Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Airport expansion: is the green movement winning the battle but losing the war?

One of the downsides of having a radio alarm and of being tragically middle class enough to set it to Radio 4 is that you sometimes wake up to the burbling of Cabinet Ministers. Yesterday, it was Justine Greening, being pressed by John Humphrys to say whether she would resign if her government approved a third runway at Heathrow. She eventually caved and admitted it would be "difficult" for her to stay on, which duly became the headline in later editions of that day's papers.

And the story's rumbled on today, with a report being published by the Parliamentary Aviation Group arguing that the UK needs new airport capacity either at Heathrow or at a new hub airport. Incidentally, this group is serviced by a consultancy called MHP Communications, which does public affairs work for the transport sector but doesn't publish a full list of its clients - so there's really no way of knowing whether it's a front for industry.

Either way, it's been obvious for a while that the aviation industry is mounting a seriously concerted campaign for expansion. I have to go through Westminster tube quite regularly for work, and for several weeks I couldn't avoid seeing these purple monstrosities plastered over literally every surface, from ticket barriers to escalators:

They had numerous other oh-so-witty slogans as well: "Nothing grows without routes", "UK economic growth, this is your final call", and so on and so on. My first thought (after controlling the impulse to vomit) was "why hasn't this been subvertised?" Turns out it was, but I guess that must have been speedily dealt with by station staff, to ensure that MPs arriving at the House of Commons could enjoy BAA's propaganda undisturbed.

This, and seemingly endless headlines in the Evening Standard about how badly London needs new airport capacity, are clearly the tip of the lobbying iceberg. If these posters (which must have cost a fortune) are the bit we get to see, how many breakfasts, lunches, dinners, receptions, private meetings and briefings must have been going on behind the scenes?

Meanwhile, the environmental movement seems to be missing in action. I did look for signs of life before writing this blog, in case I've just not been paying attention, but all I could find was a little-read blog from WWF and Greenpeace's press comment on yesterday's news. I assume they have also been doing their bit behind the scenes - at least, I bloody hope so - but when a powerful industry is throwing so much cash and influence at an issue, surely a groundswell of public pressure is the only thing that could genuinely redress the balance?

All I can think is that environmental NGOs are keeping a watching brief but not mobilising their supporters because they think the risk of a third runway being approved is low. If today's news is anything to go by, this confidence could be misplaced. But even if they're right, my worry is that they'll win the battle but lose the war: that while everyone fixates on the third runway, the wider argument about airport expansion is being quietly lost to the lobbyists.

The No Third Runway campaign has always been a strange alliance of greens and locals, and Justine Greening (whose constituency is under Heathrow's flightpath) clearly falls into the latter camp. And she's not the only one: there is clearly a huge nexus of powerful people, from Boris Johnson to David Cameron, who oppose the third runway but are openly in favour of airport expansion and decidedly indifferent to developing policies to reduce aviation emissions. Basically, even if the third runway isn't built, some form of expansion of the UK's airport capacity looks increasingly likely. We shouldn't kid ourselves that the environmental argument has been won.

There's a general feeling of tiredness and demoralisation in the green movement at the moment, but if there's one thing we all love, it's having a good enemy - and BAA, whose website proudly proclaims it to be "at the forefront of the sustainable aviation debate", is a pretty good enemy. Surely it's time for civil society to wade into this battle?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

One year on from the riots - why we could all use a bit more humility

[Disclaimer: I realise this post is slightly behind the times - I started writing it a couple of weeks ago, got poorly and have only just got round to finishing it. It's quite long, but it's the product of a lot of thinking, so bear with it - I'd like to know what you think.]

On the anniversary of last summer's riots, a lot of ink was spilled about why they happened and how we can stop them happening again. Much of it raises points that I think are both true and important. But I've been puzzled by the total failure of almost all of it to engage with social psychology - with what we know about how people behave in crowds. 

The Riots, Communities and Victims Panel's website says that they spoke to key stakeholders including affected communities, third sector organisations and employers. Social psychologists don't feature anywhere on that list, and evidence from social psychology doesn't appear anywhere in the Panel's final report. In a way, that's not surprising - a large part of the Panel's purpose seems to have been to make people feel listened to, and few politicians care whether social psychologists feel listened to.

Perhaps another part of its purpose was to fulfil our need to feel that we understand, to impose a tidy narrative on something shocking and unsettling. And again, social psychology's not particularly helpful here: if there's one thing it suggests, it's that crowd situations are by their nature chaotic and unpredictable, so we should probably be at least a bit circumspect about any conclusions we draw from the events of last summer. 

Yet from the minute the riots started happening, right up until the anniversary a few weeks ago, people from all sides of the political spectrum seem to have been astonishingly ready to start sentences with things like "the riots happened because..." (or even, in the case of Laurie Penny - never one to knowingly undersell her opinions - "people riot because"). Unsurprisingly, those sentences usually ended in a way that reflected the political prejudices of the people writing them - it was poor parenting, it was black culture, it was the cuts. I've thought about this quite a bit, and I've come to the conclusion that pretty much all those prejudices entail assumptions about the rioters' political or moral agency which are at odds with what we know about crowd behaviour. And maybe that's why nobody's been particularly keen to look at the psychological evidence.

Let's start with the left. Last summer, I actually found it quite distasteful how quickly both personal friends and political commentators jumped to appropriate the riots as an expression of anger against the cuts. To be fair, a lot admitted they'd been overly hasty once it became apparent that most of the rioters were not very interested in battling the police and really quite interested in going on the rob. I hate to pick on people, but Laurie Penny has recently re-posted the article quoted above, so I'm assuming she does not fall into this camp and that the views she expresses in it are fair game.

In it, she describes the riots as a sort of "political statement", the nature of which "may be obscured" even to those who took part. To be honest, this strikes me as quite patronising. I do not think it is possible to make a political statement without knowing you are making it. That is sort of in the nature of the word 'statement'. Of course, that doesn't mean that what you're doing doesn't have political implications - but for me, this is the first type of attempt to foist agency on the rioters, a claim that the left commentariat somehow have a privileged insight that enables them to explain to us all what the rioters were really trying to say.

Just to be clear, I'm absolutely not trying to depoliticise the riots here. I strongly believe that, insofar as we can point fingers of blame, our hugely unequal society should be first in line. And I agree with Laurie Penny that all the evidence suggests the riots were sparked off by an excluded underclass with no stake in society and nothing to lose. But I don't find it plausible that the prime motivation of the rioters was anger against the police or the cuts. Even if  that was true at the beginning, it certainly doesn't explain the way the riots spread. My point is that there's a big difference between recognising the politics in a situation and making claims about the political motivations of those involved. 

So what about the right? Their reaction was even more distasteful, with politicians, commentators and the establishment in general falling over themselves to morally condemn the rioters. David Cameron - cheered on by the Tory right - blamed the riots on "moral collapse", on irresponsibility and selfishness, on "children without fathers; schools without discipline; reward without effort; crime without punishment; rights without responsibilities; communities without control". Another tidy narrative, another terribly convenient and predictable list of culprits, and another attempt to foist agency on people, only this time it's moral agency rather than political agency. And this was more iniquitous - for innumerable reasons, but mainly because it had real-world consequences. 

The language of morality used about rioters flies in the face of everything we know about crowd psychology - about contagion, peer pressure, group dynamics and so on. As I've argued before, if studies like those of Milgram and Zimbardo show us one thing, it's that none of us know how we'll behave in situations like that, and that the forces of conformity and social norms are more powerful than we could have imagined. (This is true even in everyday, familiar situations, let alone the madness of a riot.)

So we should surely be a bit more humble in making moral judgements about people who were swept up in the mob. Yet if anything we saw the reverse, with courts put under huge pressure to hand out punitive sentences to 'send a message' - and, for the most part, happily obliging. If the government had been willing to put the psychological evidence ahead of knee-jerk political reactions, maybe we wouldn't have had the ludicrous spectacle of a man being sentenced to six months in jail for stealing a bottle of water. And maybe if we all paid a bit more attention to the psychology, we'd think twice before treating the riots as a handy peg on which to hang our own agendas and assumptions.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

George Galloway: you've got to admire his indefatigability. Oh no wait, you haven't.

Ah, George Galloway. As my husband remarked over dinner today, "it's not so much that this is par for the course with him, it's more that I expect him to be continually hitting new lows". It seems kind of unnecessary to post about why he's been a twat on this particular occasion, because a) it's pretty bloody obvious, and b) the internets are pretty much already on it. However, blogging about things that make me cross has got me this far, and George Galloway makes me pretty damn cross. Also, there's a video with more amusement value than his turgid excuse for a podcast as a reward if you make it to the end of the post.

I won't insult your intelligence by rehearsing all the reasons why Galloway's opinions about rape are stupid and wrong - rape charity Crisis's press comments say everything I would have said, except more eloquently, and this tweet says basically everything I would have said, except more wittily.

But one of the things that's really pissed me off about this is Galloway's attempt to excuse his comments by posing as a defender of the integrity of the term 'rape'. In the bit of his podcast that's been widely quoted, he says Assange's actions can't be called rape, "or you bankrupt the word rape of all meaning". Just in case we haven't got it, he reiterates this point again, in a passage that's been less widely quoted (probably for the understandable reason that you have to sit through five additional minutes of chuntering to get to it):

“I will not be intellectually terrorised into bankrupting the word rape of its actual, horrific meaning. Rape is a horrific thing, the currency should not be debased by describing other things, however base, as being rape.”

The problem is that you can't position yourself as being on the side of 'real' rape victims whilst simultaneously pronouncing on who is and isn't a 'real' rape victim. There's something about this tactic that reminded me of the police's efforts to co-opt the definition of 'protest' to justify their persecution of protesters they don't like. If that's offensive (and it is), how much more offensive it is for Galloway to co-opt the definition of rape to justify his persecution of (alleged) rape victims he doesn't like. And more to the point, just as it's not for the state to pronounce on what constitutes a protest, it's not for a self-important misogynistic windbag to pronounce on what constitutes rape.

Right, now I've got that out of my system - here, as promised, is my favourite ever George Galloway moment. On election night in 2005, Jeremy Paxman interviewed George after it became apparent he'd ousted Oona King as MP for Bethnal Green & Bow. The result is stunning - the unstoppable force meets the immovable object. Watch it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Speaking as a woman...

Coming home from work today on a hot, sticky, delayed train, and with no book, I resorted to reading the adverts on the wall. The one opposite me was an appeal for a charity called Plan. The headline read:

"Remember your first period? Leaving school? Getting married? Having your first child? Anita does.* She's 12."

So far, so hard-hitting. There followed a paragraph of text explaining that, for many girls, starting their periods is the first step to forced marriage - and that every year, thousands die in childbirth because their bodies aren't ready for it.

At this point I guess you may be wondering where this is going. As regular readers of this blog will know, I basically only ever blog when I am cross, and how could a well-meaning advert for a worthwhile charity make me cross? Well. Just to be clear, I'm sure Plan is a fantastic charity that is well worth supporting. And, fairly obviously, forced marriage is much more worthy of getting cross about than the content of the remainder of this post.

But the thing is, the next paragraph of their advert began:

"As a woman, you know how terrible this is. And as a woman, you can do something about it."

I'm sorry, what?

Obviously, I do realise that the advert was targeted at women, and perhaps they assumed that most men would stop reading at the word 'period' (although if so, I suspect they underestimated the power of commuter boredom). But really, this just strikes me as massively crass.

Now, don't get me wrong. I entirely accept that there may be aspects of the female experience that men can never entirely grasp or share, as this piece (found via this other one on the same theme) argues far more eloquently than I could manage in this post. But "knowing how terrible it is" to die in labour at the age of twelve? Not so much one of those things. Still less "doing something about it" - unless Plan has some bizarre women-only donations policy that I'm unaware of.

Partly, this bothers me because it erodes the legitimacy of the phrase "as a woman", which - see links above - I do actually believe is sometimes reasonable and important in discussions about women's rights. But partly, I just wonder whether it's the smart PR they clearly think it is. It's one thing to exclude half of humanity from your advertising pitch - it's another to insult them by implicitly labelling them with an epic inability to empathise.

* names have been changed, because I can't remember the one they actually used.

Friday, July 13, 2012

For 'corporate governance' read 'corporate government'

This week's Channel 4 documentary 'Secrets of the Taxman' - which investigated the outside interests of HMRC non-executive directors - dug up some brilliantly Catch-22 justifications from directors challenged about their conflicts of interest.

Phil Hodkinson, chair of HMRC's ethics committee, also just happens to be a director of a major UK-listed company incorporated in Guernsey. He began his statement by saying that, as a member of the board of HMRC, it was particularly important to him that his company wasn't involved in tax avoidance. Well, that's alright then. Even more excellently, he went on to argue that, since he was satisfied the company wasn't actually in Guernsey for tax reasons, his role in the company didn't constitute a conflict of interest. Ta-da! And, as if by magic, the conflict vanishes! No wonder they pay him the big bucks.

The thing is, though, you don't have to demonstrate that Hodkinson's company is actually engaged in tax avoidance to prove that he has a conflict of interest. The conflict doesn't depend on the motives behind the company's tax strategy, any more than it depends on what's going on inside Hodkinson's head. It's a simple matter of fact. If you are simultaneously responsible for helping to run the body that collects tax and for helping to run a company that, like all companies, has an interest in paying as little tax as possible, that is a conflict. You can argue that the conflict doesn't matter, or that it's being effectively managed (although, to be honest, I'd like to see you try). But you can't argue that it's not there.

This is a different kettle of fish from employing former corporate figures, which can conceivably be justified on a 'poacher turned gamekeeper' basis. It's hard to see any justification for inviting people with continued corporate interests to help tell HMRC what to do. The fact that HMRC apparently thinks this is perfectly fine is a worrying indication of just how far regulatory capture has gone in this country.

But lying underneath this fact is a really interesting story, about the embedding of commercial conflicts right across government. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that it would be a good idea if Whitehall departments were run more like companies. Government departments are now all supposed to have departmental boards, like HMRC's, which "will operate according to recognised precepts of good corporate governance in business". One of these precepts is the presence of non-executive directors, which the Cabinet Office says should be "largely drawn from the commercial private sector". 

In a corporate context, the theory is that non-executive directors provide an independent challenge to the decisions of the executive directors. In practice, this often doesn't work very well even on its own terms - as the financial crisis exposed, non-executives are usually part of the same old boys network; they certainly didn't seem to do much to challenge groupthink in the banks.

But applying the same concept to the running of government, with seemingly little or no thought for the implications for democracy, is downright dangerous. Let's hear that guidance again: non-executive directors will be "largely drawn from the commercial private sector". Incidentally, it's not clear why experts from non-profits, the third sector or academia are thought to be inherently less suitable for these roles - save that the Cabinet Office wants departments to "tap into the expertise of senior leaders with experience of managing complex organisations in the commercial private sector". On that basis, I can think of at least one recently-departed senior leader with extensive experience of fucking up - sorry, managing - a highly complex UK banking institution who would make an exemplary candidate.

Non-executive directors exist to make boards more accountable, but whether accountability is a good thing really depends on who you're accountable to. In this context, it seem to me that what we're basically doing is making government accountable to the private sector. So conflicts like Phil Hodkinson's are not a shocking aberration - they're an intrinsic part of the system. No wonder HMRC was so relaxed about them. In this topsy-turvy world, 'good governance' means the institutionalisation of conflicts of interest and the insinuation of corporate interests at the highest levels of the bodies that are meant to keep them in check. Why does anyone think that's even remotely appropriate?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

All aboard the anger bandwagon! Now, where are we going?

In yesterday's Guardian, Jonathan Freedland argued that "nearly all our key institutions have lost trust" - banks, politicians, the police, the press. He concluded that "Labour has to voice this anger", or it will find an outlet outside of democratic politics, with potentially dangerous consequences.

I couldn't really disagree with any of this, but it left me feeling impatient and dissatisfied. Surely 'people are angry and don't trust authority figures' isn't news? The problem is that, as Freedland acknowledges midway through the piece, "the clear alternative ideologies around which collective rage cohered in, say, the 1930s are absent now". He mentions this as if in passing, but surely it's the crux of the problem? It's not enough for Labour to rant and rave so we all feel that they share our anger. Indeed, it seems odd to fault them for failing to do that - they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it from where I'm standing. What they're not really doing is offering an alternative.

They're not alone in this. I've just (finally) finished reading Robert Skidelsky's 'Keynes: The Return of the Master', and one of the things that really struck a chord with me was its observation that the financial crisis has revealed "an ideological and theoretical vacuum where the challenge from the left used to be: capitalism no longer has a global antagonist". Over the last four years, the feeling that capitalism is basically imploding has only intensified, as we lurch from sub-prime crisis to sovereign debt crisis to LIBOR scandal, all the while with rewards at the top continuing to soar even as austerity bites. Yet the result has been business as usual - and, worse, a swing to the right, with the Tories pulling off an amazing sleight of hand in pinning the blame for the markets' mess on profligate public spending.

Basically, it's not enough to point out that people are angry and tell politicians to hop on the anger bandwagon. What's really going to save democratic politics is a clear alternative to neoliberal ideology. At the moment, that just doesn't seem to be forthcoming. Yes, Skidelsky and others have made a powerful case against austerity. But, vital thought that is, it's fighting an intellectual rearguard action. What's missing is a clear and compelling vision of what the economy ought to look like, and how we can get it there. And that's where the left needs to be focussing its intellectual energies. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bronte's advice to evil corporations: Just be yourself

After an embarrassingly prolonged absence from blogging I've been prodded into some semblance of action by reading Charlotte Bronte's 'Shirley', a fascinating novel set around Luddite disturbances in a Yorkshire mill. Fact of the Day: turns out Shirley was originally a man's name, and was only popularised as a girl's name by this book, whose heroine is distinctive precisely for having a male name and a male social role. Anyway, I digress. The point is, I was really struck by the following exchange between the mill-owner and one of his recently laid-off workers:

“Them that governs mun find a way to help us: they mun mak' fresh orderations. Ye'll say that's hard to do: - so much louder mun we shout out then, for so much slacker will t'Parliament-men be to set on to a tough job.”

“Worry the Parliament-men as much as you please,” said Moore, “but to worry the mill-owners is absurd; and I, for one, won't stand it.”

“Ye're a raight hard 'un!” returned the workman. “Will n't ye gie us a bit o' time? - Will n't ye consent to mak' your changes rather more slowly?”

“Am I the whole body of clothiers in Yorkshire? Answer me that!”

“Ye're yourseln.”

There are a couple of brilliant little gems in here for the corporate accountability campaigner. Firstly, that fantastic line “Ye'll say that's hard to do: - so much louder mun we shout out then” - surely a great motto for any campaigner faced with naysayers, complacency and vested interests. Perhaps I should frame it and put it on the wall next to my desk.

Secondly, it made me smile to see that companies washing their hands of problems and insisting it's the government's job to fix them is nothing new. (The mill-owner even goes on to argue that, if he were to take steps to help his workers, he'd be left behind by his competitors who had no such scruples... sound familiar?)

But the mill-worker's response to this is so simple, so powerful: 'Ye're yourseln'. (For those struggling with the Yorkshire dialect – I don't mean to be patronising, I've just seen it confuse people – that's 'You're yourself.') The heart of so much campaigning is encapsulated in these two words: the struggle to penetrate justifications, evasions and obfuscations and to reassert the basic principle that we are all morally responsible for the consequences of what we do - and that we all, whatever might be said to the contrary, have the power to do things differently. When campaigners challenge companies to stop dodging tax, pay their workers a living wage or take responsibility for their environmental impacts, what they're really saying is, 'Ye're yourseln'.