Election Q&A

QUESTION AND ANSWER

You’ve asked me a few questions during the campaign which I’d like to offer my thoughts on.

Q             You are the only councillor we ever seem to hear of or hear from – are we missing something?

A             No. The Council has published the number of questions the 60 councillors raised on behalf of local residents between October 2015 and September 2017 – basically the middle half of the 2014-2018 Council. The two West Hill councillors between them raised 23 questions on behalf of local residents – and took home over £42,000 in allowances for their troubles. This works out at over £1,800 per resident they tried to help. Incidentally I gather they got no criticism for the party leadership for this. One of the candidates for another party who is currently a councillor in another Ward did fewer than one case per week. It is not as though there is nothing needs doing in West Hill – in the same period I did over 2,500 bits of local casework on matters raised with me by your good selves or which I have seen during my walkabouts or in response to my newsletters.

Q             Are Wandsworth services really as good as some people would have us believe – that is not what I see when I look at the potholes, the litter and so on?

A             Wandsworth is a ‘failing’ council. Fifteen years ago Wandsworth was one of the top councils in the country – judged 4* (‘excellent’) for education, for social services and for overall standard of services. But, using the same criteria as were applied in those days, Wandsworth is now a 1* council. For over two years Wandsworth Children’s Services have been failing to look after our most vulnerable youngsters and has needed outside intervention. We have the highest proportion of adult care homes requiring improvement of any SW London Borough – ranked 21st out of 32 in London. We are the sixth worst authority in the COUNTRY for recycling – a pathetic 21.9%. Of course like every council we do some things well too: our schools are excellent, for example. (I was at Southmead Primary last week talking about local history – I had the pleasure of doing the same at Ronald Ross and Our Lady Queen of Heaven recently. What a great bunch of kids and teachers we have!) But even here many schools have had to appeal to parents for extra funds while St Cecilia’s now only does sport once a fortnight because budget cuts mean they can’t afford the staff. Overall we are not meeting the standard set by our neighbouring councils.

Q             Do failing children’s services or relatively low-standard care homes really matter to this Council?

A             Apparently not – how often have you any reference to putting these matters right in the pile of literature coming through your letterboxes? I have been sitting on the Improvement Board that the government has imposed on Wandsworth until we start looking after our children properly for the last two years and have managed to improve the quality of information being used but the lack of resources being made available is very depressing. It is simply not a priority.

Q             Are you really ‘independent’?

A             Yes. Over the last years I have voted with Labour and Conservatives (most things that come before Council are agreed by all parties); with the Conservatives against Labour; with Labour against the Conservatives; and against both Conservative and Labour. The reason I am independent is that I want to vote in favour of what I believe is the right thing, not what the Party tells me I have to think. So for example I voted against turning Battersea Park into a racetrack (that has stopped) and was the only councillor against imposing sprinklers in all our 10+ storey blocks against the wishes of residents (not stopped yet but getting close, I believe). I also proposed the motion asking our MPs to press the government to give full rights to our European Union national friends when neither Party saw fit to do so (though they all supported it in the end).

Q             You are independent – what influence can you have as one voice among 60?

A             When I went Independent I did presume I would lose influence over Council policy. Actually the opposite has happened: I am finding that one independent voice arguing on the basis of evidence (I am one of the very few councillors who is a scientist and is used to interpreting numbers) is more effective for the Ward than finding ourselves lumbered with three councillors in a group of 30 or 40 others who just have to parrot the Party line on everything.

Q             Where do you stand on Council tax?

A             Although there has been a lot of talk about it, Council Tax is really a bit of a red herring. Labour and Conservative have both said they will freeze it for two years and by law they could only raise it by an extra 2% (about 27p a week at Band D) – any more would need a local referendum which no Council has ever tried. I don’t personally think Labour’s spending plans stack up but if they don’t they won’t be able to balance the books by CT rises, it would have to be by different service cuts. However, I have come to a view that we should be raising it by that 27p a week – it would raise nearly an extra £2 million a year, not enough to answer all our failing services by any means but a move in the right direction, in my view. If we want clean streets, reasonable roads and, most of all, safe vulnerable children and adults then we have to be prepared to pay a fair sum for it.

A few comments from residents…

I am very grateful for the comments residents have been making about me. Below is a selection.

“Malcolm is consistently there when we need him, I strongly urge you to get up and be counted and support him before the big party machines cost us the most valuable councillor we have.” MT, Wimbledon Park Road

“It’s reassuring to have a councillor who will turn up at my front door (not just at elections) to sort out council issues or that I can email and my concerns will be investigated.” John Bunker, Beaumont Road

“Malcolm Grimston has long been respected as one of Wandsworth’s most effective councillors. Being an Independent gives him even greater opportunities to serve the community.” MS, Girdwood Road

“I always thought a councillor was just someone who voted in council. That was until the independent Malcolm Grimston came along. Here’s a man who brings the council to your door and makes it work for you!” Chris Ward, Windlesham Grove

“It is heartening to see someone actually doing something for and communicating with the electorate and not just turning up to vote at whipped Council meetings.” JH, Combemartin Road

“Malcolm Grimston has been our local Wandsworth Councillor for over 20 years and has been unfailing in his support during all that time, whether it has been prodding someone into action at the Town Hall or supporting the residents through a programme of major works. He will be getting my vote again in the forthcoming Council Elections in 2018.” SDS, Linstead Way

“I moved into the area a couple of years ago and was so pleased to find we have a hardworking, committed local councillor in Malcolm Grimston. Someone not bogged down in party politics but who genuinely cares about the ward, has our interests at heart and gets things done.” Richard Lamberth, Inner Park Road

“I am supporting Malcolm because of the genuine interest he takes in the residents of the Ward. He even welcomed us personally when we first moved here. He is a strong force in local community who goes above and beyond to support us.” Ella, Princes Way

“Malcolm Grimston is the real thing. Most of our local councillors are invisible until they want your vote. Malcolm is always around and will have knocked on your door some time.” Bryan Hubbard, Victoria Drive

“Malcolm Grimston is the David Attenborough of our local politics – a tireless independent, championing West Hill matters.” Sarah Pope, Fulwood Walk

“THANK YOU so much for your email updates, it is wonderful to be kept in the loop on what’s happening and can be done in Southfields and that you are fighting our corner and listen to what we all have to say.” Mrs R, Windlesham Grove

“Malcolm is truly independent – he represents OUR interests when we need his help.” Ms H & Mr L, Oak Park Gardens

“We fully support Malcolm’s active involvement in everyday matters affecting our community. He is easily approachable, highly engaged and effective in facilitating solutions.” Mr B, Belmont Mews

“I was at the ‘sprinkler’ meeting last year & was struck by the affection everyone seems to have for you. I for one was glad that you were there as you genuinely seemed the only person on the panel truly connected with the people in the room.” AB, Whitlock Drive

“The two of us appreciate you doing the rounds of the residents in your ward and taking soundings‎. You will most certainly get my vote in the next local election.” JB, Kingscliffe Gardens

“Thanks for all your work in ‘getting things done’, also for your wonderful publication that gave us an insight into the illustrious past of the area we live in. We look forward to supporting you in this year’s elections.” John Waller, IPR

“Malcolm is a great asset to our community. He is consistently present when others are not, he listens and works hard to make Southfields better.” MS, Albert Drive

“Thanks for your email updates. I’ve spoken to friends and no Councillors from their wards do anything like this.” Mr G, Wimbledon Park Side

“Thank you for your brilliant emails which make us feel involved in the community and keep us all well informed.” Mrs and Mrs T, Whitelands Park

“It is so great to see someone driving local problems to resolution.” Mike Robey, Chapman Square

“Cllr Grimston has worked tirelessly for his ward and we wish him every success.”  JB-A, Albert Drive

“Southfields Business Forum is encouraged by the involvement that Councillor Grimston shows to the Forum. He is reliable and gives us his support in many of our issues. We are grateful to him for his dedication and commitment to the Forum and especially for supporting us at our open meeting.”

The Council election – my ‘manifesto’

The Council election is on May 3 and I will be standing as an Independent candidate for West Hill Ward.

Wandsworth Council is divided into 20 areas or Wards – ours is called West Hill and is home to about 16,000 people. Every four years eligible residents select three councillors for each of these wards. Presuming there are more than three candidates (many years ago the Putney ward of the old Wandsworth Metropolitan Council often used to be unopposed) you will have up to three votes to use. You can use one, two or all three and each vote is of equal value (i.e. no 1st, 2nd or 3rd preferences, unlike in the Mayor for London election). The three candidates who get the greatest number of crosses are elected. Many people, for example European Union nationals and people from most Commonwealth countries, who cannot vote in General Elections for parliament, can vote in Council elections. If you already registered in another part of the country you can still register in Wandsworth for local elections, but you can’t vote twice in the Council election if your other address is also in Wandsworth. If you think you are going to be away on May 3 please contact me and I will arrange a ‘proxy’ to vote on your behalf, or you can vote by post if you have applied to the Council to do so in time.

If you would like to help me to stay on as your local councillor, e.g. by delivering a few leaflets or showing a poster in your window, please let me know. (malcolmgrimston@btconnect.com)

London is traditionally heavily politicised so what can an Independent offer? I am standing on the following grounds.

1. HARD WORK – more individual cases handled (planning, Housing, social care, benefits, potholes, refuse collection, flytipping, education …) than any other Wandsworth Councillor. Between October 2015 and September 2017 I did 2491 pieces of casework. The other (Conservative) Councillors in West Hill Ward did 13 and 10 respectively.

2. VISIBILITY for four YEARS not four MONTHS – regular house calls, school visits, attending meetings of Residents’ Associations, estate visits and so on. Several residents have contacted me saying that the political parties, after disappearing for over three years, have suddenly started popping up and claiming credit for our work over the years in getting yellow lines in on Victoria Drive, challenging the Council for removing litter bins from bus stops, getting the jumps n Wimbledon Park Road seen to and so on. Jumping on other people’s bandwagons is all well and good – but there has to be someone there doing the work in the first place!

3. INDEPENDENCE – taking decisions in the interests of the Ward, not of the Party. I first became Independent to fight the Council’s suggestion of closing Southfield Library – now (I believe) perfectly safe – and have on several occasions voted against both political parties, notably in supporting the rights of residents in our council estates to have the final say on the imposition of sprinklers where it is against their will.

4. KEEPING IN TOUCH – a monthly email newsletter and frequent paper ones for those of you without Internet access, including the popular History Corner.

5. COUNCILLOR SURGERIES in the Ward every month.

6. GETS THINGS DONE – a record of achievement including sorting out traffic problems on Beaumont Road, Augustus Road, Victoria Drive etc.; new bus stop on Wimbledon Park Road; pavements renewed or repaired; flytippers prosecuted; Wimbledon Park stadium staying where it is; Community RoadWatch events; improved road humps on Wimbledon Park Road – as well as literally thousands of small improvements to individual lives or small communities.

7. STICKING AT IT – not giving up on long-term issues such as the Keevil Drive/Skeena Hill/ Girdwood Road ratrun; the removal of litter bins to save a few pence on the Council Tax; Sainsburys and the old petrol station; and so forth.

8. EXPERIENCE – 24 years as your Councillor.

9. MEMBER OF THE IMPROVEMENT BOARD set up by the Government when Wandsworth Council’s Children’s Services were judged to be failing our most vulnerable youngsters.

10. A STRONG INDEPENDENT VOICE FOR WEST HILL WARD

More reflections on Grenfell

It is a sad fact that in the case of many major disasters, the attempts to put things right often exacerbates the initial tragedy rather than ameliorating it. In my view there is a serious risk that this may prove to be the case following the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, as evidence-based decision-making has taken a back seat to what appears to be something of a panic-driven political knee jerk.

This is not badly motivated – anyone who saw the fire (it was visible across the River from my Ward in Wandsworth for example) or has heard the stories of those most directly involved cannot fail to have been deeply affected.

Nonetheless, the national fire statistics are interesting. Perhaps the most important fact is that over the last 30 years the number of fire deaths in the UK has fallen by some 64% – one of the great successes in public policy.

Dig deeper and other points emerge. In 2016/17, if a fire broke out in a property it appears that one was least likely to die in a block of 10+ storeys (4 deaths per 1000 fires); most likely to die in a 4-9 storey block (8 per 1000); with 1-3 storey blocks of flats and houses/bungalows/ conversions lying in between (6 and 7 per 1000 respectively). If the last five years combined are taken it is houses and conversions that are the most ‘dangerous’ (7 per 1000) but 10+ storeys are still the safest (steady at 4 per 1000 fires). If London alone is taken the five-year figures are practically identical (not surprising since about two thirds of Britain’s 10+ storey blocks are in London).

The numbers equate to 6 fire deaths in London in 10+ storey blocks over the last 5 years. For a Borough like Wandsworth this is equivalent to about one fire death in 10+ storey blocks in any 25 year period, presuming of course that fire safety does not continue to improve as it has done in recent decades. Of course Grenfell will skew these figures enormously for the year 2017/2018 but the overview is clear enough.

After an excellent immediate response, in which Wandsworth (like many councils) told residents that only two or our blocks had ever been ‘clad’ and that in both cases there had been flat fires that had not spread throughout the buildings, within a week Wandsworth had announced plans to impose sprinklers in all flats in all 10+ storey council blocks, to take £24 million out of the Housing Revenue Account (in effect the rents of council tenants) to pay for it and to recharge leaseholders a sum expected to be of the order of £3-4k each for the programme.

This was done without any semblance of consultation with those who will be most severely affected. This has struck many residents as ironic – here we were, being told that one of the big lessons of Grenfell was that councils should listen more closely to their residents, yet Wandsworth was simply ignoring the voice of residents and taking unilateral action of its own.

As it happens, West Hill Ward has the first London County Council tower blocks, constructed on the Ackroydon Estate in the early 1950s. For 65 years these blocks have been protecting residents, often from themselves, from many flat fires and other events. The Fire Brigade and the Council, throughout that period, have rightly told residents that these concrete and brick boxes are ‘safe’.

Since 2007 it has been mandatory to fit sprinklers in all new 10+ storey blocks as they are built. This is fair enough – obviously it is much cheaper and more efficient to include a feature at the design and build stage than to try to backfit it in an existing structure. But the government, so far at least, has (rightly in my view) not made it compulsory to backfit sprinklers in older blocks.

 However, Wandsworth, like other councils, has in effect said that while residents of older multistorey blocks in the private sector are intelligent enough to take their own decisions based on the evidence, those in Council estates are not and need nanny to do it for them.

So I have heard stories of leaseholders who are just paying up to £12,500 per flat for major redecoration works (often not done very well), a huge sum especially for those who bought under right-to-buy and are still living in their old council home, and now have another £4,000 to find. Some fear they may have to move out. I hear of (and have visited) those who have just finished doing up their own property but who are now faced with someone coming in and ripping it all up to put the sprinklers in. I hear from those who are scared about what would happen if the sprinklers went off accidentally or because of a child’s prank, say, and they were left with the costs of putting things right. Others wonder if legionella might be a threat in the warm stagnant water.

These concerns are not limited to leaseholders. Several council tenants, who will not have to find the cost upfront (though of course it will be taken out of a fund that could be dealing with their dreadful damp problems, a real health threat, or many other improvements), are just as adamant in their opposiito0n to the proposals. Many would like the money spent on more pressing problems.

A head of steam is now building up among leaseholders across the Borough – politically interesting given that they have been a group who have always been regarded as natural Conservative voters but may take a different stance in next year’s Council election. There is particular anger that Wandsworth used their money to obtain legal advice supporting the recharging of the costs but has point blank allowed them to see that advice so they can challenge the key argument concerning ‘improving the security of the blocks’. The Council seems merely to default to two arguments – that council estate residents should have the same safety standards as those in the private sector (simply not true, since as noted above it is only post-2007 blocks that would have this imposed on them); and that the Fire Brigade is in favour of sprinklers in high rise. (The Fire Brigade rightly focuses purely on fire – local councillors though are not elected by the Fire Brigade but by local residents to balance the various calls on their money and to act in their best overall interests.) But to be fair, Wandsworth did not put fire engines outside its tower blocks, so driving home how ‘dangerous’ they were and exacerbating for example fears among those who live on the 9th floor of a 9-storey block wondering why they won’t get sprinklers when someone on the ground floor of a 10 storey one will.

There is an alternative. We could wait until we understand the technical analysis of the Grenfell disaster. We could see what lessons there may be, which may well be more about cladding than about the original block design. We can rectify those blocks which had unsafe features added. And then we could allow individual leaseholders to take the decision for themselves. I asked the Cabinet Member (to be fair she is very inexperienced in her role) if she would be happy with the government coming round to her house, forcibly installing sprinklers and charging several thousands of pounds for doing so – given that in a house she is more at risk than if she lived in a tower block. I received back criticism for ‘continuing to use statistics’ in my argument (the biggest crime of all in Conservative Wandsworth). And we can ask the residents of each block as a body whether they want them, so valuing the tenants’ views as well. We could also target those most at risk of fire – inevitably older people, especially those who smoke – rather than a crude uniform approach that takes no account for example of the very different types of block construction that have been used and the very different way various blocks have been treated in recent years.

The haunting images from Grenfell, of course, make us desire to make such terrible events less likely in the future. We’d be heartless to react in any other way. Many residents do want sprinklers and should be helped to get them. But in my experience those who have actually lived on our estates – the engineers, the lawyers, the estate agents and all – know far more about their everyday lives than those of us sitting in the Town Hall. Let’s use this awful tragedy as a prompt genuinely to empower residents and listen to their collective wisdom, not yet another chance for evidence-lite ‘government knows best’ thinking to dominate.

Rewriting history

There must be a Council election coming up, as a few politicians are starting to appear on the streets of West Hill Ward. As is traditional, they will seek to take credit for any positive developments over the last three and a bit years and doubtless people will make up their minds based on their engagement throughout that period.

One particular example of the rewriting of history is emerging. It is genuinely to Wandsworth’s great credit that the Borough is keeping its libraries open when so many other authorities are closing theirs. But the Conservatives in particular seem keen to obscure how we got here, sending round a tweet saying I had “told people they’d all be sold off”.

If anyone wants a reminder of what actually did happen they can see a very accurate account on mumsnet (https://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/local_wandsworth/2193134-Southfields-Library-at-risk-of-closure). Basically, the Conservative Group on June 23 2014 was told that a ‘major decision’ would involve ‘consideration of closure of non-town centre libraries’, which have left the Borough with five (Battersea, Tooting, Wandsworth, Balham and Putney) and closed the others including Southfields. I sat on it for a couple of months as quite often these things disappear of their own accord but my discussions with the Leader, Cabinet Member responsible and Group Chairman made it clear that this was a real proposal. I could not just sit on my hands but it was made obvious to me that I could not speak freely and stay in the Conservatives. It was an extremely difficult decision after over 20 years but at the end of the day I could not sit back and take it so I did as I was told and resigned from the Group. I was very careful to say that I did not believe a decision on the libraries had yet been taken but that it would be more difficult to fight it if and when one was.

The Council – foolishly given the documentary evidence (which of course I still have) – went down the time-dishonoured route of saying there were ‘no plans’ for closure (politics-speak for ‘there are plans for closure’). Then a member of their own group – to this day I don’t know who – leaked the whole Group document to mumsnet. There was a powerful local campaign and sure enough the idea to shut the libraries was quietly dropped, unlike the other ‘major decisions’ in the June 1914 paper.

Frankly I don’t care who takes the credit for keeping the libraries going and as I say a lot of it of course belongs to the council. But I do hope that the election campaign doesn’t get bogged down in invented personal attacks, as even those which can be easily disproved become wearisome. Last week we saw some bizarre attacks on my Independent colleague Councillor James Cousins in his Shaftesbury Ward feedback meeting which again were demonstrably untrue. Let’s campaign on our tracks records and ideas.

What can nuclear power learn from Brexit?

BREXIT AND NEXIT

A tale of two campaigns

Malcolm Grimston

The recent decision by the UK population to leave the European Union offers some fascinating insights into political campaigning and the greater importance of winning hearts than minds when it comes to building public support for a position. In many respects the strategy of the Remain campaign can be compared to the long-term communication strategy of the nuclear power industry – with remarkably similar outcomes. In many countries the pressure for a ‘nuclear exit’ is even stronger than that for British exit from the EU. This brief note will seek to expand on these parallels and draw some communication conclusions for the nuclear industry and its supporters.

THE ISSUES

Both ‘Brexit’ – the campaign to take the UK out of the European Union – and ‘Nexit’ – the campaign to take nuclear power out of the fuel mix – have been issues which have sharply divided public opinion in the UK and elsewhere. (Brexit is obviously primarily a UK matter though even it has been controversial in a number of European countries and indeed further afield, with for example President Obama making his feelings very clear during the campaign.)

A further point of similarity between the two issues is that in each case the weight of expert opinion is/was very clearly on the side of ‘Remain’. In the case of nuclear this degree of support is now spreading into the ‘environmental’ movement which has tended to be oppositional for some decades (though support in the financial community has been falling); in the Brexit case almost all international and national financial authorities, plus large swathes of business and industry, argued that remaining in the EU would very probably be in Britain’s national interests, at least from an economic standpoint.

It is important to be clear about what this and does not mean. Expert opinion is not always right – it may be subject to systematic bias, there may be major discoveries yet to be made or the field may simply be subject to great uncertainty. There are many example of scientific orthodoxy being overturned, sometimes in the face of resistance from the scientific establishment itself. Even Einstein could not at first accept the implications of quantum theory (“God does not play dice with the universe”) despite his own work on the photoelectric effect having been a major starting point for the whole field. In 1917 he introduced a random ‘cosmological constant’ to neuter one of the key findings of his general relativity theory, that the universe is expanding – something which is generally thought now to be correct. Some of the calamities predicted to follow a Brexit vote by the Remain campaign have clearly not materialised.

But all else being equal, ‘expert opinion’ – which is probably better described as calculated and informed guesswork – is more likely to be ‘correct’, or at least near enough to be of practical use, than more mystical sources of ‘authority’ such as religion, celebrities, next-door neighbours, brothers-in-law or just an aversion to the views of people we don’t like.

The two issues are also similar in that they involve not just interpretations of factual matters but also an interplay of different values. There is no ‘factual’ answer to the question as to how to compare the economic benefits of having a supply of low cost labour say with the social disruption caused by large-scale immigration into relatively small communities – just as there is no ‘factual’ answer to the tension between the higher financial cost of investing in nuclear power and the environmental benefits it could bring.

A further point to note is that in each case the Remain point of view began in a strong position but its lead was eroded over time until the Leave campaign was ahead. At the point of the referendum on the EU the Leave lead was enough to deliver a Brexit verdict, by 51.9% to 48.1%. In the case of nuclear power early enthusiasm was followed by disillusion and opposition[1], though in the UK at least opinion has recovered from the low point registered around the turn of the millennium (the improvement coinciding with the decline of the nuclear industry’s large-scale ‘fact-based’ attempts to ‘educate’ the public). Nonetheless, reflecting on the failure of (EU) Remain’s communications strategy may yield some interesting pointers for the nuclear industry.

NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING

In the course of the debate leading up to the referendum the Remain campaign was dubbed ‘Project Fear’ by its opponents. The Leave campaigners portrayed Remain’s strategy as one based on creating fear round the economic uncertainties involved in leaving the EU, rather than seeking to inspire by citing the positive advantages of continuing membership. As the Brexit side edged into the lead in the weeks before the vote, the then Chancellor, George Osborne and his (Labour) predecessor Alistair Darling warned of a 2p rise in the basic rate, a 3p rise in the higher rate, a 5p rise in inheritance tax and a 5% rise in alcohol and petrol duties, coupled with a £2.5bn cut to the NHS, a £1.2bn cut to defence, a £1.15bn cut to education, a £2bn cut to pensions…

Brexit’s portrayal was not an unfair one. In April 2016 the government published a pro-Remain leaflet, Why the government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best option for the UK.[2] The opening statement reads as follows:

“The UK has secured a special status in a reformed EU:

we will not join the euro;

  • we will keep our own border controls;
  • the UK will not be part of further European political integration;
  • there will be tough new restrictions on access to our welfare systems for new EU migrants;
  • we have a commitment to reduce EU red tape.”

One has to wait until page 12 (out of 16) before seeing the heading ‘The benefits of EU membership’. The first substantive point made here is: “The UK has kept the pound, will not join the euro and has kept control of UK borders”.

In other words, the most salient benefit that the UK government seemed to wish to get over was that the UK hadn’t got caught up in the (silly) project as deeply as others had and had remained on the sidelines, relatively speaking.

This is highly reminiscent of the nuclear industry’s historic obsession with leading with its weak points – full page advertisements on radioactive waste disposal and so on. ‘Safety is the top priority’ is a common pitch, as if safety were the product, that the case for nuclear power, rather like the case for remaining in the EU, is that it isn’t quite as bad as you think it is or that it might have been. Of course, if safety really is more important than making electricity, for example, or reducing carbon emissions then there is an obvious solution – stop doing it. Just as if avoiding so many of the consequences of full membership of the EU is the best that can be said for remaining then there is an obvious solution – leave.

By comparison, the EU Leave campaign focused largely on one positive theme – ‘taking back control’ (of borders, of laws, of the budget etc.) – backed up by a number of arguably simplistic statements and half-implications. Even if it could be deemed disingenuous, this approach nonetheless painted a positive picture of what life outside the EU might look like.

This being said, as discussed later the main problem with this leaflet was probably not its content. There is little evidence that significant numbers of people read it: many instead sent it back to the Prime Minister.[3] But the reek of negativity, the difficulty in clearly articulating a positive message and the consequent falling back onto attempts to persuade people that staying in wouldn’t be quite as bad as the Brexiters were claiming pervaded the whole campaign.

A MYERS-BRIGGS TYPE ANALYSIS

The “Myers-Briggs Type Indicators” is a trademarked psychometric test which identifies eight different personality preferences (in four ‘pairs’ or more accurately across four spectra).[4] Each of us has our own personality style or preference built from our positions on the continua between the potential extremes.

The four axes are described by the Myers-Briggs Foundation as:

Extraversion/Introversion (E/I) – do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world?

Sensing/Intuition (S/N) – do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning?

Thinking/Feeling (T/F) – when making decisions do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances?

Judging/Perceiving (J/F) – when dealing with the outside world do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options?

For the purpose of this discussion the E/I axis may not be of particular interest. However, in the case of each of the three others evidence suggests that there are systematic differences between the Myers-Briggs profiles of those going into managerial, scientific/engineering and political occupations.[5]

S/N T/F J/P
UK public 76%/26% 46%/54% 58%/42%
Science/Engineering 58%/42% 88%/12% 71%/29%
R&D 55%/45% 81%/19% 63%/37%
Politicians 51%/49% 66%/34% 56%/44%

Distribution of Myers-Briggs characteristics

THE TF AXIS

One striking difference between those going into politics, science or R&D, when compared to the population at large, is that the ‘thinking’ mode – which has at its heart a belief that ‘facts’ should drive perceptions, and by extension that facts do drive perceptions (since for a T-type it is very difficult to conceive of the world through an F’s eyes and vice versa) – is much more heavily represented in comparison to the ‘feeling’ mode. The latter seems to have a small majority among the population (one remarkably similar to that achieved by the Leave campaign in the vote), while characterising perhaps a third of politicians and just one eighth of scientists and engineers. Stalin was not a classic F and in any case probably never said it but the often-cited quote attributed to him – “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” – has some force when it comes to communications.

A case study

One seminal moment during the Brexit campaign came in April 2016 when, as noted above, the government spent £9 million of public money to publish its pro-Remain leaflet – Why the government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best option for the UK – and send it to every household in the country. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, described the leaflet as ‘moderate and restrained’ – which in itself does not seem to be an entirely unfair description, as far as it goes. Nonetheless, the leaflet did not make any direct reference to any possible downside of Remaining (and the claims of ‘retaining control of UK borders’ sat uneasily with statistics published the following month showing near-record net migration figures in 2015, with the widespread recognition that the government had failed spectacularly in its pledge to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ rather than the 330,000 actually recorded).

Immediately there was a public and political furore. 220,000 people signed an online petition for the Prime Minister David Cameron to stop using taxpayer money on pro-EU content, leading to a debate in Parliament on May 9. In that debate the Leave campaign did not actually spend much time attacking the content of the leaflet[6]. The MP introducing the debate said that “the Treasury is publishing documents and the Government continue to have propaganda at the top of every gov.uk web page.” A second Leave-supporting MP said that that if voters decide to remain in the EU by a narrow margin, many “will feel that the result has been fiddled precisely because of this wasted document.” (Conservative) MP John Redwood, a veteran anti-EU campaigner and former Cabinet Minister, said: “No previous Labour or Conservative government have ever thought they should spend taxpayers’ money on promoting government policies ahead of a general election in the hope of getting a better result. Is that not exactly what the leaflet is doing, and is it not, therefore, a scandal?” Perhaps the two most high-profile campaigners in the official Leave campaign, Justice Secretary Michael Gove and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, respectively called for the £9.3 million bill for the ‘one-sided propaganda’ to be spent on the National Health Service; and accused the Prime Minister of reneging on his promise to ‘fight fair’ during the referendum because he was ‘losing the argument’.

Redwood suggested – surely correctly – that the leaflet would encourage more people to vote for Brexit as they would view it as an abuse of taxpayers’ cash and an ‘insult’ to voters. Another commentator rather more colourfully said: “Although it broke every Rule in the book and showed Mr. Cameron’s CHARACTER for what it is, I am GLAD he did it! This Political Fantasy booklet will PROVE to be the POLITICAL HOWLER OR ‘OWN GOAL’ if you prefer, OF THE CENTUARY!” One suspects that what this might lack in terms of conventional grammar it more than makes up for in terms of straightforward common sense.

In similar vein, Nigel Farage, Leader of UKIP, suggested that President Obama’s calls for the UK to stay in the EU, coupled with a threat that the UK would be at the ‘back of the queue’ when it came to negotiating a trade deal, during his visit in April 2016 did the Leave campaign more good than harm. “Threatening people too much insults their intelligence.A lot of people in Britain said, ‘How dare the American president come here and tell us what to do?’ It backfired. We got an Obama-Brexit bounce, because people do not want foreign leaders telling them how to think and vote.” Obama’s popularity rating with the UK public had always been high, yet all four major polls published after his visit showed a move towards Leave by between one and four percentage points. Between 55% and 60% of those polled expressed disapproval of Obama’s intervention: the popular response was expressed in a cartoon of Obama seated opposite the Queen at a Palace dining table saying “She’ll have the fish” as the Queen winces and the butler staggers back in horror.[7]

After the result had been announced Arron Banks, a key funder of the UK Independence Party and of the Leave campaign, referred to the success of Donald Trump in winning the Republican nomination for US President when he revealed: “What they [Brexit’s political strategists Goddard Gunster] said early on was ‘facts don’t work’ and that’s it. The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”[8] Michael Gove’s take was “I think people in this country have had enough of experts:” Gisela Stuart MP said: “There is only one expert that matters and that’s you, the voter.” Nigel Farage claimed that many independent experts were actually in the pay of the government or the EU.[9] The Leave campaign also reminded voters of a pledge the previous year by Europe Minister David Lidington that there was “no question of the Government undertaking any paid advertising or promotions such as billboards, doorstops, leaflets or newspaper or digital advertising”. That the pledge technically applied only to the last 28 days of the campaign was all but irrelevant to its force as a message. What the Leave campaign grasped so firmly, and decisively, was that there was absolutely no need to challenge the ‘facts’ coming from the Remain side in any rigorous or systematic way. Much more effective was to attack the very concept of expertise, or the bona fides of particular individual pro-Remain ‘experts’, or the refusal of the government to ‘play fair’ (thereby portraying the Remain campaign as being afraid of a balanced debate). In playing to gut feeling rather than analysis the Leave campaigners came far closer to the worldview of the population than did the Remain campaign. One suspects that the outrage expressed in public by Leave campaigners over the leaflet was accompanied by the rubbing of hands in glee behind closed doors. How could the Remain campaign make such crass mistakes as to publish a one-sided leaflet, or bring a foreign leader in to the debate, thereby playing so solidly into the key emotional arguments being promulgated by the Leavers – that ‘they’ (the ‘establishment’, the ‘urban elite’, ‘Westminster’ or even ‘Londoners’) are forcing ‘us’ into taking a decision which benefits ‘them’ and therefore doesn’t benefit ‘us’; and that ‘the foreigners’ have far too much say over UK thinking and policy?

As another commentator put it: “The Brexiteers had a big story to tell — one of a proud people that must finally recognise it was high time to haul back its sovereignty from a faceless, bureaucratic Brussels apparatus that was undemocratic and spent its time passing regulations in opaque rounds of wheeling and dealing. What did the Remain campaign have at its disposal to counter these arguments? Prosaic facts. Britain would suffer economically. Only a unified Europe could compete globally. The message was not wrong, but it was cool and abstract by comparison.”[10]

The parallels with the nuclear industry’s historic obsession with ‘providing the facts’, ‘educating the public’ and so on – and with the antinuclear industry’s focus on frightening imagery (rather than statistics) and attacks on the bona fides of experts (except those with whom they agree) – are unmistakeable, as are the similarities in the outcomes. The population is much more likely to come to a decision based on feelings (as opposed to analysis) and emotion than is the political or managerial ‘establishment’. It is maybe too much to claim that ‘facts’, or at least sound arguments, are irrelevant, if only because citing an incorrect ‘datum’ might make one look even less trustworthy. But as the Leave campaign showed, repeatedly peddling the patently untrue claims that there would be ‘£350 million a week to spend on the National Health Service if the UK left the EU’ (a claim duly abandoned by the Leave campaign after it had done its job[11]) and that Turkey was on the point of being fast-tracked into membership of the EU did no harm at all: the emotional messages were both graspable and credible. (Indeed, it can be argued that when the Remain campaign did start to attack the £350 million figure, saying, correctly, that when the rebate and the money which comes back to the UK from various EU funds were taken into account the net figure, ignoring any wider economic consequences, was closer to £165 million per week, may have backfired. Polling suggests that many people simply did not believe the Remain campaign, while others said ‘well, ok, but that is still a huge number’. By engaging on the ‘facts’ the Remain campaign in effect validated the Leave argument – once again by unwillingly implying that Leave was basically right, we do contribute a literally inconceivably huge amount to the EU, just not quite as much as Leave says. What was presumably Remain’s real argument – that loss of business opportunities in Europe would wipe out any savings from the net contribution at a stroke – got entirely lost in the spat over the £350 million figure itself.)

As one person, from a northern city, told a reporter: “Well, everybody says something and everybody says something else and you find they’re all contradicting one another so who do you believe? I just thought we would be better without, so we just went with our hearts.”

THE NS AXIS

The Remain campaign talked about some big themes and ideals. The government leaflet says; “voting to leave the EU would create years of uncertainty and potential economic disruption”. One poster says: “Beware of what it means to leave the EU: dissolve the largest peace project in human history; support a right-wing movement; undo trade treaties for years to come”.

Such thoughts in themselves are of course quite pertinent to the debate and were doubtless attractive to the big-picture, abstract, theoretically minded N-types running the campaign. But what do they actually mean in terms of people’s everyday lives? After all only a quarter of the population draws its maps of the world from the top down – most people, according to MBTI research, are dominated in their thinking by concrete examples from everyday life.

The Leave campaign[12], by contrast, tended rather more to focus on concrete images and understandable, everyday situations. The infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster which was interpreted as portraying a queue of supposed EU residents waiting to get into the UK (though actually depicting Syrian refugees at the Slovenian border) was widely criticised as misleading and tasteless – to the extent, speculatively, that it may have been offputting to some Fs – but this is not to say that it was not effective in driving home a point.

Whether these claims were true and defensible or not did not seem to matter when it came to assessing their impact. Their messages were readily graspable.

Of course, it can be argued that the slogan ‘Take back control’ is rather abstract in itself, but it was always backed up by examples of what it was that ‘we’ would be ‘taking back’ by leaving the EU.

How often do nuclear proponents talk about abstract concepts like ‘energy security’, ‘the economy’ and so on, rather than making the message something more related to everyday life?

THE JP AXIS

The differences between population and those in the scientific and political spheres on this parameter are relatively narrow, so any conclusions must be approached cautiously. However, it does seem that the population may be slightly more comfortable with uncertainty and unpredictability than those who do things like promote Remain campaigns, in EU or nuclear fields.

It was clear that the key treasury claim – that the average UK household would be permanently £4,300 a year worse off if the UK left the EU – did not gain traction. An opinion poll a week before the referendum suggested that it was believed by only 17% of those polled. [13]

Speculatively, one of the problems with such figures is their faux-accuracy. Just two months before the referendum Chancellor Osborne announced that in 2015/2016 the UK economy had missed his borrowing target by £1.8bn, or £28 per head of the population, compared to the forecast issued just one month previously.[14] The incoming Coalition government in 2010 had pledged to eliminate the structural deficit by 2015 and reduce overall borrowing to £37bn: borrowing in the final financial year of the Parliament was, in fact, £92bn.[15] Even if only a tiny proportion of the population were aware of the precise numbers, the impossibility, or at least the extraordinarily poor track record, of making accurate predictions presumably made numbers stated with two-figure ‘accuracy’ in this way highly suspect. Similarly the frequent and quite reasonable claims by the Remain campaign that leaving the EU would be a huge step in the dark gained little ground. After all we (or at least the Ps in the population) know that the world is an uncertain place and rather like the fact. Britain has been used to dealing with uncertain and unexpected futures for far longer than we have been members of the EU.

Again, the nuclear industry’s messages, and those of associated campaigns such as that surrounding climate change, tend to give an impression of degrees of certainty which do not accord with most people’s experience. Sometimes saying ‘we don’t know’ or ‘chances are there will be good and bad if we do this’ might be more effective ways of engaging with the P half of the population.

THE IRRATIONAL PUBLIC

Accusations of public ‘irrationality’ proliferated before and, especially, after the vote. As one commentator said, in an article entitled Brexit and the politics of irrationality’: “There appears to be every sign that, in the South Wales valleys, thousands of people in one of the most deprived areas of the UK – one whose Less Developed Region status under EU rules means that it is a target for EU funding, for social projects like Sure Start as well as the better-known funding for industrial relocation, training and infrastructure – will vote to leave the EU.[16]

Claims of irrationality – that the public believes or acts a certain way for no reason at all – are never convincing. In reality, it is more likely that we make our decisions based on a wide range of factors, all of which make sense in a particular way, thus reinforcing the point that campaigns of facts alone can be not only ineffective but indeed, in some circumstances, counterproductive. Take one comment from a Leave voter from the North of England: “People from down south think they are a little bit better than us, they think they’re a little bit more educated than us, they think they are more well-to-do than us, that we’re just the working class common northerners who don’t know as much as they know. So everything is rammed down your throat, ‘we’re the more important, everyone who’s important lives here and works here’.” Or more succinctly, “If we’ve given London a bloody nose, that’s a bonus. I actually find it quite funny. It shows how detached they are from the real world.”[17]

An air of superiority, that anyone who holds an opposing view is stupid, ill-informed, irrational etc., is not unique to pro-Remain campaigners – it feels familiar to those who have observed nuclear industry communications over many years, with similar emotional consequences.

AN ALTERNATIVE REMAIN CAMPAIGN

How might a Remain campaign based on the above principles have looked?

For the present author, one of the most impressive contributions to the whole debate came from a small businessperson on the BBC radio phone-in programme Any Answers. He explained the Single Market in concrete terms: if he needed to buy a component from within the EU for his manufacturing business he could do so with very little bureaucracy and no extra tariffs – if he had to buy it from outside the EU he had to fill out import forms and pay a tariff through the postal service. This single brief contribution, based on a real-life, easily graspable example, was more effective than reams of theoretical discussion about the trade terms with Europe – discussion which required one largely to trust the messenger as the abstract concepts were difficult to grasp or verify.

The Remain campaign might have done better to tell the story of individual people who were benefitting or would benefit in the future from membership of the EU – those nearing retirement who currently had the freedom to settle say in Spain or the South of France; young people who had taken advantage of free movement of people to live in an EU country and had then come back enriched; people employed by small businesses whose family’s wellbeing depended on the company’s ability to trade freely with EU countries; universities which had been involved in the invention of something of clear direct benefit to people’s lives owing to an EU-funded collaboration with several other universities which would be much more difficult when outside the club. These people-focused, easily portrayable ideas, trumpeting the benefits of EU membership may have been considerably more appealing than claims that leaving the EU would lead to international conflict (hardly credible and certainly not easily graspable) or ‘potential economic disruption’, whatever that might mean.

CAVEATS

There is always a danger of pushing a comparison too far. Brexit and Nexit are not direct perfect parallels. Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the two issues, in perceptual terms, is that while there does not seem to have been a gender gap in voting over Brexit, in the case of nuclear there is a significant and enduring higher degree of support among men than among women. Older and younger voters seem are more likely to support nuclear power than those in the age range 20-50, while support for Brexit grew consistently as the age of the voter increased. This being said, support for both nuclear power and remaining in the EU was higher in social groups ABC1 than in C2DE.

Furthermore, over 48% of those who took party in the referendum voted to Remain, including several people who were won over to that side by the campaign. Clearly many in the population were convinced by, or at least not dissuaded by, the claims of the remain campaign about the economic consequences of leaving the EU, just as there was always a segment of the population which continued to support nuclear energy even when its overall popularity was at its lowest.

More strategically, Brexit’s aims were rather different from those of the nuclear industry and its supporters. It simply needed to get more people to vote for it on a particular day – it would not be responsible for any long-term policies or implications that arose from it (though some of its supporters might be). Nuclear power needs to develop a long-term constructive relationship with communities hosting nuclear facilities and at least a degree of passive acceptance (though not necessarily more) from the population at large. Wilful manipulation and exaggeration of the best information available is therefore not really an option for the nuclear industry even if it were morally acceptable, though it patently is for some of its opponents. The aim perhaps should be to continue to take decisions like an NT but to communicate them like an SF. Ironically, at least post-Fukushima rather too many decisions have been taken against available evidence, perhaps to seek to appease the Fs in the population, mainly in the form of systematic overreaction to the very modest health risks associated with radiation. The associated communication, though, has been too T-focused, expecting people to accept at face value a set of messages which look deeply suspicious – after all, who would really destroy so many people’s lives through evacuation and forced exclusion from their homes, destruction of local agriculture and fisheries etc. if the risks of not doing so were not in reality enormous?

A further key point must be considered. The Remain campaign sought to move the focus of the debate onto the economy, where it felt it had the strongest negative argument against Leave. But Leave also spent considerable effort on the issue of immigration and Remain never really came up with a convincing riposte. While the tactics of leading with what it regarded as its strongest issue was not wrong in itself, it does emphasise how important it is to have defensive arguments available against the pitch of the opponents. Simply ignoring Leave claims about the effects of immigration, or the antinuclear industries exaggerations about say nuclear safety or waste management, is going too far. The responses, though, need to be at least as much aimed at the Sensing Feelers – i.e. expressed in terms of benefits to people, human stories and readily graspable examples – as at the Intuitive Thinkers who might quite go for scientific, theoretical explanations.

CONCLUSIONS

It seems incontrovertible that the Leave campaigners won not only the vote but also the campaign. Opinion polls of their nature cannot be entirely accurate, as revealed perhaps most spectacularly by the failure to call the outcome of the 2015 General Election. However, tracking the same measure over time probably does reveal changes in attitudes. Looking at major polls published through the campaign there was a notable change in the expressed voting intentions of the electorate, especially in the last month of the campaign (perhaps suggesting that Leave won the day with those who had been undecided till the last minute).[18] In December 2015 the unweighted average of such polls gave the Remain position a lead of 8.8 percentage points over Leave; by June Leave was in the lead.

The whole Brexit story offers suggestions that an obsession with ‘facts’, especially when those facts have to be taken on trust because they are (allegedly) based on complex calculations and assumptions, is no guarantee of success even in a technical field and may even be offputting if it reinforces a perception that the communicator regards themselves as intellectually superior or simply does not think the same way as the ‘listener’. Even leaving aside the inevitable differences between the two cases, the failure of the Remain campaign may offer a comparative study which illuminates to a degree the parallel failure of nuclear communications over decades, which resulted in, or at least accompanied, the safest form of energy we have yet devised being regarded by large swathes of the population in many countries as too dangerous to be deployed. In a nutshell, a Myers-Briggs-influenced analysis suggests that to many public audiences, messages should be clothed in approaches which are:

about people not about things;

  • about instances not about concepts;
  • about uncertainty not about precision.

 

[1]http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/login.jsp?tp=&arnumber=775426&url=http%3A%2F%2Fieeexplore.ieee.org%2Fiel5%2F5%2F16849%2F00775426.pdf%3Farnumber%3D775426

[2]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/515068/why-the-government-believes-that-voting-to-remain-in-the-european-union-is-the-best-decision-for-the-uk.pdf

[3]http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3533926/Return-Sender-Government-s-9m-pro-EU-leaflet-begins-land-doormats-today-sent-straight-Downing-Street.html

[4]http://www.myersbriggs.org/

[5]https://www.opp.com/download/item/082ac33389fb48d1a659066f56d972df

[6]http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/07/politics-live-governments-9million-anti-brexit-letter-sparks-fur/

[7]http://www.nationalreview.com/article/434744/president-obamas-brexit-intervention

[8]http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-news-donald-trump-leave-eu-campaign-facts-dont-work-arron-banks-lies-referendum-a7111001.html

[9]http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/10/michael-goves-guide-to-britains-greatest-enemy-the-experts/

[10]http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/brexit-editorial-if-we-don-t-love-europe-we-will-lose-it-a-1099602.html

[11]http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/10/brexit-camp-abandons-350-million-pound-nhs-pledge

[12] There were two principal Leave campaigning groups – ‘Vote Leave’, which had official status, and ‘Leave.eu’ – and indeed a number of others. Broadly the former put more of an emphasis in sovereignty and the economy, the latter on immigration – at times relations between the two were fraught. Nonetheless each followed rather similar communications strategies in psychological terms.

[13]http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nearly-half-of-britons-believe-vote-leaves-false-350-million-a-week-to-the-eu-claim-a7085016.html

[14]https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/apr/21/uk-misses-borrowing-target-george-osborne-lydia-councils-spending

[15]http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/Leading_business_story/the-chart-that-shows-osborne-has-missed-his-latest-borrowing-target-a6994016.html

[16]https://notesbrokensociety.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/brexit-and-the-politics-of-irrationality/

[17]http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-24/giving-london-a-bloody-nose-cheers-northerners-backing-brexit

[18]http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36271589

War and Peace

I went to the service at St Paul’s in my Ward yesterday afternoon commemorating the UK’s entry into the First World War, alongside a goodly crowd including the Mayor, Justine Greening and Councillor Sue McKinney.  It was a wonderful event, a moving mixture of readings, hymns, addresses and as the tailpiece a gathering by the war memorial, where a rose was left for each of the 35 men from the parish who died during the conflict.  Four members of the Chandler family perished, which brought home for me the enormity of the suffering.  The Bishop of Southwark told us about his grandfather, who committed suicide during the Second World War having never recovered from his experiences during the First.

The rose I lay was for Second Lieutenant Leopold Marlow of the King’s Royal Rifle Regiment, who died in 1917 aged 21.  All I can find about him was that he was promoted in 1916 to acting Lieutenant.  So I have no idea what he was like, what his dreams and hopes were, what he found funny or touching, or whether anyone still mourns him.  Yet for a brief moment I felt a contact with this stranger who gave his life for something he believed in (or did he believe in it?).

I suspect that it is very rare in war for one side to be the ‘goodies’ and one the ‘baddies’.  Maybe World War II was the closest to an exception that we have seen, though fighting alongside Stalin must have been difficult.  But the rights and wrongs of a particular conflict do not detract from the bravery shown by those who fight for a belief.

Plebs and toffs

Many years ago I was on the Cambridge Union Committee when Andrew Mitchell was President.  Speaking as a bit of a pleb myself I never got the impression that this was a word he’d use or even a concept he’d recognise.  I wish him well in the ongoing ‘plebgate’ investigations.

But the whole affair has set me thinking.  Why is the word ‘pleb’ so outrageous that the mere suggestion that one has used it might be enough to end, or at least interrupt, an otherwise impressive career?  Yet at the same time left-leaning politicians and lazy ‘comedians’ can always rely on the word ‘toff’ to get them a cheap laugh or round of applause.  Remember for example the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in 2008 when Labour poured out the invective on Conservative candidate Edward Timpson – ‘The Timperley toff’, ‘Lord Snooty’ and so on.  (Outcome – 17% swing to Conservatives, first by-election gain for over 15 years.)  And how, ironically, some of the attacks on Ed Miliband himself (always happy to use the class card in his ‘one nation’ Labourism – recall how he laid into Mitchell at the height of the issue) from the nastier element of the Left in his own party dismiss him as ‘just another Labour toff’, causing to have to make huge play of his comprehensive education (at Haverstock in Chalk Farm, sometimes referred to as ‘Labour’s Eton’, before he went on to Oxford and Harvard).

On the face of it these terms ‘pleb’ and ‘toff’ are joined at the hip.  Both, like a whole string of other words that rightly we don’t use in the field of race, sexuality, gender and so on, seek to denigrate someone on the basis of something beyond their control, in this case the circumstances of their family of origin.  Both imply that one can assume large amounts about a person’s character based on a single feature and that all people with that feature are basically the same.  And of course both seek to imply that the object of the insult is unfitted to play certain roles in society.  Yet pleb is outrageous, toff is funny and to be applauded.

Why should this be?  I think the answer is pretty simple.  The Liberal Establishment, that group of control freaks (whose own background, like Miliband’s, is generally speaking far more ‘toff’ than ‘pleb’) who have taken it on themselves to dictate what is acceptable and what is not – indeed who is acceptable and who is not – have decided the issue for us.  “Burn the witch” shouted at a photograph of Lady Thatcher gets gales of laughter, “one-eyed Scottish idiot” aimed at Gordon Brown in the same week gets calls for sacking and a forced apology.  (Indeed a prior similar comment about Mr Brown from one of the left’s darling comedians went unnoticed and has been scrubbed from the internet as far as I can find.)  I’m not defending either comment but they don’t seem all that much different to me, and of course it is much easier to find much worse personal attacks on politicians of the Right than it is on those of the Left.

The attack on freedom has taken a slightly different course recently.  There is an increasing shift from those who are uncomfortable with variety and dissent away from restricting action.  Even Labour is not thinking of returning taxes back to the levels they presided over in the 1970s, and we are still by law allowed to say some things that are a bit risqué as defined by the Liberal Establishment.  In its place is coming a more subtle attack on what happens next.  You’re allowed to earn money but not to spend it on giving your children a good start in life (there’s been a noticeable recent upping of the attacks on private education, in part through the ‘toff’ agenda which is of course very simplistic anyway).  You’re technically allowed to make jokes or comments that the LE disapproves of but the consequences for your career and general social standing can be severe.  Whatever factors are inflating the UKIP bubble, a reaction among normal folk against the strait-jacket of modern Liberalism is surely worth a good few puffs.

There’s a story of a young American journalist who was given an audience with Stalin after the War.  The journalist said to Stalin, “The difference between my country and yours is that I can go into Time Square and shout ‘I hate the American President’ and nothing will happen to me”.  Stalin said, “You are wrong, it is just the same here.  I can promise you that you can go into Red Square and shout ‘I hate the American president’ and nothing will happen to you here either”.  The LE’s view of freedom – a freedom to do anything that the LE approves of, especially if it might offend a few more traditionally-minded folk who probably vote Conservative anyway – is not all that different from the attitude taken by some pretty unpleasant regimes in the past.  It’s a shame, because the Liberal tradition of protecting minorities and defending freedom to offend those in authority (formal or soft) used to be a strong and honourable one.

Glory be to God for dappled things …

I love the ‘dappled days’ where the various strands of life weave in and around each other.

So yesterday started with my usual swim and a tutorial from my good friend and fellow councillor James Cousins on how to set up a blog.  (So any merit of these pages is mine but any faults are down to him!)  Off to West Hill Ward to look in on an open door session for residents of Florys Court and Augustus Road about their forthcoming repairs and decorations programme, then to the Town Hall for a leaving do for Russell King, a former Wandsworth councillor who is upping sticks and heading down under – a shame, as he was a rare example of clear new thinking and I think he’ll be missed.

After a Group meeting – usual mix of good contributions from good people and petulant shouting down of dissenting ideas – I ended up at New Broadcasting House.  I’ve become a great fan of the media, including the BBC.  The final product looks effortless but the amount of work that goes into it is extraordinary.  I got the call late afternoon from one of my usual contacts there, spent 40 minutes driving in, 30 minutes sitting and waiting, then got 3 minutes on The World Tonight with Caroline Quinn talking about Russia energy sanctions, and 40 minutes to get home.  Odd business when you think about it but it gave the day an interesting end.  Carlos looked hot and bothered when I got in – how a Cuban can struggle with English summers mystifies me – but we relaxed in front of “Graceland” (an American televisual play, your Honour) and all was well.

My main aim for the day – to plough on with this book on energy that I have to get done by February and which I suspect will be something of a theme of these posts in coming months – got pretty much ignored, perhaps because I had so much opportunity for displacement activity.  As I am doubtless doing now.  So cheerio, I have a mercifully empty diary for August so no excuses.