Thursday, 11 January 2018

Vindication at last! Thank you, National Audit Office

It is a strange thing, vouchsafed to few of us, to find ourselves vindicated by the National Audit Office of all people.

Yet I have been. I have explained here and elsewhere that the reason why the Govia Thameslink and Southern rail franchise had been such a disaster was that they did not, and still do not, employ enough drivers.

It is true that industrial action has hardly been irrelevant, but the Secretary of State's (Chris Grayling) claim on the radio yesterday that it was all the fault of the unions has no foundation. It is based on a report he commissioned himself with a remit designed to look no further back than the start of the strikes. That was the purpose of the remit: so that, later, he could go on the radio and say precisely that.

No, the NAO report confirms, not just that GTR failed to employ enough drivers but that - as I have also explained here and elsewhere (see my book Cancelled!) - the franchise was so badly designed that GTR could only earn extra money by undermining passengers.

None of that was Grayling's fault. He arrived when the problems seemed overwhelming. The reason he really should have been shifted to pastures new is that he appears to be a tramline thinker, predictable and unimaginative - except in the dull, playground way that our political classes seem to do politics.

Why are the railways performing so badly? Why was Virgin given a huge extra payment for the East Coast franchise? Why was Govia so badly organised? The answer to all of them is the same - there are far too few private operators prepared to bid. And they are still dwindling.

This isn't just a rail problem either. A combination of shrinking budgets, giant contracts and monopolistic concentration has led to a similar issue across most privatised services.

To face this challenge, most of UK government - and Grayling in particular - go into battle, blaming the unions, spreading money to the remaining operators, and pretending there is no fundamental problem. Personally, it seems to me that the problem goes some way beyond private versus state - it includes why so few individuals want to run giant schools or hospitals just to be the punchbags of regulators.

In any case, this is unlikely to be a problem solved by re-nationalisation. Especially in rail transport, when those of us who remember the third-rate service provided by a state-run national British Rail, would prefer a more imaginative, democratic and devolved solution - probably mutualised too.

But if Grayling and his colleagues can think no further than blaming the unions, as they turn a blind eye again to the fundamental problems of market concentration, re-nationalisation is exactly what we will get.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The new radical centre requires new radical ideas

A version of this post first appeared yesterday on the Radix blog...

Cast your mind back, if you can, about 160 years to the end of 1858 – when the European crisis was emerging that would have a profound effect on politics in the UK.

There was the revolution under way that would see Garibaldi uniting Italy, and incidentally coining the word ‘Liberal’ (also the name of the patron saint of Treviso, by the way). There was tension with France that was leading to major rearmament on both sides (including the launch of HMS Warrior, still with us in Portsmouth).

As a result of this, and a combination of other factors, there was an increasingly close-knit alliance of political groups at Westminster. who were beginning to look to each other for support. In 1859, this was to emerge as the Liberal Party. The original meeting to form the new party, held in Willis’ Rooms in St James’ Street in London, and included well over two hundred Whigs, Radicals, Peelite Conservatives and pioneer Liberals like John Bright. When Lord Palmerston helped Lord John Russell up onto the platform, there was a huge burst of cheering.

At the end of 1858, to other intellectual giants were preparing their work for publication, which would emerge within weeks of each other. John Stuart Mill was putting the finishing touches to On Liberty; Charles Darwin was doing the same to On the Origin of Species.
So when we look ahead to our new year, 2018, we may see the beginnings of what may emerge as a new political tradition, born out of a realignment of the centre – and as the least sane members of the Conservative Party urge their leader to fling out Michael Heseltine, there may be some very big beasts indeed. But we should remember as that happens – and this is, I hope, the primary message of this blog for the year ahead – that new political alliances need new ideas if they are going to break out of the past.

In 1858/9, the ideas arrived as the party did. In practice, they were in the ether as the new grouping began to formalise itself and work together. The new party was not – because it could not be – some kind of compromised amalgam between Tories and Radicals. Nor did it really involve the humane elements of small-scale Liberalism that were to emerge within the first decade, but it was fuelled by the twin ideas of evolutionary progress and maximising liberty.

And when Radix co-founder Joe Zammit-Lucia said, in a letter to the Financial Times within the last few days, that the intellectual struggle for the new radical centre can’t be to defend the status quo, for example of the existing trading system, he was saying something similar.

It is, he said, “between those who cling to 20th-century thinking and refuse to address the shortcomings, in a 21st-century world, of the current international trading system and multilateral institutions that underpin it, and those who believe that survival of an open, peaceful world order depends on wholesale, radical reform…”
New political traditions require new intellectual underpinnings. In fact, I believe that one reason the Lib Dems found coalition such a bruising experience was that the intellectual underpinnings of the party needed renewal. They do so even more now.

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Tuesday, 12 December 2017

When Southern Rail is like HMS Queen Elizabeth

This post blew in from ...

Yet another miserable journey home with Southern Rail (power supply problems again, or so they say), I found myself thinking about Britain’s brand new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.
On the face of it, there are not many parallels – I’ve no doubt that the traditions of the navy will make it an effective, efficient and (if needs be) a heroic ship. Whereas Southern is a third-rate operation, and has studiously avoided being effective or efficient. Though managers and staff have occasionally had to be heroic.

But they do have one important element in common. Both are expensive symbols held up by the equivalent of scaffolding – gestures towards the nation we thought we were, rather than practical propositions to serve the nation in the twenty-first century.

Aircraft carriers are the central purpose in a naval task force designed to protect them. They require protection from air and submarine attack. They are the pinnacle of the naval pecking order and can pack a huge offensive punch – but only if the rest of the pyramid is in place.

And it’s not. The navy has a dwindling number of ships, with only a handful to discharge these kinds of duties – plus everything else (there are now a mere 20 fighting ships in the navy, plus ten submarines, compared to 69 plus 34 during the Falklands War in 1982).

Without that protection, the Queen Elizabeth – the biggest and most expensive ship ever commissioned into the Royal Navy – is just a symbolic gesture, a pretence, a dangerous con.

And so it is with Southern and their managers Govia Thameslink. They have the outward symbols designed to give the impression of providing a modern train service, but they lack the staff, the capacity and the sheer willingness to provide one.

Since Govia took over the franchise in 2015, they have removed the spare drivers that used to be rostered to fill in avoidable delays, and can also fall back on overtime. Instead of training more drivers, they use the spare ones to avoid paying overtime. There is no spare capacity at all. (see my short book Cancelled! for more details).

So though the old Southern Railways (died 1948) was known as a byword for efficiency, its successor is known as a byword for the reverse. Passengers taken ill, lorries hitting bridges, may not seem like their fault – but since they make no preparation for inevitable events (claiming this is efficient), the passengers suffer.

So on Friday, for example, they managed only 40 per cent within five minutes of schedule. As many as 30 per cent were more than 30 minutes late or cancelled.

The latest trick took me by surprise. Twice last week, and with no warning or apology, the train raced by Shoreham-by-Sea without stopping on its way to London. On both occasions, the member of platform staff was left to deal with the rage of passengers who had bothered to show up on time – only to be let down – without any information or explanation.

I have asked some of my usual informants (thanks so much, guys) and the consensus is that there has indeed been a change in policy in recent months.

There are reasons why their express trains might race ahead to Hayward’s Heath, after all. It maybe that the driver is due a break before his seven hour limit, and will need to take it – or to go home because, for whatever reason, their end of shift time is inflexible (picking up children from school for example). So if the train has been delayed, then they may have to race through – given that there are no drivers kept in reserve any more.

But the change in policy is in accordance with one of the recommendations in the Chris Gibb Report, some months ago – that controllers need to act much earlier to get services on time again after delays.

Hence the dashes past waiting passengers.

Of course, this is a much wider problem than just Southern, which is an extreme example of a very British disease. There is something admirable in controlling costs the way the UK system does, but when it happens at the expense of those services actually working, the whole system becomes insane.

It was a crucial moment, when civil servants realised they could pay for the outward manifestation – the shiny new trains, the new logos, the timetable or the aircraft carrier – while cutting out all the support infrastructure that would protect it and make it effective.

That is now happening throughout our services, perhaps primarily the result of a lobotomised civil service – who can’t distinguish between the political needs of their masters and reality.

Maybe it doesn’t matter in the future of the nation that we can no longer rely on our trains, but when we have the outward manifestations of military force but none of the safeguards, then that is extremely dangerous. For all of us.

The British disease the lies in the inability to tell the difference between a real institution and one that has no infratstructure to support it. Which is why we have a railway franchise like Govia Thameslink with no reserves for when the weather strikes or the signals fail.

It is why we have an aircraft carrier without the escorts needed to protect it. It is why we have hospitals and schools that meet targets but fail as human institutions.

That is the tragic inauthenticity of Brexit Britain: a fake efficiency that – as anyone who travels by Southern knows – is actually extremely inefficient and ineffective and therefore wasteful.

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Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Why we need a whole lot more mavericks

This blog is adapted from one that first appeared on the Real Press website...

I met the folk singer Pete Seeger just before he died. He was jamming outside in the July sunshine, with some young violinists, playing Ashokan Farewell. He had been attending a conference near the Hudson River about local currencies where I had just been speaking.

It was a great honour to meet him, a friend of Woody Guthrie no less, partly also because – when I was growing up – the only 45 rpm single my parents possessed was Seeger singing Little Boxes. I told him this and he told me how the author, Malvina Reynolds, composed the song driving just outside San Francisco when it came into her head – she said to her husband ‘Stop the car! I feel a song coming on…’

It is a powerful song about sprawling suburbs, but it goes beyond that in my favourite lines:

“They were doctors
and lawyers
and business executives
and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
and they all look just the same…”

Because Little Boxes was not just about houses, it was about minds – “tinned minds”, as John Betjeman put it in his famous poem about poor old Slough. The song is a hymn to the only kind of Liberalism I recognise, which is prepared to think outside the little boxes, even though the world thinks differently.

I don’t believe this need to encourage the kind of nihilistic approach to everything that you might hear, to choose a random example, on most BBC comedy panels – I may be showing my age here – but it is an approach to life and politics which dares to think differently and to stand out from the crowd.

I have also realised that a great deal of my writing has been about the maverick approach (which is why I've collected an anthology of three short books, all about people living or working differently, and daring to refuse to submit to the generally accepted tramlines of thought. I've called it Great British Mavericks).

I believe the centre ground in politics needs a great deal more mavericks if they are going to construct the alternative narrative they so badly need. In fact, without a hefty dose of maverick, or at least a maverick wing, I'm not sure a political party can have the three-dimensional life it needs to survive and thrive.

Going to a recent party to remember my predecessor as editor of Liberal Democrat News, my own party's weekly paper (Mike Harskin, who died 25 years ago aged only thirty) forced me to remember the maverick force that the old Liberal Party used to be. "Obstruct the doors," Mike used to say. "Cause delay. Be dangerous". But where is the Lib Dem radical, trouble-making fringe now?

One of only two email comments I received from party members, after I spoke at the Radix fringe meeting at the Lib Dem party conference, accused me of being "off message".

Well, I certainly was and was proud to be. In fact, I intend to remain so. Not because I am by nature awkward - though I am - but because I believe the centre ground is the only place where maverick thinking can emerge. And where maverick thinking can emerge, then life can thrive and we can learn and move ahead.

This is a radical thought in itself - the centre ground needs to shift from the home for those committed to the world's existing arrangements to the home of those prepared to think for themselves. It is happening, but tediously slowly.

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Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Basil Fawlty delusion of Southern Rail, and why it matters

This post wafted in from the Radix site...

The story so far. Govia Thameslink won the franchise to run the Southern rail franchise and took over in early 2015. Thanks to their failure to recruit enough train crews, and their inability to build any kind of trust with existing crews, by the middle of 2016, the franchise was in free fall – with exhausted passengers expected to wander hopelessly between motionless trains, and staff left without information as they tried to deal with dangerously overcrowded platforms.

Things have improved a little since then, though last time I tried to catch the crucial 8 am train to London from my station, it was cancelled at the last minute. We have come on a year since those darkest days and the government is finally hinting that they will break up the franchise.

The odd thing is that, after all this, operators Go-ahead and government ministers have convinced themselves that they have been the victims of a vicious trade union conspiracy.

I have never talked to David Brown or Charles Horton. Still less have I been granted an audience with Chris Grayling. But I know people who have, and this is what I hear. It is also what I heard from some of their senior executives. They have been the victims of militants, who have cooked up the ‘sicknote strike’ that so torpedoed their services in 2016.

I have no particular time for either union, though I have some sympathy with the poor outmanoeuvred RMT. But, although I wrote about the crisis most weeks in the second half of last year, I was never given any evidence by either side that the sicknote strike was anything other than what it seemed – the result of catastrophic stress on staff morale and health.

The most militant unionists tended to be, when you asked them, very cross Conservative voters.

But no, ministers and executives alike have been able to avoid personal responsibility in their own eyes because, first, they were the victims and, second, the whole operation has been a game of chess between management and staff where passengers irritatingly got in the way.

Unfortunately, the errors have continued, many of them set out in Cancelled!, the short book I wrote last year from the huge feedback I received from the blogs I had written about Southern, leading up to the #passengerstrike. The vision of a frictionless, staffless, human-free railway that Southern was designed to explore carried within it a number of basic problems. Here are a few of them:
  1. If you reduce crew numbers at the same time as platform staff, to the extent they have, it will inevitably constrain the travelling of people in wheelchairs.
  2. If you want automatic barriers to act as ticket collectors of last resort, then the tickets need to open them – and my tickets bought on the Southern network usually don’t.
  3. You will also need people to be able to buy tickets, and not only have many ticket offices closed, but the new ticket machines came complete with a strange glitch which shut them down when anybody tried to take their tickets out before they had finished printing.
Add to this the way in which last minute cancellations have been replaced by unexpectedly short trains, squeezing passengers into smaller spaces (they really are so annoying those passengers, aren’t they). 

Not to mention the transformation of a generally reliable network with tea trolleys on their long-distance routes into their sweaty, unreliable, tea-free services we get today. And new Thameslink trains which looked as if they had been designed to be hosed down every night on the inside. Not to mention their Basil Fawlty-style management.

I have been searching for a clue to the boneheaded failure to understand their own failures, in the small interlinked circle of transport managers, operators and decision-makers, and I think I may have found it.

I pointed it out in my report on Barriers to Choice for the Cabinet Office in 2013, and it was the failure of the different parties and parts of government to understand that they meant different things by the word – but they appeared to be unaware of it. For Labour, choice meant pseudo-markets in the public sector. For the Lib Dems, choice meant consumer rights. But for the Conservatives, it simply meant privatisation.

It is a good bet, therefore, that the present government believes they are operating ‘choice’ in Southern because it is a privately managed franchise (though it is not privatisation under any of the usual definitions). The passengers seem to be considered irrelevant, the real victims of the whole catalogue of incompetence – mere interlopers in the battlefield of the gods, clashing in some ancient, long-forgotten feud above them in the heavens.

But what really worries me is what this says about the management of privatised or contracted-out services everywhere else. Because, if this is the case, the long-suffering users are considered irrelevant. So is their ability or otherwise to meet needs – just as long as they operate cheaply, and they beat the powerless unions, and they stay friendly with their commissioners. It isn’t a happy thought.

So when the government talks about breaking up the GTR franchise in the southeast, you have to ask whether this will make any difference if the basic problem - the Basil Fawlty attitude - still survives.

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Friday, 24 November 2017

The real reason house prices keep going up (it isn't what they say)

This post first popped up on the Radix blog...

The author Radical Middle, the campaigner Mark Satin, used the metaphor of roads and myopia to explain what he meant by the title. For Satin, it isn’t about a view from the right hand side of the road, or the left hand side. It is, he said, “a view of the whole road”.

That fearless clearsightedness suggests an end to the deliberate selection of evidence, which should perhaps be a central purpose of the radical centre project. Which might explain why I feel so enraged by the faulty assumptions behind the latest UK budget.

Let’s leave on one side for a moment how nurses improve their ‘productivity’, or why transport infrastructure should help the suburban poor in our cities (the Newcastle metro isn’t used to speed the city’s poorest to jobs in the car factories, the London overground or underground don’t seem to help the poor of Barking and Dagenham).

Just for now, let’s examine the big lie that everyone in the establishment seems to repeat – that high house prices are caused by too few homes. It can’t help, of course, but where is the evidence that it is the central cause? On the contrary, a glance at the graph of inexorable house price inflation shows the biggest leaps have all been when more mortgage money gets pumped in – when Geoffrey Howe abolished exchange controls in 1979, when Nigel Lawson ended MIRAS in 1987, when Gordon Brown encouraged buy-to-let mortgages early this century.

It is worrying that even the Treasury seems unable to recognise a classic case of too much money chasing too few goods. If we have to satisfy the building demands of every Far Eastern investor before we see any benefits from building more, then you can’t help feeling there may be a quicker way to tackle this urgent problem.

There are whole new estates along the Thames with no lights on, because they are owned by Singapore investors – whose money has fuelled another ratchet in the inflation of roofs over our heads in the UK. It is this discomfort which, I assume, has caused the official myopia.

I wrote about this first in my book Broke, which now seems more prescient for comfort. It was put coherently by the Stumbling and Mumbling blog last month.

It matters partly because, if we build more without tackling the fundamental problem, they ill just slip further out of reach of most of us. It also matters because the solutions in the budget – abolishing stamp duty for first time buyers – will push up price too. It is a classic Treasury fudge, trading off long-term pointlessness against a few positive headlines today.

They also matter politically. Because the middle classes will not sit back apathetically to watch their children priced out of the housing and rental market, unable to set up any kind of home in the neighbourhoods they were brought up in. These are dangerous times and, thanks to the myopia of the budget, getting more dangerous.

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Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Dear blockchain, here are your ancestors...

Vinay Gupta is a fascinating man, graduating from developing simple yurts to support refugees anywhere to working out the deeper implications of bitcoin, blockchain technologies and climate change. I was keen to meet him, and I did.

In fact, I met him at an amazing annual event hosted in Brighton called the Meaning conference, packed full of thirty- and forty-something entrepreneurs who are optimistic that enterprise and imagination – social and profitable – can develop solutions to the world’s problems.

We live in undeniably pessimistic times, so it does everyone good to be around optimists. And Gupta’s presentation was optimistic. He believed that blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin, can “solve the problems the free market is unable to solve” – including the inefficiencies that creep in with dominance by big corporates.

“Bitcoin and its associated world is now worth $200bn, printed by a collection of nerds,” he said (there has been a bit of a downturn since he spoke). “You stare at it and you keep staring at it and it doesn’t get any more sensible, and it doesn’t go away.”

I talked to him afterwards and he confirmed what I feel about the blockchain phenomenon. That, although blockchain is new, the idea of new kinds of currencies or tokens – some speculative, some practical – is not new. But few in the new wave know the story of what happened before, via negative interest currencies, stamp scrip, deli dollars, Ithaca hours, berkshares, the Club de Truque, the community banks of Brazil, the Bristol pound, LETS, green dollars, beenz, ipoints, trade pounds, time credits, e-gold, and all the rest of them.

This is an important body of knowledge. I therefore commit myself to bringing together the old world of complementary currencies with the new world of blockchain – and to see what happens as a result.

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