What I’ve learned from Covid (so far)

I first thought about writing this post back in June 2020, thinking that the worst of the pandemic was over. Clearly I was being optimistic, and now much of what follows sits in a different and perhaps darker context. I’m not sure who I’m writing this for (there’s clearly more than enough writing about the crisis already) but I’m hoping the process will be cathartic and helps me to draw lessons from a year when my perspective has often felt foggy at best.

In summer 2019 my partner and I moved to rural mid-Wales and became parents to our wonderful son. Notwithstanding the usual baptism of fire experienced by new parents, we quickly started building a life for ourselves. When the Covid crisis kicked off, the community here came together to respond and I volunteered to help.

In the initial explosion of news and social media, I was one of many people whose first instinct was to try and help in any way that I could. Fuelled by the adrenaline of such an unprecedented situation (including in terms of how often the word “unprecedented” was used), I found myself volunteering with the local “mutual aid” response.

Within a few weeks there were multiple WhatsApp groups (one with over a hundred people), and even an acronym for the loosely affiliated individuals who had come together.

Like many groups around the country, we decided to set up a website (using WordPress), email address (via Google) and phone number (using Aircall, which for a fairly hefty fee allowed us to register a local number that any of us could use over the internet from our own devices). Self-isolating people who needed support with shopping or collecting prescriptions could therefore request help. We even set up a support request management system using Helpscout (who kindly waived all fees) to log emails and phone calls.

As the full lockdown came into force, and with stories of people going as far as to quarantine their shopping before bringing into their home (let alone actually venturing to a shop), we feared that hundreds of people would be left without food. We are rural enough that there are gaps in supermarket home delivery coverage, and of course plenty of elderly people don’t have the internet anyway.

So our large group of volunteers organised itself into “hyperlocal groups”, and a couple of local developers with GIS skills quickly created a custom Googlemap to show the boundaries between each area. We then (with sanitised hands) attempted to post a flyer through each door to let isolating people know that support was available.

It quickly became apparent that there was a degree of conflict between the self-organising nature of the volunteer group, and the desire of some of the core “coordination team” to have robust systems to ensure that everyone vulnerable had been reached.

It seems silly in hindsight, but I spent many an hour fretting that some local groups hadn’t updated a Google spreadsheet to confirm that all the houses in their area had been reached. I felt self-conscious about contacting people I didn’t know to check in about something that in all likelihood wasn’t a big deal, but that in the minds of some of us had taken on a certain symbolic significance.

The amount of electronic communication (mainly on WhatsApp) quickly became unmanageable for all but the most dedicated of volunteers, and lots of people stopped engaging. Despite this (and probably out of politeness), few actually left groups or made it clear that they didn’t want to be contacted, making it all the more awkward when we tried to get people to engage with the system we had created.

On the other hand, it was great to quickly form relationships with interesting and thoughtful people, and to receive so many different perspectives on how to grapple with the challenges we all suddenly faced.

One observer pointed out that even with the best-designed system in the world, the most vulnerable people would be often be the least likely to engage with it. Sure, we could help those who felt comfortable picking up the phone to a stranger, but those with complex needs such as alcoholism or depression would be unlikely to utilise any service. In those cases, existing local networks and social services would be much better placed to help.

Indeed there was already a local volunteer charity in the town, and we faced a challenge in wanting to support them as much as possible whilst acknowledging that they lacked the modern infrastructure that we had put in place quickly (e.g. their only phone line was in their office so required someone present and covid-safe there all the time if calls were to be answered).

After weeks of effort and frenzied organising, and after the initial adrenaline/novelty of lockdown wore off, it became clear that there wasn’t much demand for the service we had set up. To me, this showed that existing local networks were mostly working (most people had a friend or neighbour to call on). Although I felt a bit sheepish that I’d been part of what may have been an unnecessary initial panic, I definitely didn’t regret anything as it was much better to have helped create a largely unneeded service than the alternative.

As the group gradually disbanded, difficult decisions needed to be taken. Would we keep the phone line active and monitored even if we only received two calls a day? What if one of those calls was from someone who really needed help? Could we somehow pass on our infrastructure and volunteer network to one of the pre-existing volunteer organisations even though they weren’t asking us to do that? And the most tricky question: who was responsible for making these decisions?

Eventually as the first wave subsided, the core group of organisers got smaller as people went back to work (where possible) and generally acknowledged that their time wasn’t needed anymore. Our family had to move back to London temporarily in August due to building work at our rented property and so my personal involvement lessened further at that point.

We moved back to mid-Wales in late November, just as the second wave was getting into full swing. There were some attempts made to circulate flyers again but (much like clapping for the NHS), enthusiasm had waned. I now find myself writing this having barely contemplated volunteering more time in the second wave, resigned to the fact that the pandemic had taken its course and that aside from following lockdown rules I wasn’t really able to make a difference.

It’s worth noting that aside from the support service I helped create, other initiatives came out of our group of volunteers. A project to produce PPE locally was a great success when national supplies were worryingly short, local food growing networks were galvanised when we feared shops may run short, and a solidarity fund to help people economically affected by the pandemic appears to have made a tangible difference to many people’s lives.

I now find myself reflecting somewhat wryly on the change covid could bring to the world. I initially held hope that this great reset would provide an opportunity to reshape society in a more compassionate and sustainable mould.

Perhaps more fundamentally, I was given a glimpse into how much support there is for strangers in need. But that ultimately this has to be led by the public sector in some form, as the obviously responsible entity. Volunteer networks (however enthusiastic) are no replacement for a properly-funded welfare state.

In my more enthusiastic moments reflecting on the remote support-management system we set up, I considered that it wouldn’t be difficult to design and implement a “gig economy”-style system for social care, where local needs were met by those with free time and tasks could be picked up from a queue managed by a distributed team. But when the problems facing the vulnerable in our society are so basic (the huge gap in mental health service provision being an obvious example), it feels somewhat indulgent to entertain such ideas, not least because of the need for proper training of workers in such a system.

I frequently remind myself that it was only a few months before the pandemic started that I was campaigning against Boris Johnson only to see him romp to a landslide. We’ve now seen a huge amount of public spending to prop up the economy, and even though huge amounts are simply being siphoned to the private sector, there has still been a profound shift to the economic picture.

Despite this, there is a total lack of imagination (or indeed will) to make any fundamental changes to how the economy is structured, with spending primarily focused on restoring the pre-pandemic status quo. It seems depressingly clear that the pandemic winners are the likes of Jeff Bezos and those in the professional classes sufficiently well-networked to tap into Tory public money.

Maybe it’s just that we’re still facing the same problems we were before it all started. It’s hard to tell if society’s capacity to respond to problems has been fragmented or not because those of us who consider ourselves “progressive” were already divided and licking wounds after Johnson and Brexit’s ultimate victory. At least Trump and his anti-science agenda has gone and if nothing else we can thank Covid for that.

The reality is that hundreds of thousands in the UK are dead, and despite many of us putting huge energy into trying to avert disaster at a local level, it seems impossible to know whether it made any difference at all versus the bigger forces at play (let’s be honest, I don’t know many people forced to work in meat factories, cramped accommodation, or other places where covid runs rampant).

Nevertheless I feel grateful for living in a community that was able to come together quickly and effectively. And I feel heartened that this story is far from unique and appears to have been repeated around the country. I shall go forward with hope in my heart, despite the dark months we’ve seen this winter. I resolve to put what energy I can muster into helping those less fortunate than me recover, especially given how severe the collective mental health fallout is likely to be.

Full beam ahead for solar-powered trains*

For the past 18 months (when not changing my son’s nappies in the fresh air of mid-Wales), I’ve been non-executive Chair of solar trains pioneer Riding Sunbeams. Last week we hit a huge milestone in announcing our first commercial investment, from Thrive Renewables and Friends Provident Foundation.

I was initially invited to join the board by my good friend Leo Murray, who through Possible (previously 10:10) has done a huge amount of great work on climate (not to mention creating Trump baby).

Having spent the previous decade in very much an executive role, chairing a board has been a fascinating challenge. It has also frankly been refreshing not doing much of the day-to-day work (huge respect to the core team who’ve got it this far).

When I joined the board in spring 2019, Riding Sunbeams was a newly-created company limited by guarantee. This is a typical non-profit structure and is consistent with the aim of local communities owning the solar farms that we intend to build and connect to the railways. The challenge was that without being able to issue shares, there was no practical way for the company to raise investment.

Whilst individual solar farms are often set up as cooperatives (such as Southill Solar in Oxfordshire), Riding Sunbeams is pioneering a new model (which comes with a level of risk) and therefore requires startup finance for the core organisation before it can facilitate the creation of individual projects.

The company had successfully applied for a number of grants (mostly Department for Transport/Innovate UK), but the projects were focused on demonstrating technical innovation (i.e. how to literally connect the solar farms to the railways), and did not provide the core organisation funding needed to roll-out the technology and create a pipeline of installation sites.

We therefore decided to create a new limited by shares company (“Riding Sunbeams Apollo”). This decision wasn’t taken lightly given the (well-deserved) reputation of shareholders prioritising profit to the detriment of wider society. There was concern that the community vision underpinning Riding Sunbeams would be lost to the commercial interests of incoming investors, despite the two founding charities (Possible and Community Energy South) retaining a majority stake.

Thankfully we had tools at our disposal to lock in the community benefit. Purposely is a simple tool that helps social enterprises modify their Articles of Association (a public document that can be accessed via Companies House) to enshrine a clear purpose.

In our case, the “Objects” of Riding Sunbeams Apollo are to:

(a) carry out such business and related activities as will:
(i) decarbonise the transport system by developing renewable energy assets and using the electricity generated by such assets to power trains and other forms of transport; and (ii) enable community ownership of renewable energy assets, where possible, to operate for community benefit as part of a just transition to a decarbonised economy; and
(b) promote the success of the Company:
(i) for the benefit of its members as a whole; and (ii) through its business and operations, in order to have a material positive impact on society and the environment, taken as a whole.

Extract from clause 3 of Riding Sunbeams Apollo Ltd Articles of Association

Despite the legalese, the clear intent (particularly around a “just transition to a decarbonised economy”) is fairly unique for a company receiving commercial investment and seeking to quickly scale a technology innovation.

Of course it wouldn’t have been possible to commit to such a clear statement without the cooperation of the incoming investors.

Having funded Loco2 via angel investment, I’d not had previous experience of institutional investment (unless you count when we sold the company, which was certainly a formative legal process). So it was fascinating to participate (albeit at arm’s length) in the process led by Thrive (the renewables arm of Triodos Bank) and their lawyers.

It’s clear that there’s a huge amount of goodwill from both Thrive and Friends Provident Foundation (who interestingly are themselves a charity) to scale the venture quickly and effectively in line with the values that we all share. This investor/company relationship sits in stark contrast to the many horror stories of venture capital that have put me off the institutional route in the past.

Riding Sunbeams now has the opportunity to prove that it’s possible to achieve scale without compromising on values. I’m proud to have played a small part in getting it to this point.

*if any journalists reading this want to steal my excellent headline, beam my guest

The road to nowhere?

A bleak but appropriate song for my mind to choose upon awakening this morning. Here’s what I’ve learned from the disaster that has befallen us.

  • Together, Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru won 50.8% of the national vote. Under proportional representation they could be forming a coalition government, and the Tories would be in opposition.
  • It is now all but impossible for Labour to resist calls to support PR (especially given the reinforced SNP dominance in Scotland). It’s beyond depressing that it has taken a Tory landslide for this reality to hit home.
  • Leave voters continue to believe that “getting Brexit done” will improve their lives and public services like the NHS. They will only now begin learning that the reality is much more complicated than empty slogan promises.
  • The future of immigration policy is less clear than ever. Without substantial economic changes, a vote against the EU is a vote for increased immigration from elsewhere (if we are to have any hope of staffing the NHS for example). Neither the Tories nor their voters are acknowledging this reality.
  • We now have a powerful populist nationalist government led by an inept careerist who will resort to blaming others (especially foreigners now that he can’t blame Parliament) for future failings.
  • In future decision-making Johnson will repeatedly fall back on the easiest option that he can spin as success (e.g. cosmetic spending splurges that benefit the private sector, finalising a damaging trade deal with the US).
  • Despite the overwhelming evidence of his lying, almost 50% of the electorate have embraced Johnson. Many appear to see his dishonesty as an asset that distinguishes him from d0-gooding MPs who they perceive as prioritising the needs of immigrants and those in extreme poverty above those of “ordinary people”.
  • Johnson will now have to own Brexit, finally having to confront the gap between its promise and the reality of negotiating a trade deal. “No deal” (i.e. no trade deal, not just a basic Withdrawal Agreement) is still a distinct possibility, as is further Tory infighting as it’s negotiated.
  • The BBC reached new lows in its broadcasting output and its bias became barely distinguishable from the billionaire-owned tabloid media. A supposedly objective correspondent referred to “the majority that Johnson so deserves”, and its political editor blindly regurgitated fake news fed to her by the Tory party.
  • The bias is likely due at least in part to broadcasters over-compensating for their own “metropolitan elite” views, making the issue all the more tragic and intractable. Faced with multiple accusations, there has been no meaningful response from the BBC.
  • Notwithstanding the skewed media landscape, Jeremy Corbyn failed to land any meaningful blows on Johnson throughout the campaign, barely mentioning him by name due to a desire to “rise above personal attacks”.
  • The Labour membership were unable to find a way through the mess of Brexit when voting on the party’s policy, and there is some difficult soul-searching needed from remainers in terms of what might have been had the party stuck to its 2017 promise to implement Brexit (aka the Revenge of Lexit).
  • The Tories were able to successfully depict Brexit as blocked by a Remainer parliament led by Labour. Johnson avoided entirely having to address the fact that his own political ambition and the stubbornness of the ERG is what stopped a very similar withdrawal agreement being passed back in 2017.
  • A potentially very popular Labour policy platform is now at risk of being slowly ripped apart and forgotten about, especially if Corbyn doesn’t go gracefully.
  • Scotland leaving the UK has now become much more likely, and the status of Northern Ireland remains in a state of huge ambiguity until trade negotiations are complete.
  • There is a long road ahead, and it is inevitable that communities will need to come together and keep supporting each other as best as possible outside of the crumbling welfare state (Cameron’s big society anyone?!).

Farewell Loco2

SNCF, the new owners of Loco2 since we sold it in 2017 have announced that the name Loco2 will disappear on Wednesday 6th November.

Although my co-founder (and sister) Kate and I stopped working there last year, it’s inevitably emotional that the name itself is now going.

What follows are my final thoughts on the company that meant so much to me for so many years.

Kate came up with the idea for Loco2 in 2006 – a “low carbon travel company”, with the name a play on “low CO2” and locomotive travel.

Since its inception we tried to get others to care about finding alternatives to flying as part of the necessary shift to a low carbon future.

For the first few years our low carbon message was front-and-centre of our communications strategy, but we found that lots of people simply didn’t get it (or didn’t care). For lots of customers it was an unnecessary barrier to booking train tickets.

When we shifted focus to the ease of the rail booking service we were providing, we had a simpler message and grew more quickly.

But for a substantial minority who were interested in our core environmental mission, the name was a clear and clever symbol of our raison d’être.

Although we were frequently buoyed by the love and support of those dedicated customers who shared in our environmental mission, for many years the lack of wider acknowledgement of the need to tackle emissions from flying was hugely demoralising.

We would often receive queries about how to take trains from airports as part of flight-based journeys that could easily be made entirely by rail.

And we faced an astonishing lack of action even from within the rail industry (I lost count of the number of times I would turn up to a conference in Europe by train with other attendees shocked that I hadn’t flown).

In this context, the recent explosion of public awareness about the severity of the climate crisis has been a big relief.

Finally I am not the only person in my friendship group talking about alternatives to flying, and other people are initiating conversations that previously I would have to sidestep for the sake of avoiding awkwardness.

This has culminated over the past few months with public support for Extinction Rebellion protests in London, and with Greta Thunberg crossing the Atlantic by zero carbon yacht to attend the UN climate conference in New York, as millions of students strike worldwide.

I’ve watched as the idea of flying less has moved from the periphery of public debate to centre stage, with even a major airline essentially encouraging people to buy fewer tickets in a major advertising campaign.

All this has meant increased press coverage for Loco2 since I left, and it’s been pleasing to watch from the sidelines as the marketing team tweet using hashtags like #thegretaeffect as they promote how easy it is to book using the technology platform we spent so long building.

With all this in mind it’s sad that the name Loco2 is going at just the time when awareness of climate change (and the role that flying plays) is so high.

I’ve no doubt that climate-focused communications will continue under Rail Europe, but it feels disappointing that the brand we built to shift plane to train travel is being retired.

That said, it was always going to be hard to conjure the magic of the founding team after Kate and I had left so perhaps it’s for the best that Loco2 won’t continue any longer without us.

It’s worth delving into the history of the Rail Europe brand in order to understand the decision in its full context.

Before we launched Loco2 in 2011, Rail Europe was one of the only options for booking European train travel online and it was often very frustrating.

As a seemingly pan-European website it was confusing that raileurope.co.uk could only reliably book French trains. Customers often felt they had been duped when they discovered that going directly to national rail operators offered more choice and cheaper prices.

In 2012 SNCF took the decision to retire the Rail Europe brand in the UK and consolidate everything under its French Voyages-SNCF brand (which has since been renamed “Oui-SNCF”). Rail Europe as a brand survived, but only to serve customers from outside Europe.

At the time this felt like a logical decision because customers were finding ways to get around the shortfalls of Rail Europe (thanks in large part to the very thorough advice offered by the Man in Seat 61).

It was also a huge gift to Loco2 – the most widely-recognised name on the market disappeared overnight just as we were launching.

Between 2012 and 2017 the market changed substantially, with Loco2 playing a modest but not insignificant part in the shift (alongside many other factors, not least EU competition law and related regulatory developments).

National rail operators no longer held a monopoly on selling the cheapest fares, and it became possible to buy at the same price conveniently from many websites and apps, starting with Loco2 and CapitaineTrain (later bought and renamed by Trainline).

Choosing to resurrect Rail Europe for UK customers may work for those not aware of the brand’s history, but for the many customers who have been booking European rail for a decade or more, the troubled past may be hard to shake.

I’m very proud that Loco2’s excellent technology will now form the backbone of Rail Europe going forward, and that will make it a great place to book tickets. Hopefully the talented marketing team can maintain an effective dialogue with customers to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Despite the disappearance of the name Loco2, I still intend to book my tickets with Rail Europe. Apart from the branding, the booking experience will be familiar and simple.

For those thinking about switching, the main alternatives to Rail Europe will be Trainline, previously owned by huge US private equity firm KKR until the stock market float in July, and Omio (who started life as “GoEuro”), funded by a huge investment from Goldman Sachs.

In this highly competitive environment (and in the context of Brexit, where the choice looks increasingly stark between a free market US-style or state-backed European-style economy), I’ll be proud to continue booking with a company owned by the French national rail operator.

Related to the competitive situation, another challenge that the new brand will face is how to market an exciting development that was recently launched by Loco2 – PriceHack.

Although I am incredibly proud of what we achieved at Loco2, it pains me that we weren’t able to reduce the cost of trains so that price wasn’t a factor when asking people to switch away from planes.

The promise of PriceHack (along with ideas for appropriate government action to make flying more expensive) gives me hope that all is not lost on this front.

This brilliant new feature allows users to easily find and book split-ticket fares in the UK (making it significantly cheaper than Trainline or Omio for most UK journeys).

For customers who understand what split ticketing is, it works smoothly, and in the few months since it has launched I have already saved hundreds of pounds using it.

However, the name “Rail Europe” doesn’t really convey that I can book UK-only journeys, and indeed the brand is generally geared towards less well-informed international customers.

I therefore hope that there are plans to market PriceHack separately so that it doesn’t simply get buried.

So what’s next for me?

Since I stopped working at Loco2 in late 2018, it’s been a privilege to get involved in two new projects, both relevant to the climate-focused goals of Loco2:

Riding Sunbeams is a new community-focused venture aiming to power railways with solar PV electricity, where I’ve been non-executive Chair since April. Our first demonstration unit started producing power in August and there are exciting times ahead for 2020.

Flight Free UK is taking a leaf out of Sweden’s book (where air travel is down 8% thanks to the flygskam movement) by encouraging 100,000 to commit to not flying in 2020.

Along with my good friend and Loco2 technical co-founder Eugene Bolskahov, we’ve been helping Flight Free develop a new website which just went live (check out the Why Flight Free page in particular).

So please sign the Flight Free pledge and keep on booking trains. We’ll all be travelling by the light of the sun before we know it!

If you want to stay abreast of what I’m doing in the post-Loco2 world, I’ll be posting occasional updates here (probably every month or so depending on whether anything interesting is happening), so please sign up for email updates.

The limbo of perpetual betrayal

The most powerful weapon of the right-wing elites trying to crash us out of the EU with no deal is the narrative of betrayal.

From the beginnings of UKIP Nigel Farage has depicted the EU as stealing what makes Britain British. He continues to rally ordinary hard-working people to rid us of the traitors in our midst so that a new golden era of proud and triumphant patriotism can bloom on lawns and in pub gardens across the land.

With his decision to support Leave in 2016, Johnson understood the seductive power of this story, and with it the rich fuel it could provide to propel his career. Indeed, in his many years ridiculing the EU as a journalist he helped to create the very dynamic that he is now using to gamble with the future of the United Kingdom.

And the story is far from over. For those politicians cynical enough it is the gift that keeps on giving. Like a cancer it has spread from propping up the careers of a few journalists and fringe politicians to engulfing our entire political system.

Whereas before it was only faceless EU bureaucrats who were scapegoated to sell copies of the Daily Mail, Sun, Express, and Telegraph, it is now anyone who doesn’t toe the most extreme line of Brexit. And as a power-grabbing strategy for right-wing politicians, it has worked remarkably well so far.

(Incidentally the rise of Brexit betrayal in public consciousness was due in no small part to UKIP failing to gain any MPs in our first-past-the-post electoral system. Ironically, European-style proportional representation would have delivered UKIP MPs to match their national vote share, and it would arguably have been much more straightforward to expose their lack of substance a long time ago).

When Farage and the Tory right finally got their referendum, the new traitors were remain-supporting metropolitan elites betraying ordinary people with their fear-mongering and deliberate attempt to over-complicate the question by involving “experts”.

When Theresa May negotiated her deal with the EU, she became the traitor for not negotiating a deal that delivered on “the will of the people” (despite no-one having asked the people what deal they wanted). Most MPs who voted against it also of course became traitors, where as those who voted against it because they wanted a harder Brexit became heroes.

And now we face the greatest betrayal of all. We finally have a hard Brexit government willing to enact “the will of the people” by crashing us out by any means necessary. And here are the politicians determined to thwart it again by uniting in opposition to no deal and trying to pass legislation to stop the disaster.

This is the backdrop for the crucial next few days. All signs are that Johnson wants the opposition and rebel alliance to succeed so that he can shout “Betrayal!” and call a “People vs the Politicians” election (where he will genuinely attempt to presents himself as “one of the people” with a straight – if laughably smug as always – face).

A general election without the brutal reality of a no deal Brexit exposed is much easier to fight than one where the consequences have been with us for at least a few months (like Schrodinger’s cat, no deal only exists for a brief moment in time before it’s necessary to confront the reality of physical inconveniences like the Irish border).

But despite the fact that Johnson’s immediate next task would of course be to (surprise, surprise) negotiate with the EU, the chances of the howls of betrayal distracting everyone from this and leading to electoral victory seem depressingly high.

And indeed even after a no deal Brexit has taken place, the narrative of betrayal can continue. No longer will it be UK politicians thwarting the will of the people, but Europe will be portrayed as continuing to exert its malign influence even once we are out by not agreeing to whatever demands we make (no matter how abstract and unthought-through).

The lack of instantly agreeing a trade deal with identical benefits to full EU membership will be portrayed as wholly the EU’s fault, and nothing to do with the incompetence and arrogance of Brexiteers like David Davis and Boris Johnson, who despite repeated and ongoing failures seem to think they can strong-arm an entire continent into submission because Britain once had an empire and was the home of the industrial revolution.

The narrative has to end at some point, with the whole ridiculous illusion exposed, and at that point we can start talking about how to rebuild our utterly wrecked political system. But we could have a very long way to go.

The fact that Corbyn has finally shown himself capable of bringing together disparate voices of opposition is a hugely welcome development, and everyone involved should be congratulated for finally showing a bit of maturity. But if the attempts to block no deal this week succeed then it presents problems of its own.

The narrative of betrayal will be stronger than ever, and we may need to strap in for the same betrayal message to be repeated whilst our political institutions crumble and our public services continue the tragic rot that has been wrought on them for almost a decade of Tory rule.

The crucial question must be how do we puncture the bubble? How to break through and tell the truth? There is a nuanced complexity in maintaining and evolving a viable economic and political relationship with our European neighbours. But millions of people believe the simple story that continues to be fed to them, and those of us opposed to no deal must make efforts to simplify and amplify our own narrative.

This is our challenge, and it is one that we are not grasping with enough urgency. A united opposition to no deal Brexit provides a huge opportunity to tackle it, but we must move fast.

Much as Dominic Cummings manipulated millions through Facebook in 2016, as opponents to no deal we must massively up our game when it comes to taking the opportunities presented by social media. Whilst the right-wing press has been instrumental in driving us to the edge of this cliff, their grip on the narrative may be more vulnerable than we think.

Because the truth is that it’s Brexiteers like Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Farage who are the cynical elites manipulating ordinary people for their own gain, not the opponents of no deal. Posts like this are shared within social media bubbles, but there is little evidence that the right messages are getting through to the voters who really matter.

If opposition groups come together to share data (appropriately anonymised of course) and execute a coordinated digital marketing strategy then we have a shot of succeeding in a way that could match the success of the Vote Leave victory in 2016. But the status quo is opposition groups (including political parties of course) working in silos.

All the signs are that they are flying blind in individual attempts to take on an adversary who had the (albeit cynical and in breach of electoral law) foresight to work with the likes of Cambridge Analytica three years ago, with all the devastating consequences that are still playing out today on both sides of the Atlantic. I hope very much that I’m wrong, and that there is collaboration happening behind the scenes between opposition parties and the many other groups opposed to no deal so that a consistent messaging strategy can be agreed and effectively executed.

With a general election this autumn now a near certainty, and finally some cause of optimism amongst those finally united in political opposition to no deal, targeting the right swing voters with the right messages will be absolutely crucial. If we fail at this task, the limbo of perpetual betrayal will continue indefinitely, with ever more ominous consequences for democracy.

If Corbyn stays, Labour still needs a strategy

Last week I wrote a post suggesting that Keir Starmer leading Labour could deliver a stable coalition capable of defeating Johnson’s Tories. I tried (and perhaps failed) to clarify that the plan would need Corbyn’s blessing to be workable, and that a key goal was to implement Labour’s economic vision.

The post rather predictably went down like a ton of bricks with Corbynites, who bluntly perceived it as a direct attack on Corbyn himself and Labour’s left-wing agenda more generally. Some went so far as to say that if Labour lose the next general election the blame will lie with people like me for undermining Corbyn.

Of the more intelligent comments I received was that Labour should call the Lib Dems’ bluff: faced with the choice of forming a coalition with no-deal Tories or collaborating with a Labour party committed to a second EU referendum (even if under Corbyn), it’s obvious they would choose the latter.

This may be true if the election result delivers a Commons majority for a potential non-Tory coalition, but it doesn’t address the risk of the progressive vote being split and letting the Tories win outright. That’s why a pre-election progressive alliance (as suggested by Paul Mason) makes sense rather than relying on non-Tory voters to make their own call about who to vote for based on the marginal dynamics in their constituency.

As we near September, distinct Brexit/election scenarios are now coming into focus, with the unelected Dominic Cummings relishing the prospect of pushing through no deal after losing a no confidence vote. Labour of course needs to plan for the subsequent election, but risks doing this at the expense of finalising a viable plan for the immediate aftermath of the vote.

McDonnell has said that following a successful no confidence vote, Labour would attempt to form a minority caretaker government rather than a cross-party one of national unity. This approach would require a majority of MPs (including therefore at least two from the current Tory/DUP government) to install Corbyn as PM as the price of avoiding no deal.

Corbyn has shown zero appetite to build dialogue with the Tories he needs to vote with him under this scenario. He can’t even share a room with Chuka Umana and so there’s not much hope of him executing a sensitive political negotiation with the likes of Dominic Grieve.

Given how hopelessly unrealistic this scenario is, there needs to be another way of preventing no deal. Some detailed options were recently clearly laid out by Joe Moor on Radio 4’s World At One (the full interview is worth a listen). Hopefully the Labour leadership is carefully strategising how to take control of the Commons order paper in this way, but it unfortunately seems unlikely.

Notwithstanding the outcome of Corbyn asking the head of the civil service to clarify the “purdah” rules in relation to no deal, it may be that he intends to hold tight and ride out the next few months in the hope of winning the subsequent general election. This risky strategy would take the UK out of the EU with no deal (at least temporarily) but avoids the uncomfortable work of Corbyn and his allies collaborating with opponents in the House of Commons.

It may of course be that there simply is no strategy in place. Corbyn is so isolated by Seamus Milne and Len McCluskey that a simplistic bunker mentality often seems to prevail, and the important questions go unanswered. Despite this, with Corbyn writing to Sedwill and making some recent media appearances, there are signs that the situation may be improving. Let’s hope this is the start of a new phase in which a broader spectrum of voices are consulted.

As it stands, key Labour voices like Paul Mason (with his ideas for a progressive alliance) and Laura Parker (as head of Momentum, another key pro-EU voice) are effectively sidelined, in a spirit that runs directly counter to the open, inclusive dialogue in which Corbyn was elected by the membership. Even McDonnell may be frustrated at the lack of political manoeuvring required to give Labour a chance of forming a government, despite what he says publicly.

Many on the left would love to see Labour finally come out in support of proportional representation to help end the poisonous tribalism at the heart of UK politics. Given the electoral map and high likelihood of more coalition governments in future, it seems deeply incongruous that the progressive voices at the heart of Labour are not driving this debate.

All this is not to say that there aren’t opportunities. Perhaps the economic chaos of a (minority or otherwise) Labour government taking power after a no deal Brexit is exactly the conditions that are required to launch an ambitious Green New Deal. We shouldn’t be afraid to have that discussion.

But right now the basic oppositional nature of the pro-Corbyn vs anti-Corbyn discourse — and the conspicuous absence of political strategising from Corbyn supporters — doesn’t inspire the confidence the left needs at this critical moment.

Could Corbyn step aside to stop the Tories?

British politics is in a bleak place. Arguably the most right-wing government in British history has been assembled to push through an act of huge economic self-harm in the name of an outdated and incoherent nationalism. Despite his ineptitude in so many areas, Boris Johnson looks capable of leveraging his media profile in a general election just as Trump has in the US.

Meanwhile the opposition leader has squandered a huge amount of public support and near-victory in the 2017 election. Corbyn has shown himself to be wholly incapable of capitalising on Tory collapse despite the lack of any credible internal challenge since his re-election as leader in 2016. Anti-semitism may be a worrying (and often cynically weaponised) sideshow, but the real story is one of a man paralysed by the challenging political position he finds himself in.

As Corbyn struggles to convince anyone that he agrees with the party membership on Brexit, space has opened up for the Lib Dems and Greens to capture the progressive (dare I say “centrist”?) vote. But as it stands this will split the anti-Tory vote just as they lurch rightward to close off a split in that side of the electorate and defeat Farages’s Brexit Party. The highly likely outcome is another Tory victory and delivery of no-deal Brexit.

Despite how much it pains Labour supporters understandably still angry with the Lib Dems for their part in the Tory coalition, Jo Swinson has laid out a clear anti-Corbyn position and said the Lib Dems wouldn’t join a coalition led by him. But what if Labour installed a new leader who was palatable to the Lib Dems, SNP, Greens, and to the Labour membership?

Tom Watson doesn’t fit the bill, his attacks on Corbyn too bitter and divisive to carry any likelihood of the necessary support. He should probably return to the backbenches. John McDonnell is ultimately too close to Corbyn, despite being infinitely more competent (he was clearly the instrumental voice behind the excellent Labour manifesto of 2017) and with a tangible economic vision (sorely lacking from both the Tories and other progressive parties).

Keir Starmer is therefore the obvious choice as a leader who could deliver an electoral pact. He has been competent on Brexit with an intellectual clarity that makes it hard to brand him an arch Remoaner, and he can successfully bridge the leftwing activist side of Labour with the necessary institutional gravitas required of such a governing coalition. A broad church with him at its head could stop the Tories from further destruction of our public services and ensure that the public has another say on Brexit.

Corbyn is likely to be grateful for a way to bow out gracefully, and the intention of this post is to explore ways that that could happen. The bunker mentality of Seamus Milne and Len McLuskey and the die-hard Corbynite wing of the party is unlikely to make this easy (many of them seem convinced that the only way to deliver a leftwing policy platform is through Corbyn and only Corbyn, which is just flatly untrue and damaging to the wider cause, not to mention to Corbyn’s own mental health). But if Corbyn himself can be convinced (especially if the plan has the blessing of McDonnell) then it could be a viable way forward.

It wouldn’t be easy, but it’s now not outside of the realms of the possible that Momemtum (who are crucial to determining which way the wind blows with the wider Labour membership) could support such a move. This would take some careful bargaining to make it clear that the principles underpinning Corbyn’s rise are not being abandoned (i.e. this is very much not a “Blairite coup”) and that any break with the Corbyn mantra has the blessing of the man himself.

McDonnell could keep his position as Chancellor, and Corbyn could take a fairly senior role in the new government (which I honestly think he would welcome compared to having to cope with the high pressure and inevitable compromise that comes with being leader).

How other roles in the proposed coalition government would be divided is undeniably tricky, with the resurgent Lib Dems likely to make their support contingent on some weighty roles being handed to them, and of course there would have to be space for the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru. But given the stakes — an even greater lurch to the right á la Trump, and the catastrophic consequences of a No Deal Brexit — hopefully there are enough adults in the room to make it happen. Time is very short.

EDIT: I’ve added a paragraph to clarify that the intention is for Corbyn himself to be up for this plan rather than being forcefully removed. Any attempt to do that is unlikely to end well, and would be unnecessarily confrontational with at least a significant minority of party members.

What I’ve been up to…

Once again I have categorically failed to write regular blog posts, despite thinking that this time would be different now that I no longer have Loco2 to keep me busy.

In amongst all the fretting about Brexit (I have listened to way too much news and commentary than is healthy!), I’ve been working on a few interesting projects that I plan to announce publicly soon.

One of the projects is a tech startup that I’m working on with some friends to try and solve my personal frustration at how hard it is to organise recreational football games each week.

Another is a nascent venture related to trains (though nothing to do with selling tickets) which I’ve been inspired by after following its progress over the last year or so. I should be joining the board as a non-executive director.

I’m helping some friends who are developing an exciting idea for a zero waste food retail venture, including thinking through how the technology and consumer behaviour change angle of this could be scaled up.

I’ve also completed an 11-week creative writing course and written about 10,000 words, ranging from short stories to the beginning/outline of a novel that I had the idea for many years ago. I hope to continue writing the novel in the coming months (and probably years) so that I don’t remain one of those people who always had an idea for a book but never actually wrote it.

Another update will follow soon when I’m in a position to go public with some of the above.

(Hooray, I’ve written a blog post!)

How the Independent Group can win

Right now we have a very surreal political situation.

The hard right of the Conservative Party (the ERG) wants to leave the largest free market area in the world and impose protectionist tariffs (in the hopelessly misguided and nostalgic belief that we can build a new British Empire from the ashes).

The hard left of the Labour Party (Corbyn loyalists) are also happy with a protectionist Brexit because it means escaping neoliberalism and safeguarding the interests of the traditional British working class (who have long been replaced by a precariat subject to economic forces that are intrinsically global).

Brexit cannot deliver both a neoliberal economic utopia (which is what the ERG is aiming for) and a socialist utopia (what the Corbyn Brexiteers are aiming for). They are polar opposites and both parties are stuck in the past. British politics is like a fat person who’s been watching telly for the last two decades suddenly getting up and trying to do the splits.

Enter the Independent Group of 11 MPs who’ve left Labour and the Tories. They hope to avert Brexit and avoid both no deal (which would lead to economic chaos) and Theresa’s May’s deal (which doesn’t even address the economics, hence needing a backstop in case the following years of negotiation fail).

All this mind-bending complexity and paradox is quite the opposite of the simple choice offered in the referendum, and it’s no wonder that people are frustrated. The first thing the Independent Group needs to do is point this out in a non-patronising way.

This is clearly easier said than done. But the Leave campaign has now been found to have clearly breached campaigning financing rules, particularly around their use of shady Facebook advertising that manipulated people who had previously (very understandably) shown little interest in politics.

The next thing that they need to do is have the balls to admit that the neoliberal economics of the EU need to change. The British people aren’t stupid. They’ve seen how countries like Greece have been bullied when things start going tits up. And they understand that the global economic system (where the EU and the UK have basically just followed the American model for decades now) is broken, and has been for over a decade now.

Without a credible acknowledgement that there is a lot wrong with UK public services, that austerity doesn’t work, and that we can’t just keep polishing the turd produced by George Osborne after the financial crisis, the new group will fall flat on its face.

A remain and reform platform is still within the grasp of British politics, and by treating the British public with respect it should still be possible to bring the majority along with a new plan. But we need substance and detail quickly, and in a way that speaks beyond the Westminster bubble.

Cycling La Velodyssée (in November!)

In November my girlfriend and I embarked on an adventure by bike down the Atlantic coast of France. We try to avoid flying for climate change reasons and we wanted to extend the outdoorsy feeling of summer for as long as possible. It was our first proper cycling trip and we had a great time!

The trip was inspired by an earlier holiday where we’d spotted an undulating path through sand dunes next to a beach near Royan. It was part of the French section of La Vélodysée, an amazing 1200km route from Roscoff in Brittany to Hendaye on the Spanish border.

Route map courtesy of the very useful velodyssey.com website

The Vélodyssée is itself part of the wider EuroVelo network that spans Europe. The French section we did is one of the most developed, with over 70% of the route entirely car-free (other routes on the network have more sections on roads).

To camp or not to camp

Before we left we deliberated a lot about whether to camp.

On one hand we wanted a proper adventure with plenty of room for spontaneity. There are loads of campsites on the route but they are all shut by mid-October. So we looked into wild camping and discovered that whilst not strictly legal, it seems fairly widespread in France.

On the other hand, it was November! Sunset was around 5.30pm, and the night temperature quickly drops, despite usually reaching the high teens (Celsius) in the day. We knew it was unlikely we’d camp more than 50% of the time and all the gear adds a lot of weight.

So in the end we decided to bite the bullet and not camp (this meant we could carry lots of extra luxuries such as a yoga mat!).

Our bikes

We are both regular cyclists in London and our bikes are nothing special. Mine is a basic 8 year-old hybrid of the now-discontinued Revolution range from Edinburgh Bike Cooperative.

I contemplated getting a new bike for the trip. But it’s been regularly serviced, with any components replaced as necessary (is it even the same bike now?), so I concluded that as I didn’t have any fundamental concerns about the frame, it would do the job fine.

I got some extra gears rings added so it now has 24 rather than 8 gears, allowing me to get up hills when carrying a lot of weight. I already had a rear pannier rack, and added a front rack as well, meaning I could carry four bags in total (the front panniers smaller and carrying less weight than the rear so as not to cause balance issues, all Ortleib).

Some of the terrain on the Velodyssée was bumpier than we’d expected (especially the “Voie vertes” greenways). Our hybrid bikes could handle it but road bikes would have been in trouble. We both had Armadillo tires, and miraculously didn’t get a single puncture for the whole trip.

We both took four panniers in total (arguably carrying way too much considering we weren’t camping – we even managed to fit in a yoga mat!). Plus I carried an extra small bag on my handlebars for easy access.

Preparing for departure

The Vélodysée website helpfully breaks the route down into 14 sections, and we guessed that each section (average 80km) would be roughly achievable in a day (in the end it took us 3 weeks in total but the route would definitely be achievable in around 2 weeks with an average-to-good level of fitness, and without the 4-5 rest days we enjoyed).

The website also provides GPS route files that we imported into a custom Googlemap. Before we left used the map to get a feel for how far we might ride each day and to check out the major(ish) towns on the route to understand the kinds of places we might stay.

Despite saying it’s possible to book online, we’d had to call First Great Western to reserve bike spaces from London Paddington to Plymouth, where we were headed to take the overnight ferry to the starting point of Roscoff.

We booked our first night’s accommodation before we left so we had somewhere to aim for, and because we didn’t yet have the confidence to be spontaneous about accommodation planning. From the second day onwards we booked the next day’s accommodation the day before (either on Booking.com or Airbnb mobile apps), and sometimes on the day itself.

And we’re off

Compared to Plymouth (no offence!) we were pleasantly surprised at how lovely Roscoff was, and we started with a lovely breakfast in the sun.

Despite it being November we often ate outside in comfort

We set off by checking the map we’d loaded onto our phones, and were pleased to discover that the route was soon very well signposted, something that was to continue throughout the trip.

Signs like this were everywhere along the route in both urban and rural locations, and became our trusty guide

We’d been worried about getting cold and wet (most people go cycling in summer!) but there were only a couple of days on the whole trip when we really felt the weather. We usually wore leggings with cycling shorts over the top, with two or three layers (including a Merino wool base layer) on our top half (including down jackets and waterproofs when necessary).

How we used technology

After some trial-and-error in the first few days, this was our mapping and tracking setup:

  • Before we left we loaded the GPS route loaded onto a custom GoogleMap (see Preparing for Departure above)
  • When we set off each day we navigated to the custom map on our phone (via the “Your Places” menu item in the Googlemaps app) and zoomed in on the section we were intending to complete
  • GPS (i.e. seeing where you are via the blue dot on the map) still works in Airplane mode so we turned this on to massively save battery (it was occasionally necessary to reconnect and reload the route from the internet)
  • For tracking, we installed Komoot (an excellent app) on our iPad (which we took with us mainly to watch TV on in the evenings!)
  • Each morning we turned on Komoot tracking (with the iPad also in Airplane mode to save battery) and put it in a rear pannier
  • We then checked Komoot on the iPad each evening to see our exact completed route and distance covered/average speed etc.

Terrains and landscapes

After the initial greenways from Roscoff, much of the first section of the route takes place on the Brest-Nantes canal. This had the benefit of being entirely flat (as is pretty much the whole route), and with gorgeous autumnal colours.

The autumn sun along the canal was delightful

One part to watch out for is the cycle into Nantes. We massively under-estimated the 2 hours of urban cycling that would be required at the cold, wet and dark end of our longest day’s cycling (Nantes itself was great! Especially Les Machines).

After Nantes the route goes via the Loire estuary to reach the Atlantic coast. The town of Pornic was a real treat (unlike many of the coastal towns we encountered, it was surprisingly lively in mid-November).

Lots of the coast in the middle part of the ride is dedicated to oyster bays, with lots of charming huts and a blurred line between land and sea (a few of the days were very windy when not under the protection of forest!).

It was when we got to Ile de Noirmoutier and beyond that the scenery really came alive. From long sandy beaches through to amazing forests, we felt really immersed in nature, and it often felt like late summer rather than early winter.

At times it felt like we had entire forests to ourselves

As we got further south, the occasional delightful stretch of forest turned into the expansive Landes, which it often felt we had entirely to ourselves (not the case in the height of summer when the route is very popular). We got an especially good view from the top of the Dune of Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe.

On top of Pilat/Pyla sand dune. This view shows the Atlantic coast to the West, with the expansive forest of the Landes visible on the other side (not shown in this picture).

Eventually we entered the Basque country as the trip started to draw to a close with lots of dramatic waves coming in from the Atlantic. The final day included the biggest elevation, as we skirted around the Pyrennes on the coast at Biarittz.

A stretch of beach near Capbreton at the start of the Basque country.

The Spanish Basque country

The Velodyssée route continues further into Spain (not along the coast) but we’d decided to visit a friend near San Sebastian before taking the ferry home from Santander.

Rather than cycle along main roads in Spain (which was the only practical option when not on a EuroVelo route), we took our bikes on trains after we crossed the France/Spain border at Hendaye/Irun, and we had a lovely week in San Sebastian and the Basque countryside.

The rail network in the Spanish Basque country is called Euskotren, and confusingly the timetables are generally only available on their own website (checking on Renfe.com or elsewhere often yields scarily few results because they only show the small number of high-speed trains that pass through Basque towns).

It’s possible to take bikes on all Euskotren trains without booking in advance, and there was plenty of room (though we did find that the straps we brought with us came in very handy to stop the bikes falling over so we could sit down without constantly watching them).

Home from Santander

Santander is a lovely city (we paddled in the sea and ate outside in the sun on 2nd December!) but we wish the same could be said for the 28 hour crossing back to Portsmouth. The Bay of Bisquay is notoriously choppy, and it lived up to its reputation. Not for the faint-stomached!

All in all it was an excellent trip, full of nature and far from miserable weather-wise despite it being November. A great introduction to bike touring, and one that left us feeling free and thirsty for more. Hopefully this post has been helpful for anyone thinking of doing something similar!