Thursday, 29 October 2015

The curse of the empty corporation

In desperation, around lunchtime yesterday, I turned to Twitter to get through to Barclay's Bank, where - to my great shame - I still have a business account.  This is what I wrote:

@BarclaysUKHelp twice now hung on for 10 mins and then phone put down by your useless call centre. And all I want is a statement for sept.

It took them a couple of hours to respond, by which time - on my third attempt - I had finally managed to sort the problem. I was quite surprised to get a reply at all because Barclay's seems to me to have been well down the path to being that great modern phenomenon: the empty corporation.

You can tell this process is well under way when announcements were made that the bank was turning its back on its attempt to concentrate on domestic business - and sure enough, the signs of ersatz efficiency were becoming all too clear clear.

In fact, the higher Barclay's share price goes, the longer they take to answer their phones.

If this is overly cynical, it isn't much.  The classic empty corporation is TalkTalk, one of the least useful companies on earth.

Now I have sorted out all my multiple differences with TalkTalk. They have now stopped sending me 'final invoices' which I came to believe were being sent out automatically to all their recent former customers. I managed to get these stopped, though they carried on for three months, only by contacting the managing director personally.

I use TalkTalk as an example, partly because they seem to have allowed their customer's personal data to be stolen by a 15-year-old hacker, and partly because they are also victims of ersatz efficiency. If something goes wrong with their modem, or some other aspect of their service, as it it invariably does - nobody is home.

Yes, these empty corporations have call centres - usually in India - but if you ask anything complicated, they are likely to put the phone down on you.

I believe the phenomenon is an important one. It is also for a relatively simple reason: the idea that IT systems can automate everything.  What this means, in practice, is that anyone with a non-standard query - which is quite a lot of us - can't be helped. There is no space in their software. The different departments are unable to communicate.  

In public services, this adds to the costs as people bounce around different departments and helplines or A&E. See, for example, John Seddon's excellent book. In private companies, it just means people get ignored and frustrated.  And particularly incandescent that the company to whom they are paying money is congratulating themselves on their own dysfunctional efficiency.

AND! My ebook Operation Primrose is on special offer for 99p this week. There is also a conventional print version here

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Wednesday, 28 October 2015

What Agincourt tells us about the conservative mind

We have managed to live through the sixth centenary of the Battle of Agincourt without too much embarrassment.  It is strange that we should still celebrate a battle which, although it was an English victory, caused so much death and misery.

But perhaps the French should just grin and bear it, just as we have been doing about Bannockburn - a battle fought in similar circumstances - now for seven centuries.

For me, Agincourt remains interesting primarily because of what nearly happened, rather than for what did. As I wrote in the Guardian last weekend, we came closer to merger with France then than any time except 1940. More on the creation of Frengland another day.

What Agincourt ought to be now is a symbol of the folly of military pride, and in particular the disastrous psychology of the frontal assault - which has served this country so badly over the past century and a half, just as it served the French so badly in 1415 and the English so badly in 1314.

It particularly afflicts empires and former empires. It goes with the conservative mindset of deference to power. I have just been reading Lady Diana Cooper's war memoir Trumpets from the Steep, and she encounters a number of boneheaded military types talking about how we need to "teach the Japanese a lesson". The result: the fall of Singapore.

Big organisations, 'big' nations, former empires fling up this kind of psychology. It rejects cleverness, refuses to accept intelligence, and sends their underlings into battle without a plan. It is the American invasion of Iraq - I'm sure the French aristocracy before Agincourt talked in terms of 'shock and awe' to teach the English a lesson.

So, yes, this isn't really a blog post about Agincourt. It is a post about conservative psychology versus Liberal psychology.

It is shock and awe stupidity versus the vital importance of challenging mindsets from below, in the sense that Karl Popper meant it in The Open Society and its Enemies. If you open that possibility, you can learn. You can be clever, you can move forward.

So save us all from being led by conservatives. Let's hope it never happens...

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Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Devo-max is still using language of supplication

I was very grateful to IPPR North for inviting me to speak at their conference on the State of the North this morning – partly because it’s nice to be asked, and partly because it allowed me to get my own ideas together about the Northern Powerhouse.

It also allowed me to listen to John Prescott and Dan Jarvis, which was a slightly depressing experience, if only for the strained atmosphere of hope-over-experience.  I'm not often exposed to Labour rhetoric these days and I didn't find it inspiring.

The report IPPR North published is pretty important, setting out some of the measures by which we might judge the economic resilience of the northern cities. It’s quite right that conventional measures like GVA don’t really hack it. Build a couple of luxury marinas and the GVA goes up without making any contribution to a new Northern Powerhouse at all.

I can’t help thinking on these occasions of Joseph Chamberlain, because he created his own northern powerhouse, centred on Birmingham in the 1870s, by basing it on the assets which Birmingham already had.

I’m sure he would have toured the equivalent of Chinese cities, begging for investment, if he could have done, but it wasn’t his prime focus. His main drive was to re-imagine the provision of gas and sanitary services to the city, not as an exhausting cost but as a huge potential asset.

He also wrested control of the city in 1873 on behalf of the Liberals from a group of councillors who met regularly in a pub called the Woodman’s Arms and who dubbed themselves The Economists. Their policy was to spend as little as possible. I’m sure the Treasury would have approved of them, but they needed to be cast out in favour of people with more of a powerhouse mentality.

Because the truth is that the idea that people are the assets a city has remains largely rhetorical. There must be a connection between the fact that people live there, that they have needs and imagination and the potential of economic activity – but we have forgotten what it is.

The emphasis remains still on an imperialist mindset – it is about attracting investment to the north, building them roads so that other foreign corporations can truck their goods more easily in and out, and a little will trickle down and stay put. There is a supplicant element to the economic language about devolving powers to the north still, despite the powerhouse clothing. It is dependent.

Worse, most government regeneration policy is also dedicated to the idea that successful people living in unsuccessful places should be encouraged to leave. In those circumstances, you might be able to grass over Bradford and still call it a success.

What really provides the link between people and economic success is the ability to make things happen, as Anita Roddick put it, when she defined entrepreneurs as people able to “imagine the world differently”.

Put like that, what is getting in the way of the Northern Powerhouse is not just the lack of skills, it is the bizarre division in UK education between the machine-minders and the professionals, secondary moderns for the former and grammars for the latter – and apparently nothing in between. We are still not educating our children to make things happen.

There is also remains a residual horror in Whitehall, or to be precise in the Treasury, about local economic revitalisation. They don’t believe in additionality – they think all local economic activity is simply shifted over the border from somewhere else. It is a kind of imperialist reductionism.

They fear the whole idea smacks of protectionism. Actually, it is about increasing competition, increasing local choice, using assets more effectively.  See my book People Powered Prosperity.

So what should the cities of the Northern Powerhouse be asking themselves? These are my nominations:

  • What kind of institutions do you need to use local imagination effectively?
  • How much are you putting local savings to work as local investment?
  • What kind of financial institutions do you need to do that, given that the national institutions have zero local commitment?
  • Can you see where the money flowing through your city is actually going?
  • If regeneration depended on revitalising local entrepreneurialism, what would you do?
Ask those questions, come up with imaginative answers, and you too can be Joseph Chamberlain...

Monday, 26 October 2015

The people who made Alan Turing possible

I have launched a small crowdfunding campaign to write a book. I've never done anything like this before, so before I explain Before Enigmaperhaps the first thing I should do is to explain why I want to write it.

Three reasons, and you can see me explaining it in my very first crowdfunding video here. But I can go into a little more detail here:

#1. To put Turing in context. I first got interested in Alan Turing when I was writing about authenticity, because the Turing Test - a way of verifying whether computers are human or not - is relevant to my interpretation of what people mean by 'real' these days. Then I wrote a short biography of him, which has sold very well, and followed it up with Operation Primrose, which tried to put Bletchley Park's role in the struggle to beat Enigma into some kind of context. One of these was the forgotten business of the German codebreakers - who managed to read all the British naval signals from 1935 to 1943.

But even then, there was a wider context that needed to be explained. The people who recruited Turing and tried to manage him, and organised the systems which allowed him to be successful, have been lost from the story. And those people - Knox, Denniston, Birch - learned their trade, naval codebreaking, during the First World War. So I wanted to write about Room 40 at the Admiralty, what it was like, and how they were moulded into shape by a man who was, in his way, almost as much of a genius as Turing: Captain Reginald 'Blinker' Hall.

#2. To put the navy back into the picture. In my youth, hardly a week went by without a picture of a British warship on the front page of the newspapers. Not so these days - we seem now to regard ourselves as an army nation, with all the regimentation that implies. And in the coverage of the First World War centenaries, hardly any mention at all of the naval war - not the Falkland Isles, or Dogger Bank or the submarine passage of the Dardanelles. It needs remembering. Beyond Enigma tells the story, from a cryptography point of view.

#3.  To look at how effective organisations develop. I've become fascinated about how organisations have become so dysfunctional in our own time (see my book The Human Element). The First World War was arguably the moment the problem of spreading information up and down a hierarchical mega-organisation first emerged.  The unexpected bonus of being able to read the enemy's decrypted naval signals caused a small crisis in the First World War - they were used disastrously, and particularly disastrously in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. But the lessons were learned so that, by 1939, the system had developed - again thanks partly to Knox, Denniston and Birch (and certainly Hall) - so that it worked.

Unfortunately, we have forgotten the organisational lessons since.  Not so much in cryptography, but in the public services and other mega-organisations we depend on every day.

Before Enigma is a book - a short ebook - that aches to be written. If nothing else, it will put The Imitation Game into some kind of context. So if you could see your way to contributing in some way - either financially or by forwarding this message to anyone who might be interested - I would be enormously grateful...and it would make possible rather a good book, though I say it myself...

You can read all about it here.

AND! My ebook Operation Primrose is on special offer for 99p this week. There is also a conventional print version here

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Thursday, 22 October 2015

What the Lib Dems can learn from Trudeau

I gather that expectations were so low for Liberal leader Justin Trudeau in Canada ahead of the first election debate in August - this has been a long campaign - that the Conservative leader’s spokesman said: “If he comes on stage with his pants on, he will probably exceed expectations.”

Given that 'pants' has a slightly different meaning on that side of the Atlantic, that isn't quite as bad as it sounds. But it does emphasise one of the lessons from the Liberal landslide in Canada - one way of building momentum for a Liberal campaign is to do better than expected.

I've been reading the Canadian press to find clues about why Trudeau managed to pull off such a spectacular success, from third, for a message of hope not fear. I must say, there aren't many.

There are people who say that there are only those two narratives in political campaigns - hope versus fear, or rather 'time for a change' versus Stanley Baldwin's old slogan 'safety first'.  They are hard to predict because public moods are febrile and way ahead of the politicians.

Trudeau was halting in debate, but passionate. He knew what he believed. He wasn't a clone or a Blair. He was authentic. 

But the Canadian Liberals managed to do as well as they did perhaps because of two fascinating factors.  First, the Conservatives were struggling at the time to ban the niqab. That is, of course, a wholly illiberal form of dress, but nonetheless - you don't want the government interfering in what people wear.  Nobody wants that - and even the medieval sumptuary laws didn't go down very well at the time.

Second, Trudeau managed to steal a march on the NDP, his opponents on the left, which were trying to detoxify their own brand by promising to balance the budget. The Liberals were excited when they announced this because it meant that they could promise a small unbalanced budget in order to invest in future infrastructure.

This confirms my own sense of the zeitgeist, which is now hurtling towards the regular forty-year shift in mainstream economic thinking - people are aware that something needs to change, but they are not sure what. They are not going to vote for people they don't trust to keep their heads - or keep their trousers on in debates - but equally, I think we may be entering a period where they are not too keen on politicians who grip conventional thinking too tightly.

In other words, Osborne may look safe one year and then puritanical or doctrinaire the next.

Whether our own Lib Dems can manage to arrange themselves in such a way to attract this new spirit, I don't know. They will have to be safe and responsible, but also to embrace the economic future. For a time, that is going to be mean they will have to be passionate, excited about the future - but at the same time to recognise that it isn't going to be like the present.

Positive change is a difficult act to pull off. It means you have to stop complaining about the present (though of course to tell the truth about the abuse of power and money) and to assert the future. If you can manage that, it gives you an unexpected authority.

And when you can do that, the other side has to respond to you. It is precisely the opposite to the way the left has campaigned over the past decades.

AND! My ebook Operation Primrose is on special offer for 99p this week. There is also a conventional print version here

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Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Euro-referendum: the uneatable and unspeakable

I described a kind of nightmare scenario yesterday where the UK leaves Europe and sells off its social
security system, rather as England did in the 1530s.  It is a strange repeat of history, this time as farce, starring George Osborne as Thomas Cromwell and, I suppose, David Cameron and Boris Johnson as Henry VIII (it takes two of them).

But the truth is that the coming European struggle is not nearly as clear-cut as it ought to be - and I fear I am going to upset my regular Lib Dem readers (if there are any) by my quiet note of scepticism.

The problem is that neither side of the formal European referendum debate, as currently set out, are at all attractive. Perhaps that was also the fundamental difficulty with the Scottish referendum - both sides seemed so awkward that you had to hold your nose to decide.

In the blue corner for the Great Euro Debate, there are the xenophobes and vainglorious nationalists. But in the red corner, gathering rather quickly now, are the usual suspects on the other side - the technocrats and the monopolists, the supermarkets, the big banks - those who believe that the world should be made safe for Barclays Capital.

It's a bit like Oscar Wilde's description of fox-hunting - the pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable. Perhaps also like Benjamin Barber's choice of Jihad versus McWorld - I don't want either. They may not be equal in their poison, it is true, but when you have xenophobes versus technocrats, I don't know which way to turn.

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian last week went a little far when he said we should shake up Europe by voting to leave. I have some sympathy with that position - unlike some pro-Europeans, I don't confuse the ideal of European institutions with their technocratic reality (tyrannical reality if you are in Greece).

But what I really want, above all else, is the option to vote for the Europe I dream of - based on the original idea of subsidiarity, and deriving from Catholic social doctrine, developed for Pope Leo XIII by Cardinal Manning in London, and derived from the English agrarian tradition as represented by John Ruskin.

That's what I want - a Europe that uses its muscle like a medieval monarch was supposed to do but very rarely did, to defend the small-scale against the rich, defend the human detail, the ordinary against those who would keep us passive and easier to process.

The sad fact is that David Cameron is seeking to sweep Europe further into the technocratic mould.  And I am supposed to vote to stay in as a result...

I know this isn't exactly the party line, but can you at least acknowledge that I have a dilemma? And can you imagine how a Liberal force might articulate a different vision?

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Tuesday, 20 October 2015

2010s or 1530s: Is history repeating itself with Brexit?

Imagine that a revolution is happening in the nation. We have withdrawn in high dudgeon from pan-European supranational authority – complaining that we are not allowed to be an exception to European rule.

We are also watching an extraordinary overturning of our tried and tested welfare, healthcare and education system, with the institutions that we have relied upon, and complained about for generations, chopped up and sold off to the highest bidders or to favourites of the regime at Whitehall.

As you realised immediately, I’m sure, I’m not describing the political situation here in a year or so, when the UK suddenly leaves the European Union. I’m describing Henry VIII’s reign as England broke away from the Catholic Church and sold off the monasteries which had fed, taught and treated the poor. This is the 1530s, not the 2010s.

But the fact that there is this alarming precedent convinces me, sometimes at least, that there may be a grim historic inevitability that will lead to our withdrawal, along with a major privatisation of the buildings and staff of the welfare state, as the two seem to go hand in hand. History repeats itself, said Karl Marx, first as tragedy and then as farce. I have been wondering what role George Osborne was playing – he appears to be a Thomas Cromwellian figure, intent on selling off Wolf Hall.

I’ve been looking out for parallels between these times, since it struck me – while I was writing Blondel’s Song – that Rome and Brussels had played parallel roles in the English political psyche for centuries, and certainly for the last eight hundred years or so.

In that respect, the EU is a Roman Catholic project designed by Christian Democrats, built out of Catholic social docrine, and it doesn’t mesh well with the ultra-protestant zeal the British have always wanted to impose on it. It may be inevitable, put like that, that we will eventually leave.

If so, we might perhaps be able to sketch out a likely future – decades of bitter struggle between the Europeans and the anti-Europeans, perhaps been a few burnings at the take, followed by a peculiar period of isolation while we stand alone from mainstream Europe, raising the money we need by raiding Spanish treasure ships. No, a leap too far...

Then over the summer, I happened to run across an issue of Current Archaeology which looks in detail at that period after the dissolution of the monasteries, by examining 4,500 child skeletons. The result was described like this:

"Based on my analysis of 4,626 children's skeletons dating from AD1000 to AD1700, I found that the Reformation caused the single greatest change in childhood health, and that it had more of an effect than the Black Death, Wars of the Roses, or Hundred Year's War. Children's bones allow only one possible conclusion: growing up in Reformation England was a traumatic experience."

This confirms to me something I had always suspected, that the Catholic historians – plus William Cobbett – were right that the main impact of Henry’s withdrawal from the authority of the Pope, and the parcelling up and sale of the monasteries, were experienced most traumatically by poor people who depended on them.

So let’s try not to repeat history if we can help it. Or if we really need a new Reformation, let’s have some kind of alternative community safety net in place first. We do at least have a voluntary sector these days - just.

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Monday, 19 October 2015

If we protest against Hinkley, what will the Chinese do?

You don't get many moments when you get a shiver down your spine at events you read about, certainly not in the Sunday Times, but the news that George Osborne is to go ahead with the Chinese deal to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point - not to mention another one at Bradwell - really gave me a cold shudder.

It is one of those moments you see the Tiber flowing with much blood, though it perhaps doesn't do to gargle with exactly those words any more.

It isn't so much that we are backing such defunct technology, hugely centralised, vastly expensive, massively subsidised. And bear in mind that, as solar costs fall, nuclear costs are bound to rise - even just the security bills (unless we believe that the world is suddenly getting safer).

Never mind the other risk of technology failure, the risks of ISIS getting hold of some of the fuel is so unthinkable that there really can be no limit to the security costs.

But it isn't that.  Nor is it really the subsidies that scare me, though the idea of our children and their children paying the double the current costs of electricity right up until 2060 - which I understand is when the agreement lasts until - is downright obscene.  This truly is the super-PFI to cap all PFIs.

But no, it isn't that either. What worries me most is the implications of major non-violent opposition to the developments, as parents quite reasonably begin to fear for the health of their children - not to mention fearing for their wealth. Because I believe the nuclear kickstart will also kickstart green protest in a way we haven't seen since the road protests of the mid-1990s.

What does the government do? Treat these demonstrators in a tolerant English way and risk offending our Chinese paymasters? Or will the government be required, by some secret or assumed agreement, to behave in a far more heavy-handed Chinese way towards them.

And in that logical fork, I see a real threat to our way of life. Osborne may admire the Tiananmen Square style capitalism of the Chinese. I don't, and neither I believe do most the nation.

Perhaps that doesn't matter when that style of government stays in Tiananmen Square. But what happens when we import the Chinese billions to build our white elephants over here?

AND! My ebook Operation Primrose is on special offer for 99p this week. There is also a conventional print version here

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Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The politics of beer monopoly and why it matters

Because I am much more pompous in the privacy of my own brain, than the smiling, occasionally charming individual people see in the street, I have to confess I was a little miffed that I was never asked to contribute to The Orange Book, the notorious collection of wholly unobjectionable essays published 11 years ago.

I don’t suppose there was actually much chance I would have been asked. Though I was asked to contribute to the riposte, which was – such is the strange shadowy world of modern Lib Dem ideology – actually written mainly by the same people

This isn’t to say that the story of The Orange Book, which has gone down in history almost as much as the various Yellow Books – Lloyd George’s and Aubrey Beardsley’s – wasn’t important. It did crystallise debate inside the Lib Dems. The trouble is that it offered no new ways forward to resolve it.

Because David Laws was undoubtedly right, and he repeated it in the collection of essays published by the party as Agenda 2020, that Liberalism isn’t Liberalism without all its various strands represented.

More than a decade now since The Orange Book, I think we can see it more clearly, and the project clearly didn’t work. It raised the issue of how social and economic Liberalism relate to each other – but simply allowed the two strands to emerge as rivals.

If Liberalism is going to survive as an ideology, not to mention the Lib Dems as a party, they have got to go beyond that dilemma. Einstein is supposed to have said that you can’t solve a problem at the same level that it was created. Well, this is one of those problems. We don’t need rivalry any more; we need a means of synthesising.

The way I’ve been trying to contribute to that synthesis is to look back at where economic liberalism suddenly tok flight from its Liberal roots and became neoliberalism – and the role played in that disastrous shift by the suicide of the doyen of Liberal economists Henry Simons in 1946, and the assertions of his pupil Milton Friedman that monopoly wasn’t an issue.

Why wasn’t it an issue? He didn’t really say, simply asserting that free trade was about property rights, which it is to some extent – but not so much that the wealthy and powerful can mess up the economy if they want to.

Friedman couldn’t have enforced this assertion by himself. It took the miserable uncertainty of Liberals the world over, their failure to speak out, or to be coherent on the issue, to allow him to get away with it.

For anyone who believes that human scale is the fundamental Liberal issue of our times, and that giant institutions – public and private – are beginning to exercise a kind of tyranny over those who depend on them, that failure to face down monopoly has been disastrous.

So that’s how I approach the proposed merger between the two biggest brewers in the world, SABMiller and AB InBev, a combination that will control a third of the world’s beer market and leave the new monster completely dominant.

It is true that this is a sign of weakness, not strength. The merger is a last, desperate attempt to fight off the rise of authentic local beer-making the world over. Food companies everywhere are now desperately snapping up the authentic brands snapping at their heels, only to find that – once they own them – they are transformed into useless bureaucratic dinosaurs as well.

See more about this in my book Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life or my more recent ebook The Age to Come.

That is what will happen to the new merged beer company and I suppose we have to sit it out while the executives get extremely rich while destroying corporate value.

But why should we? And why should Liberals stay silent about another corporate behemoth stalking the earth, seeking whom it may devour?

AND! My ebook Operation Primrose is on special offer for 99p this week. There is also a conventional print version here

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Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The real division emerging on the Left

Peter Oborne is one of the most thoughtful commentators on the centre right. I see his comments pre-Corbyn are being circulated around Corbynista circles (thank you, Barbara), where he says:

"No one who is loathed by the bankers, the BBC and Tony Blair all at once can be that bad."

I can relate to that.  The establishment hates change and, since the Blair-Brown nexus seemed to be a about avoiding change as much as possible, it isn't surprising that those who manage the nation yearn for a different, duller Labour leadership.

That doesn't make Corbyn right on many other things, but Oborne made a good case that he is right on foreign affairs. We are still living with the consequences of the disaster of the invasion of Iraq, after all.

Now, after the general election, I found myself sharing platforms with people who wanted to talk about cross-party co-operation, notably a fascinating debate with Caroline Lucas in Hay-on-Way.  More on this another day, I hope.

Most of these have been debates about collaboration on the Left, and that is where the need for an effective opposition in the UK is most energetically felt.  I've been approaching this from three angles so far:

1.  Change is inevitable.  Change will come, as it always does, pretty much by clockwork in the UK, every 40 years - which makes us due for a reset around 2019/20. But there is very little consensus about what to do.  My own thinktank, New Weather, aspires to fill this gap.

2.  Sharpen Liberalism. One way I believe I can help this process along is, paradoxically, to be clearer about what the role of Liberalism is now in the 21st century - not as a way of beating up other political traditions, but because my own tradition has been a little muddled since 1979 or so, and it doesn't help us move forward.

3.  Make small changes. Overwhelmingly the best way forward for inter-party co-operation is to now use the House of Lords - where the government has no overall majority - to make things happen. They will be small things, at first, but - as long as they are real achievements - they will lead to others, and build trust across the various political divides.

But that last one is more important than I had realised a few weeks ago. Because I am increasingly aware that there is a completely different division emerging on the Left than I had seen before.

One the one hand, there is the traditional, irritating, negative Left, backward looking - to the policies of 1945 and the symbolism of 1917 - fearful of the future, defensive of the past and apparently with little to contribute to the present. Pretty irritating, in fact.

On the other hand, there is the emerging Left which is overwhelmingly positive, highly practical, ideologically committed, but seeking new ways forward with energy and innovation - especially in the field of economics.

This is powerfully local, aware that centralism no longer works, and using the language of renewable energy, social entrepreneurship, social enterprise, people powered prosperity, and the strange nether world between small business innovation and urban revival.

What is fascinating, and rather unexpected, is that the sheer pragmatism of this emerging Left is remarkably similar in one part of the pantheon as it is in another. It is English in the sense that it goes for what works.

I recent found myself in Preston (of which more another day), interviewing members of the council, and found that I agreed with practically every word of the bold and innovative economic programme the Labour Party put forward there in last year's local elections.

Blairite it isn't, but then neither is it obviously socialist - its concern with enterprise could almost make it more Right than Left. It is certainly positive and pragmatic but also radical.

So what does an Liberal ideologue do in this situation? When recognisable parallel ideas are emerging across the Left - in my own party certainly, but also among people I happen to know are fervent supporters of Jeremy Corbyn?

I'm not sure.  But what I'm going to do now is to hail what may turn out to be a genuine re-alignment of the Left, broadly between the negative, backward-looking and the positive, pragmatic. They know who they are, and I'm definitely on the side.of the latter.

I think we all should be. Because this is where the new consensus is going to emerge from.

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Monday, 12 October 2015

At last, the truth about targets is beginning to dawn

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I've spent much of the past fifteen years being misunderstood about what I was saying about the corrosive effect of numbers in policy. I remember the blank look a member of Tony Blair's cabinet gave me when I told him about the contents of my book The Tyranny of Numbers.

By then the the corrosion had really taken hold.  It wasn't so much a problem with counting itself; it was the corrosion of effectiveness when we start muddling up the numbers with the real thing.  It was, and is, extremely hard to convince policy people that there is a real problem here.

I'm not even sure when this particular round of numerical corruption set in. Was it Robert Macnamara's period in control of the American war effort in the Vietnam War, when he introduced kill quotas for each unit. The result was huge numbers of dead but American defeat.

Or was it Harold Macmillan's much-praised 300,000 housebuild targets from 1954, when huge numbers of homes were built but, to quote Gerald Ratner, and not to put too fine a point on it, they were total crap - a new generation of slums, this time without mutual community ties of support.

It has taken a long time, but I detect the beginning of a shift.

For one thing, the situation has become extreme. There is now almost no official measure of public life that we can trust - the Libor rate, the emissions data for new cars, the success of individual schools and hospitals.

Something else is required, though - like so much else about recent years, it isn't clear quite what. Unfortunately, this is one of the challenges that the coalition failed to rise to - worse they replaced the few targets they abandoned with payment-by-results contracts, which just compounded the problem.

Then last week, there was a fascinating article in the Financial Times about the struggle to achieve, not just lots of apprenticeships, but apprenticeships worth having - a distinction that tends to get lost in the virtual world.

Professor Alison Wolf, of King’s College London, is author of the Wolf Review of Vocational Qualifications, and this is what she said:

“If we hadn’t been chasing targets and numbers for the last 10 years we could have had far more good apprenticeships (and fewer pointless so-called apprenticeships) than we have had. One hand of government knows this. The other hand is inflicting a ridiculous and unattainable 3m target on us. The risk is that the target is all-destructive — pile them high, cheap and pointless."

The real, and now urgent, question is what should we do to provide some measure of accountability, without the sheer waste of resources and the ineffectiveness that creeps in when you control using numerical targets. Answers on a postcard addressed to Michael Barber and Tony Blair...

AND! My ebook Operation Primrose is on special offer for 99p this week. There is also a conventional print version here

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Thursday, 8 October 2015

Cameron: how to raise house prices even further

There are occasions when I despair of the miserable failure of the Westminster world to understand what is staring them in the face - and I must admit I felt that listening to David Cameron's conference speech about housing.

It isn't that I disapprove of home ownership. Quite the reverse, I think everyone should own their own home. It's a sign of civilisation and independence. It is the complete mismatch between Cameron's policies and his stated objective that is so infuriating.

In fact, I can't think of any area of public discourse so shot through with complete twaddle as housing policy,

Simon Jenkins hit the nail on the head in his recent article on the most damaging housing myths. He was absolutely right that there is no connection between increasing the supply and bringing down prices. Again, quiet the reverse:

"The chief determinant of house prices is the state of the market in existing property and the cost of finance. During the sub-prime period, prices soared in America and Australia despite unrestricted new building. It was cheap money that did the damage. The house-builders lobby equates housing to “new build” because that is where their interest lies..."

This is the point I was trying to make in my chapter on house prices in Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis, but the Westminster world seems sold on it. There must be some relationship between conventional supply and demand - but the supply of housing finance, now almost infinite, will always stay ahead

The idea that rising prices has something to do with planning controls is also completely fatuous,  There is outstanding planing permissions for 400,000 homes, not being built - because the prices will be too high to offload.

But even Jenkins then went on to get it wrong himself in the bizarre, but horribly mainstream, idea that all we need to do is to increase urban densities.

This has been the preferred solution from environmentalists and architects alike. To do it on any scale would mean reducing the vital informal green space that makes cities liveable - and which will be so important economically (more on this another time!). It also now has a proven role keeping us all sane.

Building upwards has always been disastrous in UK public policy.  In the end, the rich keep their lower densities and their green spaces, and the high densities get visited on the poor.

Or as Marie Antoinette might have said: "They have no homes? Let them live in flats."

Just have a look at where that kind of inhuman planning leads next time you are around East Croydon, where the new slums are taking shape, for sale in Singapore (pictured above).

In the meantime, putting more money in the housing market, and letting a few people sneak in via 'affordable prices' which are still ten times what anyone can afford on the minimum wage will only raise prices even further.  And the idea that rents are driven up more by demand than by the cost of buy-to-let mortgages - well it is more of the economic illiteracy that is driving our housing disaster.

If house prices rise in the next three decades like they did in the last three decades, the average home will be worth £1.4m.  I didn't suppose that would actually happen - but then I heard Cameron's vacuous speech on the subject.

No, to bring down prices you have to control the amount of money going into the housing market, especially from overseas. To cool down the property market in London and the south east, only major devolution of power and a regional revival will do it.

And for goodness sake leave the green belt alone. It is all that prevents London expanding across southern England in a soulless sprawl.

AND! My ebook Operation Primrose is on special offer for 99p this week. There is also a conventional print version here

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Wednesday, 7 October 2015

When the child abuse campaign becomes tyrannical

Every society goes in an out of periods of insanity where they lock people up merely for being accused of something.  Let me put it more strongly.  There are some crimes considered so loathsome that you only have to be accused of them to be immediately assumed to be guilty.

The last few months have seen the apotheosis of a moral panic about child abuse, which reached a head with the investigation into establishment abuse, leading to murder.

There have been other moments in recent years. The frightening alliance between what you might call the child abuse 'industry' and fundamentalist Christians led to a similar panic about 'satanic abuse'. Children from the Orkneys were taken into custody in the middle of the night. Other families were torn apart before it became clear that satanic abuse wasn't happening anywhere.

I have been wondering why this keeps happening - and rather more so last night when one of the sources of the VIP paedophile ring story said that the names were given "as a joke suggestion to start with".

Because the moral panic, the tabloid coverage, the suicide of abusers, the great smashing of pedestals, doesn't help the victims either. And of course there are victims, and they must be believed - but not uncritically. Not tyrannically. Nor does it help children, in any circumstances, to take them from their beds in the middle of the night or to remove them from loving families, except in extremis.

The loss of John Hemming's Birmingham Yardley seat robbed Westminster of one of the most powerful sceptical voices about the abuse of justice around child custody.

It was a long, courageous campaign and there was hardly a bandwagon for anyone to jump on.  It did the Lib Dems credit that one of their parliamentary party was brave enough to ask those kind of sceptical questions.

Historically, sex allegations have often been a way to challenge the establishment (see for example the consistent campaign along those lines by Irish nationalists in the 1880s). But if we forget about dead politicians - from Leon Brittan to Ted Heath - the real victims in all this are most often poorer families who can't stand up against the officials who get it wrong.

In fact, there was a fascinating article last week in the American political weekly The Nation. This is how it starts:

"O n July 29, 2013, a Latina mother in Illinois named Natasha Felix sent her three sons, ages 11, 9, and 5, out to play with a visiting cousin, a young girl, in a fenced park right next to her apartment building. The oldest boy was charged with keeping an eye on his siblings, while Felix watched them all from the window. While they were outside, a local preschool teacher showed up at the park with her class. She saw the 9-year-old climb a tree. Felix’s youngest son fought with his cousin over a scooter and, at one point, ran with it into the street. Based on this, the teacher called the child-abuse hotline, and Felix received a visit from the Department of Children and Family Services.

"According to legal filings in the case, the investigator, Nancy Rodriguez, found that Felix’s kids “were clothed appropriately, appeared clean [and] well groomed,” and that Felix “appeared to be a good mother.” Felix’s oldest son seemed like a “mature young boy” who “certainly could be allowed to go outside by himself to the park next door.”

"However, when Rodriguez asked Felix if the boys had any special needs, Felix replied that the 11-year-old and the 9-year-old had been diagnosed with ADHD. On the advice of their doctor, they were off their medications for the summer. Rodriguez later wrote that “based on the mother not knowing that the kids were running into the street with the scooter, based on the children having ADHD,” she recommended that Felix be cited for “Inadequate Supervision” under the Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act. As a result, Felix was placed on the state’s child-abuse registry, which led to her losing her job as a home healthcare aide and ended her dreams of becoming a licensed practical nurse."

Nobody suggests that we should be any less vigilant about protecting children. But this kind of tyranny - by professionals against the poor - is actually another kind of child abuse. We all know it goes on and it does so here as well as across the Atlantic. It leads to over-protected kids, addicted to computer games, who never go out by themselves or dare to climb trees.

It also leads to the most appalling bullying of children. It is professional bullying backed by the force of the mob.

Illinois is an interesting case. I couldn't help noticing that their number of children diagnosed with autism or Asperger's leapt 62,000 per cent in the decade to 2002. A clear sign of professional insanity.

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Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The trouble with Osborne's smokestack hunting

As usual, it seems to me that the BBC have got the wrong end of the stick about the significance of George Osborne's announcement that the government will let councils keep the proceeds of the business rates.

In doing so, he has not yet had the nerve to let them set their own, or change their arrangements for taxing businesses, but that will come eventually. But listening to the BBC, you would be forgiven for thinking this was an argument between a Conservative government flinging away Margaret Thatcher's centralising legacy versus Labour council chiefs who want to reinstate it.

There is a certain logic to that, I suppose.  There is a renewed openness among Conservatives to some measure of local economic self-determination. There is also a new closedness among Labour people to the same thing - on the grounds that it is just a cover for cuts, as the leader of Nottingham City Council told Michael Heseltine so miserably on the PM programme yesterday (51.41).

No, what really irritates me about the coverage is that it is almost certainly correct.  Most local authorities will think no further than competing with their neighbours to attract more multinational employers to set up locally.

This is depressing because it may well be what the government intends - to slash planning or other regulations, or slash local business tax to encourage competition for what the American cities used to call 'smokestack hunting'.

This still goes on, but not at the expense of the environment in the USA any more.  It became clear back in the 1980s that the reason a CEO chooses one to invest in one city rather than another is nothing to do with planning permission or lax environmental regulations. Quite the reverse. It is because it is the kind of place where they and their partner happen to want to live and bring their family.

That requires amenities, green space, clean air, low traffic, sports facilities, art galleries, theatres... That is what the New Civics movement and the Places Rated Almanac taught the USA.  I am hoping that same thing now occurs to cities in the UK. I believe it will, partly because their leadership is considerably more innovative and imaginative than it tends to be in Whitehall.

The real issue isn't smokestack hunting, because - let's face it - there aren't many smokestacks to hunt. And the great retail boom is over too.

The urban renaissance, and the Northern Powerhouse, are going to derive their power from how well they manage to use the resources and the people they already have to grow their own business sector. And to do what cities have done since time immemorial - to replace imports.

How much have places like Manchester really thought about this? Not a lot, I fear, but they will. How much has the Treasury considered it?  Hardly at all.  But as I wrote in my short book People Powered Prosperity, they will too.

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Monday, 5 October 2015

Hayek, Liberalism and the story of the past half century

OK, here's a question. Can you guess which book is represented on Wikiquote by the following two quotations?

"Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social programme; in its paternalistic, nationalistic and power adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place."

"The more the state 'plans' the more difficult planning becomes for the individual."

Have you guessed? It is the founding document of neoliberalism, Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.  These were the only two quotations listed and they make both the two points I wanted to make. That, at the dawn of what became the Liberal heresy neoliberalism, Hayek was:

1. Writing a manifesto that was intended to be explicitly Liberal.

2. Aiming at a target that wasn't so much Keynesian economics - Keynes liked the book - but the pseudo-science of state planning.

I have been thinking about this because I have been listening to the New Economics Foundation podcast series about neoliberalism, and you won't hear either of these central ideas articulated.

It seems to me that the Left's narrative about neoliberalism is too naive to overcome it - it understands none of the appeal of its original ideas. It is somewhat vacuous - a fairy tale about nasty people overturning the great and enlightened Keynesian consensus of 1945.

Until we can develop a better understanding of where neoliberalism came from, and why it became such a perversion of itself, we will never force a path beyond the neoliberal consensus we need. And I use the word 'heresy' advisedly - a heresy is an ideology that takes one aspect of the truth and pushes it to absurd lengths.

Part of my counter-narrative is here, but even that fails to do justice to the power of Hayek's original ideas. We need to realise that the history of social policy since the Second World War in the UK, about self-determination and the rejection of state-approved scientific progress, was led originally by Hayek.

What Hayek launched, and others too - like Borsodi in the USA and Schumacher in the UK - was a challenge to conventional progress, just as it was a challenge to conventional categories. We broke out - we rejected the the idea that the government would decide where to funnel resources, and launched a whole series of movements that rejected the Spirit of '45, along with big bureaucracies, official instructions, closed shops, concrete jungles, high rise flats - anything that treated us individuals as amorphous groups.

The result has been the roller-coaster ride we have all travelled during my lifetime - the end of deference, the beat generation, the Liberal revival, the voluntary sector, gender and sexual equality, Shelter, and the breakdown of simple class divisions, the green movement...

Those who voted Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979 were people in the grip of Hayek's original ideas, but also those in search of a sense of independence who were in the grip of his spirit. 

Unfortunately, thanks to those who waited in the wings, on both sides of the Atlantic, neoliberalism turned out to be wholly illiberal (this is my conspiracy theory).  It shored up the status quo, rather than undermined it.  It became an apologia for monopoly rather than a critique of it. Instead of a manifesto for the small to challenge from below, it became a justification for protecting the strong and wealthy.

And in direct contravention of Hayek's purpose, neoliberalism emerged - not as a critique of pseudo-science, but yet another pseudo-science itself.

But don't let's pretend that Hayek's original ideas had no power to move. They were hugely influential on our lives, and - instead of naively talking in terms of the fairy stories of good and evil - we need too go back to the original source and see where it all went so horribly wrong.

And if you don't believe me, see how the Hayekian fury with government planning had set in by the time they made the film Passport to Pimlico (1949, see picture above burning ID cards). Someone shouts at the official loudspeakers:

"We're sick and tired of your voice in this country - now shut up!"

That was the Hayek spirit before neoliberalism undermined it. For my Liberal colleagues, it is worth realising the story of our own journey this past half century. It began as the political wing of the counterculture, but getting a bit muddled as the counterculture became so incredibly vast that it could even encompass the man who represents the Spirit of '45, Jeremy Corbyn himself.

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Thursday, 1 October 2015

Everything changed in 1972. Or did it?

We seem to be hurtling towards a turning point in the zeitgeist, as I may have mentioned before - though my sense is that Corbyn is symptom rather than cause.  So I have been thinking about other turning points - not the economic ones this time, but the social ones - and I've settled on 1972.

No it wasn't the ending of exchange controls (1979) as I argued in my book Broke. Nor was it the Three Day Week as I have been writing more recently (1973/4 - more on that later). Nor is it the moment I remember, as a child, when I was no longer forced to wear a cap to go to Oxford Street (1965).

No, I have settled on 1972, not because of the miner's strike and the blackouts, or Watergate come to that - both moments when it was clear that something would have to change - but because, as far as I can remember, it was the year I heard three words for the first time:




It is strange to think that there was a period, in living memory, when we didn't eat two of them or sleep under the third.  The concept of yoghurt was particularly mind-boggling because I  could see that never, as long as I lived, would I be able to spell it.  But sure enough, we used to spend half the day in those days knitting spaghetti or practicing hospital corners on the sheets and blankets.

And we could have spent the time staying in with Monty Python.

I'm not saying that this was when they were introduced into the UK, just the first time these concepts floated into my consciousness.  Perhaps, in its own way, this was an important shift as Geoffrey Howe's ending of exchange controls after all.

The reason I've been thinking about it now was that, only yesterday, Sainsbury's claimed again to have introduced the avocado pear as early as 1962.  I'm prepared to accept their word for it, and I see there has been debate about this before.

But I wrote in my book Eminent Corporations that you could fix that elusive moment when our supermarkets suddenly started to pack their shelves with exotic French or Italian cheeses, and we started to learn some of those strange foreign words which have become so familiar as foodstuffs now, was down to the rule of Marcus Sieff over Marks & Spencer in the early 1970s.

As I understood it, one bemused M&S customer complained that avocado pears were not as nice as perhaps they should have been with custard.

I see that I may not have been quite right about the avocados after all.  But still something shifted in 1972, the year I turned fourteen. England opened up a little. We became a little less crusty. We were no less English, of course - see my book How to be English - but we let in the breezes from the south and felt a little more exotic as a result.

Perhaps it isn't a coincidence that the countdown had begun that year for us to join what was then the European Economic Community the following year.

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