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.