Message for the Parliamentary Labour Party

It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the awkward, pudgy, indecisive sociopath, stupid. Your problem is installed in Number 10 Downing Street. There’s your problem. But then you probably knew that.

Tories reassuringly stupid and short-sighted

Aldenham Conservatives

I just wanted to share this piece of elemental stupidity with you. I live in the outer suburbs of London, in a green belt stronghold of the Tories called Radlett. The cutting comes from one of their leaflets. I suppose I could provide some kind of commentary or I could just leave you to treasure the nastiness and pointlessness of this little announcement on your own. I’m practically speechless.

So I’m going to leave it to you to figure out where the evicted kids are meant to go instead of the park, what kind of alternative provision the Tories are making for their amusement and what plans they’ve made to prevent antisocial behaviour in the future.

Categorized as Uncategorized Tagged

Gordon Brown Nein Danke

nuclear warning symbolDamn. Since I last posted here things have gone from bad to worse. Britain is now officially governed by what I think the kids call a ‘flake’. My early impression of Gordon Brown as Labour’s dreadnought, a politically impregnable battleship of prudence and good judgment, has all but evaporated. Who’s writing his script? Yesterday he called Hain’s donor gaffe ‘an incompetence.’

What’s the difference between ‘an incompetence’ and ‘incompetence’? No idea. Although I suspect it’s probably about a mile-and-a-half of choppy political water. Brown could bring himself neither to condemn Hain (‘he was incompetent. He’s history’) nor to get behind him (‘Shut up you bunch of ninnies: he’s done nothing wrong and he’s staying’) so we wound up with the miserable, indecisive non-phrase: ‘an incompetence’. I’m dumbfounded and more than a bit worried. And now a Northern Rock nationalisation: another epic opportunity for indecision. God save us.

Still, at least we’ve got a revival of nuclear power to look forward to. I’m actually in favour. I think that our objections (I was a long-time anti too) are all based on the first- and second-generation kit that’s currently rotting at various out-of-the-way coastal locations – and which, of course, we have to deal with whether or not we decide to build new plants.

Objectors have got a skewed picture of nuclear power’s risks. Even taking into account the half-a-dozen major incidents since the 1950s nuclear has killed hardly anyone. Add up the deaths directly attributable to emissions from even a modern coal-fired plant and you’ll see what I mean. Don’t get me wrong: meltdown and catastrophic contamination are not trivial risks but we must weigh them properly alongside the risks of pursuing existing high-carbon base load sources and of acting too slowly to fill the inevitable power supply gap.

The grim statistical truth is that even the real risk of an occasional major disaster will be dwarfed by the reduced long-term pressure on climate and on vulnerable coastal communities, for instance. Climate change really does change everything.

Current nuclear tech is streets ahead of the Heath Robinson plants of the first wave. Look at this marvelous self-contained, neighbourhood-sized unit from Toshiba (by the way, I love this site map). You could fit one in your garage and it would heat and light hundreds of homes for forty years. It also, according to the experts, presents vastly reduced risk of overheating. While we’ve been at a nuclear standstill the rest of the world has been moving the technology on. It’s time we caught up.

Speaking of climate change, I guess you’ll have seen this terrific risk assessment from Greg on YouTube. I’m no logician but his thesis looks sound to me. Right or wrong, though, I’m terrifically impressed by the video’s author, a high school science teacher, apparently. I think this is a great example of the top end of citizen media: confident, thought-provoking, authoritative. I do hope he’s got himself a proper movie deal or a substantial research grant by now.

Categorized as Uncategorized Tagged

Is Gordon Brown depressed?

I think he’s depressed. I suspect he’s been depressed for his whole adult life, mind you. But he’s just moved to a big new job and that’s triggered a crisis. Everything about his behaviour shouts depression. He’s turned in on himself. His instinct when things get tough has always been to retreat – hide out, pull the duvet over his head. He hates the aggro and the nasty, rude attention he gets from the opposition and the media.

He doesn’t rise to it. There’s no fight in him. It must be frustrating to work with him when he’s like this. All around him people must be urging him to get a grip, kick some ass, get out into the world and make a difference. But still, nothing.

Where is he this morning, for instance? Has he varied his schedule to sort out the funding mess? Doesn’t look like it. As usual he’s hiding behind a compliant phalanx of cabinet members. He’s in doors, wringing his hands when he ought to be striding the public stage, dishing out the presbyterian tongue-lashings, roasting Humphrys on Today, firing everyone within half a mile of the scandal, reshuffling, rewriting the rules, bringing forward legislation, hosting meetings, taking control!

Why is there still anyone at all at work in the party’s fund-raising bunker? Why aren’t they all licking their wounds in Starbucks, thinking about a change of career? Where’s the evidence that Brown takes this diabolical shambles seriously, either morally or politically? The Blair instinct – to turn a political nightmare into an opportunity to shine as a man, as a leader – is cruelly absent. Brown’s in a funk.

Here’s my conclusion. He fooled us all (well, me anyway). I saw tough, dour, implacable, unruffled. I missed terrified, lost, out-of-his-depth, passive, ineffective. This is a very scary time for Labour and for Britain and the man in charge has lost his grip, his marbles and his balls. Go on Gordon, prove me wrong.

Categorized as Uncategorized Tagged

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…

Categorized as Uncategorized Tagged

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.

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…

Gordon Brown – Presbyterian Hit Man

Gordon Brown
I’m impressed. I’m properly impressed. Gordon Brown’s night raid on the Liberal party was muscular shit-kicking, twenty-first century politics. It was never going to work but that wasn’t the point. I don’t think Brown ever actually expected to abduct Ashdown or Neuberger. His message was simpler. He was saying: “you’re nothing to me, you’re a political irrelevance. You’re a resource. You have some good people and If I want to I’ll talk to them.”

So it’s not exactly what it seems: it’s not an inclusive gesture, it’s not a mold-breaking ‘big tent’ initiative. It’s a successful effort to rough up and irritate the third party. Brown’s making a clear enough statement about what we can expect of his premiership: that’s the end of charm and emolience, people. Communication will not be this administration’s watchword. Don’t expect a lot of fluffy ecumenical bullshit. Do expect Sopranos-style political whack jobs and plenty of attitude. As a repositioning exercise it’s persuasive: Brown means business and, I reckon, in these febrile times, that’s probably a good thing…

How does he do it?

Tony Blair

How did Tony Blair turn what ought to have been an ignominious retreat – a defeated backward step from power – into a noble and affecting curtain call? I am, again, in awe. The man is the most remarkable political figure of the post-war era. A fascinating, hypnotising, utterly political animal, somehow managing to exist outside or above history, or at least events.

Blair is the first British leader of the 21st Century but also, perhaps, the first truly 21st Century leader anywhere in the world (will Sarkozy be the second?). I know I sound like a fanboy. He’s a story-teller, a weaver of powerful, condensed narratives that motivate and win round. And these stories are subtle and economical – a lot like the compressed narratives of advertising.

They’re all about Britain, about its people, about its place in the world. Rarely about anything else. Even when he’s talking about Sierra Leone or Iraq or Trident or debt relief, he’s painting a picture of Britain – robust, honest, fair-minded, forward-thinking – that’s as powerful and as influential as any prime minister’s before him. Like him or not, his version of Britain is catchy, contemporary – one that will form the template for Brown’s (or Cameron’s) Britain and for those who follow.

I admire Tony Blair enormously, while I hate the mess that Iraq has become and the damage that it’s done to Britain and to Labour and to Blair himself. I think his courage, which is unarguable and instinctive, sets a difficult example for his successors too. Prevarication, absenteeism and avoidance will all be more difficult choices in the post-Blair era. Blair’s Britain will, whether we like it or not, outlive his period in office by many years.

Going on strike

A 1971 strike in Knoxville, Tennessee
Industrial action is pointless, wasteful and destructive – and essential for a healthy society

Why do people still go on strike? Haven’t we got past all that? Didn’t we leave the pointless conflict of boss and worker back in the eighties? Obviously not. Cabin crew at British Airways are flexing their muscles (although their strike is off for the time being). Railway workers are staging one-day strikes. Civil servants are at it too. New Yorkers are into it too. We don’t seem to be able to transcend the wasteful non-communication of labour vs capital. Sooner or later (at least where unions still exist) push comes to shove and labour is withdrawn. Strikes do permanent damage to reputations, jobs and the bottom line and they hardly ever produce the effect desired by workers. Everyone suffers. So why do we keep doing it?

A strike (a dispute, a standoff, a work-to-rule… Any kind of labour-side argy-bargy) is a response to some kind of imbalance… an asymmetry. These asymmetries used to have simpler names: exploitation, inequity. They were about unequal access to resources – shitty pay, diabolical conditions, long hours. That’s why trade unions came into being. These days the asymmetries are subtler. Circumstances have changed and it’s usually about unequal access to information, poorly distributed knowledge or failed communication.

Capitalism is imperfect. Markets are powerful tools for producing and distributing value but they do it mechanically and arbitrarily. Capitalism, of course, actually depends on these asymmetries. Between the value of an asset to you and its value to me. Between businesses with pricing power and those who follow. Between those who make efficient use of capital and those who waste it. Without asymmetries opportunities never arise. Capitalism conducted without unequal access to one kind of resource or another is unimaginable.

In a capitalist system – let’s get this straight – value can only be created where there is a useful asymmetry to exploit. So, while these critical asymmetries produce economic value, labour must retain the last resort power to challenge an injustice, to rectify an inequity, to face down capital. Strikes may be crude and often counterproductive but any reading of the contemporary economy must acknowledge that they’re a necessary and proportionate corrective to out-of-whack capital. Strikes are an awkward holdover from the first half of the industrial revolution but, it turns out, they retain their value. Strikes are aggressive and negative and messy but they’re also direct, appropriate and authentic: we’re pissed off and we’re not going to take it any more…

The pic is from an excellent flickr set about Knoxville, Tennessee in 1971 by willie_901.

Categorized as Uncategorized Tagged