Thursday, 27 April 2017

Southern Rail compensation deadline looms - and guess what?

What follows is a guest blog by a Southern commuter who has been battling to get his compensation by their deadline, which is this weekend...

Do you find it slightly odd that, for a company with 300,000 daily commuters, to date they’ve only been in direct contact with 40,000 commuters owed extra compensation (and the doors close on 30 April)? I think the compensation scheme is run as poorly as their trains, and many eligible commuters will not receive the compensation owed. Why?

Well, as a daily commuter over the relevant period I’d bought seven monthly season tickets, several weekly ones and made many delay repay claims. With this information you’d expect they’d contact me and promptly pay the compensation due, right? 

 Wrong, they didn’t contact me. Eventually I called them, gave them my name, address, season ticket number, etc. – only to be told they could not find me in their records. I then had to wait several weeks to claim compensation online in mid-March.

With knowledge of Data Protection rules, I submitted a Data Subject Access Request to Southern asking for copies of personal information they hold on me - season tickets purchased and delay repay claims submitted. There were two statements from their compensation website that prompted this action:
  • “The process has been a complex one as we had to look through multiple data sources to be absolutely sure that we were correctly verifying a customer’s identity.”
  • “Unless we were 100% confident that the information we had was correct, we couldn't take a chance and make direct contact – for instance if there was a slight change in postcode.”
After all, perhaps I mistyped my address when making claims. But no, once they provided all the information requested it turned out that they had records of my season tickets and delay repay claims, and all accurately matched my name and address. So, are they going to appropriate lengths to identify and compensate contact eligible customers using “multiple data sources”? Clearly not.

When I pushed for a reason why I had not been identified by Southern, I was given a circular response that only seemed to reiterate the flaws in their own process. Quote below:-

“As you may be aware, this was a big undertaking required in a short period of time. The data gathering process was structured to process large quantities of data across different systems as efficiently as possible. The protection of customer data and accuracy of the compensation calculation was a priority. Two aspects of the data gathering process are relevant to your query:

1. Your Delay Repay record was excluded because the amounts had not been validated through the ticketing system. Our Customer Services team can either input the Delay Repay amounts manually or retrieve system-validated amounts based on ticket number. Both approaches are permitted in our process.

2. Your season ticket record was excluded because it had already been considered in Step 1 above. This was to avoid any possibility of double counting.”


If you can follow their logic, they indicate season ticket records (2) were excluded because they were covered under (1). But I was excluded from (1) because my tickets hadn't been validated! When I challenged the lack of logic, asking if I wasn't covered by (1) shouldn't I have been covered by (2), I was answered by:-

“If you were excluded under (1) it meant that your record was excluded and could not be considered under (2).”
Southern seems to be following a flawed process to identify eligible customers, and instead relying on people to make the claims for money owed to them. Some might think they did this deliberately by i) not contacting them in the first place, ii) delaying the online compensation claim site until mid-March by when most people forget they’re due recompense, and iii) giving them just 6-7 weeks to submit their claim by setting the deadline as 30 April.

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!

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.


Saturday, 22 April 2017

Three condundrums the Lib Dems need to solve to breakthrough

I was as staggered as anyone else that Theresa May has called a general election in June, especially given her assurances that she would do no such thing, though I can see the logic.

On the one hand, it does provide Tim Farron with what he has been asking for – an immediate second referendum on the style of Brexit (and again she said she would do no such thing). On the other hand, the result may be a forgone conclusion – not because a great majority of the nation backs the government, but because of the slow and inexorable decline of the Labour Party.

There is a suggestion that we now have three conservative-looking parties ranged against each other. One is embracing a different future but lacks the skills, ideas or open minds to manage it. The other wants to revert back to the world in 1945. The third wants to revert back to the world in 1980.

Or does it? That is the question this blog post poses. Because on the face of it, this election provides a unique opportunity for the Lib Dems to shove Labour aside, because they have apparently no opinion on the main issue of the moment.

As a lifelong Liberal, I am obviously excited at the prospect, but three barriers loom in the way, and they are intellectual ones. To reach their potential and become the official opposition – which the Lib Dems could conceivably do – they will have to solve three conundrums that will otherwise frustrate them.

1. How to bring the Liberal Brexiteers back into the fold.
The unaddressed challenge for the Lib Dems is that their former strongholds, especially in the South West, came out strongly for Brexit last year. That implies a powerful constituency of Liberal Brexiteers, who were not beguiled by the promises of the leave campaign but still have a visceral dislike of supranational bureaucracies. This seems to me to be both reasonable and Liberal. Somehow the party needs to be able to speak understandingly and inspiringly to the Liberal Brexiteers as well as the Liberal Remainers. That is a difficult balancing act and it requires them to look closer at the motivations of those tempted by Liberalism – not for a flirtation in one election but as a meaningful lifetime commitment (this is my interpretation of the so-called 'core vote strategy').

2. Speaking for the consumers of services, not the professionals.
Until they unexpectedly became responsible for some of them in 2010, the Lib Dems had little to say about public services. One of their difficulties go back to the merger of the Liberals and Social Democrats in 1988. They have many roots in common and the Liberals always included a strong Fabian wing (they used to call them Whigs). The difficulty is that it confuses the party’s message on public services: social democrats tend to back professional judgement and processes. Liberals prefer informality and individual variation – perhaps especially when it comes to education. Somehow the party has to shun public services run for the benefit of the staff (Corbyn) and public services run for the benefit of the operators (Southern Rail springs to mind), and to articulate an approach that represents the users and the ignored and put-upon consumers of public services.

3. Speaking for and to the nation as a whole without compromising their message.


One party is looking for the enemy within, the so-called ‘saboteurs’. The opposition is so divided that their enemy really is within. The nation is seriously divided too. The Lib Dems will need to hold to their clear position on internationalism but still somehow speak for the nation as a whole. This is particularly so when it comes to economics - the nation knows that the old assumptions of economics are now over. We have dysfunctional and over-centralised banks, and tackling that is as good a place to start as any.

If they can do that, and the other two, then I predict an extraordinary result.

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!

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Taking children out of school and the death of Fabianism

I just posted this on the Radix website, but it applies here too...

No, Fabianism isn’t dead yet – but the flurry of debate about parents taking their children out of school does seem to mark a moment in the story of the great decline. When judges in the Supreme Court develop their own brand of Fabianism, and give parents no discretion at all, you know the end can’t be far away.

I am defining the branch of Leftist thinking here, developed by Beatrice and Sidney Webb – with a little help from George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells – as a gradual approach to social change, leaving the economic structures intact and mediated by a new cadre of professionals and technocrats who would ‘know best’.

It might be possible also to see the new dispensation, including Trump, Brexit and Le Pen, as reactions against Fabian technocracy. In fact, Le Pen pere even said so at one stage, describing his Front Nationale as the only anti-technocratic party in Europe.

This is an approach that would regard the ‘spirit of ’45’ as partly to blame for its own demise. This is controversial territory.

You can see the divide on the left in their attitudes to the schools judgement: backing the local authorities which want to fine parents for any absences from the classroom. On the one side, you have the Fabian line – that children must attend school and there must be protection for them against the whims of feckless parents (broadly the social democrat approach). On the other side, there is also an attitude that parents probably know best what is good for their children and require a little flexibility (broadly the liberal approach).

In a nutshell, you have Gladstone’s famous distinction between trust in the people tempered by prudence and distrust in the people tempered by fear. I know which side I’m on, personally, but let’s leave that on one side.

Behind all this lies a conflicting attitude to education, not it’s importance but its style. Fabians will tend to back the professional educationalists who say that every moment in the classroom is precious. Liberals will tend to regard education more broadly, arguing that every moment out of the classroom is also precious.

None of this, by itself, suggests that Fabianism is in decline. What it suggests is that the inflexibility built into the system – because professionals have deemed something to be correct – is not an attitude that can survive if we want to beat the ideas of Trump and Putin. It is no coincidence that the two great Edwardian doctrines, Fabianism and Taylorism (the ‘one best way’) back inflexibility. It smacks of the age of the assembly line and economies of scale. The period we appear to be moving into is sceptical about economies of scale, aware that we have been blind for too long to the diseconomies of scale. The new age backs flexibility because it is more human, and – in the end – less expensive.

It is also sceptical that classrooms are always and every day the right place to be – and that we should maximise children’s time in them. The emerging age is also horribly aware that they are too often extraordinarily dull.

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!

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The right to break out of standard classifications

The film Mad to be Normal goes on release next week, and this is rather an important moment - at least for me. Partly because I have been fascinated by the revolutionary psychiatrist R D Laing my whole adult life - I even went to a poetry reading by him when I was a student (he sat slumped on the floor for most of the reading).

But partly also because I have a short book out which tells the strange and courageous story of his radicalisation, as a military psychiatrist and tries to set him in the context of a period of tumultuous debate, the 1960s and 70s.

The book is on special offer this week - including 99p for the ebook versions and £4.25 for the paperback. I would love to hear from anyone what they think of it.

Laing is a somewhat forgotten figure. You might almost believe that the psychiatric establishment won (as it did - they managed to get him to resign from the Medical Register before he died in 1989). When I mentioned his theories to a group of NHS staff I was teaching recently, they laughed.

But something is stirring. Partly, of course, it is David Tennant's portrayal of him in the film. But partly also because he stands for two critical elements which are as important now as they have always been.

First, human understanding in the professions - and he stood for this at a time when psychiatrists could, without consultation, cart people off to have electric currents passed through their brains, or part of their brains removed, and often did. If they had been sectioned.

Laing is one of the reasons we don't live in that world any more, at least quite so much.

The other reason can be summed up by this paragraph he wrote towards the end of his life about the American psychiatric diagnostic handbook:

“What DSM III seems to be is a comprehensive compendium of thoughts, feelings, experiences, unusual experiences, impulses, actions, conduct, which are deemed undesirable, and should be put a stop to, in our culture. It is so all-inclusive that most items of what all the world over at all times and places were deemed to be ordinary manifestations of ordinary human minds, speech and conduct, are ruled out. We, as we used to take ourselves to be, are to be cultured out, to be replaced by a homogenised creature I can hardly recognise as a human being.”

In this respect, Laing’s radical spirit continues to this day. He knew what would happen if we standardised people, and tried to encapsulate their individuality with numbers to make them easier to process. He stood then - and stands now - for the right to break out of standard classifications, however sophisticated.

It is a guarantee of our freedom and individuality.

Do read the book if you can - you can buy it at the special price until the end of the week on the publisher's website or on Amazon. Or catch up with the film here,

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!

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Towards a realignment of the Brexit debate

What do you believe, at the heart of everything? Ask most people about that and they wouldn’t be able to tell you. I’m not sure I can tell you myself. It shifts with the weather; it modifies itself according partly to who I most disagree with.

On the other hand, people want to know what political parties think. Whatever they might say about wanting reasonable politicians, it isn’t at all clear that they want political parties that are a little bit of this and a little bit of that…

This is the dilemma of the ‘core vote strategy’ that is under such debate inside the Lib Dems. On the one hand, it is the antidote to mushy short-term campaigning, which leads to rootless ‘revivals’ and rapid disillusion. On the other, well, that’s what this column is about.

On the face of it, the case for a core vote strategy is unanswerable. On the other, you have to ask more fundamental questions about what is absolutely core about Liberalism. Otherwise you might enshrine short-term policy solutions – the Iraq war or Brexit – as part of the core, forgetting that there may be Liberals who see things differently.

It is a strange thing but opinion on Brexit remains pretty fluid. I know a number of people who are moving from Leave to Remain. Personally, I feel myself – rather unwillingly, kicking and screaming – going the other way.

Not because I am somehow vacillating about the core values of Liberalism, but because I doubt whether clinging to past structures is the best way of getting there. There comes a point where we Liberals need to pitch our tents around new and better institutions, which actually do the job.

I realise that my kind of Liberalism is not now well-represented in the party as it once was. I’m not a social liberal. I’m certainly not an economic liberal. I in am what the academics describe as the 'Distributist' wing, a reference to the work of thinkers like Belloc and Chesterton – first inside the party and then outside it, and coming back to the fore under Jo Grimond in the 1950s.

I'm not even sure there are enough of us to fill a whole wing any more - perhaps a couple of out-buildings.

Yet these seem to me to be core Liberal values – devolution of power, economic structures that maximise independence, anti-trust action and other measures against giantism, small-scale property ownership. It isn’t that the modern Lib Dems have turned against them, but they have downgraded them to cling to institutions which may not be nearly effective enough because they are too big (and I don't mean the EU). They have veered towards a kind of institutional conservatism that I find a little difficult.

Why have they partly forgotten their Distributist wing? Partly because of the merger with social democrats in 1988 (who don’t really possess a Distributist wing). Partly because of fears about populism, and partly perhaps because of a tendency to see politics still in terms of right and left.

The loss of this Distributist edge (see the latest Journal of Liberal History for a good summary) has three serious consequences.

1. No economics: Distributism was primarily an economic creed, deriving partly from Joseph Chamberlain in his radical days. Without it, we get stuck in the economics of the 1970s (social liberalism) or of the 1870s (economic liberalism), caught between Fabianism and libertarianism.

2. Fading liberalism: For me, the Distributists represented the development of the old Liberal tradition untouched by Fabianism, which came with a great deal of unhelpful baggage. When the Distributists left the party in 1912, they took with them a potential radical alternative to Corbynism.

3. Muddled core vote strategies: Without that strand, it becomes impossible to see how Liberal voters decided to go with Brexit in so many places – Burnley, West Wales, most of the West Country. And unless that is obvious, those voters may be lost to intolerant populists forever.

There were Liberals, after all, who felt that their commitment to small-scale government, to self-determination and devolution, edged them in the direction of Brexit. If the party is ever going to win back people like that permanently, they need to develop a message that somehow embraces them too.

If a core vote strategy actually alienates a critical part of the Liberal coalition, then Liberalism shoots itself in the foot.

The answer may be to develop a core vote strategy, not based on a bundle of policies but on a bundle of attitudes, psychological types or moods. And if we do that, the need for self-determination, self-employment, self-actualisation is going to be pretty important.

As for the Brexit debate that continues, it is pretty clear that we need international structures - that's the only way we can reform international bodies like Facebook (it is pretty clear to me, even as a Liberal, that - after a terrorist attack - the police need to be able to intercept the messages of terrorists).

We badly need to move on, and it seems to me the Lib Dems are finding themselves doing so - but achingly slowly. The real question is whether we can imagine a debate where the genuine reformers (from Liberals to Douglas Carswell) align on one side against the nationalists and conservatives.

I can't see that yet, but it is where we need to be. Because this is not a game. The nationalists are at the gates of civilization. It isn’t just about engineering the next Liberal Revival, it is about remaking Europe.

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

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Win a copy of new R.D. Laing book!

Win a signed copy a of Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Click the link at the end of this blog to enter our GOODREADS BOOK GIVEAWAY. Or use a click-to-tweet below to tweet and enter our weekly EBOOK GIVEAWAY.

Something about our culture is riveted by the 1960s and 70s, and it was certainly a peculiar time – I’m old enough to remember it. But the ultimate period film is coming out in April, where the actor David Tennant plays the ultimate 1970s icon, the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing.

The film, Mad to be Normal, takes us back to the tale of Kingsley Hall in the late 1960s – and you can also read about that, and what led up to it in my book Ronald Laing; The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist .

But for me the key year was 1973.

It was a strange year, 1973. There was an energy crisis which destroyed the certainties of the postwar generation. Oil shot up in price. There was war in the Middle East. There were private armies in the UK, widespread industrial action and people like David Bowie singing about “five years – that’s all we’ve got”.

There was bombing, rioting and, by the end of the year, a three-day week enforced by law which forbade companies to work any more than that. And, amidst the chaos and the fundamental questions and criticisms, the world of psychiatry was rocked by a study published that year in Science by the Stanford University professor, David Rosenhan.

Rosenhan had tested the assumptions of conventional psychiatric medicine to destruction by seeing how they stood up to the real world. He recruited a team of his students, including himself, who were all instructed to go to their doctor complaining of hearing voices in their head. It was the only symptom they would mention – they would otherwise have no problems or issues, mental or physical. The voices would say rather anodyne things like “thud”. The pretend patients would have no previous mental issues either.

Without exception, Rosenhan’s students all found themselves admitted to mental hospital, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Once they were in hospital, their instructions were all the same. They were to behave completely normally and they found their experience of incarceration was also remarkably similar. Not one of the fake patients was recognised as sane by the hospital staff and, over a period of between seven and 53 days, they were all discharged as “schizophrenics whose symptoms had temporarily abated”.

Rosenhan was able to see the clinical notes written about his team when they were in hospital, and was fascinated to find that nothing they could do would be interpreted as sane. One of his students kept a diary about his time in hospital, and had been seen doing so by one of the hospital staff, who had written that “he indulges in writing behaviour”. It was a telling, worrying phrase.

Win a copy of Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Click to tweet. Just click the Goodreads link at the end of this blog to enter.

What he could not have hoped for when he was designing his experiment was what happened next. The research team had involved twelve mental hospitals, and they were not happy when the news came out with the publication of Rosenhan’s study.

But another one – what had not been involved – boasted in the public forore that followed that it would never happen there. Rosenhan seized the initiative and threatened to send some fake patients there too. The hospital then judged 41 of 193 recent patients as sane, and – only when he discovered this – Rosenhan revealed that he had actually not sent them any.

The Rosenhan experiment went to the heart of an issue in psychiatry in those days, a generation ago, when all professions were suddenly under scrutiny for the arrogant ways they used their professional privileges and powers. After all, psychiatrists could uniquely lock up people they decided were not sane, and do so indefinitely, without a second opinion, and carry out a series of irreversible and unproven treatments on them without their consent.

But what did it mean? Rosenhan seemed to imply that psychiatry was in the grip of a series of self-supporting assumptions about the sanity or otherwise of the population, which had no obvious relationship to the real world.

But the most important implication was set out clearly by Rosenhan: that psychiatrists were unable to tell the sane from the insane, with serious implications for these concepts. It seemed to imply, if nothing else, that there was something seriously wrong with the whole mental health profession.

Rosenhan had been inspired to try his experiment during a lecture by Laing about how insecure conventional psychiatric definitions were. He had wondered if he could design an experiment to test the proposition. It turned out that he could.

Win a copy of Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Click to tweet Just click the Goodreads link at the end of this blog to enter.

Ronald Laing was an enigma, then at the height of his fame, and people immediately saw that Rosenhan’s findings were important evidence that Laing was right. He was at the heart of a passionate debate, and a bitter argument, about sanity and what it meant – and how to claw it back – which seemed to go to the very heart of everything. Especially when the world seemed pretty insane, was perched on the edge of nuclear oblivion, and seemed unable to heal the rifts between rich and poor, black and white, old and young and East and West.

Since his groundbreaking book A Divided Self was published in a popular Penguin edition in 1965, Laing had been on a stratospheric journey that took him from a career as a major critic of the psychiatric establishment, and a spokesperson for those who had been misused by it, to something else entirely – a religious guru, the author of a million radical T-shirt slogans, a leading poet, a social critic and a theological maverick.

It is nearly half a century since Rosenhan’s research which marked the high point of Laing’s fame. Treatments are often a good deal more effective and more permanent than those offered in Laing’s day. Mental hospital inmates are no longer treated with the sheer cruelty, that Laing exposed to the light of day. But those in great mental distress are often forced to beg for help from overstretched mental health trusts, or to live isolated lives being cared for ‘in the community’, which tends to mean not being cared for at all.

Those in the grip of mental ill-health – which may be anything up to a quarter of us at some time in our lives – are categorised against the same kind of numerical classifications that Laing condemned, and weaned onto drugs that can still undermine their ability to recover.

Now David Tennant is playing Laing in the story of his alternative therapeutic community, Mad to be Normal (released in April). My new book Ronald Laing: The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist sets that story in context – telling the strange tale of Laing’s revolt inside Scottish mental hospitals, and also his wider story in the context of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture.

If you want a good read around the story of Laing, I would humbly recommend it.

You can buy the Kindle edition here or click the link below to enter the Goodreads Giveaway to win a signed paperback copy. Or simply click to tweet and follow us on Twitter to be entered into a weekly draw to win an ebook version.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Ten ways of the Absent Corporation

Let’s call it Catch-23. It is when you load your old version of Word onto a new computer and you are told that Microsoft cannot verify the code online, and that it has to be done by phone (see numbers below).

Then you find that telephone verification is no longer available for this version. You are caught in a very familiar double bind.

It is familiar also from dealing with many of the new generation of internet behemoths. The service is fine until something goes wrong, then – silence.

Try contacting Youtube because your children are being harassed by online bullies, or one of Amazon's suppliers when your goods don’t arrive – and you can find, as I have on both occasions recently, that nobody replies.

The truth is, as Lindsay Mackie and I explain in our new pamphlet The Absent Corporation: Why big companies don’t want to see you, this is a very modern phenomenon – the great silence at the heart of these newly empty organisations.

I’m tempted to say, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘let me count the ways’, but in this case I will just count to ten…

1. The customer service lines which have been outsourced (even Waitrose) to specialist online providers.

2. The alarm buttons and online feedback clickthroughs which are manned and never get a reply (we all know which they are).

3. The CRM software that has no space for your particular issue (most of them).

4. The deluded company HR departments that think than customer service can be replaced by a five-point scale for every ‘interaction’.

5. The rise of human-free trains and self-checkout – increasing at five per cent every year.

6. The tide of computerised selling, which is now used by 80 per cent of American companies.

7. The transformation of service staff into security guards – to police how we use self-checkout machines or get on trains.

8. The regeneration companies with no real existence apart from a name plate in an offshore finance centre like Jersey or Dingle.

9. The dark and silent flats on the investment estates in London, owned by absent investment companies in Shanghai and Singapore.

10. The increasing use of virtual teachers and doctors, mainly to service poor people, and the strange amnesia about the transformative effect of relationships with professionals.

None of this suggests that there are never benefits for human-free interaction, but it is another thing to say that software can tackle every conceivable problem – or that there should never be anyone there to help when something goes wrong.

This is a symptom of financialisation and a kind of tyrannical Taylorism, but most of all it is about the rising imbalance of power between these vast public and private semi-monopolies and the increasingly powerless people they serve.

See my Guardian article on the Absent Corporation. You can also buy the pamphlet here, or as a kindle edition here or as a pdf here.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.