Monthly Archives: October 2007

Population… again

UK population map

Bloody population. I know it’s a big deal. I know that kneejerk liberal acceptance of uncontrolled growth is hardly better than kneejerk xenophobic rejection of immigration. I know that Britain’s infrastructure isn’t keeping up with population growth and also that ‘reception communities’ at the sharp-end are suffering (as usual) while the urban elite sips espresso and wonders “immigration? What immigration?” (while purchasing another Romanian au pair off the internet). I know that the rejectionist stance (Migration Watch and UKIP and the rest of the unsavoury crop) is a hopeless, isolationist dead-end. I know all this.

What I wonder, though – what I’d really like to see us discuss – is what we could actually achieve with a population of 80 million. What could an ambitious, productive, well-educated nation achieve with a working-age population of over 50 million? We’re so pessimistic, so resigned to catastrophe and so governed by witless (and irresponsible) lobbyists and their extrapolations that we can’t imagine a positive outcome to any major change.

An 80 million population could and should move Britain up the economic league tables, protect the country’s status in a reordered world economy and create possibilities currently unimaginable. Would a population of 80 million justify greater national ambition: a manned space programme, genuine renewal of the Health Service, fusion power, industrial scale hydrogen, desalination, radical reform of education, fibre-to-the-home, a proper mass transit network: really big, planetary-scale goals that would stretch us as a nation and require every one of those 80 million people.

Should we actually seek a larger population? Or should we assume the worst, give in to the defeatists and misanthropes, shut the gates and wait for the tide of irrelevance and pointlessness to overcome us. Just asking.

Green ecommerce?

delivery van

I’m blogging in my professional capacity over at blogs.shave.com/digital (must do something about that picture). I’ve been figuring out what a medium-sized manufacturer with half a dozen well-known brands (like King of Shaves) ought to be doing online.

We’ve come up with a cheeky strategy that actually reduces the emphasis on our own ecommerce activities in favour of better supporting the other online retailers: from Tesco and Boots to the long tail of pure play etailers who already sell our stuff.

This is going to have commercial benefits for us but also real benefits for the environment. Of course, as a manufacturer, we’re lucky: you can’t do this sort of thing if you’re a pure-play etailer. For those guys the other etailers (especially the big buggers) are the enemy. For us, though, as the people who make and market the stuff, the etailers are our friends. So ecommerce for us is not a zero-sum game. We don’t have to beat up the opposition to win: growing sales through Boots.com, Tesco.com, mankind.co.uk and all the others will feed directly into our bottom line.

And those green benefits will be substantial: a tube of shave gel delivered through Ocado‘s fine-tuned, route-optimised, biodiesel-fueled home delivery service (along with the rest of your groceries) makes a fraction of the environmental impact of the same tube shipped in a Jiffy bag in the mail.

So take a look and let me know what you think of the new strategy as I start to unfold it over at my KMI blog. I think this is the direction that ecommerce is going to take from now on. Etail 1.0 (or paleocommerce) – the period during which thousands of pure play etailers popped up to exploit massive audience growth but with no thought at all for the environmental impact of their activities – is finished. Hope I’m right…

The smug interrogating the incompetent

Is it just me or was there something nauseating about watching a gang of smug, know-nothing MPs with their jackets over their chairs and their hands behind their heads grilling Northern Rock executives about a shocking practice (selling money market-backed mortgages) that they’d almost certainly never heard of six weeks ago?

If I’d been one of those executives I’d have been sorely tempted to ask the committee some questions myself. Like “if selling mortgages backed by wholesale debt is such a bad thing why have you never examined it before in the history of your committee?” or “when was the last time any one of you asked a question in parliament about money market-backed mortgages?” or even “since when has buying cheap, selling dear and pocketing the difference been a crime?”

Northern Rock’s ‘crime’ was to acquire debt cheaply on the International money markets and resell it at a profit to home buyers in Britain: a perfectly sound business practice and the logical outcome of the deregulation and globalisation of financial markets. The FSA obviously thought this an acceptable way of funding mortgage lending. Likewise the Bank. Neither had ever (as far as I can tell) run any kind of investigation of the practice and neither rang any alarm bells in the run up to the credit crunch.

Were Northern Rock’s management complacent? Even incompetent? Possibly. Should they carry the can for the damage to British banking’s credibility? Do they warrant a kicking from clueless point-scoring legislators? No.

Oi! referendum monkeys!

The political classes and the media should seize on the reform treaty referendum as an opportunity to spread understanding and get people talking.

I’ll keep this brief (my wife says my blog is the most boring in Britain. She may have a point). A referendum is a deliberative device. It only works if voters understand the proposition they’re asked to vote on. In fact votes solicited by politicians or lobbyists in a referendum are democratically valueless if the voters don’t understand the issue.

This brings me to my questions for you referendum monkeys. First, have you read the draft treaty? Second, do you understand it? Third, if you answered ‘yes’ to the first two questions, could you explain the treaty to another grown-up?

If those who want a referendum get their way we have a real democratic problem on our hands. We’ll have a few months (I assume) to get every elector up to speed on the reform treaty ready for the vote. The draft treaty runs to 253 pages.

There are plenty of summaries online. The Telegraph has a handy, and obviously rather partial, Q&A and a brief survey of attitudes to the treaty elsewhere in Europe. The Government’s own summary is useful but you’d be entitled to regard it as partial in the other direction (especially when read with its companion EU reform treaty myths).

The Guardian’s Q&A is a bit thin to be honest and there’s surprisingly little going on at the Centre for European Reform, apart from this think piece by Hugo Brady. The BBC’s ‘A close look at the reform treaty‘ by Stephen Mulvey wins the helpful summary competition hands down. The comedy prize goes to this mendacious ‘look back from the year 2020′ by Andrew Roberts in The Mail.

The Sun (and Girls Aloud) are running a campaign. You’ll probably want to read the treaty too, won’t you. It’s in four parts (PDFs): draft preamble, articles 1-7, protocols and draft declaration and doesn’t stoop to providing any kind of summary of its own, leaving that, I assume, to member governments and the media.

My own summary: a referendum held without wide public understanding of the treaty’s purpose and likely effects would be a travesty, a democratic pantomime. I don’t think of this as a reason to pass on a referendum, though, but rather as an unprecedented opportunity to actually explain the treaty.

A national effort with major government and media investment to summarise and explain the document while providing tools for debate and deliberation would be a wonderful thing. I can see a competition, for instance, to produce the best online explanatory tool, the best schools’ information pack, the best newspaper pull-out or the best unorthodox outreach method (Catherine Tate? Dizzee Rascal? Balamory?). Let’s see if we can’t turn this messy episode into a shining example of deliberative democracy in action.

Postal tipping point

Tick tock tick tock. Time is moving on. Change is about to catch up with the Royal Mail. What worries me about the postal strike is that the men and women striking now are so poorly led (I might say ‘misled’). Their doctrinaire and backward leadership is taking them up a blind alley.

Postal workers are dangerously underestimating the damage the strike is doing – to their own cause and to their own industry. Maybe it’s understandable. We all lack perspective when looking at our own lives, our own circumstances. But this is why I’m so disappointed in the Communications Unions‘ leadership during the dispute.

Their job is to provide that perspective, to use their not inconsiderable resources to keep the membership informed, to explain to them what’s happening in business, in communications, in the world. Postmen and women go to work in a 200 year-old business with a venerable and apparently solid infrastructure. They work hard, many in ways essentially unchanged in 50 or more years. They’re to be forgiven if they simply don’t see their vulnerability to change.

Every day, though, dozens, hundreds, thousands of businesses and households are deliberately if reluctantly scaling back their reliance on the mail. The office I’m sitting in now is highly dependent on inbound and outbound movement of goods and information. As I write, people around me in the office are planning to move more of the company’s shipping to alternate platforms – permanently.

Much is made these days of ‘tipping points’. There’s a reasonable chance that this strike will turn out (when looking back from a suitable vantage point in the future) to have been the Royal Mail’s tipping point, the moment after which nothing can be done to stop the decline turning into a collapse. And if I’m right it will be the fault of the postal workers’ blinkered leadership.

Unions don’t have to be backward and obstructive. There’s nothing to stop them recreating the radicalism and progressiveness of their early years in the modern context. Absolutely nothing stopping the Communications Union really living up to its modernised name (it used to be the Union of Postal Workers) and producing a coherent response to change that promotes members’ interests while at the same time acknowledging the world outside.

Meanwhile, a Twitter friend says: “I like the postal strike. No bills. No statements. No junk. No conspicuous absence of fun personal letters” and Marketing Week just emailed me this week’s issue as a handy, searchable PDF. Remind me why I get that dopey paper thing every week…

Bunnies

The Sony Bravia Plasticine Bunnies
Well I was just going into a sort of reverie about the lovely new Sony ad and thinking things like “I wonder if that’s what big brand advertising is for these days: making us smile once in a while” and stuff like that. I mean I really would be happy to watch ads like the Play-Doh bunnies (which are actually made of Plasticine) indefinitely and I am so much better disposed towards Sony (and to Honda and Orange and all the other dreamy elegiac reverie merchants out there) when they do nice things like this. Anyway, then someone told me that some illustrators are claiming the colourful urban bunnies idea was theirs and now I’m feeling much sadder. What a disappointment.

Misfit at Number 10

I’m sticking grimly with my image of Gordon Brown as Machiavellian hardman here. Although I suppose a week of political cock-ups: the disastrously managed Iraq announcement, the entirely unnecessary will-he-won’t-he election palaver and Cameron’s sure-footed conference performance ought to have me worried. I mean maybe he’s just a big, stupid Scotsman. A squinty, pudgy oddball. Oh God.

Speaking of oddballs, Marina Hyde’s got a terrific piece in yesterday’s Guardian. Her scarily persuasive premise is that career politicians are all oddballs. She provides lots of evidence that, contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy, successful politicians aren’t masters of the universe but rather laughable misfits.

Union trouble

Royal Mail strike billboard by www.flickr.com/photos/elenatari/

What’s with the unions? Can’t they see that working people in a globalised economy need smart, strategic representation, not belligerence?

Strikes are uncool. Strikers are uncool. They’re aggressive, negative, out-of-date. Strikers are defensive, anti-change, stuck in the 1970s. Everyone knows that. Strikes only happen in the backward industries: the dirty, blue collar industries. They’re counter-productive, anti-social, self-destructive. Even the left don’t like strikes any more: they’re an inconvenient reminder of where we come from: they’re the dirty-fingernailed id to our lighter-than-air post-industrial ego.

Wired metropolitan information workers like you and me just can’t identify with the strikers and their combative, one-dimensional, 20th Century model of work and life. Even progressives secretly suspect that strikers are just a bit slow. Why don’t they just get with the programme? Re-skill, learn to promote themselves, stop whinging and escape from the miserable zero-sum game of wage discipline, downsizing and workplace reform? Come on guys. Get a blog!

Of course, the unions don’t help. They’ve shown no readiness to update the class warrior image: they’ve made nothing of their extraordinary resources: twelve million members, vast assets and a guaranteed income to die for. The unions could, by now, have morphed into a powerful modernising institution, defending not doomed jobs in doomed industries but the future welfare of their members and their families. Why aren’t unions helping to prepare working people for change?

Why aren’t they building capacity, training and enabling? If the unions had ‘brand values’ they’d be all about defence, resistance, retreat. But the unions are really the natural owners of aspiration, improvement, progress. Generations of short-sighted leaders have allowed the unions to be pushed into this negative, bottom-rung position where it’s hard for them even to deliver their basic functions: defending the exploited and representing the voiceless.

Unions, in the space of one generation, have gone from glorious emblem of solidarity, organisation and resistance to shoddy irrelevance. The communications union, authors of the current mess at the Royal Mail, could have been leading change in their industry: they could have been in the driving seat, taking proposals to management, pushing reform of the business as a means to improve the odds for their members.

But what they’re doing is what they’ve always done: it’s a kind of industrial era Tourette’s. They know that a strike can only damage their interests but they just can’t help it. They’ve allowed themselves to be so thoroughly painted into a corner by decades of intransigence and avoidance of change that this kind of beat-yourself-up behaviour really is their only option. It’s heartbreaking and disappointing and it serves working people very poorly indeed.

(Picture by yousoundhollow)

Tory softies blow it again…

George Osborne. Pic from The Conservative Party web site

The Tories are looking pretty pleased with their shadow chancellor’s inheritance tax plan but Brown’s on his way back to town – and he’s going to wipe the smile off their smug faces.

Osborne may be… er… uncharismatic but he’s a useful politician. The inheritance tax announcement was about the only thing that stood a chance of digging the Tories’ out of their present electoral hole – and his method of funding the cut is clever and politically cost-free. The fact that it’ll affect hardly anyone (despite the shameless lies about the number of households affected in the announcement) and that it would be the least progressive change to taxation in generations hardly matters. Inheritance tax is a dead duck.

Death tax is anachronistic (it’s got more to do with the exigencies of mediaeval warmaking than with funding modern public services) and it’s socially indefensible (don’t talk to me about the inefficiencies of intergenerational capital transfer. There’s an unarguable emotional logic to leaving your money to your kids: we’re programmed to do it).

The problem for Osborne and the Tories, though, is that in Gordon Brown’s muscular, Tony Soprano-style world his death tax policy is fair game. Absolutely nothing – not courtesy, not scruple, not Westminster clubbishness – will stop Brown from simply copying this policy. In Brown’s political New Jersey opponents are dumb resources, unworthy of respect.

Beating up the Tories and stealing their shiny new death tax idea would be a casual, pre-breakfast flick of the wrist for bullyboy Brown. I wouldn’t be surprised if he even nicked the non-dom funding wheeze along with it. And you know what, I think I like this kind of disrespectful, butch, smash-and-grab politics. Death tax is finished anyway (only an idiot – or a Liberal – would go into an election campaign with the current thresholds in place) so Brown might as well get on with it. I can almost see him lacing up his shit kicking boots on the plane back from Iraq.

Here we go. Here we go. Here we go…