Sunday, 17 September 2017

The funny thing about Trump and Brexit

As a student, I had the pleasure of attending the legendary London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s at a time when Ronnie Scott himself was still around to do his act during an interval in the music. One of the lines that has stuck in my mind was his dead pan reassurance to us all that, while we might not be the best audience in the world, we were certainly the worst.

There’s something about the Trump presidency that brings that back to mind. Whatever else he’s done, and to be honest he’s done precious little, he’s assured himself a place in the history books. Or at least, he will if there are still history books being written, and Trump doesn’t contrive to end civilisation (such as it is) in a conflagration followed by a nuclear winter triggered by his inability to find a peaceful way out of his confrontation with North Korea.

What is particularly outstanding about his presidency so far is that he’s clearly uncertain which party he belongs to. The leadership of the Republican Party was never happy with his candidacy, and aren’t particularly enamoured of his performance since entering the White House either. But just recently he seems, in his confusion, to have started to think he was a Democrat. Certainly, twice in two weeks he’s come to something like a deal with the Democratic leadership in Congress – Chuck Schumer, minority leader of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, his opposite number in the House of Representatives.

Err... that's the Democratic leadership
You're supposed to be a Republican, Donald
Except that perhaps he hasn’t. That’s how exciting the Trump presidency’s proving. His tweets seemed to suggest at first that he hadn’t made a deal on steps concerning unauthorised immigrants who were brought to the US as children, later that he add. So who knows? Did he or didn’t he? We may discover in time.

The one thing certain is that he had Pelosi and Shumer around and not Paul Ryan from the House or Mitch McConnell from the Senate, the actual majority leaders, from the Republican party he ostensible represents. But does he really? See what I mean about exciting?

He may be suffering from a little confusion too. Making a deal with the minority party in Congress may sound like smart work, but that word “minority” isn’t without significance. To get things through Congress and into law requires a majority. For something to happen, it isn’t enough for Trump to decide that it should, even if he gets agreement from congenial company around honey sesame crispy beef.

The people you really have to sympathise with in all this chaos are the left-behind voters, mostly poor, who backed Trump as a way out of their desperate misfortune as well as a means of kicking the establishment that was letting them down. Whatever they were hoping for, Trump hasn’t provided it. If he’s now reaching out to the Democrats, then he’s working with the people who most excited their wrath.

Something similar is happening in Britain, where the government is in chaos over Brexit. As realisation grows of the damage likely to be inflicted on the economy by leaving the European Union, ministers are beginning to look for ways to soften the blow. Why, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (our Finance Minister) is even talking about a transitional period which would be indistinguishable from the status quo.

Now that’s not an approach likely to attract the many leave voters who chose Brexit, like Trump supporters, to give the establishment a kicking. They’ve found a spokesman in the form of Boris Johnson, a man whose main claim to celebrity has been principally based on an assiduously cultivated image as a buffoon. He is, however, currently moonlighting as Foreign Secretary. That’s an office to which he has brought the special gift of his buffoonery, to the amusement and sometimes anxiety of his opposite numbers in other countries.

To the surprise of his cabinet colleagues, he has chosen to sing the praises of Britain outside the EU, and the glorious future that awaits it. Why, he even repeated the claim, made during the referendum campaign, that Brexit would free up £350m a week that could be spent on the NHS. That particular piece of propaganda has been entirely discredited since, but that didn’t stop Johnson repeating it. Using it not just as part of his pro-Brexit campaign, but in support of the much important one that he hopes will take him to the Conservative leadership and number 10 in replacement of Theresa May. 

Sir David Norgrove, the head of the UK statistics authority, denounced the claim as "a clear misuse of official statistics".

We, like the Americans, seem to be living in a looking-glass world in which principle, consistency and certainly the truth, count for little. Britain and American seem to have reached a similar state, in response to the same frustration of the left-behind. But if Trump and Brexit have much in common, there is one big difference.

Americans need only wait until 2020 to get rid of Trump.

Britain will need a generation to realise what a mess it has made by leaving the EU and applying to join again.

Though, of course, if Trump manages to handle matters with North Korea as badly as he has so far, none of that may matter very much.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Austerity in the GP surgery


We – my wife and I together – joined our current GP practice because the service was simply so much better than any other we’d known.

The practice is associated with a walk-in centre, which itself provided great support for patients: anyone needing care immediately but not urgently – in other words, patients who were sick or in pain but not obviously suffering from anything potentially life-threatening – could attend the centre and be seen, seven days a week, from early morning into the evening.

A generous service. But not one it pays to cut
That’s a relatively expensive service to provide. There is at large today, throughout the Western world, a view that such expense should be cut back wherever possible. I wrote the other day that it’s often in the little things that we see austerity economics at work, and our GP practice is no exception.

Today, Saturday, I tried to renew a prescription on-line. That didn’t work. I could log in to the system but the buttons thoughtfully provided to select a medication to renew simply didn’t react if I clicked on them (and, before I’m challenged as a computer illiterate, let me assure you that I tried on two machines, using tree different browsers between them).

I then phoned the surgery but was told that, while the walk-in centre was open, the surgery itself was not. Could I ring in again on Monday?

“Yes,” my wife told me, “we’ve had a couple of letters. Funding’s been reduced so that they can’t stay open at weekends any longer.”

Once more, I felt the glacial fingers of austerity gripping my innards.

If the GP practice is facing cutbacks, the walk-in centre won’t be far behind.

While the service it provides seems generous, it’s only those with the narrowest of account-book outlooks, entirely focused on the short term – in other words, Conservatives – who can persuade themselves that such a cutback makes sense. It’s true that shutting down a walk-in centre would save a lot more money than shutting any other kind of practice but, unfortunately, the patients who use it won’t go away. They still feel ill or in pain, so if they can’t find care from a GP, they’ll go to the emergency department of the local hospital instead.

An emergency department is far more expensively equipped than any GP surgery. I’m not just talking about physical equipment, much of which is indeed costly: for instance, devices to provide a view of what’s happening inside a human body, whether by ultrasound, radiology, or some of the more powerful and sophisticated techniques now available such as CT or MRI scanning. However, even that fades into insignificance compared to cost of staff: medical and nursing staff on a wide hierarchical range, professional support such as pharmacists and various types of therapists, and even administrative staff.

The result is that while it may cost £50 to see a GP, it can cost £124 on average to attend an emergency department.

Cutting back on GP care is, therefore, a false economy.

There’s nothing unusual in that consequence of Conservative healthcare policy. All over England, hospitals are spending a fortune on agency or bank staff (“bank” is in effect overtime: existing staff doing additional hours on a far more expensive, hourly-paid basis). Why are they spending so much? Because they’re being denied the funds to take on more permanent staff, though that would be cheaper.

Of course, the false economy of shutting the walk-in centre would turn into a real one, if the patients denied treatment were unable to attend an emergency department instead. But for that to happen, our local hospital would have to close, or be replaced by a private one which only treated patients who could pay the full, economic cost of the care it provided.

I suspect a lot of people at the top of the Conservative Party would be perfectly easy about that happening.

However, I wonder if all their voters, further down the income range, would agree with them…

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Reminders of the shame of austerity Britain

Often, it’s the little things that mark you…

There is, near where we live in Luton, a rather attractive open space known as Stopsley Common. In the middle are wide open spaces, including three cricket fields and a dozen or more football pitches, as well as areas simply left open for walking. Around the edge are hills and wooded areas crossed by well-maintained paths.

Luci and Toffee enjoying Stopsley Common
It’s a place frequented by cricketers, footballers, dog walkers, joggers or just people out for a quiet stroll. It is an invaluable resource to be enjoyed by all, a reminder that community matters too, and not just the capacity of small numbers of individuals to makes themselves rich.

Sadly, however, it’s also an area much favoured by joy-riding bikers, the kind that like to race their motorbikes or quads, without registration plates, across the grass, churning it up and endangering lives including their own – the obligation to wear helmets is one of many they ignore.

Many of these people seem to be what one might call sedentary travellers. In other words, they belong to that community of people we think of as travellers, in the sense that they wander around the country in caravans (often, it has to be said, drawn by large BMWs or Mercedes) and only stop for short periods in any one place.

However, a group seems to have set up permanent home in Stopsley. Occasionally, they alert their more peripatetic brethren of the fact that a gate has been left open, or blocks of cement designed to prevent access to certain places, are more mobile than their designers imagined, and we discover a few days later that a favourite place has been invaded once more.

I use the word “invaded” advisedly. When these travellers move into a place, they don’t simply inhabit it for a few days before moving on, which I would strongly favour tolerating. Although they use highly sophisticated caravans, they seem not to like the toilets most of them contain, or perhaps they don’t like dealing with the waste. So they tend to use the area around where they park as an open toilet, making it generally less attractive as a place to wander in.

At least that involves substances which are biodegradable. Far more unpleasant still is one of the ways they have chosen to earn a living. They contract with unscrupulous builders to collect waste from construction sites, which they then dump, at no doubt highly competitive prices, anywhere they choose – including those same places, that others value for their beauty and their amenities. Our Council is starved of cash, so it can take many weeks before these materials are cleared away.

No way through
Dumped construction site waste blocking a path on Stopsley Common
”But,” you will no doubt exclaim, “such behaviour is surely illegal!” And it is. But the law can only be enforced if there are people to enforce it. I’ve already said that the Council is strapped for cash; so is our police force. It has the resources to chase major crime, to track down murder or terrorism. But what merely lessens quality of life or inconveniences the public, is beyond their resources. So no action is taken over the dangerous quad bikes or the dumping of rubble in a public park.

In 2010, David Cameron assured the British electorate that “… we have a moral obligation to stop running up bills that will have to be paid by future generations.”

He won the election that year and he and his successor, Theresa May, have had the opportunity to honour that moral obligation. The result? National debt has grown from a trillion pounds to approaching two trillion.

What has been the result of their austerity programme? Nurses are 14% worse off than they would otherwise have been. It seems that the poorest people in society are to lose on average a further £50 a week of income by 2020 or around £2500 a year. To put that in context, median income in Britain is around £25,000 a year. By definition, half the population is below that level; the forthcoming cuts will disproportionately hit such people.

Belatedly, the government has realised that its approach is failing. It has decided to start moving away from its pay cap for public servants. As usual, however, it is doing so in too mean a way – police are to have an increase of 2% instead of 1%, in other words a rise that is  paltry as opposed to derisory – and as divisively as possible: most public sector workers, including nurses, will have to suffer at least another year of the 1% limit.

Austerity has caused pain, but there has been no gain on the debt front. On the contrary, things have got worse. And life has been impoverished in myriad ways.

For me, it’s the spoiling of Stopsley Common. That is a fitting tribute to seven and a half years of Conservative austerity rule. But I don’t deny it’s only the monument: the real thing is the terrible suffering being inflicted on people already poor enough.Still, at least the state of many part of Stopsley Common reminds me of the sheer ghastliness of Tory rule each time I take the dogs out there.

Reminders are what the British electorate apparently most needs.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

fitbit fatigue in Brexit Britain

It’s been a tiring week.

The principal reason is that I was training two new colleagues. In the long run, that’ll be great, because one of them will be taking over my old job, so I can focus on my new one. In the short term, it means that I’m still doing two jobs with training thrown in on top.

What made things worse was that a third colleague couldn’t join us because of problems with work permits and visas. They’ve been solved now, or nearly, but that’s too late. Trying to organise remote training as well as delivering training locally just added another dimension to the workload.

Still, I suppose that this kind of thing is good practice for me, at least for as long as I stay in Britain. Once the xenophobes have successfully raised the Brexit walls to cower behind, getting anyone into the country will become a new bureaucratic nightmare. The problems I had this week are just the template for things to come.

I began to realise just how tired I was getting when it dawned on me that for two days in succession, Id shaved with hand cream instead of shaving cream. The razor blade glides quite well through it, but I have to say, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to foaming.

The fatigue all came to a head on Friday evening, when I got home after walking up the hill from the station. Why did I walk? I’ve succumbed to fitbit tyranny. How many steps have I taken? How many now? How many in the week? It’s appalling. I can’t get away from it. The thing buzzes at me if I haven’t done 250 steps in an hour and I leap up, as though stung or scalded, and scamper up and down a corridor, if I can’t find the time to walk around the block.

Oddly, once I was home, I felt like taking the dogs out, despite my tiredness. That was when the fitbit madness took over once more. It had once sent me a message congratulating me on doing 20,000 steps. 

You may ask, why would anyone care? It’s an electronic device, for God’s sake. A bracelet. Can it possibly matter to me that to have its approbation?

Night falls as we wander through the park in the grip of the fitbit fit
It seems it does matter to me. I set out to achieve the same high goal. That meant that I ploughed on through gathering darkness (depressing how short the days are becoming) to say nothing of the ever heavier rainfall, until even the dogs were looking at me as though I were mad. Something in their eyes, when I could see them in the bleary light of the occasional street lamp, told me that they would feel nothing but pity for me if the cold and wet hadn’t made them use up all their compassion feeling sorry for themselves.

In my defence, there was a restorative aspect to my labours. When I’d climbed into my car to drive the dogs to the park, I’d noticed that some kind fellow – perhaps resenting my presence in his street (we’re in temporary accommodation as builders wreak havoc in our house)  had bent one of my wing mirrors back as far as it would go, apparently breaking it in the process.

This seemed rude. My car is one of those polite ones that tucks its wing mirrors in when you lock it, so there was no call for forcing the mirror back like that. Try as I might, I couldn’t adjust it to make it useful, prompting a sense of depression in me made all the deeper by the tiredness.

The first place I went to was our (real, permanent) house. Our cat, Misty, is the only member of the household still living there (we felt a flat without a cat flap was too much to inflict on him). But Danielle hadn’t seen him when she went around earlier.

Sadly, he didn’t come to my call either (usually the call of “Misty, Misty, Misty, pss, pss, pss” is immediately followed by the loud impact of paws on ground – he’s no small cat – a lot of mewing and a rush of fur to our side to be stroked).

That meant starting the walk with a wing mirror damaged and, far more worryingly, a member of the family missing.

Then, when the sun finally set, we ran into a large dog coming down the path. Luci, the nervous one – our black toy poodle – vanished at once. And, blow me down, as I was looking for her, Toffee – the orange toy poodle – who isn’t nervous at all, vanished in another direction, surely attracted by some interesting smell.

Imagine my state of despair.

My car had been vandalised.

My cat had vanished.

And now both dogs had gone.

Fortunately, this was the low point. Soon, both dogs reappeared, from different directions. Back at the car, I fiddled again with the wing mirror, until it suddenly gave a satisfying click and started to work again. And, back at the house, calling Misty in the sodden night, I was delighted to hear an answering patter of paws (that’s “patter” at something close to the stamp level) followed by plaintive mewing.

Relief: the wanderer returns
What’s more, I got my 20,000 steps done.

The only fly in the ointment: I haven’t yet had a message from fitbit congratulating me on the feat.

Or, since we’re talking about steps, should that be feet?

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The transients' diary: week 3

Every day, I assure myself that the destruction has gone as far as it needs in our house, and now the process of construction can go steadily forward with no more backtracking or regression.

Then I find that something else has gone down. Or been torn up. Or ripped off.
What? What? Where's my roof? Or even my floor?
That’s not to say that there’s been no progress. There has. Things have been built in amongst the continuing demolition. It’s just that the demolition still, for the moment, seems to be outpacing the building.

Ah well, that’ll change. I know that can’t be wrong. 

Can it?

Three weeks gone now. It can’t be more than five to go – as we’ve said before, these projects complete to schedule. 

Don’t they?

In making progress, it’s curious how simple some decisions, how complex others. Not, generally, the way you might expect them to be. I’m reminded of one of the more colourful characters in Shaw’s play, You Never Can Tell, the barrister Bohun:

”… there will be no difficulty about the important questions,” he assures the other characters. “There never is. It is the trifles that will wreck you at the harbour mouth.”

So it proved this very day. A decision about putting in a new water main, ripping up more of the floor to do it? No problem. Investing more money in making sure the water gets to the different places we need it, at sufficient pressure? A few minutes discussion led to a decision to go ahead. Changing our intentions over accessories and units to make the most of that water? Easy.

No, what took the time – an hour and a half of it – was selecting a new cat flap to go in the kitchen. I pick my words with care because he gets terribly upset at any hint that he might be a little larger than he should be, so let me just say that no one would suspect him of anorexia ever. At one point, he managed to rip a cat flap right out of a door.

Well, that door’s going in the new arrangements. So, we need a new cat flap – actually, a small dog flap, as Luci and Toffee have to use it too. This one will not be in a door at all (why cut a hole in a brand new, double-glazed door?) but in the wall next to the far better door with which we’re replacing the old one. Though the construction work is going to increase the room available to us in the house a bit, space will still be at a premium. It isn’t easy to pick a cat flap that will take up a sufficiently small proportion of the wall space we can play with, but still be – again I pick my words judiciously – large enough to accommodate a cat of respectable girth.

It took me an hour and a half to solve that conundrum. To be honest, I’m still not sure the solution will work. We won’t know until the new cat flap turns up and the contractor can compare it with the space available.

As for Misty himself, he seems to be doing reasonably well. We still pop round to see him at least once a day. He’s always pleased to see us, trotting over to be stroked and mewing in loud appreciation as we go over to his shed with a packet of food to refill his bowl.

What most pleased me, though, was to find him inside the house the other day, among the building workers. We thought he was keeping well away from these strangers. But one of them explained to me that he’s taken to stroking Misty when he shows up and making sure he has access to his dry food.

So Misty has a friend and the purgatory that the project implies may have been lightened a little for him.

Good for Misty. I’m looking forward to moving back in and seeing him settle once more into his home. And, of course, use his new cat flap, making all my effort and heart ache entirely worthwhile – as I’m sure he will.

Won’t he?

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The joy that is Luton airport

Have you ever flown into or out of “London Luton” airport?

Ah, the joy of travelling through “London Luton” airport
The quotation marks are there because no one who lives in Luton, as I do, or even just knows it, would see it as in any way part of London. The airport is about 54 km from the centre of the capital, which is just over twice the distance of, say, Heathrow. I suppose turning Luton airport into London Luton is slightly less fraudulent than the name of Frankfurt Hahn, which is some 120 km from Frankfurt, but only marginally.

As with its name, so with Luton airport’s character. When we first moved to the town, in 2010, the drop-off area at the airport was free to use – as it is in many far bigger airports. Then a 50p charge was introduced. Today it’s £3, a 600% increase. That covers you for ten minutes, and you may not leave your car even if you’re back within the time – as I discovered when I saw a wheelchair user into the terminal only to find the car about to be towed when I got back.

Naturally, you can leave your car, after parking it at the airport, but only in a different area and at a minimum charge of £7, for up to 40 minutes.

Still, at least this experience sets the tone appropriately for the experience one enjoys once into the terminal.

You can enjoy peace and comfort inside the departure zone, in a pleasant area with comfortable seating, free snacks and drinks. That, however, is only if you’ve coughed up £29 to get into the executive lounge. You’re not prepared to pay that? Then jostle with the throngs outside – the place is never calm – and queue while you wait for someone to leave their seat. Cafes seem to make a dismal habit of closing and one of the few that has opened recently started out badly: when we tried to have breakfast there, we found they had no milk and several items missing from their breakfast menu. I’m sure that was a teething problem, but it certainly rather shook my confidence and I haven’t been back.

Poor service and rip-off prices? Yep. London Luton airport wins all the prizes.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because it seems that consumer magazine Which? has officially declared Luton the hellhole of British airports, the veritable pits, the worst of the lot. It has completed a survey of users which gave Luton the lowest marks of all UK airports, with an overall rating of just 29%. Thats the lowest ever score since Which? started doing the survey. It’s also the fifth year in a row the airport has come last.

At least it’s a relief to know that others share my view: Luton airport really is a particularly ghastly place to have to use for travel.

Still, passengers keep coming. As another Guardian article points out, despite the terrible customer responses, numbers are up, with 1.6 million users in July, a 6.2% increase on the same month last year. Even I find it hard to avoid completely: it’s on my doorstep, whereas Gatwick or Heathrow mean adding an hour and a half to the trip and paying scheduled airline fares. However, whenever I can, I use one of those airports or, even better, travel by train: that is the luxury form of travel these days.

It’s true that Luton is struggling with a development programme that still isn’t complete. Maybe things will be better once it is. Although, perhaps only for an additional charge, with anyone not prepared to pay extra stuck with the old service.

After all, what can you expect of an organisation which names itself after a city it takes the best part of an hour to drive to?

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Lies, damned lies, and Tory pledges

The French have a saying, that the only person committed by a verbal contract is the one who believes it.

The same could be said of other apparent commitments. Brexit pledges for future prosperity, for instance. Or, indeed, Conservative election promises.

A glowing example of the latter is in Theresa May’s claim, in the Conservative election manifesto at the 2017 General Election in Britain, that she would deliver:

Fairer corporate governance, built on new rules for takeovers, executive pay and worker representation on company boards.

Top executives at play work
A steadily growing abuse of recent years is the shameless increase in corporate executive pay while others are on stagnant incomes at best. While there was a reduction in top pay in Britain between 2015 and 2016, that still left CEOs in the top companies on 129 times as much as the average for their workforce. Twenty years the ratio was 48 to 1. That was bad enough, but the ratio today is eye watering.

Anyone who believes the top CEOs are working nearly three times as hard as their counterparts twenty years should probably stop reading this piece now.

Equally, anyone who thinks they’re worth the same as 129 of their staff has an inflated assessment of the job of a CEO. Generally, it consists of making a lot of money whether or not the company is doing well and, when it gets into trouble, leaving with a colossal payoff before stepping into another only slightly less grossly overpaid job.

The employees on 1/129 of his income will find themselves paid a few weeks’, or if they’re lucky a few months’, salary and then battle to get another job. Homes and families may well be sacrificed in the process.

The actual proposals that have now been made by Theresa May’s government are somewhat less ambitious than her initial words suggest.

Companies will be urged to appoint employee directors or advisory groups advising their boards. They will not be mandated to do so.

As for the gaping disparities in pay, the 900 biggest companies will be required to publish the ratio of top incomes to the average of the employees. This presumably is intended to “name and shame” the worst offenders. Sadly, I rather expect it to have the opposite effect.

For some time, police used Anti-Social Behaviour Orders against young people who routinely behaved badly. These days, “ASBOs” have been replaced by injunctions. One of the problems with these measures, is that they’ve come to be regarded by their recipients as badges of honour: you haven’t made it as a full-blown hooligan unless you have your injunction.

Can you imagine the conversations between leading CEOs on golf courses after the May proposals are enacted?

“We’ve had to publish our salary ratios,” says Gunther, “mine’s 135:1”.

“Really?” says Paul, “mine’s 151:1.”

“Wow,” replies Gunther, “I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

“You can say that again. I plan to push on to 170:1 by next year,” says Paul as he drives his ball off the tee into the bushes on the right of the fairway, “you’d better get moving.”

Oh, well. Such is life. Just further proof of the principle I started off with:

If you’re disappointed over a Tory promise, you have only youself to blame – for having believed it in the first place.