Sunday, 31 July 2016

#F1 – Championship in the balance

As we reach the mid-season break in the 2016 Formula 1 racing calendar, I think it's fair to say the pendulum has swung emphatically back Lewis Hamilton's way.  Although Nico Rosberg's early dominance left Hamilton 43 points adrift in the title race – as Sky F1 commentator Martin Brundle described the German as a man "who cannot stop winning" – the incident between the two of them in Barcelona seems to have been a tipping point, allowing Hamilton to seize the momentum and precipitating a run of rotten bad fortune for Rosberg.

But such changes of fortune are, to an extent, to be expected in sport.  Any rivalry will ebb and flow – and although Hamilton has now overtaken his teammate to pull 19 points ahead as we go into the summer break, this year's World Championship still hangs very much in the balance.  Rosberg can fight back.

What he can't fight is an uneven playing field, and I fear that inconsistency in the way the rules are applied, and the way drivers are penalised for breaking the rules, is having too much of an impact on results.  Whoever ends up becoming the World Champion this year, that should not be because of discrepancies in the stewards' decisions, or slapdash application of regulations – as in any sport, the rules must apply equally and fairly to all, and every effort must be made to ensure that every driver is treated the same by those who decide what is fair racing and what isn't, and who hand out punishments when it is not.

At the moment, we are not seeing this.  We frequently see a driver penalised for a move a carbon copy of which another driver previously got away with.  And we are seeing the rules change from one weekend to the next; on track limits, radio communications, etc., the goalposts keep being moved.  This makes for race weekends where focus is being taken away from the action on track and diverted to lengthy discussions about the latest tweaks to the regulations – and it results in wheel-to-wheel racing where drivers are hesitant to make an overtaking move, as they cannot be sure whether their racing instinct will be applauded, or saddle them with a time penalty.

Uncertainty, inconsistency, and a completely lack of clarity – if you wanted a masterclass in how to ruin great racing, this is it.

Today at Hockenheim, Nico Rosberg was awarded a five second time penalty for an overtake on Max Verstappen, where it was deemed he "forced Verstappen off the circuit".  If those are the rules, then I suppose that's fair enough – but we have all seen other drivers make overtakes almost identical to Rosberg's, and not be punished in any way.  Perhaps most notably, Lewis Hamilton on Rosberg himself in the USA last year – the race at which the British driver clinched his third World Championship title.

One of these moves resulted in a five second time penalty.
The other warranted no action from the stewards.  Fair?

And speaking of Lewis Hamilton, a very interesting thing happened in Free Practice this weekend.  Hamilton was deemed to have been involved in an unsafe release from his pit box during the practice session; his punishment for this was a fine.  The only other time when a driver has been penalised with a fine for unsafe release in Free Practice – as opposed to being given a grid penalty or formal reprimand – was at the 2015 Brazilian Grand Prix, when the driver in question, Jolyon Palmer, couldn't be given a grid penalty because he was only a test driver doing a practice session and wouldn't be competing in the race anyway.

So why wasn't Hamilton given the same penalty that every other driver in that situation in recent years has been given?  Were the stewards just being soft on him?  Hamilton already has two reprimands this year; a third is serious – a guaranteed ten-place grid penalty.  But if other drivers got reprimanded for the same transgression, then he should too – otherwise, it simply amounts to special treatment.

I guess my big concern is that something like this will end up being the deciding factor in who gets the be World Champion this year – that the allocation of penalties is so random (and so completely baffling at times!) that a driver will end up being denied a race win or a Word Championship title because of shonky, off-the-cuff stewarding.  If we reach the end of this season, and we can look back and say "decision x was what meant that so-and-so won, or did not win, the title" that will not be in any way good for the sport.

It is time for transparency in rule-making, clarity of meaning, and consistency in application.  That is the only way we can ensure a level playing field for racing hard, but racing fair – and the only way we can ensure that the World Championship winner truly deserves his crown.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Disgruntled Liberal Democrats, have a word with yourselves

Plenty of this going around at the moment.  As David Cameron steps down as Prime Minister after six years at Number 10, his one-time coalition partners are clearly feeling a little left out.

In one sense, of course, this is entirely understandable; these things were Liberal Democrat manifesto promises, which were then delivered in government – they absolutely should take credit for making these policies happen.  But so should David Cameron.  After all, how far would these policies have got if the Lib Dems had tried to implement them on their own?

I have written before that I think the Lib Dems were very unfairly treated at last year's general election, and that history will generally be a lot kinder to Nick Clegg and his party's time in office than were the confused and angry public who seemingly couldn't get their heads around what 'coalition government' was actually all about.  But now, it is those same Lib Dems who seem to want to claim sole credit for government achievements between 2010-15; this is also not how coalition government works.

Ultimately, Cameron was the Prime Minister whose (coalition) government enacted policies like same-sex marriage.  It happened under his watch, and with his backing.  His actions as the leader of a coalition government will form a part of his legacy as Prime Minister; they will also form a part of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats' legacy, too – after all, the same thing can appear in more than one legacy.  Trying to take credit away from Cameron for a policy like same-sex marriage is as churlish as to try and take credit away from Clegg – it would not, after all, have happened without either of them.

Another 'achievement' of the coalition administration was the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011.  Another Lib Dem policy enacted by Cameron.  Maybe Lib Dem activists and politicians who campaigned for this piece of legislation would like to stop agitating for new Prime Minister Theresa May to call an immediate election to seek her own mandate for a second, and consider that it is their actions (or, at least, their Act) which have made this a whole lot less likely?

Monday, 27 June 2016

Jeremy Corbyn is the oldest 'Angry Young Man' in history

Billy Joel wrote that "There's always a place for the angry young man, with his working class ties and his radical plan, he refuses to bend, he refused to fall, and he's always at home with his back to wall…"

It is a song which could have been written specifically about Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.  The leader who will, despite losing two thirds of his Shadow Cabinet in under two days, still refuse to resign in the face of overwhelming criticism from within his own party.

"And there's always a place for the angry young man, with his fist in the air and his head in the sand…"

Corbyn is the embodiment of student politics.  He is the 'Occupy' movement made flesh.  He comes from a political tradition where people truly believe that change can be enacted simply by refusing to leave until you get what you want, and where negotiation and compromise – those bedrocks of sensible, grown-up politics – constitute 'selling out', treason, betrayal.

The mindset of such politics is that criticism can be defeated by shouting louder, stamping your feet harder, waving your placards higher and refusing to give an inch.  After all, why should you consider anyone else's point-of-view, when you truly know in your heart that you are right?

It is this intransigence and hubris which will lead him to cling grimly onto his position.  "And he'll go to the grave as an angry old man…"

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Choose your bogeyman

The politics of grievance requires a 'bogeyman'.  An all-purpose evil on which can be blamed everything that is wrong with life – and the only thing that stands between us and a vague promised utopia.

Bogeyman Politics asks you to believe that there is one simple cure for all of the interconnected problems of messy, complicated, fragile day-to-day life.  Can't get a hospital appointment?  Blame the Bogeyman.  Wages don't stretch far enough?  Blame the Bogeyman.  Can't get on the housing ladder?  Blame the Bogeyman.  Marriage breaking up?  Blame the Bogeyman.  It is a crass oversimplification, peddled by charlatans who want you to think that they alone, in this big scary world, are on your side.  It is a con.

For some, the Bogeyman is 'bankers', or 'neoliberalism'.  For others, 'Westminster'.  For many, it is 'immigration'.  For the majority of people who will vote to leave the European Union tomorrow, it is the EU that fills that role; the EU is the Bogeyman, responsible for everything bad about Britain, and the one and only thing that's holding us back from being truly great (or, if you are of a nostalgic bent, 'great again').

Real life is more complex than that.  More difficult than that.  Anyone selling you the idea you can fix all your problems with one fell swoop is not telling you the truth.

Which is why it is sad to see campaigners for the 'Remain' camp in the EU referendum rebutting the 'Leave' campaign's Bogeyman Politics with a few choice Bogeymen of their own.  All day today I have watched a steady stream of smug, supercilious Tweets and Facebook posts along the lines of "Oh, you think single issue x is to blame for everything bad? Ha! You fools! Can't you see that single issue y is to blame for everything bad…?"

No doubt the people posting this stuff think themselves very clever.  They aren't fooled by the narrative that the EU is the root cause of all our nation's problems!  They can see right through that!  They know what the true cause is.  But they have allowed themselves to be duped by a different narrative – one which is just as seductively simplistic, and just as destructively wrong.

As with most things, there is no one simple answer.  The 'Bogeyman' concept is attractive because it is comforting.  It is less frightening to be told you are a basically 'good' person who has been a victim of some malign conspiracy – and that you have it within your power to rise up and take back what is rightfully yours from those who have done you wrong – than that you are adrift on a rolling sea of entropy in the ever-changing, unforgiving, big wide world.  Having someone, or something, to blame – giving it a form, a name, a face – makes life easier to cope with.  At last, the question "Why do these things always happen to me?!" seems to have an answer.

It is an understandable, human reaction.  But political movements based on grievance, where politicians knowingly perpetuate the 'Bogeyman' narrative to mobilise great swathes of the general public, have a long and ugly track record of turning very nasty indeed.  And when campaigners for 'Remain' offer up an alternative Bogeyman as a focal point for the mystified anger of 'Leave' voters, they are guilty of it just the same.

The trouble (for both sides) comes afterwards – once the Bogeyman is slain.  The Bogeyman may have been defeated, but the problems of ordinary life have not gone away.  The hospital waiting times, the tax bills, the energy prices…  These things have not disappeared overnight.  The sunlit uplands of utopia glibly promised by the politicians who cynically played on people's fear of the Bogeyman to win votes seem as far away as ever.

And so, the search for a new Bogeyman must begin.  Something has to fill that void.  Something, or someone, has to be to blame.  Who do we think that might turn out to be?  When Britain votes to leave the European Union, and people's lives are not magically improved overnight, the public anger which did so much to drive the anti-EU movement won't just vanish – we should all be very concerned about what (or who) that ire might end up focused on next.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

#EUref – time to choose

There are now only five days to go until we in the UK vote on our continued membership of the European Union.  Frankly, it can't be over soon enough.

Whilst the campaign seems to have gone on forever, and the quality and tone of the debate has often been nothing short of cringeworthy, this is a big and important decision to make.  I can honestly say I've not been so conflicted about a political issue for a long, long time – I have been genuinely undecided for the majority of the campaign, and it is only really in the last week that I have begun to marshall my thoughts, and make up my mind.

I am planning to vote to 'Remain in the European Union'.  This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, because I feel any ideological attraction to the EU.  I am no fan of the European project, and there is much of it that I view with considerable suspicion – I am voting out of pragmatism, rather than any principled commitment to the EU – so I think it is worth explaining how and why I finally decided that I am leaning toward 'Remain'.

There are cogent, sensible, respectable reasons for wanting to leave the EU.  There is a very attractive vision of Britain outside the EU.  But sadly, I think the chances of a 'Leave' vote resulting in a Britain like that is practically nil.  The majority of 'Leave' supporters do not share my vision of post-EU Britain; the majority 'Leave' view is of an insular, curmudgeonly Britain which, liberated from the shackles of EU regulation, is free to be as bitter, intolerant and cantankerous as it pleases.

For me, if voting in the referendum included an opportunity to register my opinion on what direction the country should take post-Brexit, choosing 'Leave' would be much easier.  Without that option, I fear that any 'Leave' vote will automatically be taken as an endorsement of what we might term the 'Farageist' vision for the country after leaving.  That, I am afraid, is not something I am willing to put my name to.

Writing in the Guardian yesterday, Marina Hyde sums up one of the biggest issues I would have with voting to Leave:
There are many people I respect and admire voting leave – there are people in my family voting leave. I understand their reasons. But they must stomach the reality that a vote for leave will be taken by Farage and countless others as a vote for him, a vote for his posters, a vote for his ideas, a vote for his quiet malice, a vote for his smallness in the face of vast horrors. Is it worth it?
I'm really not sure that it is.

The EU has more than its fair share of faults and foibles.  It is certainly not an institution to which I feel any kind of emotional attachment; if I felt there was a good chance things would turn out OK afterwards, leaving it would cause me no pain.

'Remain' is the safer option.  'Remain' is a vote for continuation, not upheaval.  Despite what prominent Brexit activists might say, it is not 'scaremongering' to say that voting to 'Leave' is taking a leap into the unknown.  None of this means that Britain 'could not survive' outside the European Union, of course; 'Leave' campaigners who take a leaf out of the Scottish Nationalists' playbook by accusing those who point out these risks of 'talking Britain down' as being 'too small, and too poor' to prosper on our own, are tilting at straw men.  (And they probably know it, too.)

But just as I wrote last month that Jeremy Corbyn does not get to distance himself from the rest of the 'Remain' campaign and still be 'Remain', neither would I get to specify that my 'Leave' vote were somehow different from most of the people voting the same way.  No, my vote to 'Leave' would be lumped in with the votes of people from UKIP and Britain First – and it would be assumed that I had voted for the same thing they did, and that I want Great Britain to be the same the country they want it to be.

I don't.  And I don't hold out much hope for the voices of people like me being heard, in the event of a vote to leave the EU.  And that is why I think it will be best if I vote 'Remain'.

Of course Britain would prosper outside of the EU. Of course the EU isn't perfect. Of course it isn't racist to acknowledge that. But if you are voting 'Leave' for a more open, inclusive, positive, globalist Britain – as I would be, if I were to vote 'Leave' – you won't get it. We won't get it.

What we will get will be Nigel Farage and his ilk smugly parading around, pointing to the referendum result and declaring "See? We said most people in this country agreed with us! And look…!"

How ever little love I may have for the European Union, I really don't think I am prepared to vote for an option which will empower Farage and those like him to posture and preen and proudly hold my vote aloft as proof that the public shares their vision for Britain.

I don't share it. I don't endorse it. And I don't want – even accidentally – to get mixed up with those who do. I may not like the EU much, but I would rather vote to 'Remain' than see this brilliant nation turn into the type of country UKIP would like it to be, and know that I had had a hand in that.

Monday, 16 May 2016

#EUref: pick a side

A headline in yesterday's Telegraph that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will refuse to 'share a platform' with David Cameron when campaigning for Britain to remain in the European Union will have come as no surprise for anyone who has followed the rise of Corbyn, and seen him to be the lightweight, petulant egotist that he undoubtedly is.  However, it was – in my view – indicative of how widespread certain misconceptions about referendum campaigning have become.

In writing before about how the conflation of a national plebiscite with traditional party politics has seeped into the mainstream, I have laid much of the blame for this at the door of the SNP – but this way of thinking is becoming more and more prevalent across the political spectrum, and I think it bears another look.

He gets it…

For the benefit of those who haven't quite grasped this yet, it is worth making very clear that in a referendum, there are only two sides.  You do not get your own side, all to yourself.  This means that if you are a Labour MP or activist who is campaigning for 'Remain', you are on the same side as David Cameron; you are on the same side as George Osborne; you are on the same side as Theresa May; you are on the same side as Ryanair.  You may not like it, but you are – because, on this one issue (even if on nothing else), you want the same outcome as them.

You could avoid that by being a Labour MP or activist who is campaigning to 'Leave' the EU, of course.  But then you would be on the same side as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, George Galloway and Katie Hopkins.  Whether you like it or not.

It is a common obfuscation to claim that even if you agree with the Prime Minister that Britain should stay in the EU, you fundamentally disagree with him about what the EU should look like, and what Britain's role in the union should be – and that this makes your position distinct from his.

The referendum is not about that.  This is a single-issue vote; Remain, or Leave.  Pick a side.  There is no third option where you get to say "I'm basically Remain…  But not like he is!"  Remain is Remain; it's as simple as that.

This, after all, is surely the point of holding a referendum on the topic at all?  It (in theory, at least) allows the campaign to strip away all the other gumf and focus purely on the issue, getting away from the "we are the good people, and that makes us different from those bad people" bloviating that we see so often in day-to-day party politics.

In refusing to put aside his differences with the Prime Minister in order to campaign on their one point of common ground in the run-up to this vote, Corbyn shows us that keeping his image intact is more important to him than the cause he professes to support – and once again makes the conversation about him, rather than about the topic at hand.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

#F1 – Red Bull's woes

The talk recently has been of Ferrari being a team 'in crisis' – all of which has let the issues at Red Bull slip a little under the radar.  Performance has dropped off in the past couple of seasons, and Red Bull – a team which had become so accustomed to winning not so long ago – are now much more used to fighting midfield battles, and high-profile fallings out with longstanding engine supplies Renault have only compounded the team's decline.

However, Red Bull's problems have come to the fore in the past couple of days, as it was revealed that Max Verstappen will be promoted from the junior Toro Rosso team to drive for Red Bull for the rest of this season, in place of Russian Daniil Kvyat.

It is a decision which comes close to completely incomprehensible.  As I remarked on Twitter on Thursday when this news first broke, when even a current driver (and former World Champion) in the shape of Jenson Button is laying into a team's decision-making process, you have to think that something is going seriously wrong.
The decision is baffling for so many reasons.  Not least because, despite a rocky couple of races this season, Kvyat hasn't really done that much wrong.  He has made mistakes, yes – but no worse than plenty of other racing drivers have made.  He needs the opportunity to learn from those mistakes.

Two first lap incidents in consecutive races is maybe a sign that the team should sit down with him, have a chat about being slightly less aggressive into the opening corners of a race, and encourage him to race smarter and come back a stronger, more intelligent racer in the Grand Prix ahead.  It shouldn't be the end of his Red Bull career.

Of the current field of drivers, I am a big admirer of Romain Grosjean – whom I think is a huge talent, and a very exciting driver.  It wasn't that long ago, though, that he was having his own issues with incidents on the first laps of races – issues which were far more serious than Kvyat's this year have been.

I wrote at the time how Grosjean could be a force to be reckoned with if he could fix the first lap gremlins, and I like to think that this stance has been vindicated in more recent seasons.  Despite a two-race ban for causing a first lap crash Belgium in 2012, his team (then Lotus Renault) kept faith with him, and gave him a chance to come back from the race ban as demonstrate he had learnt his lesson, calmed down, and matured on track.  It should be clear, now, that this was the right decision by the Lotus team, as Grosjean made the most of that opportunity and went on to score points and podium finishes for them, becoming a respected figure on the F1 grid in the process.

I believe Red Bull should give Kvyat – who is still only young, and learning his trade in Formula 1 – the same opportunity.  His recent incidents have been unfortunate – and of course frustrating for Sebastian Vettel, who always seems to be on the receiving end of them! – but not serious enough in my view for Red Bull to replace him so summarily.  Of course, we don't know the whole story – there could be other issues going on behind the scenes which have contributed to Kvyat losing his seat at Red Bull – but on the face of it, the whole situation looks very harsh on the Russian.

The other consideration is the affect that this will have on Max Verstappen, the driver who will be replacing Kvyat after only one season in F1.  Verstappen (son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen) has universally acknowledged to be a future star after his debut season with the Toro Rosso team last year.  He is young, talented, and has superb racing instincts.  He's not without his own incidents either, of course – normally brought about by inexperience, and the impetuousness of youth – but no one who watched the 2015 season could've failed to be impressed by the young dutchman.

The trouble with the stars of the future is that Formula 1 teams have an unfortunate habit of trying to make them the stars of now – often before they are ready.  It is something I think we have seen before, most recently with Sergio PĂ©rez's disappointing season at McLaren.

Trying to promote young talent into teams with winning cultures and high expectations can end very badly indeed, and can damage the career of the young driver promoted before he was ready – the pressure of driving for Red Bull will be vastly more than the pressures of driving for Toro Rosso, and I fear Verstappen may struggle to cope with the hype of being 'the next big thing', and having to deliver results for a team with the recent history of success Red Bull has, at such a young age and so soon in his racing career.

Maybe Max Verstappen will rise to the challenge and will be on the podium before the end of this year.  If so, congratulations will certainly be in order!  But it is an enormous risk to pile pressure – particularly in such an unexpected and sudden way as this – on a young rookie driver, no matter how talented or hungry for success he might be.  I hope Red Bull don't live to regret this decision.