Nationalise This

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These are difficult days for the Labour Party. For the wing of the party who aren’t natural Corbynisters, they’re doubly difficult.

Difficult firstly because we’re heading into an election with a leader and set of policies which we think are stuck in the past. We see a floundering government and a Labour leadership failing to provide a credible alternative.

Doubly difficult because this wing of the party had Message Discipline drummed into them from the days of New Labour.

We think our leader is failing and yet we know we must bite our collective tongue in public.

To avoid highlighting policy divisions, the nicest thing we say about Corbyn is that he has a communications problem.

If you’re going to resurrect a range of old labour policies, at least have the decency to do a good spin job on them.   Old policies and old communications make us doubly mad.

***

Take the railways, where Corbyn talks about renationalisation. I’m sure his advisors have told him that this is a clever technique called ‘virtue signalling’.

Corbyn may not be about to immediately renationalise all railway franchises but talking about renationalisation sends a signal.

In much the same way that Trump’s ‘build a wall’ rhetoric or Boris Johnson’s ‘£350 million for the NHS’ – were both about sending a message rather than actual truth or practicability, ‘virtue signalling’ is supposedly a way to tell the public that Corbyn ‘gets’ that trains are too expensive

Unfortunately though Corbyn’s advisors are both right and wrong.

They’re right that they are signalling – signalling that Corbyn is still wedded to the past. It’s a gift to the Tories.

Trains are more expensive than they were. But they’re also immeasurably more reliable, safer and more comfortable. And have you been on commuter or rural trains in state owned France? They’re awful.

***

British railways were originally nationalised in the late 1940s when the railway system was disjointed and dysfunctional – a collection of private fiefdoms that didn’t work together and hobbled the system.

For all its problems now – the system at least broadly works, with the possible exception of at Southern Trains, the vast commuter service into London.

Here, an ongoing dispute between staff and management has hobbled the service for what seams like years. The government has been unwilling or unable to fix the problem. There is at least an argument for the state taking over the franchise. But could Corbyn not think of a better way? A third way.

***

Britain’s creative industries in film, radio and television – and our rampant free press – are vastly better because there is a huge intervention in the market in the form of the BBC.

Private television channels have to work significantly harder to compete with a free-at-the-point-of-use BBC. Our press have to compete with the free-at-the-point-of-use BBC website. And yet we still have a larger and broadly better press than many other countries. Not despite the BBC, but because of it.

This market intervention keeps competition rampant. It drives up quality, helping our creative industries better compete in a global market.

The current model of railway franchises doesn’t favour competition. Each franchise is a virtual monopoly. Competition only comes when franchises are renegotiated.

The system could work better with a small but significant market intervention.

If, as proponents of privatisation argue, the profit motive makes private companies more efficient and competitive than state owned operators, then there should be more competition.

Under the Cameron administration, in 2009 the East Coast Mainline franchise was abandoned by National Express because they couldn’t make enough profit on the line. The franchise was brought back under public control and proved highly profitable and more reliable. But it was then needlessly re-privatised.

Having at least one not-for-profit or employee-owned franchise operating trains in the UK – competing against private operators – would be a market intervention.

At the time of other franchises coming to an end, this new public-interest company would be free to compete with the private ones to take over additional franchises.

This would be a sensible way of Corbyn using modern methods to achieve cheaper and more efficient railways. It would be a New Labour way. Which is why Corbyn would be against it. He’s wedded to principal rather than outcome.

***

This brings us back to the point of nationalisation – fixing a broken system.

And here there is an opportunity to use nationalisation to actually solve a major problem. But also an opportunity for Corbyn to send a signal – that he’s modern and not stuck in the past

Many of our cities are blighted with illegal levels of pollution. Thousands of lives end prematurely because of toxic particulates, mostly emitted from our cars, busses and trucks. The current government has done virtually nothing to discourage the use of dirty diesels and encourage the adoption of cleaner electric cars.

The problem with electric cars is not so much the range anxiety they are said to elicit in their drivers – but charger anxiety.

***

Over the last few months I’ve been using a variety of electric cars through a local car-sharing service – the electric version of Zip Car.

The cars are fun to drive around town and have a decent enough range for moderate trips.

But the problem comes when you try and charge the car. The system is essentially broken.

Firstly there is an absurd situation where there are, by my count, three or four different types of charger plug. You first have to find a charging point that fits your type of electric car.  Can you imagine different and incompatible types of petrol pump nozzles?

Even if you get the right plug, and manage to plug in your car, you find many charger providers are not compatible with each other.

Source London, Charge Your Car, Chargepoint and Ecotricity are just some of the providers operating near me.

But to use most of these you need a specific subscription and a special membership card with the specific provider.

It’s the equivalent of driving a petrol car and only being able to fill up at a petrol station where you have a subscription.

At some electric chargers you pay by the minute, others by the amount of electricity delivered, and others on a monthly flat rate.

Imagine the feeling of delight when you arrive, with a virtually empty battery at a charging point, only to find, as your delight turns to dismay, that the proprietary subscription card in your car won’t operate the charger – almost none except credit cards.

If you own or use an electric car, you can’t go out for a long drive without a bit of technical knowledge, forward planning and a dose of luck. It’s a huge hurdle – but one that’s easy to overcome.

What’s holding back the mass adoption of electric cars is not really the range of the batteries but the complexity and lack of charging infrastructure.

It seems to me to be a system crying out for nationalisation. For only when chargers are ubiquitous and utterly simple can there be mass adoption.

The government should mandate standards and roll out chargers the length and breadth of the country.

This would end the last major hurdle to the adoption of electric vehicles in the UK. Only when you know you can charge anywhere, anytime will electric cars be worry free and truly mainstream.

Tesla have started to realise this an build their own proprietary system – but this further fragments the market.

For the last thirty years Corbyn has been desperate to nationalise something.

When he finally gets the chance, he picks the wrong thing.

And electric cars – more than the railways – would signal he was looking to the future, rather than the past; that he recognised our cities were polluted and that people aspired to their own method of transport.

He doesn’t.

You might say he’s stuck with a signal failure.

Or at least a flat battery.

 

A Plea to Step Forward and be Unreasonable

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There’s a quote that’s been doing the rounds a lot recently.  It’s generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw. But in this newfound world of fake news, it’s a bad idea to believe anything you hear attributed to anyone.

But fake attribution aside, all that really matters is that it was said by someone.  And I repeat it here:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

We are now some six months on from that ill-conceived referendum on Britain leaving the European Union.  And two-and-a-bit years on from the Scottish Independence Referendum.

Each referendum was championed by an unreasonable man. The then leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond made Scottish independence his life’s work.  Whatever you think of the economic folly of Scotland going it alone, you have to admire his dedication to trying to adapt the world to himself.

The Scottish independence movement lost the referendum by 45% to 55%.  But that hasn’t stopped Salmond and his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, from starting to talk up the prospect of another referendum. One that they hope will give them the result they’ve always wanted.

Unreasonable men – and women – don’t suddenly stop believing what they believe and bow to reason; don’t suddenly let a referendum result get in the way.

Nigel Farage too has form as an unreasonable man.

A different referendum but the same economic folly. The Brexit isolationists won their referendum by a narrower 52% to 48%.

But imagine for a minute that Nigel Farage had lost by a similarly thin margin. Does anyone really think that an unreasonable man – who has spent his life trying to bend the world to his way of thinking – would now bend to reason and accept that Britain’s place was in Europe.

Those are, to quote Kellyanne Conway, ‘alternative facts’.

Farage would have started campaigning for another referendum, just like Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have done.

People with principle don’t immediately change their minds. And we should admire them for that.

***

Our new Prime Minister was in favour of staying in the EU. Until she wasn’t. Principle isn’t a big thing for her.

Almost immediately after taking control, she launched an audacious attempt to wrestle power away from parliament. She wanted to avoid debate on triggering Article 50, whilst giving herself sole power to decide what the country’s exit from the EU looked like. This wasn’t so much unreasonable as unjust. And illegal.

The Prime Minister was only stopped by a private individual, Gina Miller. Miller took the government to court to insist that the rule of law was followed. That Parliament was sovereign, not an unelected Prime Minister.

Miller provided more opposition than all the benches of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition put together. Miller used her money to sue and force the government to adapt to her way of thinking.

So why is Miller so alone. Why are there so few progressive people willing to step forward and be unreasonable and oppose leaving the EU?

***

There are two obvious possibilities. Labour MPs are afraid of losing their constituencies. And perhaps afraid of losing their lives.

On the second possibility, it bears repeating that a brave young Labour MP was brutally murdered – assassinated – by a far right extremist during the referendum campaign.

Those of us on the remain side were stunned into silence. Those on the leave campaign metaphorically stepped around the corpse and carried on campaigning.

The level of hate in this country has reached unprecedented levels. Many other MPs face vile abuse and death threats on a regular basis. You can forgive their fear.

But on the first point of Labour MPs losing their seats? Don’t they see that they have already lost?

With an unelectable and largely incompetent leader, upcoming boundary changes and problems communicating with what’s patronizingly called the white working class – Labour has never looked further from power.  Unless they do something bold these MPs have already lost their seats, just like they have already done in Scotland.

***

There is a third possibility though: that sensible progressive people; those who like to engage in debate on facts and reason – have an overdeveloped sense of fairness and reason.

They actually think they lost. And that fairness dictates we should agree to leaving – with all the damage that will cause.

I don’t buy it.

A 52-48 referendum is a narrow win. The country is essentially divided.   And the people who stand to be hit worst by Brexit are Labour’s natural constituency.

If, before the referendum, you believed the economic problems of leaving were vast and complex?

If you believed that one country trying to negotiate a divorce from 27 others, would only ever result in a victory for the many?

If you believed that Britain’s safety and economic prosperity were best secured through interdependence and collaboration rather than isolationism and aggression?

Then why cave in now?

Clearly you must believe that this unelected and unprincipled Prime Minister will fail to deliver a successful exit from the European Union.

And what will Labour say then?

When prices start to rise and jobs become scarcer; when human rights legislation starts to be repealed and environmental protections start to be scrapped; when the health service starts to crumble and Britons start to look abroad for jobs – what will we say then? That we went along with it?

We ought to be less reasonable.

We ought be saying that the referendum was a con. Introduced by a weak Prime Minister who cared more about appeasing his backbenchers than settling a point of principle.

We ought to say that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ doesn’t mean anything and that the new Prime Minister is out of her depth.

Most of all we ought to say that we support referenda when the battle is fair.

But – by God – this was a referendum fought on lies and deceit.

Not equal lies and deceit on both sides. But principally lies by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farrage.

It was a referendum skewed massively by an over-powerful and racist Daily Mail and their campaign of alternative facts and hate.

This referendum is as legitimate as Donald Trump’s ‘election win’.

We ought to be saying these things. We support a fair fight. And this was not it.

***

And when this house of cards comes crashing down. When Farage and Boris and May and Trump are gradually exposed, we’ll be there to say we have a better way.

The real worry is that when Theresa May’s Brexit plan starts to spectacularly unravel, Labour will have just been lame accomplices.

And when people then start to look for an alternative, they’ll only be able to find something more menacing and much worse. That’s when fascism really takes hold.

Those who based their political beliefs on evidence and facts and reason have been cowed into silence by an over developed sense of fairness.

It’s time we learned from the unreasonable men and women and started fighting for what we believe in.

It’s time we started to behave unreasonably. Just like Farage and Sturgeon.

The Long Way Home

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Have you ever woken from a deep sleep on a flight to be momentarily disorientated?  Briefly unsure where you’re going to or where you’re coming from? You try to narrow things down, but your surroundings don’t give away any clue as to which airline on you’re on. Even the crew fail to give the game away.

It can’t just be me that finds airlines have lost so much of their individuality and sense of provenance as to be virtually indistinguishable. Once a symbol of internationalism and national pride, it now seems that great lengths have been taken to strip airlines of their character and identity.

I still remember – as a relatively young child – arriving back at Heathrow aboard a long haul British Airways jet. As the roar of the aircraft’s reverse thrust subsided and the airliner quietly turned 90 degrees and departed the runway, a calm, measured voice came over the intercom. In short, clipped tones and an upper-middle class Home Counties accent, the Chief Purser welcomed us to Heathrow. The announcement seemed almost choreographed and perfectly contrasted against the roar and drama of the engines.

Even then, aged all of nine or ten, I remember thinking this was classy; a lesson in how an intercom announcement should be made. It gave flying a sense of occasion and feeling that British Airways was in a different league. Airline cabins were different then and crew had a sense of identity. It was perhaps the last time I felt genuinely proud to fly on the national airline.

Now most of the intercom announcements are recorded. So routine you can almost quote them verbatim. The Chief Pursers are long gone too. Replaced by younger, cheaper, less experienced crew. Underpaid and undervalued staff are no more interested in looking after customers than the airline is in looking after them.

That sense of occasion is now all but missing when you fly anywhere. It’s probably why I love flying through turbulence, or landing during a storm; anything to lend the flight a bit of drama and a break from tightly prescribed routine. Give me a mid-flight lightening strike or engine failure and I’m all smiles.

Despite my love of flying, as it has become so routine, I’ve found myself increasingly looking for other ways to travel.

So now I started a rule inspired by the Tom Waits song Long Way Home.

Whether travelling for business or pleasure I’ve started taking the boring option and flying direct to where I need to go. But now, I always take the long – and more interesting way home.

***

I’d flown from Mumbai to Goa’s Dabolim airport on a flight so uneventful I can’t even remember the airline. Perhaps it was Beige Airways or Bland Airlines, I honestly couldn’t say.

After an uplifting week in Goa – wine, wedding, beach, sun lounger – I was looking forward to the more interesting long way home.

I took a cab from the hotel to the nearest station at Madgaon junction, just outside the small town of Margo. There, later that evening, I boarded the aged Konkan Kanya Express for the 12 hour ride back to Mumbai.

The train’s crew weren’t some homogenised mix of nationalities, they were Indian, and proudly so. And so was the food.  It wasn’t bland.

As I drifted off to sleep on the top bunk of my sleeping compartment, somewhere deep in the backcountry of Maharashtra, the words of that Tom Waits song came back to me with a smile.

I put food on the table

And roof overhead

But I’d trade it all tomorrow

For the highway instead

Or, the railway in this case.

The video below is my trip on the overnight Konkan Kanya Express from Madgaon Junction in Goa to Mumbai CST station.

Bad Dream(liners)

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It’s been a long day. You’ve rushed through the overheated airport and found your way to the gate, where your flight is already boarding. You hurry down the jetway and squeeze your bags into the overhead locker; plonk your weary self into your seat and wonder if the seat has got narrower or you’ve got wider.  As you relax, feeling rather chuffed that you’ve made your flight, you feel waves of tiredness pass over you.

Opting not to doze off, you reach for the nearest piece of reading material – that strange journalistic genre of the inflight magazine, where the airline’s view of itself seems strangely at odds with your current view of it.

A couple of pages in you find that letter from the airline CEO explaining how they’re constantly striving to enhance their product and offer a world class service.

There then follows a long list of enhancements that the airline – indeed the whole airline industry – is making to improve their service to you.

In this strange world of marketing speak the word ‘enhancement’ has taken on a rather bizarre, quite contrary and very unwelcome meaning.

***

We start with that Dreamliner you’re sitting in.  And first the good news – you’ve not gotten fatter, the seats really are narrower.

In the late 1990s there was a multibillion pound battle taking shape between the two behemoths of the aviation industry. Airbus invested heavily in its A380, reckoning that huge aircraft would be necessary to manage capacity between the world’s capacity-constrained mega hubs.

Boeing meanwhile invested in a replacement for their smaller ageing 767. Boeing dubbed its new aircraft the Dreamliner. The new 787 Dreamliner was intended to save airlines a fortune and allow them to open up direct routes to new destinations. The use of modern materials and new fuel-efficient jets would slash fuel costs. We weren’t so much told about the cost saving – only how much better the aircraft would be for passengers.

The Dreamliner was both hyped beyond belief and massively late in being delivered.  Those bigger windows, lower cabin pressure, better in-flight entertainment and increased fuel efficiency were, according to both the manufacturer and airlines, supposed to revolutionise air travel.

For the first time since Concorde entered service, an airliner was being marketed with a name rather than a number (Boeing’s 747 ‘jumbo’ jet was a moniker applied by the press rather than Boeing themselves.)

Yet when you squeeze into your economy seat you can’t help but think things might just be going backwards.

Boeing’s original mock-up of the Dreamliner cabin foresaw eight seats across the economy cabin – two seats by each window and a bank of four in the middle between the isles – for a total of eight across.

Yet virtually every airline – save Japan Air Lines – has now installed nine seats across the cabin. It’s a tight squeeze.  Particularly because in the years since the Dreamliner programme was launched by Boeing in the early 2000s, waistlines have grown bigger.

For most passengers the Dreamliner has turned into something of a bad dream.  It’s cramped and uncomfortable compared with what they were used to.

Indeed, by contrast, when you now fly on an aging 777 the economy cabin feels pleasantly spacious with just nine seats across.   Sure the cabin might look a bit tatty and the video screens a bit blurry, but you can settle down with a good book and a bit of space to call your own. It hasn’t been hyped or enhanced. It’s just comfortable.

***

Maybe, though, you read in the airline magazine about how the airline is planning to “enhance” and “upgrade” their older 777s.  When you read their spin, you should be worried.

Sure they’ll fit new inflight entertainment, possibly with power plugs for your laptop and ipad.  And maybe even in-flight wifi.  But they’ll also take the opportunity to slim down the seats and squeeze in ten seats across the cabin when previously there were just nine.

You might be able to power your laptop but you’ll be too squashed in to use it. There’s new a global trend in retrofitting 777s to cram in more seats.

Yet airline PR departments will go wild with their ‘refreshed’, ‘new’ and ‘upgraded’ cabins.  But increasing most airlines are making the 777 an equally unpleasant experience – all masked in gloriously positive PR.

***

Meanwhile on shorter flights around Europe, British Airways recently trumpeted the cabin ‘revamp’ on their short haul fleet of Airbus A319s and A320s.

The press release gushed that they were “taking your comfort to new heights” with “contemporary LED lighting that adjusts throughout the flight to help you relax” and “bespoke leather seats innovatively designed to maximise your personal space”.

All this means, you guessed it, that they’ve slashed the legroom – by up to four inches – to squeeze in an extra 11 seats per plan. Less room and an more people all fighting for space in the overhead lockers doesn’t exactly make for a relaxing flight.

BA’s legroom is now on par with Ryanair.  None of that makes it into the press release.

***

And so for many passengers it comes as a surprise when they take a flight and the marketing spin is so wildly out of kilter with reality.

I don’t particularly object to such cost savings. Flying is cheaper and more accessible than it’s ever been. And legacy carriers have to adapt to stay competitive.

But I really object to airline PR departments spinning lies to their customers.

Just this week a BA press release enthused:

“From 11 January, we’re upgrading our food offering in our short haul economy cabins (Euro Traveller and UK Domestic) on flights to and from London Heathrow and London Gatwick.”

“Offering you more choice and a wide selection of the flavours you love from the ‘M&S on board’ menu.”

It’s the adjective ‘upgrading’ that really gets me.

You’ve surely read enough to realise this isn’t an upgrade. It means they’re stopping free food and drink.

Rather than just telling us the truth – that they need to make ends meet amongst fierce competition – they insist on wrapping changes up in positive spin.

What’s worse is that airline PR departments seem intent on blaming you for the change.

According to BA’s CEO, the demand for change is coming from passengers:

“[the passengers] told us we are experts in flying and service, but when it comes to catering on short-haul flights, they want to choose from a wider range of premium products.

Ask the right questions and you can get a survey to tell you whatever you want.

You can bet, when asked, no one told BA they’d like to pay for a gin and tonic that was previously free.

They’ve clearly run a survey to give them the results they wanted.

***

Businesses frequently get in trouble when senior managers start to believe their own PR departments, or search only for evidence which backs up their own thinking.

Politicians get in trouble when they start to believe their own PR too.

Indeed, I’d argue that the popular rebellion against mainstream politicians – witness Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Brexit, UKIP, and the rest – is a result principally of the public being sold too often one version of reality which is so at odds with their own perception of reality.

***

So when you read in your inflight magazine that the service your airline is providing has been enhanced, you too might think ‘no it hasn’t’  – and I’ll vote for – or buy from – someone else next time I’m booking my flights.

Trading Time

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How many times have you sat through a meeting that’s overrun? Worse still a meeting that has overrun but which still hasn’t reached any conclusions?

The problem is often blamed on bad chairing. To be sure, too many meetings are badly chaired. But the real problem is that people speak without anything to say.  So meetings roll on without getting anywhere.

Meetings are not the only fixture of modern business life that needed fixing. The dreary PowerPoint presentation has long needed an overhaul. And various people have proposed just that. Like the PechaKucha format where each speaker gets to show 20 slides for 20 seconds each – making for a maximum presentation length of just under seven minutes.

The rapid rotation means people tend not to over complicate their slides. That the slides automatically advance keeps people focused on the rapidly diminishing time and dissuades dithering. And even if it all goes horribly wrong and they turn out not to have thought anything through, at least each presentation is mercifully short. It’s virtually fool proof.

***

The problem with meetings is that speaking at length so rarely correlates with saying something new or insightful.  In fact I’ve come to believe that the two are actually inversely correlated.  The longer someone speaks in a meeting the less they actually have to say. They’re using waffle to mask their lack of thought. Meetings don’t incentivise brevity or being concise.

To be sure, there are times when taking through a problem with someone can help.  Freedom to speak without direction or purpose can help to solve problems, uncover new ideas or reach conclusions. But this works best with just two or three people. And generally over a meal or glass of wine when you can defend an idea that you don’t particularly agree with, just to see where the arguments take you.

But this absolutely doesn’t work in larger business meetings, where speaking without a direction or purpose should be – vigorously – discouraged.

***

So how about a modern foolproof fix for meetings? A talking stick for the age of apps?

All meetings have just two things in common: they have a fixed number of participants and a fixed number of minutes available. Everything else – from whether decisions are made, to whether you start bashing your head on the table in frustration – is entirely optional.

So here’s my idea for a new meeting format – complete with accompanying app.

The first requirement to ensure a meeting doesn’t overrun, is that you simply divide the number of minutes available by the number of participants.

When you join a meeting – whether you’re on a teleconference or around a table, each participant logs-in on their phone. Your available speaking time appears on the screen of your phone – and on the chair’s.

For example if your meeting is an hour long and you have ten participants, the app allocates everyone six minutes. That’s entirely fair and democratic.

When you speak your time decreases. When your time is up, it’s up. If you start waffling at the beginning of a meeting, you are punished by having to sit in silence for the rest of the meeting. You have an incentive to be concise and only speak when you have something important to say.

You tap your screen when you start taking and your time would start to tick away.  When someone else starts talking or interrupts they tap their phone.  Your time stops descending and theirs starts.   This is not too dissimilar to how meetings with translation operate. Then you have to press a button to activate your microphone before speaking.

The chair – with a special app – could moderate and punish anyone who starts taking without starting their time.

The app would also lock everyone’s phone during the meeting so you’re forced to be mentally present in the meeting – there would be no more passive-aggressive checking of emails.

But meetings aren’t just about talking. They are – or should be – about listening.

I often find myself wanting to hear more of someone who’s making an interesting point, only for them to be interrupted by a big mouth before they’ve made their point.

A good meeting chair should be able to stop this sort of interruption. But often office politics comes into play. Even a good chair might be loathed to, or simply unable to interrupt their boss.  The app could negate this.

Anyone supporting another speaker would be able give away a little of their own speaking time to allow someone else to continue developing an argument or idea. They could wirelessly – and anonymously – trade them a few minutes of their time.

There would be nothing to stop someone being interrupted. But over the course of the meeting they would be guaranteed time to make their point.

People making good concise arguments would be rewarded with more time.  People who are dull or wafflers wouldn’t.

This way the meeting becomes more democratic. Everyone is allocated the same amount of time but they can choose how it’s used and which voices get to be heard. Serial interrupters wouldn’t get to hog a meeting.  People who like the sound of their own voice wouldn’t get to keep everyone late. People who might be shy but know a good idea when they hear it, could make sure those ideas are heard.

This way of trading time would take some getting use to. People would have to learn to make points more concisely. Learn to listen and decide what’s important.

Those who don’t like the format might storm off in a huff. The app would ensure they took their minutes with them when they left.

You might quickly reach a point where meetings routinely finish before are they due. That way by trading time, you’d actually have made time.

And no one would leave a meeting having felt they’ve not had a fair hearing.

Time very well spent.

The Liberal Cab Company

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As I potter about London on my bike, I often find myself worrying that being a cab driver in the capital can’t be much fun. Stuck behind the wheel of a stuffy London black cab; stuck breathing in the fumes from the cab in front; stuck in traffic and with hundreds of cyclists scooting just inches away from your stationary vehicle can’t be that enjoyable.

I say I find myself worrying – mainly because I’m one of those liberal-progressive-lefties who find themselves worrying about the lives, hopes and ambitions of others. Worrying more than is perhaps advisable.

Truth be told, I don’t particularly find being sat in the back of a black cab that enjoyable either. Partly because they’re hot and slow – when I could be zipping past on a bike, enjoying the cool breeze.

There is another reason though. I always feel the need to engage the person providing me with a service in conversation. How rude it would be – I always think –  just to slump in the back and ignore the driver in silence, or worse still chatter away on the phone with them forced to listen in.

So I make polite conversation. Then immediately regret it.

***

When I was late back from Gatwick a few weeks ago, the tube had already shut for the night so I grabbed a taxi from Victoria station. As we queued along the Embankment the driver started to complain about the roadworks taking place to build a new cycle lane.

“Terrible” he said.

“Bloody cyclists should have insurance. Should pay tax.” he continued.

Now I was tired, and not particularly in the mood to get into a debate.

‘It keeps cyclists out of your way’ I thought.

‘Why wouldn’t drivers be most in favour of it?’ I pondered and shifted forward in my seat getting ready to argue my point.

Then thought, ‘No, I’m not getting into this’. But the rest of the journey resulted in me biting my tongue.  I didn’t pay a tip

***

A few weeks later I was in a rush and carrying some boxes back from a meeting – it was the week before the referendum.  With some precarious balancing, I stuck out my hand and hailed a passing cab.

Cab2

But as it pulled in, just past me, I noticed a big ‘VOTE LEAVE’ sticker in the rear window.

And I thought ‘I’m not in the mood to have to make the liberal case for immigration’.

So I made profuse apologies and the cab driver screeched off, f’ing and blinding. I pulled out my phone and called an Uber.

***

The third and final straw came when, coming back late from an event, the cab driver who picked me up raised his suspicious that climate change was a myth.

I looked around me suspiciously for hidden cameras, fearing I might have become the subject of a new reality television series where a cab driver tries to see how quickly he can make his passenger flip.

***

Now I realise that it’s not a particularly progressive thing to tar a whole profession based on three small examples, but it got me thinking.

Cab Drivers do have a reputation for being right-wing populists, not least as satirised by Private Eye’s ‘A Taxi Driver Writes’ column – “String ’em up, I say. It’s the only language they understand.”

Now that Uber is now starting to decimate the cabbie’s business, there must be a better way – a way for the humble black cab to fight back.

So I offer you The Liberal Cab Company – a cab company for a liberal, progressive, openminded metropolis like London.  If the London Taxi Drivers Association wants to take my idea they can have it for free.

For The Liberal Cab Co. those old, clunky, smoky diesel cabs would be phased out. In their stead a fleet of electric or hydrogen powered vehicles would be introduced to ease your guilt at C02 and particulate emissions.

The cabin would be nicely airconditioned – perhaps through a particulate filter – to protect the driver’s health as much as yours.

Inside, as you settle into your seat, the driver would be playing Radio 4 – perhaps Woman’s Hour – or Africa Today on the BBC’s World Service,  rather than shock-jock reactionary nonsence from Talk Radio or LBC.

As the driver pulls away – carefully avoiding passing cyclists – they’d enquire how the temperature was in the back of the car.  Perhaps eluding to their fears that global temperature rises were having a disproportionate effect on the poorest in society.

After an appropriate period of reflective silence, they might say how proud there were to work in the first major western city to have a Muslim mayor. And how amazed they were at the blistering pace of work Sadiq managed during Ramadan.

‘Not a drop of water passed his lips all day!’ they might say with genuine respect.

“That EU referendum! Don’t even get me started guvnor…  What an awful job the broadcasters did of interpreting their statutory impartiality duty.”

As you neared your destination, you’d pull out your credit card and you’d be able to pay using a contactless payment reader.  The attached screen would show how much tax had been paid to the exchequer as a result of your ride.

‘Thanks for paying your tax – you’ve helped pay the salaries of nurses and doctors in our NHS’ – contrasting nicely to how little Uber was generating to help society.

Each time you hailed a Cab from the Liberal Cab Company, you’d be assured of a comfy ride with a liberal progressive driver.

As you winded your way through the bustling city, as you looked out the window you’ve have and an amazing outlook on one of the greatest cities in the world.  And at the same time an assuridely progressive outlook on the world from your liberal cab driver.

On Blame and Fear

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Britain has now had its ill-advised referendum.  And guess what, the pollsters got it wrong again.

There is shock, anger and incomprehension amongst those of us who voted rationally for the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union.

It seems our desire to live in a tolerant, liberal and open country has been ripped away from us against our will.  With our anger comes a natural desire for blame.  But blame is hugely dangerous. We must, I believe, think calmly and fairly before dishing out blame.   We are a divided enough country as it is.

Those of us who are angry now must remember that there is clearly much anger too amongst those who voted to leave. And they are right to be angry.

There is huge anger that the current system seems to benefit just a few. Anger that jobs have become harder to find and harder to hold on to.

There’s anger that you can’t get a doctors appointment when you need one. Or a hospital appointment when you’re sick.

Anger that there’s a battle to get your kids into the good school rather than the failing one.

Anger too that housing costs have spiralled and are out of reach of the vast majority.

Anger that graduates are now starting to see the massive repayment bills for their student loans and can’t find the well paid jobs they were promised would repay them.

Anger that too many town centres have become shitty places to spend time.  And real bloody anger that no one in charge seems to understand.

There’s fear too that in an unstable world the next terrorist shooting or bombing might be just around the corner, all too close to home.

Anger is a dangerous thing. And fear even more so. People who are angry and scared can be encouraged to do strange things.

It’s no accident that immigration became the defining aspect of this referendum campaign. The leave campaign made it so in an aggressively cynical way.  There is much evidence – not that hard evidence counts for much these days – that perception of immigration is out of all step with reality.

Asked to estimate the number of non-UK born EU citizens living in the country most people – but Leave voters in particular – wildly overestimate the figures.

And fear of terrorism is wildly out of proportion to the risks. In the UK some 1700 people died brutally in carnage on the roads of Britain in 2013 – the last year for which figures were available. But traffic accidents don’t lead in the media or scare us quite like terrorism.  Fear of terrorism does. UK deaths from terrorism that year? One.

Yet somehow a small minority of politicians – egged on by a divisive media – have managed to persuade angry and scared voters that the cause of their troubles is immigrants, not an aggressive programme of cuts to public services.

These siren voices exist in all countries, but they’re normally kept in check by an active and vocal campaign of opposition from progressive and liberal voices.

The system should be self balancing.  But progressives all too often fail to make their case convincingly in a popular way. When we fail the system get skewed to the right.

In truth although I’m hugely sad that the freedoms afforded me by the European Union – principally the ability to live, work and travel freely across this great continent are about to be wrenched from me, I will eventually get over it.

What I will never get over though is that I now live in a country where a large swathe of the population has been so easily turned to fear and hate others. That always seems to so very un British. But something scary has been unleashed. And I fear it’ll be difficult to rein it in.

Once the vicious anti-immigrant campaign have moved on from attacking European immigrants, where will they go next?

If the situation of those who voted leave doesn’t improve quickly – and it won’t at the hands of a hard right clique intent on more cuts and social devision – where will the ire be turned next?

That makes me scared.

With an opposition Labour party in turmoil – with a nice but incompetent leader, I don’t know where to turn to effect change.

I feel strangely powerless.  Much like, I suspect, all those who voted leave.