Rob Watson

Sep 192014
 
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With today’s result in the Scottish independence referendum firmly against cutting ties with the rest of the United Kingdom, we can now start to think about how devolution can be put into practice for England. Perhaps now we can start to turn the tide of the ever-present onslaught against local government. I’ve always wondered what’s wrong with local government?

All governments in the last forty years have given local democracy the cold shoulder, taking powers into the centre and Whitehall and effectively telling local people that they can’t make their own decisions. The constitutional changes that we need to urgently bring in must ensure that local democracy is revitalised by breaking up the way Whitehall operates and ensuring that local councils have the responsibility and accountability for making things work for people in their local communities.

That accountability, though, can’t come with our present electoral system. The first past the post system for local government is bust. In Leicester we have fifty Labour councillors out of fifty-four council seats. That isn’t good for democracy. In Leicestershire there is never any hope that anyone other than the Tories will take control of county hall. That isn’t good for democracy. The number of councillors in the council chambers has to reflect the number of votes cast for the different parties, or how else will there ever be a choice for the electorate? A proportionate system is urgently required.

The next thing is the abolition of the House of Lords to be replaced with a proportionally elected chamber drawn from the nations and regions according to their population. The anachronism of the House of Lords is embarrassing. Let’s get rid of it and replace it with something suited to the modern age. Lets make sure the representatives in the House of Lords are well paid so that ordinary working people can stand for election and not just those with vested interests, deep pockets or party connections.

John Prescott mucked-up the devolution debate in 1999 when the North East was asked if they want their own elected assembly. Lets not ask this time, lets just bring it in, devolving authority for services and care to the regions of England in the same way that they have been devolved to the nations of the United Kingdom. This will bring more power for our cities, who will be able to act to invest more effectively, away from the oligarchs of the South East of England.

It will also bring about more transparency in budget settlements and active redistribution. We can’t continue to fuel growth in the South East and expect people in the South East to share the proceeds of that growth without setting the rest of us free to make our own decisions, raise the taxes and make the investments that we want to do outside of the control of the South East elite.

There are two other factors I’d consider. First, break up the BBC and make it a federated organisation with a responsibility to serve the voices of the people in the nations and regions, but with a trust that has a one member, one vote, cooperative policy, so that no one region can dominate the way the BBC’s media output and services are shaped. Secondly, I’d make a big change to our competition policies. I’d sweep away closed-bid tendering and make every commercial organisation who wants to work with our public sector do so on an open and transparent basis.

I would also devolve responsibility for competition in a local area down to the lowest level of government possible – even down to parish councils. We need a competition revolution in the UK, so that the crony capitalists who use globalisation as a mask for ripping us off aren’t allowed to any more. Which bankers went to prison for the scandal of the 2008 financial crash? None. How many companies pad-out their tenders with inflated charges for menial services when working for schools and hospitals and local councils? Who has a say on supermarkets opening in towns and the traditional high streets being decimated as a result?

When you hear a politician say ‘there is no alternative’, there is. There is always an alternative, we just have to make the case for it and to put it in action when we get the chance to run things. One thing to come out of the Scottish referendum debate is a clear sense that austerity in the UK is not wanted, that people want to take pride in their local communities, and that people don’t want to be forced to accept an American, neo-liberal form of globalisation. There is a strong voice for an alternative, and along with our progressive friends in Scotland, the rest of the UK can be more confident about claiming that alternative.

Sep 162014
 
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I’ve been putting together my module handbooks for TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production, and working out what we will be doing for the coming academic year. I want the social media project to be something of a surprise, so I’m not going to reveal anything until the start of term. I think it’s got a lot of potential as a project and there is certainly a real need for the issues I want to look at to be more widely published and discussed.

I’ve written the exam and have passed it to my colleague for moderation. I don’t mind talking about what the format will be because I want to get a lot of reading done over the year to prepare for it. There’s three questions. The first question that all students will have to answer will be about Netnography, or Online Ethnography. We’re not going to undertake the project I’ve got in mind without a good sense of a data collection and evaluation technique. I want my students to be aware of the principles of ethnographic work and the kind of social processes that they might find useful when putting together a research specification for media they produce in the future.

It’s then a choice of two questions. Students can either answer a question about Digital Literacies and the concepts that are associated with the skills and capabilities that we need to thrive online, or they can answer a question about collaborative forms of social media production, and how cooperative and non-hierarchical techniques of development can help them to produce better media products and to talk with fellow collaborate more effectively.

The main thrust of the module is what makes social media meaningful, so looking at the technology, the techniques, the know-how and the social capital that participants bring to a social media network is going to be important. Hopefully along the way we can have some fun with social media as well.

Sep 162014
 
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I’ve been busy the last couple of days putting together my exam and module packs for TECH1002 Social Media & Technology. This will be the second year that I’ve delivered this module and I’m looking forward to delivering it again this year to the new batch of first year BSc Media Production students.

Last year was something of an introduction for me after years of teaching radio production, so over the summer I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about the content of the module and ways that we can think about how we makes sense of social media and the networks that we interact through.

I’m planning to look at some good examples, and to get some ideas from my students of things that we can look at as we go. Let me know if you have any suggestions for interesting examples of social media and ways that people use social media to collaborate.

Each week I’m going to start with a track of the day for the lecture. Something related to the theme and ideas we’ll be thinking about. I also want to collect as many photographs as I can of the work that we are doing, and share them on our social media platforms .

If you want to read what the students will be writing about then in a couple of weeks their blogs will be set up and running a feed through http://futuremedia.our.dmu.ac.uk/. It’s well worth reading some of the reviews and the comments that have been made by students for this and other modules.

So, time to get back to work, I think my desk needs tidying.

Sep 132014
 

Standardisation

I’m reading Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation about the rise of the junk food industry in America and how the multinational corporations have taken over the global market in food for themselves. Schlosser describes in vivid detail how the McDonalds fast food chain pioneered the use of production line techniques in their restaurants in order to drive down employment costs. Rather than employing chefs and ‘carhops’ the kitchen was divided into units of production, with ‘team members’ working one section only and working to a proscribed set of routines. This factory model has been used in numerous other places and industries since. According to Schlosser, Walt Disney’s innovation was to turn the art studio into a production line for his animations. Subsequently everything from tele-sales to dentists to funeral care has been standardised and homogenised.

In higher education at the moment there is a drive towards the standardisation and industrialisation of learning. The model is similar to the McDonalds principle of management, you have a set of highly trained and motivated managers who are given a set of clear instructions and routines that they must enforce – in this case in the name of academic quality – and then reduce the skill levels of all the subordinate contributors. So there is no individual academic judgement to be made about the performance of learners, rather academics work towards an algorithm that churns out a degree classification at the end of a students studies. Higher education isn’t much different now than the fast food industry. We are in show business. We find out what the dreams, hopes and desires are of our market and we turn it to our advantage, much in the same way that the processed food industry sells us health by making us by products that are making us fat and giving us diabetes.

And yet, the result of all this standardisation has actually been counterproductive – for ordinary people at least. For the corporations it has embedded their power as a corporate oligarchy and driven their profit margins ruthlessly. Even in times of crisis the corporations can’t fail because they have socialised risk to the rest of us. But working peoples income hasn’t risen over the last forty years. We feel richer because more of us work, and we have access to more credit, but the proportion of wealth that goes back to working people continues to decline.

So all of this makes me wonder, why are we so inthrall to the process of standardisation and centralisation that the corporate management model promotes? On the one hand we have the marketing people telling us it’s all about choice, but then the only places that you can get a coffee is Starbucks, or to get something to eat is McDonalds or to buy your groceries is Tesco, who only supply a limited range of foods anyway. Obviously something isn’t working or we’d all be getting fitter and healthier, spending more time dedicating our lives to higher pursuits and enjoying the families and friends that we are bonded to. Instead we are running around trying to pay the bills, to compete and keep up with our neighbours and to keep hold of our jobs by being compliant and following the charismatic corporate leaders we are told have all the answers.

The process of standardisation has to be obdurately resisted, then, and only then, might we create some space for some real innovation to happen.

Sep 032014
 
Would you come to Leicester on a cycling holiday

I’ve just submitted my entry for the consultation on Leicester’s Cycling Action Plan. The deadline is the 7th September, so still a couple of days to fill in the form. It’s been good to see that Leicester has been making some improvements to its roads to encourage more cycling, and it’s certainly given me the confidence to get out and about in the city centre on my bike more than I used to.

The consultation action plan document is pretty poor, however, and seems to be the kind of thing that is produced for an executive committee. I found it difficult to get past some of the jargon and the ‘action-plan’ speak. The graphic design is pretty poor, and could have been better if it had been looked at by a designer who has a sense of the different types of people who might be reading the document.

Leicester’s ambitions for it’s cycling network are, it has to be said, pretty small and a lot later than other comparable cities have had in place for some time. It’s certainly an improvement to open-up many of the one-way roads in the city centre to cyclists, and the routes that bring people in are a useful improvement. But there might be some better objectives that would make life across the city as a whole more agreeable. Here’s my little fantasy list. Feel free to disagree with the points and to suggest some of your own:

  • Reduce the speed limit across all roads in Leicester to 20mph, not just the residential streets. Segregation in itself is not the answer, people need to feel confident that they can share the road, cars and bicycles.
  • Remove many of the traffic lights that govern every junction and replace them with traffic-calmed roundabouts. We are addicted to technical traffic control solutions in the UK rather than working with people and the environment to improve the flow of traffic, reduce road-rage and promote shared spaces.
  • Sort out the road surfaces. Leicester’s roads are in a shocking state, with many large potholes and ancient road workings that haven’t been upgraded for many years.
  • Clamp-down on the pavement riders and people cycling at night with no lights.
  • Find a comparable city as a model in Europe and get them over here to tell us how they’ve done it. Sharing good ideas and practices with people who are ahead of the game is a good way to catch-up.
  • There is a strong and growing culture of cycling in Leicester that needs to be heard and it’s voice developed, so supporting independent cycling associations and groups would be good.

Overall Leicester doesn’t have a sense of ambition for an integrated public transport network. Where is the plan for a tram system connecting the outskirts and the city? Where is the upgrade of the bus infrastructure and the interlinking of these into an essential networks with a plan to get people out of their cars?

I hope the city can raise it’s ambitions and bring forward many of the proposed improvements, and put longer-term aims in place that aren’t just a tidying-up exercise. This is welcome, but we need to be doing and demanding more.

 

 

May 042014
 
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This weekend I’ve been at Liverpool Sound City, a music festival based in the heart of the city centre, taking over disused spaces and opening-up events to audiences that might not otherwise use them. The Anglican Cathedral is a standout space, who would have though that hosting two thousand people for a rock concert could be achieved in one of Europe’s most iconoclastic religious buildings?

Liverpool's Anglican Cathederal

Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral

The UK has some fine music festivals, and the appetite for them doesn’t seem to be diminishing. The approach of most festivals is to offer a wide diversity of performances on different stages, with different styles and genres of music. Headliners are given a big push and coincide with the marketing plans of the major labels, while smaller stages are a great place for new acts to learn their craft, refine their ideas and message, and meet-up with new audiences. For many it’s the nooks and crannies that make a festival memorable, tent-poled between seeing iconic performers and events.

It’s generally recognised that pushing new bands is tough everywhere, and that a festival entirely consisting of new, or at least unrecognised music, would be too challenging. This is where the heavyweights are brought in. A strong headlining legacy-artists can make or break a festival, despite the collective value and the worth of the supporting performances. Though too much reliance on the legends or the old guard, depending on how you see it, can have a stultifying effect and we end-up with performances that are too well trodden and predictable.

Eyedress at The Kazimier

Eyedress at The Kazimier

For the punters, some will only want to see the mainstream acts that all of their friends know and recognise, thus joining into a collective experience of shared references and memories. Recognition rather than obscurity is a powerful force. Others, though, are happy to discover alternative performers operating in the parallel margins and regard happenstance and serendipity as a key motivating driver of the experience.

Luckily it seems that music festivals, when done right can accommodate both. Without a good mix from the mainstream and the alternative acts acting in parallel the vibe isn’t right. Festivals depend on the opportunity for chance and the random encounter. That performer that you never would have thought of seeing in a million years turns out to be brilliant and the highlight of the weekend.

Festivals are chaotic, ad-hoc, temporary and founded on a common will to share an experience that confronts and reverses the standard dynamic of bureaucratic control that is exercised in daily life. Mikhail Bakhtin called it the ‘carnivalesque’, the point at which the tables are turned, however temporarily, giving power and authority over to the crowd.

Creativity – either industrially sourced on a large-scale, or thrown at the wall in seemingly random micro-acts -has a premium. Transgression is valued. Individual experience is central. As the festival-goer you get to choose. Either you can put the work in with a confrontational performance artist, or you can let the work come to you by watching a mega-scale performance from a ‘branded’ act. Both are valid.

Solids at the Kazimier

Solids at the Kazimier

What is clear, though, is that none of this is achieved without a clear sense of communalism. Unlike mainstream consumerism, the music festival only works when the experience that is being proffered is collectively engaged. A music festival isn’t a privatised affair. Instead it gives people the chance to share in a set of interests and ideas that they recognise as a self-determined part of their identity.

A rationalist economist might be able to reduce the experience of attending a festival to an equation, a dictum or a set of instrumental principles, but I think they remind us that human nature is pragmatic, contingent and ‘spiritual’. Who wants to go to a festival that is organised by committee and which doesn’t have any meaningful risk? As long as there is an alternative form of expression, we often find that we accommodate ourselves with the commercialism and the sponsorship. Even to the point of Kasabian…. Well, I won’t go that far…

We are very good at rationalising the capabilities we have acquired at different times into something that is supposedly eternal and immutable. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is what the economists call it. Rationalising after the event. At a music festival our successes are achieved by going with our gut instincts and foregoing the rational or planned exchange. Keynes reckoned that the economy is shaped by the animal spirits. I wonder what he would have thought of Glastonbury? A music festival is both an analogy of those spirits and an opportunity to engage in an animalistic way with the world. I would recommend that some of our more reserved and rationalist economists give a music festival a go at some point. They might just come up with a more humanistic and realistic way of thinking about the world.

Apr 172014
 

If you have been keeping an eye on British Politics over the last couple of years, since the financial crash of 2008, you might be mistaken for thinking that the political parties, Conservative, Labour, Liberal, Green, and Nationalist, are all adhering to and promoting economic policies that are core to their ideological beliefs.

The coalition government is thought to be promoting a conservative form of austerity in order to move the economy back to laissez-faire liberal doctrine and remove the state as an inhibitor of free-market rationalism.

Labour, on the other hand, is generally perceived to be advocates of Keynesian demand management principles – i.e. the slump is the wrong point for austerity, it’s the boom when we will pay off our debts.

Nationalists want increased local control over the economic conditions of their local populations and see this happening either through independence or through border controls. With the Scottish Nationalists it would be an approximation of autonomy from Westminster, and for UKIP, it is through a combination of border controls and an abandonment of the rules-based transnational market of the EU that fuels their aspirations for economic independence.

The other group offering a distinctive economic ideology is the Greens, who want to shift consumerism from it’s present position as the engine of the driver of growth, to sustainability and environmental protection as the key drivers of economic action.

All this seems straightforward and predictable, but what if I said to you that it is a misplaced presumption and that what you are seeing in UK politics is not what you are getting? Indeed, the level of ideological cross-dressing and the double-speak of politicians has reduced our understanding of the options in front of us to a burnt-out husk that is profoundly anti-democratic and actually bad for the economy.

An excellent article in The Guardian by Simon Jenkins points out the absurdity of our present economic and political choices. Jenkins argues that:

“On coming to office, Osborne did indeed cut the “planned rate of increase” in public spending, as Darling had pledged to do. In 2009 total spending was £634bn. By next year it will be £732bn, higher even in real terms. The only big item truly butchered has been local government, and the coalition cares not a fig for that. Osborne has missed all his budget balancing targets and is way off course on borrowing, which still hovers around £100bn. He would be savaging Balls if the latter had been in office. Compared with Greeks or Spaniards, Britons do not know the meaning of austerity.”

Meanwhile, Ed Balls has agreed with Osborne that the state of the public finances is such that the amount the UK spends on welfare has to be capped, regardless of the evidence or the need of the country during the financial period the government deems this appropriate, which is after all entirely arbitrary. You might think that this policy would cause outrage on the Labour benches, but only thirteen MPs rebelled against the Labour leadership and voted against the cap.

If you follow mainstream political reporting in the UK it will tell you that the Conservative Party is riven with division over Europe, and while this might be true of it’s MPs and it’s members, there is another story emerging from the leadership of the party. This story is one in which Cameron, Osborne and Clegg, rather than being the children of Thatcher, are actually and secretly the children of the arch conservative interventionist Michael Heseltine, and that they want Britain’s economic model to be more closely aligned to the German model. Fraser Nelson, writing in The Spectator calls this Cameron’s ‘Northern Alliance’, in which the UK, or what is left of it after Scottish independence, is part of a reconfiguration of the EU along more integrated and state-structured lines. Osborne’s recent charm offensive for the UK to be more German is no accident. He wants to shift the UK economy from a consumption-based dynamic, to a producer and an expert-based dynamic, and the only way to do that is to form an alliance that is able to ‘guarantees fairness’ – or as Mark Blyth calls it German ‘ordoliberalism’.

I know this might sound bonkers, but if the Conservatives win the next general election they will take Britain into a closer alliance with the EU and will even adopt the Euro, despite the offers and talk of referendums and opt-outs. The conservative-nationalist rump will find a home in UKIP, the Europhile Liberal Democrats will form a permanent alliance with Cameron and Osborne, who will then be joined by the New Labour Tendency who will see the compromise offer of a market-driven welfare state along German lines as too irresistible to miss.

So, where does this leave the USA and Britain’s supposed historic ties with the entrepreneurial and dynamic liberal economy that it represents? Well President Obama is more to the left on the economic argument than the Germany dominated Europeans. Insisting on a Keynesian stimulus package while reforming and restructuring the private debt accrued in the crisis, through interventionist state action doesn’t seem very neoliberal or laissez fair, but then the US economy has been growing at a steady rate since 2009 and has recovered much of it’s reversals that it incurred from the crash of 2008. The fundamental alternative that the USA will offer will be the ability to inflate or deflate it’s economy in comparison to others through it’s exchange rate, and not as Europe is doing at present – through internal deflation.

If you are worried about the democratic implications of this, look at Greece and Italy who have seen their democracies overturned and replaced by technocratic committees in the name of competition and sound finances. How long can Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland sustain unemployment rates of twenty-five percent without significant social unrest or a shift to right-wing and fascist parties? This is the massive gamble that is being played out here.

This leaves us with an interesting dilemma, who should we listen to and what should we expect out of an economic growth model for the UK in the next five years and beyond as we try to come to terms with the collapse of the Thatcher/Regan coup? Should we listen to Cameron and Osborne, who are expert at saying one thing but doing another, or should we listen to Miliband and Balls who… well here’s the problem… they don’t seem to be saying very much at all, and this is what is worrying. Do Miliband and Balls want to follow Merkel and turn the UK into a duplicate of the German model, or will they follow the US and maintain a stance that looks to liberal entrepreneurialism and demand led markets that offer a limited social underpinning?

It’s not like these issues are being discussed openly, and I’d like to know more about the choices that are on offer. In a perverse way everything is up for grabs. The Conservatives have formed a permanent alliance with the Orange Book liberals and are rediscovering by stealth that Europe is a potential guarantor of economic growth, as long as it is governed by rules and structure. Will we see Labour rejecting the paternalism of ‘ordoliberalism’ and seeking an alliance with American liberals and social progressives along a liberal-Keynesian model of aggregate demand management in the context of global markets? Or, we could all resort to nationalism and fight with Russia as a way of distracting ourselves from thinking and analysing how these things might work out.

Apr 132014
 

A curious article in Today’s Sunday Telegraph by Johnathan Maitland, argued that the BBC should be butchered and broken up so that only the news division remains, and all other content production and services are put out to the private sector. According to Maitland we should “Transfer all in-house radio and TV production – bar news and current affairs – to the independent sector.” Keeping only a “skeleton staff of essential personnel.” Maitland thinks we should pay no more than £20 for this residual service, and that the private sector would be able to innovate as part of a free market in ways that the stuffy-old Beeb cant because of it’s layers of Bureaucracy.

Here’s a more radical alternative. Why not turn the BBC into a network of members co-operatives, each with a local membership based on their existing local radio station profile, that are then federated regionally and nationally. Everyone who pays their licence fee gets a voice at a local level, and the chance to elect representatives at a regional and national level.

The BBC is funded by a tax and yet there is no direct representation. There has been a whole lot of centralisation over recent years, both in the public sector and in the private sector, that has diminished the independent local identity of our counties, towns, cities and regions. The programmes and services that the BBC offers are subject to the market forces that drives global media in the same way that Amazon and Netflix are hammering home with their on-demand programming.

The sorry state of BBC Local Radio and Television, however, with it’s generic programming, limited involvement of the public and standardised marketing, means that it’s almost impossible to innovate and provide local service that people actually want, and that are distinctive in this new pluralistic and plentiful media age.

If each individual station was an autonomous members co-op, with the right to withhold part of their funding to the regional and nation networks, then they would have a lot of clout. They could involve people in their local area more directly in programmes and programme making.

The BBC could become the first national media organisation to encourage mass participation in making and producing content. The BBC could become a local media training provider for media, working with colleges and universities to give room for alternative and marginalised voices that are presently excluded at the moment.

We’d have to do away with the Ofcom Broadcasting Regulations, mind. I’m sure that would be a relief given that they are a straightjacket on democratic and civic representation. Instead we’d have to put a system in place that would allow ordinary people to challenge the powerful in their own words and without the threat of legal action or hefty fines being imposed by the censor. With all the knowledge and expertise that the BBC attracts, that shouldn’t be hard to work out how to do it responsibly and ethically though.

So, Jonathan, rather than resorting to the tired-old thinking that only the private sector and the market can sort out the BBC, lets have some genuinely radical thinking and put the decision making power in the hands of the people who pay for it – or don’t you trust them?

Apr 052014
 

This morning we held the first Leicester Peoples Photographic Gallery Annual General Meeting. About thirty people attended, so we gathered together in the gallery and worked through our agenda. The two most important issues were opened-up for discussion, the LPPG Constitution, and the election of members to the board who will take forward the interests of the gallery.

The discussion was concise, supportive and generous, and it was great to get the constitution approved, and then a full set of volunteers elected to the board. The gallery will be in safe hands and will be able to move forward into it’s next phase of development.

Ian Davies was expressly thanked for the magnificent job he’d done in setting the gallery going and ensuring that it works as a creative and democratic space. It was a fitting testament that so many people attended the AGM and felt confident that they could stand for positions and help to develop the service the gallery offers to its members.

I’m pleased that this was a high-point for me to bow-out, so I can concentrate on my PhD research over the summer. I think the gallery is going to be constantly surprising and invigorating, and I’m looking forward to helping out when I can.