Sunday, 31 August 2008

Labelling the fat

Last week sometime (can't be arsed checking when) a 'slightly overweight' shadow (misnomer if ever there was one as he might not be a shadow of his former self judging by the mischievous picture some people used to accompany their stories) cabinet member announced a new deal for fat people.

No! Stop slavvering, its not a buy-one-get-one-free deal its more a 'bog off!' deal.

The deal is 'you're fat, you deal with it!' or a 'responsibilty deal' as the Conservatives are couching (Couch? I must sit on it for a considerable number of hours while watching Jeremy Kyle!) it.

This is the second time of late the Tories have assaulted people of broad girth/incorrect BMI.

And once again they engaged in a disingenuous double-helpings-speak. In the first instance it was David Cameron, whistling to the PC-gone-mad brigade, who bemoaned the lack of straight -talking when it comes to social ills -such as 'obesity'- and promised some common-sense plain-speaking. So what does too-much-oil-Dave substitute for the quite ridiculous government euphemism (his tone not mine) 'at risk of obesity'? He uses the killer vernacular 'people who eat too much and take too little exercise' -are you thinking what we're thinking- fat. Actually, Cameron's phrase does have the benefit of encapsulating at least a semi- diagnostic approach but is a rather diet version as it fails to ask why. The buck conveniently stops at the individual and absolves other factors and actors influencing the great global weight gain.

Asking why is not an excuse but helps to find a more coherent and effective policy response.

In the second instance it was Andrew Lansley who said that the answer to the obesity problem was categorically not lecturing people.

In a lecture he said that there were no excuses for being fat. Not the confusing labelling the industry prefers nor the crap manufacturers put in your food you would need a chemistry degree or a diploma in statistics to avoid. No excuses, no nannying, no lecturing was his lecture's theme.

No nannying, except, that is, for the Mary Poppins variety. I'm sure she would be mortified to discover that she wasn't a proper nanny.

The Conservatives surely exposed the fluffiness of their own thinking when Lansley suggested we needed more of a Mary Poppins than a Miss Trunchball approach. Well, Mary Poppins may seem a little softer on the surface but she did still advocate spoonfuls of sugar even if she only sang metaphorically about it rather than force-fed it. She did however point up the comfort value of food, a bit like many advertisers do so if he's so concerned about 'messages' a reference to Mary Poppins is probably not a great idea. They ought to be a bit more careful with their popular cultural references when trying to seem in touch.

In fact, its not clear that the Conservatives' medicine differs from what they characterise as the Trunchball method except in their own spin. Lansley proposes a number of state interventions such as campaigns, regulations and structural changes although there's also plenty of goodies for business involvement for example 'A combined business and Government social responsibility campaign to promote healthy living'. Now we are to be lectured by the very people who want to sell us more and more crap in the first place!

Lansley seems to suggest that there's somehow a societal and governmental environment which says its ok -or provides excuses- to be fat and only the plain-speaking Tories have the stomach to say its not. Well as many commenters and commentators have noted that on the contrary playground bullying, size zero, media images and celebrity culture sends out quite enough messages about not being fat. And there are government measures aplenty which are bearing fruit.

He also misrepresents the Foresight Report on Obesity in order to rubbish government action on the issue.

The report's well rounded approach does not provide an 'excuse' as Lansley claims.

It states that:

"Taken together, the evidence presented in this report provides a powerful challenge to the commonly held assumption that an individual’s weight is a matter solely of personal responsibility or indeed individual choice..."

".....people do not ‘choose’ to be obese. Their obesity is mainly driven by a range of factors beyond their immediate control that in practice constrain individual choice. The commercial success of the weight loss market is testament to the belief invested in the power of individuals to control their own weight. However, the concomitant rise in obesity and the frequent weight regain common in those who have dieted successfully is evidence of the failure of a response built solely on this approach. Strategies based on personal motivation and individual responsibility alone do not provide an adequate response to the obesity problem...."

However it goes on to say:

"To be successful, a comprehensive long-term strategy to tackle obesity must act in two complementary ways to achieve and maintain a healthy population weight distribution. First, an environment that supports and facilitates healthy choices must be actively established and maintained. Second, individuals need to be encouraged to desire, seek and make different choices, recognising that they make decisions as part of families or groups and that individual behaviour is ‘cued’ by the behaviours of others, including organisational behaviours and other wider influences."

There is no shortage in the report of references to individual behaviours and the need for change. But it promotes a holistic approach and the evidence is that focusing too heavily on parts of the problem such as individuals will not bring about the scale of change necessary. It also looks at the efficacy of joining up policies such as increasing levels of physical activity in tackling climate change will also reduce obesity.

Exhorting individuals to take greater responsibility without tackling the environment in which people live and make 'choices' is simply like constantly placing a large chocolate cake (or whatever their favourite tipple) in front of someone on a diet. The odds and shelves are often stacked against us. More opportunities for exercise for example built into the environment means that the cake is burned off.

Sheffield Hallam University was commissioned to analyse the implications of the report for local government and make recommendations for action. It tackles some of the myths around obesity (and BMI measures) and also has a good section on why stigmatising obesity is no recipe for resolving it.

Cameron's and Lansley's focus on individuals' personal failings is counterproductive.

For anyone with the time and the inclination reading one or both reports is recommended rather than relying on second hand accounts of them.

Focusing on individual's responsibilities and the use of the voluntary and private sector ties in with the traditional Conservative project of a free market/small state and is no different to what was offered when the Tories were last in office. The Lib Dems health spokesman said:

"He lectures people about their responsibility. He blames people for being overweight and says they lack self-discipline and self-esteem. Yet when it comes to junk food he's much more sensitive about the problem of 'stigmatising' it."

Mr Pushing the Boundary also notes some sexism in Lansley's speech and looks at the gap between the Tories project to decontaminate their brand and the reality.

Tom P looks at the Tory proposal to scrap the government's more helpful, consumer-friendly (I should know, I do alot of shopping!) preferred 'traffic lights' food labelling system in favour of the one industry has been lobbying for.

This doesn't surprise me at all. The Tories recently 'talked out' a private members bill to ban TV advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar before the 9pm watershed when children would be watching and to try to tackle some of the other forms of marketing less healthy options to kids. See the evidence provided by consumer organisation 'Which?' on this.

Much more poking around the issue with a fork from sceptisle which also looks at what the government is already doing.

Hopi Sen looks at the claims on spending and health made by Lansley

Also weighing into the debate are Fat Man on a Keyboard, Recess Monkey and Catherine Bennett.

No-one disagrees that people have responsibilities but how the Tories' are using their agenda around 'personal responsibility', especially having a second go at fat people, is below the belt. They are trying to still do nasty (its what some of their supporters like them for), but nicer. Trying to dress their traditional attacks up as nudges and the like to make them appear softer they are increasingly coming to taste like one of those weirdly incongruous ice-cream flavours. Bovril and custard ice cream anyone?


Gordon Brown steals Tory's clothes


Saturday, 30 August 2008

Everything is broken

Yesterday's post started out as this one but turned into another post instead. So here's yesterday's post today.

Like many things in my home, my ironing board is a bit of a wreck. Or as Bob Dylan sang "everything is broken".

As you can see the screw holes have become so worn that the screws just fall out and the iron rest is just hanging there not very ergonomically functioning as an iron rest at all. The relevant screws are lost though.

I could claim that they went up the hoover if I had hoovered lately but I haven't! So who knows where they are, probably with all those lost socks. Maybe I'll find them one night while stumbling around the house barefoot in the dark.

Luckily I keep bits and pieces like random screws that have fallen out of other broken things. So I was able to reposition the iron rest and screw the screws in a less shredded part of the board. And voilà! As good as not new.

I particularly like the way the pink and red paint on the screws tell of their former lives holding a wooden toybox together and my ironing board now demonstrates a thoroughly virtuous mend-and-make-do approach to living.

And the point of my mentioning all this is not to bore you with domestic trivia though I have done a fine job of that, it is to reference a short article in the New Statesman, 'Why capitalism creates a throwaway society - how to deal with waste is the great policy failure of our age' by Peter Wilby where he states that the average British household currently spends a mere 60p a week on repairs and just chucks stuff away instead. So I just saved myself 60p and the citizens of this country and beyond the environmental cost of manufacturing a new ironing board and disposing of the old one. I hope everyone is suitably grateful.

He also looks back to a time when 'socks were darned, elbows patched and small pieces of string kept in the cupboard under the stairs'. I don't know about the other two but I certainly have some really useful collections of what are known in the art world as 'found objects' (pictured left).Though I use them in my own art installations which decorate my home such as the one called 'ironing board' above.

Much better is this wonderful site called which does exactly what it says on the tin.

Check out their vintage jelly mould lights.

My iron though, isn't any old iron, its a Philips 4340 with automatic shut off -if someone rings up for a gossip while I'm ironing or I accidently forget that I was ironing, walk away and go shopping or on holiday (though that's a hypothetical example as haven't had one for a few years) or whatever it detects that it is not ironing anymore and shuts itself down thereby saving energy and the planet and then starts up again when it detects motion. Cool, eh!


Friday, 29 August 2008

She works hard for the money

Really cool iron

Like the proverbial pile of ironing (am not sure there is a proverb about ironing but there should be -Two piles of ironing will only gather moss if you hide it in the bushes? so Phyllis Diller's 'I'm eighteen years behind in my ironing' will do here), I have a backlog of posts on current affairs which haven't quite made it unwrinkled yet and will be out of fashion by the time I get round to them.

See, the problem is trying to combine caring and blogging.

And if we accept blogging as a metaphor for reflecting on and participating in life (though some, as in the phrase 'get a life', might disagree here) as opposed to the mere surviving of it then you can see there might be a problem. I think esteemed and ancient philosphers may have made a distinction between animals and humans here.

I notice this morning on the news the plight of carers was again highlighted.

The problems for carers are two/mani-fold (vague ironing pun there!). Enough breaks' support to enable paid work or to have a life for those who want to and sufficient financial support for those who cannot 'work', though believe you me, caring 24/7 is work enough.

Carer's Allowance, supposedly an 'income replacement' benefit, at £50.55 for a minimum 35 hours caring per week, works out at £1.44 per hour though many carers do way more ...if you count the 24/7 many family carers work that's 30p, metric money, an hour. Who would work for that? If that's an income replacement benefit I will eat an incontinence pad!

Of course, we do it for love. Although, don't count on it. This assumption, or other related assumptions, were pushed too far in the cases of Helen Rogan, Wendolyn Markcrow, the Ainscows and Alison Davies. Barbara Pointon's gin bottles give a glimpse into carers coping strategies.

It is not being melodramatic to suggest that if I hear about one more carer driven to these extremes I will think of proposing a war memorial, perhaps on the government petition site if not on some actual piece of real estate, for those who lost their lives, physically, mentally or metaphorically, in the struggle to care. 6 million carers might sign it. That would warrant a response over and above the 250 interested individuals required and far exceeds the neurotic financial/political disposition of 3 million car owners who signed a petition against road pricing or summat which wasn't even an actualité.

In other industries people who are injured from occupational hazards are either subject to compensation awards (though may have to fight a protracted battle) which are set at such a level as to deter such compensation awards or health and safety measures of similar intent are put in place.

So we care and we expose ourselves to these dangers.

On the financial level, love goes only so far as y'know one has to live and pay one's bills. Imagine going to the energy company or the supermarket and offering to pay them substantially less than you owe them but insisting you worked really hard for the money and that out of love for you and respect and acknowledgement for the saintly job you do they should accept what you are offering them even if it falls far short of the value of the goods you need to purchase.

Seems to me there is a clash of values here. We laud voluntary action and family care but we live in a society based on money exchange. Everything we need to live must be paid for either directly from our own private money or collectively through the taxes we pay. Each hour you work you get paid for and then you are able to buy the stuff, like food and shelter, to live. But care provided in the family is done for free, or for love whichever term you prefer. So while you are working for free you forego purchasing power to live. The more you work for free the less stuff you can buy to live. Granted, life is not lived by stuff alone.

While we must be wary of where we push the distorting (if we value such notions as 'love', 'care', 'voluntary' etc) influence of the cash nexus how are those who do live a life which requires time to be given up to providing free care out of love, to live and pay their bills? Its a long-standing dilemma and one which is not sufficiently addressed, at least not in these terms.

The government to its credit has put some new money into short break services or is in the process of doing so both for adults in the Carers Grant and in the Aiming High for Disabled Children programme.

I fully accept that the government is beseeched by special pleadings from all sides, not least from businesses and rich folk who reckon they will flee the country if they are taxed to pay for less productive/non-productive mad-cap schemes which might not turn a profit.

With advances in health care and all the other things which contribute to disabled and older people living and living longer there are questions to be asked about what economic growth, GDP and capitalism is for. Is it an end in itself or is it for something?


Thursday, 28 August 2008


...if only I had one!

So the gauntlet has been chucked on the floor, and never, no never say never, not always, rather, one to shirk from a challenge, this particular one, I'll have a go at.

The task is to remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about, in this case five, key historical events -and then when you have regaled it entertainingly, task, in this case five, other bloggers/people to do the same. Its a meme thing.

Its a modern-day expansion of the claim that everyone knows where they were/what they were doing when Kennedy got shot.

In an oblique, allusive kind of way this challenge reminds be of John Lennon's lyric 'Life is what happens to you while your busy making other plans'.

Here, it's history happens while your busy doing other things. In my case having birthdays. Indeed, I do suspect that history's great unfolding purpose is to ruin my birthday:

Some Munros are bigger than anybody

Princess Diana's death - 31 August 1997
I used to go hill-walking quite a bit, sometimes even went munro-bagging (I once had the good fortune to witness another munro-bagger being 'piped up to the top of his final munro and toasted with whisky). This particular weekend was the nearest one to my (mid-September) birthday when my Autistic son was also away in respite care. So it would have been really wrong of me not to have taken the opportunity to have a birthday walk in Scotland. So we did.

Having done the concentrated bit of negotiating the motorways to some cassette- taped music and then turning onto the lovely winding, heather-edged roads across the hills we thought we would tune in to the radio, only to find everything suspended in favour of easy-listening music to soothe the nerves of an inevitably traumatised public and repeated commentary about the fact that Diana.Was.Dead. Blimey! thought we as we laced our boots and headed for the misty tops, remembering to remember our sandwiches.

Margaret Thatcher's resignation - 22 November 1990
Don't remember any exact context but I was definitely in front of the telly when I saw it. I was in the final trimester of the pregnancy of my second child -the one who subsequently turned out to be Autistic ...perhaps it was Thatcher's fault! :o

Attack on the twin towers - 11 September 2001
Lazily, I'll paste a slightly edited version of the comment I left over at Sadie's hospitable hostelry before I realised I had been tagged with the same meme:

my birthday is 'sometime around' September 11th. in 2001 I was collecting a birthday present from my mother when I arrived at her house and the rolling news which was on featured slow motion aeroplanes slamming into tall buildings and then the collapsing towers. I remember thinking, that's an act of war. The rest, as they say is history, although it isn't yet.

Imagine trying to open and enjoy a birthday present while simultaneously watching the Twin Towers collapse, listen to the terrified testimony of those fleeing the scene and know that people had burned to death. Not conducive to celebration at all.

Now every time I look forward, as excitedly as one my age can, to my birthday, there's a dark shadow over it as I remember not happy birthdays past but the more dramatic events of the same time 2001. Its a time of mirth tempered by horror.

See what I mean about the birthday thing?

I know, I know, how totally selfish of me.

Al-qaeda? Flippin party-poopers.

England's World Cup Semi Final v Germany in - 4 July 1990
Wasn't that the one where Gazza cried? And we went out on penalties? Were I a more avid football fan then maybe, yes, I would have remembered some more precise details. I can't, alot has happened since then, not least the birth of a son in 1991 who was ill at birth and later in 1993 was diagnosed as Autistic. I would have been just pregnant with him then. I certainly remember where I was when he was diagnosed, once as 'suspected Autism' and secondly as confirmed Autistic.

I do remember the World Cup 2006. The weather was gorgeous and I thought what a shame to be stuck inside watching the football. But who am I to be defeated by adverse circumstances! With the help of an extention cable fed through the kitchen window, a portable telly and some Chardonnay the score was Me 1, Shit Life 0

It was also just a couple of months off my birthday.

President Kennedy's Assassination - 22 November 1963
Can't actually remember whether I was born then or not.

History from Below

There are other moments in my own personal history which are so dramatic and pivotal and more immediately influential that some of the great historic moments in this exercise and throughout contemporary history which we are supposed to pay attention to as good patriotic/citizens of the world, barely register.

I went to the hospital with my just 2 year old son to have the diagnosis of Autism confirmed and stepped from that appointment, immediately after, into another part of the hospital to visit my mother who was trussed up in traction for some osteo-bone-crumbling-thing, she called her nurse to bring me some hot sweet tea as I was trembling and in semi-shock, as I already knew there was something, but nevertheless. I also recall another occasion, still coming to terms with it, pushing his pram and crying in the rain, as it was okay because nobody could tell.

'When did you last see your father' is the subject and title of a famous historic painting. In my own childhood, the same question would be worthy of a scene on a Grayson Perry vase.

Back in the 60s/70s the 'Great Man' (there apparantly weren't many women in history before then) theory of history whereby history was told by and about Kings, Queens and Prime Ministers, came in to question from historians of 'history from below'.

Frequently, history for the mass of ordinary individuals is played out with a mere walk on part for those who would reckon themselves historically significant.

Oh dear, I don't think I have quite engaged with the spirit of this meme.

But one thing I must ask is that since its nearly my birthday, will all global and would-be historical figures please refrain from spoiling it for me any further this year!


And now in the best tradition of interactive quizzes and with a nod to the olympics theme, I hereby botch the handing over of the baton to:

Rupa Huq
ohhh help me out Iain with a top 20/40 bloggers who haven't already been tagged with your meme.


Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Oops sorry

Apologies blogfans.

Have been absent with some quite olympian domestic stuff for which there is no medal though people often tell me I deserve one (I notice Boris scored a hat-trick, though!). Enough of the self-pity, already!

In my absence I have been tagged with a meme by Kerry McCarthy MP. Thanks, Kezza.

I have to recount what I was doing at five key historical moments and then I have to oblige five lucky recipients to do the same. Its a bit like a chain letter but without the nasty consequences like your arms dropping off or your turning into a Tory. Answers forthcoming...

In the meantime, I don't know where I found the cartoon above nor the observations below but aye, say I, to this (my domestic arrangements are slightly different but the sentiments and problems with calling in repairmen remains the same):

I hate housework!

And the housework I hate the most is washing dishes. I don't currently own an automatic dishwasher, and there have been many times when I didn't wash dishes until I didn't have any more clean ones. They just pile up on the kitchen sink until I finally decide I can't avoid them any longer. I do rinse them pretty well before I ignore them, so it's not like there's mold overtaking my kitchen. (Although, if there was, I still might be inclined to ignore it until I needed a chisel to remove it.)

I hate all kinds of housework. In spite of the fact that I just recently bought a fancy, new, bagless vacuum cleaner, I don't have dust bunnies -- I have dust beasts. Occasionally one of the cats will mistake one for a cat toy, they get so big. Like with the dishes, I only clean house when I can no longer avoid it. Sometimes it takes a plumbing problem, or a problem with the air conditioner. Whenever I need a repair person, I have to clean up before they come. I've postponed repairs several times until I could get the dishes done, the carpet vacuumed, and the bathroom tidied up. I both dread and, at the same time, look forward to visits from relatives, because I know I'm going to have to get the house extremely clean before their visit.

I don't think my being a rotten housekeeper is a problem, since I live alone. Whenever I lived with someone, I cleaned up after myself appropriately. I was very considerate. But the cats and dogs just don't care too much about how the house looks. In fact, the youngest - a kitten named Gracie - seems to have much more fun when the floor is covered with little bits of trash!

I keep trying things that I think might make housekeeping easier. About a month ago I bought some of those new, brand-name, disposable dusters. I still have them. I haven't gotten around to dusting lately, so I haven't tried them out. I think the only thing that will really make housekeeping easier is a maid. One day I'll be able to afford one. In the meantime, don't ever show up without calling first.


Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Gold!* Ceremony**

(*inspiration provided by Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East, and her judicious use of song titles for blogpost titles; this one irresistably references New Order's 1981 Spandau Ballet's 1983 hit, yes, that's right Pop Pickers, Ceremony Gold!, which is wayyy better.)

(**Just seen this and it conjures up images of David Cameron running into a conference bathed in a halo of light to Tony Hadley singing "You are gold!")

Investment in sporting facilities and athletes is paying off in the great golden medal haul currently shining a ray of sunlight through the economic gloom.

And what d'y'know the entire cycling team, including triple gold medallist Chris Hoy, all honed their talent at the Manchester Velodrome right here in the North West.

What's the Manchester Velodrome? Well, it was transformed from an old power station as part of the regeneration of Manchester into the National Cycling Centre, Britain's primary indoor Olympic cycle track and widely regarded as one of the World's finest and fastest board tracks.

Today Christine Ohuruogu added a 16th to Britain's gold medal tally by running very fast.

Boris Johnson putting his worst foot forwardMeanwhile, Boris Johnson's efforts to win a gold medal, for putting his foot very heavily in the wrong place, did not go unnoticed when he said that the spirit of the British Olympic gold medal winners showed that any politician-talk of a 'broken society' was 'piffle', broken society being his own Dear Leader, David Cameron's key slogan. A world best in Gaffeletics!


Monday, 18 August 2008

Marr on the Landscape

Coincidentally, last night Andrew Marr, in his series Britain from Above, looked at, among other things in the programme, the development and expansion of Oxford.

He looked down admiringly at its greenbelt.

Well worth a watch. Catch it on iplayer for the next week. Or visit the Britain from Above website, chock full of interesting stuff.


Sunday, 17 August 2008

Policy Wonks Devise Wonky Policies

Blackpool under re-construction

Unsurprisingly, the report Cities Unlimited (available free from all good Google searches), part of a trilogy, from the 'think-tank' Policy Exchange has been lampooned widely. One of its key proposals is that people from failing Northern cities, on which there is no point chucking good regeneration money after bad, should be encouraged to move South where all the economic action is which on the face of it sounds fairly benign. Until, that is you begin to think about the sentiments and assumptions underlying the suggestion and the massive implications or as the authors own description put it how “unworkable, unreasonable and perhaps plain barmy” it is.

Or yet still, as one commenter put it, and I paraphrase here (if only I could find the source of the original comment) 'these industrial communities have already had the heart ripped out of them once, to want to inflict further damage beggars belief'.

It is little wonder that the media chose to focus on this aspect of it.

One of my favourite bits of the report is its trying to justify draining a community (not forcibly but by choice the authors point out) of all those who are able to take up opportunities for richer pickings in the South East is pointing out to those left behind 'ooooh look at all this lovely extra space you have'. Not much comfort to lonely grandma when family have emigrated. "The amount of open space per person will increase if population falls". (Philosophical reflection/warning: we do seem to have acquired an ability to count things rather than Value them).Presumably the converse is true in the places -Oxford, Cambridge and London or in the case of Blackpudlians, Bromley- all these people will be migrated to. Some have dubbed what will be left behind as 'ghost towns'.

The report has been criticised for its defeatism. It complains about geographical constraints and location. Some Northern towns and cities are in the wrong location for 'modern business', so they must be moved, to the South East. Sunderland, it says, is a long way from most places. What about the great feats of engineering such as the construction of the railways, canal system and great viaducts. A few hills and geographic features didn't get in the way of these great projects. The report does talk of infrastructure improvements to increase accessibility but in some cases it says this is just not economic.

The report discusses that industries like to locate close together and the South East is well placed, following that logic we will end up with 60-70 million people all crammed into the South.

I do not underestimate the extent to which the fickleness of business interests must be accommodated by governments but heaven forfend that business might also appreciate that the individual human capital which they wish to employ springs from community capital.

As most sensible commenters have suggested the solution is to spread the work and business out a bit more. Surely, opening up more of these fair isles as a place to locate business presents more opportunities for overall economic growth and development than trying to concentrate everything and everyone in a small corner of the British Isles with the increased pressure on prices and services of all kinds and people.

To be fair there is a laudable sentiment in wanting to extend the 'prospects of prosperity' offered elsewhere in the UK, to people, by dint of geography, born in the wrong location.

However, if we value stable communities and families then there is a balance to be struck between encouraging people where the jobs are and enticing the jobs where the people are.

In sum, policy wonks have devised wonky policies to create a wonky Britain.

Further Reading:

Far more substantial critique can be found here where Daniel Davies, an analyst and stockbroker working in London, crunches the very numbers the report is based on and finds them sorely wanting.

Here 'Five leading organisations representing and advocating the growth of cities across England', rejected the report and tellingly their press release stated:

"The heads of the Core Cities Group, Northern Way, Centre for Cities, New Local Government Network and Centre for Local Economic Strategies instead called for a mature debate on the future of England’s towns and cities" -my emphasis, note the use of the words instead, mature, debate.

Bloggers Ideas of Civilisation and Donpaskini try to give the report a fair go.

The Guardian is good here and here.

Liverpool is romantic but can we afford such a romantic idea as romance.

My response to a commenter over at Don's place, which is where this post started out:


"The paper merely says that people should be given the opportunity to migrate within the UK."

Last time I looked people in this country were free to come and go as they please.

Indeed, as the report notes many do.

As for making it easier that would seem to be stacking the odds against revival, leading to polarisation as those that are more able to might be tempted leaving behind those who cannot.

I do have to wonder at a report which speaks of people who will be subject to their proposals as "such people".

Where to start on the rest of it!

Like it or not one of the key proposals in the report is "significant population movements"

"There is, however, a very real prospect of encouraging significant numbers of people to move from those towns to London and the South East."

...and other such quotes from the report.

What of the infrastructure to cope with this increased population flow South. Hospitals, schools, GPs, extra demand on water supplies, the daily commute of all these extra people. None of this seems to be addressed.

Many homes in the south east are already at risk of flooding. Where to put a million or more extra people, let alone deal with the not uncommon objections of local people to increased development in their areas.

The report suggests 'stuffing their mouths with gold' (paraphrasing Bevan) to persuade them. Well, some people value things more than money. I am not advocating nimbyism here it just seems something of a cynical approach.

The money would be better spent developing the local economies of areas in need of regeneration!

Andrew Lewis of 'The Northern Way' said:

"The description of the Northern cities and regions set out by policy exchange is not supported by the evidence. Many have been growing faster than the UK has a whole, creating new jobs, and attracting substantial private sector investment."

Others have questioned measures of growth and success used in the report.

As for the communities I mention of course communities change. But too much too quickly destabilises communities. If people bemoan the demise of the extended family this will do even more to dislocate people from their kin networks unless everyone takes granny with them -of course during this period of relocation there will also be more grannies.

Some people seem quaintly attached to their friends and networks of support in their local communities, however deprived.

The report, though it acknowledges problems such as the extra development necessary not being 'popular' and the destruction of communities due to outward migration but then just glosses over what are major issues with 'but we believe' type statements.

The human angle seems to be underplayed though this is not surprising for economists.

Some of the stuff about using regneration money differently/more locally empowered could be extracted from the document as stand alone proposals. I'm not sure that the great British public would have any greater faith in local councils than central government in spending the money better. With all due respect to local councillors and I know a fair few and they work exceptionally hard, unfortunately many people hold 'all politicians' in equal contempt. However, such a say over the use of the money for local people could tempt a few people to get more interested and involved and perhaps ensure more successful regeneration projects.

The report's own authors admitted that some of the proposals would be interpreted as 'barmy'. Written by a Liberal Democrat and an advisor to a Lib Dem peer both the LibDems and the Conservatives have disowned its conclusions. David Cameron who will most certainly have been briefed as to its fuller contents dismissed it in an interview as "rubbish from beginning to end" though politically he would have to rubbish all of it, acknowledging some of it would have sent an ambiguous message.

But in the end for me its the glibness in the treatment of the relocation issue.

Tim Leunig admitted he had not been to Liverpool nor spoken to any of the City Leaders before writing his report. He apparently told the Liverpool Echo: “I’m a full-time lecturer. It’s the time. I would love to be able to come and if Liverpool was next to London I’d do it like a shot. But it’s a long way."

For one who seeks to propose policies of 'significant population movements' for others yet can't be arsed to make a simple train journey to do proper field research well that's pretty shabby in my eyes.


Friday, 15 August 2008

The Devil Went Down to Georgia

I turn my back for five minutes and war breaks out.

Now being more something of an amateur expert on domestic policies in my own home, I have to confess I have no great knowledge (though perhaps enough not to make this mistake) to contribute about the situation in Georgia. However, I am sure I saw a report earlier this year, could have been on the BBC, which featured a local person looking wistfully across a river and it was something to do with South Ossetia and its independent status. I thought at the time 'uh-oh, that sounds like trouble'.

Of course in this time of citizen journalism, there is no shortage of online comment on the present troubles. And so here is mine:

War is bad (except when it isn't) and they should all just stop it right now!

But life and war, unfortunately, ain't that simple.

There are claims and counter-claims of attacks on villages in the area which each side see as justifying a military response.

The venerable (won Nobel Peace Prize 1990) Mikhail Gorbachev reckons Georgia started it. Yet it seems as my own grandmother's great-grandmother might have assessed all involved, in the region and across the globe might need their heads banging together.

As to the secondary commentary, donpaskini, ever thoughtful, gives a rundown of the 1st Battalion of Fighting Keyboardists broadly on the Right's take on the situation, and some on the left.

Meanwhile, 'Dave, Part of the Left' looks, sensibly, at the strange positions adopting ideological/partisan commitments on the issue takes one to, but says it doesn't have to be this way.

Here, Here and Here seem to give some balanced background and ongoing opinion, detail etc on the matter worth reading. Though no doubt we will all find our own preferred reading source, perhaps part of the problem.

While the Devil Went Down to Georgia is about a fiddling contest with less injurous weapons in the other Georgia , for the sake of those losing their lives and homes and being traumatised let's hope the 'international community', with the stakes similar, doesn't turn it in to one in this instance.

(As a slight aside and perhaps worthy of a post in itself, complete with philosophical reflections on the nature of 'art', journalism, news etc, I must object to some of the online content of the News Outlets and the photos they feature/buy. While still photographs have to do more/different work than moving pictures accompanied by words some featured images, I think cross a line. Some are so 'arty' that they clearly reflect the pretentions of the photographer/news outlet rather than trying to convey the reality of war and suffering. Also, isn't there some better way of labelling a series of images from a war zone than calling it a 'slide show'. Please people, some dignity!)


Sunday, 10 August 2008


Homer 'chooses' fruit

A Nudge as I have illustrated above and as popularised recently in a book of the same name is a way of presenting choices to people but with a 'nudge' towards the choice which will best promote their welfare. Because basically we are lazy and rubbish at making (good) choices.

The branch of inquiry that is 'behavioural economics' studies what people actually do (something rather different than the rational, freely choosing actor upon which the whole edifice of free-market theory is based) when faced with decisions and thus reveals the way choices can be presented to us so that They can make us choose what They want us to choose, or in the case of public policy the thing which is good for us.

Apu knows that Homer is just a little bit lazy and has cleverly placed the donuts further away than the healthy fruit in the hope and knowledge based on research that Homer may well choose the healthy option.

This new approach to the welfare of the individual, for those who like their words big and clever, is called not Nudge but 'Libertarian Paternalism' –paternalism because the way Choice is presented to us will contain a steer -the Gentle Power of Pa- towards better, welfare-promoting life choices, but libertarian in that other choices are not blocked off -you can still rebel against Pa and choose donuts instead (or at least you are made to feel you can).

See how Homer's head has been deformed by 'eating too much' Given the strength of Homer’s love of donuts would he really not walk that extra distance for his beloved confectionery? In which case can leaving him this free to eat himself to ill-health and an early death (there are costs to himself, his family and wider society in his ill-health and early death) be said to be paternalistic enough? Furthermore if choice architects or the people who will be framing the way choices are presented to us know full well how we will choose based on their nudges can it really be said that we are truly free to choose or that this falls at the libertarian end of the libertarian-paternalistic scale.

Anyway, my purpose here isn't to critique the substance of the theory -maybe another time-indeed, blimey!, it would take me a month of Sundays to absorb the body of work from which the book springs in order to be able to criticise it in any greater depth.

For those who might want to begin to get acquainted with the Big Idea of the Summer and who like their words big and want to impress their friends with three big ones strung together and some knowledge of the field you may like to start with the Nudge authors', Cass R. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler, earlier paper 'Libertarian Paternalism is not an Oxymoron'. At only 45 pdf pages long and substantial portions of some of the pages taken up with footnotes and references it’s significantly shorter than the book. What’s more its like all the best things in life, entirely free, to download, online . The website of the book also tells you what its all about, for free.

While you are at it you might also like to read the expert testimony Robert Cialdini gave to the Subcommittee (of the US House Of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology) on Research and Science Education, on the topic of "The Contribution of the Social Sciences to the Energy Challenge," September 25, 2007 -it is relevant honest! as it gives a flavour of his work on social norms and how these can be harnessed to change behaviour towards welfare-enhancing ways. His book, ‘Influence’, is on the Conservatives’ summer reading list and he has already been name-dropped by Cameron and Osborne (though contrary to their claims they are a few years late).

My principal objection here to Nudge and Robert Cialdini's 'Influence' is not for the moment in any of their central claims; I am sure (though some would beg to differ) our learned friends Thaler and Sunstein have tweaked, twiddled and extrapolated their test-tubes, research participants, hypotheses and wotnot.

My problem with all this is in the claims the Tories are using it as cover for. Or put another way they are using their alleged interest in these ideas to deliver a swift (and unjustified), pointy-elbowed nudge in Labours political/intellectual nethers. They are also trying to root around for and display their own substantial credentials. With what is the intellectual/political equivalent of stuffing a pair of socks down their pants, they are trying to persuade us they are well endowed with ideas, new and fresh and shiny, they are where the action is at.

Here is George Osborne waving it around:

"'s [the power of social norms] just one of the fascinating insights from the emerging fields of behavioural economics and social psychology. But the impact has stretched far beyond academia. It is enriching our understanding of human behaviour and changing the way policymakers think.

The Conservative party is at the forefront of this new intersect."

Unfortunately for George and Dave, this isn't quite true.

It isn't new and the Conservatives are actually only just catching up with the government’s forward thinking and policymaking. The Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit produced a document called ‘Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour’ back in 2004 which discussed the many ways of changing people’s behaviour based on these new areas of research including 'social proof' which is one of the tools cited in Cialdini’s book ‘Influence’. The document also references the work of Thaler and Sunstein and Cialdini’s ‘Influence’.

The recent suggestion about changing the default rule for organ donation from a system of opt-in to one of opt-out is straight out of this document -default rules and opt-outs being all part of the Nudge toolkit.

In January this year the hothouse of cutting edge ideas The Government Office for the North East and the Government Office for Yorkshire and the Humber, in association with Brook (United Kingdom) held a conference on Teenage Pregnancy. The afternoon slot was given over to the discussion of the social norms approach to young people’s health and well-being with a view to reducing high-risk behaviour. The speaker was “Wesley Perkins of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the US, where he and his colleague, David Craig, have introduced pioneering applications of this prevention strategy.” After that ‘Theory into Practice’ provided an insight into how ‘social normative’ theory influenced County Durham and Darlington Teenage Pregnancy Sexual Health media campaign for Sexual Health Week 2007 followed by reflections on the process and exploration of how the campaign developed, the lessons learnt and possible future uses of social norms interventions within County Durham and Darlington’s Teenage Pregnancy and Sexual Health Strategies.

You can read all the conference documents here. The ideas the Tories claim to have only recently discovered are elsewhere already being put into practice.

More significantly the government’s plans for pension schemes to come into effect in 2012 are to involve firms auto-enrolling their employees into the schemes –the kind of classic nudge which Thaler and Sunstein talk a great deal about.

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce also sees the principles of Nudge in, yes, Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill yet as he points out:

“When the Government tries to nudge it is lambasted. When the Conservatives suggest something similar they are hailed as brilliant.”

The other claim the Conservatives are making is that these ideas are somehow an alternative to 'top-down government' or regulation and all the other pejorative words they use against the government to describe any kind of (Labour) government action. Here’s Matthew again:

“Some commentators suggest 'nudging' as an alternative to legislation but of the three nudges Osborne advocates this morning in the Guardian two require new national regulation and one new local rules”

Thaler and Sunstein’s findings are not necessarily an alternative to government and regulation but in their paper they describe how the principles of Libertarian Paternalism can be used to inform legislation and regulation.

As for Robert Cialdini’s influence, here’s a section from Cialdini’s evidence:

“Not long ago, a graduate student of mine visited the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona with his fiancée—a woman he described as the most honest person he’d ever known, someone who had never taken a paperclip or rubber band without returning it. They quickly encountered a park sign warning visitors against stealing petrified wood, “OUR HERITAGE IS BEING VANDALIZED BY THE THEFT OF 14 TONS OF WOOD EVERY YEAR.” While still reading the sign, he was shocked to hear his fiancée whisper, “We’d better get ours now.”

"What could have spurred this wholly law-abiding young woman to want to become a thief and to deplete a national treasure in the process? I believe it has to do with a mistake that park officials made when creating that sign. They tried to alert visitors to the park’s theft problem by telling them that many other visitors were thieves. In so doing, they stimulated the behavior they had hoped to suppress by making it appear commonplace—when, in fact, less than 3% of the park’s millions of visitors have ever taken a piece of wood.”

If Cameron had really engaged with and grasped the insights of Cialdini he would not be irresponsibly talking-up ‘broken society’ or exaggerating the extent of knife-crime. Indeed, Cialdini explicitly warns against it as mentioned above it ‘stimulates the behavior they had hoped to suppress by making it appear commonplace.’

Given all this it is clear there is something very presentational going on here (spin, indeed!) with the Conservatives' flaunting their interest in these ideas in the media and their claim to be leading the agenda and it needs debunking. I hope my humble effort here contributes to this.

But as Matthew Taylor sums up “The issue is not 'to nudge or not to nudge' it is how to nudge well.”

I have Big Ideas The next election will see a contest in who’s the most likeable guy and the size and efficiency of their nudges.

Update: This says it so much better! (Cap Doff:Paulie)


Friday, 8 August 2008

The cleaner who swept BoJo off his feet

Two feisty ladies fight back...

Lady 1:

"Despite working the night shift, Clara is paid £6.10 an hour. According to the payslip handed to her by an old colleague, this is barely a 7 per cent increase on what cleaners were paid in 1992, despite the huge rise in the cost of living. It is well below the estimated living wage of £7.45 an hour the mayor's office estimates London workers need to be above the poverty line." Read more here⇒

..and, ahem, Lady 2:

Like, Totally funny...


Wednesday, 6 August 2008


I mentioned in a recent post that I had noticed a tendency of bloggers to play with politicians names to create nicknames for them, one notable example being Harriet or Hattie Harperson for Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and long-time campaigner on equality issues.

And so it seems the sudden rise to fame of one David Miliband has occasioned quite a prolific outpouring of, I think there's a special word for it... neologising!

I'm not sure quite why it seems to be such an increasing trend in political discourse. Perhaps its the rise of the blogosphere with its irreverence and staffed by amateurs who might have little else of value to add to the debates other than funpokery.

Perhaps because there's such a din of bloggers that some fameseekers want to distinguish themselves by coining a trademark word.

So without further ado I am pleased to announce today my special MiliMeter©

This will be used to detect all the different and creative manglings of our Delicious David's name.

Such is the great underappreciated influence of the blogosphere on the MainStreamMedia (MSM) it took this sensitive piece of kit to pick up the true extent to which well respected MSM outlets are at it as well.

On the Telegraph website we have David Milipede. His alleged leadership challenge has been called a Milibid by Sam Coates on his Red Box Blog over at Timesonline.

The Milibid was launched in his Milipiece (last word, 9th paragraph down) for the Guardian and this well and truly set the Milibandwagon (the 'Meter's audio function even heard this on the BBC) rolling. Of course his Milibandsmen/Milibandmates (Militants?) will be climbing aboard.

Now being cutting edge an' all that I thought I would get ahead of the game and think of suitable mash-ups for any future stories involving the Miliboywonder© (Miliboy had already sent the MiliMeter© needle swinging in a previous scan, thought to be a reference to his youthful looks).

So if he ever tried to get down with the yoof like when Silly Willie Hague had his 'baseball cap moment' and perhaps went all rappa-style he would surely be called MiliCent (as imagined pictured above). Or if he actually wore a hat we might even call it Milinary. And if he ever makes it to the Top Job he will henceforth be known as the Prime Milister ©.

If you spot any more or think of any you might want to register send your suggestions on an e-card, no stamp needed.

William Hague wearing a baseball cap. NB He actually wore that hat, this is not a Photoshopped image.


Sunday, 3 August 2008

Journalists' job to put "the heat and the noise" into politics

The Gordon Brown Leadership Speculation stories need no further fuelling. The issue has been well and truly doused with accelerant, lit and is a fully ablaze arson attack.

So let's throw a bucket of cold water on it instead.

The most recent bout of speculation (ask yourself who is doing the speculating) came after young David Miliband wrote that article. The media saw it not as writing on a page, some words with meaning, but as a Leadership Bid.

As the BBC's borderline excitable Nick Robinson explained reading the runes, context is everything.

Ever since he became leader many things have been written and said of Gordon Brown. Punditry in the media over recent months has been saying he needs to spell out a vision and that his cabinet needs to be more visible and prominent.

Nick-named 'Brains', David Miliband isn't stupid. He will know from polls, by-election results and media commentary that 'Houston, we have a Gordon-Brown-image praablem'. He will also know that if Gordon Brown were toppled and a new leader installed there would be demands for an immediate General Election which given the polls Labour would have little chance of winning.

Would you in those circumstances hasten your party's defeat by making a leadership bid right now?

Complaints against Tony Blair included that he was too media-savvy, too much the personality and a return to cabinet government was seen as refreshingly welcome.

Seen in this context David Miliband's article made perfect sense as exactly what he said it was in a press conference the following day -not a leadership bid but his contribution, as part of a team -his cabinet colleagues together with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister- spelling out a way forward for Labour and to refocus people's attention on arguments and issues not personalities. Hence, the missing Gordon.

It is often said by insiders and critics alike that the media 'hunt as a pack'. This has never been so clear in the stories written up on this episode than in the repetition across the print and broadcast media that Gordon Brown isn't mentioned in Miliband's article and this is therefore evidence that Miliband doesn't support him and is challenging for the leadership himself.

Having decided on the leadership challenge line as a much juicier source of stories the media completely ignored Miliband's own framing of his intervention and his backing of the Prime Minister when he said:

"Can Gordon lead us into the next election and win? I'm absolutely sure of that."

Similarly, this morning John Denham was interviewed, by a lady stand-in for the holidaying Andrew Marr, about his article in the Sunday Times supporting the Prime Minister. Being dead creative and finding a new angle to pursue she said that he hadn't mentioned Gordon Brown until the end of the article and suggested that this was hardly a 'ringing endorsement'.

Here's what Denham wrote:

"The triple whammy of credit, oil and food is transforming political debate beneath our feet. In Gordon Brown we’ve a prime minister who understands these issues better than anyone else in British politics. Those of us who are part of Labour’s team have a job to do to show why Labour values are as important today as they were 11 years ago. Nothing else helps or matters."

During the interview an exasperated Denham said:

"If you're trying to say that me saying that there's nobody else in British politics more capable than Gordon Brown of doing the job of Prime Minister is not a ringing endorsement then I do begin to wonder what a ringing endorsement would look like."

Sometimes it does feel like journalists inhabit a parallel universe of hidden meanings where black really means white.

As Brown reshuffled his cabinet in June last year, Nick Robinson said of Alistair Darling:

"Darling prides himself on taking the heat and the noise out of politics and just getting on with the job. Doesn't he realise that we journalists have jobs to do?!!!"

Indeed, context is everything. Forgive me if I prefer journalists doused with a large bucket of cold water.


Saturday, 2 August 2008

A Spoonful of Sugar for Gordon

Alan Sugar has come out in defence of Gordon Brown.

Read his article in The Sun

Watch the BBC interview here

3 more sugar lumps too.


Barack Barracked

This is the way to handle one's critics.

See The Huffington Post for how Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama was heckled and how he answered their questions.


Friday, 1 August 2008

Cameron's Tories vote for poverty

The above counter shows how much at this point in the week (Friday lunchtime) a person on the National Minimum Wage has earned. It also shows how little a person would be earning now at the level of wages the Tories thought were acceptable.

Conservatives the Progressive Party? Don't make me spit my tea out!

It took the election of a Labour Government to ensure people were paid enough for their hard work to live the life of a civilised human being.

Check out the list of Tories, including many current shadow Ministers and Shadow Cabinet members, who voted against the National Minimum Wage.

But mark my words, the Conservatives are saying they support the Minimum Wage just to get themselves elected but will fiddle with the value of it so that we will go back to the days of the extreme poverty wages seen under the last Tory Government.

This is what Cameron says on the matter:

"Like the minimum wage.We'll keep it and, when we can, we'll increase it."

Think there's little difference between the parties? Believe me, that qualifying 'when we can' will fall in rather different places.