Thursday, 29 January 2015

Forcing people into malevolent machines

If there was one wrong assumption about the government of the New Labour years (and there was), it was the idea that no administrative problem was immune from the solution of a giant database and call centre.

I have mentioned this before, but feel increasingly that it is one - though only one - of the factors behind the widespread disaffection, political and otherwise, that seems so all-pervasive.

I was reminded of this when I read the story of Comcast in the USA.  Now Comcast is a cable provider, and not a very popular one.  This particular story, in Wired magazine, described how a subscriber fell out with them and wanted to cancel her contract.

These database companies - TalkTalk, Virgin, E.on etc - will fight quite hard to prevent you from cancelling contracts, and will put you through to trained negotiators who often make matters worse.

In this case, Comcast failed to persuade their customer to stay, so instead they changed their name to 'Asshole' in the database.  That meant that bills were delivered during the remaining months to 'Asshole Brown'.

Comcast is a fascinating company. One long night in 2006, a repairman from Comcast arrived at the home of a man called Brian Finkelstein and, after some time on the phone, he fell asleep on the sofa. Finkelstein filmed him snoring and stuck it online, together with the sound track of a song called ‘I need some sleep’.

The repairman was fired. But it transpired that he had actually fallen asleep after waiting over an hour on the phone to get through the useless systems that ran the call centre at his own office. This story seems horribly familiar to most of us who have to deal with organisations, and with call centres in particular.

But there is something else familiar about it – the slow realisation that it isn’t the fault of the repairman, or the person on the end of the phone; it is the system, stupid.

As I described in my book The Human Element, the poor individual in the call centre is probably as much a victim, if not more of a victim, than the people phoning up. They see only a tiny slice of the task that has to be done. They have to use a software system that often bears little relation to whatever the caller wants. 

They are expected to get rid of the caller as quickly as possible, are regulated about the precise time they are allowed to spend in the loo, and have every aspect of their work measured and reported to their bosses.

Now it so happens that I'm having an argument with TalkTalk myself after AOL cancelled my broadband contract when I moved house.

The contract ended officially in October and I had no more to pay.  But every month or so, TalkTalk sends me a warning that I still owe a some which is always around £10.

I always kick up a stink and they always tell me that I actually know nothing and they can't understand why it is happening.

I know, for example, that it couldn't possibly be that they have a random system that sends £10 bills every month or so to their ex-customers.  I mean that would be insane?  Wouldn't it?

And here is the central truth: if we programme our organisations to approach people in certain ways - whether it is Comcast or TalkTalk with their ex-customers or Atos with disabled claimants - it isn't really a matter of ethics: their professionals and their databases will behave accordingly, though they wring their hands in public.

I believe that this sense of being trapped in a malevolent machine that we all of us have dealing with these companies - and if we are claimants, we deal with it with the stakes much higher - is a major reason why people are so cross.

Is it the fault of New Labour?  No, though they must take some responsibility for re-thinking public services along these lines, and using bonuses and targets to programme them so disastrously.  But if you put people inside Kafka-esque machines, you shouldn't be surprised if they get cross.  

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A chink in the Great Wall between government and governed

The story of the emergence of a political counterculture, initially in the late 1950s and given voice by the Liberals, and thereon spilling out into the voluntary sector and back again, has been a story of complete non-communication.

The political mainstream has their issues - they are usually about public spending and private ownership and little else - and the counterculture has theirs.  There's little or no debate between them.

There are a few exceptions to this, I know.  Roy Jenkins, as a reforming 1960s Home Secretary, managed to bring the two worlds together when he first legalised abortion and homosexuality.  But it's a bit sad, generally speaking.

Try breaking into the general election debate with a new thought - as I have tried many times.  It's a pretty thankless task.

One of the side-effects of this gulf is the rise of bizarre conspiracy theories - that the coalition is in the process of privatising the NHS, that the government wants to gag charities from public debate, that international bankers killed John F. Kennedy to prevent him changing the way they create money.  You know the kind of thing.

It isn't really surprising given that one side talks about one set of issues and the other doesn't.

But I wondered today if the dam was showing signs of bursting.

First, there was Vince Cable going out of his way to address the concerns of trade campaigners about TTIP, calling for a great deal more transparency, and extracting a letter from the European Commission that confirms that the NHS will not be subject to its terms.

It is a brave move and it won't make him popular in the establishment.  But of all the political gestures that claim to be leaping the chasm with the disaffected, this is about the only one that might do anything along those lines.  It is one of those days that I feel quite proud of my own party.

Second, there was the Guardian's coverage of the Green Party's proposal for a citizens income.  Nothing along those lines has been allowed in mainstream political coverage before.  It wasn't exactly praising the idea - quite the reverse - but it opened a chink in the Great Wall between government and governed.

Personally, I am keener on the idea of a citizen's income, which seems to me to be a ferociously Liberal way of getting bureaucrats off our back and setting ordinary people free.  The research the Guardian cites demonstrates that it would be next to impossible to organise this through the tax system.

The original idea of a citizens income was that it would become the new way that money was released into the economy.  The banks would be prevented from creating money, as they do now, and it would be given to citizens instead to trickle up, rather than trickle down.  A fundamental reform.

This was the platform of the Social Credit party when they took control of Alberta in 1943, only to have their citizens income ruled unconstitutional (they still stayed in power for nearly three decades).

The question I want to ask is this.  Is there a middle way that allows the state to create money for a citizens income, and to prevent inflation by clawing some of it back through sales taxes, and by controlling - though not necessarily outlawing - some money creation by banks.

Our political debate is still so narrow that no other means of making things happen, apart from the failed business of tax and spend, ever gets considered.  But today the dam cracked a little - just a little.  And I'm excited about that.

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Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Three bottomless money pits

Well, it is true that I'm a little disappointed that - despite three Lib Dem MPs signing a motion that would have imposed a moratorium on fracking until we know more about its effects on drinking water - only 52 MPs voted for it.

But despite this failure, the reforms that were cobbled together do change pretty much everything.  But I don't believe there will now be widespread fracking in this country.

The local opposition will be too strong, and people's demand for pure drinking water - not least for their children - is too powerful.  We don't have the wide open spaces that they have in the USA which allows risks to be taken with this.

But I expect the government will push on with the idea regardless, as it slowly becomes unviable - because that's what UK governments seem to do.

In fact, my frustration with the way these things get decided leads me to draw together three different topics and to name them as the Three Greatest Bottomless Money Pits of our time.  And all of them because our system of government seems unable to think ahead:

Bottomless Money Pit #3: Housing Benefit, and as much as £12.9 billion of it is now paid to people in work, subsidising higher property costs and subsidising businesses which are not paying wages to employees that can keep them and their families with a roof.  We do need sometimes to subsidise housing, but - unless we tackle the long 30-year boom in house prices, and unless we insist on a living wage - then soon even the middle classes will have housing subsidised by the state, which isn't affordable.

Bottomless Money Pit #2: Agency nurses, now costing £5.5 billion, mainly on foreign nursing staff to plug the gaps, as the NHS happily veers from training too many to training too few nurses, without any stable planning.  And then Labour imagines it can suddenly snap its fingers and appoint 20,000 new nurses - and apparently to do so without dragging in the trained professionals from all over the developing world.

Bottomless Money Pit #1: Nuclear energy: the deal with EDF to build Hinkley Point will be paid for by an agreement that they can charge double the cost of power now for 35 years - bills we will saddle on the next generation.  And that is before we factor in the soaring security costs and the costs of nuclear decontamination, and for storing high level waste for the next five centuries.

I ask myself why these kinds of decisions can be taken.  One answer is the way we divide issues up in Whitehall, so that the downsides of short-term decisions always fall elsewhere in the government system.  Another reason, perhaps, is the learned powerlessness that is part-and-parcel of extreme centralisation.  Nobody in the system has the room for manoeuvre to say - no, it's time we approached this issue differently.

Sadly, there are a whole lot more issues which have the same effect, saddling the next parliament, the next government, or the next generation of taxpayers with ever higher costs - because there is no appetite for re-thinking the current compromises.

The rule of thumb is that when you tell yourself lies, it tends to end up expensive.  But knowing that doesn't solve the problem.

How might we get such a re-think?  I think we need to return to this question, but it seems to me to involve more, not less, democracy.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Which comes first: maths or the world it describes?

When I should be blogging about politics, I find that I can't stop thinking instead about an article by the brilliant Bryan Appleyard, author of The Brain is as Wide as the Sky and other diatribes aimed at scientism and reductionism.

This is how he describes this revolt at the heart of science:

Unger and Smolin have also just gone into print with a monumental book – The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time – which systematically takes apart contemporary physics and exposes much of it as, in Unger’s words, “an inferno of allegorical fabrication.” The book says it is time to return to real science which is tested against nature rather than constructed out of mathematics. Physics should no longer be seen as the ultimate science, underwriting all others. The true queen of the sciences should be history – the biography of the cosmos.

Appleyard goes on:

Relaying on mathematics is demonstrably absurd because it makes two unprovable assumptions – that maths can accurately describe the universe and, even if that is true, that our maths at this particular moment is good enough to do it.
Two things strike me about this.  The first is that the movement he describes sounds remarkably like the Danish film movement DOGME, a kind of demand for simplicity and authenticity in science and everywhere else.  Just as the authentic film-makers demanded a simple approach to time, telling stories simply and without foreshadowing - so the doyens of authentic science want to return to the point where basic, underlying time is the measure of all things.

My own candidate for a campaign for real science would be to transform the scientific establishment from defenders of consensus to more open-minded seekers after truth, but then I've been dealing with too many dermatologists in my life (I have chronic eczema and am constantly amazed at how unquestioning scientific professionals can be).

The other thing that strikes me is that this very question - whether abstruse mathematics corresponds to the real world - is precisely the same dispute between the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the young Alan Turing, which I've described in my book Alan Turing: Understanding the Enigma.

Wittgenstein lectured in his own room in an old lumber jacket and without any notes or preparation, and with copious periods of lengthy silence. When he read from notes, he told his biographer Norman Malcolm, the words “come out like corpses”. Turing was the only mathematician in this particular group and soon the lectures turned into a conversation between the two men, testing Wittgenstein’s assertion that common sense trumped logic. 

For Wittgenstein, the famous Liar’s Paradox - the basis of Turing;s work on computing - was a “useless language game”. Turing claimed it did matter because a practical project could use maths which had been compromised by it. The bridge they were building could fall down.

What is interesting about this is that it isn't quite clear which of the two great men were right.  Which comes first - the maths or the world it describes?

Personally, I would be sorry to lose the parallel universes that so inspired Philip Pullman.  But it may be that we have to return to Wittgensteinian common sense.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Jerusalem might save our politics from stagnation

Displaying Jerusalem.jpgNot content with saving pubs from monopolistic pubcos, Leeds Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland seems to have done more than most to make Jerusalem the English national anthem, with a series of early day motions in Parliament.

It is now used by English cricketers and footballers as they dash out onto the pitch.  So it is maybe time that people learned a little more about what the song means, and the story of its words and music.

Luckily, I've written about it.  My ebook Jerusalem is published today at £1.99, and it tells the whole story - its call to spiritual struggle by Blake, its adoption by the Fight for Right movement in the First World War and as a suffragist anthem not long afterwards.

'Jerusalem’ has become one of the best-known poems in the English language, transformed into a soaring anthem with music by Sir Hubert Parry. It is sung by socialists and conservatives alike, by patriots and feminists and dreamers, partly because the words are obscure enough to satisfy everybody, and partly because the tune is stirring enough to have emerged as an alternative national anthem.

As England painfully seeks its own identity, apart from that of the other nations which make up the British Isles, ‘Jerusalem’ now looks set to take up the position as something rather more official.
As it stands, it wears its radicalism and spirituality lightly. It is at the same time a condemnation of all the degradation of the industrial revolution, the ‘dark satanic mills’ – the meaning of which remain a little obscure – and a clue to Blake’s very personal mythology and radical spiritual message. It is a call to personal struggle to transform England into the paradise it was somehow called to be.

I'm fascinated by this partly because, at every stage in its creation, Jerusalem has been a call for spiritual struggle.  It still is that.

And partly because, the transformation of a pastoral to an industrial England is at the very heart of our identity - as the Olympics opening ceremony showed in 2012.  

It is also an opportunity, because those themes - the demolition of dark satanic mills - are systematically excised from the themes of modern English politics.  It maybe that our national redemption depends on articulating them clearly again.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The euro and the strange blinkers of power

Now that the eurozone appears to be about to be bailed out, very controversially, by the European Central Bank - I've been looking back through the things I used to write about the euro back when everyone was divided about it.

In the Lib Dem spring conference (or was it the autumn conference) of 2001, I threatened to torpedo my reputation in the party - such as it was - by urging the reps to reject the idea of joining it.  Because, as I put it then: "single currencies tend to favour the rich and impoverish the poor".

They do so because changing the value of your currency, and varying your interest rate, is the way that disadvantaged places are able to make their goods more affordable. When you prevent them from doing that, you trap whole cities and regions – the poorest people in the poorest places – without being able to trade their way out.

I don't say this because I'm bragging - I get enough wrong, heaven knows.  But it is a way of saying that the disaster of the euro was predictable and predicted.  And don't let's be in any doubt about it - the single currency was a disaster which may yet tear Europe apart.

But the really scary bit is the predicted political implications.  This is what I said back then:

"That’s the danger of the euro as presently arranged, and don’t underestimate it. It means success for the cities that are already successful. It means a real struggle for the great Lib Dem cities of Liverpool and Sheffield. It means a potent recruiting ground for the next generation of fascists in the regions that no longer count."

And what do we have all over Europe, and particularly in the unsuccessful places?  The rise of fascism and other varieties of the intolerant right and left.  Jews murdered in supermarkets.  Anti-semitic salutes.  Once again, it was predicted and it was predictable.

So I find myself wondering what it is about the political system that these decisions can be taken like this.  They went ahead with the euro, even though there was no mechanism to transfer wealth between regions that they knew they needed.  And even though the member nations had not met the basic economic requirements.

That was a continental problem.  We might add that our own government at the time invaded Iraq although they knew the Americans were wrong about linking it to 9/11.  They sent our own forces into Afghanistan, under-resourced and under-equipped, desperate to keep up with the Americans, but assuming somehow that - what? - it wouldn't matter because they said it wouldn't.

In fact, I'm been reading a fascinating review of recent books on UK involvement in Afghanistan in the London Review of Books: it turns out that many ordinary Afghans believed the British had arrived to wreak vengeance for their last defeat in 1874 - we were the last nation who ought to have been there, and should have known it.

I must admit I'm confused about all this.  It isn't about 'evidence-based policy', which is another ideological construct designed to avoid political action.  But somehow - the less room for manoeuvre our politicians have, the more they have convinced themselves that they can simply avoid predictable problems simply by making sure they are not discussed.

It is the strange blinkers that appear to go with power.  They have always been there to some extent, but the last decade - particularly under Blair and Brown - they were powerful blinkers indeed.  Yet the euro demonstrates that this was not just a UK problem.

They are also staggeringly expensive - the euro, the bank bail-out, Iraq, Afghanistan have cost us unimaginable sums.  And they are just the tip of the iceberg.  The coalition's treatment of disabled people springs to mind: as long as it keeps out of the headlines, ministers seem to feel it isn't real.

Is it too much to hope that the next government might include politicians who can see clearly, and act on what they see?

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Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Plutonomy corrodes the middle classes too

The news that the richest one per cent of the world's population will shortly own more than the other 99 per cent is an important symbolic moment.

Whether it was by accident or design, the way the financial world is currently structured is hoovering up the assets from everyone else, with serious implications - not just for the poor, but also for the middle classes, as I explained in my book Broke.

This is not just the structure of the system that has emerged.  It is also a by-product of the vast transfer of public money to the banks from 2008 onwards (£1.5 trillion in the UK alone). 

What is less understood is that there is something bigger going on: a huge transfer of assets from the middle classes to the new elite. Labour’s business secretary Peter Mandelson once said that the Labour Party was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’, but actually it does matter. 

House prices are higher as a result, the salaries of those lower down the food chain are squeezed, pensions are top-sliced, while the financial class has become a new kind of landlord, living off the rents and charges of the financial system which funnel wealth upwards – while real wages, and real salaries, haven’t risen in real terms since 1970, and since 1960 in the USA where the process is most established.

The financial world has known about this process for some time. In 2005, the first of three reports was published privately by the US banking giant Citigroup, especially for their wealthiest clients; they coined a word to describe the phenomenon and tried to explain it. The first report was called ‘Plutonomy’, and it explained the idea like this:

"The world is dividing into two blocs – the plutonomies, where economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few, and the rest. Plutonomies have occurred before in sixteenth century Spain, in seventeenth century Holland, the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties in the US. We project that the plutonomies (the US, UK, and Canada) will likely see even more income inequality, disproportionately feeding off a further rise in the profit share in their economies, capitalist-friendly governments, more technology-driven productivity, and globalization. In a plutonomy there is no such animal as ‘the US consumer’ or ‘the UK consumer’, or indeed the ‘Russian consumer’. There are rich consumers, few in number, but disproportionate in the gigantic slice of income and consumption they take. There are the rest, the ‘non-rich’, the multitudinous many, but only accounting for surprisingly small bites of the national pie . . ."

Two more reports followed in 2006, explaining that plutonomy was a result of a kind of financialization of the economy – a huge expansion into financial assets, which are the target for investment rather than real assets, and which the financial sector repackages and repackages, inflating their prices each time. When the financial bubbles burst, they buy back the assets again at a lower cost. Even bursting bubbles make the One Per Cent better off. 

This is helped by the fact that the most powerful governments of the world see the value of those assets – property, bank shares etc. – as the touchstone of economic success, which is why so much of the banking bailout was designed to reflate their value.

Citigroup came to regret publishing these reports, presumably because it encouraged the idea that they were cheerleaders for plutonomy. Over the years, copies began to leak out via the Internet, much to their horror. There was a concerted attempt to suppress them. 

By 2010, Citigroup lawyers had managed to remove them all from the Web, only to find them seeping back again. The revelations are important because not only are these vital resources sucked out of the middle classes, just as they are sucked out of all classes. 

They also affect the middle classes in other ways: unless they work in the financial sector themselves, they find their factories and real-world businesses starved of investment and their professional skills automated.

Why is this not the most important political issue of the day?  Because none of the political parties have a prescription for doing anything about it, apart from putting the clock back to a time before plutonomy was a phenomenon.

But make no mistake.  When the middle classes wake up to what it is doing to them, there will be trouble.  Find out more in my radio documentary Clinging On, on Radio 4 on February 3 (8pm).

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Monday, 19 January 2015

Islamophobia and anti-semitism in France

The modern history of France is a peculiar business.  The nation seems never to have quite survived the wounds of the French Revolution, and violent outside interventions seem to make this horribly clear.

The Prussian invasion in 1870 led directly to the slaughter of the Communards in Paris the following year.  The Nazi invasion in 1940 seemed to lead, not so much to occupation - as it did in the rest of occupied Europe - but to a kind of civil war: 75,000 French Jews were deported, and there were French people at the heart of the efforts both to deport them and to defend them.

Now the recent attacks in Paris seem to have made divisions clear again - the same divisions that are here too, but somehow more urgently and more frighteningly.

I have been wondering about the French treatment of Muslims - banning the burka and niqab in public, and where The Front Nationale has taken power, banning halal meat from school lunches.  Islam is an afront to French secularism in a way that it isn't to other nations which have no such ambition.

The controversy over the recent front page cartoon in Charlie Hebdo is part of the same problem.  It is understandable, and yet still insensitive given that so many law-abiding French citizens would find it deeply offensive.

I can't help wondering whether this difficulty that France sometimes has of assimilating Islam has something to do with the difficulty France currently has with anti-semitism.

I've always argued that anti-semitism emerged out of a medieval horror of banking, but I'm not sure about the relevance of this to modern Europe.  It may just be what happens when religious minorities start to feel the heat.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Is technology really changing faster?

In the quiet, rather magical, days between Christmas and the New Year, the Guardian very kindly carried my thoughts about technology. It pointed out that news of the falling sales of tablets and ebooks rather confirmed the predictions of the French medievalist Jean Gimpel – who predicted the return of trams, bikes, natural fibres, real food and vinyl records.

And so it has proved.

For some reason, this article was shared and retweeted more than anything else I’ve ever written. And, if I’m honest, I know why.

It was because of what I said about technological change slowing down.

I won’t repeat my arguments here, except to say that I’ve been flying by Jumbo Jet and travelling in minis my entire life. I know the technology inside them is different, but compare that to the extraordinary development a century ago of submarines, cars, planes, moving pictures, washing machines and so on.

My submarine book – about the adventures of E14 in the Dardanelles a century ago – pointed out that my cousin Courtney Boyle could have commanded the first submarine in the navy yet lived to see the launch of the nuclear ballistic missile submarine Resolution in 1967 with a crew of 450: the full development of the technology.

It is true that I phrased it starkly to irritate the techno-fix pedlars. I certainly came in for criticism below the line, as always in the Guardian, from people who thought I was saying that technology hasn’t changed at all, which of course it has – just not as much as it did a century ago.

Now the business blog Flip Chart Fairy Tales has taken up the cause, and quoted me as backing for their scepticism about the heroic cheerleading of Silicon Valley.

But it always was more than that. By pouring scorn on claims that nothing will ever be the same again, I‘m also trying to remind people that social innovation is as urgent as technological innovation – and is barely noticed in comparison.

I’m not saying that mobile telephony is unimportant or irrelevant. I am saying that, when it comes to the key issues of the age – imaginative enterprise, looking after old people and educating young people – then measurement and communication breakthroughs are still not as important as human ones.

And if you don’t believe me, go ahead – and be looked after in your old age by a robot, managed by professionals who can’t see that here is any difference between virtual, robotic and human care.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Why I wouldn't have published

I'm not sure I know why I've always found it so difficult to agree with so reasonable a man as Tony Blair. Perhaps his fatal inability to think beyond the most powerful person in any argument - which is a strange Labour party trait; one of the few things he has in common with the rest of his party.

But I do agree with him about religion.  Religion may be a force for disorder and war but, in comparison with secularism, it is a pussycat.  And unlike secularism, religion carries within it at least a powerful demand for peace.

We are different from France.  We don't usually interpret our liberalism in terms of secularism.  Disestablishment, maybe.  The roots of British Liberalism lie only partly in utilitarianism and radicalism; they also lie in nonconformist religion, and the tolerance which that implies.

We are able to distinguish, as we badly need to do, between good religion and bad religion.

All of which is a way of saying that I find the French aggressive secularism uncomfortable.  It seems to me not to be quite human.  It smacks just a little of the French Revolution.  There is another kind of intolerance about it.

And tolerance, it seems to me, would lead us to understand a little of the sensitivities of those around us, and especially those who are basically on our side.  They find pictures of the founder of their religion offensive and upsetting.

I'm not sure therefore whether another cartoon of the Prophet isn't playing into the hands of those who would like this to be a giant battle between Islam and secularism.  That isn't a winning hand for our side.

I understand why another cartoon has been published.  I understand why it has been republished.  But as a British Liberal, I find it uncomfortable.  Because if this is a battle against the jihadis - the most important priority is to win it for European values.

I don't have to choose between tolerance and satire, but - if I had to - I would personally go for tolerance.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Tesco, milk and the medieval version of markets

Only one company exists from the original Dow Jones Index from a century ago (General Electric).  It is certainly uneasy at the top.  People eventually assert themselves against their overlords and overthrow them.

This is a medieval image of the way competitive markets are supposed to work, but it is the one I gleaned from this morning's rather self-satisfied editorial in the Financial Times.  It is a case of The King Is Dead Long Live the King, as Tesco gives away a a slightly bigger oligopoly of identical formats.

It is comforting to know that, in the end, the great tyrants fall.  They over-reach themselves.  My name is Ozimandius PLC, they might say, before returning to dust.  The problem is that it takes time, and they hold us captive in the meantime because the protections against monopoly are far too weak these days.

And if you wanted to see the evidence you need look no further than the milk producers, especially now that the prices paid for milk are now said to be lower than water.

I don't know about the rest of the Big Four supermarkets, but Tesco has insisted on payment terms for its suppliers of 90 days - not an option for its small competitors.  That particular abuse - and it is an abuse - has provided it with a rolling interest-free loan equal to two months of total stock.

Again, that is a huge competitive advantage not provided to its competitors.

I was involved in the fascinating debate around the two grocery market inquiries over the past decade or more, which seemed at the time to have been almost pointless given the narrow definition of uncompetitive practices that the Competition Commission were using.

I know they were sticking to the letter of the Enterprise Act, but their basic assumptions were faulty: if a company was one way - as far as the regulators were concerned - then consumers must almost always have chosen for it to be so.

There is a kind of naivety about that which explains why monopoly has become such a curse of modern business and a source of such inefficiency and poor service.

But one reform brought through by the final Competition Commission inquiry, and finally forced through by Lib Dems in government, was the Groceries Code Adjudicator.

By coincidence there was an interview with Christine Tacon, the first in the post, in the Evening Standard last week.  She has taken up no case formally yet, but she has tackled a number of abuses more informally - with quiet words in ears.  Tesco was demanding payments for better shelf positioning ad the Co-op was asking suppliers for compensation when failing to meet sales targets.

The problem is that, if the market was really working, then this kind of post would not be necessary.  Nor would we hear so much today, begging the supermarkets to act in the interests of farmers.  The milk producers would be able to go elsewhere to get their milk on the shelves.

As it is, we may soon not have a UK dairy industry at all.  If you believe the Financial Times, this would be the result of free and open markets.  In fact, it is the absolute opposite.

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Monday, 12 January 2015

The Liberal Revival at 56: time to take stock

I'm not sure there is such a thing as 'middle-aged' any more.  We burst straight into old age from youth.

I even have some evidence for this assertion.  Some years ago, I was on a Home Office committee giving away money to people for volunteering projects.  The first applicant that came before us was promoting a youth volunteering scheme, which they defined as 'under-50'.  The second was promoting an older people's volunteering project, which they defined as 'over-55'.

Even by this rule of thumb, I am apparently old.  I was born in 1958, which makes me - and here is the relevance of this - the same age as the Liberal Revival (which I date from the Torrington by-election, actually March 27).

Despite the efforts of the Liberal History Group, there has not been nearly enough emphasis on this by academics, so we have little or no consensus about what it meant, but I have grown up with it and it has shaped the way I view the world.

Looking back, this was the political cause which I devoted most of my adult life to over the past 56 years.  I think it is therefore time to look back and take stock.

This is how I see it.  The Liberal Revival emerged out of Macmillan's Never Had it So Good period as a critique of the Butskellite, Heath-Wilson consensus, that gave us high rise flats, urban demolition, nuclear energy, local government re-organisation, and a highly centralised state.  It emerged out of Grimond's critique of bureaucracy.

If you doubt this, have a look at Roger Fulford's The Liberal Case for the 1964 election.

These central questions were blurred by the Alliance and the merger with the SDP, but they were still there, and it led to one absolutely vital achievement: the democratic reform of local government - from an insular, hidebound, patronising mess to something that is now considerably more effective and much more democratic.

Therein also lies its weakness.  Far more effective local government but much less power.

The Lib Dem achievements in government are not small - they include of course the Green Investment Bank, the Supermarket Ombudsman, the re-discovery of apprentices, the Pupil Premium, City Deals - but they don't hang together in quite the way the local government achievement has.

It sees to me that we need to start thinking of the past 56 years together, rather than just the last five.  Because there is a new question the Liberal Revival must now wrestle with if it is going to revive again.  It is: how to rescue internationalism from the distortions and abuses of globalisation.

That will have electoral consequences, but it is also going to involve a great deal of thinking and arguing, before we get there.  We are going to have to assemble practical ways forward, and conceptual ones too, just as we did with Grimond's critique of old-fashioned, patronising modernity.

Our ability to carry on for the next 56 years seems to me to be in proportion to our success in this grand new project.  The forces of nationalism are growing stronger.  No other political creed is really going to challenge them fundamentally.  If there remains a Liberal Revival, this is the task set for us by fate.  And we have to start by doing a great deal of thinking.

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Thursday, 8 January 2015

Christ the cartoonist and the Liberal power of humour

Listening to the coverage of the terrible shootings in Paris, I keep finding myself thinking of Umberto Eco's wonderful post-modern extravaganza, The Name of the Rose, where the murderer turns out to be motivated by a fanatical religious hatred of humour.  This is what Jorge de Burgos says:

"Laughter is a devilish wind which deforms, uh, the lineaments of the face and makes men look like monkeys."

The detective-monk William of Baskerville replies: "Monkeys do not laugh. Laughter is particular to men."

Which is true.  They then discuss whether Christ laughed.  It seems to me, as a former theology student, that the sheer starkness of the images in Christ's teachings are based on humour - camels and eyes of needles, and so on: these are caricatures.  They are, in their way, cartoons.

Humour is like money in the sense that it is one of the primary forces of Liberalism.  Pomposity, privilege, aristocracy, all fall away against the power of humour, just as they do against the power of money.  They are great equalisers.

That is not to suggest that they can't be taken too far.  We know what happens when we concentrate too much on money - it stops corroding the privileges of the elite and starts to corrode everything worthwhile.  It sets up its own elite.  The same is true of humour.

It is worth remembering that when we talk about the dangers of self-censorship.  Of course, fear is a ferocious censor, but don't let's pretend that cartoonists don't censor themselves every day - as they should do.

Even so, for these reasons, the attack in Paris strikes at the heart of Liberal civilisation.  We all feel, I think, that something has shifted yesterday.  Tyrants hate humour.

But we have to be clever how we respond. This is a civil war inside Islam.  It is not a war, as the nationalists would have it, between Islam and the West.  It is no coincidence that these were cartoonists who were killed.

The fanatics want more caricatures, more clever jokes at the expense of Islam.  They want a response that can shift more Muslims onto their side.  They want this to be a war between East and West: we have to make absolutely sure we don't help them.  That may involve a little self-censorship, but it is a strategy to win a struggle that we simply have to win.

And restraint and tolerance of other people's sensitivities are also Liberal values.

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Wednesday, 7 January 2015

We need to know why A&Es are in crisis

“Oh, the sad condition of mankind,” moaned the great Belgian pioneer of statistics, Adolphe Quetelet:

“We can say in advance how many individuals will sully their hands with the blood of their neighbours, how many of them will commit forgeries, and how many will turn poisoners with almost the same precision as we can predict the number of births and deaths. Society contains within it the germ of all the crimes that will be committed.”

It is a frightening thought, just as it was frightening for Quetelet’s contemporaries to hear him say it in the 1830s. But he and his contemporaries had been astonished by how regular the suicide statistics were. Year after year, you seemed to be able to predict how many there would be. There were the occasional bumper years, like 1846, 1929 and other economic crash periods, but generally speaking it was there. 

People didn’t seem to be able to help themselves. Amidst a constant number of individuals, the same number would take it into their heads to murder as much as get married. Statistics were powerful and also pretty predictable.  More about that in my book The Tyranny of Numbers.

I was thinking about Quetelet this morning listening to the closure of so many hospitals as, one by one, they were overwhelmed by the demand in their casualty departments.

The thing is that underlying demand doesn't change that much.  The basic need for emergency healthcare will always remain steady.  Yet something is clearly going on - I heard hospital managers talking about pressure of demand going up by 30 or 40 per cent this year.

Yet there is remarkably little agreement about why.  Here are some candidates:

1.  A growing elderly population.  This is true, but it doesn't explain the sudden weight of demand, unless this is a side-effect of a catastrophic breakdown in social care, which it could be.

2.  Younger people using A&E instead of making an appointment for a doctor.  This must be true too, but again - why so much now?

3.  People are particularly ill at the moment - because of all the bugs and the warm winter which failed to kill them.  This is possible but why should be have such an impact this year compared with others when there is no obvious epidemic.

4.  The difficulty about recruiting NHS staff for A&E.  This must be a factor but it doesn't explain the extra demand.

Whatever it is, Norman Lamb is absolutely right to be struggling to get some kind of cross-party consensus on the future of the NHS.  But that will depend on some kind of authoritative analysis on why demand has surged over the last year.

For me, only two explanations carry conviction about why this is happening now.  Both involve, as they would have to, some kind of tipping point in all these trends, but two in particular.

First, is there a some kind of breakdown in social care which is driving people to A&E, based on the cumulative changes over the past decade - the disastrous over-regulation and target-driven ineffectiveness ions of the New Labour years, and the recent funding reductions?  We urgently need to see how the failures in one part of the public service system impacts on other parts.

Second, is there some kind of cumulative effect of the narrowing of outputs to contract, caused by contracting out too many of the big outsourcing giants - whose main expertise is in meeting targets with the minimum of effort, spreading costs elsewhere in the system?  These extra costs will tend to come home to roost eventually at A&E because it is the only open-door in the public service system.  But are they coming come to roost?

I don't know, any more than anyone else, whether either of these goes anywhere near explaining it.  All I do know is that statistics of this kind only vary if something else very important is happening - the basic underlying demand will not change much, at least not year by year.

It is in the coalition parties' interests that we have some firm theory to rely on before the general election.  Otherwise people will believe what fits their mood at the time.  But something is going on - and we need to know what it is.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The great privatisation smokescreen

I spent yesterday sorting out old papers, and what should fall at my feet but a 2008 article by George Monbiot in the Guardian with the headline: 'Labour's perverse polyclinic scheme is the next step in privatising the NHS'.

It so happened that I had found myself swearing at the radio during the staged confrontation between John Humphrys on the Today programme and Labour's Andy Burnham yesterday.

The combination of the two events reminded me that accusations of privatising the NHS is what oppositions fling at governments - and there is always an element of truth about it, but also an element of smokescreen.

What was irritating about the Burnham 'interview' was partly that these confrontations so rarely allow us to get into the issues effectively, and partly because the whole NHS debate appears to be about privatisation and the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

If you have the misfortune to get your news from 38 Degrees, or similar, you might have swallowed the idea that the new legislation, only two years ago, fattened up the NHS for privatisation, allowing Ed Miliband to ride to its defence.

So quickly have we forgotten that the Health and Social Care Act was not passed as originally drafted - when there might have been a case like this to answer - but heavily amended by the Lib Dems.

Turn to the Parliamentary record, if you doubt me, and you will see some of the Lib Dem amendments:

1.  To remove “the reviews by the Competition Commission from the Bill to make sure that the NHS is never treated like a private industry.”

2.  To "keep the independent regulator of Foundation Trusts, Monitor, to make sure hospitals always serve NHS patients first and foremost.”

3.  To "introduce measures to protect the NHS from any threat of takeover from US-style healthcare providers by insulating the NHS from the full force of competition law.”  This was also designed to fend off claims under the new TTIP agreement now being negotiated.

4.  To "insist that anyone involved with a commissioning group is required to declare their own financial interests, so that the integrity of clinical commissioning groups is maintained.”

5. To "put in place additional safeguards to the private income cap to make sure that Foundation Trusts cannot focus on private profits before patients.”

6.  To empower the Secretary of State for Health to give guidance to Monitor in line with his overarching duties, to promote a comprehensive health service and improve health outcomes.

It may be many things, but it was a tightening up of the opportunities for privatising the NHS which had been put into legislation under Blair and Brown.  So why the panic about NHS privatisation?

Far from making integration more difficult, the Lib Dem amendments have made integration easier than it was under New Labour - and integration is now the objective of the Department of Health.

Because there is a problem, not with wholesale privatisation, but with the extension of contracting out in the NHS.  It is the narrowing of deliverables, which simply sprays costs around the system, which is the real problem here - and the major outsource suppliers whose main skill is to provide the target data with the minimum effort.  It is currently leeching money out of the NHS.  

Yet, thanks to this smokescreen argument about privatisation, the real issues of contract culture are not discussed.

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Monday, 5 January 2015

Why the nationalists have us on the run.

New years always take me a little by surprise.  I've looked back to see what I was predicting for 2014, and I seem to have been pretty much right.  I said that the key intractable issues of the year would be:

1. The rise of the intolerant, nationalist right across Europe.

2. Political stalemate over the status of Scotland.

3. The breakdown of the measurement and transparency system in UK public services. 

I'm not sure that I completely hit the nail with No 3. In fact, the measurement and transparency systems which govern public services still stagger on, as boneheadedly as ever - and that will be a theme, if only for me - in the year ahead.  We have still not grasped the damage it has been doing.

This is what I wrote under No 2:

"I know all the bets are on the Scots giving a whole-hearted thumbs down to independence, but I am not sure it will be overwhelming at all – and for the same reason for the revolt against the European Commission and the bureaucracy of the single market: voting yes to Scottish independence looks increasingly like a vote for imagination and open-minded courage, and against the miserable technocratic carping about how people’s narrow economic interests will be compromised."

Looking back at the peculiar period of the Scottish referendum, my strong sense is that the issue will not go away until the unionist side can c0me up with a vision for Scotland which is as optimistic and compelling, while still being inside the UK, as the independence side.

The way out in the Scotland debate, and a victory for the non-nationalists, will come in precisely the same way as a victory for the non-nationalists in the Europe debate.

The non-nationalists can win temporarily, by citing narrow economic interests - about being part of the UK or part of the EU - but that is all.  By doing so, they simply postpone a solution and leave open the possibility of exit.  In this, as in so much else, we await the emergence of a shared radical narrative for a future which is not simply about defending the compromises of the past.

Will it come in 2015?  My prediction is that it will be more apparent, but still has some way to go before it reaches the mainstream - maybe as much as a decade.  We therefore await the crisis of the early 2020s, which I believe will bring about the major change of direction that I've been predicting.

But still, this is the first blog of the year, so I have to make a few predictions about the 12 months ahead, and in particular the coming general election:

1.  The Lib Dems will hang on with 39 seats (yes, you heard it here first).
2.  UKIP will get no more than four seats.
3.  I have not the foggiest idea who will be prime minister at the end of it - or indeed whether we will have to vote all over again.

I'm only too aware that this isn't much of a prediction.  But the implications for the Scotland and Europe debates is that, in the absence of that compelling vision of independence inside the various unions, then the nationalists will still have us on the run this year.

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