Monthly Archives: November 2017

Chancellor v Chancer

For well over a year, I’d been planning to write a blog post on Gordon Brown: his time as Chancellor and PM and his legacy. And then, about three weeks ago, Polly Toynbee, prompted by the publication of Brown’s autobiography, writes a piece for the Guardian along practically identical lines to what I’d planned. Serves me right.

Gordon Brown and George Osborne
Brown v Osborne

So, in the light of last week’s budget, I’m writing a slightly different piece, comparing Brown to his successor-but-one, Gideon George Osborne. Two very different personalities with very different legacies. It’s a case of chancellor v chancer.

Personalities

Gordon Brown always comes across as a product of his modest but comfortable Scottish Presbyterian upbringing. Instinctively frugal, with a concern for the betterment of the lives of his fellow human beings, I feel he developed a strong ethical code to guide his life. Brown was brought up to be straightforward, to tell the truth and always do the right thing. He appears naturally shy and reports by those who know him say he comes across as a much warmer person in private than his public persona. Not obviously gregarious, he was suspicious of the motives of his closest colleagues, which increased during his time as PM almost to the level of paranoia.

George Osborne, by contrast, is a whole different kettle of fish. Polished and self-confident, he carries a powerful air of entitlement common to those who were educated at a posh school: St Paul’s in his case. He carried with him into Parliament an absolute conviction that he was born to be part of the ruling class. Isolated from any but the most privileged, he has never shown any interest in the needs and concerns of all but the richest and most privileged. By happy coincidence, these are the people who fund the Tory party. Along with Boris Johnson, Osborne above all shows the most utter contempt for the truth: any lie will do as long as it serves his own purpose. Perhaps the two most egregious are these: firstly that Labour were responsible for the global financial crisis of 2007-8 and secondly, by conflating fraud and administrative error, gave a totally misleading impression of the level of benefit fraud. (The much-bandied misleading figure was £5 billion, only 20% of which is fraud, some 0.7% of the total benefits bill.)

Rabbits and Hats

Different though their personalities are, both Brown and Osborne share one thing in common. Both could not resist the temptation, on Budget day, of making the Budget speech into a theatrical event. Both would spring the odd eye-catching announcement, like a rabbit from a hat, intended for maximum political effect, even when the economics was dubious. And both carried great political weight and authority within their respective Cabinets.

rabbit in hat
Rabbit!

Another thing in common is that both Georges are history graduates: Brown with a first-class MA and a PhD from Edinburgh and Osborne a 2:1 from Oxford. (Although Osborne’s degree was in modern history, I can’t help imagining that his favourite read was The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.)

The similarities end here. So what is my verdict on their performances as Chancellor of the Exchequer and on their subsequent  legacies?

The Chancellor

For Brown, I distinguish his time as Chancellor between pre- and post-financial crisis, the latter including his time as Prime Minister. In summary, my overall verdict for the first phase is “mixed”. For the second phase, I believe that Brown was the most authoritative and respected financial leader in the western world.

The first period included policies which I would count against Brown. Together with Tony Blair, he accepted the basic tenets of Thatcher-Reaganite Free Market Fundamentalism and only watered them down a bit. Direct taxes were lowered somewhat and no serious attempts were made to rebalance the UK’s lopsided economy away from over-reliance on services and financial services in particular. Worse still, Brown expanded the use of Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) as a means of financing many public sector capital projects, to keep down public sector debt. This has left a toxic legacy, most notably in the NHS.

On the other hand, much good was done during Brown’s tenure. Child poverty was drastically reduced from the Thatcher / Major legacy: the proportion of children living in poverty fell by a third. The introduction of Child and Working Tax Credits was a major factor in this. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, Britain’s most respected independent economic think-tank, also notes the drop in pensioner poverty. The IFS too, whilst noting that inequality rose under New Labour, “there is evidence to suggest that these reforms prevented a larger rise in inequality than actually occurred under Labour.” Several other non-fiscal policies funded by Brown’s Treasury, notably Sure Start centres introduced more strategic reforms to bring about long-term improvements to the life chances for children from poorer households. So, overall in the period 1997-2007, the good probably exceeded the bad, but not by much.

That balance changes after the global crash. Whilst Toynbee’s claim that Brown “saved the world” over-dramatizes it a bit, Brown was a key player in stabilising the financial system after 2007. His decisive action immediately after the crash and a package of pro-growth measures turned recession to modest growth. In 2009, he pushed hard for the introduction of the so-called “Tobin Tax”, a very low levy on all financial transactions and named after the economist who first proposed it. The tax is designed to reduce the riskier behaviour of the finance services industry, whose recklessness caused the 2007-8 crash, which started in the USA. Brown seems to have been the first world leader to grasp that things must change. He also was clear that, in order to succeed, reforms needed to be coordinated across a critical mass of the world’s economies. Any one country going it alone could easily be picked off by rogue “beggar my neighbour” states.

In 2009-10, globally Brown seemed to have grown in stature on the world stage as a key influencer of change to the economic order. Tragically, his standing at home was in rapid decline, by a combination of his personality, concerted attacks by the Tory opposition and their more rabid running mates in the press and the accusations of cowardice for not calling a snap election. (Strange how snap elections, or the lack of them, can swing political fortunes in a trice!) His increasing troubles domestically reduced his standing abroad and the opportunity for lasting, international reform was lost. If Brown had somehow managed to win an election in 2009 or 2010, things may look very different today, but the scent of decay and decline for the New Labour project was in the air.

The Chancer

Enter, alas, George Osborne. He lost no time about implementing a new order of austerity. First, Labour’s legacy was trashed. There was the lie, already mentioned, about Labour causing the crash. To make matters worse, who remembers now that shadow Chancellor Osborne promised in September 2007 to match Labour’s spending plans. This was a cynical political move to try to detoxify the Tory brand as the “Nasty Party”. So the lie was, in effect: “It’s all Labour’s fault, but we would have done the same”. Secondly, a coordinated propaganda campaign was remarkable successful in persuading public opinion that it was now all the fault of benefit scroungers: the new “straw man” to deflect blame from his friends – and Tory donors – to the poor. It also provided convenient cover for the long-term FMF project of dismantling as much of the state as possible, for zealous ideological reasons. Reducing the public sector deficit became a total obsession, to the exclusion of other economic objectives.

The effect was to kill the (albeit weak) growth induced by Brown’s and Alistair Darling’s careful nurturing of the post-crash economy. It wasn’t helped by Osborne’s ridiculous and reckless assertion that the UK economy was weaker than Greece’s, which was patently untrue. This helped to flatten business confidence overnight. Actions have consequences, George.

For balance, I’ve tried hard to think of a policy change introduced by Osborne of which I approve. I’ve searched the web to remind me but, sadly, I can’t find anything. Let’s just say Osborne was one of the best of Cameron’s cabinet in modernising the Tories’ position on social policy: for example, he was one of the strongest Tory supporters of same-sex marriage. But on the economy (his day job), no.

Taking spending power from the poorest in society is a good way to reduce demand and shrink the overall economy, as the poor spend a higher proportion of their income. (The rich tuck their spare cash away in safe tax havens.) This, in turn, reduces tax takings and pushes up the government deficit. What’s worse, with lack of growth in the economy, debt as a proportion of GDP is higher than it would be. Osborne famously predicted in 2010 he’d eliminate the deficit in 5 years: he failed spectacularly. We’ll be lucky if we achieve that objective by 2030 on present policies.

Cameron and Osborne eat pasties
Pasties!

Of all Osborne’s budgets, the 2012 “omnishambles” was arguably the worst. He gave us a cut in the top rate of income tax for the highest earners and the failed attempt to introduce the “pasty tax”. Greggs had a field day as politicians fell over each other to be photographed eating a pasty. Not his finest hour!

Legacies and Might-Have-Beens

So, what can we thank these two contrasting characters for, by way of legacy? For Brown, his reforms made significant progress in reducing child poverty (tax credits, Sure Start centres and the rest). But he left vast areas of the public sector saddled with repayments to private sector companies making vast profits from Private Finance Initiative schemes, which Brown expanded significantly.  Most importantly, he was quick to improvise policy in unprecedented times of crisis in 2007-8. Whilst painful for the economy, his decisive action saved the UK from a potentially far, far worse fate: a 1930s-style Great Depression.

And as for Osborne? He gave us austerity: a dogma-driven, economically illiterate policy for which he lied that there was no alternative. As well as being morally wrong, it simply doesn’t work. Most economists now accept that this is the case, and some came to this conclusion sooner than others. Here’s a US analysis from four years ago pointing out the failure of austerity. Even now, Chancellor Philip Hammond has left policy largely unchanged, his recent budget just tinkering around the edges. And, of course, austerity has already undone much of the good work on reducing poverty, remorselessly back on the rise.

So the poignant “what might have been” is if Gordon Brown had had more time to lead western opinion to move away from Free Market Fundamentalism, in concert with other nations. This would also have started a measured move for thee UK away from over-reliance on financial services towards a healthier, more balanced economy. We could have had less inequality, less poverty, no EU referendum, no unnecessary trashing of the economy to come after 2019.  We’ll never know.

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Half-Term Report

Did you spot the milestone that the country reached last Friday? I didn’t at the time. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, here’s a clue:

It’s the time of year when people buy advent calendars. This year, perhaps, the squares on the calendars should be re-numbered, starting with 483 and ending with 459.

Still don’t know? Read on…

Anguish of 1000 Days

Or 1009, to be exact. There are 1009 days between 23 June 2016, the date of the EU referendum, and 29 March 2019, the date the UK leaves the EU on current government plans. Friday 10th November 2017 was the first date when more days have elapsed (505) since the referendum than days left (504) until the leaving date. So, how is the UK Government managing the process? It’s time for a Half-Term Report.

In summary, I’d put it like this: achievement: none, progress: extremely poor. Let’s examine these areas in more detail.

On Day 20, Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister – Labour took another 73 days to re-confirm Jeremy Corbyn as leader, following a leadership challenge started in early 2016. May appointed her triumvirate of relevant Ministers: Davies, Fox and Johnson immediately afterwards. Leaving aside the fact that none of these three was remotely suited or capable of carrying out their appointed role, for May, at this stage, it looked so far, so good.

But there followed a period of dithering and bickering within the Tory Party about when to trigger Article 50, which started the 2-year countdown for completing negotiations. It was obvious nobody knew what to do, the relevant departments were unprepared and no plans existed to articulate the UK’s negotiating position. Eventually, after mounting pressure from the rabid Leave wing of the party, Article 50 was triggered on 30 March this year: 280 days after the referendum. Clock ticking, 729 days to go.

Minority Report

After denying seven times since appointment as PM that she would call a snap election, on Day 279, May called a snap election. As is well known, her campaign was a disaster and the result of the election on Day 330 was a hung parliament. Her Parliamentary majority and 51 days lost. Two further days were lost before May, after misleading the Queen – who was “not amused” – found a sufficiently large bribe (£1 billion) to get the DUP to support key Commons votes. The Government was now in hock to what has been described as “the political wing of the 17th century”. Not good for the Northern Ireland Peace Process or the suspended Stormont devolved government, but, hey, who cares when it’s the future of the Tory Party at stake.

Groundhog Days

Six rounds of negotiations have been held since then. The EU had held an early meeting with the European Council and Michel Barnier, their chief negotiator, spelled out the timetable and the famous “sequencing” demands. This stated clearly that “sufficient progress” on three topics important to the EU27 (divorce bill, citizens’ rights, Irish border) would need to be made before talks could start on a new trade relationship. Weeks were lost when Davies (with noises off from other “rabids”) blustered and resisted, before giving in and agreeing to all these demands on the first day formal negotiations began.

At the end of each round, Barnier has stated that the UK hasn’t given sufficient clarity on each of the issues, whilst Davies made repeated vague comments about progress and “flexibility”. 19th October – Day 463 – was the deadline when the UK was hoping the EU27 would agree that sufficient progress had been made. It was obvious talks were all but stalled. May’s speech in Florence on Day 435 made some conciliatory-sounding general declarations but was empty of any useful detail. The speech was given a cautious but reasonably warm reception by “the other side”. However Davies and his team failed to clarify any of the three key areas in the period since then. It’s obvious why not: May hasn’t the authority within her minority Government to thrash out an agreed position. The UK still can’t agree what it wants. The deadline was missed and it’s pushed back to some time in December – round about Day 540. Don’t hold your breath.

As part of the farce, Davies had stated there were reports on 58 industry sectors about the impact of leaving the EU. On Day 473, the government refused a Freedom of Information request from a Labour MP to publish these to Parliament. The government then caved in two days later, following a threatened revolt and potential lost vote in the Commons, but said it needed time as there weren’t 58 reports – 58 backs of fag packets perhaps?

Day 508

So, here we are, on Day 508. Nothing of note achieved in Round One of the negotiations in the 228 days since the triggering of Article 50. The screams of anguish and frustration from the leaders of many industry sectors, the CBI, Chambers of Commerce, etc. are growing louder. Contingency plans for a post no-deal “cliff edge” scenario are being drawn up all over the place – including the EU27.

As a further sideshow, on Day 496 and Day 502, two Cabinet ministers were forced to resign with a weakened May making the minimum reshuffles necessary to stop the whole house of cards from toppling over. Still, 501 days to go: there’s only nearly all of Round One (key EU issues) and the whole of Round Two (trade) to sort out.

Meanwhile, Some Good News

One short article in today’s paper caught my eye. A German charitable trust has donated €1 million towards the cost of refurbishing the world’s oldest cast-iron bridge at Ironbridge in Staffordshire. The trust’s chairman said: “Not only do we admire the Iron Bridge as an important technical landmark, but we also see it as a potent reminder of our continent’s common cultural roots and values … In the current climate it seems more important than ever to raise awareness of the links in our industrial heritage and our broader cultural bonds.”

Aah… “Our continent’s common cultural roots and values” and “broader cultural bonds”. They’re two of the reasons I voted Remain. Didn’t hear them mentioned once during the referendum campaign.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Deal or No Deal

One of the key – and undoubtedly most persuasive – points made by those advocating leaving the EU in last year’s referendum campaign was “take back control”. Always illusory in an interdependent world, I want to explore its validity in the context of a future vote in the House of Commons at the end of the 2-year negotiation period. I’ll end up arguing that Parliament compromised its sovereignty when it agreed to hold the referendum in the first place!

Big Ben EU flag
Parliament and the EU

It has been an essential part of our unwritten constitution for over 300 years that parliament is sovereign. This was the point argued by Labour (and a few constitutionally-minded Tories) forcing a concession from the Government for a Commons vote before the Article 50 deadline in March 2019. It feels that this concession was dragged out of Theresa May only on account of the extreme weakness of her position. And as so far reported, May offered only that Parliament will be invited either to accept the agreed deal (if any) or crash out of the EU and trade on WTO terms.

2-Way or 3-Way?

May’s offer, clearly, gives MPs a 2-way choice: deal or no deal. For Parliament to be truly sovereign, reason demands a third option: withdraw from the Article 50 procedure and remain in the EU on current terms. The lawyer who helped draft Article 50 says it’s reversible; others have disagreed. The rabid, irreconcilable Leavers (who have made all the running so far) would argue this third option is politically impossible as it would be denying “the will of the people”. But remember the vote was 37% leave, 34% remain, 29% no vote. So, naturally, I disagree. The will of the people is many things, often contradictory. And David Cameron assured the Commons that the referendum was non-binding on Parliament.

I’ll discuss the political chances of a 3-way vote later; first, let’s discuss the practicalities. Parliament doesn’t do 3-way votes. During voting, MPs traipse through one of two doorways: Ayes and Noes. The whole process, constitutionally and architecturally (two doorways), is binary. Secondly, there’s a whole business of motions and amendments. But, in principle, two votes would be needed: (a) accept or reject the proposed deal and (b) leave on the basis of the deal or no deal (depending on the first vote) or withdraw from the Article 50 process and stay in the EU.

So far, so logical. But, I hear you say, which vote is taken first? Good question, I reply. From a purely logical and practical point of view, it doesn’t matter. But the politics is very different! The deal / no deal vote must come first: putting the status quo against an uncertain alternative is not the action of a politically weak leader.

Spectrum of Choice

We first need to use our logic and reason a bit more to establish the relationship between out three choices. It’s easy to see that two of them: stay in EU and crash out are polar opposites. It’s equally obvious that a deal will sit somewhere on a spectrum between these two extremes. Deals always mean compromises. So any agreed deal will have its “Leave-ish” elements and its “Remain-ish” ones. In other words, it won’t satisfy everyone. But will it satisfy anyone?

Let’s explore this. At the two extremes of public opinion, the answer must obviously be “no”. But there is a difference between the two extremes. In my observation, people who most strongly support Remain do so for rational reasons based upon evidence given by (much-derided) experts and most often about the impact on the economy and jobs. At the Leave end, the people (full declaration: whom I called “rabid” earlier!) appear to me to be totally irrational. The desire to leave is driven by a mixture of nostalgia, post-imperial delusion, xenophobia and (for a minority) racism. Plus, of course, a good deal of “fuck you all, no one listens to my – very real – grievances”. It’s no coincidence that the strongest predictor of referendum voting statistically is the amount of education a person received: the more educated, the more likely to have voted Remain.

The important point about this analysis is that only one of these two groups is susceptible to reasoned argument. There is an asymmetrical public order threat lurking behind all this.

Will the Deal Pass the Commons?

The short answer is “no-one knows!” Anyone who claims they can predict this, in the light of recent events, is a fool. But we can put some boundaries around this. (By the way, all this assumes Theresa May will still be PM by the time of the vote – far, far from a foregone conclusion!) Both main parties’ MPs are split on how they voted in the referendum: the Tories roughly equally, Labour with only a few Leavers. Their voters are split too, but with Tories generally more Leave and Labour more Remain. The Lib Dems gained practically no votes in the 2017 general election from their consistent Remain stance. But, come the Big Vote, what then?

Firstly, it will depend on whether May sticks to her guns on offering only one vote: deal or crash out. If she does, many Remain MPs will vote for the deal as the lesser of two evils, even if the final agreement is more Leave-ish than Remain. But the opportunity to possibly bring down the government if the vote goes against the deal will complicate the motives of opposition MPs. And, of course, where the deal sits on the Leave / Remain spectrum will influence MPs’ choices.

On the other hand, if May concedes a second vote up front (and political pressure – Labour plus principled Tory Remainers – may force her hand), the dynamics change. More MPs may choose to reject the deal in the hope of retaining the status quo. But this has its dangers: the “will of the people” argument, clearly present in the Commons vote to nod through the triggering of Article 50 earlier this year, will raise its ugly head with even greater frenzy: the stakes are really high now! So the risks of a crash out may be increased in this case.

Can the Government Survive?

Could May and the Tory government survive a defeat in the Commons on a motion to accept the negotiated EU deal? Probably not. The chances of a fall are greater where May has refused a second vote. The most important, far-reaching plank of government policy by far in my lifetime is rejected by MPs. It’s impossible to see May survive even one day: think of David Cameron on 24th June 2016.

So what happens next? May tenders her resignation to the Queen. She may or may not offer to stay on a caretaker PM. The Queen may or may not accept this offer. Constitutional crisis already! Is there another current Cabinet member who could unify the country and see us through the next critical steps? Obviously not! – just list the names in your head. (And that’s without factoring in how many of the current Cabinet members will have been forced to resign through sexual misconduct!)

So the most likely outcome is another general election – the third in four years. Meantime, the EU clock to 29th March 2019 keeps ticking. Would any caretaker PM want to bind the hands of the next parliament? I hardly think so. The interim PM may well ask the EU to please stop the clock. The EU may or may not agree – but if they do, there’s bound to be a price which ardent Leavers will hate even more. But, in the chaos, that second commons vote (which is now “stay or crash out”) is far from certain to happen at all, whether May had offered it or not.

What’s more, crashing out of the EU whilst there’s no UK government would cause huge disruption – but someone would try to sort out some solutions to keep food and goods flowing, planes flying and so on. Whether it’s a temporary continuation of EU membership or some botched-up set of arrangements, the detail will be agreed between UK and EU civil servants. The UK’s de facto policy making will have been taken out of Parliament’s hands!

Where’s Parliamentary Sovereignty?

Well, that’s all very exciting, but where does it leave Parliament’s alleged sovereignty and the UK’s “taking back control”? The logic of the above argument is that, if Parliament rejects the government’s agreed EU deal, the government falls and Parliament loses control of what happens. And it loses its sovereign right to the second vote. If it votes to accept the deal, suspicion will always remain that this happened only to avoid the alternative chaos. So like the traditional shotgun marriage, Parliament cannot be said to have exercised its free will – and so is not sovereign.

So, heads you lose, tails you lose. The only way to avoid this is not to call a referendum in the first place.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

The Marketization of Thought

Sometimes nowadays it seems that reality has been replaced by a dark, dystopian satire. The old phrase “you couldn’t make it up!” would apply so often that we don’t give it another thought.

“Don’t Care” Rooms

The news that prompted my musings was that of an Essex hospital that was giving serious consideration to going into partnership with a company called CareRooms. In an apparently innovative way to reduce the problem of “bed-blocking” patients ready for discharge, but needing ongoing care and support, would move to spare rooms in private homes. The company would provide a form of brokering service, matching room providers to patients. Prospective hosts were said to be able to earn “up to £1000” a month.

Initial reaction from some quarters was positive. Some even suggested this would be a means for some hosts on benefits to avoid the “bedroom tax”. Income for householders, earlier release from hospital for patients, reduced benefits bill: what’s not to like? Everyone’s a winner, are they not? Y-e-e-s, well, hang on a minute…

Care Rooms website
All you need?

Before the NHS was set up in 1948, the misery and suffering by poor people because of a lack of affordable healthcare was a national – and international – scandal. They would avoid or delay seeking medical care because of the costs. Decisions such as “shall I call the doctor or feed the kids?” were commonplace. Or “pay the rent”, “light a fire”, “replace my worn-out shoes” and many, many more. The NHS was set up so that “never again” would people face these agonising choices. It was, and remains, a testament to the compassionate side of our human nature.

For the reasons just stated, it would have been literally unthinkable to suggest such a get-rich-quick scheme. For householders to provide care, and for the intermediary company to profit from, a service which should available, as of right, to all, defies the very founding principles of the NHS.

It’s wrong for several other reasons, too. Firstly, it’s just a way to try to get around the chronic underfunding of the NHS. For too long, we’ve tried to get our healthcare on the cheap. Secondly, it tries to solve the wrong problem. True, shortage of beds is one of the consequences of the underfunding, as one of the graphs from the last link shows. But the bigger problem is the shortage of properly trained community care staff to care for those discharged from hospital safely and appropriately. The people concerned are disproportionately vulnerable and elderly. How many of us would want an elderly relative – or ourselves – looked after by a well-meaning amateur who may have been attracted to the scheme by the money to be made?

The hospital quickly dropped the idea once it got publicity and a hostile reaction. But the fact that it was considered is an example of what I call the “marketization of thought”.

Our Factory Universities

Another example of how market thinking has spilled over into other human activities is how we discuss policy about universities. In my student days, it was natural to think of education, per se, as a “good thing”. More (good quality) education was even better and as many of us as possible should enjoy as much of it as possible. It wasn’t just the opportunity to learn things, of course. It was also very much about the process of learning: the new skills developed: to challenge and be challenged, to refine an idea reflectively or collectively, to create new ways of seeing things. We took for granted that all this experience would lead naturally to a better society: better informed, more highly skilled people making better decisions. Reason, rational debate and mutual respect were all part of this essentially Enlightened idea.

university factory
University factory

Depressingly, universities seem to be treated more and more as factories: factories which are there to enhance the lifetime earning powers of its products: the students. Certainly the whole debate about student loans is conducted in these terms. Individuals benefit, of course – the material self-interest mantra at the heart of Free Market Fundamentalism – and it is also sold as benefiting “UK plc”, whatever the hell that is. Oh yes, it’s the reduction of all our plans, our hopes, dreams, loves and fears, smiles and tears to the sum total of all the transactions in the land.

The “Customer Service” Nightmare Experience

Marketization of thought affects the way we, as consumers, interact with those from who we buy goods and services. Customer service has become increasingly impersonal. Consumers are encouraged more and more to use online services, requiring no real-time human interaction. For a large range of goods and services, this works pretty well for purchases, and when coupled with delivery to your door, is often far more convenient than a visit to the shops.

The old ways weren’t perfect. I remember, as a child, being dragged from shop to shop by my mum on a seemingly endless round of activity, but often not much seemed to get bought. My memory is of wasted hours in and out of the cold and coming home empty-handed. But every one of those would-be purchases would involve a face-to-face conversation, in naturalistic language, where preferences and nuances of taste could be mediated. There was a bit of polite social chit-chat, too – usually about the weather.

The range and quality of goods on offer has improved beyond my wildest childhood imaginings. Product innovation is an area where markets do serve us well. But, even here, some new product or service probably sits on the shoulders of an innovative breakthrough enabled, and publicly funded by those universities of which I spoke earlier.

But woe betides you when things go wrong. In 21st century Britain, so-called “customer service” too often takes the form of a Kafkaesque nightmare. Firstly, the company website: before you can begin to find how you can get help, you wade through a sea of “FAQs”, arranged in some arbitrary, illogical order, none of which seem to address quite your problem. Next, the “Contact us” page, often presented with just the wrong set of questions to “steer” you to the right department. These pages often have helpful message boxes to fill in, which sends an email to some unknown destination deep in the bowels of the organisation – but you don’t know where because there’s no fucking email address to be seen! And the number of times I’ve searched a website in vain for a contact phone number for myself or on behalf of clients, in my role as an adviser: yes, Virgin Media, that does include you!

Don’t Call Me

man waiting on phone
Please press 1 to give up!

Which brings us to that most vexed of subjects: the call centre. The consumer organisation  Which? once reported that waiting times on customer service phone numbers are, on average, seven times longer than those for sales departments. No, it wasn’t you’re imagination. And I cannot begin to count the hours I’ve spent listening to the Four Seasons on DWP and other government department call centre lines. If Vivaldi were still alive, his royalties would easily make him the richest man on the planet! Once you’ve navigated the “Press 1 for…, press 2 for…” hurdles, listened patiently to music on hold, you eventually reach an operative reading from a script who doesn’t have the authority to solve your problem. They promise to get “someone” to ring you back, but…

I had an early inkling of this “painting by numbers” approach to customer service when on a family holiday in the USA about 30 years ago. With youngish children, we typically ate at “family” restaurants. I quickly spotted the routine: a young waitress – it was invariably a “she” – would mechanically go through lists of choices: fruit juices, how you like your eggs (I once said “fried” on my first visit to the States years earlier – and was given a look as if I were a complete idiot). The most bewildering list was for salad dressings: I remember “French”, which was nothing like anything I’d seen in France, and some brightly-coloured goo called “Thousand Island”. Where on earth were these thousand islands where they ate this gunk? Bored with listening to the same lists endlessly repeated day after day, I tried to take the initiative by pre-empting my choices. Big mistake! I soon learnt that, whenever I did this, my waitress got confused and I got the wrong order. I soon learnt to wait to be processed through the system.

It wasn’t the waitresses’ fault – or the call centre operators’ fault, or any of the other bored employees you actually spoke to. After all, they’d been given just enough training and authority to guide customers through a standardised corporate process, but not enough to interact as one human being with another. Clever people in corporate HQs would streamline everything for maximum efficiency – and profit. Pity the poor customer who doesn’t like being processed like an item on a production line.

And so it has become more generally in the world of “customer service”. All this only becomes possible when decision-making is centralised and customers are treated as economic units to be exploited, rather than living, breathing humans.

Interlude: A German Joke

Time to lighten the mood. This story dates from the late 1970s, long before the wonders of computer-aided design had enabled the sophisticated customization and flexibility of modern production process. It’s a joke told to me by the German delegate at an international conference I attended. He was anxious to prove that his compatriots do have a sense of humour. You’ll see the relevance – it goes like this:

Word had spread the length and breadth of Germany of an exciting new invention: The Wonderful, Amazing, Universal Shaving Machine. Its inventor was the blacksmith in a small, hilltop village in Bavaria – let’s call it Rasiersdorf for now – who had shown no particular skills before, apart from being a steady and reliable blacksmith. A coachload of interested tourists went to track down the inventor and his amazing machine. The blacksmith was a shy, self-deprecating man who led his group of visitors into his workshop.

“My Wonderful, Amazing, Universal Shaving Machine will give the perfect shave to any man in the village!” The tourists looked doubtful, so the blacksmith said: “Bring me any man in the village old enough to grow a beard!” The guide went and returned with the village butcher. He sat in the blacksmith’s chair and was tied in with a leather strap. The Wonderful, Amazing, Universal Shaving Machine was lifted up by the blacksmith and tied to the butcher’s head. Various leather straps were adjusted and then the machine was switched on.

Cogs of all sizes began to turn and whir and, sure enough, two minutes later, the butcher stood up, showing off his perfectly-executed shave. “That’s truly amazing!” the visitors cried.  “Especially so”, said one, “considering all the different sizes and shapes of men’s heads and jawbones!”. “Ah, yes”, said the blacksmith, “But that was before the invention of the Wonderful, Amazing, Universal Shaving Machine!”.

robot barber
Something for the weekend, sir?

The next time you’re waiting for a call centre to answer, you’re on to your third tune of music on hold, the seventh time you’ve been told by a recording that “your business is important to us” and they’re “experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes”, just think on my little tale. It might just help you to retain a little vestige of the will to live.

Market Overreach

I’ve written before about the problems that arise when markets overreach themselves into areas where they don’t belong, most notably in Cat and Mouse. Obvious areas are privatised water, the utilities and railways. Plus, of course, the NHS. The energy regulator, Ofgem, proved once again yesterday that it doesn’t understand the stupidity of what it is trying to regulate. It says that the “big six” oligopolistic companies made a healthy profit margin of 4.5% by overcharging those customers who had not switched suppliers. The gap between the lowest and highest tariffs has widened. If all customers, and not just those switching, were on the best tariffs, the companies would have made a 6% loss instead.

Ofgem refers to non-switchers as “less-engaged consumers”. “Engaged”? ENGAGED?? Pardon me: I like to get engaged in a good discussion at a meeting or a pub. I got engaged to each of my wives (serially!) before we got married. I also enjoy being engaged in the plot and characters of a well-crafted film, novel or TV series. People get engaged in sport, hobbies and pastimes they enjoy. But engaged in shopping around for where to buy the stuff that makes my light come on when I press the switch? Come off it! I can think of at least 8 billion other things I’d rather be engaged in! Electricity, water and public transport are all basic essentials to modern life. I just expect them to be there and work, at a fair price. At the end of a rail journey, I don’t want to be told “Thank you for choosing to travel today by X”. (Fill in your own privatised, monopoly rail company at the X.) As if I had a choice! Nationalise the lot and sack the regulators, and let us get on with our lives in peace!

antique toilet
A guide to life?

In their very different ways, the examples I’ve given above reflect the overreach of markets into every corner of our lives. Worse too, it’s infecting the language we use and the way we describe activities that have (or should have) nothing to do with markets. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has said: markets, like toilets, both man-made inventions, are very useful in the right context. But no-one tries to run the whole of society on the basis of toilets. The same must be true for markets.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss