Pessimism, propaganda and politics

I can’t be on the only one being crushed into learned helplessness and pessimism by the triumphalism of the far right taking over British politics, and the impending Festival of Brexit. Unlike the Brexit referendum result, the election of Trump and the results of past elections in the UK, this time I knew it was coming. But that hasn’t made it easier to accept. So how did we get here? And what should we do now? I figured I’d split some content out from a diversion on a previous blog and then share some thoughts about the leadership of the labour party.

It seems evident we are now in a time of propaganda and fear-mongering, where the truth has been lost amongst distortions and misinformation. Adam Curtis captured this prophetically in Charlie Brooker’s 2014 end of the year show (shown in two tweets from the marvellous Carole Cadwalladr here). Misinformation and bias is now pervasive in the way we receive our news, which is mostly delivered via social media and decided by algorithms based on past viewing choices in a way that reinforces our narrow bubbles. The news we read is skewed by the need to to keep us coming back to see the advertising content that funds it. And that means it is full of carefully curated fear, uncertainty and doubt, in between the filler of social media anecdotes and celebrity gossip. No wonder it feels like there are so many layers of bad news in the world at the moment.

Even when we take the time to read a newspaper cover to cover, we hear about so many hideous individual crimes not just in our locality but nationally and internationally because the world is so connected now – the latter often only identifying their location way down the article, meaning the headlines make us feel these are all risks that affect us personally. It makes it feel like the world is getting more dangerous even though the reverse is actually the case. There seem to be so many horrendous incidents of stabbings and shootings, and the ongoing human cost of the various war/conflicts going on in the world. And we start to feel as powerless as we do about the terrible weather events of different types that are being reported all around the world, from forest fires to floods and loss of ice fields. You’d think we know enough already to stop the global warming that is fueling the volatile weather, address the causes of conflicts and mediate solutions, and have effective police and criminal justice systems around the world. But no. It seems as developed nations, we prefer to make superficial changes to actually implementing real change when it comes to the environment.

Sadly, that is no surprise given the disproportionate influence multinational corporations have over policy. We seem to have increasingly allowed the super-rich and corporations to covertly buy influence through donations and lobbying. This lets them promote the kind of politicians who will increase the wealth gap further still, remove consumer protections and “red tape” and allow creeping privatisation of public services. The same forces let the far right foment prejudice and anger through internet and tabloid propaganda, so the focus of blame is always downwards toward vulnerable groups and not upwards to those with wealth and power. To compound and consolidate this, in the UK we have chosen to immobilise our entire system of government, civil service and public and private sector management for three years whilst deciding how many feet to shoot ourselves in under the banner of Brexit. This has never been more obvious than in the last week, where we are now poised to undermine all the checks and balances, and scupper the next few years of economic growth to entrench this new post-truth hard right populist culture for future generations.

And whilst the Labour party try to elect a new leader with the credibility and passion to challenge this, the left is fragmenting rather than regrouping. I’ve seen so many posts about Corbyn and Corbynism, trying to make out that idealogical purism is still the way forward, that we lost the election but won the argument and should do more of the same. Another Angry Voice posted as if it was irrational fear of renationalising transport and utilities that was the problem, concluding “If you’re afraid of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies, I’m afraid you’re pretty much the dictionary definition of a narrow-minded little Englander aren’t you?” I couldn’t disagree more. Frankly, I doubt many progressives disliked Corbyn’s policies, especially individually. However, together his policies will have seemed very disruptive and expensive not just to conservatives but to a lot of the middle ground and left-of-centre voters that are so vital in gaining a majority in UK politics – meaning he didn’t have mass appeal. Yet he was undoubtedly a good guy – warm, kind, genuine and thoughtful, and held in high regard by everyone who knows him personally. So was this also an example of a tendency to make snap judgements by first impressions, another consequence of unhelpful stereotypes of what a good leader is like, proof of a corrupt media or some combination of all of these things? I’m not sure.

Even to the diehard lefties (and I’d consider myself left of Blair, and someone who had great hopes for Corbyn in the beginning) Corbyn wasn’t the right fit for the job of heading up the opposition or being elected prime minister. Many of us worried about his leadership ability, his ability to be decisive and persuasive, to convey ideas in simple soundbites, and his failure to crack down on antisemitism within the party – giving the biased millionaire-owned media a stick to beat him with. But most of all, we worried about his choice not to articulate that Brexit was a tax evasion ploy by the super-rich that would harm the most vulnerable most, but also cause child poverty, cuts in public services, the break-up of the union, weaker negotiating positions that allow US pharmaceutical companies to charge more to the NHS and infringement of our right and liberties. Instead he believed/pretended that labour could offer a “good Brexit” of some kind, and lost half his supporters. He then failed to form any kind of progressive alliance, and instead allowed attacks on progressive peers in other parties, which was the nail in the coffin for the election.

So where do we go from here? Is it just about getting a new leader who gives a better first impression? It seems to me that politics has polarised the historic broad and diverse parties on either side of the house into narrow camps at either extreme of the political spectrum, leaving a lot of us disenfranchised by the first past the post voting system and the recurrent gerrymandering of constituency boundaries. We can see it in the hard-right Brexiteers that now dominate the Conservative party, but we can also see it in the way that a dominant and vocal minority supporting Corbyn and accepting no deviation towards incorporating a broader range of voices or considering what policies might be popular or electable has taken over the Labour party. Perpetuating this narrow view of purist socialism in which everyone else is “narrow minded” or a “red tory” is a very significant part of the problem – to win elections you need mass appeal, not to attack and alienate anyone even one degree outside of your bubble. I think Tim Minchin is right that its a massive problem with social media culture that the Overton window for each tribe is now tiny and any deviation leads to people being shamed and out-grouped (“I am afraid to write anything that might upset my own tribe”).

As this twitter thread articulates, I’d much rather have a centre-left prime minister doing many cumulative good things that are slightly less rapid or radical, than for all my beliefs to remain represented by an increasingly narrow, segmented and ineffective opposition. An amazing amount can be done within a party and set of policies that have broad appeal. For all his flaws, the centre-left Blair government made a huge amount of impact in numerous areas:

They lifted 600,000 children and 1 million pensioners out of poverty, provided winter fuel payments, free bus travel for over 60s, free TV licenses for over 75s, and improved a million social homes. It doubled school funding for every pupil, added 36,000 extra teachers and 274,000 teaching assistants, transforming education, leading to record literacy and numeracy. They opened 2,200 Sure Start centres and provided free nursery places, giving a better future for millions. They raised child benefit by 26%, introduced child tax credit and 3 million child trust funds. They invested in the NHS, employing 85,000 more nurses, cutting NHS waiting times by 82% and got in-patient waiting lists down half a million. Heart disease deaths fell by 150,000 and cancer deaths by 50,000. They implemented the smoking ban that has contributed to a 30% decline in the number of smokers in the UK, with massive impact on numerous health morbidity statistics. They created NHS Direct. They also improved employment rates and conditions: they introduced minimum wage, created 1.8 million new jobs, cut long term unemployment by 75%, doubled the number of apprenticeships, and introduced right to 24 days holiday and 2 weeks paternity leave. They employed 14,000 extra police, cut crime by 35% and increased criminal justice (court) spending by 21%. They negotiated peace in Northern Ireland, brought in the Human Rights Act, doubled overseas aid, wrote off debts for the poorest nations and created GiftAid. They Scrapped Section 28 and introduced Civil Partnerships. They banned fox hunting, and gave free entry to museums and art galleries. They also managed to couple this with the longest period of low inflation growth since 1960, and created less debt than the governments before or since them, despite bailing out the banks. I’d say that’s pretty remarkable, and something to aim for achieving again.

However, at the last election, perhaps because of Brexit and this ideological purism – we (on the progressive left) didn’t manage to instill hope for positive change in the people of Great Britain, or to challenge the vacuous headline of “get Brexit done”. The election results were depressing but felt somewhat inevitable. As frustrating as it is that we have a government the majority of the population didn’t vote for, giving us a hard brexit that the majority of people don’t want, whilst we watch the world polarise and allow neo-fascist populists to rise, there are some tiny silver linings: The Tories have to work out how to do Brexit and will be responsible for the consequences and, hopefully, the Brexit party are gone.

I think this time around we need to pick someone who stands for all the right values, but has been able to articulate them in a way that has made real traction and can engage a much wider range of people. As much as I’d like that to be a woman, ideally from the north of England, supported by someone with a differing ethnic or cultural background, I think Keir Starmer is the right person for the job. He’s spent his whole career knowing, following and effectively challenging the rules and processes of the legal system for the benefit of ordinary people, including challenging corporations and government policies and holding them to account. And he has done so without seeking personal glory, or making a reputation as a troublemaker. Whilst I really like Jess Phillips, I think she is too marmite to gain mass support and bring the country back together, and I don’t think the other candidates have the public profile or despatch box clout of Starmer,and we will at least get Angela Rayner as deputy leader.

Picking yet another white man from London for a political leadership role feels frustrating, as it plays into all the stereotypes of what a leader looks like. But I’m prepared to make compromise to get greater influence for progressive policies that will make the biggest impact on diversity in the long term. Plus we can only choose the most credible candidate standing. And for me that’s Keir Starmer. Hopefully he can bring the party together, tackle the scourge of antisemitism, and speak out in a way that appeals to a much wider demographic and geographic population than his predecessor.

I sincerely believe that if we all work together to encourage compromise and collaboration hopefully a more effective opposition can rise from the ashes that is more willing to be welcoming to a broad range of voters and more able to articulate how the current government continues to benefit the richest few at the cost of the rest of us, and particularly the most vulnerable in society. We need to show that the choices that Johnson and his remarkably homogeneous new pack of white male cronies are making are directly responsible for harming the welfare of large numbers of Brits. Current Conservative MPs being only 24% women and 6% BME is pathetic, and the greater diversity of candidates on the left should bring us a plurality of ideas and allow us to appeal to a wider demographic and opinion range amongst voters, if we get out of the silo mentality.

But more than that, we need to take on the issues. We need to campaign for environmental action nationally and internationally, strengthening of the legal system, an end to racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, islamophobia and discrimination, and the important task of electoral reform, so that we don’t end up with scumbags in power or people who lose elections being given cabinet roles via the House of Lords. And we need to grasp the nettle with proper regulation of social media as a publisher. But they will only take action if enough of us insist on it. As I said earlier, the million dollar question is whether we want things to change enough to take action, and to find common ground. I’ll end with the wise words of Jo Cox, “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”. So let’s act like it!

Grand ideas

I recently filled in an application to speak at an event about children in Care. The form asked me to summarise in a limited number of characters what I would bring to the table as a speaker. I wrote:

We have collected BERRI data on the psychological needs of over a thousand children in residential children’s homes over the last five years, and surveyed and trained over a thousand residential care staff to provide care that is tailored to those needs. We can present what this data shows us, and how we have used it to improve the services that are offered, and commissioning decisions made about children. For example, we have learnt that the level of challenge presented varies remarkably little by age or gender, though the types of needs are slightly different. Some types of needs (eg behaviour, risk) are affected much more by proximal stressors (eg exclusions from school, gang involvement, substance misuse, sexual exploitation) whilst others (eg relationships) are affected more by historic adversity and the nature of early attachment experiences. We can present how staff variables (demographic factors, burnout, empathy, ability to formulate) affect the care they deliver, and how the price and types of services commissioned relate to the needs of the child and the impact they make on the life of the child – if at all!

The government spend a billion pounds a year on these 7000 children, and we have good evidence that by better targeting the psychological needs of individual children they can improve outcomes whilst saving costs.

It struck me when I looked at that paragraph that this was simultaneously a grandiose claim and underselling the potential of the systems we have developed*. I think that tension between over and under-selling what we can do reflects one of the big challenges of being an entrepreneur – seeing the potential, whilst being realistic about the frustratingly slow steps it takes to achieve it. I can see so much that we can achieve, and the way that collecting the right data can help put children’s needs in the heart of commissioning decisions, improving outcomes whilst saving substantial amounts of money but it is very hard to get this information in front of the right people. I’ve tried to speak to politicians, policy makers, experts in the field, commissioners, clinicians, funders and the media. I’ve spoken at conferences, written a book, contributed to policy documents, delivered service improvement programmes in major providers in the sector, I’ve even given evidence before a select committee. But because I try to answer the questions that are asked, I don’t always get the chance to promote the products and services that we provide. And it isn’t my personality to aggressively sell what we do.

Looking back, I think that I believed that if you work out a better way to do something, a technique that saves time or money or improves outcomes for people, then once people knew about it then it would start to gain traction until it became the established way of doing things. I figured that was how we had progressed from horse-drawn carts to steam engines, cars and now electric vehicles, or from papyrus to paper to typewriters to computers to the plethora of voice-activated, photo-capturing, text and graphic app laden smartphones – finding iteratively better ways to solve problems. I knew that sometimes there were two simultaneous steps forward that competed (like VHS and Betamax) and that variables like marketing, networks and budget could influence the choice, but I generally thought that the best solutions would win through. Maybe it is my left-leaning political bias or my hippy upbringing, but I think in my heart I have held onto a naive idea of fairness in which everyone should be motivated to solve social problems, and people should be rewarded for their effort and insight.

I suppose the concept that we live in something of a meritocracy is quite a widespread belief, and entrenched in western cultures, that good ideas will surface and the best people will rise to positions of power. That’s taken a bit of a crushing for me over recent years, as I’ve seen the covert influence of the super-rich and we’ve had several prominent examples of terrible people rising to the top of systems that have failed to keep up with social and technological change, but somehow I am still hoping for the system to right itself, because it feels like society should be a functional meritocracy.

I think it is particularly well articulated in the USA, because they started as a nation of immigrants who created their own society. To quote the American Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal”, are entitled to “the pursuit of happiness” and will rise to their natural position in society. That sounds like a fair way to run a country, but of course the reality has never quite matched the headlines, given the theft of land and resources from native peoples, the decimation of the natural environment and the evils of the slave trade. But somehow the myth of the American Dream has persisted. First described by James Truslow Adams in 1931, it describes a culture where anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American Dream is achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance or the privilege of your pre-existing connections. In Adams’ words it is:

a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position

Whilst I can see so many places where people are not starting the race from the same starting line, because of geography, race, gender, religion, socio-economic adversity, sexuality, age, or so many other variables I have clung on to my optimism that if you can work out a solution to a big social problem, or have an idea that can really work to make life easier (and/or make lots of money), then it should be possible to gain traction with it, get key people to support you, and get it to happen. The reality is that so many people who think of themselves as examples of a working meritocracy have in fact been handed a huge head start by their privilege. As we joked the other day on Twitter, all the wrong people have imposter syndrome because it is mutually exclusive with entitlement. It seems that private schools in particular train people to expect to be leaders and wielders of power, as we see in the preponderance of Prime Ministers educated in Eton (and in the irritating arrogance of Lottie Lion and Ryan-Mark in the recent series of the Apprentice). Having attended an ordinary comprehensive, and never having been aware of any negative repercussions of my gender or heritage, it has been quite eye-opening to see that maybe the playing field isn’t as level as it appears, even for someone ostensibly white and middle class**.

One figure that has stayed with me is that of all the money invested into fledgling businesses in the UK, 89% is given to all male founder groups, 10% to founder groups containing men and women, and just 1% to all female founders. I couldn’t find any UK numbers, but the figures look even worse if we consider race, with black women only receiving 0.0006% of the of the $424.7 billion that has been invested into startups globally between 2009 and 2017 by venture capitalists. Those white men probably think they simply have better ideas, but the evidence doesn’t support that, whilst the statistics say they are 89 times more likely to be funded than all female groups, whilst a white male entrepreneur is thousands of times more likely to be funded than a black woman, and will have the confidence to ask for much larger sums of money. Only 34 black women have raised more than a million dollars of investment in the last decade. This doesn’t reflect the quality of the idea or the work ethic of the individuals involved (as meaningfully empowered women on boards increase corporate social responsibility and may have a positive impact on the profitability of the business, and diversity increases profitability). It reflects the stereotype of what the (predominantly white male) funders think successful entrepreneurs look like – and they imagine young geeks from silicon valley who are predominantly white and almost always male. And that sucks.

It might also explain why men in suits with glossy patter are able to sell systems they have pulled out of the air for eight times what we charge for properly evidenced tools that do the same job better. Or maybe that’s just a coincidence. But whether or not the playing field is flat isn’t something I can solve alone, and it is unlikely to be resolved within the timescale that is critical for me to make a success of my business and to maximise the impact I can make on the lives of vulnerable children. That means that, despite how discouraging it is to realise that we are not living in a meritocracy where the strength of the idea is enough to sell it to those who matter, I need to find ways to shout louder, communicate what we do better, and get our message in front of the right people.

Because we are tantalisingly close to having all the data we need to understand the critical variables at play in the psychological wellbeing of children and young people in Care, and which placements and services can help to address them. We have an exciting partnership growing with a group of local authority commissioners that will couple our data with commissioning data, and we are applying for grants to help us to gather and analyse that data across much wider samples. We are also scaling up the previous project we did looking at whether BERRI can help to identify suitable candidates to “step down” from high tariff residential settings into family placements with individualised packages of support. These larger scale projects mean that we will be able to show that the model works, at both the human and financial levels. And with a little bit more momentum we can start making the difference I know we are capable of. The trick is hanging onto the vision of what is possible and celebrating what we have already achieved, whilst having the realism to put in the graft that will get us there. I need to keep pushing upwards for longer than I ever imagined, in the hope of reaching the fabled sunlight of easier progress – even if so many variables skew us away from the meritocracy that I imagined.

 

*I think that’s why I used the pronoun “we” and shared credit with my team, even when I was asked to describe myself as a speaker, rather than taking full credit on my own. This transpires to be a common female trait, and part of the double bind for women where being assertive is seen as aggressive whilst being collaborative is seen as lacking leadership. In fact, many words are used exclusively towards women and highlight how pervasive these biases about women in leadership roles are.

**albeit a second generation immigrant to the UK, with Jewish heritage