Jul 242014

Yesterday, I read this phrase quoted from Tim O’Reilly (the bold is mine):

We couldn’t agree more: “Technology should be about values with people at the centre” @timoreilly #OSCON2014 #OSCON

This afternoon, meanwhile, I read three amazing articles – all of which, in some way, may lead to a final fixing of our broken political process.

The first article is from Wired UK, and describes how the tech industry is leading to increasing inequality.  A lack of morality – manifested by the industry everywhere, as well as large corporations in all sectors since the beginning of capitalism – leads to “ordinary people” being forced out of their suburbs.  The wealth generated by workers, who with their interconnected technologies can set up business anywhere, soon distorts and deforms the social patterns and financial dynamics of every community they set their eyes on:

[...] The tech community has the ear of government, a lot cash and the skills to truly change the lives of people across the world. And while some do, like those building open software, along with proponents of the clean web and those trying to address human rights abuses in device manufacturing, the majority do not. US psychologist Paul Piff calls the growing detachment of the super-rich, simply, the “asshole effect”.

The second article comes from the Guardian back in June (again, worth reading in its entirety), linked to from the Wired UK report above.  And it asserts things like this – things I have failed to hear for a long time but which were music to my ears a naive decade ago:

So how does open source everything have the potential to ‘re-engineer the Earth’? For me, this is the most important question, and Steele’s answer is inspiring. “Open Source Everything overturns top-down ‘because I say so at the point of a gun’ power. Open Source Everything makes truth rather than violence the currency of power. Open Source Everything demands that true cost economics and the indigenous concept of ‘seventh generation thinking’ – how will this affect society 200 years ahead – become central. Most of our problems today can be traced to the ascendance of unilateral militarism, virtual colonialism, and predatory capitalism, all based on force and lies and encroachment on the commons. The national security state works for the City of London and Wall Street – both are about to be toppled by a combination of Eastern alternative banking and alternative international development capabilities, and individuals who recognise that they have the power to pull their money out of the banks and not buy the consumer goods that subsidise corruption and the concentration of wealth. The opportunity to take back the commons for the benefit of humanity as a whole is open – here and now.”

A perfect riposte to Google & Co’s Melian dialogues, I think.

The final article which – at least in my opinion – serves to build on the first two is this one from today, also published in the Guardian.  In it, Cory Doctorow suggests that the very tech which has corrupted further our politics can be turned round and used for and by the people to recover integrity.  As he concludes most powerfully (again, the bold is mine):

This threshold-style action system is at the heart of Kickstarter (pledge whatever you like, but no one has to spend anything unless enough money is raised to see the project to completion) and it’s utterly adaptable to elections.

In democracies all over the world, voting is in decline. A permanent political class has emerged, and what it has to offer benefits a small elite at the public’s wider expense.

We hear a lot from tech circles about “disruption” of complacent, arrogant and entrenched industries. Politics is the foremost example of such an industry and it’s overdue for disruption.

Incidentally, this afternoon a short Slideshare came my way.  I’ll embed it below so you can see that others are having similar thoughts:

And as an adjunct to all the above, back in 2012 I suggested this alternative to our first-past-the-post electoral system, where I said things like this:

This would clearly be a brand new electoral system – a system which depended heavily for its functionality on virtual-community technologies and multifarious software tools.  But it would also be a brand new electoral system entirely fit for a consensual and collaborative – that is to say, a coalition – age.  No longer would politicians have to triangulate their positions.  No longer would the electorate have to compromise when they voted.  In everything we began to do in such a body politic, honesty, sincerity and directness would become the definers of a completely new era in representative democracy.


To my final observation today.  We all know how “Citizen Kane” turned out, of course.  But maybe a “Citizen Kane 2.0″ could be worth pursuing.  Imagine that a campaigning paper of the history of an organisation like the British Guardian, say, decided that – with all its present online and virtual experience and activity – it might be able to do much more than freely comment the world’s events.  Initiate, proactively participate, manage, channel and forge a new politics as per some of the ideas contained in this post today … in particular with respect to what Doctorow proposes.  Now wouldn’t that be a fine and life-changing experience for not only the journalists and readers already involved – but also for the wider population of despairing citizens?

Reshape parliamentary process through the very technology that has so fiercely pwned – in the nakedly Melian terms I mentioned earlier – every step of 21st century governance as we have experienced it to date; reform the process of exchange and blur the lines of hierarchy intelligently between leaders and led, between the thinkers and the thought; and remake, finally, the balance of power amongst those who promise so much and those who are lied to so frequently.

A temptation too far?  Come on, you clever bods of the written word.  Remind yourselves truly: the pen is mightier than the sword.

(But in order to be so, it needs occasionally to be unsheathed …)

Jun 252014

There has been a lot of rubbish written about the subject of British Values recently.  This post of mine will probably serve to make the already high pile even higher.  But hey-ho, here we go.

Although my mother came to Britain as an immigrant, in a sort of way fleeing her experience of Communist oppression in the ex-Yugoslavia (her parents were anti-Communists during World War Two, and so lost a lot by way of opposing Communist privilege in the post-war period of Tito’s regime), I myself was born in Oxford.  About as quintessentially English as anyone could get, in fact.  I’ve always wanted to return there to live – but one of the undeniable British Values of recent times involves finding it prohibitively expensive to get decently-priced accommodation in places where jobs simultaneously exist.

So here I am, making my living via Internet and web tools and environments, in a property no one would care to call their own.

Stoicism, then?  Another British Value?  That’s two already, and I’ve hardly got started.

Actually, the thesis of this post was to be rather different.  For me, born and bred British but having grown up in between quite different cultural vectors (atheist English/Welsh/Yorkshire/British/European versus dyed-in-the-wool anti-Communist Catholic Croatian), it has always seemed that the greatest achievement of our cultural cauldron has – really not surprising, this – mimicked very closely the outlines and structures of our linguistic heritage.  Yes.  We always look to the United States in these matters – and, admittedly, their achievement is considerable: melding (or maybe that’s welding) a multitude of different – still growing, still effervescing – cultures together in a primal soup of patriotic belief in order to create one country out of an astonishing federal association.  But what we’ve achieved in Britain over the years – what lately we’re looking to ditch, too, as we take onboard everything and anything American – is typically contrary to our cousins across the Atlantic, even as in our diffident way we assume we’ve done really nothing at all to differentiate ourselves.

And, actually, maybe we have really done nothing: our secret being this nothing we’ve really not done.  One of my skills, and one way I make my living, is as a language trainer: www.speak-ok.com is where I ply my trade.  Over the years, I have noticed – as many of us who train will concur – that learners of English almost invariably find it difficult to learn because there is a hole at the centre of its grammatical structures.  The beauty of English is that the formation of its tenses is relatively straightforward; that the subjunctive is mostly invisible where not completely unnecessary (and becoming more so); and that you can make yourself easily understood, especially to other foreign speakers of the language, even where you commit mistakes in what we are normally supposed to say.

I would argue, therefore, that – given a chance – English, and the British, are generally forgiving when it comes to meaning.  We’re not pedants; we don’t pursue arguments to the death; we generally look to comprehend what you meant to say rather than, exactly, what you did.

And this huge vacuum at the centre of the language itself finds an analogous vacuum at the centre of what we feel we can agree upon is the essence of British Values.  But in reality, it’s no vacuum at all: in reality, like foreigners attempting – and failing – to find one-to-one grammatical correspondences with their own finely-wrought languages, what’s to blame is our perception of what we believe – perhaps from a US-style perspective we’re absorbing (or that’s absorbing us) – that we should now be encountering in our cultural heritage, even though it has never been there in the first place.

If the greatness of English, as a linguistic construct, is to be found in its forgiving nature as far as comprehending broken forms and attempts at communication, and therefore making them work for the benefit of everyone, then the greatness of British Values is surely located along the same lines: the same lines as one of its key linguistic heritages; the same lines as the people formed by such a set of linguistic patterns and ways of thinking and seeing.

We are what we speak.  And what we speak, for people from other languages, works in the absence of a certain complication they have learnt to need, to value and to use to control their own national characteristics and ways of doing.

So after all of this, what’s my conclusion?  Let’s, once and for all, stop trying to fill the “vacuum” at the centre of British Values.  An absence doesn’t mean a lack.  It can mean a freedom.  It can mean a liberty to do what we choose – when we are taught rightly not to hurt others.  It can mean a space to move as we would wish.  It can mean an efficiency to finish a job without irrelevant and unhelpful fuss.

That, for me, is where British Values are to be found.

In particular, in English’s inclusive ability not only to acquire new vocabulary and ways of communicating from other cultures but also to live alongside other proud and honourable traditions; to collaborate with them; to learn from them; and to synthesise new ideas from them.

English the language, and Values the British, don’t so much simplify stuff; rather, instead, they simply make it easier to get along.  And that, right here, is the real virtue we should perceive.

That, right here, is what we should all be attempting to perpetuate.

British Values: the essence of an existence, well experienced.

Mar 142014

For just over seven years, I wrote this blog quite blindly.  I was reactive, puzzled, thrashing about where many (most) had already thrashed.  I sometimes wondered if it was infirmity which drove me on.  But in just over seven years, I was incapable of ever writing down – in a minute or two – the common denominators that drove me in so many of my posts.

Today, on the occasion of Tony Benn’s sad death, Brian Moylan sent my way this video.  In less than two minutes, it encapsulates everything (I now realise) that made me write for seven quite helter-skelter years.  Watch it – and you’ll see exactly what I mean.


No.  I’m not unmothballing this blog quite yet.  I’m writing over at http://error451.me/blog and blinkingti.me quite happily right now – the former with relative interest from my readers, the latter with very little interest for anyone except me.


But hey-ho, that’s the life on the open seas.

And with that celebration of a life sincerely lived, I burrow my way back into the anonymity from which I have temporarily emerged.

Nov 032013

I’m not absolutely sure if this will be my final blogpost here.  It should be, of course – I promised you as much.

But promises – especially when one finds oneself in a state of unrequited love – are clearly made to be broken.

A retrospective of sorts, then; an overview of what this blog has done for me.  I started it on November 3rd 2006, over at Google’s Blogger servers (was it already Google’s when I started?).  I was a massive fan of Blogger as an easy tool for simple writers.  Looking through those early posts, I clearly took my inspiration from the original meaning of the word: logging the Net.  Short posts, maybe a brief commentary if that, which aimed to create a tapestry of meaning from successive forays onto the web.

At the same time, or maybe a couple of years later, I began to blog in a parallel fashion for a project I believed in incredibly at the time: Labour’s Members Net (more here).  I wrote under the heading of the Cogwriter – a typewriter of engineered ideas, and means of production, I think was where I was kind of coming from.  This blog may still exist for all I know, behind the virtual four walls of the Labour Party’s IT infrastructure.  It looked to encourage partisan participation and community, even as it ultimately failed through its own unavoidable intellectual contradictions.  Meanwhile, via the support (not always appreciated by others or – indeed – myself!) of Dave Semple, who progressed from digging in his heels (as only he knows how) to then publicly spreading his wings as the founding thinker behind the far more public – and ultimately combative – Though Cowards Flinch, I was encouraged myself to spend more time on the open web in the finally firmly accepted understanding that we had to shape the battle in full view of the public we wanted to vote for us.

I assume Dave now sees Labour as a lost cause of some considerable tradition.  Myself, if I am to stop doing what – over the years – I have been doing here, it is primarily because I need a new frame where sitting on the fence isn’t my modus operandi.  And if anyone has impressed on me the importance of taking such a step, it will have been Dave in all his irascibility who has ultimately won the arguments.

The Galludor, too, was a big influence on how my thought developed, both within Members Net and, later, on the open web via his gentle, perceptive and often striking Equals.  A gentleman in everything one might care to be, in fact – including his careful expositions of complex subjects which, nevertheless, never intended to browbeat.

All the time my posts got longer and longer.  I remember Paul Evans once advising me, in the kindliest way possible, that my stuff wasn’t really suited to the web: not to the web of one scroll and TLTR dynamics, anyhow.  I took it as the compliment I’m pretty sure he intended.  In the end, I’ve always been a wannabe Renaissance man of instincts which date from centuries ago, in desperate – and finally unredeemed – pursuit of a Renaissance mind which might have served to provide such redemption.

Never mind.  My memory of what I have written is shockingly poor.  I only remember some posts – and even then, not enough to properly search them.  How I fell in love with the Kindle and the Guardian‘s version for it, only to fall as quickly out of love.  How I loved so very much Amazon’s beautifully constructing corporate machine, only to find myself disgusted with its tax shenanigans to the point where, for a while, I even stopped using it.  How I realised, very early on, that the Big Society was designed for semi-retired white Conservative men, who would deliberately find it in themselves to squeeze out the truly deserving through their state-sanctioned privilege and prejudice.  How my long-held admiration for the Dutch understanding of consensus in politics was brutally destroyed by the experiences we have had with our alleged Coalition government.  How the Blair I had admired during 9/11 – and even the beginnings of Iraq – lost all my sympathy, even all my empathy, for anything and everything he had achieved.  How I cruelly realised, ended up quite unable to deny, that Hunt, Lansley, Gove, May, Osborne and chummy Cameron himself were nothing but a logical extension of the groundwork New Labour had carried out.

A groundwork at the time I had been happy to sign up to and believe in; to promote and divulge; to learn about and study; to spread and evangelise.

I loved America – the USA I mean – just as much.  The two seemed to go hand in hand.  My love of the US, the good vibes which Newsweek and Time and Life from my Yugoslav holidaying brought home to me, were finally my downfall in 2003, as a mixture of mental ill health and unhappy circumstance combined to create a dangerous cocktail only nervous breakdown managed to put on hold.

And that, for me, if we have to look for something this blog has ultimately managed to fix, is the biggest reason why I should now let go.  If anything at all has been mended, if anything has been repaired, if anything was once quite stuck and is now – as a result – finding itself gratefully soaring, then it is my own mental wellbeing which these last seven years and one day of assiduous blogging have returned to the hearth of my soul.

You can indeed write yourself out of illness, and if I did anything properly on these pages over the years, it was to share a definitive progress from terrible sadness to what I have often described as a manifest comprehension of a world with many underbellies, it is true – but also of a world with just as many joys.

If any of what I’ve put down on these pages has ever made you think, ever touched you – ever stopped you even a little in your tracks of daily routine or weekly boredom – as it made you wonder how beautiful it is to wonder, to try and repair a broken set of minds, then I suppose I can be reasonably satisfied.

Perhaps, in the end, it has been a strangely selfish project too.  I’m still too close to it to be able to properly gauge.  But if this is the case, if I have been self-indulgent (Dave S would be the very first to say I have!), then let at least the following be known: by allowing me to respond to the world around me, you’ve allowed me, in a way, to save my life.

My new project, blinkingti.me, is already up and running.  I hope to use it to participate much more actively in the offline world, with a fair smattering of reports – in amongst the inevitable introspection that will continue – on real stuff where truly socialising people find themselves able to socialise each other: in essence, to cry, laugh, love and work to a wider good.

And why not?  We may, after all, be under the brutish boot of the oppressors – but that doesn’t mean we should stop doing what human beings at their very best do their very best: fix their surroundings, whenever they can, for the broadest wellbeing of the grandest majority.

Oct 252013

I suppose, in the end, we have to recognise Blair was right about one thing: we have to win enough votes to win an election before we aim to do anything else.  And in a world such as ours, to draft our appeal in terms of socialism, whilst guaranteeing a certain weight and moral validity, will hardly win any prizes for attracting the sensibilities of those whose votes make the difference between a lying halfway house of a Coalition government (as per the current one) on the one hand, and a proudly declamatory and transparent offering of tone and style (as per a future Labour one, perhaps) on the other.

Maybe we do need to accept that manifestos are vague pitches which most usefully encapsulate broad intentions – intentions which should be judged and perceived from such generous perspectives.  If we look to such a proclamation of promises with the beady eye of “will you, won’t you” conditionality, deception and disillusionment will inevitably be our lot.

We have to be more realistic to our political class.  We have, ourselves, to be far more generous to what they can deliver.

I know saying this will not make me popular.  Even so, I feel it now needs to be said.

We need to give our politicos space to preach a better world – even as we know they will deliver a less good.

Instead, I think it is elsewhere we need to focus our attention – our attention, not our ire.  This wave of history lapping at our feet – in particular with respect to its technological aspect – is driving our society towards a self-taught self-help socialism of determined communities, where both large and small companies and organisations various make their livings off the backs of a renewed focus on such a contextualised individualism (perhaps with every craftsperson’s right and precedent – “Artisans of the world, unite!” – to back up the way they conduct their commercial activities).  In my own case, I find myself teaching people across the globe the ins and outs of my mother tongue.  I feel myself to be, in a way, a victim of the zero-hour generation – and yet, at the same time, I think that I number amongst the very same generation’s most blessed of all.  Whilst I am still healthy, whilst I can still live my life in a reasonably independent way, this life is perfect for me: variety of timetable, customers and content make my work and life balance quite adequate.  And in my case, I have to admit, even as I accept I am suffering the curse of labour instability, that I have never been happier in this life.

I also have to recognise that without the infrastructures of the corporations, mainly American, which I have occasion to lambast most of my days, I would not be able to teach in that global context which makes my working-life so satisfactory.

So it is, then, I would like to suggest the following: if we are to continue, in our very British body politic, to have the kind of rather spurious game that pitching competing political manifestos against each other involves, maybe we should look mainly to the goal of refashioning the aforementioned tone and style through the selfsame hoary old sequence of political “promises”, this time understood by us voters in as kindly a way as we can still manage.

If Ed Miliband could just see his way to seeing our job, as a political party wishing to govern, in the light of an environmental concern (environmental, that is, in the sense of space – not in the sense of ecology), and even to seeing it as a trip, an excursion, a journey rather than a destination in itself, we could maybe, just maybe, aim to develop our electoral process to the point where instead of concentrating on the aforementioned spurious manifestos of what we should and won’t do, we could spend our time using them to honestly develop, promote and sell an appropriate tone and style for the future.

After all, leadership is so often a question of enabling others: not micromanaging their integrities, their actions and their personal contributions out of existence but giving them the freedom to lead themselves.

Precisely for the spurious political reasons and expectations I mention, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is now being expected to provide swathes of detailed solutions to a flurry of truly serious problems afflicting the country.

In reality, the political debate we choose to hold should be quite a different one: Ed Miliband’s Labour Party should be saying that in a self-learning and self-empowering generation of virtual connectednesses – even where this generation has been, and is being, persistently confused by all kinds of commercial and state-sponsored activities (both disgracefully illegitimate as well as clearly rather more sincere) – a new kind of socialism, a socialism which already exemplifies itself although we choose not to name it thus, a socialism which looks to connect evermore intelligent participants, a socialism which curiously – quite individualistically – self-engenders … this socialism I poorly describe must be the self-taught self-help philosophy on which we decide to build a better Britain.

We should not be expecting of Labour the answers to our problems.  We should be expecting of Labour the recognition that we are the answers.

And in and through such a profound recognition, our political parties – all of them – could show us they have the courage to ultimately accept the implications of such a humongous shift in the dynamics of British political process.

Oct 162013

Being creative is important.  A student of mine sent me a link to a 2011 Scientific American commentary the other day, and the blogpost it links to shows us exactly how important creative mindsets really are.  The post in question suggests we can actually improve our cognitive performance: essentially, improve where why we find ourselves on that supposedly genetically-fixed spectrum of traditionally understood intelligence.  The author describes how over a period of three years she was able to raise a child’s IQ score from the early 80s to over 100.  The change was permanent.

You can find the blogpost here.  It’s quite lengthy, but very readable.  I suggest you read it before we continue.

The article is not perfect, of course.  It gives into the plague of list-itis afflicting all online media around the globe at the moment.  We get five ways we need to pursue if we wish to improve our cognitive abilities.  Numbers, of course, are magic on the social web.  Such a web has well-learned the lesson from the real-world publishing of yore: get a number in your title and you’ll multiply your sales a hundredfold.  Or more.

Here’s the list of “primary principles”, anyhow:

These five primary principles are:

  1. Seek Novelty
  2. Challenge Yourself
  3. Think Creatively
  4. Do Things The Hard Way
  5. Network

Each principle is then illustrated constructively with clear examples.  One of these examples really hit home for me: I have noticed how as I depend more and more on sat-navs my sense of direction has gone to pot.  A case of not doing things the hard way – in essence not exercising the mental muscle that is the brain, and as a result losing the edge one used to have.

If a simple gadget like a GPS can do that to us, just imagine what sitting for hours on end in front of a computer and the memory-extension tool that is a decent search engine can do to the mush our brains must surely be turning into.

Yet the arguments given in favour of the final principle – networking – made me think twice about the true nature of social networks and media.  Yes.  Silos do reproduce themselves in the virtual ether too – but that, ie tribalism, is a natural evolutionary tendency of humanity we will always need to consciously learn to fight.  Just because we see it doesn’t mean we must give into the trend.  And probably easier to avert it on the web than in rather more formally-constructed organisational environments offline.

Are posting, tweeting and writing more generally drugs?  They may indeed be: the highs you get from putting virtual pen to paper are undeniable.  But if we care to judge social networking with the degree of objectivity it deserves, perhaps we should not so hastily damn it for taking advantage of an addiction.  In a sense, there exists in the Twitter and Facebook zones which now broadly populate our planet the opportunity to actively practise the five principles outlined in the blogpost I’ve been referring to this morning: to actively aim to improve our supposedly fixed intelligences.

And if there was ever a time we needed evidence and viewpoints such as these, then it’s right here and right now: when retrograde ministers, their media hangers-on and the kind of business-people who give quite the worst impressions of latterday commerce all attempt to rule both the airwaves and the ethers out there with the sort of hierarchical nonsense that once stratified in horrible castes a privileged society of the rankly inefficient.

Aug 182013

Most of my readers probably consider me an excessively rhetorical soul, given to dancing verbally around subjects instead of providing hard evidence.  Today, I’ll provide hard evidence for the following assertion: our democracy has been gamed from within – and needs to be ungamed about as sharpish as we can.

The evidence first.  A couple of years ago I already reported on ministerial bed-hopping:

It was bad enough in New Labour times.  Something I picked up via False Economy in August (background here) made that pretty patent and clear enough for all of us to see.  Amongst the many unhappy truths, conflicted interests and abuses of power in such times, this one is perhaps one of the most vigorously anti-democratic:

“The number of former ministers ‘revolving out’ raised particular concern in Parliament and the press in 2008, when the list for the previous two years revealed that no fewer than 28 former ministers had taken jobs in the private sector. Of these, thirteen were still MPs. Paul Flynn, a member of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), commented that ‘he could not remember ministers hopping into the private sector like this……It is a way of buying access.’ This number of 28 compares with a total of 31 in the list published in March 2011, which covered the previous twelve months. A smooth transition to the private sector could now be said to be the normal expectation for a government minister.”

Now – it would appear, however – that as in everything in this world, Cameron & Co are looking to outdo even more of the less salubrious “achievements” of our previous governors.  As the Telegraph reports today:

The bosses of some of the biggest companies in Britain, including BP, Shell and Jaguar Land Rover, are to be given hotlines to ministers to boost the economy.

To be honest, here I’d be inclined to want to argue the toss – and make one very small but important amendment to that sentence:

The bosses of some of the biggest companies in Britain, including BP, Shell and Jaguar Land Rover, are to be given hotlines to ministers to boost their economy.

Yesterday, meanwhile, the Guardian provided us with some important data in relation to who is really represented at party political conferences:

Lobbyists and executives from companies and charities make up a third of the people at the Conservative autumn conference, it has emerged.

The Tory party’s commercial brochure shows just 38% of delegates at the party’s annual meeting are members, while 36% are from companies, charities and other “exhibitors”. Around 20% of attendees were from the media.

If you asked me to compare that figure of 36 percent with how general elections are won and lost, how decisions are taken after election day and who, essentially, our representative democracies truly represent these days, I’d find it difficult to take issue with that figure.  If anything, I’d be inclined to argue it underestimates the influence of moneyed constructors of public opinion and discourse.

Clearly, then, our democracy has been gamed from within.  Political parties which can no longer depend on individual members to sustain their narratives resort to big donors whose interests lie quite elsewhere.  The big push that a general election campaign used to presuppose – where once interpreted as a massively positive referendum on past actions as well as on the potential integrity of future promises – has been positioned as a perfect objective for the Dark Arts of political marketing and spin to focus their actions and massage our opinions.

And so most of us understand a democracy gamed just as clearly needs ungaming.  Which brings me to this fascinating suggestion by Tim, worth reading in full for its measured portrayal of a beautiful alternative to the mess we currently find ourselves in – democracy without general elections:

In short, general elections seem like a good idea and we’re used to choosing governments that way, but they allow a lot of room for undemocratic manipulation.

But surely, to have democracy you need general elections?

He goes on to explain how a rolling process of weekly elections – not without its possible downsides but nevertheless worth considering in the light of its democracy-infusing and grassroots-empowering advantages – might help wrest power from the centralisers and return it to the people without requiring any profound reorganisation of Parliament itself:

[...] Its main features are:

  • No general elections.
  • Instead, elect five MPs per fortnight. With 650 MPs, this takes five years to get through them all. So each MP is elected for a five-year term, and you vote every five years, when it’s your constituency’s turn to vote.
  • On arrival in parliament, each MP casts their vote for who should be Prime Minister, using a numbered preference system. That vote remains in force throughout that MP’s time in parliament or until they decide to change it (maybe subject to limits about how frequently or under what circumstances this can happen).
  • The Prime Minister remains Prime Minister for as long as the recorded votes of current MPs indicate that they are still acceptable to the majority. (That is: if the recorded votes were cast in an AV-style ballot, the Prime Minister would still win.)
  • To avoid a situation where a Prime Minister goes in and out of office every fortnight as new MPs replace old ones, there’s either a threshold number of votes above 50% that someone has to pass in order to gain office, or they have to be the winner for a specified length of time.

The biggest upsides I can see are twofold: firstly, since it would appear the traditional party political structure is now about as corrupted by Big Money as could possibly be the case (remember that 36 percent of lobbyist representation mentioned in the Guardian article), taking away the right of parties to structure their political persuasion and marketing around big events held every five years would, in fact, take it away from the lobbyists too.  Secondly, no party, however well-funded, could possibly run weekly elections without the true enthusiasm and collaboration of grassroots volunteers everywhere.  Suggestions made to democratise internal democracy in relation to policy generation and planning in particular would rapidly gain traction as a result.

And not just for Labour.

This idea deserves further and wider consideration than simply by my humble blogsite.  If you do stumble across this post, please consider retweeting on Twitter, liking on Facebook or linking to and writing about its thesis.

I do think we need it more than many professionals in the field are prepared to acknowledge for the moment.  But as simple voters who know what it’s like to be on the crappy end of a process, it may be up to us to make them understand their tardiness – before we all lose faith entirely in the glories of what we once called a liberal democracy.


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 182013

I must admit I hadn’t been to a Labour Party event for quite a while.  The local parliamentary candidate selection process did bring me temporarily back into the fold, and I had this to say about it most recently.  However, a certain Richard Beacham and helpers various appear to be creating an amazing buzz around what I had long felt to be a CLP hitting way below its potential.

So it was I went to what I believe is the first Labour Live event in Chester.  And in five short tweets from last night, here you can see my reaction to the whole affair:

At the Chester Labour Live event. Brilliant first act. Young singer-songwriter from New Brighton. Class young woman. Great songs and voice.

A folk version of Dancing Queen? With audience participation too? Now that is One Nation Labour! :-) Great stuff.

Stuck In The Middle With You plus iPad and stomping local brothers. Now if all GCs were like this …

You Can Call Me Al … or is that Arnie? Can politics really be this much fun?

Not so much Twist And Shout as twist and get them out. You could seriously win elections with such engagement.

And as I added, once back home:

@CllrSDixon ‘Twas an excellent show, wasn’t it? Never been to a GC like that in my life. ;-) @cwaclabour @cllrben

What a contrast to traditional Party occasions.  Yes, of course it involves allowing oneself to give oneself up to one’s emotions for a time, but the music was good, the conversation enthusing and I simply had a jolly good time.  No, I’m not the selfless kind who loves pushing leaflets through letterboxes; I much prefer to push words into the ether.  But I can feel much more positive about the Party more widely by getting out from behind my weapon of choice for the kind of show that Chester Labour put on last night.

There is a lesson in all of this: there is a moment in politics when desperate measures may be called for.  And those desperate measures may mean appealing occasionally to our less rational and thinking sides.  Democratic socialism of the kind I experienced last night – a local community opening its doors to culture and art in the good long-term cause of winning back government from one of the most incompetent administrations in recent times – is the sort of process and ideology we need to promote and develop.

Political parties as enablers rather than leaders; political parties which know how to bring different strands of protest together; political parties which know how to embed themselves in communities in a symbiotic and not parasitical way.

Whilst Pope Francis condemns the cult of money, MPs decide Google & Co do evil after all, modern life – and in particular politics – ignores the essence of ordinary people’s home and work experiences, and even I remember arguing that privatising intimacy was the ultimate privatisation of all, we see that overlording all of the above is an almost certainly deliberate process whereby serious centres of latterday power look to make of us all much more selfish beings.  And yet countering all the previous, surely more and more community acts of creative solidarity such as Chester’s Labour Live event last night can serve to re-establish a natural equilibrium in the way we see those around us.

Where powerful transnational processes have taught us to think only about maximising our individual and familial outcomes, the kind of political party which Labour may be transmuting into can surely, just as deliberately, re-educate us into looking to maximise societal outcomes too.

If Labour can truly learn to give to its potential voters as much as it needs to ask of them – and in that sequence and order in the grander hierarchy of relationships – then perhaps all is not lost to the selfishness that modern capitalism has ingrained in us.

So this afternoon, this is why you read Partisan Mil arguing that a future of human relationships still exists; is still salvageable; is still within our reach.

Don’t believe the Tories; don’t believe their corporate sponsors; don’t believe that money must rule our every transaction.

Live encounters; real events; natural extensions of hopes, fears, ambitions and futures.  All of this and more can be found in a Labour Live performance.

And hopefully, pretty soon, in a Labour Live political party …

May 012013

This morning, I was talking about the current situation in Spain with some of my students of Spanish.  We were discussing what I had been tweeting on Twitter the night before with a dear follower from Spain, Monica Lalanda.  Monica was feeling sad about her country, arguing that it felt as if it were a country of losers.  I suggested that history had shown the Spanish (all its nationalities) were much more a country of survivors than losers.

As I related the exchange to my students this morning, I realised exactly how much emotion I have invested in Spain.  For a touch-and-go moment, I had to fight back the tears.

I also told my students my experience as a language-training provider for the car components industry in Spain.  This was when I discovered how clever, creative and competent the Spanish at their best really are.  They characterise themselves often as brilliant improvisers and whilst to a certain degree this is true, they are also undeniably brilliant implementers.  You can’t be otherwise in such a competitive and continuously improving sector.

And then one of my students described an experience she’d had as a project manager, working simultaneously with both Swiss and Spanish workforces.  Here, she compared the straightforward Swiss to the brilliantly enthusiastic and colourful Spanish: the documentation produced by each group of workers reflected these differing national characteristics.  She also described how the Spanish wouldn’t stop nattering whilst they worked.  It was clear that the Spanish weren’t only good at continuous improvement, they were also sharp and ingenious at what we could term continuous communication.

Which is when I realised this is indeed what distinguishes the Spanish from other workforces I’ve come up against.  For example, the English will shut down as the 5 o’clock deadline approaches; maintaining a relationship with one’s fellow men and women becomes far less important than finishing the job on time.  Yet communication is the glue of everything business, politics and society does well.  No wonder the Spanish have achieved so many great things in their history: they understand, they fully comprehend, the significance of “wasting” time on relating to each other.

At least in the sector under discussion, and I’m sure in many other areas of endeavour, they won’t sacrifice their right and obligation to speak amongst themselves, simply in order that they might get home on time.

The Spanish are survivors – not losers at all – precisely because they reserve the right to question each other; even at work.  Even amongst hierarchy, they maintain their creative habits of grumbling: this “rechistar” they convincingly sustain which often leads to pragmatic solution.  And competent hierarchy knows all too well they will inevitably be like this – and so competent hierarchy, at least that competent hierarchy you find in certain big businesses, knows you have to take them along with you.

You can’t pull the wool over Spanish eyes, that’s for sure.  You have to convince them up as close as it gets: you have to convince them face-to-face.

So we come finally to the point of this post.  Here we have a New York Times article from last year as one piece of evidence:

[...] We typically feel that we understand how complex systems work even when our true understanding is superficial. And it is not until we are asked to explain how such a system works — whether it’s what’s involved in a trade deal with China or how a toilet flushes — that we realize how little we actually know.

The interesting bit comes, however, when detailed explanations are finally made:

[...] The real surprise is what happens after these same individuals are asked to explain how these policy ideas work: they become more moderate in their political views — either in support of such policies or against them. In fact, not only do their attitudes change, but so does their behavior. In one of our experiments, for example, after attempting to explain how various policy ideas would actually work, people became less likely to donate to organizations that supported the positions they had initially favored.

With the Spanish experience in mind – that is to say, with their ability to continuously communicate and thus moderate their actions (the only explanation I can encounter as they proceed to put up with soaring unemployment rates of 27 percent) – I am minded to remember my own experience whilst I was a co-opted parish councillor in the place in which I still find myself living.  I had by then set up what I intended to be a local blogsite which would combine photos of the area with pithy comment.  But, in the event, I found it extraordinarily difficult to say any productive or useful word about my experiences.  Simply knowing the potential audience was people I lived cheek-and-jowl next to terrified me into a counter-productive silence.

Or perhaps the silence was not as counter-productive as I thought.  It seems to me, in the light of the findings recounted in the New York Times, that what I was experiencing was actually a virtual equivalent of that highly constructive and continuous communication of the Spanish: I was being forced to explain myself to people I knew I’d bump into – and thus was having to question far more fiercely my own neat and perfectly-formed prejudices.

In truth, it seems to me that if we are to survive the next decade or so with any degree of kindness, humility or accuracy – if England, the UK and a wider Western democracy is to perpetuate its better aspects in any convincing way – we will need to recover a face-to-face society which broadcast politics, social media, online communication and other latterday technologies have almost battered into non-existence.

It might yet be possible too.  This statistic could be telling:

The poll also asked respondents: “Thinking about any local newspapers published in your home town or county, do you think they are on balance a positive or a negative force in your local community?” The majority,  53.3 per cent, said they were positive, 8.3 per cent said they were negative and 32.7 per cent said they were neutral.

I don’t have the data to hand, of course, but I would be happy to assume that local radio, TV and newspapers are generally less aggressively overbearing in their behaviours than the more cocooned and distant national media.  More middle-of-the-road, less extreme in their posturing.  Inevitably so, when your neighbours get to know who you are and where you live.

Hardly counter-intuitive, anyhow.

It may of course be that the distancing effect of social media and networks is something we in Anglo-Saxon countries are actively pursuing.  Who’s to say, after all, that we would like to continuously communicate like the Spanish seem to want to?  But I bet my very last peseta that if you ever properly got the opportunity to find out what it was like, then to live and work in an environment of friendly and intelligent “relationship professionals” would be far more finally fun and productive than in a landscape of pesky “time-keeping trolls”.

As well as leading to a far less destructively cruel, inefficient and partisan politics.

Apr 302013

I’ve been tweeting with Bryn this morning.  He’s always thoughtful; always thought-provoking.  One particular exchange went as follows.  First, my idle train of thought:

In a century where so many people are so highly educated, surely we don’t need leaders – we need enablers. *That’s* what’s going wrong.

Now his response:

@eiohel I agree in principle, but then I see a UKIP poster, or a Daily Mail headline. Education isn’t the key, Community might be…

Only to further underline that:

@eiohel Need to work it out – Open communities can have oppressive, intolerant consensus. Closed societies allow corruption, crime + elitism

All of which leads me to wonder how in a modern 21st century society we have arrived at such a situation as today’s.  It seems to me that when the Nigel Farages of this world look to lead a nation out of its misery, and even more importantly when some of us believe in such a strategy, we’re misconstruing the problem to hand.  I think, in fact, I was right when I suggested, in an educated world, we need those enablers – those facilitators – I was talking about much more than we need proto-Blairs.

But, as Bryn then went on to indicate, more thought is needed to properly understand exactly what we mean when we use the term “enablers”.

I’m going to sound a little like a Daily Mail columnist now, but I do wonder if what we’re missing is the rule of law: more specifically, a respect and cognisance of its permanent implications.  Governments over the past thirty or forty years have got very used to the idea of using legislation to change nations, people, behaviours and other landscapes.  And in many cases, we could argue these were noble instincts.  But the downside for a country which has no written constitution as such is that we, the ordinary folk who just live our lives, must find it difficult to properly understand what England – or a wider UK – really stands for.

Yes.  If we had a written constitution, it might one day be the case that we would reach a state of legislative pain and conflict which the US people – always referring to this or that blessed amendment’s interpretation – currently suffer from.  That the world’s biggest democracy has an oracle of mysterious import at its very centre should be a warning to all those who believe in a neat and tidy secularism.  But we, here in Britain, have I am afraid swung to the opposite end of the pendulum.  In the absence of a proper, sensible, recognisable and easily shareable environment, our politics and democracy have become a patchwork of unconnected actions.  No wonder, in such a circumstance, that it has become so easy for the monetising corporations to fill the vacuum.  Here in the UK, and more specifically the England I live in, we really have no idea what being English is supposed to mean.

And I don’t mean this in the traditional circumscription of immigration, foreign workforces, globalising influences and outsourcing.  No.  Here I’m talking much more about how the rule of law – that unwritten constitution which is all that we have – has no clear basis, foundation or structure which appears to be at all inviolable.  It’s almost as if we were bringing up a family where the children decided when and what they had to do at every juncture in the lives of the individuals involved.

There you are, you see.  The Daily Mail in me coming out again!

Yet where the Mail would never care to return to the concept of enabling, right now that is where I go back to: as I said before, it is enablers we need far more than leadership at the moment.  But not just people who enable us; also, environments.

We need a rule of law with inviolable tenets we can always – unremittingly – rely on.

We need to feel that whatever any government decides it has a mandate to change, certain things it will never touch; certain aspects of our democratic landscape will continue as priceless touchstones of our lives.

That in a prime-ministerial parliamentary democracy it should be the case that we have felt over the past forty years the desperate and continuing need to be led by presidential figures, and that in some way or another all these leaders have failed, simply indicates to me that what we are missing from the mix is not better leadership but – rather – better and more defining frameworks.

All of us need some kind of certainty in our lives.

So let the defining certainties of future Western democracies (and in particular the ones which directly concern us) not be the transitory leaders who bully our emotions into sly submission but – instead – those aforementioned and sensitively constructed touchstones of understanding I ask for: touchstones which would allow every government, whatever its political colour, to build on common foundations that (ultimately) would allow us all to grow in permanence.

Essentially, as the peoples we want to be.

Apr 232013

Chris Dillow describes himself as “An extremist, not a fanatic”.  In the definition of “radicalisation” given by Wikipedia, and by extension others out there too, I’m not sure this fine distinction between two highly relevant concepts is properly allowed for:

Radicalization (or radicalisation) is a process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that (1) reject or undermine the status quo[1] or (2) reject and/or undermine contemporary ideas and expressions of freedom of choice. For example, radicalism can originate from a broad social consensus against progressive changes in society. Radicalization can be both violent and nonviolent, although most academic literature focuses on radicalization into violent extremism (RVE).[2] There are multiple pathways that constitute the process of radicalization, which can be independent but are usually mutually reinforcing.[3][4]

To be radical is often seen as a positive thing in modern politics.  Perhaps we are still in the thrall of the times of Reaganomics and Thatcherism where language was inverted in order to evidence that what was plainly regressive and hyper-conservative could actually be interpreted as truly progressive.

That radicalisation can have its violent side is, of course, without a doubt a truth of heavy sadness.  The Guardian reports in exactly these terms in relation to the recent bombings at the Boston marathon, although I found the instinct to use Amazon wish lists in defining the nature of individual beliefs problematic in many senses to say the least.  But, as always, radicalisation is a question of point of view too.  If you don’t believe me, let’s take a look at these lines:

The Russians are bent on world dominance, and they are rapidly acquiring the means to become the most powerful imperial nation the world has seen. The men in the Soviet Politburo do not have to worry about the ebb and flow of public opinion. They put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns.[61]

Spoken by Margaret Thatcher in 1976, a woman who a few years before had put tiny financial savings before free milk for seven- to eleven-year-olds, I would suggest that these words clearly showed the characteristic vocabulary and tone of a radicalisation as equally bent on its own very particular agenda and as equally inflexible as any other.

That we tended to agree with the fanaticism of Margaret Thatcher as expressed thus, in the face of a horrible regime, doesn’t make any less radicalising her statements or positions.  On a spectrum, then, of political extremists and fanatics, at least in relation to the Soviet Union, I think Margaret Thatcher fairly figures up there with any other.

Now all I am trying to say with this is that the broader event of radicalisation in an individual – both violent and non-violent - can happen as a result of severe monolithic-like behaviours outside the person.  If society’s discourse is not mainly couched in collaborative terms, people little by little feel left out.  Latterday Western civilisation doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge this either: instead, it looks to increase its ability to keep the lid on things by spying on, investigating and condemning a priori and essentially criminalising as many people as it potentially can, in order that it might keep each of us on our terrified and complicit toes.

And yet imaginative thought, the kind of creative acts that bring about substantive and important change in the way we learn how to do things, is a radical act if there ever was one.  If we refuse to distinguish between what we might call radicals in opposition to the status quo from radicals who think freely about the status quo, we will lose exactly that element of being a human which distinguishes us from what it is to be an animal.

In a sense, putting all the above in the box of “radicalisation” and then creating a sequence of vigorous and unappealing laws which allow leaders to impose their will without honest or useful question – precisely in the name of protecting that now unradical, possibly even unfree, status quo - is to lose so much of what it is to be a thinking person, out of the simple fear that people will care to answer back.

Not only answer back either – also, answer back more accurately.

There must, surely, be a way for modern politics and business to finally accept that the educated populaces which now people the planet are radicalising themselves precisely because they are being given no opportunity to do meaningful stuff at their levels of competence.  This isn’t my hoary old proclamation that hierarchy is dead: this is, rather, an appeal to sense and sensibility.  Kings and queens and prime ministers and presidents existed in times of relative illiteracy.  This is manifestly no longer the case.  We need, therefore, a different way of keeping the lid on things.  And that way can only be this: by preventing the pressure building up in the first place.  Don’t simply aim to terrify or diffuse: instead, make those people you’re terrifying or distracting a true and continuing part of the solution.

Forget your hierarchies of kings and queens.  Accept that illiteracy is a thing of the past.  Understand the difference between being radical and being free radical.  And come to the realisation, where not the radicalisation, that people are a finite and perishable resource you ignore at all our perils.

Apr 212013

This story was brought to my attention by Paul Bernal on Twitter this morning.  It involves what he described as a Labour-funded think tank, IPPR, coming up with the brilliant (#irony) idea to turn unemployment benefit into a loan which would be repayable on returning to work.  You can find the story on the Observer at the moment here.

IPPR, meanwhile, is fairly transparent as think tanks go.  As per the Who Funds You? website, it gets an “A” rating – and on its own website lists current funders thus.  Quite a mixed bag, in fact: from charities and David Miliband himself to the European Commission, Serco (#hmm), Aviva, the consumer magazine Which?, a brace of Joseph Rowntree organisations and the City of London Corporation.  Hardly straightforwardly Labour-funded, then.

The news did, however, cause me to tweet in the following way:

Taxpayer bailouts; student loans; now the poor in their grasp. The real something-for-nothing scroungers are the bloody banks themselves!

And it’s true.  It seems to me that in a crisis entirely due to mismanagement in and around the financial sector – both technical and technocratic it has to be said – those who continue to pay the price for such disintegration are those hardest hit by its consequences.  So it is we reward instead of punish the banking corporations for having got it so wrong.  As money gets tighter for the poor, opportunities for the banks to make easy cash off our backs are expanded not only by the Wonga-style market forces of the desultory high street but also by the bright and bushy-tailed think-tank boffins themselves.  I can’t think of another sector in the world – or, indeed, in history – where failure was such a profitable act.

Nor, in fact, where it continues to get even more profitable.

But, on the train yesterday on the way to a Manchester policy forum, I stumbled across a solution to all our ills.  At the moment, corporations are legal figures with many of the rights and obligations of ordinary people.  This is well known and well documented and I shan’t repeat myself here.  However, what I would like to suggest is that a serious imbalance does exist as far as depriving the liberty of such corporations to act when under investigation – or, indeed, after being found guilty of certain acts.

Ordinary people, for example, quite often when arrested find themselves summarily deprived of their liberty – and no one questions the process.  Apart from the odd legal phonecall or interview or occasional family visit, their radius of action and ability to influence the result is radically reduced.  This allows for the police to carry out necessary investigations, untrammelled by the interference of too many interested – and perhaps self-promoting – parties.

This does not happen in the case of corporate entities: mostly, in cases of even quite severe misdemeanour (witness recent high-profile banking scandals around the long-term money-laundering of drug revenues by banks you’d hardly expect to exhibit such behaviours), we generally find such corporate figures – flesh-and-blood people in everything but flesh-and-blood – do not get arrested; do not need to request bail; and never get imprisoned.  Their liberty is never deprived; they continue to operate in the meantime; they proceed to make their money as before.

Sadly, of course, we often discover after the event that the potential for being fined for some act or another will have been factored into an annual budget before the crimes in question were committed.  A fine, even a large fine, even just the threat of a fine, becomes simply one more operating cost to be contemplated as the logistics of the year are calculated.

And although, on occasions, executives do find themselves accused of specific acts, the processes are so drawn out as to make any sensible adjustment to the direction of our socioeconomic fabrics impossible to engineer.  They frequently manage to stay at the top of their hierarchical games, despite the complaints of shareholders; despite the unhappiness of a wider consuming public; and despite the reputational damage this leads to.  With their battalions of legal support, these alpha men and women feel secure in their protective silos and bunkers of belief.  No wonder they behave as imperiously as they do.

In such cases, not only are the operations of the companies in question left untouched, the ability of their apparently criminal leaders to continue leading remains intact.

My suggestion, then, which came to me as I journeyed – quite appropriately – to the TUC’s founding place, is to engineer two new figures in company law:

  1. the figure of arrest without bail
  2. the figure of imprisonment

How would these work?  Well, in the case of the former, arrest without bail would mean the corporation would have to shut down all its operations immediately.  Just as a person who finds themselves under the same deprivation of liberty, whilst investigations into probable misconduct take place, so we should be able to do the same to a company.  And the mere threat of being able to do this would surely lead to a radical change in how fines and punishments for corporate maleficence were treated and assessed in the future by those who currently quite happily contemplate them.

In the case of the latter figure, the figure of imprisonment, we could suggest that a company might totally cease operations in a similar way once sentence had been passed a posteriori.  Under such circumstances, and for a certain period of time only, the company in question could not continue to occupy the marketplace, in much the same way as a person in prison must effectively cut off all connections to the outside world.

The result would be two powerful instruments to make the corporate figure far more like the human equivalent which – in so many cases – it loves to emulate.

Applied in particular to the banking corporations, it would send a hugely important message around the significance of competence, honesty and openness for our shared societies.

As well as, surely, end the terrible cycle of reward for utter failure – a cycle which appears to be the current tonic and reality of latterday capitalism.

Apr 202013

I was in Manchester this morning, attending an NHS Policy Forum with Andy Burnham.  He gave us a fascinating lesson in political matchmaking, which clearly serves to cement his position as a tactician of considerable importance in Labour’s chances at the 2015 general election.  My objective in this post is to explain why I believe this to be the case.

Most of what he said today, and it took nigh on fifty minutes to do so, can be found here at the moment over at the Labour Party website, in a speech he gave previously to the King’s Fund in January of this year.  I suggest you read this before we continue.

Essentially, he proposes pulling together physical, mental and social care into one £120 billion integrated and unified budget.  He referred early on to the World Health Organisation definition of health, and it bears quoting again:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

The correct bibliographic citation for the definition is:

Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.

The Definition has not been amended since 1948.

In order to make this “whole person” approach work in a free-at-point-of-use dynamic, he suggests bringing together not only what we might term as the “medical” professionals and services in the three areas mentioned but also other areas of specialist support such as housing, early years’ delivery and infrastructures etc, under the umbrella of single point-of-contact access.  And in a sense, this does makes sense: anyone who’s had to live in mould-ridden poor quality housing for example, whether social or private, will have experienced having their confidence undermined; their health attacked; and their sense of autonomy diminished – all of which lead to physical, mental and broader social care challenges likely to generate costs and fracture in these latter areas.

What better way, then, to deal with an ageing population and its very special social care needs (Alzheimer’s, physical infirmity, reduced mobility, mental unhappiness and so forth) than to take the bull by the horns, make a virtue of a necessity and suggest we extend, not reduce, the reach of the National Health Service?  In essence, re-engineer its original values for a 21st century of quite different circumstances, where a care crisis of unhappy proportions is advancing on us all.

Now there was little detail, it must be said, in the proposals themselves: but that wasn’t the purpose of the process in question at this stage.  As he clearly flagged up, he was looking to provide a framework and see how Party input could then flesh out such details.  One thing he did suggest was a, say, ten percent levy (I’m sure this was a bit back-of-the-envelope, but no less interesting for that) on people’s estates to pay for that free-at-point-of-use social care late in life – and it’s not as if this isn’t already happening via the private sector, as our grandparents struggle to fund rising healthcare, accommodation and general living costs, especially as pensions and savings are hit from all sorts of economic broadsides.

In a round-table discussion, held afterwards in groups across this extremely well-attended policy forum, someone suggested Burnham was doing little more than give priority to a highly fragmented social care provision as it currently stands: given that it’s the responsibility of councils, this view of Burnham’s real drivers would argue he had identified a highly powerful constituency – the greying group of citizens we are all becoming – and was looking to prioritise the needs of such a constituency for general electoral reasons.  If this were true, of course, we’d have a politician of Mandelson-like proportions: the Machiavellian nature of this approach could hardly contrast more fiercely with the straightforward and straight-talking image Burnham has I think quite rightly acquired.

And I don’t think Burnham is only playing politics here.  Of course, he’s looking for big and bold policy to lever Labour’s return to power – and who wouldn’t?  Especially with the complex brief – at the centre of the Labour Party’s very soul, as I think he alluded to – which he is having to sustain and drive forward in a political environment clearly infused by a savage, cunning and long-planned privatisation already well in hand.

I think he truly believes in a more humanistic medicine – a more holistic national support system for all our needs, in fact.  And I think the ambition is well worth pursuing too.  I do have some initial reservations, of course:

  • a single-point-of-contact for all our “whole person” services would require the sharing of vast amounts of parallel data with the implications this might have for our data security and privacy
  • such a system of access would require a whole new level of professionals upskilled in coordinating vastly different specialisations – and in truth, throwing even more managerialism and support services at the NHS would hardly be the first thing to make you popular in the eyes of the public
  • for patients, service-users, children, parents, tenants and “customers” various to perceive the services thus delivered in a seamless way would require those delivering the services behind the scenes to acquire similar cultures – not an easy thing in times of crisis or massive change as anyone who has been through, for example, a corporate merger will bear witness to
  • homing in – as I think was also suggested – on the home as the unit of primary focus, instead of on the hospital as the significant and principle local infrastructure, could lead to the withdrawal of such community-based delivery some way down the line, where any change of political colours in local or national government took place, or when any rising political star needed to make a name for themselves: in much the same way as it’s easier to remove a bus service than it is to remove a tram, so a hospital would almost certainly remain where a fleet-of-foot “whole person” approach could simply end up dismantled by the next cohort of bushy-tailed Tories
  • finally, the NHS is hardly known for democratic accountability: putting the “whole person” budget into one massive pot would, therefore, require very careful analysis – a priori, surely – of how to ensure useful democratic oversight in a meaningful way without incurring, once again, those top-down New Labour managerialist tendencies of overarching targets and tick-box exercises at the expense of the more humane approach I think Burnham wishes to pursue

There is, in fact, a sense that the cradle-to-grave aspect of the proposal could simply reignite fears about Blair’s nanny state: inspecting the health of your children from the day they are born; inspecting the food you give your children; inspecting the schools that deliver the education judged appropriate; inspecting the degree to which you as an adult follow the rules of good personal healthcare; inspecting the degree to which you are properly housed; inspecting the moment at which you are considered worthy of preventative medicalisation; inspecting and acquiring the resource to give everyone the right to social care.

But what are the alternatives to such a proposal?  Burnham, after all, proposes nothing less than the socialisation of health: the opportunity not to be fearful of old age but to live it for as long as possible with points of familial reference in one’s own home and surroundings.  The opportunity, if you like, to die in one’s home wherever humanly possible – without being abandoned to the vagaries of lonely decay.

For it is surely clear that social care, right now, in its fragmented state, is too much a case of “malnourished users” and “minimum-waged workforces”.  And this will be the future of the NHS too, if we don’t do something now to correct the errors of the ways of too many governments past.

And if we choose not to run with this socialisation of health I perceive in Burnham’s proposals?  Then we will run the risk of the reverse happening anyway: via the corporate forces that wish to medicalise us everywhere: in everything we do, in the costly services they sell us, in the residential homes they build empires on the backs of, in the outsourcing agreements they wrench from their commissioning groups, in the tendency modern medical mindsets and infrastructures have when they make so grand and big and imposingly different the first, second, third, fourth and last ages of all our lives.

If for no other reasons than these, then, Burnham’s “whole person” approach – even with the caveats I mention above – does sincerely deserve both our attention and our time.  To make the support of our wider humanity the flagship of Labour thought over the cruel and deliberate monetisation of suffering – its turning of human beings into little more than units of profit-generating resource – is surely both a vote-winner as well as a re-establishment of key beliefs too many of us have carelessly unattended to in sad recent times.

One final thought.  Whatever you do, however you structure it, let this be the clearest clarion call Labour makes: free-at-point-of-access support for every key definer of equal opportunity in our often kindly, occasionally cruel and generally variegated lives.

We cannot completely eliminate risk from our lives – but we should do everything we can to eliminate fear.

And so that is where we’re at: a 21st century reworking of socialism itself – driven by a strikingly self-effacing top-flight politician such as Andy Burnham – which just might end up dropping into the lap of a furiously modernising Labour Party.

A Labour Party – barely five years since it showed signs of an awful creeping political amnesia – just looking for a way to prove itself healthy and fighting fit all over again.

And able to do so with a long-term strategy which just might do the same for the rest of us too.

Apr 162013

And so it’s quite right that they should be forcing us, obliging us, compelling us to show respect tomorrow.  That was how leadership worked in the 1980s.  By force, obligation and compulsion.

In death, in fact, as in life – that is how it must always be.

Fitting indeed.  Fitting and correct.


And so this is how we are today.  Still living in the shadows of such leadership.  Still living in the shadows of governors who – even now – refuse to gain our respect; who manage, instead, to possess it by virtue of their positions.


But on Thursday, after all that, we will be firmly back in the 21st century – a century where leadership must return to being inspirational, never impositional.

Thus it is that they say property is theft.

And in this case, when the right to govern becomes the property of any woman or man, a theft of a kind is clearly consummated: that theft which involves removing our freedoms – in the name, allegedly, of giving us them back.

Not as we should wish or freely choose to have them but, instead, as they do believe is best.

Take heed, leaders from another age: respect in the 21st century is earned, no longer owned by anyone.



Update to this post, on 17th April 2013: Shuggy posted a carefully considered piece last night.  Worth a read, as is always the case over at his always thoughtful blog.

Apr 112013

This came my way via Jeff today.  At the bottom of this post on how we might renew our socioeconomic landscape with businesses which use profit for social objectives, we get this video on the Grameen Danone project.


A little more background from Wikipedia before we continue:

Grameen Danone Foods, popularly known as “Grameen Danone” is a social business enterprise which, launched in 2006, has been designed to provide children with many of the key nutrients that are typically missing from their diet in rural Bangladesh. It is run on ‘No loss, No dividend’ basis. Initially, Grameen Danone agreed to create a small dividend of 1%/year to shareholders, however, in December 2009, the board of Grameen Danone agreed to waive any monetary return.[1]

The objective as follows:

Grameen Danone Foods aims to reduce poverty by creating business and employment opportunities for local people since raw materials including milk needed for production, will be sourced locally. The companies that make up Grameen Danone Foods Ltd. have agreed not to take out any of the profits out of the company. Instead they will invest these for creation of new opportunities for the welfare and development of people. Hence it is called ‘social business enterprise’.[10]

Here we see, then, an attempt to use the mechanism of profit-generating business not to concentrate further wealth in the pockets of investors but, rather, to focus on an external goal where money is made to work for a wider community.  In the broadest sense of the concept, maybe investors can become angels whose job and prime responsibility is to maximise outputs for as many disadvantaged people as possible in the shortest possible time.

That’s the theory, of course.  Many of you will still feel it’s tinkering with a socioeconomic environment way past its sell-by date.  And you may very well be right.

But we have to start somewhere, surely: somewhere which allows us in bite-sized and parallel ways to change apparently monolithic structures, without destroying everything there is or ever has been first.

The challenge clearly is to manage change better than anyone else has cared to in history.  Margaret Thatcher’s death has served to plunge the country into a recognition of the essentially divided and class-based it still is.  Change has clearly not been managed at all well.

I saw one tweet yesterday suggest we had been through a process of national therapy: I disagree.  Therapy, properly conducted, would have led to some real resolution and closure.  Instead, all we have had is the establishment closing ranks on the matter – whether accurately or not I am not qualified to say – and causing a whole set of buried attitudes to vigorously reassert themselves on both sides: on the one hand, on the Thatcher-admiring side, tremendous pride in a job well done; on the other, on the Thatcher-hating side, tremendous pain about a series of traumatic events, suffered much as one suffers in times of civil war.

In a century where trickle-down economics has shown itself inadequate to its avowed purpose, it’s time we devised a more complex system of motivating people in a free economy.  Not all of us in an age of splendiferous knowledge are primarily motivated by the idea of concentrating masses of wealth. Not all of us think that creating powerful empires of divide and rule are the neatest or coolest game on the global block.

Which is why we seriously need to adjust how we value our outcomes – and why we seriously need a new business model.  For both the needs that corporate capitalism finds itself unable to satisfy and the ways we now battle away and feel incentivised to continue working, something needs to give pretty soon: and that something is clearly the old bottom line.

Not time to do away with the idea of the bottom line as such – time, instead to change its moral focus from satisfying the wants of shareholders and a managerialist class to a much greater and more ambitious constituency than the traditional corporate capitalists ever aimed to please: that is to say, the whole of humanity itself.