Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics?

As a Wiganer, I don’t mind admitting I’m still getting over our 18-14 defeat to Hull in last weekend’s Challenge Cup Final.  I feel I probably shouldn’t be so affected by it, these days – I’ve been here enough times before: in 1984 (crushingly), in 1998 (inexplicably) and in 2004 (rather drunkenly).  I’d like to think that those experiences, plus of course the very many Cup-winning years (including the famous eight-in-a-row) would give me sufficient perspective to absorb the disappointment a little more adroitly.

Sadly, just like Tony Clubb’s doomed attempt for the line, it was not to be.  Now, four days on, the anguish at the outcome has dissipated slightly.  I know this because I’ve now come to believe that the scoreline was not, for once, the most significant statistic of the day.

Before I explain what I believe is, I should move to deny any stirring suspicions you may have that I’m displaying sour grapes or even revisionism.  Of course I wish we’d won but the day highlighted an issue much more concerning than merely the non-adornment of yet another trophy in cherry and white – it’s an issue that has implications on the future of the sport of rugby league itself.

You may or may not have picked up on the story that the attendance of 68,525 was the lowest at a Challenge Cup final since its return to the re-built Wembley in 2007.  There are a number of facets to this simple stat, together with a fair degree of context, to increase or reduce the level of alarm it elicits, depending upon your viewpoint.  If nothing else, this is very much a matter of interpretation and opinion, which rather thickens the plot but also fuels the conspiracy theories.  It all brings to mind the phrase, often attributed to Mark Twain who believed himself to be quoting Benjamin Disraeli (although no record of Disraeli saying it exists): “There are lies, damned lies and statistics”.

Before we go any further, is this story true and by how much is the figure lower than any before?  According the BBC match report, the figure was “by some distance the lowest” but what does the data say?  As ever, my friends at Wikipedia are a handy place to check:

2007  St. Helens 30–8  Catalans Dragons 84,241
2008  St. Helens 28–16  Hull 82,821
2009  Warrington 25–16  Huddersfield 76,560
2010  Warrington 30–6  Leeds 85,217
2011  Wigan 28–18  Leeds 78,482
2012  Warrington 35–18  Leeds 79,180
2013  Wigan 16–0  Hull 78,137
2014  Leeds 23-10  Castleford 77,914
2015  Leeds 50-0  Hull Kingston Rovers 80,140
2016  Hull 12–10  Warrington 76,235
2017  Hull 18–14  Wigan Warriors 68,525

So, there you have it: in headline terms, no different to last year (which was itself the lowest post-2007 figure) but almost eight thousand fewer again, quite a significant drop.

The chief reason for the sudden discrepancy appears to be the widely-quoted accounting change that for the first time this year, debenture-holders’ seats were not automatically counted as occupied, giving a more accurate figure.  This is basically a way of suggesting that every previous new Wembley figure was utterly fictitious and that in real terms, this year’s attendance figure was no different to any other year.  It all sounds incredibly convenient to spare any blushes the RFL may have – but can it be true?

At this point, most people would probably just shrug their shoulders and move on with their life but this requires a level of stadium geekery that I feel able to provide – and to some extent, corroborate.  When the current incarnation of Wembley Stadium was built, part of its funding came from a debenture scheme (“Club Wembley”) in which holders were given a middle-tier seat for use at any event held at the venue – a sort of super season ticket.  Inevitably, most of these were seen as justifiable investment by companies with an eye on the corporate hospitality opportunities they afforded and they signed up in their thousands.  I know someone who did, a print supplier with whom I used to spend a lot of money.  In 2011, as I was one of his biggest rugby league-following clients, he offered me his seats to watch that year’s Challenge Cup Final.

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“It’s who you know”: The 2011 Challenge Cup Final between Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos, taken from the Club Wembley seating in the middle tier

You can most easily see the seats in question in the ten minutes after the re-start in any home England football match as the mostly corporate inhabitants struggle to down their half-time pints until about the 55th minute.  It was, I believe, at one such occasion that the seat-holders’ conspicuity by their absence provoked Adrian Chiles to give it its most scathing (and most apt) nickname: “the ring of indifference” – perhaps the most John Lennon thing he’s ever said.  Anyway, as their debenture holders were seen as ‘customers’, it seems every official attendance at the new Wembley has counted each and every one of them, whether or not they were represented on the day by anyone in person.

I can only presume that in 2017, ten years after the stadium’s opening, the debenture terms have elapsed and different rules now apply.  The good news is that 68-odd thousand is not really any lower than any other year so the “lowest attendance” story is (and I hasten to give this term the credence it ill-deserves) ‘fake news’.  The bad news, rugby fans, is that for a decade, we’ve been kind of kidding ourselves about the true numbers.  The case is perhaps most clearly made by this Getty Images picture, taken during the 2010 final between Warrington and Leeds.  The official attendance that day was 85,217, purportedly less than five thousand people shy of a 90,000 full house and yet, despite the tightly-packed crowds in the upper and lower tiers, the whole middle tier appears sparsely populated.

Does any of this bean-counting matter, then, if it’s all built on a farcically inaccurate trend?  Clearly, not as much as is being made of it – but it does beg the rather more fundamental question of why we’ve probably now had a decade of Challenge Cup final attendances that were ‘only’ c.70,000.  In the days before the old Wembley had its capacity reduced to 70-odd thousand, finals regularly attracted crowds in the 90,000s.

Looking at the pictures from this year’s final, it’s easy to see that this year, the RFL knew the problem was coming.  I’d already received increasingly urgent emails from them with various last-minute deals, including “£5 for under 16s”.  On the day, this tweet of Wigan legend Martin Offiah in the Royal Box clearly shows the upper tier opposite ‘blanked off’ by decorative red*-and-white/black-and-white sheeting over vast swathes of the seating area which were not expected to sell.

*by the way, RFL, Wigan’s colours are cherry and white, not red.

What’s most interesting about this development is where the empty seats where.  If you know Wembley, you’ll know the Royal Box is directly opposite the TV camera gantry.  To the viewers at home, it would, for most of the time, seem as though Wembley was full.  Depending upon your viewpoint, this is either a case of good PR or managed decline.  It’s also something in which the RFL have a fair degree of form.  Remember the 2013 World Cup?  The opening fixtures were a double-header in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.  My son Charlie happened to be a mascot that day and I took as many pictures as I could of him with the England and Australia teams as they lined up before the game.  The attendance was 45,052, the capacity in Cardiff is 73,000, leaving around 28,000 empty seats for the organisers to hope no-one sees.  From the picture below, would you care to take a wild guess which side the TV gantry is at the Millennium Stadium?

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England v Australia, the opening fixture of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

To be fair to the RFL, there are exceptions.  For six of the last ten years, the Grand Final has attracted a 70 thousand-plus crowd to Old Trafford (nominally with a 75,000 capacity but slightly reduced for such occasions to allow a stage to be built on the South West quadrant for the pre-show live act).  As a percentage of capacity, the Grand Final is now almost always in the upper 90s.

2007  Leeds 33–6  St. Helens  71,352
2008  Leeds 24–16  St. Helens  68,810
2009  Leeds 18–10  St. Helens  63,259
2010  Wigan 22–10  St. Helens  71,526
2011  Leeds 32–16  St. Helens  69,107
2012  Leeds 26–18  Warrington  70,676
2013  Wigan 30–16  Warrington  66,281
2014  St. Helens 14–6  Wigan  70,102
2015  Leeds 22–20  Wigan  73,512
2016  Wigan 12–6  Warrington  70,202

And then there was the success story that was the 2013 World Cup Final – a crowd of 74,468 which is still, I believe, the world record attendance for an international rugby league match.  Much as I’d prefer to gloss over the fact that this game didn’t include England (thanks to both a piece of sublime magic and a last-minute try from New Zealand in the semi-final), the absence of the home nation makes the subsequent sell-out for the final even more worthy of praise for the organisers.

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Not the best picture of the crowd at the 2013 World Cup Final but the filled stand to the left is where you’ll find the TV camera gantry at Old Trafford

The common denominator to both these successes is, it’s safe to argue, the fact that they both took place at Old Trafford, Manchester, set almost perfectly within the very heartland of rugby league.  Wembley and Cardiff, on the other hand, are not.

The point is, I would contend, strengthened further by the somewhat chequered achievements of the ‘Magic Weekend‘, the newest kid on the block of annual rugby league showpiece occasions in the UK.  The reliance on compound attendance figures for these two-day festivals has more than a whiff of an initiative seeking attention via the biggest number it can lay its hands on, which is why I prefer to look at average attendances over the two days.  Over the last ten years, the numbers have barely edged beyond plus-or-minus 10% of 30,000 per day.  That sounds great, compared to a regular fixture (in 2016, Super League fixtures averaged 9,134) but for three fixtures in a day (and sometimes, it’s four), 30k seems like a case of negligible uplift.  Add to that the fact that the fixtures for these events tend to be ‘marquee’ games like Wigan v Leeds or derbies like Hull v Hull KR which tend not to struggle for numbers when left to be played in their normal surroundings and the whole thing feels like it might just about be ‘washing its face’ and no more.

Of course, all of the above is not the be-all and end-all: the Magic Weekend adds a marvellous sense of occasion to those there, it helps to generate extra national press from a largely union-centric media and it ‘spreads the gospel’ further afield and all that but after all that effort, it’s difficult to claim that, empirically, it’s added even a single extra bum on a seat.  Throw in the fact that the venues (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff; Murrayfield, Edinburgh; Etihad Stadium, Manchester and, latterly, St. James’ Park, Newcastle) are all much larger than 30k and you’re back to the same game of ‘hide the empty seats from the cameras’ – average daily occupancy has ranged from 40% at Cardiff to 67% in Manchester.  Just how commercially successful is the whole enterprise, really?

It’s an important point to make because one theory I’ve read is that the existence of the Magic Weekend is the most likely cause of the trimming of Challenge Cup final crowds.  An alternative away-day at which your team is guaranteed to play does seem like a slightly more appealing alternative to the more traditional, relatively vicarious pursuit of turning up at Wembley in your team’s colours “for the day out” even though two other teams are actually contesting the final.  Having been part of the convivial, ‘rugby league family’ atmosphere, it would be a shame to see it lessened but equally, it takes a bit of fortitude to walk proudly down Wembley Way in a Saints shirt, for example, knowing you’re going to suffer a few hours of (mostly) light-hearted ribbing from the assembled hoards of Wigan and Leeds fans milling around outside the stadium when your team isn’t even there.  As someone who must admit to being part of that ‘friendly fire’, I can confirm I’d think twice about taking the time and expense of going all that way not to see my team, knowing I’d be on the receiving end of it.

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Spot the Saints fans, if you can.  And then mock them!

I think there are other factors.  Bank Holidays are divisive things: enabling grand days out for many but also providing prohibitive alternative attractions which aren’t always easy to avoid, like weddings, long weekends away or, in my case, family holidays (I was driving home, trying to avoid being drawn onto the Péripherique in Paris, last Saturday, while asking for regular updates from Wembley on the BBC Sport app).  Bank Holidays also seem to promise extra travel problems too.  A terrible crash on the M1 and the closure of Euston station, last Saturday seem to be further invitations not to bother again, in future.  I appreciate there were many finals held on the Saturday of the May Day weekend, years ago but was the Challenge Cup not equally well served by holding its final in the last weekend in April?  It seems so: 94,273 Wigan and Halifax fans attended the 1988 final on April 30th, that year.

The mood music is not great, wherever you point your ear, though.  Earlier this year, the RFL caused some consternation by raising the possibility that future Challenge Cup finals may not be played at Wembley, surely a red line-crosser for most fans of the sport.  Even in Australia, the home of the dominant Kangaroos and the all-conquering NRL, all is not rosy in the garden.  As in England, parochial imbalances afflict the sport there, with comparable constraints and similar initiatives to counter them.  In particular, the go-to remedy to address the suburban Sydney clubs’ willingness to exceed their local confines is to play selected regular season games at the 83,000-seat ANZ Stadium, the cavernous-when-empty home of the 2000 Olympics.  If you think the hastily-decorated bank of empty seats at Wembley signify problems in our game, wait ’til you’ve seen a round of NRL played before barely 10% occupancy and a veritable Southern ocean of blue seating blocks.

I’ll soon get over Wigan’s loss at Wembley, I’m sure – possibly as soon as Friday if we can bounce back and put one over on our bitter rivals from St. Helens.  I’m also sure that this year’s Grand Final will attract around 70,000 or more again this year (hopefully with around half of them wearing cherry and white, again).  The real litmus test will come the next time the game holds a showpiece away from the M62 corridor.  The location of the 2018 Magic Weekend is, as yet, unconfirmed.  The three most-attended incarnations have all come at Newcastle – albeit no single day there has ever left fewer than 12,000 empty seats – so it’s the most obvious choice.  An outside bet may be the Ricoh Arena in Coventry: desperate for the money, tried successfully for home internationals in recent years and offering an achievable capacity of over 32,000.  It would be a venue less likely to visually advertise any shortfall in ticket sales but its very selection could be seen as a tacit admission of the RFL’s desire to play safe and not over-extend.

As a fan, I wouldn’t be terribly concerned, either way, about the choice of venue for a round of Super League fixtures in late May.   I would however worry what the implications would be of anything that could be construed to be ‘damage-limitation thinking’ on the future of the game’s oldest and noblest occasion.  Wembley is a non-negotiable part of the Challenge Cup and more must be done to ensure it is filled on the one day a year our sport has it.

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Buddy, Can You Spare A Minute?

 

Hey America!  Hi there.  I’m a friend of yours from way back.  In fact, I come from the same place as Myles Standish so I guess I may even be related to a whole lotta you guys.  Anyways, I just wanted to say something to you, you know, ‘As A Friend’…

We in the rest of the world have been talking and, well, you gotta know, not many of us like this Trump guy a whole lot.  I know a lot of you guys do so I just need to let you know that it could cause us a problem.  We didn’t want to say anything and we nearly didn’t but like that Friends show says: “I’ll be there for you” so here I am.

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Visiting the Bellagio, Las Vegas, Nevada in 2002 – with Caesar’s Palace in the background

Before I start, I know it’s your election and kinda your business so I appreciate you might not take too kindly to some guy from the “old country” stickin’ his nose in your affairs but before you get all ‘1776‘ on me, let’s get a few things straight:

First of all, you guys have our sympathy.  We in the UK have, as you might say, “been there, done that”.  We know what it’s like to have a vote to use and feel we’ve got a bunch of crooks and clowns on each side to have to choose between.  It’s only five months since we had the same deal here.  And, according to most of the rest of the world, we messed up then.  I know what you’re thinking: “why listen to this loser?” and I know how you value success.  Think about it though: whose experience is most helpful here; they guy who doesn’t realise what problem he avoided or the guy who knows exactly what his mistake was?

And then there’s this: a lotta you guys like to think of the USA as the pre-eminent country in the world and in many ways it is: economically, militarily and culturally – well popular culture, anyway.  As the world’s only super-power, Uncle Sam is a pretty big deal.  Since the Cold War started, we’ve grown used to a succession of your presidents being styled as the “leader of the free world”.  Y’know, sometimes that presumption of supremacy has rankled with us but we jus’ sucked it up and didn’t say nothing.  I gotta say, if you go with this Trump guy, we’re through with being OK with that.

Take a look at history – not ‘Hollywood’ history where the US cracked the Enigma Code or American servicemen took part in the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III but real history.  Look at how Greece rose and fell (the first time) and how Greek civilization got surpassed by the Roman Empire.  Since Churchill’s days, America has been described as the ‘Rome’ to Britain’s ‘Greece’.  Just remember that eventually, the Roman Empire contracted and disappeared.  I ain’t saying your time is over – jus’ that nothin’s forever.  There are signs if you know where to look: the past kinda catches up with you, y’know, like our colonial past caught up with us.  Thanks to Washington and his homies, you guys mighta got out early but we managed to keep ahold of Canada, much of the Caribbean, India, Australia, New Zealand and some other places.  It was pretty cool while it lasted but eventually, you gotta pay the price for all this struttin’ around the world.  So we managed to re-boot our Empire as a Commonwealth and some say that immigration from those countries was a good thing for us but we had to take a lotta responsibility we kinda didn’t see comin’.  Take it from us, when we look Stateside and see things like the controversy surrounding the use of the Confederate flag and the Standing Rock thing right now,  we recognise them as echoes of history no-one ever thought would keep comin’ back.  You gotta know, these things are jus’ gonna get more and more complex from here on in.  “Mo’ history, mo’ problems”, brother.

The reason you need to know this, guys, is that when some bozo keeps sayin’ “Make America Great Again”, you gotta be sure what he means by that because I gotta tell you, I think he’s bein’ deliberately unclear with you.  In so many ways, America is still great and never stopped being.  In the ways you might think he means by “great again”, you gotta ask: can he, or anyone else, bring back those days?  No amount of slogans on baseball caps is gonna make everything how it was and nor should it.  America still has nothing to fear but fear itself.

You think I’m over-reacting?  What about the last guy who shouted simple solutions to bring back former glories at controlled rallies, who threatened his opponents with jail, who blamed outsiders and gave no value to disabled people?  Well your country mobilized 16 million to help us stop him and over 400,000 of them never came home.  Y’know, I couldn’t believe when he tried to explain away his crazy-ass opinions as being “just words”.  If we’re in a world where that works as a way out for politicians, we’re in a whole heap o’trouble.  Like JK Rowling said, if you can remove the importance of the words we use that easily, “we’re all lost”.

I ain’t sayin’ Hillary is perfect – I don’t know enough about her to tell you I know better than you.  I mean she is without doubt an experienced political operator who’s been a First Lady, a Senator and a Secretary of State  so I do kinda find it hard to understand why she’s so mistrusted by so many of you but I guess you have your reasons.  I just hope it’s not simple misogyny.  You could do worse than have a woman as a leader – ask Germany!

I’m proud to be a pro-American.  I spent my 16th birthday in Florida – the first of many visits there.  I’ve been fortunate enough to visit New York City; Las Vegas; Austin, Texas and Colorado, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  I wanna go back and see more of your amazing country.  I love your people, your positivity, your values and your achievements.  I have American friends: I’m pretty sure some are Democrat-leaning and some are Republican-leaning and I hope none of you take offense at what I’ve said.  Whatever happens, I’m not gonna stop lovin’ America, watchin’ your movies, listenin’ to your music and readin’ your literature – but a few of us might think about consciously uncoupling for a few years if you get involved with that guy…

Anyways, I hope we can still be friends – maybe this will help:

I sure do appreciate you reading this.  Much obliged!

 

 

Arriverderci, Allerdici

For once in English football’s long and undignified history of ‘hitting rock bottom’ has come a scandal that I’ve actually welcomed.  Proving that sometimes, two wrongs actually do make a right, Sam Allardyce has come to the rescue of all those who thought him woefully under-qualified and over-rated to lead the national team – by spectacularly talking himself out of the job after barely two months.

181122_3649827757075_1625156621_nTo his supporters, he was always the straight-talking, no-nonsense antidote to the seemingly more cultured, continental-leaning and ultimately fruitless philosophy favoured by the FA in recent years.  ‘Big Sam’ will sort it out, they claimed, with all the sophistication of a 1970s tabloid headline.

But we soon found out that he wasn’t as straight-talking as he seemed.  Aside from the whole argument about the potential for corruption, the flagrant disregard for his employers’ policies on third-party ownership and the fact he even felt the need to associate with anyone not core to his primary objective, it was the duplicity that really did for him.  He was exposed as a charlatan who thought he was clever enough to say one thing publicly and quite another once the mood took him.

You might argue that his opinions on the re-building of Wembley, the conduct of Princes William and Harry and the effectiveness of his predecessors are all matters of opinion, to which he is fully entitled.  You might believe there is an adequate separation of the employee and the private individual to justify this claim.

When faced with this question of personal freedom versus professional integrity, my instinct is that I would agree, with only one condition – would he have been happy to disclose any of those views in the job interview?  If he had, knowing the risks to his ambition of doing so, then yes, the FA would have known what they were employing (at huge expense) and would have had no complaint.  If not, then why not?  Because it might not have gone down well, perhaps?  So why should it be such a huge surprise that being caught in possession of a toxic opinion later on would lead to his removal?  And this from a man who has spent ten years bleating about how he would never be allowed to get near his ‘dream job’.

Perhaps it’s not the most judicious thing to quote Greg Dyke (I’ve always held him in quite high regard but I often feel in the minority by doing so) but he’s the only person who I’ve yet heard echo my very first thoughts about this whole sorry affair: why indeed does someone on £3 million per year need to worry about compromising himself for £400,000 (roughly seven weeks’ wages)?  And if he doesn’t understand that simple concern, what else is he failing to understand?

The England Manager’s job is supposed to be the pinnacle of the game and to me, the vast sums of money involved in this particular job in football are more justified than anywhere else in the game.  People talk about it being a poisoned chalice but it’s only poisonous if you fail to meet to the standards of performance or conduct.  Quite frankly, most England fans half-expect some shortfall in performance so even that is largely tolerated.  How hard can it be, therefore, to just conduct yourself appropriately?  Roy Hodgson was lots of things but even his fiercest critic (and there were a few) would struggle to add ‘impropriety’ to his charge sheet.

our_2d00_culture£3m a year is a lot of money, even in football, but it does buy the FA the right to remove all the unhelpful nuance and feeble excuses from situations like this and act decisively.  Thankfully, they had the backbone to do so, knowing it would result in some wholly embarrassing headlines in the short term.  Thankfully, the FA of today seem a world away from their dusty gentleman’s club of octogenarians and, with initiatives like ‘England DNA‘, give themselves a clear forward when situations like this occur.

Yes, it seems faintly soul-crushing to see everything being boiled down to “a process” but it’s the professional thing to do (and to be seen to do) and such exercises are invaluable in situations like this.  Was Allardyce’s integrity of the highest standard?  No.  Well it says here that ‘nothing less is acceptable’.  Sorry, Sam but that’s all there is to it.  On your bike.

We could have also done without his mealy-mouthed “entrapment won” reaction, appearing to many to prove that this is a man with the hide of a particularly shameless rhino.  Will he return to the game?  If he has a shred of dignity, no or at least not in England.  Sadly, it won’t be long before some club or other is desperate and shallow enough to welcome him as their new messiah.  When that happens, if it happens to be your club, just remember this:

 

 

BBC: Britain’s Biggest Controversy?

– Oh, he’s not going off one one about the BBC again, is he?

Well, yes I am, I’m afraid.  Normally, I’m motivated to assault my keyboard (and your attention) by the need to defend dear old ‘Auntie’ in the face of some current slight or attack on her being.

This time, it’s slightly different.  My trigger to this particular polemic is not to decry the latest piece of perceived BBC-bashing: the Government’s insistence that all BBC employees earning over £150,000 must be listed in the interests of ‘transparency’.  Much as I love the BBC and I’m suspicious about the thinking behind this development, I happen to agree with the idea.

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It’s right of course that taxpayers can see how their c.£3.75 billion is spent each year but it’s hardly fair to infer from that that the BBC has been utterly opaque about its finances until now.  For many years, The BBC’s Annual Reports have been available to download and/or read for anyone with an internet connection and enough inclination/nosiness so to do.  This year’s version runs to 168 pages of often glossy prospectus-like self-promotion but as ever, it is required to include a high degree of financial information.

This compulsion to transparency, I imagine, is both a blessing and a curse to the BBC Trust.  For example, thanks to the report, we can find out that the Beeb spent an astonishing £45.5m on Human Resources (HR) over the last year, up from £43.1m the year before, both seemingly massive numbers.  With a total income of £4.8bn last year, this HR figure amounts to almost 1%, which seems much less significant.  Whether or not you believe this figure is still far too high is of course up to you, but either way, you’re better informed by having this information available to you – as you would be, either way, by knowing that Gary Lineker, Claudia Winkelman et al are this band or that above £150k pa (the declarations will be in bands of 50,000: £150k-£200k; £200k-£250k etc.).

As with any form of information, it’s fair to say that the information alone is not the whole picture.  There is also context.  For instance, the BBC Report shows that the World Service is currently costing licence fee payers £261m and the cost of actually collecting the licence fee come is at around £115m.  So what?  Well did you know these two areas were, until recently, not covered by the licence fee but by other parts of the Government?  Some might say that it was a rather underhand trick to suddenly burden these liabilities on the corporation without allowing any recompense.

Equally, you might take the view that these things were already being paid for by your taxes anyway so what difference does it make what part of the public purse they come under?  That’s a fair point but it’s also then rather harsh to draw too many conclusions about the Beeb’s levels of like-for-like efficiency when these two new overheads account for around 10% of the licence revenue.

There’s also a point to be made here about the fact that most of the £115 fee collection costs (which, let’s face it, are likely to be mostly comprised of pursuing dodgers) are being borne by us, those who do pay our licence.  It’s non-payers we should be directing our ire towards for this, not the BBC for being forced to include the provision in its accounts.

With effectively a £380m millstone placed around its neck, it was hardly surprising that the BBC wasn’t able to stop The Great British Bake-Off defecting to Channel 4 earlier this week.  If only the Corporation had had to spend ‘just’ £105m a year on stopping licence-dodgers, it would have been able to fund the £10m shortfall to keep one of its most popular programmes of recent years.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps it was not just the increased cost that did for the GBBO contract; it was more the fact that the increased cost would have been scrutinised because of the BBC’s ever-heightened commitment to transparency.  It can be argued that the loss of a flagship programme was therefore the right thing to happen and a sign of responsible management and cost control.  Will Channel 4 manage to maintain the quirky-yet-comfy style of the departing Mel & Sue?  Will Paul & Mary judge the new format to be too crummy for their taste?  Will the inevitably fully-laden ad breaks ruin it?  Like the contestants, we’ll have to wait to see how it turns out.

I suspect that, on balance, we’ll miss the BBC version and, in its absence, our hearts should grow fonder for the Corporation that bestowed it on us in the first place.  The same goes for the other divide-crossing crowd-pleaser The Voice.  Auntie Beeb has a proud history of conceiving and developing formats into a mind-boggling list of national treasures from Watch With Mother to Strictly Come Dancing – and far too many in between for me to reel off.  There’s no reason to believe that it isn’t capable of creating something else, just as popular – or even better.

I think Stephen Fry best stated the BBC’s value during his 2008 lecture on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting (it’s well worth watching all 43 minutes but the bit I’m quoting comes right at the end) when he makes the point that, in some other countries, there seems to be enough funding for enriching floral displays on roundabouts, posing the question “why don’t we do that?  How pleasing.”  The point is that such countries can afford to do it  because they choose to make it a priority.  He likens the BBC and its core values (to educate, inform and entertain) to a million such roundabouts and something which we as a nation can agree that we can afford – and if we don’t we may only truly discover its value when it’s too late to recover.  I’ve seldom agreed more with anything else I’ve ever heard or read.

Oh, and one more thing: if the Government’s recently-renewed thirst for transparency is to be the driving force behind another requirement of the BBC’s proberty, we taxpayers must then surely look forward to a similar, consistent, ascending commitment to demonstrating value and equal transparency when it comes to the rest of the Public Sector.

I’ve blogged before about how voters should be given the same consideration as shareholders, with all the access to structured reporting that that entails.  Thus we can eagerly await similar levels of dedication to scrutiny in the case of NHS (with a c.£100bn expenditure, a 214-page report, a lesser amount of financial information and salary information pertaining only to its Board members.) and after that, who knows: Parliament, the Armed Services, the Civil Service, the Police, the Prison Systems and, one might presume, all the privately-owned organisations that depend on Public Sector contracts for, let’s say, 50% of their revenue.

Or would it be too cynical to suspect that that won’t happen?

 

 

 

 

Remaining To Be Convinced

If I’ve learned anything over the last few weeks of pitiful so-called ‘debate’ leading upto today’s EU Referendum, it’s that politics is even more of a sham than I had previously dared imagine.  Whichever way the vote goes, the most depressing conclusion is that due to the forces that have led to this conclusion, such an analysis seems unlikely ever to change.

My problem is nothing to do with the issue we’re actually voting on; morally, there’s lots to be said for granting the UK’s population the chance to review our involvement in the European ‘project’, half a lifetime after our parents and grandparents (as it mostly was back then) chose to enter the EC by a ratio of 2 to 1.  The cause for my disdain is the way that our politicians of all sides and of all hues have consistently chosen to present their arguments – and for the most part, the acquiescence of the media in allowing their oversimplified agendae to remain unchallenged by nuance and critical thought.

The signs weren’t encouraging when the term ‘Brexit’ suddenly began to infiltrate our national consciousness.  Given today’s 140-character attention-span, acronyms and portmanteaux are an increasing presence and while I can accept that the media will generally tend to embrace such terms to help them shorten headlines and seem current, it has always sat uneasily with me that such a stylised piece of jargon should be so embraced by the politicians themselves.  In communicating effectively to the electorate, those whom we have chosen to represent us have a responsibility to maintain clarity in the face of a complex argument not descend into the latest piece of Westminster Village gobbledegook at the earliest opportunity.  It was claimed by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1948 that Churchill once wrote “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put” in exasperation at the unwieldy restriction of correct English grammar where it hampers effective communication.  The same argument can be made to the very term which has come to represent the whole issue in its ugly, five-letter, ‘dumbed-down’ state.

Similarly, the arguments on either side of the discussion have remained largely untroubled by too much careful consideration or any sense of balance.  In or Out, the main tactic has been to scare the poor, well-meaning, responsible voter into submission by tainting their reasonable uncertainty with fear.  “Vote Leave and create a recession” said the Remainers, almost certainly guided by James Carville’s now legendary psephological constant which asserts that “It’s the economy, stupid” when it comes to compelling voters.  This was bad enough but given so much xenophobic material to work with, the Out campaign certainly left no barrel unscraped, with ‘all immingration is bad’ becoming the inevitable baseline for their rhetoric.  The worst case scenario for such idiot-baiting was therefore unsurprisingly realised when Jo Cox MP was senselessly murdered while doing her job serving her community, a job that all people with a brain will realise is a public service denied to much of the world’s population.

While I’m on the subject of immigration (and I must address it at some point), it’s actually something of a red herring in the context of this referendum but there’s a hugely important point to be made.  While the argument has become so childishly binary, we allow certain assumptions to stand as fact and it’s important to point out that they are not.  I found myself in a minor Twitter spat with someone who accused me of being ‘anti-immigrant’ because I pointed out that it seems necessary to “control numbers”.  Note: that does not mean cease immigration, merely apply control to the number, whatever that may be.  I answered that controlling numbers wasn’t ‘anti-immigrant’,  not even ‘anti-immigration’, just ‘anti-uncontrolled-immigration’.  To righteously make the leap that I hate foreigners themselves because I have concerns about the capacity of the country was, I felt, pernicious thought-policing of the worst kind.  Remember Gillian Duffy, the Rochdale pensioner whom Gordon Brown called a ‘bigot’ for expressing the same concerns?  If the Prime Minister of the day can’t make that distinction, based on a knee-jerk assumption that people who question uncontrolled immigration must be unreconstructed Alf Garnetts, we are clearly not as intelligent a species as we like to think we are.

Where in this whole monstrous carbuncle of a process have we seen evidence of positive inspiration to vote one way or another?  Any form of assessment that our life will be enhanced or enriched either way seems to have been lost in the universal agreement that the decision we face can only be characterised in the way our choice will need to protect us from one catastrophe or another.  And we wonder why people are engaging less with Politics?  Of course the electorate need to be convinced but there are ways to do that by inspiration as opposed to unremitting threats of desperation.

Actually, there does seem to be one tactic, employed on both sides, which I would have to admit is based in positivity and aspiration rather than the rest of the negative narrative – but it’s so pathetically facile, I almost can’t believe I’m allowing myself to distinguish it as a legitimate piece of electioneering.  It is, alas, the celebrity endorsement.

We’re all used to seeing Gary Lineker’s face on a Walkers crisps ad or hearing Helen Mirren assure is that actually, *we* not just she can now be said to be “worth it”.  We live in a consumer society and we’re so used to famous people telling us that they recommend such-and-such that we barely even notice it as a tactic anymore.  Similarly, we all know which households in our local area will be desperate to stick up signage in their window or garden exhorting every passer-by to vote for this party or that, every time there’s an election.  Why not combine the two ideas?  There’s only two choices so there must be a ready selection of ‘slebs’ on either side who’ll only be too egotistical, sorry, happy to publicly align themselves with either argument.  How meta is that?  Forget the actual merits of the argument, everybody, just know that if you vote ‘Remain’, you’ll be on the same side as James Bond.

I don’t really have a problem with Daniel Craig outing himself as an ‘In’ supporter on Twitter – we all have the right to do that if we so desire and he’s no different, he just has more followers.  What I do despair at is the expediency (which is doubtless in direct proportion to the number of followers) that saw our Prime Minister (Our. Prime. Minister. FFS) rush to accept the acclaim that, hey, even 007 is in my gang!  I know I bang on about Churchill a lot (and I know he had his faults) and I like to use him as a go-to personification of a true statesman but consider this for a moment.  Can you possibly imagine him even thinking of resorting to bolstering his position by noting that (for instance) “Mr. Nöel Coward has been insightful enough to agree that we must not pursue Mr Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement”.  To a statesman, there is politics and there is celebrity.  One is determinant of the standard of living that a country enjoys, the other is a distraction from it.  Ne’er the twain shall meet.

Many would claim that we’re now living in a celebrity-obsessed age.  Is that why we’re being confronted with dumbed-down arguments, sugar-frosted with celebrity endorsement?  Politicians have long acknowledged the power of the maxim ‘if you’re explaining, you’re losing’, which rather sadly seems at odds with the whole point of political debate, doesn’t it?  Consequently, are they now living by the addendum ‘if you can retweet a film star, you’re winning’?

And so to the actual issue at hand.  As we all know, it’s very tempting at this point to re-heat our favourite historical distractions like Agincourt, Trafalgar, Waterloo, “Two World Wars and One World Cup” and all that but ultimately, to do so only provides a jingoistic shot in the arm and achieves nothing so it must be resisted.  At its heart, the issue first seems to be one of control: London or Brussels, UK or EU, ‘Queen and Country’ or ‘European Partners’.  There is of course a lot to get worked up about when you consider the EU, the seemingly ever-growing mission creep of the project from trading entity to would-be federal state, the grossly-skewed-in-favour-of the-French CAP, the impenetrable lack of transparency and accountability of all the countless Eurocrats, the mind-boggling levels of resource it all requires and, one suspects, wastes.

And yet, we forget its primary aim, its – dare I use the French term? Yes, I dare – raison d’être was the avoidance of a continent-splitting bloodbath for the third time in half a century.  From a very low baseline of expectation, it has to be said that, so far, that particularly basic aim has been successfully achieved.  Well done, all concerned for avoiding potential world oblivion by finding an inordinate amount of more trivial matters to squabble about in expensively-designed buildings instead!

It has also, in fairness, provided protection from unfair trade tariffs, cut heavily (believe it or not) most cross-border bureaucracy, provided member states with the option of a common currency (which we seem to like, as long as it’s the same in every other country) and vastly simplified (via vastly complex rules on standards) the process of selling goods across the continent by providing the single source of regulation.  Much of this happened before the internet age so, whether you wish to be charitable enough to say that the European project anticipated it or not, by the time we all realised we could now shop from home, much of the regulatory work was already done to enable the whole of the continent’s sellers to benefit from the shift in customer behaviour.

I don’t remember the 1975 referendum but I do remember the 1992 ‘Single Market’ upgrade that presciently paved this particular path.  I remember the often ridiculous resistance to it, often from ‘Outraged of Tunbridge Wells’ retired Sergeant Major types: “we don’t want to be eating Italian sausages and Dutch cheeses when we have Cheddar and the good old British banger!” they prattled.  And look what’s happened since then: our palate has become infinitely more cosmopolitan, our cupboards now brim with foods we didn’t even know existed twenty-four years ago.  We haven’t just savoured the salami since ‘92, we have cherished the chorizo and venerated the wurst.  And we’ve similarly done all sorts of alliterative appreciation of an untold amount of other foodstuffs that I’m going to leave you to consider.  It’s also interesting to recall that even the most ardent anti-Euro old farts never seemed to direct their ire to French wine or German beer, strangely enough.

So we’re demonstrably not that keen to leave the European party, we just want to be peripheral to it, one may conclude.  Participating on our own terms but free to move on to another party somewhere else if we feel like it.  Is this about control, then, or ambition?  Is it a case of Remaining to keep the safe and mostly agreeable status quo or Leaving because we feel we’re capable of having more fun, with cooler people?  It sounds enticing enough but is it as simple as merely being free of Europe – or will it require more of us, and our leaders, than that?

One argument that’s often made in support of the EU is the fact that its schemes benefit deprived areas in member states, fund higher education, support scientific development and regulate cleanliness of beaches.  While much of the above could be claimed by naysayers to be costly, interfering, inefficient and exceeding the body’s initial remit, there’s one point that seems never to have been adequately addressed: why?  Not so much why should the EU feel the need to concern itself in these areas but how is it even necessary?  If every member state was being run properly, each would have granted sufficient priority to the state of deprivation, educational attainment, scientific progress and marine environmental quality.  It seems to me that such schemes only exist because of a dereliction on the part of all member states that rely on EU aid – a charge that applies historically to the UK as much as anywhere else.  It seems that successive Governments have treated the EU in the same way they view the Lottery – as cash-rich entities that exist simply to relieve its own departments and ministries the burden of having to actually worry about funding necessary improvements to vast swathes of the national resource.

In order to be convinced that we’re better Out than In (because I really believe that we could be), the question really becomes one not of control or even ambition but one of competence.  Do I trust a post-Leave Government (of any colour) to increase our trading power, reduce our regulation, control our immigration and ensure that our sink estates, our universities and our beaches are all appropriately resourced?  In order to answer that question, we need a little more context…

Referenda (to use the correct Latin plural) are a curious notion.  One the one hand, they seem ultra-democratic; allowing the public to decide on a given single issue.  What could be more self-determining that that?  On the other, they sit uneasily within the usual democratic framework – generally, the idea is that we the people give a mandate to govern us for a term, based on a manifest selection of promises to effect certain changes and then we leave them to it.

Also, parties win and lose elections and those within the winning and losing parties are given (or relieved of) power as a consequence.  Candidates are expected to ensure their electioneering is in harmony with the party on whose ticket they are standing, meaning that if they win, they win but if they lose, they can always highlight the areas of their Party’s policies with which they personally disagree to mitigate their failure.  In short, there’s nothing terminally discreditable to one’s further career in losing a seat at an election.

In a referendum, it’s different.  Politicians are granted that most dangerous of things: a position determined by their ‘conviction’, unencumbered by those controlling bullies, the party whips.  Removing partisanship strips out their requirement to be ‘on message’ and therefore makes it a rare test of each politician’s ability to truly align himself or herself with Public Opinion.  The upshot is that those who are seen to agree with the Great British Public may thereafter wear their affirmation as a badge of honour and those who misjudge the mood may have nowhere to hide when questioned about their ongoing credibility.

That’s why referenda tend to be so uncommon.  Yes they seem all very inclusive and communal but do we really want to have to tell the Government we’ve already elected what we want them to do every five minutes?  Do politicians themselves want to subject themselves to the vagaries of so frequently committing their personal views to the public vote, when it’s difficult to make an excuse for being seen to be out of step?  No.  However nice an idea it seems, to all concerned, the prospect of a referendum is a box left unopened – most of the time.  The only times they can’t be avoided are when the issues are so fundamental and generally when the question falls outside of general party political lines.  Like now.

That means that there’ll be casualties on whichever side loses.  As it’s non-partisan, that means that there’ll be casualties within a Government, a Cabinet, potentially even the office of Prime Minister itself.  And that means there’ll be opportunities for those on the winning side to fill those vacancies, wherever they occur.  Could that be the real motivation for those who have chosen to oppose the ‘Remain’ campaign?  A shit-or-bust gamble to attain higher office, based on alignment to a game-changing shift in the political landscape rather than a commitment to the actual principle itself?  Surely it can’t be true that the thing we’ve been talking about all this time is just a sideshow in a wider game to further the ambitions of a small number of string-pulling pro-Leavers.  Surely not…  You have to wonder…

So, to re-cap: we are where we are with Europe, it could be better, it could have been much worse.  We may want more control of our affairs but what are we prepared to give up to get it?  Can we really do much better by doing things differently and, crucially, do we have the leadership talent to ensure that we make the most of the opportunity?  Does the way we’re being communicated to by our politicians a disdain for our intelligence to start with – and does any of it really matter anyway if it’s all just a part of a Machiavellian play for power?

As Duncan Bannatyne says on ‘Dragon’s Den’, “for those reasons, I’m oot” –  by which I mean I’m ‘In’.

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The End of a Long and Winding Road…

Today, I worked my last day at Robinsons.  As a family, we’ve chosen to sell our remaining stake in the business.  I’d like to say more about why that is but, legally, I can’t.

Robinsons is a name I’ve been involved with for as long as I can remember; as long as it’s even possible for someone to have an association.  When I say it’s been a significant part of my life since birth, it’s not just a hollow cliché, it’s a statement of fact – my birthday (October 5th) almost always falls in the middle of the Horse of the Year Show and during the 1973 show, my Dad drove back to Wigan from Wembley for my birth…and then back down to Wembley for the sake of the business.

In the forty-odd years since then, I’ve been involved at times tangentially, intrinsically, unknowingly, unwillingly, enthusiastically and almost every other adverb you can come up with.  Thanks to Robinsons, I’ve done some jobs that most people wouldn’t do, acquired skills to perform tasks that many people couldn’t do and been I’ve been required to do some things that, these days, it’s commonly held that you really shouldn’t do.  Throughout that time, it’s enabled me to fly around Manhattan by helicopter, see Hong Kong from the Peak and enjoy a night’s entertainment at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich.  I’ve mixed with celebrity, royalty and, occasionally, criminality and in the space of one particular fortnight, I experienced both Kipling’s imposters: the disaster of a store destroyed by fire and then the triumph of my own wedding, itself borne of a workplace relationship.  Whether I’ve liked it or not, whether it was primarily work or pleasure, Robinsons has always been a present factor, an immovable object in my life.

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There aren’t many pictures of me on horseback. This one from the late 1970s shows that, even at home, ‘work’ was never far away…

The earliest Robinsons (…Saddlery, in those days) memories I have are of sitting with my Grandad in the back room of the almost comically small shop we had at Wallgate, Wigan (by North Western Station) in the late 1970s, ‘helping’ him as he turned his hand to saddlery repairs.  I just about remember going on Friday buying trips to Walsall with my Dad and Grandma as we filled our trusty Granada estate car with whatever stock we could fit in – or more probably, whatever we could afford, back then.  I even remember going on delivery runs to customers in and around Burscough, Ormskirk and Southport.

More than anything, though, in those days, I remember the shows.  Hazily, I can still recall being awoken by the early morning missions from RAF Valley on the Anglesey showground, the rather eventful route we always took to the Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate, collecting conkers and the odd birthday present at our pitch virtually underneath Wembley Way and getting home at half-past three in the morning after driving back from the Royal Welsh Show at Builth Wells.  I remember claiming to ‘drive’ our 40-foot show unit on the motorway while my school friends were still mastering riding a bike.  Okay, it only amounted to sitting on my Dad’s knee, holding the wheel as he would tell me to make minor corrections left and right but it was a proper HGV, it was at motorways speeds and, to any six year-old, that constituted full control of the vehicle.  Even now, the smell of cut grass, sun-warmed canvas and frying bacon whisks me back through the decades to Shepton Mallet, Peterborough or any of a number of other exotic-sounding places that no-one else I knew had ever heard of.

As I grew older, my awareness and my level of responsibility grew and I found my first taste of true independence on the various showgrounds.  Like any young boy, the opportunity to spend whole days wandering unrestricted around acres and acres of agricultural machinery on display was one not to be missed.  I soon became acquainted with Beecroft’s Toys and by the age of eight, my specialist subject was undoubtedly ‘Tractors’.

Arena North Show Stand
The Robinsons Saddlery stand at the Arena North showground, Lancashire, circa 1979.

While the show circuit gave me all these experiences and many more besides (like watching the 1982 World Cup Final on a grainy black-and-white television in a caravan in Harrogate), more often than not, it would represent absence – spending half of each summer in a one-parent family environment.  There was often a present for us when we were all re-united (if we were lucky, a Britain’s toy from Beecroft’s) but my birthdays were almost always a Dad-free zone until I was about 13 – although I did once see him on TV, leaning on a hoarding by the collecting ring while David Vine was introducing the next to go in some class or other.  Kids tend to hate being ‘different’ and in that respect, we were different from our ‘normal’-job-breadwinner friends but in retrospect, it wasn’t that much of a hardship when you consider what many kids contend with.

While Martin and I were making the most of this seemingly idyllic, Blytonesque lifestyle, changes were afoot.  Growth was on the agenda and time was waiting for neither of us.  First, we moved house, expecting to relocate the shop to our new address and then, with the addition of a business partner, we moved the shop – to an old lorry showroom in a place down the road called Ashton-in-Makerfield.  To us, it just seemed a continuation of the same adventure, even though it was obvious that its much bigger scale brought with it bigger pressures.  In the way that family businesses do, we all mucked in when we had to: I remember one Easter Sale when I was given a canister of compressed air and about two hundred yellow balloons – I don’t think I had any skin left on my fingertips at the end of that day!

During another Sale day, I remember being positioned at the store entrance with a box of clear plastic bags, specifically to invite ladies to put their handbags in one “for security” while not entirely understanding why.  That only a handful of the hundreds of customers I spoke to took exception to this seems mildly surprising these days.  That a ‘supermarket’-type store was entrusting this ‘security’ task to an eleven year-old whom, as I recall, was also unpaid may perhaps raise the eyebrows slightly higher.  It was a more innocent time and the need to address the greater good was more pressing than any sense of inappropriateness that seems to stalk every decision we face these days.

The expansion also meant understanding what it meant to have staff.  We’d always had ‘a helper’ or ‘an assistant’ at Wallgate or at the shows but this was retail on a much bigger scale.  Now there was a range of new people to get to know – bringing forth a rather broad variety of characters, let’s say.  To grown-up eyes, it’s obvious what the joke is when colleagues have a whip-round to pay for a kiss-o-gram to turn up at work to mark the birthday of the ‘quiet lad’.  All I remember is my own cartoonish eyes-on-stalks amazement when my ten year-old eyes feasted on a red satin-and-fishnet-clad girl who looked like she’d arrived out of a Benny Hill sketch one evening, after closing time, to great cheers while she embarrassed the life out of the poor guy!  I’m also pretty sure that with us kids present, she would have had my Mum hoping against hope that this was an ‘o-gram’ of the ‘kiss’ and not the ‘strip’ variety!

Staff brought another new dynamic: the question of how to respond, at the age of ten, to a sudden influx of unsolicited flattery from adults.  Being “the bosses’ son” was both an accolade and a bit of an embarrassment, if I’m honest.  Maybe I’m too much of an egalitarian at heart or maybe I have a low threshold for overtly creepy behaviour but I was never too comfortable when strange adults were too nice to me for no apparent reason – after all, that’s not what kids are given to expect from grown-ups.  I’m afraid that even now, any form of unexpected sugary affirmation may set off such defences, honed on years of “one day this will all be yours and you’ll be my boss”.  I apologise to anyone who’s ever been sincerely this nice to me if I’ve ever returned your sentiments with an aloofness ill-befitting of the occasion.  Perhaps it’s a form of autism on my part (many experts claim that we’re all somewhere on the spectrum) or maybe it’s my inner ten year-old still struggling to discern false flattery from genuine geniality.  I would hope that there are other kids of business owners with similar enough experiences to at least allow the conclusion that I’m not that weird about the whole subject.

As childhood gave way to adolescence, the shop became a means to an end other than mere entertainment.  I was desperate to go on the 1989 school skiing trip to Austria, at a cost of about £300 and managed to negotiate a Saturday job in the feedstore for the whole of autumn and winter in order to fund it.  As a father now, I understand that I was never really expected to pay it all – it was an opportunity to test my mettle and show me the value of hard work.  At £10 a day (out of petty cash), there certainly weren’t enough weeks in the interim to get me to my overall target – but my contribution was being matched at home.  Having accepted my discomfort with everyone working there knowing who I was, I was now able to relish in the value of customers not knowing who I was – I certainly enjoyed it the day I was brazenly asked by a feed customer “why don’t I put three in the boot and you just write down I put two in?” which allowed me to reply “I’ll need to ask my Dad about that – it’s his company”.  To this day, I’d still prefer to be anonymous and under-estimated than known and have my thoughts presumed by others – but there are good sides to being known as well and you can’t have it all ways.

As I’d hoped, the eventual holiday was great fun and the source of lots of happy memories but I also found that those formative weeks working in the feedstore were just as memorable and are now just as fondly recalled – unavoidably so, whenever I hear “Need You Tonight” by INXS or “Dignity” by Deacon Blue.

Once again, change was in the air: we’d dabbled in printed brochures at showgrounds and found it a far easier way to win sales and keep customers than the labour-intensive show circuit.  The late eighties had seen Robinsons give up the shows and venture into the brave new world of mail order.  This meant photo-shoots at home, restricting our movements around the garden, in case we appeared in shot (bad) but on the other hand, it meant having the odd model about the place (good, if not quite as good as a kiss-o-gram)!  In reality, it was, almost without exception, a largely dull process made worse by the tetchiness that everyone seemed to exhibit, a state I’ve come to appreciate at first hand in the years since then.

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Modelling: seems like a great idea at the time, tends to be something you’ll regret thereafter…

On top of all that, much of the photography we did was of boring, static things like shavings forks and hook-on door mangers.  When it came to the clothing, I always drew the line at modelling anything (bizarrely, Martin didn’t, which is equally uncharacteristic) but even then I couldn’t escape the odd assignment to put my hand in a glove or my foot in a welly-sock or something equally unglamorous.  Today, you’ll hear people on chat shows sorrowfully claiming that “life on set is nowhere near as exciting as you’d think, you know” or some other such plaintive cry.  While I still bristle at the faux modesty of it all – and it’s not like they’re working down the pit, either – the basic point is one that I’ve well understood to be unremittingly true since my early teens.

And so in 1990, with GCSEs taken and weeks to fill before starting sixth-form college, I returned for a summer job, just in time for a major refurbishment in the store.  By now, at almost seventeen, I was more comfortable in my role – and it helped that for the first time, I was actually doing work that I knew I could do as well as (if not better than) anyone who worked there: labouring and fixture-building.  I was happy to swap banter with the tradesmen and I soon found I had become something of an expert in building shop fixtures.  In addition, the lunch-time conversation was more grown-up, the esteem I attracted seemed more genuine and any falseness I perceived seemed to dissipate, as I was proving my worth.  It was a great time and I only have to hear ‘Sacrifice’ by Elton John, ‘Can’t Touch This’ by MC Hammer or, inevitably for that summer, ‘Nessun Dorma’ by Luciano Pavarotti to transport myself back to that wonderful, heady time.

Two summers later with A-Levels done, I was back in demand as a labourer, as we decided to move our now burgeoning mail order department to a separate warehouse a few miles away.  Having passed my driving test in early 1991, I quickly added the skill of driving with a trailer – which would be put to good use as we moved load after load from one building to another.  Again, I benefitted from the advantage of proficiency: being able to reverse a sixteen-foot trailer into a tight space tended to remove any sense that people were being unnecessarily gushing with me.  As long as I was doing things I felt that others knew they couldn’t, there was no need for false flattery.  It was another rite-of-passage summer and, as you’ve asked, I’ll add that its soundtrack seemed to be dominated by ‘Living On My Own’ by Freddie Mercury and ‘Dreams’ by Gabrielle.

It was also the first time that I found myself occasionally frustrated with the inability of others to see what I required of them when working together, which was something that, at the time, took me by surprise.  I now realise this was my first taste of managerial experience but back then, I couldn’t believe that it was possible for me to just turn up at the start of the summer holidays, fresh into a job and somehow know what to do far quicker than someone who’d been doing such work for years.

During my university years, I often found that the holiday work I was doing acted as a perfect antidote to my term-time studies – and vice-versa.  Delivery jobs, painting fixtures, building mezzanine floors were all menial yin to my academic yang.  The principle also extended to the people I was working with: days after discussing quantum theory with my Physicist mates on campus, I found myself explaining to girl in our packing room one day that I was only working there for a few weeks before returning to study for a degree in Marketing.  She looked utterly perplexed.  “What’s that, then?  Like, selling fruit and veg, is it?”  The world is made up of very different people and it was a valuable reminder that it’s a skill in itself to be able to relate equally well to everyone.

It was around this time that I attended my first ever trade fair – the Denver Western/English Apparel & Equipment Market (which happened to be followed by some skiing in the Rockies) and then a Gift Fair in New York.  I was half-way through my second year and in order to be able to miss two weeks of lectures and tutorials, I needed the agreement of the university.  I made a point of directing my request via an America lecturer, hoping she would more fully agree that the experience was of benefit to my course.  I have no idea whether or not the tactic made any difference but I got the permission I needed.  I certainly learned that the Trade Fair was another avenue for unsolicited flattery, just as soon as it was clear that the would-be supplier could tell what the company name on your badge said.

Upon graduation, I threw myself into the ‘Milk Round’ of graduate careers guidance, fully expecting not to go back to the family firm.  Between applications and telephone interviews for this blue-chip company and that, we ended up having a conversation about the fact that for the first time in years, Robinsons was just reaching the point where its Marketing functions needed to be made more sophisticated and I decided to help out ‘for the time being’.  The standing joke I still have with my mates from Uni is that I agreed to join on a temporary basis.  “How’s that temporary job?” they would ask, almost twenty years later.  Well, it came to an end like I told you it would – nothing’s forever!

H PJB at HOYS PPC
With Helen, presenting the rosettes after an evening round of the Prince Phillip Cup at the Horse of the Year Show, NEC Arena, 2003.

Since September 1995, when I became an official employee, I’ve spent millions of pounds of marketing budget, taken on (and finished) dozens of people, been involved in countless office moves, seminars, awards ceremonies and meetings.  I’ve flown to three continents and become acquainted with several European airports along the way and appeared in the press and on the radio more times than I can say.

Via my 13-year involvement with BETA, the trade association, I’ve sat on committees and councils, delivered speeches, spoken at the Royal Society in London and met HRH The Princess Royal – who was very complimentary about Robinsons, by the way.   I’ve collected awards for ‘Best Mail Order Company’ and presented awards in the main arena at The Horse of the Year Show, when we sponsored the Prince Phillip Cup.  I’ve even blagged my way into the Press Tent at Badminton Horse Trials, which is no mean feat, I can tell you.  Every job has its perks and it’s fair to say I’ve had my share of them.

I’ve also done the shitty jobs, the weird jobs and the jobs that are almost impossible to delegate, like painting our logo on the road into a local riding centre when we were sponsoring a horse trials, one year.  Spending the night in a caravan in Scotland in December, with the temperature well below freezing wasn’t much fun and neither was being on ‘alarm cover’; getting a call at 2:30 in the morning to go and reset a blaring alarm, wondering if this time there really was an attacker in the dark, or if it was yet another case of clothing in slippery plastic packaging finally slithering apart twelve hours after being stacked too high.   Thanks to Health & Safety, that was one job that we could eventually contract out.  I think it’s also a universal constant that if you consider yourself a showground exhibitor, you must at some stage require assistance with a puncture on a lorry at 1am on a motorway hard shoulder, somewhere.

Another time, when promoting a boot for horses that was billed as an alternative to conventional shoeing, we’d arranged a live demonstration of the product, at Burghley Horse Trials, with a horse in a pen.  In front of an audience of hundreds, wearing a head-mic, I set about extolling the virtues of this amazing new product and noticed I was getting lots of questions from a group of guys congregated at one corner of the pen.  I kept answering their questions but noticed they were getting increasingly technical in nature, with respect to the physiology of the horse’s hoof.  When they started to argue with some of my answers, I realised they were in fact a bunch of farriers who were all incredibly threatened by this product which was, after all, claiming to consign them to history.  That was one day when I felt I’d gone above and beyond the call of duty!

Charred flag
Inspecting the damage, hours after our original Ashton store was destroyed by fire, September 2002. Eight days after this photo was taken, it was my wedding day.

And then there’s the stuff that came out of the blue: like the morning when, after an employee had failed to arrive for work, I took a call from the police telling me he was ‘helping them with their enquiries’ and could they come and take a look at his computer for evidence – if I’d said ‘no’, they would have impounded it!  Anyone who remembers 9/11 will know where they were during those couple of hours.  I was driving from Taunton Dean Services towards Wadebridge the day before the Royal Cornwall Show.  When we arrived, you’ve never seen two people unhitch a caravan, set up the electrics and get the television tuned in so quickly!

Anyone the least bit familiar with the Robinsons story will assume that our Annus Horribilis was 2002/3, the period between the fire at our original Ashton store and the opening on the same site of its larger replacement.  While it’s true to say I’ve had many better evenings than the one I spent standing on Warrington Road watching the flames claim the building which had once housed the entire business, it’s also true that, with the benefit of our robust insurance, we quickly turned it into a process of opportunity and experience-gathering.  For better or worse, we certainly did that!  Working with insurers, contractors, sub-contractors, media, utility companies and with the huge efforts made by all our staff, we took just over a year to re-open and found the whole process overwhelmingly positive.  It was only when we re-opened, unadvertised, on a Sunday (6-hour trading limit, not a good idea) that we realised the power of word-of-mouth.  That day, I spent at least three hours standing on the same Warrington Road, directing traffic (including the Merseyside Mounted Police horsebox) through the double-parked cars as upwards of three thousand people flocked back to see the new store.  We later learned that the traffic was so bad, it had backed up onto the M6 exit slip at Junction 23, at which point, the police mobilised their helicopter to see what was causing all the congestion!

Over the last decade, I’ve been at first beguiled by, then suspicious of and then accepting of the vagaries of the internet as a means to win and retain custom.  We can’t deny the importance of the algorithm as we put our virtual shop window on display but neither can we forget that it is merely a gateway to a secondary decision engine, locked in a separate piece of hardware – something we used to refer to as a ‘person’.  I hope that doesn’t sound too old-fashioned a notion in years to come.  Another unexpected side effect of all this digitality is that it acts as a demonstrable disincentive to do anything else to contact the market.  That’ not to say we should deliberately ignore the channel that is clearly the most responsive, least risky way to return on investment but it has often made the process of Marketing a far more anodyne, far less colourful world than the one we used to inhabit when we didn’t have the benefit of the Internet and we accepted there was a cost of stimulating customer interest.

In recent years, I’ve glimpsed the future of the market we serve – for better or worse, as progress almost always is.  In many ways, the equestrian industry’s greatest weakness was always its greatest charm: that it wasn’t mainstream, that the ‘normal rules’ did not necessarily apply.  Inexorably, we, and many others, have spent most of the last thirty years promising riders that they could expect the same level of choice, service and responsiveness from our little industry that they demand of the High Street.  Jointly, we have managed to close the gap of perception that too often saw those who ride and own horses being treated as almost a separate species to the rest of the human race.  I’ve genuinely heard sentences like “horse people won’t buy on the internet” being uttered by actual, grown-up people in meetings and, at times, despaired.  Now it seems all the pioneering has been done and those battles have been won, inevitably, the prizes on offer for those in the race are more about the destination and less about the journey.

Finally, I’d like to spend a moment paying tribute to all the people I’ve come into contact with, over the years.  All the staff (good and bad but mostly good) I’ve ever worked with have at some point taught me about the human condition.  I’ve learned that, despite the fact that many will disappoint you, most will not and many more than you expect will remind you that, generally, people are a largely positive, reassuringly straightforward collective.  I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredibly honest, noble and diligent people who care about doing a good job to the best of their ability.  As long as you spend most of your time in an environment where you can continue to make that claim, you’ll have a happy, productive workforce – although you do have to accept that you will also have to put up with the odd dickhead along the way and make sure to move them along as and when they appear.

Even then, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s happy and motivated all the time or that you’re always in perfect harmony with those who work for you – since when has anyone ever told you you’re offering them too much of a pay rise? – but it’s not always the obvious things that make the biggest difference.  Loyalty and respect are two qualities that too many employers can bemoan a shortage of from their staff, without realising that they’re both a two-way street.  I’ve always found that offering loyalty and respect to a workforce is, in the end, the greatest determinant of team spirit than almost anything else.  As our niche market continues in its transition from being a ‘Harry Potter’-like secret world to becoming part of the ‘high street’, I sincerely hope that those qualities don’t also become a quaint, ‘otherworldly’ relic of the old ways.

RCL Let It Be
Useful advice when a band puts out its final offering…

And so, If I may be so bold, I’d like to torture one more analogy: the curtain has fallen on this particular band’s latest tour, with no follow-up planned.  We had more than our fair share of hits, we had the Christmas Number 1 spot for a few years, and, yes, we’ve put out the odd ‘difficult’ album.  Over the years, I’d say we’ve been seen variously as the fresh new sound, the hottest live act and, I’m sure, dinosaurs playing ‘Dad music’ and like any proper band, we’ve relied heavily on a fantastic crew to keep the show on the Long and Winding Road.

We may spread our Wings and start our own individual side projects, we may consider a comeback under a different guise or we might just go and buy a farm on the Mull of Kintyre or meditate in India.  It’s too early to say.  We really have loved being here and you really were such a lovely audience.  Thank you….and goodnight!

Things Can Only Get Interesting

Today, I decided to clear out the garage in order that it serves its primary function as a storage area for my car – something I’m habitually keener to do in Winter than in Summer.

As I picked my way through the year’s accumulation, strewn about the floorspace, my first act was to flick on the ancient ‘ghetto blaster’ on my workbench to its permanent setting of BBC Radio 5 Live.  For the first hour and a half, I then began to undertake ‘Operation Enduring Tidiness’ to the familiar tones of Danny Baker’s excellent Saturday morning show.

21351663422_5f33882498[1]This was going to be ‘a big job’ and so when Danny & Lynsey had finished another effortlessly-executed interlude of informal chat with the listeners and guests, I’d barely begun to make a dent in the process of re-homing the clutter.  Today wasn’t a normal day on 5 Live, though.  There was no smooth transition to Fighting Talk, today there was a “special programme”.

It was of course the live coverage of the announcement of the new Labour Leader, with Stephen Nolan and John Pienaar.  And so as I sorted the stuff on the shelves into ‘things to keep’ and ‘things to throw in the skip’, Jeremy Corbyn was duly elected as the 21st leader of the Labour Party.

I’ve already posted that I feel a Corbyn leadership would be one that cannot include election victory.  It’s not a prejudice, there’s a fair amount of precedent over the last 50 years about the propensity of the country to give a mandate to a left-wing ticket, which is, I believe, the point Tony Blair has attempted to make.  While Corbyn may not make Labour more electable, he is likely to make them a far stronger Opposition.  From a non-partisan point of view, ‘Corbynism’, whatever that proves to be, does make for stronger democracy over the next parliament.

Whether you see him as a viable protest vote or an electoral liability, ‘Jez’ is a straight-talking idealist, which is an increasingly rare commodity in politics, these days.  Ever since I read The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman, I’ve despaired of the cloned MPs of all colours who’ve clearly trodden the same politicians’ career path, usually based on the a degree in Philosophy, Politics & Education (PPE) at Oxbridge and/or working as a ‘researcher’ or an ‘advisor’ for a party heavyweight and without ever actually having worked in what we, the people, may regard as ‘a real job’.  We now struggle to remember that there was once a time where one should only aspire to political office after having earned one’s reputation within one’s profession or area of commercial interest.  The only exception to this was the propensity of the altruistic or under-employed aristocracy to seek public office.  Today, it seems that any form of ‘real-world’ experience only serves to form the basis of an accusation of an ‘outside interest’.

The description ‘career politician’ clearly does not apply to Corbyn but it’s fair to say that it does to his three opponents for the leadership – while Burnham read English at Cambridge and Kendall read History at Cambridge, unsurprisingly, Cooper did read PPE at Oxford.  Yes, it does rather seem as though this is some sort of plea not to include clearly bright and high-achieving people into politics so why is this such a bad thing?

The answer came, emphatically, during one of Pienaar’s interviews immediately after the result was announced.  Pienaar asked Liz Kendall’s Campaign Manager why she felt her candidate had failed to engage with the party membership in the way that Corbyn had.  With her ‘party machine’ media training undoubtedly kicking in, she decided she had to re-frame the question in order not to have to give the negative answer that the questioner was fishing for.  “I think what’s most important here is that she [Kendall] has run a great campaign” she entreatied with ascending sincerity.

No.  No, no, no.  Without descending too far into the realms of subjectivity, what I think you’ll find is “most important” here, (I’m sorry I forget your name), is that your candidate only managed to attain 4.5% of the vote and, ultimately, that Corbyn won.  In the scheme of things, nobody really cares how she fought her campaign.  In fact, if anyone were to give it a nano-second’s thought, they’d probably assume that all four candidates probably mounted a professional, decent campaign and that anything else would be at odds with anyone seeking to attain high office in a major political party.

This is why ‘normal people’ (i.e. voters) despair of modern politics – and of modern politicians.  In an age of spin and media manipulation, ironically, the main danger its proponents face is that where they focus entirely on avoiding the traps set by the questioner from the press.  In contorting the reality of the question as a means of achieving the ‘victory’ of avoiding the questioner’s pre-planned ambush, they forget that they very often do so by insulting  the intelligence of the viewer/listener/reader.  That might sound a little dry and unthreatening but, unfortunately for the politician (‘old’ or ‘new’), there are thousands, perhaps millions of the blighters – oh, and twice a decade, they all get to decide the direction of your careers.

The rejection of this phenomenon more than anything else explains Corbyn’s victory – or more particularly, the extent of it.  He may be an unreconstructed old ‘leftie’ with all the electoral appeal of Michael Foot – or he may not. What he certainly isn’t is the type of politician who thinks he’s clever enough to stick rigidly to the rules of media management (“Thou shalt not show weakness by falling for the interviewer’s line of questioning”) at the cost of his perception ‘in the real world’.  In short, he’s happy to present himself as a human being.  This makes him fallible, which is not good for PR but, as the focus groups show, does tend to be good for ‘likeability’.

I’m not a particular fan of Corbyn but I do find him interesting because he’s very much the antithesis of the kind of politicians churned out by the production line, these days.  What he does next – and how many people he takes with him along the way – may well act as a measure, not necessarily of Jeremy Corbyn and his own talents and principles, but of any politician who is prepared to act like we used to expect them all to do.

In the meantime, I’ve got my garage in order and the Labour party seems to once again have its house in order.  Let’s see what state they’re both in by the time we get to 2020….

2015 Election Pt II: The Flux of Capacity

We may all know why we vote, we may have decided for whom we’ll vote but have you given much though to how you vote – that is to say what your role as a voter entails?

Your choice of capacity as a voter may influence who you'll back - to the future government...
Your choice of capacity as a voter may influence who you’ll back – to the future government…

It’s a right viewed as so important that countries have gone to war to protect it, and yet it’s a responsibility for which there is no real preparation beyond the proof of one’s existence for eighteen years or more. We are rightly left to determine the destination of our own vote but it’s also left to everyone to decide how to exercise their choice – which means I’ve never been absolutely certain how to define the role that my right to vote gives me.

Like most peope, I am led to believe that I’m about to exercise ultimate power over those who would shape the history of the country – and yet the process itself has all the profundity of queuing up to visit a public portaloo. And then there’s the terminology: ‘voter’, however correct a description it is, sounds so indistinct and bland for such a supposedly fundamental responsibility. Especially these days, when we can be a ‘voter’ in all sorts of insignificant ways like TV talent shows, social media questionnaires and market research.

It all makes you wonder if the high-minded values of the democratic process are being rather cheapened by all this incessant, trivial vote-taking… So, in what capacity are you going to act when you make your cross on the ballot paper? Maybe that’s not as simple a question as you might think – especially when you consider a little historical context…

Tribalism: "You're either with us or against us"
Tribalism: “You’re either with us or against us”

In days gone by, when only things that really mattered were voted upon, when there were arguably more basic problems for the country to address and when there was such a thing as ideology in politics, voting was merely the mechanism to express the capacity of each voter. In those days, people cast their vote as ‘supporters’ of one party or another. Things were simple: you ‘had’ a party and you supported it, much like someone might ‘have’ a football team to support.

Generally, this was a position you inherited from your birth and upbringing, again, like football. This primary-coloured polarisation could occasionally lead to bitter, hatred-riven tribalism, like…okay, you get the picture. Anyone who chose to reject the birthright of their tribe was described, usually disdainfully, as a ‘floating voter’ and dismissed as a clueless, dithering dilettante of a person, a traitor to their roots for having the temerity to even question the right to govern of their own tribal affiliation. Given how democracy works, it was always something of an irony that this small proportion of the population often held the balance of power – which tended to do little for the esteem in which they were held by everyone else.

"Is this the one for me?  Maybe I should just choose the other one..."
“Is this the one for me? Maybe I should just choose the other one…”

Eventually, the damned capitalists put paid to the nobler principles of ideology and sentiments of consumerism began to replace the raw, bipolar ranks of the electorate. People suddenly found that they had a vote to ‘use’, rather than ‘give’ and that they would remain to be convinced until it was time to use it. Increasingly, voters became less defined merely as ‘supporters’ of parties but chose to view their political affiliation in a similar way to their choice of supermarket. From the 1980s onwards, but particularly since the New Labour era, parties would place a huge emphasis on commercial market research techniques, such as focus groups. Whether they realised it or not, voters had begun to act – and be treated – like ‘customers’.

For better or worse, there seemed to be less of a stigma in tactical voting – as with your choice of restaurant, If you didn’t like the experience of your last outing, you could simply transfer your allegiance to the next best alternative the next time.

This should have come as no surprise. In almost every societal and cultural way imaginable, Britain had, for most of the 20th Century, followed a path forged by America. Capitalism had bestowed its children Aspiration, Meritocracy and Consumerism across the land. In the 1970s, the country which had spent a decade largely identifying with the ideological right of strikers to strike looked, mystified, across the Atlantic at a two-party system in which there was little discernible difference between a donkey and an elephant. By 1992, after a Winter of Discontent and a decade of Thatcherism, when Bill Clinton’s campaign mantra was ‘It’s the Economy, stupid’, the statement about the electorate’s motivation seemed to be as true in Britain as it was in the US. Plurality had become a prize gained not by the collective voice but by a collection of enough individual voices.

Whether or not you regard this societal shift as a positive development is, of course, your prerogative.  In a Western capitalist economy, it certainly seems like a natural progression to empower the individual to exercise an informed choice unencumbered by irrational tribalism.  Have we therefore arrived at the natural, logical conclusion – where the expression of one’s political affiliations is roughly similar to the way we choose a breakfast cereal?

So why isn’t the ‘customer’ metaphor a suitable basis from which to execute the solemn duties that come with the franchise?  What’s the difference between buying and voting?  Consumption can involve an equally active choice process but, having bought something, the choice is supposed to be an end in itself: ‘Forget blocked pipes with XYZ drain cleaner’.  Once you’ve bought the item, the issue you’re trying to solve can just automatically disappear.  It’s seductive because a brief activity then turns the customer into something passive.  You’re invited to believe you can then stand idly by while the product (or service, whatever it is) takes over – and improvements just…happen.  Does that sound like any Government, ever?

Worse than mere passivity, a consumer may then go on to feel a sense of entitlement.  It’s a human flaw that has compelled us all, at one time or another, to attempt to justify any unreasonable position on the basis that ‘it’s always been like that’ or ‘I know my rights’.  This is fair enough if you’ve handed over your hard-earned cash to buy something that then goes on to disappoint; you usually have the entitlement to expect redress.  Again, is that really how government works?

Passivity and Entitlement is a mixture almost certain to disappoint as you live through the four or five years of the next parliament.  You’re guaranteed to see things happen that you don’t like: you can’t do anything about it, but you feel you’ve been promised more of a sense of redress than you find you have.  As a consumer, you can always have your money back but as a voter…sorry, that’s it.

There has to be a further step of evolution.  Tribalism is simplistic to the point of being undemocratic, Consumerism rewards self-obsession but includes the redress to ‘reset’ the ‘transaction’ that voting lacks.  In what capacity should we really be casting our vote?

It's understandable that most people may be uncomfortable with the notion of being a shareholder - is it because we find it difficult to picture what a shareholder is?  This what a Google image search returns - lots of unhelpful stock photography and abstract clip art
It’s understandable that most people may be uncomfortable with the notion of being a shareholder – is it because we find it difficult to picture what a shareholder is? This what a Google image search returns – lots of unhelpful stock photography and abstract clip art

If politics today is less about the big ideological questions and more about the appointment of competent administrators in a global economy, the next logical step, to me at least, is to regard our politicians not as our tribal heroes, nor indeed as our chosen suppliers, but simply as the Board of Directors of The United Kingdom, an organisation in which we all have a single, equal share.  As shareholders, we can expect the right to appoint and remove our Board members at regular, pre-defined intervals and we expect a certain level of financial return as a result of their competence – with a certain level of performance measure being communicated regularly and in a particular format.

Surely, this is a much closer metaphor to the state of being a voter.  It promises no solutions, allows no sense that any change in personnel on the Board is a victory in itself and removes any illusion of stakeholder passivity or indeed consumer entitlement throughout the piece.  Like corporate shareholders do of the Boards they appoint, we should almost expect our Governments to fail, to err and to disappoint – and simply guard against it.

Currently, we certainly don’t have clear enough, accessible enough measures to quantify by how much our Governments do currently fail, err and disappoint. As shareholders, need this to remain better informed before our next opportunity to exercise our right to express our confidence – or otherwise – in their stewardship of our company.  If the General Election is our (if not annual, regular) AGM, we should also expect a (categorically annual) Annual Report to inform it.

The closest thing we have to such a mechanism is the Budget, which must contain a huge amount of fiscal data before the fact but is not really compelled to offer the same level of transparency after the fact.  The absence of such material allows all parties to exercise spin and obfuscation about the ‘facts’ they contest when the one thing voters consistently complain about is lack of honesty.  Where is the Balance Sheet and the P&L for the UK – and its subsidiaries, the NHS, the Armed forces and our other public institutions?  Even where they do exist in some form (as exemplified by the BBC), who decides the format they take, the areas they must include and the items they can choose to omit?

The Lords, or perhaps even the Monarch, should be our financial regulatory authority, apolitical, free of the party system, acting in the interest of the shareholder.  He/She/They should define the level of detail we can demand to see every year, even every quarter.  Terms should be clearly explained (what exactly is defined by ‘unemployment‘ when calculating the figure?) and items which cause needless contention can be objectively listed in the reporting structure.

Of course, it’s wildly optimistic to expect every voter to read every line of detail – it’s our right to engage, or disengage, as much as we want in the whole process.  Whether you choose to engage or not, the lack of availability – or validity – of the information you require should never be a factor in your choice.

You may agree with everything I’ve written or you may disagree vehemently – that’s the essence of the right to vote.  It doesn’t matter whether you believe, as I do, that people these days seem to vote less like a supporter and more like a consumer.  It doesn’t matter whether you agree that rationality and indeed democracy is better served if we all voted as a shareholder would vote, with facts and independently-verified figures.  None of that really matters – it’s just my opinion.  What does matter, hugely, is that you even consider in what capacity you are going to vote when the time comes.  If all of this thought process does nothing to change your conclusion, all well and good.  If any of it makes you challenge your own status quo and think again about why you vote for who you vote for, isn’t that a good thing?

2015 Election Pt I: Suffering for Suffrage’s Sake

Here we go again…

It’s General Election time and once again, a bunch of people I’d normally cross the street to avoid are all suddenly intent on ‘engaging’ with me and ‘gaining’ my vote. To be honest, I’d rather they all leave me alone and let me find out for myself what I do and don’t like about what they stand for – but then I do have to accept that if they did, it wouldn’t be much of a demonstration of willing from anyone looking to achieve a mandate to run the country.

Portillo loses to Twigg
For many, the best part of the whole process: watching the mighty fall

And so, the whole dreary process rolls inevitably down the hillside of the next six or seven weeks, promising only a modicum of voyeuristic entertainment when the debris lands as it finally crashes to a halt.  Who can forget such classics as Portillo v Twigg (pictured) and Hamilton v Bell?

Having been through this rather ludicrous affair five times before, I am tempted to wonder why I’m doing this again? Not the voting bit itself – I’m not that cynical that I don’t believe the right to vote, paid for with millions of lives, should be relinquished or squandered lightly. What I’m questioning is my complete immersion in the canvassing and pre-election process, as a responsible voter.

From a pragmatic point of view, there’s really no need to bother: I could agonise over every line of every manifesto, I could flip a coin or I could just ‘vote with my conscience’ and it would make no difference to the outcome. Cue horrified cries of “every vote counts” and “well, if everyone thought like that..” so let me clarify things a little. I live in the Wigan constituency, a dyed-in-the-wool Labour stronghold since 1918. It has for almost a century been the very definition of a seat where the proverbial ‘pig in a red rosette’ would expect to win – and in all probability, a couple have, over the years.

Lisa Nandy
Lisa Nandy: Whatever happens, she’s going to be the MP for Wigan after May 7th

The current incumbent, Lisa Nandy, most recently the shadow Junior Education Minister, is a highly-rated young parliamentarian and is certainly no proverbial ‘pig’.  The combination of her capability and her seat’s geography means that she must be one of the Labour candidates most likely to be working in Westminster for at least the next five years. In fact, for her not to be returned as the member for Wigan during the next parliament, Jeremy Vine’s swing-o-meter would probably have to point almost due east. In short, she really doesn’t need my vote, whether she gets it or not.

This is the situation, then: I’ve decided that I’m definitely going to vote for someone, that I shouldn’t disrespect the process so much that I’m not just going to vote for anyone, but also in the realisation that after doing all that and then casting my vote, not one iota of difference will have been made. So the question ‘why am I doing all this?’ is, I think, a reasonable one.

The best answer I can muster is that, if nothing else, I feel I need to cast my vote and be accountable to myself. Will I be able to look my future self in the eye (if that’s possible to imagine) and say that, whoever wins and whatever happens in the next four or five years, I contributed my voice responsibly? If the country is well served by the next Government, I accept I’ll have either the satisfaction for having backed them or the nagging guilt of overlooking their potential? Conversely, if the next lot cock things up, for four or five years, I know I’ll either inhabit the moral high ground for having tried to stop them or a kind of ‘naughty step’ for being partly responsible.  I want to feel I can always assure myself that I made the right choice – and that doesn’t change whether you live in a marginal constituency or a ‘shoo-in’, like Wigan.

That, to me, is the essence of democracy and the value of the franchise.  In lots of ways, the whole ridiculous charade is flawed, often seriously (I could go on, and I probably will at some point) but it’s important in the same rather old-fashioned way that might compel you to drive slowly past a funeral cortège: you know you don’t have to, but it’s a standard to which one holds oneself for no other reason than one’s own sense of propriety.

I accept it’s not the same for everyone – elections often bring into the spotlight a very strange ensemble of ‘characters’ with a wide variety of contributions to the process – but I think mine is probably not far from the same position that most people have.  The phrase about of one’s voting preference being ‘between me and the ballot box’ is not just an assertion of privacy, it’s a secret pact that each of us and the ‘box’ have, to do our bit to guide the country through the waters of the next few years, even though it’s just a tick in the box when all is said and done.

Why It’s Still Okay to Admit Liking ‘Top Gear’

Picture the scene.  It’s Sunday evening, just before eight, around the time when, for the last decade or more, upto seven million people start to think about gaining tactical possession of the remote control.  For many, the highlight of their televisual week is about to start.

Over recent Sundays, these time-honoured manoeuvres have been unnecessary.  Why? Because the object of such mass orchestrations, a ‘special interest’ show on a minority channel will not be shown this week – or possibly ever again – while the BBC investigates the most recent conduct of one of its presenters.

Unlike many of Clarkson’s more unquestioning acolytes, I can understand the process here. Generally speaking any misconduct investigation of this magnitude requires that the individual being investigated be temporarily suspended from their duties, probably with full pay, and with no implication of guilt in the meantime. The idea is that the ‘clock’ is effectively stopped for a short time, while a longer-term decision is being made.

I can also accept that a physical assault in most forms is defined by most organisations as an example of ‘gross misconduct’, a charge which very often carries with it a penalty of dismissal.  Remember, this is still an allegation, though.  Anything generally understood to be defined by the above terms may not even have happened.  In the meantime, innocence has to be presumed.

For many onlookers, the case does seem to be rather conveniently ‘open-and-shut’ but is that fair? Even if the allegations prove to be true, any employer would be obliged to consider previous character and any mitigating factors before deciding on a form of punitive action.  Again, the internet won’t be short of people pointing out incidents that reflect ‘previous character’ – and it can’t be denied that ‘Jezza’ has a charge list as long as the service notes on a Lotus Esprit.  It’s a list in which racial slurs, high-jinks, diplomatic incidents, lazy stereotyping have all appeared. Given that Clarkson himself once made reference to the Lotus name being an unflattering acronym, it seems ironic now that it can be equally applied to himself: Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious.

The thing is, whatever happens to Jeremy Clarkson, it should happen in a manner removed from the hyperbole and prejudice that surrounds him, as an individual.  If the BBC decide they’ve finally tired of tolerating his antics and terminate his contract, that too should happen in a manner removed from the hyperbole and prejudice currently being aimed at the show he’s presented for so may years.

I suspect that won’t be the case.  The perennial allure of Top Gear, its willingness to be divisive in an all-embracing age is now, inevitably, threatening to be its downfall.  Its ‘edginess’ has won it millions of viewers over the years – and many enemies, who are unlikely to stand idly by when they sense its current vulnerability.  Of course they will argue that Top Gear‘s schoolboy silliness and base humour are merely the thin end of a wedge that ultimately comprises a deeper, darker agenda of casual racism, xenophobia, the ridicule of minorities and that scourge of the politically correct, the unreconstructed male.

At this point, when the argument begins to form according to wider ideological lines and it becomes easy to forget that we’re talking about a car show, here.  While it can’t be denied that TG‘s irreverance/offensivenenss (delete, according to your viewpoint) is a part of the show’s incredibly popular formula, it is, after all, only part of its style.  The actual substance of the show is the appreciation of the car, of its engineering, its styling, marketing and, yes, its performance.  And yet, somehow this all seems to be lost in all the (dare I say it?) fracas of the last few weeks.

The appreciation of automotive form and function is no less valid or healthy than an interest in, say, antiques, yet one show has cosy respectability and enjoys prime placement within the ‘establishment’ of BBC1 (attracting 5.65m viewers on January 11th), while the other, for one reason or another, was able to entice 6.41m viewers on January 25th to the relative ghetto of BBC2.

Perhaps there’s another wedge here.  One where the thin end is the dislike we’ve seen (and many have felt) towards the ‘puerile’, the ‘laddish’ and ‘lowest-common-denominator’.  A wedge which goes on to encompass a deeper antipathy towards the appreciation of speed, the notion of personal, rather than public, transportation, the very construct of the car itself.  An idealogically-motivated, environmentally-entitled position from people who have decided not just that because they hold certain views of social conduct, so must everyone else; but also because they have a life in which the car plays little or no part, so must everyone else.

If you think this is a rather reactionary viewpoint, cast you mind back a few short months to the tale of the Labour MP for Islington South & Finsbury, Emily Thornberry.  For her, the presence of a white van and flag of St. George outside a (possibly Labour-supporting) voter’s household was an invitation for such disdain.  Nationalism and unreconstructed male attitudes are, after all, not highly-regarded commodities by the chattering classes of New Labour Islington.  Unfortunately, this was a perception which was to cost her her position in the Shadow Cabinet.  No-one will pretend that every white van driver is likely to be a wonderfully erudite, endearing, urbane individual – but who would drive a van for any reason other than to work?  Ms. Thornberry now realises she should have known better than to publicly belittle a voter and (presumably) a taxpayer because *he* fits a profile that is alien to her ideology.  Is that in any way related to what’s going on here?  Little more than intellectual snobbery from those  claiming to be more ‘enlightened’ than the rest of us?

If the chief casualty in this whole Clarkson/Top Gear episode is to be the show itself, yes, I’m sure I’d miss some aspects of its idiosyncratic style that consistently infuriates so many others. But much, much more than that, I’d miss the substance: the increasingly rare opportunity to indulge in and celebrate the world’s most aspirational cars and, despite all the silliness and incorrectness, rejoice in the seemingly prohibited allure of the V8 engine, the 0-60 acceleration time and the standing quarter from some of the world’s most famous and revered car-makers.

“What’s the point?’ ask the seriously ‘enlightened’?  “You can only drive it at 70mph, anyway” they will probably say, seriously missing the point.  They may even point out rather smugly that it is thanks to Barbara Castle MP (Lab) that we even have a 70mph speed limit.  Perhaps they’re right: perhaps there is no point in delighting in the very existence of the Bugatti Veyron or the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento.  But then, is there much point in speculating vicariously at the possibility of a Van Dyck having being discovered over on the Antiques Roadshow?  What, even, is the point of all entertainment or escapism?  Perhaps people who think like this don’t need to look too far at all to find the answer – an escape from people like them, with their joyless worthiness and their unclearly-acquired qualification in knowing what’s best for everyone else.

It’s one thing for people who claim to ‘know better’ to disdain of the presentation and production values within Top Gear, it’s another thing entirely for them to then presume that an affinity for the car, in all its forms, is equally as contemptible.  I hope the BBC has the wit to make that distinction.