Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘Conservatives’

The nightmare realms

Or, some things are too awful to talk about

Very long-term readers, or people who have gone delving around in the archives, might be aware that back when this site started, I used to talk about politics on a reasonably regular basis. Indeed, if you look in the menus (either down below or over on the right), you can see there’s a whole category for it. Since the restart, though, there really hasn’t been anything political that I have wanted to write about, or thought it worth writing about at all.

Fifteen years ago, British politics was in a pretty moribund state. The passion that led from getting a Labour government into power on a landslide win had faded. The Tories flailed aimlessly for a few years before settling on a leader with a shiny, plastic PR-friendly exterior and barely anything on the inside beyond a passionate over-confidence in his own ability. Labour were just…tired, fading away into a party mostly consisting of bland interchangeable technocrats. The feeling I had was: it didn’t matter back then what you thought about politics. Everything was just a bland porridge of centrist-looking parties not wanting to rock the boat, not doing anything too controversial or too likely to upset the press barons, mostly interested in finding some sort of grey consensus. There was a vague sense of religious morality underlying everything, a vague tinge of disapproval of anything sexual that wasn’t straight, cis and vanilla; but otherwise nobody seemed to have any passion or aims beyond their own careers.

I somehow predicted the planned outcome of the 2010 General Election five years ahead of time, and could see that the Tories were slowly and painfully pulling themselves apart as a party, but almost everything else I tried to predict about what might happen to the world, politically, turned out to be wrong. I suppose that’s still a better success rate than most political journalists who actually get paid to ramble, but nevertheless, I still feel as if maybe fifteen years ago I should have realised the extent of the precipice we were on, and just how far we were going to fall, when people realised just how to take advantage of the online world, and of the bland vacuity that was 2000s politics. I didn’t realise the Tories would keep themselves alive by trying to absorb every opinion to the right of them. Eight or nine years or so later, their ploys all played off, and we have been in the nightmare timeline ever since. We should have seen in coming.

So now, why would I want to write about politics, when it is worse, darker, more divisive, than anything I would have ever imagined? Fifteen years ago, you often would hear people saying they didn’t trust politicians, that they never told the truth, that no politician was ever honourable. People have taken advantage of that: if nobody ever trusted politicians, why should they even try to tell the truth? Why should they even try to behave with honour? In Britain the government has made it clear that laws are for others to obey and them to ignore, whether at the level of international relations or at the level of individuals. It seems pointless sometimes to point out just how poisonous this is. All we can do is try to still behave honourably ourselves. In this morning’s news, the American president has apparently come down with the ongoing pandemic disease, one that—given his age and ill health—has a high chance of either killing him outright or leaving him even more mentally impaired than he already is. Given he has recently claimed the disease is a hoax, given that by both accident and design he tells multiple lies every single day, it seems impossible, a few hours later, to tell whether he actually has it or not.

Hopefully, one day, there will be light on the horizon and politics will be boring again. Hopefully one day all the politicians will be interchangeably bland. Looking back, we didn’t realise just how lucky that was. Maybe my ambition for the first year of this blog’s relaunch should be to end up with more posts in the “Trains” category than the “Political” one, because those posts will be much more fun and healthier to both read and write.

Snip, snip, snip

In which we reveal that there really are hundreds of government helplines that nobody ever phones - but cutting them won't actually have any effect

Today’s big news story: the government has started on its grand crusade to save money and thereby rescue the nation. Whether it will work remains to be seen, of course. I was intrigued, though, by one assertion which I heard on the news this morning: the government will save money by cutting back on call centres and helplines, because there are, apparently, many many government helplines which have barely even received a single call.*

Which sounds, on the face of it, shocking. Hundreds of phone lines that have never taken a call? Surely there must be warehouses full of call-centre staff sitting waiting for the phone to ring, sitting with their feet up reading magazines and flicking balls of paper at each other, because they have hundreds of phone lines but no calls to take?

Er, no. Despite the image put across there, it is completely false. I know this because: well, I have worked for such phone lines. Yes, there are indeed hundreds of government-funded phone numbers that have never, ever taken a call. That’s because that’s how marketing people like it. The total extra cost of it, per phone line, is peanuts – maybe it gets into whole tens of pounds if you add up absolutely all the figures, but that’s about it.

This is how it works. When the government’s marketing people** think they might want to run a new advertising campaign, they buy up a block of phone numbers, 0800, 0845, or whatever. Then, they produce their TV adverts, print adverts, leaflets, whatever: and each one gets a different phone number on it. All of these numbers will point to the same team – who will usually be already handling a similar type of helpline – and, it’s true, someone does have to go through a spreadsheet of phone numbers and route them to the right call centre. It’s not tricky work. When a call comes in, the hard-worked call-centre staff look at their screen, and make a note of which line it came in on. That information all gets collated, filed, and sent back to the government marketeers, who will graph it all carefully and say “ooh, Leaflet 72B didn’t work very well, it only got half the calls-per-leaflet of Leaflet 72C.”

The reason they do it this way is: it gives them reliable data, not data that relies on the caller’s memory. If you actually ask the caller where they saw the advert, then a) it annoys them, and b) they can’t remember. Even if they think they can remember, they can’t remember. If you say “can you remember what you were watching when you saw it,” you’d be amazed how many people will tell you, in all sincerity, that they saw your advert in the middle of Eastenders. But, on the other hand, it does mean that there are lots and lots of phone numbers that have been bought up in readiness, but which don’t get used; they’re there, just in case more numbers are needed. Having them sitting and programmed-in to the phone network, though, doesn’t really hurt. It certainly wouldn’t save the government money if they weren’t there. Indeed, I’m sure that a marketing expert would argue that it wastes money. An advert that doesn’t get a response, after all, is an advert wasted; and if you’re going to pay for a prime-time ad slot, or to print x million leaflets of your latest advertising wonder, you will want to know what sort of response rate it’s getting. The less accurate the data you’re getting back is, the bigger the risk that you’re pouring your ad budget down the drain.

In the long term, a hurried cut in the wrong place could cost you millions further down the line. So: sometimes, something that looks like a simple saving isn’t one. Especially when it’s something that’s hardly a big saving at all. There are indeed many government-owned phone numbers that have never, once, been called. That doesn’t mean they’re costing us anything to have, though; and it doesn’t mean that somehow the government is doing something wrong, that it’s set all these call centres up then forgotten to tell anyone; or that it’s set up lines that nobody wants to call. Those people, waiting for you to ring, are already busy enough.

* This would have been on Today at some point, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I can’t really find any news stories online that refer to this particular claim, apart from this one in the Shropshire Star; The Guardian refers to it more obliquely.

** The Central Office of Information, who sound slightly Soviet but are really the government’s advertising and marketing arm. They are the people who sit between the media, the advertising agencies and the call centre companies on the one hand, and the government departments who want to put their message across on the other; whether it be an NHS public health campaign like “don’t get swine flu”, HMRC trying to get you to send your tax return in on time, or the MoD trying to get people to join up.


In which Boris Johnson might help perpetuate a stereotype

According to yesterday’s Observer, Boris Johnson is planning to stand for election as Rector of Edinburgh University.*

I’m not among the relevant electorate, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. Aside from the fact that he can hardly spend much time on the job, it’s hardly going to do very much for the university’s reputation. Edinburgh is already known as the university for posh, rich English kids who aren’t bright enough for Oxbridge; voting for someone who carefully cultivates a reputation for being posh and bumbling is hardly going to help.

* I’m quite pleased that I managed to avoid the cliché of adding “…is planning to follow in Gordon Brown’s footsteps by…” Aaargh, damn, I’ve spoilt it now. At least Brown’s Rectorship had a lasting effect: he annoyed the University management so much that they banned students from standing for the post.