Tuesday 12 December 2017

When Southern Rail is like HMS Queen Elizabeth

This post blew in from www.radix.org.uk ...

Yet another miserable journey home with Southern Rail (power supply problems again, or so they say), I found myself thinking about Britain’s brand new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.
On the face of it, there are not many parallels – I’ve no doubt that the traditions of the navy will make it an effective, efficient and (if needs be) a heroic ship. Whereas Southern is a third-rate operation, and has studiously avoided being effective or efficient. Though managers and staff have occasionally had to be heroic.

But they do have one important element in common. Both are expensive symbols held up by the equivalent of scaffolding – gestures towards the nation we thought we were, rather than practical propositions to serve the nation in the twenty-first century.

Aircraft carriers are the central purpose in a naval task force designed to protect them. They require protection from air and submarine attack. They are the pinnacle of the naval pecking order and can pack a huge offensive punch – but only if the rest of the pyramid is in place.

And it’s not. The navy has a dwindling number of ships, with only a handful to discharge these kinds of duties – plus everything else (there are now a mere 20 fighting ships in the navy, plus ten submarines, compared to 69 plus 34 during the Falklands War in 1982).

Without that protection, the Queen Elizabeth – the biggest and most expensive ship ever commissioned into the Royal Navy – is just a symbolic gesture, a pretence, a dangerous con.

And so it is with Southern and their managers Govia Thameslink. They have the outward symbols designed to give the impression of providing a modern train service, but they lack the staff, the capacity and the sheer willingness to provide one.

Since Govia took over the franchise in 2015, they have removed the spare drivers that used to be rostered to fill in avoidable delays, and can also fall back on overtime. Instead of training more drivers, they use the spare ones to avoid paying overtime. There is no spare capacity at all. (see my short book Cancelled! for more details).

So though the old Southern Railways (died 1948) was known as a byword for efficiency, its successor is known as a byword for the reverse. Passengers taken ill, lorries hitting bridges, may not seem like their fault – but since they make no preparation for inevitable events (claiming this is efficient), the passengers suffer.

So on Friday, for example, they managed only 40 per cent within five minutes of schedule. As many as 30 per cent were more than 30 minutes late or cancelled.

The latest trick took me by surprise. Twice last week, and with no warning or apology, the train raced by Shoreham-by-Sea without stopping on its way to London. On both occasions, the member of platform staff was left to deal with the rage of passengers who had bothered to show up on time – only to be let down – without any information or explanation.

I have asked some of my usual informants (thanks so much, guys) and the consensus is that there has indeed been a change in policy in recent months.

There are reasons why their express trains might race ahead to Hayward’s Heath, after all. It maybe that the driver is due a break before his seven hour limit, and will need to take it – or to go home because, for whatever reason, their end of shift time is inflexible (picking up children from school for example). So if the train has been delayed, then they may have to race through – given that there are no drivers kept in reserve any more.

But the change in policy is in accordance with one of the recommendations in the Chris Gibb Report, some months ago – that controllers need to act much earlier to get services on time again after delays.

Hence the dashes past waiting passengers.

Of course, this is a much wider problem than just Southern, which is an extreme example of a very British disease. There is something admirable in controlling costs the way the UK system does, but when it happens at the expense of those services actually working, the whole system becomes insane.

It was a crucial moment, when civil servants realised they could pay for the outward manifestation – the shiny new trains, the new logos, the timetable or the aircraft carrier – while cutting out all the support infrastructure that would protect it and make it effective.

That is now happening throughout our services, perhaps primarily the result of a lobotomised civil service – who can’t distinguish between the political needs of their masters and reality.

Maybe it doesn’t matter in the future of the nation that we can no longer rely on our trains, but when we have the outward manifestations of military force but none of the safeguards, then that is extremely dangerous. For all of us.

The British disease the lies in the inability to tell the difference between a real institution and one that has no infratstructure to support it. Which is why we have a railway franchise like Govia Thameslink with no reserves for when the weather strikes or the signals fail.

It is why we have an aircraft carrier without the escorts needed to protect it. It is why we have hospitals and schools that meet targets but fail as human institutions.

That is the tragic inauthenticity of Brexit Britain: a fake efficiency that – as anyone who travels by Southern knows – is actually extremely inefficient and ineffective and therefore wasteful.

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Wednesday 6 December 2017

Why we need a whole lot more mavericks

This blog is adapted from one that first appeared on the Real Press website...

I met the folk singer Pete Seeger just before he died. He was jamming outside in the July sunshine, with some young violinists, playing Ashokan Farewell. He had been attending a conference near the Hudson River about local currencies where I had just been speaking.

It was a great honour to meet him, a friend of Woody Guthrie no less, partly also because – when I was growing up – the only 45 rpm single my parents possessed was Seeger singing Little Boxes. I told him this and he told me how the author, Malvina Reynolds, composed the song driving just outside San Francisco when it came into her head – she said to her husband ‘Stop the car! I feel a song coming on…’

It is a powerful song about sprawling suburbs, but it goes beyond that in my favourite lines:

“They were doctors
and lawyers
and business executives
and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
and they all look just the same…”

Because Little Boxes was not just about houses, it was about minds – “tinned minds”, as John Betjeman put it in his famous poem about poor old Slough. The song is a hymn to the only kind of Liberalism I recognise, which is prepared to think outside the little boxes, even though the world thinks differently.

I don’t believe this need to encourage the kind of nihilistic approach to everything that you might hear, to choose a random example, on most BBC comedy panels – I may be showing my age here – but it is an approach to life and politics which dares to think differently and to stand out from the crowd.

I have also realised that a great deal of my writing has been about the maverick approach (which is why I've collected an anthology of three short books, all about people living or working differently, and daring to refuse to submit to the generally accepted tramlines of thought. I've called it Great British Mavericks).

I believe the centre ground in politics needs a great deal more mavericks if they are going to construct the alternative narrative they so badly need. In fact, without a hefty dose of maverick, or at least a maverick wing, I'm not sure a political party can have the three-dimensional life it needs to survive and thrive.

Going to a recent party to remember my predecessor as editor of Liberal Democrat News, my own party's weekly paper (Mike Harskin, who died 25 years ago aged only thirty) forced me to remember the maverick force that the old Liberal Party used to be. "Obstruct the doors," Mike used to say. "Cause delay. Be dangerous". But where is the Lib Dem radical, trouble-making fringe now?

One of only two email comments I received from party members, after I spoke at the Radix fringe meeting at the Lib Dem party conference, accused me of being "off message".

Well, I certainly was and was proud to be. In fact, I intend to remain so. Not because I am by nature awkward - though I am - but because I believe the centre ground is the only place where maverick thinking can emerge. And where maverick thinking can emerge, then life can thrive and we can learn and move ahead.

This is a radical thought in itself - the centre ground needs to shift from the home for those committed to the world's existing arrangements to the home of those prepared to think for themselves. It is happening, but tediously slowly.

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Wednesday 29 November 2017

The Basil Fawlty delusion of Southern Rail, and why it matters

This post wafted in from the Radix site...

The story so far. Govia Thameslink won the franchise to run the Southern rail franchise and took over in early 2015. Thanks to their failure to recruit enough train crews, and their inability to build any kind of trust with existing crews, by the middle of 2016, the franchise was in free fall – with exhausted passengers expected to wander hopelessly between motionless trains, and staff left without information as they tried to deal with dangerously overcrowded platforms.

Things have improved a little since then, though last time I tried to catch the crucial 8 am train to London from my station, it was cancelled at the last minute. We have come on a year since those darkest days and the government is finally hinting that they will break up the franchise.

The odd thing is that, after all this, operators Go-ahead and government ministers have convinced themselves that they have been the victims of a vicious trade union conspiracy.

I have never talked to David Brown or Charles Horton. Still less have I been granted an audience with Chris Grayling. But I know people who have, and this is what I hear. It is also what I heard from some of their senior executives. They have been the victims of militants, who have cooked up the ‘sicknote strike’ that so torpedoed their services in 2016.

I have no particular time for either union, though I have some sympathy with the poor outmanoeuvred RMT. But, although I wrote about the crisis most weeks in the second half of last year, I was never given any evidence by either side that the sicknote strike was anything other than what it seemed – the result of catastrophic stress on staff morale and health.

The most militant unionists tended to be, when you asked them, very cross Conservative voters.

But no, ministers and executives alike have been able to avoid personal responsibility in their own eyes because, first, they were the victims and, second, the whole operation has been a game of chess between management and staff where passengers irritatingly got in the way.

Unfortunately, the errors have continued, many of them set out in Cancelled!, the short book I wrote last year from the huge feedback I received from the blogs I had written about Southern, leading up to the #passengerstrike. The vision of a frictionless, staffless, human-free railway that Southern was designed to explore carried within it a number of basic problems. Here are a few of them:
  1. If you reduce crew numbers at the same time as platform staff, to the extent they have, it will inevitably constrain the travelling of people in wheelchairs.
  2. If you want automatic barriers to act as ticket collectors of last resort, then the tickets need to open them – and my tickets bought on the Southern network usually don’t.
  3. You will also need people to be able to buy tickets, and not only have many ticket offices closed, but the new ticket machines came complete with a strange glitch which shut them down when anybody tried to take their tickets out before they had finished printing.
Add to this the way in which last minute cancellations have been replaced by unexpectedly short trains, squeezing passengers into smaller spaces (they really are so annoying those passengers, aren’t they). 

Not to mention the transformation of a generally reliable network with tea trolleys on their long-distance routes into their sweaty, unreliable, tea-free services we get today. And new Thameslink trains which looked as if they had been designed to be hosed down every night on the inside. Not to mention their Basil Fawlty-style management.

I have been searching for a clue to the boneheaded failure to understand their own failures, in the small interlinked circle of transport managers, operators and decision-makers, and I think I may have found it.

I pointed it out in my report on Barriers to Choice for the Cabinet Office in 2013, and it was the failure of the different parties and parts of government to understand that they meant different things by the word – but they appeared to be unaware of it. For Labour, choice meant pseudo-markets in the public sector. For the Lib Dems, choice meant consumer rights. But for the Conservatives, it simply meant privatisation.

It is a good bet, therefore, that the present government believes they are operating ‘choice’ in Southern because it is a privately managed franchise (though it is not privatisation under any of the usual definitions). The passengers seem to be considered irrelevant, the real victims of the whole catalogue of incompetence – mere interlopers in the battlefield of the gods, clashing in some ancient, long-forgotten feud above them in the heavens.

But what really worries me is what this says about the management of privatised or contracted-out services everywhere else. Because, if this is the case, the long-suffering users are considered irrelevant. So is their ability or otherwise to meet needs – just as long as they operate cheaply, and they beat the powerless unions, and they stay friendly with their commissioners. It isn’t a happy thought.

So when the government talks about breaking up the GTR franchise in the southeast, you have to ask whether this will make any difference if the basic problem - the Basil Fawlty attitude - still survives.

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Friday 24 November 2017

The real reason house prices keep going up (it isn't what they say)

This post first popped up on the Radix blog...

The author Radical Middle, the campaigner Mark Satin, used the metaphor of roads and myopia to explain what he meant by the title. For Satin, it isn’t about a view from the right hand side of the road, or the left hand side. It is, he said, “a view of the whole road”.

That fearless clearsightedness suggests an end to the deliberate selection of evidence, which should perhaps be a central purpose of the radical centre project. Which might explain why I feel so enraged by the faulty assumptions behind the latest UK budget.

Let’s leave on one side for a moment how nurses improve their ‘productivity’, or why transport infrastructure should help the suburban poor in our cities (the Newcastle metro isn’t used to speed the city’s poorest to jobs in the car factories, the London overground or underground don’t seem to help the poor of Barking and Dagenham).

Just for now, let’s examine the big lie that everyone in the establishment seems to repeat – that high house prices are caused by too few homes. It can’t help, of course, but where is the evidence that it is the central cause? On the contrary, a glance at the graph of inexorable house price inflation shows the biggest leaps have all been when more mortgage money gets pumped in – when Geoffrey Howe abolished exchange controls in 1979, when Nigel Lawson ended MIRAS in 1987, when Gordon Brown encouraged buy-to-let mortgages early this century.

It is worrying that even the Treasury seems unable to recognise a classic case of too much money chasing too few goods. If we have to satisfy the building demands of every Far Eastern investor before we see any benefits from building more, then you can’t help feeling there may be a quicker way to tackle this urgent problem.

There are whole new estates along the Thames with no lights on, because they are owned by Singapore investors – whose money has fuelled another ratchet in the inflation of roofs over our heads in the UK. It is this discomfort which, I assume, has caused the official myopia.

I wrote about this first in my book Broke, which now seems more prescient for comfort. It was put coherently by the Stumbling and Mumbling blog last month.

It matters partly because, if we build more without tackling the fundamental problem, they ill just slip further out of reach of most of us. It also matters because the solutions in the budget – abolishing stamp duty for first time buyers – will push up price too. It is a classic Treasury fudge, trading off long-term pointlessness against a few positive headlines today.

They also matter politically. Because the middle classes will not sit back apathetically to watch their children priced out of the housing and rental market, unable to set up any kind of home in the neighbourhoods they were brought up in. These are dangerous times and, thanks to the myopia of the budget, getting more dangerous.

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Wednesday 22 November 2017

Dear blockchain, here are your ancestors...

Vinay Gupta is a fascinating man, graduating from developing simple yurts to support refugees anywhere to working out the deeper implications of bitcoin, blockchain technologies and climate change. I was keen to meet him, and I did.

In fact, I met him at an amazing annual event hosted in Brighton called the Meaning conference, packed full of thirty- and forty-something entrepreneurs who are optimistic that enterprise and imagination – social and profitable – can develop solutions to the world’s problems.

We live in undeniably pessimistic times, so it does everyone good to be around optimists. And Gupta’s presentation was optimistic. He believed that blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin, can “solve the problems the free market is unable to solve” – including the inefficiencies that creep in with dominance by big corporates.

“Bitcoin and its associated world is now worth $200bn, printed by a collection of nerds,” he said (there has been a bit of a downturn since he spoke). “You stare at it and you keep staring at it and it doesn’t get any more sensible, and it doesn’t go away.”

I talked to him afterwards and he confirmed what I feel about the blockchain phenomenon. That, although blockchain is new, the idea of new kinds of currencies or tokens – some speculative, some practical – is not new. But few in the new wave know the story of what happened before, via negative interest currencies, stamp scrip, deli dollars, Ithaca hours, berkshares, the Club de Truque, the community banks of Brazil, the Bristol pound, LETS, green dollars, beenz, ipoints, trade pounds, time credits, e-gold, and all the rest of them.

This is an important body of knowledge. I therefore commit myself to bringing together the old world of complementary currencies with the new world of blockchain – and to see what happens as a result.

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Wednesday 15 November 2017

The choice before the Brexiteers: open society or Chinese-style capitalism?

This blog first aired itself on the Radix blog site...

It’s a funny thing, but Michael Gove’s defence of Boris Johnson, following his damaging confusion about a British woman detained on holiday in Iran, gave me a real shiver of apprehension.

It wasn’t just the lazy way Gove was apparently prepared to undermine the slim chances Nazanin Ratcliffe has for release – by implying there was some doubt about why she was in Iran (visiting her parents), when there is none. Nor was it simply the way the Brexit establishment shoves aside vulnerable people if it helps their political chances. No, it was also something to do with the philosophy of Karl Popper.

Popper, as I may have mentioned before, seems to me to be the key to any kind of radical centre ground in politics. It was Popper who explained the sheer inefficiency of dictatorship, writing in England as a refugee from the Nazis.

Popper came up with an interim answer to the problem David Hume had set two centuries before. You can’t prove that all swans are white no matter how many white swans you see. But you can disprove it – if you see a black swan.

Popper’s philosophy of science implied that societies, governments, bureaucracies and companies need to make this falsification easier. Because they work best when the beliefs and maxims of those at the top can be challenged and disproved by those below. That’s how we learn. Closed systems discourage learning – openness encourages it. That’s why Popper said that open societies are the one guarantee of good and effective government.

It means that people on the front line will always know better about their own lives or their own work than those at the top. The more open you are to them, the flatter the hierarchy, the more the challenging information is available to move forward.

Popper’s open society idea is simultaneously the only possible justification for Brexit and an explanation for why the highly centralised structure of the UK is not designed for a post-Brexit world. The Brexit government represents the very opposite of the central idea of the Brexiteers, a kind of languid sense of entitlement to absolute power.

So here is why Gove and Johnson’s behaviour matters. Because there are two models of market-orientated trade – the western and the Chinese. For a long time, we assumed that Chinese capitalism would be vulnerable because of the open society factor – they would not learn as fast as we do. For a long time, liberals assumed that democracy and open markets necessarily belonged together.

But now, with Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism – which tends towards enslaving their own people – on the march, we have to ask which way the Brexiteers in government intend to jump. Will they go with Popper’s open society as the basis of a learning market, or will they opt for authoritarian capitalism – which is happy to lazily sacrifice individuals and consumers just so they can prove themselves right?

Will individual rights matter in Brexit Britain – or are we to be sacrificed on the altar of Gove’s and Johnson’s quest for some kind of justification?

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Monday 6 November 2017

A century on from the Cottingley fairies...

When I wrote my first novel, Leaves the World to Darkness, I had been determined to write a novel for grown-ups about fairies. A serious subject, after all.

The consternation and confusion the whole idea seemed to cause was irritating and finally rather amusing. One fiction editor, interested in publishing the book, asked me if I was prepared to excise the fairies out of the plot – the whole purpose of the story.

I nearly lost one ghostwriting job because the subject (actually the subject’s father-in-law) saw I had written a book about fairies, and they weren’t his cup of tea. I never brought it up when I was working in the Cabinet Office. Perhaps that was just as well.

Fairies play such a central role in English and Celtic culture, so it seems a pity that they have been reserved for children. And the moment this may have happened may have been exactly a century ago this year when two little girls from Cottingley in Yorkshire claimed to have take photographs of them.

What happened next, the furore of the world media and the involvement of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Theosophists, has kept the incident before us for a century. Even then, the recantation by the girls overshadowed the fact that the youngest of the two maintained to her death that one of the photos was genuine. I’m not sure that the serious study of fairy belief has ever recovered.

So the work of Simon Young and the reformed Fairy Investigation Society is extremely worthwhile, and their Facebook page and their surveys about people’s experience of fairies are going very well – and their last newsletter (I can’t find a link to this) was devoted to Cottingley.

In the meantime, there is Hazel Gaynor’s new novel The Cottingley Secret. There is also my own Leaves the World to Darkness, in paperback published by the Real Press or on Kindle as published by Endeavour.

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Wednesday 1 November 2017

Why The Death of Stalin seems worryingly familiar

This post first appeared on the Radix website.

We had what my youngest son used to call an ‘insect day’ at my eldest son’s school on Monday, so we spent the afternoon watching The Death of Stalin, the new Armando Iannucci film.

It is rather fabulous, with a extraordinary performances by the main cast as Khruschev, Beria, Molotov and the rest of the gang. The film could equally have carried the title ‘The Death of Beria’, who is played magnificently by Simon Russell Beale.

I found myself haunted by the experience, by its black humour and what Hannah Arendt called the ‘banality of evil’, but also perhaps wondering why aspects of it seemed so familiar.

I have come to the conclusion that this was only partly because the same style of tyrannical wrestling with reality was the subject also of Iannucci’s TV series about UK politics, In the Thick of It, with the fearsome Malcolm Tucker in the proto-Beria role.

It was also because of the phenomenon, identified by the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, that – if you fight someone – you get like them. So by fighting the Cold War, by engaging in eyeball to eyeball confrontation with the Soviet Union for so many decades, we began to imbibe some of their thinking.

I mean partly the way we conduct our politics, like great separate Kremlin style soap operas, with Westminster operating with a whiff of the same centralised, struggling incompetence, without talent or trustworthy institutions. Of course, our professions have not been sent to the gulags, but most institutions regarded as threatening the establishment’s right to rule have still been gutted.

Also perhaps the technocratic, not to say Stalin-esque, way we approach the problem of services, requiring people to stay still and passive to make them easier to process and subjecting the professions to detailed thought control.

There are also the extraordinary stories now emerging from the undercover work by Channel 4 on the front lines of universal credit (“I got brownie points for cruelty,” said one Jobcentre advisor).

It is a disturbing but undeniable aspect of human nature that if lazy cruelty is ever allowed, by those put in charge of a class of being, with tacit permission to behave as they want, then they will be tyrannical. From Huntingdon Life Sciences to Universal Credit, via Beria’s secret NKVD, the rule still seems to apply.

But the ghost of Stalin’s Russia is alive and well, perhaps even more so, in the corporate world – with their great marble porticos, their manipulation of reality (Tesco’s auditing, VW’s emissions tests) and their tyrannical treatment of staff (take Amazon for example). Or the sudden disappearances, the airbrushings out of corporate photos. Or the dismissal of Barry Lynn and his team from the New America Foundation for having the temerity to criticise Google, the great monopolists.

There are also parallels with the great lies the establishment tells itself – like the delusion that there are bank managers, individual doctors, youth services, probation officers, supportive job centres, to help and support us through life. There are not, or not any more.

The question is whether these parallels were in Iannucci’s mind when he gave us this vision of the inner circle of the Soviet Union, squabbling and lurching from one great blunder to the next. The stakes were higher of course, for them personally, but perhaps not for the rest of us.

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Monday 30 October 2017

The energy and experience of small-scale publishing

Regular readers of this blog, should there be any, will know that I also run a small - not to say micro - publishing enterprise called The Real Press. Well, I've learned a little in recent weeks about the sheer energy in small publishing. But first, have a read of this...

Thysse message is o’er long. It doth comprise two main parts, a briefe note from one of mie oarsmenne on the findinge of the Spaniartt’s papers and the translat’d papers themselffes. These are in onlie part sensible order as the oarsman had yet to right them and the manne that translat’d the Spanish writinge simplye retold the tale in the order receiv’d. The originale paperes have disapper’d thysse xi daie of September 1589. They were soak’d butte legible and found bound at the stern of a small craft adrift in the baie call’d Coumenole.
So begins the new novel we have just published, by Craig Newnes. You may notice that at least half the novel is written in a language which has been invented by the author so successfully, and authentically, that we sink into the 1580s as if we had never gone away. Craig is also an eminent psychologist, and the book is as much about human relationships and love, erotic and otherwise, as it is about the Armada. But the language this adds depth to the whole experience.

We wanted to publish Tearagh’t because of this sense of another reality, moving under the surface – and because believing you are in another moment of history is a rare experience. Making it possible is one of those underlying purposes that the Real Press was set up to achieve. Personally, I think Tearagh’t succeeds triumphantly – so let me know what you think…

But the real lesson to me of the experience of publishing Craig’s book was that – perhaps for the first time – I became fully aware of the possibilities and importance of small publishing. The manuscript for Tearagh’t has sat on the desk of a New York literary agent for nearly ten years. It could have been issued by the biggest and most prominent publishers in the world. But somehow they seek out the safe and the formulaic instead, and it falls to the new wave of small publishers like the Real Press to issue it. We are certainly proud to have done so.

By whether I am right or wrong about this, Tearagh’t is a brilliant read and something that lives with you long after you reach the final page. And that makes it a rarity. See what you think!

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Thursday 26 October 2017

Will Corbyn's Labour go for central control or diversity?

This post was published today on the Radix site...

Maybe a decade and a half ago, I was a member of a committee set up by the Lib Dems to report on the party’s philosophy. It was chaired by Berwick MP Alan Beith and included no less a personage than Ralf Dahrendorf. It’s report was called It’s About Freedom. I seem to remember that the title was my idea.

We all suggested the names of modern thinkers who built the modern foundations of Liberalism. I had rather less confidence than I do now so I did not press my suggestion, which fell by the wayside, of the philosopher Karl Popper and his open society – and the idea that only a society where it is possible to challenge authority from below can learn as it needs to.

Popper’s political ideas emerged from his philosophy of science and were enshrined in his 1945 magnum opus, The Open Society and its Enemies. It is the most important justification of modern Liberalism, and also an explanation of why the totalitarians lost the Second World War and the Cold War. Because of that all-important challenge from below.

And all around me, the possibility of challenge from below is under threat. The Right never liked being challenged by the front line, but it is also under threat from the Left.

There are some obvious examples of both, whether it is the unpleasant implications of gathering the names of academics teaching about Europe, or – also in universities – the banning of some feminists who don’t toe the current line on a range of issues.

But what are we to make of the two examples, both published yesterday, of Labour councils that have signed away the rights to protest by people affected – on the issues of the mass felling of much-loved trees in Sheffield or the massive new Lendlease regeneration programme in Haringey.

In both cases, the programmes are promoted by apparently enlightened council leaders who had been much respected on the issues of inclusive growth. In both cases, also, they find themselves trapped by corporate contracts that lock them into a certain set of actions, for reasons we are not allowed to know. They are unwittingly promoting a kind of capitalism in the style of President Xi, centralised, secretive and thoroughly bad.

They also fly in the face of Popper’s open society. All the defensive leadership of Haringey and Sheffield are likely to learn is not to sign those PFI contracts again – yet they knew what they were signing.

Where is the dividing line between the all corporate Left and the Left that believes in diversity for its own sake – including diversity of opinion. Is it between New Labour and the Corbyn leadership? Or is it, more likely, a line drawn unseen within Momentum, between the old left and the new activists? Between Corbyn himself and his enthusiastic supporters?

And perhaps more urgently, why don’t we hear these issues hammered out inside the Labour Party? Because Chinese capitalism seems to me the very antithesis of Popper’s open society. It is also on the march, not just in China but also here. Tolerance and diversity work; they also need defending.

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Wednesday 18 October 2017

Monopolies and the dog that didn't bark

This blog post is copied from the Radix blog...

The news yesterday that the doom-laden trade dispute, between the giant American planemaker Boeing and its small Canadian rival Bombardier, may have been resolved only seemed to compound the basic underlying problem.

If the dispute really has been patched up, then it has been by doing a deal with Boeing's European rival giant Airbus to construct the Bombardier planes ordered in the US in a factory in the USA.

Of course, we should welcome anything that resolves this kind of trade spat, but – really – there is something craven about the solution, just as there is about the original problem. Apparently, both modern protectionism and modern free trade are understood in practice as about protecting the giants against their challengers.

I have written elsewhere (in the book I wrote with Joe Zammit-Lucia and published by Radix) about how the free trade idea became so corrupted. It appears to have something to do with a long-running dispute inside the Chicago School of Economics in the 1950s. Milton Friedman emerged as the victor and he said that monopoly was rarely if ever an issue.

This nonsense has led to the current impasse, where free trade has come to mean the very opposite of the original idea - it isn't about supporting challenge from below, it is an apologia for monopoly, a featherbedding of the giants.

While I understand how this reversal came about, I'm not sure why the forces of Liberalism worldwide should have abandoned their most important economic doctrine.

But I do know that concern about monopoly power is rising, not here perhaps, but in the USA - where two pieces of economic research have been published which lift the lid on the economic consequences of monopoly power. After all, the US Department of Justice didn't open any cases against monopolies at all in 2014, and opened just three in 2015. That compares to 22 cases in 1994.

You can read more about the latest research in the Bloomberg report here. Particularly, economists Jan de Loecker and Jan Eeckhout have found that prices re now 67 per cent above costs when they used to be just 18 per cent, and other evidence that consolidation is driving up prices. German Gutierrez and Thomas Philippon have also found that business investment as a share of GDP has been falling - probably because of the increasing market power of companies. Why would anyone lend you money to compete with Amazon, after all?

The situation was summed up in a recent headline in Christian Science Monitor explaining that Catalonia can opt out of Spain (perhaps), but never out of Google. American thinktankers like Barry Lynn and Stacy Mitchell are beginning to make hay with the monopolies issue, but in the UK - well, silence.

In fact, if you were wondering why the political centre ground has become so lost on this side of the Atlantic, their ability to be the dog that didn't bark about monopoly power might be all you need to know.

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Wednesday 4 October 2017

Homage to Catalonia - and what it means

This article is crossposted from the Radix blog...

Sometimes all you can rely on, to understand some sense of the direction events are taking us in, is a sense of history. As such, it seems pretty clear to me that the way the national authorities behaved over the Catalonia referendum guarantees that Catalonia will eventually secede from Spain.

Perhaps not now, perhaps not for decades, but eventually. What is more, it may also provide enough of a political impetus to other nations-within-nations , like Scotland, to go their own way. When firefighters have to stand between the crowds and the police to protect people, then something will inevitably change.

Nor is this necessarily a bad thing. Centrist politics has tended to be unionist. Liberals have certainly looked askance on every kind of nationalism, except possibly Irish. But something is changing, and I suspect that - among the mix - is a different attitude to economies of scale.

If your whole political system leaned heavily on the justification of economies of scale, then it made sense to subsume the parts in a greater whole. But if you recognise how rapidly economies of scale are overtaken by diseconomies of scale - as most people do now outside government - then the argument for unionism and the old-fashioned concept of nation states begin to unravel, along with all the other prevailing ideas that came along with the age of the assembly line.

I have written before about Freddie Heineken's vision of a Europe of nation states with around eight million people in them, and certainly there are successful nations and city states a good deal smaller than that.

People are frustrated with the sheer ineffectiveness of central governments, so divorced as they are from the real levers of power - which exist at very local and city level, where they exist at all (Sir Keith Joseph used to complain that he had spent his entire career trying to get his hands on these levers, only to find they weren't connected to anything). It maybe that this frustration, combined with the disillusion with the idea of economies of scale, will usher in nationhood - not just for Catalonia, but the Scots, and others. There is a similar referendum in northern Italy shortly.

What is more, if we are radical centrists, there are reasons for suggesting that this maybe a more peaceful, more effective way of governing than the current posturing of nation states and national parliaments. The days of Liberal unionism may be running out. It was after all another expression of the very nationalism it rejected.

But there is one pre-condition for success for this kind of transformation. We must retain the old national umbrellas. Without a continuing role for 'Britain', we risk unleashing the most dangerous kind of intolerant nostalgia. More immediately, we would lose the possibility of rebalancing the separate economies around the old nation, shifting resources from the rich areas in surplus to the poor areas.

If we don't do this, we risk creating a Europe of competing nation states - like G K Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill - with the big poor ones that are left behind battling with the smug small, wealthy ones. It was the lack of this very mechanism across the eureozone which has led, predictably, to the rise of the far right. The European Union could also provide it, but will they? And can they, inside the UK?

That makes revolutionary separatism, of the kind encouraged by the actions of the Spanish government in Catalonia, not just unhelpful, but downright dangerous.

We are nearly due a major shift of the political and economic mainstream - we have one regularly in the UK every 40 years - and it is worth arguing that Brexit and Trump are not the shift. They are more like John the Baptist, bearing witness to the shift. I am wondering whether the real shift, a response to the sheer uselessness and corruption of central governments, may be this radical localism.

I think it will happen, partly thanks to the police in Barcelona. But it needs to be done safely, or will will lead to the kind of bloodshed we saw in Yugoslavia. It has to be done deliberately by enlightened statespeople, slowly, bravely, constitutionally and under the continuing umbrella of the old national identities and their vital economic functions.

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Friday 29 September 2017

Uber, Amazon and Columbus and the parallels between them

This is a cross post from the Radix blog...

It is almost ten years since the publication of one of my best books (I have to say this myself!). It was called Toward the Setting Sun and it told the interlinked stories of the three men who gave their names to the so-called ‘discovery’ of the New World, Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci.

In the process of writing it, I became convinced that Columbus and Cabot had not just known each other, but had originally been co-conspirators in their great breakthrough – which was really about intellectual property. It was the near-identical contracts, signed by them with the Castillian and English monarchs, which set out how they could protect and profit from their discoveries.

As we know now, of course, they failed to find a new route to the Indies after all. But even so, the percentage they negotiated of all the gold, silver and cod from the places they put on the map would have made them the richest men in history.

The Columbus family’s claims against the contract led to a court case lasting two centuries.

This is also a very modern story because of the ambitions of a handful of mega-rich tech pioneers, behind Google, Amazon and others, who want to cream off a slice of every transaction if they can.

The next couple of decades may well be the story of how humanity prevents them.

There is a head of steam building in the UK behind a challenge, especially to Facebook and Twitter, to take responsibility for what their platform is used for. I have some sympathy with this. If Facebook becomes a conduit for hate or terrorism instructions, then they are not innocent. They have responsibilities. If not them, then who?

The difficulty is that Brexit Britain may not have the influence alone to enforce any kind of settlement. We will see.

So when London’s mayor Sadiq Khan bans Uber from operating in the city, it is not just about Uber – it is a shot across the bows of tech innovators who believe they should have a privileged position over other enterprises, just as Amazon avoids local taxes in the USA.

This is not an anti-technology position to take. I believe in self-employment and disruptive technologies. And if Khan intends to keep Uber out, then he needs to find ways of encouraging other, more co-operative challengers to the over-priced black cabs (it was partly Ken Livingstone’s fault that only bankers can now afford black taxis in London).

But the point is the same. Uber were allowing drivers and others to be exploited. If we are going to have disruptive technology, then for goodness sake let’s find ways of making sure it is owned by those doing the disrupting.

Because truly disruptive technology would not send us right back to the age of robber barons who end up owning us all.

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Wednesday 27 September 2017

Bran the Blessed and Labour's new vulnerability

This post is a version of one published on the Radix blog.

There is a strange piece of British mythology in Geoffrey of Monmouth which I keep being reminded of. The head of Bran the Blessed (as distinct from Brian Blessed) was buried on Tower Hill in London and had a strange power to protect the nation - as long as it stayed put. King Arthur dug it up because he wanted the kudos for protecting the nation himself alone. The result: the Saxon invasion.

I thought of this as I listened with fascination yesterday morning to a slightly blustery interview on the Today programme with Labour's health spokesperson Jon Ashworth about PFI contracts and the future of the NHS in the coming winter.

He is right of course that PFI contracts were often not fit for purpose, locking a changing NHS into bricks, mortar and concrete and into inflexible contracts too. The BBC made a great deal of the gap between what he said on PFIs and what the shadow chancellor John McDonnell said, but there is no doubt that the Labour approach - knocking down the old totems - strikes a chord with many people.

To an electorate so used to the sheer impossiblism of conventional politics, this is an important shift.

But there was a weakness which brought on rather more bluster than before and it may not have been obvious. It struck me as important because it has wider implications.

The link between the NHS and social care is so broken, so urgent and so important, he was asked, why are you not calling for an all-party consensus? Why are you not promising to consult widely about it? Why - I am editorialising here - does it have to be worked out in the labyrinthine recesses of Labour's modern equivalent of smoke-filled rooms?

I have no idea if the rumours about threats to BBC correspondents are real or not, but there is a new isolationism abroad in the Labour Party. There is just a hint of intolerance which was obvious as much as anything else from Ashworth's discomfort about the question.

He said he would be happy if either Jeremy Hunt or Norman Lamb, his opposite numbers in other parties, were to contact him - but then that was not what he was asked. Why will Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party not reach out for a sustainable cross-party consensus, which they could certainly achieve?

This leads on to other questions. Why will Labour not capitalise on their popularity and make things happen now, together with MPs of other parties? Or does it make them more electable if everything remains bad until the general election?

That's why I thought of Bran the Blessed's head. I hope Labour will keep Bran's sacred head securely buried, but I don't unfortunately think they will. That makes them vulnerable from outside from the Lib Dems. It also makes them nervous.

I hope Labour realises that they would be stronger and bigger if they encouraged the kind of cross-party activity that - in a hung Parliament - can make a real difference on a range of issues. Either way, there are bigger stakes to play for now than the next UK general election.

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Thursday 21 September 2017

How to revive the Liberal Revival - work out who the Liberals are

This is crossposted from the Radix blog.

I set out five different ways in the Guardian on Monday that we might kick start politics from a broad radical centre in the UK – by which I mean almost anything except the conventional, conservative Left and Right.

I made what might have been the mistake of starting with Vince Cable’s assertion that he might be prime minister, explaining that politics is in such flux and we might any of us.

Unfortunately, the editors started their headline with the words ‘Sorry, Vince’, which made it look a little like a slapdown. All I can say again is ‘sorry, Vince’.

The article preceded by a few hours the packed and successful Radix fringe meeting, where I spoke alongside Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson. It followed two fascinating Radix meals with the Italian professor Corrado Poli – founder of Radix Italy – about what UK politics might learn from the success of the Five Star movement there, now the main opposition.

In retrospect, one thing struck me more than anything else, and it was the way Five Star bases their appeal – not on the kind of fatuous, meaningless polling so beloved of political parties here – but on two things. First, on in-depth research about social change and the way people’s economic needs are changing. Second, on the kind of personalities who were likely to be open to their message.

This second one isn’t a new idea. It was used to good effect by the Leave campaign in the referendum. But, as far as I know, the Lib Dems have failed to think along these lines at all. I don’t know about the other UK parties.

Let’s just think about the Lib Dems for a moment. From the dawn of the Liberal Revival in 1958, it seems to me that the party became the political expression of the counterculture – from community action to the emergence of the voluntary sector, self-help and self-employment (in the early 1990s, the top ten constituencies for self-employment were all Lib Dem strongholds. This was not a coincidence).

Both the counterculture and the Liberal Revival are both now defunct terms and it may be too late to bring the two together again. But it was fascinating to see that the two attitudes the Five Star targeted in their early days was people who wanted to defend nature and people interested in complementary health.

Both were strong counterculture themes in the UK too. Both imply people who – rightly or wrongly – are prepared to think for themselves, to take action individually and collectively, rather than to passively accept everything they are told by professionals.

I don’t know if the same applies in the UK. I do know that, if the radical centre is to revive, they need to identify what kind of people are likely to respond to a radical Liberal or distinctive new message.

That means that they will also have to define their purpose a good deal better than they have done over the past generation. No more all things to all people. No more clever-clever positioning. But a much clearer idea and a much clearer sense of the kind of people who will be enthusiastic about it.

Twentieth century politics, before the Liberal Revival, was characterised by a powerful dualism – welfare versus business, unions versus management – which still traps the minds of our more conservative politicians of right and left. Twenty-first century politics is characterised by the triumph of counterculture values and … well, isn’t it time we found out?

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Thursday 14 September 2017

Is it time to turn the UK into ten separate nations?

This is cross-posted from the Radix blog...

The year 1992 saw the start of the new-look European Union and the Maastricht treaty which created it. It was also the year of an alternative proposal for the future of Europe, the much-ridiculed Eurotopia.

This was the brainchild of the beer billionaire Freddy Heineken. He suggested that Europe would be more prosperous, peaceful and equal if it was made up of 50 small states of no more than ten million people each.

Heineken’s proposal envisaged breaking the UK down into ten separate nations. Or to be precise, breaking England down into seven.

Let’s leave the European Union out of this for a moment and concentrate on the UK. I have considerable sympathy with the original premise. A group of small nations, held together lightly, would undoubtedly be more prosperous than currently arranged – for the reasons set out by Leopold Kohr in The Breakdown of Nations and Jane Jacobs in Cities and the Wealth of Nations. As long as nobody imposed the euro on them.

The problem is how you would get from here to there.

Let’s set that on one side for a moment. Because I can see the civilization, humanity and imagination that tends to emerge in smaller units, I’m not convinced that the radical centre ought any more to assume that large units are the most efficient way forward, nor the most peaceful. Nor am I convinced that Liberalism is really a unionist creed (because it certainly isn’t a nationalist one either).

I watched the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, and sang along with the patriotic songs – partly because I wanted to encourage my children and partly because I loved it and felt proud of the peculiar mixture of pomp and informality that the English have made their own.

I wondered if there was really any contradiction between the spirit of the Last Night and a collection of ten largely self-governing nations. I don’t think there is – on condition there is a recognisably British institution to hold them together.

I have written before about the urgent need to beef up the Council of the Isles, created by the Anglo-Irish agreement and left to wither since, as an ambiguously supra-national body able to hold together these disparate islands.

As long as it could still provide for the patriotic spirit about whatever unit you happened to want to celebrate. It would need to be, as the Blairites used to put it – ‘Daily Mail-proof’.

The supranational body would provide a kingdom for the Queen. It might manage defence. It might even provide a viable central bank. It must also credibly provide a focus for the continuing patriotic spirit, for Remembrance and trooping of colours, for Last Nights of Proms. It must not be a bloodless, bureaucratic creation or it will fail.

If we can still sing Rule Britannia as, in effect, separate nations, I see no reason why this should be an impossible arrangement – especially if we can bring the Irish Republic under the same arrangement without busting it (perhaps not).

But here’s the point. I could sing with more conviction that we would never, never, never be slaves in those circumstances than I could last Saturday night. It was all too obvious then that, actually, the slave-owners are queuing up in the shape of Amazon and Google and those like them, and we have a government only too happy to bid us farewell into slavery – as long as they can preserve their continuing illusions of pride and control.

The new ten-nation UK would need to have a similar set of relationships to defend them against other potential slavers – Putin and the Chinese financiers spring to mind. But we would claw back some of that multinational, multilocal identity that the little nationalists try to paper over.

That, it seems to me, is a future Liberal objective worthy of William Ewart Gladstone. It would also provide a peaceful model for the rest of the world, which seems to me what the English were put on earth to do.

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Tuesday 12 September 2017

'May God help us all' - a voice from the future

Cross-posted from the Radix blog.

Don’t let’s carp about the way that government has developed in the UK – there is no doubt that, in two ways in particular, they have developed considerable skills: I would summarise these as the ability to grandstand and its opposite, the ability to walk crablike to avoid potholes.

Both of these skills derive from a government system that is highly aware of short-term issues, and so unaware of long-term issues that they can only see them at all when they are broken down into short-term ones.

Ours is not, at this stage anyway, to reason why. Just to point out that issues around rising global temperatures, hurricanes and climate change are tough ones for government in the UK.

I don’t know whether the complaints about the pointless helplines, and the slow response helping hurricane struck crown dependencies in the Caribbean, are fair or not. I do know that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson failed to reassure on the Today programme, dragging out the bluster which this style of government – one without depth – falls back on in these circumstances.

Yet I had a moment of revelation over the past week, listening to the final broadcast by the governor of Puerto Rico before the hurricane overwhelmed them, where he ended with the phrase “May God help us all.”

Governments designed like ours in the UK find evasive action, or preparation, extremely difficult. It requires a grasp of reality that needs to be urgently re-engaged. Yet brute fact, and especially the brute fact of climate change, has a habit of having the final word.

Those pathetic words are ones I fear will become a feature of the modern world, as the planet heats and small island communities find themselves making last broadcasts from the abyss as the next or the next, or the next wave of hurricanes hit.

By then, of course, it may also be American cities. Imagine the mayor of Miami making a broadcast like that: we may not have to imagine it.

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