Tuesday, 23 August 2016

There are lies, damned lies and Tory health policies

A seven-day NHS. Sounds good. Perhaps for patients. Above all for a governing party which was never strong on ideas and needed a catchy one to win an election.

It’s been a bit of a Tory mantra, “do more for less.” They don’t actually believe in it. If they did, they’d never have cut the top rate of tax down to 45%. Instead, they’d have said, “do more for less – you’re rich enough.” But for its major supporters and paymasters, the lesson is “do more with the lot more your shareholders keep giving you, and which we’re going to ensure you keep your clutches on.”

Instead, what they really meant was, “do more while we pay you less.” That’s why the junior doctors are up in arms. To get this “seven-day NHS up and running, the Tory governments insisting that people in one of the most stressful occupations in the world give up more of their limited relaxation time at the weekend.

Nurses haven’t struck, but the constant decline in working conditions, to which this initiative will surely contribute, is behind the increasing difficulty we have in recruiting sufficient numbers.

The alternative would be to come up with a bit more money, but that’s not going to happen. How do you fund an increase for the NHS if you’re cutting the top rate of tax? Instead, the NHS stumbles from one crisis into another. At the end of the 2015-16 year, an unprecedented two-thirds of English NHS Trusts (the organisations that run hospitals) were in deficit.

How deficits have grown
Source: King's Fund
There is talk of some more money to fund the seven-day NHS. But it’s £10bn and will only be available at the end of the parliament – just in time for the next election, but rather too late to ease the pain in between.

Most of us knew the idea of a seven-day NHS was just a ploy for votes. There was nothing realistic there. But people could still claim that it was meant, for real. Until internal government papers were leaked to the Guardian and Channel 4. These make it clear that the government itself was warned about how difficult it would be to achieve the seven-day target, without “workforce overload.”

I suppose that at least proves the junior doctors are right. The government has no compunction about overloading its workforce.

Not when there’s something really important at stake. Like votes.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Lessons of Rio

So Britain has come second in the Olympics medals table.

Most of us Brits will take some pleasure in that result.

Letting the elation pass, though, and thinking about the symbolism of the games, gives a somewhat less satisfactory picture.

Iconic moment from the iconic athlete Mo Farah:
Completing the double double: 5000 and 10,000 metres in successive Olympics
First of all, what were taking so much delight in isn’t winning, it’s coming second. Winning would have meant beating the US, and no one even dreams of pulling that trick off. Not just in the Olympics, come to that. 

Secondly, while finishing ahead of China is satisfactory, it’s not entirely down to British prowess. A part of it reflects China’s underperformance. Again, that’s probably a reasonably accurate reflection of the world situation: between Britain and China, what’s being played out is a zero-sum game. What one gains is lost by the other, good performance here is mirrored by poor performance there. Similarly, in other fields, China’s growing economic and political might won’t pull Britain up with it, but lead to her decline.

Finally, add together the medal hauls of all the other EU nations – a post-Brexit EU, in effect – and they’d be way out in front, with 74 golds and 235 medals in total. In comparison, the US took 44 golds and 119 medals in all.

So, if they pull together, the European nations can beat the world – even the US. Only if they pull together.

The big lessons for the British? They could do it without us.

Still. We can enjoy the Olympics results for now. As long as we don’t think too hard about our post-Brexit future. In a world where we face the real China and the indomitable US. On our own.

Postscript: the talk today is of Mo Farah, who took gold in both the 5000 and 10,000 metre men's races, in both London and Rio, being given a knighthood. 

Sir Mohammed? Wouldn’t that be fabulous? A magnificent poke in the eye for all the xenophobes and Islamophobes: a Somali immigrant and devout Muslim winning a knighthood for the glory he brought Britain...

Saturday, 20 August 2016

On line shopping: the antidote to a modern nightmare. But it needs skill

Isn’t a visit to the supermarket one of the more dismal experiences of life today?

They do try to make it less unpleasant. Wide aisles, plenty of light, background music (though I’m not convinced that tinny music, particularly the kind most supermarkets play, does much to enhance the experience rather than the reverse). However, no attempt to improve the feeling can disguise the fact that essentially it’ s just a long haul, up and down aisles, in an often forlorn search for the most essential items on your list.

Have you noticed that, if you’re after 25 products, you’ll find the first 20 in no time? Then comes you can’t remember whether the cat food is on aisle 16 or 52; by the time you’ve checked them both out, some kind person in a uniform jacket will tell you that it’s actually in aisle 2, back at the other side of the shop. Then you start the same process over again, looking for olive oil.

Having walked the equivalent of three miles up and down the aisles, you will now have 23 of the 25 things you wanted. That’s when another kind assistant will tell you that one is in aisle 4, the other in aisle 76, and even accompany you to both, to establish that both products are out of stock.

A joy of modern life
By this time, the tills that were all invitingly empty when you first arrived, have filled up neatly with six-deep queues, complete with squabbling kids and shoppers who’ve picked up the burst bag of flour or the wrong brand of peanut butter, and need to dash across the shop for a replacement.

You may choose the self-checkout instead. Thiss always a wonderful experience. 

“Using your own bag?” it asks you. 

You press “Yes”. 

Place your bag in the bagging area and press done.” 

You do that. It asks you to do it again. You do. It asks again. You call the assistant over. She turns up just as soon as she’s dealt with the five other people with queries; she swipes her card and taps in a code. The machine returns to normal, looking smugly satisfied, as though there was never a problem in the first place.

“They get a bit temperamental on a Friday,” she says.

“As well all do,” you reply, and then start scanning items again. Until the machine interrupts you once more.

“Using your own bag?” it innocently asks.

It’s the joy of that experience that has made me such a fan of on-line shopping. It’s brilliant. A few clicks and a whole supermarket trip is done. In fact, the really good thing is that it even keeps track of your favourites so that you can produce a whole new order just by whipping through a list of what you most frequently take, and deciding what to include it in this week’s shop.

Sadly, though, it’s not quite as simple as that. You do have to make sure you’re clicking on the right items and choosing the right amounts. I’m not always quite careful enough, as I discovered over the last couple of weeks. I seem to have fallen into the habit of ordering grated cheese all the time, leaving me this week without butter, on the brink of running out of coffee, but with a fridge that looks like a grated cheese repository.

Inside my fridge
It’s not like there’s a shortage of the stuff
The odd thing is that, though I like grated cheese, I’m not that wild about it. Then again, my subconscious may be telling me otherwise.

Or perhaps I just need to learn to handle a computer touchpad more skilfully.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Labour devouring itself 2: Pharmaceuticals, an infernal industry. Really?

Many years ago, I led a small team developing a financial reporting application for a new biotech company near Geneva.

It was a strange experience. We went through their existing ‘system’ – essentially a series of linked, and hopelessly confused, Excel pages – and put together a prototype for the customer to approve. But suddenly I realised I’d left out a key element.

“I’m not showing any revenue,” I said, and checking through all the Excel worksheets the company had supplied, asked with some shock, “I don’t see any revenue here.”

“Revenue?” they replied, “there isn’t any. We’ve only been going a couple of years. Maybe in eight more? Generally, it takes at least ten years to get a new product to market.”

“Ten years without revenue?” I exclaimed, “for a single product?”

“Well, to be fair, we’re hoping that the hundreds of molecules we’re working on will eventually enable us to generate two products.”

The figures were in front of me. Ten years would cost something like £200 million. If they emerged with two products, they each would have cost £100 million. They wouldn’t actually take them to market: they would sell them to one of the big pharmaceutical companies who would then invest much more money still to get the drug into production, announce it, promote it and start distributing it. I can’t see how the cost of each could possibly be under £200 million.

Why am I telling this story now? Because in the last piece I posted here, I talked about the sheer ugliness of the present dispute between wings of the Labour Party. Without hiding my sentiments, I tried to be relatively impartial between them. Today I’m throwing impartiality to the winds, and focus on one of the aspects I find particularly irritating in the Corbyn camp.

It’s particularly ugly of Corbynistas to make mileage of the fact that Owen Smith spent some time working for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. This, it seems, represents a blot on his character that can never be erased. Pharmaceuticals are evil, and the evil is contagious.

The infernal regions?
It’s a naively binary view of the world, where everything’s good or bad and there are no shades of grey. Naivety, however, is entirely forgivable – it can even be endearing. What really has me laughing wryly is the kind of comment I had from a Twitter correspondent, that the Pharmaceuticals are vile gougers because they charge pounds for pills that cost pence from generics suppliers. As my experience in Geneva showed, that’s a notion that reflects merely ignorance of the issues. To paraphrase one of the better lines from that iconic TV show The West Wing, it’s the second and all subsequent pills that cost pence. The first one, as I discovered in Geneva, cost at least £200 million.

The generics manufacturers never pay for the first pill.

So what does that say about Pfizer? Well, their published accounts suggest that in 2015 they made a profit (EBITDA) of $18.45 billion on revenue of $48.85 billion.

I’ve been in business for approaching forty years. When I was working for companies in which I was part-owner, we aimed for 20% profit on turnover but usually had to settle for 10% or less. It’s not at all rare for companies to scrape along on 3%.

Pfizer’s profit represents nearly 38%.

So they’re running extremely rich.

As Owen Smith puts it, “Yeah, I think medicines should be cheaper, generally. That’s the key criticism I have. I think medicines should be cheaper across the world.” Absolutely right. I like the impact of the generic suppliers, because they pressurise the big companies to cut their costs and generate more reasonable profits. We need more, and a Labour government should legislate to cut into this gravy train.

Smith also faces the accusation that his previous role as a spokesman for Pfizer, a private company supplying the NHS, proves his desire to privatise the service. Backers of this view suggest that somehow the NHS should produce its own pharmaceuticals. That strikes me as extraordinary: the NHS is there to deliver healthcare, not to carry out biotechnology research. That’s not their skillset. And they certainly don’t have the £200m and more it takes for the first pill. Again, as Smith argues, “It would bankrupt the NHS even if it were possible, which of course it isn’t…” But, he goes on, “it’s completely wrong to suggest that… I’m in favour of private provision. I’ve never been in favour of it.”

I like Smith’s attitude and believe he has the will to take the measures we need against excessive profits. He also has the knowledge of the industry to do it well. He understands both the cost of the first pill, and the unacceptably excessive profits of the industry.

Sadly, none of this is inspiring. It’s an argument based on evidence, it takes both sides of the problem into account, it attempts to think rationally about the real nature of the problem. In short, it’s grey and rigorous and less easy to follow than a simple declamation of radical slogans.

It’s so much easier just to say “the pharmaceutical companies are robber barons. Anyone who has ever spoken for them, as Owen Smith has, is hopelessly tainted. We need to reject everything they stand for.”

Much easier. Much simpler. And entirely summed by one of HL Mencken’s best lines: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Labour devouring itself: 1. Mutual Malice

They say the first casualty of war is the truth.

In an internal party battle, it gets knocked on the head more quickly still. There’s no worse offence than apostasy: the friend who turns against you is far more hateful than the open enemy.

That’s what’s happening in the British Labour Party now, with a chasm opening between its two wings.

There have been few instances of physical violence, and none against the person: a brick through an office window was the most egregious example. On the other hand, the verbal aggression is pretty ferocious. It means that it’s a less painful experience these days to debate with Tories, officially our opponents, than to fellow party members who favour a different candidate for the leadership.

At its mildest, supporters of Owen Smith (of whom I am one) are all of us categorised as Blairites. That’s bad enough, seeing as rather a lot of us feel that, despite Blair’s many achievements, he lost our respect forever by the unconscionable act of following Dubya into a misguided invasion of Iraq. But the insult is actually far worse, because to Corbyn supporters (of whom I am absolutely not one), ‘Blairite’ is a synonym for ‘Tory’. Indeed, we’re repeatedly referred to as ‘red Tories.’

That’s particularly irritating, because if there’s one constant in my political outlook, it has been complete opposition to the Tories. An organisation which exists to protect privilege and the link between wealth and power strikes me as utterly out of place in our times. So to be called a supporter seems nothing short of ludicrous.

But this isn’t to say that my side has been any more sensible. The accusation these days is that the 300,000 new members of the Labour Party, most of whom seem to be fervent Corbyn supporters, represent a take-over by ‘Trotskyists’.

Trotsky must be spinning in his grave. He did indeed recommend the tactic of ‘entryism’, which meant going into a mass working class movement, taking it over and turning it into a revolutionary organisation. But I’m sure he never intended entryist groups to stay in such an organisation for unlimited periods, as the so-called Trotskyist group Militant attempted to do until its expulsion in the 1980s.

Trotsky rousing Red Army troops
Corbyn or Smith? Nothing to choose between them, he would have said
All Militant achieved was to turn Labour Party meetings, never the most exciting way to spend an evening, into something excruciating. Presumably, the hope was that anyone not of their persuasion would be driven out, if only to try to get themselves a life. Since Trotsky was particularly susceptible to the fault I mentioned before, of hating the dubious friend more than the avowed enemy, I expect he would have had the whole of Militant carted off to a Gulag somewhere. And most of the rest of us would have regarded that as a welcome gesture towards keeping politics interesting and maintaining a sense of humour.

In any case, Trotskyist groups can at best mobilise a few thousand people in Britain. And that’s on their own count. There are probably only a few hundred.

Oh, go on then, let’s be generous: the very low thousands.

Certainly, there are nothing like the 300,000 who have joined Labour. Among that new memberships, there may be a few Trotskyists and some may even be playing a leading role. However, the vast majority are just Corbyn-supporting social democrats. Misguided, in my view, but hardly died-in-the-wool, red-toothed followers of the founder of the Soviet Red Army.

So, on either side of the fence, the slanderous name-calling is tossed back and forth. And there’s no sign of its stopping.

It’s a shame, though perhaps inevitable. Passions are running high, as the stakes are so significant. But that does nothing for the quality of our lives.

To say nothing of our chances of beating the Tories.

Next: one or two of the more irritating slanders.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Watching badminton. And the surprising political insight it gave me

Badminton’s a game I play, not one I watch.

Today, however, I made an exception. I was with a friend who regularly gives me a thrashing on the court, and he wanted to watch some of the Olympics matches.

My first observation was that those competitors played a pretty mean game. They too would probably thrash me. Well, perhaps not if they gave me a 19-point lead, though I suspect that even then they’d beat me 21-19.

Canada's Michelle Li, one of the players I watched
Not someone I'd like to see across a net
The second observation was that the commentators are just as delightfully dumb as in any other sport.

We watched one player win a game 21-6. In the second game, when the loser of the first reached 12 points, the commentator solemnly assured us that he was doing better than in the first game. With twice the score he made in the entire game before, I’d say that was probably true. I suppose I should be grateful to have it pointed out, in case I failed to spot it myself.

We learned that it was necessary for both players to win the game. I suspect they each knew they needed to win. I’m not convinced that there are any circumstances in which both players could win the game. It’s not a situation I’ve ever met and, while I play at a far lower level, I’m pretty certain that both players winning isn’t a feasible outcome at the Olympics either.

Then came a game where the players level-pegged it most of the way up – you know, 10-10, 10-11, 11-11, 12-11, 13-11, 13-12 and so on – until the scores reached 17-12. At that point, the commentator kindly informed us that the player who was ahead had some momentum.

That didn’t just strike me as true, it also provided me with a chilling reminder of the unpleasantness of reality away from the TV. Momentum is the organisation which is taking over the Labour Party at the moment, and achieving two effects: turning it into something much more brutal and unpleasant than it has been in the last thirty years, and making sure that it falls into the trap of believing it’s more important to have good policies than to get the opportunity to put any of them into practice.

Momentum, it seems, is something that drives you forward, but without a heed as to whether it’s straight into a wall or over a cliff.

Momentum in the badminton match led to joy for one player, tears for the other. The fruits of victory, in other words. Sadly, the victory of Momentum over Labour will only be tears, and shed all round.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Luci's diary: amazed at my amazedness

It’s amazing what amazes human number 2.

The other day, number 1 wasn’t feeling too well, so she went to bed. It’s true that normally I lie next to number 2 on the couch as he taps away annoyingly on his computer, biting his hands sometimes to make him stop, but that gets him annoyed and makes him even more annoying.

“Stop that, Luci,” he says in a pathetic voice, “lie down.”

But he always strokes me while he’s saying it, so what does he expect me to do? If he rewards me, I keep on going. If he punishes me, I’ll stop.

Well, I assume I would, but he’s never actually got around to punishing me, so I’m not sure what I would do, really.

Or does he think raising his voice is a punishment? I just bark at him. And I make a lot more noise than he does, so I tend to get the better of those exchanges too.

Anyway. Like I was saying. Normally I lie on the couch next to him while he gets on with what he calls work, though how anything you do sitting down can really be called work, I can’t imagine. But that was number 1 upstairs. And in bed. Of course I went upstairs too.

Maybe he was upset. You know. Felt neglected and all that. 

What he did was sneak into the kitchen. With a banana. A banana. My absolutely best food ever. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t notice. But you know the noise a banana makes when the peel gets broken? It’s so distinctive. Of course I heard it, and I nipped downstairs immediately.

I knew I had to be specially endearing. He might have been upset, after all. So I did the whole act. I made sure I went tappy-tappy-tappy with my paws on the floor, because he likes that.  And I got the tail going so hard it made my whole behind wag. And the eyes thing: deep pools of pathetic black that just cry out, “please, please be nice. Feed me, feed me.”

It’s the sad eyes that work the magic. Every time
It worked too. He’d eaten quite a lot of the banana but there must have been a third of it left, I reckon. And, instead of chopping it up into silly little bits, he just fed me the whole thing. Much better than the choppy-uppy way. I got lots more.

It seems he was amazed that I’d heard him.

“How did you know?” he kept saying. “All the way upstairs, with doors in between and everything, and you still knew I was having a banana.”

Well, yeah. Duh. If I hadn’t known I wouldn’t have been there, would I? I mean, why give up on a perfectly good rest in the bed if there wasn’t a banana going?

She came down later and they had dinner in the garden. That’s always good because they’re less careful about not dropping things in the garden. I can get quite a good meal out there. Misty joined us for a while, but then he went and climbed on to a shed roof.

“Look at the cat,” she said, “he’s worrying the honeysuckle.”

It was true. He was batting the top flowers with his paw. Which seemed unfair: they hadn’t done anything to him.

“I shouldn’t think they’ll mind,” said number 2, who really likes pointing out the bleeding obvious. I mean, I don’t expect they even noticed. They’re pretty dumb, flowers are.

“Yes,” she said, “but I don’t see the point. Why can’t he leave them alone?”

And as soon as she’d said it, Misty moved away.

What is he thinking of? Why let them know we speak English? Why give up that advantage?

I’m certainly not going to.