Sunday, May 17, 2015

The best question I was asked during the campaign and the answer was Manchester, not Labour

I did a session with about 100 students at Stockport College during the election campaign. 

On reflection, in so many ways, it was my favourite meeting of all, despite Labour getting a rough ride from some of the audience. Partly this was because I was asked, probably the best question of the whole campaign, and it was this: "why do you think there will be good jobs for people like us?" 

The answer wasn't in the Labour manifesto, but it was the answer I was able to give with more conviction than any other. The answer is Manchester. It is laid out in the Manchester Independent Economic Review of 2009 and the work of Greater Manchester’s whole project of renewal since 1996.

These include, for starters, the BBC move to MediaCity, Spinningfields, Airport City, The Corridor, Graphene, Nanoco, Alderley Park, NCC Group, Laterooms, TalkTalk, The MMU incubator. These are all occurring in a city region with momentum and attraction, culturally confident, competently run, imbued with fairness and as at ease with the language of enterprise as it is with the need for a changing infrastructure and how we care for people.

And who was in charge locally, creating the benign conditions to attract this influx of investment? A Labour council, a Labour council.

Yet somehow Labour nationally managed to concede one of the greatest successes of a progressive Labour project, the Manchester Labour project, to a tactical Tory sound bite.

Elsewhere on the campaign we were asked to fight back against “American style Mayors” imposed by a Tory government, "setting up Greater Manchester to fail".

We still have a lot of growing up to do, but maybe we can build on our successes not just wallow in our defeats. The first leadership candidate to acknowledge this will probably get my vote.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

I found myself thinking a lot during the election campaign about that famous saying from Norman Kirk - that people just want someone to love, somewhere to live, something to do and something to hope for. Well, I'm no different. In the course of doing one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done, I've still had time to consider what I actually do with the rest of my life.

It's been hard to plan for the future when I've been rather publicly applying for a new job, even if it was one that on this occasion I wasn't expected to get. I'm upbeat about the experience, given it was my first shot. As my friend Martin Carr said last night - "I don't lose. I either win, or I learn something new."

Rejection
But I only had five months as candidate, pity those who were at it for YEARS. Those unsuccessful candidates who stuck everything on Red 6. Giving up jobs and careers in one city to try their luck and be rejected in another, far from home. Or to stand up as the local hero in their own community and have to face the people who turfed you out every day.
You don't get paid to be a candidate either. So many people don't appreciate or know this, they assume the party supports you with a job.

Family
It does become all consuming. I've not been a particular supportive Dad for my eldest son who's now sitting his GCSEs, or my youngest who is doing his SATS. And in the middle of all of this Rachel has completed her final year dissertation at University AND secured her first teaching job in September. All without much help from this myopic political zombie. This incredibly loving family, they leafleted, supported me in public debates and rose to an unexpected level of enthusiasm for the election. I could quite simply not have done it without them. And I'm pretty sure I don't deserve it.

Work
In all of that time I carried on working. One of my big projects came to its conclusion with a launch event at the start of March - a look at the future for the ICAEW, a professional institute. Another reached a natural end, many others carried on, some stalled, probably because I couldn't maintain the momentum. But even during polling week I was signing off page proofs for a magazine I produce for Seneca and meeting a potential new partner for Liberty one of the other businesses I'm on the board of. And proudly, our Discuss debate series secured more sponsorship and we sealed a media partnership with The Guardian. And I've put together a launch event for Gorilla Accounting, a cracking new business serving self-employed contractors, anyway, it's in Manchester next Thursday and you are welcome to come along.

Book
I also put my book on hold, much to the frustration of the publisher. An expletive strewn satire with 95,000 words, many of them starting with F, which required a blizzard of publicity and would have given out a mixed signal to the voters of Hazel Grove at a crucial time. We're launching it on June the 25th.

Variety
This isn't a moan, by the way. I wouldn't have it any other way. One of the reasons I gave up my full time job a few years ago was precisely to have that variety and an opportunity to live a more rounded life than the treadmill I'd found myself on. I also wanted to contribute to my community in a meaningful way, to do what I enjoy, but also to earn a better living.

The future
I have absolutely loved this. There are some very exciting political challenges I am interested in pursuing, there is a job to build on what we have created here. But right now, this week, I've got to focus. Starting with a presentation I'm meant to be writing for delivery on Saturday.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Who I'm backing for Labour leader - someone who doesn't claim to have the answers

I've left this reflection until last because it will inevitably draw on the debates around the leadership and the personalities pushing themselves or being talked up by colleagues.

I don't think we're anywhere near a sensible debate that could possibly lead to me coming out in favour of any of the leadership candidates.

I think this needs to be a far more searching conversation than a snap leadership election demands. The style of leader will be determined by the kind of party we come around to deciding we want to be.

Learn from history
So, to start that process again, I can only reiterate the analysis needs to include the lost votes to UKIP, the allure of the Tory offer and to learn how we won when Tony Blair was leader. If we don't, then we may as well bed in for a last heave and another defeat.

Broaden
It has to be a starting point that as Kev Peel, a Manchester councillor, says "you can't just talk to families like mine".

Ditch the labels
We also need to ditch the labels and name calling - Liz Kendall on BBC Woman's Hour yesterday made the point that Left-right, Brownite, Blairite labels are unhelpful and pretty meaningless.

Morality
I also can't buy into the superiority of our morality argument, in fact, the opposite may be true. Sure, we all subscribe to values we believe are the right ones and are honest in our pursuit of them, but don't think the others are therefore "amoral". Read Daniel Hannan, a Tory MEP, and grasp what he has to say about how far negativity can get you.

Loss of authority
Matthew Taylor broadens the examination to examine the even wider loss of authority of centre left and social democratic parties and the role in society of a party and what it seeks to be and do. This is the most inspiring thing I've read on the future.

Take this for example. "In terms of activism, progressive parties need to cultivate a politics of personal development and growth (learning here from the models of movements like Occupy, London Citizens, Ashoka, ‘Good for Nothing’ or even the RSA Fellowship). Instead of using technology simply as a transmission and fund raising tool its transformative potential is to open up debate, create platforms for new ideas and experiments and to personalise political engagement. Most of all, progressivism must be a model of politics that does not wait to win office to make change but is about doing the right stuff right now through partnership and collaboration."

Change
In a review of Liz Kendall and Steve Reed's pamphlet on how change really happens, Jonathan Todd makes a valid point that relationships and alliances and entrepreneurship are the drivers that make change. That should be in Labour's character.

Leadership
Finally, Patrick Hurley makes another good point, David Cameron will announce his departure at the end of this fixed term parliament. The Tories will have a new leader, a fresh face, elected probably in the autumn of 2019 ready to go for the election. Someone new to counter the battered, humiliated and media savaged leader we've had. A fixed term Premier. Why don't we wait too?

As you can see, i set out this day to be the one where I had absorbed so much material and thought that I would be getting some clarity about how we can build again. No such luck. This has been the most incoherent and difficult of my post-election pieces thus far. I make no particular apologies for that, but rushing out of the traps in indecent haste may seem like good politics, but it assumes the very thing that we've been defeated for - thinking leader knows best.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

How Labour can oppose and offer hope again - 5 thoughts on what we do as a party

1. Understand change and engage in it

Labour only wins when we contest the national conversation - 1945, 1964, 1997. A country for heroes, the confident sixties and a new optimism for a new millennium. I agreed with that analysis by Jon Cruddas as he crafted the last policy review that shaped the ideas for the manifesto. There was good analysis about how Britain is a more entrepreneurial country, how civic engagement and community pride are important cornerstones in how we can connect with people at an apolitical level again. How technology has changed the way people use services. How power is created and the capacity of communities to take control whenever possible and outside of the formal structures of governance, look at what Adam Swersky has to say. To listen and understand what is going on in everyday lives.

2. Be there

As we discussed at the Stockport Labour Group meeting in the aftermath of the election (I attend as a local party observer, I'm not a councillor), there will be people who will need Labour to fight for them like never before. In the rush to the sunlit uplands of Tory aspirational voters we must remain rooted in looking after the people who turn to us. Case work is going to mount, campaigning is going to be hard, it is important we are there when a Sure Start centre is closed, a hospital is sold off, a train line left to rot. There is a lot in what Owen Jones says about campaigning and hoping.

3. Oppose effectively in parliament

Ed Miliband was an effective opposition leader when it mattered. It's a terrible consolation prize, but with a slender majority the Tories could be under pressure to make all kinds of daft compromises to their right and the DUP that Ken Clarke and other centrist Tories wouldn't stomach. The Tories might look united now in victory, but the fault lines are still there. We're going to have to be strident in the battles ahead.  In this parliament we will have a choice to campaign in a European referendum, defend the union with Scotland and stand up for the NHS and remember the promises and assurances they made in the election campaign.

4. Support a move to a country of nations and regions.

It hurts me to say Northern Powerhouse because it represents grand larceny. George Osborne's audacity of ambition. But it is our future - a federal Britain with a chance to redraft profoundly different needs in cities and counties. A fairer country where we build an alternative to London dominance. We shouldn't and mustn't attack the Devo Manc agenda because we see it as a Tory plot, but embrace it as an opportunity to change the country for the better. Look at what Richard Leese says in the Manchester Evening News today - "no stalling on the devolution agenda."

5. See off the Liberal Democrats 

I heard Neal Lawson of Compass on Newsnight last night talking about reaching beyond Labour, a line he's been peddling since 1987. I didn't buy it then and I don't buy it now. If we have any tactical imperative it isn't to reach out to them as they drown, but let them sink. I have always failed to see the point of them as a party. I admire the old style Liberals, but it is for them to make their own future, if it exists, not us.

Tomorrow: How Labour can win again

Monday, May 11, 2015

Our local campaign for Labour in Hazel Grove - it's about you

At the manifesto launch, members junior and senior, 14-94
When I rejoined the Labour Party last year it was very much with the General Election of 2015 in mind, but as a member of the campaign team. Expectations in the constituency were incredibly low. But I had started to look at how we filled the void in ideas and campaign strategy and thought how we could set a number of different targets and objectives for the existing candidate - building the party, energising the membership and taking a different approach to how Labour does community campaigning.

At the 2014 conference I came across some great ideas. Liz Kendall talked about imaginative public service reform, I went to a really inspiring talk by Maurice Glasman on community campaigning and facing up to the UKIP challenge.

Fired up by this we convened a street stall in the centre of Marple the following Saturday, where the intention was to start a conversation with the public. To ask, rather than tell. Listen, rather than speak. As Maurice said, the average amount of time it takes a Labour activist to interrupt someone in the flow of telling them something that is important to them is about 8 seconds. The time where an intervention is in any way useful, is about 30 seconds.

Anyway, the candidate never turned up and it later transpired that she'd quit the party altogether over a dispute I never understood that had nothing to do with politics. I worried though about what might happen next. It was likely a new candidate could be parachuted in from outside with no local knowledge, with the clock ticking towards May 2015. At the same time an Ashcroft poll had us in a poor FOURTH place behind UKIP.

We were in danger of losing valuable time. So, given I'd factored in the time to give my all for the campaign for Labour for this election, it didn't take me long to think about putting my name forward and on December the 6th, just five months from polling day, I was selected.

Now, I'm not going to take you through a blow by blow account of what happened in our campaign, but that long introduction provides an important context for how this came about and how I came to be candidate and how my ideas for the campaign developed.

At Stockport College with first time voters
I have had limited experience of political campaigning, but if this campaign was going to be about anything it was party building and gathering the talents. I had 5 months to convince 10,000 Liberal Democrat voters that voting the same way would get them a Conservative government. So, I loaded up my iPod, plugged in my headphones and started delivering leaflets and knocking on doors right across the constituency.

The Jam
It was pretty clear that we would get limited support from the national or regional Labour machine, we weren't in any way, shape or form a target seat. Tony Blair didn't send me £1,000. We went to candidate briefings where our members were encouraged to get on a bus to Crewe. All the top Tories and Liberal Democrats visited Hazel Grove, or in the case of Nick Clegg, he launched the campaign in a pub car park in Hyde, in the wrong constituency. And while the Liberals could pump out a leaflet every other day and pay some company to deliver them, we had to do it all ourselves. To be fair, we got great support from the Stockport Local Campaign Forum in our target wards and I was chuffed at the support from Jonathan Reynolds MP and his team when he came over to meet environmental campaigners locally. But we needed to recruit a volunteer army locally and from beyond our regular pool.

Oasis
Our greatest strength was going to be our people and their talents. I had to embrace our outlier status, not resent it. If the rest of the party wasn't looking, we had a chance to do something different and "off message". What I lacked in campaign experience, I needed to make up in using what else we had in our locker. My business, branding, communication and consultative skills. Bizarrely, I'd been engaged on a detailed project looking at the future for a professional institute. I'd become marinaded in the literature of the future, how technology was changing work and how services are delivered, how the age of social media requires MORE contact, not less, how mainstream media and bloggers have parity of influence. I engaged with bloggers wherever I could, going to them, not inviting them to come to me.
In David Rowbottom, an English teacher, we had a superb copywriter. I had offers of help from friends, notably Ami Guest and Ade Newell from True North who worked with me on a campaign brand (see video below). We went relentlessly positive - offering a vision of the future for families, offering hope, not distrust and we also avoided personal attacks and presented our case as rooted and authentic. We came up with "It's about you" as our theme.




Squeeze
What I hadn't bargained for was the extent of the relentless Liberal Democrat squeeze on our vote and a determined effort to discourage our voters and push tactical voting. The Lib Dems fought Hazel Grove like it was a by-election, pumping out mountains of leaflets pushing the (dubious) local credentials of their candidate, stretching their credibility with a confected personal history. Their bar charts pushed the line that "Labour can't win here" - a drumbeat that a Labour vote was a wasted vote. We were told to expect a dirty trick and it came with a few weeks to go when a deliberately misleading letter from the previous Labour candidate, a so-called lifelong "Labour" supporter, that she "now" was backing the LibDems (a week later she announced she had joined them, proving it was a calculated stunt, probably dating back to that non-appearance at our street stall after conference, rather than the last minute heartfelt plea it was dressed up as). Bizarrely, hilariously, it had the opposite effect - our members were upset at this betrayal, loyal voters were angered and yet more volunteers came forward. True, some people contacted us in shock, thinking it was Labour giving up the campaign, not picking up on the detail. Instead we came out fighting and refuted it, but it was a dreadful distraction and something I truly hope the Liberals realise marked a low water mark in political campaigning.

The Clash
I did 7 public debates with rival candidates, many more events with members of the public and made our four regular weekend street stalls the centrepiece of the campaign, launching our short campaign by speaking on my Dad's upturned milk crate on Market Street, Marple on a wet Saturday in March.
After the Romiley Churches Together hustings
The debates were a new experience for me, but I relished it and seemed to do OK, getting decent reviews and recruiting new members to the campaign. I was determined to be honest and authentic, answering questions directly and tackling the other candidates on the record of their parties and what they were claiming. Two of them were Churches Together hustings and I knew that I would face questions that would highlight my stance on moral and ethical issues that I could either waffle around, or be straight about where I differ from mainstream opinion.
On the whole it was civil rather than cerebral, the Tory candidate lent me his pen when mine ran out, and I gave the Green candidate a lift home (in my Prius, he approved), but it is what politics should be about and I welcomed the chance.
If I have one regret at my conduct it was playing to the gallery and being rude to the UKIP candidate when I knew he was on the rack at a teacher's hustings.

Small Faces
I was determined to get young people involved in the campaign and put their talents to good use - but it's a lot to ask an 18 year old to knock on doors and get told to sod off. This is an area we still need to work on. Politics is a contact sport, but there are so many ways of engaging we could do much better at in the future. I was delighted, for instance, that Joe Barratt offered to help and produced this little film of us talking through the issues.

Kinks
Our fantastic team, after canvassing in Offerton
We started from zero and made it to the end with our heads held high, increasing our vote by 50 per cent, mostly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, but we probably shipped half as many again to UKIP. We fought a good campaign. We were rough around the edges at times, a bit ragged in some of our data gathering techniques, but there isn't a single one of us who could have done more and none of us don't think we've grown and learned more about ourselves in the process. And the greatest thing about it was that we're going to build on this for the future as good friends and comrades.

Next: how we oppose.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Why we lost nationally, the 5 key moments that told me it was like 1992 all over again.

Ed Miliband. "Your leader is a plonker and I wouldn't let him run a shop, never mind the country." Ouch. That came from a high profile personality I spoke to, someone who has made a fortune judging public taste and moods. He wasn't alone, neither were the people on the doorsteps and high streets we spoke to in their large numbers. It wasn't the media twisting the truth with snaps of bacon sandwich munching, but a deep seated lack of empathy with a leader the public just didn't take to. I feel bad for him, because I genuinely grew to admire Ed Miliband as the campaign went on. I really liked authentic warm Ed who met nursing students and spoke candidly during an hour long Q&A.

Tory tax cuts for millionaires. I hosted a round table for business people in Manchester with Andy Burnham in late 2013. I made the point that whenever Ed Balls spat out the word "millionaires" he was saying to every single person who ever dreamt of making a few quid with a new business idea, or  building a company, that Labour aren't on your side. The top rate kicks in at a rate that anyone who earns a bonus looks at and feels is achievable. This is important at a time when a million new businesses have been formed, where a new entrepreneurialism has genuinely swept the country. And that line wasn't just an early throw away, but became part of the key message of the campaign.

The Question Time mauling. There were many, many media interviews that I winced at, where I wanted to crawl back under the duvet and wish it hadn't happened. But BBC Radio5Live and the Today Programme presenters give all as good as they get. No, the Question Time bear pit was the moment the real rising anger of middle England gave it to Ed Miliband with both barrels. It was the debate when friends on social media burst out of their silence to tell me why they would never back me, or Labour, and that the game was up. The aftermath was even worse - blaming the BBC for putting up Tory plants. This was a party in denial about the genuine raw anger from people in the country.

UKIP.  We had nothing to address this. No convincing way of confronting UKIP voters who are worried about immigration and think Labour doesn't speak up for them. Just a different way of telling them they were wrong. You don't change people's minds like that.

The body language of our Tory opponents. There was a moment 10 days before polling, when the postal ballots had been tallied, that Tories in Hazel Grove started to look brighter and more confident. Sure, we had local conditions in our own election that were at play, but if they were "winning here" they were winning everywhere else too.

All of this is far from exhaustive, but they were moments that struck with me. Tomorrow I'll look at our campaign locally and the lessons we learned.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

The longer view - five paths to clearing my head post-election

OK, I'm going to take a week to work this through. I've got an incredible amount of thinking and sorting to do, as well as computing what has gone on in the election and what's going to happen next. Rather than blurt it all out I'm going to take a few days to position these thoughts into some kind of order and do a blog on each of these topic headings.

I'm really interested in what friends and colleagues think, so please email me or give me a call, or tweet or Facebook, or whatever. Remember me in your prayers too.

But in some kind of order, this is the agenda.

1. (Sunday) Why we lost nationally, the 5 key moments that told me it was like 1992 all over again.

2.  (Monday) Our campaign lessons locally, again, learnings from 5 key themes.

3. (Tuesday) How we as a party operate and oppose in the next few years. What are the 5 main strategic objectives and how do we tactically achieve them?

4. (Wednesday) How Labour can win again - I'm leaving this until later in the week because it will inevitably draw on the debates around the leadership and the personalities pushing themselves or being talked up by colleagues.

5. (Thursday) Work life balance. This whole process of being a candidate has been exhilarating, it has filled me with purpose and by jove we all need that don't we? But I also need to get my head around what else I want to do, what I need to do and what I get fulfilment from. It's time to revive this blog, for a start, to think freely again, but I also need to earn a living.


After the election - first thoughts and some thanks

Thank you to everyone who joined our grass roots campaign for Labour in Hazel Grove. We didn't win, but we achieved the highest Labour vote in Hazel Grove since 1979, increasing our vote by 50% over the last General Election.
(slight tweak from immediate post-election blog on local party site).
This is the first election campaign I have ever fought.
I stood for selection at the end of last year because I wanted to build the Labour Party in this constituency, to galvanise our supporters, to push the agenda that the working people around here deserve representation from a party that stands firmly for them.
I made three promises at the start of this campaign.
CEdQNuqWEAAn9JX-1To play the ball, never the man or woman. We've done that.  I will never shy from holding anyone to account, as I'd expect anyone to scrutinise what I say and do, but we have been positive about what we offer and avoided personal attacks.
Secondly, I promised to be true to my personal values. I am proud of who I am, what I believe in and what Labour stands for. I'm not afraid to say where I differ either.
Finally, I promised to enjoy it - it has been a privilege to work with such a decent and lovely group of volunteers - so how could I not do. It's been a real pleasure. And I'd like to start by mentioning two people in particular. Emily McDermott, aged 14, the youngest member of our local party. Her father Martin, our dear much mourned friend, would be so proud of her. And Percy Hutchinson, 95 years young, the most senior member of our party. And then every single one of our members, supporters and voters in between.
It's about you.
They have all worked hard because we all believe more than ever that we can build our party here. We have more members than ever, more volunteers, which translated into a higher share of vote and more Labour voters.
We've done that with a team of local volunteers making enormous sacrifices.
We have campaigned in this election for a country that works for everyone. We will continue to do so in all our communities from Hazel Grove right over to High Lane and Woodley, to keep building on the momentum we have created that may not have been enough this time, but frankly we all know there are Labour supporters who's loyalties have been borrowed by a relentless campaign of voter suppression by the Liberal Democrats and a big challenge from UKIP.
This has been a hard fought campaign. In the 2010 election there was ONE hustings event. This time I have taken part in SEVEN. All really well attended.
As I said, this is a new experience for me. I have learnt a great deal about the mechanics of campaigning. I have visited other campaigns and attended hustings in neighbouring constituencies. I say this as a tribute to my opponents: the quality and standard of the debate has been far, far higher here than anywhere else I've visited, even better than the national shouting matches too.
But we aren't going anywhere. Rachel and I have raised our family here, this is our community and she starts a new job teaching at a school in Romiley in September. The very reason I started this blog is because of what I feel about living here. And as Labour activists, we're going to carry on building here.
I have personal respect for the successful candidate. I obviously disagree with his plan for what the country needs and deeply worry about what a Conservative government will now do.
But we will hold him to account, we will continue to stand up for our NHS, our schools and colleges and to work ever harder for those I really worry about, the poor and vulnerable of this constituency and do all we can to support the aspirations of all our young.