Brexit: An Argument For Proportional Representation.

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Like it or not, despite the best efforts of many of us, it seems Brexit might actually happen. Whilst I continue to hope it doesn’t, it is worthwhile considering what happens next.

The recent conference “Brexit: What Now, What Next” considered certain constitutional arrangements which Brexit had put under the spotlight, particularly those between the devolved parliaments and Westminster, and between the constituent parts of the UK, as well as our European neighbours.

No mention was made of the UK’s electoral system, “first past the post”. I can’t help thinking that FPTP is largely responsible for Brexit and for parliament’s inability to find a way out of the mess Brexit has caused. Brexit is, I reckon, a great advert for proportional representation.

FPTP wasn’t used in the UK until 1884, not even 150 years ago, so whilst some people seem very attached to it, it doesn’t have a long historical pedigree.

Creating the Conditions for Brexit

There are many putative causes for Brexit. One of them was the feeling that that votes didn’t have a voice and that Britain was run by a “metropolitan elite”. One of the effects of FPTP is that it creates “safe seats” which are unlikely to change hands during an election, meaning that few votes actually determine the outcome of an election. Voters feel it doesn’t matter who they vote for.

The referendum gave voters a chance to express their anger.

Under proportional systems, most votes cast can influence the outcome. One’s voice is heard. Every vote counts.

The Two Party System

FPTP promotes a two party system: it is hard for third parties, such as the LibDems or UKIP to gain traction.
This has prevented the two main parties in the UK from separating into what might be their logical constituent parts: left- and right- wing Europhile and Europhobic parties.

It has been suggested that David Cameron called a referendum on Britain’s place in the EU as a way to keep his party together. If PR had been in place, they might have split decades before, since each faction might have felt it had a viable position outside of the main party structure.

Coalitions

One common argument against PR is that it leads to coalitions. I view this as a strength: a coalition represents the views of more of the electorate than support a single party.

It would also mean a party wishing to hold a referendum would need to convince its coalition partners. I believe this would have greatly reduced the likelihood of Cameron calling a referendum.

I also think it would have made scrutiny of the enabling legislation for a referendum on such a large constitutional change more effective: to pass such legislation would have required building support for it, including putting safeguards in place.

Negotiations

The British government has shown itself to be an inept negotiator. Theresa May, perhaps to keep the hardliners in her party happy, treated the 52/48 result as 100% in favour of Brexit. Despite her warm words when she took office, she hasn’t tried to bring the country together or build bridges between Remainers and Leavers. The referendum chose Leave, and the rest of us have to lump it.

She didn’t even try to build a consensus in parliament, even after her ill-timed election took her majority away.

And so she has found her plans blocked by parliament, split between those who want Brexit but not her plan and those who would prefer to stay in the EU (a better deal for the UK than either her plan or a hard Brexit).

If parliament had been elected under PR, the prime minister would have had to appeal to whatever coalition might have been formed: they’d have had to include a plurality of views, which might have lead to more equitable, open negotiations – no “red lines” etched in stone. And maybe they’d have had a broader range of skills to choose from, too.

After Brexit?

If – IF – Brexit happens on March 29, no one knows what will happen next. Because with six weeks left, we don’t know what Brexit will be like. Should some form of deal be reached, the next couple of years – the transition period – very little will have changed. Ardent Leavers will be mighty disappointed; everyone else will breathe a sigh of relief.

If there’s no deal, and the forecast food and medicine shortages come to pass as Kent becomes a lorry park as we crash out – well, maybe everyone will be disappointed.

Either way, the UK faces years more negotiations on a trade deal in which the EU hours all the cards. And a national conversation as we seek to find our place in the world.

It is unlikely that either scenario will heal the deep divisions in either the Tory or Labour parties, particular if a far right party such as that mooted recently by Nigel Farage comes to pass. The Tory and Labour parties both seem fissile. (I actually wrote this a few days ago. Today seven Labour party MPs left to sit as independents.)

It is possible – maybe even likely – that either Scotland or Northern Ireland will seek to leave the UK.
Such large scale constitutional changes might yet serve to drive demand for proportional representation.

“Brexit: What Now, What Next”.

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I’m a glutton for punishment: two days after the Rally For The People’s Vote, another conference on Brexit, with many of the same contributors, but this time with an academic bent, providing a rather different perspective. “Brexit: What Now, What Next”, organised by the Centre for Constitutional Change and the UK In A Changing Europe, was almost set up to fail, since “what now” changes daily – and yet, after recent shenanigans in Westminster, it seems nothing has changed except that the next “meaningful vote” is now two weeks further away, perhaps making “no deal” more and more likely as the UK runs out of time. The conference took place the day before Tuesday’s votes and amendments, although I don’t think the outcome of those debates will have changed much.

There were three panels (two comprising academics, one of politicians), and Mike Russell MSP providing a key note speech.

The first panel looked at “Deal or No Deal”. Unfortunately, the consensus seemed to be that “no deal” is increasingly likely. Simon Usherwood looked at what had created the impasse in parliament, and the way MPs beliefs in the party system were likely to endure it continues. And he concluded that whatever the outcome, it was unlikely to be stable, leading to a succession of crises. Drew Scott

Drew Scott looked at the different outcomes of Brexit and the nature of the UK’s long term relationship with the EU (which has yet to be negotiated – the withdrawal agreement is just the start of a long, slow process). A free trade agreement between the UK and EU would require a long and probably tortuous negotiation around the fundamental features that make the single market work, such as the legal framework relying on the European Court of Justice, accepting the EU’s “level playing field” and the likely requirement to pay into the EEA budget – crossing several of Theresa May’s “red lines”. In the meantime, the UK would be stuck in the “transition period” or relying solely on WTO rules, which no other nation does. (It is clear that there’s no deal that could possibly be as good as that we have as being part of the EU, making leaving an economic folly.)

Mary Scott  presented a view from the Republic of Ireland: one of puzzlement since the UK’s referendum and fear as the negotiations had progressed, not least because the close relationship between the UK and RoI would be threatened by the imposition of a hard border in contravention to the Good Friday Agreement. The backstop negotiated between the UK and the EU was therefore not up for debate by the RoI – and any one country had the potential to block the negotiations. Support for the idea of a united Ireland was gaining traction, just one of several constitutional threats to the “United” Kingdom. It was also pointed out that UK ministers supporting “no deal” would be in a very awkward position constitutionally, since they would be advocating that the UK breaks international agreements in the form of the GFA.

I’ll leave aside the second, political, panel because those aspects have probably been well aired already. At least they found a Tory willing to discuss Brexit, even if he couldn’t countenance a referendum on the deal!

The third panel looked at “Brexit, Devolution and the Future of the Union”. This is a big one in Scotland, which voted to stay in the EU by 62/38 and voted to stay in the UK in 2014 55/45, when the “No” (to independence) campaign claimed that staying in the UK was the only way to assure continued membership of the EU. It’s not a surprise that many feel duped that we are now being dragged out of the EU against our wishes.

Dan Wincott and Jo Hunt explored how devolution had so far focused on those issues which are devolved or not: where competence lies on specific issues. But Brexit has shown that devolution hadn’t really dealt with how devolved governments should work together. The Sewel Convention is just that – a convention, which can be ignored. Matters which have been devolved within the framework of the EU, such as agriculture and fisheries, could become issues of contention if one parliament wants one set of regulations and another is opposed. The devolution settlement doesn’t set out how to resolve these, and the UK government’s willingness to ignore the will of the Scottish Parliament during Brexit does not bode well for future cooperation.

Nicola McEwen examined possible routes to Scottish independence. The context of a further referendum (or “IndyRef2”) has changed considerably since 2014; and so have the economics. Westminster holds the power to call a referendum: it may not grant that power to the Scottish government again, which could itself precipitate a constitutional crisis. If Scotland voted for independence from a UK outside the EU, the debate over the Irish border would be repeated, perhaps worse because although issues such as the Good Friday Agreement wouldn’t be in play, after three hundred years of union, Scotland lacks much of the infrastructure it might need – not least a hard border and sufficient ports to deal with its trade.

Mike Russell MSP closed the conference, covering much the same ground he did in November and just two days before, too. He outlined the futility and negativity of Brexit, and how Brexit is an anathema to Scotland: a vision of Britain at odds with Scotland’s view of itself. In particular, Scotland needs immigration: freedom of movement is hugely valuable to Scotland, as well as being culturally enriching. The Scottish government is having to prepare for “no deal” whilst believing “no deal” should be ruled out. He firmly believed an extension to Article 59 was needed – he thought three or four months might be possible – and a referendum on the deal was the only way to clear the impasse in Westminster. In which case he would campaign vigorously to Remain in the EU.

The conference, and the political activity the following day, left me somewhat despondent after the euphoria surrounding the rally for the People’s Vote. Despite nothing materially changing, the likelihood of “no deal” arising simply because the British government runs out of time; the futility of Theresa May getting to continue negotiations with the EU when the EU has said they will not reopen negotiations – the very hopelessness of a Brexit in which British citizen lose their rights with no benefits accruing at all. It is enough to make one weep.

“Rally for Europe – Putting the case for Europe, Winning a Peoples’ Vote.” Edinburgh, January 2019.

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As the clock moves relentlessly on, the European Movement in Scotland and People’s Vote Scotland held an indoor rally in Edinburgh, apparently one of several across the UK to call for a People’s Vote. What people said on Saturday may have changed with Tuesday’s votes in Parliament – but as far as I can tell the votes achieved nothing other than to kick the can down the road for another two weeks, so maybe not!

The rally was well attended – absolutely chocker – and had politicians from all major Scottish parties – bar the Conservatives (what one audience member described as “the elephant not in the room”. The organisers explained that they had invited Remain-friendly Tory MPs and MSPs, but none were willing to put their head above the parapet – nor their country before their careers).

Sir Anton Muscatelli Principal of Glasgow University, laid out the economic position: that there were no consensus forecasts in which Brexit would benefit the UK, and the worst for the economy would be an increasingly likely “no deal” Brexit, reducing GDP by a probable 8.5% by 2030. The short term pain by crashing out without a deal on 29 March 2019 could be considerably worse.

Muscatelli set out what he hoped would actually happen before the end of March to halt such a catastrophe, a course of events that was echoed by just about every speaker: that parliament would vote to block “no deal” (the first opportunity to do so being Tuesday, when parliament voted against “no deal” in a non binding vote), require the government to seek an extension to the process of leaving the EU through Article 50, and that a referendum on the deal, the People’s Vote, would be held. If we were successful in obtaining a People’s Vote, he thought we needed to run a very different campaign from that in 2016: there’s a real need to tell a positive message about the EU and the rights it confers. We need to win over hearts.

The next speaker, Catherine Stihler MEP, set out many of those benefits of EU membership. I’ve heard Stihler speak a couple of times about Brexit in the last year, and she’s a passionate advocate for Europe; so I was disappointed to learn that this would be one of her final engagements as an MEP: since her job may no longer exist after March, she will soon be taking up an alternative, non-political role.

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Catherine Stihler MEP

Stihler emphasised that the EU is about people: rather than being citizens of nowhere, we’re citizens of all twenty eight countries within the EU. None of those in the room want to lose that citizenship, not the rights that go with it. It was, she said, “the best peace process ever”.

Mike Russell MSP, the Scottish cabinet secretary for constitutional matters, followed. I’ve heard him speak a couple of times on Brexit recently: he too is passionate about the EU, and peace. He justly laid into Mark Francois’s recent xenophobic outburst, explaining how peace between members of the EU meant that unlike his father, neither he nor his son had had to fight. The single market and customs union within the EU had bound twenty eight nations together, and the negotiating process was proving how inextricably we are linked. He was adamant that staying in the EU was essential for Scotland, and that, despite the SNP’s stated aim of independence, keeping both the UK and Scotland within the EU would be best for Scotland.

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Mike Russell MSP

This was echoed by Joanna Cherry MP for the SNP and Andy Wightman MSP for the Scottish Greens, who together with Christine Jardine MP (LibDem) and Ian Murray MP (Labour), made up a panel of politicians. There was a split between the unionist parties – LibDems and Labour – and the pro independence SNP and Greens: Jardine wanted the SNP to take a second referendum for Scottish independence off the table, otherwise risk alienating pro Remain Conservatives. Cherry made it clear that the SNP wanted the UK to remain within the EU – not quite the same thing – and that the SNP were working with other parties to achieve that.

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Joanna Cherry MP

Other than that there was a broad consensus between the three MPs and the Green MSP about what must be done – including working with like minded MPs of any party to achieve it. Murray pointed out that there simply wasn’t time to pass all the legislation required for any outcome before March 29 (even “no deal” requires a lot of bills to be passed or amended) and that an extension of Article 50 is essential for any form of orderly Brexit.

Jardine laid out the importance of what was at stake – our futures – and that she was confident that it world be possible to builda cross-party consensus for the People’s Vote: party allegiance was less important than stopping Brexit. A referendum would provide politicians a way out of the current impasse.

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Ian Murray MP, Christine Jardine MP and Andy Wightman MSP

Wightman took a different tack, attacking the vitriol of Leavers: calling elected members and Remain protesters “traitors” and “mutineers” is dangerous territory. Achieving the People’s Vote was not straight forward: determining the question would be difficult, and the outcome was far from clear; another campaign could be even more divisive. Whatever the outcome, Westminster needed constitutional change to correct the flaws opened up by Brexit.

The last panel consisted of campaigners from the European Movement In Scotland, Scotland for a People’s Vote, and Our Future Our Choice. With all the attention focused on Westminster (where there seem to be daily demonstrations by both Remain and Leave protesters), it is hard to know what to do: if there were a People’s Vote, the course of action would be close clear – to campaign for Remain as an outcome (recent polling shows results very similar to the 2016 referendum – 61% for Remain and 36% for Leave) – but the decision to hold a referendum rests with Westminster. The campaigners were adamant that we need to build pressure for a referendum, through street stalls and leafletting, convincing the public of the need for a People’s Vote. Some members of the audience felt larger, more emphatic actions were needed – mass rallies, for instance – and not just preaching to the converted.

“Scotland and Brexit” – A Minister’s View.

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Michael Russell MSP, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations – which means he’s the Scottish Government’s top guy on Brexit – spoke at Edinburgh University on “Scotland and Brexit: The Way Ahead” a couple of weeks ago. Of course, with the publication of the withdrawal agreement – the deal – everything has changed; but nothing has changed. Scotland wasn’t mentioned in the WA, perhaps not surprising since it is an agreement between the UK and the EU, but it also reflects the apparent lack of consideration the UK government has given Scotland throughout the tortured process of negotiation.

Nothing Russell said was new, particularly, which isn’t surprising. The view the Scottish Government takes is markedly different from that in Westminster. The British government has risen roughshod over the devolution settlement, and seems intent on pushing through a Brexit which Scotland roundly rejected. Much of Brexit is outside Russell’s – and the Scottish Government’s – control. Brexit, he said, was the worst decision he had seen in his lifetime, and an unwelcome impediment to Scotland.

The Scottish position has been laid out in a couple of briefing papers (more clearly than anything set out by the British government) –
Scotland’s place in Europe
, and Scotland’s place in Europe: people, jobs and investment: a desire to stay within the single market and customs union heading up the wishlist (both beyond Theresa May’s red lines, I believe, though I’ve lost track of what’s acceptable to whom).

Russell emphasised the links between Europe and Scotland, particularly during the enlightenment, and hoped that, even if the UK were outside the EU, Scotland could continue to work with out European partners – for instance, Edinburgh University currently works on over 250 projects with other institutions in Europe.

There remains a lot of uncertainty about Brexit, making preparations difficult, for Scotland, its institutions and its residents: 25% of Edinburgh University’s staff are non-UK European citizens, and they still don’t know what rights they will have after Brexit.

The hostility towards Brexit has spread throughout the UK. Scientists, lawyers and business people are against it. Even Farmers Weekly – that hotbed of political thought – is against it, saying we had in fact been sold a big, fat, delusional lie, fuelled by the dogma and hubris of those vainly clinging to fading memories of our imperial past.

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Russell believes it’s not too late to change course. He proposed extension to article 50 (which may be subject to ratification by the other 27 EU member states), with the UK negotiating to remain within the single market and customs union would be best for Scotland. That probably wouldn’t be acceptable to the Brexiters in Theresa May’s government.

The crux of Russell’s talk came at the end: what would Scotland do if the UK leaves the EU at the end of March? “We must immediately start campaigning to rejoin,” he said. Since only independent nations can join the EU, unless the UK as whole rejoins (not inconceivable, though clearly not on such advantageous terms as we have at the moment), that would have to be as an independent Scotland.

The constitutional issues are enormous, of course. As Russell referendum on Scottish independence remains in the gift of Westminster, not Holyrood (although this blog post puts a rather different interpretation on it. As with the rest of the Brexit debacle, it seems it all up for grabs.

Out for the Count: What I learned At the Election Counts.

It’s now over a week since the count for the general election. I’d not been to an election count before; now I’ve been to two in five weeks. The first was the count for the City of Edinburgh council elections, the second the count for the general election, which was called part way through the council campaign, for the five Edinburgh constituencies. The two counts were in the same place, the halls of Meadowbank stadium. (The general election counts are commonly at Ingilston, but that was already booked for the garden show.) They had a lot in common, but were also very different.

The council elections in Scotland are run under the single transferable vote proportional system. City of Edinburgh council wards each have three or four councillors, and voters rank as many candidates as they want, from 1 up to the number of candidates. If your preferred first candidate is knocked out, your vote goes to your second preference, and so on. And if your first choice is elected, any “surplus votes” for that candidate are also transferred.

The maths in this can be quite daunting – for instance, surplus votes can consist of second or third preferences which need to be reallocated. Complicated. Fortunately it is done by computer. I have no idea how the programmes work, but there is an audit trail. You can even follow the votes flow from one candidate to another.

Here’s his the count worked. It was the day after the election – very civilised. They start with postal votes. Postal ballots from each ward, or perhaps voting area (a division of a ward – each voting area has a single polling place, where you cast your vote) are out on a table and unfolded. Representatives from political parties frantically try to record the votes as they are unfolded, because they can get useful data on how the poll went and where people voted. (As it happens, this was a complete waste of time, because the data shared by the council included all that. Whether it does every time I’m not sure – people were surprised at the level of detail released, down to voting area. Each ward has about 35 pages of data – you can download PDFs from the Edinburgh council elections, should you choose to do so; I presume other councils in Scotland are equally open with their results.)

The same is then done for all the ballots placed in person into a ballot box – when you actually go and vote in person. The party representatives again frenetically try to record the data. The ballot papers are counted, and the number of ballots reconciled – each polling place knows how many papers were given to voters and those left unused.

All the ballot papers are placed in a cardboard box and taken to a scanner. There are several scanners so that the ballots from a whole ward can be scanned more or less simultaneously. The ballots are scanned at great speed. An image of each ballot paper is kept, the number of images reconciled to the number of ballots.

Computers read each image, and record the votes, from, say, 1 to 8 (if there are eight candidates). Any images that can’t be read satisfactorily are brought up in a screen, in public, where the candidates, their agents, and the council staff agree on the voter’s intent, if they can.

There are quite a few spoilt papers. Most were because critters had not used numbers to rank candidates, but other marks, such as an X. If only one such mark was used, that vote counts – the voter’s intention was clear. But if they had marked an X beside two or more candidates, no intent could be inferred, and the ballot paper was spoilt. Similarly if one number was used more than once to rank candidates, the rest of the votes were spoilt: if a voter ranked candidates 1, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 4 votes 1 and 2 were counted, the rest discarded.

Sometimes voters spoilt their papers in more imaginative ways. There are some who drew penises in the paper; a single penis might be taken as intent (perhaps against the voter’s real intent), more than one would be spoilt. One voter drew frowning smileys in each box. (I did wonder if a single smiling face amongst them would have been acceptable.) My favourite was the voter who wrote beside each candidate their view of their attractiveness; I thought “pure belter” should have been taken as an indicator of preference, but this wasn’t the common view.

The computers did the hard mathematical work, council staff the hard physical work and managing the count, including the machines. The whole thing was very efficient, and open – it was a very well run process. I was impressed: it maintained an audit trail between a voter casting their vote on paper through digitisation to the final digital result. Some enterprising people have even taken the data and produced animations, so you can see how the votes were cast and allocated in any ward in Scotland: it is very impressive.

The general election count last week was also very well run. But completely analogue. I was surprised by the importance of rubber bands and PostIt™ notes in the process, as will become apparent. I don’t doubt the result at all, but the reliance on paper when it is clear better, more rigorous methods (such as scanning the ballot papers) exist seems baffling and archaic. And since it is done immediately after the vote, starting at 10pm, everyone is exhausted, too.

Here’s how it went. Ballot papers (either postal or in person) are unfolded from a ballot box and put into bundles of fifty, secured by a rubber band and signed off on a PostIt by the person counting it. Someone else counts the bundle to check it really is a bundle of fifty rather than 48 or 52, and (if it is) countersigned on the PostIt. All the bundles are counted up, with the last balancing (less than fifty) so that the number of votes front each ballot box is known. This is then reconciled to the number of papers handed out and those returned, ensuring the integrity of the ballot and giving the turn out in each voting area.

Whilst the ballot papers are being unfolded, party representatives are once again busy recording what votes they can see. This time it’s really important – because there are no digital results by voting area: no results but the final one. No data analysis is provided, because everything is on paper. Entirely analogue.

Once all the votes are bundled and counted, the counters are given a hard earned break and a sandwich.

Then it’s back to the bundles. The bundles are sorted by candidate (in our representative democracy, you vote for a candidate not a party), with piles of votes for each candidate. The party representatives keep eagle-eyes on this bit of the process, making sure their candidate’s votes don’t get put on their rival’s pile. (They don’t care if a rival’s vote gets put on their pile, obviously.) Except that the party representatives have been up since 5am and it’s now 2am and most of us were hallucinating by this time anyhow, and just wanted it all to stop.

Spoilt ballot papers are weeded out at this point. On some it apparent what was intended – for instance, where a voter uses a number rather than a cross, or a cross was placed next to the candidate’s name rather than in the box. Some were blank; one had “wankers” scrawled through the candidates’ names. Others had “none of the above” added.

Each pile is then counted – into bundles of fifty, secured by a rubber band, and signed off on a PostIt™. And then counted again to make sure, and countersigned. The numbers for each candidate in each ballot box are not released, though it would be possible to work it out if one wasn’t knackered.

All the bundles are then moved to a central table, and piled up beneath signs for each candidate. It was pretty easy to see how close the vote was. The biggest pile is the winner. These piles are counted to give the final result. This is why, when there’s a recount, the numbers of votes often change in steps of fifty. And why that change can be significant. I heard that in one English constituency, a recount had found an additional 1000 votes: presumably 20 bundles had been transferred to the wrong pile, and the error only discovered when a recount was requested. (This is why it is important that party representatives tally up votes as ballot papers are unfolded: whilst you can’t see every paper, you do see a sample, and added up across all the ballot boxes, each party had a pretty good idea of the result before it is announced.)

The thing is, this is all done by tired people. It is easy to imagine mistakes being made. There are many recounts, sometimes because mistakes are made (and corrected) sometimes because the result is so close. In Fife North East, a few miles north of the Edinburgh, there were several recounts: in the end the majority was just two votes; if three people has stayed in from the rain, the result might have been different. (I wonder if there are many people in Fife feeling guilty that they didn’t vote; or pleased that they did. They know their votes count.)

Being at two election counts so close together, using different systems, has strengthened my view of democracy: but it is has also reinforced my belief that our parliamentary democracy would be better served by a proportional system, like that used in Scottish local elections. Seeing those piles of votes, each ballot paper bearing a representation of a voters views – and most of them are ignored. The winner-takes-all result of first past the post, as well as analogue method of counting, feel like something from the nineteenth century (as indeed they are), rather than a twenty first century means of electing are representatives – in which most votes don’t count.

Models, Metaphors and Analogies.

It is common to consider business structures by metaphors to other things. For instance, some people discuss organisations as if they are machines, where if you were to pull a handle a specific outcome will happen. Others consider societal models – battalions, tribes and so on. (Business leaders in particular seen to like military metaphors. Perhaps they like to imagine themselves as generals deploying the troops. Misguided, I’d say.) Yet others see medical metaphors, discussing organisations as if they were diseased bodies with issues to be cured.

Metaphors do serve a purpose: they help us to understand an organisation by thinking about it in a different way.

But they can also confuse. Organisations are made up of people, they are not strictly controlled and limited machines. They rarely work in the way you expect them to.

The more you know about the original subject of the metaphor, the weaker the metaphor can seem. There are two biological – botanical – metaphors that I have regularly come across that baffle me. Because I have been knowledgeable of botany (I have two degrees in the subject); and when I hear people using them, it seems that maybe the words don’t mean what they think they mean.

Let’s start with “rhizomes“. Rhizomes are, botanically, underground stems. They grow through the soil, occasionally putting up the visible bits of the plant. Iris have rhizomes; banana plants have rhizomes; bracken, the plant I am most familiar with, has rhizomes. I spent five years working with rhizomes. Whole hillsides can be covered by bracken, the visible fronds rising up from the subterranean rhizome. The rhizome grows through the soil, occasionally dividing, unseen. It divides and divides, growing on. The old rhizome rots away, and, reaching a dividing point, the divided rhizomes become two separate (though genetically identical, save for any random mutations that might have occurred).


Not a rhizome.
Photo by Tylerfinvold on Wikimedia, used under CC free licence GFDL. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13160509

When people talk to me about organisations with rhizome structures, what I see is a hillside covered in bracken, the rhizomes underground. True, it might be that my knowledge of bracken and other rhizomatous plants fogs the discussion somewhat. I’m sure that’s not the meaning they intended. But then I can’t help thinking maybe I know more about rhizomes than they do. And perhaps they should use a different model.

Not a “mycelium“, though. Mycelia might be considered to be the fungal equivalent of rhizomes. They are one of the fundamental parts of many (though not all) fungi: they grow as unseen filaments through a substrate – the soil, a dead tree, your skin. (Athlete’s Foot is a fungal infection, the fungus mycelia growing in your skin.) Mycelia are multi nucleate – fungi have a very different form to most organisms we’re familiar with – and they divide and reconnect. The visible parts of fungi we’re familiar with, mushrooms and toadstools growing above the ground, are specialised reproductive structures formed from mycelia: the fibres of the mushrooms we eat are composed of mycelia.


Not a mycelium.
Photo by chris_73Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19658

When business people talk to me about mycelium organisation structures, what I see is athlete’s foot, or a fairy ring, the outward sign of fungal mycelia growing out from a point in the soil.

I can’t help but wonder what it actually is that they’re trying to describe, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that. (I have tried to understand, but the use of the word seems woolly; I got several pages in on Google before I found a definition, unclear as it is.)

The thing is, the mental models we create to explain and describe the world matter. If we think of organisations using a doctor-patient metaphor, it will lead to examining them in that way; if we instead use a mechanical metaphor, or a military one, we will find something different.

There’s no right answer, of course. Models, metaphors and analogies help us investigate the world around us. But they also skew our thinking. And they need to be used with care.

RBS – My Part In Its Downfall…

Actually, I don’t think I had much part in the downfall of RBS, although I did work there for twelve years from 1994.

I am about to read an account of the bank’s collapse – Making It Happen, by Iain Martin (I also want to read Shredded: Inside RBS, the Bank That Broke Britain by Ian Fraser, but it wasn’t out in paperback when I was buying) – and I thought it would be a good idea to jot down my thoughts about RBS and its fall before I did so.

I don’t believe I have any special insight into RBS, and I don’t think I will have anything to say that isn’t already in the public domain. My job was far too lowly for that. My redundancy settlement, eight years ago, also had a clause about not bringing the bank into disrepute, but I think RBS has done a pretty good job of that without any assistance from me since I left.

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RBS flagship branch in St Andrew Sq, Edinburgh.

I joined RBS over twenty years ago as an analyst within a large change programme called Project Columbus, which, after a couple of bad years for the bank, was established to rethink the way the bank worked. It was Columbus which put RBS back on track and gave it the muscle and discipline to acquire NatWest in 2000, after a bidding war with local rival Bank of Scotland. (How many firms contain the name of their main rival within their own? People always confused RBS and BoS.)

Columbus refocused RBS on its customers. It brought in much better costing of its products and services – before, the bank hadn’t been able to tell how much it made or lost on each customer; it split (“segmented”) its customers into specific types, depending on the type of business (individuals – retail – and three different types of enterprises); and it established different types of specialist customer managers to meet the needs of those different types of customers, and in doing so it removed the generalist bank managers from branches.

Goodwin joined RBS in 1998, after Columbus was completed, as deputy CEO to George Mathewson. Goodwin masterminded the NatWest takeover.

By chance, I was one of the first RBS staff into NatWest. I had been at meetings in London the day before RBS took control, and, looking for people who could act as a presence, I was told to stay down in London. Three Jaguars drove a small raiding party from our midmarket hotel – there had always been a focus on cost management at RBS – to NatWest’s headquarters in Lothbury, in the shadow of both the Stock Exchange and the Bank of England. Fred Goodwin, the chief executive; Graeme Whitehead, the FD; Neil Roden, the HR director; Tony Williams, head of HR operations and systems (or something like that). And me.

(Actually, there were one or two other guys, too – I think we were six in total. All men.)

It was a symbolic occasion. Whitehead was wearing a kilt. There was little for me to do; I was secreted away in a small room, twiddling my thumbs, whilst the board directors established what there rules were.

At lunch, though, we all sat in the staff canteen, in a prominent spot; making a point. Jocks in kilts. This was a change. This bank was under new management.

* * *

Up until the NatWest takeover, RBS has been a medium sized regional bank. After it, it was (or saw itself) as a global. Before, it owned Direct Line, an insurance company, Citizens, a similar sized regional bank in north east USA, and a few other businesses. (The one that I always remember was Angel Trains, a train finance house that was spun off a few years later.) NatWest gave RBS global clout.

I believe the NatWest takeover was successful, though it probably lay the seeds for many of the problems that beset the bank later on.

RBS was a lean operation, with costs tightly controlled, and the same ethos. Fred Goodwin had earned the nickname “Fred the Shed” whilst at Clydesdale fire the way he shed costs – largely people (or alternatively, “Fred the Shred” – “shredded”). There was little fat at RBS, and there was much fat to be shed from NatWest. There were extensive wine cellars, an art collection, and lots of business units. And lots of efficiency savings to be made. RBS had a low cost/income ratio, one of the key measures city analysts and investors use to measure bank performance, and shifting NatWest’s operations to a similar C:I ratio would generate lots of profits.

The purchase of NatWest was based on cost cutting and removing duplicated services – essentially, economies of scale. NatWest, for instance, had something like twenty seven different versions of PeopleSoft (the database system used by HR departments) – which didn’t talk to each other. It was similar across other systems – there were multiple tax and accounting systems, all of which needed reconciling. Trimming the fat wasn’t difficult. (Bear in mind that there were many redundancies, too – a lot of people lost their jobs, from both NatWest and RBS.)

But relatively quickly RBS started to become as bloated as NatWest. When I joined RBS, the emphasis has been on servicing the customer-facing parts of the operation: I worked in a head office department which had cobbled together, second hand furniture in a building above a bus station; if you opened a window, you got a whiff of diesel fumes. True, this was somewhat the exception, but it made the point that we were an overhead, and what we were doing was working to make the customer-facing, revenue-generating parts of the organisation more successful.

RBS had central departments scattered throughout Edinburgh, many of them in somewhat dilapidated buildings, and it had been planned to redevelop a city centre site to house them all. After the NatWest takeover, Fred Goodwin apparently decided that something else was needed. Something out by the airport.

When Gogarburn was opened in 2005 – by the Queen – it seemed very opulent. There is an old investing adage – maybe from Jim Slater – that when a business starts investing in sparkly new headquarters, it is time to short the company. It would have been a very effective sell signal for RBS.

Gogarburn was very self contained. It had very good restaurants, a health club (with a full length swimming pool), a social club and bar, several shops, and a couple of Starbucks franchises. It had a nursery and a management school, delivering courses for the large numbers of executives it now had. It had a separate directors’ wing. There was no reason to leave.

Whereas RBS had been part of the city, after Gogarburn opened it was apart from the city. Gogarburn was isolated, and RBS became very insular. Being in Gogarburn felt like being part of the “Truman Show”. Everyone there worked for RBS. There were no more serendipitous meetings with contacts from other firms. You only saw people from outside RBS at Gogarburn if they were there for a specific meeting. Whilst communications within RBS undoubtedly improved, a broader understanding of and communication with those outside plummeted.

It was as if RBS saw itself above all that.

(I don’t think I lasted a year at Gogarburn, taking the opportunity to leave when I was offered a redundancy package during yet another internal reorganisation, in 2006.)

* * *

There were stories that Goodwin was intricately involved in the design of Gogarburn. Many may have been apocryphal – such as one saying he had personally been responsible for sending a shipment of marble back because it was the wrong shade, or that he personally spoke to the CEO of Vodafone to get a mast put on the roof to ensure adequate mobile coverage (under threat of removing the RBS contract). Either way, it was apparent that he was involved in details of RBS, rather than delegating and letting others get on with it.

He apparently held early morning meetings – “prayers” – add which he would grill his direct reportees. Failure was not an option. Some described his approach as bullying. It certainly don’t seem to have been particularly collegiate or collaborative. I don’t imagine he was easy to work for. The watchword was JFDI – “just ffffing do it!”

This permeated the firm, I would say. People were not happy making mistakes or getting things wrong. Success at any price. Thinking too much – or at all – was seen as a weakness. Decisions were made quickly and, once made, that was that.

Success at any cost is what probably broke the firm. When Barclays bid for ABN Amro (a year or two after I had gratefully left RBS), it was seen as a risk to RBS’s dominance – it’s claim to be the biggest bank in Britain – and, as a part of consortium of other firms (Santander, which had a long standing relationship with RBS, and a Belgian insurance firm), a counter bid was made. ABN Amro would be broken up and each member of the consortium would get the bits they wanted. RBS wanted the US retail business, which fitted well with Citizens, and some of the investment banking bits.

I’m sure the figures stacked up, at first: the deal would have made sense. But then as part of its defence ABN sold its US retail arm. And more importantly, the downturn started, and kept going. Barclays had dropped out. RBS continued. And ended up paying a lot of money for lots of toxic assets. And effectively going bust, and relying on a UK government bail out.

Between 1994 and 2007, RBS made accounting profits of £55bn before tax, and £39bn after tax. In 2008, it wrote off about £47bn according to Robert Peston on BBC Radio4’s “Today Programme”. In the seven financial years 2008 to 2014, RBS has has reported total losses attributed to shareholders of, by my calculation, £49bn. Basically, RBS hasn’t made any money since 1994, despite paying billions to the government in tax and to shareholders as dividends.

* * *

Personally, whilst I believe Fred Goodwin was the driving force both of the bank and the sour deal, I don’t believe all blame for the collapse of RBS lies with him. A lot does – it was his strategy – and his hubris which pushed forward with the ABN takeover.

Wanted Poster at Holburn Station (London, UK)
From takomabibelot on flickr, used under Creative Commons licence.

But many other people need to share some – or even much – of the responsibility:

  • other executive directors – the management team – should have been up to challenging Goodwin’s behaviour, including the more bullying, trampling aspects of it. I don’t know if any doubts were expressed by other members of the management team, but they probably should have been. Except that they would probably see their jobs and salaries get bigger as a result of the takeover. Could they be objective, even if they could stand up to Goodwin? Groupthink might also have played a role: it might have been hard to break rank. No one loves a naysayer
  • the board – particularly the non-executive board members. It should have been their role to make Goodwin and the management team accountable. Perhaps they did, though they all left under a cloud following the collapse of RBS
  • other employees. It is hard to tell the boss he’s wrong. It’s harder when the response is “jfdi!” But someone must have had doubts – all those people poring over the figures in finance; all those providing management training in the brand new management school
  • shareholders. Under market capitalism as practiced in the UK, shareholders are more likely to sell a firms shares than try to engage with management about corporate strategy that isn’t liked
  • regulators. They could easily have put an end to the folly. Following the crash and the collapse of RBS, the role if regulators had been greatly changed. (Until the next crash …)

I must point out that I fall into two of those categories – though as a fairly insignificant employee and a very small investor, I believe I had little influence (but lost a lot of money!).

I believe the real issue – the blame – lies with the board, both execs and non execs. They had oversight of the strategy and the deal. When the crash came, they should have pulled the plug. RBS would have looked weak – it might even have become a takeover target itself – but it would have survived the deal. Instead, they pushed on, buying illusory assets which quickly turned to dust, taking much of the UK economy with it.

Implementation.

For processes, design is coupled with implementation. It can be hard to separate the two, sometimes: poor design leads to poor implementation.

The City of Edinburgh Council has redesigned its domestic recycling processes, and over the last month it has been implementing the new design in my neighbourhood.

In addition to large communal bins for non-recyclable rubbish (destined for landfill), domestic recycling used to work with weekly curbside collections: cardboard and plastic bottles (only plastic bottles) collected one week; glass, paper and tin cans the other; and weekly collections of food waste for composting.

Each type of waste had a separate receptacle – red and blue boxes for cardboard and glass, a sealed container for food.

It wasn’t perfect. I would frequently forget to put out my recyclable waste and have to wait for the next collection. In a windy city, where gales seem to coincide with the weekly collections, the emptied containers would be blown all over the place.

The council announced in January that they were changing the process in February.

Instead of weekly collections, there are to be permanent large communal bins for general recycling (cardboard, paper, tin cans and plastic containers – not plastic bags, which are not recyclable), for glass, for food waste, and for landfill. Four different communal bins.

In many ways, this will work better: no more missing the weekly collection, no more boxes scattered across the road by the wind. Drop off recycling when it suits.

But…

(You knew there had to be a “But…”, didn’t you?)

But, firstly, communication has been poor. The launch date of “February” was unclear: when in February? Should I keep putting out recyclable waste for pick up before then? Where will the new communal bins be?

(These questions remain unanswered, despite the system already changing…)

Secondly, the one new communal bin for general recycling – cardboard etc (but not plastic bags) – looks very like the old landfill bin. It arrived a couple of weeks ago in the same place as the landfill bin it replaced. OK, it does say “general recycling” on it, with a long list of acceptable items and another list of unacceptable items. Maybe my neighbours can’t read. Maybe they didn’t notice the signs. Either way, on the first day it was on the street, it was full of plastic refuse sacks (presumably full of waste for landfill, not recycling). A couple of days later, it had just recycling waste in it, and someone – possibly the council, possibly not – had taped a new notice to it detailing again what could go in it – plus stating that putting the wrong items in the bin would mean it all had to be sent to landfill.

A couple of days later, I looked in it to see someone had placed polystyrene blocks in it – another no-no, meaning the whole bin is apparently destined for landfill.

The other bins – for glass and food waste – haven’t appeared, leaving my neighbours (and me!) clearly confused as to what to do with our waste. Before the changes, today would have been a cardboard collection; several neighbours have put out cardboard for collection, despite the new communal bin for cardboard (if it hasn’t been contaminated with landfill waste…).

According to the leaflets put through the door, the reason for the change was to increase the rate of recycling. In the short-term, this has clearly failed: at least two full recycling binloads will, according to the notice stuck on the bin, be destined to landfill because they contained the wrong kind of waste.

People are confused, and most likely throwing out recyclable waste in the landfill bins because of the uncertainty. The glass and food waste communal bins haven’t appeared. (Perhaps they have been camouflaged…)

So – in the short-term at least – the implementation has failed. It might just be bedding in. I can’t help thinking, though, had the design been better, with clearer communication (and, for instance, a timetable of what was happening when), it could have been a lot smoother.

Update: not only “today would have been a cardboard collection – but it was. The neighbours’ cardboard has been collected from curbside. For many systems, dual running during implementation makes a great deal of sense. But it has left me even more confused than before.

Design.

I listen to the radio. I listen to the radio in bed. So I have a clock-radio.

For many years, I had a Pure Siesta DAB radio. I liked it a lot: it worked well, it sounded good, and it was easy to use.

Particularly, its buttons were clear and easy to use. Kind of important in the dark.

But then, about a year ago, it stopped working. I couldn’t work out why it wasn’t working, so I bought a replacement. I thought about just getting the same again, but decided instead to try something else.

So I bought a Roberts, since they had a good reputation.

This one. It’s called Dreamtime.

A much smoother, more stylish design. Sleek, streamlined even.

And almost immediately I found out it was awful to use. The buttons, sitting level with the surface, are impossible to differentiate in the dark. Not a single day went by when the radio didn’t make me swear at it. Not necessarily conducive to a restful night. I was forever hitting the wrong button, and there wasn’t a way to cancel the operation without switching it off. Sometimes hitting “Select” actually reset the default settings so I’d have to reset them to my preference.

It might have looked good, but the Dreamtime was a real nightmare to use. Whoever designed it hadn’t used it in the dark. I doubt if they had used it at all.

Last week I finally cracked, pushed over the edge by it dreadful way of working. And so, whilst it was functioning much as it always had, I decided to get myself a new clock radio.

I bought a John Lewis Spectrum Clock. This.

It is small, it is simple, and I love it. It doesn’t do anything flash, it sounds fine, and it is a joy to use, even in the dark. The buttons are clearly laid out in batches, and feel different. Not once have I hit the wrong button by mistake. It sounds fine, too.

I’m not sure what the lessons are here. Maybe that “good” design is far more than eye-catching design: design has to include function; and good-looking might not necessarily by good design.

Talking ‘Bout A Referendum…

DSC_3146

A couple of weeks ago, a friend said that they hadn’t heard any good reasons to vote “No” in this week’s referendum. Sensing a challenge, I started to write a post, outlining the reasons why I’m going to vote “No”. But it didn’t get very far, in large part because my feeling was that the two sides are so fed up that they have long given up listening to each other, instead spouting repetitive tracts to their own supporters and completely missing the undecideds who may well determine what looks like being a very close result. The gulf between the two sides seems larger than ever, despite my belief that actually not much separates us, and that both sides truly want the best for Scotland.

It also seemed hard to believe that there were any undecideds left after what feels like years of fact-throwing.

I have certainly stopped listening, even to my own side, whose negative tactics have lived up the “No” on their posters. So when I was asked to come up with an introductory question to kick off the seasonal dialogue – which is all about listening – that was the topic I chose. I remembered the last of the James plays which I saw during the festival, full of nationalist fervour but also using the mirror tool to reflect the of the nation. I thought about using Burns’ ” To A Louse” as an opening text – “to see oursels as ithers see us!” – but instead, being me, I opted for music: Arvo Pärt’s quietly reflective “Spiegel im Spiegel” (“The Mirror in the Mirror”) to get us listening to each other.

The purpose of the evening wasn’t to discuss the referendum per se, but talk (and listen) about how we can heal the split between two camps after the vote: what would it take for us to listen to others’ views?

But the conversation inevitably strayed into the referendum itself. It was very civil and non-partisan (despite one member of the group apologising for being too stridently partisan – I didn’t think he been!) but understandably emotional. People have strong feelings about this, including me.

There were a great many different views: since we could all see good and bad things about both sides the debate, there were more views than participants. We talked for a couple of hours, and I can’t remember all that was said – we followed lots of tangents.

But here are some of my impressions – what I remember of what I heard (which may not be what was said…).

  • even after two years of campaigning, we were still very engaged in the process (even if we were looking forward to it being over)
  • there were several people who were undecided. My guess is that the group split three ways – “yes”, “no” and “don’t know” about a third each
  • we all wanted to create something better – a better country, a better society, a better community – even if the route (and perhaps the goal) may be different.

The number of undecideds surprised me. I have been pretty sure how I would vote for many months, having listened to early arguments and found them generally unconvincing. Everyone in the discussion last week was intelligent, aware and actively participating in the debate – but hadn’t been convinced either. One person felt they had had an epiphany that very morning and had decided how they would vote whilst sitting in the sunshine in their garden; but they have subsequently changed their mind. (I included them in my unscientific poll as “don’t know”!)

None of the undecided were quite sure what it would take for them to make a choice

Someone else, an expat from a European state, didn’t feel comfortable having a say in determining another nation’s future (despite believing they would never live anywhere else). I have heard that a lot from English-born voters, too. But the rules say you have a vote – so I reckon you should use it.

In many ways, this felt like many conversations I have had over the last year or so. Perhaps a bit more intense – more listening and more concentrating – but in essence, the same kind of discussion I’ve had over pints in pubs or over coffee in a cafe.

Within 48 hours, we’ll know the outcome – the result is expected around 7am on Friday. And then we can get down to rebuilding relationships and – perhaps – building a new country. Either way, I think we’ll have to learn to listen to each other again.

What unites us is a lot more than what divides us.

[Nb I have revised the last paragraph of this post since it was brought to my attention that I had said precisely the opposite of what I intended. This is what I wanted to say. One word wrong completely changed the meaning. And that is why one should respect sub-editors!]