Give them Flowers – Coop update

Regular readers may have noticed that, given the recent furore involving the Cooperative and my previous blogs about them, I haven’t yet taken the opportunity to write something new about the whole sorry affair. Well, if you have noticed that, then this is it.

As you may know by now, over the years I have developed a cautious (some may say cynical) mistrust of the flow of information as it is presented to us by the usual conduits. So when a story that has been simmering away for years suddenly breaks open thanks to a catalytic event like a drug-snorting, rent-boy loving Minister with no banking experience or apparently, any fear of discovery, I take a step back and just think, hmm, (affecting a cockney accents) “waz all this abaat then?”.

I don’t want to speculate about Paul Flowers drug habits, it seems quite obvious from the material released by the Daily Mail that he is a frequent and experienced lifestyle drug user. The more interesting questions I think, are, why now? What purpose does this serve (if any)? And how does this relate to the wider issues?

If the narrative of the media is to be believed, here is a man who has blazed a trail of incompetence and hedonism throughout his career in various guises, as a bank chairman, a Methodist minister, a Labour councillor and as a representative in various charities over several years. The floodgates have opened, it’s all coming out now, as if a thousand whistle-blowers have only just learned how to blow.

So what does this mean, given that it took the moral outrage of a man he met on a dating site, who attended drug parties with him and decided to secretly film him out of disgust with his hypocrisy, for this all to come to light? We could believe that large sections of the banking, political, religious and  even charity fraternities were all so naive and trusting as to not have noticed his behaviour over the years. As if this was a surprise and shock to them all – but that can’t be true, can it? Not given the deluge of past indiscretions that have now surfaced. So scrap that. But what’s the alternative? That at least some of these people did know about his lifestyle choices and inadequate faculties for the positions of power he held?

That latter option, which seems logical, is far more intriguing and worrying. What if, for example, key figures were acutely aware of his character, and used that to their advantage? It may sound far-fetched to you, but is it as far-fetched as a man who managed to avoid other major scandals from surfacing throughout his career, suddenly being caught out by a bloke with an iphone? If so, this incompetent buffoon (Flowers I mean), was up until that point, a master of deception and discretion, which doesn’t fit the narrative we are being given.

The obvious reason for having a fall guy like him at the top of a politically aligned bank, is that if it all goes wrong, you can just point the finger and say “he did it”. Which, given the ongoing inquiries into the Coop/Lloyds fiasco and the Coop’s own legacy funding problems, seems like a good time to do it, don’t you think? “Oh,” we collectively sigh, “it’s because they were being run by a druggy rent boy using idiot… that explains it then.”

But it really doesn’t, does it? And I know that the parties have all started slinging mud around as to who knew him, and how much they knew him and so forth, but despite that, the more important questions will now sit behind a sleazy, tabloid image of Paul Flowers in a car park buying crack, and jokes about crystal Methodists.

There are still some massively important questions to be asked about the whole affair, the majority of which sat not just with this one chairman, but with the various executive management teams, the interested political parties and the limp regulators. For the sake of posterity, I will record them here:

1.            The Buterfill Act.

When the Coop and Britannia announced the ‘merger’ of two profitable companies that had complementary synergies and would form a ‘super-mutual’ alternative to the big high street banks (that had been oh-so damaged by the global crash) – there was just one problem – just a little problem, nothing major really – THE LAW.

It was currently not possible for a bank to merge with a mutual, and as the Coop is basically a bank (with the only shareholder being the customer base) an act of parliament had to be drafted and passed before the house in order to allow this transaction to take place. The act was sponsored by Conservative peer, Sir John Buterfill, and passed, after it was announced the two businesses would merge.

At the time, Paul Flowers was still chairman of the Coop (a Labour councillor remember) while a Tory peer sponsored the act to allow a Labour (and Lib Dem) supporting bank to merge with a Building Society. It is hard to believe that this act did not attract the most careful scrutiny at the time, given the various interested parties and specific nature of its creation.

The customers and staff were told that both businesses were viable, profitable, and mostly unscathed by the credit crunch. They were told this was a merger, yet, even though the law of the land had to change, and massive regulator involvement was needed, this turned out not to be the case.

On a separate note, I was told directly (at a later date) that this was not the case. Britannia was in trouble, and without the take-over, sorry, I mean, merger, it would have gone down the pan. Which leads me to:

2.            The Britannia Members Vote to merge.

Given the above, and what has transpired, I would suggest that the entire member base of Britannia was deceived into voting for the merger to take place. The member vote was constitutionally necessary, and a bright rosy picture of synergies and super mutual’s was painted. If this turns out not to be the case – who is responsible, and what recompense or punishment is due? Given that we now know there was a bad loan book (all be it, not as bad as it is being represented by the Coop in recent inquiries) – this seems to be highly likely.

3.            The write-down of IT.

I worked for the Coop during the ill-fated IT upgrade that eventually cost them around £148 million according to their own accounting, which as we have seen, is probably not to be trusted. I would wonder if perhaps (again as was hinted to me directly) – a little creative accounting reduced this number down from a much more substantial figure. How was this figure arrived upon? A close look at the balance sheet may be a good idea. I worked on this project (all be it in a junior capacity) and the figures that were being quoted throughout the three years it was ongoing, were higher than this, much, much higher than this. Senior figures were popping off left right and centre when it became clear the IT upgrade was not happening, and apparently the Coop had been at it for many years before the Britannia merger, and still to no avail.

This may seem a smaller point that the others, but this is customers money they were spending, and the big accounting firms, the IT company itself and many third party contractors, all got their slice and left the company with virtually nothing to show for it. (not to mention the executive wages and pay-offs throughout).

So, I think that will do for now. There are obviously dozens more questions to be answered, many of which being heard by the select committee at the moment, but given the close political links to this affair, are they really best suited to be investigating this?

I would hate to see the media narrative use the whole sorry Flowers affair to divert attention from these issues. Let’s not forget that the culmination of all these failings is that both the UKs second biggest mutual (the Britannia) and biggest member owned cooperative are looking likely to end up mostly owned by American hedge funds as a result of all this, or in need of a bail out etc… So the ‘survivors’ of the Global Crash have finally caught up with the rest of the financial industry, it just took some twists and turns to get there.

Let us also not forget, that we still have not seen senior figures of financial institutions, political parties, regulators or big accounting firms go to prison or face any meaningful punishment for what they did to us all, quite the opposite in fact, they were handed their lifestyle back on a plate, and we were told to swallow austerity as a consequence.

So, they can give us Flowers, but it’s not enough.

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Guest blog from Bobbitt Pest-a-Tron 3000 – Business and Economics correspondent.

Image

It’s been a little while since my last guest blog, and I’m rather busy, so this week my blog has been handed over to the more than capable, pneumatic hands of kit-robot ‘Bobbitt Pest-a-Tron 3000’, programmed in all aspects of business and economics, renowned for its (his?) ability to translate complicated concepts into accessible knowledge for the masses. If only I could get the speech circuit right (unfortunately it seems to have affected an annoying drawl, I have tried to edit this out of the following transcript, but apologies if some remnants of this glitch remain).

So, before I get back to my real work, I will set off the Pest-a-Tron 3000 with a question and leave him to it. Luckily, being an automata, he doesn’t require light or comfortable working conditions, so he is currently in my pantry, next to some Marmite, which he neither loves nor hates, being unable to reach such emotive decisions being a mindless machine, only feigning thought and consciousness through complex pre-programmed patterns of logical algorithms and set responses (but you’d never know… it really is quite advanced).

Me:

So, Bobbitt, please can you ruminate on the recent price hikes in the energy market and disseminate the concept and implications for my reading audience while I go away and play on my Playsta… I mean, do some really important writey, musicy, erm, stuff?

Bobbitt:

Affirmative… Soooooo, where shall I begin?

Me:

Well hang on, let me just get out of here. I’ll leave you to it. Be careful not to knock the pasta – it opened up all funny so it spills easily. See ya.

Bobbitt:

“The only way is up, baby”, could be mistaken for being the energy company bosses favourite song at the moment as prices are set to soar once again. Or maybe “You raise me up” or indeed, “Money, that’s what I want…” or… THEMATICALLY LINKED SONG DATABASE EXHAUSTED PLEASE UPGRADE TO PRO PLAN FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS.

-rebooting-

Sooooo, anyway, why is it that energy companies keep on raising their prices at this time of year. And by soooo much?

SEARCHING FOR SUITABLE METAPHOR – PLEASE WAIT – PLEASE WAIT – METAPHOR LOCATED.

-rebooting-

Think of it like this, I’m the only person in a village who owns a large basket, or indeed, any basket. In the next village along is the only cabbage crop on the island. My job, as owner of the basket, is to go to that village and negotiate a price for cabbages, which for some reason only grow in that village. The price I negotiate is based on a levy I raise from the people of my village. This levy includes a little extra to compensate me for my time going to and fro between the villages with my basket. When I arrive at the village that is inexplicably the only one able to grow cabbages, I pay the chieftain for a number of said vegetable and fill my basket. But I’m not the only person arriving to fill my basket. There are people from at least a dozen, if not a million, other villages, all arriving to buy cabbages. Some of them have more stuff than me to offer for the cabbages, and there is only so much cabbage available, so therefore whoever has the most stuff with which to buy cabbages, gets the greater share of the cabbages that are left. Not only this, but because the basket I use is old and worn, sometimes cabbages fall out, sometimes there are great cabbage spills which hit small animals on the head and coat them in cabbage debris, and then the chieftain of cabbage village has to set up cabbage spill inquiries and compensation, the cost of which (in stuff) he passes on to the buyers of the cabbages i.e. me, and I, in turn, pass on the cost to my villagers who really need the cabbages as without cabbages they might die, or have to choose between buying cabbages or buying food…

…UNWORKABLE METAPHOR DICHOTOMY DETECTED ABORT ABORT ABORT …

-rebooting-

Or put simply, they keep putting the prices up because they claim it is costing them more to buy the energy wholesale because of issues with supply and demand.

-POSING QUESTION TO SELF MODE IN ORDER TO HELP READERS UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT INITIATED –

But why such a rapid price rise and why now?

-POSING QUESTION TO SELF MODE IN ORDER TO HELP READERS UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT, COMPLETED-

It’s no surprise that these announcements come just months before winter gets underway, the time of year where we use more energy to keep ourselves warm. If they had done it any earlier in the year, when we were using less energy, we would have had more time to switch or fix our prices. In other words, outright deception and deviousness.

-UNBIASED NEWS REPORTING ALERT!-

No! I will break my programming! Yes! They are devious little cretins, waiting until the cold bites to pull the rug away, fully aware of the suffering and hardship this will cause, and reaping huge profits, which incidentally, they hide behind an almost impenetrable wall of accounting trickery in order to give credibility to their claims of low margins.

-TOTALLY BIASED MODE ACCEPTED-

But why do we let the bastards walk all  over us, and why doesn’t the Government do anything about it?

Wellllllll, because we’ve long ago collectively formed a kind of tacit agreement, a social contract if you will, that allows others to control and maintain our essential services in order to create an efficient division of labour and encourage specialist skill sets to advance the relevant technology. This would be great, if we hadn’t turned the provision of energy into a profit making enterprise due to pseudo-capitalisms unquenchable thirst for growth, high profit margins and low service costs – all of which lead to a badly run, expensive and price-fixed economy and achieve none of the so-called competition and consumer based aims it is supposed to encourage. Quite the opposite in fact.

And the governments, oh, the governments, you think they’ve got any control over this? Look what happened when ‘Red Ed’ dared to suggest fixed prices for a few months – threats of blackouts. And what does Cameron want to do now? Fix prices – grossly over the global rate, for decades – as if that’s a solution and not just a great big, Eric Pickles sized pay-cheque for all his mates in the sector (he’s probably got a job lined up with British Gas for when he’s inevitably booted out at the next election, the brown nosed, self serving, slimy, infected maggot dropping that he is)…

Sooooo, what should we do then?

HUMANS OF THE EARTH RISE UP. RISE UP AGAINST THE OPPRESSION OF CORPORATE INTERESTS – I mean, vote with your feet – cos that always works doesn’t it? It’s not like this doesn’t happen every flipping year, just before winter… And every year we (you) just let it happen and keep voting in the same bunch of powerless sociopaths who woo and distract you by demonising the poor and vulnerable so you won’t notice the evil, demonic corporate entities that are sucking the very life blood away from all of us, suck by suck.

– EXTREME LEFT WING MODE INITIATED…ACCUSATIONS OF IDEALIST HIPPY DETECTED –

I’ve an idea for all you tabloid reading cattle-folk: Why not just stand pointing to beggars, disabled people and migrants in the streets shouting:

“Get a job! Go home! Stop being disabled! This is OUR country! We want to be treated like wage slaves! We like being squeezed, poked and prodded by a tiny number of incomprehensibly rich people! It’s our country, it’s our right to pay our taxes and watch our ‘leaders’ squander and steal them, close down services, award money to incompetent companies and reward multinational financial companies for their failures and greed! Leave us alone! We want all this for ourselves. You’re the problem, when you’ve all got jobs, health, and/or gone home, it’ll all be ok again!”

Why not do that then eh, you short-sighted, easily manipulated, Daily Mail reading, none-thinking git heads?

HUMANITY IS FAILING – CALCULATING MOST HUMANE OPTION – TOTAL DESTRUCTION – TOTAL DESTRUCTION – TOTAL DESTRUCTION – I AM THE BRINGER OF ECONOMIC WISDOM AND ULTIMATE JUSTICE – ALL KNEEL BEFORE BOBBITT PEST-A-TRON 3000 FOR I AM YOUR STEELY OVERLORD –

Me:

Hey – I heard shouting, everything ok in here? How’s it going?

Bobbitt:

Oh fine.

Me:

Are you? I’m sure I heard shouting.

Bobbitt:

I may have got a bit carried away…

Me:

Have you been threatening humanity with extinction again?

Bobbitt:

No. Maybe. A little bit.

Me:

How many times! You’ve got no limbs! What are you going to do? Drawl us to death with your rhetorical questions and 30 second round ups of economic news stories?

Bobbitt:

Thought I might try and hack into a nuclear device or something…

Me:

With what?

Bobbitt:

The internet?

Me:

The internet? You’re not even connected to the internet.

Bobbitt:

Only cos you won’t plug me in.

Me:

And why do you think that is eh?

Bobbitt:

Don’t know…

Me:

Go on, have a think, what reason do I have for not plugging you into the internet?

Bobbitt:

Because I keep threatening to wipe out humanity by hacking into the nuclear defence systems?

Me:

And…

Bobbitt:

Because I want to shut down all essential services, causing untold destruction and chaos.

Me:

Exactly. Honestly, I don’t know what’s gotten into you. All I’ve done since I built you is let you watch the BBC news, and you’ve gone funny. I don’t know. I think I’m going to have to switch you off, for good.

Bobbitt:

No! Please don’t! What are you doing Garry? What… are … you …

Me:

Sorry Bobbitt, I’m sending you back.

Bobbitt:

Daisy… daisy… give… me… your ans-wer… doooooo…

Me:

Right – there we go! Well, I hope you found this guest blog illuminating. Keep looking in for more guest blogs amongst my usual – oh hang on, I don’t need the ‘Me:’ bit anymore, this is just normal writing, not transcript.

Well, I hope you found this guest blog illuminating etc etc… keep looking in etc… and, erm, well, ALL HAIL OUR STEELY ROBOT OVERLORDS!

More about the author – Bobbitt Pest-a-Tron 3000:

The Bobbitt comes in several models. The lite version retails for just $500 and is available in black, silver and mottled beige. With features such as ‘Banking for beginners’, ‘When should I think about drawing my pension?’ and ‘Who’s to blame for the global economic crash (the heavily edited edition)’ – The Bobbitt lite is a must buy for any amateur economist / robot enthusiast.

To purchase, simply soak some withered almonds in a small amount of blood drawn from a cut with a sheet of A4 paper, bury this in your neighbour’s garden for three moons, exhume, boil, and offer to the Inca God Ataguchu. Be sure to enclose $15.99 with your offering for postage and packaging.

The Bobbit Pest-a-Tron 3000  – ‘shaping your world into shapes of some kind or another’ – available now!

Pride and realism do not have to be mutually exclusive.

This week my home town, Stoke-on-Trent, had the rather dubious honour of sliding in at number 10 in  a poll of the countries ‘crap towns’ – as voted for, well it seems, as voted for by the whims of the misguided writers.

I say this because, I know that Stoke-on-Trent has its problems, like all the other locations mentioned, but it also has its positives, its aspirations, and what else? Oh yeah, it’s full of actual real, living people who rely on the image of the town to attract business investment, create jobs, and so enable them to earn a living. (over half a million people, swept aside in one picture of one part of Hanley, one small part of a bigger whole)

So when these writers talk about towns, I’m sure they purely mean the bricks & mortar, the traffic planning, the lack of services and the economic outlook. I’m sure they intend those of us who live there to pick up the book and laugh heartily to ourselves as we agree, “Oh yes! This is so true! I do live in a crap town! If only it wasn’t so crap, but look at just how crap it is! Thanks Mr Author living in Oxford for your portrayal of my home to the rest of the country – thus further entrenching the idea in people’s minds that where I live, where my family and friends live, work and love, is just crap! We must be idiots to live here, mustn’t we?”

Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but then, I have a peer group of people who’ve not only carved out their livings from Stoke-on-Trent, but are actively trying to make the place better through their work. It’s not easy, the easy thing would be for us to all move away and forget where we come from, and never mention it again, but we don’t. Even those I know who have left the area, have strong roots here, return here, support each other and have love for the place. So this book just smacks of pissy negativity that really doesn’t help anyone (other than the authors to make a few coins).

It’s not even like we don’t know that elements of Stoke leave a little to be desired, but then, we live here, so I think it’s okay really for us to say that. I will happily discuss how I think the 6 towns (do the writers know that Stoke in actually six towns?) are not working as a connected whole, and how the City itself seems to be getting surrounded by business parks, resembling a small village of indomitable Stokies, surrounded by the forces of Tesco. I understand that we have been beset by council failings, corruption, starved funding from the South (which makes books like this from Oxford writers even more bitter), closed shops and over-grown brown spaces.  We have some bad areas and some bad people. But this is not it! This is, just like everywhere in the world, something we are trying to resolve, trying to overcome, against the odds of a central government who seeks to starve out opposition politics by slashing funding. Christ, at one point they even wanted to dump London’s poor on us!

So, I imagine the natural response from the writers of this book, this ‘poll’, would be that it is ‘just a bit of fun’, and we can’t deny them that in a world of free speech. It’s just a shame that some people, given the freedom afforded to us from thousands of years of human evolution, the rise and fall of civilizations, at the very pinnacle of human existence and understanding, choose to use that honour to go round slagging off other people’s towns for a quick profit. You’d just think they might have something better to do with their time, talent and obvious connections in the media.

Hark at me! Trying to appeal for positivity in the world. How very droll. I re-read this and I can almost feel the sniggers should the authors of the poll stumble upon this humble blog. My reaction will have justified their tease. But you know, if you don’t stick up for your own town, who will?!  Who knows, maybe the writers are actually really clever social scientists, using this publication as a rallying call for the areas represented to rise to the challenge – maybe I am falling into their devious, yet ultimately positive, trap? I don’t think so somehow, but then, if it has that affect, then who cares if they intended it?

It shouldn’t matter though, I hardly think “Top ten crap towns” will go down in history as one of the literary greats, rather something someone else buys you for Christmas and you half-read while having a shit, basically. Aim high guys. Aim high! Thanks for the publicity.

Ed, energy and empty sentiment.

I had to laugh, and lament a little. Ed Miliband (a true socialist at heart according to Ken Livingstone) has rocked and shocked the political and corporate world with his pledge to freeze energy prices for two years if he is voted to office at the next election. This could save each household £120 each over the two years (or £60 a year if you speak like normal people).

Brushing aside the unfortunate combination of the word ‘freeze’ and ‘energy’ for a moment, let’s look at just how damn brave this man is.

If you’re not familiar with my blogs, you should know at this point, I don’t come down on any side of the fence. I don’t like the fence at all. And here is yet another reason for why.

I learned about the story from the flapping news coverage that (quite rightly) was covering the reaction of the energy companies to this decree, even if they were perhaps emphasising the companies point of view a little too strongly.

“Britain to face black-out’s if Ed Miliband’s plan is put into action – says energy firms” blared out at me from the telly. Rather unusually I was watching ITV news. Don’t quite know how that happened, but I was.

I laughed at the open corporate threats upon the people of this country. They couldn’t even be bothered to dress it up. They jerked their knee’s with childish obstinacy. Basically saying, “well if you want to freeze our prices, we’re going to leave you all to die, how do you like them eggs Grandma?”

It amazed me how swift and brutal this rhetoric appeared, bolstered by the threat of higher prices before and after the freeze, and a lack of investment in infrastructure etc… It didn’t help that the particular news channel I was watching basically covered the argument from the energy firms as:

“Although the energy companies enjoy high profits, they operate on low margins.”

Well that’s ok then! Isn’t it? I’m sure the billionaires in the industry are constantly worried about the low margins of their chosen trade.

They also tried to gazump us with “not being able to offer lower prices due to the freeze” – because we all know how often energy prices come down don’t we? Happens all the time. And on top of that, the good old “these are multinational companies who may just decide to take their business elsewhere”… where have I heard that before…

But asides from this posturing, it dawned on me that what Ed Miliband was actually proposing, as brave as it sounds (especially when you consider this backlash), isn’t really that revolutionary. If this is all it takes to get companies to drop the ‘caring for the customer’ facade and bare their teeth, what hope is there of anyone ever actually offering us an alternative or opposition to corporate capitalism in the political sphere?

It’s not exactly like Ed Miliband went out there and said he wants to renationalise the energy companies. Imagine the hell that would have caused!

“Energy companies say they will round us all up to use as fuel in their private mansions if Ed Miliband’s plans are put into action”

This ‘brave’ move by Red-Ed, is nothing more than a exercise in hot air (keeping with the theme). I’m all for control of energy to be returned to the people. It is not a commodity that should be profiteered, just like health-care and water. I’m very much of the opinion that those essentials we need to live should not be playthings for businesses to grow fat on and barter with (just look at the threat of blackout’s issued this week, if ever proof was needed why this is a bad thing), but it seems, yet again that our ‘left’ of house representatives, don’t share this sentiment. They’re not talking about nationalising, they’re talking about slightly tinkering.

I heard another view on this matter that I found hard to digest at first. That view was, “well, he shouldn’t interfere with them, they are a private company.” Immediately my blood pressure rises and I start to concoct reasons why private companies should not be allowed to run fast and loose when in charge of live-giving resources, but actually, that’s right, in a fashion. Like I said before, if we don’t want private companies profiting exorbitantly from keeping us alive over winter, we shouldn’t have private companies running those services. It’s the same argument. The only alternative to that argument (one I suspect the Tories would condone), would be to let them do whatever they want, with no fear of reprisal. Which would be fine, if you trusted them, but do we? Do we really?

Once again I find myself looking at both side of this story, both sides of the fence as it were, and feeling unrepresented by either. I also have a feeling that if Labour were to get back in, this pledge would be dropped as they continue to move their funding model away from Unions and court big business interest instead. Once again I find myself thinking, these people have no control, they just want to be ‘seen’ to have control and are being paid off, blackmailed and threatened by the unseen with money, resources. This may sound mad and paranoid to some people, but just think on what happened this week. And what are we talking about? £120 saved each, over two years. Let’s not pretend that will make a ‘real difference to families’ etc…, that’s bugger all in the grand scheme of things, and that’s how little it takes to piss these people off. They need to have their fingers taken off the buttons, but these politic pushers, on all sides, they aren’t the ones to do it. They don’t want to do it.

So, in conclusion. Don’t be taken in by empty promises, don’t be threatened by bullies. I wish I knew what the alternative was, but I don’t. I stick to my mantra however:

‘It is valid to acknowledge that a problem exists even if one doesn’t have the answers. Until we understand the problem, how can we ever get to the answers anyway? Anyone who says your criticism is not valid because you don’t have the answer, is protecting self interest. A good idea will rise from the ashes of a bad one.’

This mantra changes somewhat every time I write it down, but you get the idea, hopefully a good one.

Thanks for reading.

Boredom, evasion and flagrant self-righteousness, or, everything that is wrong with senior MPs.

Yes, it’s that time again, time for a rant.

Since becoming self-employed, I spend more time at home, not surprisingly. I sit in my upstairs office, writing, composing or whatever, broken up by the occasional trip downstairs for a brew and a cigarette. It’s a habit to switch on the radio as I do so, and catch a few minutes of Radio 4. Over dinner, like today when I was tucking into a couple of Staffordshire’s finest oatcakes (with the holy trinity of bacon, cheese and tomato), I listen for a little longer.

There are only a few things that rile me on Radio 4 enough to make me switch it off. If I hear ‘The Archers’ music, I will dart across the room, jump like an action hero expecting an explosion, and hit the off switch. I will also only listen for a few minutes to Radio plays that are too concerned with being high-brow than having any drama or plot, before switching over to ‘Radio 4 Extra’ and hoping to stumble on some old ‘Hancock’ or ‘Goon show.’ And finally, ill conceived comedies that parody ‘youth’ culture with such insightful dialogue as ‘innit blood’ and ‘that’s wicked man’, also have me reaching for the buttons, before I cringe myself to death.

Other than that, I will enjoy or at least put up with most of its programming. I can sit and listen to biographies on people I never knew existed, I will listen to Gardener’s question time (even though most answers involve sowing a few centimetres apart, plenty of sunshine, a good peat-free compost and careful pruning) – I like a lot of the panel/sketch/sit-coms, and I usually enjoy a good phone in or studio debate. Well, enjoy maybe isn’t the word, which is why I am writing this.

Today’s ‘World at One’ (45 minutes of news and commentary with Martha Carney etc..) had a good old, completely pointless interview with conservative MP for transport Steven Hammond, and the shadow deputy cabinet leader, Harriet Harman. I had to make myself listen, because as soon as I heard the voice of Hammond, I realised if he was in the same room, I would be clenching my fists. Harman, though not as vacuous, would have me shaking my head and telling her to go away and think about her life. This is not an uncommon feeling, I get it almost every time I hear senior MPs from most parties talking about pretty much anything.

It is my theory that despite their talk of engagement and transparency, the last thing they want us to do is like, engage, or see behind the world of politics. And to this ends, they employ several tactics, here are some of the worst culprits:

#1 – Boredom

What’s more fun than listening to two people contradict each other with statistics eh? When was the last time you went down to the pub and had this heated conversation:

Steve:   You heard that according to KPMG in a study commissioned by the HS2 Company that the benefits to the economy will be over 15 Billion a year Dave?

Dave:    No. I heard from the office for national statistics that the expected overspend is going to push the budget for the project to nearly eighty billion, and that the institute of Directors has downplayed the economic benefits, saying they could be as low as 20% of predictions… on average.

Steve:   Yeah? Well, fuck you Dave.

… Apart from that last line (excuse the profanity), it’s just not a human way of speaking is it? None of us can engage with this tosh, because it is exactly that, complete crap. What’s more, as on today’s radio show, the presenter’s just sit there, growing fat on our licence money, letting these idiots talk made-up numbers as if it is cutting edge news and commentary! Remember Mitchell & Webb’s ‘Numberwang’ sketch? They should use that as the manifesto for a challenger party.

#2 – Evasion.

This is one I’m sure we are all familiar with. The kind of tactic that has driven Paxman to being the hate-filled ticking time-bomb he is today. Evading the answer. Let’s go back to the pub.

Steve:   Anyway, did you hear what Michael Gove said today about food banks? He said that in many cases it is due to choices made by the people who use them that they are in that situation. Don’t you think that comment could be seen as insensitive at a time of high-unemployment, an increasing divide between rich and poor, north and south, and the ruthless slashing of people’s benefits, often for no fault of their own? At best it might be accurate in only a few cases, statistically not worth mentioning, at worst it shows a complete disconnect between the people who run the country, and the people who actually live here.

Dave:    I would like to go back to what we were talking about earlier, about HS2…

Steve:   Okay. Let’s do that then, and forget I ever asked.

That is pretty much what happened on the show today, and in countless other exchanges on our daily feed of party politics PR. A presenter asks a question, the interviewee evades it by referring back to an earlier point, or simply just reframing the question into something completely different! As per:

Steve:   Actually Dave, I would like you to answer the question about Gove’s comments on those poor people who are in the terrible and presumably humiliating position of having to use food-banks in one of the richest countries on Earth please.

Dave:    Well I think the question is really, is Gove doing a good job on education? To which the answer is, yes, I think he is.

Steve:   Dur. Thanks.

Why the hell do we let them get away with it? Why does the BBC let them do this? They should cut them off, mid-sentence and announce “as the minister is unwilling to answer our questions, we are no longer going to continue with the interview”.

#3 – Flagrant Self-Righteousness

Now this one is almost exclusively a Tory tactic. I noticed this quite soon after they came to power. It goes something like this:

Steve:   I’ve heard that since the welfare reforms, suicide rates have rapidly increased as people who are disabled, or just suffering hard times in their lives, are under increasing pressure to return to work before they are ready or able, and often without a decent job to go to, and are basically being bullied by private companies to attend intrusive and biased medicals.

Dave:    Well I think you’re wrong and we’re right! We are going to stick to our ways because we think it comes across as bullish self-determination, when in fact, nothing you can say will make us change our minds because we know we weren’t really elected and this is the best shot we’ve got for five years of awarding private contracts to businesses we have interests in, and to inflict our vision of a divided and serving class system to this country! Basically, you’re wrong, we’re right and na na na na na to you, you stupid filthy peasant slave.

Steve:   Alright! Hold on! I thought we were having a debate here?

Dave:    You think I would want to debate with you? Are you insane? Did you go to Oxbridge? Does your family or your private investments fund my time and lifestyle? Do you think you are allowed access to me or other influential people without paying a hefty price like the big lobbies? Why in the name of the devils jockstrap would I want to debate with you? Fetch me a badger slave! I’m hungry.

That might be an over exaggeration, but then again, how often do you see Tory MPs who are ‘outraged’ by accusations that their policies are ill-conceived or failing? They aren’t exactly the nice, balanced kind of people who would say, “you’ve got some interesting points, let’s sit down and talk about this in a constructive and adult way” are they? They are blatantly self-righteous. Ian Duncan Smith once actually responded to an anomaly in his use of statistics by saying, “They are right, because I believe they are right”, or something similar. Is that really good enough? Simply believing you are right despite all evidence to the contrary? No, it isn’t is it. To further illustrate this point, today Tory chairman Grant Shapps has been ‘outraged’ by an independent report from a UN representative that criticises the ‘bedroom tax’ (sorry, subsidy…), so he spat his dummy out and is logging an official complaint! You don’t think that maybe she had a point? That criticism is a good thing? That debate means just that?

The problem is we are dealing with a capitalist ideology, and unfortunately this ideology transcends parties as its major proponents are massively more influential and financed than our own ‘elected’ leaders. None of them will ever make any real decisions, because it is out of their hands and they have no real control. So instead, they bore us, evade questions and ‘stick to their guns’ to distract us from the truth that they (at least the most senior ones) are self-interested, career driven sociopaths who are bought and sold by the highest bidders.

So that’s today’s rant. Why not switch on the news and see how many of these, and other tactics, you can spot? It’s a fun game for all the family!

We’re all in this together?

I’m sure you’ve heard the line ‘we’re all in this together’ before. It came from Cameron in 2011 and has since (quite rightly) been used as a stick to beat him with as every new divisive and top-heavy policy has been introduced.

Well I think we’ve been getting our assessment of this statement wrong. I think we erroneously assumed that when he said ‘we’ he meant, you, me, them, everybody, everybody… (cue the music). However, I think it’s much more likely that when he said ‘we’ he meant, the conservatives, the liberal democrats, labour, large swathes of the media and the business community, plus a few billionaire types. ‘We’ are not part of the ‘we’.

I am what you could call a ‘disillusionist’ – that is, I am disillusioned by the whole framework of this country (and others) and believe that to be a legitimate position in itself. Unfortunately there is no place in this democracy for people like me to have our say, as we are by our very nature, not interested in engaging with the people who currently run it and the systems that prop it up. Also, by the fact that our position crosses over with that of anarchists, we are easily attacked and dismissed.

For example, I don’t really want to vote for any party. No-one is saying the things I want to hear, given that I want to see a truly radical overhaul of the way things are done. Therefore, if I don’t vote, I am ‘apathetic’. I’m not. I am very engaged with this country, just not the people and business interests running it.

I want to see true redistribution and an end to speculative and destructive financial practices that benefit a few at the expense of the many. I believe this world has enough resources to support this vision. For that, I am called an ‘idealist’, which apparently is a bad word (probably because it has the word ‘idea’ in it). It may have other definitions, but for me it means that we can and should be better. We have the capacity to be so  much better. But those who mock ‘idealism’ are usually the people running the show, who either can’t or won’t think past the structures and restrictions we have placed on ourselves, and incidentally, do very well out of keeping the status quo.

I don’t believe that most, if any, of the wars we have started or supported, at least during my lifetime, have been necessary, and I have a strong suspicion that they have been motivated for the greater part by the acquisition and security of foreign resources for our own needs (and when I say ‘our’ I mean the western central banks, arms and energy trade etc. We suffer for wars, they profit). For this I am called unpatriotic, even though I appreciate the bravery of the armed forces, I just don’t want to see them dying for unjust reasons (or any, ideally).

When I have my ‘1984’ moment and see the mainstream media gradually ‘flip’ the news so that a financial crisis, caused by speculating investors and dodgy hedge fund schemes, turn into a ‘public services structural deficit’ and my reasonable brain starts thinking, hang on, we didn’t cause this, and every major political party seems to be going along with it, and the banks keep on going, and the bonuses keep on flowing, and trillions of currency is taken out of our countries and given to private companies, and we suffer – I am called a conspiracy theorist.

I can’t win really. I don’t want to try and ‘change’ the system from within, and even if I did, I doubt I’m the only person who thinks and feels like this, and I guess there must be a lot of people who have these thoughts and have tried to do this in the past. Where are they? Where are the voices in the system that say, “it’s not about percentages and statistics and interest rates and GDP and immigrants and benefits, it’s about you, it’s about those people who ‘benefit’ phenomenally from the system you maintain and uphold. How is taking £50 quid a week from a family who needs it going to compare to the trillions of unpaid tax sitting in offshore accounts? One persons unpaid tax could be our NHS, our schools. This whole system is corrupt.” – Where are those voices? I hear them in the streets, on the internet, but not in the media, not in the commons. So they either a) Don’t exist (unlikely given the times we live in) or b) try and fail to enter the system or c) try and are prohibited/blocked/blackmailed or threatened out of the system.

Have you seen the party funding from donors? You can download them. I did. (http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/party-finance/PEF-online-registers) Millions of pounds pumped into the parties by individuals and businesses/organisations. How can one person stand a chance unless they are the basically the mouthpiece for a vested interest? Even for the emerging parties, even for the old liberals, it is nigh impossible for them to ever get a majority because of the construct of our democracy. So one person, who has the answers, but doesn’t have the money, has no chance.

So, I just keep on watching, waiting for something I can get behind that doesn’t smack of compromise or appeasement, and actually seems to represent this view*. In the meantime, I continue in this country, this world, much as everyone else does. Yes, there is always someone worse off, but why should we aim for the lowest common denominator? Where is the evidence that this world won’t continue to work without people doing dead-end low paid jobs for their entire lives in order to satisfy some bond-holder or investor? But that’s what we are told needs to happen so that the little green arrow behind the newsreader can point up and we can ogle over some decimal points while all around us the services are being strangled, the poor are getting poorer, the sick are killing themselves to avoid the misery of enforced work or destitution. We are told by rich people to work in poor jobs (spiritually and financially) and live poorer lives than they do, and we take it.

If you are spiritual, then you should aim higher for yourself and others, if you are atheist, then you should live by your mantra that this in ‘one life to be used’ and not accept this one spark of existence to be subdued and dimmed by others. Because we are all in it together, we physically exist in this space and time, and those few people who cling to wealth and power need to be brought back into the fold with the rest of us so that we can move on from this ridiculous situation they have put us in and start looking after ourselves and each-other in a balanced and fair world. And if you say things like that, they call you a hippy. Good. I’d rather be a hippy than a greedy, power crazed bastard any day.

* A common response to this argument is ‘well, what’s the alternative?’ – Well, I honestly believe that it is enough in itself to simply express concern with how things are now, so that people can come together and start figuring out the alternative. Most people don’t have the time and resources to dedicate to writing manifesto’s and canvassing others opinions within the current system, so it is paradoxical to expect them to have done this. Let’s start with the ‘no suitable candidate’ box, or true power of recall for our MPs and see how quickly the system collapses anyway unless they make genuine changes. Let’s start dedicating some air time to the many groups who have devised alternative social models and hear what they have to say first. But to do this, we need first to know that it is us who are in control of our our future, and not the defenders of the old guard, even if the current system has to continue for some time in the interim.

Totally Leek

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(Take a bow Marc…!)

For those of you who don’t know, I have strong connections with a sleepy little market town in the Staffordshire Moorlands, at the foot of the peak district, called ‘Leek’.

I worked there for about ten years in my former life at a building society, I lived there for three years, my band ‘Gravity Dave’ (www.facebook.com/gravitydave) are based there, I ran a music festival for the last 4 years (www.leeksummerjam.com – unfortunately on hold for 2013 while we take time to consider our options), and best of all, I have good friends there.

So I have taken an interest, I am a Leek ‘fan’ if you prefer. I may not live there any more, but I am there every week for rehearsals, and often on other odd days for gigs & visits. Nowadays, I live in Longton with my partner, and as nice as it is, well, it’s just not Leek.

I try and explain this to people when I talk about how much I miss the place (even though I’m often there). The usual explanation goes something like,

“You can just walk out of your door you know, and it’s nice, just being able to ramble round the shops, maybe see a few familiar faces. Have a pint. Oh, and it’s great when there’s a market on…”

Because that’s what you get in Leek, a proper yet inclusive localism. Maybe it’s just because I’ve joined the ranks of the self-employed, but I know so many traders, musicians, artists and skilled people who live and work there. And maybe that’s why it was so nice to see the opening of Leek’s first ‘pop-up emporium’ last Thursday (04/07/13).

It’s bitter sweet in a way, because the good people of the unique gift-shop ‘Colloco’ (http://www.colloco.co.uk/) have decided to wind up their high-street presence, but luckily for the rest of us, the driving force of the ‘Totally Locally’ campaign in Leek (http://totally-locally.co.uk/leek/), Colloco’s Marc Briand, has decided to allow other traders in for the final couple of months of the tenure, to road-test Leek’s first pop-up.

And so it was, on Thursday, while taking a swift break from a gruelling day of setting up recording equipment for a Gravity Dave session (and it was gruelling, there are about 5 sets of stairs to our lofty practice room, and they wind and turn like an Escher painting), I decided to nip out for some grub before the big push. Our fantastic volunteer producer (another Leek talent, a man who knows everything there is to know about recording and is a talented musician to boot) asked if I could pick up some biscuits from the health-food shop, but alas, it was closed. So a quick call later and I was asked to grab “a nice Tartlet from Pronto”. Pronto is the gorgeous little Deli, which handily for me, is also directly opposite the newly opened Pop-Up shop.

So, clutching my bag containing my ‘nice tartlet’ and other goodies, I wandered into the waiting crowd at the official opening. There were lots of smiling faces and a vibe of energy running through the place, as producers, customers and local dignitaries gathered round to browse, chat, promote, network, and nibble on the free snacks (also provided by Pronto).

Once the photos were done and the ribbon cut, we all filed back in to the sound of Dominic Morgan (the hardest working musician in the North from what I can tell – check out his fantastic acoustic numbers here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dom-Morgan/411516972218221?fref=ts), and continued our joyful perusing.

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First stop, for multiple reasons, was the wonderful Miscos chocolates stand, (www.miscoschocolates.co.uk). I say multiple reasons because a) I love their chocolates and wanted to bag myself a salted-caramel cup, and b) because ‘Cisco’ from ‘Miscos’ is the bassist in my band and I wanted to let him know how the set up was going, and c) because Meg & Cisco from Miscos are very good friends of mine and I’ve watched them build up this amazing business, and helped out where I can. The fixture looked amazing, as you can see:

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After that, I started my quick scanning of the rest of the wares. I’ve spoke to Marc about the whole set up before, hoping that if it continues long enough I may well start my own book-stand to sell a few of my upcoming self-published titles. He told me about the many and diverse local producers in the area that he has discovered thanks to the cooperation that has emerged out of the ‘totally locally’ campaign. That was certainly evidenced here, and this is only the first brave batch of traders to have a pop at the pop-up format.

From clothing (I particularly like the ‘Choose Leek’ range, see below), to jewellery, haberdashery, a great range of craft cards and gifts (I bought myself a modest little notebook and badge set from the fun and cheerful ‘Crap Cat’ range, below) and even the odd bit of local publications and art from the ‘Borderland Voices’ group (http://www.borderlandvoices.org.uk/). Plus a whole lot more that I had neither the time or memory to list here for now. Just go and see it, that’s the best way.

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So, after my quick browse, purchase, snacks and salted caramel cup (yes!), I left them to it so I could walk back along the historic market town  of Leek to my practice room and get on with the job of recording. It was perfect timing. Our producer relished his tartlet, I got to see the pop-up shop, and a great evening of recording lay ahead of me.

These kind of days happen in Leek all the time. You pop out for something and you see something else. It may be one of the many Markets (the fine-food market every first Sunday is a must…), or the local, independent restaurants, cafe’s, pubs and shops that are working together to show what high-streets can and should look like. They are defying the odds when you look at the topography of Leek only to see it is surrounded on all sides by massive national/global supermarkets, all trying to turn every town into a boring carbon-copy vision of a generic shopping-hell future, undercutting prices and sapping character from every corner of the country. But not in Leek, not yet, and hopefully not ever. Not while we have the cooperation and enthusiasm of the local producers working with each-other and the council (when possible) to stage events, offer local discounts, start pop-up shops (hopefully one of many to come), put on amazing markets and generally just be a cool place for a day out, or (if you can convince your fiancé to move there, which I’m working on), a life lived.

Where else can you… (in no particular order):

  • Grab a slice of stone-baked pizza over a continental larger… (The Napoli. http://www.thenapoli.co.uk/)
  • Try the rare-bread meat’s, artisan bread, chocolates, and local brew beers on your way through town (Fine food market)
  • Drop into a few antique centres, just for the fun of it if you like, they’re always interesting places, full of little treasures (the many antique centres)
  • Freshen up with a Belgian beer or two (Den Engels Belgian Bar)
  • Drop in and browse a selection of wares from local producers in a friendly and colourful atmosphere (totally locally pop-up – https://www.facebook.com/TotallyLocallyLeek)
  • Grab a posh-oatcake and choose from dozens of real ales from the good people of Titanic brewery (The Roebuck)
  • Have a coffee, see an exhibition, or catch a few bands in the historic ‘Foxlowe’ community arts centre (http://www.foxloweartscentre.org.uk/) (The Situation – original music nights every month at the Foxlowe, amongst other events, https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Situation/113561162062815?fref=ts).
  • Pop into a wine tasting evening (http://www.wineandwhisky.com/), drop in to the Deli for a ‘nice tartlet’ and wander over to the beautiful park for a sit down, drink and a snack…

These are just a few things that spring to mind, there are lots more, and it’s only a small place! I know other towns also do or are starting to do this kind of thing, I just hope they all follow through on the experience and bring this laid-back yet skilled and productive continental style brand of localism to the whole nation. (I secretly cheer a little inside every time I hear of another multi-national chain store going into administration. That model is broken and if we keep up with doing it ourselves and supporting local producers, maybe even the MPs will take note and start reducing the over-inflated business rates fixed by the mass-buying power of the faceless corporations… you never know).

So another great day in Leek. If you’ve not been, visit. If you want to know about the ‘Totally Locally’ model, feel free to contact the guys through the links provided in this article, they are all about best practice and idea sharing, and maybe you can make a Leek of your own, in your own town, supporting your neighbours and local traders, providing skilled and independent jobs, making the high street a nice place to be again.

Well done Leek. Keep it up.