“Snakes and Ladders” – a fictional story of predatory behaviour

‘Snakes and Ladders’

 “What goes around comes around”.  It’s a common enough aphorism, but God knows there is precious little evidence for a perfect karmic system of justice.  It has served me well enough though, helping me suck up the slights of life in the belief that the perpetrator, the cause of my angst, would one day ‘get’ his, or hers.  Taking the high ground, I used to call it.  It kept me out of a few confrontations but when it failed, bloodied and bruised, whether literally or metaphorically, I took comfort from belief in a future of righteous redress.  Until, that is, I met Nadine.

Nadine must have been born manipulative because even at 19, when we first met, she was already the finished article.  She had all the physical and intellectual assets one could want in a woman, except one: she had no scruples. She could make you feel you were in the wrong, and even apologise for getting in her way, as she put the boot in.  Fortunately for me our paths only crossed tangentially, but from time to time we had mutual friends and colleagues.  I heard from them about the damage she did but never that she’d been called to account.

I first came across her at a flat warming.  Three first year student friends of mine, Niki, Simon and Ella, were sharing a sunny first floor in Clapham.  Nadine came along to the party with a mutual friend of theirs.  Niki and Simon were a loose item, rather more loose to Simon than Niki it transpired when Nadine made a blatant play for him.  She was taller, more athletic, and cleverer than Niki and it didn’t take her long to ease the heartbroken girl out of the flat and take over her room.  Shortly after that she dumped Simon over some fabricated dalliance between him and Ella and, in three months from start to finish, she had the flat to herself.

By these and similar methods she clawed, inveigled or dissected, her way to an underserved first class degree (leaving her tutor’s marriage in tatters in the process) and then an MBA.  By the time she was ready for the snakes and ladders of business she’d ‘hopscotched’ her way across London from flat to maisonette to house, and along the way had accumulated a rather nice Alpha Romeo Spyder, a time share in Gleneagles, a pony (stabled) and more jewellery than could be decently worn in polite company.

The infuriating thing was that Nadine didn’t need to be this way; she was actually über competent, at everything.  She never climbed over someone into a qualification, a job, or a bed that she didn’t then occupy with more success and ease than the rightful incumbent.   Her reasoning seemed to be that there was no point in wasting everyone’s time, especially hers, proving that she was better at, or more deserving of, something someone else already had.  She just took it, used it, and then abandoned it when the next opportunity came her way, leaving someone else to pick up the pieces.

We were 5 years out of university before I saw her again.  I was with my, then, girlfriend Elaine at the British Film Institute; a season of Balkan avant-garde movies.  When the lights came up, there she was in the seat in front.  I tapped her on the shoulder.  We walked out to the foyer together, she chatting superficially in the way you do when you’re struggling to remember the name of someone you’ve met out of context.  She introduced us to her companion Boris, an under-something in the Croatian embassy, before we went our separate ways.  Later I heard she had a flat in Korcula and Boris had been demoted and transferred to a consulate in Bolivia.

We met a couple more times, just passing through the same airport departure lounge, or a reception somewhere, but the next occasion after that was different.  I was diligently, if tediously, working my way up the ladder in a private bank.  I even had a chic office on a favoured 35th floor corner in Canary Wharf.  Well, to be more accurate, it was my boss Dave that had the corner office, I was next door.  Anyway, one hot May I was sitting with my door open, for the illusion of cooler air, and looked up to see Nadine standing there, being introduced by Dave as his new P.A.  She was casually dressed in a tailored silk blouse and slacks, but every inch the powerful corporate animal.  There was just the merest flicker of recognition from her before she turned away and I knew right then that, whichever way the dice fell, poor Dave was about to land on a succession of squares with snake heads and slide right off the game board.

In a way Nadine counted me as a friend, well at least not an enemy, because I’d never had anything she wanted, nor stood between her and her next objective.  Nevertheless it was prudent self-preservation that stopped me from trying to warn Dave.  Instead I watched her, in the way a fascinated child watches a python in the zoo, as she undulated her way into position for her next live meal.

Her first coil was simple and subtle: a presentation to a new client went unaccountably wrong.  A brochure was bound with some pages upside down, a name tag was misspelled, some annual account figures didn’t quite add up.  The outsourced printers took most of the blame, but the CEO noticed the beads of sweat break out on Dave’s upper lip, and the adroit way that Nadine gathered up the loose ball and ran with it.  She knew exactly what to say, and how to say it in such a way as to leave the unmistakable impression of a man out of his depth being rescued by a loyal and undervalued assistant.

The second coil wound on quickly afterwards, at a Wimbledon-week garden party for some minor-royal Saudi client.  Of course there was no alcohol on offer with the post- match strawberries, but ever-attentive Nadine saw to it that, as he networked the clients, Dave’s glass of fruit punch was always topped up, but with a little hidden extra.  When he was found face down in the shrubbery Nadine was tending him wearing a Royal teal-blue hijab she had secreted in her handbag.  The contrast between her chaste modesty and her disarrayed drunken boss ensured that control of the account passed to her, and she was being tipped to head up the Dammam office the following year.

The only time she came even close to being exposed was when Ranjit, the night security guard, found her going through Dave’s desk and laptop.  She was copying and deleting files, leaving a trail of incompetence for her coup de grâce.  Ranjit was no match for Nadine and easily fell victim to her blushing embarrassment; he was “paid in kind”, then blackmailed, for his silence.  And so it went on; little by little the life, and job, was squeezed out of Dave.

About 6 months later I happened to be sharing the lift with Nadine, by then my boss, when it shuddered to a stop between floors.  Ordinarily being trapped in a lift with a more-than attractive predatory female would be the stuff of many a male fantasy, but the barely nascent thought was stifled by the realisation that, at last, what had gone around was about to come around in spades: Nadine was obviously very scared, and she began to unravel.  This time it was her doing the sweating, her with a look of non-comprehension on her face, and her out of control as she crumpled into a corner hugging her knees and gabbling.  It wasn’t hard to get her to talk about herself at any time so it only took gentle prompting, purely as a way of calming her nerves you understand, to get her to review her successful career and catalogue her victories and victims.  By the time we got to the juicy details of poor Dave’s fall she was standing again, head back in full flow, assured and confident as ever.

After about an hour power to the lift was restored, and downward travel resumed.  Nadine checked herself over in the mirrored wall of the lift car, adjusted her neck line, smoothed down her skirt, and flicked her hair before turning and thanking me for helping her keep calm. At the 8th floor, where she was going to a wine and canapés ‘do’ for future vice-presidents, she gave me a peck on the cheek, at the same time digging her finger nails ever-so gently into my hand to tell me, as if I needed telling, that she intended her ‘performance’ to be our little secret.

Me?  I was on my way home to Elaine, but I got out of the lift as well.  I thought that walking the last few floors would give me time to think, about what I should do and how it might play out, and I was right.  By the time I had reached the lobby, I knew.  I ran the last flights to the basement security office and Ranjit, and the recording from the in-lift CCTV camera.  Despite the emergency lighting in the stranded lift, the dim images were perfectly usable, and the sound crystal clear.

Don’t you just love ‘YouTube’?

 

© Andrew Gold 2015

Harvey Weinstein – are we all to blame?

Anyone who knows me will know how repugnant I find this man’s behaviour and, by extension, all such behaviour. It is hateful. Intolerable. However, outside the bright spotlight focussed on Weinstein, there is something uncomfortable we shouldn’t ignore. Something in the mirror. Ourselves. Men and Women. Parents. Colleagues. Employers.

Some men and women in powerful positions over others will always try to abuse their position.   Sex is a basic human drive, for men and women, and we are never going to change that.  Predatory behaviour in business practice is encouraged, is celebrated.  Put all that together and you have the context for a Weinstein to operate.  However since the 1950s, when the advertising gurus on Madison Avenue (USA) declared that “Sex sells”, we have become progressively inured to the sexualisation of everything from selling M&Ms and hair care products, to the cult of celebrity, in “Strictly Come Dancing” or even animation programmes on childrens’ TV.  It is acceptably normal for popular music to be performed, and promoted, by overtly sexual behaviour.  In fact, when someone just stands there and sings, or plays, it is remarkable.

For as long as WE think it is is OK for men to tolerate (even encourage) sexual inuendo as harmless banter, for as long as it is OK for women to be encouraged to wear sexually revealing / provocative clothes, the bar for the likes of Weinstein is raised.  Business executives who want female employees to wear open blouses, and high heeled shoes, to work are complicit.  The producers of childrens’ films as diverse as ‘Beauty and The Beast or ‘The Incredibles’, that idealise female image as big breasted, large hipped and wasp waisted, are complicit.  The moderators of the BBC Breakfast facebook page, that allow posts that refer to the tightness of a presenter’s dress, are complicit.  We are all, to some degree, complicit.

I am absolutely not saying that women who dress ‘provocatively’, or just take a pride in their appearance, are “asking for it”.  Nor am I blind to the fact that women are just as capable of coercion and predatory behaviour, or that some ‘transactions’ of this kind are consensual.  What I am saying is that we all need to look in the mirror when we point an accusatory finger at high level perpetrators: while we put up with the sexual objectivisation of women (yes, and men) in our daily lives it is easier for the likes of Harvey Weinstein to exploit their power.

 

“Brexigration” – or how to conflate two undeliverable ideas, UK style

I watched the Prime Minister, yesterday, commenting in the House on a ‘leaked’ government draft paper on future (post Brexit) immigration policy;

As I understand the PM, in the context of Brexit, the “British People” accept immigration is broadly beneficial but “just want to have control over it”.  Actually I think many people do not accept immigration is beneficial and want it stopped, period.  To be clear, I do not share this view.

Be that as it may, I cannot see how the proposals, whatever they turn out to be in detail, can deliver control without an effective means of detecting, detaining, and removing those immigrants who do not comply with the requirements of their registration / residency / work entitlement.

The focus seems to be, in the first instance anyway, on immigrants from EU countries by putting in place controls for them which are, broadly, like those already in place for non-EU citizens.  However, the controls in place for non-EU citizens demonstrably fail:  it appears the Border Agency (and whoever else) cannot keep track of,  and remove when necessary, those already here.  Ignoring the unknown number of illegal immigrants (from wherever), whether settled or itinerant, working in the black economy or trafficked, our immigration detention centres already seem to be full, with a mixed bag of illegal immigrants, failed asylum seekers, criminals awaiting deportation and visa ‘overstayers’.  One consequence of this seems to be those identified as ‘illegal’ are bailed to report, or reappear in court, and immediately disappear back into the populace at large.  What a surprise.

Whenever there is a TV news story about police resources, they often use a bit of film of two police officers walking along.  It makes me smile, all that is missing is the theme music from “The Bill”.  When did anyone outside London last see two police officers on foot?  Or even in a car?  We live on an island but I don’t see how, without massively increased resources in coastal and land border patrols, in police numbers, in courts, in detention and removal facilities, this is going to work.  And, given the continuing vice-like squeeze on budgets generally, who in government is going to argue for that?  In my opinion this is just one more bit of “oh shit, we’ve promised this so we’d better do something” policy making.

Dear God, not again…

“Steve Bannon, the ousted White House chief strategist, is reportedly considering starting a television network which would allow him to “go nuclear” as he settles vendettas with moderate advisers in the White House and pressures President Donald Trump to pursue a populist agenda of economic nationalism.
 
Allies of Mr Bannon compared him to a “tiger freed from his cage,” suggesting things would get “ugly” as he targets the Republican establishment and what he calls “West Wing Democrats”. (source Daily Telegraph 20 August 2017)
 
I don’t know what this feels like in the USA, but for those of us on the European side of the ‘pond’, with memory and some history education, this all sounds horribly familiar and quite scary. Bannon’s CV is not so dissimilar to that of Josef Goebbels in pre-war Germany. Like Goebbels, Bannon understands the power of the media, and his ‘Breitbart’ website looks set to spawn a TV channel. Like Goebbels, he plays on the disappointment of a marginalised electorate. By ‘firing’ Bannon, I suspect Trump is really unleashing him to stir up the so-called ‘Alt-Right’, because he is continually baulked by more moderate forces. It is all frighteningly reminiscent of the creation of the Black Shirts, and later the SS, taking politics out of the debating chamber and into the street, with violence. Unlike pre-war Germany, the populace in the US has the constitutional right to bear arms, and don’t they know it: already turning out to rallies in paramilitary gear and carrying automatic weapons. 10 years before the outbreak of WW2, Goebbels couldn’t get elected to save his life.  In 1923 Hitler was in prison and on trial for Treason. You all know what happened after that. Trump may be a bufoon, or he may not. Either way his backers, and populist supporters, are dangerous. If Trump becomes a liability, I don’t think the likes of Bannon will think twice about moving him out of the way.  .

LYME DISEASE IN UK – 2017

 

Lyme Disease is one of several bacterial infections which can be passed to humans by the bite of an infected tick.  It is important to be aware of it, and the potential risks posed by a tick bite, because it is a multi-systemic infection which can affect the central nervous system, muscles (including the heart) and cognitive function of the brain: it can be severely disabling, long lasting and potentially fatal.  Therefore early diagnosis, and prompt treatment, is crucial to minimising the effects of disease.

Knowledge about Lyme Disease in the NHS Primary Care system is patchy, official advice and guidelines are inconsistent, therefore prompt diagnosis and effective treatment are not assured.  The first line of defence is to avoid being bitten.  Nobody wants to stop people enjoying the open air.  The physical and psychological benefits of enjoying the countryside outweigh the risks, but you need to take sensible precautions.  Wear appropriate clothing: long sleeves, trousers with cuffs tucked into socks: not shorts, sandals and sleeveless ‘crop tops’.  Use a DEET based tick repellent on exposed skin, but remember it may need to be reapplied if you are out all day.

If you might be at tick risk, say on a day out in the countryside, it is good practice to check yourself thoroughly at the end of the day, and at intervals through the day to check your clothes for ‘questing’ ticks.   You may need the assistance of a good friend: ticks can hide in places hard to see.  Remember that a tick which can carry disease may be as small as a poppy seed, but if you find a tick attached don’t panic: they don’t all carry disease.  Although disease transmission can begin in as little as 6 hours, it is as important to remove an attached tick correctly as it is to remove it promptly.  Use of the correct technique, preferably with a purpose designed tick removal tool or needle-nosed tweezers, is vital to avoid crushing the tick and provoking it to pass any bacteria to you. Do not use your fingers, apply creams, Vaseline, alcohol or attempt to burn it off with a match head or cigarette end.

Ticks are not “spreading north”, as has been rather sensationally described recently.  The UK has, and has had for many millenia, ticks widely distributed.  Although we know their preferred habitat is leafy woodland, heathland, and long vegetation, anecdotally ticks are becoming more active over a wider geographical range and longer across the seasons.  Again, anecdotally, 2017 seems to be a ‘bad’ year for ticks.  It is not known whether this is because of global warming, changes in land use, changes in agricultural practices or some other reason.  While there are so-called ‘hot spots’, even within ‘tick country’ like the Highlands, or the New Forest, it is not really known where they are in greater or lesser numbers or whether the ticks there are proportionally more or less infected than elsewhere.  In fact there is no reliably accurate information on the proportion of UK ticks that carry disease.  Estimates range from 2-15%.

The fact is you don’t need to be wild walking or camping to find a tick.  You could get bitten by an infected tick in your urban garden, allotment or an urban park, because they can travel on mice, hedgehogs, domestic pets, urban foxes and even migrating birds.  At present there is no mandatory check for ticks on pets returning from a foreign ‘holiday’ and some species of imported ticks can survive indoors, unlike our ‘domestic’ ticks which need moisture to survive, and they can carry disease pathogens not normally present in the UK.

The official estimate of new cases of Lyme Disease, in the UK, annually is about 3000.  Until very recently the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the USA estimated cases there as 30,000.  They have revised that to 300,000.  There appear to be more cases Lyme Disease (and other tick borne diseases) in mainland Europe than the UK, but that may be because other countries collect data differently.  The wide range of estimates of new UK cases is, regrettably, just estimates.  Any apparent increase in cases may be down to increased awareness, both in the public and the medical profession.  Since 2010 Lyme Disease has not been a notifiable disease in the UK, unless acquired occupationally when it would be reported to the HSE under the RIDDOR regulations, or in military service.  Data are not collected in the UK unless the disease is confirmed by a UK laboratory blood test.  An unknown proportion of cases are treated on clinical judgement without a confirming blood test.  This needs to change if we are to understand the scale of the incidence of UK acquired Lyme Disease.

Both Public Health England (PHE), and The Big Tick Project (based in Bristol) receive ticks collected by members of the public in the UK.  PHE will examine the ticks it receives to see what disease pathogens they carry.  Anything, like an app, that more reliably records where, and in what numbers,  ticks are found may be helpful.  Indeed there have been apps developed in the UK before, and there are a number of so-called ‘tick MAPS’ to be found on the internet.  Unless the information is properly recorded, in a standard format, it may not provide scientifically reliable data.  Incomplete information can also lull people into a false sense of security if they are led to believe they are in a low risk area.

There is, as yet, no vaccine against Lyme Disease.  Scientists and Doctors are beginning to accept that their previous certainty about detection and treatment of Lyme Disease is less secure.  There is more open-mindedness about the sensitivity and reliability of standard tests.  There is more willingness to consider different drugs, doses, duration and method of delivery of treatment.  There is less certainty than hitherto about the potential for complete cure, about relapses or about the persistence of the bacteria.

Whatever the accurate number of new UK cases, every year there is a fresh cohort of victims: new blood samples, new prescriptions of drugs, new outcomes.  Because there is no centrally directed or co-ordinated recording, monitoring of diagnosis, treatments or outcomes, there is no dataset of Lyme Disease victims available to researchers to see whether one treatment works better than another, whether there is a measurable treatment failure rate, or for evidence of relapse or post-treatment persistence.

A large number of Lyme ‘victims’ have, over many years, reported persisting illness despite approved treatment.  Naturally, in desperation, and with the help of the internet, they look elsewhere for help.  This has led to a rise in the number of ‘alternative’ or ‘unorthodox’ treatments being offered and tried.  While, for the most part, there is little evidence that these work it is well to remember that “absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence”.  In due course it may be proven, by more research and clinically controlled double-blind trials, that there is scientifically replicable evidence.  Without such evidence the orthodox medical community, and regulatory bodies, will always rely on the official guidance.

The longer someone has disease without treatment, the more intractable it can become.  Given the potentially large number of under, or undiagnosed, victims there may need to be more work on so-called late stage, or disseminated, Lyme involving referrals to specialist clinics and a multi-disciplinary approach.  One of the things we do know is that, amongst recorded and confirmed cases, the age group most at risk of developing the disease appears to be 45-64.  We do not know why this is, but we do know that we have an ageing population so it is not unreasonable to extrapolate from this that, if for no other reason, there will be more cases in future.

I Robot, You Robot.

I’ve just been watching a worrying short item on the BBC’s technology prgramme ‘CLICK’.  It was about robots replacing humans in more and more jobs. Nothing new there, you might think.  After all, we have become used to robots in manufacturing, where they have been replacing repetitive manual tasks since as long ago as the industrial revolution, improving the human condition by replacing humans in jobs where the environment is hazardous.  However it is predicted that by 2030, yes 17 years from now, 30% of all jobs currently performed by humans, in America at least, will be performed by robots.  There is already a debate going on, predictably led by California, about…..wait for it…..the loss of tax revenue from people no longer in work.  One suggestion is that the robots should, themselves, be taxed and the revenue raised used to retrain the displaced humans.

The problem, as I see it, is that the social consequences of, and reaction to, increasing automation are now potentially as serious as those faced by the cotton weavers who were confronted by the invention of the ‘Spinning Jenny in the 18th century.  And this is why.  The ever-increasing rate of technological ‘advance’ is allowing ‘robotisation’ of tasks that are not repetitive but require decision making, adaptive (learning) response and predictive ability:  we are talking not about robots but artificial intelligence.  We’ve already seen the squeezing out of clerical jobs formerly held by the moderately educated working class.  Face-to-face interactions have been largely replaced by menu driven telephone and internet contact.  Even those that retain jobs where customer contact is required are subject to the sort of reliance on automation as parodied by David Walliams’ comedic character who says “Computer says no”.  Everything is subject to automation: farming, retailing catering, even fighting wars, are already being stripped of humans.  Robot delivery of goods bought from an entirely automated warehouse is being trialled, along with driverless cars.  Pilotless airliners are, and have been for years, entirely technically feasible.  Even nursing and some medical interventions are being automated.  The upward pressure of artificial intelligence is moving inexorably on to squeeze the educated middle class.  The technically competent will be deployed devising and maintaining the robots, but what will the ‘thinkers’ do?

The idea that humans doing low grade, low income, low satisfaction work, will somehow be released by automation into a utopian world of creativity is laughable.  It’s not, and never has been since the days of Spinning Jenny, about  change for the benefit of society: it is, and has always been, about productivity and profit.  How to make more money for less investment. What then of those whose educational attainment is not suited to this world?  How will the politicians, the industrialists and the financiers, ensure that the displaced still have a living wage?  If they have been superseded by a machine, on the basis that the machine will be cheaper per transaction (whatever that ‘transaction’ is), how will they be paid more than the machine ‘earns’?  It makes no sense.

And so I return to the title of my piece.  “I Robot, You Robot”.  Isaac Assimov wrote “I Robot”, but from H.G. Wells’s “Time Machine” to Philip Dick’s “Blade Runner” and James Cameron’s “Terminator” the world of literature and film has been describing a dystopian future where a disatisfied underclass rebels against the machines and their guardians.  It used to be called Science Fiction, but look around; it doesn’t seem much like fiction any more.

 

Grenfell Tower – A Tombstone for Austerity?

Image from ‘The Grocer’

The disastrous, multi-fatality, fire in a London residential tower block exposes more than questionable building practice.  With any luck it may, just may, also finally drive a stake through the still twitching heart of Austerity.

On the night of 13/14 June Grenfell Tower, 24 storeys of flats in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, caught fire.  At the time of writing it appears the fire started accidentally in one flat on the 4th floor.  There are unsubstantiated suspicions of arson, perhaps because the block seemed almost to be home to many ethnic minority families, some of them refugees.  It is critically important that the Fire and Police authorities establish (and hopefully rule out) whether the cause was deliberate but the painstaking forensic work to prove, or disprove, arson has added to the slowness of the recovery operation.  This slowness added to frustrations which boiled over into direct action and the storming of the Town Hall.

Whatever the cause, the fire took hold and spread with astonishing speed and, despite heroic efforts of firefighters, the result has been scores of deaths and injuries and hundreds more made homeless.  The shell of the building will probably be demolished but perhaps part of it should remain, Reichstag-like, as a permanent reminder of the obscenity of Austerity: a symbolic headstone for one of the most unfair and divisive policies of our times.

Questions are being raised about the safety of similar high-rise residences, and especially local authority social high-rise residences, all across the UK.  As the initial shock subsided, anger appeared.  Anger directed at government (local and national), at architects, building contractors, indeed at anyone who represented authority who, however well intentioned, appeared at the scene to offer ineffectual sympathy and support.  This anger has already been seized on by groups who have taken advantage to promote a political agenda.

What we have seen, though, is the paralysis of parts of the local and national government system.  It seems unable to act in a coherent and effective way, and yet there are co-ordinated and rehearsed response plans for tragic events which result in mass casualties, like terrorism, a train or plane crash, or a sports stadium fire.  These plans derive from, or are refined because of, previous events where procedures were found wanting.  In this case, however, the authorities seem to have been totally unprepared and, worse, made incapable of responding by not having resources (physical, financial and especially human).  Faced with hundreds of people evacuated from the fire in their nightclothes, who had lost everything including the lives of family members, they appeared to not know what to do.  It was left to the community itself to respond with water, food, clothes and even shelter.  The immediate, and urgent, need to distribute casualties to hospitals across London, many of them unidentifiable or incapable of identifying themselves, led to mass uncertainty about the numbers, identity, and whereabouts of survivors.  The apparent systemic failure to track, and keep track of, people has added to the anger.  Furthermore, the event has exposed an uncertainty about who was in the building in the first place.  Some flats were owner-occupied, presumably sold off under Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” legislation.  Questions about who was entitled to be there, who may have been visiting legitimately, who was absent for any reason, who might have been ‘camping’ unofficially with friends or relatives, who may have been illegally sub-letting from the rightful tenant appear, so far, to be unanswered and perhaps unanswerable.  We may never know, and we may never even know the identities of those persons whose bodies are recovered.  If the building collapses spontaneously before all the victims are recovered, we may even not have a total number of bodies, never mind all the identities of victims.

At the heart of this is the housing crisis:  in a major city, with high numbers of transient people, there will always be some who ‘bend’ the rules.  It is inevitable.  However when housing provision is inadequate (in quality, quantity and affordability), the pressure to do so is increased.  Starved of funds to build, maintain, and manage housing stock many local authorities have been forced to pass on these responsibilities to arms-length groups or the private sector, a private sector primarily driven by profit rather than public service.  In the case of Grenfell Tower, the building was maintained and managed by The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO).  Ostensibly such an organisation is devolutionary: it is meant to improve democracy, to make the tenants themselves more directly involved in decision making, priority setting, maintenance and tenancy management.  It is meant to be more responsive than a town-hall based bureaucracy but, in reality, it devolves the management to people who may well be ill-equipped to handle it, leaving only a ‘rump’ of administrative expertise and support to liaise with them at the town hall.  And, of course, it is intended to save money.  This is especially a feature of post-financial crash local government: Austerity has seen local services closed down, or taken on by charitably funded volunteers.  Taking on a local library or swimming pool is one thing, running a large housing project is another thing entirely.  I have no way of knowing if this played a part in Kensington and Chelsea, but certainly local authorities across the country have been stripped of experienced housing officers, building inspectors and other professionals, like Architects and Surveyors, while their work has been sub-contracted.  In the case of Grenfell Tower it seems the building was recently refurbished, part of which was the over-cladding of the structure with insulated panels to improve the thermal performance of the structure.  There are suspicions, as yet unproven, about these panels being the cause of the rapid spread of the fire.  In due course we shall know if this is the case.  Even if they were, it may be that their specification was completely in accordance with the Building Regulations.  It may be that the work was competently carried out, and inspected, in accordance with the specifications though, given the state of the building now, it may be impossible to tell.  If that is so, then the Building Regulations may be changed.  If there were contractual failures, or unauthorised substitutions of materials, then the law will take its course – eventually.  Eventually is not good enough for the victims, their families, or residents in similar buildings the length and breadth of the UK.  The underlying question is whether an organisation like KCTMO is capable of effectively monitoring something like a complex building project, or its on-going management.  The more you break down and extend the chain of management, the more layers you build in, the more risk there is of failure.  What happens to accountability in these circumstances?

The tenants at Grenfell Tower, apparently, made repeated representations to KCTMO, to their elected council representatives and to their MP about safety concerns.  They claim these representations have been ignored.  When the inevitable public enquiry concludes, and reports, we may well find it isn’t only Building Regulations that are revised.

As the shock continues to subside, and recovery begins, people are asking what can be done to support all those directly affected: victims and relatives, emergency services workers, police etc.  I have heard pleas for on-the-ground community mental health workers to be deployed.  I have to ask where they will come from?  Surely not from NHS mental health services so eviscerated like every other public service by Austerity cuts that in normal times you can’t get an appointment for week or even months!  And as for rehousing the survivors in three weeks, as the government has promised; what about funerals?  The heartbreak of those whose traditions and religion require particular arrangements, which cannot be observed, is palpable.

No, everywhere you look in this tragedy you find the taint of Austerity that has been sucking the life blood out of our communities for years.  The aftermath of the fire has also exposed fault lines that run through ethnic, cultural, and class divides, and exposes the very centre of our political system to a charge of institutional disinterest and carelessness.  If not handled with great sensitivity, and determination, the consequences for our society may reach further, and last longer, than the immediate effects of the fire itself.  It would be tragedy heaped upon tragedy if another victim of this event were community cohesion.

Austerity: The Emperor’s New Clothes

During the Second World War, and the years of recovery afterwards, much of the world endured privations which, today, are almost unimaginable.  In pre-war UK society it was the norm for families to be ‘nuclear’, with one main source of income.  Post-war many families were without a breadwinner.  Children slept in the drawers of furniture, some went shoeless.  There was severe rationing.  Many were, quite literally, homeless having been ‘bombed out’.  Ordinary people experienced restrictions on their lives and aspirations which make our present use of the term “austerity”, to describe a deliberate political policy, an insult.  I am reminded of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

The major difference between then and now is that the general population had a clear, in many cases very personal, cause for the pain and a reason to endure it.  During the war the economy was directed, it was not a free market economy, and it was directed to one purpose: winning the war.  The only people who made any money were the arms dealers and black market spivs, and the latter were subject to extreme penalties if caught.  Soon after WW2 the country elected a Labour government which directed the economy to peace, and creating a platform for social equality: universal free education, the NHS, mass social housing, which gave the population a pay-off for the pain. It had a vision of what the country could be like.

The so-called “austerity” of the years after 2008 was entirely different.  The world financial system collapsed, not under the weight of war but under unsustainable debt created by ‘loadsamoney’ gambling, and stock market speculation.  Unlike WW2, the cost and pain of our 21st Century “austerity” has not been borne equally.  The long term pay-off is not at all clear except to those who have imposed it.  It has had no vision other than to deliberately, and nakedly, deconstruct the state’s involvement in directing, and contributing to, the economy.  Its primary driver was ideological and its aim was to shift the responsibility of delivering almost all state service functions into the private sector for profit.  And as a result, for example, we have burgeoning private health care, housing, prisons, education (for those that can afford them) and, at the same time, the state providers of these services have been systematically starved of resources.  The gaps, where possible, are filled by charities and individual compassion.

In the wake of an unexpected rebuff at a General Election, for the Conservatives to be addressing why so many people didn’t vote for them, by changing leadership ‘style’ and, particularly by rethinking “austerity”, shows how far removed they are from really understanding the popular mood.  They do not seem to see, as we do, that if they can change economic policy now, just because of a poor election result, they could have changed course before.  If they can listen now, they could have listened before.  In my opinion it’s not “austerity” per se that the populace have rejected, it is the pointlessness of it except for those who have benefitted, and will continue to benefit, from it.  There is no ‘holy grail’ other than some nebulous notion of deficit reduction.  There is no gain worth the pain.  Until recently many young people, who apparently voted en-masse for something better on 8th June, had only ‘being famous’ as an aspiration to escape the future that was being mapped out for them.

The Conservatives simply do not, and cannot, ‘get it’ because they seem to be intellectually, socially, culturally, some even morally, incapable of grasping that we finally see the Emperor (and Empress) has no clothes.

 

 

 

 

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

You couldn’t make it up.  I almost feel sorry for Theresa May (TM).  Almost.  Since her decision to press ahead with business as usual, in an unbelievably inept statement in front of No 10, the house of cards has started to collapse.  I don’t know if the Conservative ‘grandees’ know what to do for the best: should they let TM carry on for a while or add to the pressure and ease her out?  She’s fatally wounded, but the party top echelons, and the rank and file MPs, need to be reminded THEY voted for her as leader after David Cameron resigned.  As a supporter of Labour the temptation to gloat is overpowering, but we need to be careful.  There is a real risk of economic collapse if the government can’t govern.  A run on the pound isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility.  Foreign investment might desert the UK, not only because of the uncertainty of government, but also of an increasingly uncertain Brexit.  There’s no certainty that another election would help clarify things.

The situation in Northern Ireland is toxic, and made worse by the failed power sharing executive.  Sinn Fein are making hay, but it isn’t a huge leap of the imagination to see paramilitairies on both sides of the sectarian divide taking advantage (with or without encouragement of their political ‘wings’).

Who would take her place?  I hear the usual pro-Boris Johnson sentiment, but he seems like an accident waiting to happen (again, and again).  He appeared on camera yesterday (having been confirmed as Foreign Secretary) looking, frankly, like he’d been dug out of a rugby club booze-up rather than holder of one of the highest posts in the country.  Not Gove (whom he hates and May sacked in favour of Boris Johnson).  I think we might see TM ‘crack’ under the pressure (really or as an excuse) sooner rather than later and I don’t see the party going for someone young and untried in the perilous condition we find ourselves in.  I think we might see Sir Michael Fallon, currently Defence Secretary, step forward (with all due humility) and accept the heavy burden of office he didn’t seek.  If you believe that, you believe in Father Christmas.  All in all it’s a disaster, and while I can say “serves you right”, it’s really worrying.

 

OK, I was wrong, but not completely.

Well, I was wrong about the 2017 general election, and am happy to admit it.  Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party did a lot better than many expected.  My own predictions were pretty accurate, though; first of all I predicted the election would happen in 2017.  Secondly I predicted a Tory win, but without a clear majority.  I did expect the SNP would drop a few seats from its historic near monopoly in Scotland, but did not see the big resurgence of Tory vote there coming (without which we might be looking at a left-of-centre coalition not a right-of centre one).  I did predict a ‘coalition’, but I thought it would be with the LibDems again (despite what the LibDems were saying publicly, they had ‘form’).  Instead we’ve got the Ulster Unionists propping up the Tories, which is a pretty frightening prospect – I’ll write about this later in this post.

I was wrong about Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to reach the public.  As the campaign went on he did better and better; he played to his strength of public speaking and getting out into the country.  Even with the help of some blatant lies, a lot of hostile and smearing press coverage and, it has to be said, subtle (perhaps institutional) bias in the BBC, Theresa May showed she couldn’t do it, if anything she was worse than Jeremy Corbyn.  She couldn’t campaign, and being unwilling to debate and being seen to only speak at carefully staged meeting of party activists, she seemed detached, even aloof.  She provided an unlimited supply of ammuniton for a well organised social media campaign against her.

Good ‘on the stump’, Jeremy Corbyn did less well on camera, and showed he isn’t as fleet of foot as he needs to be – as has been seen time after time at Prime Minister’s Questions in th House of Commons.  Why is this important?  Well, for a couple of reasons.  First, Theresa May cannot survive as PM beyond (perhaps even up to) the end of the Brexit negotiations.  You can almost hear the knives being sharpened.  The timing of her departure is entirely dependent on how well the Brexit negotiations are perceived to be going. Her replacement is unlikely to be as inept or non-combative at the next election.  I predict another election will be fought at the time the Brexit negotiations are concluded – 18 months for Labour to get its act together. The Conservatives will not make the mistakes they did this time round.  Realising they shot themselves in the foot with an ill-considered manifesto, they already realise a more collegiate approach to policy forming is required.  Labour can’t count on many more ‘own goals’ from them.

Secondly, the secret weapon of Corbyn’s unassailable integrity can only last so long; the young and first time voters go ‘off the boil’ quickly.  They must be encouraged to remain active, engaged and ready to vote.  The part of the Labour party that tried to dump Corbyn and then, when they failed, turned its back on him, must rue the fact that he took them to within a whisker of victory.  They must be thinking “if only”, especially those that came close to, but failed, to winning a seat.  It’s good to see a few of his detractors have publicly recanted.

Now, to the ‘unholy alliance’ with the DUP.  The LibDems stuck to their, broadly, anti-Brexit stance and said “No deals”.  The only others left standing with enough votes to keep Theresa’s Tories in power are the DUP, The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.  During the election, one of the smears repeatedly thrown at Jeremy Corbyn was his alleged sympathy with the IRA (and others).  Even though this was shown to be misreported and taken out of context, some of that stuck.  The DUP are the political representatives of Ulster “Loyalism”:  their power also grows from the barrel of the gun, they are to the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Volunter Force (etc.) what Sinn Fein is to the IRA.  After the so-called Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to open armed conflict between Loyalists and Republicans in Northern Ireland, known as “the Troubles”, the two sides came together in a devolved power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly.  This institution collapsed just before the UK election was called, resulting in an election in Northern Ireland which has, so far, failed to restore functioning government there.  Suspicion and anger has returned, open (and armed) hostility might be only just around the corner.  Sinn Fein has 7 members elected to the UK parliament, but they have consistently refused to take those seats becuase they don’t recognise the authority of the institution over Northern Ireland (which they see as properly part of the whole of Ireland), and refuse to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen.  How will Sinn Fein see the inclusion of its ‘mortal enemy’ in the government apparatus of Westminster?  They have, for years, believed the UK government is secretly “in cahoots” with the Loyalists. They are bound to think that the DUP is going to get concessions, and help, in exchange for keeping the UK Government afloat.  Even if they don’t really think this to be true, they are going to say it.  They have a constituency to maintain and you can imagine guns being dug up and oiled, on both sides, already.

In the context of an already extreme security threat, from ISIS etc., the last thing our already overstretched security services need is another, this time internal, threat to deal with.  The broader implications of this election result are therefore very, very worrying. “Strong and Stable” was Theresa May’s ‘tag line’; if nowhere other than Northern Ireland, things look considerably less stable.  And, as for strong….?