Saturday 30 October 2010

Why we need to guard against technocracy

I wrote a blog about the Tea Party movement on Lib Dem Voice earlier, arguing that they provide a lesson for Liberal Democrats here - that we must be more scrupulously on the side of people, rather than bureaucrats, if we want to avoid a similar populist movement here.

I notice that there a comments at the bottom that accuse me of caricaturing them as a right-wing organisation, and also for precisely the opposite.  What can this mean?

Tuesday 19 October 2010

How to judge the cuts

Like nearly everybody, I don't have much idea what to expect from the Comprehensive Spending Review tomorrow - but it doesn't stop me worrying about it.  Of course I'm not alone either.

There haven't been many Lib Dems who have clung courageously to the Liberal concept of thrift through thick, and even through thin.  I have but I don't have any illusions about what, in practice, the coalition is going to do tomorrow.  The basic thinking about how to structure Lib Dem services was never finished (it wasn't really started).  We had little or no theory by which our ministers could determine what should stay and what should go; no theory to rival the conventional Coonservative or Labour structures of controls and systems.

I wrote about this on Lib Dem Voice and one of the comments afterwards, which I take seriously, said that I had a responsibility to be clearer about what I thought should be cut.  I think that is true.  I think maybe we should all of us, me included, also have been clearer about what should definitely not be cut. 

The Browne review of higher education, for example, is a testament to the worst kind of miserable utilitarianism.  It is no basis for any kind of humane future for universities.

So, at this rather late stage, I thought I would set out three ways by which we can judge tomorrow's announcements.  Some of the trade-offs will make sense.  Some will seem bizarre - some will seem as if ministers have been in the grip of the kind of frenzy of spending cuts that I believe takes over the collective mind on these occasions.  But it makes sense not to leap to any conclusions.  So, if there is anyone out there waiting for advice from me - humour me here please - here are the questions I think we should ask.  Will the spending changes lead to public services which:

1.  Prevent ill-health, poverty, misery or ignorance?  Will they be more able to reach out locally upstream of the problems and prevent them from happening in the first place?  If not, then costs are bound to rise in the future?

2.  Increase the chance of effective relationships between public service users and professionals?  If not, then we can expect our services to be less effective, and therefore more expensive in the long term.

3.  Are delivered through real local institutions which make us proud of being citizens?

This last one is very important.  The biggest failure of the New Labour years was the way they sucked meaning out of our institutions, closing local offices, undermining frontline relationships, tying them up in red tape, procedures, targets and systems - and did so at vast expense.  The justification for cutting spending is that it forces a change to this miserable hollowing out. 

That is my touchstone.  If the CSR hollows these institutions out even further, it will undermine their effectiveness even more.  That means bigger bills in the years to come, but it also poses a threat to what is most humane and civilised about the UK.

These are important issues, and especially for Lib Dems.  We will know tomorrow what the shape of the debate is going to be for the years ahead, and I must say - I am pretty bloody nervous about it.  Perhaps that's the only sane response right now.

Monday 18 October 2010

A small dose of Faceless Britain

I've just spent the last hour and a half holding on for various parts of AOL's call centre, which really must be one of the most useless in the UK - except of course it isn't actually in the UK at all.

Having finally got through to the first level, I was then left for another 45 minutes hanging on for the next level of support.  Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that I continue to send them money every month.

But I was at least entertained by their musical tape, which went round and round, and included a song with the line: "We'll keep on hanging on..."

Friday 15 October 2010

Three battles against the technocrats: one draw, one lost, one victory

This blog, in case you haven’t noticed, is committed – as far as it is possible to be – to the battle against soulless technocracy everywhere. So let me report on setback in the battle, one small success, and one draw.

The draw was the court case between the arch-technocrats Ryanair (hence the picture here, which I believe is the new Ryanair logo) and a website called I Hate Ryanair. Ryanair won, but on a technicality because the website included money-earning links.

On the other hand, the website is still up, ending .org, and without the offending adverts. So that one was a draw.

The setback is in the US Post Office, a worthy organisation and normally a model to be emulated by our own. But the excellent American website On the Commons has complained about the bizarre and inhuman marketing spiel that is now being forcefed to customers by the poor put-upon counter staff.

Worse, they are not allowed to stop, even if the customer complains – just in case the customer is actually a spy from central management, or their consultants, who go in disguise into post offices to make sure that the marketing rants are delivered as approved.

“I want you to give me my friendly postal clerks back!” said the On the Commons blog. “You must break the spell you have cast and allow them their humanity! You have made the Amherst post office an object of dark ridicule among my family and friends, as we disbelievingly trade stories about the glassy-eyed zombies who harangue us with unwanted marketing pitches when we simply want to mail a first-class envelope. On more than one occasion, I have taken my mailings to the UPS store instead because the clerks there are at least allowed to behave like genuine, spontaneous, happy human beings.”

Luckily, there is also a success to report, albeit a small one. The campaigners who call themselves Save St Barts Hospital (even though they have saved it long since) have been running a campaign against the McKinseyite managers who wanted to change the traditional ward names to numbers.

I’m glad to report that they have won. A small victory for human values against the number-crunchers.

Friday 8 October 2010

Playing the violin in Whitehall

This is Lily Schlaen of Orquesta Sin Fronteras, playing opposite the entrance to Downing Street yesterday afternoon, in aid of Kashmiri human rights groups.

Lily is a force of nature and her new orchestra, based in Teddington and including musicians from every nation and range of abilities - including disabilities - is an inspiration.

She is also my violin teacher.

It was fascinating watching the concert yesterday, with all the political apparachiks dashing by without ties (the civil servants in Victoria Street all have ties).  Most people are too busy to listen, but somehow bringing culture into the traffic and rush is always civilising.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Why Cameron's speech was important

There was something rather strange about David Cameron's leader's speech yesterday, and I have been trying to put my finger on it.  It was partly the slightly strained delivery, partly the muted response from the audience.  It was partly peculiar because he was talking about the involvement of ordinary people to an audience which, arguably, rarely meets them. 

But I've slept on the question and I think I have the answer, and this explains why the enthusiasm might not have been there for the Conservatives who were actually listened.  The reason was that Cameron was giving a Liberal speech and not a Conservative one.

Yes, of course there were things in there which would only be in a Conservative speech (encouraging marriage for example).  There are endless sentences you could take out of context which are obviously Conservative.  But overall, with the repetition of 'fairness' and the pupil premium and so much else, the context was Liberal.  No wonder the audience was not quite sure about it.

Perhaps most Liberal, actually, were the implications for the Big Society and the Kennedy-esque request for help.  We Lib Dems might not have put it quite like that, but if I had been writing that speech for a Liberal prime minister, that is what I would have said too.  The old days when politicians claimed the exclusive right to deliver everything to a grateful and passive society are over.  They can't do it alone any more, if indeed they ever could.

That is Liberalism. 

What interests me about it is why.  Nobody forced Cameron to make a Liberal speech.  There was no pressure to do so.  It wasn't as if Clegg had made a Conservative speech at his conference (though perhaps some people might say he did).  Of course we are yet to face the cuts avalanche, and things may look different then - it clearly is not yet a Liberal government, after all.  But something is going on, and I hardly dare articulate what I think it is.

Saturday 2 October 2010

The moment of lost economic innocence

When did the age of piracy shift over to the age of the financial buccaneers, the moment of lost economic innocence when the financial services industry first began the slow shift into the corruption that now engulfs it? I did a short lecture on Thursday night saying that this was the moment of destruction, by earthquake, of the pirate port of Port Royal, Jamaica.

The evening was partly to publicise my book Eminent Corporations, together with my co-authors at the National Maritime Museum, which is an attempt to inject a bit of history into the business of corporate brands. But the argument stands on its own.

The lecture is here – let me know what you think!

Friday 1 October 2010

Why I wasn't at the Labour conference

I've only once been to a Labour conference before, and was taken aback by all the sharp-suited young men stalking down the street, three abreast, talking confidentially.  To be fair, there were quite a lot of sharp-suited young men at the Lib Dem conference in Liverpool, but they looked marginally more human.

I was going to go to Manchester this week.  I wish I had in some ways.  My sense that behind Ed Miliband is this archetypal family tragedy, the destruction of his older brother's political career, has only grown during the week - and I feel increasingly that it is going to define Ed's leadership.

I was supposed to go on Monday to speak at a fringe meeting.  I only discovered a week before that the meeting was in the secure zone and I would need a pass.  I phoned the Labour Party and was told that, as an individual at that stage, they would charge me £425 a day.  Worse, they couldn't guarantee to let me in, and - although they might blame the police for that - they would not guarantee to give me my money back if they didn't let me in.

I expect the Lib Dem conference also puts non-members through this kind of thing too, but the experience was so reminiscent of New Labour's approach to call centres and people-processing - the inflexible regulations, the obscure rules that only benefit the organisation - that I decided not to go. 

I am self-employed and would never have dreamed of spending £425 on my own account, but I probably could have persuaded the organisation I was representing to cover the bill if I had argued hard enough.  But the thought of subsidising the Labour Party to the tune of £425 was too much.  I preferred to stay at home.  Was I wrong?