The clock has struck thirteen: Left and Right delusions

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

George Orwell, 1984

Since Friday a lot of people on my timeline have been quoting Orwell. It may be a bit extreme to state that the new world is now plunging headlong into a 1984 abyss, but there are some worrying signs that, on both sides of the Atlantic, our politicians are distorting or brutally avoiding facts to suit their case.

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Did 1984 come a bit closer with the weekend’s events?

Nothing new there, you might say. Well no, but it legitimises such malpractice and undermines trust and authority in the political system.

Three instances in speeches and interviews over the weekend struck me most:

  • President Trump’s and his colleagues’ narcissistic assertion that the inaugural event in Washington DC was the biggest ever and attended by up to 1.5m people. Despite the photographic and metro authorities’ evidence to the contrary, Team Trump had “alternative facts”.
  • Prime Minister Theresa May three times failing to answer if she knew about British Trident missiles misdirected to Florida in test conditions before Parliament debated nuclear weapons renewal last year (now belatedly admitted) and
  • Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to recognise his party’s loss of 22 Council seats in 2016 by stating there was a positive swing in one by election last week.

Each of these undermines trust.

If Trump (whom you’d expect to be more concerned with the US economy than TV and event ratings) can mislead about what ought to be such a trivial matter, on what else might he and his aides deliberately misinform?

If May can wriggle and avoid transparency on such a key matter of state, what else will she be hiding from the public?

And if Corbyn deludes himself that one plucked-out-of-the air council result is evidence of a general reversal of persistently dire electoral and polling fortunes, then how can his judgement be trusted on anything?

In a 1946 essay Orwell wrote “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

It is chilling to read this again. As someone who was once a professional political operative, I don’t recall ever actually lying. Economic with the truth, probably. Selective facts, yep. But a real fib – no.

The currency of all business, including politics, is facts and evidence. Once these are sidelined, rational debate is futile. And once that ceases, democracy and the integrity of business are threatened and 1984 comes just a little bit closer.

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Has Nissan been sold an EU nonsense?

The prospect of shiny new Nissan X-Trails and Qashqais built in Sunderland roaring up the ramps of ships bound for EU ports without tariffs after Brexit came closer this week.

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Has Nissan been sold a false promise? These workers should know.

Business Secretary Greg Clark told Andrew Marr and the House of Commons that the Government’s approach was to secure tariff-free access to the EU for UK-made cars and effectively adopt a sectoral approach for others.

Britain’s car exporters may have taken some comfort from this. They have most to lose if such an agreement is not made. According to a House of Commons Committee, the average 9.7% tariff under WTO rules on cars would amount to an annual cost of £991bn for such EU exports.

The automotive sector would top the tariff league table – costing it six times as much as second-placed aircraft parts (£156m), oil (£155m), clothing and food if no pact is made.

So whilst the carmakers seem reassured, what about the many others sectors whose EU export prospects are threatened?

Stand by for campaigns from trade bodies representing the clothing industry, who face the prospect of 12% tariffs, or even our small but proud wine producers with an intoxicating 32% tariff.

They will be highlighting their importance to the local economy, the employment effect and their reliance on such trade for their overall business.

Others representing pharmaceuticals, agriculture and electronics will insist their plight is as deserving as Nissan’s.

With the sector-by-sector approach now signalled the scramble for sympathy is reinforced by the UK banking sector urging rules that will replicate or maintain the “passporting” arrangements allowing them to operate freely across Europe.

Similarly, bodies representing the construction, care and tourism industries will feel encouraged to press their case for allowing people from the EU free access to work in their sector where seasonal and other shortages frequently arise.

So the Government’s piecemeal approach will now galvanize trade associations. They will be jostling for attention with politicians and the media.

Their task is a tough one. The sector approach is based on a hope that the remaining 27 EU countries will be content to allow a series of exemptions to allow British businesses to operate pretty much as they did whilst in the bloc.

It could be wishful thinking. The incentives for the 27 to do this are not that great. Why would they allow club rules to apply when Britain is no longer a member and not paying its dues?

So that means trade organisations making representations to their EU counterparts to urge them to advocate to their Governments sectoral carve-outs for their industries.

Even for carmakers, including Nissan, the outlook is not especially good. Germany’s car industry federation boss Matthias Wissman told the FT last month that “The UK is an important market for the German car industry, but the cohesion of the EU27 and with it the single market is more important for this industry.”

Pro-Leave campaigners claimed during the referendum campaign the German carmakers need our market as much as we need theirs. But it now looks like they have much wider concerns.

So whilst we celebrate Nissan’s renewed commitment to Sunderland, let’s hope it has not been based purely on a pledge of EU sectoral favour. At the moment, it looks like optimism rather than practical politics.

Would Owen be a political night-watchman?

There’s a cricketing metaphor for every occasion.

“Get on the front foot”, “being on a sticky wicket”, “getting caught out” etc . They tend to translate badly outside a narrow group of cricketing nations but they describe so many situations so well.

One of my favourites is the “night-watchman”. A lower-order player sent in to bat towards the end of the day simply to avoid the loss of any more wickets before the close of play. They are not meant to score runs, but simply to stay there to protect the position of more recognised run-makers and prevent further decline.

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Will Owen Smith score as well as Alex Tudor?

That is the lowly expectation of their job. On rare occasions, such ordinariness converts into a spectacular innings when the night-watchman heroically scores a surprising number of runs.

In the current England team James Anderson, better known as a fast bowler, has performed this role well. But the most spectacular achievement in this position was fast bowler Alex Tudor who overperformed by scoring 99 runs to help England to a convincing win over Australia in 1999.

Get the picture?

Now this brings me to ask if Owen Smith is a night-watchman for the Labour Party? There he is, standing by to become its new Leader next month following the Party’s unprecedented decline and disunity since Jeremy Corbyn took over in 2015. If (a big if) the rather untested Smith wins, would he merely stabilise the situation or, unlike his opponent Corbyn, soar ahead with the public?

It is quite possible that he would simply hold the fort before a really big hitter comes along in a year or two to take on Theresa May’s Conservatives before the 2020 election. Anyway, she might call an election well before then to minimise the time for Labour to get its act together.

But if she doesn’t, and Smith is elected, he will need to rapidly overcome the impression he is a mere night-watchman and score some Tudoresque political runs. Otherwise he will be seen as an unremarkable stand-in for figures such as Rachel Reeves, Keir Starmer and Dan Jarvis – people tipped as a future Labour Leader.

So if he does not want to be their substitute, he will need to show he is an effective opponent to May and a credible Prime Minister in waiting. It’s a tall order. But being lacklustre is an asset he exploits well for now.

Whether he will get to exploit it to its full is  another question and depends on Labour and Corbyn’s stunning ability to keep scoring own-goals.

But that is another story and another sporting metaphor altogether.

Britain’s policy bakeoff

The word “turbulence” does not do justice to the Hadron Collider pace of political change in Britain this summer.

The fallout from June’s EU referendum has yielded a new Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, and a challenge to opposition Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, from a former colleague, Owen Smith.

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Samantha, wife of ex PM Cameron, on a bakeoff episode. The heat is on in Britain’s political kitchen this summer.

All three are desperate to distinguish themselves from the rest and tackle that old trilemma: balance what they want to do with what their party wants and what is good for the country overall.

So May has to carve out policies that adjust to the reality of Britain’s exit from the EU whilst distinguishing herself from her predecessor David Cameron. With her one final leadership opponent dropping out before a ballot began, the party constraint was eased.

She entered Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time with a speech which could easily have come from the mouth of a left of centre politician.

She highlighted the disadvantages of being poor, black or a white working class boy in Britain. Her theme was a “a country that works for everyone” whilst pledging “the government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few.”

Here was a resounding echo of Tony Blair’s mantra of Labour working “for the many not the few.” And with that she made a new Conservative landgrab on fast-shrinking Labour territory.

She has already abandoned her party’s pre-referendum fiscal targets, recognising the economy will be weaker with Brexit coming and the likely need to provide a stimulus from public investment to boost sluggish growth rates.

Meanwhile, Labour’s second leadership race since the 2015 general election pits its left-wing Leader Jeremy Corbyn against a “soft left” contender, Owen Smith.

For most of the past year Corbyn has maintained popularity among party activists by sticking to the same lines of “anti-austerity”, anti military intervention and nuclear modernisation, pro human and trade union rights. Beyond this, he has offered discernibly few, if any, specific proposals for an incoming Labour administration. His strength has always been in protest, not policymaking for government.

But since the challenge from Owen Smith, following the no confidence vote in Corbyn from four out of  five of his Party’s MPs, he has suddenly been forced to give some details.

In his campaign launch speech he marked out what he intended to be a differentiator to Smith by proposing equal pay audits of employers with over 21 staff. It’s not a new idea as Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband backed it in 2014, albeit for organisations with over 250 employees.

This oversight illustrated the novelty of such policy work for team Corbyn. But at least it was recognition that the ingredients of a winning campaign have to include detail. This is especially so given that Smith has positioned himself also as anti-austerity,  having committed to a £200bn public investment in infrastructure, but also pro-prosperity.

In response, Corbyn has committed to a series of new policy pledges over the next few weeks. Forced by the contest, but having had ten months to do so since taking office, his inner circle will now suddenly have to leaven detailed proposals – from the economy, to health, to education and defence – to contrast with Smith’s in a short period of time. So far he has outlined “five ills” – inequality, neglect, prejudice, insecurity and discrimination. We await the remedies. It will be a hard and novel test.

As the election campaigns unroll, observers – like bakeoff judges – will be kept busy digesting and dissecting this new flow of policy ingredients. So standby for a summer of cooking and tasting in the Britain’s political kitchen. Steady with the vanilla.

 

The mourning after….

Writing this comment after Britain just voted for Brexit feels like an obituary to a dear friend.

Not to the EU. But to my own country.

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Britain as we know it is no longer

A freudian slip by my local authority illustrates this. Referendum polling agents were invited to attend last night’s count at the town hall on a ballot to decide what it described as whether “the UK should leave or remain in the UK”.

How prophetic. Because today the UK is no longer a united kingdom.

It’s not just the 52-48% fracture, the renewed prospect of Scotland leaving or revived pressure for a united Ireland, it’s that in England and Wales the overriding perception is that we are no longer a country comfortable in its own skin.

The divisions between young and old are especially acute and depressing. As a dad I am ashamed my generation let them down. What damage have we done to help our children’s job prospects and other opportunities across our continent?

But we have to acknowledge that millions do feel a real sense of loss of control – even on a day when they have had thousands of pounds uncontrollably wiped off the value of their hard-earned pension funds.

For many that perceived loss of control has given them personally poor or no jobs, inadequate housing and declining public services. It resonated well but it had nothing or little to do with the EU. It was this anger that made the difference.

And Leave campaigners cheerfully rode Farage’s xenophobic wave to exploit these understandable anxieties and tip the vote in favour of Brexit.

And it has left us as a divided nation. It seems it is no longer at ease with itself.

Some will urge “don’t mourn, mobilize!”. Yes, after a period of grieving mobilisation will happen, after which we may have to accept our new constitutional fate and hopefully build a more genuinely united country that is more content with itself and with its continental neighbours.

Brexit: the bad neighbours’ choice

Let’s consider what our country would feel like if we woke up on Friday 24 June with Britain about to exit the EU after more than four decades.

The issue is more than a debate about immigration statistics, economic prospects and budgets for Brussels. It is about who we are as a country. How we define ourselves. How we  behave towards each other and those who visit or settle here. Fundamentally it is about values.

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EUverybody needs good neighbours. Will Brits on 23 June be good?

If you are someone who feels comfortable around and enthused by people who do not share much of your own background, you are likely to feel more relaxed about getting together with them to work on common problems.

But if you feel threatened, inferior or superior to them, you are probably less likely to want such co-operation.

It’s a generalisation of course.

But exit would feel like suddenly changing your character on your typical urban street. It used to be a relatively calm place to live with neighbours mingling, children playing together, morning greetings exchanged, windows left open and nextdoor’s holiday plant-watering promise fulfilled. There might be the odd tiff over irregular parking, gobbling all your BBQ sausages or an extension application, but it is mostly a contented community.

But on 24 June it would be as if the normally cheerful Brits at number 12 decided suddenly to fold their arms tightly, purse their lips, close their windows, keep the kids indoors, stride belligerent and blinkered to the station each day and generally ignore the neighbours. It would then stumble into repairing relations with them ignorant of how it would end up.

It’s like taking an insecurity pill which suddenly transforms a relaxed and friendly household into a charmless, buttoned-up, po-faced family that cancels its annual Christmas drinks party, withdraws its offer to mow Gladys’ lawn at number 14 and stops the kids sharing their toys at playdates with number 11.

It smacks of a fundamental insecurity and suspicion of others. It exploits base values. And that’s why I freely admit my emotions are now driving my referendum choice to remain in the EU on 23 June as much as the facts and my supposed early career policy expertise.

Now, who in my street has an axe I can grind?

WhatsApp sends Brazil nuts as Latam highlights tech leapfrogging

Corny headline. But there has been a right old tussle in Latam as an estimated 100m Brazilians had their favourite message app temporarily suspended this month when the authorities sought to clamp down on criminals using the service.

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Brazil’s media reports WhatsApp ban as episode highlights tech boom in South

WhatsApp is owned by Facebook whose founder Mark Zuckerberg declared “The idea that everyone in Brazil can be denied the freedom to communicate the way they want is very scary in a democracy.” It wasn’t the first and won’t be the last time MZ has to utter such a riposte.

It’s an age-old debate balancing the right to security and freedom of speech. That’s for another day, but  I’ll just say for now I tend to favour my right to life over my right to speak when there’s a genuine (dictators please note: g-e-n-u-i-n-e) violent threat.

The episode also illustrates the huge growth in the use of smartphones in poor and emerging countries. I first became conscious of the power of WhatsApp not in Clerkenwell or Camden, but several years ago in Colombia. Almost everyone I spoke to there connected to me via the service. The same was true in Bolivia, Honduras, Paraguay and El Salvador.

No wonder Zuckerberg blew $19bn on buying it in 2014. Its wildfire growth then was a symptom of the rocketing takeup of digital tech fuelled by cheap smartphones, low fixed broadband use and a rampant desire to network.

It was also another important reminder of how, over the ages, the “South” has leapfrogged the “North” in so many tech advances and takeup.

Other examples include solar energy development, use of salt-and-water fuelled lamps and 3D printing to manufacture hearing aids or agricultural tools in remote areas locally.

I think 3D printing is going to be even bigger than the internet. Imagine having your car in 2o66 made in your local 3D depot. You pay for your custom design from BMW, Lexus or Mercedes who give you a password, you give it to the guys at the neighbourhood 3D depot who are paid to complete the job using the raw materials and “printers” they have there. It’s got to be more efficient and greener than transporting finished products over thousands of land and sea miles.

All that will be based on observing developing countries leapfrog the west in such pioneering technology meanwhile.

So, thanks Brazil for reminding me that my northern-centric view of the world is horribly skewed and narrow. Think I’ll WhatsApp a few people with that message.

 

Strictly Comes the new BBC

I have a love-hate relationship with the BBC.

Love its shows. Whether it’s Attenborough, Match of the Day, Night Manager or Newsnight on TV and Danny Baker on Radio 5 Live. And it’s mostly impartial politically.

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Tell me straight Tom: will the government keep the Beeb independent? Dunno, Hugh.

But hate its arrogance and waste. When making announcements at several previous employers, I was called sometimes by up to five BBC journalists asking exactly the same question within a few minutes of each other. Then there was the presumption that its pre-eminent status would always demand the first interview. I took these as symptoms of wider profligacy and self-importance. (And that was not just me swallowing the Sky propaganda for which I was responsible for a few years).

So, at first glance, today’s government proposals on the BBC go some way to remedy this.

There’s to be a much tighter Whitehall rein than before with six people appointed by government to a new Board of twelve or more people to steer overall editorial direction. Ofcom, my old employer, gets to regulate the Corporation. The National Audit Office is handed the accounting role.

With a new mission “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high‐quality and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain”, over 60% of its shows are to be put out to tender so its in-house creatives are kept on their toes.

But the debate will centre not on which luvvies’ feathers have been ruffled by this but on editorial independence free from government interference.

Sceptics will ask, at its crudest, will so many government appointees really allow probing factual and news programmes which might embarrass the very government which appointed them?

Can pioneering shows like Panorama and Horizon feel confident they can keep exposing failings of public policy that make Ministers look shifty and uncomfortable?

No government would be foolish enough to simply appoint a raft of its own Party stooges onto such a Board to achieve this. Even in the bygone days of BBC Governors, Tories always appointed a mainstream trusty Labourite and Labour put a housetrained Conservative on the broadcaster’s ruling body.

So now the Government has to prove that it wants independence by appointing people beyond its own partisan ranks with a record of understanding the rapidly shifting broadcast and digital landscape combined with an awareness of business, regulation and reputation.

Like for Channel 4, the government could even delegate the appointment role to Ofcom. It now regards the body as “the widely respected and experienced media and telecommunications regulator” when, in opposition, Mr Cameron threatened “With a Conservative government, Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist.”

Only with genuine independents with a diverse range of backgrounds and skills will it have the strict rules in place to ensure the Beeb keeps being trusted and stays relevant.

Plotting a safe regulatory course

Google has been in the news this week with the EU issuing antitrust charges over alleged abuse of its dominant position with its Android operating system. Luckily it had Microsoft’s earlier tussle with Brussels on similar charges to draw on.

It also has its own superb team to handle such matters. They’ll be busy in the next twelve weeks.

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How close to the regulatory wind can Google sail?

The online giant knows ignoring regulation destroys businesses. If your CEO relegates its management to a remote part of the company, s/he’s going to be moved on pretty sharpish.

I have been a regulatory poacher and gamekeeper. Fishing for a break from competition authorities to reward enterprise when at places like Sky and Millicom, and forcing through changes to help markets work more fairly when working at Ofcom.

It requires a lot of intellectual heavy lifting. I recall one very senior official telling me that part of the regulator’s job was to know more about the companies overseen than the companies knew themselves. That’s why his organisation was stuffed full of PhDs and MBAs (who often then got poached to the poachers’ side) who dug deep and thought hard.

Back inside the company, smart lawyers and economists ran models demonstrating the fairness of its commercial stance and the iniquity of our competitors’.  I’ll never forget the CEO’s 7am call to me from an airborne plane to say we’d been let off, just, by the competition regulator after an inquiry. There was only a cosmetic wrist slap and some grandstanding to endure.

We were a basis point away from further action – showing just how well-tuned the business was. My CEO had made sure that the regulatory team were fully across all the firm’s activities and embedded knowledge and practices there to avoid fines, disposals and public opprobrium. So the company maximised profits by sailing as close to the regulatory wind as allowable without capsizing and drowning it in ruinous anti-trust penalties.

But such scrupulous management is not enough by itself. Demonstrating strict adherence to the rules to investigating authorities is indispensable. But too narrow a legalistic approach can weaken the case. Compliance needs to be matched by smart communications too.

One barbed remark, from a super-smart senior colleague managing such matters at one company, highlighted this for me as a communicator by asking “What value are you adding to the company on this exactly?”.

I was quite offended. But, on reflection, it was fair. He had a very dim view of the press and media. He had supreme confidence in his own intellectual ability and a sneering attitude to his peers at the regulator. He believed only his team’s objective evidence would be admissable and would win the day with them.

I did the autopilot speech about broader strategic reputation management also subjectively influencing such matters. Such soft talk met with derision.

So I took him by a reluctant hand to do some tactical briefings for broadsheet and business media whilst gently turning up the volume on our innovation and others’ competition. It was the classic convert opponent-to-neutral and neutral-to-support operation. The fruits of such labour duly appeared: less hostility and even some signs of support.

That, with many other activities, made the job of the regulator easier when adjudicating our case. They’re not purely po-faced pointy-headed institutions. Even they have a persona and care how they are perceived. The “public” ground had been prepared sufficiently well to enable it to make a reasoned judgement without being accused of bias or incompetence.

Of course we protested at its suggestion of any anti-competitive behaviour just as our rivals complained too. Result: happy regulator, not pleasing anyone and thereby being seen as fair and impartial.

That’s the course Google will be plotting. Stand by for some clever comms from them in the next few weeks as it deploys its considerable firepower. Anchors away!