Thursday 29 June 2017

The court victory against Grayling and the cult of official obfuscation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday 26 June 2017

How far was the Gibb Report 'sexed down'?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday 22 June 2017

How hottest June 1976 changed us forever

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

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

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

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

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

Long may we continue to be.

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

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Thursday 15 June 2017

Why ever did we stop worrying about high rise?

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

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

They called it ‘nattomy soup’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday 13 June 2017

The two previous Brexits: Dunkirk and Henry VIII

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday 6 June 2017

Time to vote for a different Southern Rail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday 2 June 2017

Will the next PM come from outside mainstream politics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I think we can say the following:

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

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

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

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

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