Sunday, June 26, 2016

Post-Brexit, the first thing we need to do is breathe

This weekend I’ve been at Avebury, site of Europe’s largest stone circle and various other Neolithic goings-on, on an anniversary getaway we’d booked before we knew that our politics would be imploding around us. Spending 24 hours near these amazing standing stones, I started to think about two things:

1. These things have been here for 5,000 years. They’ve seen a lot. It must have seemed like the world was ending a lot of times in those 5,000 years. And they’re still here.
2. These things took generations to build. The people who started didn’t have very sophisticated tools to hand, they didn’t even necessarily know what the finished thing was going to look like. But they started, and they built something that has endured for millennia.

Not sure what metaphor I’m reaching for here, but basically I think what’s happening now is big, deep, potentially epoch defining. It’s not going to be fixed overnight, whether by a second referendum or by ousting Corbyn. What we do next has to come from a place of reflection, patience, collaboration – it has to be intentional and strategic, not a knee jerk desire to be doing something, to recover some of the sense of agency we’ve just lost and to feel like the world makes sense again.

Having succumbed to this tendency myself after the general election, I’m all too aware of it happening to those around me right now, and I think it’s something we need to be wary of. It can manifest in weaving comfortable stories that allow us to carry on believing all the things we thought we knew; or in throwing ourselves into campaigns or projects based more on our own emotional needs than a sober assessment of their strategic value.

At times like these, the first thing we need to do is breathe. If you’ve been immersing yourself in Facebook reaction and TV news since Thursday, maybe take a 24-hour break from politics; get some sleep; go for a walk; give your brain a bit of space before deciding how to act. Because what we do next really matters – so let’s try and get it right.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Worst timing ever? Government promises to scrap aviation safety rules

On Thursday - the very same day that the news was dominated by the GermanWings plane crash, and regulators and airlines across Europe were responding by tightening rules about the number of staff needed in a cockpit at any given time - a colleague spotted that the UK government had just quietly released a document called ‘General Aviation Strategy’. This document has a foreword from the Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority which contains this gem of a sentence:

"[The Civil Aviation Authority] is already making a key contribution to fulfilling the Government's aspiration for general aviation to enjoy a safety regulation system that imposes the minimum necessary burden and empowers individuals to make responsible decisions to secure acceptable safety outcomes."  

Um. What? On this day of all days, the man responsible for regulating Britain’s planes is telling people to take responsibility for their own safety in planes? Incidentally, this is the only time the word 'safety' appears in his foreword. In fact, the whole ‘General Aviation Strategy’ has lots to say about getting rid of regulation, and very little to say about ensuring safety. 

At this point I should fess up to something I’ve only discovered since: ‘general aviation’ is a term that covers all civilian aviation except commercial passenger airlines, so this doesn’t directly apply to flights like the GermanWings one. But, as far as I can tell, it does go far beyond Biggles-style hobbyists, covering everything from emergency medical evacuation to corporate business flights to air taxis.

So you would have thought it wasn’t the best day for a government to release a document the thrust of which is, ‘Gosh, why did anyone think it was a good idea to impose all these silly rules on something as harmless as flying a plane?! Yes, of course we’ll get rid of them right away, right away!’

Just as a little taster, other highlights of the document include a promise of “thorough deregulation for GA so that it is policed only to the extent needed to comply with international obligations and to provide appropriate safety and security". Apparently, “where deregulation is not possible then the CAA will consider the scope for removing as much of GA as possible from their regulatory oversight”.

As it’s keen to point out, a lot of the recommendations come from the government’s Red Tape Challenge consultation with the sector, who – quelle surprise – felt “strongly” that they were over-regulated. One of my favourite contributions highlighted on the Red Tape Challenge website begins with the immortal words “Safety is of course important, but …” (Another little factoid I discovered while researching this blog: accident rates in general aviation appear to be orders of magnitude higher than for commercial passenger planes.)

Following on from the Red Tape Challenge, the government set up a ‘Challenge Panel’ of industry representatives to tell it what to do; it has implemented many of its recommendations. The strategy’s Ministerial foreword pleads with the industry to “hold our feet to the fire” in pressing for further scrapping of regulation both at home and in Europe. Protecting passengers (or indeed meeting our climate targets) features nowhere in this foreword. 

Meanwhile, the Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority says of his relationship with the industry that "the ability for us to work together so effectively is an almost unique advantage compared to many other countries." In other words, with apologies for the geekiest sentence ever, he's saying that the UK has a comparative advantage in regulatory capture.

And as usual, I think that’s the real story here: basically one of political capture by business interests. While Ministers talk a good game on dealing with corporate lobbying, they're quietly institutionalising it – and damn the consequences for the rest of us. When it comes to aviation safety, it looks like they could be about to find themselves squarely on the wrong side of the argument.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cadbury job losses Kraftily disguised in jargonese

Last weekend I was back in Birmingham, my home town, for the first time in about five years. [Apologies to anyone reading this who is miffed I didn't look them up. It's a long story, involving norovirus, deceptively cheap trains to Lichfield and last-minute changes of plan...] Due to a fuck-about with trains I had an excessively long journey back to London and decided to buy a Birmingham Post to keep me occupied.

And good job I did, or I'd never have found out about Kraft (or, as it's apparently now known, Mondelez International) and its latest turn as a comedy corporate villain. Short version: quelle surprise, Kraft are screwing Cadbury workers now that the country has its back turned, and apparently no-one really gives a monkey's.

Long version: The Post's front page story was about a leaked document called "High Performing Bournville - is this for me?". I haven't been able to find this anywhere online, and it's written in such excruciating American management speak that it's basically quite difficult to discern any actual facts from the bits of it quoted in the Post. Their columnist Jon Griffin had it about right when he described it as "part David Brent, part Kim Jong-Un’s public addresses". But the essence of it seems to be that Kraft are imposing a restructuring - sorry, "transformation journey" - which will result in hundreds of jobs being lost - or, if you prefer, "fewer colleagues here at the end of our journey".

As part of this, the document warns in somewhat sinister fashion that workers will be expected to "demonstrate a new set of behaviours"; there's no indication (at least in the Post's write-up) of what these "behaviours" might be, although it does vaguely allude to "varied shift patterns" for those who keep their jobs. Apparently this will be "dialogued" as part of consultation. If only the attempt to turn 'dialogue' into a verb was the most offensive thing about this document.

"Colleagues" who "don't want to be part of High Performing Bournville" are invited to take voluntary redundancy. There's even a stupid bullshit questionnaire that's been circulated to workers ahead of one-to-one discussions, with questions like "Are you a team player with an attitude for playing your part?", "Do you want to work in a factory where you are expected to meet all compliance requirements?", and "Do you embrace change?" Ooh, now let me think. I wonder which answers will help me demonstrate the right set of behaviours. It's a tough one...

Basically, Kraft seem to be fulfilling all the dire predictions made about them at the time of the takeover. Job losses? Tick. Crass American management style? Tick. Total disregard for the history and culture of the Cadbury company? Tick. The fact that it's happening at Bournville (or as Mondelez puts it, the "true home of Cadbury") feels especially ironic: I remember learning about Bournville at school as an example of enlightened industrialism driven by Quaker ideals. Something important is being lost here, and yeah, it makes me sad.

I thought this story might have been picked up by a few of the nationals, given how much fuss they made at the time of the takeover itself. But so far only the BBC and the Express (presumably on the basis that the villain of the story happens to be foreign) seem to have shown any interest. Apparently, no-one much cares what happens at Cadbury any more.

It's significant that this comes after a two-year moratorium on job losses conceded as part of the takeover. Kraft were obviously gambling on the nation losing interest once the spotlight moved on. And the evidence so far suggests they were right.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Thoughts on yesterday's TTIP day of action

So, after a period of being crap, I finally got off my arse and went on an action yesterday - which seemed like a good excuse to also finally get off my arse and start blogging again.

The TTIP action in Parliament Square was interesting for me in a couple of ways, especially given my minor obsession with the as-yet-non-existent fight against deregulation at a UK level. (For anyone not familiar with TTIP, this is a good introduction - essentially the latest attempt at a trade deal which allows corporations to ride roughshod over the democratic process.) Because of course, what a lot of people don't realise is that the corporate takeover of regulation is here already, in the form of the ludicrous, undemocratic, brazenly ideological 'one-in, two-out' rule which I blog about with such tedious regularity. We don't need a new trade deal to stomp all over our standards and protections, because the UK government has helpfully already done that.

But for me the TTIP action brought home just how difficult it is to get people fired up about these big, abstract, systemic things, which actually have the most egregious impact on things they care about. People will get out on the streets to demand climate action or workers' rights, but try getting them out to fight the war and not just the individual battles, and it's not so easy. To be fair, the disappointing turnout yesterday might have something to do with demo fatigue, being sandwiched between the big climate march and next week's anti-austerity march. And, of course, austerity is also a big, abstract, systemic thing, but one which seems much easier to communicate and mobilise around than deregulation - why is this I wonder? Is it just that it's so much more a part of public discourse, or is there something more fundamental to it than that?

On the plus side, even if the turnout yesterday was a bit underwhelming (and even if the protest was completely overshadowed by the Kobane protesters on the other side of the square), the TTIP campaign shows that it is possible to mobilise people to fight these things, if they're communicated properly. Two frames which seem to be working for TTIP, and which I think are equally relevant to the UK context:

  • Corporate takeover of democracy. Deregulation might be a boring and abstract villain, but unaccountable corporate power is not. The parallels with the UK regime - where regulations are being assessed solely for their 'burden' on business, and these assessments are then passed on to a committee stuffed with corporate lobbyists to be rubber-stamped - are obvious.
  • Eroding our hard-fought protections - food standards, workers' rights, environmental laws. Regulation is almost as rubbish a hero as deregulation is a villain: it has to be made real and connected to things that people actually give a shit about. These were the three that kept coming up at TTIP, and I think they work just as well at UK level.

Even if it's not as big as it needs to be, the anti-TTIP movement has grown from nothing into a serious force in an impressively short space of time. We urgently need to learn from and build on this to start challenging the deregulatory consensus in the UK.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Co-op crisis and the death throes of 2008

This week I have been mostly getting depressed about the ongoing slow-motion car crash at the Co-op. It's bad enough that one of this country's few major co-operative institutions seems to be imploding, but the coverage in the media has just added insult to injury.

Last week the papers seemed to be falling over themselves to blame the Co-op's shambolic co-operative governance structure for all its failings and insist that it needs to embrace reform. It's as if they've forgotten that five years ago, it wasn't amateurish committees that brought the global banking system to its knees, but plcs which ticked absolutely every imaginable box of 'good corporate governance'.

A particularly infuriating editorial in the FT piously pointed out the Co-op's lack of proper risk management and the fact that board members failed even to understand the risks the bank was running. Although the editorial did go on to say that it would be a mistake to try and turn the Co-op into a plc, that seemed to be based more on a recognition that it would be losing its USP than on any doubts about the obvious superiority of the plc governance model. And yet the failings it highlights are literally the exact same failings identified as contributing causes of the collapse of listed banks. And, despite a growing list of independent reviews, there are few signs that anything much has really changed.

Indeed, when I worked in this field, one of the things that repeatedly astounded me was the sheer complacency of the UK corporate governance community – the speed with which the waters closed over the crisis and the prevailing sense of smug self-satisfaction reasserted itself. In 2010, I was sat in a conference room full of white middle-aged men, all chuntering about how UK corporate governance was the envy of the world, when someone offered without a trace of irony, “We're our own harshest critics.” Honestly, it was an effort of will not to stand up and yell, “Newsflash guys - you're really not!” Taking a leaf out of Bob Diamond's book, it was obvious they'd decided that the time for remorse was well and truly over.

Lord Myners, to be fair to him, was one of the few voices of dissent to disturb this cosy consensus. But I can't help feeling that he sees his review at the Co-op as a laboratory for all his bright ideas about governance reform, which were developed as sticking plasters for a limping plc model, rather than a genuine opportunity to strengthen and rejuvenate the co-operative alternative. He gives the game away in a Guardian comment piece, when he insists that those who say he is trying to impose a plc model "do so to deceive": “On which plc do shareholders sit on the nominations committee, evaluate the board or publicly hold it to account on a quarterly basis?” 

If that really is his defence, it's Myners who begins to look disingenuous: he and his hedge fund, Cevian Capital, have been loudly calling for these measures in a plc context. So, although he may not be turning the Co-op into a plc as they currently stand, he does appear to be turning it into his ideal vision of one. And, while most sensible commentators agree with Myners' diagnosis of the problems with listed companies, it's far less clear that handing more power to shareholders is the solution. Besides, it's very hard to square the idea of turbo-charged shareholder accountability with commitment to co-operative principles.

I should say that I'm by no means an expert on the Co-op's governance structure, and I'm certainly not saying it doesn't need to change. But it is hugely frustrating to see this saga being portrayed as a failure of the co-operative model, when in so many ways, it is really a belated spasm of the 2008 crisis. Just like listed banks, the Co-op over-reached itself, taking on too much risk and pursuing ill-advised takeovers. Just like listed banks, weaknesses in its governance allowed these risks to grow un-noticed. And then Lord Myners is parachuted in to fix it all using solutions he dreamt up in the aftermath of the crash, with listed companies in mind. 

Of course, the irony is that it is precisely the 'never again' mentality produced by 2008's massive bail-outs which has led to the Co-op being allowed to sink or swim – potentially devastating the UK's co-operative sector in the process. And that's the really depressing thing about all this. Because if we want to make our banking system more resilient, we need to strengthen the alternatives to the profit-hungry, risk-loving plc model – not vandalise them.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why we must keep water cannon off our streets

Finding myself agreeing with senior police officers on the subject of policing protest is an unfamiliar experience for me. But it seems like the Met have outdone themselves with their latest wheeze: asking Theresa May for permission to purchase and use water cannon. Suddenly, in fighting against the Met, I’m on the same side as Ian Blair, who recently said he didn’t think a good case had been made for the use of the weapon in England and Wales; Police and Crime Commissioner Bob Jones, who’s said they would be “about as much use as a chocolate teapot”; and indeed Theresa May herself, who said in 2011: “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon. The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities." (Mind you, in her recent reply to Boris Johnson’s letter on the issue, she’d changed her tune a bit, saying only that, “Like you, I am keen to ensure that forces have the tools and powers they need to maintain order on our streets” – so who knows what her position is these days.)

As my husband points out, it’s not clear why anyone would assume water cannon were innocuous, other than the fact that their name includes the word ‘water’. But, you know, it does also include the word ‘cannon’. If they were called “pressure cannons”, nobody would think they were just a thing that might get you a bit wet and cold.

Which, of course, they’re not. Even the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) acknowledges that water cannon can cause “serious injury and even death”. Liberty calls them “inflammatory, militaristic and brutal”, and the Home Affairs Select Committee has pointed out that they’re an indiscriminate weapon with a high risk of injuring innocent bystanders. German pensioner Dietrich Wagner, who was blinded by water cannon in an environmental protest (warning: the details of his injuries are seriously gruesome), recently travelled to London to warn us not to make the same mistake his country did. 

The Met would like us to believe that water cannon have become a regrettable necessity after the London riots of 2011. Almost every official document about their request opens by talking about the riots. And yet even the water cannon zealots accept that they are useless in that type of situation – what ACPO calls “agile disorder”.  This isn’t that surprising when you consider that the alleged point of water cannon is to create distance between the police and disorder – not that useful during looting, when people are already running away with the stuff. The Home Affairs Select Committee has said that deploying water cannon in the 2011 riots would have been “inappropriate as well as dangerous” – and even Bernard Hogan Howe, who’s now apparently desperate to get his hands on this new toy, said they were “not the answer”.

But this isn’t really about the riots. If this sounds like me being my usual cynical self, don’t take my word for it: the following is a direct quote from ACPO’s briefing about the plans. “There is no intelligence to suggest that there is an increased likelihood of serious disorder within England and Wales. However, it would be fair to assume that the ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest.”

So there you have it. The Met wants to buy weaponry that can injure, blind and even kill, using the riots as a convenient excuse, but with the express intention of using it against protesters. It’s a plan so mad, so dangerous, that it’s hard to find anyone outside the Met who supports it. And yet it looks worryingly, bafflingly like they might get their way: Boris Johnson has already informed Theresa May of his “support in principle” for the request. The public consultation is open till 28th February (this Friday): it’ll take you two minutes to respond using this handy template. If you don’t want to see water cannon on our streets, now is very much the time to say so.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The politics of remembrance - postscript

I’ve just finished reading A Very Long Engagement, and thought it was very moving (once I’d managed to get past the feelings of rage against Michael Gove that arose every time I picked it up). Of course, last week the Gove-inspired debate about how we should remember the war flared up again, with the minister in charge of the commemorations saying that there would be no ‘celebration’. Historian Gary Sheffield (one of the ‘good’ academics cited in Gove’s Daily Mail piece for his attempt to rehabilitate General Haig’s reputation) was for some reason quoted in every paper calling this judgement into question, despite having previously commented that the centenary shouldn't be "a jingoistic carnival of celebration", which is basically all the minister said.

In light of all that, I thought I’d share this little passage, which is spoken by a French soldier towards the very end of the book:

“I can wait. I’ll keep waiting, for as long as it takes, for this war to be seen in everyone’s eyes for what it always was, the most filthy, savage, useless obscenity that ever there was; I’ll wait until the flags stop flying in November in front of the monuments to the dead, I’ll wait until the Poor Bastards at the Front stop gathering, wearing their damned berets and missing an arm or a leg, to celebrate what?”

What struck me on reading it was the way the wheel turns: by the time that book was published, in 1991, it’s probably fair to say that the war was seen that way. But less than 25 years later, here we are, batting back Gove’s attempts to reclaim it as a moment of national glory. And he thinks we’re the ones with politically motivated delusions about history…