A Bad Week for Weakened Leaders: But how far is Paris from Agincourt?

October 19, 2007

agincourt.jpg
It’s been a bad week for British leaders. A spate of sackings and resignations has occurred. The battered leaders met their nemesis after humiliating performances in sport, business and politics. But hope persists at the prospects for a great victory in the Rugby World Cup

There are so many stories. Too many for me to cover all of them in detail.

Some were easier to predict than others. Sammy Lee acquired his job at the start of the season, as manager of Bolton Wanderers FC, when the much-admired Sam Allardyce was head-hunted for Newcastle United. He stepped up from Big Sam’s shadow. But from the start he was dubbed little Sam, a painful reminder of his erstwhile stature and status. Bolton has had a dreadful start to the season. In a little league table of Premiership managers facing the sack, I had him placed second (just below Martin Jols of Tottenham). Sorry Martin. Hang in there.

Then there were the casualties from the World Cup of Rugby Football. I didn’t have a list of these. But I certainly would not have placed Graham Henry of the New Zealand All Blacks anywhere near the top. My list of managers most likely to take an early bath would have been headed by England’s Brian Ashton, about whom more later. Henry’s team had been confirming their status as the tournament favourites until the quarter finals. Until then they had outstripped opponents so thoroughly that they had hardly become match tight. They lost a tight game, playing below their potential. Exit New Zealand. Exit Henry.

Wales, Ireland and Scotland failed to make it through the first stage of the tournaments. Out went Gareth Jenkins of Wales, and Eddie O’ Sullivan, of Ireland. Only Scotland’s much-rated Frank Hadden survived.

England’s football coach Steve McClaren also seems to be surviving on borrowed time, after defeat to Russia leaves England’s qualification from the European Cup in doubt. In his case, there is a mathematical probability that England will reach the knockout stage of the European competition. This, as much as somewhat improved performances by the team, is staying the hand of the English Football Association. They had already botched the appointment of McClaren after a hasty effort and failed effort to secure Big Sam (sorry, Big Phil) Scolari during last year’s World Cup.

[Will Big Steve survive in his present coaching job longer than Big Martin Jols of Tottenham?].

In Politics

In Politics the increasingly nasty tussles between Gordon Brown and David Cameron continue in Parliamentary exchanges. Ironically, the more immediate victim of that contest was Ming Campbell of the Liberal Democrats. In a decision that caught the press unawares, Ming has his retirement announced for him by two leading Lib Dem king-makers and king -unmakers. (‘Did you wield the knife’ one reporter shouted audibly during the televised announcement. No, he resigned. Ming spoke the next day, saying he had decided that he would not be able to deflect the media from obsessing about his age, thus hindering all attempts to get across the political messages he wanted to convey.

These petty-paced political moves are arguably no more than the uncomfortable outcroppings of democracy. As I write, I learn of the real carnage within presumably an assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto as she re-entered Pakistan after a decade of exile.

In Business

In the aftermath of the celebrated Northern Rock affair, the bank’s leaders appeared before the commons select committee that had already interviewed the leaders of the Bank of England, The treasury, and The Financial Services Authority.

Under typically robust questioning, Adam Applegarth and Matt Ridley denied that they had ‘done anything wrong’ but indicated that they would accept the judgement of their shareholders, if they were eventually forced to resign.

In the course of the questioning, it was also revealed that all the bank’s senior directors had offered to resign in the immediate aftermath of the run, but had been asked to stay on to sort out its problems.

I think they are safe for the moment, on the same grounds as Big Steve McClaren has a temporary stay of execution. [Stop press, a few hours after I posted this, Dr Ridley accepted the inevitable and resigned].

In a somewhat different story, ITV faces calls for the dismissal of various culprits in their money-making scheme based on rigged phone-in contests. The enormity of this story can be seen when it emerges that Mr Ant and Mr Dec are under threat. That’s like Santa up for shop-lifting in the Christmas Sales.

England Rugby, The World Cup and Brian Ashton

King-makers popped up to endorse Steve McClaren, and to praise and bury Ming Campbell. They even popped up to endorse coach Brian Ashton, after England’s heart-stopping Rugby Union victory over France. It could be seen as one of those endorsements which increasingly indicate that the coach is in big trouble. The denial serves to signal the presence of trouble, not its absence. This was a slightly different kind of announcement, I think. It was made on the wave of national support for the England team.

Here we have an example of the rapid swings for and against a leader. Less than a month ago, Mr Ashton was seen as credible a leader as Sir Menzies Campbell. The performances of his teams had been bitterly criticized. Now, on the eve of the 2007 final, he now stands one game short of receiving the kind of accolades showered on his predecessor Clive Woodward after his team became World Champions, four years ago. Outside of England, the suspicion is that England are serious underdogs to a South African team that beat them comprehensively in the run up to the finals. This is not a time for logic. How far is from Paris to Agincourt?


Royal Mail: In praise of wild cats

October 19, 2007

wild-cat.jpg

The very term wildcat strike implies a dangerous untamed force is stalking the land.. How different from our own cherished and domesticated pussy cats. But wildcat strikes may be a necessary force for inevitable change

The vocabulary of conflict

The vocabulary of conflict can be revealing of our deeply held beliefs and fears. In the Royal Mail dispute, reports differentiated between official and unofficial action. Official action is granted some legitimacy. The unofficial actions quickly led to the language of wildcat strikes.

The terminology an unauthorized work stoppage while a labour contract is still in effect. In practice, the strikers often insist that the labour contract conditions have been broken by ‘management’, or ‘The government’ , (Or even, sometimes, by their own Union leaders) leaving them with no other redress for the injustice. but to strike Each side claims the legal high-ground

The interventionist view

The Guardian reported the interventionist view:
Gregor Gall, a professor of industrial relations at Hertfordshire University, said there was a “pressing need” for government intervention because of the entrenched positions of both sides in the dispute. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If the service is to be resumed to its normal state, then I think the government, as the single shareholder, does need to step in, and not just call for an end to the strike but actually work towards resolving the issues.” Professor Gall said the prime minister should instruct Royal Mail managers to give some ground in an attempt to find a compromise.

According to The Daily Telegraph [12th October 2007]

An unlikely coalition of Left-wing Labour MPs, Conservatives, unions and academics is now urging John Hutton, the Business and Enterprise Secretary, to intervene

However, the Prime Minister made the Government’s position clear.

He was reported as saying there was

“No justification [for the unofficial actions, and that the dispute] … should be brought to an end on the terms that have been offered as soon as possible”.

Wildcattery

OK. I am not an instinctive admirer of wildcat actions. I have tended to express frustration at the laborious mechanisms of conflict resolution which seem often to lumber towards lose-lose outcomes. I have already expressed these sorts of views in earlier posts.

So why the headline in praise of them? Has something rekindled in me an armchair faith in the revolutionary power of action direct, which I had misplaced somewhere since the days of 1968?

No. Not so much that. Nor even interest in a chance to test events against theories of emergent leadership, or leaderless groups.

It is more a suspicion that when the Government, The Parliamentary Opposition, the Trade Union Council (TUC), and commentators of all political hues apparently share the same broad disapproval, there may just be something worth thinking more deeply about.

In this country there is usually some independent spirit around to state the opposing case, often from what is seen as an off-centre position. However, until some more authentic eccentric speaketh, I will attempt to make the case.

Unofficial action is rather double-edged for Union leaders. It serves to illustrate the determination and commitment of their members. But it is never totally under their control.

If leadership is defined as the exercise of influence towards goals, wildcattery raises uncomfortable questions about whose goals.

In this instance, the unofficial actions seem to have had a galvanizing effect on the negotiators. If this is the case, however unappealing it may be, the threat of wildcat action may have served its purpose, and may have moved things on, giving additional momentum within the negotiations.

It may also offer an indication of hidden dimensions that bring closure to a dispute. Postal Workers were described in as engaging in Spanish practices, by Royal Mail leader Adam Crozier. What might he have meant?

And how intentionally provocative were the actions from management which were alleged to have triggered the wildcat actions on Merseyside and in parts of Greater London? The issue seems to be a reaction against ‘imposed changes’. In the past such ‘they started it’ arguments are rarely clear-cut. The substantive issue is the wish of the posties to start work at 5.30 am, and their managers seeking to implement a 6 am start, with more flexible work allocation to ‘fill-in’ towards the end of a shift.

In any event, today [17 October, 2007] talks are continuing.

The websites of the Royal Mail and the CWU make no mention of unofficial actions, although the BBC reports that there was still some wildcattery persisting around Liverpool and Yorkshire.