Thursday, May 26, 2016

Manchester Mayor - at last, the penny drops - this is a golden opportunity

There is now a wide open window for some creative energy to blow through the campaign for a Greater Manchester Mayor in 2017. One that not only seeks to build on the incredible range of powers devolved to Manchester, but to start thinking about what else can be done.

But there are also massive risks for Labour, which I have outlined in this new book, Labour's Identity Crisis, England and the Politics of Patriotism, edited by Tristram Hunt MP and published by the University of Winchester.

Overshadowing so much of what social democracy can be in the next century is Scotland. Labour’s destruction there, the surge of the Scottish National Party, is underpinned by three major drivers: economic justice, national identity and a statecraft to address the other two.

In the North of England, I’m convinced of the need to address the first. In fact, everyone is. Where I see an opportunity is through devolution, federalism and empowerment at the most appropriate level that finds a way to tackle this imbalance. Where this is trickier is in how anyone can negotiate the political and cultural structures that underpin this. In truth, the compromise of an eleventh member of the Greater Manchester cabinet - effectively the power that a directly elected Mayor will have - isn't massively game changing. There has been a stark lack of buy-in for a devolution project that offers us an opportunity to shape our own destiny in ways that have never been granted before. Yes, it’s flawed, and yes, there is too much emphasis still on a sequence of dismal caveats, summed up in eight binding words – ‘at the discretion of the Secretary of State.’ But it’s a start. Just as Scotland was.

What brighter future can be imagined? What does a Manchester Health network look like? How do we encourage the values of co-operativism in the delivery of public services across the whole of Greater Manchester? And how do we encourage ambition, innovation and prosperity in a cold climate?

We still have a lot of growing up to do, but maybe as a city region and as place at the forefront of a new social democratic politics we can build on our successes, not just wallow in our defeats.

But there’s a weakness in the identity element here too, a massive deficit from the Scottish experience. Any regional English political project is inevitably tied to weary Westminster culture where Labour are losing and seem hell bent on continuing to do so. If Scotland has taught us anything it is that the firm link between identity politics, aspiration and better governance has proved truly inspirational. Similarly in Catalonia.

There are pockets of surging civic flag waving in our cities, but they are not a foundation upon which anyone is suggesting we can build a viable political project. But it could be. In this age of political easy answers it is not beyond the realms of the imagination that a popular, successful Mancunian, with no particular political ties, could emerge as a catalysing and insurgent force. What if Gary Neville thought he’d like a go? A Manchester Movement, led by a successful sports personality, a super-bright business achiever too, a well-connected property developer and savvy media performer. The more you game it, the more urgent it becomes to seize the opportunity to do a Greater Manchester version of our values in a bold, inclusive and distinctive way.

Much as I’d like it to be so, there isn’t a strong Northern or Greater Manchester identity anything like as historic and emotional as that which drove the Scots awakening and sustains support for some fairly poor statecraft under the SNP.

But maybe cities are different? More open, modern, globally focused and therefore less tied to a static view of nationhood. More English, in fact. For there has to be far more to a modern English identity than just Britishness with the Scots lopped off the top.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

New Statesman podcast - usually good, terrible on Manchester Mayor

I found myself grinding my teeth with quiet rage on Monday listening to the usually excellent Helen Lewis and Stephen Bush of the New Statesman podcast pontificating on the Greater Manchester Mayoral selection.

Ivan Lewis is not thinking of standing for Mayor of Birmingham.

Andy did not grow up in "part of Greater Manchester".

Richard Lloyd is not the interim Mayor of Greater Manchester. 

Sir Richard Leese, is not the Mayor of Manchester City Council.

Tameside is not pronounced Tem-side. It's named after the River Tame, and rhymes with lame.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

An outstanding Freshwalks hike up Kinder Scout and Edale

I've done a fair bit of walking in the Lake District, but all the toughest walks I've done have been in the Peaks. Even the names sound daunting - The Dark Peak, Bleaklow and Black Hill. This Saturday the Freshwalks tour did the Edale Circle, a good 16km in some fairly hostile conditions. It was at times unbearably hard. As a symbolic celebration of completing Jacob's Ladder, I slipped onto my arse.

I took the potentially irresponsible option of taking my 14 year old son. I am sufficiently worried that he doesn't get enough exercise and that he needs to find more things that he's good at, and that get him out of the house. And I thought he'd like it. For large parts of it he really didn't, but then none of us really enjoyed the lashing wind, the swirling rain or the hazards of the marshy bogs of Kinder Scout.

It was like the Revenant, without the bear, but no less harsh.

I'm no expert on building personal resilience in kids. I try my best. God knows I was hardly brought up in a favella myself and didn't want for much. And I worried that this was a step too far. But there was also a profound sense of euphoria and excitement when we yomped up the last hill before a smooth descent into Edale.

A word too on the company. I was involved in the very first "netwalking" expedition that has now developed into the hugely successful Freshwalks, led by my pal Michael Di Paola. Timing has conspired against me joining further expeditions, but it is clear that something truly special has been created here. The levels of support and friendliness are astounding. The kindness so front and centre.

As I cuddled up to Matt on the train heading home, trying to congratulate him on an awesome personal achievement, he just looked relieved. While I was trying to understand the mix of teenage hormones, his own unique characteristics that I can never truly comprehend but will never stop loving him for, I swear I had something in my eye.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

James at the Arena - "Do the hits FFS"


James were immense at the Manchester Arena last night. The emotional heights they reach on some of their anthems have always and rather obviously been the mainstay of their appeal, but even for us old rockers the show goes on.

I'm in two minds about the live music "experience". The high standard of musicianship, staging and performance is now a given. Two and a half hours of brilliance from the stage. But that's not what takes the edge off it. So I thought I'd do a blog review as if it was done by the bloke sat next to me.

"Went to James last night. Had to wait ages for them to do Sit Down, after they did a load of new stuff and got the fiddles out for She's A Star and ruined it. If I wanted to see the Waterboys I'd stand in a field and chew grass. James don't do fiddles. And they didn't play Laid which me and our lass like. And they started Sit Down off dead slow, as if they don't really want to do it. Got what I came for though and filmed the whole thing on my camera phone, but it's probably ruined by the bloke next to me pushing me away and holding his hand up to hide his eyes from the flash light. But you need that to get a good picture from the upper tier of the Nynex. Anyway, once they'd knocked that one out we left to beat the traffic. Shame, they were doing that other one off the Best of James CD (or is it Best Anthems in the World Ever 4?) as we were coming out of the bogs. At least I didn't have to queue for a slash that time. I'd been five times in all and it took ages. That's one of the upsides of them playing the new stuff, time to have a piss or get another bevy in. Support bands were rubbish. Never heard of either of them."

Monday, May 09, 2016

Bring me sunshine - Morecambe v York a good day to end a rotten season

Michael Gibson, me and Kevin McGuinness
 For most football supporters, the end of any season has a strange mixture of emptiness, optimism and relief. 

Focus is rightly directed on the small number of teams still in the thick of a battle against relegation or promotion, or a title win, or it's been so dire the die was cast weeks ago. For most of us however, the season fizzled out a while ago. We're resigned therefore to watching a nothing game in the sunshine, reflecting on what might have been, but wondering what a better future might bring.

With this in mind, a few weeks ago I accepted an invitation to finally visit Morecambe FC's new home at the Globe Arena in preference to the last Rovers game of the season at home to Reading. As a Lancaster lad, I used to regard Morecambe as my local non-league team and went to a fair few games over the years. As a kid I even played on Christie Park once in a cubs tournament. In 1985, a few weeks into my first term at Manchester University, I hopped over to York to watch the Shrimps in an FA Cup first round clash with the Minstermen, their opponents this weekend.
Me and Jimmy Warwick

I'd only ever been to the Globe for the wake after Uncle Pete's funeral. We said then that we ought to come back for a game to honour the big man. I'm just sorry it's taken this long. Still, ground number 72 of the present 92 and 145 of the grand global total. I'll be losing West Ham and York this summer.

There's not much to say about the game, a 1-1 draw with some comedy finishing from both sides. It was great to be sat between Michael Gibson on one side, a Morecambe stalwart who gave me chapter and verse on the state of the club and the bad luck of the present season. On the other I had Phil Simpson, a York City supporter, lamenting the season and the circumstances leading up to his club finishing 92nd and heading back to the Conference, or National League, or whatever it's called. As Jim Bentley, Morecambe's manager, said at the end however disappointed the home fans are, there are 300 York fans here who'd swap places in an instant.

I'm sad to say that the ground is a bit of a missed opportunity. Too many executives boxes, the side opposite a neglected afterthought. Two low level terraces and some strange design quirks in the main stand - press area is very exposed, for one. On the positive, the pies are superb. The spread of food in our lounge was first rate for a football lunch. Too many grounds do a poor imitation of five star rubber chicken. I don't see the point. This was great though.

AC Milan line up against Hi Viz City
But bumping into two of my oldest friends Jim Warwick and Kevin McGuinness in the bar beforehand reminded me why I love the fellowship of football so much. So many memories, shared stories of days out, high jinks, scrapes and ordinary madness.

Here's to a summer of sunshine and hope. As they said 19 years ago. things can only get better. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Vote for decency in Stockport this Thursday

People go into politics for all kinds of different reasons, I'll be generous and say usually for very sound and honourable motives, irrespective of party. At the other end of the scale, people then need to be forced out by the electorate when that moral compass no longer points to their own true north.

There are two wards close to where I live where the choice tomorrow is one of decency and honour over the rotten face of local politics. In other wards, like my own, it's actually between competing political programmes. I will therefore be voting for Sheila Townsend of the Labour Party, though I respect Tom Dowse of the Conservatives, who I regard as a good neighbour and not just a rival in politics, to paraphrase Justin Trudeau.

In Manor ward in Stockport Charlie Stewart is standing for Labour against the current Liberal Democrat leader, Sue Derbyshire. I worked alongside Charlie last year and know him to be honest, hard working and deeply honourable. I contrast this with Councillor Derbyshire whose behaviour and conduct over a whole range of issues has finally come to a head, resulting in resignations from her group and the kind of childish infighting that gives politics a bad name. The issue is supposedly over who-said-what over the relocation of Stockport Market. In reality, it is a demonstration of very poor leadership. Not least for entrusting the portfolio of economic development to a loose cannon called Patrick McAuley, the very councillor she is now attempting to smear and attack at every turn.

In Offerton ward the choice between light and dark couldn't be more pronounced. Janet Glover has worked in public service as a midwife, nurse and teacher. Over the last year she has been embedded in the local community and achieved countless positive outcomes for residents who have no-one to fight for them. Housing Associations need to be put under pressure to do repairs, crime needs a community response that a leader can convene. Politics requires this of you and Janet has displayed her qualities in spades.

The other choice is dishonest and represents all that is truly wrong about local politics.

At stake is the way Stockport is governed, how public services can be reformed and run effectively and how strategic decisions can be made for the long term, not just to preserve councillors' careers.

I hope that on Thursday night we will be cracking open the jelly and ice cream.

Here's Ivan Lewis speaking on The North. More Poorhouse than Powerhouse

Monday, May 02, 2016

Protests, anger and football - a bit of context

When is it alright to protest at a football match? Discuss.

It's always your right to protest, to wave a banner, but while sometimes it's a legitimate expression of popular will, at others you just end up sounding like a spoilt brat. The rest of the football world looks on  and makes a snap judgement based on a shallow reading of the facts.

As the season draws to a close the banners come out. The frustration, the broken promises, the problems with the board, they all bubble to the surface. The common thread is often a feeling of powerlessness. But who are we to judge? What do we who follow another team know of the back story, the daily reality? Here are a few examples.

The Justice for the 96 campaign has at times been sneered at and patronised. But by God they were right. Persistence, pride and passion directed at the police, media and a judicial system that has failed them.

Blackpool fans marched on their stadium on Saturday, outraged at the dire football, the years of goading by the Oyston family. Yes, I totally get that.

There was a pitch invasion against the board at fan owned FC United. No, I honestly can't fathom this. There is a mechanism, a democratic structure, to change things at this club. Pursue that by all means at the EGM that has been called, but this can be easily sorted without indulgent showboating.

FA Cup holders Arsenal are on course to finish in the top 4, but the placards were out calling for Arsene Wenger to be sacked. Arsenal fans are one of the minor reasons I don't listen to 606 any more (Robbie Savage is the main one). Supporters of clubs owned by oligarchs demanding more and more spending of more and more money in a season where Leicester City are going to win the league make me feel ill.

We have form about this at Blackburn Rovers. A mid table and unremarkable season under an unloved but plodding manager sees the surprise appointment of a Scottish manager (ex-Celtic player) who makes things worse. You know the rest.

Well actually you don't. On Saturday at Rotherham some Rovers fans sung: "Paul Lambert we want you to stay" (I didn't) and the blame was firmly directed at Venky's, our strange owners.

Loop back a few years ago and the anger was almost totally focused on Steve Kean. At the time I thought that was wrong. It personalised an issue, made the fans look like a baying bullying mob and got Venky's off the hook. The villain of the piece was the agent Jerome Anderson and his involvement in bringing Venky's to the club and tearing it apart. Kean was enthusiastically and willingly complicit, he was clearly out of his depth as a manager, but absolutely everything that was going on at the club pointed to a meltdown under Venky's ownership. The Shebby Singh circus that followed proved all those fears to be right.

The Rao family have been truly terrible owners, but they have kept paying the wages. I don't know how this situation is in any way sustainable. How on earth can they expect to keep writing the cheques to support an asset they have no operational or strategic interest in? I'll be honest, I'm surprised they've lasted as long as they have. The future has to be under different owners - preferably a fan owned co-operative and local businesses - but that is a pipe dream in truth. There can be a better future, but it is sadly going to have to get much worse before it does. That will inevitably mean administration, relegation and a rock bottom we may not have experienced before. Think Portsmouth.

I looked around at Rotherham on Saturday. A tidy new stadium (back up to 71 of the current 92) with a decent atmosphere, a run down town in the shadow of a bigger metropolis. A manager who has saved the season with graft and tactical nous. Is this our future? I hate to say it, but it might be. This was what I'd have settled for in about 1990. How does the song go, "If we hadn't had such riches, we could live with being poor".

Is that then a situation worth protesting about? Of course. But it's also one that has to go beyond anger and forces us to get organised. To be ready to take a full part in rescuing the husk of what will be left. It won't be easy, or pleasant, people will fall out and egos will collide. It may never be as great as the heights of the past. But this is our future, let's hope we can shape it.