What we think

Everything Changes But You: The terrible overuse of cliched words

In recent weeks we have been treated to the soap opera of Meghan and Harry trying to quit the Royal Family, and all the breathless media coverage that has inspired.  Whether you think this is the most important thing ever, or you can’t quite believe that the spectacle of an affluent and privileged 30-something adult trying to resign from a job really merits all this attention, one word has been seared on everyone’s consciousness.  No, not ‘Megxit’.  The word of the month has been ‘transition’.  Which has made me wonder how it is that this perfectly innocuous, vaguely technical, word has gone from obscurity to overuse in just a few short years.

Because these days everything is about transition.  Once upon a time Harry and Meghan would simply have scaled back their Royal duties over a period of months; now they are in transition.  We can’t just say the UK is leaving the EU in a two-stage process, we have instead to say we are in the transition period.  Footballers no longer play the ball through the midfield from defence to attack, they transition through the lines.  Nobody leaves a company or a school or anything else: they make the transition from work to retirement, or from school to university, or from Company A to Company B.  Television shows do not shift from one scene to the next, they transition between them.  And Taylor Swift didn’t change her songwriting and singing style from country to pop, she experienced a transition between the two.

In other words, ‘transitions’ are going on everywhere.  And even worse is the verb, ‘to transition’.  I’m not even clear that this is really a verb but everyone is at it, transitioning from one role to another, transitioning through middle age or into retirement or from childhood to adulthood.  (NB: some people, obviously, transition from male to female or vice versa and for me that is one perfectly legitimate use of the word, since it is so widely associated with that process and experience.)

The sudden prevalence of ‘transition’ doesn’t really matter, yet it still irritates (at least, it bothers me).  The word is more than just overused: it is tired and hackneyed, and often used inaccurately.  Actually, it is more often not used wrongly but not used fully accurately to describe what actually is happening.  It would seem that people like to use it because it sounds a bit smarter than other, simpler, words like changing, altering, shifting, moving, progressing, proceeding, and many others.  And this is just one example of an ‘in vogue’ word just about killing off other, better, ones, when using the same buzzy word to describe lots and lots of different things is lazy and, frankly, boring.

So my plea is for new words to be found.  Or more accurately for old words to be re-found.  Perhaps this can be a lasting legacy of Megxit: that everyone transitions away (see what I did there?) from cliched, overworked, trendy words towards a fuller and more descriptive vocabulary.

Response to the consultation on the PRCA public affairs code

The PRCA has launched a consultation on its public affairs code.  The following is the response from Park Street Partners, which is based on finding pragmatic and sensible solutions that come as close as possible to eliminating any risk of impropriety.

Are you entirely satisfied with the PRCA Public Affairs Code in its existing form?

No.

How should the PRCA Public Affairs Code be amended? We would welcome views on issues including but not limited to the issues listed below.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the purpose of the PRCA Public Affairs Code, which is to prevent impropriety or the appearance of improper behaviour when it comes to lobbying Government and Parliament (and the devolved institutions).  The Code rightly exists to ensure that unfair access is prevented, improper payments are not made or received, and lies are not told by lobbyists.

In this context it is important to make a distinction between the House of Lords and every other elected national body in the UK, namely the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the London Assembly.  Unlike the others the House of Lords is simultaneously a (weak) legislature, an advisory chamber of the great and the good, and a place which includes those who have been honoured for their contribution to society, business and politics.  Peers fulfil a range of roles and are there for a range of reasons.  It would be perverse for our industry to be so un-self-confident as to effectively rule out peerages for the top practitioners in our sector (and in related areas covered by the PRCA such as local government or charities) by not recognising this difference.

At present the definition of public affairs is too broad (albeit very slightly) to apply specifically to members of the House of Lords, and this can be confusing for those covered by the Code and also allow those who want to secure a competitive advantage or to make mischief to score cheap points by pointing the finger at practitioners who are doing nothing wrong.

I would therefore propose a broader definition of ‘public affairs’ that applies to all legislators other than those in the Lords, and a much tighter definition of ‘lobbying’ that would apply to Peers.  The latter definition should read:

“Lobbying” means activities which are carried out for the purpose of (a) influencing government, (b) or advising others how to influence government in relation to a specific aspect of policy or the expenditure of public money on a specific project or in a specific sector. Activities are to be taken as having the purpose specified if a reasonable person would assume, having regard to all the circumstances, that the activities were intended to have the effect described.

The definition of ‘public affairs’ should read:

“Public affairs” includes lobbying as well as any activities relating to providing advice and insight into the policies, intentions, and operations of the Government, Parliament and other public bodies, and how to influence those organisations.  Activities are to be taken as having the purpose specified if a reasonable person would assume, having regard to all the circumstances, that the activities were intended to have the effect described.

The restrictions relating to the employment of MPs, MEPs, Members of the House of Lords, Members of the Scottish Parliament, Members of the National Assembly for Wales, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Members of the London Assembly, and Councillors.

Given the imminent departure of the UK from the European Union we should delete all references to MEPs from the Code.

In order to make the distinction between the House of Lords and the rest, paragraph 8 should be amended as follows:

  1. Members must not:
  • Employ any MP or any member of the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly or the London Assembly to conduct public affairs in any capacity.
  • Employ any Member of the House of Lords to conduct lobbying in any capacity.
  • Make any award or payment in money or in kind (including equity) to any MP or to any member of the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly or the London Assembly
  • Make any award or payment in money or in kind (including equity) to any Member of the House of Lords other than if they are legitimately employed by the member company on a permanent contract in accordance with the terms of this Code.

For former Ministers and former MPs who are not Members of the House of Lords, and hold no other publicly elected position, the PRCA currently imposes no restrictions other than on the holding of Parliamentary passes.  We would welcome members’ views here too.  Do you agree with the current restrictions, if so explain why?  Do you think these restrictions should be more robust and if so how would you suggest this could be achieved?

There should be no restrictions on employing former Ministers and Parliamentarians other than as laid out by the Government (in the ACOBA and other guidelines) or the administrations in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, and by the relevant legislatures.

PRCA members should not hold Parliamentary or similar passes in any circumstances (whether they are former Members, spouses or partners of members, working on a contract let by Parliament or any other body or in any other circumstances).  There is absolutely no need for anyone not employed by any organisation to hold a pass to access its office or workplace (and arguments that Parliament is ‘different’ are hogwash); holding a pass not only confers privileged access but looks unfair and potentially dodgy.  Paragraph 14 of the Code should be amended accordingly.

The PRCA Public Affairs Code applies only to PRCA members, rather than to holding groups which own member companies, or to member companies which own subsidiaries. Should there be any change here?

Yes.  As appropriate the PRCA Code (as amended, see above) should apply to all subsidiaries of companies which are themselves members of the PRCA which are majority-owned or otherwise controlled by the member company.

 

 

Time turns flames to embers: Reconciliation in the age of Brexit

Happy New Year. And Happy New Decade! The end of the ‘teenies’ and the beginning of the ‘twenties’ has seen plenty of politicians and others in contemplative form, setting out their hopes, fears, dreams and anxieties about the next ten years. Perhaps the most interesting was the letter signed by, amongst others, Matthew Elliot of Vote Leave and Will Straw of Stronger In, calling for a ‘decade of reconnection’ after the past few years of division and strife. Are we even close to that happening?

Different groups are at loggerheads all over the world: rural conservatives vs metropolitan liberals across much of the former Soviet empire; US Republicans vs Democrats; Sunnis vs Shias – the sources of conflict are manifold and varied. Sticking to the UK, the debate about Brexit has brought into sharp focus pre-existing differences between the generations, between successful cities and struggling towns, and between England and Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. Can calls for reconciliation even vaguely cut through the rancour and bitterness uncorked over the past few years?

Not yet they can’t, because as it stands each side barely acknowledges that the other side has a right to be upset, let alone that anything should be done to assuage their concerns.  I read today a letter in the New European calling on Remainers to march on the day after Brexit Day to express their love for Europe and the hope we will be let back in – or to put it another way, to demonstrate that Brexiteers are wrong, that this is all an aberration, and we will eventually end up back where we belong.  At the same time many Brexiteers (including all too many now representing the Conservatives in Parliament) have adopted a stance of truculent triumphalism, effectively telling the 48% to stop being sore losers and just get on with life outside the Union.

Until we acknowledge that both sides are angry and disappointed, and start to grapple with why they feel the way they do, the ‘decade of reconnection’ is going to be a damp squib.  As the plethora of ‘how to avoid Brexit arguments over Christmas dinner’ articles have revealed, Leavers and Remainers are often unable to speak to each other making it hard to see how they are going to learn to understand one another. With this backdrop reconciliation feels a long way off.

Perhaps Boris Johnson has the answers? In fairness to him, he is trying. The promise to splurge on disadvantaged areas, to focus on key public services like the NHS, and generally to give a sense of momentum, optimism and hope after Brexit is sensible. But the worry is this will focus on quick fixes and razzle dazzle announcements about difficult big projects (bridge to Ireland, anyone?), not boring things like improved bus services, better education and training, and genuine devolution of powers, to city mayors and also to schools, hospitals and local councils. And an even bigger concern is that the greatest challenges, such as the fundamental unaffordability of the NHS and social care, the UK’s productivity crisis and, of course, climate change will be swept under the populist carpet. So although the Prime Minister is trying to bring people together (for his own electoral advantage, of course), this could easily end up being divisions delayed, not healed; stopping the bleeding, not stitching up the wound.

To really reconcile we first need to forgive, and to understand, starting with Brexit and then the underlying causes of the vote to leave. Remainers (including me) have to stop explaining how dumb Leavers have been, and Brexiteers have to admit that those who want to stay in feel just as strongly, and are just as angry, as they are. Both sides have to recognise that (1) we are leaving and it actually won’t be the end of the world, but (2) we need to do so in a way that takes people on the journey, rather than rubs their noses in it (as a starting point, how about not getting Big Ben to ‘bong’ to mark our departure?). It will take an enormous effort, but we surely have to try?

Take the long way home: How Labour could come back from this

Despite some controversy, for Ed Miliband and Labour Together to take a look at the Party’s failings in this month’s election seems like a wise idea.  As part of its deliberations the group will no doubt be tempted to look back at historical precedent.  So was last week’s election result 1997 all over again, with Boris Johnson cast as Tony Blair, leading us into a new dawn where things can only get better?  Or 1983, with Jeremy Corbyn being trounced just like Michael Foot as he tried to sell another “longest suicide note in history” in the form of a hyper-left-wing grab bag of a manifesto?  Both comparisons have been made; both are wide of the mark.

There are some similarities with 1997, or at least Johnson and Cummings would like there to be: essentially, like Blair and Mandelson, they have tried to sell a product heavy on optimism and light on detail.  But that year saw a change of team, the reds taking over from the tired and demoralised blues, not basically more of the same old Tories.  And however hard they try to dress it up the main emotion in this election was not hope but anger about Brexit and particular contempt for a Labour Party which has not tended to its heartlands for years, maybe decades.

And there is some resemblance to 1983 too.  Like then, the left-wing programme for government certainly didn’t help Labour; nor has the capture of the Party by a militant fringe unrepresentative of most of the broad church of the left.  However, the Tories won in part because of the Falklands factor and in part because there was widespread recognition of the need for a revolution, the rupture from the past that Thatcherism offered and ‘Johnsonism’, if such a thing exists (and it doesn’t so far), does not.

So neither of those comparisons is apt.  In fact, 1992 is closer, with a newish Conservative leader winning an unexpectedly clear majority (although more so in Johnson’s case than Major’s) whilst offering both continuity and renewal.  Then as now the Tories were in knots over Europe, and lying about their true intentions and actions in Brussels (in the earlier case, about the ERM).  And 1992 would be the best place for Labour to look for its route back to power.

Miliband’s group might note that a door has been opened for them by Johnson’s insistence that a free trade agreement will be concluded by the end of 2020.  If a deal can’t be done, or only done on unfavourable terms, and it does lead to adverse economic impacts such as Nissan closing down, or less totemic, smaller scale, deaths by a thousand cuts, then it would not be hard for a Labour leader to construct a narrative about how this is what the Party had always warned against, that a cautious and closer Brexit had always been the way to go.  Labour Together might conclude that the Red Wall has only lent the Conservatives its votes and they will quickly take them back if Johnson and co fail to deliver – or in fact make things worse.

But hopefully the review will also conclude that Labour has no chance unless it moves quickly to seriously reinvent its leadership.  It needs a plausible leader with plausible policies that appeal to and will deliver for ordinary voters rather than just excite the over age student politicians currently dominating the structures of the party.  Can it do so?  Some aspects of the post mortem of the past ten days do not bode well.  But Labour Together seems to accept it lost for deep-seated reasons that date back over years and often decades, and that blaming unfair media coverage, Brexit and a weak leader is not enough.  Perhaps they will even admit that a ‘Blair moment’ is required; that this needs to be 1994 and not any of the other dates at all.

Impossible comes true: Is the General Election the Greatest Show?

This brief article (some might say rant) was written the day before the UK election on 12 December 2019 at the request of the Holmes Report, which published an abridged version of it on election day.

This has been a deeply depressing election, another twist in the downward spiral that has been British politics for the past 20 or 30 years.  To an extent political parties always make promises that are at best optimistic and at worse highly unlikely ever to be delivered (aka lies), but this one has gone several steps further with the whole exercise being based on untruths.  The Tories are not going to sell off the NHS to the Americans.  Jo Swinson is not going to be Prime Minister.  And, above all, we are not going to get Brexit done by 31 January, a whopper that will be exposed within months and ought to severely damage Boris Johnson (but probably won’t).

It is really hard to pick a lowlight, because it has been a parade of lowlights.  But probably the lowest of the low moments came with the publication of the Conservative manifesto, which (on p.48) includes an overt threat to the judiciary and democracy dressed up in bland procedural language a 1920s European totalitarian would admire.  And yet, unforgivably, Boris Johnson has faced no serious questions about it.  This really is pathetic and horrible.

I’m struggling to think of a highlight.  I did enjoy the empty chairing of Boris in the Channel 4 climate debate, the steady drip of melting ice a strong reminder of the urgency of the need for decarbonisation and for politicians to make really difficult and unpopular decisions if we are going to get anywhere near net zero by 2050.  Speaking of the leaders’ debates, the big comms lesson was given every time Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon appeared.  One was so over-rehearsed she seemed inauthentic and trite; the other naturally engaging and right on top of her brief.  In fact Nicola Sturgeon is the big winner of this election, by virtue of being the only leader who was not entirely mediocre, meaningless or mendacious.  Grim stuff.