Saturday, 29 October 2016

This charming woman is why the BBC is so irritating

On 29 May I asked "Why is the BBC so irritating?". It was probably one of my fatuous rhetorical questions, given that, going by my choice of listening and watching, I am an ardent BBC supporter. But now I know why.

News-Watch published a report recently which concluded that the BBC coverage of Brexit, which had been pretty well balanced up to the referendum, has abandoned all pretence at even handedness subsequently and has been 'heavily biased' against Leave. I was actually slightly surprised at the quantification in the findings, because the Question Time audience (not a bad barometer of how hard the BBC is trying) has been remarkably balanced to my ear.

The study looked in detail at the Brexit collection, a series of 31 programmes and features on Radio 4 and iplayer. The BBC presumably thought it was balanced and, with eleven and a half hours of broadcasting, you'd think a degree of balance would not be difficult. But News-Watch found that, overall, there were no attempts to explore benefits of Brexit, which came under sustained attack. 23% of contributors were for Leave, 58% for Remain and 19% neutral/factual. Even the 2 programmes which were eurosceptic in tone did not explore possibilities opened up by Brexit. They concluded that they range of anti-Brexit opinion was 'astonishing, light years away from any definition of impartiality, with no balancing pro-Brexit material. Negatives were pushed to the maximum extent with extreme claims unchallenged'.

As a result of the report a cross party group of MPs and peers wrote to the BBC DG to protest. I looked on the BBC website for any reference to this report but, of course, zilch. Not on message.

One of the key News-Watch findings was that there was a tendency to try to balance the debate by a disproportionate amount of vox pop for Brexit, compared with more expert speakers for Remain. Indeed, News-Watch identified a preponderence of northern voices from social groups D and E amongst those favouring Brexit on the programmes they monitored. (Nowt wrong with that, lad, but it might indeed colour the views of listeners). Now some of you will say that the broadcasters just can't find enough (or any!) expert speakers favouring exit. This is total tosh, even leaving aside the experts that exist who would give a balanced commentary. My proof? Step forward Helena Morrissey CBE. Who she? Well, according to a profile I read, she is one of the most senior women in the City and one of its most recognisable faces. She is the boss at Newton Investment Management, one of the bigger companies with nearly £50bn of assets invested, where she has been CEO a long time - since 2001. She made her name in the mid 1990s with a contrarian investment in long term British gilts when there were fears that an incoming Labour government would devastate the public finances. Which, of course, they did, but not quickly: when Brown pledged to stick to Ken Clarke's spending plans and the Bank of England was given independence, gilts flew. Aside from her job and achievements, there are three notable things about Morrissey. Firstly (and it's almost not PC to remark on it, but it is unusual) she has nine children. She accepts that her stay at home husband enabled her to pursue her career and that it would have been harder had she been a corporate finance lawyer with the notorious all-night shifts working on deals. Secondly, she founded the 30% club to encourage companies to appoint more women to senior positions. Teresa May was it's first guest speaker in 2010. Since then the number of female directors on FTSE100 company boards has increased from 13% to 26% - still short of the 30% target but a rapid shift. Finally, and of more relevance here, is that she is known as "the City's Mrs Brexit" for her pro-Leave tweets during the referendum campaign. Indeed, she regularly lambasted the media and questioned how David Cameron could say there were no credible voices advocating quitting the EU.

Was Helena on the BBC during the campaign - or since? Yes, but it seems only once. A search of the BBC website shows she was an interviewed guest on a Nick Robinson programme " In or Out: the EU referendum", broadcast on BBC1 on 22 February. And that's it. Crikey, they kept her well out of it all the way through to June and beyond, didn't they!

For what it's worth, Helena thinks Brexit will prove benign for the City. And for me she embodies the BBC's institutional bias. Since, even if she was too busy to appear (which I doubt, given her Twitter profile, for example 14 tweets on 28 October), she could have been name-checked and quoted. But I had never heard of her. It was always clear that there were heavyweights who would speak for Brexit if asked, even if they are in a minority - which doesn't mean they are wrong. After all, Helena was in a minority when her boss, Stewart Newton, the founder of the business, asked her morning after morning for months to explain her decision on UK gilts.

Of course total balance on every issue is impossible. And anyway, I don't know what it really means - 50:50 even handedness, or reflecting the views of the population? For me the real reason the BBC is irritating is because either it thinks it is unbiased, when it clearly isn't, or it knows it is biased and is trying to manipulate public opinion. Probably a bit of both, I reckon. What it actually is is holier than thou, we know best, why can't you lot all be more like us - or stick to Strictly Come Dancing, where you belong.

The News-Watch report was published on its website on 11 October. There is a summary and a downloadable version of the full report.
The Sunday Times profile of Helena Morrissey was in the Business section published on 17 July 2016. And yes, of course I called her "This Charming Woman" because her name is Morrissey

Friday, 28 October 2016

A European measure I approve of (a music post)

One of the oddities of the europhile-europhobe debate in the UK for decades has been the "save the pound" debate. By that I mean the lb not the £, as many of you will know I was not convinced about the euro, though I could have been, had it been set up as a proper currency. But it was always clear to me that the main measures for trade had to be uniform across the Single Market for it to operate. That would be the Single Market now so beloved by so many who don't believe Margaret Thatcher achieved anything worthwhile (er, well hello, what about the Single Market then??)

That said it always seemed daft to persecute shop keepers for selling by the lb, having exempted beer by the pint. Measures need to be people friendly in terms of numbers. So while I've got used to the idea that you buy 450g of mince, "a pound" is easier to ask for. Yes you could ask for a quarter of a kilo, but lots of people get confused by fractions. Numbers between 1 and 20 work best. For example a 10 ounce steak - what's that in grams? And nobody (in their right mind, anyway) would measure the gap between their kitchen units in thirty-seconds of an inch, rather than millimetres or centimetres. And I've never understood fluid ounces, so millilitres, or cc are fine with me.

Appropos of which we saw 10cc recently - a very good gig. Officially they are categorised as "art rock". It is indeed arty, with some clever lyrics. I wondered what else constituted the genre - apparently it starts with The Beach Boys Pet Sounds and The Beatles Sergeant Pepper, moving through The Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention to prog rock bands like Pink Floyd and Yes. Some folk have prog as a sub-category of art rock. A broad church, then.

Graham Gouldman is the only original 10cc member, though drummer Paul Burgess has appeared on every 10cc tour since 1973 and record since 1976 and guitarist Rick Fenn is a long term collaborator as well. So the current line up is a lot more than a tribute band. But musically the star is the multi-instrumentalist and singer Mick Wilson. He has to be, covering for Lol Creme and Eric Stewart's very different lead vocals - Gouldman does his own and between them they cover for Kevin Godley's remarkable range of backing vocals. But more than that, Wilson brings joy to the audience from the transparent joy he gets from performance. We've seen this line up 3 times now and the highlights are 'I'm Mandy Fly Me' and 'I'm Not In Love', neither easy songs to do justice to live. Wilson is superb on both, singing for all he's worth on Mandy with a guitar slung high round his neck for the prominent, fast acoustic riff, so that he can reach the keyboards and additional percussion he needs to access to complete the soundscape. (Yes, there's another guitarist and another keyboard player but the song has two overlapping guitar and keyboard parts).

Manchester born Gouldman is an interesting character, having written his first big  hit at 19, For Your Love. Gouldman's band had a record deal with Columbia, but they turned down For Your Love. Gouldman's manager loved the song and suggested offering it to The Beatles. Gouldman proferred that they 'seemed to be doing ok in the songwriting department', but it found its way to The Yardbirds for whom it became a top 10 hit in 1964. Strangely, Gouldman's band had a warm up slot for an edition of Top of the Pops being broadcast from Manchester and he watched The Yardbirds being mobbed, singing his song. A song which led to Eric Clapton leaving the band because he felt they had sold out by releasing it.

By the time he was 21 Gouldman had a string of top 10 hits under his belt as a songwriter, including Heart Full of Soul and Evil Hearted You for The Yardbirds, Look Through Any Window and Bus Stop for The Hollies and No Milk Today for Herman's Hermits, while working by day in a gentlemen's outfitters and gigging with his band at night. He wrote songs for the producer Mickie Most and then at a minor Tin Pan Alley in Manchester before the American producers Kasenetz Katz (think bubblegum like Yummy Yummy Yummy, I've got love in my tummy and Simon Says) offered him secure earnings writing for them in New York. What he later described as a creative low point led him to the verge of a nervous breakdown hacking out more than a song a day. Eventually he convinced his paymasters that he could work from the UK and, moreover, he could save them money by recording the songs with his chums, Creme, Godley and Stewart at a studio they had invested in at Stockport, called Strawberry, after Stewart's favourite Beatles track. KK gave them a 3 month contract to record the songs and Godley later recalled "20 tracks in about 2 weeks....we used to do the voices... everything....even the female backing vocals" (which explains a lot about the 10cc backing vocal range!)

At the end of the contract, Gouldman returned to New York and, while he was away, Creme and Godley had a hit as Hotlegs with Neanderthal Man. On his return, the 4 got together again and took a song to Apple, who rejected it. They then turned to a Godley/Creme composition, which they'd had in mind as a B-side, Donna. The only producer they thought might be interested was the egregious Jonathan King, who fell about laughing when he heard it, saying "it's fabulous, it's a hit". King signed them and coined the name 10cc. (If you're not familiar with why, look it up on Wikipedia, but suffice to say it's more than the average for a man). Donna, now wonderfully sung acapella style as the encore, was indeed a hit and more followed, including Rubber Bullets and Gouldman's The Wall Street Shuffle along with a breakthrough album, Sheet Music, but the band remained skint and decided to split with King. They took a new song to Phillips Phonogram who "freaked" when they heard it and offered to buy out King's contract and give the band a 5 album deal for "serious" money. The song was the Stewart/Gouldman composition I'm Not In Love, which went on to be one of the biggest hits of 1975 and won 3 Ivor Novello awards in 1976, including Best Pop Song.

Gouldman was inducted into The Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York in 2014. But he still seems a fairly normal chap and the band mix freely with punters at the end of their gigs. And the music still seems fresh. Indeed, when we first saw 10cc just a few years ago, supporting Status Quo, who surprisingly we also hadn't seen back in the day, we thought 10cc came over as a much more powerful band, with Quo, entertaining though they were, sounding not just one dimensional but also a bit tinny and thin, with their songs sung in a rather high register. 10cc had started with Stewart and Gouldman's Wall Street Shuffle and, if you doubt what I say, dig it out, crank the sound right up before the needle hits the groove and get blown back by the riff and those power chords. The words still work now, too:

Do the Wall Street Shuffle
Hear the money rustle
Watch the greenbacks tumble
Feel the sterling crumble

Dreadlock Holiday, the band's last number one in 1978 was another Stewart/Gouldman effort, as was Art for Art's Sake, with its refrain Money for God's sake. It was inspired by a saying of Gouldman's dad. Indeed I was going to call this post Art for Art's Sake - a much more appropriate title - but experience shows fewer people would view it.

10cc's tour performing Sheet Music (which I'm sure is a word play) and their hits doesn't have many dates left but see them if you possibly can.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Cold front at Calais

We are told Teresa May's speech to EU leaders was listened to in silence the other day. Well, I wasn't expecting a standing ovation and I'm sure she wasn't either. After all, every posture is now part of the "negotiation".

Brexit - Smexit? Smexit being the shorthand for Single Market Exit, I hear, now considered inevitable because free movement means free movement. Though not in the case of several countries which already have free trade deals with the EU but definitely do not allow free movement, like Monaco (try living there if you're not Lewis Hamilton), the Channel Isles and San Marino. OK, so they are all small states, but the list includes Turkey and totals over 50 countries which have free trade deals with the EU without having signed up for freedom of movement. Presumably we'll be an unspecial case. Hmmm.

But are we the only country worried about immigration? No - Sweden, often the favourite country of the hand wringing soft left, has effectively bolted the door to migrants by a "temporary" reintroduction of border controls and is restricting benefits for those who are already there. And this was done not by a bunch of right wing Tories but a liberal Social Democrat-Green coalition, which decided it had been "a bit naive" according to a leading Green. The Swedes' problem is that spending on refugees is about to overtake defence and can't be afforded without trimming their "holy of holies" welfare system. A wave of violence linked to migrant gangs has been part of the picture. A debate about "Swedish values" has started, a topic that it was considered taboo, indeed racist, to suggest even existed.

So, no, we aren't the only ones concerned. What we are is one of the few EU countries that goes queasy at the thought of subjecting arriving child migrants to dental x-rays to confirm their age: most of the other countries do this, including Germany and France. Though a doctor writing in to the Daily Telegraph said hand/wrist x-rays are actually more reliable. I read a spirited piece in The Guardian arguing that people who are fleeing war and have no home to go to deserve help even if they are over 18. Good point, but so is being wary of people who believe in deception, even if they are desperate. After all, France isn't a war zone, so they don't need to flee further on that account.

But returning to the cold front that has descended at Calais. Could it turn into a full on cold war? At least in trade and economic terms. I'm not the only one to have said that France will still want to sell us their wine and Germany will still want to sell us their cars. After all, our addiction to Mercs and BMWs - yes, I'm guilty, though one of my last 4 cars was British built and I'd happily buy another Jag if I could get my golf clubs out of one in comfort - means we are 20% of their market. And of course  we buy more from them than they buy from us. All true, but it's still an asymmetric relationship, as I pointed out before the referendum. We send 47% of our exports to the EU, but we aren't anything like that important a market for any single EU country. I can't imagine Estonia, for example, screaming for a trade deal with us, even if they'd get a hearing. This implies there will be more pain for us than for them; not conducive to us getting "the best deal for Britain".

So could the cold front turn into a full blown Cold War, at least in trade and economic terms? Well yes, it could. In a normal negotiation between parties with a long term stake in each other the inexorable logic of what is most optimal for both parties drives them towards a mutually beneficial outcome. There's no need to play hard ball or for histrionics if both sides want to get the best deal, it can be worked through without emotion. But this situation isn't like that, because one party has an agenda that is more important to it than anything else, whatever the pain. That party is the EU and what matters most to Europe is the well being of Project Europe. In the limit nothing else matters to Eurocrats. Certainly not some further economic harm on top of that already self-imposed in southern Europe, causing 50% youth unemployment, to protect the euro.  So they won't agree to anything that will damage their project, for example anything that would give the slightest succour to separatist movements within the EU. As a country, we have never felt that way about Europe. They do, which is why I have always felt that, in the limit, we do not belong. They care more about the organisation's survival than the well being of their people. After all, if the EU was a private corporation it would probably have decided it was in the interests of its stakeholders to demerge some time ago.

So making Britain suffer will be a small price to pay for incurring pain themselves. After all, can you negotiate successfully with a psycopathic sado-masochist?

Meanwhile some have been saying that our banks don't need the EU passporting regime to trade in the EU, as they can use equivalence arrangements. Juliet Samuel pointed out in the Telegraph that 10 countries (including Singapore and South Korea) have these arrangements with the EU, where their regulation is deemed "equivalent" - and ours, to start with, isn't just equivalent, it's the same. But others say equivalence won't be good enough, if only because it can be removed at no notice. So the banks continue to run their cost benefit models to decide whether to relocate some people and functions from London, with one industry spokesman claiming that several banks have their finger hovering over the relocate button. Others say that's nonsense, banks aren't likely to relocate, though they tend to refer to high street clearing banks, citing examples like Santander who, let's face it, don't need to relocate as it is already the UK outpost of a continental bank, rather than the investment banks like Morgan Stanley.

In the case of such American banks the Sunday Times Business Editor points out that their scenario modelling is done under the eyes of the American regulators. Who aren't that impressed by the British regulator, but are a lot less impressed by the European one (see my commentaries on the problems with European banks, eg Mamma Mia here we go again, 18 July). It's even possible the US regulator may take a dim view of their banks increasing their presence in the Eurozone, as they may feel euro-regulation of parts of an American bank could weaken it. So the fall out from Brexit might be that the business moves from London but not to Frankfurt or Paris, but Asia. Indeed, the boss of the LSE has suggested that clearing houses would rather move to New York to be outside the EU sphere of influence.

I think I also read that EU banks are indebted to UK banks to the tune of more than a trillion pounds... might that give us a lever in the negotiations? There's probably no mechanism that the UK goverment could use in practice, though maybe they could hint at pressure from the Bank of England to get the relevant banks to call in loans if it gets really dirty. But it wouldn't work anyway since, as I note above, the EU lives in a kind of mad house, so they would take the pain. And we are more in debt than the average EU country.

So I could see things descending into an economic cold war. Indeed, there was a phrase for this sort of scenario in the real Cold War: Mutally Assured Destruction, MAD, in which both sides could do terminal damage to the other, whoever started it.

If Brussels is determined to foist freedom of movement on the UK in return for a free trade deal, from which they would benefit more than us, when they didn't require it from over 50 other countries then, in the words of the reluctant Nobel Laureate, A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall on everyone, us and them.

We are also told that the Nissan CEO, Carlos Ghosn, has been to see Mother Teresa before his company takes a decision on whether to proceed with plans to make the next version of the CashCow, sorry I think that's Qashqai, at Sunderland, where the locals seem to like harakiri (or is that more correctly seppuku?) and voted 61% for Leave. Sunderland is one of the world's most efficient car plants - it's certainly Nissan's best - and it makes a staggering 30% of Britain's production, 80% of that going to export. Apparantly Teresa made a number of promises to the Nissan grand fromage, including offering Britain's roads as a test track for driverless cars, an area of interest for many car makers terrified that Google will disrupt their hegemony. Sources say Ghosn left Downing Street "confident" Britain will remain competitive post Brexit. I guess the further Qashqai investment at this stage is small, so Nissan may go ahead with it but, even if they do, there will be many future decision points like this.

Driverless cars? Yes, Britain wants to be in the forefront of this development if it can. But is this an allegory for our situation? Teresa, Boris, David and Liam think they are at the controls but is this a situation where time will tell their steering wheel is as useful as that on the car seat of a tot sitting in the back and the car is really on rails heading to the edge of the cliff?

Perhaps the "best deal for Britain" will be the only available deal for Britain; hard Brexit/Smexit, no free trade deal like Turkey or cosy equivalencing like Singapore for Les Rosbifs.

Maybe we are all on the way to going MAD. In that case, bring it on, I say! If Europe is determined to impoverish itself in pursuit of their project, then there is no doubt in my mind that we are better off out of it. I want no part of it. If you are with an abusive and self-harming partner the only way forward is to get out. We'd be crazy to think again because the only Brexit is hard Brexit. We'd be daft to stay in on terms that meant we didn't really leave. They would know they could bully us forever.

Sorry if this is a bit of an essay and not terribly fluent: I find it much easier to assemble on the pc rather than the tablet I have to hand. Sources included:

  • Swedes abandon tolerance as 'sacred' welfare buckles under migrant burden, Sunday Times 9 October 2016
  • The EU cannot afford to offer the City a poor financial services deal. Juliet Samuel, Daily Telegraph, 21 October 2016
  • Letters, Daily Telegraph 21 October 2016
  • Business Comment, Sunday Times 16 October 2016
  • May offers Nissan deal on driverless cars to soften Brexit blow, Sunday Times Business, 16 October 2016
But the really MAD stuff is all me.....

Saturday, 22 October 2016

BLF day

My better half and I have been celebrating one of our various anniversaries. This was the anniversary of the day, 40 and a few years ago, we got engaged. Having gone together to pick a ring, with the proceeds of my first ever monthly pay packet, we had to wait a couple of days while it was altered for her skinny teenage finger and also for the cheque to clear (no credit or debit cards in those days, youngsters!)

She went to collect it and, as agreed, we met at her parents' house for what we had decided should be a traditional bit of theatre, when I would formally ask her father for his daughter's hand in marriage. This was, of course, a 100% rhetorical question, as we were going to do it anyway, but we just thought it was the appropriate thing to do.

We gathered her parents together and, addressing her father, I made my request. Whereupon her mother pointedly said to her daughter "you bloody little fool". Hence BLF day.

Her father, never normally one to stand up to his wife, asked what the problem was. "She's too young". "You were just as young when we got engaged".  Whereupon her mother screeched and ran to her bedroom. Leaving me to shake hands with her delighted dad, before taking my beloved off to a quiet corner for the next formality, the question on bended knee and putting on of the ring.

It was a bit like that tv advert from years ago where the chap said "that seemed to go well" after the most embarrassing train wreck of an interaction.

I reminded her dad of this cameo today and thanked him for saying yes. He replied "you didn't know I had the shotgun at the ready". Pretty sharp for 95 - unless he wasn't joking!

Monday, 17 October 2016

But is it art?

So Bob Dylan became the first musician to win the Nobel prize for literature. If any musician was going to win it, it was Dylan. And he has always thought of himself as a poet, after all the young Mr Zimmerman named himself after one.

I like a fair number of Dylan songs (I'll come to my favourite below) and readers will know I'm interested in lyrics but, notwithstanding that, I find a lot of Dylan's stuff to be hard going and sometimes lyrically opaque. I'm probably too slow witted or not tuned in to the allegories and subtleties. Some of the songs referred to in the media coverage are, to my mind, timeless classics that will be sung as folk songs for centuries, Blowin' In The Wind and The Times They Are A Changin' being the obvious examples. In contrast, amongst the other songs being mentioned, Just Like A Woman  has always struck me as a pleasant song with not much about it and, while I like Lay Lady Lay, I thought it bizarre for it to be mentioned in a discourse on literary merit, as it was on the BBC website.

My favourite Dylan song is Positively 4th Street. You can tell I'm not mainstream Dylan as, out of 8 choices offered in a vote for best Dylan song on the BBC website, my choice was coming in 8th when I voted. Like A Rolling Stone is running first and Mr Tambourine Man (nice song, decent lyric but very marginal as a poem) is 5th. Returning to Positively 4th Street, to my ear it's one of his better tunes and it has the most piercingly acerbic, indeed vituperative lyric of any song I've ever heard. The whole song is full of spleen about some poor bugger who had clearly got to him, ending:
I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is to see you
The song is so strongly expressed I don't think I've ever felt that way about any person I've ever met!

Anyway, I guess I'll just have to dig out my copy of Bob Dylan Greatest Hits and listen to Like A Rolling Stone one more time and try to figure out the nuances, as it seems to me a fairly straightforward put-down, though with some decent imagery.

Anyway, the debate over whether a musician should win the Nobel prize for Literature is now raging. I've got no problem with Dylan winning this award, though of course I prefer Roy Harper as a poet and lyricist. For me Dylan's stuff is poetic, rather than poetry. While not for a moment dismissing him as a balladeer, most of Dylan's songs are ballads  in the sense that they tell a story and have an unequivocal meaning, compared to poems, which often have shades of meaning and so are capable of different interpretations. Indeed, poems usually require interpretation, or rather explanation, for me to get the nuances. Though Dylan conjures up some superb imagery, in my biased opinion I haven't seen a Dylan lyric to compete with the subtlety of Harper's interpretation of emotions, for example in the song Commune, which includes the line "to lust for a moment in love of another". Nor have I heard much evidence that Dylan does humour or even whimsy, unless you count one of his real turkeys, Wiggle Wiggle, dedicated to his then 4 year old daughter, with lines like "wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup".

When I was much younger and "pop" music became more sophisticated (or overblown and pretentious if you must - think prog rock in its pomp), people used to ask "But is it art?" So it will be interesting to see whether any of the current David Bowie, Beatles and other exhibitions, featuring multi-media exhibits that, for me, must be counted as "art", win any of the art prizes. Then we'll know youth culture prevailed, even if those once young are now very old or dead and gone.

Which reminds me of the Dylan lyric "Ah but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now" from the song My Back Pages, though it's the version by Keith Emerson's The Nice that I'm hearing in my head. Indeed, I think Dylan is uniquely important because, not only has he inspired so many other musicians to produce brilliant music of their own but also, of all the artists whose songs have been covered extensively, it is Dylan who has inspired others to produce outstanding cover versions of his songs. Unlike Beatles covers, which rarely add much to the original, they include what became definitive versions of the song: after all how many people think of Dylan's versions of All Along The Watchtower or Mr Tambourine Man?

A unique genius.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Time for this question?

I used to watch Question Time a lot, but found politics got a bit boring for a while. But it's interesting again (not entirely a good thing). I enjoyed what I saw of last night's raucous programme in which Lady Nugee, aka Emily "White Van Man" Thornberry, really got the bird from the Leavers in the audience, having got their goat by suggesting they didn't know what they had been voting for. Members of the audience couldn't wait to correct her, with several people, all notably young - please note Remainers! - making clear that, yes they did know. One young man eloquently said he was perfectly clear that he had voted for leaving the EU, return of sovereignty, control of borders and leaving the single market. Another young man took umbrage at Thornberry's suggestion that Leavers had voted their "neighbour out of a job", saying that leaving the low growth single market and its regulation would be positive for trade.

Judging from the noise there was a representative balance in the audience between Leave and Remain. (Well done BBC, for once).

However, what fascinated me was that, despite the assertions of Lady Nugee and Alex Salmond that voters were lied to and the implication that they would feel fooled, not a single member of the audience who had voted Leave indicated that they were having any second thoughts or regrets. On the contrary, many in the Question Time audience were clearly upset at the suggestion that they were incapable of evaluating the information presented to us in the campaign and seeing it for what it was. Indeed, not one of the many people I know who voted Leave has indicated the slightest bit of what David Cameron called buyer's remorse. Yet, anyway.

So my question is, when will the rearguard Remain campaign accept that people who voted Leave meant it and voted as they would in any election, having weighed the information presented to them, however contentious?

At least until the price rises from the weak pound filter through. As I am unavoidably on a variable duel fuel tariff currently, today I got news of a 25% price rise.....

Wednesday, 12 October 2016


All the companies I worked for, in the public and private sectors, wanted to be considered a "good employer". I wonder what the trade unions would say about an employer in which:

  • Many women working for it are unhappy with the way it has dealt with allegations of harassment, bullying and other complaints 
  • Over half of female officers questioned by researchers have raised bullying or harassment concerns and half of those did not believe the issue was handled well 
  • One in six have submitted formal grievances (three quarters of those were bullying or harassment). In cases supposedly resolved, half were unhappy at the outcome.
What awful employer is this? Well, actually, it's the trade union Unite.

The findings came after a female former Unite employee, Sally Nailard, had a sexual harassment and sexual discrimination related constructive dismissal case against Unite upheld last week. She claimed she had been subjected to a 2 year campaign of lewd and aggressive comments by Unite shop stewards who wanted to force her out of her role as a Unite regional officer at Heathrow.

To be fair to Unite, they presumably realise they have a problem as they commissioned the survey, though maybe they thought it would give them a clean bill of health. They surveyed 88 female officers and almost 70% said they had experienced hostility at work, with nearly 40% saying they had been frightened at some point. Half of those said they had suffered verbal abuse, with almost one in four saying it was of a sexual nature.  A fifth of female Unite officers have taken time off work with stress  in the past 18 Months.

Wow! These stats are horrendous and at least an order of magnitude worse than anything I experienced in 4 decades in industry and business.

Seven in ten said they mainly experienced hostility from members. Unite stresses these are not under their control. No, but I thought they were meant to be, er, "brothers" in old trade union speak? And don't plenty of employees in the public and private sector have to deal with people not under the control of the organisation - like customers, patients, or the general public? Presumably Unite doesn't equip its employees to deal with these situations - or maybe Unite members specialise in being particularly hostile, including to their union officers?

In all organisations the culture is either what it's been for ages or one that has been inculcated by the management. Who would have thought that an organisation run by a bruiser like Len McCluskey would turn out to be ridden with bullying and harassment?

Not exactly a surprise? Actually I am surprised at the horrendous extent of the problems, even though the Labour movement is not exactly the gentlest of environments at the moment. From the tone of this post and my digs at the RMT (10 October and 13 August) it might surprise some to know that I believe in trade unions. Indeed, I was a union member for more than half my career (and a representative for several years) until it became incompatible with management responsibilities. Unions can make a hugely positive contribution to the success of an organisation and therefore its members who are employees there. This tends not to happen when the union thinks it can exert political pressure on the management, or go direct to a public sector "shareholder". In train operating companies the unions see the current franchise management as a temporary presence that they can play for time. In contrast in the private sector there is much more likely to be a shared imperative to satisfy customers and ensure the company flourishes to the benefit of everyone.

Be that as it may, Unite needs to put its own house in order before it is in any position to do its job properly and represent its members effectively.

Source: the Unite internal report has not been published but was leaked and several newspapers and websites including The Sunday Times and The Guardian covered the story. The report is titled Women in Unite and has been under consideration by Unite management for 4 months. I couldn't find any reference to it or indeed Sally Nailard on Unite's website.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Right Mickey Takers (2)

Have things moved on in the Southern rail dispute since my post of 13 August? Not much, but the situation is even more nonsensical.

Southern's Chief Executive says the Union has set "new standards in union militancy" after the RMT called for last ditch talks to avert a 3 day strike this week. I'm not sure he's quite got that standards of ineptitude more like.

Southern had offered a £2,000 bonus for employees to sign up to the new deal, which changes the role of conductors, by Thursday of last week. Bizarrely the RMT chose to reject that offer but then, one day later, after the offer had lapsed, advised its members to sign the new contracts agreeing to the new role of on-board supervisor. Then, over the weekend, the union urged its members to go ahead with the 3 day strike starting tomorrow and called for further talks at ACAS, several previous rounds of which have been fruitless.

RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said "Our dispute remains on and the fight for safety continues despite the bullying and threats from Southern. We have a duty to issue our members with clear legal advice that protects their position in the teeth of the threat of mass sackings. That is what we have done." Southern had actually guaranteed jobs till 2021 with no loss of pay or overtime and above inflation pay rises for the next 2 years, though they now intend to serve notice letters to conductors to end their contracts if agreement is not reached within 4 days and is taking legal action to try to stop the strikes. The union mandate for strikes is 6 months old and the dispute has been going on for even longer.

As a reminder this dispute is not about safety (the Rail Accident Investigation Branch say there is no evidence to suggest driver-only operated trains are less safe) and it's clearly not about money, given that Southern seem to be throwing money at the relevant employees. It's about power and the RMT's concern that they will be in a position of less influence in the future.

And some people think that, not only is further trade union reform unnecessary, they would roll back previous reform. After listening to some of the rhetoric at the Tory conference last week, it seems everyone wants to take us back to the 1970s. I can think of some reasons to be nostalgic for the 70s - mainly musical (from Pink Floyd and prog rock to Steely Dan, punk and new wave, what's not to like?) but the economy and industrial relations aren't amongst them. No we don't want to go back there, kids.....

Sources: RMT calls for further talks to avert Southern rail strike, 9 October
Southern Railway taking legal action to stop strikes,, 10 October

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Jamais vu

In my post "Deja vu"  (29 September) I noted that the EU nations are very good at postponing decisions which are necessary for financial stability. Its leaders recognise that there are things they must do but which they don't dare or care to do. Make us a properly functioning union, but not yet, or maybe ever.

To be fair to the mainstream political view in the EU they have recognised the need for freedom of movement to underpin the single market and the euro. But they still don't have the political and financial structures that are needed and the richer nations in the north do not recognise that the price of a one size fits all structure is wealth transfer to the poorer nations in the south. The southern countries are beset by extremely high unemployment, especially youth unemployment. Countries such as Greece complain that it is "austerity" that causes their problems, but it isn't, or at least I am certain that it isn't just that. It is because they can't compete with the German juggernaut. So the German economy benefits without them paying the price of subsidising the poorer countries. This is all very dysfunctional.

In the UK, of course, we have a single market, single currency, functioning central bank and patchy systems for the wealth transfers that are necessary for the parts of the country that cannot flourish under our version of "one size fits all". Yes, you jocks, I mean the Barnett formula.

You might be surprised that I am championing the Barnett formula and freedom of movement. Well, I'm not a fan of the Barnett formula as it discriminates in favour of Scotland compared with Wales and the poorer English regions, but the principle of wealth transfers is recognised here. And, if you want to have a single market and currency, I recognise that freedom of movement has to go with it. So yes, I agree that, for the EU to conceivably work properly, freedom of movement is essential. But so are many other things that they haven't got in place. And, if they had, that club is definitely not one I would want to be in. But the EU is a million miles from making it work at the moment and we are facing difficulties while we are in the EU as a result.

One of the difficulties is that our economy is a magnet for low earners, particularly in Eastern Europe. The availability of low cost labour has helped the UK economy but it has been unhelpful for low earners among the indigenous population, depressing wages. When freedom of movement was first conceived in the EU it was a smaller entity, comprised of Western European countries without large differences in living standards. They went for expansion and the single currency when perhaps it should have been one or the other.

I note that Jeremy Corbyn claimed in his conference speech to have the answer to the problem of wage disparity across the EU and its impact on what was his party's traditional core support, the lower paid British working class. On planet Corbyn  this is fixed by achieving "a degree of equality of work conditions and wages across Europe". As Poland's national income per head is 60% of ours and Bulgaria's is 40% this ain't going to happen on any sensible timescale. Unless, of course, Jeremy plans to rapidly reduce our level to theirs. I can perfectly well believe that's what he would do, though I even I might be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt over whether he actually intends that. Unlike John McDonnell, who probably does.

You will have all realised that I called this post "jamais vu" because Corbyn and the Eurocrats have something in common: they can't see, won't see and so will never see the right answers to these problems.