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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