The nearest I came to becoming a Member of Parliament

April 19th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

I was interested in the news that Austin Mitchell is to step down as a Member of Parliament at the General Election next year.

Mitchell first became am MP in 1977 when he fought and won a bye-election in Grimsby occasioned by the premature death of the sitting Labour MP and Foreign Minister Anthony Crosland. He was selected as the Labour candidate for that election at a local Labour Party meeting in the Town Hall held on Friday 1 April 1977.

Over 100 individuals applied to be the Labour candidate and six were shortlisted for the actual selection meeting. Mitchell was a local television presenter at the time and very well known and liked in the area. He easily won the selection.

However, I was one of the six on the short list, having previously fought the two General Elections of 1974 as a Labour candidate and at the time of the Grimsby selection serving as a Political Adviser to a Member of the Labour Cabinet.

I came second to Mitchell, although many were kind enough to suggest that mine was the best speech of the evening. After the decision, I made some remarks on behalf of the five unsuccessful individuals and said: “I wish you a famous victory”.

Mitchell won the bye-election for the marginal seat and has been the local MP ever since. I was not quite 29 years old at the time, subsequently my life went in a different direction, and in the end I never entered Parliament.

Posted in British current affairs, My life & thoughts | Comments (0)


“The Spirit Level” : five years on

April 18th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

Five years ago, Professors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson wrote a seminal work called “The Spirit Level” which I reviewed here. What do the authors say now about the inequality they described then?

“When we published our book ‘The Spirit Level’, the Government of the day was still famously relaxed about people becoming ‘filthy rich’. They assumed that inequality only mattered if it increased poverty.
But the truth is that we have deep-seated psychological responses to inequality and social hierarchy. Inequality invokes feelings of superiority and inferiority, dominance and subordination – which affect the way we see, relate to, and treat each other.

We wrote the book because policy makers seemed indifferent to inequality and unaware that at least 200 research papers had been published in peer-reviewed journals analysing the relation between inequality and overall levels of health or violence. However, as we looked at the data we saw that almost all the problems more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies – including mental illness, drug addiction, obesity, loss of community life, imprisonment, unequal opportunities and poorer wellbeing for children. But the effects of inequality are not confined to the poor.

A growing body of research shows that inequality damages the social fabric of the whole society affecting the vast majority of the population. When he found how far up the income scale the health effects of inequality went, Harvard Professor Ichiro Kawachi, one of the foremost researchers in this field, described inequality as a social pollutant. The health and social problems we looked at are between twice and ten times as common in more unequal societies. The differences are so large simply because inequality affects such a large proportion of the population.
Predictably, the supporters of the political and economic institutions supporting inequality sharpened the knives and accused us of conjuring up the evidence. But research confirming both the basic pattern and the social mechanisms has mushroomed.

It’s not just rich countries where greater equality is beneficial; it is also true in poorer countries. Even the more equal provinces of China do better than the less equal ones. Although life expectancy continues to rise in most places, increases or decreases in inequality have now been shown to make these background improvements in health a bit slower or faster, with the full impact of changes in inequality taking up to 12 years to come through. Still other studies have shown that these links cannot be explained away, for instance by ethnic mix, by poverty, by public service provision, or by a country’s size.

Most important has been the rapid accumulation of evidence confirming the psychosocial processes through which inequality gets under the skin. When we were writing, evidence of causality often relied on psychological experiments that showed how extraordinarily sensitive people are to being looked down on and regarded as inferior. They demonstrated that social relationships, insecurities about social status and how others see us, have powerful effects on stress, cognitive performance and the emotions.

Almost absent were studies explicitly linking income inequality to these psychological states in whole societies. But that gap has now been filled by studies showing that people in more unequal societies feel more status anxiety, are less willing to help each other and are less agreeable. That inequality damages family life is shown by higher rates of child abuse, and increased status competition is likely to explain the higher rates of bullying confirmed in schools in more unequal countries.

We showed that mental illnesses are more prevalent in more unequal societies: that has now been confirmed by more specific studies of depression and schizophrenia as well as by evidence that people’s income ranking is a better predictor of developing mental illness than absolute income.

Community life is weakened by the difficulty of breaking the social ice between people, but greater inequality thickens that ice: because people are seen as if some are worth so much more than others, we become more anxious about how we are seen and judged. Those overcome by lack of confidence and social anxiety find social contact an ordeal. Others respond in contrast by trying to bolster self-presentation and how they appear to others. International research now confirms that both self-enhancement and status anxieties are more common in more unequal societies. And US data also show that narcissism increased in line with inequality.

Inequality is now also known to be economically damaging: it amplifies the business cycle and makes economies more vulnerable to crisis. Lastly, inequality is becoming an environmental issue because, by intensifying status competition, it increases consumerism and personal debt. The financial crash led to a resurgence of public interest in inequality. We’ve now given over 700 seminars and conference lectures on inequality, talking to academics, religious groups, think tanks of both right and left, civil servants, professional associations, charities, political parties, trade unions, business groups and to international agencies such as the UN, WHO, OECD, EU and ILO.

One of signs of real progress in Britain are the Fairness Commissions set up by local government in many cities to recommend ways of reducing local inequalities. Partly as a result, many local authorities and companies now pay the Living Wage. In many instances, TET’s local groups have been instrumental in the development of these Commissions.

Sadly, central government efforts have not been as effective, and the coalition government has so far failed to stop riches being hovered up by the wealthiest. At the same time we see just how hard the rest of society is being hit, with food banks opening all over the country, and many more struggling with household bills and basic necessities. If politicians want to build a happier and healthier society, they need to be serious about reducing inequality, and they need to start today.”

For further information, check out The Equality Trust.

Posted in Social policy | Comments (0)


How can the consumer voice be heard in the regulated sectors? (2)

April 17th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

This week, I was a speaker at a breakfast seminar organised by the Westbourne Communications agency in central London. The snappy title of the session was “Stakeholder Challenge And Influence: Lessons For The Utilities Industry”. I was invited in my capacity as the Chair of the Customer Challenge Group at South East Water to talk about different consumer models in the regulated utilities.

You can read the Westbourne note of the event here.

Posted in Consumer matters, My life & thoughts | Comments (0)


Conversations with Catrin (14)

April 16th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

My granddaughter Catrin is now three and a quarter years old.

*****

When I was collecting her from nursery one day, I went down on my knees, held out my arms, and asked her:

“Have you got a cuddle for granddad?”

She was standing next to her best friend May-Rose, looked over to her friend conspiratorially, and announced

“Let’s push him over!”

The two of them then ran at me, flung themselves at my chest, and knocked me over on my back. Immediately four or five other kids joined in, sitting on my arms and legs and chest and shrieking with laughter. I felt like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput.

*****

After she had been a bit naughty with me when I collected her from nursery one day, she decided to hang around in the foyer of the building and organise a miniature table and chairs.

C: “I’m the mummy and they’re the children.”

Me: “What will you do if they’re naughty?”

C: “Put them on Time Out.”

*****

She has recently found fun in climbing into a plastic clothes basket placed in her bath during her bath time. When I filled up the basket with water, she declared:

“I need some more water at the edges.”

*****

I was putting her to bed and had finished reading her stories when she asked:

“Will you cuddle me a bit?”

Would I just? I lay by her side until she was asleep which was soon.

Posted in My life & thoughts | Comments (2)


The return of the London Labour Film Festival

April 16th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a big film fan with wide tastes in movies. One type of film, that one sees too little, looks at life from the point of view of organised labour and I’ve devoted a special section of my web site to this category of movie.

I was pleased last year when my friend Anna Burton put together for the first time a London Labour Film Festival. I got to one of the films: “Four Horsemen” which I reviewed here.

Well, the London Labour Film Festival is back for a second outing from 28 April to 2 May 2014. You can find all the details here.

So, if you live in the south east of England, check out if there’s something you’d like to see.

Posted in Cultural issues | Comments (1)


How can the consumer voice be heard in the regulated sectors? (1)

April 15th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

This morning, I was a speaker at a breakfast seminar organised by the Westbourne Communications agency in central London. The snappy title of the session was “Stakeholder Challenge And Influence: Lessons For The Utilities Industry”. I was invited in my capacity as the Chair of the Customer Challenge Group at South East Water to talk about different consumer models in the regulated utilities. I reproduce below my speaking notes:

We are discussing sectors of the economy subject to economic regulation.

Key characteristics of such sectors:

1)    Services fundamental to civilised society

2)    Networks requiring massive investments

3)    Customer choice limited or non-existent

Regulation is complicated and involves trade-offs, but:

-    The Interests of customers must be at the heart of regulatory decision-making

-    The customer voice must be heard in the regulatory debates

 

Three models for providing institutional customer voice in sectors subject to economic regulation

1)    Body within the regulator – Communications Consumer Panel in Ofcom, Customer Advisory Panel in Ofwat, Consumer Challenge Group in Ofgem

2)   Body outside the regulator – former Postwatch and Energywatch, which were merged to form Consumer Focus and are now a unit in Citizens Advice called Consumer Futures, CCWater, Passenger Focus

3)   Body within the regulated company – Customer Challenge Groups in the 18 water and sewage companies in England & Wales, External Advisory Board in EE

I am very familiar with all three models:

1)    Body within the regulator – I was Member for England on Communications Consumer Panel for eight and a half years

2)    Body outside the regulator – I was on the Council of Postwatch for its last three years and on the Board of Consumer Focus for its first three years

3)    Body within the regulated company – I have chaired the Customer Challenge Group for South East Water for two year and I have been a member of the External Advisory Board of EE since it was set up a year ago

 

Each model has its strengths and weaknesses.

1)    Body within the regulator

Advantage: can influence regulator early and without public change of positioning

Disadvantage: suggestion of lack of independence but this is more perception than reality

Problem: how to ensure strong links with other consumer bodies and voices

2) Body outside regulator

Advantages: seen to be independent and easier to obtain public profile

Disadvantage: can be seen as overly critical of regulator or companies but usually not the case

Problem: adequate powers and resources

3) Body within the regulated company

Advantage: such embedding allows detailed knowledge and frank conversations

Disadvantages: perceived lack of independence and danger of capture

Problem: seniors managers and boards find challenge uncomfortable

Since each model has its strengths and weaknesses, in my view, best approach is a combination with clear definitions of roles and proper resourcing.

 

Finally, none of this models can be excuse for companies not engaging with their customers systematically, continually and meaningfully:

-   Complaint handling and resolution

-    Qualitative research

-    Quantitative research

-    Focus groups

-    Social media

Posted in Consumer matters | Comments (4)


OK, William and Kate, but we were there (jet boating on the Shotover River) first

April 14th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

William and Kate – otherwise known as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – are pictured in many newspapers today enjoying a jet boat ride on the Shotover River in New Zealand. You can see some pictureshere.

A year ago, Vee and I thrilled to exactly the same ride and you can read our account here.

Posted in My life & thoughts | Comments (0)


Is this the most important book that you (and I) will never read?

April 13th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

It’s called “Capital In The Twenty-First Century” and it is authored by the French economist Thomas Piketty. Politicians and economists around the world are calling it a stunning critique of the capitalist system. But you and I will never read it because it is more than 700 pages long with footnotes, graphs and mathematical formulae.

In an interview for today’s “Observer” newspaper, Piketty states:

“I began with a straightforward research problematic. I began to wonder a few years ago where was the hard data behind all the theories about inequality, from Marx to David Ricardo (the 19th-century English economist and advocate of free trade) and more contemporary thinkers. I started with Britain and America and I discovered that there wasn’t much at all. And then I discovered that the data that did exist contradicted nearly all of the theories including Marx and Ricardo. And then I started to look at other countries and I saw a pattern beginning to emerge, which is that capital, and the money that it produces, accumulates faster than growth in capital societies. And this pattern, which we last saw in the 19th century, has become even more predominant since the 1980s when controls on capital were lifted in many rich countries.”

He goes on to explain:

“When I began, simply collecting data, I was genuinely surprised by what I found, which was that inequality is growing so fast and that capitalism cannot apparently solve it. Many economists begin the other way around, by asking questions about poverty, but I wanted to understand how wealth, or super-wealth, is working to increase the inequality gap. And what I found, as I said before, is that the speed at which the inequality gap is growing is getting faster and faster. You have to ask what does this mean for ordinary people, who are not billionaires and who will never will be billionaires.

Well, I think it means a deterioration in the first instance of the economic wellbeing of the collective, in other words the degradation of the public sector. You only have to look at what Obama’s administration wants to do – which is to erode inequality in healthcare and so on – and how difficult it is to achieve that, to understand how important this is. There is a fundamentalist belief by capitalists that capital will save the world, and it just isn’t so. Not because of what Marx said about the contradictions of capitalism, because, as I discovered, capital is an end in itself and no more.”

So what’s the answer? As a solution to inequality, Piketty proposed an annual global wealth tax of up 2%, combined with highly progressive income tax reaching as high as 80%.

His advocacy of a wealth tax reminds me of a short story I wrote five years ago called “The PM And The MP”.  I know you won’t read Piketty’s book but you might like my short story which you can access here.

Posted in World current affairs | Comments (5)


A review of the new movie “Noah”

April 12th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

We never expected director Darren Aronofsky to stick to the Biblical text but we did hope for something more impressive and coherent. You can read my review here.

Posted in Cultural issues | Comments (0)


“War. What is it good for?”

April 12th, 2014 by Roger Darlington

These were the opening words of a song from Edwin Starr in 1969. It is now the title of a new book by Professor Ian Morris. This week, I went to a meeting at the House of Commons, organised by the Henry Jackson Society and chaired by the Conservative MP Julian Lewis, where Morris set out the main themes of his book.

Morris grew up in Britain and studied at Birmingham and Cambridge Universities before moving to the University of Chicago in 1987 and on to Stanford University in 1995. He is now Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and a Fellow of the Archaeology Center at Stanford University.

At the meeting, he put forward the four claims in his book based on a study of the whole of human history:

  1. War has created larger and safer communities.
  2. War has been responsible for making more prosperous societies.
  3. War seems to have been the only way to create such bigger societies.
  4. War is now in the process of putting itself out of business.

Expanding on these themes, Morris acknowledged that war is one of the greatest human evils. It has ruined livelihoods, provoked unspeakable atrocities and left countless millions dead. It has caused economic chaos and widespread deprivation, and the misery it causes poisons foreign policy for future generations. Yet, in his view,  there is a case to be made that it is thanks to war that we live longer and more comfortable lives than ever before.

He pointed out that a person born 20,000 years ago would have faced a one in ten or even one in five chance of dying violently. But in the century since 1914 — despite its two world wars, atomic bombs, and multiple genocides — that risk has fallen to barely one in a hundred.

This analysis poses many questions. Is war then in fact a good thing? Without war, would we never have built the nation-states which now keep us relatively safe from random acts of violence, and which have given us previously unimaginable wealth? Is war perhaps the only human invention that has allowed us to construct peaceful societies? And yet, if we continue waging war with ever-more deadly weaponry, are we running a risk destroying everything we have achieved?

His conclusion is a controversial one. He supports the notion of the USA as a global cop and argues that the best option for the world over the coming decades is to support and bolster the strength of America  so that it can continue effectively in this role.

Posted in History | Comments (0)