Jun 052013

I received an email a couple of days ago from Labour in relation to the European candidates selection process.  Part of it said as follows:

Arlene McCarthy, who was re-selected following a trigger ballot, will appear at the top of the list as the only sitting MEP in the region.

Beneath her, there are eight candidates – four men and four women – who need to be ranked in order of preference. The candidate who secures the most preferences will be placed second on the regional party list.

If a male candidate secures the most preferences, then the highest-placed female candidate will come next on the list, followed by the next male candidate and then by the female. If a female candidate secures the most preferences, then the highest placed male will come next on the list, followed by the next female candidate and then by the male.

This process is known as zipping and is used by the Labour Party in European candidate selections to help to balance male and female candidates.

You should vote by ranking the candidates in order of preference by placing a 1 against your first preference, 2 against your second preference and so on. You do not have to use all your preferences, although it cannot harm the chance of your first choice candidate if you do.

As Labour Uncut concluded recently:

At a time when there is widespread mistrust in politicians and disengagement in politics, does this really represent the most transparent way of selecting candidates?

Is “zipping” what the new politics is all about?

Meanwhile, I read yesterday (in Spanish) (robot English here) that in Spain the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) is looking to get enshrined in electoral law there the aforementioned procedure of zipping (the Spanish call it “listas cremallera” – “zip lists”).

Whilst the procedure hasn’t been explained as clearly as it could have been, and Labour Uncut is right to bring our attention to this, it is obviously looking to right a severe wrong which the privileged few who control politics continue to exert even in the presence of 50 percent quotas.  It serves no useful purpose whatsoever for men and women to make up an electoral list, if the majority of the electable seats end up in hands of men.

That it is time a representative democracy represents its people properly and transparently is no more self-evidently true than today, where a Cabinet of millionaires holds sway disastrously over our politics.

Zipping is a great idea whose time should have come long ago.  Although it smacks through the word used, even when better explained, emotionally of tying up freedoms, we shouldn’t allow those who maintain existing profiles of privilege to kick the procedure into touch.

We need a fairer and more truly representative democracy.  Properly implemented, a 50 percent quota with equal opportunities of winning for men and women will surely get us there eventually.

A case of a policy which might remove a raft of career choices for men like myself, but would – long-term – benefit us all socially a thousandfold over.  After all, what’s the point of winning if it involves oppression?  That’s not winning at all; that’s essentially the hierarchies of serfdom.

That’s a meritocracy built on catacombs of lies.

Let’s follow the PSOE’s example, and propose giving it legal backing.  Time – long overdue, in fact – to make zipping the law for all political parties.

May 232013

Kath has an interesting piece over at Speaker’s Chair.  In it she says:

Just two years before a general election, and already Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ mantra whiffs of failure. It’s not hard to see why. As a slogan, it doesn’t have the oomph of a car insurance advert, let alone the ‘va va voom’ Labour needs to win.

She adds that:

Tony Blair’s New Labour re-branding in 1994 was a success because it meant something. With one short word, he told Britain that the old Labour Party – the party of wildcat strikes, crippling taxation and high unemployment – was gone forever. One Nation Labour tells us nothing. It certainly isn’t going to contribute to a landslide victory in 2015.

Now I can understand where she’s coming from, but I’m not sure I agree.  The renaming process of “New Labour” spoke most powerfully about the thus-banished behaviours of the Party itself.  One Nation Labour, meanwhile, may be trying to do something far more revolutionary.  Even as she argues …

How are voters meant to grasp something so essentially elitist? And why would they bother trying?

… I respond with this comment:

Hmm. I agree that One Nation doesn’t mean much now, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Imagine, if you will, two years down the line, a country finally riven by the cuts which have still barely begun to bite. Imagine how people will feel, what they’ll be really desperate for. Togetherness perhaps? A oneness of nationhood? A society which helps all its members? Is that really beyond belief? Can’t the kind of political rhetoric One Nation rhetoric represents be filled out and made clear for a change by the people, instead of by the politicians?

This is why I think Ed Miliband may have thought this through much more from a strategic point of view than from a marketing point of view. Yes. Like a good Ibsen play, the real action is taking place offstage, in the community in question, amongst the people themselves. In my mind, at least, One Nation may be a political bath just waiting to be filled by the people themselves. And using the multitude of babies (Legal Aid, the NHS, education, social care, disabled support etc) which the Tories have clearly been looking to dispose of.

We’ve been here before, of course – specifically, Party Conference 2011 and Miliband’s famous curiosity of a speech.  It wouldn’t, after all, be the first time he has had people misunderstanding/underestimating what he is up to:

[…] But I do think, in an analogous way, that – in his recent speech at Party Conference – Ed Miliband was at least attempting to break certain moulds in quite a courageous manner.  The very fact that many people felt obliged to criticise his delivery – and not see his register as conversational rather than traditionally declamatory – does make me wonder if this poor man doesn’t have the hardest job in politics: to sell grassroots collaboration to a political party wary of, and thus resistant to, all such similar promises.

A political party which claims to be the very essence of grassroots politics – and then consistently finds itself in search of yet another charismatic group of fixers.


Is Ed Miliband’s speech going to be a Hitchcockian achievement [as per Hitchcock’s “Psycho”]?  Misunderstood on its first outing by those who claim to know – yet generally, in the future, to be well received by those who can only vote?  Battling against those “vested interests” which make economies in their own image and for their own purposes is an issue he is courageous to raise.  In a sense, then, perhaps we could say – with his conversation – that Miliband proposes nothing more nor less than that neo-New Labour I was unhappy with the other day: but in a better and far more constructive register; that is to say, all the unfinished business which New Labour was never brave enough to get round to effecting.

This, then, in a very Reaganite way, could be how revolutionary One Nation Labour might become.  Miliband looking only to place a conceptual framework around the people; not, in any significant way, to play the commentariat game of telling the people what to think and do.  It’s not without its own risks, of course.  As Ben suggests over at Labour Uncut:

One Nation: the slogan that just will not budge. Still being drummed home to death. We may have tired of it but we’re not going to forget it. The mark of a successful slogan? Not really. I still don’t understand what it means. Or more accurately, what we’re meant to do with it. Alone, it’s meaningless: Labour has broad appeal? It will unite the whole of Britain?

But, all parties profess to do this. Besides, One Nation fails the “elevator pitch:” able to be summarised in one elevator ride. Which isn’t 100% accurate as I’ve just summed it up in a sentence. Unfortunately, the summary alone is so vague it requires several more elevator rides. Heck, it might be easier just to get in one, hit the emergency alarm, and hope the rescue takes several hours.

Yet I see other things which Labour, in the ordinary communities it must win, is doing to create a different feeling.  Maybe Miliband isn’t doing as well as he could to flesh out One Nation Labour to the mass media.  On the other hand, maybe he’s still holding back as he looks to allow the people to start taking part and doing that job of definition themselves: through the acts he encourages them to take ownership for and in the time and space he is giving the Party in order that it might grow.

This, for example, which I – in sudden partisan-like mood – blogged about thus.  In itself, then, a small event – but multiply it up by hundreds of others, multiply it up by the time Miliband is taking, multiply it up so that the members and supporters do really begin to get the feeling that something might be slowly changing inside Labour’s perception of both its activists and voters … multiply up all of that as I suggest and maybe, just maybe, a revolution of sorts could be enabled in the end.

It’s an alternative interpretation, anyhow – worth a shot, surely.

A disaster about to befall us or a revolution in British politics in the making?  As I conclude in my comment to Kath’s piece:

[…] This working-at-the-heart of people’s lives, being there to engineer good times and not just complain about the bad, is surely something we should proceed with – and maybe something that can rescue One Nation from the oblivion you all seem to think it may already be destined for.

Perhaps, also, for a traditionally national political party like Labour, Miliband has succeeded in realising – even learning from the Lib Dems in this sense – the importance of all things local to get one’s message across.

Especially in a social media and peer-to-peer networked age.

And even as some observers may find themselves at a loss to understand the true nature of the dynamics in play.

Aug 032012

Peter Watt over at Labour Uncut raises the spectre of morality in politics:

Is paying tax a moral duty?  It is the sort of question that has those on the left and right frothing at the mouth.

He then goes on to say (the bold is mine):

[…] I have an ISA that means that I don’t have to pay tax on any interest I accrue.  I take advantage of duty free (tax free) shopping when I travel abroad.  I took advice on planning my pension and made sure that my arrangements were tax efficient.  And I am hardly alone, millions of people do it.  If you have to undertake a self-assessment then you don’t start the process trying to maximise what you have to pay you look to minimise it.

It may not be in the same league as the Jersey based K2 scheme made famous by Jimmy Carr, but it is still tax avoidance.

I agree with his words and not with his implicit conclusion.  When people wish to justify something that is difficult to justify, they argue similarity.  In life, in politics, in the politics of tax, proportionality and balance are everything.  They’re not sexy concepts, that is true.  But they are right.

If the politics of tax make people froth morality, it’s hardly surprising.  In the 1950s, American corporations contributed around forty to fifty percent of their profits to the job of creating infrastructures they used to do business.  In many cases, now, these percentages are actually negative.

From the Facebook page “Connect The Dots USA”

If truth be told, whilst Friedman would argue that the only moral obligation of companies is to maximise their shareholder interest, the “something for nothing” culture can easily be described as immoral.  On the one hand, these giant corporations take advantage of roads, communication and worker-welfare infrastructures which serve to keep a working population working; on the other hand, they resist more and more their corresponding obligation to pay their full whack.

The tax pyramid was ever thus, of course – yet today, as the graph above shows, it has become totally disproportionate and unbalanced.  Those who have a lot of money have the money to pay lawyers and accountants to keep that money away from reinvesting in society.  Those who have little money pay comparatively more than we could argue they should.

Watt, then, is right to be wary of fomenting the moral versus immoral debate – we never know where doing morality could end.  But he is wrong to imply we must stop frothing at the mouth before we sort out the tax maze.

First, give up on behaviours which clearly abuse power and positions of wealth.  Then, mark my words, the desire to frame the debate in terms of morality will simply fizzle out all on its lonesome.

And in the meantime, if we want to be really generous and proactively charitable, begin to argue that the incorrectness of “something for nothing” corporations and people should be the real basis for framing this equation – as well as all our future policies.

Apr 202012

Kevin suggests that what the lobbying scandals need are an improved political class.  He writes interestingly when he says:

The correct place to start is to recognise that most MPs – in all parties – are pretty straight. Let’s encourage them to know their own minds a bit more. And let’s provide them with proper independent policy support to help them formulate their own positions on the key issues.

One observation before we continue: whilst I agree that most MPs are likely to be straight, I am inclined also to believe that the higher up the greasy pole they get, the less straight they become.  This is a serious issue, of course, because the higher up they are, the more disproportionate their influences.

Anyhow.  Kevin continues to write interestingly when he concludes the following (the bold is mine):

The conspiracy theorists and gesture politics mob who want to choke-off lobbying will simply fail to do so if ministers come forward with weak measures, or we will see our democracy asphyxiated if they come forward with clumsy, catch-all ones.

But let’s use this moment to change politics as much as lobbying. Unless we beef-up our MPs’ ability to shape the policy agenda, rather be shaped by lobbyists of whatever hue, we will have missed a trick.

And the bottom feeders of the lobbying world will get away scot-free when this latest, predictable and toothless attempt to clean-up the industry fails to do just that.

I said much the same thing when I suggested the following recently, with respect to the related subject of party political funding and PR.  Which is precisely why I argued in favour of a system whereby customers of companies could decide whether to make a purchase on the basis of a traffic-light labelling system which explained how much an organisation was spending on funding and PR per political party.  In fact, I expanded on the theme in another post the other day on the subject of a US site called sopatrack.com.  Here, tools which scrape publicly available data help determine which US congressmen and women vote “with the money” – money the wider constituents of the American Congress may raise for their own, often grubby, purposes.

The virtues of the above two ideas?  Both of them give back to the voters the knowledge that translates into power – without requiring the current political class to change, a priori, its behaviours.  The only legislation we would actually need would be freedom of information powers to access the necessary datasets where access did not currently exist.  Not a small order, I do have to accept – but far easier an order to define and delimit than the diffuse desire to do something about political corruption.

So whilst Kevin is right – we do need a political class with more backbone (which, as he rightly points out, does imply independent means to study  matters of modern import accurately and objectively) – the constituency he misses out of the equation, the voters themselves, also needs a greater capacity to oversee what’s going on.

And the tools I mention above, providing not a political straitjacket but rather constructive carrots and sticks, could achieve just that.

Feb 082012

Labour Uncut has a sad piece today on the subject of why Labour needs to back the financial services sector.  Sad because it’s clearly an example of a wasted opportunity.

The author of the article, a successful entrepreneur, argues a number of things which – as a very humble ex-worker in a bank at the eye of the 2008 storm – I really must take serious issue with.  He does fairly say, for example, that:

[…] it’s not just British bankers who are busy corrupting their national standards of decency and fairness either. The Spanish bankers are also at it, with Santander and BBVA dishing out eye-watering bonuses that will have many City types wondering what exactly their overseas brethren did to end up with both the weather and the cash.

Without mentioning that the new right-wing Spanish government has placed a €600,000 cap on the executive salaries – never mind bonuses – of those who work at Spanish banks which have received public funds over the past few years. 

He then goes on to point out that (the bold is mine):

It’s hard not to recoil when looking at the sheer magnitude of some bonuses and then the gap between top and bottom.

But here’s the problem. Words are powerful, especially on a subject as emotive as this. Attacking injustice is fine, but “bankers” has become a term of abuse that is applied without distinction and as a result ends up tarring everyone working in financial services.

And here I agree unreservedly.  I remember what it was like when a staid, boring and underpaid profession as my own – my remuneration was always less than the average national wage, even when for example I had responsibilities as complex as checking documentation for signs of potential money-laundering – became the kind of profession one simply didn’t admit to in polite company.  From being the glue which kept society together to a pariah on the face of the planet is not an easy series of steps to take.

However, it is when the author of the article under discussion goes on to say the following that I really take issue (again the bold is mine):

The UK is an acknowledged world leader in financial services. Just as in the past the UK was a leader in making cars, ships and textiles. Hundreds of banks and financial institutions from all over the world flock to Britain because it was and currently remains the best place to do business.

But there’s nothing that pre-ordains this will always be so.

If a future Labour government goes to war with finance in pursuit of a mythical rebalancing of the economy, the cost will be felt in the dole queues and in Britain’s international competitiveness.

As if these costs weren’t already being felt precisely because of the recent products, processes and behaviours of a financial services sector which – even now – tends to believe self-regulation would be the answer?

I have, in my job at the bank, witnessed the kind of waste that goes on in all large corporations.  From unhappy experiences in IT-system commissioning to dreadfully overpriced display units designed to improve internal communication; from a specialised computer mouse costing an arm and a leg, with the aim of protecting an arm and a wrist from the pain of repetitive-strain injury, to a plush hotel room in a city far away from home for a perfectly honest charity event everyone was too embarrassed at the time to properly publicise; from 50 percent bonuses for middle managers, whose job it was to implement opaque salary policies and end-of-year distribution curves designed to make objectives impossible to achieve, to unnecessary overtime payments for projects poorly managed and husbanded … these are surely not the signs of an industry which currently deserves our support.

Neither fair in remuneration nor measured in its ability to manage change constructively, the real customers of the banking industry happen not to be the personal ones like you and me … nor the sole traders … nor the small- and medium-sized businesses … but, rather, far more importantly, the managers at the top of the tree.

All the admirably good and hard work of the call-centre staff, the branch personnel and the sales people who suffer every day of the week means nothing in the face of the fact that these behemoths are evermore structured to make money for their leaders.

I agree with the initial thesis that we shouldn’t be bashing an entire industry simply because the people at the top are behaving without a single fibre of moral propriety.  And the solution to the problem can, perhaps, quite unconsciously, be found in this final quote (once again, the bold is mine):

Actions have consequences and the Labour leadership would do well to pause before endorsing policies that will scythe into one of this country’s truly world class industries. As with Britain’s past industries, it doesn’t take long to lose the edge and fall back.

The Labour party needs to take a deep breath and consider the hundreds of thousands of people whose jobs are at stake in finance. We need to remember that financial services have a key role to play in the future growth of all our industries. And most of all, we need to develop balanced and strategic policies for the financial sector, not simply hop onto the banker-bashing bandwagon.

“As with Britain’s past industries, it doesn’t take long to lose the edge and fall back.”  That’s a quote and a half – and should make us think far more profoundly.  What is it about British industry and its hierarchical structures which makes it so prone to the vagaries of elements beyond businesspeople’s direct control?

Cogitate on the answer to that one – and you may discover the way forward for our wider society.

A blame culture, ours?  It starts from the top.  Leadership is, after all, as I saw commented the other day, much more a question of providing the right kind of facilitating work environment than micromanaging people’s creativity out of existence.

Sustainable 21st century business surely requires people at the top to centralise far less their responsibilities on themselves.  This does mean, of course, that they will become less indispensable – and, therefore, cheaper to employ.  But until this is done, British business will continue to be at the mercy far more of government legislation and external factors than its own long-term and internal securities and structures.  Only when both power and earnings are transferred to the people who actually add daily value to a company will company culture and differentiation from the rest of the marketplace become more positively entrenched – and the impact politicians can have on the future health of a sector become, equally, far less significant.

Labour’s attitude to British finance shouldn’t be the key to improving the ability of the sector to perform, whatever the framework.  That key, instead, lies within the sector itself.  And if the market were truly free – as, indeed, I believe it should be – the sector itself would already realise this.

Whilst a monopoly of top executives continues to run the financial services sector in the UK, we will get a stream of complaints from these top-heavy and highly uncompetitive companies unhappy with the legislative and regulatory constraints of the British economy.

It’s high time they realised they need to sort out their problems by sorting out the way they manage their businesses.

You don’t need to pay someone million-pound bonuses to know how to cut the livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers.  For that kind of money we need far more imagination.

So up your game lads and lasses.  And transfer that power!

Update to this post: some background reading from the Guardian newspaper has just come my way – an interview with Stephen Hester from the Royal Bank of Scotland on the subject of the furore surrounding his recent bonus award.  It also provides an alternative viewpoint to some of the issues I raise above.  Well worth your time.

Jan 032012

This piece by Rob Marchant over at Labour Uncut – on why we must continue with our critically, and sometimes apparently internecine, political blogging – has many things going for it.  But I am inclined to take issue with the following argument:

LabourList and Labour Uncut, started more recently, have been doing a sterling job in taking back the internet agenda for Labour, but we still see much apparent discomfort in the comments sections. We fall into easy habits, talking of “loyalty” and “unity”, in order to try and keep party thinking aligned. It is easy to confuse “unhelpful comment” and “comment that I disagree with”. But all comment, in the end, is helpful. Robust debate is, on the contrary, an overwhelming positive, and it is precisely this Darwinism of ideas that can lead us all to arrive at a decent, defensible common view of where the party is at and where it needs to be. The wisdom, in the words of James Surowiecki, of crowds.

This was my response:

The Darwinism of Ideas is all well and good in theory. But I have two reservations: firstly, in terms of the intellectual debate that should be conducted, it closely mirrors in its dynamics precisely the kind of capitalism which is currently being imposed on us. And secondly, precisely because this capitalism – and its analogous debate – does not take place on a level killing-field, the ideas which will win out will proceed from those with the biggest clout (the biggest virtual networks, the largest number of real-world followers etc.) and not necessarily because the ideas themselves have intrinsic virtue – or are of intrinsic value to the Labour Party as a whole, and by extension those who might wish to vote for it in general elections. 

Less macho Darwinism, more humane communication I think might be the order of *my* day.

Crowdsourcing ideas is – of course – an undeniable positive of many modern virtual environments.  But we shouldn’t conflate “robust” with “trolling” – nor argue in a rank relativism that “all comment is helpful”: much of what Marchant describes that takes place on the Internet is clearly so unhelpful as to impede an effective crowdsourcing of absolutely any procedure or process.

The million eyes of interested participants that good crowdsourcing environments coordinate are of course grand pluses we should observe and learn from in the way that Marchant suggests.  But as in the politics he so clearly understands, the constitutional structure of the environment you are dealing with is key to ensuring those million eyes act with either intelligence or a wasteful energy.

And it does so happen that on the few occasions I have commented on the Labour Uncut website, comment moderation has always been in place.

Hardly an inspiring example of where the crowd is shown to be in the driving-seat.

So before we go down the lazy route of justifying the tool of Darwinism in the very hub of all our debate, let us be accurate about the systems we use to give precedent and priority to some choice thinkers over that crowd.

And if we are truly interested in giving the crowd its head of steam, let us be consequential and act in good faith when we create the environments in which such a crowd should be allowed to perform.

Oct 042011

One of the most read pieces on this blog recently was this post, framing Ed Miliband’s recent speech in terms of the reception Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” received on its first showings.  I then suggested that our Red Ed might be turning himself into Ready Eddy.  Meanwhile, Eoin analyses data which suggests voters are happy – where the commentariat huff and puff – for Miliband to turn his back on Blair.  Then, going against the Labour grain perhaps but in line with the aforementioned commentariat, Dan Hodges, over at Labour Uncut, had this to say of Miliband’s week:

We have to understand. We need to grasp what has just happened to the Labour party.

Ed Miliband did not have a bad week. He had a grotesque, cataclysm of a week.

The conundrum gets more involved, though, with this latest research highlighted by Liberal Conspiracy, worth reading in full – and the conclusion to which runs as follows (the bold is mine):

There are two lessons here I think. First, bland centrism doesn’t necessarily mean you get elected. Second, the press is out of touch with public perception of where Ed Miliband and David Cameron politically stand.

As a tangential idea to keep up in the forefront of our erstwhile triangulating political minds, I also like this observation from the same article:

So does this all mean being centrist gets you elected? Not necessarily. The Libdems are placed broadly in the centre by voters, and yet they languish at 11-15% in the polls.
Why? Kellner says:
When we delve into the figures more closely, we see why. Conservative voters dislike him because they think he is left-of-centre – while Labour voters reject him as too far to the right for their taste. These attitudes cancel each other out in Clegg’s overall average.

And so we come to a final re-evaluation of what Ed Miliband might be up to – if, that is, he’s as intelligent and intentioned a politician as I believe he may be becoming.  Again from Labour Uncut – this time, from within the most inner place of Miliband’s own inner circle:

By contrast, and by coincidence, as I made my way out of the hall in Liverpool, I bumped into two very senior business figures. One is a longstanding Labour supporter, who has made millions in private industry. The other has only recently joined the party, having retired from business after decades of running multi-million pound commercial enterprises. Both thought the speech was very good. They enthused about not only its thoughtfulness, but in particular its emphasis on the importance of business as a “wealth creator”, a line used repeatedly in Ed Miliband’s speech.

The author of this latter post – Michael Dugher, Ed Miliband’s own parliamentary private secretary – goes on to argue that:

The truth is it is not “anti-business” to criticise Fred Goodwin or to condemn what a private equity firm did to Southern Cross care homes. Neither is it “anti-business” to say a future Labour government should challenge the big vested interests like the energy companies ripping off consumers. It is the right thing to do.

There is, then, I think sufficient evidence laid out in my post this morning to suggest that:

  1. we are, as in Thatcher’s time, seeing the definitive political downsides of the fearsomely amoral act of triangulation;
  2. Ed Miliband perhaps realises this – and perhaps better than the rest of us right now;
  3. Ed Miliband is getting to the point where we need to seriously re-evaluate his potential as diviner of political dynamics;
  4. the mainstream press and their hangers-on are not necessarily best placed to catch the fluctuating public mood;

For the last point, after all, is precisely why we have politicians in the first place – to capture that public mood accurately and, in the end, democratically.

Politicians can only make their way and their reputations in that fragile conjoining of events and personal actions that is the body politic as a whole.

Which, essentially, means we can only wait and see.

Even as we do our very best to do so with what should be a generous as well as inquiring intelligence.

Aug 192011

At first I thought the figure of £220 million might be the cost of importing this kind of riot-control support and law-and-order leadership from the good ol’ US of A:

In the week that newspaper hacking exploded back onto the front pages, it has emerged that the company run by David Cameron’s American crime tsar, Bill Bratton, is mired in a British court case accused of illegal bugging and hacking.

Incidentally, I do wonder about this fascination with using the word “tsar”, when we give someone a responsibility of massive societal importance.  Does it mean they then have the right to dictatorially impose?  Or do they want us to read between the lines that something even more unpleasant is bound to happen to one or other of the parties involved?

It makes you think, doesn’t it?


Anyhow, to get back to the original point of this post, it seems that £220 million is a nice round figure one of my Twitter friends has come up with (though I haven’t as yet been able to identify the source or doublecheck its veracity) for the total cost of a TV reality programme called Celebrity Big Brother:

#CBB11 cost £220m? bbc.co.uk/news/entertain… How? Why. You could elect an American President for that…

Which is probably all too terribly true.  For in amidst these moments of real financial crisis, it seems quite amazing how resilient and imaginative private industry can be – where, indeed, it can still find the dosh to continue doing the things it does.

I mean, of course, such as the above-mentioned activities.

And so to a final disparate thought – though not entirely unconnected.

Bear with me, if you will …

At the top of this post is a photo of a carton of UHT milk.  This is actually a Spanish one – but it references a conclusion I made a few months back in England, at the tail end, if I remember rightly, of my employment in a British bank.  Up to that point, the milk we’d bought for my daughter involved a similar carton with a different system of opening.  This system allowed for practically all of the milk to be used up.  A new type of carton was then brought in – simultaneously I might add – by two of the largest supermarket chains, with a similar system of opening to the one you can see in the photo.  Its avowed intention was to make life easier for people who found it difficult to open such cartons – which, indeed, it did.  A parallel virtue, however, for the private industry behind it (from the manufacturers of the cartons to the supermarkets themselves) was that it impeded an easy emptying of all of the milk from the carton.  Quite a bit of milk too.  I’d say half a small glass.

Just think about it.  The resilience, imagination and even ingenuity of private industry thus manages to solve two problems at one fell swoop.  How to first gain widespread customer acceptance for a new design of container which manages to increase sales immediately by probably a tenth through deliberately wasting its content.

Private industry has a real problem of image here – even more so when it is asked to get into bed with the public sector and government departments.  If in times of economic crisis, it’s bad enough to see how much money can be spent on relatively irrelevant cultural products, just think of the impact which the first story I link to today might have on how the public perceives private-sector integrity.

I’m a firm supporter of a public-private interface.  But when each party to the interface seems as interested as the other in squeezing out the public right to honest and sincere behaviours and attitudes, something very destructive is taking place – something very destructive which is leading us to a place surely no one, long-term, can be happy with.

Update to this post: the figure of £220 million can be found in this story from the BBC today.  Thanks to John Pollock for confirming this.

Nov 272010

Anthony Painter has a couple of paragraphs in a piece recently published on Labour Uncut which deserve reproducing in full:

This obsession with social mobility is the root of the culture clash between Lord Sugar and those he faces opposite him in the boardroom. Despite being a heck of a social climber himself, he recoils from those who place that sensibility at the front and centre of their personality. He wants people who are creative, good team-players, emotionally intelligent, and hard-working. He wants people who can adapt and initiate change; he wants them to be motivated by the process rather than the personal status gain. Amazing as this may seem, this makes him utterly (post) modern despite the gruff exterior.

He couldn’t give a fig about enlightenment man or woman. “Old” and “new” progressives are utterly obsessed with the enlightenment virtues of progress, rationalism, and universalism. So Gradgrind Gove wants to return to traditional subject matter in the curriculum, taught in the traditional Fordist way with traditional exams; a new faddism abounds driven by status obsession behind elevating subjects like Latin over living languages such as German; traditional academic higher education expands relentlessly with ever diminishing returns at ever greater cost. The confusing thing is not that students are protesting. It’s that those who have just graduated and have realised the big lie they’ve been told aren’t.

There is another way. Let’s get out while we can. Let’s put these enlightenment values in their place. They are just one aspect of humanity. Instead of measuring people by the income they earn, the social class they are in, or the status they acquire, let’s value them for the people they are.Every person has passion and talent; let them discover it.

I must admit I had never seen Lord Sugar in such a light – always considering him the English epitome and equivalent of that ambition-trampling capitalism that some Americans, along with their intercontinental cousins, have long wished to impose on us (more here on the problems of the Atlantic Bridge’s British arm as the Charity Commission gets involved).  Yet now I can see him utterly differently – and am pleased that this is the case.

If we can believe that the capitalism Sugar represents can value us all as human beings – however critical and bombastic his version of it may appear on the outside – and we can also believe that it is fair to understand, as a starting-point at least, the value of human beings in terms of what we are rather than what we do, then the world could be a much happier and more productive place.

The future of capitalism does not lie in turning us all into wage slaves – though some of its proponents may believe, with a massive dose of hubris, that this is precisely the direction it should take.  The recent student protests are but the beginning of a generational resistance to such a future.  For what has changed for this new generation, and what is changing the rules of the game for everyone else, is, as Emily concludes in her piece, the following:

And if protestors all across the country are at all representative of the National feeling, then the collation government will do well to remember that we are the voters at the next election…

So how can the Coalition government be getting it so wrong, after all the planning and networking and ambushing that organisations such as the Atlantic Bridge and their hangers-on constitute?  Well.  I would suggest that it is precisely because leading a country means saying things not that people want to hear but – instead – need to hear.  The Coalition government has made a recent virtue out of telling us that hard times require hard medicine.  They acknowledge that governments must sometimes tell the public things it is unhappy to be told – and very few of us would surely be inclined to argue with that.  Where they have fallen down, however, in their political narrative I mean (in the objective efficiency of such a narrative is what I’m really talking about here), is in that second part I mention above which relates to the emotional necessities a nation has in times of crisis to be convinced that at some point things will return to a shared equilibrium.

It is not the evil capitalists out there in the boardrooms who are telling this new generation to knuckle down to the mind-numbing and RSI-generating data-processing roles so beloved of their grand processes and procedures.  No.  It is, instead, our governors themselves – those who we understood were out there to defend us from abuse and malpractice – who are telling us we have little more to expect than to grin and damn well bear it.

This is, as you may realise, a form of governance without hope – where hope has no place and only a poverty-in-work is ours to claim.

Nor does this government promise this equilibrium we yearn after in that future.  Rather, it offers us the kind of capitalism I suggested Lord Sugar represented – the kind of capitalism that Anthony Painter so surprisingly showed me is not part of Sugar’s essence.

Nor, indeed, the British tradition of social and economic intercourse.

I said recently that a bit of one-nation discourse wouldn’t come amiss right now.  When I talk about the public’s current needs, this is, I think, what I am essentially referring to.

We want to be treated as human beings, not cattle.  In fact, I imagine I could go further – some of us don’t even want our cattle to be treated as cattle.  Which is why capitalism’s proponents – both inside and outside government – need to brush up their acts.  That they don’t currently seem to want to (or even see the need to) just shows how powerful they believe they have become. 

It may, therefore, become our job to brush it up for them.

Only time, and the hubris of our leaders, will indicate exactly how involved we will have to get.  But what is clear is that we are all beginning to see this as the fight of our lives – the fight for our lives.  A fight for humanity.  A fight in favour of a qualitative approach to life as opposed to an exclusively quantitative and number-crunching limitation of all the glory that it is to be human.

The truth of the matter is that we still believe capitalism is the only way forward. 

Meanwhile, the real issue to hand is that the men and women currently at the top want to make it the kind that destroys all will to live.

No hostages.  No prisoners of war.  Just dead meat for the carrion eaters amongst us.

Nov 082010

and perhaps our own navels as well.

Two pieces recently published in widely differing blogs – here by Paul at Though Cowards Flinch and here by Jonathan Todd at Labour Uncut – make me realise it’s time to understand better how society can be encouraged to fit together, despite the awful circumstances we find ourselves in.  Even though the Coalition is doing its level best to detonate everything that British public discourse has become over the past decade and a half – from the digital and broadly available nature of the BBC to the patient-focussed NHS, from public and private sector partnerships which have put the roofs back on our schools and have tied both halves of society together in a constructive whole to those improved levels of support for both very young children as well as the neediest of our elderly – I think it is clear we still have a moral and economic obligation to see beyond what is happening in the short-term; an obligation to attempt to impose a perspective of optimism – in the words of the second piece by Todd – on the horror of despair, on the horror of the kind of inflammatory language Iain Duncan Smith prefers to use when he demands that the long-term unemployed “play ball” – on the horror of the cuts that Osborne relishes and his Tory MPs cackle wildly in favour of.

Meanwhile, on, amongst other things, the subject of the creativity of business, Todd also concludes most usefully (my bold) that:

[…] we risk the perception that we see fiscal stimuli as the only motor of growth and monetary and exchange rate conditions as irrelevant. In opposition, we can only impact how we are perceived, not policy outcomes. So, as well as raging against iniquity, we should kill this perception now.

The question is, after a decade and a half affecting – and effecting – policy outcomes, are we ready to fully accept that, for the moment, we can only impact how we are perceived?

And not only that.  For I do wonder if we are also ready to understand the implications of such a comprehension.  From the kinds of extra-parliamentary action we are prepared to sanction to the extent we are prepared to go down the populist route of exploiting those very private stories of misery I am sure will shortly begin to emerge …

How we take on board these issues both Paul and Todd raise in their very different posts will determine how successful we are at intervening in the perception a wider – and possibly floating – voting public will gain of us over the next four years or so.

Update to this post: as Paul berates us ever so slightly for moaning about the Coalition in his previous post, this morning he brings us evidence of how this very same government is foolishly hobbling its big society idea from the kick-off.  This is where we are at right now: wanting to move forward and present an optimistic future whilst being forced to examine such a future through the prism of a miserable present.

We are in a quandary of monumentally psychological proportions.

The whole country (those who don’t subscribe to its Osbornification, that is) will shortly require psychiatric help.

Nov 032010

Dan Hodges has a brilliant and prescient piece on the driving forces behind Sarah Palin’s awful populism:

The tea party. Not a party as such, but a movement. A reaction. Forged in response to a seismic defeat.

They look mainly inward. Purists. Believers. Compromise is dangerous. It led to electoral catastrophe. Their politics is confident. Aggressive. Its practitioners alert to betrayal.

They eschew centralisation. They are well organised, yes. But their structures are pluralistic. They believe in grassroots ownership. Distributed leadership.

This creates problems. Indiscipline. Extremists have infiltrated the organisation. Mainstream politicians who do not fully embrace their ideology have been challenged. Members of the same party have, for reasons of personal expediency, turned on their own. The old political hierarchies are unwilling, or unable, to intervene.

They do not have opponents, but enemies, who must be destroyed. Their enemy is not just pursuing a different political agenda. He is laying waste to the country they love. They must rally others to its defence.

They are outsiders. Insurgents. Opposed by the establishment and a hostile media. They must look for innovative ways to disseminate their message.

At times, their methods walk close to the line. Or across it. They are prepared to engage in direct action. They deploy personal abuse. Some have even compared the policies of the present administration with those of Hitler’s Reich.

Above all, they are driven by an iron certainty. The certainty that although they are few, they speak for the many. And that where they lead, the masses will follow.

He then goes on to suggest how the British Labour Party may be tempted to follow a similar dynamic – how Ed Miliband could preside a British Tea Party of a left-wing flavour.  This article is well worth reading, although I do wonder if it wasn’t primarily written to damn and highlight the dangers of a true integration of the grassroots into the pyramidal structures that generally underpin party political organisation.

If, in this article, Dan is defending the old ways of “consultation” (essentially after the event and without any true sense of power) instead of what I might prefer to term “involvement” (essentially before), my praise for the thesis of his piece could become a little less fulsome.

Any regular reader of this blog will know how resistible I find the idea of positioning a grand leader on top of a pile of subservient members in order that at some time in the future we can take lazy potshots at him or her for disillusioning us.

Disillusionment is almost always a consequence of structural inadequacies – the raising of expectations ineffectively, the lack of proper tie-in between volunteers and staff in an organisation and the absence of any reward for work done.  Whether we are talking open source here or straightforward politics, the result is the same.

Where I do agree utterly and unreservedly with the article under discussion is here (the bold is mine):

Populism should not be confused with pragmatism. In the elections that matter, anger at the governing party does not automatically translate into an endorsement of its rivals. When the ballot boxes are opened, there are rarely enough core votes to go around.

Ed Miliband told us that to reconnect with the public, we must learn humility. The tea party does not do humble. Over time, its passion will start to sound shrill in the ears of the electorate. Its confidence perceived as arrogance. That is not a winning formula.

I suspect that in a couple of years time, Sarah Palin and her friends will learn this lesson the hard way. Labour must ensure that we are not forced to learn it too.

In fact, I think I would go further: populism is the very opposite of pragmatism.  Pragmatism aims to square circles on a rolling basis.  Populism goes down the line of least resistance and cares only for its ability to raise the political temperature to the benefit of its proponents.

Populism gets us the Silvio Berlusconis of this world.

People who refuse to change because they know they are right.

Those who use historical figures such as Hitler and Stalin to describe their opponents are either as prescient as Dan, though in an entirely different context (they see what we, in our ignorance, refuse to), or are actors of such bad 21st century faith that they deserve only a measured, firm and adult disrespect from ourselves.

In the case of the Tea Party, I suspect the latter.  Purity of thought and deed – that is to say, an absolutism born of ambition – was never a happy way forward in human relations of any kind.

So it is true.  We could bring down Cameron’s Coalition with a mirror image of the Tea Party.

The question really is, do we feel desperate enough?

In five months’ time, I wouldn’t bet on it not being the case …