Friday, July 28, 2006

Massive apologies!

Yes, I've been slack. There's no excuse. More than two monthe since my last posting. But I fear it may continue for awhile yet. Am off to Brazil next week to start my fieldwork, with stops in Rio, Sao Paulo and Brasilia. The last few months have been taken up with preparing for the annual upgrade (passed thankfully), seeking funding for the impending trip and trying to get my part time job completed before I go.

But not to worry, I will be back. Isn't everyone entitled to a break from blogging from time to time?!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

I do hereby declare...

It won't come as any surprise that last week I managed not to be elected as councillor for Spitalfields and Banglatown. I polled 354 votes - not so bad given the lack of campaigning I was able to do and the three winners' totals of between 850-900 or so.

It's a relief it's over though. Not just because it means I have Saturdays free again! Last Thursday I went down to the count at Canary Wharf, but at 5.30am gave up to go home as it was taking forever. In fact the first I heard of my result was from an eagle-eyed friend of mine, who saw it on the Respect website before it went on Tower Hamlets's and texted me!
The cheque's in the mail?

Managed to get my request in for conference funding last week. Now we wait and see. Meanwhile I'm still waiting to hear whether I'll get any money to help cover transport costs to Brazil this summer...
Debating social democracy

The Latin American research seminar is also up and running again as well. Last week I presented my chapter on differences within and between Left and Right in Latin America and its implications for education policy. I had an audience of around 6, which was heartening, although I had to explain my way through the project and the way I intended to do it. Not everyone had read the paper, but at least it was a good exercise in preparing and defending myself. I now have my annual review interview scheduled for 31 May, so this was an excellent time to think about potential questions and pitfalls that I might face later in the month.

Yesterday it was Francisco Panizza to present. His article, on the Frente Amplio's first year in government in Uruguay, was the topic for discussion. Again, I don't presume there were many who read the paper, so he spoke for half an hour before taking questions. Francisco had mentioned that the manifesto that the FA was elected on was rather vague in targets, giving Danilo Astori (the economy minister) free reign to develop it in a third way direction (rather than towards the more neo-liberal and radical end of the FA spectrum). What I didn't really understand was why his approach was not challenged by the other currents within the coalition. Furthermore, I was curious to know whether there was any drive to a set of 'hird generation' reforms in public services (as is happening in the UK) and after the 'second generation' market reforms. Francisco said no, the unions were in the way.

One other interesting comments from the discussion was Sara Motta's view that the 'moulding' of the present system in Uruguay was less social democratic than neo-liberal, since there didn't seem to be any corresponding efforts to make Uruguay's political system more democratic and citizen-inclusive. It was a fair point, since to what extent does the third way really engage the grassroots compared to other, more participatory versions of social democracy (this seems to be my oen insight into the subject, e.g. the PT or Evo Morales). Sara, of course, has just been studying the grassroots in Venezuela, so is naturally quite excited about what she sees as a 'juncture' in history there.
First year round-ups

It's been awhile, so time for a roundup of the various research projects being undertaken by first year Government Department students. Two weeks' worth to be getting on with, so here goes!

Last week Eva-Maria Asari presented her ideas on multiculturalism in Canada and Estonia. She wants to examine how minorities are treated and the way they relate to state policies. Questions were asked about the usefulness of comparing these two coutnries, which Eva-Maria explained by saying that Canada had been at the forefront of developing multicultural citizenship. But there are still some issues to be resolved, including the fact that unlike Russian speakers in Estonia, the French in Canada form a majority in Quebec as well as a minority in the rest of the country. Would she take into account that fact? I asked. In addition, to what extent has Estonia's government introduced a more 'liberal' notion of citizenship as a result of external pressures (e.g. EU, OECD, Canada) compared to the Canadians' own 1960s-70s internal drive for reform? Would that affect the substance of the policies?

This week Miika Tervonen explained that he was looking at the way the Roma in Finland had been historically marginalised between the late 19th and mid-20th century. As a visiting student, he's in the advantageous position of not having to do an annual review at the end of this month. However, we were able to get into a discussion about the nature of Roma identity and the reasons behind it - namely that the Roma have always been seen as a problem group, even though many of them can be labelled as Finnish. He also talked about them in social terms rather than cultural/national ones - they speak Finnish and are notable for their mobility. Some questions were made about the Swedish minostiry in Finland and the way in which they are not marginalised.

Finally Umit Sonmez showed his work on electricity and gas liberalisation and regulation in Britain and Turkey. For Umit the interesting thing is that effective liberalisation did not take place until after the independent regulatory bodies were put in place. In both countries' cases that was in the last ten years, despite a 15-20 year difference in the pace of liberalisation reform. I asked whether there were substantial differences between different governments (e.g. Tory and Labour here, secular and Islamist in Turkey) in approaching these themes and the extent to which the regulatory agencies (which became 'culpable' for the process at one remove from government) was either a reflection of government interests or captured by the private sector (probably less the latter since the natural tendency was to create a monopoly).

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Something just landed on me...

Today's picture is of a colourful Amazonian grasshopper that decided to take a breather on our boat earlier this month.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Euro-monitoring in Greece

First seminar of the summer term brough Zivanna Mourmouri to the class to present her research on the Europeanisation of Greek public space. Instead of being on Monday the seminar has been shifted to Wednesday for this and next week. Consequently there was plenty of time lost as people wandered around, trying to find the right classroom, since we had relocated as well! Also, it was only one person this week, so a later start, at 11.

Zivanna aims to assess the extent to which Greece's media has become Europeanised through a content analysis of stories about the EU. A number of questions were raised, including what was meant by 'Europeanisation' (which was loosely defined but appeared to be a process of change by which European issues become discussed nationally - I think) and how a study of the media could identify changes in societal views and attitudes about Europe.

Added to this were methodological questions about the suitability of a one-country case study and an emphasis on periods where the EU was bound to be discussed (i.e. monetary union, etc). If Greece - which Zivanna claims has an instrumental view of the EU - was not going to be compared against a pro- or anti-EU state (e.g. France and the UK), then shouldn't 'controls' be placed in the analysis of media between periods where there was a lot of discussion about the EU against those which didn't?

Still, it has the makings of an interesting project and could provide an useful insight into how the EU is reported.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On the steps

Today's image is of the Carmo steps in Salvador's Pelourinho. This was where the film O Pagador das Promessas (The Promise Keeper) was filmed in the early 1960s and is still one of my favourite Brazilian films - sharp comedy and social commentary rolled together.
On the ballot

Attended two seminar yesterday related to elections. The first was at the ODI where George Philip (LSE), Victor Bulmer-Thomas and Duncan Green (Oxfam) all spoke about the Latin American elections. Is it a turn to the left and if so is it substantial or only skin deep. I managed to arrive late and missed George's contribution. But the general impression given was that while macro-economic policy won't change, there's the possibility of reform in social policy by these governments as well as the now obvious comment that Venezuela's Chavez and Chile's Bachelet are different creatures.

Duncan Green drew on Francisco Panizza's typology of the contemporary Left, claiming that there are three models: the liberal-republican, social movement-based and populist. A government or party can occupy more than one model and fluctuate according to their experience. Consequently, Brazil's PT and Uruguay's Frente Amplio may have been labelled as social movement-based but are probably now liberal-republican (like Bachelet). Where then, does Morales in Bolivia sit? He comes from the social movement Left, but will he govern like that? Or will he end up like Lula and the PT? Furthermore, will Bolivia go the way of Ecuador, where social and indigenous movements ended up splitting with 'their' government?

The other contibition to note about the ODI seminar was Bulmer-Thomas's observation that economic paradigms in Latin America generally last about 50 years - which means we're currently halfway through the current model. So don't expect any major changes yet.

I left early to catch a bus to Oxford for the Brazil Centre's seminar on the Brazilian elections. The panel consisted of Leslie Bethell (who always has a few good anecdotes up his sleeve), Jairo Nicolau (a renowned political scientist in Brazil), Tim Power and Leany Barreiro Lemos (a visiting research associate and legislative advisor in the Senate in Brasilia).

The general consensus was that Lula looks like he'll win. Although he hasn't declared yet, his polls have recovered after the corruption scandals and Alckmin, the main challenger, hasn't made a dent in his numbers yet. Power (loosely) likened Lula to Reagan as a hands-off, teflon-like president. Interesting though, Jairo showed that Lula's support has fallen among the richer classes and that his base is now among the poorer sections of society. This means that if Garotinho gets the PMDB nomination he could create problems for Lula, since he's drawing the same sort of support. It also means that the suggested impeachment of Lula probably won't go through, since the poor will think it's the political class trying to get 'our man'.

Also notable is the feeling in Brazil that Lula does better without the PT - hence his distancing himself from the party. That made me ask a question about a post-Lula PT in 2010. If Lula wins now, what happens then? The interesting thing about all the scandal last year was how it swept away the group behind Lula, from whom one might have expected his successor to have been groomed. And former finance minister, Palocci, is just the latest case.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


Yes, I'm pining a bit for Brazil - the beaches and a more relaxed existence (probably due to the fact that I know I have work and studies to be getting on with).

In the absence of any prospect - at least until the summer (fingers crossed), I attach a photo of one of the more beautiful places I've been to: an image of Jericoacoara at sunset (thanks Pati).
Anglified Braziliana

To Guanabara club/bar in the evening for my brother's birthday party. Yet having been in Rio just a few days ago, the vibe was definitely less Brazilian than one might expect.

Sure, Guanabara has gained a reputation as arguably the most vibrantly Brazilian venue in London. And perhaps if you haven't been to Brazil - or it's been awhile since you were last there - it may catch the vibe. But there's plenty there to remind you that you're definitely in London. It's not just the number of white people, but the sense of busy-ness around you. Added to that the music before the big samba school came on was definitively not Brazilian and the presence of a toilet attendent, which really winds me up something chronic, all points out that we're in the UK.

And is it just me or are there a growing number of Ben Sherman shirts that I saw in there last night? I'm coming to the conclusion that toilet attendents and Ben Sherman fashionwear is something that is quite closely correlated.
Election round-up

Yesterday was one of the two (possibly three) ventures into the Spitalfields and Banglatown ward election. Along with my two colleagues we visited several estates and houses near Hanbury Street to plug ourselves. We had a leaflet with details about ourselves and the party (although one of the leaflets had a statement about me that was slightly out of date). No matter though. We managed to introduce ourselves to a number of people and even if it wasn't really canvassing, the general impression was good. Only a few people refused to take our leaflet or said they wouldn't vote Lib Dem.

It's less than two weeks until polling day and there was quite a lot of acitivity inthe area. As we doorknocked one estate the local Tory candidate was seen driving around the block and back again (so much for his party's claims of green-ness!), while several Labour candidates and activists stopped to talk to us. Meanwhile on the other side of the street there were three Respect activists whi were clearly not from the area, trying to work out which estate was which from one of the maps.
A-begging for money

It looks like being ridiculously expensive to get a flight for Brazil this summer. A quick check of online travel agencies suggests around £800-£1000. Quite steep. The last time I sought a flight to Brazil in the summer (August time) it was around £550 - and that was considered expensive three years ago. Presumably it's something to do with the fuel tax?

Which makes it all the more imperative that I apply for funding for the flight. I managed to get some money last year from London University which covered my flight out. Today I'm going to be making an effort to apply again - and hopefully be successful once more.

Although judging by my last few funding applications (almost a job in themselves for PhD students), I may well be unsuccessful. This month alone has seen rejections from the Government Department to support my ESRC application and from the Wingate scholarship foundation.

Once the travel application is done there's also internal LSE funds to apply for before the end of June, including the Miliband scholarship (worth £5000 and only available once every two years) and the research grant (that cuts my tuition fees in half as it did this year).

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Time to be off?

Only one other thing to say after my absence. Despite carrying around my digital camera for three weeks in Brazil, it's was only on the last flight home that the LCD screen cracked. Added to that the hot water in the kitchen is not working while the shower is barely a trickle. Meanwhile the bank has charged for going over my limit and refuses to allow me an increase.

With a welcome back like that is it any wonder I'm counting the days until I next go back to Brazil for fieldwork (ideally this summer)?
Back to business as usual

I'm back after a three-week absence. I was away in Brazil, ostensibly for a friend's wedding in Rio before then heading out to the Amazon with friends for some serious slumming. Then back to Rio via a detour in the African-feeling city of Salvador. Plenty that could be written about - and which might appear gratuitous and boring to some. I reckon the best way to address this might be to post the occasional photo rather than wax lyrical. Also, because I simply don't have the time! It's back to work, both PhD-related and work-related, for me.

But I will leave this thought: the jungle is much noisier than I anticipated. Sitting silently one can hear dozens of things, from howler monkeys to buzzing mosquitos and grasshoppers, through to strange sounding birds - particularly those that make a 'thwip-thweeough' side, like a builder to a passing woman!

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.

Friday, February 24, 2006


Two good bits of news over the last week. First, I've finally got a new job. This is a project based in the LSE library looking at how researchers are using e-resources and databases here. The project is a national one, tying up other university libraries in the country. I start in March when my current job finishes and - ideal for me - it's two days a week.

Second, I'll be presenting a paper at my first conference later this year. My masters dissertation, on the different experiences of the Left in education reform in Brazil, has been accepted for a conference on social democracy at Sheffield in June. OK, it's Sheffield and not somewhere abroad. But at least it's a start.

I can see some rewriting is probably going to need fitting in at some point...
Different starting points, same outcome

Also managed to fit some time in last week to attend a seminar up at the Institute of Education on higher education policy and reform in Argentina and Chile. Quite interesting, if only as a comparative reference for my own work. The impression I gained was that both countries are moving towards a more market-oriented system for HE, but from different perspectives. Whereas Chilean society seems to have accepted the principle of tuition fees and paying for university, in Argentina the public ethos still persists, even as private institutions continue to be created.

The seminar was also useful for the drinks I had with some of the more active members of the study group there - not least because I'm presenting at the monthly seminar next month. And it's nice to have a few friendly faces rather than a room of strangers!
Nothing to worry about?

I don't get out much when I'm putting together a paper for my supervisor, but I was able to sneak out for a round-table discussion hosted by the Mexican Society at the LSE. The topic was the upcoming presidential elections in that country and academics and pollsters were present.

It seems that the standard bearer of the Left, Lopez Obrador, is in the lead and barring any mishaps will probably be Mexico's new president. Calderon, the candidate of the PAN, lies seven points behind, with the PRI a few points further back, in third place.

One of the academics had doubts and concerns about the Left; with a social movement behind him would Lopez Obrador be a 'responsible' president? I find this objectionable. After all, why on earth would the Left be irresponsible? With the questionable exception of Chavez - who seems to be more bluster anyway (his anti-US rhetoric hasn't changed the fact that his biggest oil market is still... the US) - haven't the last few years shown that the Left tends to operate in a fairly moderate fashion? In Brazil, Argentina, Chile and most recently Bolivia, we're seeing presidents elected who are restraining themselves - and frustrating their own supporters.
Long-winded seminar round-up

Apologies for the slow blogging lately. I'm in the middle of putting together the final third of what I hope will be my introductory chapter and literature review and I'm trying to get it in for my supervisor by the end of today!

So yes, two weeks' worth of first year seminars to comment on. Last week Josue Fiallo presented his proposal, which will examine judicial reform in Central America and the Caribbean. My reading of his argument was that the region is relatively under-developed in this respect and so I put it to him that there was an underlying teleological assumption there. Was he assuming some form of linear progress towards a North Atlantic ideal? If so, how do we account for the variance in elites' acceptance of the rule of law, most notably in the context of America's war on terror and legal black holes in Guantanamo Bay? There was also a question about whether he could abstract from the sub-region he'll be studying to the wider region? Is the rest of Latin America - and especially the Southern Cone - as 'backward' in legal reform as he argues?

Josue was followed by Jeremy Williams, who is a political theorist. Refreshingly he is making some bold, controversial claims that eugenics can be justified and proceeded to upset a number of people in the seminar! I didn't follow it all, but I was struck by his argument that owing to issues of cost and parental obligations to the state (in return for their right for IVF), that given the choice between four embryos - one which would result in a mental infirmity, two others that would give a genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism or criminality and a fourth that was 'clean' - then we should go for the fourth. My sole contribution was to ask that, in the absence of the 'clean' embryo, which would the state be entitled to impose upon the prospective mother? Was he arguing for a hierarchy in which 'clean' is followed by the genetic pre-disposition and finally the mental infirmity? He said he would have to go back and think about it. I look forward to returning to this!

And so to this week. Sofia Sebastian wants to look at the involvement of international organisations on democratisation. In particular this would be the EU and its influence on the process in South East Europe (SEE), with Serbia and Croatia as possible case studies. However, she was making comparisons with Central East Europe (CEE), which raises questions: why the different level of EU involvement in the latter and not the former? How do we account for that? Might not a comparison between one SEE state with a CEE state be more productive? Anyway, it seems she's at the start of her investigations, so we'll probably watch this space.

Finally, Kanokrat Lertchoosakul presented an outline for her work on Thai political activity. She wants to examine why it is that these activists who were prominent in advocating democracy and left-wing ideas in the 1970s have now become conservative and alligned to the present populist government. I must admit I wasn't entirely sure how her project was going to be developed and this appeared to be reflected in the convener's observation that there were three ways that it could be developed. Nevetherless, not knowing anything about Thai politics and society, I found the presentation extremely interesting - and it shows why I like the seminar. The various projects taken on are extremely diverse. I was also struck by Kanokrat's comment that in the 1970s Thailand was 'exceptional' for having a political amnesty for dissidents, compared to the rest of South East Asia. I'm not qualified to say much, but I wondered whether that was really the case.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Seminar roundups

Yes, I’m afraid I’ve been slack lately. Something about getting on with my own research (I’m handing my supervisor a paper on the Latin American Right today for discussion on Monday). Consequently I haven’t been too good at mentioning what we’ve been up to in the first year seminar.

To run through them briefly: last week it was Omar El-Mougy’s turn to present his ideas on the stalled democratisation project in Egypt. The discussion quickly got bogged down in a debate over whether Islam and democracy are compatible, which is a moot point given the different interpretations that exist about each. Jacqui tried to offer a way forward which meant avoiding having that particular discussion. I found the paper rather helpful as a contrast to my own work, especially on the conceptions of authoritarianism and democracy that Omar brought out. And it also explains why he hasn’t been attending our Thursday night meet-up sessions over the last few weeks (although well done for coming last night)).

Yaz Santissi then gave us an outline that he’s working on. Unfortunately there was no paper to go with what looked like an interesting topic on internet governance. He’s curious to understand why the process of e-regulation was decided upon prior to the mass expansion and consumption of new e-technology. This stands in contrast to previous technologies, including radio and videotape where pirating prompted a reaction. Why is it that the big corporations moved so early to sew things up? Yaz seemed to allude that the reason could be due to there being a qualitative difference in current technologies compared to previous ones. But I asked whether that really was the case? Surely the same concerns are made about technologies through time – it’s just that the environment in which they come into existence changes. And in the case of today we’re living through a more globalised world than in the past.

This week Elize Sakamoto and Camilia Kong shared their work. Elize is interested in corporate social responsibility in the arms industry. What is it and why has it dragged its heels compared to, say, the pharmaceutical industry? I took her up on that point since I found it interesting to hear her say that the medical firms had managed to do this but that only now was an NGO coalition being put together to challenge the arms industry. Furthermore she also suggested the arms industry wanted to be more regulated. I found both ideas extraordinary. What could account for that? She responded by saying that it could have something to do with post-September 11. I’m afraid I find that a frustrating answer, since it’s used to explain all manner of things – yet terrorism, small arms proliferation, extremist ideologies were all present before then.

Finally Camilia presented on some work she’s doing on Hume. I wish I could offer more on her ideas but I’m afraid I’m no theorist. There was some discussion on instrumentalism and the discussion seemed to revolve around rationality and making choices. But by this point I was feeling just a tad bit exhausted. It was my 30th last weekend and it was a long one. And definitely not for this page…

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Official: North is South

Came across this yesterday in the LSE events list:

"When an Inuit leader attending international climate negotiations saw campaigners dressed as polar bears to highlight the effects of global warming, she demanded to know what right they had to speak on her behalf. Today developing countries are putting innovative proposals on the table that represent a sea change in climate change politics. Are Southern activists the new pioneers who can unblock the current impasse on climate change negotiations or do campaigners from the North still dominate?"

Worth going along to this event next Thursday just to ask the panel who the North and South is withy regard to the Artic. Also, surely the use of the term 'sea change' was unfortunate? Seems to me that's what the negotiations are all about preventing!
A break from the cynicism...

Well done to Simon Hughes for admitting his homosexuality. Society has changed sufficiently that no-one should really care whether or not a politician is gay or what he or she does in their private lives.

Unlike some twit whose blog I read this morning, claiming that the country's not ready for a gay prime minister and on that basis he won't be supporting him. It's people like him who 100 years ago didn't think women should have the vote, let alone the top job.
Justice, Al Capone-style

In a delicious irony Pinochet's daughter, Lucia, is apparently seeking asylum from 'political persecution' in the US.

Of course, this 'political persecution' has nothing to do with human rights abuses, torture, disappearances. No nothing like that. No, she, like the rest of the Pinochet family, is being investigated for tax evasion.

Excuse me if I don't shed a tear.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Reflections on the Lib Dem race

So now we're down to three. Like most people, I was absolutely flabbergasted when I heard Mark Oaten had not only stepped down from the leadership campaign, but also the home affairs brief.

Not sure there's really anything to say.

But of the three remaining, it's going to be a tough call decising who should be the next leader. Simon Hughes got the activists' support and charisma (admittedly in person rather than on TV), while Chris Huhne is an unknown force and Menzies Campbell poses serious questions. Like, for example, his alleged role in the rumours surrounding Kennedy before and after Christmas and the party's keenness to get the election over and done (which would presumably favour the early runners and before the others have built up momentum). The fact that David Steel was pushing for a 'coronation' on the same day that Ashdown came out in favour of Campbell suggests to me that the establishment want to take control.

At this rate, the caricature that Polly Toynbee drew of the Lib Dems at a LSE meeting last night is going to become more evident. She portrayed the party as less concerned with social justice and lifting people out of poverty than with gaining middle class votes (e.g. tuition fees). She made reference to the Orange Book tendencyt - as if that's the mainstream of party thinking.

Already you can see her type sharpening their pens to portray Lib Dems as little better than the Tories.
Before the firing squad

On Monday it was my turn to face the music. There's something slightly uncomfortable sitting in front of a class of about 25. all of whom have read your paper and are about to tear it to shreds.

Yes, it was my day in front of the Government Department's first year seminar.

Actually, it wasn't as bad as I expected. No-on took great issue with the main thrust of my argument, of the relative differences between moderate and radical branches of the Left, and 'open' and 'closed' notions of each. That was reassuring. Instead I was hauled out on questions of methodology, structure of the chapter and (from the one or two Latin Americanists in the room) concerns about labels. For example, should I have hsed the term 'Latin America' when much of what I was describing was really Southern Cone? Why had I excluded the Sandinistas from this discussion about the Left?

One or two people asked me about where education policy and reform sat in my thesis - it didn't seem to appear in my research questions. And I was asked why I wasn't considering textual analysis of textbooks or curricula. Short answer: because Left and Right tend to use the same language of 'building citizenship' and 'instilling knowledge'. It's what they think about these ideas that I want to get to.

And so an hour ended rather more quickly than I expected. Off to see my supervisor next Monday to go over the post-mortum.

Besides my session, Philippa Walker presented her work on 'Caring Justice': a political theory piece which seeks to combine a theory of justice within an ethical framework (I think). I'm afraid I'm rather hazy and uncomprehensing about much political theory, so I don't think I could do Philippa justice by trying to summarise her arguments.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Spare any change?

As if it's not enough that I'm working two days a week and trying to get my paper ready to present next Monday, I've also got to think about applying for new jobs and seeking funding for my studies. So far I've applied for several (less well-paid) jobs when my current position finishes at the end of February, while last night I completed a full day in front of the computer screen by sitting down to fill out my application form for the Wingate scholarship (closing date, 1 February). Along with it came the emails to supervisors and past teachers, asking if they'd mind acting as a referee.

It never ends, does it?
Paper presentations update

So a quick update on some of the papers presented this term so far over the last week.

Last Thursday Daniel Lin presented a paper on Chinese legal culture, which appears to be part of a project relating to differences between Chinese and Japanese perspectives on law and how this relates to their political cultures. Always a tricky subject to get onto, I think, with culture. Often it seems that people use the term as a catch-all explanation to define exceptionalism of a particular polity or society. With Daniel's paper I struggled to make sense of what he was trying to say; after refuting various authors, he settled for a popular conception of law, with the Chinese state minded to bend to society. After making some brief references to the state's tacit acceptance of public protest against the US and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, he then cited various Tang dynasty examples of private cases.

I wasn't entirely sure where he was going with that divergence. And as for his principle - that the state 'bends to societal demands' - isn't hat something that can be found in other societies other than China's? Similarly, I questioned the assumption that the Chinese state is that responsive; Tiananmen Square springs to mind. Similarly, these social protests were partly orchestrated by the government, so to what extent could they be deemed independent.

This Monday we had two more first year students under the spotlight: Matthew Bolton and Sarah Harrison. Matthew kicked off with a look at humanitarian intervention and the changing perceptions of conflict, particularly since Vietnam. Some of the political theorists were keen to take him up on ideas of war (not something I would want to go down), while others wanted to define what 'humanitarian intervention' meant in his paper - not that this seemed to be the primary purpose of it.

Sarah, meanwhile, is examining the electoral success of the extreme right in six European countries. This immediately prompted concerns about whether this was too large a project - something that I hadn't considered. Personally, I was more interested to know how she defined left-right themes (i.e. can immigration or Europe be placed on this political spectrum?) and whether she felt that success could only be defined in electoral terms? After all, extreme right parties do not need parliamentary representation, or indeed be in government, to infuence the policy debate. Finally, I noticed in her (well-written) plan of action that in the three countries where the extreme right had entered government or was a prominent player (Austria, Italy and France), it had seen a subsequent decline in its vote share. What did this suggest about the long term viability of such parties?

Next week it's my turn. And yes, I'm already dreading it!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The students are now in charge...

Term began again on Monday and this time it's the turn of the students to present their own work. Since the first year PhD seminar has taken this shape, it's only those of us on the MPhil/PhD programme in the Government department that have to attend. Consequently there's noticeably fewer students there, since the MRes people have departed.

First up were Andre Alves and Andrzej Bolesta with their work on welfare state classification and Chinese authoritarian development respectively. Both were grilled for an hour each. Andre's piece dealt with the identification of the normative aspects of egalitarian and libertarian perspectives on welfare states. This will form the basis of some classification of different OECD welfare states along an egalitarian-libertarian spectrum and the impact of such states on labour markets. My observation on his piece was to note that no pure model seemed to exist at either end; scholarly writing seemed to combine elements of each perspective. Consequently, these differences were a matter of degree.

Andrej's working chapter proved to be contentious for some in the seminar. He's interested in economic development in China specifically and what this says about development more generally. He's keen to contrast the shift from socialist development to free market democracy in Eastern Europe with China's post-socialist economic change without soncurrent political liberalisation. This, he believes, makes a case for Chinese 'exceptionalism', not least because the authoritarianism is 'rational'. I questioned that, not least because bureaucratic authoritarianism in Latin America could similarly be described as technical and less personalist than previous forms (see O'Donnell, O'Donnell and Schmitter and Roquie for this). Subsequently I suggested to him that he might want to consider Cuba's current development path as well: not only has it liberalised sections of its economy (creating 'free zones' rather like China during the 1980s), but it has also done this without ceding political power.

But it was the implicit argument in Andrej's piece that caused come consternation: namely that authoritarianism may appear to be more effective at delivering consistent and effective development than democracy. A number of people took exception to that.

Still, it seems the term has been set for some quite interesting work and presentations to come.
Such hypocrisy

Interesting how Charles Kennedy was slated by sections of the media and his party for being an alcoholic. In particular were those who said that seeking help for only two months did not mean that he had faced up to his problems and instead it was just the start.

So what exactly am I to make of Kate Moss? Front page of one of the newspapers this morning is an image from her first photo shoot since her return from a clinic for her drug habits. Can it really be that her exposure and recovery has all happened since the end of September? If drugs are like alcohol, how exactly is she 'rehabilitated'? Has she faced up to her problems, or was it all a show so she could get back to work?

Not that I rerally care - good luck to them both I say. But it does make me wonder what the point of all this exposure is.
Was I dreaming this?

In my half sleep this morning I heard on the radio that scientists are claiming those just waking up have less capacity for concentration than if they're drunk or been up for 24 hours. Apparently the grogginess can last for up to two hours after waking up.

I can just see the newspaper headline: 'Sleep is bad for you: official'.

Sometimes I wonder what the point of it all is...

Monday, January 09, 2006

Who's in?

So he's bowed to the inevitable and gone. Well, it never looked likely that Kennedy would be able to continue as leader, even if he had got the members' endorsement. Look at Iain Duncan Smith's experience for that.

Of course having a party affiliation means that when you attend a social gathering everyone asks you for your opinion on it. And judging by the Fox and Grapes crows in Wimbledon yesterday, the sympathy is with Kennedy. Although interestingly all the MPs (and Ashdown) are lining up behind Ming Campbell. It's starting to look like a coronation - something I doubt the membership will wear.

For the sake of a contest - and the opportunity to grumble about more than one candidate - we need another to enter the race.

So what are you waiting for Andrew? Now's the time!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Will no one speak up?

Just looking at the Lib Dem website, I see there's been absolutely nothing posted since Thursday. What's going on? Could it be that the press office doesn't know what to say?

After all, I'm curious to know how the party's responding officially to media reports that nearly half the Parliamentary party have no support in Kennedy. Presumably there's civil war within Cowley Street and in this instance the first casulaties are the NCOs - in this instance the press officers.

Odd that the press office - which likes to be both at the centre and in control of any Lib Dem pronouncement - has gone silent at the very moment it's most needed. Not just that, but from my seat it looks like it's been sidelined, as the media go direct to MPs themselves rather than through the supposedly correct and formal channels.

After the fallout from the leadership crisis is done it might be worth looking at how the media operation is managed inside the party.
No substance at all?

Wow, they're all breaking cover now, aren't they? To think, just a month ago it was all rumour and innuendo - now you can't switch on the radio or the TV without finding at least five Lib Dem MPs desperate to comment on the CK crisis.

And that included that old showboater, Andrew George MP. My one or two readers will recall his unsuccessful attempt to get the fisheries minister to recall Parliament to discuss the quotas two days before Christmas 2004.

I'm sure that Andrew would argue that it was high-minded principle at stake and had nothing to do with getting good copy. Rather like his comments in the Standard yesterday.

Unless there's something else afoot. Might it be that Andrew's aiming to buck the trend of those who plunge the knife in never reaping the benefits? Could it be that we're seeing the first of the leadership aspirants lining himself up for this own campaign? I think we should be told.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The bevvied leading the bland

One last Lib Dem-related item - and then I promise to shut up.

God knows why I still continue to receive briefings from the youth section of the party (I'm turning 30 in less than a month - surely that makes me middle-aged to these people?!), but I do despair of it. Their latest statement on Kennedy is worthy of the Politbureau:

Liberal Democrat Youth and Students notes Charles Kennedy's dignified
statement today, and the constitutional process that he has now put
into place.

It will be a relief for many members to see an end to whispering and
plotting, and to take this opportunity to reflect on how we as a party
face the future.

We welcome the fact that, since there must be a leadership election,
it is open to all members to vote in. This shows a level of respect
for the party membership and for democracy that other parties have
consistently failed to exhibit.

We wish Charles well for his continued recovery, and await
developments with interest.

It seems the idealists and radicals of the party have disappeared, to be replaced by the careerists and hacks. And that is more depressing than the current leader's difficulties; the future doesn't seem too bright with lines like that, does it?
The world turned upside down...

Nine years ago, when I first took a course on Latin American politics the neo-liberal order was in full swing and characters like Menem and Fujimori were running the show. A decade later and all the talks about the rise of the Left and indigenous rights.

I thought that was the appeal of studying that region's politics rather than British politics.

That was until yesterday.

Not only does Charles Kennedy finally 'fess up to a drink problem, but my local MP, George Galloway, is set to become Big Bruvver in the BB house! What next?

Is it any surprise about Kennedy? The rumblings have been there for years, but it has always been hushed up. Remember the problems about his 'illness' at conference? Yet that's not the aspect that's so stunning. No, it's the sheer unwillingness by sections of the party to follow through with this hatchet job, even after leaving Kennedy bloodied. How else to descibe a ballot paper with just CK's name on it? It's exactly like the referendum questions put to the Chileans under Pinochet in 1980 and 1988 - not exactly an advertisement for liberal democracy is it?

As for Gorgeous George, at least his entry into the Big Brother House will mean that he can't do any damage to Tower Hamlets while he's in there. But I reckon the people who will miss him the most will be the Brick Lane curry house owners - if he goes the distance they'll be losing quite a bit of custom.

Although I'm willing to wager that he won't be in there for long.

Rather like Kennedy in fact.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Other leadership crises...

And while (little) British attention is paid to Latin America, here in London the news is all about Ariel Sharon and Charles Kennedy. Not that you could ever imagine either sharing a stage together.

Kennedy is really starting to look like damaged goods. But what's even more depressing is the incompetence or unwillingness of the Lib Dems to wield the knife. If this is stabbing in the back it's not looking very effective. The party could definitely do with watching the Tories more closely.

As for Sharon, it's indeed a simal state of affairs when someone like him is seen as necessary to the peace process. Yes, I've heard all about 'better the devil you know', but let's not forget that only a few years ago the notion that this man could become prime minister was seen as disastrous. yet here we now are, wondering who will take over and what the future holds.

And before we get all misty-eyed with the idea that perhaps there's a better chance for peace, let's look at the rabble rousing by Sharon's Likud successor, Bibi Netanyahu and the increasing intransigence and bullishness on both Israeli and Palestinian sides.

Not looking too good, is it?
Political noise set to ratchet up a gear

It's becoming quite an eventful year in Latin American politics, and it's barely a week old. Peru has made an extradition request to Chile for ex-president Fujimori, while also recalling their ambassador from Venezuela, after Chavez declared his support for candidate Humala (like Chavez, an indigenous and ex-military leader). All of which sounds like political point scoring.

Let's not forget the presidential election scheduled in Chile for the Sunday after next, along with the various other countries, including Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Colombia, which are all holding similar elections.

This all suggests much more political gaming over the next 12 months.
Out of the blocks

Happy New Year to all! Yes, I've been incommunicado the past week, but was it worth it! It's great to have a break and kick back, although now it's time to cut the carb intake and begin the workouts again. And I see others are at it too - I've never seen so many joggers pounding around the Clapham Common as I did last night - when it was near freezing!

It's the first day back at the LSE - at least for me. I've already spent two days at my paid job and now the job hunt for when I finally leave it starts in earnest. At some point this afternoon I'll need to start putting together the collective ramblings that I scribbled over the Christmas break into some coherent form; on 23 January I'll be presenting a first draft to colleagues at the PhD seminar. So it's time to get cracking, since it has to be sent around to everyone two weeks today.

Still, at least one finished item has made it's way into a presentable format: my piece on Chilean local government is finally up here.