Royal Mail: Lions led by donkeys?

July 12, 2007

lions_donk_haig_cartoon.jpgA second one-day strike at Royal Mail is announced for Friday 13th of July. Letters are exchanged between the Union and Management. In that curious way of industrial disputes, the letters seem intended to avoid constructive dialog. The battle looks more and more like the Somme, or perhaps Little Big Horn and General Custer’s last stand.

Events at Royal Mail grind forward, painfully slowly. Billy Hayes and Dave Ward are in there somewhere battling for the Union side, Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier also somewhere for ‘Management’.

Sometimes the general shape of a battle-field has old warriors reminiscing of past triumphs and disasters. Two historic possibilities occur to me, one from The First World War, and one from the early days of American History.

Despite rumors to the contrary, I do not have first-hand experience of either, although my father survived the Somme, an experience that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He rarely talked about it. There were no real survivors. Poets and military historians give us a picture of the bloody futility of it all.

Appeals to Patriotism

The first world war was a war of patriotic slogans, sometimes wrapped up in the noble ancient language of the ruling class.. Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori… Lions led by donkeys. Two or three generations later and there is cultural residue, a nagging awareness in Great Britain, going back to Dr Johnson’s maxim that patriotic rhetoric is the last resort of the scoundrel.

While patriotism remains more desirable and contested ground in the USA, two American journalists are worth mentioning for a modern gloss.

In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary, patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.”—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, at entry for patriotism, The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce, p. 323 (1946, reprinted 1973).

H. L. Mencken added this to Johnson’s dictum: “But there is something even worse: it is the first, last, and middle range of fools.”—The World, New York City, November 7, 1926, p. 3E.

Lions led by Donkeys

Historians argue over the origins of the term. Alan Clark wrote a book which helped popularize the expression. A reviewer noted:

The title comes from the German view of the English soldiers who charged into their machine guns and barbed wire: “Lions led by donkeys.” The donkeys were the professional officers of the British army which was destroyed in those battles, officers who were unable to adapt to the awful technology that changed the face of war forever

Back to the Royal Mail dispute

From the outside, events since the last one-day strike are baffling. Maybe they are as baffling on the inside as the battle orders were to the front-line troops on the Somme, or to General Custer’s men.

As the troops hunker down for the next planned push, the generals exchange letters. The tone of the letters is that of civilized beings engaged in diplomatic speak. Dear Allen, Dear Dave they begin.

But are the generals struggling and ‘unable to adapt to the awful technology’?

There is no alternative

Royal Mail claims it needs a billion pounds for the new technology, rather than meeting payclaims they compute as roughly the billion pounds for modernisation. There is no alternative. Or is there? It seems cruel to quote words associated with Margaret Thatcher, a general who waged war with another great Union two decades ago.

Today we have a new generation of political leaders. Dave the toff an open admirer of Tony Blair trying to drag the conservatives to a safe place for their political survival. Gord of the clunking fist is busy recruiting talented capitalist heroes to advise him.

Maybe the outcome will eventually attract more political attention. But for the moment, Dave and Gordon are united in their silence over the Royal Mail dispute. The BBC is curiously uninterested. The business has not yet cast any leader in a particularly heroic light. Creative leadership is at a premium.


The Postal Strike and the Horsemen of the Economic Apocalypse

June 29, 2007

222px-duerer-apocalypse.png

The twenty-four hour postal strike in the UK is the type of ‘little local difficulty’ large enough to require an immediate response from a new political leader. Even with his formidable energy, Gordon Brown could do without confronting an industrial dispute so soon into his leadership. There are echoes of the Airbus conflicts that captured the attention of Nicholas Sarcozy in the first week of his Presidency.

Why strike? Why now?

The strike, which began at 3 am on Friday June 29th 2007, involved some 130,000 members of the Communication Workers Union who have issued the following statement

The CWU’s Negotiating Team met with the Royal Mail’s Chief Executive Adam Crozier, and his Senior Management Team yesterday. The CWU reiterated to Royal Mail that it was prepared to reach an agreement that would move forward both the Union and Royal Mail’s position … The CWU impressed upon the company that there was no possibility of Royal Mail management successfully transforming the business unless both parties could reach an agreement that galvanises the workforce too. During the course of the meeting the Union set out its position and expressed its genuine concern about Royal Mail’s business plan and how it would result in a spiral of decline for the company, and the workforce … The CWU reminded Royal Mail that the Union was not alone in severely criticising Royal Mail’s business plan. A recent all-party Select Committee criticised Royal Mail’s leadership for lacking vision.

Chief Executive Adam Crozier, responded by rehashing all of his previous statements and refused to enter into meaningful negotiations with the Union.

The strike on Friday 29th June 2007, will go ahead.

Technology and jobs

The old debate about technology and jobs continues. Innovation accompanies creative destruction, like Horsemen of the Economic Apocalypse. Maybe ultimately the job losses are compensated elsewhere. Which is no consolation to threatened workers. The perceived grievances of Royal Mail workers are easy to identify. As with Airbus, competitive pressures have triggered plans to reduce costs which threaten jobs.

The Royal Mail leadership team

Royal Mail has a high profile leadership team within the UK business world. Chairman Allan Leighton has been persistently linked with stories of his intention to head a lucrative buy-out initiative. In an earlier post I noted:

Allan Leighton has an appetite for self-publicity, as inspection of the Royal Mail website reveals. He presents himself as a dynamic (and somewhat terrifying) leader. In public he attempts to soften the image by implying he is very much one of a team, operating closely with CEO Adam Crozier.

Their styles remind me of an earlier high-profile double act, Lord King and Colin Marshall at British Airways. The pugnacious King had also been confronted with an ailing BA facing vigorous competition. Like Leighton, King presided over job cuts on a similar scale, and had serious internal morale issues and Union conflicts. Colin Marshall, like Adam Crozier, had a more urbane style.

Since his arrival, the Royal Mail has cut 30,000 jobs, shut thousands of post offices, and moved away from record annual losses that had reached £1bn. The various changes have been forced through against considerable opposition internally and externally.

The changes have not resolved the fundamental problems of the corporation which remains in dire financial circumstances. It recently announced that the gap in its pension funds would be tackled by ending the corporation’s final wage pension scheme, another unwelcome move and one described as unilateral bullying by its Union leaders.

Amazon and The Economist on-line

In preparing this post, I held off from ordering a book from that well-known e-business Amazon. It could wait. Co-incidentally, Amazon could not wait for a better deal from The Royal Mail, and has recently switched a lucrative contract away. If the management’s resolve needed stiffening, that would have done the trick.

Yesterday, those nice people from The Economist sent me an email. It apologized for any inconvenience caused by today’s postal strike, pointing out that I am eligible as a subscriber to access their on-line version, if I can’t wait for the delayed delivery through the Royal Mail.

Globalization as economic apocalypse

Royal Mail employees, like the rest of us, are facing an economic apocalypse. The current wisdom of the tribe is that we are seeing consequences of globalization. My examples illustrate some of the threats and opportunities cropping up, as the horsemen of the apocalypse gallop about, and technological changes sweep the countryside.

Card-carrying optimists hold to the view that the human spirit, creativity and morally-grounded leadership will help us through the crisis.


Paul Revere rides again

February 8, 2007

PAUL REVEREIt’s Paul Revere in reverse. English patriots are riding out to warn against the American forces threatening their homeland. Only this time it’s Americans advancing and winning the battles for England’s premier football teams. There are Russian forces too, but that’s another story. Will the victorious leaders win the support of the natives, or are we in for prolonged insurgent battles in the name of independence from the invaders?

This week Liverpool FC was acquired by two sporting Entrepreneurs from America. The event met little resistance from supporters, in contrast to an earlier takeover at Manchester United FC two years ago.

The battle for MUFC

When two American sporting entrepreneurs took over Manchester United Football Club a few years ago, the fans rose up in a display of organized resistance. The initial reactions were intense suspicion that the move was the prelude to the destruction of the club in the interests of short-term financial manipulation. The more extreme predictions have not come to pass, and the club is experiencing an upsurge of results on the pitch. Boycotts by disaffected season ticket holders have been rather ineffective, as the enlarged stadium at Old Trafford since the take-over has regularly claimed Premier league record attendances.

In England, changing financial requirements brought about by TV rights and product franchises, were increasingly forcing a generation of club chairmen to sell their majority holdings and control.

But football’s more than a business – isn’t it?

Much has been written about the intensity of the cultural identity provided to a region, by its football clubs. An earlier example in England saw fans of the ‘Old’ Wimbledon form a breakaway club as the original team was relocated to Milton Keynes.

Thus the outcry at MUFC. But even before, there had been a relatively smooth transition at Chelsea FC, during which fans quickly accepted the potential of what was at first seen as an unlimited budget provided by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

A succession of takeovers were to follow those at MUFC and Chelsea FC. At Aston Villa, all the dedicated efforts of Chairman Ellis in investing his own fortune in the club had cut no ice with the fans. The chairman’s commitment and willingness to fire the coaches he appointed had earned him his nickname of Deadly Doug. This probably helped reduce opposition to the take over at the club by another American sporting entrepreneur, Randy Werner.

West Ham succumbed to offers from an Icelandic football administrator and retailing entrepreneur. Arsenal FC, one of the elite and revered names of English football, retained its broad governance, but at the cost of moving into a new stadium named after its backers, the United Emirates.

What sense can we make of the reactions to the takeovers?

At first sight it might appear that English football fans have become less susceptible to the ‘shock of the new’. This might have been because the governance at Chelsea and MUFC was seen to be, if not models of benignity, then were not as deviously short-term and threatening as the Paul Revere outriders were crying at the time.

Overall, however, it seems to me that we have several factors that come into play, influencing the receptiveness to the new regime. Dissatisfaction with the prevailing leadership in achieving the expectations of the fans is one such factor. This was stronger at Liverpool which had lost its one-time supremacy over other English clubs, than at MUFC which had been enjoying a lengthy period of success. The threat of Chelsea was still largely unappreciated. There was probably even stronger dissatisfaction at Aston Villa/

Meanwhile, across the channel

The threat of forein invasion is less acute elsewhere in Europe. Italy’s clubs remains beset with a range of problems which produced assorted punishments and leagl proceedings. Such turmoil did not prevent Italy winning the greatest prize of all, The last World Cup. Last weekend’s rioting was another eruption of the culture of football violence in Italy. However, Italy’s leading clubs tend to have backers of enormous resources and have have not been such an attraction for American sporting entrepreneurs.

Nor have the clubs in Spain, which can boast two of the world’s most glamorous and wealthy clubs (Barcelona and Real Madrid). France and German clubs and also remain relatively untouched by foreign predators. Again wealth (Real) and interestingly democratic ownership (Barca) offer protection. Top teams in Germany and France likewise have resisted foreign invasion.

So what can we conclude?

First, that England, despite strong local culture in football historically, has been rather open to new ownership promising better success on the field. There is an interesting parallel with the openness to foreign ownership of commercial concerns, for example in the automotive industry. Secondly, the resistance will still vary according to local circumstances.


Stand up if you love your Football (stadium)

February 3, 2007

David Cameron risks turning all-seated stadia into a political football in England. This news comes in a week of violence for Italian Football. Football violence in England has arguably been controlled partly because political leaders have, until now, avoiding making it a party-political issue.

Overnight, news of violence in Italian football. A policeman dies in the rioting. A gloomy picture in Italy comes to more international attention. My mind goes back to the football scene in England in the 1980s. Images from Manchester can serve as typifying the wider national scene.

Piccadilly Station guarded by highly visible police and horses, each cohort in battle gear. Convoys of truculent visiting supporters semi-controlled by police and Alsatian (German Shepherd) dogs. Dogs and refugees snarl at each other as the ragged column makes its way to Manchester City’s stadium on Maine road. The scenes are somewhat more localized ,and perhaps therefore apparently more intense, than those replicated the week before and the week afterwards on the routes to Old Trafford on the Red side of the City..

Today, The old Maine Road stadium is part of football history. Last week, police horses still made their majestic and caparisoned way from their Chorlton barracks through Stretford to Manchester United’s match at Old Trafford. But to attack a police horse is no longer a mark of tribal honour and a gesture against all things Mancunian. Something happened over a couple of decades in the heartland of English football culture. Dreadful tragedies led to a range of improved policing strategies, and all-seater stadia.

Keeping politics out of social change

It seems to me that there has been changes that have met with the approval of the majority of fans as well as the wider public. Also, the changes have largely avoided being caught up in political battles. Political leadership has succeeded by avoiding the temptation to make political capital out of the matter.

Which is what may be changing. This week David Cameron signals a willingness to revisit the matter of all seater stadia in time for the forthcoming political battles, AB (After Blair). There may well be political mileage in raising the issue as an alliance can certainly identified among those with libertarian values and popularist sentiment for the good old times. Even in Old Trafford, that near-gentrified Theatre of Dreams, groups of fans regularly carry out their acts of ritualistic defiance by ‘standing up against sitting down’.

There may still be lessons to be learned for Italian football from what happened in England over the last few decades. And maybe lessons for England football and politics for the future, from the scenes in Italy last night.


Why Margaret Thatcher and BA needed their Willies

January 26, 2007

The BA dispute appears to be an old-fashioned Union versus Bosses confrontation as the company struggles to introduce a major shift of culture. The BA board has brought in Willie Walsh, a ‘tough’ leader with a track record of success through a confrontational style that has echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s . How will this influence the efforts of the company to achieve a transformation in its operational culture?

In days gone by, Industrial Relations in Britain was said to be symptomatic of The British Disease. Governments repeatedly found themslves in bitter conflicts against organised labour. The ultimate threat available to the Trade Union leaders (be the dispute ‘official’ or unofficial was a ‘breakdown in negotiations’ leading to the Unions unleashing their weapon of last resort, withdrawal of labour.

However, the old maxim was frequently disproved. The threat was not more powerful than its execution. The strikes seemed easier to start than to finish. (Interestingly, the most famous strike of all, the General Strike was rather quickly resolved). Sometimes the ‘reason’ for the strike was a bafflingly trivial incident or issue to the public whose daily life was being disrupted.

Efforts to achieve a more collaborative culture in place of strife largely failed. The bitterness of the disputes if anything reinforced the confrontational culture within which they occured.

Tony Blair has hardly concealed his admiration for the political achievements of Margaret Thatcher who appeared to have out-confronted the Unions a decade earlier. He was to achieve his victory over traditional Labour symbolically through the removal of Clause four from its constitution.

News of my death has been exaggerated

Defeat of an idea is harder than the defeat of its leading supporters. Labour’s so-called awkward squad has remained, in the party and trade-unions, and a reminder to Tony Blair that culture change (like regime change) is never simple. Tony Woodley, leader of the T&G Union is to play a part in this unfolding story at BA.

The protagonists in the BA dispute

Willy Walsh was brought in to British Airways with a reputation as a successful industry ‘lifer’. He joined Aer Lingus as a cadet Pilot of 18, and left as CEO in 2005. In the meanwhile he had been attributed with playing a major role in the transformation of Aer Lingus:

Successfully reinventing Aer Lingus as a profitable no-frills airline, while other established European flag carriers went to the wall, he slashed costs by 30% and shed more than a third of staff. He refused to apologise for the swingeing cuts, saying “we make no apologies for focusing on profit”.

Not distracted by a stand-off with unions that led to a three-day lockout in 2002, Mr Walsh once claimed in an Aer Lingus staff publication that “a reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations”. It is a comment unlikely to have been missed by the Transport & General Workers Union (T&G), whose members voted for the forthcoming strikes at BA.

Tony Woodley, leader of the T&G Union is also a transport industry lifer, but in the Auto-industry. His reputation as a left-wing traditional socialist was confirmed in his overwhelming victory to the T&G leadership in 2003 where he replaced the popular Bill Morris, and defeated a candidate known as a supporter of Tony Blair (and by implications his New Labour policies).

Woodley/Walsh seems to be lining up as the major battle. They have entered negoatiations in stage two. However, the story can not be reduced to a simple slugging match between the two.

In stage one, the T&G was represented by Jack Dromey, the candidate Woodley defeated as Union leader. He has recently hit the headlines for another reason in the Cash for Peerages scandal, spiced up because of his marriage to another Blairite (and a cabinet minister, Harriet Harman).

BA in stage one may have been hindered by the imminent retirement of their most senior and experienced ‘people person’ Neil Robertson.

Where does Margaret’s Willie come into all this?

Margaret’s Willie comes into this partly because it seemed such a nice headline. But wait, there’s more. One of Mrs Thatcher’s sayings was in recognition of the debt she owed to her close friend and cabinet colleague Willie Whitlaw. (“Every Prime Minister needs a Willie”).

Maybe the humour was unconscious or in a flash of rarely observed irony from the Iron Lady. Avoiding tempting puns, I suggest that MT was acknowledging the benefits of a combination of her sort of leadership style with someone to play a moderating role. Superleadership, in effect, with other team members compensating for the excesses of the dominant figure.

IN an earlier post to this Blog, I explored the possibility that a dispute over sick employees may raise questions over sick leadership. In which case, at BA at the moment, Willie Walsh may well need his Willie Whitelaw. As maybe Tony Woodley as well

Jack Dromey as Willie Whitelaw?

Well, that would make a nice simple story. Life’s not like that. TW seems to be the one taking a conciliatory stance. Jack Dromey, whever his location on the tricky political dimension left to right, has had his earlier moments of industrial heroism. His track record is not exactly that of a non-confrontational leader. Indeed, he played quite the opposite role in the famous Grunwick dispute which lasted two years and ended in defeat for the Non-Unionised workers involved.


Role models and cultural angst in Little Britain

January 19, 2007

A furore involving race and class issues has developed this week, over the TV programme Celebrity Big Brother. The episode illustrates how so-called Reality Television can become a significant indicator of cultural anxieties and social identity. It also suggests how celebrity leadership enjoys a honeymoon period which tends to be followed by disenchantment.

Celebrity Big Brother, the TV reality show, has this week resulted in angry reactions when the observed words and actions of some participants were considered to be bullying and racist. The hostility within the show has been directed towards the only non-English participant, an Indian film actress, Shilpa Shetty.

Protests have multiplied into the tens of thousands and spread beyond the viewers of the show. There has been intense interest in India. A major sponsor has withdrawn its support, popular newspapers have also fanned the controversy, and politicians have felt compelled to join the debate. Gordon Brown, like many a politician, has had to deal with the matter in various interviews, rather than sticking to a preferred agenda. He has had the added pressure of being on a visit to India, where the story inevitably was of great interest.

One of the protagonists on the show was Jade Goody, who had won national attention, and accompanying lucrative marketing opportunities, after appearing on an earlier Big Brother show. She achieved her celebrity status through the voting system. Votes of the viewers offer not just a sense of establishing the people’s choice, but provide revenue, is an element of the business model of these programmes). In this way, we the public create the celebrities we most want. The celebrities we deserve, arguably.

But celebrities, as products of social fantasies, having won a public beauty contest, also face the prospect of losing their appeal to the public. The Honeymoon can be brief.

Voting as a measure of cultural beliefs

In a few hours, the viewers will have at opportunity to vote again. This time the voting will determine whether Shilpa Shetty, or Jade Goody will be ‘evicted’ from the Big Brother version of reality. The vote is being treated as having some symbolic significance and an indicator of a Nation’s cultural attitudes towards bullying and racism. National newspapers, having built up Jade, are now urging that she be voted out of the show.

Channel 4 which broadcasts Celebrity Big Brother is engaging in brand damage limitation, which enjoying staggering gains in viewing figures. It announced today that profits from the phone-in vote would go to charity.

How blows the wind?

Various signals suggest that the Big Brother organizers are anticipating that Jade Goody will be removed by the popular vote from the Show tonight. They have decided to avoid any possible unpleasantness of a public demonstation by changing the customary humiliation accompanying the announcement of the vote. Another indicator: the bookmakers William Hill have Goody as a 33 to 1 odds-on favorite for Goody’s eviction.

I could not point to direct evidence. There are various inponderables: Will the Sun’s campaign really swing votes, or even mobilize a proportion of them? Will the withdrawal of support to the show of Carphone Warehouse, the Perfume Shop of selling Jade’s perfume, the disapproval of politicans such as Gordon Brown, and human rights leader Trevor Phillips simply encourage the rebellious tendency among a proportion of viewers?

The Leadership Honeymoon

The process is well-known to politicians. Gordon Brown is not considered a leader of charismatic appeal. However, if he wins not just in the ballet to succeed Tony Blair, but in a subsequent general election, he will be guaranteed the honeymoon period as the voters’ leader of choice. Equally certainly, he will face the prospect that honeymoons create only a temporary state of enchantment, as we create our fantasy leader, and eventually react in disillusion against the image we created.


Three political tales from across the channel

January 16, 2007

Little England sometimes confirms its metaphorical as well is its geographic insularity. The latest instance came in the manner in which three political stories from France were reported in England over the weekend. We suggest that the treatment of the stories indicates how matters of social identity have a strong influence on the actions and statements of political leaders

The unreported stories

The first story, the Presidential nomination of Nicholas Sarcozy, hardly reached the UK public through the popular papers. This although there were wide implications for future elections of the use of web-based interaction with voters to shape policy and even to vote for candidates.

The second story, also mostly ignored, was the formation of a new right-wing group within the EU. After its recent expansion, members from Bulgaria and Romania have been able to link with other right-wing MEPs to form the ITP party (Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty party). Its numbers were just about adequate to qualify the ITP for EU funding to promote its policies at future European elections.

The headline news: France wanted to become part of the Commonwealth

A third story made far more headlines in England. It seems that fifty years ago, a French politician raised the possibility of much closer ties between the two countries. One option was to admit France into the British Commonwealth. The idea was, according to French political historians, utterly unrealistic. That did little to dampen enthusiasm for the story this weekend.

The context to the story

The story becomesmore that footnote to French modern history, but a comforting indication today of the status that England enjoyed in a once-glorious era.

In 1956 the French Prime Minister Guy Mollet held talks in London with the English premier Anthony Eden. It is now clear that the two leaders did touch on the possibility of closer political links between the two countries.

At the time, France and England had common cause in Egypt over President Nassar’s nationalization of the Suez canal. Nassar was, furthermore supporting resistance in Algeria over France’s hegemony.

However, there was also the possibility of France and England becoming involved on opposing sides of a border dispute between Israel (supported by England) and Jordon (supported by France).

These were factors which encouraged Mollet to explore possibilities of closer political links between France and England. The socialist Mollet had been impressed by the social changes implemented by the Attlee government after the war. He considered that Britain was moving to a socialist system (regardless of the fact that he was dealing with the Conservatives with Anthony Eden as PM.

In his zeal to address immediate and longer-term challenges enges he even raised the possibility that France in the future might be favourably disposed to becoming a member of the commonwealth, accepting the role of the Queen and monarch as its head.

The talks were to have significant military consequences. They were followed by an ill-fated joint military action by England and France in the seizure of the Suez canal.

Hoever, the political joint venture was always a non-starter. In a BBC programme the recently available papers were revealed to a French historian:

‘Henri Soutou, professor of contemporary history at Paris’s Sorbonne University almost fell off his chair. Stammering repeatedly he said: “Really I am stuttering because this idea is so preposterous. The idea of joining the Commonwealth and accepting the headship of Her Majesty would not have gone down well. If this had been suggested more recently, Mollet might have found himself in court.” ‘

‘What do elephants think of England?’

There is an old joke about national attitudes. Given a brief to write a story about Elephants, a French journalist might muse on the philosophic essence of the social behaviour of the elephant herd. An English journalist might ask the question ‘how do Elephants adapt to the English weather?

The contrasting cultures indicate problems of taking the entente cordiale beyond the comforting utterances between leading figures on State occasions. The joke indicates why the fifty year old story was of more general interest in England than were the political events of the day from across the channel.

Leadership and social identity?

A theme may be detected in way these stories were reported on this side of the Channel. It is hinted at in the elephant joke. There is considerable interest in England in matters of identity. Indeed, the interest is more widespread. We noted that Gordon Brown had made the matter of a ‘threat to the Union’ the thrust of a recent communication. Again, the new (and unreported) ITP party is itself concerned about matters of identity.

Politicians and their advisors assess the issues which are judged most critical in interesting key groups of voters directly or through indirect opinion-shapers. Political vision has to be communicated so as to deal with the concerns of voters and other interest groups. The result is that the leader’s vision has to be couched in culturally acceptable terms. Attempts to transform cultural values have to work within them.


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