WhatsApp Killed Brexit

WhatsApp Killed Brexit

The other day, I was listening to Ezra Klein’s (highly recommended) podcast The Ezra Klein Show. The guest was Tim Alberta (and, full disclosure, I haven’t read his book yet – though it sounds fantastic). The conversation between the two is a fantastic one all round, so well worth a listen.

But I was struck by two things that were mentioned in the conversation.

Firstly, the way that the Republican and Democratic parties in the US have increasingly less power nowadays. The past few weeks have seen internecine fighting within the Democratic Party explode into the open, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic party leaders openly attacking liberal Democratic congresswomen for their refusal to toe the party line.

And, secondly, the way that members of Congress in the US often really struggle to find ways to effectively communicate with each other despite working in the same building. Klein and Alberta talk about how, when reporting on members of Congress, they often found they had a greater breadth of knowledge on what other members of Congress were doing than the members did themselves. The following passage is from around 1:04:00 in the conversation:

Ezra Klein: I think this is something you learn as a political reporter and that is not clear if you’re outside the system: Members of Congress are extremely misinformed on each other. The thing that was most strange to me when I began reporting on Congress — I would be talking to these members of the House or the Senate… and they were talking to me, and they’d be like, ‘Well, what are you hearing?’ And I’d be asking about something [then Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid was doing, and they’d be like, ‘Well.. I don’t know… I saw him say in National Journal the other day…’ Or I would talk to someone in the leadership office, and I’d be talking to them about something [conservative Democratic Senator Joe] Liebermann was doing on the bill, and they’d be saying, ‘Oh, you know, we’re not sure… but something he said the other day in Politico…’

And it was this moment where I was like, ‘Are they learning about each other the same way we’re learning about them?’

I had always thought that they must call each other, that they must have some kind of internal information system. But they don’t! They’re constantly wrong about what the other ones are doing; they’re mad at each other, so they’re not talking to each other…

I think that people really underestimate how bad the information processes inside Congress actually are. It seems like they should know what’s going on inside their own institution. But the degree to which they don’t, and particularly to which they don’t if they’re outside a couple of the core positions, is really striking to me.

Tim Alberta: There’s no question. And I think a reason I was able to be somewhat successful in covering Congress and breaking some news over the years: when I would sit down with a member, and we’d start shooting the shit, I would realise in nine cases out of ten that they wanted more information from me than I wanted from them. If you were willing to trade the gossip and were willing to just BS for a while with them, you could get really great information.

They’ve got the immediate information – they’ve been in the meetings, etc. — but anything that’s even one level to the periphery is pretty much lost on them. So they are really poorly informed, you’re totally right about that.

(Transcript edited slightly for concision.)

The two points here that I’m focusing on – the crumbling of traditional party power in the US, and the historic inability of members of Congress to communicate effectively with each other – aren’t explicitly linked by Klein and Alberta in their conversation. But it strikes me that in some ways, they’re in fact very much linked.

I, of course, am writing from the UK, and there’s a lot of similarity with what’s going on over here. On this side of the pond, there’s obviously a much fuzzier line between the legislative and executive branches — there are several mechanisms for the prime minister to be replaced if they’re doing things the legislative branch is unhappy with (or divided on), but it also means (traditionally) that can be very hard for the legislative branch to stop the executive branch doing certain things, including on certain legislative matters, unless it’s prepared to push that nuclear button and remove the executive.

Until now. The basic cause of the Brexit stalemate is that the executive branch has been trying to push through a plan that the legislative branch is extremely unhappy with, and has been exceptionally unwilling to try to forge a bipartisan path that would make some concessions to MPs’ concerns. But Conservative MPs haven’t been willing to push that nuclear button — vote against the government in a vote of no-confidence — because it would risk a Labour administration. Ordinarily, that would mean the executive branch would be able to push through its plans despite the legislative branch’s objections. But this time, it’s found it really, really difficult.

There’s a number of reasons why the government’s found it so difficult: among them are the newish Fixed-Term Parliament Act (an exceptionally bad piece of legislation that complicates the process of taking down the government) and the fact that the government’s majority is exceptionally slim.

But an underappreciated cause of the Brexit stalemate is WhatsApp. It’s an open secret that a huge amount of the machinations going on in parliament is now organised through WhatsApp. WhatsApp groups appear to have revolutionised the way MPs communicate with each other, making it far easier for them to organise rebellions against the government. They coordinate media strategy in these groups. They use them to plot innovative ways of bending the parliamentary rules so that they’re able to bind the executive to their will without replacing the executive — something you’re not really supposed to be able to do ordinarily under the British system! Barely a week goes by without two or three leaks from UK parliamentary WhatsApp groups in the British press.

I don’t think there’s any going back now. MPs have realised how much easier it now is to rebel against their own party, and they won’t stop at Brexit. Recent weeks have seen huge rebellions over a Northern Ireland bill, with MPs introducing amendments that would liberalise abortion law and introduce same-sex marriage if a devolved government cannot be formed within a few months.

(Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK where abortion and same-sex marriage are illegal, as these things are devolved to the regional assembly. The DUP, a socially conservative, Protestant and unionist party in Northern Ireland, objects to liberalising these things. This is a major reason why power-sharing talks between the DUP and Sinn Feìn, a Catholic, socially liberal and separatist party, broke down several years ago. Without a power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, a devolved administration cannot be formed due to commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.)

And just yesterday, there was another setback in Parliament: 27 Tory MPs voted against the government in order to make it harder for Parliament to be ‘prorogued’. (Prorogation, in case you’ve forgotten, being a closing down of parliament, and a device that has been recently floated as a way of preventing MPs from passing legislation to stop a no-deal Brexit). Paul Waugh, Executive Editor of HuffPost UK, put it well on last night’s episode of The World Tonight (around 12 minutes in) when he said that ‘what’s fascinating about rebellion is that it is addictive.’ And Waugh rightly drew attention to the words of Keith Simpson, who said yesterday that, after 22 years as a Tory MP, this was his first rebellion against the party. “You can get a taste for it,” Simpson said.

So the similarities between the US and the UK are, I think, really striking here.

Parties in the US used to be incredibly strong institutions, but these institutions now feel under threat as members of Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez develop new forms of power through their connection to the party membership base and their virtuoso use of Twitter. In a similar way, parties in the UK also used to be incredibly strong institutions. But that traditional control by the parties over Members of Parliament is breaking down. And it’s breaking down at least in part because there’s been a huge revolution in the ability of MPs to communicate with each other, as a result of social media and in particular WhatsApp.

The communications revolution has totally transformed the ability of backbench MPs to organise rebellions against government business, and brought the Brexit process to a nearly year-long stalemate.

Could the Lib Dems Win Streatham (and/or the Country)?

Could the Lib Dems Win Streatham (and/or the Country)?

All graphs created by me, except where noted.

Chuka Umunna is, of late, politically rather restless. Having not so long ago been a member of the Labour party, since February 2019 he’s been a member of The Independent Group; Change UK (now known by the snappy title of the Independent Group For Change); a simple independent in the good old-fashioned sense; and, since 14 June, the Liberal Democrats. Who knows if he finally feels ready to settle down.

For the purposes of this piece, however, let’s assume he’s now found a lasting political home. In which case—is there any hope for poor old Chuka? Can he keep hold of his constituency? Could the Lib Dems win Streatham?


Map of London, with Streatham indicated

The Basic Picture

Start off with the basics: the 2017 results in Streatham. From Umunna’s point of view, it’s not a happy picture. Labour won the seat easily with 68.5% of the vote; the Lib Dems came a distant third with 6.5%.

(N.B. For the purposes of this article, Lib Dem/Change UK vote percentages will always be added together, as will the percentages of UKIP and the Brexit Party. This is because [1] both Change UK and UKIP appear, for now at least, to be spent forces electorally; and [2] it seems reasonable to assert that the majority of previous ChUK support will flow to the Lib Dems, and the majority of UKIP support will flow to the Brexit Party.)

 

Streatham has been a Labour seat since 1992, and a safe Labour seat since 1997, when the party won 62.8% of the vote. So far, so bad.

Or maybe not. You don’t have to go too far back in Streatham’s electoral history to find the Lib Dems performing pretty well in the seat. In the 2001, 2005 and 2010 General Elections, the Lib Dems were the second-highest performing party in Streatham. In 2010, Umunna won the seat with only a seven-point margin over his Lib Dem challenger:

Lib Dem support in Streatham plummeted in the 2015 election, of course, following a pattern seen across the country. Nationwide, support for the Lib Dems fell from 23% to 7.9% as voters protested the party’s role in the coalition government and the abandonment of the party’s pledge to scrap tuition fees (among other things). But there is nonetheless a precedent for the Lib Dems having done pretty well in Streatham in the not-too-distant past. Much of the previous Lib Dem support in the area appears to have fled to Labour in recent general elections. The question is: as Umunna flips to the Lib Dems, can he take those erstwhile liberals with him?

The answer may well be ‘yes’. In the 2019 European Parliament elections, the Lib Dems took 19.6% of the popular vote—an increase of 13 points since the 2014 elections—indicating that the UK’s voters appear to have either forgiven, forgotten, or at least for now set aside, the party’s role in the coalition government. Lambeth, the London borough containing Streatham, followed the nation: Lib Dem support in the borough soared from 9% to 41%, leapfrogging Labour.

Streatham, of course, is only one UK parliamentary constituency within the London borough of Lambeth. Sadly, results are not (currently, at least) available for only Streatham’s voters. But there’s no particular reason to think Streatham’s voters would be an outlier within the larger borough. The other two constituencies in Lambeth (Dulwich and West Northwood, and Vauxhall) have pretty similar similar political profiles. All three seats are solidly Labour, but all three seats are also solidly Remain. The Lib Dems were competitive in allthree before they entered coalition.

So: the Lib Dems did well in Streatham until they entered coalition; and the party’s role in the coalition government may no longer be doing the party significant harm, either nationwide or in the borough of Lambeth. A projection by Chris Hanretty of Royal Holloway, University of London, concurs with my analysis, suggesting that the Lib Dems would easily win the seat in a General Election if they received the same share of the vote as they did in the 2019 European Elections:


But it Might Not Be So Easy

Sadly, for Chuka, there are several reasons why the party could well struggle more in Streatham in a General Election than they seem to have done in the European Elections.

The Strangeness of European Elections

Firstly, the European elections often deliver results that are somewhat strange. The example of UKIP is instructive here: the party received 27.5% of the national vote in the 2014 European elections, the highest of any party in the UK, but a year later received only 12.6% of the vote in the 2015 General Election. European Elections return strange results partly because of low turnout: just 35.4% in the UK in 2014, compared to 66.1% a year later in the 2015 general election. (Even in the 2019 elections, which had unusually high levels of media attention turned on them, turnout only reached 37%—the second-highest ever, but still awfully low.) Low-turnout situations tend to mean voters with extreme opinions—for whom there is therefore a greater sense that things need to change—are overrepresented in the result. In 2019 in the UK, the European Elections were entirely seen through the prism of Brexit, so the low turnout may have inflated the numbers of the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party, both parties with extreme positions on the issue of the EU.

The other reason why European Election results are often somewhat strange is that they are seen by many voters as something of a ‘free hit’. In a UK General Election, there’s always a risk entailed in voting for a smaller party. If you’re torn between Labour and the Lib Dems in a General Election (for example), you might eventually plump for Labour simply because you know that it’s extremely unlikely that the Lib Dems will ever form a government, and your priority—if you’re torn between two left-wing parties, at any rate—is probably to keep the Tories out of government. And in a Conservative-Labour marginal seat, you may not feel that there’s any chance of electing a Lib Dem MP. But voters often feel more at liberty to vote for their true preferences in European Elections and ‘send a message’ with their vote, because it has no impact on the makeup of the government at Westminster. (There’s far less risk in voting for an untried party like the Brexit Party if you believe it will make little difference to your life even if they win.) Moreover, the D’Hondt electoral system the UK uses in European Elections is substantially more proportional than first-past-the-post. Under D’Hondt, there’s less reason to worry that you might be splitting the vote by voting for a smaller party.

(Low turnout and the sense that European Elections ‘don’t matter’ are both caused in part due to confusion among the electorate regarding what MEPs actually do all day. The complexity of the EU’s bureaucratic processes, and the outsized power of the indirectly elected president of the European Commission, do little to help the EU. But that’s a topic for another blog post.)

Brexit Is Currently a Very Big Issue

The second reason why a General Election could be tougher for the Lib Dems than the European Elections concerns which issues voters are concerned about at the time of the election. There’s clear evidence that European Election campaigns hugely increase the ‘salience’ of Europe-related issues in voters’ minds—the extent to which they care about Europe-related issues, are thinking about Europe-related issues, and vote according to their positions on Europe-related issues. In the UK in 2019, the European Election campaigns were fought almost entirely on sending a message regarding whether or not you wanted Britain to leave the EU. It’s likely that Europe-related issues had exceptionally high salience for voters at the time of the European Elections, therefore. This provides another reason for the way that support for parties with clear, unambiguous positions on Brexit soared over the course of the campaign, while support for parties that attempted ‘broad-tent’, compromise positions on Brexit tumbled:

(The above graph is a poll tracker by the website Britain Elects.)

If the salience of Europe-related issues remains as high as it has recently become, that’s fantastic news for Umunna if he wants to hang on to his seat. The Remain vote in Streatham reached nearly 80%, according to figures calculated by the BBC. Should Brexit salience remain high and the Lib Dems’ position remain remainier than Labour’s, there’s a good chance Umunna can eat away further at the 21.4% of the vote Labour received in the European Elections, and a good chance also that the Brexit vote will remain split between the Tories and Farage.

But there are many reasons why Brexit salience might not be as high in the next General Election. In 2017, Theresa May called a General Election thinking that she would win a majority due to the Labour Party’s more nebulous position on Brexit. She was wrong: over the course of the election campaign, Corbyn successfully reduced the salience of Europe-related issues by focusing on a message of reversing austerity, reducing inequality and renationalising several key industries. He took a gamble that voters would care more about other issues if only they were reminded of them, and it paid off. Labour support climbed dramatically over the course of the 2017 campaign (see penultimate graph above), and the Tories lost their majority.

Come the next General Election, it seems likely that Corbyn will once again attempt to reduce the salience of Brexit through Labour’s election campaign. Whether he will be as successful as last time is a matter of debate. On the one hand, Brexit is by far the most-discussed political issue of the moment. The public is almost certainly more tuned into the process than they were two years ago; the country is now in a quite different place, having now extended the Article 50 deadline several times. On the other hand, public anger over the state of public services and the general crumbling of British society has only grown in the last two years. In 2017, nobody expected Corbyn to be able to win an election by simply ignoring Brexit. Perhaps if he is able to remind the electorate of All The Other Issues in British politics, he can surprise everybody once again. Such a campaign could be disastrous for the Lib Dems, reminding voters of the party’s complicity in the coalition government’s cuts to public services. Voters might have decided to forgive them for the purposes an European election; it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve regained voters’ trust on domestic issues. (I can’t find any polling on this.)

The extent to which European issues will remain salient also depends on where negotiations are at when the next General Election happens. If the UK is just about to leave, or if it has just left, Brexit is very likely to remain highly salient regardless of how Corbyn campaigns. Should the country’s next Prime Minister extend Article 50 once more, however, perhaps by a year or more, it’s quite easy to imagine voters slipping easily into 2017-levels of boredom. The weirdness of the country tearing itself apart over Brexit is just how objectively soporific the thing is.

Or, maybe not! Some have argued that the recent opinion polls suggesting a new, four-and-a-half-party era of politics, are not simply a result of unusually high salience for Europe-related issues, but evidence of a long-term realignment. The theory goes that the importance of the traditional left-right split over economic issues has been fading for years now across the developed world. More woolly, attitudinal divides between parties such as ‘open vs. closed’ could become the central faultline in British politics instead. Brexit is often seen by voters as an ‘open v closed’ issue by voters even if the details are often technocratic and economic. By this theory, Brexit has only hastened the realigning of British politics that has been taking place over the course of the last decade or so; the European Elections are the first evidence that a great realigning election is on the horizon.

Should British politics truly be realigning, the salience of Brexit could remain high even if Brexit day is once again put off. And a realignment along lines of ‘open v closed’ could help the Lib Dems more generally. The party is one that is united around general attitudes of openness and liberalism that translate well into social policies but often generate somewhat fuzzy economic policies. A realignment would reduce the importance of the party’s weaknesses relative to the Conservative and Labour parties, and increase the importance of the party’s strengths.

The complications here are that (1) we have no idea when Brexit will be; and (2) we have no idea when the next General Election will be. The Times reported on Wednesday that Johnson—if he becomes the next Prime Minister—is planning an election sooner rather than later. But it’s unclear if that’s truly the plan of Johnson himself, or something being pushed by the ‘senior allies’ of Johnson on whom the journalists of The Times are basing their reporting. As well as this, it should be remembered that the government’s majority is wafer-thin. A general election could well be forced upon the government through a vote of no-confidence at any time should the government take steps that seriously displease members of the House of Commons.


Local Factors

So far, then, we have a mixed picture. Umunna stands no chance if Streatham’s residents vote as they have done in the last two General Elections. And they could well do so if Brexit is a less salient issue than it is currently and/or if voters have still not truly forgiven the party over its role in the coalition government. On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that Brexit could still be a highly salient issue come the next General Election; and if voters truly have forgiven the Lib Dems over their role in the coalition, the party could well return to its healthy pre-2010 levels of support in the area.

Could anything else affect the result? Sure. Umunna is a politician with unusually high recognition, for one. He has long been mentioned as a possible future leader of the Labour party (RIP that idea).Since Corbyn became the leader of the opposition, Umunna has been a high-profile advocate of a second referendum (excuse me, ‘People’s Vote’). And since leaving Labour, Umunna has generated a new headline every time he joined a new party.

Whether this name recognition will help Umunna much remains to be seen, however. Incumbents in the US Congress can usually count on a sizeable advantage due to their higher name recognition over their challengers, but the evidence in the UK that name recognition helps a politician substantially is much more mixed. The good news for Umunna is that Lib Dem MPs appear to enjoy a far higher incumbency advantage than those from other parties. The bad news for Umunna is that he was not elected as a Lib Dem, so whether he will enjoy the same incumbency advantage as other Lib Dems remains to be seen.

Another thing that might affect the result in Streatham could simply be activist enthusiasm. Though the party has in the past had mixed views on Umunna joining the Lib Dems (and he’s had mixed views in the past on the Lib Dems), the party leadership has welcomed him with open arms since his announced defection. If local activists feel the same way, a new Lib Dem incumbent could greatly increase the enthusiasm of potential volunteers during an election campaign. But they might not: Umunna’s votes on the Snooper’s Charter, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (read about that one here), electoral reform, and investigations into the Iraq War all jar quite remarkably with the Liberal Democrats’ positions on these things. In 2011, he indulged a whole article dwelling on ideas of ‘tradition’ and ‘One Nation Labour’, emphases that don’t sit particularly comfortably with the Lib Dem vision as outlined in the preamble to the party’s constitution. Some argue activist enthusiasm was a major factor in Labour’s 2017 election performance. Whether Streatham’s local Liberal Democrats will throw their heart and soul into campaigning for someone with this record remains to be seen.

The final thing to consider could be the ‘Tinkerbell effect’. University of Manchester professor Rob Ford has argued on Twitter that the Liberal Democrat party ‘knows, from long, bitter experience, that the biggest hurdle for them is in voters heads—convince people they are a credible challenger and the rest becomes much easier’. So perhaps one of the most bullish indicators for Umunna in Streatham is the simple fact that he’s already won—not because of any incumbency effect, but simply because it might well persuade voters to take him seriously. So many Lib Dem candidates are simply ignored by voters because they don’t seriously believe they could win. But if Umunna’s already won, even if it was under a different banner—well, it stands to reason he might well win again.


Closing Thoughts

To conclude, therefore, Umunnna probably has a pretty good shot—more than a first glance at the topline figures from the 2017 election would indicate, anyhow. But his success, if it is to come, depends on either the voters in Streatham having forgiven the Lib Dems for their coalition years and/or Brexit remaining at the high-salience level it is currently at. Whether one or both of these conditions will be fulfilled remains to be seen—and he may need all the help he can get from his name recognition and local activists in Streatham.

What seems clear, however, is that would be extremely bad news for the Lib Dems should he lose his seat. At this point, they’ve banked almost their entire electoral strategy on opposing Brexit; Streatham—urban, metropolitan, Remainy, multicultural—is exactly the kind of seat the party must hope to win from Labour it is to regain its position as a serious political force.

Music Recording: Schubert, Impromptu No. 3 in G-Flat Major

Music Recording: Schubert, Impromptu No. 3 in G-Flat Major

A recording of Schubert’s Imromptu No. 3 in G-flat Major.

This feels like a distinctly unsummery piece of music, so perhaps an odd choice for a July recording. The hardest part always seems to be getting into the right mood before starting — my favourite recordings (such as Mitsuko Uschida’s) have a sense of unearthly stillness in the opening thanks just to the way they play the first three notes. I always feel like I struggle to pull it off.

The structure of the piece is, on its face, fairly simple. There’s an opening “A” section in G-flat major; a “B” section that moves through multiple keys; a repeat of the “A” section, in G-flat major again; and a “Coda”, also in G-flat major. ABA+Coda — not pushing the boat there; this is an extremely common structure.

The simplicity of the structure isn’t necessarily apparent, however. While the A section is fairly easy to keep track of — featuring extremely regular, periodic phrasing and frequent cadences — you can get quite easily lost in the B section. (This is true whether you’re a performer or a listener!) And the piece is texturally entirely homogenous. The quaver-arpeggio accompaniment is constant throughout, providing a forward momentum that seems to pay little regard for key change or phrase endings.

The B section, from around 1:34, is extremely expansive, featuring multiple subsections — and the divisions between the subsections are not always precisely defined; there are often linking passages of 2-3 bars that don’t seem to belong precisely to the preceding subsection or the following subsection. The modulations in this section are unending: the B section begins in E-flat minor, but moves through C-flat major (2:02), E-flat major (3:10) and (briefly, sort of) A-flat minor before returning to G-flat major for the recapitulation of the A section (3:44). The modulations are all highly dramatised: the B section feels as though it spends more time “between keys” than it does in any single tonal area.

The Coda (5:02) is straightforward from a composer/analyst’s point of view, but that makes it one of the more difficult passages to pull off. There’s an incredible simplicity — almost naivety — to the melodic line, and it’s tricky to know quite what to do with it as a result.

Apologies for the sound of some pages being turned — hopefully they don’t distract too much from the music!

It’s True – Out Of The Blue Just Aren’t as Gay as They Used to Be

It’s True – Out Of The Blue Just Aren’t as Gay as They Used to Be

The following clickbait investigative journalism was originally published by The Poor Print on 23/12/2017. Featured image by Out Of The Blue.

Out Of The Blue’s recent Christmas single, ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, is as fun, frivolous and festive as ever. And yet, watching it, I couldn’t help feel as though there were something missing. Namely: where did the gay go?

Out Of The Blue’s music videos have a proud tradition of homoeroticism, but their Christmas single videos have always stood out from the rest. Yet their latest, at first watch, seemed hardly homoerotic at all. Was I correct in thinking so? Or was I just imagining things? I turned to hard data (no pun intended) to take a closer look (also no pun intended).

Trawling through Out Of The Blue’s Christmas music videos, I assigned each second in each video a homoeroticism rank from 0 to 4. Each ranking was defined as follows:

0 No homoeroticism
1 Mild homoeroticism: Slightly ‘camp’/homoerotic lyrics; low-level physical contact between members; extremely camp dance moves; etc.
2 Medium homoeroticism: Extremely camp/homoerotic lyrics; suggestive physical contact; explicit flirting; etc.
3 High homoeroticism: We’re talking shirts off

The results of my somewhat dubious data gathering can be summarised in the below chart:

Waygood - OOTB article chart 1

As we can see, after the success of ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’, the boys decided to go all out in 2015 with ‘Santa Baby’, a video in which the majority of seconds in the video feature content that is at least slightly homoerotic. Moreover, ‘Santa Baby’ started off a three-year streak of Christmas singles with involving shirtless OOTB members (content marked as ‘highly homoerotic’ in the chart).

And yet, and yet… one shirtless scene does not a homoerotic video make. As we can see from the chart, although ‘Sleigh Ride’ and ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ have a greater proportion of shirtless scenes than even ‘Santa Baby’, it’s almost as though Out Of The Blue were paying lip service to homoeroticism without fully committing. Both singles in fact featured a greater proportion of seconds with no homoerotic content than 2014’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’. And it looks as though it’s getting worse: the proportion rose from 75% in 2016 to a frankly shocking 78% in 2017. Meanwhile, 2017 also featured the lowest proportion of seconds featuring ‘medium homoeroticism’. Those few shots of JJ Gibbs’ chest are pretty much all you get, lads.

As a way of summarising the total homoerotic content of a video in one value, I created the Total Homoeroticism Metric (THM). The THM gives 0 weight to seconds with no homoerotic value; single weight to seconds with mildly homoerotic value; double weight to seconds with medium homoerotic content; and triple weight to seconds with highly homoerotic content. It also adjusts for the fact that the singles were of different lengths by dividing by the total number of seconds of the track in question. The results were as follows:

Waygood - OOTB article chart 2

As we can see, ‘Sleigh Ride’s’ relatively high proportion of seconds with no homoerotic content is offset in this metric by its also relatively high proportion of highly homoerotic content. But the trend line is still negative overall – surely a worrying sign for all OOTB watchers.

The Spearman Rank Correlation Coefficient between the two variables is -0.33575522, indicating that the two variables are fairly weakly correlated. Yet any correlation at all is frankly unacceptable. And this is just comparing Christmas singles (for the sake of like-for-like content). Include such fare as 2014’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, and the correlation would surely be far stronger.

Out Of The Blue are just not as gay as they used to be. Sad!


Readers with too much time on their hands can download the full data as an Excel spreadsheet here.

All Out Of The Blue singles mentioned in the article were raising money for Helen & Douglas House hospice – read about the work they do here.

Oriel News: Michaelmas 2017

Oriel News: Michaelmas 2017

Originally published on The Poor Print (Oriel College Newspaper) on 27/10/2017.


I read the minutes, so you don’t have to.

Welcome to ‘Oriel News’, The Poor Print’s new roundup of everything big that’s going down in college.

As the rust has been scraped from the gears of the Oxford machine and Oriel life has restarted, students could be forgiven for thinking that it was a whole new Oriel they’d come back to: new freshers, a new JCR, new signs and – most importantly – new lunch trays. The bar has also seen its fair share of renovation, with a student project still underway to decorate the sliding doors using Sharpies. (Like all great artists, they have dismally failed to keep to their deadline.) In foreign affairs news, even the Fishbowl Common Room has apparently been redone, much to the annoyance of has-been Facebook meme page ‘Humans of JMH’. (Do they even go here?)

Turning now to politics, the JCR distinguished itself with a characteristic flurry of activity in the opening weeks of Michaelmas. The first open meeting of term saw an introduction from our new Junior Dean Serenhedd James, bringing with him a reminder that if we continue to steal at such a prolific rate then the tuck shop will be closed. Sadly the message seems yet to have sunk in: further items to have since gone missing include the newly bought tablet PC purchased for playing music in the bar and (bizarrely) a large number of yellow and black Sharpies.  Controversy and confusion reigned over an unexpected (and short-lived) 30p hike in laundry prices, caused by an improper application of the college subsidy. (Prices have since returned to their usual extortionate rate.)

Second week saw yet another Bar Rep by-election, as Dan Strachan resigned for the 394th time from the role he created for himself. Best of luck to Francis Judd, our new Bar Rep, who saw off strong competition from Jack Blowers. Meanwhile, a charity motion plunged the JCR into constitutional crisis, as the bar’s best and brightest grappled with the question of whether it would be legal to give money to a body that was technically-not-a-charity-but-kind-of-was. Money was more successfully pledged over the first two weeks to the Pool team (£20, ‘to be converted to 20p and 50p coins for the use of the team’s games and escapades during the year’) and the Amazons Drinking Society (£74, for a freshers’ drinks event).

Vapers beware: the House Committee has recently decided that the smoking ban will be extended to cover e-cigarettes on account of the lingering odours left on room furnishings and overexcitable fire alarms. In other domestic matters, the JCR was alerted to two upcoming redevelopments over weeks one to three. The Doll’s House is due to be re-rendered this Trinity term, but examinees fear not – scaffolding and noise should be minimal. Mores substantial in impact will be the Brewhouse Project: a major redevelopment of Oriel slated to take place in a few years that may mean that Oriel students will have to eat Hall meals in a marquee in second quad for three to four years. (Plans for the project are currently on display in the High Street Building.)

In nature news, The Poor Print is sad to report (courtesy of the porters’ lodge) the passing of the beloved Oriel duck over the long vac, tragically hit by a car in Oriel Square while posing for a photo. This stalwart of Oriel – who even met the Queen in 2013 – will be sorely missed. Thankfully no such fate has befallen Beary McBearphace, who after a period of disappearance seems to have returned to us – washed, nonetheless. Second Week’s Open Meeting saw a motion passed endorsing the principle that the naming of ‘Beary’s friend’ shall somehow raise money for charity, in a manner to be decided at the discretion of Charities Rep Priyanka Nankini. And nature lovers will also no doubt rejoice that Open Meetings will be delayed from Fourth Week onwards, in order to allow us all to watch the new series of Blue Planet. Open Meetings will, for reasons that seemed like a good idea at the time, also commence with a short synopsis of the episode just broadcast, relayed to us by motion proposer James Somerville.

Moving on to arts affairs, the coming term holds a variety of excitements in store. Tuesday of Fifth Week will see Oriel Choir decamping to Temple Church in London to promote their forthcoming album of Christmas music in a special concert. Fifth Week will also see The Lieutenant of Inishmore – a Northern Irish black comedy by Martin McDonagh – being put on at the O’Reilly Theatre, with substantial involvement from Oriel’s very own Georgia Robson.  And Robbie Boswall is rumoured to be running a museum trip at some point in the near future, which has potential for entertainment in more ways than one.

A third of the JCR has apparently already died in Entz’s game of ‘Human Assassin’ as of Sunday, and by my reckoning the other two thirds have come down with fresher’s flu. But hey, if anyone’s left to read this, the only thing left to say is to keep buying tickets for Oriel Ball!

What Happens on Tour…

What Happens on Tour…

A diary from Oriel Choir Tour 2017. Featured image supplied by Matthew Hull.

Tuesday, 27 June

Far too early Wake up. Persuade myself that, yes, I did need to set the alarm this early. Lie in wait outside the bathroom so I can use the shower. There’s a queue – Lizzie kindly hosted several of us the night before, since she lives close to Heathrow and that seemed like a good enough excuse for a party. Will Pickering seems to be taking hours. When I get out, Will McDonald tells me I seemed to be taking hours.

Still far too early There’s bad traffic on the M25. Three different SatNav devices are giving us three different time estimate. Implausibly, we arrive on time at 8:15 and meet with the rest of the choir.

10:25am We’re off. I have a window seat – but it’s cloudy enough that the world below is completely hidden until we land. It’s a short flight; I spend the time reading various newspapers and listening to music. The battery on my noise-cancelling headphones has died.

1:25pm CET (12:25pm BST) We land in Milan. Giampiero Innocente, the local choir director who invited us here and organised the tour, introduces himself. He’s well-dressed, wears glasses, seems nice. We’re promptly bundled onto a coach to be transported to the nearby town of Lodi. Apparently, to our surprise, that’s where we’ll be staying (I ruminate that this is what happens if you fail to read an itinerary that’s been pushed at you for several months now).

C. 2pm Lodi. We arrive at the secondary school where we’ll be staying. Staff are quite literally waving WiFi passwords at us as we come through the doors: welcome, but slightly surreal. The rooms are nice – we each have our own bathroom and balcony.

4-7pm Collective fatigue has taken hold after the early get-up and flight, but it’s rehearsal time. There’s no other option – our first concert is the following day, and rehearsal time for our tour programme was limited in Trinity by the two-services-a-week choir schedule.

We sound terrible, and we all know it. I try to convince myself that we sounded this bad at the beginning of last tour. I’m not sure we did.

7pm Pizza and beer for all – welcome. A few of us head out for a walk to explore Lodi a little after supper, before heading back to the school and drinking obscenely cheap wine in the corridor with the others.

Wednesday, 28 June

7am A few of us who enjoy inflicting pain on ourselves set out early for a jog before it’s too hot to do so. The advantage of Lodi over Milan is that you quickly find yourselves in the countryside, and we discover an attractive 10K route through crop fields and along the river. Several of the fields contain wheat, which still feels slightly rebellious after General Election ‘17.

8:30am Breakfast. An incredible array of inedible items – rock-hard bread (sans butter); ‘juice’ cartons (with c. 50% juice); undrinkable lemon tea (which many make the mistake of putting milk in); something that professes to be ham. Luckily the coffee is good, and is served in a huge vat with a ladle.

10:30am-2:30pm Short rehearsal in Lodi, then a coach to Milan, followed by lunch, which is provided free of charge at the university in Milan (the venue for tonight’s concert). We get a short amount of free time, but not enough to do much with, so a few of us have a wander through Milan – we get within eyeshot of the Cathedral before having to turn back. Multiple sopranos are told how beautiful they are by a street vendor – unless they refuse to buy that bracelet, in which case they’re ugly, and, apparently, evil as well.

2:30pm Rehearsal in the university’s concert hall – our first rehearsal with the string players, which is exciting. We’re starting to sound half decent: a relief. A massive storm breaks outside during the rehearsal.

Our itineraries have ‘Drinks for all the people’ suggestively scheduled in between our rehearsal and the concert, but this time it turns out to be just pineapple juice. Probably for the best.

9pm Show time. Much stressing over clothes in the run-up beforehand. (One button undone, or two? Should Will McDonald wear trainers, or walk on in socks?) Will also forgot to buy himself a black shirt before coming, so has to dash out beforehand to buy one (sans coat, in the middle of the storm). He comes back dripping. Luckily, there’s time for him to dry himself off before the concert.

Much pomp as our first concert begins. Giampiero appears to be giving an extensive history of Oriel College in his introduction, lasting for 15 minutes or so – we pick out the name ‘Newman’ amongst the stream of Italian. Choir concerts usually seem to be, for me, an exercise in clinging onto a ridiculous amount of music for dear life. (I’ve checked on the YouTube videos since, and, yes, it does look like I’m about to drop my music at any moment.) Regardless, the concert goes pretty well – we’re still not sounding as good as we could, but there are several yet to come.

C. 11pm Coach back to Lodi. Much drinking. We discover there’s an Irish pub near the river called Bridge…

choir in front of bridge
Photo: Will Pickering. Left to right: Ellie Juckes (soprano); Alexander Walls (bass); Matthew Hull (bass); Will Pickering (bass); David Maw (director of music); Malcolm Kittle (alto); Alex Waygood (bass); William McDonald (junior organ scholar); Charlotte Anstey (soprano); Marcel Stolz (bass)

Thursday, 29 June

Itinerary: ‘Free day, free time’.

We divide into several groups: those too hungover to do anything; those who want to do proper sightseeing in Milan; and two groups who want to visit the lakes. I and a few others decide to head to the small town of Stresa, on the shores of Lake Maggiore, but take a slow route with a long pause in Milan to avoid high train fares. Happily, we discover on the train from Milan that our ticket is invalid, despite having selected the route from a list of options on a ticket machine in Lodi. Since no one in our group really speaks Italian, we decide it’s probably best to pay up rather than risk getting into a fight with the angry ticket inspector.

Stresa and Lake Maggiore are beautiful, but our timing is unfortunate to say the least: after a sunny train ride there, storm clouds emerge shortly after we disembark. We swim tentatively for a little while in the lake, but most of the rest of the afternoon is spent running between the lakeshore and the train station – the only place we can think of to find shelter. We end up having to picnic in the train station. Mamma mia.

Most of the choir meets in Milan for a meal in the evening, followed by a brisk walk back to the train station in a fruitless attempt to catch a train – except for Alexander Walls, who, being a little more drunk, runs a little more recklessly. We watch him being taken away back to Lodi, fingers pressed against the glass, helpless to help us.

Much drinking in Lodi when we eventually get back, this time on the roof – much more atmospheric.

Friday, 30 June

7am Another 10K morning run – but I’m hungover, so Matthew Hull has to drag me out, delaying us until 7:15. We have the morning free, so those of us who make it to breakfast resolve to Do Something rather than hang around in Lodi all day (our concert will be in Lodi this evening). We settle on going to Cremona – the only interesting town we can get back from in time for our rehearsal. A Telegraph article describes it as having ‘striking’ architecture.

Cremona. We arrive at Monteverdi’s birthplace. The train station isn’t particularly striking. In case we didn’t know it’s Monteverdi’s birthplace, there’s a sculpture of a violin just outside the train station that plays the opening of Orfeo on loop all day. (Bizarrely, the extract has no violins in it.)

The architecture does indeed, however, become ever-more striking as we approach the centre. We climb the clock tower – the largest of its kind in Europe, while its clock face is at 54 square metres also the largest in Europe. Rory unexpectedly gets to use his Japanese at the top; we need (obviously) to ask a tourist to take our picture. The view is staggering.

After descending, we decide to have a stab at busking in the square. ‘Stab’ seems to be the right word to begin with: after discovering that we are all men, Alexander Walls and I attempt the soprano lines in falsetto, with results you could describe as decidedly mixed. We quickly resolve to take the soprano lines down the octave, and actually end up sounding pretty good – we earn €7 between us. Less than the minimum wage; but hey, we had a good time.

4:30pm We get to our rehearsal late after failing to grasp the subtleties of Italian trains. It goes well though, and after dinner so does the concert. We’re now making a really nice noise – especially the soloists. ‘Drinks with all the people’ are helpfully scheduled in our itinerary for after the concert. These are alcoholic…

 

Saturday, 1 July

Breakfast We’re singing in Crema in the evening, but don’t need to rehearse until around 4pm. Rather than hang around in Lodi for most of the day, a group of us instead decide to head to Crema early – there look to be some nice riverside walks nearby. Cue a vast amount of time spent attempting to get to grips with the subtleties of Italian buses.

We eventually make it to Crema, and the walk and picnic are worth it. After we get back to Crema, we head to the wrong church, and struggle to find the right one – but Giampiero turns out to be two minutes away, so rescues us and buys us all ice cream.

The rest of the choir arrives by coach, and the rehearsal again goes well, though the choir as a whole seems to be pretty tired by this point. The Great Game after rehearsal is to find ‘thank you’ cards for David (our conductor) and Will McDonald (our organ scholar). ‘Thank you’ cards don’t really seem to be a thing in Italy, but I find two cards with the inscription ‘you are the music to my soul’. It seems fitting.

Our last concert goes really well – we’re sounding just as good as we did the night before, and in a much less cavernous acoustic. Giampiero throws us a party afterwards next door (Crema is his home town). More drinking follows on return to Lodi – this time in the cloisters, since partying on the roof had apparently disturbed other guests. Malcolm and Will Pickering managed to find two 5L bottles of wine with the helpful label ‘ROSSO’. It’s actually not half bad.

litre of red wine.jpg
Photo: Alexander Walls. Left to right: Malcolm Kittle (alto); Will Pickering (bass).

Sunday, 2 July

Tour barely feels like it’s begun, yet it’s already the last day. Fewer days and more concerts have led to an intense atmosphere, while a distinct lack of beaches has created a very different feel to last year’s chilled tour in the Côte d’Azur. Yet it’s been awesome fun all the same – and probably no bad thing that we’ve done more singing this year.

We’re not quite done, though – we still have a mass and several motets to sing at a midday service in the Basilica in Milan. Half the choir are losing their voices by this point, but it seems to go pretty well all the same. We’re quickly bundled into a coach after the service and taken to the airport.

Back at Heathrow, saying ‘goodbye’ takes far too long – as it always does. Somehow, tour always feels like an extension of term – so this is the point when we’re saying ‘goodbye’ to Oxford for the summer. There’s also the fact that many of the choir won’t be returning next year – some we might see again; some we might not. It becomes apparent that none of us really know how airports work: we end up saying our goodbyes far too early, creating a long, awkward period post-goodbyes when we’re still walking in the same direction.

Chapel choirs are fairly strange, as social groups go. Oriel choir contains a diverse mix of very different people, spanning a wide age range and an array of very different subjects. (Who knew so many engineers sang in chapel choirs?) You see each other regularly over the course of a year – but rehearsals contain little time for talking. (Most of the time, your mouth’s already open for, well, singing.) The main bonding experience occurs at the end of the year, in the form of choir tour – right at the point when half of the choristers are about to set off to whatever new choirs the future may hold.

Best of luck to them.

Choir 2016-17 (fun, cropped).jpg
Oriel College Chapel Choir 2016-17. Photo: César Manivet

More on Oriel Choir Tour 2017

The official write-up of Oriel Choir’s 2017 tour can be found on the Oriel website here.

More information on Giampiero Innocente and his choir – the Collegium Vocale di Crema – can be found here and here.

The full collection of images and videos from the tour can be found on the Facebook page and YouTube channel of the Collegium Vocale di Crema.

Oriel Choir’s official website can be found here. More information on the choir and music can also be found on the Oriel website here, and further information on Oriel Chapel in general can be found here.


This piece was originally published by The Poor Print on August 4, 2017.

OK Computer at 20

<i>OK Computer</i> at 20

‘We hope that you choke.’ On the reverse side of my CD of OK Computer, just below the track listing, you can find these words in small, red type. It summarises the album pretty well. 20 years old this week, Radiohead’s third album is now celebrated by critics as one of the greatest in the history of rock – and it’s worth revisiting why.

Over the course of 53 minutes, OK Computer paints a picture of complete and total alienation – from society, from relationships, from life itself. Yorke’s singing style – often indistinct and mumbling – is dramatically different from Radiohead’s previous effort The Bends, creating a sense that the lead singer himself is being excluded from the album’s texture.

And the album’s texture is often oppressively thick. Although OK Computer was nominally self-produced by Radiohead, this owes a huge debt to recording engineer Nigel Godrich, now one of the world’s most sought-after music producers. Numerous echoes and other effects are layered on top of one another to create a musical soup that at times feels almost impenetrable.

My favourite track has always been ‘Let Down’. The song begins immediately after what it is arguably the most crushing point of the album. The hopes and dreams of the lovers depicted in ‘Exit Music’ have been destroyed in catastrophic fashion, and Yorke closes the track by singing purely, almost psychopathically, those words on the reverse of the album sleeve. Over and over again. ‘We hope that you choke’.

‘Let Down’ begins utterly simply, with a single guitar line: a repeating line that is almost like a lullaby. But more and more lines are progressively added – each line in a different time signature, so that until the drums enter at 00:13 it is almost impossible to feel any kind of a beat. The complexity and intricacy of the arrangement is overwhelming; it is all too easy to become lost in a sea of swirling counterpoint. Yorke, meanwhile, progressively layers more and more vocal harmonies onto the track with each verse, increasing the thickness of the texture but also the vocal pitch at which he is singing. By the time the track reaches four minutes in, the emotional anguish of Yorke has reached breaking point: but here, unlike in ‘Exit Music’, it feels cathartic rather than nihilistic.

Conventional wisdom holds that ‘Fitter Happier’ – perhaps the strangest track on the album, with lyrics read by a synthesised voice from the Macintosh SimpleText application – divides the album in two. I’ve always felt as though OK Computer could equally be heard as existing in a tripartite division: three parts that each carry the listener in a journey from a state of neutrality to an emotional abyss. The abyss is reached three times: at the ends of ‘Exit Music’, ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, and ‘Lucky’.

‘The Tourist’, a gem of simplicity, acts as the perfect album closer. Working at a tempo far less than any other track on the album, it acts as a semi-ironic comment on all the content so far – testament to Radiohead’s underappreciated sense of humour. ‘Slow down,’ Yorke entreats himself. ‘Idiot, slow down.’

Originally published by Cherwell on 26/05/17 (not online).