Friday, September 25, 2015

What doing Sociology at Manchester REALLY taught me

Vikas Shah, Nancy Rothwell and Andre Geim
One of the reasons we set up Discuss was a frustration with playing it safe. So many events and discussions, even those purporting to be "great debates" tended to lack danger, jeopardy and a firm point of view. A diverse panel of people would gravitate around a mushy consensus. Often best summed up as "I agree with Howard."

We try and find the fault line. We try and root out the outriders, dissenters and free thinkers. It's one of the reasons I wanted Douglas Carswell to join our debate on politics last week, a task to which he really rose to.

Our next Discuss debate will feature Catriona Watson, who is part of a group of Manchester University undergraduates who set about challenging the economics syllabus and teaching methods at the university in response to the financial crash, demanding that they be ‘seriously rethought’. Their challenge is that, despite the Financial Crisis, students are still routinely taught that only one form of economics is ‘scientific’ and ‘correct’. Their aim is to build a national Post-Crash Economics movement, and students at Cambridge, LSE, UCL and Sheffield have started similar societies.

This brings me to the whole challenge of critical thinking and how innovation and invention is encouraged in a spirit of dissent and debate.

I've been involved in two absorbing events this week where this has loomed large.

One of Manchester's orthodoxies is that Graphene Valley will be our saviour. Sir Andre Geim (above), the Nobel Prize winning scientist, scoffed at such talk on Tuesday night in Spinningfields at an event my friend Vikas Shah curated. "There is no aluminium valley, no polymer valley. Silicon Valley is about software, not silicon." He told a story of how on a boat trip watching dolphins he experienced a magical moment. These magnificent creatures seemed to be communicating with the humans on the boat. Then, a little girl piped up "can we eat them?". This is what the rush to define and commercialise Graphene feels like, he said.

I was singled out by Vikas to contribute to a discussion with this Nobel Prize winning scientist and the president of our University, Dame Nancy Rothwell (also above) about what the Manchester method is and what it gave me. There is an absurdity that a 1980's undergraduate sociology experience can exist on the same moral and intellectual plane as what these two are doing, but humbly I offered "a rejection of dogma, a respect for the other point of view and a visceral suspicion of data." That answer, and the slightly better one I could have given, have been on my mind all week.

At a conference I ran on Thursday for eLucid we assembled a sparkling array of companies (Samsung, Bayer, GSK and our NHS) who were generous enough to share ideas on how wastage in how medicine is dispensed can be eradicated. It was a fascinating journey into health innovation. As Rowena Burns said in opening the event, "in Manchester we collaborate as a matter of habit, it is so deeply embedded in how we work." At first I thought this seemed to contradict what we'd spoken about on Tuesday, but it doesn't. It reinforces it. It also backs up my earlier view about resilience, toughness, generosity and a strong sense of mission and purpose. Never playing it safe, but challenging orthodoxies. Elsewhere, I'm researching the challenges of family businesses for a project. How does a professional chief executive running a family owned business make decisions that jar with the wealth preserving instincts of the family office? Is it easier or harder? How do families with different aspirations - preservation or innovation? - require outside help to navigate insurmountable internecine conflicts? I have a hit list of families I want to speak to, but I'm sure there are more - please get in touch if you'd like to suggest anyone who'll be willing to share a view.

As I've been absorbed in these fascinating business issues national Westminster politics seems to be something that goes on somewhere else. These challenges seem entirely unconnected to whatever it is that will be troubling the Labour leader before his big speech. But I find myself seeing the deeper importance of how a large membership of a party connects locally and provides that challenge. I remain convinced that organising, empowering and convening are the key to survival as any kind of meaningful presence in public life. On Monday we selected a candidate to contest one of our target wards in next year's council election who has excited me with a vision to just that and for the first time in months I feel upbeat at the possibilities of what can be achieved. I'm not afraid to say what I think about the disaster of the leadership, but it gives us a chance to reconnect with our purpose.

I also wrote a piece this week for Progress, my neck of the Labour woods, on the plight of the Liberal Democrats. How their resilience at local level could yet be their existential saviour, but how that lack of a clear moral compass will end up hastening their demise, as evidenced here in Stockport. In summary: "Local government reform and budgeting is hard enough in an age of austerity but it is this lack of a political ‘true north’ that has resulted in job cuts, poor service delivery and no coherent vision for Stockport’s ailing town centre or its profound transport needs. It remains the only borough in the Greater Manchester conurbation to border the City of Manchester and yet be unconnected to the successful Metrolink tram network."

Finally, I was reviewing the newspapers on BBC Radio Manchester on Monday morning. The producer was fairly adamant that there could be no discussion of the allegations made about David Cameron on the front page of the Daily Mail by Lord Ashcroft. We skirted around it, I tried not to ham it up. But aside from mentioning that this was a story of vengeance by a man scorned, and taking it with the barrel full of salt required, it all brought to mind the pompous rock ballad of Meatloaf - I would do anything for love, but I won't do THAT. This week, ladies and gentlemen, I think we finally discovered what THAT is.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Rovers win at last

That'll do. With 45 minutes on the clock, Blackburn Rovers having squandered easy chances, made mistakes and failed to make possession count, I turned to my Dad and said, "If they don't score from this corner they'll get booed off, Bowyer will panic and this could get ugly."

Rhodes scored.

The second half was a different game. We were confident, attack minded and never looked like the hesitant shambles that so frequently chucked away a lead like this. Even when we were wasting shooting chances, including a ludicrous 4 on 2 break that their only effective player (the keeper) prevented a certain goal. Even then the result shouldn't and wasn't in doubt. But, ever the cynic, I said to my Dad as it looked like a sub was coming on, that he'd take off a striker and stick Williamson in front of the back four. Instead young loanee Tom Lawrence made an immediate impact.

Rhodes scored.

Then Lawrence scored. Another one who knows where the net is. Bang.

We need to kick on from this.

We've got season tickets this term. Good view, half way line in the Riverside stand, near a few mates, including the lad who first brought me to Ewood in September 1977 v Orient. So much to thank him for.

Man of the match: Ben Marshall.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Judge, Jury and Executioner - this week and the search for purpose

Come on, be honest. We're all guilty of piling up books we dip into, but probably don't get round to reading properly. I think I've found a solution - using a library, so the return deadline forces you. I've done it this week with Mission by Michael Hayman, which I loaned from the RSA Library, always a delightful pit stop on a trip to London.

It's made me think a great deal about purpose. How businesses need to embrace that zeal of political campaigning in order to achieve a sense of destiny, mission and a very clear reason to exist. The examples he cites include Uber, Netflix and Airbnb, but we shouldn't fall into the trap of narrowing such an approach to disruptive tech businesses, but almost anything. It's going to get very noisy out there.

I was introduced to Michael last year by our mutual friend Martin Vander Weyer of the Spectator. I hope to see more of what he has achieved and test out his ideas for campaigning business.

With this in mind I spent Monday judging the Northern Marketing Awards. There were some really genius creative ideas, but I was as impressed by entries for mean clients with meagre budgets as I was by the consumer campaigns backed up by major advertising spend.

I have a personal policy of never saying no to the BBC. It's a great honour to be asked onto TV or radio to share your views and the experience never feels wasted. I also think about the programme I'm going on and what it is seeking to achieve. I have always preferred radio to TV, but did a two hour stint on That's Manchester's Late Night Live programme this week. I've had a long term interest in new TV channels, having been involved in the launch of a new station two whole decades ago. This felt eerily familiar, the difference now though is that YouTube has changed the rules of distribution.

We held a storming debate at Manchester Central Library last night. The motion before the house was "This is the age of political easy answers" which inevitably came in for some stick. The speakers - Tristram Hunt, Douglas Carswell, Seamus Milne and Vanda Murray - were all brilliant. As was the chair, Francesca Gains, the head of politics at the University of Manchester.

I believe Discuss could be immense. There has never been a greater appetite for ideas and meaning. So far, we produce these monthly debates, but we have dared ourselves to dream and think bigger.

I've also been throwing myself into my core business this week, creating compelling content for businesses and brands. I'm fortunate that the people and organisations I work for have such great stories to tell and whether it's helping businesses get investment or helping people take control of their financial future, the common link is that I can contribute to their success by bringing people together and exploring new ideas.

After the result of the Labour leadership election it's been a strange week. I was deeply disappointed at the victory for Jeremy Corbyn, but it's done now. I've struggled to find much positive to say, but I was impressed by both Corbyn and David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions. It won't last, but the weekly ritual represents so much that is wrong with public life. There is an opportunity to change it, which opens up politics to start happening in places other than the floor of the house.

Finally, I've been asked by our local priest, Father Michael Gannon, to join the management committee of the new St Christopher Centre which is being built next to our church. Our group met to make some early decisions this week, but Father Michael is crystal clear on what he wants to happen and what the centre needs to be, not a sports hall, not just any other space, but somehwere special for us to do important work - starting with the aim to be able to serve Christmas dinner to over 100 otherwise lonely and isolated parishioners on Christmas Day. Everything else is detail. How's that for a purpose?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Review of Liberty Bazaar by David Chadwick

I've had a recent burst of reading spy fiction. Partly inspired by the end of Spooks on TV and an endless fascination with security issues and the end of the Cold War. It's a genre that floats my boat far more than the current public's fascination with historical fiction.

I mention all of that because David Chadwick's Liberty Bazaar shares that light touch intensity of the king of this genre, John Le Carre. Though set in Liverpool at the time of the American Civil War, it matches the claustrophobia of 1960s Berlin. The intrigue, the rules of engagement of espionage and the double dealing.

Liverpool in 1865 was a city on the edge of an empire with conflicting interests in the American Civil War. The importation of cotton through the port was tricky enough, but the 20 miles of shipyards on either side of the Mersey also harboured ill deeds to construct warships.

The Liberty Bazaar of the title refers to an actual event held in St George's Hall to raise money for Confederate prisoners of war. The hidden purpose was to fund warships to beat the Yankee blockades. Placing Liverpool at the heart of the story, 150 years after the end of the war, is a stroke of genius.

That's the background, which is compelling enough, but the style is in itself the real triumph of the book. Bouncing between narrators it tells the tale through intertwined destinies of an escaped slave girl Trinity Giddings and a decent minded Confederate officer Jubal de Brooke who both end up in Liverpool. The other players in the story veer between outright treacherous and terrified self interest; the complexities of war blurring the boundaries between the good guys and the bad guys.

It's corny I know, but I ended up casting the film of the book as I read it. Imagining Kevin Spacey as the villainous southern spy States Rights Rankin, a dashing Matthew McConaughey as Jubal and Naomie Harris as Trinity.

This was a terrific read, funny, witty, clever, compelling and hugely informative about the forgotten role of our major port city in a moment of history.