Monday, October 20, 2014

Cadbury job losses Kraftily disguised in jargonese

Last weekend I was back in Birmingham, my home town, for the first time in about five years. [Apologies to anyone reading this who is miffed I didn't look them up. It's a long story, involving norovirus, deceptively cheap trains to Lichfield and last-minute changes of plan...] Due to a fuck-about with trains I had an excessively long journey back to London and decided to buy a Birmingham Post to keep me occupied.

And good job I did, or I'd never have found out about Kraft (or, as it's apparently now known, Mondelez International) and its latest turn as a comedy corporate villain. Short version: quelle surprise, Kraft are screwing Cadbury workers now that the country has its back turned, and apparently no-one really gives a monkey's.

Long version: The Post's front page story was about a leaked document called "High Performing Bournville - is this for me?". I haven't been able to find this anywhere online, and it's written in such excruciating American management speak that it's basically quite difficult to discern any actual facts from the bits of it quoted in the Post. Their columnist Jon Griffin had it about right when he described it as "part David Brent, part Kim Jong-Un’s public addresses". But the essence of it seems to be that Kraft are imposing a restructuring - sorry, "transformation journey" - which will result in hundreds of jobs being lost - or, if you prefer, "fewer colleagues here at the end of our journey".

As part of this, the document warns in somewhat sinister fashion that workers will be expected to "demonstrate a new set of behaviours"; there's no indication (at least in the Post's write-up) of what these "behaviours" might be, although it does vaguely allude to "varied shift patterns" for those who keep their jobs. Apparently this will be "dialogued" as part of consultation. If only the attempt to turn 'dialogue' into a verb was the most offensive thing about this document.

"Colleagues" who "don't want to be part of High Performing Bournville" are invited to take voluntary redundancy. There's even a stupid bullshit questionnaire that's been circulated to workers ahead of one-to-one discussions, with questions like "Are you a team player with an attitude for playing your part?", "Do you want to work in a factory where you are expected to meet all compliance requirements?", and "Do you embrace change?" Ooh, now let me think. I wonder which answers will help me demonstrate the right set of behaviours. It's a tough one...

Basically, Kraft seem to be fulfilling all the dire predictions made about them at the time of the takeover. Job losses? Tick. Crass American management style? Tick. Total disregard for the history and culture of the Cadbury company? Tick. The fact that it's happening at Bournville (or as Mondelez puts it, the "true home of Cadbury") feels especially ironic: I remember learning about Bournville at school as an example of enlightened industrialism driven by Quaker ideals. Something important is being lost here, and yeah, it makes me sad.

I thought this story might have been picked up by a few of the nationals, given how much fuss they made at the time of the takeover itself. But so far only the BBC and the Express (presumably on the basis that the villain of the story happens to be foreign) seem to have shown any interest. Apparently, no-one much cares what happens at Cadbury any more.

It's significant that this comes after a two-year moratorium on job losses conceded as part of the takeover. Kraft were obviously gambling on the nation losing interest once the spotlight moved on. And the evidence so far suggests they were right.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Thoughts on yesterday's TTIP day of action

So, after a period of being crap, I finally got off my arse and went on an action yesterday - which seemed like a good excuse to also finally get off my arse and start blogging again.

The TTIP action in Parliament Square was interesting for me in a couple of ways, especially given my minor obsession with the as-yet-non-existent fight against deregulation at a UK level. (For anyone not familiar with TTIP, this is a good introduction - essentially the latest attempt at a trade deal which allows corporations to ride roughshod over the democratic process.) Because of course, what a lot of people don't realise is that the corporate takeover of regulation is here already, in the form of the ludicrous, undemocratic, brazenly ideological 'one-in, two-out' rule which I blog about with such tedious regularity. We don't need a new trade deal to stomp all over our standards and protections, because the UK government has helpfully already done that.

But for me the TTIP action brought home just how difficult it is to get people fired up about these big, abstract, systemic things, which actually have the most egregious impact on things they care about. People will get out on the streets to demand climate action or workers' rights, but try getting them out to fight the war and not just the individual battles, and it's not so easy. To be fair, the disappointing turnout yesterday might have something to do with demo fatigue, being sandwiched between the big climate march and next week's anti-austerity march. And, of course, austerity is also a big, abstract, systemic thing, but one which seems much easier to communicate and mobilise around than deregulation - why is this I wonder? Is it just that it's so much more a part of public discourse, or is there something more fundamental to it than that?

On the plus side, even if the turnout yesterday was a bit underwhelming (and even if the protest was completely overshadowed by the Kobane protesters on the other side of the square), the TTIP campaign shows that it is possible to mobilise people to fight these things, if they're communicated properly. Two frames which seem to be working for TTIP, and which I think are equally relevant to the UK context:

  • Corporate takeover of democracy. Deregulation might be a boring and abstract villain, but unaccountable corporate power is not. The parallels with the UK regime - where regulations are being assessed solely for their 'burden' on business, and these assessments are then passed on to a committee stuffed with corporate lobbyists to be rubber-stamped - are obvious.
  • Eroding our hard-fought protections - food standards, workers' rights, environmental laws. Regulation is almost as rubbish a hero as deregulation is a villain: it has to be made real and connected to things that people actually give a shit about. These were the three that kept coming up at TTIP, and I think they work just as well at UK level.

Even if it's not as big as it needs to be, the anti-TTIP movement has grown from nothing into a serious force in an impressively short space of time. We urgently need to learn from and build on this to start challenging the deregulatory consensus in the UK.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Co-op crisis and the death throes of 2008

This week I have been mostly getting depressed about the ongoing slow-motion car crash at the Co-op. It's bad enough that one of this country's few major co-operative institutions seems to be imploding, but the coverage in the media has just added insult to injury.

Last week the papers seemed to be falling over themselves to blame the Co-op's shambolic co-operative governance structure for all its failings and insist that it needs to embrace reform. It's as if they've forgotten that five years ago, it wasn't amateurish committees that brought the global banking system to its knees, but plcs which ticked absolutely every imaginable box of 'good corporate governance'.

A particularly infuriating editorial in the FT piously pointed out the Co-op's lack of proper risk management and the fact that board members failed even to understand the risks the bank was running. Although the editorial did go on to say that it would be a mistake to try and turn the Co-op into a plc, that seemed to be based more on a recognition that it would be losing its USP than on any doubts about the obvious superiority of the plc governance model. And yet the failings it highlights are literally the exact same failings identified as contributing causes of the collapse of listed banks. And, despite a growing list of independent reviews, there are few signs that anything much has really changed.

Indeed, when I worked in this field, one of the things that repeatedly astounded me was the sheer complacency of the UK corporate governance community – the speed with which the waters closed over the crisis and the prevailing sense of smug self-satisfaction reasserted itself. In 2010, I was sat in a conference room full of white middle-aged men, all chuntering about how UK corporate governance was the envy of the world, when someone offered without a trace of irony, “We're our own harshest critics.” Honestly, it was an effort of will not to stand up and yell, “Newsflash guys - you're really not!” Taking a leaf out of Bob Diamond's book, it was obvious they'd decided that the time for remorse was well and truly over.

Lord Myners, to be fair to him, was one of the few voices of dissent to disturb this cosy consensus. But I can't help feeling that he sees his review at the Co-op as a laboratory for all his bright ideas about governance reform, which were developed as sticking plasters for a limping plc model, rather than a genuine opportunity to strengthen and rejuvenate the co-operative alternative. He gives the game away in a Guardian comment piece, when he insists that those who say he is trying to impose a plc model "do so to deceive": “On which plc do shareholders sit on the nominations committee, evaluate the board or publicly hold it to account on a quarterly basis?” 

If that really is his defence, it's Myners who begins to look disingenuous: he and his hedge fund, Cevian Capital, have been loudly calling for these measures in a plc context. So, although he may not be turning the Co-op into a plc as they currently stand, he does appear to be turning it into his ideal vision of one. And, while most sensible commentators agree with Myners' diagnosis of the problems with listed companies, it's far less clear that handing more power to shareholders is the solution. Besides, it's very hard to square the idea of turbo-charged shareholder accountability with commitment to co-operative principles.

I should say that I'm by no means an expert on the Co-op's governance structure, and I'm certainly not saying it doesn't need to change. But it is hugely frustrating to see this saga being portrayed as a failure of the co-operative model, when in so many ways, it is really a belated spasm of the 2008 crisis. Just like listed banks, the Co-op over-reached itself, taking on too much risk and pursuing ill-advised takeovers. Just like listed banks, weaknesses in its governance allowed these risks to grow un-noticed. And then Lord Myners is parachuted in to fix it all using solutions he dreamt up in the aftermath of the crash, with listed companies in mind. 

Of course, the irony is that it is precisely the 'never again' mentality produced by 2008's massive bail-outs which has led to the Co-op being allowed to sink or swim – potentially devastating the UK's co-operative sector in the process. And that's the really depressing thing about all this. Because if we want to make our banking system more resilient, we need to strengthen the alternatives to the profit-hungry, risk-loving plc model – not vandalise them.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why we must keep water cannon off our streets

Finding myself agreeing with senior police officers on the subject of policing protest is an unfamiliar experience for me. But it seems like the Met have outdone themselves with their latest wheeze: asking Theresa May for permission to purchase and use water cannon. Suddenly, in fighting against the Met, I’m on the same side as Ian Blair, who recently said he didn’t think a good case had been made for the use of the weapon in England and Wales; Police and Crime Commissioner Bob Jones, who’s said they would be “about as much use as a chocolate teapot”; and indeed Theresa May herself, who said in 2011: “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon. The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities." (Mind you, in her recent reply to Boris Johnson’s letter on the issue, she’d changed her tune a bit, saying only that, “Like you, I am keen to ensure that forces have the tools and powers they need to maintain order on our streets” – so who knows what her position is these days.)

As my husband points out, it’s not clear why anyone would assume water cannon were innocuous, other than the fact that their name includes the word ‘water’. But, you know, it does also include the word ‘cannon’. If they were called “pressure cannons”, nobody would think they were just a thing that might get you a bit wet and cold.

Which, of course, they’re not. Even the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) acknowledges that water cannon can cause “serious injury and even death”. Liberty calls them “inflammatory, militaristic and brutal”, and the Home Affairs Select Committee has pointed out that they’re an indiscriminate weapon with a high risk of injuring innocent bystanders. German pensioner Dietrich Wagner, who was blinded by water cannon in an environmental protest (warning: the details of his injuries are seriously gruesome), recently travelled to London to warn us not to make the same mistake his country did. 

The Met would like us to believe that water cannon have become a regrettable necessity after the London riots of 2011. Almost every official document about their request opens by talking about the riots. And yet even the water cannon zealots accept that they are useless in that type of situation – what ACPO calls “agile disorder”.  This isn’t that surprising when you consider that the alleged point of water cannon is to create distance between the police and disorder – not that useful during looting, when people are already running away with the stuff. The Home Affairs Select Committee has said that deploying water cannon in the 2011 riots would have been “inappropriate as well as dangerous” – and even Bernard Hogan Howe, who’s now apparently desperate to get his hands on this new toy, said they were “not the answer”.

But this isn’t really about the riots. If this sounds like me being my usual cynical self, don’t take my word for it: the following is a direct quote from ACPO’s briefing about the plans. “There is no intelligence to suggest that there is an increased likelihood of serious disorder within England and Wales. However, it would be fair to assume that the ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest.”

So there you have it. The Met wants to buy weaponry that can injure, blind and even kill, using the riots as a convenient excuse, but with the express intention of using it against protesters. It’s a plan so mad, so dangerous, that it’s hard to find anyone outside the Met who supports it. And yet it looks worryingly, bafflingly like they might get their way: Boris Johnson has already informed Theresa May of his “support in principle” for the request. The public consultation is open till 28th February (this Friday): it’ll take you two minutes to respond using this handy template. If you don’t want to see water cannon on our streets, now is very much the time to say so.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The politics of remembrance - postscript

I’ve just finished reading A Very Long Engagement, and thought it was very moving (once I’d managed to get past the feelings of rage against Michael Gove that arose every time I picked it up). Of course, last week the Gove-inspired debate about how we should remember the war flared up again, with the minister in charge of the commemorations saying that there would be no ‘celebration’. Historian Gary Sheffield (one of the ‘good’ academics cited in Gove’s Daily Mail piece for his attempt to rehabilitate General Haig’s reputation) was for some reason quoted in every paper calling this judgement into question, despite having previously commented that the centenary shouldn't be "a jingoistic carnival of celebration", which is basically all the minister said.

In light of all that, I thought I’d share this little passage, which is spoken by a French soldier towards the very end of the book:

“I can wait. I’ll keep waiting, for as long as it takes, for this war to be seen in everyone’s eyes for what it always was, the most filthy, savage, useless obscenity that ever there was; I’ll wait until the flags stop flying in November in front of the monuments to the dead, I’ll wait until the Poor Bastards at the Front stop gathering, wearing their damned berets and missing an arm or a leg, to celebrate what?”

What struck me on reading it was the way the wheel turns: by the time that book was published, in 1991, it’s probably fair to say that the war was seen that way. But less than 25 years later, here we are, batting back Gove’s attempts to reclaim it as a moment of national glory. And he thinks we’re the ones with politically motivated delusions about history…

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Climate criminals? The politics of The Bridge

[Warning: Contains spoilers!]

For my husband and I, this Saturday night meant one thing and one thing only: the series finale of The Bridge (or, to give it its full title, Scandi Crime Drama The Bridge). I thought it was great telly – but, at the risk of sounding totally po-faced and tedious, the whole thing was slightly marred for me by the show’s depiction of environmental protest.

It bothered me from the very first episodes, when they started investigating activists after a cell of ‘eco-terrorists’ apparently released plague bacteria to make a point about people dying from preventable diseases in the developing world (technically not actually an environmental issue, but we’ll let that slide for now). It especially irked me when they brought the Copenhagen climate summit into things, revealing that one of the suspects had been arrested there for assaulting a police officer, and trawling through police footage of protests to identify another. 

My husband, ever the voice of reason, pointed out that in The Bridge things are rarely what they seem, and that I should probably wait and see what happened next before passing judgement. And, sure enough, by about episode six the whole thing began to look like corporate conspiracy dressed up as eco-terrorism, which I was sort of on board with (though it didn’t really change the depiction of the activists themselves, except that they were dupes for some other guy with an agenda of his own). But then, in the final episode, they had to spoil it by revealing that the mastermind behind the big denouement was actually an eco-terrorist after all.

Yes, yes, I get that this is fiction, I get that they are not really suggesting that there are crazy virus-wielding hippies around every corner. But, given that environmental protesters are far more likely to be on the receiving end of police brutality than the other way around, and given that this fact is (certainly in the UK – I guess I can’t speak for Sweden and Denmark) generally not understood because of persistent media misrepresentation, I do think there are issues of responsible film making at stake when dealing with this subject.

A bit of context here. Ahead of the Copenhagen summit, Denmark passed special laws giving the police draconian new powers of arrest and detention which were condemned by Amnesty International. Suspected troublemakers could be pre-emptively detained for up to 12 hours in purpose-built cages, and disobeying police orders could get you 40 days in prison. At the summit itself, hundreds of non-violent protesters – including several people I knew – were tear gassed, water cannoned and held in appalling conditions. And all of this raised barely a murmur in the UK, because – with the honourable exception of the Guardian, which has a fantastic record on policing of protest – news reports generally portrayed the protesters as violent extremists

 So yes, when a TV programme runs an outlandish plotline about eco-terrorism, when it links the suspects to the Copenhagen protests, when it casts them as the aggressors and the police as the victims in that context, when it implicitly endorses the routine surveillance of protesters, and when it makes no effort to explore the ethical implications of any of this, I think that is political. More than anything, it’s really frustrating to see a programme I love depicting real-life activism as a sort of gateway drug to the kind of atrocity no environmentalist I know would even begin to countenance. There is a really big difference between storming a summit and murdering the ministers inside.

Maybe I’m taking all this too seriously. Maybe it's naive to expect my crime dramas to take a critical perspective on the police. Or maybe the writers thought hard about all this and decided that it wasn’t narratively possible to do anything more nuanced. Like the sad person I am, I tried to find out by asking on a live web chat with the creator last night. But it got drowned in a tidal wave of questions like ‘If Saga and Martin were biscuits, what biscuits would they be?’ and ‘I failed to pay attention to a minor plot point in episode 2, please can you explain it to me?’, so I guess I’ll never know. In the absence of further information, I will continue to feel righteously peeved. Let’s face it, that is basically my default state of mind anyway.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The psychology of welfare-bashing: Why Benefits Street isn't a fuss about nothing

This week I’ve been reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. This blog isn’t really about the book itself, but about a few interesting psychological studies I came across within its pages which I found interesting in light of the Benefits Street debacle. 

It’s now a well-known fact that the British public’s perceptions on welfare and immigration are woefully inaccurate. We’ve all heard the statistics -  surveys suggest people think around a quarter of the benefits bill is fraudulently claimed, when the actual figure is less than 1%. Pretty much the same applies to the proportion of immigrants claiming benefits. I think these studies help to illuminate why that is, and what might need to be done about it.

The first set of studies were about the impact of different types of information on our perceptions and decisions – and, I think, help to show why the Benefits Street debate is definitely not a mountain being made out of a molehill.

 “When college students who are deciding what courses to take next semester are presented with summaries of course evaluations from several hundred students that point in one direction, and a videotaped interview with a single student that points in the other direction, they are more influenced by the vivid interview than the summary judgements of hundreds. Vivid interviews with people have profound effects on judgement even when people are told, in advance of seeing the interviews, that the subjects of the interviews are atypical. Thus seeing an interview of an especially vicious (or humane) prison guard or an especially industrious (or slothful) welfare recipient shifts people’s opinions of prison guards or welfare recipients in general.”

It’s pretty obvious that vivid personal stories stick in people’s minds more than cold facts and figures – but I think this really brings home just how insidiously influential things like Benefits Street can be, and how big a challenge we face in trying to turn perceptions of welfare around. Even if we managed to get the facts about the benefits system into every school, workplace and newspaper tomorrow, Channel 4’s portrayal of the inhabitants of James Turner Street would probably still influence viewers’ opinions far more.

Much as I loved Parasite Street, which applies some of the techniques used to demonise benefits claimants to highlight the excesses of neoliberal capitalism, it’s not – and isn’t meant to be – a direct counter to negative stereotypes about people on benefits. For that, if these studies are to be believed, we need to put people face-to-face with ‘deserving’ benefit claimants to balance the negative TV coverage that’s out there. I think the ‘Who Benefits?’ initiative is a really nice idea – but we desperately need more like it, and they need to pack more of a punch.

The second study relates to the same type of informational bias, but this time it sheds some light on the role of the press, as opposed to TV:

“Researchers asked respondents to estimate the number of deaths per year that occur as a result of various types of misfortune. The researchers then compared people’s answers to actual death rates, with striking results. Respondents judged accidents of all types to cause as many deaths as diseases of all types, when in fact disease causes sixteen times more deaths than accidents. Death by homicide was thought to be as frequent as death from stroke, when in fact eleven times more people die of strokes than from homicides. In general, dramatic, vivid causes of death (accident, homicide, tornado, flood, fire) were overestimated, whereas more mundane causes of death (diabetes, asthma, stroke, tuberculosis) were underestimated.

Where did these estimates come from? The authors of the study looked at two newspapers, published on opposite sides of the US, and they counted the number of stories involving various causes of death. What they found was that the frequency of newspaper coverage and the respondents’ estimates of the frequency of deaths were almost perfectly correlated.”

Again, it’s not rocket science that people’s assumptions about the world will be influenced by the way it’s depicted in the newspapers they read – but I was certainly surprised by the sheer extent of that influence implied by this study. I don’t know if anyone’s done the same sort of analysis between people’s perceptions about the level of benefit fraud, or the number of immigrants claiming benefits, and the coverage of the tabloid press – but it would be interesting to see the results.

The Daily Mail may be the by-word for right-wing raggery, but I reckon it’s the Daily Express that is the biggest culprit here. Back when I worked in parliament, the press office used to send round the headlines of every major paper as part of their daily news update. It was a fascinating window into the pre-occupations of the British media – among other things, I discovered that the Telegraph really hates Scotland, with ‘Scotland rubbish, study finds’ appearing on their front page roughly once a week. But I digress.

The point is that I realised it was the Express, not the Mail, whose headlines were consistently, shockingly hate-filled. The Mail at least makes a pretence at being a serious paper, and its main front page story would normally bear at least some relationship to the actual news going on in the actual world. The Express, on the other hand, just peddles hate, day after day after day. Now Immigrants Are Coming to Eat Your Babies. Outrage As Gypsies Get Solid Gold Caravans. Did Teenage Mum On Benefits Kill Diana? Literally. Every. Single. Day.

This is what we’re up against – and we urgently need to get better and smarter at fighting it. It’s going to be an uphill battle, since another thing we know from the psychological evidence is that people are likely to ignore new evidence that contradicts their existing opinions – and disdain for the welfare state is becoming seriously entrenched. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that we have a historic responsibility to rehabilitate the welfare state in the minds of the public – before we lose it altogether.