Tuesday 29 September 2009

Consider what lies behind the label

This is the golden age of the brand, when simply attaching a fancy label to almost any product can inflate its value to a multiple of its intrinsic worth.

Ask a food industry professional which mass market retailer in the UK sells the best meat pies, and they will almost certainly give you the name of one of those German-based discounters, which famously sets manufacturers a higher specification than any of the so-called “quality” retail chains.

A former client of mine at the cheap and cheerful end of the fashion industry used to give City analysts an arresting presentation comparing the price and quality of his garments with those of more mainstream high street chains. Often the clothes were absolutely identical, even sourced from the self-same factories in the Far East; yet the price differentials were huge, and all based on the relative snob appeal of each retailer’s label.

I have listened to marketing experts present case studies of products that failed completely until they were re-launched at much higher prices, because consumers then reckoned that they must be something special. The entire cosmetics industry is based on investing millions in brands to convince the gullible that they are “worth it”. When the EU insisted that manufacturers start disclosing ingredients on their bottles, they opted to use the Latin “aqua” in the hope that most mugs would not twig that they were mainly buying ludicrously expensive scented water.

Meanwhile in the car market, I saved myself thousands by buying an excellent Nissan 4x4 rather than a remarkably similar vehicle with a more coveted badge on the bonnet.

All value retailers struggle to convince investors of their merits because they are simply not places that City types would be seen dead shopping themselves. A few years ago a food retailing client of mine was amazed by an exchange over lunch in which a very senior stockbroker (and former Government minister) asked him to justify his characterisation of Waitrose as “upmarket”. Baffled, he turned the question around to ask the grandee which food shops he thought would answer that description, and the answer was naturally the establishments where his wife bought all their own groceries: Fortnums and Harrods.

All of which came deliciously to mind last week when the boss of organic food suppliers Onefood and Swaddles, purveyors of a pie billed as “the best in the UK” to Fortnum & Mason, was jailed after Trading Standards officers uncovered the real secret of his supply chain. He simply bought non-organic products from the likes of Tesco, Waitrose and his local butcher, and repackaged them for sale at vastly inflated prices.

What fools snobbery makes of us, as the black arts of advertising and public relations are applied to the creation of brands we think we can trust. It happens in politics, too, where the Blair brand was a consummate PR creation, delivering three successive election victories despite the product’s self-evident failure to deliver exactly what it said on the tin.

British politicians can only dream of the billion dollars invested to create the Obama brand, but the Cameron brand seems to hold some promise – and, of course, the only job “Dave” has held outside politics was as a PR man. His greatest challenge will be the presence on the other side of that supreme manipulator of public opinion, Lord Mandelson, a person in whose presence even Max Clifford must surely doff his cap and recognise that he is a mere amateur.

From meat pies to Prime Ministers, the challenge to the consumer is to see through the fog of branding to the underlying quality of the product. You do not necessarily get what you pay for. But in political parties as in pullovers, the niggling worry must be that they really are all very much the same apart from their labels.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Savage cuts - and even worse in store?

So, electors of Britain, how would you like your spending cuts? Bold, savage or draconian? What, you were hoping for the usual pre-election promises of more cash for schools ‘n’ hospitals, the faint hope of a high speed rail link in your lifetime, and the even dimmer one of a dual carriageway A1?

Forget it. It isn’t going to happen. Not at the coming election anyway.

No, it looks like your only choice is going to be deciding which party would do the best job of wielding the axe. Which, as Paul Linford was suggesting on Saturday, should hand an advantage to the Tories because they have a reputation for that sort of thing.

An unjustified reputation, as it happens, since Mrs Thatcher actually presided over an increase in the proportion of GDP absorbed by the British State, and record increases in health and welfare spending. But at least we all knew that, in her heart, she wanted to rein things back. That surely needs to be the default setting of anyone aspiring to govern the country. We have tried the alternative of the surprisingly open-handed Scotsman who wanted to spray our cash around like a drunk with a fire extinguisher at a crazy foam party, and we have seen precisely where that got us. In the proverbial, in case you had not noticed.

I can think of no better illustration of the madness of the current regime than the fact that yesterday I sent off the £250 voucher graciously sent to me to open a Child Trust Fund account. Apparently if the little fellow makes it to his seventh birthday they will send me the same again. Only they won’t, with any luck, because it will be one of the egregious wastes of public money that whoever wins the next election will abolish. Along with my £20 per week child benefit and the tax credits paid to couples living on what sound like perfectly comfortable incomes to me.

The Government needs to recognise that most of us can look after ourselves, thanks, and want nothing more than to be left alone. In particular, we have no desire to fork out yet more in tax to pay for bright sparks to dream up ever more complicated schemes to “help” us, which require thick, glossy brochures and well-staffed call centres to explain what on earth they are about.

We can also do without all their efforts to protect us from miniscule risks of harm through their ever-expanding web of databases, surveillance and checks.

I would pledge my vote today to anyone who guaranteed that they would scrap ID cards, the NHS IT scheme and the 2012 Olympics, withdraw from Afghanistan, allow a free and unbiased vote on our continued membership of the European Union, and focus welfare spending on those in genuine need. So, sadly, there is not going to be any candidate in 2010 that I really want to vote for, and many more of us are going to be in the same boat. Thus turnout continues to diminish and politicians keep wringing their hands wondering where they are going wrong.

And why 2010, incidentally? Why not now? According to the conspiracy theorists, because Lord Mandelson is on a mission to prop up Gordon Brown until the Irish have been brow-beaten into rethinking their opposition to the Lisbon Treaty, the new European Constitution is enacted and Tony Blair installed as President, calculating that “Dave” Cameron will lack the bottle to give the British people a referendum on the subject when he is faced with this fait accompli.

I am not normally a believer in conspiracy theories, but this one seems more plausible than most. Could all the talk of vicious spending cuts and tax increases simply be a ploy by the political class to take our minds off something even worse?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

We can change the future, not the past

I studied history at university because I prefer living in the past. Like a photographic print in the pre-digital era, it is developed and fixed. I can wallow comfortably in my memories, free of the pressure to take difficult decisions that always mars the present.

The past is also, as L.P Hartley observed, “a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Britain and the other great empires that have risen and fallen through the ages generally did not achieve their pre-eminence by being nice to foreigners, women or other less favoured groups like followers of minority religions or homosexuals.

Which may be a shame, but is a fact that cannot be altered. So we are on the slippery slope to madness when our leaders start apologising for laws and customs long consigned to history. Our own Prime Minister was at it on Friday, writing (or, more likely, lending his name to) a newspaper article announcing that we were all “deeply sorry” for the “appalling” treatment of the Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing, whose subsequent conviction for gross indecency apparently drove him to suicide.

There were, in fact, a couple of good reasons to welcome this piece. First, because more people should be aware of Turing’s pioneering work in computers, and of the huge contribution that the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park made to shortening the war.

Secondly, because it was a rare example of people power actually working. The apology was prompted by a petition on the Downing Street website; the first time I can recall a blind bit of notice ever being taken of one. If you have a few hours to spare this morning, there are currently 4,403 petitions open for your signature at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk and you can also view a further 58,603 that have been rejected or closed.

This one clearly escaped the usual fate because it had some celebrity supporters and the backing of the LGBT community (which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, in case you were another dinosaur who mistook it for the acronym of a provincial bus company). One of the alliance of special interest groups on which Labour hangs its slender hopes of re-election next year. The convolutions that will be required to stay simultaneously on side with gays, militant feminists and fundamentalist Muslims should be a source of much amusement in 2010.

You may concede that it is doing little practical good to say “sorry” to a man who has been dead for 55 years, but wonder what harm it causes. Like Tony Blair’s “deep sorrow” for Britain’s role in the slave trade, it is putting a foot over the edge of a potentially bottomless pit of grovelling for historical evils: for the children killed up chimneys or down mines, the women burned as witches, the Catholics slaughtered by Cromwell or the Protestants martyred by Bloody Mary. I could go on forever.

Also, when the word “sorry” has been uttered in any case, it will surely not be long before we hear the rumbling bandwagon of lawyers seeking appropriate compensation for the heirs of the wronged.

If the Prime Minister feels the urge to apologise, there are many people still alive who would no doubt be pleased to hear from him. The widows and orphans of those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example; or all those who have lost their jobs, had their pensions devalued or are about to be landed with enormous additional tax bills to pay for his brilliant management of the economy over the last 12 years.

I make that about 60 million letters that will need signing. On the whole, it might be easier to take the hint from the number one petition on his own website, with over 70,000 signatures at the time of writing, and send just one short, contrite note to the Queen.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

How many lives is Afghanistan worth?

In my pessimistic way, I have often dreamt of returning to my house to find it a smoking ruin, as a result of some momentary inattention to detail by the fighter pilots who regularly train overhead.

Luckily, in my nightmare, a policeman always places a consoling hand on my shoulder and assures me that Biggles ejected safely before the plane came down. So that’s all right, then. And at least I feel reasonably sure that the RAF is on my side.

But what if foreign airmen – say Afghans, to pluck an example at random – came along and flattened my house with a bomb? It would also be an accident, “collateral damage” while they were trying to pick off some bloke with a beard and a funny hat who was holed up in a cave in the Cheviots while he masterminded terrorist atrocities overseas.

Would I laugh off their little mistake, accepting that it could happen to anyone, and feel eager to help them tracking down that nasty man? Or would it make me wish more power to his terrorist elbow to get my own back?

Perhaps it is perverse of me, but I suspect the latter. Which rather undermines the main plank of last week’s argument from both Gordon and Dave for our presence in Afghanistan, namely keeping terrorism off our own streets.

There is also the objective of making Afghanistan a functioning, Western-style democracy. After the triumph of the recent, not at all rigged or corrupt, Presidential elections, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website assures us that “Parliamentary and district council elections are scheduled to take place in 2010.”

How strange that we should be spilling blood to create district councils in another country, when the Government has just casually abolished our own. I have tried manfully to picture Afghan councillors politely debating whether to move to fortnightly wheelie bin collections, and working on their expenses claims, but have enjoyed only limited success.

We are also training and supporting the Afghan armed forces until they are strong enough to take over from us, overlooking the detail that the country would never be able to generate the tax revenues needed to pay for them. We are clamping down on the world’s biggest supplier of opium, which will obviously be why drugs are now unobtainable on our streets. We are protecting the rights of women, by keeping out the evil Taliban, who threatened to kill girls seeking education, and replacing them with a cuddly, liberal regime which has just made it legal for men to starve wives who deny them their conjugal rights.

It was entirely understandable, after 9/11, that the world’s greatest military power should feel the urge to give someone a powerful retaliatory kicking, and attacking Afghanistan with its Al Qaeda bases at least made a little more sense than invading Iraq in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.

But terrorists can and will operate anywhere (it is widely argued that the destruction of the World Trade Center was actually planned in Hamburg) and our continuing involvement in Afghanistan strikes me as being more likely to win converts to the anti-Western cause than to deter them.

In short, I question whether whatever we think we are doing in Afghanistan is worth the bones of one British soldier, let alone hundreds. And when we leave, whether in five years or 40, as one general recently predicted, I suspect that we will do so not with Kandahar District Council happily twinned with Sunderland and beating its recycling targets, but with our tails between our legs and no clear sense of achievement. Just like the Russians did in 1989. Not to mention the previous great power that barged in thinking it could sort the place out once and for all. Who was that again?

Oh yes, it was us.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Celebrating one honest man in politics

Some years ago, on a train from Newcastle to Leeds, I found myself sitting across the gangway from then Health Secretary Alan Milburn and his officials, who were working on their plans to drag the NHS kicking and screaming into whichever century we were in at the time.

Their discussions were subject to occasional irreverent interjections from a balding, posh bloke in the seat behind me. He and the Secretary of State were clearly acquainted with each other, and I deduced that he was another Parliamentarian. The thing that puzzled me for the rest of the day was that I was completely sure there were no Tory MPs in the North East called Chris.

In London the next morning I shared the mystery with a friend much more engaged in the political process than I have ever been. He mused for a few seconds, then said “That will have been Chris Mullin”. And he was right.

I have to confess that I never gave Mr Mullin another thought until I picked up, for bank holiday reading, his published diaries, A View From the Foothills. What a marvellous book they make.

Candid, entertaining and wonderfully self-deprecating, they describe long hours of toil to achieve little of any value as “the Minister of Folding Deckchairs” within John Prescott’s mega-department, which Mr Mullin likens to “the court of Boris Yeltsin”. I have by no means finished the book, but so far our hero’s principal triumphs have been imposing a speed limit on Lake Windermere and making a small advance in the battle against the leylandii hedge.

He is proud of what Labour has done for his constituents in Sunderland South, but frustrated by their widespread failure to recognise this. Chiefly owing to what he memorably characterises as “Chronic Whinger Syndrome”.

I am not a supporter of the Labour Party, so it naturally gave me particular pleasure to read one of their own MPs describing the Millennium Dome as “a symbol of all that is wrong with New Labour: shallow, over-hyped, naff”. And the “useless” official draft of one of his own speeches as “Full of New Labour claptrap about strategies, visions, challenges and opportunities, which I was expected to stand and chant like a Mormon missionary.”

Like all honest political diarists of every party, Mr Mullin is prepared to acknowledge (at least in private) the issues on which the other side is right, and reveals the petty jealousies, selfish interests and inevitable compromises that lie behind all official decision making. How one longs to read an equally frank insider’s account of what really happened in the case of the Lockerbie bomber.

In its exhaustive coverage of MPs’ expenses, the Daily Telegraph could find no stickier dirt on Mr Mullin than the fact that he claims at his London flat for licensing a 30-year-old black-and-white TV, because he cannot bear the waste of throwing away something that still works. I am with him on that, as in his yearning for “a simple life. One where we take pleasure from our immediate surroundings. Produce only what we need. Eat what we grow. Travel slowly. And value friendship.”

Indeed, apart from a certain bias against farmers and foxhunters (of whom I imagine there are few in Sunderland South) I have found little so far on which I am not in wholehearted sympathy with Mr Mullin. Which makes it all the sadder that he has decided to retire at the next election. Parliament needs more openness and honesty by people who are prepared to speak their own minds rather than succumb to the control freakery of party spin machines, endlessly terrified of being skewered for a “gaffe”.

The electors of Sunderland South should cherish Mr Mullin while they can, and anyone who takes the slightest interest in current affairs should enjoy his addictively readable book.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.