This is one of those occasions when it’s best just to point to what someone else has done. I could fill a post paraphrasing and explaining why this is so right, and so relevant to things that I think and do. But it wouldn’t add much, beyond justifying my endorsement. Thanks also to Johnnie Moore for highlighting this in the first place.
Below is Part 2, all about responses, strategies and resources. If you want to look at Part 1 which set up the analysis it’s here
So here’s Part 2 – just click on the right arrow to page through the slides.
I’m off to see what else I can find at Rob’s blog here.
Someone was shot and killed in Dartford last night. Enough details are starting to emerge to establish that this wasn’t a random encounter. Kent Police have been quick to publicise this, making people feel safer.
I heard about it on twitter, quite soon after the victim was found. I watched the ripples spread out and was reminded of the reaction to a stabbing in Bexleyheath a year or two ago. On that occasion the attacker was suffering from acute mental health problems, and the weapon was snatched from the knife display in a local shop.
That attack was random, but explained by an individual’s circumstances, and last night’s shooting was reportedly personal, but using a pre-procured weapon.
But in both cases there were similar reactions, via twitter, which revealed anxiety about the places where they happened. I see 3 types…
1. The Curse of Place
2. The World going Downhill
3. The Near Miss
The Curse of Place. This is where the place is almost held responsible for the event. e.g. What do you expect in Dartford? Or in a place like Dartford. The tweeter often expects widespread agreement… everybody knows this is a bad place. Maybe they do live there, and don’t like it, but often they don’t know it, or have had a limited negative experience. The Curse of Place reaction means it immediately becomes a place where “these things happen” – even if it turns out that they very rarely do.
The World going Downhill – looks beyond the place to “this country” or “the world today”. The event becomes evidence that things are getting worse everywhere. Sometimes it comes from a flip of the Curse of Place. For example, reactions to the Bexleyheath stabbing were divided at the time between those who saw it as typical and those who felt it was a change… i.e. for the latter, ”if these things can even happen in Bexleyheath, then what is the world coming to?”. Maybe I should call it ‘The Curse of These Days’.
To be clear, I’m not mocking people who react this way. Tweets, are the immediate and felt reactions of people. I felt obliged to answer back – to say this wasn’t ‘typical Dartford’ based on my 20 years of experience – but it doesn’t mean I think people are stupid. Reactions to these events tap into deep instincts and emotions. There must be a climate of anxiety, about place and about the world in general, amongst the people who tweet this way. Even those who react by putting down Dartford/Bexleyheath may be trying to make themselves feel safer by the comparison with their own place. A lot of those manifesting the Curse of Place, and the World going Downhill, last night were young people, perhaps experiencing something like this so close to home for the first time. Some seemed genuinely and immediately scared and felt more at risk than before.
This brings me to The Near Miss. A lot of people were reacting and posting because “That’s near where I live”, “That’s where I used to live” , “I’m so glad I moved away”, or “I was there an hour before”. This all seems to be about some sense that , “It could have been me”. I think this is because something only becomes real, and actually touches us, when it is close enough to associate with our own immediate experience… like knowing the actual stretch of road, or having passed through the same space. I think this is true even once you reflect on the true odds of your having been at risk.
The Near Miss is significant for all sorts of things. We see stories of gun and knife crime that happen to ‘other people’, far enough away for it to be abstract or to be some impersonal soap drama – however compelling. We relate to the threat of gun and knife crime through numbers – the trends going up or down according to who works the stats. That’s how we merge it into our general sense of this country, or the world, getting better or worse. But when it’s a Near Miss, the event becomes real for us – and we react emotionally and with much stronger first person fear, sorrow or just shock. To quote one literary figure [anonymous under the circumstances], “Accidents only ever happen when you are having them.”
There’s a positive in this for me. It reminds me that people relate differently to things that feel ’real’ and that very often ‘real’ means local. Local, is whatever makes something feel like a Near Miss even if it didn’t affect you directly.
That’s why politics which people find impossible to relate to – because they are acted out as distant dramas about trends and other people – become real and important only when they are about a Near Miss. That means they are ‘local’. If we want to kindle more popular engagement in politics, then we need to find more ways of making politics local, and more ways of finding the experiences that people care about because they feel like Near Misses. That’s not about playing on fear, it sometimes means dispelling the fear by being able to tell the real story.
I don’t want to fall into a trap that I chide others for – where an event becomes just a token to generalise, argue, or cry woe about. So, still the most important thing to remember is that somebody died last night. It means that somebody has probably lost a son, a brother, a Dad, or a best mate. Eventually we may learn exactly why and how. But every story is unique. It’s real for those who are in it, in ways that the rest of us cannot know – whether we are 2 miles or 2,000 miles away. Every story is unique because every person is unique. Every untimely death is a waste.
I’ve been pondering on Eric Pickles pronouncements last week, about Local Authorities who keep Council Tax rises below 2% in order to avoid a referendum. This story provoked a lot of journalistic commentary, and online comments, along standard lines. But I now realise what it was that saddened me in particular.
It’s because imposing a referendum on a Local Authority, on a single specific issue, actually results in less local democracy.
It undermines the goal of greater direct participation in local governance and services. I invested some of my finite stock of hope in the Coalition’s talk of greater devolution within, as well as to, the nations of the UK. I bet some of my remaining chips on David Cameron’s personal endorsement of the Big Society. I interpreted the latter as being about substituting local action for some component of your duty only to contribute through local taxation, and as an alternative to local service consumerism. The connection I make between the two is that if local people contribute more, they earn a stronger local mandate, away from the centre… and that this is a virtuous circle.
The rules are set thus – Local Authorities who want to raise Council Tax by 2% or more have to get a yes vote from a local referendum. Eric Pickles has turned up the heat by saying that those who make a 1.99% increase to comply with the cap are dodgers, disrespecting their public. That’s politics, of course, in both directions. 1.99% maybe smacks of clumsy presentation, or real desperation? But I also wonder whether Eric Pickles would be placated by 1.95%, 1.9% or even 1.8%… where do you not draw the line?
But the whole exercise seems warped.
It ignores the role of Central Government as a source of local funding. Here’s a simple hypothetical case – if a Council gets 3/4 of its cash from Central Government and 1/4 from Council Tax and local revenues, a 2% cut in central funding would mean it had to find 6% more itself, just to stand still. If their other rents and fees didn’t rise – that’s an increase of at least 6% in the Council Tax. In the same scenario a 2% increase in Council Tax would probably mean a 1% cut in overall expenditure, and so on.
If you want local people to have a say specifically on the local budget, why not give them a referendum on the level of Central Government support for their area as well? Because just as they might vote to be taxed less locally, they might vote to be given more by Whitehall? More legitimately, it’s because the ‘Government of the Day’ has already been voted for on the basis of a manifesto(s) and a complex set of inter-linked policies rather than just the resultant budget. Its reasons and constraints have been accepted… to some degree… by enough people.
Which is exactly the position that a local Council is in!!
By choosing to single out taxation, Central Government is loading the dice against elected bodies who have decided to raise more revenue and to be held accountable for the overall consequences at the next local election.
Instead, by giving local voters a seeming no-brainer to vote on, this arrangement further alienates people from the Council. It’s your chance to stop ‘them’ taking more from you… rather than getting involved in how ‘we’ resolve local needs and priorities. This weakens the existing processes for voting, lobbying, engaging… it somehow takes the failure of local democracy as a given and discards the whole thing. What does that do for devolution?
Of course local leaders could campaign for, and explain, their tax rise in the run up to a referendum. But that’s what should be happening anyway, and about a range of options rather than the blunt instrument of ’yes/no’. If Eric Pickles thinks this isn’t happening then he should be looking for ways to stimulate more engagement in local democracy – to the point where he can respect the local budget mandate and take his hands off. That’s how you devolve.
Similarly, by framing a referendum solely about the rate of local tax you reinforce the idea that local government is just about paying a fee for services. So if you can vote down a ‘price rise’ that’s it, you can walk away with no further need to get involved in choices, decisions or community. Again, how does that cultivate the sort of connections, and identification with your neighbourhood as a whole, that would fuel the Big Society?
If you have to use such a crude instrument to satisfy yourself that local people are having the impact on local decisions that they deserve, then you are admitting that the first 2.5 years of trying to foster greater local involvement and responsibility have failed.
That’s not a party political point – it’s a point I would make about every super-imposition of special decisions, and of locally unaccountable service providers [which instead 'compete'], by any government.
One last thought – it costs money to run a referendum – a significant amount relative to the budget of a small Authority. How does that help them to deal with a budgetary shortfall? Unless Eric Pickles miraculously finds money for this exercise… which he couldn’t find for other purposes.
So this week we had the story about horse meat being found in ‘beef burgers’ produced for a number of supermarkets in the UK and Ireland. Cue for everybody to go “eugh!” followed by a debate about whether there’s anything wrong with eating horses (and why) or about whether horse meat was good for you.
All of which is to miss the point. What really matters about the horse in those burgers is that it wasn’t beef! Or perhaps more precisely, it wasn’t on the label. The story is about the ability of retailers – especially large powerful retailers – to underwrite the content of the products they sell. That strikes me as a pretty key attribute of a retail brand that sells food.
The stories should also distinguish between two scenarios; one where “some horse DNA” was found in a burger and one where “horse” was found to constitute 20% of a ‘beef burger’.
In the first case we may only be talking about traces – picked up in a processing plant, or maybe included via components like gelatine. This is the story that reminds us how difficult it is to track every element of a global supply chain, including ingredients which are themselves already processed, when you are making products on a large scale. This is a generic issue, and one where you expect manufacturers to take reasonable steps whilst recognising the practical limits. This is the world of “May contain traces of nut”, with some sharing of risk with the consumer. Perhaps we now have to add, “May contain traces of horse” or “May contain traces of just about anything for all we know – including things which offend your ethics, your religion, or your immune system”.
In the second case you are talking about something which constitutes a significant ingredient. Enough meat to make up 20% of the mass of a batch of burgers is not something you overlook. Somebody, somewhere, must knowingly introduce horse into the process, or successfully pass off horse meat as beef.In this case the story is really about the role of the retail brand in policing its suppliers – ensuring that it knows, and sometimes that they know, what is going into the product that they sell.
Assuming, and there’s neither evidence nor a sane motive to suggest otherwise, that the supermarkets didn’t know there was horse in the beef burgers they put on their shelves, the onus is now on them to earn more trust by having systems and relationships in place to make the processing and supply chain transparent. This week’s story has perhaps shown that they need to up their game in this respect – replacing B2B supplier trust with more frequent and direct forms of audit, and probably incurring more cost along the way. It may even make us sympathise a little with supermarkets when suppliers complain that they are intrusive and dictatorial!
Finally, there’s a paradox here. As I understand it, the burgers in question were predominantly supermarket own brand products. If they were burgers from big household names, there would be a sharing of embarrassment between them and the retailers. You would forgive the supermarket more for relying on the ability of reputational risk to keep a famous food brand on its toes. It would be “shame on them”, as much as shame on the supermarket. But the products you hold a retailer most responsible for are surely those on which they choose to stamp their own label – their promise to you. Yet aren’t these are often the cheaper, ‘value’, white label products which make fewer implicit promises and are likely to contain lower percentages of prime product [beef!], less premium cuts of that product, higher proportions of filler, and more flavourings and texturing to counteract that? Those seem to be the products at most risk from ambiguity – be that ‘traces of’, or 20%!
Will you now be expecting the big name supermarkets to tell you more, in general and on specific product labelling, about how they ensure that food carrying their brand contains only what it says on the label? Will you be a little more likely to turn to food producers who can tell a great story about what, and only what, is in their products, where it came from and how certain they are about that?
Or was it really just about horses after all? A bit of Anglo Saxon squeamish sentimentality about what we eat, already fading away? After that does it go back to being all about price, in straitened times, and a case of “what I don’t know won’t hurt me … mostly” ?
I’m discovering lots of things.
Sometimes it’s revisiting old themes and finding that I’ve finally got to the bottom of them – despite a lifetime of assuming that ‘the big stuff’ always has an irreducible mystery at the bottom because of the nature of our minds, or the limits of our perception. Other times it’s the discovery of new connections between what used to be in different compartments – science, business, psychology, ethics, art, history, politics… life? It’s not an excitable process either – it’s more like a deep comfortable satisfaction. Perhaps I finally passed 10,000 hours in the practice of reflection and deduction. Or I’m just getting old, complacent and conceited!
I don’t kid myself that I’m discovering anything fundamentally new. If it’s big – somebody is bound to have been there before and left a Norwegian flag and some empty herring tins. Even small things… next time you coin a unique pun, or a neat product name – Google it! It’s almost always already out there.
What matters to me is that I’m getting to these places via my own route and under my own steam* – there’s a continuous path behind me – rather than being helicoptered in via a book or course. No short cuts, no gaps.
This is what makes the cross-connections, in particular, so interesting. It’s like the way I used to walk to St Pancras station by different routes, and find myself coming out into a familiar square from an unfamiliar side… such that the surrounding area snapped into a different shape in my head. I can be niggling away at some question of neurophysiology only to find that I emerge into the backyard of some pure philosophy… on the other side of a high wall I’d been searching for gaps… for years.
This isn’t high theory all the time – one reason I just realised and wrote the above is that I had spent the preceding couple of hours trying to work out why there were fractures in the social media strategies, and ‘gamification’ approaches, that I am reviewing. Within each I see at least two quite different ways of thinking – there may be more; that’s part of what I was trying to decide. These ‘ways’ often seem irreconcilable, contradictory – and yet people are using the same language and assumptions about them, sometimes moving between them seemingly without noticing.
I now think I can describe some of these differences – if not account for them – but I’m going to leave it a couple of days to shake down. That’s the other thing I’m getting to the bottom of… patience!
*footnote Read more…