Even though WordPress still has a soft spot in my heart as one of the original open source platforms and the one that introduced me to the internet, I have decided it’s time to publish on Substack instead over at jamieandrews.substack.com. See you there.
Since saying the final farewell to Loco2 three years ago, it’s safe to say that my life has changed a lot. After over a decade in Hackney I moved to Machynlleth in rural mid-Wales, became a father, experienced my first pandemic, chaired lots of board meetings, and became a director of a new local electric car club.
I’ve recently spent a lot of time on a startup which I’m excited to now make public:
Squaddle is a new tool for organising group sports and other social get-togethers. It works with WhatsApp (or email), so there’s nothing to download.
Building an app focused primarily on sport is quite a departure from my previous professional focus on sustainability and so I’ve been a bit nervous about announcing it to the world. I don’t want people to think I’ve given up on trying to tackle climate change as I still care passionately about building a low carbon world. However, after spending my life trying to convince people to take trains instead of planes, it’s been refreshing to focus on something different for a bit.
Playing non-competitive football has enhanced my physical and mental wellbeing since childhood and was a particularly important part of my weekly routine during the most stressful periods of Loco2.
So when faced with the pain of organising a weekly kickabout (it would often take a couple of hours every Tuesday to confirm who was playing and chasing up late payments), I couldn’t help but start building something to solve the problem. It soon became clear that Squaddle could have applications outside of sport, and that there was an opportunity to help people spend far less time on their phones when organising a wide variety of group activities.
Taking inspiration from the Center for Humane Technology (and my own direct experience of phone addiction), we’ve designed Squaddle to minimise notifications and screen time, with the goal that eventually activities and events on Squaddle can become entirely self-organising.
I’m lucky to be working with some great and passionate people who have been designing and building Squaddle with me. We’ve been testing as we go, initially with a single group in Hackney, and now with a number of groups around the country.
We’re now going public and are opening our beta to new signups. So if you know someone who organises sport or another group activity, please tell them to head to squaddle.co.uk (you can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn).
I’m really excited (and nervous!) to hear what you think!
Lots of people (especially in the pub) ask me what I think of cryptocurrencies and related “web3” technologies.
After selling Loco2 I bought some Ethereum because I was lucky enough to have just come into a lot of cash, and I was intrigued about the idea of “smart contracts” because the history/evolution of money is all about promises people make to each other. I’d also often been frustrated when working with lawyers and it felt like a lot of low-level contractual stuff could be easily automated, and I thought Ethereum might be able to help (e.g. making it easier to buy a house).
I’ve never been particularly interested in the privacy side of web3 (contrary to the popular Big Tech narrative, it’s rare I feel that my privacy has been violated, even if I am served ads that are only relevant to me because Facebook knows what I like). Nor have I got very excited about the fact that it’s possible to be completely anonymous. I would even go so far as to say I actively dislike the idea that building a society where we can all be “trustless” is a good thing; I’d like to know and trust the people I’m transacting with, rather than be relieved that I can reliably transact with any old cowboy.
I’m not convinced that what web3 offers is much better than the existing consumer finance system (especially given the substantial costs of implementing a service in web3 technology). For example, the fact that crypto wallet services like MetaMask are entirely reliant on someone remembering a long phrase, with no “Forgot password?” option, makes it a highly risky way to manage finances. Web3 will never be adopted widely whilst these sorts of issues remain, and I don’t really want it to be.
There’s also the obvious carbon footprint aspect of mining (which is why many people who know me may be shocked that I’ve even entertained the idea of blockchain technologies having value at all). Perhaps I’ve been complacent on this point, but from the outset I felt that it was likely that energy consumption would be divorced from mining/transacting. When it was announced that Ethereum would migrate from Proof-of-work to Proof-of-stake (slashing energy use/carbon by 99.5%), I felt vindicated, but I don’t envy the engineering teams attempting to complete it, and it remains to be seen if “the merge” will actually go ahead in September given all the previous missed deadlines.
I’ve been disappointed that more interesting startups haven’t emerged using Ethereum, and that instead lots of pointless new currencies have emerged. I particularly hate Dogecoin because it’s just Elon Musk’s wet dream (side note: Apparently they now sponsor Watford FC!).
Although I think the crypto industry has done way too much navel-gazing (and focusing on the minutiae of governance is the biggest symptom of this), I do see some value in the core DAO concept. That said, the vast majority of DAOs that exist today are not problem-focused enough. With a few interesting exceptions, DAOs have emerged to serve the growth of cryptocurrency as a fintech market rather than anything to do with the actual economy. The amount it’s all driven by asset speculation is transparent and often quite sickening, especially now there are so many people who have lost their life savings in the recent crash.
The reason I think the DAO concept retains some value is that it provides the blueprint for a democratically-run organisation, in which user and shareholder interests are aligned. The problem is that tokenisation as it’s currently implemented almost always favours the earliest and largest investors, just like the pre-existing startup ecosystem. The initial hype of a coin/token drops was never going to be sustainable, and it’s not surprising that the balloons have now rapidly deflated.
An organisation in which users can readily invest/lend, and participate in decisions as part of a democratic governance structure appeals to me because it aligns incentives and simplifies financing (it grounds financing in the real world of human users rather than a financial sector that should have been rebuilt entirely following the crash 14 years ago). An organisation that is controlled solely by early adopters only will never evolve. A flatter, more cooperative structure is much more compelling as a mechanism to unlock scale and DAOs provide the potential for this, even if no-one has built a workable example yet.
Being funded by users expecting an annual return of somewhere between the base interest rate (currently 1.75% in the UK) and inflation (over 10% and climbing) means access to substantial capital and no pressure to sell for 10X (i.e. what a typical VC is aiming for). But whilst a technology company is being built it requires capital, and normal users are never going to have the required faith from day one.
If you forgo raising venture capital to pay developers in cryptocurrency then you put an arbitrary value on the organisation from day one (to ensure that the developer gets what they believe to be a reasonable salary), and encourage bubble-esque hype that will probably end in tears. Therefore I remain sceptical about this as a route to fund development prior to the organisation being appealing to “user investors”.
The question is then do you need the blockchain element at all to build an organisation that is more democratic and efficient than a typical “web 2” tech company? Is it not possible to imagine a user-controlled organisation with transparent governance built on much simpler and less expensive technology than trying to do everything “on chain”?
DAOs have unlocked the idea of decision-making via clearly auditable votes by anyone deemed a “member” (token holder) and are starting to involve users in much more interesting decisions than “Please help us elect our board via this PDF” (which is the banal extent to which I’ve participated in user-controlled/cooperative organisations to date). These are the sorts of ideas I’d like to see survive the fallout of the crash.
One mistake I’ve seen made by DAOs is assuming that substantial numbers of users will be willing and enthusiastic to participate in decision-making on an ongoing basis (many DAOs have struggled to hit the minimum thresholds for decisions to pass, with the remaining core of participants becoming frustrated as the dream slowly dies). Beyond the Get Rich Quick hype of coin drops and token issues, it was always likely that only a few users would be interested in governance/ongoing contributions. But despite the incredibly low level of participation from typical users, the fact that any user has the right to participate, is the basis on which Wikipedia has revolutionised our lives, and I’d love to see this model replicated more widely (Signal is probably the best example today, though as a non-profit rather than a cooperative DAO).
In summary, I think crypto has raised some interesting questions about the relationship between economics, law, and technology, and that there is value in continuing to explore these questions. But I think those working in web3 need to calm down and work methodically through the benefits of each structure before trying something that has more meaning than just helping existing players in the market to improve their asset speculation positions. When the switch to PoS finally happens I’ll become more enthusiastic about the potential of ETH again, with all the caveats above.
P.S. I think NFTs are fairly ridiculous but assuming some people are in it for the right reasons (e.g. Tim Berners-Lee), I understand why people are trying to find a way to value creativity properly. Spotify is a better battleground for that fight.
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.
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.
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:Extract from clause 3 of Riding Sunbeams Apollo Ltd Articles of Association
(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.
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
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?!).
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.