November 20, 2013

The BBC World Service Archive

I've been enjoying exploring some of the material in the BBC World Service archive, particularly some of the programmes tagged with "Liverpool".

I've also been improving the archive, by suggesting some better tags for the content as I listen to things. I'm impressed with the level of finish to the project, particularly for an R&D project - the registration system remembered the page I'd been trying to reach when I first registered, rather than just dump me at the homepage once I'd clicked the link in the email; the tagging process is easy as is suggesting more suitable images for the illustration. If I've one suggestion from having used it for a bit, it would be to use the user-suggested tags for the image searches (or maybe let the user suggest a search phrase). On this programme about the Anglican Cathedral's Lady Chapel I had a choice of a number of photos of random cathedrals, or generic shots of Liverpool, and the nearest I could find was one that I knew was a view from the top of the cathedral, whereas presumably at least a shot of the Anglican Cathedral itself would be available (and a better choice). But that's nit-picking really, it's a great resource.

Tristan Ferne, from BBC R&D, has published an excellent set of describing how they approached the project. Well worth a read.

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November 10, 2013

Call Centres, the New Factories Making Annoyed People

Will Davies has written a thought-provoking piece on his blog about the charade of the call centre interaction. It gets to the heart of the way that call centres are engineered interactions where companies suddenly pretend to become concerned and interested in you, when in fact they're just suddenly becoming concerned about losing a source of profit.

It reminded me of an anecdote I was told a few months back, about young unemployed people in north Liverpool. There'd been some survey to try to work out why they didn't want the jobs on offer in call centres, and the young people didn't regard those as "proper jobs". When asked what "proper jobs" would be, they spoke about wanting to work on the docks or in factories like their parents, or their grandparents, had.

Now in the short-term, I can agree that taking jobs that are available (although I'm not convinced there are enough of those going around at the moment) is better than no job, but I don't think that prevents us from working out better directions in which to take society to try to improve matters in the medium-term.

With globalisation pushing more of the manufacturing abroad, call centres do seem to becoming one of the remaining mass employers of the working class.

The problem is that working in a call centre doesn't produce anything. Other than customers at varying levels of annoyed at having to fight their way to a conclusion. Whilst I suspect that sitting on a production line all day wasn't the height of fun work, at least there was the feeling that you were producing something of use, of value.

Over my career I've worked on projects that have come to naught, and others which have resulted in my code playing a part in millions of mobile phones. The work itself was pretty similar in both cases, but there's a noticeable additional reward of little blips of pride whenever you encounter the results of your labour outside the workplace - spotting somebody using a phone you helped create.

There was some discussion about mass-manufacturing and factory work during Laptops and Looms, with a charge being laid that those of us lamenting the loss of manufacturing in the UK were romanticising the past, and that factory work was hard, unrewarding and dangerous. That may well be true, but moving it further away from where we encounter it isn't going to do anything to change that.

Maybe that is part of the problem we have when engaging with call centres. Maybe work as the foot-soldiers of corporations was always dehumanising, but in the past that was mostly hidden away whereas now we come into contact with it directly?

Whatever the reason, it would be nice if we could come up with a better solution for both "consumers" and the people currently working in the call centres.

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November 01, 2013

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Merseyside in Crisis

Recently I picked up a copy of Merseyside in Crisis after coming across it in the library (the library's copy is only for reference within the library). I thought it would be interesting to compare the views of Merseyside's problems from the late-70s/early-80s with now, and was hooked by mention of the area being hailed as a future "Silicon Valley of Europe". More on that when I get into the dog-eared sections later.

The book was written by the Merseyside Socialist Research Group, which in itself is an intriguing concept. From what I can tell, it was something of a left-wing think tank, which makes me wonder if anyone(/group) is trying to fulfil that role in the city today?

And pairing that thought with recently-moved-to-this-parish Andrew Bolster's recent posts exploring Northern Ireland's innovation strategy (though you could replace Northern Ireland with Liverpool City Region in any of that and I'd not be surprised), my pondering of Liverpool's strategy, and other civic-minded locals such as Francis Irving, I do wonder if there's scope for experimenting with the think tank concept to make (in my opinion ;-) more useful proposals. It would need to offer useful, constructive opinions and not just add to the noise, but maybe there's some scope there?

Anyway, on to all the dog-eared pages of Merseyside in Crisis by the Merseyside Socialist Research Group, published in 1980. There are a lot of notes for such a short book, but that has a lot to do with interesting bits of history that it exposes. It'd be interesting to compare lots of these facts and figures from the turn of the 80s with their equivalents from today.

I agree with most of their analysis of the problems, but am less convinced of their solutions. However, that doesn't stop it being worth a read.

Page 4
The "Crisis of Merseyside" can not be viewed or resolved in isolation. The problems facing Merseyside exist in many of the industrial regions of Britain and in other parts of the world. The deep-rooted problems of the area - in unemployment, housing, industry, and the social malaise that follows in the wake of decline - are part of the deepening and continuous crisis of British captialism and in turn part of the crisis of world capitalism.


Thirty five years [since the post-war recovery got underway] Merseyside has one in every six of its working population unemployed, and in some parts of the area up to 50% on the dole. Youngsters leaving school can wait two to three years for their first job. Many families in the worst hit areas have two or three members out of work. Closures and redundancies have devastated the area. The dream of a better tomorrow has been shattered.

Page 9

Early on the 2nd February, 1979, Merseysiders woke to the surprising news that theirs was to be a 'more secure future'. Local councillors and industrialists were busily announcing that Merseyside was to become the 'Silicon Valley of Europe'. GEC/Fairchilds new £35m micro-processing factory was to be built at Neston, providing 1,000 jobs. Tory M.P., David Hunt, called it a 'major breakthrough for the region'. Coming after a year in which 14,000 jobs had vanished from Merseyside this had to be good news. And all due to that little 'miracle chip'. But had we not heard all this before? After all, the arrival of Henry Ford and company in the early 1960s had been met with similar enthusiasm. Alderman Braddock, the Labour Leader and Chairman of Liverpool's Finance Committee, had suggested at the time that:

It could be the real beginning of the end of the vast numbers of unemployed we have been carrying here for so long.

But nearly twenty years on, despite the coming of the motor industry, with its £60m investment and 30,000 jobs, the euphoria of such politicians still has a hollow ring.

[Over 30 years later, little - sadly - has changed. The GEC factory came and went, and is now an Aldi distribution centre. And still the cries of "inward investment" as the holy grail and end to our problems can be heard...

Later in the book, we see the problem with large employers who don't have any real ties to the region:]

Page 18

Rationalisation[, the relocation and consolidation of factories,] is very frequently, therefore, associated with firms completely abandoning a region, or even a whole country - they look elsewhere in their search for increased profitability.

Page 19

[...] none of Merseyside's major firms is controlled by a local management. Only three out of every ten jobs are in firms which are controlled locally. And as the rationalisations go on, the number is dropping all the time.

A crucial feature, then, of the economic development of Merseyside is its increasing dependence on nationally and internationally based companies.

[Looking further back in history...]
Page 28

By 1857 nearly half of the United Kingdom's exports and approximately one third of its imports passed through Liverpool. The town became an entrepot for people as well as goods and established itself as the main port for the mass movement of emigrants from Northern and Western Europe to the New World. Between 1860 and 1900, of the five and a half million emigrants who left Britain four and three quarter millions embarked from Liverpool, a new trade in human cargo which shipping lines were not slow to take advantage of.

Page 30

The heroic age of the entrepreneur and merchant prince was over. By the end of the First World War the era of imperialism had arrived. Throughout the period, British rates of growth of production, exports and productivity were all slower than in the early Victorian years. [...] As British capital fought for survival in the new epoch, whole areas like Merseyside, the North East, and South Wales were hit by the "depression". In short, the so-called "regional problem" was born.

Page 35

Notably throughout the '20s and '30s a large number of companies opened plants on Merseyside. They were mainly those involved in 'Food, Drink and Tobacco' - such as Jacobs, Crawfords and Hartleys etc., though some engineering firms, like Plessey, came too. These firms were keen to exploit the 'growing pool' of female labour, and it is noticeable that all these companies relied extensively on recruiting women.

Page 38

[In the 1960s and 1970s] The multinationals [GM, Ford, Dunlop-Pirelli, etc.] came to Merseyside largely as a result of the Government's regional policy, which lured them through a variety of 'sticks and carrots'. They were attracted too by the very conditions which had been unfavourable to capital previously, namely ; the existence of an 'adequate pool of labour', low wages, and the lack of an [union] organised workforce such as existed elsewhere.

[Then something of a "reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated" moment for Silicon Valley...]
Page 43

Silicon Valley has begun to die. All the surface signals ridicule that statement, but even some of the micro-electronic maestros with deep investments there admit it is probably true......The birthplace of the micro-electronics industry is being killed by the very success of the silicon chip it nurtured. (Guardian, June 18th, 1979)


Page 51

This is not to say, however, that radical and even socialist redirections in policy are impossible. The state has to manage the effects of its policies and to this extent is constrained by the power of organised labour and pressure from below. The U.C.S work-in in 1971 was one example of this.

[This is from such a different age, isn't it? However, that also shows how much can change in such a (relatively) short period, which means we don't have to accept the current situation as intractable.]


However, in general terms, regional policies have failed to provide effective long-term solutions. Such policies have at best produced short-term improvements and at worst exacerbated economic decline.

Page 54

The departure of Courtaulds from Skelmersdale provided the classic example of a multi-national corporation which took the money and ran at the first available opportunity.

Page 57

Look around [the inner city of Liverpool]. 15% of land is either vacant or derelict. The largest amount of open space in any city in Britain. A testimony to the folly of politicians and planners. Theirs was a straightforward policy. Clear the slums, build a motorway system to the docks, rehouse people on the estates, like it or not. The population of the inner city was cut by half in these 'boom' years - 800,000 to 500,000. Of course we know the last chapter. The docks were rationalised, rates were lost and the money ran out. The motorway was never finished. The people of Liverpool have to live with the devastation that remains. The planners have moved on to their modest, but equally destructive, ring roads.

Page 61

Even in the more successful estates like Skem, the priorities of capital prevail, as one commentator ruefully remarked:

"The housing in the new town itself, which wins awards from other architects who wouldn't dream of living in it either, is clearly designed as storage units in which to keep your labour foce when they're off shift - as clinically efficient as a factory farm."
(Guardian 29.4.77.)


In a very real sense [the council] are "managers of discontent". A point not lost on Peter Walker, a former Tory Secretary of State for the Environment who, in a Commons debate in 1978, outlined the political threat:

"What alarms me is that political forces, including the National Front and extreme left-wing revolutionary organisations, are taking the fullest advantage of this situation.............We are entering a phase in which a whole crowd of young people are becoming hostile to society. We are discussing problems which exist in districts with between 40% and 60% unemployment - particularly among black youngsters............As yet these young people are not organised by the criminal networks, but they will be if the current situation continues."

Page 62

In the first place, financial aid is channelled to private industry in the form of grants, subsidies and employment premiums. This has the effect of paying part of a firm's costs of production. It is worth looking at the extent of these grants on Merseyside over the last few years. Since 1974 for example, regional incentives have totalled £55.7m and regional development grants £162.6m. Quite a sizeable amount. Also, under the Advance Factory Programme 59 units (a total of 45,000 sq.mts.) have already been built since 1974. Another 64 units have already been authorised.

Page 64

The local authorities no doubt paused for a moment of self-congratulation. For when it comes to transport they have never been found wanting. The recent £35m proposed ring road around Liverpool City centre is only the latest chapter in a continuing sage of the sacrifice of Liverpool to the container lorry and the motor car.

Page 66

Progressive or not, it is clear that the intention of [a community development project in Vauxhall] was, by focusing on the community, to establish new forms of social control over what it saw as 'problem' people. Politically important this, because it successfully diverted attention away from the real causes of deprivation. By locating the 'problem' within the people themselves, it made it seem as though inequality and deprivation were the inevitable result of 'urban' ways of life - rather than the products of a particular economic system.

Page 68

In principle, the idea of the industrial estate is not to be jeered at for a socialist Britain engaged in renewal and regeneration would certainly have adopted an identical policy of starting from scratch in the fields. That the policy has obviously failed is not the fault of just about everyone's favourite scapegoats - the city planners and architects. Without in any way wishing to exonerate the architects and their political masters for such crimes against humanity as Netherley, Cantril Farm and Tower Hill, the failure of the industrial estate has got nothing to do with architecture. It has failed because the industry located in it could not provide secure and long-term employment.

Page 71

The problem of Speke is neither its people nor its housing. The problem is economic: while the city council could plan organise and run the housing side of the operation, it was powerless to do the same for the industrial side of the operation. The council could provide the houses and the land and services for the factories - but not the jobs.

[Moving on to the history of the Labour Party in the city]
Page 76

[The religious divide in the city] meant also that up to the 1920s Catholic working class areas like Vauxhall, Sandhills, Scotland Road and Brunswick voted for their own party - the Irish Nationalist Party, which in the early '20s became the second largest party in the council. After Irish partition in 1921 the basis of the I.N.P. in Liverpool was eroded. Irish independence, the cornerstone of Nationalist policy, had at least been partially won, even though the exclusion of the six counties from the settlement left the nationalist goal incomplete. The I.N.P. in Liverpool changed its name to the Catholic Party, and finally was absorbed into the Labour Party by the late '20s.


Once again, the traditions of Liverpool are unusual The Labour Party in Liverpool has always been weak. It did not win a Parliamentary seat in Liverpool until a by-election in Edge Hill in 1923 (how ironic that Labour's first seat in Liverpool should be the one to be taken from Labour by the Liberals in 1979). It did not win a majority of Liverpool seats until the Labour landslide of 1945. On the council, Labour only gained an overall majority as late as 1955, and since then has only ruled intermittently. Compared to the other major working class cities of Britain this is a very poor record.

Page 84

In 1955 the Labour group became the controlling party on Liverpool City Council. The secretary's annual report fairly accurately records the event.

"To a casual visitor to this city this (the Labour victory) would not appear any great victory as Liverpool, like Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and London would seem a 'natural' to be Labour controlled. But then one has to know something of the history of the great city to appreciate the immense difficulties that had to be overcome by the labour movement. [...]

Page 86

Opposition to high-rise [blocks of flats] was beginning to grow. Sheenan the Tory leader of the council said he didn't like putting people in the sky and a survey carried out by the Daily Post suggested that only four in every hundred of those questioned wanted to live in flats. But the housing committee was not disheartened. In 1954 they sent a deputation (expenses paid) to New York to see the multi-storey flat construction methods.

Page 92

[...] none of the local parties were prepared to even take on the task of doing something about the problems of the city. It is hard to see the Labour Party of today mounting a coherent campaign to resist the run-down of Merseyside. There seems to be a crisis of confidence within the party itself.

[Did that provide the opening for Militant? Not that they achieved any resistance to the running down of the area.]

Page 100

Men on Merseyside schooled in the casual [contracts of work] tradition [mostly on the docks] did not easily or willingly submit to what they believed to be 'union dictation'. Casualism, despite its associations with poverty and general insecurity, conferred a degree of independence and control over the job which many workers would not easily relinquish.

Page 101

One group which did not come within the structure of the union until 1942, and then only under the exigencies of war, were the cooks and stewards, who consistently fought the union throughout these years. They were the epitome of the tradition that insisted that you "got your own job, worked your own company and if it was no good got out". Given that the bulk of the transatlantic liner trade was conducted from Liverpool in the inter-war years the cooks and stewards were in a strong bargaining position. They could bargain for themselves without any "big brother".

Page 105

Mass production makes intolerable demands on workers - The discipline of the clock; the speed of the line; the tyrany of supervision; the ever present threat of lay-off; the power of management. In this context the struggle for job control takes new forms.

Page 113

So do we beg and grovel for any crumb that comes our way? A council-created small firm, another grant from central government for grass seed or even a private company attracted to the area by its "cracker-jack" workers. We don't necessarily reject any of them - we merely say that from the point of view of the nature of the crisis and its acceleration they are not even palliatives - they're insults.


The solution, such as it is, lies not in their hands but in the hands of the people of Merseyside.

Page 114

All struggles, whether it be over closures, the defence of living standards, against health service cuts, or the fight for equal treatment of women or minority groups, require wider horizons than the trade union movement at present has.

Page 115

If investment decisions are to be made more accountable, the criterion of efficiency has to be something other than profit. Efficiency ought to be measured by such things as: does it answer real as distinct from manufactured needs; does it enhance the quality of life; does it conserve rather than squander natural resources; and not least, does it provide an outlet for people's creative talents?

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