Monday, March 27, 2006

Not much change?

Last Friday the Uruguay economic and finance minister, Danilo Astori, was in town. He presented the details of that country's economic programme to a group of LSE students and finance journalists. Francisco, my supervisor, introduced Astori and hinted at some discussion to come on the nature of the Frente Amplio government and it's centre-left identity.

Although that would have been hard to see in the course of an hour-long talk in which Astori stressed the government's commitment to setting institutions and regulations in place to pay off the country's public debt and to attract inward foreign investment.

In the Q&A session that followed he spent most of the time emphasising these points and the package put in place between the October 2004 election and the March 2005 assumption of power. This prompted me to ask him about the extent to which the Frente Amplio had sought civil society involvement in the development of those policies and the level of internal party debate. To this Astori initially struggled with the term 'civil society' (not promising) before admitting that it wasn't as participatory or collaborative a process as one might expect - electoral victory being the justification by which this highly technocratic project was put into place.

Indeed, I was hard-pressed to identify anything distinctly left-of-centre in his talk. Even the emergency social programmes that he talked about were only temporary and amounted to little more than increases in funds rather than new ways of delivering services.
Sunday night non-drama

Caught Pinochet in Surburbia on the Beeb last night. I had been looking forward to it, although I was mildly disappointed. I think it was the comination of styles that it took: part drama and current affairs documentary.

The acting seemed slightly wooden - probably something to do with the characters outlining the details of the arrest and its aftermath to each other in the form of a history lesson. And the dramatic tension didn't seem to work well for me. While they tried to build up the suspense quota by seeming to race against the clock to obtain an arrest warrant before he fled the country, it fell rather flat.

The (presumably fictional) police woman who stood guard over Pinochet did a long line of quizzical expressions, as if she didn't know what her role was supposed to be. There were a few surreal dream sequences of the General, which didn't seem to make much sense, and Jacobi's Pinochet seemed to lack the menace of the original.

Of the cast the best was probably Anna Massey's Margaret Thatcher. She made my skin crawl, as I suspect was probably the intended effect. But daming though it is, I actually found the news coverage, Newsnight clips and LAw Lords' judgements that interspersed the drama of far more interest.

Looking at East End Life, the local council newspaper that circulates around Tower Hamlets, I see the objections being made about Crossrail seem to be bearing fruit. Hanbury Street and Mile End Park were going to see chaos with boring taking place there and the spoil shifted to the park. According to the council mouthpiece though, it's being suggested that this will not now happen since the tunnel can be built without digging up the area.

What's the catch though? I can't believe the council has just keeled over after all this time. I suspect there's something that hasn't been included in what is, in effect, the council's propaganda mouthpiece.

And what is it with the restaurant reviews in East End Life? I've not yet read a bad one. Can it really be that Tower Hamlets is the home of fine dining?
Smile to the camera...

Yesterday all the Lib Dem candidates standing for election in Tower Hamlets came together. We took over the whole of the Clifton Restaurant at the bottom of Brick Lane where we all met each other for the first time and listened to the process for nominations. In fact that is the priority this week, with each candidate needing 10 residents to sign their forms. Luckily for me, my colleagues in Spitalfields and Bangla Town and I had made a start on this last week, so we should have them completed by the party's internal deadline of tomorrow.

As well as having the campaign outlined and the various action days that will occur over the next month, there were plenty of photos taken - by the local newspaper as well as outselves to stick on leaflets over the coming weeks. Unfortunately, I wasn't looking at my best. Like the last set of photos I took with Aminur and Yousuf in Hanbury Street the other week, I was feeling slightly worse for wear, the result of being out all night with friends. I'm becoming convinced that these photo sessions seem timed to occur around the very days that I'm invited out...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

On the trail once again

As if disappearing until after Easter, having a PhD proposal to write, new job to work out and various funding requests on the go (yes, I'm seeing whether the Department will support my application for an ESRC award while awaiting a decision on the Harold Wingate request from a month ago - but I'm not holding my breath), I've also entered the election race again for the Liberal Democrats.

The last two Saturdays I've met my fellow candidates in the Spitalfields and Banglatown ward where I will be standing for election to Tower Hamlets council in May. We've spent the time setting out our plan of action and are currently in the process of getting our nomination forms completed.

I have to say both Aminur and Yousef are very active, getting around and delivering their own leaflet in the area. This Sunday we'll be at the Clifton restaurant on Osbourne Road (bottom of Brick Lane) from 2pm for the launch of the manifesto and in order to be able to meet all the other candidates from the rest of the borough.
End of term, new job...

Last week I saw my supervisor about my first chapter. Apart from a few tweaks things look OK. So now I have to get on with a 3000-word proposal outlining how I will carry out the project, including methods, fieldwork, etc. These two pieces of work, and a chapter outline, will need to be submitted for the first year review by 19 May.

It's a couple of months away and I'll get onto it soon enough. But until then I've got to knuckle down with my current job, which means I'm in the LSE library every day this week and for the first half of next week. I'm going away for a long holiday and to attend a friend's wedding - something I planned months ago.

I've got to try and find sufficient numbers of researchers - both academic and non-academic - to approach about a questionnaire we're doing on the use of digitial data sets. And I've got to invite them to take part before I go away next week. This will be keeping me busy for awhile!
Final seminar updates of term

Yes, I've been slack of late. Term finished last week and I never updated details of the final seminars of term. Both were extremely interesting, with Emanuela Hedayat presenting on a project she's going to do comparing and contrasting Costa Rican exceptionalism with Uruguay and Chile. In particular she wants to place Costa Rica as unique in terms of its long-lasting democracy owing to the decisions taken in 1870 by the elite that saw it create a national myth of democracy, peace and stability. Where she departs from the usual descriptive approach is in her effort to test a new theory of discursive strategy in developing this argument.

I find the whole notion of Costa Rican exceptionalism quite interesting. To what extent is it really the case? Or, if we look at the other case studies, might we not suggest that Chile is the unique case, since it was arguably more democratic than Costa Rica before 1973? Or could we say that Uruguay is the exception, since like Costa Rica it had a national myth before 1973 but was unable to translate it into a consensus in the 1970s?

Susana Carvalho's presentation served as a bookend to the term, as the other Portuguese in the class had begun the year. She wants to examine the Portuguese military and its claim to nationalism as the means for explaining its shift from 'defenders of the empire' to 'guardians of the people'.

While nationalism is the focus of her work, I made an incomprehensible comment that require clarification from others in the seminar. In particular I was curious to know whether nationalism was the driving force for the army. Surely all militaries dress themselves up in such garb. If she was interested in the relationship and dynamic between military and civilians and the shift from dictatorship to democracy, nationalism was the window dressing of a more complex game of power relations. Consequently, wasn't her project more about power and how people perceive and use it?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

No surprises at the top, but further down...

Yes, I know I’m nearly a week late, but I suppose I should comment on the new leader.

What depresses me most is our new moniker: we’re all Mingers now.

As for whether he’ll be a good leader for the Lib Dems, no doubt he’s a ‘safe pair of hands’. But I can’t help but think that there is something slightly odd about us claiming to be the party of youth and going for the oldest man around.

Still, no surprises in Nick Clegg getting a plum job as home affairs spokesman – especially after his high-profile support. But more surprising was Julia Goldsworthy’s fast promotion to shadow secretary to the Treasury. I’d be interested to know who was her backer which gave her the edge over the other new MPs. Still, nice to know that one’s own (we shared an office together for a year or so) is in positions of power (always a relative concept given Lib Dem status).
New month, new job

I’ve started a new job. Always daunting when this happens. Last week I was explaining my job to my successor at my last position. Even if it was relatively quiet towards the end at least I had the security of knowing what I was meant to do.

Now I’m starting a new job at the LSE. It’s a specific project in the library, doing survey work on how researchers access datasets. I’m the only one doing this at the LSE, although there are others like me at other universities in the country.

It’s a weird feeling being a new boy in a place which I use like a second home. I’ve been in this library for months now, but mainly for study. Now part of my week will be spent working and I’m having to familiarise myself with issues and ideas that never passed across my thoughts before.

Knowing less as we know more

As I mentioned, Lula is in town for a state visit. Typical that it should happen more than 2 years after I left working in Parliament. State visits mean that all party leaders meet the visiting leader and I had hopes that I would be able to brief Charles Kennedy on Lula, the PT and Brazilian politics in general before that meeting. Maybe even get a chance to meet the man himself.

Since then Kennedy’s gone (more to come on that) and Lula and the PT have been embroiled in scandal over the alleged bribery of politicians. Brazil figures more prominently in the news, owing to the Stockwell shooting last year and the growing number of Brazil-themed events here in the UK.

Clearly, I’m not needed!

Still, it was surreal listening to Gilberto Gil, the culture minister, on Today this morning. What wasn’t he asked to talk about? The Stockwell shooting, the rise of the left in Latin America, implications for Washington, Amazonian deforestation and how he manages to gig and govern at the same time.

On that last point, it was a shame that no-one at the BBC thought to ask him about the month-long strikes that took place in culture-financed museums, libraries and galleries across the country last year.
Same policy, different thinking

I disappeared early from the seminar this week as I was told about a meeting at very short notice up at the Institute of Education. Fernando Haddad and some education ministry officials were in town, ahead of Lula’s state visit which is currently taking place here in London, and I had the opportunity to hear the minister speak.

Unfortunately the earlier discussions overran, so Haddad didn’t start his presentation for almost 45 minutes after the announced time. That meant while I was able to listen to everything he said, I wasn’t able to stay and ask questions. Unfortunately I had to get back to the LSE for my new job which started Monday afternoon.

Still, it was quite useful, as he provided an overview of the PT’s record in government on education. This gives me some themes, projects and issues to consider. Most notable was his initial comment that they were seeking to take politics out of the education debate – a real contrast with his party associated in Porto Alegre, who last year stressed the importance of ideology in driving their education policies until 2002.

The other highlight was his announcement that this year the department is to publish all the assessment results by school in Brazil (which is a sample rather than every child and school as it is here). He mentioned that education professionals, unions, etc, were opposed to the idea, on the basis that it might cause embarrassment for those badly performing schools. But he claimed that it would actually help, as it would provide information to the education community about the obstacles they face and allow informed discussion to take place.

What is so striking about this issue is not that the PT is willing to publicise this data; it’s the different meaning the party attaches to what has commonly been thought of as a neo-liberal idea. For the Right supports the publication of such data to encourage competition between schools and enable consumers (parents and students) some degree of choice over which school to attend.
Rawls, Habermas, Korea, minorities and Indonesians...

OK, no long post about recent seminar presentations. But I will offer a flavour of the last two weeks - or at least try to!

I'm no political theorist and I was suffering from a self-inflicted night of debauchery the previous day, but last week's seminar saw James Gledhill and Muriel Kahane discuss their work. Muriel is working on minority rights, which draws heavily on Kymlicka and his work on cosmopolitanism. James, meanwhile, seems interested in facts and their relationship to norms. This is quite abstract – at least for me – and I’m sorry I didn’t follow most of it. I do there’s going to be quite a bit of analysis of methodology, drawing on work done by Rawls and Habermas. I’m afraid that I was rather silent last week. Political theory has never been my strong point.

This week we returned to political science – or at least practical politics. Chang Hyung-Seok is interested in the strength of the business community in South Korea over wider civil society. He seems to have the beginning of something there, although he may well benefit from some case studies to illustrate his arguments.

There was also Jacqui Baker, our resident anthropologist, who is resisting the culture of the Government department! She’s working on police reform in Indonesia and what this means for democratisation in that country. We won’t see her next year as she’s planning to apply her ethnographic skills to participant-observation work in Sumatra on this project. But the basis of her presentation was a discussion of democracy and democratisation. One colleague asked her whether this was relevant, but I agreed with her approach; she needs to be clear in her own mind what these concepts are before she can study them in the field – although it’s never the case that you will know everything before heading out.