Man With A Plan


There have been many grand plans. Stalin’s bestselling idea to industrialise the Soviet agrarian economy. The Marshall Plan after World War Two providing shipping containers full of cash to rebuild a shattered Europe ready for trade and buying stuff. And my great undertaking to move to Vienna and at all costs avoid teaching English.

Earlier this year we had a plan for Austria. The plan is important because it signals a shift in Socialist (SPÖ) politics, although one element in particular – which we will cover later in another posting – is a direct challenge to the ascendancy of the Freedom Party, Austria’s impish far right.

The plan offers something for everyone: the young, the middle-aged, the disaffected voter seduced by populism and distrust of their neighbour (that’s me), the left behind, the precariat and even the half-forgotten green minded citizen marginalised by an adherence to politics which currently seems irrelevant and quaint given that we are on the verge of being inconvenienced by a nuclear winter.

So what does Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern (him above looking like Humphrey Bogart) have in mind? Here is a summary of the main points:

Mobility – in essence and spirit it’s all about people “getting on their bikes” (see Norman Tebbit, The Chingford Skinhead, and former cabinet member in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s). In other words, the unemployed will have to accept moving out of the capacious comfort zone and accept a daily commute of more than an hour in it means gainful employment. As a self-employed English trainer for many years (English trainers were the original schmucks of the gig-economy) and having travelled extensively around Vienna and beyond for journeys of more than an hour (several times a day), this policy has my absolute backing.

20 Thousand new jobs – strangely no mention of an extension in the remuneration, benefits and work conditions of the TEFL profession, this aspect proposes to pay special attention to the long-term unemployed over 50s. As if this cosseted generation haven’t had enough of an easy ride until now what with affordable housing, free education and a world mostly without the Mephistophelian intrusion of social media.

Transparency – a herculean task charged with making it easier for companies to engage in business, presumably with less paperwork and taxes. This is no “race-to-the-bottom” signal of intent to outdo the soon to be established tax haven off north-western Europe, but a reaction to Austria’s reputation for its rather antediluvian approach to business regulation. Personally, I think the Chamber of Commerce and its henchmen do a wonderful job and I willingly hand over a quarter of my income (for health and pension insurance but not income tax) each year although I get no unemployment pay, sickness benefit or even a Christmas card from the suits on the Wiedner Haupstrasse.

 Affordable housing – explicit purpose to encourage pension funds and insurance companies to investment in new homes with a commitment that 25% of available space be specially designated for social housing. It may work, but if I invest in a new penthouse in the first district, that new development on Bauernmarkt looks rather tempting, then I am buggered if I want a German welfare migrant living in a subsidised apartment on the ground-floor.

More medical centres – noble in its aspiration, this is definitely a move in the right direction. Construction of 75 new primary care centres with customer friendly opening times. On the point of opening times, however, I remain anything but sanguine. This is Austria where the countryside closes at 12 o’clock on Friday lunchtime with Vienna not far behind.

Clean energy – there is much to acclaim in any vision of the future which promises more windmills, hydro-electric power and something called “bio-locations”. Yet I just hope it is enough to satisfy the restless masses in Favoriten, Simmering and Florisdorf (the 10th, 11th and 21st districts respectively) who have more pressing claims like ignoring the mainstream media in favour of online content obsessed with alternative truths, a distrust in liberal economics (which have done nothing to pay for their subsidised housing, social security, healthcare, education and oversized televisions) and their “it will all end in tears” support for a far-right offering hope, security and new smartphones.

And there you have it, far-reaching, inclusive and forward thinking. Let’s go to the Beisl, you cheer! But hold those pumps. Where there is the promise of Helles, one must exercise caution. Whatever the SPÖ propose along with their collation partners from the Austrian Conservatives (The Peoples’ Party), it is my fear that little will alter the fact that people, a bit like me that time I needed some small coinage for a public loo after I had left Schweizerhaus one afternoon, are desperate for change. More significantly they are prepared to risk it and this means moving far up the beach to prostate themselves at the mercy of the ice-cream seller famous for the triple scoop of populism, protectionism and isolation. And how to counteract it? Like much of the solutions to modern survival, we need Google.

Following a cross-company review called project Oxygen, Google came up with five principles which they claim make for a productive and effective team. I am certainly not a slave to the ethos of Google or what they usually appear to stand for and I don’t believe they have the answer for everything (this is my son). But I give them credit: they know a little bit about data. And so hearing the principles uncovered by Oxygen it made me think that this might be the secret to regaining the support of disaffected voters everywhere. Indeed, it could be applied to any “social unit” or community (teams by another name) like the EU, Austria but especially my family.

Their key point, the most important factor which drives all others is “psychological safety”. In the Google context it means providing an opportunity for all team members to feel comfortable. Not only that they can voice their opinion, but do so safe in the knowledge that other team members will listen (marriage counsellors take note).

Extrapolate this to the nation state (think the reasons for Brexit or Trump) and one is constantly reminded how people were ignored, usually by some ill-defined “liberal metropolitan elite” (in Vienna it is liberal metropolitan whingers). Indeed, this is the essence of the protest vote and if you remove this aspect of safety – the EU provides a prefect example in their mishandling of the migrant crisis which reinforced the notion that control had been lost and security was in jeopardy – then the previous feeling of “comfort” experienced by individual citizens in multiple contexts (nations, cities, communities) is viscerally weakened.

If we bring it back closer to home for a minute, we see pretty much a similar effect in Vienna. The capital of Austria has a reputation for its safety and indeed its crime rate, most notably serious crime, is significantly low compared to other European cities of the same size. But it would be fair to argue that since the expansion of the EU eastwards and in particular the influx of refugees in 2015, there is a definite sense that crime (and fear of crime) and perhaps security in general, is worse. It is not really relevant whether the statistics reveal the true nature of these trends, the important thing is perception amongst the public, even in a wide cross-section of liberals, conservatives and proponents of the old left. And once this happens, when emotion overrides rationale, then you better start upping your rhetoric. How? Well, one way is by reassuring people you will build a wall or control immigration or retreat into protectionism and so on …

But let us assume you have established safety in the minds of your voters, what next? Well, for Google another element concerns what they call “dependability”. In essence, this is about trust. Team members are trusted to do their jobs without micro-management from bosses although this also means members have to exercise trust in their leaders. This is clearly an issue. Citizens increasingly these days do not trust their elected representatives and many voters, certainly in Europe do not trust the EU (or that trust has been squandered). So what do they do? They look for alternative political movements (either new or throwbacks) promising economic security, cultural preservation and a big hug.

But to gain trust you need “structure and clarity” (Google’s third facet). Everyone (every country, every citizen) is clear what everyone else is doing concerning their role and responsibilities within the team. This is made self-evident throughout but if we again refer back to the EU, one common criticism you hear repeatedly is that Brussels has lost its way. Policies are fudged or muddled or there is no coherent strategy. Trust is lost and hence safety is misplaced.

Again we defer to Austria. The coalition is stagnant with the perception that nothing is moving (although ironically the Parliament is – literally – moving to a temporary home in the Heldenplatz in order to make way for renovations in the Austrian seat of democracy). In other words, political leaders, through fatigue, apathy or complacency have repeatedly failed to explain their strategy or show vision (hence to need for a semblance of a plan now) or at least act on any consequential strategy. And in such moments, the electorate will seek clear, simple messages of intent (populism by another name) irrespective of whether they can be implemented or not.

And so once the clarity is lost, trust weakened and safety compromised, the personal “meaning” (number 4) for team members is seriously questioned. Yes, people may have believed in, for example, the EU at first and all the promises it would bring, but this has been gradually eroded for some of the reasons we have discussed above. And, if we believe Google, once that personal element is lost (alongside the fifth aspect – “impact” –where a project must assume “change”) then the team will fail. In political terms and the implications for elections, this will inevitably lead to increasing numbers of the voters in the middle reassessing their political, social and moral compasses as they strive for a return to strong leadership, direction and, yes, safety.

(A couple of other things which politicians would do well to take note of: first, Google found that although consensus in a team was desirable, members expected leaders to take strong positions and make decisions; second, it didn’t really matter who was in the team but long-term continuity was vital for success.)

So what are the implications? The EU with its 27 nations is essentially a team (Britain on the transfer list). Austria with its 9 federal states is a team. Vienna with its 23 districts is a team (although 11th district Simmering should be in the sin-bin). In each political context leaders need to be focussing on sending messages (acting on policies with clear aims and outcomes) which first re-establish a sense that socio-economic and cultural safety is critical to cohesion – in Austria or the EU – because without it we risk failure.

Equally, leaders need to quickly demonstrate that people are not being ignored. Voices matter particularly in relation to economic and social pressures where some citizens feel their concerns have been marginalised at the expense of “elites” or a “global system”. But even then it is not the guys at the bottom who already believe they have nothing to lose (a terrific bunch; most likely vote for the FPÖ in any case) but crucially the anxious mass in the middle with everything to lose. This stokes fear. Almost like the thought of bumping into a client in the sauna and all its terrifying connotations.

I am not suggesting wall building, travel bans or expulsion of Germans. But people need reassurance. A nation is no different to a company or a family in this respect. Yet in the current political and cultural climate, leaders across Europe are failing in this critical fact. Thinking back, it was only a very short time ago that this sense of insecurity simply did not exist in Austria or even the EU. Complacency? Perhaps. But people are fastidious creatures prone to irrationality and poor decisions even without whiskey. But one should never underestimate the power of a nice stroke (as a therapist friend once explained).

Sadly, the reality – certainly at the moment – seems anything but cohesive where unity (and collective safety) through cooperation is questioned from many divisive factions. It is fashionable to talk about a reassertion of the nation state and sovereignty. To “taking back control” and “controlling borders”. To the threats to cultural integrity from incomers and the weakness of assimilation. In short, we need a voice which says I will make the tough decisions but through a position of strength steeped in mutual trust, understanding and the support of collective values. But I am not hearing it. Even in the number one city.

© 2017 RJ Barratt