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Why David Cameron is the ultimate “seagull” manager

July 27, 2012


He flies in, makes a lot of noise, dumps on everyone from a great height, and then flies out again.

[This article was originally published in the New Statesman on 25th July 2012]

David Cameron: scary seagull. Artwork: Dan Murrell/New Statesman

Back when I worked for a large organisation, we had a term: “seagull manager”. It described someone, usually a consultant, who flew in, made a lot of noise, dumped on everyone from a great height, then flew out again, leaving others to deal with the consequences.

Parachuted into action more than two years ago, Cameron squawked hysterically about difficult decisions, the mess he inherited, a new kind of politics and the big society (whatever happened to that?). Since then, he has proceeded to spend the majority of his term, so far, defending arrested pals, disgraced ministers, fiascos, scandals and u-turns.

This week sees another spate of threatened strikes and underlying unrest. To the growing list of greedy doctors taking industrial action for the first time in four decades, unyielding police officers demonstrating outside Parliament, uncivic protesters occupying shops and banks, dishevelled students disturbing the peace and politically motivated nurses and teachers picketing No 10, we can now add unreasonable dairy farmers and unpatriotic border control officers. At what point in this nexus of insubordination, do we begin to consider that the fault may lie with the country’s leadership?

Apologists have posited that Cameron is powerless, caught in the middle of a battle on two fronts; with his torysvestite coalition partners and his own backbenchers. The truth is those are mere political skirmishes. The real battle, the one which threatens to be his Waterloo, is entirely self-inflicted. It is a battle with the country’s public servants.

When a young David William Donald Cameron, son of a stockbroker, grandson of a Baronet and direct descendent of King William IV, was caught smoking pot at Eton College, his punishment was to copy 500 lines of Latin text. I wonder if they included Cicero’s “Ut sementem feceris, ita mete” – whatever you sow, you shall reap.

Last year, he announced that he was “taking on the enemies of enterprise; the bureaucrats in government departments…” Every nurse, every civil servant, every immigration officer, every policeman heard that declaration of hostility. In the midst of the severest programme of cuts, an economic downturn unseen since the Depression and a radical reorganisation of just about everything, he declared war on the very people on whom he depended for delivery.

You may have opinions on the individual policies, cuts, measures; on the rights and wrongs of each dispute. What is indisputably cack-handed, however, is alienating the entire administrative arm of the state at a time when you depend on their effort and good will to deliver your programme; at a time when you require their stiff-upper-lipped acquiescence to having their pensions and salaries looted. The most basic experience of management would teach one that the key ingredient, in securing the success of an organisation, is the staff’s support.

So, is it any wonder those unionised chickens are coming home to roost and choosing a time when they can cause him maximum embarrassment? The government’s reaction is an overwhelming sense of embarrassment that visitors to these shores might be confronted with dairy farmer boycotts, airport queues, terrible traffic, strikes, riots, homelessness and economic misery –  in short, the reality of what most of us experience every day. Instead of seeking resolution, they say “not in front of the neighbours”. Throw a doily over child poverty. Pop some flowers on top of the half-dismantled NHS. A few cushions scattered around unemployment. Make the place look nice.

They even went as far as to announce they were seeking a High Court injunction to prevent border staff from taking action, before the strike was called off at the eleventh hour. A course of action guaranteed to polarise rather than facilitate. Mark Serwotka specifically commented on “the vitriol and vilification” to which PCS members had been subjected by ministers. More evidence of poor management – engaging with staff only when a disagreement has snowballed into a vendetta and, even then, aggressively and destructively.

Cameron never misses an opportunity to mock Ed Miliband’s friendly relations with Trade Unions. But shouldn’t any PM or would-be PM aspire towards friendly relations with Unions? They represent ten million working people in the UK, not even counting their families. The belief that having a pathologically unhealthy relationship with such a large and productive part of UK society, is evidence of strong leadership is not only illogical, but dangerous in the extreme. In what other line of business would you see a CEO boasting that he has a dreadful relationship with his staff?

That indefensible approach has been characteristic of this administration – not only in its industrial relations, but across the spectrum. Unmeasured words keep falling out of this fuchsia, angry man’s mouth.

Attacking immigrants may give him a boost with one part of the demographic. Attacking pensioners may curry favour with another. But what is the long-term strategy? Eventually all those groups start to merge into one angry, explosive mass. The unemployed, the working, the disabled, the impoverished, students, charities, parents with too many children, parents with too few, those with cars, those with caravans, the small business who can’t borrow, the small business who sells pasties, the cleaner paid in cash – it all adds up to an entire country seething with anger.

The difference between good opposition and good government is that the former is judged primarily on the quality of the talking, while the latter on the quality of the doing. But there are no comforting results to which one can point. This week, the IMF predicted that, far from reducing national debt as a ratio to GDP, it will continue to rise and peak by 2015/16. In 2010 it was less than £1 trillion. By 2015 it will be more than £1.5 trillion.

An Austerity Programme is like an episode of The Biggest Loser. Inspirational rhetoric and sweaty montages cannot save the contestants when they step onto the scales. There is a pre-agreed goal – in stones and pounds, or pounds and pennies. And lately what has become painfully clear is that, despite starving the country, the coalition will fail to meet its key self-imposed targets. It seems that the economy stubbornly refuses to be orated up and the debt just won’t be sound-bitten down. Words are not enough.

There is a limit to the credibility with which one can say “I’m not being nasty. Times are nasty.” The evidence disproves the flannel: Privatising public assets, mass outsourcing, protecting The City, lowering taxes for the wealthy and corporations, handing out contracts to friendly donors, cutting services to the bone – when has a Tory government ever done any different, in good times or bad?

There is a limit to the rhetoric of “difficult decisions”. Difficult decisions are made harder to deliver and less likely to succeed when they are meted out in an arrogant, mean-spirited, ill-tempered manner. The progressive voter understands this and will condemn Cameron for his character. The conservative voter understands this and will condemn Cameron for his failure to deliver.

Flashy but incompetent, clueless but obdurate – Cameron is the ultimate seagull manager. Whether judged on attitude or aptitude, he is truly, hopelessly bad at his job.



11 Comments leave one →
  1. nick james permalink
    July 27, 2012 10:15 am

    Brilliant. From strength to strength Alex.

  2. Spencer Allnatt permalink
    July 27, 2012 11:10 am

    Thank you, always a cathartic experience to visit a voice of sanity.

  3. hypercryptical permalink
    July 27, 2012 11:27 am


    Anna :o]

  4. July 27, 2012 11:48 am

    Bit of an insult to seagulls, but a brilliant analysis of Cameron’s government.

  5. Andy permalink
    July 27, 2012 12:16 pm

    You really do need to get over your bitterness toward the Tories. Gordon Brown left the country in a mess, spending money we still won’t pay back in three generations time, and then leaving the next government to sort out the debt problems. Why isn’t he a seagull manager? Because he was nicer to public sector workers and poor people?

    • Payguy permalink
      July 28, 2012 7:33 pm

      For all the gullible people who think that labour overspent

      The increase in government debts in Europe and in the UK are not due to “overspending”.

      Looking at the chart half way down comparing  government debt levels of European countries since 1995. The UK has lower government debt than the other counties. Also European public sector debt levels rise rapidly increasing after 2008 – exactly the same in the UK where the deficit effectively doubles in 2 years due to the effect of a World wide crash. 

      The government debts are pure and simply due to bankers – the cost of bailing out bankers, the cost of austerity measures reducing growth and tax receipts and most of all the higher coats of benefits due to automatic stabilisers such as unemployment benefit. 

  6. July 27, 2012 6:19 pm

    fantastically written blog – very creepy picture!

  7. Jonault permalink
    July 27, 2012 9:00 pm

    The UKBA strike was called off when 800 new posts were created to try and get the department working properly. This was as good as the Government admitting that they had cut too many posts as part of their political ideology. These posts were announced a day after the strike was announced although Damian Green tried to tell anyone that would listen that these jobs had been announced weeks earlier. This is how the PCS Union puts it:

  8. David Topple permalink
    July 27, 2012 10:22 pm

    The unions ‘represent’ 10 million working people? Really? Some of the unions in this country have become fascist states run by dictators with six-figure salaries (not bad for people who claim to be socialists). Have a look at the evidence:

    Unite Union, General Secretary Election 2010, candidates’ messages:

    Jerry Hicks writes: ‘the other candidates, all appointed Assistant General Secretaries in a job for life, must share collective responsibility for the mismanagement of Unite’. JH proposes ‘transforming a top-down union run like a business, to a bottom-up one where members decide, the union provides…bridging the massive divide between the leadership and the members by returning the union to where it belongs – with the members’.

    He goes on to say that ‘Len McCluskey, Gail Cartmail and Les Bayliss support appointing officials, denying members the choice…They would take six-figure salaries and benefits’.
    Benefits? Surely not bonuses by another name? What a thought.

    Jerry Hicks came second in the election and the winner was appointed with 15% support.

    Then there’s the Unite Union (South-West Region) Executive Council Election 2011:

    Candidate Jon Locke writes: ‘I believe passionately in election of officers and that our union has to adopt this policy. It can never be truly democratic and encourage full lay member participation until it becomes reality. The lay membership can have no pride or confidence in a system where senior positions are handed out on a jobs for the boys basis’.

    Candidate Kelly Doreen Roberts writes: ‘I also believe in the election of all Unite officers’, and (like Jon Locke) that it ‘should be for the members to decide who represents them, not an individual, a panel, or a committee. Our union has to adopt this policy, as it can never be truly democratic and encourage full lay member participation until it becomes reality’.

    The two winning candidates in the south-west were appointed with 6.32% support (as a proportion of the south-west membership).

    I wonder how many other unions have this ‘democratic’ situation?

    By the way, you make some good points about David Cameron. I reckon the cannabis did something strange to his brain, as it does to the brains of many people. The son of an acquaintance of mine tried it and the poor lad now has psychosis. The good old NHS is now paying for his care.

    • Payguy permalink
      July 29, 2012 8:01 pm

      Absolutely any union member can stand for election to any union position. Any union member can raise any issue they like and put it to a vote at union AGMs and other meetings. The vast majority of union members agree with their leadership over calls for strike action – leadership don’t even call for action until they are pretty sure this is the view if the membership

  9. July 30, 2012 7:46 pm

    An excellent post – government needs to change and gain competence and democratic accountability as do the unions.

    The key to both is for sovereignty to rest with the people as far as governance is concerned and with its members in relation to the unions.

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