which can be removed, she added, and “no public-sector prisons” have Sky TV in cells. She confirmed that the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme means well-behaved inmates can earn extra visits, higher rates of pay for work, in-cell television and access to private cash.

She said the IEP scheme was designed “to ensure good order and control in prisons” and to encourage prisoners to take part in rehabilitation work.

Two sides to the story, then. But I bet you a whole week’s worth of breakfasts-in-bed that not too many of their readers made it that far…

Photo of HM Prison (and Holiday Inn) Dartmoor by Flickr user leguan001 (Creative Commons)

Dogs and donkeys…

April 24, 2008 at 9:24 am | Posted in British Politics, Feminisms | Leave a comment
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…All have more protection from abuse than women. File this one under ‘Oh good grief‘:

The British public gives more to a Devon-based donkey sanctuary than the most prominent charities trying to combat violence and abuse against women, a report released today by a leading philanthropy watchdog reveals.

New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) has calculated that more than 7 million women have been affected by domestic violence but found that Refuge, the Women’s Aid Federation and Eaves Housing for Women have a combined annual income of just £17m. By contrast the Donkey Sanctuary, which has looked after 12,000 donkeys, received £20m in 2006.

Of course, no one would begrudge donkeys their £20m annual care package; when you’ve spent your working life hauling fidgety kids up and down Britain’s beaches for no other reward than some heavy-handed petting, you deserve a decent retirement home.

But seriously, £17m in funds when 7 million women are affected by domestic violence? Unless my maths hasn’t improved much since GCSE, that works out as something like £2.50 per victim – barely enough to buy her a bus ticket.

Given the scale of the problem (the same report states that every year 1.5 million women experience domestic abuse at least once, 800,000 are sexually assaulted and 100,000 raped) you would’ve thought the charities who campaign against violence and provide refuge to its victims might be a little closer to more fashionable charities raising money for cancer research, animal welfare, child protection etc. The size of the funding deficit is quite extraordinary.

Think that revelation was bad enough? Well, then there’s this:

 “A third of men think that domestic violence is acceptable if their partner has been nagging them.”

And this:

Today’s report references an ICM poll which found that more people would call the police if someone was mistreating their dog than if someone was mistreating their partner.

Maybe we could bring Rolf Harris out of retirement…

(Hat Tip)

Welcome Liberal Conspirators

April 24, 2008 at 7:40 am | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment
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Hope you enjoyed my divinely lyrical (cough) post in support of that racy political issue (cough, cough), proportional representation. Feel free to have a nosey around. In fact, stick around for long enough and I might well post about something exciting.

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