Mad as hell

A new wave of militant consumer is rising, hitting large corporations where it hurts - in the wallet

Rail strikes are usually attacked for the pain they inflict on poor, hard-working commuters. This year's rail strikes will present railway-industry spin-doctors with a knotty problem: they're actually organised by the poor, hard-working commuters themselves. Last month's announ cement of plans by More Trains Less Strain to co-ordinate a national fare strike caused alarm in boardrooms across the country. It heralds the rise of Militant Consumer, an unaffiliated network of activists that has started attacking companies where it hurts - in the pocket.

Somerset-based More Trains Less Strain declared its intention to withhold its money after a limited but surprisingly successful local fare strike in January. The group persuaded 2,000 passengers to travel from Bath to Bristol submitting fake tickets and passes for their entire journey. Each ticket had Fare Strike written across the bottom in glaring capitals, the company's logo presented as Worst Great Western and the route given as Hell and Back. Passengers showing the fake tickets were waved through, with staff at Bristol Temple Meads even showing strikers out through a side gate.

Although the First Great Western spokeswoman Elaine Wilde insisted only one person had travelled with a fake ticket, the company caved in to the group's demands instantly, borrowing carriages from other train-operating companies across Britain to ease overcrowding. "We're now considering leading a national fare strike and we're collecting as many consumer groups as we can," said Peter Andrews, a founding member of the group. "It's just a ridi culous idea to run a railway like this."

The birth of More Trains Less Strain in December 2006 marked the end of a curious year of discontent. In the preceding 12 months, at least ten separate consumer groups began withholding or reclaiming money from utilities, banks, credit cards, incompetent councils and software providers across the UK.

"The problem is that the governments of the past 20 years have legally sanctioned poor service and aggressive disregard of customers by allowing large monopolies to grow up and then refusing to regulate their behaviour," says Gareth Coombs at the Cambridge Strategy Centre. "You get the sense that we're almost in a pre-poll-tax protest era - lots of people are really annoyed, looking at each other, all ready to go as soon as someone else does, but worried about acting alone. They're working on the principle that they can't jail everyone, but they want some-one to go first. This, of course, is how trade unions originally developed. Maybe the new generation of trade unions will be militant organisations designed to hurt the profits of firms who abuse consumers."

Marc Gander is at the forefront of this new wave of direct taxation. To date, he has cost the British banking industry roughly £50m, although it's hard to be sure of the exact total. He knows for a fact (he can produce the paperwork) that he's been responsible for £11m, although newspaper reports suggest it's significantly more - maybe £60m and rising.

At the end of 2005, Gander, an academic lawyer, was out of work. He was struggling to make ends meet and his bank threatened to close his account in a dispute over £150, an amount that meant a lot to him. The bank's indifference brought his resentment at the appalling service he had been receiving for years bubbling to the surface. With a computer programmer friend, he founded the Consumer Action Group in January 2006, based on his view that the bank's charges were unlawful. "UK law has it that you can only issue penalty charges to cover cost, not to make a profit," he says.

Groundswell of outrage

Gander posted sample letters and legal advice for those seeking to reclaim penalty charges on his website, www.consumeractiongroup.co.uk. These were picked up by other websites until the Consumer Association, Which? and various newspapers took up the cause. The CAG now has 140,000 members, 8,000 of whom have successfully won money from their banks. According to the Independent, more than two million non-members have also used CAG tactics to reclaim money. The groundswell of outrage forced the Office of Fair Trading to broaden its investigation into credit-card charges to include banks. "I expect the OFT ruling will drastically cut the charges, but I think the action group will go on," Gander says. "It would be a shame to let all this energy and commitment dissolve."

In July 2006, the Guildford IT consultant Andrew Morrell took a similar approach to Thames Water. He was so incensed that the company had missed its leakage targets for the sixth year in a row that he decided to withhold roughly 32 per cent of his bill - the proportion of water that leaks out of Thames's pipes every year. "There's a contract that I agree to pay Thames for the water, but it agrees to repair its leaks," he explains. "It's not fulfilling its promises, the regulator does absolutely nothing, and the company has just been sold for a vast profit." Morrell's website - www.thameswas ter.co.uk - offers a calculating system to work out what to remove from your bill, links to sites selling consumer-friendly meters, and tips on making it as expensive as possible for Thames Water to get heavy.

Meanwhile, over at www.bbctvlicence.com, Matt D offers extensive advice on avoiding prosecution for non-payment of the licence fee. In April, the website carried the following message: "This site has reached a small but significant milestone in that it has helped 739 people resist BBC harassment. This means that in the six and a half months this site has been running, a tidy £100,000 has been denied to the BBC. Admittedly, that is not much compared to the £18m salary paid to Jonathan Ross, but it is a start. If BBCtvLicence.com has helped you get rid of your fear of BBC intimidation, please repay by telling other people about this site."

This year the action has spread to individual hit-and-run consumer terrorists. On chat forums such as www.penaltycharges.co.uk, campaigners swap tips for future skirmishes. Even mainstream financial websites have felt the mood of their audience change and started adding guerrilla advice. MoneySavingExpert.com, for instance, now offers a "credit-card revenge" page, with step-by-step guides for borrowing money from zero per cent credit cards and investing it in high-interest accounts.

Elsewhere, militant consumers have used more surreal protest tactics. The Complaints Choir of Birmingham (www.complaintschoir.org) encourages local people to set their complaints to music and then gather outside the offending organisations to sing their criticism - to the chorus "I want my money back". Similar complaints groups have sprung up in Helsinki, St Petersburg and Pittsburgh. What's curious is that all these campaigns began around the same time, and all avoid mainstream consumer organisations in favour of the kind of action that was previously the preserve of the militant left: becoming the Animal Liberation Front to the mainstream's RSPCA, if you like. Few of these group's organisers have any previous experience of protest. Indeed, most of them are previously respectable pillars of Middle England. These new-generation Militant Consumers find themselves sitting on broken trains, being palmed off by financial service companies and ignored by monopolistic utilities companies. In the words of Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network, they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more.

According to Mark Ratcliffe, who runs the consumer research company Murmur, this tide has been rising for a long time. Until the 1990s, he argues, Brits were happy to rely on the Consumers Association, TV watchdog shows and ombudsmen to police the high street. As companies made more money and we received worse service, however, our faith in the usual watchmen declined.

"People have spent the past ten years seeing, for instance, banks profits soaring but their behaviour seeming ever more petty and vindictive," says Ratcliffe. "Then these companies put out huggy-lovey advertising that people think is disgusting, and everyone recoils.

"I'd say the next target will be the mobile-phone companies. Everybody hates them, but they're a necessity. We all know that if they gave us free calls and free internet for £40 a month they'd still be making £30 from us. Consumers are itching to find a way to put a rocket up their arse and as soon as someone's found it, you watch it kick off."

Ratcliffe and Coombs both predict a rise in Militant Consumer action. "The chance of mainstream political parties and even established pressure groups responding to people's day-to-day experience is becoming ever more remote," Ratcliffe argues. "If no one is listening and you have nowhere to turn, you either despair or do something about it.

"At the moment, it feels as though the British are getting ready to do the latter."

Militant Consumers Worldwide

Bus fares in Athens rose so sharply in 2002 that transport staff refused to collect the fares.

Vincent Ferrari heard it was notoriously hard to cancel an AOL account, and recorded himself pleading to cancel for his blog. It got 700,000 hits. AOL complied and apologised.

The food giant GlaxoSmithKline was fined £80,000 when two Auckland schoolgirls proved that Ribena is not "rich in Vitamin C".

Furious customers in Mexico City used a website called Apestan.com (theystink.com) to wage a campaign against a furniture company.

Research by Shabeeh Abbas and Jonathan Pearson

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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