Wednesday 19 December 2018

How can we reduce inequality?

First posted on Liberal Democrat Voice.

I want somebody to take away from me what I have and give it to other people.

I’m a pensioner in a comfortable place in the most comfortable part of the UK, the south-east. Our incomes are high relative to every other region of the UK; more of us own our own houses than any other region. Government policy persistently works to protect us and boost us more than any other region. One of the most important considerations for Liberal Democrat policy on inequality must be to reduce the very substantial difference in income, wealth and comfort between the south-east and everywhere else in the UK.

I do not ignore the substantial inequalities within this region as well as between it and others. The village I live in is very comfortable indeed. However, it has its own food bank. The nearest town to me, Lewes, is decidedly affluent. However, it has three food banks. Nevertheless, the more pressing need, I believe, is to fix the massive inequalities between regions. There will be no substantial growth in the near future to enable a pretence that everybody can win. So that means that, if others are to do better, I, and people like me, will do worse. That is as it should be.

There will be many ways to do this. I focus here on two: infrastructure and general spending. In each case, I focus on one aspect out of several possibilities.

For infrastructure, there should be a primary criterion in the consideration stage of projects: how does this spending benefit the regions or the nations? This should apply, even if the project is in London or the south-east. The presumption should be that whatever money is available for infrastructure projects should go to the regions first. Some might object that London and the south-east still need money spent on infrastructure projects. Yes, they do, but for too long they have taken precedence over spending in the regions. That priority should be reversed. If that means I have to wait longer for an upgrade to my railway line, so be it.

We also need to be clear that any examination should concentrate clearly on what is the actual benefit to the region concerning jobs, income and the reduction of poverty. Hinkley Point, for instance, will cost a fortune, but only a small proportion of that spending will find its way into the pockets of local people. So there must be a robust and realistic measure of what the benefit to people in the region will be.

For general spending, I suggest the measure we need is simple, although sure to cause vibrations in high places. That is to re-establish proper and realistic funding to local councils. If money is tight, then it should go first to councils in the regions and nations. I will have to wait longer for my recycling to get up to scratch, and social care will still be stretched here, with painful consequences, for longer than it needs to be. So be it. My comfort has been bought at the price of misery in other parts of the country for far too long.

Monday 10 September 2018


Seen near Glynde


I met a traveller from a Sussex land,
Who said—“Two vast and pointless trunks of stone
Stand by the road. . . . Near them, on the earth
Half sunk a ticket kiosk lies, whose shattered frown,
And wrinkled schedule, and lack of mirth,
Tell that its attendant well those coupons read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand Supreme that mocked them, and the Artwave that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Glyndymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Ticket Prices, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of those colossal Posts, boundless and bare
The lone and level downs stretch far away.

With apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Monday 13 August 2018

The Möbius strip

I have a Möbius strip. On one side of it is Boris Johnson, on the other, any of the nastier ayatollahs. They merge seamlessly into one another. Johnson’s jibe about letter boxes has had exactly the required effect – attention. Two separate issues become one here: Muslim patriarchy and Johnson’s pursuit of power.

Photo by besshamiti on Plixs 

Johnson’s article about the clothing of Muslim women is formed as a liberal wrapper round a racist dog whistle. The liberal wrapper serves to deflect expected criticism of the dog whistle. Johnson is not a liberal. He adopts liberal policies, or at least liberal words, when they aid his pursuit of power. You might equally think Johnson is not a racist. He adopts a racist tone when it aids his pursuit of power. It is possible to adopt a liberal tone without being liberal. It is not so possible to adopt racist tropes without being racist.

If you want to make a liberal point about a particular form of oppression, you do not in the same breath make jibes at the victims of that oppression. If you have to make jibes – and Johnson does – you make them at the perpetrators of the oppression, not its victims. But that was not the purpose of his piece. The purpose was to take another step on the road to power, and in that he has succeeded. Stephen Williams suggests his time might be up. I think not. His latest nastiness has cemented dislike among those who dislike him, but it has also cemented his popularity among the disparate groupings of flaccid to hard right wingers who he hopes will propel him to power.

Johnson possibly did not intend to cause an upsurge in abuse. But he could certainly predict that it would happen – as it has - and was reckless as to whether or not it did.

Any effect on Muslim women was a by product of a step in Johnson’s careless ambition. To that extent we go back to the Möbius strip: Johnson is as patriarchal as any fundamentalist Muslim. And also racist. There is a debate to be had as to whether the wearing of a niqab signifies oppression. In some cases it does, in some it does not. Where it does, the liberal answer is not to ban them. Johnson is fortuitously right there. But instead of enforcement by law, there must be a liberal effort to engage in dialogue aimed at making that particular segment of our society more liberal. We engage in that dialogue. Johnson, slave to his own ego, does not.

Friday 27 July 2018

In which I fail to write a brief history of Universal Credit

I set out to write a brief history of Universal Credit since 2010, but I realised when writing it that that is not possible, because it is in fact a brief history of government incompetence, falsehood and vindictiveness.

Universal Credit is a great idea that many people have tried to bring to fruit for more than fifty years. It simplifies the benefits system, removes lots of barriers about eligibility, removes barriers to getting back to work, and takes considerable administrative burden off citizens, businesses and the state. However, it always proved too complicated, particularly given the Byzantine complexity of the UK benefit system it was intended to replace. But fools rush in where angels fear to tread, so Iain Duncan Smith, on being given the DWP brief, could not wait to get his hands on it.

Universal Credit will not remove all complexity. Two issues in particular stand out. First, the costs of disability cannot be catered for by any universal credit system. We still need benefits to deal with the costs of living and working for disabled and chronically ill people.

Secondly, it will not deal with housing costs which vary far too much by claimant and by geography. This will be true anywhere, but is more true for the UK because of the febrile state of our housing market. So for both disability and housing costs there still needs to be a separate eligibility- and / or means-  tested system.

Still, if well implemented, it could remove a lot of administration and a lot of difficulty.

The important words there are "if well implemented". The current system is poorly designed but even so might be functional and might do some good, if it were well implemented. But the implementation has been catastrophically bad. Computer systems have been badly planned and commissioned; there has been tinkering with the principles and the practices on which UC operates which has necessitated throwing good money after bad. And they still do not work anywhere near as well as they should. It is telling that one of the DWP’s most stringent critics during this period has been The Register, a non-party-political online scientific and technical news site. E.g.  Department of Work and Pensions internal docs reveal troubled history of Universal Credit.

 The levels at which the benefit is set will not remove many people from the poverty trap. (There is a separate argument to be had about whether UC is affordable. In my view the current level has been set for doctrinaire rather than fiscal reasons.) Other rules, such as the waiting period before being eligible, the determination to pay monthly, and to make access online, are designed to make the system inaccessible (or, at the very least, were made without care for their effect on the claimant).

In addition to this, the current minister, Esther McVey, has continued two of Iain Duncan Smith's most poisonous practices. The first is the Pinocchio style of management whereby any cause for criticism is routinely denied, until it becomes undeniable. The routine is then usually to say, “That was last year’s / quarter’s / month’s / week’s figures. This  year’s / quarter’s / month’s / week’s figures are much better” without actually citing the current figures. Information is routinely concealed. FOI requests are tenaciously and expensively fought – note the two year attempt to keep hidden the documents referred to in the link above from The Register. And information is routinely destroyed. For instance, food bank use has increased markedly in areas where UC has been implemented. A Freedom of Information request unearthed the fact that “jobcentres are told to destroy evidence of foodbank referrals and stipulate; “it is not to be used for any other purpose, including to count/monitor the number of signposting slips issued””.

Meanwhile, the Trussell Trust, a studiously non-partisan provider, has released figures which embarrass the DWP: “Food bank use in UK reaches highest rate on record as benefits fail to cover basic costs”. On average at the time of this report food bank use had increased 13% over a year. In Universal Credit areas the rise was 52%.

And secondly, she has continued his determination to turn the entire DWP, including the UC section, and the various entities to which it outsources its work, into a vindictive machine in which claimants are misinformed, disbelieved, condescended to, lied about and outright bullied, some to their deaths. Many sources can be adduced for that statement. An article in the Guardian provides a flavour. Despite the title, it is not just about IT - “Universal credit IT system 'broken', whistleblowers say”.

So, in summary, it is not possible to outline a history of this manifestation of Universal Credit. Future students of social policy will be unable to tell whether UC as such was workable, because:

- whatever its merits, it is a fiendishly complicated idea whose complexities were ironed out with a sledgehammer. (An idea like this needs years of preparation, instead of which it got months.)
- every complexity that was ironed out was to the detriment of claimants. The welfare of the claimant is a by-product in this system.
- the IT systems on which it depends have never worked properly and there appears to be no hope that they will. (Systems like this need years of preparation, instead of which…..)
- there is a determination at the upper levels of the DWP not to learn but to implement UC with a steam roller, with no care for the effect on claimants.
- lying about its (lack of) progress has been and remains the strategy of choice for ministers.
- UC staff, like every arm of the DWP since 2010, are encouraged, cajoled, and outright threatened themselves to treat claimants as responsible for their own predicament.

The National Audit Office assessment “Rolling out Universal Credit” is excoriating for ministers. But, cravenly, the NAO concludes that it cannot see a viable alternative to continuing to throw good  money after bad, and continuing to throw good people onto an ever increasing scrap heap. That is an abdication of responsibility in the face of government incompetence and intransigence. There is a alternative, to scrap it and start again properly. The damage that would be done to Britain’s finances and reputation is infinitesimal compared to the damage that is being done to the lives and livelihoods of those unfortunate enough to have to claim it.

Thursday 12 July 2018

Some thoughts on Maria Caulfield’s letter of resignation

Maria Caulfield, MP for Lewes, has resigned her position as Conservative Party Vice Chairman for Women in protest at the PM's position on Brexit. (I love the irony of a woman being called "Vice Chairman for Women".)

Here are some comments on her letter of resignation.

Dear Prime Minister

It is with regret that I am writing to inform you of my decision to resign as a Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party following the collective agreement by Cabinet on the Chequers Brexit deal.

Having attended the briefings provided for members of Parliament, I cannot support the direction of travel in the Brexit negotiations which, in my view, do not fully embrace the opportunities that Brexit can provide.

It is noticeable that in all the resignations we have had, nobody has been specific about what these alleged benefits are. Much has been made, for instance, of a trade deal with the USA. But the detail is missing. And the detail is important, when the President of the USA is clearly intent on starting trade wars at the drop of a hat. And also when he has said specifically that his intention is to make the NHS pay more for their drugs. In trade negotiations with the USA, we will be at their mercy. The logic that we gain in trade negotiations by being part of a large bloc escapes Ms Caulfield.

It is also noticeable that she, like the others, makes no proposals of what alternative scheme is better than the Chequers deal. We suspect that that is because she knows there is none.

For me the backstop agreement for Northern Ireland was neither necessary or constructive for the future prosperity of the UK. Having strong links to the Republic of Ireland I feel the backstop position is not appropriate and should have been rejected. It has been used by the EU as a way of blocking a mutually beneficial deal.

Ms Caulfield’s strong links to the Republic of Ireland should make her aware that the commentary from the Republic is almost uniformly about what a disastrous piece of stupidity Brexit is. (

And again Ms Caulfield fails with the details. Theresa May has promised there will not be a hard border. This is integral to the Good Friday agreement. How does Ms Caulfield propose to ensure this? (She should, please, not mention technological solutions – if the technology existed to secure free movement for businesses across a hard border, it would be in use at hard borders all over the world. It is not, because the technology to do this does not exist.)

It is also disappointing that in connection with Ireland she only mentions prosperity. If she really has strong connections to the Republic of Ireland, she must be aware that peace is at least as important to them as prosperity. There is still too much violence in the island of Ireland, but it is incomparably lower than it was before the peace agreement. The absence of border controls forms an integral part of the peace agreement. Ms Caulfield’s hard Brexit risks bodies and lives in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. How does she justify this?

The policy may assuage vested interests but the voters will find out and their representatives will be found out. This policy will be bad for our country and bad for the Party. The direct consequence of this will be Prime Minister Corbyn.

Well, obviously some of us rather hope that the result will be bad for the Conservative Party. But who is finding out what here, and who is being found out? Most of the finding out lately has been about the lies, malpractice and illegal actions of the Leave campaign. Very significant overspending by Vote Leave; collusion with other organisations, like BeLeave, to cover up the overspending; the murky source of the massive amounts of cash donated by Arron Banks; his connections with the Russians – his initial confession to one boozy lunch, which rapidly magnified to four meetings, and now to eleven. Illegality and foreign influence leave Brexit with nothing but a fig leaf over its naked opportunism. If Ms Caulfield really respects democracy, she will agree that the British public, knowing what they know now, deserve, and democratically need a vote on the final deal.

Since the announcement on Friday my constituents, whether they voted leave or remain, have contacted me in large numbers to say they do not support the deal and it would therefore be more appropriate to have a Vice Chairman who can confidently defend the proposal.

That is very interesting, given that many of her constituents have considerable difficulty reaching Ms Caulfield at all. How many open access surgeries has she conducted herself this year? And the remain voters will have been contacting her to say they do not agree with this deal because they do not agree with any deal to leave the European Union.

None of those who have resigned, including Ms Caulfield, have said what they would actually do. They do not have any alternative proposal that solves any of the issues facing us. While they promise unicorns, the government is preparing to stockpile food, and plonk generators in the Irish Sea – that is how bad reality has become.

Ms Caulfield owes it to us all now not just to say that she disagrees with the Prime Minister, but to give clear and detailed proposals as to how she would solve the issues about our relations with the EU, the position of businesses, specifics about control of immigration, very detailed specifics about how she proposes to solve the problem of the Irish border while respecting the Good Friday agreement, and many other issues.

I want to thank you for the opportunity of being the Vice chairman for Women, especially during the centenary year of suffrage.

We should be grateful for one thing. At least Ms Caulfield has not told an outright lie in her resignation letter as Boris Johnson did.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Let's not be the radical party

First posted on LibDemVoice.

I find the word “radical” increasingly difficult nowadays. It has become a shibboleth. Whatever is being pitched has to be framed as radical. And everybody knows exactly what it means and says so with great authority. The trouble is that the next person will, with equally great authority, give it a different meaning.

And also, it doesn’t tell us anything about the liberalness of the policies being proposed. I think most people will agree that Iain Duncan Smith’s approach to welfare benefits was radical. But I don’t think any liberal wants a policy that vindictive. (Or that incompetent.)

When you look at the things we are in favour of, many of them are not radical at all.

Legalisation of cannabis, for instance. Cannabis is no more harmful than tobacco or alcohol. Its prohibition actually creates harmful forms of the substance, costs taxpayers a significant amount of money and badly affects a significant number of lives by creating criminal records that otherwise would not exist. Legalising it can be framed not as radical, but as common sense.

Try this:

We can:

- reduce harms to many ordinary people
- reduce pressure on the police and the entire justice system
- reduce burden to the NHS
- reduce days lost to illness for businesses
- increase tax revenue
by legalising and regulating cannabis in the same way as we treat alcohol and tobacco.

There is nothing radical there; it is just plain common sense.

Or, on a different topic, try this thought experiment:

- you are a country with small but very sophisticated armed forces
- your men and women are highly trained, well paid and dependable
- they and their families live in good quality accommodation
- if they are wounded in the service of their country, they get excellent medical and social care, and decent benefits
- you buy high tech equipment, both large scale and small scale, with an eye to effectiveness and value
- you invest in intelligence globally, regionally and locally, to enable your forces and equipment to be used most effectively and with least cost to bodies and lives
- you put effort into working on relationships with other countries which enable you to  collaborate to prevent conflict, but also to prosecute it effectively when necessary.

But one day you decide to spend more than three full years of your budget on a single weapon, one which is in practical terms useless for any conflict you can foresee, and will also, within five years, have lost its unique selling point of being invisible underwater. To afford this, you compromise every other budget: you take significant chunks of money away from recruiting, paying, accommodating and caring for your soldiers, you compromise on all the other equipment you buy, and you spend less on intelligence and on your diplomatic efforts. All for a weapon you will never use.

Doing something about Trident is not radical, it is just common sense.

We can do the same with most of our policies – climate change, housing, education, health and social care, transport.

Then we can save the word radical for policies that really are. Land Value Tax, maybe, because that really would shake up wealth and power in this country.

Monday 4 June 2018

"Ashamed to be British"

I’ve been mulling over for a while blogging about an oft used phrase “makes me ashamed to be British (or English)”. As usual Nigel Farage has tipped me over the edge. The BBC has a survey about attitudes towards Englishness in which it appears that young people are likely to be less proud of being English than older people.  The BBC then approaches its man for all comments, Nigel Farage, who says “It’s as if we’re teaching young people that any sense of English identity is racist.” In the replies below the Beeb’s tweet about it, several people say Farage makes them ashamed of being English.

I will leave Farage alone, and I will also leave alone the issue of the framing of questions. The choice in the Yougov poll was about whether people feel “proud” or “embarrassed” to be English. National identity is a complex thing, and there are lots of other possible feelings, and lots of other ways of contrasting being proud.

(In what follows below, for “British” you could perfectly well read “English”. That does not mean that I think “English” and “British” are interchangeable – that is a con trick we English have been pulling on the rest of the world for centuries. It still works on most Americans. It only means that, whether you are using the frame of “Britishness” or “Englishness”, the mechanism is the same.)

I am struck by how regularly people respond to events by saying something like “makes me ashamed to be British”. Nigel Farage has that effect – not surprisingly. So have the Windrush scandal, Grenfell, Brexit, the state of our prisons, the prevalence of foodbanks, to name only a few. I suspect that a lot of people who say it don’t actually mean it – it has become a trope, a cliché, a standard reaction to the many shameful things we see around us.

And I wish people would stop saying it. There is no need for any of these things to make us feel less positively about our nationality. What we should be ashamed of are the people who make us feel like this. I am shamed by the political schemers who have been so brutal towards the Windrush generation. I am shamed by the liars, cheats and charlatans who stole the EU referendum result. I am shamed by the succession of home secretaries who think that prison is only about punishment. I am shamed by the poisonous attitudes towards unemployed and disabled people entrenched at the DWP by Iain Duncan Smith and embraced by all of his successors. I am shamed by the many people who insist that Dunkirk was a “British” victory and who ignore the 18,000 French troops who died standing between us and the German army in order to give us a chance to escape.

I am shamed by such people, but I am not ashamed of who I am. I am British and English, and proud of both. That does not mean that I think I am better than anybody else. It is a fake, brittle patriotism that can only love its country if it can pretend that its country is better than anybody else’s. I am simply proud to be British, and I will not be shaken from that by the liars, thieves, pretenders, charlatans, bullies, bigots and bloats with whom I share my nationality. The fact of sharing with such people sometimes dismays me. But we do not get to choose with whom we share our nationality, and our nationality is bigger than the character of any of its undesirable holders. So, I am ashamed, dismayed, perturbed, troubled, sometimes grieved, by the antics of people such as those mentioned above. But they will never make me ashamed of my nationality.

Thursday 24 May 2018

Equal Power, and how you can make it happen

First published on LibDemVoice, 24th May 2018.

I think Equal Power is the first book I have ever pre-ordered. I started reading it the day it came out. When I tweeted about that, Jo Swinson replied, and I promised her I would review it as soon as I finished reading it.

Several months later…..

My post hoc justification for my tardiness is that, to coin a phrase, a review is something best tasted cold. And I find that my opinions about the book have not changed since I first read it.

I found “Equal Power, and how you can make it happen” very powerful indeed. Not because the material was new to me – most of it was not – but because of the way Swinson treats it. She combines statistics and research evidence, other people’s stories and her own experience in a compelling way. The trick with such material is always in the way the combination is made. Statistics are devoid of life and stories lack width in applicability. Swinson combines the two admirably well in a very readable style. She then delivers much of the punch in the book through recounting her own personal experience. And, very importantly, every chapter ends with a summary of actions that everyone can take to improve gender equality.

She gives herself the space to lay out more than simple arguments. She discusses some of the underlying ideas and languages behind many of our attitudes. She notes in particular (around p31) the use of the word “illiberal”, something I have experienced myself, particularly in discussions about gender issues, being used with the evident purpose of closing an argument. “I’m against all women shortlists because they are illiberal.” Of course they are, but you cannot end it there. You have to show why they are more illiberal than the current system which routinely and significantly discriminates in favour of people like me.*  (Jo does not favour all women shortlists, but for better reasons.)

The stories bring life to the pages. Some of them are familiar, some are not, and some are immensely powerful. Shirley Williams’ anecdote of her experience as a junior minister in the 1960s is a corker. If you don’t know it, it’s almost worth buying the book for that story alone.

For much of the time I read the book, I was listening to the music of another articulate, energetic Scot, Amy MacDonald. We have come a long way, a very long way since the times of Shirley Williams’ anecdote, but there is still a very long way to go. “Don’t tell me that it’s over, it’s only just begun.” The practical suggestions for action at the end of each chapter outline some very good ways of taking us further along the road towards gender equality.

This review is quite short. I don’t want to waste more of your time reading it when you should be reading the book, available here or here, and then doing something about the inequities it catalogues.

(*Old white git in case you hadn’t noticed. I also have the beard and sandals, but for this purpose those are optional.)

Thursday 17 May 2018

Windrush, how they suddenly became “good” immigrants

If anybody should resign over the Windrush scandal, it is Theresa May. It was her determination over a long period as Home Secretary to foster what she called a hostile environment for illegal immigrants, and her determination to produce one regardless of the cost to others that has created the tragedies that we see unfolding almost daily. This is not a flash in the pan, it is the result of years of hard work on her part. Any claim she has to be a Christian is negated by the evidence of years of consistently pushing hard line vicious rhetoric and action about immigrants.

It is not just the Windrush immigrants who have been harmed by this, to a tragic extent in many cases. Refugee Action’s report about asylum seekers “highlights the issues that occur at multiple points in the asylum process and alleges that “systemic failures” in the Home Office’s approach to asylum claims “dehumanises, disempowers and damages” those who have come to the UK fleeing persecution or war.” Other completely legal migrants regularly face harassment and persecution.

Such action does not occur in a vacuum. It does not occur without the support or at least the acquiescence of a large proportion of the population. Such support, if not forthcoming naturally, is usually nurtured by media misrepresentation of numbers, intentions and effects.

The circumstances of the Windrush generation have improved from the days when they were turned away from boarding houses at the drop of a hat, or routinely refused jobs when their ethnicity became clear. Nevertheless they are still too often treated as second class citizens and routinely suffer the daily slights of casual racism. That is, until the last few weeks. The sudden transformation of the Windrush generation from bad immigrants to good immigrants is a very interesting phenomenon, both academically and politically.

Politically it makes sense. Because of Brexit, the right wing wants to tilt away from Europe and uses the Commonwealth as one of the places from which our mythical salvation will come. (Issues like India wanting free movement to be part of any trade deal are ignored – logic is not an issue when it comes to constructing others.)  So, all of a sudden the Windrush immigrants become the kind of immigrants we want, unlike the Europeans.

They are also newsworthy because they are being hard done by. This is not enough on its own to be newsworthy – the steady increase since 2010 in the hounding of immigrants, minorities of all kinds, disabled people and many others has gone largely unremarked in the mainstream press. But human interest makes suffering much more publishable.

There may be another factor behind the ability of the right wing press and its supporters to turn on a sixpence with regard to the Windrush generation. Henri Tajfel, a social psychologist, (see also "Ingroups and Outgroups".) did a great deal of work on social identity theory. He started with the basic building blocks of identity, our capacity to categorise everything, and to assimilate categories. In the crudest terms, we categorise e.g. white and black, and good and bad. Then we assimilate, so white and good go together, black and bad go together. It is a fundamental way of enabling ourselves to function in a world of constant information (it always has been, since forever, not just in the digital age).

From that develops a way of creating identity. We categorise the world into “ingroups” and “outgroups”. Ingroups are people we are like and outgroups are people we are not like. One of his most distinctive assertions was that outgroups are just as important for our identity as ingroups – we define ourselves by saying who we are not as much as by saying who we are.

It is but a short step for powerful groups to discriminate against those who they perceive as outgroups. “Not us” becomes assimilated with “worse than us”.

Tajfel’s theories have been subsequently developed, not least in Critcher et al Race in the Provincial Press. (available at: – 250MB - I found it quite difficult to download; might have been just a bad day at the server.) A study of five newspapers in the Midlands revealed expected levels of racial stereotyping and treatment in all cases but one, the Walsall Observer. On re-examining the Walsall Observer, the researchers discovered that that paper had travellers as its main outgroup, and said pretty much the same things about travellers as the other papers said about black people. This led to a theory that we prefer to deal with one outgroup at a time. Having more than one is not necessary for purposes of self identification, and may also lead to unwelcome feelings of being threatened by having so many people that we are not like. Note that this is always about perception and about construction, not about any supposedly objective reality.

I found a piquant example in my own research, based on Critcher et al. I examined the Leicester Mercury for a year in the 1970s, and found, as they did, the expected levels of stereotyping and treatment of back and brown people, including those now known as the Windrush generation. But at one point a local vicar made a statement about sex work. He declared that it should be made legal. Sex workers could be respected, disease treatment would be more effective, they and their clients would be safer, they could be taxed, etc. This was not what the Leicester Mercury wanted to hear. For nearly a month after this hit the news, black and brown people disappeared almost entirely from its pages, as it focused on sex work. And it said about the sex workers exactly what it usually said about immigrants – would you want to live next door to one? Would you like your daughter to be one / marry one? (Seriously). After about four weeks the prostitutes faded out and the black and brown people faded back in, and business as usual was restored.

This way of dealing with outgroups may explain the shift in treatment of the set of black and brown immigrants known as the Windrush generation. We have subcategorised immigrants according to the focus of our latest political dilemma. We have created a subcategory of “European immigrants” and quite deliberately separated them from other immigrants. Now, the theory does not require that other categories of outgroup are well treated. Usually they are ignored, submerged.

But, being submerged, they then become available for other treatment as appropriate. So the fact that the Windrush generation is not our outgroup du jour means that they are available to be treated as a human interest story of the type that sells newspapers and enables (some of) us to feel good about ourselves, without (probably) actually changing anything.

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Sheep's clothing

I have lived in the diocese of Chichester for nearly 35 years. For far too much of that time I have watched with increasing distress the gradual revelation of the cycle of crime and cover up in the abuse scandal that has persistently bedevilled the diocese. This diocese believes in the warmth and comfort of the gospels. This diocese painted itself as a place of refuge for religious souls cast adrift by the sea of change in the modern world. And for more than a generation this diocese has responded to the needs of the souls in its care with brutal corruption.

The abuse and the cover up have been well documented for some years now, but often in a haphazard way. During March the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) focussed on Chichester as one of its case studies, and pulled all the evidence together in one place. The transcripts of the fifteen days of hearings, and the dozens of documents which back them up, make for harrowing reading.

The events of both the abuses and the cover up were quite effectively summarised by Andreas Whittam Smith in the Independent on March 25th. He portrays the various abusers, and outlines the failure of attempts to improve safeguarding, the actions of various protectors of the perpetrators and the culture within which they were allowed not just to survive but to flourish. He calls it “normalising”. In the latter part of the article he focuses on Peter Ball, and he ends with the words of the current bishop, Martin Warner.

The evidence given to the IICSA makes clear that, despite the charging and sentencing of (some of?) the perpetrators, the diocese is still in immense difficulties. There will no doubt be continuing attempts to assert that the slate has been wiped clean. There will still be some who belittle or disbelieve the brutality that has been practised. There are still some who allow themselves to be duped by the obvious niceness of Bishop Peter among others. There are many who will know that they should have taken action. And there will be many who do not know how to conduct themselves to ensure that safeguarding is done properly in the future. The slate is not clean because there is still so much to do.

Responsibility falls at two levels, the perpetrators and those around them. The perpetrators that we know of are rightly being punished and must make their own amends. For some of those around them, who actively ignored guilt and encouraged the continuing commission of brutal crimes, perhaps punishment is appropriate too. I make no apology for using the word “brutal” despite litte evidence of violence in the crimes committed. Brutality can be practised in a caress. The fact that it is done with a velvet glove makes it no less violent, no less domineering, no less brutal. The diocese has to face up to that reality, that it was covering up not just a minor sin but a series of deplorable crimes.

And there is a particular problem for Chichester diocese that requires a particular depth of soul searching. This evidence to the IICSA (near the end of page 2) makes an uncomfortable connection between the perpetration of these offences and opposition to the ordination of women. It does not have to be that way, but there must be a different construction, a different way of thinking and a different way of being if the diocese is to get back to fulfilling its Christian mission.

I paused, as Andreas Whittam Smith obviously did, at Martin Warner’s final words to the inquiry. (Here, pages 93-94)

While apologies can begin to sound formulaic, I do want to register my sorrow and apology for the sexual abuse of children that has taken place in the diocese of Chichester, and for the ways in which it has been mishandled in the past.

This comes from the bottom of my heart as a human being, but also more formally from me as the bishop of this diocese. I also grieve for the loss of access to faith that this has often resulted in: a terrible realisation, and it is that which has sustained my efforts in ensuring that the diocese of Chichester reforms.”

The words that made me pause were the last sentence. The bishop says he is primarily motivated by the loss of access to faith suffered by the victims. In my view this is far too narrow a focus. Faith has an inestimable position in the minds of Christians. But a misguided emphasis on the primacy of faith is part of what led to Chichester falling into this pit in the first place. Abuse damages the bodies and minds as well as the souls of the victims. Souls may be mended in the afterlife, but bodies and minds can only be cared for on this earth. If the victims of these abuses get to the end of their lives, and we have not healed their souls, then healing awaits them in the life beyond. If they get to the end of their lives and we have not at least attempted to heal their bodies and minds, then we have failed. Reparation must apply to the scars carried by body and mind, or it is meaningless. And efforts at reform must focus on producing a church that heals and nurtures bodies and minds as well as souls. Without an emphasis on the current physical reality of the victims and their lives, any repentance and reform will be meaningless. Until there is widespread recognition of the brutality done to bodies and minds as well as souls, that was permitted and protected by the diocese, there will be no moving forward and no peace, however much people think there is.

Monday 26 March 2018


I have always thought that high intensity headlights are a pestilence. Now I find I am part of a massive majority. 80% of drivers surveyed by the RAC think that there should be better regulation for modern headlights.

“The headlights of some newer cars are so bright they are causing a road safety hazard for drivers with as many as two-thirds (65%) of motorists saying they regularly get dazzled by oncoming headlights even though they are dipped.

“Fifteen per cent of motorists surveyed by the RAC claim they have suffered a near-miss as a result of being dazzled by modern headlights that they believe are too bright.”

This is clearly a safety issue, but I was worried by the tone of some of the RAC’s press release. First of all, they see brighter lights as an improvement in technology. “the new designs of headlights are brighter, making it easier for drivers to see and therefore potentially safer for them...”; “Headlight technology has advanced considerably in recent years, but while that may be better for the drivers of those particular vehicles, it is presenting an unwanted, new road safety risk for anyone driving towards them...”. I doubt that it is safer for them. And it is only “better” if you accept the dominant view that people should be able to drive as fast as they want regardless of road, traffic, weather or light conditions. It is not better if one person’s ability to drive carelessly is bought at the expense of another’s difficulty.

We would not need brighter headlights if we drove a little more slowly. We might also reduce the 1800 deaths and 23000 serious injuries we cause on the roads every year.

Friday 23 March 2018

In which I once again blame Jonathan Agnew unfairly

I refer to my previous post on the failures of the England cricket set up.

England's latest embarrassment has that sinking feeling of predictability about it. The only consistent thing about England's batting is its magnificent inconsistency. I would not bet against them scoring either 50 or 500 in their second innings, if the weather lets the game get that far.

I have given up being frustrated by England's performances. I remain frustrated, however, by the level of analysis of what goes wrong when it goes wrong. I have named Jonathan Agnew, which is unfair to him, excellent commentator that he is. He is merely an example of the direction of analysis of England's failure in the first innings against New Zealand. I agree that the preparation provided for visiting teams is unfair, but to blame that for what happened yesterday is to mistake a symptom for a cause. A test cricketer should be able to come out of six months in the freezer and keep their wicket. Much of the other commentary I have seen (not an exhaustive trawl) focuses on individual technical failures, listing the individual mistakes in detail, some with a sense of schadenfreude. There is a larger, and I would argue, more important issue, which is how do we get to the point where nine experienced, talented, skilled, highly coached, competitive individuals all make such school child errors at the same time. Why was there not one single batter (until Craig Overton) who, seeing what the others were up to, went in determined to sell his wicket as dearly as possible? The answer, I believe, lies in the culture of the England set up, management and teams, and can only be dealt with by reform that starts from the top and reaches very widely.

Trevor Bayliss skirted round the edge of what's going on. "When one person sneezes it seems that we all catch a cold. It’s not good enough."  I relied on Cricket Badger for this quote, so it may not be entirely accurate. If it is, then Bayliss has put his finger on, or at least somewhere near, a major issue for the England set up that nobody otherwise seems to be talking about. As I noted in my previous blog, there is a major question about the system and the culture that produces so many collective failures. Dealing with the batting failures at an individual level will never solve that problem.

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.