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 for greatness

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. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Community Clothing - Made in Blackburn - quality clobber


I was pretty excited about the Community Clothing launch - all the romance of re-opening a factory, making clothes in Blackburn, Lancashire. I have to say I'm thrilled to bits with the coat and the selvedge denim jeans. Really comfortable, well-made and with excellent detailing that makes both items well worth the wait.

The project hasn't been without its ups and downs. I got in touch to ask about the closure of the Cookson and Clegg factory in the town and the loss of jobs, as reported in the Lancashire Telegraph here.

I was reassured that it's back on track and to learn that Patrick Grant and his team are are still opening a store in Blackburn, and that the garments are still being produced in the Cookson and Clegg factory in Blackburn.

Eloise from Community Clothing told me: "The closing of Cookson and Clegg was a major blow to us both on a financial level and a personal one. Basically, what we have been arguing – that U.K manufacturers are facing foreclosure because they do not have consistent work and rely on a few major clients to survive; ended up occurring in our own factory. We set up Community Clothing to help supplement this issue but it came about two months too late, and when we lost a huge client (without warning) we were forced to immediately close. We repurchased the factory within three days and it is now back up and running! We are now using a collection of different factories to produce our products, but Cookson and Clegg will continue to produce the bulk of our clothing. So, I can assure you that all of our products are and will remain to be made in the UK (and primarily in Blackburn)! We still very much believe in our ethos and can take pride in the fact that the source of our product supply ranges from Blackburn to Rochdale, all the way to Scotland."

The eBay shop is due to open any day and a store is going to pop up in Blackburn. 


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Blackburn Rovers are a League One team - accept that and it all makes sense

It all makes sense to me now. Blackburn Rovers are a League One club, or the Third Division if you prefer. League One crowds, third rate manager, a hotch potch of lower league players. 

Brushed aside by almost Premiership quality Norwich, humiliated by the League One champions Wigan and ultimately beaten by Championship strugglers Fulham who had that little bit of quality in the shape of Tom Cairney.

In the cup, they've made heavy work of beating two League Two sides, but that's because the gap in quality wasn't sufficient to justify a weakened side.

Off the pitch our home fans dipped below 10,000 yesterday, carry on like that and it takes us out of the top 44 best supported clubs in the country, firmly in the third tier.

I said after the Norwich game that we should probably have been relegated last season in order to give us a chance to regroup and rebuild. As it is, we've a manager fighting fires and dropping his own recent signings to the bench, in order to make way for his new new signings. Sounding for all the world like his old mate Steve Kean, Owen Coyle ducked a question about his clear lack of contact with the owners in India by saying he's trying to bring in new faces to give the "group" a boost.

At the end of the match I joined in the applause of the players we put out to face Fulham yesterday. I was pleased that most of the fans did too. It was a better performance than we'd been used to, but it was a sign that we now approach each game as the plucky underdog, not the entitled former champions.  

Friday, August 19, 2016

Holiday reading review, eight recommendations and one stinker

I'm just finishing the last of my designated holiday reads - Matt Haig's Reasons to Stay Alive - about his life with depression. I hesitate to describe it as a battle, because it doesn't do it justice. It just is. His depression is part of who he is, it doesn't define him. Anyway, he is talking at the moment about what a period of intense reading does for him. For me, that's what holidays represent, that and sunshine and spending time with the people you love the most.

I read two biographies, two factual books, five thrillers, one set in Ibiza and Liverpool, one in Scotland, two in the US, one in Geneva. And then there was one I ditched, which I'll come to later.

So here's a quick review, left to right. The latest Jack Reacher is another stormer. I think I've read them all now and they are like a guilty pleasure, a comfort blanket, a familiar journey involving bad people bullying good people and the satisfying dishing out of rough justice.

Jon Ronson's So You Have Been Publicly Shamed was on the reading list for a debate I hosted at the International Festival of Business in Liverpool. The social media apprentices at Juice Academy wanted to thrash out whether social media is out of control. After reading Ronson's book and after seeing the destruction of civil debate before our very eyes, I am convinced it is, especially the way the algorithms continually serve to amplify our prejudices and fill our echo chambers with more and more noise.

Kevin Sampson's The House on the Hill sees the return of Detective Billy McCartney. I liked his attention to the musical and cultural detail of Ibiza 1990 that peppered and then lit up a sharp and urgent writing style. I loved that he has the brass neck to retrospectively write a terrorist plot based on what we know now, rather than what was going on back then. Flawed characters and plausibly but outrageous bad guys permeate the pages. I loved it.

Tim Marshall's medley of football songs and culture, mixed in with his early life, was a bit of a ramble, but I lent it to a football mad teenager who lapped it up. I was pleased he identified this fantastic Stockport County song as one of the best.

Robert Harris' Fear Index picked up on the terror of a world led by machines out of control. I devoured Dave Eggers' dystopian Silicon Valley tale The Circle last year, this Hollywood movie script in waiting was every bit as good and brilliantly researched.

I gave up on Martin Amis' Lionel Asbo. Disgraceful poverty porn masquerading as irony.

After randomly ploughing through James Crumley, Mark Timlin, Kevin Sampson and now Lee Child, I've found a new author to immerse myself in. Christopher Brookmyre's Scottish noir is rapier sharp and lightning quick. Full of knowing references to football, politics and Scottish culture, I think I'm going to like Jack Parlabane almost as much as Jack Reacher.

Having seen New Order on my special birthday for the first time, it seemed right to get Bernard Sumner's take on the evolution of one of the greatest bands of my lifetime. It's an extraordinary early story, jaw dropping at times. But the edited highlights of the New Order story seem to be as fascinating for what's left out as much as what is in. That said, he doesn't seem to leave much out of his account of the deteriorating relationship with Peter Hook.

Finally, Gone Girl was a strange experience. A skillful manipulation of the loyalties and emotions in the story, veering between the perspectives of the two characters. Rarely comfortable, sometimes shocking.

That's a pretty good catch up on where I'm up to book wise at the moment. I have to read a lot for work, so fiction and biogs are a nice complement to industrial strategies, sector reviews and political tracts. Any recommendations gratefully received.