Monday, 27 September 2010

Why Ed Miliband is no threat - and why he is

The rather raucous article by Matthew d’Ancona in the Evening Standard, comparing Ed Miliband to Neil Kinnock, is quite right – but not in the way it was intended. Ed M is going to have to spend a great deal of time distancing himself from the Left and is doomed to spend the rest of his leadership desperately holding the reins as Right and Left fight it out.

That much is good for the Lib Dems. Most of the cleverest Labour Party members I know backed David Miliband, but my sense is that leading Lib Dems feared Ed more. Why? Because he is a thinker, a great collector of ideas, and he is already fishing in the same pool as most thinking Liberals.

So he poses a major challenge to the Lib Dems, whether we like it or not. We have to articulate the future better, more excitingly and more distinctively, in territory that is so obviously Liberal that Ed can’t drag his party after him. He may be a Neil Kinnock, but the danger is that he will also be a Jo Grimond.

Oh yes, and come to hear me at the Eminent Corporations lecture at the National Maritime Museum on 30 Sept at 7pm:

Why we need a bit of corporate history

The late, great entrepreneur Anita Roddick used to describe the corporate bosses dominate our lives as “dinosaurs in pinstripes’.

She coined the phrase accepting her first business award. There was a sharp intake of breath and suddenly there was Robert Maxwell, of all people, storming out in protest.

She developed the idea later. The corporations were entities, with all the rights of human beings, but which could show no emotions apart from greed and fear. They were able to make a hefty meal of their own tails.

It was an idea that was taken up shortly afterwards by the new economics pioneer David Korten, when he called his book When Corporations Ruled the World.

One of the least human aspects of these corporate monsters is their complete lack of history. You and I have histories, or at least narratives we use to make sense of the things that have happened to us.

Not so the corporations. There are obscure tomes of corporate history which only academics read, and there are cursory notes – written by marketing departments – that appear on websites. Otherwise that’s it.

We live in an age where the PLC is almost the proudest institution on earth. But actually, seen through an historical perspective, they are flimsy, fragile, insubstantial things, which flower briefly and then disintegrate into their constituent bits – a few brands there, a vice-president here, an office block again there. More like multinational mayflies than megacorps.

Yet because there are no histories of these corporations, no back stories, no roots – we let them control our lives with stories about them conjured out of the air by whatever director of marketing they last employed.

That is why my colleague Andrew Simms and I set out to do something about it. It occurred to us that what the big brands needed was a dose of what Lytton Strachey did for his Eminent Victorians – an experimental new kind of mini-biography.

Like the Victorian giants, we have an absolute avalanche of information about the corporations that dominate our lives – rather as Strachey and his Edwardian friends did about the giants of the Victorian age – but very little actual knowledge.

The antidote to this is our new book Eminent Corporations, published this week by Constable & Robinson. There are eight stories in it – from the deep past (the East India Company), through to the tragic failures of big visions (M&S and Cadburys), and to outrageous chutzpah (BP).  There are a couple of moral crusades which became multinational monsters of greed (Barclays). Even the BBC has a place.

Once you put flesh on these flimsy things, and find the humanity behind their stories – find there were in fact stories there in the first place which explains a little of who and what they are – then everything seems different.

My name is Ozymandius plc. Look on my works ye mighty and despair.

Buy the book at:
Come to the Eminent Corporations lecture at the National Maritime Museum on 30 Sept at 7pm:

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Why the CBI got it so wrong on Cable's speech

The reaction by the CBI to Vince Cable’s speech was absolutely extraordinary, and a symptom of the problem we face.

To give him credit, it may be that Richard Lambert never actually read what Vince said when he made his remarks. If he had, he would have realised that the Business Secretary was absolutely pro-enterprise, pro-competition and pro-business.

But he wasn’t pro-monopoly, or pro-corruption. What is extraordinary is that Lambert and the CBI reach for their dictionary of insults, not because Cable attacked business but because he attacked the abuses of big, monopolistic business.

Why is it that the CBI has become an apologist for big business abuse, at the expense of small business? In that peculiar contradiction you will find the answer to so many questions about our recent history – why the banks were allowed to crash, why the big banks withdrew from the real economy, why we get so little choice about where and how we shop.

It also opens up a new political space, and I hope Vince will do more to fill it: pro-business, pro-enterprise, but not pro-monopoly and not pro-corporate abuse.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

We're not technocrats. We mustn't sound as if we are

I’ve just got back from Liverpool, a little earlier than I should have, leaving the conference in full swing. It was a strange business. Police frogmen in the Mersey. Sniffer dogs in every boot. A lot of sharp-suited lobbyists.

The argument behind the scenes was about how, in practice, to manage the business of differentiating the party from the government. More about this one later.

I felt rather proud to be part of the party. The only bit I feel really frustrated about is the overwhelming rejection of the free schools idea.

I realise, of course, that I am in a minority on this one. So, for the sake of argument, this is why. Of course free schools should come under local authorities, anything else means sclerotic centralisation. But it seems to me that the great Liberal tradition would back free schools with major safeguards.

When I first joined the party in 1979, the key Liberal struggle in many councils was just to give people the right to ask questions. Labour and Conservative both opposed the idea.

It was ‘inefficient’. It just ‘benefited the articulate middle classes’. It ‘interfered with the smooth running of the administrative machine’. All those phrases you find in the motion the party passed to attack free schools.

When we first ran Liverpool in the 1970s, faced with a terrible shortage of public housing, we backed housing co-operatives and self build. It was a huge breath of fresh air. The pioneers of Weller Street and the Eldonians became a byword for the creativity of community politics.

They built their own streets and communities. We backed them against Militant and we backed them against the bureaucrats. It wasn’t called free housing, but it might as well have been.

There was huge opposition from Labour and Conservatives. Especially over the first self built public housing in London. It would only benefit the middle classes. It was ‘divisive’. ‘Inefficient’. If something was worth doing, then it was worth the council doing it for people.

True, it isn’t open to everyone to design and build their own estate. Though pretty much every age and race and corner of the class system took part in Liverpool. It tapped into the kind of energy that community politics can unleash at its very best.

So I’m suspicious when, in the name of Liberalism, we try to suppress the energy of ordinary people, who believe passionately in their neighbourhoods.

No, not outside the system. Letting corporates set up schools outside the democratic system. Or fundamentalists of any religion or none. Yes, that’s divisive. I’m not saying there should be no safeguards nor questions asked.

I didn’t join the party to let Rupert Murdoch open schools. But I didn’t join it to throttle the energy of people power either. If there is no energy for free schools, so be it. But if there is, it hardly seems right for the party of community politics to suppress them.

“Creating surplus places is prejudicial to the efficient use of resources in an age of austerity.” What kind of language is that?

I’ll tell you what. It’s the authentic sound of bureaucracy faced with inconvenient people. It’s the sound of New Labour ex-public schoolboys who want everybody else to be educated in precisely their approved way.

All the world over, I will back the masses against the classes, said Gladstone. Well, I’m a Liberal too, and as such it seems to me to be our role to back the people against the system. To back the people against the bureaucrats. To back diversity against uniformity, and energy against neatness.

What a pity we didn’t. Because I don’t believe those who voted for the motion against free schools are actually technocrats. But they sound like technocrats, and that is going to matter very much indeed.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Not left wing? Read the original quote

I wrote yesterday (was it yesterday, it seems a long time ago?) about how the media was colluding to portray Nick Clegg as a hate figure on the left. They are also, of course, having a go at maximising trouble at the party conference today.  That's their job, after all.

But when I turned on the radio this morning, and heard the BBC announcing that Clegg was condemning the idea that the Lib Dems were “left wing rivals to Labour”, even I did a double take.

That is precisely how many of us would describe the party’s position, after all.

But I should have taken my own advice yesterday. I should have gone back to the original quote.

In fact, the Independent (where the interview is this morning) used a similar headline, so perhaps we can’t blame the BBC this time, but what he actually said was this: “The Lib Dems never were and aren't a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.”

That is different, and absolutely right. There are many in the commentariat who would like to pigeon-hole Liberals in that category – existing entirely for our role as the conscience of the Labour Party, and helpfully fading away when not required.  But that’s not it and never was.

I don’t know if we are a party of the Left. Perhaps there are more accurate ways of portraying our radicalism.  We are certainly an alternative to Fabian utilitarianism.  But we are not a party of the Right, as conventionally understood and certainly not – heaven forfend – a party of the centre.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Clegg and that article in the Times

I was pretty dismayed yesterday at the way the Times interpreted Nick Clegg’s article about welfare reform, as if he had become a born-again slasher of people’s life support systems. We are in danger of allowing Nick to be portrayed as a hate figure on the left.  The baying of the audience in Sheffield during Any Questions last week was not just unpleasant, it was a little frightening.

Read the article properly and it is clear that, far from taking the Osborne side in the struggle with Iain Duncan-Smith, Nick seems to be saying that benefits reform needs to create a new system that can change people’s lives. Duncan-Smith says that might need investment up front, and he’s quite right.

These are really important issues. So much of Labour’s approach to services has been to trap people in dependency. That applies as much to those suffering from chronic health problems who are maintained with their problems with expensive drugs. It applies to addicts who are simply maintained in their addiction at huge social cost.

It also clearly applies to those people who are simply maintained for decades on benefits, depending on one of the most dysfunctional government services for almost everything, and banned from most kind of useful activity because they have to be ‘available for work’.

This kind of Fabian approach to welfare is corrosive and bitterly divisive.  It is also inhuman.  I don’t know clearly what the Liberal approach ought to look like, though I’ve got some ideas, but at least Nick is raising the key questions.

His article is as much a shot across Osborne’s bows as it is supporting existing policy.  The idea that we can simply slice £4bn off benefits and leave the reform at that is absolutely ludicrous (as if New Labour doled out money to anyone who asked). It was thoughtful and therefore exciting. It deserves to be read.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The tyranny of data protection

Am I the only one to be constantly asked by corporate call centres to prove who I am?

It would be quite understandable, of course, if I had called them – but they are calling me. I got the third of these calls in the last few weeks last night, and it was from British Gas. But I am not, however many times they bleat ‘data protection’ at me, going to tell them my date of birth or any other personal details over the phone. They will be a good deal more certain about who I am than I can be about who they are.

The three calls I had recently were from British Gas asking me to upgrade my insurance (probably genuine), from Barclays offering to repay all my bank charges (probably a fraud) and from Orange offering me a new phone (don’t know).

Either way, I’m going to start asking them to prove who they are. If they can’t tell me my postcode, it is probably a fraudulent fishing trip. It certainly seems to enrage them when I ask them. But it may be of course that they can’t tell me, because they are being watched by their managers, and because it isn’t in the approved script that comes out of their customer relationship management software.

Still, anything I can do to put a spoke in the workings of the great corporate machines that lie behind CRM makes me feel like I have had an effective day – so do feel free to join me. Make them prove who they are.

What is the political lesson of this? I think it is that public versus private is no longer an issue. Public and private are now hopelessly entangled beyond unravelling. The real issue is whether these bodies can relate to me effectively, personally and flexibly, and most of them can’t. They are far too big.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The strange case of the postman who did not ring

There was a small click by the front door this morning while I was having breakfast and there was a note from the postman. It explained (as these things tend to) that he had tried to deliver a parcel but I was out.

Odd really. I wasn’t out. Why not just ring the doorbell?

The answer is that this is a small symptom of the damage done by Blairite targets (which he declared himself still in favour of last week). The parcel vans are driven, not by the desire to serve customers, but to deliver more parcels in a set time. Clearly it is no longer worth their while to wait on a doorstep for 20 seconds, and easier just to fill out the slip and push it through.

Efficient? Hardly. Modernisation? I don’t think so. Yet that is the way our public services have been built, in public and private sector alike.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Why did Blair achieve so little?

I happened to hear Anthony Seldon (Blair's biographer) talking about that biography on the BBC this morning, and - apart from saying you learned nothing new from it - he listed three things in particular which the book should have shed some light on, but didn't.

1.  Why did Blair join the Labour Party?  Worth wondering that one.  Was it really from conviction - if so, what was he convinced about?

2.  Why did his decade in power achieve so little?  OK, peace in Northern Ireland and devolution to Scotland and Wales, plus the banking bubble - but what else?

3.  Why has there been such a slump, in mood and economics, since he stepped down?

They are the key questions and they are, in their own way, more important than the outstanding questions about Iraq.  Who was this man?  Who was he really representing?  What did he believe, and the key question: why did so little change?

It seems to me that there is a clue to the second question in the current scandal about Inland Revenue mistakes to six million tax returns.  I gather that the first letters will go out this week (I'm not holding my breath - the post doesn't arrive until mid-afternoon these days - Blairite 'modernisation' no doubt).

Why, despite huge IT investment and reorganisation, does HM Revenue & Customs make so many mistakes?  This is a microcosm of all those other services which also received huge investment and are at least no better as a result.

The problem was that New Labour was obsessed with a combination of centralisation, IT systems that controlled staff ever more closely, and massive shared call centre silos.  This subdivides jobs even more than before.  Call centre staff use a software system that often bears little relation to whatever the caller wants.  They take details and send them in bits to be reassembled by the back office experts.

But it is the way their jobs, and so many others, have been salami sliced that is important here. The call centres face the customers, with their CRM software and scripts which appear on the screens in front of them. Then they chop up their requests and send them to different departments for processing.

One of the most famous examples of all this is the way our tax returns are now dealt with at HM Revenue & Customs. The number of people who deal with each return has increased from two to six – and every one of those handovers between them are opportunities for confusion, misunderstandings and mistakes. The more work gets sorted, batched, handed over and queued, the more it has to be done again.

We know that most medical mistakes in hospitals happen when staff hand over to the next team at the end of their shift. It is the same in offices, where nobody sees the whole job, except – theoretically at least – the distant manager, poring over the misleading statistics on his screen. They will be misleading, because any statistics that are used to control people will always be inaccurate (Goodhart's Law, this is called).

So the overwhelming feature of New Labour policy in these areas as been to chop and dice public service administrative tasks as if they were a factory assembly line. It is to bring outdated industrial systems into the public sector and to excise, as far as possible, the human element. 

The problem is that splitting jobs up into tiny segments does not suit human skills, because the human ability to deal with human complexity – though not necessarily technical complexity – gets obscured. The result is miserable workers and rising mistakes.

Somewhere in here is the explanation for why New Labour invested so much to such little effect, and why the result is more mistakes.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Oddities from Blair

I was fascinated by the Tony Blair interview on Wednesday, and almost everything that could be said about it seems to me to have been said since. But two things struck me that have stuck with me for 24 hours, and seems to me to be worth saying here.

One was his bizarre account of the Iraq escapade. He claimed that the problem which caused all the trouble was that ‘outsiders’ fed the conflict and disorder after the invasion, as if somehow that had been wholly unpredictable.

This is a strange. Of course the outsiders would intervene, as he was warned that they would. That is what happens in war – the other side take advantage of your mistakes. It would be like Douglas Haig defending the appalling losses in the Battle of the Somme by blaming the Germans.

The other oddity about the coverage in the last few days is the way that Blair and Brown are squabbling about who had primary responsibility for making the Bank of England independent.

It was certainly a sensible reform, but hardly the jewel in the crown – especially as the Bank of England has since presided over the most appalling mistakes, greed and destructive bubbles by our monopolistic banks.

Robin (6) came in and watched the Iraq section and, asking who he was, immediately was drawn into the Blair charm - "listen to him, he's a good guy", he said.  Yet you are left feeling slightly chilled by him.  Was there anything there beyond a corrosive kind of pragmatism that learned nothing except from the most powerful in the world?