Marching on together

There are probably as many reasons to march tomorrow as there are cuts. Of all the reasons set out in the megabytes of bandwidth devoted to this, I liked Accidental Academic‘s perhaps the best.

The TUC’s largest mobilisation for decades will see hundreds of thousands on the streets of London demonstrating opposition to the government’s ideologically-driven cuts programme and in support of a better economic alternative. Sadly, I’ll not be among them – for reasons which include a certain indolence in getting myself organised in time; and weekends being sacrosanct, combined with a lot of travel at the minute from my Perthshire eyrie. Both reasons which are insufficient in themselves, and outweighed by the number of reasons why I should be out there. Though I will be there in the spirit (or, otherwise, in the Armchair Army (First Chairbourne Division)).

The False Economy and March for the Alternative websites have done a terrific job in the mobilisation in providing reasons for people to get out there, and the use of Twitter (@March26March) has been terrific in adding a steady drip feed of messages to stiffen resolve and provide backbone. The TUC has dealt well with the organisational and logistical difficulties in rallying this number of people in one place – as have thousands of ordinary trade unionists up and down the land.

Above all, probably, is the simple message that taking billions out of an economy faced with recession – and this week’s OBR report provides more proof that this economy is on the slide, compared to where it was six months ago – is neither sensible nor a strategy. ‘Marching for the alternative’ sounds to me  a campaign theme that it’s been pitched exactly right and it’s clear what the TUC is marching FOR, as opposed to what it is marching AGAINST.

And the campaign theme? Well, James’s Sit Down for me (obviously!); for everyone else: Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up (equally clearly). But for everyone, whether in the armchair army or the mobile marching one, how about dusting off Billy’s Between the Wars? The call for ‘sweet moderation’, when confronted with an ideological onslaught of the simplest, most caustic public-sector-bad, private-sector-good type being exhibited by the Tories and their yellow Tory mates, remains a strongly relevant call to arms for middle Britain.

For those going tomorrow, have a great day: and have a sing out for me! And make it massive (hat-tip: @kmflett).

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Twitter 1, BNP 0

My Twitter feed has been alive all day with news of, and activity around, the BNP’s planned hosting of an event in Polmont tomorrow at which party leader Nick Griffin was due to speak (thanks @vicki_jamieson). To their credit, @MacdonaldHotels – the owners of the venue – have cancelled the booking, leaving the BNP with nowhere to go.

Fuller details are contained over at Eric Joyce MP’s blog (hat-tip: @johannabaxter). Joyce is right to acknowledge the role of Twitter in mobilising anti-racists to put pressure on the hotel group concerning the booking – and this is self-evidently a tribute to the immediacy of the power in this direction of social networking. And a terrific achievement for anti-BNP forces it is, too.

But this is not the first time this has happened recently. The STUC has also taken on Best Western group over a booking it took for the BNP in Leicester (the STUC involved itself as a result of the work of Satnam Ner, a trade union activist from Prospect – the union for professionals). The STUC reports a positive outcome to its representations to Best Western over the event, as well as the likelihood of the continuance of ‘a good working relationship’ as a result of its actions. I’m not sure that Macdonald Hotels has such a working relationship with the STUC – but evidently the example set by STUC/Best Western is a strong one within the sector.

Such action take once is innovative; twice, then it has become a trend. Hotels across the UK not taking bookings from the BNP at all is the goal – and the mobilisation power of social networking means we’re one step closer to achieving exactly that.

Cheers all round.

Ofcom 2010 Communications Market report

If it’s August, it must be Ofcom’s CMR – a regular part of my summer reading, stuffed as it is with facts and figures about the UK communications world. The 2010 version came out last week and I’ve been picking my way steadily through it: it’s the usual authoritative source of details and opinions about the changing ways in which modern communications is influencing our lives: as Ofcom’s press release points out, we now spend half of our waking hours connected to some communications device or other, be it TV, mobile or pc – often simultaneously, with the current phenomenon of social viewing – and we’re also doing a lot more networking.

All this demands increasing amounts of bandwidth, which places additional demands on communications network providers. Yet – as the press release also points out, broadband prices continue to fall, forming an unhealthy backdrop to what is an extremely costly investment and an illustration that markets occasionally produce misleading signals and are not always the efficient allocators of investment resource that they are claimed to be.

Here’s my illustration of the data contained in Figure 5.92, buried at the back of the section on Telecoms and networks, on p. 354:

From a communications provider’s point of view, it doesn’t look good: ever-increasing bandwidth at ever-decreasing prices (albeit that they are no longer falling as fast as they were). In fact, these years (set at constant 2009 prices) have seen a 33% fall in the monthly price we pay for bandwidth, while average connection headline access speeds have dramatically risen (actually, by 1,267%). Earlier in the report (Figure 5.64), Ofcom had reported that monthly household communications bills also continue to fall, with the fixed voice and broadband component (i.e. all household communications bills excluding mobile) falling in the same period by 17%, and fixed voice bills by over 26%. This is important since network providers looking to upgrade their networks and replace the old and increasingly redundant copper pairs with costly (glass-)fibre are having to do so on the back of falling prices, both in the direct market and in potential cross-subsidising ones. At the same time, the future – marked by falling broadband bills despite more and more bandwidth – is looking somewhat inauspicious from the point of view of building a convincing case around the scale of returns that can be made on that investment.

Apart, additionally, from the effects of any double dip recession in making any investment case even more uncertain.

Public policy seeking faster and better communications networks (and for all citizens) makes sense both economically and socially. Equally, however, we have to recognise that BT – the vehicle by which that public policy can most effectively be implemented – has not been in the public sector for some years and that private sector investment environments, not least of all those in regulated industries, tend to be fragile and frequently capricious things.

In this light, politicians need to recognise that carrots as well as sticks are a good tool; while regulators need to recognise that competition in the direction of achieving cheaper prices is not the be all and end all of regulatory policy – that investment is important and that it may be crowded out in circumstances where falling prices make the case for that investment harder to sustain. One reason to re-visit the dropped parts of the old Digital Economy Bill putting a new statutory requirement on Ofcom to take account of the impact of its decisions on investment, I think.

[Edit 27 August:  Analysys Mason comments this week that the average price of a fixed broadband bundle dropped by €5 per month across Europe during the past six months (despite an increase in speeds), but was still more expensive than mobile broadband. So, it looks likely that there will be further pressure on fixed broadband prices right across Europe – where all fixed line network operators are facing similar expensive investment decisions. And while mobile broadband is cheaper, it doesn’t deliver quite the same user experience, being slower, with more drop-outs and less reliability. And market forces dictate that fixed broadband prices need to drop further to compete, even though fixed network operators to invest to deliver quicker, more reliable connections. It’s a mad world out there.]

Your responsibility

The Deputy Prime Minister, wearing a blue shirt and a blue tie, today launched Your Freedom, a government website where you can lodge and rate ideas for removing restrictions on your life. Oh that it were that simple!

As The Guardian commented, it’s very easy to mock or dismiss this sort of initiative – though we need to remember (I can’t forget, and won’t forgive – where is that apology, Editor?) this paper’s pre-election editorial stance. The coalition’s open and apparently real commitment to civil liberties and liberalism is very welcome. But really. All supposing that the government is indeed listening – and previous experience with petitions to the No. 10 website isn’t exactly favourable – didn’t we just have an election? And isn’t reviewing our laws exactly the sort of thing we elect our MPs to do on our behalf? The UK is, ultimately, a representative democracy and we vote an MP to be our voice (as they all commit to doing on behalf of all their constituents in their victory speeches) in parliament. Just how do we weight the votes cast on these sorts of website in terms of their popular support? Say if something attracts a level of support of 1m votes – which would be large, and much larger than the maximum 370 votes in favour of a particular initiative which I can see thus far on day 1 – then, out of the 61.4 m people in this country, or even of the 45.4m electors, is that representative enough to count as being ‘popular’? Well, quite frankly, no. And if widespread public consultation about laws is to be the future, we’d better be prepared for some uncomfortable – and fairly uncivil and illiberal – responses since the wider public isn’t always on board with the requirements of a modern, rights-based society, particularly where it involves the rights of other people.

The possibility of engineering collective support for a particular initiative also needs to be taken into consideration: it’s all too frequently easy simply to manipulate these sorts of votes. All supposing the Your Freedom site can drop a cookie on to my pc to stop me voting on a multiple basis, who’s in control of that? What happens to my registration details? And who’s watching as I cast my ‘vote’ for something that the state might not, on a from time to time basis, find particularly desirable? And aren’t these the sort of civil liberty/intrusion issues which Your Freedom was set up to free us from in the first place?

So, the principles of the need to weight the level of support for particular initiatives, as well as the need to rule out the frankly weird and wonderful, and the trivial, puts us right back where we started – with elected officials (and their unelected advisers and paid civil servants) coming up with well, to be cynical, the answer they first thought of. I don’t want to see Clegg doing the job he’s doing but, frankly, why don’t you just get on with the business of government?

Other than that, the site could do with a bit – well, a lot – of moderating, since several of the ‘ideas’ seemed to be re-hashed versions of each other. That’s just confusing in any purposeful ratings exercise. Others are simply off the point of the exercise. Ohh – and get a new server, would you? The one you’re currently using just isn’t up to the task of mass consultation and that is, frankly, a quite embarrassing outcome.

[Edit 2 July: According to an announcement on the Your Freedom site today, they’re now moderating to prevent duplications; the site loads an awful lot quicker; and there is a privacy policy (of a type…). You’d almost think the government was listening! – though the thrust of the post still applies…]