Thursday, 22 March 2018

Save the coffee cup!!

This is my thermos flask. I have been a home worker for quite a few years. For a lot of that time, I have broken up the day by walking up to the village bakery at lunchtime, and buying a roll and a coffee. The coffee always used to come in a disposable cup. About five years ago I bought this thermos, and the bakery now fill it with my coffee. Since starting to use it, I have saved well over a thousand coffee cups. Simple actions can make a big difference.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The final deal: what would we say?

First published in LibDemVoice on 12th February.

If there is a referendum on the final deal about leaving the European Union, what would we say? Here is my starter:


We recognise that the vote to leave the EU was fuelled (in part) by dissatisfaction with growing levels of inequality, and felt pressure on cultural values and identity. So we need to address a) the reasons why staying in the EU is better than leaving, as well as b) how we are going to address inequality in the UK and the identity issues tied up with some of our suspicion of foreigners. I think it is also important to make the point that staying in the EU is not the goal. It is a step towards our goal of ensuring that this country works for everyone, and not just the élite.

This is not just about the EU, it is about how we run this country, and about the fact that we can run this country better for the benefit of everybody in the EU rather than out of the EU.
1) The EU is not perfect, but neither is the UK. Leaving the EU would not take back control for us, it would take back control for the elites who want to rule us unfettered by considerations like human rights. An example is discussions within the EU about measures to combat tax avoidance by multinationals and the super rich, measures which have consistently been resisted by the UK government. Staying in the EU is actually more likely to help us make our own country work for everyone.
2) As the EU is not perfect, we need to work with other countries on securing reforms which are in the interests not just of British people, but of ordinary people all over the EU. These would include rules on tax avoidance, which we should embrace rather than resist; making rules of agricultural production and fishing more sustainable and fairer throughout the EU; ensuring that the single market works better for everyone.
3) While we work more closely with the EU, we will not allow that to be a distraction from solving the problems caused by selfishness within this country, for many of which the EU has been wrongly held to blame:
  • We will rebalance funding to reduce regional inequalities throughout the UK.
  • We will build more houses where they are needed, including a significant expansion of genuinely affordable housing
  • We will reverse policies that have plunged millions into poverty or misery, and particularly the punitive policies being directed at unemployed, sick and disabled people
  • We will end the deliberate underfunding and the creeping privatisation of the NHS
  • We will change educational policy so that teachers can teach rather than constantly attending to targets
  • We will work with the EU and with every other country in the world to reduce tax avoidance
  • We will amend employment law to bring security and minimum standards to the gig economy
  • We will attend to the pressures caused by immigration, including organising a fairer and more responsive system for funding local services put under strain by population growth
These policies reflect the standards and the approach we have always brought to our policies, as exemplified in our constitution:
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.
Our relations with the other members of the EU and our commitment to work for the people of this country are not in opposition to each other.
They are part and parcel of the same thing.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Jonathan Agnew ruined my Christmas

Well, that’s not really true. I’m sure Jonathan Agnew is a lovely chap. He wrote an article on 6th Dec in which he suggested that some batters would need to look to their future, and also in which he wondered what the “true” England was. He suggested that the true England is the one that (occasionally) matches the Australians. Both of these ideas need unpacking.

The idea of the true England first. In my view inconsistency is the hallmark of the true England. Over the last few years, I have often heard commentators say after a bad match that England haven’t become a bad side overnight. I have never heard them say the opposite after a good match – you don’t become a good side overnight. In my view the inconsistency that we have seen over the last few seasons is the true England. That is a massive managerial and cultural problem, which I will come back to later.

But what piqued my thinking in that article more than anything was the idea that, whatever England's problems are, they might be solved at the level of individual players. I note that that form of thinking continues, with Trevor Bayliss saying we could try some different people for the last test. I think we need to try some different management.

That in turn made me focus on what I thought of as the staple of the cricketing year, the regular England Batting Collapse. I had thought that if the ECB could sort out the EBC, we might be much better off. Knowing that perception and reality are often two different things, I did a bit of statistic gathering over Christmas (hence the subject line). I defined a batting collapse as 5 or more wickets lost for 50 or fewer runs. I took the period 2013 (summer) to 2017-18, ending at the third test in Australia. I looked at the figures for England and Australia. I also looked at Bangladesh for comparative purposes.

My hypothesis was that England would have more and worse batting collapses than Australia. My second hypothesis was that England’s batting performance overall might well be closer to Bangladesh’s than to Australia’s.

I was not only wrong, I was wrong with spectacular precision. (Disclaimer: given that Christmas involves late nights, alcohol in various forms, and other general jollity, it is quite possible that there are some inaccuracies in my data. Please don’t hang, draw and quarter me if you find any.)

England have played 109 innings in 57 tests. They have had 37 collapses as defined above, at a rate of one collapse every 2.95 innings. The average loss is 5.7 wickets for 36.1 runs. The average starting wicket is 4.1 and the average starting score is 153.9.

Australia have played 99 innings in 52 tests. They have had 33 collapses, one every 3 innings. The average loss is 5.8 wickets for 40.5 runs. The average start wicket is 3.9 and the average start score 158.2.

Differences in any measure between the two are almost indistinguishable.

For comparison Bangladesh have played 38 innings in 22 tests. They have had 20 collapses at a rate of one per 1.9 innings. On average they lose 5.6 wickets for 36.3 runs. The average start wicket is  4.3 and the average start score in 164.7. Their collapses are very similar to England’s and Australia’s. They just have more of them.

There are lots of things I have not looked at – difference between home and away stats; how quality of opposition is related to collapses, for instance.

But it is safe to say I cannot draw any conclusions about England’s general performance from the statistics about batting collapses.

Despite my feeling that whatever prevents England reaching the highest level is not about individual technique or temperament, I looked at the players involved in these collapses. A lot of them are bowlers, for obvious reasons. Not too much to see there. But I do expect – as commentators, including Jonathan, have said over the years – that a tail-ender should be able to block and leave fast bowling and leave or smother spin. Our performance in that regard is, well, inconsistent.

Looking at the recognised batters, though, one curious statistic stands out. In the period that Ben Stokes has been in the side, he has been involved in nearly twice as many collapses as any other batter. During his time (excluding the current tour, as he is unavailable) there have been 79 innings during which there have been 25 collapses. He has been involved in 19 of them. The next highest are Bairstow with 11 and Root with 10. Of the 19 occasions, his has been the first wicket 6 times. We might suggest that he can’t really be blamed as being part of a collapse if he has put in a good shift before that. I did not collect the figures for his scores, so cannot go further with that. But, whatever he had done prior to losing his wicket, if he sees that his wicket sparks collapses so often, he should perhaps be more careful about selling it. (The comparative figures for Bairstow and Root are 3 each, which means that Stokes, Bairstow and Root are in the middle of a collapse 13, 8 and 7 times respectively.)

This blog is not about Ben Stokes, but he is perhaps a very useful case study for where English cricket needs to go. I do not know him, any more than I know anyone else in the team. What I see is a young man of enormous talent who is stupid. This is not surprising. He is young, he is at the height of his physical powers, he has had greatness thrust upon him with enormous demands being made. Individual attitude and responsibility matter a great deal, but I argue that they are not the final arbiter. The issue is not so much what Ben Stokes does with his situation, as how the England set up manages him, and all the others.

Managing an international cricket team is a very hard task. It is bad enough at home, and it is bad enough within the confines of a single match. You have to lounge around in the dressing room for hours and then suddenly be ready to perform when a wicket falls. Or you stand on the field doing nothing for six hours, and, just when your legs and your back have had enough, you have to sprint and catch the ball when the occasion demands. That takes a special kind of purposefulness. Being on tour is terrible. You take a bunch of fit, energetic and often immature young men away from home for three months or more. They have long, long, long periods of boredom in dismal hotel rooms, and in between those periods, they are expected to perform at the peak of their powers. Managing that is an extraordinary task, and one which, in my view, the England set up has not cracked. I do not refer to any individual or even any group. This is something for the entire set up – the players, the managers, the selectors, the board, the coaches, the physios, the analysts, the psychologists, the families and friends – everybody is involved in developing a culture. But the people with most power are the managers and they are the ones who must be in charge of the changes that are required to make more purposeful the culture within which the players live and perform. Is the ECB as currently constituted up to the task? I do not know. Australia do it better than we do. They are not as good at it as they were when they were the dominant force in world cricket, but they still have an attitude that letting down the team is not an option. David Warner is not a very nice human being and he is not afraid of a bit of a rumble. But, whatever marks he has overstepped, he does not let his team down. And that is not just because of David Warner, that is because of the team ethos that surrounds him.

It may be that there is something in British culture in general that is an obstacle to cold professionalism. The Thatcherite neoliberal culture of egotistical individualism (including drinking practices in which one or two gentle pints turn into a binge) remains strong in this country and it is difficult to swim against the tide. On the other hand, I have not seen a more individualist and hedonistic culture than white Australia. Their cricket set up manages to swim against that tide. Ours should be able to as well. Over to you, managers.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Theresa May

Published in LibDemVoice 1st Nov 2017

I have been struggling for a while to work out Theresa May’s mentality. I have read, as we all have, something of her origins – the vicar’s daughter who ran through a field of wheat. I am aware of her time at the Home Office where she adopted regressive policies in a pusillanimously oppressive way. I am aware of her stance on the referendum – I find it interesting now that people describe her as a remainer, when it seems to me that the most important thing about her stance at the time was its invisibility.

Then a single word popped into my head which seemed to have a great deal of traction, the word “provincial”. It comes straight from the pages of Trollope, and describes the mindset, which he sometimes satirised to great effect, of the solidly conservative yeoman class which ran the shires of England in the mid nineteenth century. There is much in common between then and now, times of turbulence when the world is changing, power can move with quicksilver speed, the very ground under our feet seems to be shifting, and those determined to hold what they have must work very hard to ensure that things stay the same. There is a concern about standards, loyalty, patriotism (though never stridently stated). There is a feeling that everything will be better if people know their place and stick to it. And there is a feeling that one must never question too closely or demand an account of the people who claim to rule on our behalf. The refusal to publish the Brexit impact papers comes to mind.

Above all these, the key component is a lack of imagination. Or, rather, more than that, there is a refusal to have an imagination. If you have an imagination, then you can imagine things being different, and then you can imagine the status quo being different, and, in the mind of the provincial, who knows what might happen then???

Theresa May is probably the best, though inadequate, answer the Tory party has to its current woes. And she is the worst answer the country could possibly have to its woes. To lead this country requires an imagination, and not just any imagination, but a global imagination, one that is capable of surveying the global horizon, comprehending the feelings and wishes of people in manifold other cultures and places, understanding what mighty and complex storms are coming, and envisaging how the British boat can be navigated through them. (As Brexit proponents try to bend the word “global” to their discourse, I need to point out that a global imagination encompasses the EU rather than discounting it.) But, instead of the global imagination we have a woman whose imagination cannot stretch to anything worse than running through a field of wheat, while she steers the entire country blindly but unerringly towards the rocks.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Would we be better governed out of the EU?

Musing about the hard left stance on the EU. As I understand it, they want to leave because the EU is a capitalist neoliberal club governed on behalf of the global elite. The more intelligent left wingers realise that the UK is also a capitalist neoliberal club governed on behalf of the global elite. But they reason that they have more chance of turning the UK into a socialist state than the EU.

Are they right?

Well, I think that, like Marx, they are right with a lot of their diagnosis, but wrong – catastrophically so – with the solution. They’re right: the EU is a capitalist neoliberal club governed on behalf of the global elite. So is the UK. The difference between the two is the thick strand of human rights thinking woven into the architecture and practices of the EU, which underpin everything and which protect all its citizens from depredation by state or commerce. It is so effectively woven in that the neoliberals, when they came along in the 1980s, were completely unable to extract it. And that, of course, is one of the chief reasons – and frequently stated in public - why the UK’s elite want to pull us out of the EU, so that they can do away with all that human rights “nonsense”. That is why being inside the EU, even in its current state, is better than being outside it.

But would it be possible to reform the UK’s governance outside the EU in such a way that we, the citizens, will benefit more than if we stayed in the EU? That is the socialist hope, that being freed of EU restrictions about what they can do with industry and so on, they will be able to change the way the UK governs itself. At least, I think that is what it is – it seems to me that they could do a lot of what they want while remaining within the EU, and it is not clear to me just how much they would be restricted.

And if we were out, what then?  In terms of governance, we will have the most uneven contest since David and Goliath, and David is without his slingshot. On one side the massed, rich and powerful ranks of the neoliberal elite, both political and commercial, most of the media, and many of their powerful international friends, whose aim is to reduce the powers of citizens still further so that there is even less opposition to their ability to create profit. The day we leave, even before that, they will be preparing the way to removing citizen protections in employment, health, civil rights, the environment, anything that stands in the way of profit. On the other side, a man who has never governed will very  slowly gear into action, aided by a couple of low circulation newspapers, a few rich friends and several hundred thousand well meaning, energetic, enthusiastic but mostly naive supporters. The contest, if you can call it that, will be ugly but mercifully short.

Perhaps the socialist wing of Labour might consider a more delicate strategy, and conclude that staying in the EU enables them to protect themselves and the citizens of this country far better than leaving. It may not be ideal, but it is sensible not to fight battles you can’t win. Socialism within EU rules is possible, and many in the EU are receptive to the message that principles other than neoliberal ones can be effective. As I argue in my previous post, some strategies, like state ownership, previously did more harm than good in some circumstances, but may now do more good than harm due to the excessive power now wielded by corporations. The trick is to know how much is enough and how much is too much. And, as far as I can see, we can do everything we want and need to do while remaining in the EU.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

States, corporations and people

I have a simple view of the world as divided into three great groups of actors: states, corporations and people. The balance between the three fluctuates in the long term and the short term. Neoliberalism – the doctrine that state power is too pervasive and the state needs to be “shrunk” as far as possible – arose from the experience in the mid twentieth century of the rampaging Nazi and Soviet states and the violence and bloodshed caused within and around them. The aim of the prophets of neoliberalism – Hayek, Friedman and others – was to prevent states from ever being able to do such things again. The key thrust in the process was to reduce the regulatory capacity of the state, thereby increasing the freedom of markets. Their assumption was that increasing the power of markets would enable ordinary people, however they are conceived – citizens, consumers, human beings – to live more free lives. Neoliberalism came to the fore in the developing world in the 1970s and 1980s as the great creations of the Bretton Woods settlement – the IMF and the World Bank – began to insist on its principles as conditions of their loans. It came to the fore in the developed world during the 1980s with Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA.

At the same time as the spread of neoliberal practices in the developed world, globalisation began to bite. The increasing connectedness of everything everywhere created conditions in which corporations and financial elites could become footloose and hence beyond all but the most rudimentary state control. At the same time the financial elites have worked to capture the people in control of many state apparatuses to ensure that their interests are always given priority. This shift in the balance of power means that citizens are as far as ever from taking control of their own destiny. Given these circumstances, perhaps the old definitions do not apply in the same way as they used to. It used to be the case that state control of productive industry was (for some) self evidently less efficient and effective than private control. Given that private control is so far beyond the capacity of governments or consumers to regulate, it becomes more tenable, perhaps, to work back to state control of monopolies, like water supply, and near monopolies, like railways.

We have seen clearly how badly state control can go wrong, and we should not forget the lessons of history. We now see clearly how badly commercial control can go wrong, and how far commercial interests have subverted state regulation, from taxation to the health and safety of the population. Perhaps it is time to work towards a new settlement, involving any combination of state action, citizen power, and other forms of organisation, such as the mutualisation of therailways suggested by David Boyle. The old opposition of markets and Marxists is no longer sufficient for the new world order, so a new way of thinking about the relations between states, markets and people must emerge. (Perhaps that is what some people mean by radical centralism – I have no idea.)

Monday, 17 April 2017

“The Alternative”: some notes on the editors’ introduction

Nandy, L, Lucas, C and Bowers C, eds (2016), The Alternative, London: Biteback Publishing

The Alternative is an attempt to sketch the skeleton of a progressive politics. The editors’ introduction juxtaposes despair and optimism. It was born in the aftermath of the 2015 General Election which saw off Labour and LibDem challenges to the Tories and rewarded the Greens with one seat for more than a million votes.

Votes per seat per party in 2015 make interesting reading:
SNP 25972
Conservatives 34347
Labour 40290
LibDem 301983
Green 1157613
UKIP 3881099 (which is of course now no seats for nearly four million votes)

It takes 11 times as many votes to elect a LibDem MP as an SNP one, and 7 times as many votes to elect a LibDem MP as a Labour one.

And it takes 44 times as many votes to elect a Green MP as an SNP one, and 28 times as many votes to elect a Green MP as a Labour one.

Does this imply the need for a change in the voting system? The editors reach for PR, but I think this is inadequate as an overall response. A new system will change the balance of power within Parliament, but will not necessarily change the relationship between politicians and voters.

We now live in a world of uncertainty. The editors refer to this – nation states and globalisation, and the state of information. They refer also to inequality, but instability is a different thing from unfairness, and I suggest instability rather than unfairness is the driving force behind much of the protectionism, isolationism and conservative sentiment we are living with today. Inequality and instability are closely related. Inequality is probably one of the most powerful driving forces behind instability. But in my view inequality is not what people feel; instability is.

Instability has been with us for some time, and it will not go away. I am reminded of 1997. Before the election there was much talk of the “feelgood factor”, implying a feeling of confidence that the Tories hope was returning to the national mood. After the election the phrase was dropped instantly and entirely from national discourse (or maybe it was just the media discourse). It was as if we recognised at last that the old securities of a job for life had gone and we needed to get used to it.

I suggest the same is true now. Globalisation and its bastard offspring neoliberalism make it unlikely that we can make employment more stable and secure. But we can make income more stable and secure, by having fairer distribution to start with, and effective mechanisms for dealing with troughs in employment.

Part of this process is making a more effective state to regulate neoliberalism’s daily excesses and create structures within which people can be more secure. And part of that process is putting into office politicians who actually listen and act. They are part of what a progressive politics looks like. To go further with this, we need some sort of agreed starting point. The editors offer a definition of “progressive” which is worth quoting in full.

Progressives want to move beyond the current system and create a better one. We continue in the tradition of those who ended slavery, won votes for women, built our welfare state, and fought for the protection of our environment. Progressives believe in cooperation. We want a supportive and responsive state which brings the best out of people’s instinct to share success and support each other in hard times, and which offers genuine equality to all citizens, together with social justice, civil liberties, human rights and responsibilities, without discrimination on grounds of gender, age, physical ability, race or sexual orientation.

Progressives are, by definition, radicals. We re-imagine the way our society and our economy works from the bottom up. We wish to reform the socially isolating and environmentally degrading mainstream economics that has dominated our political discourse for several decades. While wealth creation is important, we need fairer and more effective ways of distributing the fruits of that wealth so that everyone benefits. We therefore want power and wealth redistributed, in order to empower citizens to work together to build fair and resilient communities for generations to come.

Progressives come from many ideological positions – including socialists, liberals, feminists, ecologists – and none. We share a rejection of the politics of fear and division, and wish to move towards a more inclusive society in which every citizen not only has the opportunity to develop themselves to their full potential but has as much control as possible over their own destiny and the chance to shape the society in which they live. This way we believe we will build a society that both empowers people and allows us to live within environmental limits. (pp xix-xx)

I don’t agree with all of it. As soon as I started looking at it in detail, I started nitpicking. Agreement is not to be expected, but this is a very good starting point for debate and progress towards working together.

To return to the start, perhaps optimism is not what I feel right now. What I do feel is purpose. Politics is a long, hard road, and I have no idea where it will take us. We are entering new territory fr progressives, territory where we co-operate rather than split, so we need new tools to survey it, map it and make it ours. We make the road by walking so walk we must.