Building site


Starting a proper website may be the most stupid thing I have ever done in my life. It started off as a simple project to make something promoting my book, Darwin Wars, and allowing people to buy it by clicking on a link to I already kept a few pages with cuttings and things on the Well, a bulletin board in California, but they were done back when the web was simple and good design consisted only of using the smallest possible pictures and making sure that nothing on the pages tried to slither, beep or blink.

Even without any kind of fancy layout, there is still a huge amount of work involved in web publishing if you are to do more than shovel acres of unrelieved text at the reader. Articles need thoughtful linking, either to the rest of the site or to the outside world. Since reading on screen is unquestionably nastier than reading on paper, we should compensate for this experience by adding useful footnotes. This needs thought and even research. You have to throw your mind out of gear and freewheel across a piece of prose looking for sidetracks, then go back and work out where these should lead, and where on the web to find their destinations. This is not hard work, but it is extraordinarily time-consuming. I have come to realise that the perfect hypertext summary of a piece of prose would, like the perfect map, be as large as the original.

Newspapers can make these links automatically to some extent, by searching their own databases for similar stories. The Electronic Telegraph is not a bad model. But there is judgement as well as knowledge needed and that takes time.

The language in which the web is written, HTML, has been growing and changing ferociously for as long as it has existed. The latest versions allow designers, for the first time, to specify more or less how they want their pages to look, in the way that you would take for granted if you were printing on paper. Until now, the author of a web page could specify that a paragraph should appear as a heading, or as part of a list, for example; but he had no choice over what those terms meant. A heading might appear to the reader in a chaste serif 14-point, Independent-style, or it could leap, drooling from the screen, in 18-point lime green Creepy (one of Bill Gates's more philanthropic pieces of software, a font that drips slime). The choice was made at the reader's screen, not the writer's. The background might be in any colour or none, depending on the whims of the reader or his software.

This powerlessness gave art directors nervous breakdowns; it had other disadvantages, too. It meant that people had to concentrate on the structure of their sites, and not on the look. There are two troubles with this kind of minimalist approach. The first stems from the ability of skilled designers to accomplish a great deal more than they ever could before and make sites that look delightfully inviting. So unskilled designers want to do the same. There's lots of software that seems to make this easier. The best of it, such as Macromedia Dreamweaver, is powerful, subtle, elegant and . . .

Actually, there is only one thing you need to know about this sort of software, and it is that, as soon as you get the CD in your hands, you must hurl it like a frisbee as far away as possible. If you once start playing, it will take over your life and destroy your capacity for productive work. Believe me: I have just spent half an hour examining scanned photographs of Roman ruins in Provence in order to extract from them a pleasing colour scheme. Before that, I spent an hour debugging a form that allows people to join a mailing list. At five this morning, I woke with a brilliant idea for an article, which had within seconds been washed from my mind by an even more interesting idea about how to display it in a three-column table and now I can't remember what I was meant to write; worse still, I can't get the layout to come out as it should.

The second problem is that none of the browsers you can currently buy actually do what they promise. They all still display carefully designed pages differently; it's just that the more modern ones make more complicated mistakes.

At the end, of course, I tell myself that it is all worthwhile because people can go to the Darwinwars site, read, click and buy the book at once from Amazon. This is an author's dream of self-promotion - and, sure enough, last week I think I earned £1.57.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation