Monday, 17 July 2017

The most important question for Southern Rail right now

I have been reading the brave and revolutionary book about public relations by Robert Phillips, called Trust me, PR is Dead. Considering that the author is now an ex-PR man himself, the title is a bit like the old circular contradiction All Cretans are liars, as a Cretan once told me - which so fascinated Alan Turing.

There is a fascinating passage where he was asked by one of the rail companies for advice to deal with their unpopularity.  But, as Phillips explains, all was exactly as it seemed.

"It turned out that its poor standing was well-deserved - the marketing director boasted proudly about how they shortened train lengths at peak times and lengthened them off-peak. This way they met the averages demanded of them by the regulator but paid less in fees. So what if the customers were packed like sardines? They had to get to work, so would put up and shut up - because they had to."

Phillips describes this as a disillusioning moment. As a PR consultant, he was "meant to conspire with this fraudulent idiocy". He didn't, suggesting instead that the company managers do a ceremonial bow (Japanese style, see picture) for a new National Apology Day (he didn't get the contract).

I have been thinking about this in relation to Southern Rail, and the pretence by them and the government that the short trains which cause such asphyxiation have something to do with industrial action.

They could be about trains not being in the right place, but that would apply only in chaos - and we have an emergency timetable.

Now, I have no evidence that the story in Trust Me, PR is Dead applies also to Southern. Since proposing the question in an article for the Guardian last week - and developing it in a blog on the Radix site, suggesting that people care much more about the manipulation than they do about the asphyxiation - I have downloaded screeds of in-house material about how Network rail calculates its charges.

I'm not stupid, but the whole thing is so packed with jargon and complexity that I will never penetrate its obscurity. All I can do is hope that other people will take up the question in Parliament.

On the face of it, it may be that Govia Thameslink's shadowy owners Go-Ahead are insisting that some of their losses should be clawed back from the battered passengers in this way. It could - in certain narrow economic cults - even be considered their duty to do so.

Either way, we must be told.

Meanwhile, I believe Robert Phillips is onto something with his National Apology Day proposal. It would help clear the air. This is how he puts it:

"Companies know when they have done wrong. Companies know when they have substituted the convenience of tick-box compliance for the imperative of values-led behaviour. And they know when they really should apologise - not that they do. No one needs to 'have god' to understand this. But everyone needs to have a core humanity and a very real sense of purpose and values - of what is right and what is wrong - in business, as in life."

So Charles Horton (Govia Thameslink CEO), Andrew Allner (Go-Ahead chairman) and Chris Grayling (Secretary of State) - please think about this one. Does the cap fit?

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More background on Southern in my book Cancelled!  about the whole saga.

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Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Was Margaret Thatcher real?

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Broke to look back at recent history to see why things were going so badly for the middle classes.

This was not, as some commentators suggested, because I had some kind of disdain for the working classes or because I thought life had been uniquely tough on the middle classes - I think nothing of the kind - but writing the book led me down some strange byways.

For example why house prices had risen so much since 1979, and how the decision was made to launch that process by abolishing the so-called 'Corset' which regulated how much money went into the mortgage market.

Reading the cabinet papers convinced me that Margaret Thatcher was a mere cipher in her own revolution, unaware what the revolutionaries - Howe and Lawson - were planning or why.

Her own rhetoric convinced her later. But at first, she had no idea beyond a vague support for homeowners. The so-called Thatcherite Revolution was misnamed. It also failed in a range of other ways to live up to its own rhetoric.

In one way in particular, as I argued in a blog on the Radix website, it failed to live up to its own convictions: it failed to provide real independence to anyone apart from the very wealthy - though the cascade of mortgage money made it seem otherwise.

This is what I wrote. What do you think?

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Monday, 3 July 2017

Towards a more civilised kind of Brexit

Ignore what you have been hearing in the last few days about Theresa May engineering a Brexit walk-out, a hard Brexit is now politically impossible - because it would mean a border with the Irish Republic, and that is anathema to the DUP.

In fact, paradoxically, the strange general election result makes it a good deal easier to negotiate a Very British Brexit, which - by coincidence - is the title of a report which sets out how by my colleagues at Radix.

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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 fa├žade 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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