Monday, October 24, 2016

Futureproofing the Northern Powerhouse | How businesses can benefit

Manchester Mayoral candidates The Rt. Hon. Andy Burnham MP and Councillor Sean Anstee outlined their ambitions for the Northern Powerhouse at this special Manchester Metropolitan University Business School event I hosted.

I've said before how important it is that as a city region we get this right. Rightly, this was a very business focused discussion. Productivity, new jobs and global competitiveness were all at the top of the agenda. How you get to support this is built upon education, logistics, and a strong base in financial and professional services. We'll return to this again and again, but I'll just leave it here for now.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Bas Salmon, my greatest teacher, may he rest in peace

Brian "Bas" Salmon was the greatest teacher I ever had. Bar none. A remarkable, kind and eccentric history master at Lancaster Royal Grammar School I will never forget his methods, nor his wisdom. Especially memorable is a delicious Latin phrase he once chalked on the board - Parlum Taurum Excrementum (speak intelligent bullshit) - which isn't even correct, but then that's the point.
He was part of a history department at LRGS that could probably match many universities for sheer brain power, depth of knowledge and certainly what we refer to as "teaching excellence".
All three, Jack Lea, Jock Fidler and Bas Salmon as we knew them, also had wide hinterlands beyond school - either in drama, quiz teams and the church, all were High Anglicans.  
All three also influenced me very directly in how I live my life. It was sad then to learn today that Flea and Bas have both recently passed away, but they will have been given great send offs filled with love and affection. 
Fidler, who survives the other two, I never liked. He seemed a vain and uptight bully who is widely despised by almost everyone I ever meet who was taught by him. Yet there was always a paradox about him, he gave so much to the school and to the Air Force cadets thing he ran - the Fidler Youth - and whenever I saw him out of school he held the hand of his wife or his daughters. Having shared a version of this short tribute on the Lancaster Past and Present Facebook page I've had a few people give Fids the benefit of the doubt, which is as it should be.
Bas was the first person who suggested I go to university, or rather he just assumed I would be doing, which had a remarkable affect on me. Fidler made me feel awful, humiliated and useless. I always burned with a desire to go back and show him he was wrong about me, when in retrospect I now simply regret not telling Bas he was right.

The point of the Marple Leaf blog and the future

The tenth anniversary of The Marple Leaf blog rather passed me by. But it does represent a point to reflect on its future.

When I started out in May 2006 it was before Twitter and Facebook. It was when I had a senior job in journalism and it was an outlet to write about stuff I didn't get to tackle through work.

It has at times been deeply personal and confessional, but equally there are also relationships that I don't talk about at all. I've always quite careful to protect the dignity of my children. More recently, some of them have even insisted I never feature them at all. One is alright about it, as long as it's just about going to the football.

By numbers it still suggests it's worth doing.

501,953 visits in total
6867 visits to the most popular post about the death of Gary Speed and hateful football fans
324 posts tagged football
1067 comments (I didn't allow them for 4 years)
1865 posts over the 10 years
23950 views from the largest number of views from a country I've never been to (Russia)
337 is the record for posts in a single year (2007)
687 is the current leader in page views for the month (why Labour should split)
5 of the top ten posts are about Blackburn Rovers
ZERO is the amount of money I've made through Google Adwords simply not working

Due to the powers of Google Analytics I know this stuff, but it doesn't really steer me towards doing anything more than what interests and inspires me. I suspect it hasn't really served as a shop window for my events work.

It's had a makeover since the early days, a new logo and a few tonal changes. My Twitter name was actually taken from the blog - a diary from my adopted home town of Marple. That meant that it tended to be about football, politics and local stuff. It also started as a bit of a pre-Facebook family diary, in fact the early blogs are very much like what my Facebook is now. 

There have always been a number of subjects that have proved popular drivers of comment and social media interest - Blackburn Rovers, Marple and Labour. The issue that pre-occupies me more than anything now is how the modern civic university connects with the wider public. This blog probably isn't the place for that.

I've had a few long running features which I've not updated for a while - the my mate series, where I randomly profile a friend and talk through our personal history. A couple I barely even know any more, one has moved away and one North West power couple are sadly divorced.

I used to do book reviews as if I was describing it in the time it took to rise 8 floors in a lift. 

I enjoy doing telly reviews, but wonder if this is the best outlet.

I wrote a fictional novel, but didn't extract or attempt creative writing on here.

In April 2015 it was all about the election campaign I fought and ever since has become occasionally bitter and angsty about the state of our politics. Locally, there is going to be an enormous debate about where houses are to be built, once again igniting a question about the future of this community.

I'm not certain what the rules are on Search Engine Optimisation by cross-posting content that appears on, say, the Progress website. Personally, I'd like it all to be here, as I control it. Though I do also link to blogs I like and maintain these as best as I can. 

So, the point of this now is I'm interested in your views as to what I should do next, but that ultimately I'm going to carry on, revive a few features, start a few new ones and continue to do what  I've always tried to do, be honest,  be loyal, be kind. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Why I love Cold Feet

In a year of a significant birthday, of key rites of passage for my children and of various birthdays, weddings and reunions, Cold Feet is back. And on the Prolific North news website today I note with some delight that it's being recommissioned for a follow up.

I so desperately wanted it to work. It's been a little like seeing a group of old friends again, not real ones, but people I like who I haven't seen for ages. In a marginally parallel but believable universe I used to play seven-a-side football at Parr's Wood with Adam and Pete. I have definitely been registered at conferences at the Midland by Jenn and I still laugh at David's attempt to ply me with favours to win Dealmaker of the Year, while as editor of Insider magazine I instead placed his far more interesting wife Karen in the 42 Under 42.

Cold Feet played a role in luring me back to Manchester in 2000. As my life moved on so too had the city of my student days. Spotting locations and continuity gaffs has always been a minor delight. So too have the excellent musical choices.

Yes, it's really funny at times, but as I've said before, drama in the unlikeliest settings has to have grown from a grain of truth. As a piece of television this series has always been at its best when it's been raw. For me the standout storyline and performance has been John Thompson as the depressed Pete Gifford. We keep coming back to this, don't we?

Monday, September 26, 2016

To be honest, I'd prefer it if Labour split - here are my reasons

Walking last weekend I came up with twelve good reasons not just to leave the Labour Party, but to actively wish a split. I'm not leaving, because of the last point, but many good people are. 

1. It makes me sad and angry
If we were starting from scratch, there is no reason on earth right now why I would join Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. I wouldn't look at it and think - that's what I'd like to be part of, that looks exciting. It doesn't, none of it, all of Labour makes me sad and sometimes angry. So this blog is partly me thinking aloud about why I should stay or go, but it's actually not my decision that matters, but whether others lead in that direction. It's something I think about every day, I wish I didn't. I've walked away before, mainly because membership was incompatible with my work. I could take the easy option and say that as I'm now working in a politically sensitive role I ought to step away, but that's not it.

2. This cult of Jeremy makes me feel uneasy
It is sometimes said that Queen Elizabeth and her entourage must think everywhere in Britain smells of paint, such is the care and preparation invested in sprucing each place she visits. This endless leadership campaign must be like that for supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, bouncing from meetings of the like minded, a world of rallies and demonstrations. It is no surprise to discover a recent opinion poll by YouGov where 80% say they have literally no friends who would vote Tory. It's a kind of politics I utterly abhor, dogma, personality cult worship and a tin ear. Worse still, because the policy programme of the Corbyn project is so light on detail, then people tend to project onto him whatever they want him to stand for.

3. Labour has become the nasty party  I know lovely people, who I count as friends, who are firmly on the left of the party. But the promise of a kinder gentler politics was always a hollow one. To witness the Corbyn supporting mob in action on their medium of choice - social media - is a horror show of intolerance, ill tempered hostility and shallow sloganeering. The use of "vermin" is a horrible term of abuse, whether it is used on a t-shirt, or a placard. I'd never use it about anyone. Yet such is the paranoia and delusion involved now that even the authenticity of a notorious picture of an offensive t-shirt has been questioned - because the two young people who discovered it are "RWBV" themselves. As Philip Collins says in the Times, the Labour membership sees itself as morally superior to the nation that rejects it. Whether the targets are one of Britain's most respected businessmen (Richard Branson), best loved writers (JK Rowling) or anyone in the media who subjects the dear leader or his acolytes to the most basic scrutiny, the result is the same. At the Sky debate, one member of the audience spoke up for Corbyn, saying: "I'm just so angry at what the rest of the Labour party are doing to Jeremy Corbyn. I think they're cowards. They're old Blairites. Everybody hates Tony Blair."

4. Embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing
I want to watch the news and feel proud of my team. I want to sit down to Question Time and see my side put a good shift in against the Tories and the SNP and whichever media pundit they pick to play to the gallery. I don't though, I get angry and want to switch off. One after another they line up on TV, and in parliament, to be stripped of any pretense at competence, Emily Thornberry, Richard Burgon, Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and of course Corbyn himself.

5. This is not a social movement

After the General Election last year I went to a meeting of new party members at a club in Manchester. I tried to find out why people had joined a political party, what they wanted to give, what they expected to contribute and what their motives were. I still don't think I'm any the wiser. Is it like a bowls club taking over a golf club and changing the rules and ethos? Partly. But first and foremost, Labour needs to win elections, that's what it exists for. In order to do that Labour can also become effective by building a network of social activists, something I wrote about in my report from 2015 and in this book. Momentum seems to share this ideal, but are going about it in completely the wrong way. What worries me more than anything though is how many of these new party members will survive contact with the enemy, not the "traitorous Blairite scum", but Tory voters who need to be persuaded and inspired, not shouted down. Owen Jones has clocked this too. Already the kind of seats Labour should be holding in Sheffield and Stockton are lost to the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. Only the turmoil in UKIP will spare Labour further losses.

6. The leadership supports an ideology that is wrong about everything
This, from John McDonnell, shows him welcoming the crisis in capitalism. That's the opposite of what I think. Same on Northern Ireland. Same on the Middle East, same on terrorism. And all those positions are driven by an anti-western hatred. That's not me and that's wholly incompatible with social democratic values too.

7. I wouldn't want a leftist programme, even if it was the path to victory
I subscribe firmly to the guiding principle that what matters is what works, in the words of he who is no longer allowed to be named. It is my burden. I believe in evidence, evaluation and unlike Michael Gove I haven't had enough of experts. And the very reason why every opinion poll has Jeremy Corbyn at rock bottom is precisely because the British people can see what Labour members cannot. It is this, Corbyn is a lightweight, a phoney. He advocates little beyond slogans, about peace and being anti-austerity. But his policy papers, his uncosted policies, are unworthy of serious attention. Most are like a half-baked undergraduate essay; poorly evidenced and based on anecdotal personal experience. His promise of scrapping university tuition fees is, to quote our Chancellor this week - "not an honest promise". I dare not imagine the state of the next crowdsourced election manifesto. It's a way of thinking that fails to take into account the seismic changes in society of technology, wealth, power and the future role of the state.

8. I can't be dishonest
Owen Smith's campaign played the "Labour is doomed with Jeremy Corbyn" card. It's undoubtedly true, but it has utterly soured relations in the party beyond repair. The best we can hope for is an amicable divorce. Afterall, think how those words will look on Tory posters, quoted back at every party member and MP in the thick of an election campaign where Labour activists will have to make a case for Corbyn to lead our country. How can every MP who voted for no confidence in him, if they survive a reselection process, campaign for Jeremy Corbyn to be a plausible prime minister? There will be a charm offensive that will tempt some MPs back, some will do their patriotic duty, because they think it's the right thing to do. But if you do, then you all risk treating the electorate like fools and campaigning for something you know is not in the national interest. This doomed coup and leadership election is grounds for divorce, or as Gordon Lynch optimistically calls for here, an amicable one.

9. They've won and it's the end of the world as we know it
At the Greater Manchester Mayoral hustings I got a sense of the problem for our politics. This was the Labour family. Councillors, activists, election agents, those I didn't know I recognised from those cheerful pictures on social media with the caption - "great response on the Labour doorstep in *insert as appropriate*."
There was no heckling, no chanting of their candidates name. These were committed political operatives who have delivered Labour dominance across most parts of Greater Manchester through hard graft, targeting and community work. When Andrew Russell, the chair, asked the question where the candidates stood on the leadership, there was an audible groan around the room.  For many of these people 'Labour family' means just that. It was a reminder that there is something that is going to blow all of this apart, and yet they are the glue that will actually hold it all together until the bitter end. They/we inhabit a world that is ending. They are tribally loyal to Labour, councillors I know well are angry that the leadership election took place, because it distracted from what they want more than anything, party unity. These people are the best of Labour. The heartbeat of local politics, even in the tightest of circumstances it is primarily Labour councils who have brought verve and innovation to progressive political delivery - service design, collaborative working. Labour MPs too deserve far better than the abuse they get as "traitors". How on earth will they put it back together again?

10. You don't have to pick sides 
I get taken to that place where to leave Labour makes you a Tory, where the aggressive "which side are you on?" question is put. Sometimes I find myself having to take sides, but I can't though. It isn't a binary choice. I see the worst of the Tories in the Grammar School debacle, a comfortable reminder of their narrow priorities and the hollow rhetoric of One Nation Conservatism. And for all the tribalism and power of the Labour brand, and the decency of the Labour family, pre-Corbyn, it is now tragically toxic. Millions are turned off the shallow populism that Corbynism offers. I don't subscribe to the doctrine of my party, right or wrong. The easy answers, the shouty style and coarse sloganeering turns me right off. I also don't want to have to answer for mob behaviour the next time protesters spit in the face of "Tory scum". I've always been a free-thinker, a political magpie, essentially a centrist who can see virtue in many political traditions - even the left of politics.

11. Corbyn has to truly own his defeat
One of the key moments of the last year was the Oldham by-election. Andrew Gwynne, MP for Denton and Reddish, ran a tight and focused campaign wholly based on Jim McMahon's character, record and strengths. Imagine for a moment if Chris Williamson, the former MP for Derby, had been selected and campaigned on an overtly pro-Corbyn anti-austerity platform, run by Momentum. I think he would have lost as he did in the General Election and where he forever forfeited the right to call himself an MP, except on Twitter.
Even when Labour is smashed in the polls, there will be elements of the party that will blame the Blairites. Maybe therefore this essential truth will never hit home until the idea is firmly rejected by the British people. I want them to justify to the public the existence of the magical money tree that will pay for a universal basic income, free university education, all drug research done by the NHS, a nationalised railway system, unlimited welfare, a national social housing programme, redundancy payments for defence industry workers and a disbanded army.

12. Paul Mason is right
Former journalist Paul Mason has adopted a tone of "bring it on". He sees this as a war and is in no mood for healing. He wants the old party gone and for the deselections to begin. I am absolutely certain that Corbyn and McDonnell think this too. 

13. So here's the only reason I stay...
Of course there's the devilment of supporting those brave enough to stand and fight. Not to let the left have their way. Why should they? There's also an important need to ensure progressive change in society at a local level is victorious, whether that be Andy Burnham being elected as Greater Manchester Mayor, or our local council building on recent success having so narrowly taken control of Stockport Council in May. I was proud that Richard Leese and Joe Anderson are supporting the Northern Powerhouse Partnership started by George Osborne. There has to be scrutiny of policy nationally, if not from the front bench, then from the back. Take the powerful and forensic stance against grammar schools argued by Liz Kendall last week, then there's the amendments on country by country tax reporting tabled by Caroline Flint. These Labour MPs, leaders and councillors represent the best of politics. 

For now, I stay to support them, because I'm paid up for the year. There isn't anywhere else to go. But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

We might want Venky's out, but how? And what next?

Blackburn Rovers fans have been protesting against their absentee owners for nearly 6 years. What does our experience of decline tell us about the prospects for football’s protesting fans?
We’ve tried chickens on the pitch. We’ve had marches, banners, protests, letters to MPs, questions in parliament and calls to Robbie Savage. I'm rather proud of my effort that doubles up as a tribute to a band close to the hearts of many Rovers fans. But none of it has worked. The debt has piled up as quickly as the club has fallen down the leagues.
The owners box at the front of the Jack Walker Stand lies empty and unused, yet Blackburn Rovers is still a wholly owned subsidiary of a mysterious company called Venky’s London PLC, an offshoot of Venkateshwara Hatcheries of Pune, India.  
But not only have we lost 30 odd league places, we’ve also tumbled in the sympathy stakes with other fans. The highly personalised “Steve Kean Out” focus of the last wave of protests in 2011/2012 enabled the manager to position himself as a hapless victim of mob rule. The anger and the vitriol gave uber-agent Jerome Anderson – who I blame for all of this -  the confidence to stick his brass neck out and appear on Sky Sports News. Sitting with his chums (and clients) he was able to allege that “certain groups” don’t want the Venky’s to own Blackburn “for whatever reason”. It was a disgusting implication that we’re basically a bunch of racists being whipped up by the local branch of the EDL, but he was reinforcing a firmly held view we’d helped create.
I stopped going for a bit, others fell out amongst themselves. Many haven’t returned and whether it was a boycott or just lethargy, a League Cup tie v Crewe saw a crowd of 3,000. Crowds of less than 10,000 for league games won’t be far off as the team struggles to chalk up a first win. Of those that remain, the anger is back.
So what do we do now? Bottom of the league. A crap manager who looks out of his depth and talks a good line in cheery Glaswegian bullshit, a rag bag of a team of loan signings, journeymen and kids. It sounds like 2012 all over again, except we’re bottom of the second division this time.
The truth is, there aren’t any easy answers once you get past the war cry of “We want Venky’s Out”. 
The problem is this is the age of the easy answer. From Jeremy Corbyn to UKIP, from Donald Trump to the Occupy movement, there is always an outlet for protest and forever an enemy to blame. It is also the age of the instant answer. Want to campaign about something? Sign a petition, join a political party, vote in a referendum and make your point. The day of reckoning comes when things don’t change. When poverty isn’t made history, when control isn’t taken back and we find out that actually, Jez just can’t. Then what?
Usually it is time and apathy that kills a campaign. People get fed up turning up when nothing changes. A march, a rally, followed by a rainy day and a splintering of interest. Not least the shrewd ability of the powerful to splinter protests by granting minor concessions and buying that other precious commodity, time. Then there’s the capacity for groups to fall out amongst themselves when they don’t get what they want.
Activism, or its on-line version, clicktivism, has as many challenges as it does limitations. It’s possible to accelerate the early momentum, but equally to exaggerate and simplify the wide range of opinions, views, egos and basic human weaknesses.
Here’s our problem at Blackburn Rovers. Our owners are just like many others in the top two divisions of English football. Overseas foreign tycoons with their trophy asset of an English football club (Chinese investment in foreign football clubs this year stands at $2billion). But our particular curse was this – we got owners who were poorly advised, stubborn and have now effectively disappeared. I’ve picked through their annual accounts and they don’t even refer to the fact they own an English football club, let alone one that’s cost them and their shareholders a ton of money. All reasonable efforts to engage with them, to assist in an orderly exit, have come to nothing.
We can do what Charlton and Blackpool fans did last season – tennis balls, sit down protests and lots of noise – but look where it got them. Same owners, same trajectory.
Saving face is apparently an important part of the Indian character. For the life of me the only way forward I can think of is to politely embarrass them in their own back yard. Keep up the pressure on the board at the home games, in case one of them turns up or has someone pass a message on. Humiliate them, expose them, but give them no space to plead the moral high ground. But to do that we probably have to take the fight to India. We’ll have to orchestrate our own protests in their home city, at the cricket when England play in Pune in January, protest outside their places of business, lobby the Indian stock exchange and make the case for their utter incompetence wherever their reputation can be damaged.
And then what? Who would buy all that debt? Who is the debt to? Who's going to make payroll every month? What would happen to a club in administration? How far would we have to fall before we could begin to build a club worthy of our past? I’ll tell you what, I’m terrified of the future under any scenario, but the present status quo is simply unsustainable.
Any help, any suggestions, gratefully received.

(Originally published in STAND fanzine).

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Sir Howard Bernstein - his legacy for Manchester is to push forgreatness

None of us can be surprised at the news this morning that Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester Cty Council, is to retire. But it is still a shock. There was always going to be a post-Howard era. 

Howard has made an incalculable contribution to Manchester over a lifetime of public service. He has constantly driven the city to be more ambitious, to think globally and as a result we have a city that is the envy of others around the world.

He has pioneered a particular way of doing business in Manchester that prides unity and ambition over everything else. His ability to bring together and inspire disparate groups of businesses, politicians and officials to find a common purpose has directly contributed to the culture of success.

But he would never want his own professional legacy to be a festival of black slapping, but to continue pushing the ambitions of the city still further. The constant building work, the improvements to infrastructure like Metrolink remind you that Manchester is a work in progress, and is never finished. In fact, Manchester is finished when people think it's "job done". 

In my time as a journalist, in business and now at Manchester Metropolitan University he has always been incredibly supportive. He has always demonstrated that same encouragement and forceful ambition that informs our strategy to be a great institution in a great city. He makes himself available and works tremendously hard to make the city better. I have so many Howard stories from over the years that remind us all of what a character he is as well as a organisational force of nature.