Archive: USA

Here it is: that post I’ve been sitting on for upwards of a year. Before I start, I am going to make a few introductory notes about what I do and don’t mean when I call democracy disturbing. I find that all too often debates about this subject are clouded by dogma, which leads to poor thinking and boilerplate arguments.

Before some cheesy person wheels out that Churchill quote about democracy being the worst system apart from all the other systems, yes of course I have heard it. And it is true. I am a democrat because I believe it brings about favourable conditions. For instance, there is the correlation between democratisation and higher GDP per capita. (Whether democracy is cause or effect does not matter. If the value of the higher GDP per capita is greater than the cost of democracy per head — as it almost certainly is — then democracy is a price worth paying.)

Furthermore, I should define more closely what I mean by democracy. Most of the flaws I will point out are actually problems with elections rather than democracy as a whole. Aspects of democracy such as civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, due process, and so on and so forth, are of course things that I am deeply supportive of. This will become clear in my first point.

I tackle the issue not from an anti-democratic perspective. Far from it. My problem is with the approach which sees democracy almost like a religion which ought not be questioned — what Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter called “democratic fundamentalists”:

Its purest expression is the cliché, attributed to failed 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith, that “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.” In other words, no matter what happens, the case for democracy remains untouched.

No case should remain untouched. That is why, for me, there is not enough scrutiny placed on democracy. There is a fear of investigating it, because the benefits of democracy are perceived to be so self-evident that anyone who stops to ask what the disadvantages are is instantly regarded as a fool. That must be dangerous. If we agree that the system is imperfect, the only way to improve the situation is to investigate it and have an awareness of what the problems are.

Just as a final point, much of my thinking in this area came about as a result of the research I did for my dissertation, which was about the “paradox of voting“. In case you want to read more about voting behaviour, I have uploaded my dissertation here.

Having got all of the caveats and explanations out of the way, it is time to move on to my five points.

1. Democracy is not guaranteed to uphold freedoms

This is more or less a rehash of The Devil’s Kitchen’s post which I referred to yesterday. Above I said that “aspects such as civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, due process” are important. Arguably, these have all taken a battering by recent democratically elected governments.

Wave goodbye to your right to peacefully protest, have a fair trial and take photographs in public. Say hello to ID cards, the database state, endless reams of CCTV footage, mass DNA collection, control orders, detention without charge and extraordinary rendition. Thanks, democracy!

2. Tyranny of the minority

Most people are familiar with the concept of the tyranny of the majority. Thanks to the system of democracy adopted in this country, it doesn’t even take a majority to construct a tyranny. In the 2005 General Election, 9,562,122 people voted for Labour candidates. Assuming a population of 60 million, this translates to around 16% of the population.

The votes of this small percentage of the UK’s citizens has given the Labour Party 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, a majority of 67 seats. What gives the government the right to rule the country with such dominance? Not the people, that’s for sure. Only 16% of the people expressed a preference for the current government. In fact it is the way the system is constructed, and nothing else, which gives Labour its “legitimacy”.

That brings me neatly on to…

3. The system can’t be fixed

Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem states that there can be no voting system which will be able to fulfil a number of desirable criteria:

  • The Pareto principle — if everyone prefers x to y then y should not be elected
  • Anonymity — every voter should be treated equally
  • Neutrality — every candidate should be treated equally
  • Independence of irrelevant alternatives — the ability of x and y to win an election should not be affected by the entrance of a candidate z
  • Transitivity — if x is preferred to y and y is preferred to z then x should be preferred to z

Independence of irrelevant alternatives is the one that riles up proponents of electoral reform the most. Just think of Ralph Nader, or the farcical events of the 2002 French Presidential election. In this case, the voting system is far more important than the voters themselves. The fifth item on the list refers to Condorcet’s paradox, whereby attempts to find a winner of the election leads you on an endless circle.

We can argue among ourselves about which voting system should be adopted. But (and I’m not saying this will necessarily come as a surprise to anyone), you will never find a system that will please everyone. It will be a matter of choosing the least worst option, as every system has a fatal flaw of some kind. For what it’s worth, my preference is Single Transferable Vote — but that’s a matter for a different post in the future.

For more along these lines, read this post about a talk I attended a couple of years ago. It was given by economist Eric Maskin en route to collecting his Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He had some very interesting views on electoral reform.

4. An individual vote is almost worthless

If you are concerned with affecting the course of history by having your say on major political issues, going to cast your vote in an election is more or less a complete waste of your time and energy. It is said that you are more likely to be killed on your way to the polling station than to actually cast the deciding vote.

The probability the the outcome of an election will hinge on your vote is minuscule. Even under the fanciful assumption that in a two candidate US Presidential election each other person is likely vote for either candidate with a probability of 0.5, the probability that your vote will be the deciding vote is 0.00006.

Yet the costs of voting are actually rather large. You have to spend time and possibly money learning about each of the candidates and their policies. The time and money spent travelling to the polling booth is not exactly negligible in the context of the minuscule probability of your vote actually meaning a damn thing.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that voting is wrong. People don’t vote because they believe it will affect the outcome. They vote because it makes them feel good. But the fact that you need to resort to non-instrumental incentives in order to justify the act of voting leaves wide open the possibility that people with bad motives (or motives with bad effects) are more likely to vote…

5. Many who do vote base their decision on prejudices

In his very interesting book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan said that the fact that people vote can be explained by the fact that they like to hold certain political beliefs. Let’s call our voter a sheep. He may hold suboptimal opinions and support policies that would actually make him worse off. This might be due to social pressures, a sense of self-image or whatever. It is, after all, all too common to meet someone who votes Labour just because their dad did.

It is precisely because a person’s vote is so worthless that sheep are encouraged to vote. They like to go and vote because it makes them feel good, reaffirms to themselves their ideological loyalty and so on. But sheep never stop to think if the policies they support would make them worse off. They don’t have to because their vote doesn’t matter anyway. The cost of ideological loyalty is low. Indeed, the benefits of it are enough to outweigh the costs of voting.

Those who hold no strong ideological loyalties, and who may therefore be expected to enter the polling booth ready to judge fairly based on all of the information they have gathered, are actually far less likely to vote. This is because they feel no warm glow from the act of voting for their favoured party.

As such, the traits of voters are the sort of traits you would normally expect to find on a football terrace. They will trudge along to express their tribal feelings, and will keep on doing so even in the driving rain, even if their football team is rubbish and the game is low-quality.

One might say that the political party you support is rubbish and the state of politics just now is low-quality. Who wants to buy a season ticket? Is it not better to leave that sort of behaviour on the football terraces?

One of the problems with social networking sites is that not everyone is on the same one. Thankfully I don’t find myself having to login to MySpace any more. But I would drop Bebo at a moment’s notice if I could get away with it. Unfortunately, a lot of my friends — particularly those from Fife, and perhaps those thatare younger in general than Facebookers — are on Bebo only. So I have to keep that account going.

I have a friend who refuses to join Facebook, partly because he is worried that it is just another website to sign up to, only to be replaced by the new flavour of the month as soon as he’s done it. I can sympathise with that. We’ve all been there with MySpace and now Bebo, and I probably have dozens of dormant web 2.0 accounts.

There is also the hassle involved with getting your head around a fancy new social network. So many people tell me they find Facebook too complicated. Meanwhile, Twitter is so disarmingly simple that it confuses and spooks many first-time users.

Another of my friend’s objections to Facebook involves the perception that it is too posh. It’s a bit of an elephant in the room, but when you think about it it’s difficult to avoid the fact that there is a class division in the way different types of people use different social networks. Danah Boyd wrote about the case of MySpace and Facebook in the USA two years ago. Today in the UK you could say a similar thing about Bebo and Facebook.

I guess that was inevitable given the exclusivity of Facebook in the early days. At first you had to be at Harvard to use it, then one of the Ivy League universities. Then you had to be at any University (this is when I joined). Then when it was a few years old it opened up to everyone — to howls of protest from many of the people who were already in the exclusive Facebook loop, as I recall. It’s probably fair to say that Facebookers think of themselves as being a cut above their chavvier Bebo-using counterparts — though functionally the sites are very similar.

When someone says to you, “you really should be on [social network x],” it is almost like being invited to a new (slightly posher) pub or restaurant. You’re used to eating out at Wetherspoons (well, that’s all they’ve got in Kirkcaldy — even Burger King upped sticks a few years ago). Now someone has invited you to Di Chez El Nom Nom, or something.

You wouldn’t have countenanced going in by yourself. But it would be rude to turn down the invitation. When you go in it’s a bit unfamiliar. What is the etiquette? What is the third spoon for? Why is my napkin folded into the vague shape of a cockerel? Am I allowed to poke you now, or is that just for special occasions? What is this exotic feature? What is that strange item on the menu and how do I pronounce it? It seems too complicated!

It feels awkward. You will make mistakes at first. But soon enough you will get a taste for it, and you won’t ever consider setting foot in Burger King again (I still like Wetherspoons though).

I got that experience when I signed up to LinkedIn, on the advice of Chris Applegate in the comments here. I’d passed LinkedIn on the street a number of times and peered in, but it didn’t look like the sort of place where I’d be welcome. It describes itself as being for “professionals”. Pah!

Well now Chris has given me the green light to enter, though I still don’t quite feel welcome. Anyone who thinks Facebook is complicated needs to check out LinkedIn. It took me quite a while to work out that really no-one there is interested in my favourite music or my drunken photos. It really is just a glorified (and inflexible) CV.

Even after I have filled in all my details and added a few connections, there is still a little power meter on my page telling me that my profile is only 70% complete! And moreover, I am less likely to appear in searches until I reach 100%. How rude!

But I can’t help thinking already that LinkedIn is the way to go. I mean, if I meet someone in a professional capacity, I might well want to connect with them online in some way. And with its complete candidness, with my personality presented warts and all, Facebook is probably not the way to do that.

So my friend is kind of right. If he signs up to Facebook, he will probably find it’s only a matter of time before he finds himself being asked by his peers to join LinkedIn. I myself wonder what even smarter social network I will end up having to sign up to next.

It seems like a pain at first. But I guess it’s just like dressing smartly for a job interview then lounging around in Pot Noodle-stained boxers in your house.

All of this is quite a long-winded way of saying that I have recently joined LinkedIn. If I know you, you are welcome to connect with me on it. I will probably go on my own adding spree soon. If you’re a veteran, please excuse my only 70% complete profile…

View Duncan Stephen's profile on LinkedIn

First of all, apologies to anyone who became sick of Woolworths when I published eight posts in a row about it. As you will have seen, “normal” service is on its way to resumption. Anyway, it was good to get it all off my chest, and is at least cheaper than seeing a therapist.

When I started writing this series, I thought I was going to end up with four posts. I ended up writing nine posts, and almost 10,000 words. I have a few final thoughts before I shut up about the subject for good.

A lot of people who have spoken to me about Woolworths have blamed the credit crunch and / or the government for the demise of Woolworths. As my posts have outlined, I think that is a gross simplification of the matter. If you look at the archives of newspapers you can see that people have seen this coming for a while, credit crunch or no credit crunch.

No doubt the staggering deterioration in the economy from October onwards accelerated things a lot. But there were fundamental problems with Woolworths, partly because it was burdened by almost 100 years of history which made it difficult to evolve.

A lot of people said they felt sorry for the way “they” were treating us. I couldn’t find it in myself to be angry (although that was admittedly made easier by the fact that I was planning on leaving anyway). No-one planned on the business failing. As for the administrators, it is their job to recover as much money from the situation as possible. That can mean being pretty ruthless and it cannot be an easy situation to manage.

A lot of customers asked me questions as though I had some kind of magical insider knowledge. When I said I didn’t know what was happening some people would say they thought I was being treated badly. I usually said, “I don’t think they even know what’s happening themselves.” I don’t know if they did know, but I imagine events were pretty fast-moving.

The reality was that I would have had a much better idea of what was happening if I stayed at home and watched the news. Lots of customers would come in and talk about what they had heard on the news, probably not even realising that we were totally unaware of whatever development had come about. It was unfortunate that things happened that way, but I doubt it can be helped.

The more I researched the history of Woolworths for this series of posts, the more I came to the conclusion that it was actually a fundamentally good business — or at least had the potential to be a good business. But throughout its history it has been maltreated in various ways and it ended up battered and bruised, limping on until finally keeling over this year.

For instance, the British arm of Woolworths was always more successful than its American parent. But until 1982 it sent most of its profits back to America. The Kingfisher years were, if anything, even worse.

Kingfisher failed to find an identity for itself and Woolworths was demerged in 2001. Under Kingfisher the stores had begun to crumble. Worst of all, just before the demerger Kingfisher sold all of Woolworths’s property, meaning that the new company had to lease it all back from landlords. Woolworths had crippling rent bills for the rest of its life. Woolworths still had huge takings, but it was brought down by massive overheads.

Arguably, the main beneficiary of the situation was B&Q. Kingfisher, rich having sold all of the Woolies property, continues to own B&Q to this day. But it was Woolworths which originally had the foresight to buy B&Q.

Home improvement and DIY was a big thing for Woolworths by the 1980s, as you can see in this advert from 1980. The products featured are almost entirely DIY-oriented.

Certain that DIY was a growth area, then-chairman of Woolworths Geoffrey Rogers bought the then-fledgling B&Q. The DIY offering in Woolworths was watered down to make way for B&Q. This might be one major reason why so many people cite Wilkinson as the store that replaced Woolworths.

Although Woolies appeared to have lost its way in the later years, there’s no doubt that most people had a real affection for the store. I saw lots of great blog posts during the final few weeks:

And some nice nostalgic offerings from more major news outlets:

Now, sadly, the shutter is down for good.

It's now staying shut

Today, the shutter came down for the final time at Woolworths Kirkcaldy, Store 1201. It was among the final group of branches to close. It is the end of an era. This institution had been a fixture in Britain’s High Streets for almost 100 years.

The history of the original company set up by Frank W. Woolworth goes back even further though. Even though some of the online campaigns to save Woolies laboured under the impression that it was a British store, Mr Woolworth was in fact from the USA and he opened several stores in the USA and Canada before opening a single British branch. And right up until the 1980s, Woolies in the UK sent most of its (substantial) profits back to the USA as well!

According to the Woolworths Virtual Museum website (which was taken down when the company went into administration, but can still be viewed on the internet archive), the origins of the store can be traced right back to 1873. Frank Woolworth worked for William Moore at the Augsbury and Moore Dry Goods Store in Watertown, New York. Mr. Moore came up with the innovation to sell surplus goods at a fixed price of 5 cents.

Mr. Woolworth took this idea further, deciding to set up an entire shop full of goods that cost 5 cents. Having persuaded Mr. Moore to back the store, the first Woolworths shop opened in Utica, New York in 1978. But after an initial success, the store was eventually a flop. Undeterred, Mr. Woolworth opened a second store in Pennsylvania, 60 miles away. It was a runaway success.

From then on, there was no stopping Woolworth. By 1910, F. W. Woolworth paid for the construction of the Woolworth Building — which was the world’s tallest building until 1930 — with $15 million in cash. As well as expanding into the UK, Woolworths also opened branches in Canada, Germany, Ireland and Cuba! (Retailers named Woolworths in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Mexico have nothing to do with F. W. Woolworth’s company.)

It was only in 1909, over 30 years after the opening of the first Woolworth store in the USA, that the brand arrived in Britain. Anglophile Frank W. Woolworth had written several years earlier during a visit to the UK, “I believe that a good penny and sixpence store, run by a live Yankee, would be a sensation here.” The first British F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd 3d and 6d store was opened on 5 November 1909 on Church Street in Liverpool. It was a roaring success.

Before long, Woolworths had become bigger in the UK than it was in the USA. It was quickly given the nickname Woolies, a sign of the genuine affection the British public had for the store. By the 1920s, a new Woolworths store was being opened every 17 days. Local officials across the country were desperate for a Woolies to open in their town, and if it did so it was seen as a seal of approval for the area. The British image of the chain was further underlined when the company raised enough money to buy two Spitfires during World War II.

Woolworths dropped the fixed price concept during World War II. The 6d upper limit had been stretched to breaking point during the 1930s as Woolies started selling socks and shoes individually for sixpence. And if you wanted a saucepan, you had to buy the lid separately too! As rationing came in, the 6d upper limit had to go.

After the war, Woolies grew even more quickly than before. Alongside the programme re-opening stores affected by the events of World War II, 330 new stores were opened within a six year period in the 1950s. At one point, stores were opening at the rate of two per week. The 1,000th Woolworths store in Britain was opened in Portslade in 1956.

Decline set in during the 1970s. Analysts began to criticise the “moribund” store. Throughout that decade, around 150 stores were closed, bringing the number of stores back down from a peak of 1,100.

Woolworths had lots of freehold properties and sold some in order to buy DIY chains B&Q and Dodge City. Analysts were sceptical, but Woolworths Chairman Geoffrey Rogers was right in his hunch that DIY would be a growth area in the coming decade. Mr. Rogers had envisaged 100 B&Q stores opening within ten years. The target was easily surpassed.

Woolworths had much to celebrate after its first seventy years. But that was all plain sailing compared to what would face the company from the 1980s onwards. My next post will look at the history of Woolworths from the Kingfisher purchase onwards.

The shock is not so much that Labour won. I had a feeling in my water as long as a month ago that Labour might win, even when the bookies and the pundits were saying otherwise. But the scale of Labour’s victory must have shocked everyone.

Yesterday, the BBC’s coverage began on the premise that it was “too close to call” or that, if anything, the SNP had squeaked it. Jim Murphy was making his excuses early (and doing a fairly good job of it, it has to be said). Coming towards midnight, it became clearer that Labour had won. The SNP were saying they hoped to have halved Labour’s majority.

Even with that knowledge, the scale of Labour’s victory when it was finally announced amazed me. The SNP hadn’t even halved Labour’s majority. In fact, Labour’s vote actually went up from the 2005 General Election result. The only real consolation the SNP can have is that the swing was 5% from Labour to the SNP. Even so, that looks minuscule compared to the swing of 22.5% achieved just a few months ago in Glasgow East.

There are all sorts of reasons why the SNP will be disappointed with this result. First of all, Glenrothes must have been a target seat for them anyway, even before this by-election was announced, with the SNP having won the similar Fife Central seat in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election. When Labour was in its trough of popularity, the SNP must have thought Christmas had come early.

Labour’s campaign had seemed like a total shambles. I do not live in the constituency so I haven’t seen any of the literature, but I have heard some bad things about it. Sarah Brown’s well-publicised visit to Cardenden was a complete botch job, and Gordon Brown’s visit to a cafeteria wasn’t much better.

Labour did not need a superstar candidate either. Lindsay Roy is a very nervy and uncomfortable performer on the television. However, it looks as though that actually played into his hands. Labour emphasised the fact that Lindsay Roy is not a career politician, and his track record of being out in the “real world” helping out Fife’s schoolchildren must have gained him a few votes.

As an aside, I doubt that Lindsay Roy actually wanted to become MP. He certainly didn’t look overjoyed at having won, and even after it was clear that Labour had won his body language seemed pretty negative to me. I have heard it said that Lindsay Roy wanted to retire from headteaching anyway and that he saw this as the ideal opportunity to get an early retirement. He probably thought he had no chance of winning.

There is also the fact that the SNP Scottish Government was still in its honeymoon period. Some people are reluctant to say that the honeymoon is over, but there is no doubt that this is at least a slap in the face.

Let us not forget that one of the SNP’s flagship policies was designed to please Fifers in particular. The SNP must have thought that the abolition of bridge tolls would have secured a few votes in Fife. Glenrothes in particular is within comfortable commuting distance of both Edinburgh and Dundee, meaning that many residents will be frequent users of both the Forth and Tay Road Bridges. The fact that the voters of Glenrothes in particular have given the SNP the cold shoulder is a major snub.

Nationalists may counter that Fife is fertile territory for Labour. Time and again I saw pundits on the television saying that Labour benefited from a “halo effect” spilling over into Glenrothes. Fifers, apparently, are proud that Gordon Brown is Prime Minister.

Let me just say, as someone who has lived in Fife all my life, that this is a complete load of tosh. Since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, I have never heard anyone say that they are proud that the PM is a Fifer. In fact, I have sometimes heard people wonder out aloud how it could possibly be that Kirkcaldy can have such high unemployment when the Prime Minister represents the constituency. (I once heard someone say, referring to the perceived unwillingness of Gordon Brown to help his local area, that Kirkcaldy has the highest rate of unemployment in the country, although I doubt that.)

Fife is not Labour loopy. Yesterday there was the opportunity for three of the four constituencies in Fife to be represented by a party other than Labour, leaving just Gordon Brown’s seat in tact. That didn’t happen. But the fact is that the Kingdom of Fife has the capacity to elect any one of three parties. As such, Glenrothes’s decision to vote for Labour should not simply be batted away because it was supposedly as “safe seat”. According to Alex Salmond, there is no such thing as a safe Labour seat these days, and Glenrothes certainly wasn’t one for the reasons outlined above.

The SNP may complain about the negativity of Labour’s campaign. But they should be alarmed that it worked. In retrospect, the decision of the SNP to select Fife Council leader Peter Grant as candidate must be seen as a major tactical error. The Labour Party was able to tap into some real dissatisfaction that people have with Fife Council at the moment.

Because of the complexities of this situation, it is not exactly clear what message the voters were sending out. There is no doubt that there was a message of some sort. But was it a verdict on the Labour government in Westminster? Was it a vote of confidence in Gordon Brown? Was it about sending a message to Holyrood? Or was it about punishing the leader of Fife Council?

Whichever, the SNP should take this seriously. I have no reason to doubt that they will, and the reaction from SNP members’ blogs is sober and reflective (see, for instance, Richard Thomson). There was some real evidence that the SNP were becoming complacent with their position. In the run-up to the election it was looking as though the SNP was giddy on power.

Alex Salmond’s supreme confidence was completely misplaced. And his attempt to attach himself to Barack Obama’s election as US President was crass in the extreme. Voters can smell this sort of thing a mile off, and I’d be amazed if it didn’t cost the SNP votes.

It is no longer enough to rely on the dissatisfaction with the Labour Party that many people have. With Labour’s vote having gone up, it’s pretty clear that they benefited from some serious tactical voting, with the Conservatives and the Lib Dems being squeezed. If this election shows anything, it is that while Labour are unpopular among many voters, the SNP are also loathed among many others.

A word on the Lib Dems, who must be very disappointed. For the second Scottish by-election in a row, they have come in fourth and lost their deposit. Glenrothes is practically sandwiched in between two Lib Dem constituencies — Dunfermline and West Fife and North East Fife. While there is no reason to automatically assume that the Lib Dems should therefore win Glenrothes, they must be disappointed by their complete inertia just now.

It is tough for smaller parties in by-elections anyway. But the current political climate cannot be doing them many favours. Despite PR, Scotland is beginning to look a bit like a two party system. In the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, one of the biggest changes was the almost complete disappearance of the small parties. Now it looks as though both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are wilting in a highly charged political atmosphere that pits the SNP versus Labour, leaving little room for much else.

I wrote my dissertation about the paradox of voting, which is the problem that rational choice theorists have in explaining why people vote. You are more likely to be killed on the way to the polling station than affect the result once you’re inside it — so why vote? The puzzle interested me as soon as I heard of it and I still often think about it.

The answer is that people take into account not just the instrumental benefits of voting. They also take into account a variety of factors that can be loosely gathered under the umbrella term of “civic duty”. The benefits that people get from performing their civic duty outweigh the costs of voting.

But what about people who clearly go way beyond the call of civic duty? This guy travelled 600 miles just to vote in the US Presidential election (via Bernard Salmon).

That is a puzzle to me. But it is clear that this election is enthusing people to an extent that may never have been seen before. Barack Obama in particular is said to have engaged young people and black people in the US political process like never before. Early voting numbers are reported to be high. And now a person whose family has voted Republican for three generations has driven 600 miles to vote for Barack Obama.

It’s worth remembering that it’s not just Obama that is creating this extra interest. I heard a woman on the radio a few days ago saying that she will be voting for the first time in her life — for John McCain. She doesn’t trust Obama because of his inexperience.

It looks like the USA sees itself as being at an important cross-roads, for a whole host of reasons. They want to get this decision right.

This is an interesting video of some happenings at a Republican rally yesterday.

It’s difficult to tell exactly what John McCain’s strategy is now. Just a few days ago Barack Obama was just “that one” to Mr McCain. Now the Republican nominee seems to be going well out of his way to be polite about Mr Obama to the point that he is getting booed for it by a Republican crowd. I guess McCain just doesn’t know whether to lay into Obama or start appearing to be more bipartisan. Maybe it is desperation and he just doesn’t know what to do now.

Anyway, what interests me most about the video is the little chat at the end with a woman who says she can’t trust Obama because he’s an Arab. The all-new fluffy McCain must have wanted to floor to eat him up at that moment. McCain’s retort is, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man who I just happen to have disagreements with.”

There is the factual inaccuracy of the woman’s beliefs about Obama’s background, which is what McCain decided to pick apart. But there is also the sheer naked racism of it.

Something great is happening with this US Presidential election. The USA will soon have either a non-white President or a female Vice-President. Whichever, it is a great stride ahead for America. Brits can sometimes be quite smug about this sort of thing when it comes to comparing Britain to America. But you have to say that the chances of America having a non-white President sometime soon is much greater than the chances of Britain having a non-white Prime Minister.

But it looks like they will still have a long way to go until they can elect an Arab.

Given that the news and most of everyone’s thoughts on current affairs are currently dominated by the problems in the global financial system, it is easy to let relatively minor things like a by-election slip your mind. But when I turned my thoughts to the upcoming Glenrothes by-election and politics in general a few days ago, it struck me that the political narrative is quite different to the way it was, say, a month ago.

It’s funny. When the credit crunch was only a moderately bad pickle, Gordon Brown seemed like an incompetent, bumbling fool. Now when it is full-on, sirens wailing, women-and-children-first time, that has changed.

He is not quite a god, but people are no longer questioning his leadership all the time. People have noticed that he seems more confident. He certainly seems to have a spring in his step. He has even been cracking jokes! And people laughed at them!

When it was only Northern Rock that had gone belly-up, Gordon Brown was regarded as an idiot. Now they’ve all gone belly-up, he is a genius! I am being facetious, although Jeff has pointed out the conflict of interest that is at play here.

Because while it was cheesy and I didn’t like it, the “it’s no time for a novice, ZING!” line worked. It made you think about who else might be in charge and no matter how bad you think Gordon Brown is, in a lot of ways it plays into the conservatism that is part of human nature. Better the devil you know.

There has been some talk about an apparent rebound in Labour’s popularity. Anthony Wells adds a significant note of caution to that.

It’s been suggested that Labour’s polling boost is confined to its heartlands. That would usually be bad news for Labour. But if it’s true that Labour’s boost is amplified in Scotland, that could potentially bring them right back in the hunt for Glenrothes.

I imagine SNP activists have always approached this by-election believing they have a fight on their hands to win the constituency. But they will surely be hugely disappointed if they lose.

For one thing, this constituency must have been on their radar anyway after they won the roughly analogous Fife Central seat in last year’s Scottish Parliament election. Then the SNP spectacularly won the Glasgow East by-election. This by-election came at a time when Labour were at their lowest ebb.

The ‘dithering’ image that Labour have built up over the past year or so was not helped much by their apparent decision to delay the by-election for as long as possible. And their choice of date (only recently announced, but rumoured for a long time) of 6 November looked an awful lot like they wanted to bury the bad news under the aftermath of the US Presidential election. They might as well have just written “we’re gonna lose!” on their election literature.

But now the decision to delay is looking a bit smarter to me. It’s really interesting because I think previously the general view was that the UK as a whole had fallen out with Brown in particular, but Scotland fell out with Labour as a whole. And the SNP’s honeymoon period in the Scottish Parliament made that double trouble for Labour. Now it looks like all of those trends may be reversing somewhat.

The rebound in Labour’s popularity and the renewed confidence in Gordon Brown’s leadership bodes well for Labour. Then there is the fact that, as Anthony Wells pointed out, there is little space for opposition parties to grab many headlines at the moment.

Of course, there are still almost four weeks to go and a lot can happen in that time. And the fact that the SNP still have a great chance of winning Glenrothes, ostensibly a safe Labour seat (no matter whether or not the SNP took Fife Central last year), shows how far Labour have fallen.

Nonetheless, today I think Labour have a much better chance of winning Glenrothes than they did, say, a month ago. And according to this blog, the bookmakers have moved away from an SNP win recently.

I know that all politicos have a major boner for American politics and that this year is just one non-stop wet dream. But do our lot have to make their affection quite so blatant?

As Alex Massie noted a last week, at the Labour Party conference, Gordon Brown was setting himself up as the experienced man who can lead the country through these choppy waters. As he said, “This is no time for a novice. Zing!”

He is betting that, come the election, voters will choose “experience” over “change”. Does that sound familiar?

Today, David Cameron appeared to deliberately counter Gordon Brown’s line. He is “a man with a plan (on a canal in Panama)”. (Sorry to James Graham for stealing his joke.)

He continued by saying, “it’s not experience we need; it’s character and judgement.” He then did his best Bowie impression and used the word ‘change’ 20 times during his speech.

Do these guys really need to copy everything that happens in America? I mean, Gordon Brown’s wife was brought out in front of the Labour Conference as though she is a First Lady. David Cameron spent a minute or two talking about his wife (with a bit of cringe worthy Carry On-lite humour packaged with it), as though I give a monkey’s who his wife is.

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I always had the impression that the job of a First Lady is to provide a kind of ceremonial role, waving at the crowds and the like, because the USA (and France, and wherever) doesn’t have a royal family to do all that sort of stuff. Well the UK does have a royal family to do all that sort of stuff! Besides, Carla Bruni they are not (despite what The Daily Mail tries to tell you.)

George Osborne gives Dave the evil laser death stare Meanwhile, David Cameron was doing that awful thing where he looked as though he was facing the wrong direction. At least this time the people over his shoulder were recognisable faces rather than unknown greasy pole climbers-in-waiting. Unfortunately, George Osborne looked like he was constantly giving David Cameron an evil laser death stare. Watch him in the videos and you’ll see what I mean.

Another amusing aside to the conferences is the BBC’s word clouds. I couldn’t help but notice that Gordon Brown — leader of the Labour Party which distrusts people so much that it wants to issue you with a biometric ID card if you want to so much as scratch your arse — mentioned the word “people” more than any other word.

David Cameron — leader of the Conservative Party that is supposed to hate big government — used the word, er, “government” more than any other word.

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems — the party that is said to sit on the fence on every matter — used both words an equally high number of times. At least one of the parties is true to form.

I don’t know whether or not the proposed bailout in the USA is a good idea. But it does amuse me that one of the more widely-quoted arguments against the bailout is Senator Jim Bunning’s view that it would be “un-American”.

It’s another aspect of American politics that I find to be a turn-off. That’s probably partly to do with my dislike of patriotism. But even the idea that some policies are inherently American and others are “un-American” is strange. And the idea that you would judge a policy on its American-ness is even weirder.

I mean, do these guys sit around the place reading policy proposals thinking things like, “Pah, that sounds like something a Canadian would support.” Or, “Only cheese-eating surrender monkeys believe that sort of thing!” I suspect that they actually do. What is wrong with, “Blimey, that doesn’t sound like a very good idea and it goes against my principles”?

This isn’t a one-off and you do hear from time to time people dismissing something-or-other for being un-American. I know the USA is a very patriotic country, and whether that is a good thing or not is a separate argument. But I doubt this kind of thing would wash in many other countries. Can you imagine some shadow cabinet spokesperson bemoaning a government’s policy for not being British enough?

The thing is that it just seems like such an arrogant thing to say. The only decent solutions come from America and no-one else in the world has a valid input to make? And they don’t understand it when some people have an iffy attitude towards the USA?

I don’t mean this as a dig towards the USA as a whole. I think it’s a wonderful country with some great people. I just find it amusing that being “un-American” is such a heinous crime according to some.