The London 2012 Olympics and monopolies

The signing up of exclusive sponsorship deals with major sporting events is not new. When you look at the 1970 World Cup footage (such as here) you’ll see advertising boards dotted around the stadium. Yet as pressures to put on bigger and better tournaments has led to ever rising costs, multinational corporations have sought to get greater and greater returns on their growing expenditure on advertising and sponsorship.

FIFA’s annual report for 2010 illustrates the scale of increased revenue it has gained over the past decade – just look at the growth of its reserves (from $76,000,000 in 2003 to $1,280,000,000 in 2010 – nice money if you can get it). The following page explains:

“In terms of event-related revenue of USD 3,890 million, USD 2,448 million was attributable to the sale of television rights, of which the lion’s share – USD 2,408 million – were for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The second-biggest source of income was the sale of marketing rights worth USD 1,097 million, of which USD 1,072 million was generated by the FIFA World Cup™. The sale of hospitality rights generated USD 120 million and licensing rights USD 71 million.”

Given the revelations of poor corporate governance in FIFA – something that the Prime Minister spoke out about and one that the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee held an investigation over (the report on which is here). In terms of the 2018 World Cup Bid, personally I don’t think England should have gone for it. My take is that on footballing pedigree alone, Russia was due a major international football tournament. I imagine there were others in the footballing world who felt the same, hence why outrage over the decision was more muted compared to the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar over Australia – with a number of social media users in the latter really going after FIFA such as Bonita Merciades who, along with the people behind ChangeFIFA have been doing splendid work.

The problem that plagues many a global institution is that membership will inevitably contain people who have strong links to regimes that are anything but open and democratic. While we have our problems in the UK on this front, we can’t really compare it to regimes of military dictatorships that carry out widespread human rights abuses. Yet people who are part of such regimes are inevitably appointed to posts within international organisations. Combine the impact this has alongside that other group of organisations that do not like transparency – multinational corporations – and you have a recipe for the corporate governance problems that we see with FIFA.

Fast forward to the 2012 Olympics through the kaleidoscope of the banking and economic crises. In the face of what’s been happening with the Occupy movements, will it be practical to enforce the VIP traffic lanes? [Legal disclaimer – this is not an incitement for people to block the roads or break the law]. Those of you who have or do live/work/commute in and around London will know that traffic is bad enough without such lanes. What will be the economic impact of such lanes on London’s economy? Is it really going to be worth taking the hit for the convenience of the international elite to shuttle between the department stores of Knightsbridge, the boutiques of Bond Street, the Park Lane hotels and the Olympic Park?

Then there is the ‘exclusive monopolies’ that big businesses have signed – where a few of them seem to be doing everything possible to make things inconvenient for as many people as possible in their desire to get yet more money. Are credit card users going to face restrictions because their issuer uses a brand that is not sponsoring the Olympics? Are mobile phone users going to find their services blocked because their provider is not an exclusive supplier? Because if the answer to those two questions is “Yes”, did any of our MPs or peers in the House of Lords think through the economic impact of these tie ups? The decision to go through a tendering process to secure sponsors for the Olympics is not the market in action when the very outcome of that tendering process actually destroys the functioning of a market and replaces it with a monopoly.

Anyway, the biggest sponsor of the Olympics is us – the tax payer. Where’s our advert? Where’s the slogan that says “London council tax payers – great people!”?!?

I’m not the biggest fan of intrusive advertising – as my experience of a test match testifies to. At what point will organisers, governments and sponsors realise that this level of advertising and control of who does what (and that’s just within the ‘sterile’ zones at venues) is actually more damaging to everyone when compared to any benefits gained? As far as the writer of this blog is concerned, such a level of advertising and control exercised by such firms and organisers isn’t going to make me want to buy their products or services; quite the opposite.

Small stakes in big ideas

Natalia and Sam, two of Puffles’ followers who came along to and helped out at PufflesCamp in Brighton, pointed me in the direction of Sponsume.

Sam is a Brighton-based music producer, hence his project, New Soul is likely to be of interest to those in and around Brighton – but also to those who may have stumbled across him either at Pufflescamp or those who quite like the idea of putting a little bit of money behind a small project.

Both New Soul and the concept of Sponsume interest me. The former because it is taking a grass-roots approach to music production that is the complete opposite of mainstream TV talent shows where a handful of celebrities and big money get to decide who makes it and who does not. This is not to say that the music industry had some glorious time in the past where everything was about grass roots. The 1996 film That Thing You Do! (with accompanying headline track of the same namestarring Tom Hanks I recall gave an interesting insight into how record companies in the late 1950s & 1960s would take a stable of artists across the USA in order to promote them – with tragic consequences for the late great Buddy Holly, JP Richardson/The Big Bopper & Ricardo Valenzuela/Ritchie Valens. In terms of getting lots of different artists on the same label performing on the same show, Stock Aitken and Waterman did same thing in the late 1980s as their predecessors in the 50s & 60s. (I grew up with stuff like this on the telly).

I’m nowhere near a position where I could set up a project and make a call out for funding. That said, I’m sure there are projects across towns and cities everywhere that are in that position. The model for me is one step beyond the JustGiving model – which is more about the money and less about the output. This is not to say that it’s a bad thing, only to say that its aim is around supporting generic good causes of those asking for donations/sponsorship rather than being aimed at a specific project (and allowing people to build on a template accordingly.)

In terms of individual projects, the limitation of Sponsume’s model is that it is primarily (but understandably) focussed on the money too. Yet it may not be the money that a project needs – it may be the time, skills or other non-monetary resources that people may have. This could be asking someone to help set up a website and train others to use and maintain it, to sending a call out for a specific piece of kit (whether a laptop or a kettle) or even access to somewhere that may not be available to the general public – such as a room at a university to host an event. A number of the Occupy movements already do this whether it’s writing a list on a board that passers by can see, or as in Brighton’s case putting it up on a micro-site.

It may be the case that there is already a website that allows people to both donate in cash and in kind – and allow for much more efficient organisation of both. If so, please link in the comments section.

Qualifications vs portfolios

This blogpost follows on from one of the most popular posts on this blog “Life on a piece of paper.”  (As an aside, should the full stop be before or after the closing quotation marks?)

For some strange reason, I still have nightmares about an horrific (an or a horrific?) A-level maths exam from the late 1990s where the difficulty level seemed to be far higher than anything that we had seen in past exam papers. A number of those around me dropped two grades with our final marks compared to what we scored on our coursework grades. Yet despite that horrible exam, much of what I learnt (in particular on the statistic and analytical elements) formed a sound basis for much of the work that I was later to go on and do.

Compare that to other qualifications & courses where some things that were taught quickly became obsolete due to scientific and technological advances. Yes, when I last studied physics, Pluto was a planet. There is also the issue of what some courses do not cover. For example on the post Is middle class no longer magical? Noel commented:

“Your class is determined by your place in the production process and how much autonomy and control you have over your work, everything else is the effects of this position.

As someone with an economics degree I’m surprised you don’t get this.”

Without getting into the wider debate on class, a number of socialist types who I lived with in my second year were the people who introduced me to the debate around ‘class’ (hence being familiar with the definition above) – yet I’m struggling to recall class even being mentioned during lectures and seminars at university. (See John Prescott describing someone as ‘working class’ only to face the reposte “But I don’t work!“)

Do qualifications have a use-by date?

Now that I’m in my early 30s, I’m asking what value the qualifications I gained in the pre-internet days of the mid/late 1990s actually have – both in terms of the time that has passed and the developments in society and technology in the years since. This was something I discussed with a friend last night. At what point do employers stop taking notice of qualifications from over 10 years ago? What is the ‘life expectancy’ of a qualification?

I only started using message boards and later, digital and social media after completing the ‘essential’ qualifications for the career path I first embarked upon (i.e. GCSEs, A-levels and degree). What I’m yet to do is to use digital and social media in the academic sense of problem solving and crowd-sourcing for new ideas. The same is also true in terms of compensating for below average (to utterly uninspiring) teachers who across more than a few subjects I care to mention did huge damage to my interest and passion in and for a number of fields. My point with this is that these qualifications were gained without the use of resources that (as I’m finding out now through teacher training) more and more schools and colleges now take for granted.

The uneven playing field

In Life on a piece of paper I asked a number of questions about the culture of exams and public expenditure on them. As far as employers are concerned, my take is that they are looking for a credible institution to vouch for an individual’s ability in a given field. In that regard I can understand why employers complain about some qualifications and standards not being ‘fit for purpose.’ One of the issues when I did A-level geography was that the syllabus that the sixth form centre at my old school used was not the same one that my sixth form college used – the latter using one that a number of trainee teachers at Homerton College in Cambridge at the time told me was at undergraduate level in some parts. (We had a lovely trainee teacher who lodged in my family’s house at the time who told me all about this). The thing is, employers don’t have the time to compare exam boards. With so many exam boards and examinations, what information should prospective employers take from exam certificates?

This also touches on the issue of information overload. The ‘choice is good’ mindset/assumption that underpinned my economics degree was something that got me asking ‘how much choice is too much choice?’ I think it was in a supermarket 10 years ago looking at a bewildering choice of cereals. Amongst other things, I did not have the time to take in all of the information that perhaps I would have wanted to make an informed choice. Is the same true with our system of qualifications and certificates? Is the amount of choice and variation preventing both employers and people from making informed choices because there is too much choice and too much information out there? What is the optimum amount of information to make sound choices?

Assessment centres

In the career field that I’ve been in, I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to develop and present a portfolio of things. It’s always been a case of filling in forms, competency-based interviews and the following up of references that has been the story of my (working) life.

The only time that I deviated from this path was with the Fast Stream Assessment Centre, which was one of the most amazing days of my life. It was one of those rare occasions in life where I knew that I was being very strongly tested and stretched, yet at the same time had this feeling that I was excelling in it at the same time. Probably because I was enjoying what I was being tested on and how I was being tested. As assessments go, this was the toughest I have ever had to sit. At the end of it, I said to myself that if I didn’t get onto the Fast Stream it would be because I genuinely was not good enough, not because of lack of preparation or anything else.

Assessment centres are not cheap – which is probably why only the most affluent of organisations tend to use them (and even so, only for certain grades of staff). Yet given the way we do (academic) qualifications in this country, is there a role for having a system of external assessment centre-style assessments incorporated say in a general studies qualification at A-level standard or within degrees?

Going beyond paper qualifications?

One of the things that excites me about getting my hands dirty in the world of digital and social media is the ability to create a portfolio that bypasses all of the qualifications and assessments that I’ve ever done. I never imagined I’d end up with a little sideline selling cuddly toys due to something that evolved from running a social media account. Hence my questions in my last post Selling stuff online where my reaction feels like “I can’t do this – I haven’t got a certificate in it!”

What’s this portfolio going to look like? What’s going to be in it? Well, as with CPD, it’s going to be an ongoing thing with content added (& removed) as time goes by. Here’s some ideas for starters:

  • Digital video content – starting off around my skeletal plans for an “Introduction to Whitehall and Parliament” evening class – one of the reasons why I am doing teacher training at Cambridge Regional College
  • Photographic content – although I’m publicity-shy online, Puffles definitely isn’t. Also, blog posts that contain photographs of the cuddly toys get far more hits than most of the normal blogposts that I write.
  • A digital CV
  • A repository for documents and slides
  • A repository for sound recordings
  • A tumblr-style account for the really random stuff that perhaps I want to refer back to in a way that is more difficult with Twitter
  • …and a single portal for those of you who want to buy cuddly toy dragon fairies!
As I said in the last post, ultimately what I’m aiming for in my entire social media presence is to have the various different accounts bouncing off and feeding off of each other so that their combined presence is greater than the sum of their parts. Sarah Baskerville’s overall home page gives some idea of the range of options that are out there. My personal preference would be to stick with a smaller number of media platforms and use them regularly rather than try to manage a larger number infrequently.

Regular followers, feel free to link to your own examples where you are already combining various digital and social media platforms in a manner that goes beyond the sum of their parts – I and others are more than interested in seeing what you’ve done and how you’ve done it. 

Selling stuff online

With the first batch of 10 medium-sized dragon fairies now fully accounted for, I find myself in a situation trying to get my head around the joys of e-commerce. This is a steep learning curve for someone institutionalised by the civil service and whose only previous experience of selling stuff was sitting/standing by a check out in a supermarket during my student days.

There are a whole host of things that have been flying across my mind in terms of how to manage all of this – which is essentially a sideline to other stuff that I want to do. I don’t have any plans to go into the business of selling soft toys full time. So what are the issues?

Demand

I have no idea what overall demand is beyond the 10 or so people who have already reserved. What will the “conversion rate” of twitter/blog followers to purchasers be? I had previously worked on the assumption that a 1% conversion rate would be more than splendid, but given that I am already nearly half way there with reservations from the first batch, is 1% an underestimate?

Price

Talking about money is not something I’m particularly comfortable with but ultimately I’ve spent a fair amount of money on designs and prototypes that I now need to recoup as what remains of my redundancy payout evaporates with time. There are a number of considerations here, ranging from how many ‘units’ I want/need to shift before I’ve recouped my original investment in the design and prototypes. At the same time I’m also mindful that a many people who follow simply cannot afford to spend that amount of money on what is essentially a cuddly toy. (Especially the big version).

Tax and benefits

In the next week or so I’m assuming that I will have to sign off JSA as money starts coming in – or will I? How does this work where I’m running a ‘micro-business’ where income is on an ad-hoc basis? Do I sign on for the weeks where I’m job hunting and am not making any sales and sign off for the weeks that I receive payments against sales?

Then there is the issue of tax – in a nutshell, how do I go about declaring what’s come in, what’s gone out, what is ‘profit’ and how much will I need to pay? Will I have to ‘register’ this sideline activity as a business in itself?

It’s one of the reasons I’m attempting to keep reasonably organised records of the orders I’m making and the sales that I am achieving. The complexities of this, paid employment and receipt of JSA is going to make calculating my final tax bill (or any rebate) interesting. Given that tax avoidance and tax evasion have been issues that I’ve been jumping up and down about for quite some time, I want to do this all above board. I know there are some who would say to do all of this cash in hand & off the record, but that’s not the way I roll.

Ordering and distribution – systems and processes

What is the best process for all of this? For this first batch I bought all of the items in bulk for me to distribute individually, whether by post or by hand through meeting up with those who’ve ordered. But it’s not the most efficient way because for a start there is a potential duplicated cost of postage – from the manufacturer to me and then from me to each individual. Would it not be better to set up an online portal/system that would allow people to purchase items electronically rather than having me sending each item through with an invoice asking for either a cheque or an electronic transfer where I have to give out bank details?

I’m also seriously considering setting up a completely separate bank account for this sideline – even though for now at least this is a micro-business. I want to keep transactions related to the buying of stock and receipts from the sale of items separate from my personal bank account. Does this constitute a normal current account or will I have to get a ‘business’ bank account? (Which tend to be more costly).

Personal information

Having cut my teeth on data protection amongst other things, I’m a little nervous about holding people’s personal information (even if it is a Twitter account or a home address) on my systems. I shouldn’t be, but I am. Is there a suitable “cloud computing” facility that would allow me to store documents securely without having to worry about worst case scenarios such as loss of hardware or messing up of software/documents?

Marketing

In a sense images of the dragon fairies seem to be having more than a splendid effect. There is a risk that I start ‘spamming’ people through twitter – something I will try to refrain from when it comes to promoting these little bundles of fun. Also, do I want to go beyond my core following and sell them to whoever, or restrict this entire activity to a micro-scale?

Safety standards

I’m lucky in that the manufacturer already manufactures the items to EU standards & complies with UK regulations on toys – because even though I’m selling them to adults, most reasonable people would say that these items are toys. Hence why using other materials to stiffen the wings is a non-starter. But are there any other things that I need to be aware of?

Refunds

What happens if someone is not happy with the little bundle of fun that arrives through the door? Who has what rights and what is the best system for ensuring refunds are paid and stock is returned undamaged? What if the item returns damaged? Who’s liable?

Online presence

This is where I need to get a number of things sorted on my part – in terms of setting up and launching a small number of other social and digital media accounts. As I said to my good friend Sarah Baskerville last week, ultimately what I’m aiming for in my entire social media presence is to have the various different accounts bouncing off and feeding off of each other so that their combined presence is greater than the sum of their parts. But I’m still nowhere near the level of competency that I’d like to be at on a number of different digital media and software packages. I got loads out of the Media Trust’s training on how to make a digital video on a shoe string. Less so with the Adobe Illustrator course, but the latter is very much a practice-makes-perfect challenge that requires a level of patience that I’m currently lacking.

The “vision”

On a number of things I’ve got pictures in my mind of where I would like to get to and what I would like to achieve. The big barriers I have at the moment are:

  • Fear: I’m more than a little out of my depth in all of this. As in my blogpost on middle class, I’ve played things fairly safe in terms of career path. But the world is going through one hell of an upheaval at the moment and I have no idea where I’ll end up once things (as I hope they will do) settle down
  • Procrastination: I need people to bounce ideas off and to help me get over some of the small but significant technical barriers. Sort of in the way Soph Warnes and Fi Douglas helped me out setting up this blog, or Steve, QofENatalia and friends with the setting up of Pufflescamp.
  • Finance: I’m not loaded – simple as.
  • Upskilling: Sort of linked to the above, there are a number of training courses that I would like to go on, but can no longer afford to. I also feel that I need to be in an environment where I am surrounded by dynamic enthusiastic motivated collaborative types (on a regular basis) whose energy I can feed off and contribute towards too.
  • Location/place to be during the day: The lack of a desk has had a surprisingly debilitating impact on my productivity. Yes I need to be out of the house – Parliament TV is too much of a distraction. As above, the environment I feel I need to be in is one conducive to innovative working & forming sound working relationships with other people around me.
There are others, but off the top of my head those are the many things on my mind as this ex-public sector tries his hand at doing something he has felt for years he’s never been cut out for doing: Selling stuff. 

 

 

Puffles’ House Rules – a refresher

Since the start of 2011, Soph Warnes has very kindly hosted Puffles’ original House Rules which I drafted while I was still in the civil service. I tried to compress a series of “Please don’t get me sacked!/Please keep away horrible media fire storms!” rules into the twitter profile but there was not enough space. Those original rules were as follows:

  1. Puffles does not comment on individual serving/active politicians incl MPs & ministers because the public and civil servants that Puffles buzzes around have to abide by the Civil Service Code – therefore Puffles tries to stick to that code too;
  2. Puffles does not swear – ever;
  3. Puffles’ re-tweets (RTs) are “for info only” and do not indicate agreement or disagreement;
  4. Puffles is a peaceful dragon fairy, deploring violence from/on all sides;
  5. Puffles asks everyone to keep things legal, polite & peaceful;
  6. Puffles likes to educate people about how the UK is governed, and likes to inform people of their legal and constitutional rights. Puffles sees such activities as an essential part of being a public or civil servant and Puffles is happy to assist those public and civil servants in that regard;
  7. Puffles sticks to trade union-authorised campaigns when campaigning to keep the public & civil servants that Puffles buzzes around, out of trouble;
  8. Puffles refrains from personal insults and asks that other tweeters and tweeple show similar restraint;
  9. Puffles reserves right to block and/or report for spam anyone Puffles likes, incl spambots, hatebots, trolls and tweeters/tweeple who Puffles decides are behaving in a disruptive or disagreeable manner;
  10. Puffles reserves the right to lampoon and satirise anything that Puffles wants, but Puffles only aims to do so with a big smile.

Since leaving the civil service, rules 1) and 7) have lapsed – I don’t need to worry about rules on impartiality so long as I remain outside of the employment of firms and organisations that have rules and requirements on getting hands dirty in politics.

That said, the great thing about having these rules in the first place was that they helped set and manage the expectations of those following Puffles’s twitterings. Every so often there would be a response along the lines of:

“Puffles! Why do you unconditionally back that ridiculous statement from [insert name of twitter account/individual]?!?!?!?”

…to which the simple response of

*Puffles (*points*) to House Rule 3 at http://halftheworldiswatching.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/puffles-house-rules/ *

…normally sufficed.

I also guarded Puffles’ Twitterfeed like a hawk – and still do. I check for and block spam accounts on a regular basis – in the early days blocking about four in five new followers. I also took the view of allowing only those who did not follow tens of thousands of accounts to follow back – which did mean blocking one government minister’s account. This meant that the people I was engaging with through Puffles were people who wanted to have productive exchanges and genuinely wanted to learn and broaden their horizons as well as doing their bit to make our world a better place.

I’m still sticking broadly to the remaining eight rules – basically because they’ve served so well. So for those of you who are relatively new to following Puffles, please familiarise yourselves with Puffles’ House Rules. If you are working in the public sector and/or in a role where you have to what what you post because of impartiality rules, feel free to adopt Puffles’ House Rules.

More dragon fairies

The medium-sized ones (the most numerous) in this photo will be going for £30 each – if you would like one, please tweet your email address to me in a DM (if I’m not following you, please send me an @Puffles2010 tweet) & if you’re not on Twitter, please leave your email address in the ‘comments’ field – don’t worry, I won’t publish them so you won’t get spammed.

Puffles in the House – more on select committees

Some of our public sector institutions need to update their rules in the face of rapid technological change. Job Centre Plus weren’t best pleased to see me tweeting while waiting for my now fortnightly appointment with them on the ground that they don’t like mobile phones being switched on.

Parliament doesn’t like people taking photographs or filming on its premises, and during the Hansard Society event on select committees that I attended this evening, we were asked to switch mobile phones off shortly to be told that people were being encouraged to tweet.

We were fortunate to have four departmental select committee chairpersons on the panel

My thoughts on the previous event on this subject are set out in my blogpost The impact and influence of select committees – although at that session, Sir Alan Beith MP (LD) was the only select committee chair (Justice – & also chair of the Liaison Committee of select committee chairpersons that get to cross-examine the Prime Minister on a bi-annual basis).

One of the things that the Treasury Select Committee did during the banking crisis is that they asked members of the public to submit questions that the select committee should ask. One of the things that I’d like to see select committee clerks and supporting officials do is to set up social media accounts to crowd-source submissions to select committee inquiries and hearings. At this stage it doesn’t need to be particularly onerous – just having it as an announcing twitter feed. I’m mindful that the resources select committees have are minimal and going by what Dr Ruth Fox (who chaired this evening’s event) said, committees are unlikely to get any extra resources in the short to medium term. 
Clive Betts conceded that his committee did not make much use of digital and social media – something that I think is a bit of a shame. I think that a well-managed social media function can help significantly rebalance the relationship between select committees and the departments & organisations that they scrutinise. Whitehall departments can have many thousands working for the ministers and senior civil servants that select committees scrutinise. Yet such committees only have a handful of staff they can call upon.

I was also interested to see Graham Stuart – a former Cambridge Councillor, tearing into the role of parliamentary private secretaries – in particular those who work for junior ministers. The role of PPS’s is traditionally seen as the first rung of the ministerial ladder. The problem is that it’s an unpaid role that also means you’re not allowed to speak on the floor of the House of Commons because you are nominally part of the Government (and are thus expected to fall into line with the whips). From a governing party’s point of view, the more PPS’s you have, the greater your control is over MPs – because of that carrot of a future ministerial post. This means that you get MPs who are guaranteed lobby fodder who won’t upset the apple cart & ask awkward questions in public…and you don’t have to pay them any extra! Bargain!

But this neuters Parliament in a big way. This is why I think it’ll be interesting to see how the select committee roles evolve. Select committee chairs already have a raised status in the Commons – ministers nearly always refrain from party-political point-scoring when taking questions from them. The media has also picked up on this increased status, meaning that we often see the chairs of select committees being interviewed on television. It still feels though that too many are interviewed as an alternative to a government minister rather than as select committee chairs in their own right.
University College London’s Constitution Unit has a number of academics following the work of select committees, some of whom I’ve met at the Hansard events. This is an area that at present is just a sideline interest but if money were no object, I wouldn’t mind supporting the research in this field – in particular the following-through of recommendations from select committees. 

MPs’ expenses

The one great thing about the MPs’ expenses scandal is that it consigned to the scrapheap a number of very average politicians and provided an opportunity for a cultural sea change in the House of Commons. (Whether this was actually achieved or not is a different matter).

Whitehall was a very strange place when the MPs’ expenses scandal broke. For us civil servants the turmoil and the subsequent ministerial reshuffle less than a year before a general election created its own challenges. Imagine the mindset of a politician of any party taking ministerial office knowing that there had to be a general election in less than a year. What do you do?

Puffles has given Jacob Rees Mogg a regular kicking over his register of interests – both the time spent not doing parliamentary work that tax payers pay him to do, as well as the scale of the remuneration/payments that he receives for this non-parliamentary work. But let’s not be politically partisan about this. The same could apply to former Chancellor Alistair Darling or ex Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell.

In terms of what MPs have to do day-to-day, the pressure that MPs are under is huge. When Parliament sits their day starts early and doesn’t finish until 10.30pm. There are huge numbers of events, meetings and seminars that they are expected to attend – which explains why the Commons Chamber is seldom full. You only have to look at the Order of Business to see what else is happening outside of the Chamber – and that is just the select committees. This doesn’t cover meetings with ministers, party political gatherings, meeting with lobbyists, pressure groups, campaigners, charities and even constituents who make their way down to the Palace of Westminster.

For those MPs that do not live within commuting distance from Parliament, staying in London overnight becomes essential, not just a nicety. Having commuted from Cambridge and having lived in London, one of the biggest benefits of living in Central London was being able to get a reasonable amount of sleep as well as being able to have something of a social life…until my debts got too big.

What got MPs into trouble was the misuse of taxpayers money – leading to a handful spending time in prison. Arguably more should have been hit harder, but then we come back to the issue of ‘political cowardice’ of politicians trying to score political points on the issue of MPs’ pay rises without considering the issue of costs of living – something that is screwing the rest of us in a big way too.

For me, ideally the issue of tax payer funded constituency offices and second (London) homes would be one managed entirely by the Parliamentary authorities – taking MPs out of the equation completely. It would not require receipts or a huge paper trail. Parliament would own the properties that MPs lived in outright & provide the basic furnishings – anything else, just as for the rest of us would be the responsibility of the tenant – the individual MPs. In terms of the submission and publication of food receipts and things…wasn’t it and wouldn’t it be far easier to increase the salaries rather than have an expensive bureaucratic burdensome regime that takes up the time of too many public servants – elected or otherwise – whose time would be far better spent doing other things.

We then come to the issue of ‘extra curricular activities’ of MPs that I mentioned at the start of this post. My take is that being an MP is more than a full-time job in itself. This is one of the reasons why I am uncomfortable with the current set up – as being a minister is also more than a full-time job too. Yet a number of ministers that I have worked for and with have mentioned to me the importance of being able to meet constituents – and how this helps keeps them grounded in a way that in particular senior civil servants (on similar salaries) will have little insight of.

The case of MPs being paid eye-watering amounts of money for regular activities that can make significant demands on their time makes me uncomfortable. Some MPs have detailed and colourful records in their registers. Others have nothing in them. Having income from investments is one thing, receiving income from regular paid work is another – especially work that is purely for private gain rather than in general public service, such as sitting on the board of a school or a charity. But regular paid work is not so clear cut when it comes to writing articles or books. In the world of social media, writing articles (and allowing us to respond) is in the public interest – allowing us to challenge what politicians are saying in an open forum.

Finally, there is the issue of the professional politician – something that Peter Oborne wrote about in his book “The Triumph of the Political Class” – where politics for too many in power has been a career of a lifetime (or a leg-up to greater riches when you look at Tony Blair and friends) rather than a vocation after a career in some other field.

The challenge as with all of these things is finding the right balance. I don’t think we’ve quite found it yet.

Is middle class no longer magical?

What I’m covering in this blog may not come as a surprise to people who identify as being working class or who don’t identify with one at all. Many have been facing problems such as poor standards of housing, high unemployment, communities suffering from high levels of crime, and poor health for many years. But during the boom times these things weren’t on the front pages. Yet when “middle class” became threatened, it was all over the papers. The Guardian, The Independent, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. I can see the generic headlines now. ‘Thought bad stuff only affected poor people? It could affect you! Run for the hills!’

It does my head in. Others feel the same judging by the reactions in the comments fields of articles featuring individuals complaining about being without luxuries that they had gotten used to such as private schooling for the children, a nice house, regular holidays and new cars.

You’ve heard the song I’m sure:

Middle class is magical/a safe world free from strife

Let bad things happen to other folk/while you read “Country Life

My own take is that class labelling is such a loaded concept that all too often the debate around class gets so heated that people lose sight of the wood for the trees. What defines a person’s class?

  • Occupation?
  • Income?
  • Education?
  • Accent?
  • Race?
  • Parents?
  • Appearance?
  • Hobbies?
  • Political preferences?
  • Religious views?
  • Where you live/value of house?
Has my class changed as a result of my changes in education and occupation? What class am I in now that I am on benefits and am job hunting compared to say when I joined the civil service fast stream & was working with ministers?

What do you do when they can’t make things better again?

Two of the lines that I’ve used to help slay my demons of the past (mainly in terms of what I did do and didn’t do) have been along the lines of

  • “In those days you didn’t have the internet”
  • “Whatever you could have achieved had other stuff happened, chances are it would have been swamped by the tsunami that is the ongoing economic crisis
Essentially, my upbringing and education has been about striving for some sort of stability far away from the trials and tribulations of modern day living. As a child I first stumbled across the concept of pollution and climate change when I saw a copy of the Blue Peter Green Book 1989 at a supermarket. It comes as a shock to the system as a child when you are faced with something so frightening that is beyond the remedy of your parents. Church wasn’t that much help either – an institution that I still feel poisoned my relationships with everyone and everything. As a teenager I struggled with why God didn’t sort out all of this bad stuff that was going on.

Playing it safe.

What’s this got to do with the problems of all things middle class? Lots of things. Earlier this year I wrote a blogpost called Life on a piece of paper. This described the archetypal ‘life of stability’ where in a nutshell we were encouraged to life staid uncontroversial lives. Risk free but dull as hell. I stumbled across a Telegraph article by William Leith that echoed similar sentiments.
I managed to follow it all of the way through to a career in the civil service (but without the detached house, new car or a holiday to the south of France).

It’s a safe existence, as is getting things ‘correct’ – but it doesn’t help with those who want to innovate and create new things. I stumbled across an article that asked whether it would be college dropouts that would save the USA via Philippa Young. Is the same true for the UK?
At school, the concept of setting up my own business was not even on the radar. Careers guidance was all about finding something that someone would employ you to do. Setting up your own business was outside that mindset. Now we find ourselves in a situation where we need people to start up their own businesses, but find our institutions wanting. Universities in particular came in for a kicking regarding careers guidance in this article from GraduateFog.

The Financial Tsunami.  
 
The scale of the economic crises that have hit us as far as I’m concerned are so great as to be beyond the comprehension of the human mind – certainly as far as the scale of the banking bailouts are concerned. There was nothing in my economics degree that covered how to deal with an economic and financial crisis such as this. Prior to the banking crisis issues with government spending that involved numbers I viewed as huge have been knocked out of the ring by new numbers that I didn’t even know existed.

But it’s also hit the private sector too. We forget about the hits the frontline workers in retail banks have taken as a result of decisions that they had no say in. I used to work for a bank before I went to university. I saw first hand the contempt a chief executive treated frontline staff with at an annual staff conference in London when he flatly refused a pay rise to such staff (who had not had any rises for the previous few years) saying ‘We have to pay the market rate.’ Nothing about saying ‘We’ll give you a rise and pay a little bit more than the market rate – & make that a selling point to customers saying that you’ll get better service because we treat our staff better & are able to recruit higher calibre people compared to our competitors’.

There’s also the automation & centralisation that has taken both the mental stimulation and sense of achievement in some jobs. It happens in the public and private sector alike – mainly a result of senior managers wanting to maintain close control over things rather than in trusting the professionals on the ground. Remember my blogpost asking about localism for banking?

People start protesting

We then come to the issue of the protests and the demonstrations – one in particular that got the clerics in the Church of England tripping over their cassocks and robes. Richard Murphy was one of many Christians to call for St Paul’s Cathedral to throw open its doors to protesters – and proceeded to name those individuals and institutions that had a say in the decision to call for the protesters to move on. The demonstration polarised opinion in Christian circles – with those of a more conservative leaning calling for protesters to be moved on. 

The inequalities are making some of those at the top nervous. A number of scholarly articles (such as Spirit Level) to comment from the Financial Times (see end of this article) saying that protesters have a point have made others sit up. But what are the protesters protesting about?

I wandered down to St Paul’s to take a look for myself with Big Puffles and Little Puffles. The usual suspects were out in force as they always are at these things. But what was really noticeable was the discussions in and around various tents. I overheard a couple of young male students who wanted to know when they were supposed to start marching and chanting – because wasn’t that what protests were about? What were people protesting about? My take is that each individual can answer for themselves. The great thing about digital media is that people can now make their own media and speak directly to the wider world without the need for a spokesman or representative – or even political party – to do it for them. For me? Here are a few things:

Now, all of that stuff is A LOT of stuff to be angry/concerned/worried about. But trying to boil all of that lot down to a short soundbite is more than difficult. Trying to find responses and solutions to all of that lot is not easy either. One of the things I’ve accused politicians of is being hopelessly out of their depth in the face of all of these problems. The impact of both mainstream media hounding and tight control from the top has resulted in too many stupendously uninspiring figures rising to elected public office that is far beyond their competency. “Business as usual” politics won’t solve this crisis – nor will “business as usual” politicians. “Business as usual” is not an option – but that inevitably means a break from the stability of the past – is that what frightens middle class people?


How Government works – the official guide

This post is sort of a perma-link to a recently published guide from Cabinet Office

The Cabinet Manual sets out the main laws, rules and conventions affecting the conduct and operation of Government.

What’s useful with publications like this is that it is something tangible and permanent by which people can continually refer back to when holding the executive to account. If you want an introduction to how Government works, this is probably the most authoritative guide there is.