Posts Tagged ‘‘Who Runs This Place: The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century’’

Anthony Sampson: Leaders’ Personalities Does Not Affect Election Results

March 24, 2015

Over the past year or so there’s been considerable debate about Ed Miliband’s character, and whether he has the personality to engage the public and win a victory for Labour at the coming elections. Miliband has been criticised for being ‘geeky’, ‘nerdy’, and appearing far more confident in the lecture room than on the hustings in front of a crowd. You remember all the jokes made a few months ago about him eating a bacon sandwich ‘weirdly’.

His awkward demeanour in front of the camera and the crowd is contrasted with Cameron’s, who appears far more confident. As well he might, given that at his level of society and in the public schools they have a sense of arrogance and entitlement drummed into them. They are literally the lords and ladies of all they survey, and take it as their natural right that they should lead the country and command the respect, fortunes and lives of lesser mortals. Such arrogance and condescension oozes from Cameron, just as it oozes from Gideon/ George Osborne, Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith.

Yet the anxieties about Miliband’s personality may be mistaken. Mike has recently pointed out over at Vox Political that the perception of Miliband as awkward, hesitant and geeky are in fact mistaken. Conservative critics have spoken about his superb debating skills and that he is actually a determined, decisive leader. Nevertheless, the image has stuck.

It may not lead to Labour losing the election, however. Anthony Sampson discusses the way the personality of a party’s leader doesn’t necessary affect the fortunes of their party at the polls in his book, Who Runs This Place? The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st. He describes Blair’s 1997 election victory, and his personality that seemed more positive and attractive than that of his opponents.

He appeared as his party’s saviour. With his welcoming smile, fresh unlined face and bright eye, he was the most obviously likeable and presentable prime minister in the twentieth century. And at the age of forty-three, he was the youngest since Lord Liverpool in 1812 – younger than Harold Wilson at forty-eight.

He goes on, however, to argue that Blair’s personality didn’t necessarily have much to do with Labour’s victory.

In fact New Labour’s victory had not depended on Blair’s popularity. Labour had been leading in the polls under JOhn Smith, and the popularity of leaders was always less important in winning elections than the public assumed, as Professor Anthony King has pointed out. When the Conservatives won the 1970 election Harold Wilson was rated higher in the polls than Edward Heath; when they won again in 1979 James Callaghan was more popular than Margaret Thatcher. And Labour would almost certainly have won without Blair in 1997 and 2001. (p. 80).

This isn’t to say that we should be complacent about Miliband’s personality and Labour winning the election. But it does mean that the Tories have far less chance of winning than all their talk about Cameron’s supposed confidence and assured leadership suggests.

Privatised Railways and the Failure of Popular Capitalism

March 23, 2015

One of the Ed Miliband’s election promises has been to renationalise parts of the rail network. As recent polls found, most of the population of this country would like to see the utilities returned to public ownership, including the railways. They’ve been marred with poor service and overcharging since they were first privatised by John Major back in the early 1990s. To make matters worse, the railways are receiving far more in government subsidies than they were when they were nationalised. The British public are paying through the nose for a worse service.

Anthony Sampson discusses the massive failure of the privatised railways in his book, Who Runs This Place: The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century. The book examines and describes how Britain has become less democratic, with politicians, government officials and industrialists more remote and unaccountable. He devotes nearly two pages to the privatisation of the railways, pp. 289-90, in which he states

The most disastrous of the privatisations was the last, British Rail, which was also the most visible to the public. Margaret Thatcher had shrewdly resisted selling it off, but John Major weakly gave in to pressure from bankers, and went ahead in 1996. The selling off of the vast railway network was devised by the Treasury to maximise the short-term gains, and was masterminded by Sir Steven Robson. The stations and the 23,000 miles of track would be run by a national company, Railtrack, while separate operating companies would buy and run the trains in different regions. The old railway managers were soon demoted: the chairman of Railtrack was Sir Robert Horton, who had just ben fired as chief executive of the oil company BP; and he chose as chief executive a finance director, Gerald Corbett, who had risen through Dixons shops, Redland cement, and Grand Metropolitan drinks. the track maintenance was delegated to private contractors.

By 2001 the whole railway system was in serious danger. Corbett was out of his field and Horton was in ill-health; he was succeeded by Sir Philip Beck, chairman (like his father) of the Mowlem construction company, whose experience came from the controversial Docklands Light Railway. The lack of effective accountability became tragically clear after a succession of train crashes, which revealed scandalous lack of supervision. The crash at Potters Bar was blamed on careless maintenance by the subcontractors Jarvis, whose chief operating officer blamed sabotage, of which no evidence emerged; he was then promoted to chief executive. The trail of accountability ended up in the sidings of a secretive private company.

The government at last intervened, withdrew support from Railtrack, thereby bankrupting it, and created a new non-profit company, Network Rail, chaired by Ian McAllister, the former chairman of Ford in Britain, with an engineer John Armitt as chief executive. The environment secretary Stephen Byers, who had responsibility for transport, resigned, and was succeeded by the Scot Alistair Darling, and Darling extended the government’s role in July 2004 when he abolished the independent Strategic Rail Authority – which had been created only four years earlier – and took over most of its functions.

The operating companies, which had been only granted short franchises, were more interested in quick profits than long-term planning, and most boards had little experience of railways. South West Trains was acquired by the bus company Stagecoach, built up by the combative Scots entrepreneur Brian Souter and his sister Ann Gloag, which the Monopolies Commission had earlier accused of behaviour that was ‘predatory, deplorable and against the public interest’. They made a new fortune by selling rolling-stock, and bought the magnificent Beaufort Castle in Scotland; but they soon made rash investments in America which brought down their shares and limited their investment in British trains. West Coast Trains was bought by Virgin, run by Sir Richard Branson whose background was in airlines and pop music. South Eastern and South Central trains were run by Vivendi, the French conglomerate which soon hopelessly overextended its empire, from water to Hollywood. The Great North-Eastern (GNER) was owned by the Bermuda-based company Sea Containers, controlled by its American founder-president Jim Sherwood.

The privatising of the network had undermined much of the traditional British pride in railways. The separate regional traditions and hierarchies of engine-drivers, signalmen and stationmasters were swept aside by the cuts and constraints imposed by accountants and financial directors at headquarters. Many of the cutbacks were necessary if the companies were to be made viable; but the upheavals in the operating companies and the collapse of Railtrack had left few people who understood how railways really worked.

The privatisation of the railways failed because the franchises were short-term, and the firms that bought them thus only interested in making a quick buck. They had no knowledge or experience of running railways, and refused to accept responsibility for the disasters and horrendous crashes that occurred. Margaret Thatcher herself recognised that privatising them would be a bad idea, but it clearly wasn’t bad enough to dissuade Britain’s bankers.

As a result, Blair’s government had to extend government power over the privatised railways, even though New Labour was enthusiastically pro-privatisation. Ed Miliband’s planned re-nationalisation of parts of the rail network will thus undoubtedly be an improvement.