Monday, 17 July 2017

The most important question for Southern Rail right now

I have been reading the brave and revolutionary book about public relations by Robert Phillips, called Trust me, PR is Dead. Considering that the author is now an ex-PR man himself, the title is a bit like the old circular contradiction All Cretans are liars, as a Cretan once told me - which so fascinated Alan Turing.

There is a fascinating passage where he was asked by one of the rail companies for advice to deal with their unpopularity.  But, as Phillips explains, all was exactly as it seemed.

"It turned out that its poor standing was well-deserved - the marketing director boasted proudly about how they shortened train lengths at peak times and lengthened them off-peak. This way they met the averages demanded of them by the regulator but paid less in fees. So what if the customers were packed like sardines? They had to get to work, so would put up and shut up - because they had to."

Phillips describes this as a disillusioning moment. As a PR consultant, he was "meant to conspire with this fraudulent idiocy". He didn't, suggesting instead that the company managers do a ceremonial bow (Japanese style, see picture) for a new National Apology Day (he didn't get the contract).

I have been thinking about this in relation to Southern Rail, and the pretence by them and the government that the short trains which cause such asphyxiation have something to do with industrial action.

They could be about trains not being in the right place, but that would apply only in chaos - and we have an emergency timetable.

Now, I have no evidence that the story in Trust Me, PR is Dead applies also to Southern. Since proposing the question in an article for the Guardian last week - and developing it in a blog on the Radix site, suggesting that people care much more about the manipulation than they do about the asphyxiation - I have downloaded screeds of in-house material about how Network rail calculates its charges.

I'm not stupid, but the whole thing is so packed with jargon and complexity that I will never penetrate its obscurity. All I can do is hope that other people will take up the question in Parliament.

On the face of it, it may be that Govia Thameslink's shadowy owners Go-Ahead are insisting that some of their losses should be clawed back from the battered passengers in this way. It could - in certain narrow economic cults - even be considered their duty to do so.

Either way, we must be told.

Meanwhile, I believe Robert Phillips is onto something with his National Apology Day proposal. It would help clear the air. This is how he puts it:

"Companies know when they have done wrong. Companies know when they have substituted the convenience of tick-box compliance for the imperative of values-led behaviour. And they know when they really should apologise - not that they do. No one needs to 'have god' to understand this. But everyone needs to have a core humanity and a very real sense of purpose and values - of what is right and what is wrong - in business, as in life."

So Charles Horton (Govia Thameslink CEO), Andrew Allner (Go-Ahead chairman) and Chris Grayling (Secretary of State) - please think about this one. Does the cap fit?

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More background on Southern in my book Cancelled!  about the whole saga.

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Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Was Margaret Thatcher real?

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Broke to look back at recent history to see why things were going so badly for the middle classes.

This was not, as some commentators suggested, because I had some kind of disdain for the working classes or because I thought life had been uniquely tough on the middle classes - I think nothing of the kind - but writing the book led me down some strange byways.

For example why house prices had risen so much since 1979, and how the decision was made to launch that process by abolishing the so-called 'Corset' which regulated how much money went into the mortgage market.

Reading the cabinet papers convinced me that Margaret Thatcher was a mere cipher in her own revolution, unaware what the revolutionaries - Howe and Lawson - were planning or why.

Her own rhetoric convinced her later. But at first, she had no idea beyond a vague support for homeowners. The so-called Thatcherite Revolution was misnamed. It also failed in a range of other ways to live up to its own rhetoric.

In one way in particular, as I argued in a blog on the Radix website, it failed to live up to its own convictions: it failed to provide real independence to anyone apart from the very wealthy - though the cascade of mortgage money made it seem otherwise.

This is what I wrote. What do you think?

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Monday, 3 July 2017

Towards a more civilised kind of Brexit

Ignore what you have been hearing in the last few days about Theresa May engineering a Brexit walk-out, a hard Brexit is now politically impossible - because it would mean a border with the Irish Republic, and that is anathema to the DUP.

In fact, paradoxically, the strange general election result makes it a good deal easier to negotiate a Very British Brexit, which - by coincidence - is the title of a report which sets out how by my colleagues at Radix.

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Thursday, 29 June 2017

The court victory against Grayling and the cult of official obfuscation

It is just over a year since the Southern Rail service unravelled completely, after heading more steadily in that direction for some time. And I'm pleased to say that the Association of British Commuters have scored something of a coup in their court action against the Department of Transport.

It isn't exactly an outright victory. The judge ordered Chris Grayling to come up with a report on the state of the franchise within a fortnight, or to face a full-scale judicial review.

It is an important step forward, though not yet a solution. But then one element of their failure to solve the underlying problem is ministers inability to set out honestly what it is. It is so much easier just to blame the unions.

This failure is infuriating in itself. Almost - strange this - more enraging than the failure of the Southern franchise.

This is why I've been thinking about official untruths.

It seems to be a symptom of the endtime of the bundle of economic and political ideas that have dominated for the past four decades, but those in government are forced to lie that much more.

It isn’t necessarily their fault individually. It is just what happens when the bundle of ideas which are supposed to drive the engine of government run dry.

They need to do so to maintain an increasingly stressful façade that everything is fine – that the economy is fuelled by more than debt, that austerity continues to boost the economy, or that a hard Brexit is a pretty neat idea.

It is increasingly difficult to accept in public these small details, which threaten to unravel the big lies they tell each other in government just to get by.

So I thought it might make sense to collect some of the official untruths together. These are in my top ten. What are yours?

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Monday, 26 June 2017

How far was the Gibb Report 'sexed down'?

The story so far, as it turns out. The Department of Transport chose Govia Thameslink to run services to Surrey and Sussex not despite their plans to maintain driver levels at 20 per cent below the level they need to run a reliable service – but because of them.

The result, confirmed in the long-awaited Gibb Report – kept secret by the government for the last six months – has been an increasingly unreliable service.

What Gibb did not say was that, when the service collapsed last summer, the strain on the remaining staff emerged as high levels of sickness which made matters worse.

Nor did the report say that ministers have consistently failed to tell the truth about why the franchise was failing and have been able to blame an industrial dispute – which certainly made matters worse but was as much a symptom of Department of Transport policy, as it was a cause of the disruption.

When people’s lives are being turned upside down, they bitterly resent those who fail to tell them the unvarnished truth, and who maintain the old line. Passengers could see, day by day, what was wrong – but were not trusted with the details. It was for me a fascinating example of how Whitehall gets things horribly wrong, which is why so many seats served by GTR trains wobbled in their support for the Conservatives in the election.

This week sees the start of a new overtime ban by drivers, which – since GTR relies on overtime to run the system effectively – is likely to plunge us back into the horrors of last summer. It also sees the Association of British Commuters in court against the Department of Transport.

But I have now read through the Gibb Report. It is very detailed and fascinating, though not the dynamite that was hoped for. On the other hand, the DoT would not have been the DoT if they had not tried to finesse it a little. Read my conclusions on the Radix website.

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Thursday, 22 June 2017

How hottest June 1976 changed us forever

The one thing I took in from the television news last night was that yesterday was the hottest June day since 1976.

And suddenly it took me back. That was the month I did my A Levels.

In fact, beyond the haze of early adulthood and triumphant release from exams, I remember very little about the summer, which I spent reading a prodigious number of books and drinking rather too much. My grandparent’s pond dried up completely. The government even appointed a drought minister.

But what I do remember is that, in the endless sunshine, the restaurants of London’s West End put their chairs and tables out in the street for the first time. It looked so continental, as if it was the first fruits of the pro-Europe vote in the previous year’s referendum.

They never went away. It was a shock and suddenly the English character – certainly the London character – seemed to have changed completely. Suddenly we were cosmopolitan and outdoors people.

Long may we continue to be.

Incidentally, I also have a post published this morning on Tim Farron’s theology, and how our ignorance of theology is now dangerous on the Radix blog (yes, there is a link: one of my A Levels was Religious Knowledge). I also had a Guardian article yesterday about Vince Cable. Do read!

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Thursday, 15 June 2017

Why ever did we stop worrying about high rise?

A version of this post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Back in the 1829, a strange rumour spread through the London poor that those in workhouses were being fed on the bodies of the dead.

They called it ‘nattomy soup’.

It was a measure of how much the poor felt themselves to be surplus to economic requirements, how much they felt the new utilitarian administrative classes were actively working for their demise.

I was reminded of this when I heard some of the emerging anger of the residents of Grenfell Tower. Nobody melted anyone down deliberately, but there does appear to have been an emerging disdain for the poor from every level of government.

When I began work as a journalist in 1981, the issue of high rise flats were still a hot political issue. The Ronan Point disaster in 1968 had cast a long shadow and anything which smacked of high rise, new or old, was news. Ronan Point and its companion towers were blown up by Newham Council in the 1986s, even before they had been paid for. The waste of high rise flats has been staggering.

I was only ten when Ronan Point collapsed. The immediate cause was a gas explosion. But I remember tracking down the report into the collapse, when I was writing about inner cities twenty years afterwards, and found that the joints in what was a giant system built tower had been packed by the contractors with fluff, newspaper and cigarette ends.

We should probably not jump to any conclusions about the Grenfell Tower fire this week, because we don’t know why it began. But Ronan Point proved the basic problem: the high rise flats were often built by technocrats for the poor. And the technocratic system, though it is based on figures and rigorous numbers, is as careless about poor people’s housing as old-fashioned profiteers. Put the two together, and you can expect problems.

As policy-makers recognised after Ronan Point, but appear now to have forgotten, high rise towers are not good for communities or families. As Simon Jenkins puts it in the Evening Standard after the fire, they are “gated anti-communities”. There are no next-door neighbours in the original sense. Nowhere to play.

So why did they ever get built? Partly because of the politician’s housing numbers game in the early 1960s, when Harold Wilson briefly adopted a 500,000 starts a year target (you might notice that the numbers game was going at full throttle during the general election).

But partly also because of a tacit alliance between shire Tories and inner city socialists, who colluded with each other to make sure the poor stayed put in the inner cities.

That alliance has long since broken down – it was about keeping majorities intact – partly because Labour lost their inner city majorities anyway. But it has been replaced by an intellectual alliance between the technocrats, the architectural establishment and the green lobby.

All of them have been promoting the old idea of high-density, high-rise living for getting on for two decades now. The problem is, because most families don’t want it, that the resulting towers become ghettos for the poor.

The parallel approach is to allow the most wasteful, destructive and dehumanising towers to be built as offices – in days when offices are losing their usefulness. This was the policy pursued by Ken and Boris as London mayors (though Boris promised to reverse it when he was first elected).

Behind this is an argument about densities and even Simon Jenkins baulks at changing his mind on this. Because there is an alternative to high densities, which is to make our cities greener and more humane – to promote concrete depression and mental ill-health a little less than they currently do.

That means fewer people, more gardens, more devolution of power so that the entire population no longer needs to squeeze into the south east. It means a new generation of garden cities designed to provide liveable space for families – with a patch of green and emphatically not twenty storeys up…

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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The two previous Brexits: Dunkirk and Henry VIII

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

There are so many candidates for regular circles of life, from Halley’s Comet to the Kondratieff Cycle. I have been arguing for a year or two that we were hurtling towards a major political and economic shift, not because of the rise of Trump or Corbyn, but because there appears to be a forty-year cycle involved.

The last one was in 1979, after all. Before that, it was 1940; before that 1906, so perhaps it is a little shorter than four decades. But either way, we are due for something.

But when you set them out clearly like that, you can see that – for those shifts during the twentieth century – there was a slow seeping into the mainstream of the new dispensation beforehand, which we are not really seeing now.

They also, I see, follow major resettings of the British relationship with Europe – the first European referendum in 1975, Dunkirk in 1940 and the Entente Cordiale in 1904. It isn’t entirely clear to me what the relationship is between these factors, or whether they are symptom or cause.

The Dunkirk Brexit – when the UK made a handbrake turn, catapulting themselves out of the Anglo-French alliance, only to lead the recapture of continental Europe four years later – is an important precedent. It led to a very rapid change of direction, policy and personnel. It meant that we needed to construct a new policy on virtually everything, while simultaneously defending the nation from invasion.

But there is always a disaster behind the shift, which leaves the mainstream ideas without justification, though they usually struggle on for a while. Before 1979 it was the Three Day Week, before 1940 it was outbreak of war, and before 1906 – what was it? Perhaps the Jameson Raid and what it said about Imperial Preference.

But let us stick with 1940. I have been fascinated for some time with what Dunkirk was actually like, when you see behind the myth, and the struggle – not just on the beaches – but in the French and British war cabinets. Looked at day by day, you can see clearly how the British leadership managed to delude themselves – telling themselves that the French were being kept fully informed while simultaneously making sure they did not know what was planned. It was agonising, bloody and desperate – and fascinating as a frame for understanding what is happening in UK politics now.

See my new book Dunkirk to get a short day-by-day account of ten extraordinary days in summer.

And if you are interested by the historical precedents of Brexit, my Brexit thriller – set between the Treasury and the Pilgrim’s Way and reaching back to the days of Thomas Cromwell – is also now available. See The Remains of the Way…

See my new book Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet the background to the Mad to be Normal film!

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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Time to vote for a different Southern Rail

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...
One of the irritating elements, among so many, of the current general election campaign is the way that Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party has dragged debate back to an issue that most other countries have long since settled - the issue of privatisation versus nationalisation.

Long after this was stopped being a useful debate, and for my entire lifetime, British political debate has been bled by this pointless discussion. And now, thanks to the Labour manifesto, we are shooting back round again. My main fear is that it will take decades for us to emerge from this new cycle.

Especially as privatisation is virtually dead in the UK. And for the following reasons:

First, there is no available fat on our services which can provide any of the biggest corporations with the profit they need any more.

Second, thanks largely to Norman Lamb as health minister, the watchword of the NHS is now 'integration', not competition - not completely incompatible but still tough to reconcile completely.

This not to suggest that privately run companies, and especially small ones and co-ops, have no role to play in public services. They do and should.

But the third reason is this. The fiasco over Southern Rail's failure to run a proper service through most of 2016 has taught me at least that privatisation along the current lines is virtually dead. When the Department of Transport steps in to protect its failed providers from the wrath of users, you know the writing is on the wall - and not just in railways.

I have been closely involved in the Southern debate - I wrote a book about it called Cancelled! - and I was left with the strong impression that we will go through a period here and elsewhere, where government departments are increasingly 'owned' by their providers - in social care in particular - because the system is close to collapse and no obvious alternative is anywhere near in place.

Departments will no doubt grit their teeth and keep on defending the indefensible for some time yet, but there will come a time - and not too long hence - when the current dispensation becomes clearly impossible.

I'm unsure what Whitehall can do then, since they are making no provision for it as far as I know, except probably to send in the army as they did to run security at the Olympics in 2012 when the privatised manpower supplier failed to deliver.

How can we prevent this? I'm not sure, except that Southern users need to vote according to the extent to which their MP supported them, and told them the truth, during the long, dark railway journey of the soul last year. In the meantime, I commend the Association of British Commuters election demands on the issue:

1. Independent Public Inquiry into the relationship between Govia Thameslink Railway and the Department for Transport.

2. The return of guaranteed assistance for disabled passengers on services currently branded as Southern Rail.

3. Immediate removal of the TGSN contract from Govia and passenger representation in any solution, which must take into account the findings of the Chris Gibb report (still secret).

See my new book Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Friday, 2 June 2017

Will the next PM come from outside mainstream politics?

A version of this blog first appeared on the Radix website.

I found myself speaking at a New Weather Institute event at the Hay festival last weekend, about the prospects for a ‘progressive alliance’.

Despite the selfless and public-spirited behaviour, mainly of Green candidates standing down in some constituencies for the general election, I would say that the prospects were not terribly good.

I said so. But speaking alongside two inspirational people, Amelia Womack, Green deputy leader, and Zoe Williams of the Guardian, I had what I felt at the time was a sudden change of heart. Not so much about the prospects for a progressive alliance but about the future of the party system in the UK.

I belong to one of the parties – most people who know me will know which one – and I intend to stay an active member. But equally, that doesn’t mean I am unaware how political parties stifle debate, frustrate new thinking and do so with the combined membership of the size of the circulation of a medium-sized newsstand magazine.

It doesn’t mean I have forgotten how the parties encourage the most vacuous tribalism that prevents progress on so many issues – simply on the basis of ‘not invented here’.

It doesn’t mean I don’t remember the miserable local party AGMs, with their bourbon biscuits and their faint whiff of day centres about them.

We are about due for a major shift of political and economic mainstream thinking, which we get pretty regularly every 40 years (1979, 1940, 1906, 1868, 1832…). But the party system has managed to prevent the new ideas emerging being ready waiting in the wings.

It struck me that the victors of presidential elections in the USA and France have been people from outside the political system – and I see no reason why the same should not happen here, though it is clearly more difficult to break in and out in the UK. It maybe that, like Farage in the UK and Grillo in Italy, they will have to remain unelected to start with – at least from parliament.

The issue in questions was whether or not the progressive alliance needs a big idea. I very much believe that it does. I don’t think adequate funding of schools, shifting the budget about to pay more to the NHS, is by any means enough to drive a new political movement. That is about budget headings and little more.

But I think we can say the following:

1. The new movement will start outside mainstream politics and be led from outside mainstream politics.

2. It will have at its heart an economic idea that will make prosperity possible on a broader basis than now.

3. It will be based on an approach that maximises independence, self-determination and diversity (because that taps into the spirit of the age) – but understands how to mould that into a powerful force for change.

See my new book Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Wednesday, 31 May 2017

What Parkinson's Law tells us about the general election

A version of this blog first appeared on the Radix website.

The exhausting general election campaign confirms what was in effect Parkinson’s Third Law.

His more famous first law is known by almost everybody – that the things that need doing expand to fill the time available. This is actually one of the great truths of life, but his third law is vital too. It is that the time spent discussing things is in inverse proportion to its importance.

C. Northcote Parkinson himself was a historian and he illustrated the law by reference to a committee meeting with three items on the agenda – new coffee cups, a new bike shed and a new nuclear power station. The power station went through on the nod because nobody dared reveal their ignorance, but everyone had suggestions about how to save money on new cups.

The same is of course true, though in slightly different ways, about the election campaign. Minor irrelevances loom large but the prospect of dropping out of European trade relationships and future economic policy barely gets a mention – certainly not from the Prime Minister.

This is not just depressing, it is deeply undemocratic. In various ways I've been doing our limited bit to get the important things discussed. Like last year’s Radix paper on quantitative easing and its major role in driving inequality.

We ended the paper by breaking the unspoken rule in UK policy discussions – we talked about the Great Unmentionable: where money comes from and whether there might be better ways of arranging things.

This was a subject that had finally been broached by the Bank of England, who explained how most money is produced by private banks in the form of loans – something that most commentators knew but preferred not to say.

Well, the Great Unmentionable has finally been mentioned again, this time in a report by the Bundesbank, which confirms the same thing. It also gives a sideswipe at the main radical alternative proposal, Irving Fisher’s so-called 100% Money solution, the previous idea favoured by the Chicago School before it fell under the influence of Milton Friedman in the 1950s.

Now it is beyond our remit, and our knowledge, to say which is right. What is important is that, finally – and in the midst of the most frivolous and infuriating election campaign in the UK – these vitally important issues are being openly debated. It’s just that they are not being debated here…

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Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The rise of authenticity and what it means

Some years ago, fourteen to be precise, I wrote a book called Authenticity. The subtitle was ‘Brands, fakes, spin and the lust for real life’, which had a kind of ring to it. I’ve since written more in a collection of essays called The Age to Come.

I was predicting the rise of a consumer revolution – real beer, real experience, real shops – which involved bending the meaning of ‘real’ a little. Things and services could never be wholly ‘real’ because such things are about travelling hopefully rather than arriving. But with those provisos, I believe I was right.

So it is fascinating to come face to face again with the phenomenon in the example of the authentic textiles, curtains, wallpapers and so on, by New Weather pattern-maker and member Sarah Burns, and her label Dora Fabrics. In the interests of full authentic disclosure, I should also reveal that I’m married to her.

Sarah has re-discovered some of the lost art of wild dyeing, using plants and techniques from the South Downs where she lives to dye cloth by hand.The results are there to see in the Guy Goodfellow showroom at 15 Langton Street, just off London’s Kings Road.

There is another chance to see Dora Fabrics at the moment at the Virginia White Collection pop-up shop in 17 Rugby Street, London WC1, off Lambs Conduit Street, where you ca see her Sompting pattern in fabric and on the walls too, inspired by some of the medieval carvings you find in the South Down churches.

For those of us who have not followed this particular debate about authenticity, there is a something of a stand-0ff between those who believe that authenticity is impossible by definition, and that any appeal to it must therefore be fraudulent – and those, like me, who regard it as a growing phenomenon and reaction against the all-pervading pushing of the virtual and the fake.

In that respect, Sarah’s designs have depth and so do her fabrics. In an age where nearly everything looks and feels exactly the same, built to a shiny, glitzy formula, this is the real deal.

But it is worth thinking about what makes it real? Is it the natural element, using plants gathered by hand? Is it the sheer inconvenience of it – the less than universal availability, given that plants have seasons? Is it the fact that you don’t have to throw the cloth away when it is faded (you just dip it in the dye again)?

My own feeling is that it is all those things but, most of all perhaps, it is the human contact – the fact that someone has collected the plants and made the dye and coloured the cloth. That it was done by someone specific, and done somewhere specific, with a name that you can pinpoint on a map. The human element, for me, is the new definition of authenticity. It can’t be perfectly authentic – nothing can and you might buy it online – but i is the direction of travel and not the end destination that is important.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Tiny ray of hope from Manchester

I was surprised to find, this morning, that the news still has the power to reduce me to tears. The vision of parents struggling through Manchester in search of missing children after the bomb there is particularly gruelling for other parents like me. It hardly needs saying that one's heart goes out to them, because it has become an over-used cliche - but it does.

It may be that the immediate legacy of the bomb is to cement Theresa May's general election victory. I don't know. It may be that the next best thing to having someone strong and stable in adversity is to have someone who claims to be. I don't know that either.

Yet I have a feeling that the long-term impact on the nation may also be some pride in itself. The taxi drivers who converged on Manchester without being asked. The photograph of the empty water cups on the police car roof. They are all testament to the kind of nation we are, and the way human beings are too - this is a patriotic point, not a nationalist one.

It reminds me of Ken Worpole's recent description of the East Anglian reaction to the disastrous floods of January 1953 which sank the British Rail ferry Princess Victoria, when every local organisation came out to help in a tide of volunteer effort.

This was partly the result of the war, which had finished only eight years before, that all these small organisations were still active and effective. Ten members of the South Benfleet Yacht Club alone saved over 60 people from Canvey Island.

Back then (2013) I wrote rather depressingly: "The difference now is not that these small organisations have disappeared, or that they are somehow less effective – quite the reverse – but their existence is somehow taken for granted by the authorities."

This may be so, but the reaction of ordinary people in Manchester last night shows that this doesn't matter. It may be premature to say that anything else matters compares to the brute fact of the blast, but I draw some comfort from the reaction and I believe we will do so when the immediate pain has settled a little.

Big changes can happen as a result of small shifts in perception like this. The earthquakes in Christchurch and Kyoto kickstarted a whole new kind of voluntary sector in those cities. Earthquakes and fires a century ago in Jacksonville in Florida gave it the kind of voluntary ethos that makes it such an inclusive city today.

These considerations may not outweigh the horror, but they are not unimportant. When William Blake talked about "Joy and woe are woven fine". I believe this is what he meant,

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Friday, 19 May 2017

It's the economy, stupid. Isn't it?

The idea that the UK is a nation perched on a knife-edge division between Brexiters and Remainers has begun to unravel over the last few days – and probably a good thing too.

Let me cite three pieces of evidence, at least two of them deriving at least partly from the new thinktank Radix.

The first is the Financial Times report on what they called the ‘Re-leavers’, the people who voted to remain but now want to accept the result and get on with it. The report suggested they were about 23 per cent of the electorate. Or a big chunk out of the 48 per cent.

The second is the blog on Radix by Professor Corrado Poli on the distinction between the racist Leavers from the old right and the reformers who might go either way, and which also divides the Remain camp potentially into two.

The third, I have to admit in all modesty, is by me. It is my Guardian article about the division, this time within traditional Lib Dem voters, between the Remainers and the Liberal Brexiters – those who voted to leave last year, especially in former Lib Dem western strongholds, because they are sceptical about the power of supranational bureaucracies (any large bureaucracies actually).

You can read this here. There are, as I write, 400 comments so far ‘below the line’ slagging me off about it.

The main implication of this fragmentation is the way it confuses a previously clear Lib Dem election strategy. This will matter only if the party hollows out its radical message to make their campaign a re-run of a flawed, technocratic, cerebral and somewhat punitive referendum campaign last year.

My advice is to think a bit about the kind of themes the Liberal Brexiters want to hear about – the failures of the banks to nurture our struggling local economies. The Lib Dem manifesto commits them to forcing the big banks to pay to set up a network of local banks capable of doing the job with small business that they manifestly no longer want.

In short, the fragmentation of the Lib Dem target market only matters if they forget that elections are fought, won and lost on economics. It should not have to be said – but it’s the economy, stupid.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Monday, 1 May 2017

It's not what you do, it's the way that you do it - how Twitter caused Brexit

In 1780, a mob led by the half-crazed aristocrat Lord George Gordon stormed through London, shouting anti-Catholic slogans, demolishing buildings, setting free prisoners and - if Dickens can be believed in Barnaby Rudge - drinking molten lead from the roof of Newgate Gaol.

The Gordon Riots cemented the British establishment's horror of populism as the central plank of good government, and especially somehow anti-Catholic populism, which - as I have argued before - includes the sentiments behind Brexit.

The Nazi experience convinced the Left too that all emotion should be excised from politics, for fear of - well, to start with, for fear of the Mob.

The trouble is that this rendered the forces of good government all but powerless in the face of the skilled manipulation of emotion.

I don't mean Donald Trump, who is only using the clothes of populism to disguise an old-fashioned plutocrat. But Trump is also an example: his use of emotion was so crude that the only people it could possibly flummox was technocrats shorn of all feeling.

Unfortunately, that was all we had to defend the UK's involvement with continental Europe. The rest is history.

But it is a history that has yet to be written, and a fascinating report by the Radix thinktank this morning makes an important start. They used these assumptions about emotion and commissioned research from the University of Milan - analysing ten million tweets from the Brexit referendum and the Brexit debate since.

In fact, you could have predicted the result, they found, just by looking at the coherence and emotional content of the tweets - just as you could with the rise of Trump. The report All Atwitter about Brexit found that:

  • Besides having a greater intensity of use, the pro-Brexit camp has compelling leaders who use emotive messaging around a cohesive narrative that galvanizes supporters 
  • The anti-Brexit camp remains diffuse. There is no single leadership focus and a lack of a consistent, cohesive narrative that is capable of appealing to the emotional rather than the rational.
  • There is significant volatility among users around their Brexit sentiment. A large number of users still consistently shift between pro- and anti-Brexit positions 
  • Over the last few weeks, anti-Brexit sentiment has shown a sharp rising trend while the pro-Brexit community has shown slow decline 
  • The pro-Brexit camp has won the air war to date. But, as the general campaign starts, those parties and candidates that choose to make Brexit the defining issue in this election still have everything to play for.
That is extremely interesting. It means that, if you use Twitter as the way you analyse the way sentiment is shifting, it looks as though the energy is with those who want to stay entangled with continental Europe.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Thursday, 27 April 2017

Southern Rail compensation deadline looms - and guess what?

What follows is a guest blog by a Southern commuter who has been battling to get his compensation by their deadline, which is this weekend...

Do you find it slightly odd that, for a company with 300,000 daily commuters, to date they’ve only been in direct contact with 40,000 commuters owed extra compensation (and the doors close on 30 April)? I think the compensation scheme is run as poorly as their trains, and many eligible commuters will not receive the compensation owed. Why?

Well, as a daily commuter over the relevant period I’d bought seven monthly season tickets, several weekly ones and made many delay repay claims. With this information you’d expect they’d contact me and promptly pay the compensation due, right? 

 Wrong, they didn’t contact me. Eventually I called them, gave them my name, address, season ticket number, etc. – only to be told they could not find me in their records. I then had to wait several weeks to claim compensation online in mid-March.

With knowledge of Data Protection rules, I submitted a Data Subject Access Request to Southern asking for copies of personal information they hold on me - season tickets purchased and delay repay claims submitted. There were two statements from their compensation website that prompted this action:
  • “The process has been a complex one as we had to look through multiple data sources to be absolutely sure that we were correctly verifying a customer’s identity.”
  • “Unless we were 100% confident that the information we had was correct, we couldn't take a chance and make direct contact – for instance if there was a slight change in postcode.”
After all, perhaps I mistyped my address when making claims. But no, once they provided all the information requested it turned out that they had records of my season tickets and delay repay claims, and all accurately matched my name and address. So, are they going to appropriate lengths to identify and compensate contact eligible customers using “multiple data sources”? Clearly not.

When I pushed for a reason why I had not been identified by Southern, I was given a circular response that only seemed to reiterate the flaws in their own process. Quote below:-

“As you may be aware, this was a big undertaking required in a short period of time. The data gathering process was structured to process large quantities of data across different systems as efficiently as possible. The protection of customer data and accuracy of the compensation calculation was a priority. Two aspects of the data gathering process are relevant to your query:

1. Your Delay Repay record was excluded because the amounts had not been validated through the ticketing system. Our Customer Services team can either input the Delay Repay amounts manually or retrieve system-validated amounts based on ticket number. Both approaches are permitted in our process.

2. Your season ticket record was excluded because it had already been considered in Step 1 above. This was to avoid any possibility of double counting.”

If you can follow their logic, they indicate season ticket records (2) were excluded because they were covered under (1). But I was excluded from (1) because my tickets hadn't been validated! When I challenged the lack of logic, asking if I wasn't covered by (1) shouldn't I have been covered by (2), I was answered by:-

“If you were excluded under (1) it meant that your record was excluded and could not be considered under (2).”
Southern seems to be following a flawed process to identify eligible customers, and instead relying on people to make the claims for money owed to them. Some might think they did this deliberately by i) not contacting them in the first place, ii) delaying the online compensation claim site until mid-March by when most people forget they’re due recompense, and iii) giving them just 6-7 weeks to submit their claim by setting the deadline as 30 April.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Saturday, 22 April 2017

Three condundrums the Lib Dems need to solve to breakthrough

I was as staggered as anyone else that Theresa May has called a general election in June, especially given her assurances that she would do no such thing, though I can see the logic.

On the one hand, it does provide Tim Farron with what he has been asking for – an immediate second referendum on the style of Brexit (and again she said she would do no such thing). On the other hand, the result may be a forgone conclusion – not because a great majority of the nation backs the government, but because of the slow and inexorable decline of the Labour Party.

There is a suggestion that we now have three conservative-looking parties ranged against each other. One is embracing a different future but lacks the skills, ideas or open minds to manage it. The other wants to revert back to the world in 1945. The third wants to revert back to the world in 1980.

Or does it? That is the question this blog post poses. Because on the face of it, this election provides a unique opportunity for the Lib Dems to shove Labour aside, because they have apparently no opinion on the main issue of the moment.

As a lifelong Liberal, I am obviously excited at the prospect, but three barriers loom in the way, and they are intellectual ones. To reach their potential and become the official opposition – which the Lib Dems could conceivably do – they will have to solve three conundrums that will otherwise frustrate them.

1. How to bring the Liberal Brexiteers back into the fold.
The unaddressed challenge for the Lib Dems is that their former strongholds, especially in the South West, came out strongly for Brexit last year. That implies a powerful constituency of Liberal Brexiteers, who were not beguiled by the promises of the leave campaign but still have a visceral dislike of supranational bureaucracies. This seems to me to be both reasonable and Liberal. Somehow the party needs to be able to speak understandingly and inspiringly to the Liberal Brexiteers as well as the Liberal Remainers. That is a difficult balancing act and it requires them to look closer at the motivations of those tempted by Liberalism – not for a flirtation in one election but as a meaningful lifetime commitment (this is my interpretation of the so-called 'core vote strategy').

2. Speaking for the consumers of services, not the professionals.
Until they unexpectedly became responsible for some of them in 2010, the Lib Dems had little to say about public services. One of their difficulties go back to the merger of the Liberals and Social Democrats in 1988. They have many roots in common and the Liberals always included a strong Fabian wing (they used to call them Whigs). The difficulty is that it confuses the party’s message on public services: social democrats tend to back professional judgement and processes. Liberals prefer informality and individual variation – perhaps especially when it comes to education. Somehow the party has to shun public services run for the benefit of the staff (Corbyn) and public services run for the benefit of the operators (Southern Rail springs to mind), and to articulate an approach that represents the users and the ignored and put-upon consumers of public services.

3. Speaking for and to the nation as a whole without compromising their message.

One party is looking for the enemy within, the so-called ‘saboteurs’. The opposition is so divided that their enemy really is within. The nation is seriously divided too. The Lib Dems will need to hold to their clear position on internationalism but still somehow speak for the nation as a whole. This is particularly so when it comes to economics - the nation knows that the old assumptions of economics are now over. We have dysfunctional and over-centralised banks, and tackling that is as good a place to start as any.

If they can do that, and the other two, then I predict an extraordinary result.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Monday, 10 April 2017

Taking children out of school and the death of Fabianism

I just posted this on the Radix website, but it applies here too...

No, Fabianism isn’t dead yet – but the flurry of debate about parents taking their children out of school does seem to mark a moment in the story of the great decline. When judges in the Supreme Court develop their own brand of Fabianism, and give parents no discretion at all, you know the end can’t be far away.

I am defining the branch of Leftist thinking here, developed by Beatrice and Sidney Webb – with a little help from George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells – as a gradual approach to social change, leaving the economic structures intact and mediated by a new cadre of professionals and technocrats who would ‘know best’.

It might be possible also to see the new dispensation, including Trump, Brexit and Le Pen, as reactions against Fabian technocracy. In fact, Le Pen pere even said so at one stage, describing his Front Nationale as the only anti-technocratic party in Europe.

This is an approach that would regard the ‘spirit of ’45’ as partly to blame for its own demise. This is controversial territory.

You can see the divide on the left in their attitudes to the schools judgement: backing the local authorities which want to fine parents for any absences from the classroom. On the one side, you have the Fabian line – that children must attend school and there must be protection for them against the whims of feckless parents (broadly the social democrat approach). On the other side, there is also an attitude that parents probably know best what is good for their children and require a little flexibility (broadly the liberal approach).

In a nutshell, you have Gladstone’s famous distinction between trust in the people tempered by prudence and distrust in the people tempered by fear. I know which side I’m on, personally, but let’s leave that on one side.

Behind all this lies a conflicting attitude to education, not it’s importance but its style. Fabians will tend to back the professional educationalists who say that every moment in the classroom is precious. Liberals will tend to regard education more broadly, arguing that every moment out of the classroom is also precious.

None of this, by itself, suggests that Fabianism is in decline. What it suggests is that the inflexibility built into the system – because professionals have deemed something to be correct – is not an attitude that can survive if we want to beat the ideas of Trump and Putin. It is no coincidence that the two great Edwardian doctrines, Fabianism and Taylorism (the ‘one best way’) back inflexibility. It smacks of the age of the assembly line and economies of scale. The period we appear to be moving into is sceptical about economies of scale, aware that we have been blind for too long to the diseconomies of scale. The new age backs flexibility because it is more human, and – in the end – less expensive.

It is also sceptical that classrooms are always and every day the right place to be – and that we should maximise children’s time in them. The emerging age is also horribly aware that they are too often extraordinarily dull.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The right to break out of standard classifications

The film Mad to be Normal goes on release next week, and this is rather an important moment - at least for me. Partly because I have been fascinated by the revolutionary psychiatrist R D Laing my whole adult life - I even went to a poetry reading by him when I was a student (he sat slumped on the floor for most of the reading).

But partly also because I have a short book out which tells the strange and courageous story of his radicalisation, as a military psychiatrist and tries to set him in the context of a period of tumultuous debate, the 1960s and 70s.

The book is on special offer this week - including 99p for the ebook versions and £4.25 for the paperback. I would love to hear from anyone what they think of it.

Laing is a somewhat forgotten figure. You might almost believe that the psychiatric establishment won (as it did - they managed to get him to resign from the Medical Register before he died in 1989). When I mentioned his theories to a group of NHS staff I was teaching recently, they laughed.

But something is stirring. Partly, of course, it is David Tennant's portrayal of him in the film. But partly also because he stands for two critical elements which are as important now as they have always been.

First, human understanding in the professions - and he stood for this at a time when psychiatrists could, without consultation, cart people off to have electric currents passed through their brains, or part of their brains removed, and often did. If they had been sectioned.

Laing is one of the reasons we don't live in that world any more, at least quite so much.

The other reason can be summed up by this paragraph he wrote towards the end of his life about the American psychiatric diagnostic handbook:

“What DSM III seems to be is a comprehensive compendium of thoughts, feelings, experiences, unusual experiences, impulses, actions, conduct, which are deemed undesirable, and should be put a stop to, in our culture. It is so all-inclusive that most items of what all the world over at all times and places were deemed to be ordinary manifestations of ordinary human minds, speech and conduct, are ruled out. We, as we used to take ourselves to be, are to be cultured out, to be replaced by a homogenised creature I can hardly recognise as a human being.”

In this respect, Laing’s radical spirit continues to this day. He knew what would happen if we standardised people, and tried to encapsulate their individuality with numbers to make them easier to process. He stood then - and stands now - for the right to break out of standard classifications, however sophisticated.

It is a guarantee of our freedom and individuality.

Do read the book if you can - you can buy it at the special price until the end of the week on the publisher's website or on Amazon. Or catch up with the film here,

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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