Sunday, December 31, 2017

Kieran Quinn RIP

Kieran, centre, supporting Jonathan Reynolds MP, 2017
To a backdrop of Christmas chatter, thanks and chamber music I shook the hand and squeezed the shoulder of Kieran Quinn last week. He has been a valued colleague for the last two years on the New Charter Group board. We arranged to do something in the new year and wished one another a Merry Christmas.

The next day a group of close friends and colleagues from our neck of the woods met for a Christmas drink and we talked politics, as we tend to, and for no apparent reason than I said how much I'd enjoyed seeing him the evening before, we reflected on what a force Kieran has been in Greater Manchester and Tameside.

News of his heart attack days later shook everyone who knew him, and we hoped and prayed for the best news. Cruelly, it wasn't to be and he passed away on Christmas Day night, surrounded by his family.

The tributes have been fulsome and warm, quite rightly. The Kieran I knew was both of those things, always inclusive and often funny in fairly intensive and high powered discussions; but also consistently displaying an impressive understanding of detail and strategic vision. The first thing that struck me about him when he came to speak to the Labour Group at Stockport Council was his ambition: ambitious for the people of Greater Manchester and encouraging of his colleagues for the challenges ahead. He was also one of the signatories to the Greater Manchester devolution agreement, a historical act of courage and foresight.

I can't do justice to his impact on Tameside and to the people, that's for others who knew him much better. I can bear witness to his imprint on the strategy of New Charter, which is immeasurable and total. New Charter is so much more than a social landlord, providing services that hold the community together. We constantly look for new ways to do this, to work hard for the people who live in our homes against a backdrop of cutbacks, punitive measures and a hostile attitude to the housing sector from government. But what I learnt from our chats after meetings and from the intelligent contributions he made to our discussions, is that there is always a way to do the right thing. That's the Kieran Quinn I knew.

I had the privilege of serving on a board with one of the greats of Greater Manchester public life. I can only imagine what his family and friends are going through, but I hope they take comfort from the tributes that have been paid to him. The words I keep hearing that ring true are that he was a great friend, a devoted husband and father, and that he worked tirelessly for others. Kieran, we will miss you, but will always strive to do as you did. So here’s a resolution for the new year or any year, always strive, that is, to find a way. God bless you, Kieran Quinn, leader, servant of the people, father, husband, may you rest in peace.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Northampton away - a load of cobblers

Our tour of middle England hit location fourteen today. Northampton Town's Sixfields stadium is a dreary unfinished Lego identikit stadium on a remote industrial estate on the edge of town.

A shiny new train station for the commuters to Milton Keynes and London, and a new university building were the high spots in a town centre that felt quite Northern for its faded high street and the legacy traces of its shoe manufacturing industry that remain dotted about.

There seemed to be more people heading for the rugby match against Exeter down the road than to see the local football team, which confirmed why a fast growing town of 212,000 doesn't have a football club playing at a higher level.

As for the match, a below par performance from an under strength Rovers saw a rare draw (only the third on the road). It proved how much the classy Charlie Mulgrew is worth to the overall character of the team that Rovers never hit top note until the last ten minutes. He'd pulled out just before kick off and although his replacement Elliot Ward did OK, the assurance a player of Mulgrew's class brings was lacking. Bradley Dack’s goal was real quality but for Craig Conway to miss an open goal AND Marcus Antonsson a penalty just smacked of a lack of professionalism on the day. But hey, we're now unbeaten in 12 and at least the 4000 home fans went home ecstatic from their cup final, especially the Northampton Raider we encountered on the way back to the station who literally said to me, "you want some? I'll give it to you".

It marks another new ground chalked off. I make it the 153rd ground I've watched football on, I'm now on 82 out of the Punk 92, and it's my 75th of the current 92 grounds.


Friday, December 22, 2017

End of year telly round up - Peaky blinding, Walking Dead dying

I did a seasonal round up of the year's telly in August. I can't honestly say there's been anything new that's blown me away since then. Loved the new Stranger Things, loved the second series of the A Word.

I was slow to get going with Peaky Blinders, but this series has been explosively brilliant. Helen McCrory as Polly is the best character in any period drama I can recall. With a strong supporting cast on top form Tom Hardy and Aidan Gillen really rose to the challenge of something so atmospheric.  The scenes with both took the whole thing to a new level.

The biggest disappointment on the whole of telly was the continual slow death of The Walking Dead. I lied, I said I wasn't going to watch season 8. But I did, and at the half way mark, I have to say that I am at least relieved it hasn't got worse. Well, to be fair, season 7 was dreadful and this first half has tried to pick up the pace. But really? Nothing has happened. Nothing has actually changed since Glenn and Abraham were killed at the end of start of season 7. Negan is still alive, in power and to be fair to him, he's not the one randomly butchering people.

When I said enough is enough in April, I asked a few questions, none of which have been adequately answered, but they're the constants that try my patience and they all came round again.

1 - Where did Gregory go? Just vanished from the fight, is still a weasel, why's he still around?
2 - How did the Alexandrians not get butchered when they turned on the Saviours? Same with the Hilltop crew with Maggie, especially when evil Simon ambused the convoy on the road.
3 - Dwight, friend or foe? - still not clear.
4 - Are all three armies the worst shots ever? Was someone firing blanks? Who died?
5 - Why on earth do the garbage pail kids speak so weirdly, who are they, where are they from? Why are they so woefully underwritten?
6 - And what next for that Tiger? Well, at least we know the CGI budget was exhausted for that one.

You can add the whole unresolved, woefully untold Oceanside plot to the mix and you're still left with a mess. The comics, as I've said before, are so much better. For the second half this series has one last chance. It's one of those weeks when I'm very grateful to be British.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Eyes On The City | London & Darwen



I like this short film extolling the bonds between football, fashion and identity. Gary Aspden and his pals sit just down from us in the Riverside stand and I'm always impressed by how well turned out they are.

I interviewed Gary for Northern Monkeys in recognition of his contribution to the evolution of northern working class fashion through his work with Adidas and Size.

I've had a couple of glorious CP Company pieces over the years - a blue duffle coat and a white needle chord shirt - which I got from Shop 70 in London's Lamb Conduit Street in the early 90s. Even now I'm very attached to a very resilient black military style shirt I picked up a few years ago, a pic of it is here.

Friday, December 15, 2017

My mate #25 Michael Merrick

I was delighted to hear my mate Michael Merrick on Radio 4's Four Thought recently. It was in so many ways so typical of him. Searingly honest, humbly self-examining and so very modest for what it left out.

So, I thought I'd add him to the "my mate" series on this blog, where I randomly shuffle my address book and talk about my friends, how we met and what I like about them.

Michael tells the story on the programme of how he graduated and thought of himself as above his family, and then how that has spoken to him about the idea of social mobility. It's always slightly incongruous to listen to a friend talk about the previous version of themselves. Especially as the Michael I know would never do that, he has such genuine love and admiration for the treasures of family and community. Rightly, the piece has been praised for the honesty and depth of thought that has gone into his own journey and how he reflects on social mobility and how kids leave their homes to 'better themselves'.

Michael and I met on Twitter. We had a shared interest in Catholic education, Catholic social teaching, Labour and Lancaster. I'd been impressed by his work for Philip Blond on his inspiring and ambitious book Red Tory. When we eventually met in real life, I'm pleased to say our friendship took on an upward tick. Though it was politics and faith that brought us together, there's so much more about this amazing man that I have grown to admire.

His advice to me as I stepped into politics was exemplary. Starting with why? But linking it to our duty and our salvation. He pulled off a remarkable conference in Manchester that drew together a wide range of voices and thinkers for a tradition he and I wanted to co-create - to place community, work and family into the political value system. We've both since moved away from Labour, and share similar frustrations that Maurice Glasman's Blue Labour seems to be going nowhere. We voted on different sides in the EU referendum and probably disagree on a few other things too. But my admiration for his solid insolence and defiance will never waver.

But what I was driving towards is how much Michael left out in this most recent exercise in soul searching. In his generous sharing of his life journey he didn't mention that he had been a professional footballer with Norwich City, nor that he has been a philosophy teacher in a High School, but is now part of a leadership team as deputy head in a Catholic community primary school.  That school has this week just received a "good" rating by OFSTED for the first time since 2001. I don't know the other people involved, I'm sure they have all played their part. But what I do know from the man I've seen; the clever, gentle, inspiring man, is that he has been involved in something very special. If I was a parent in Carlisle, I'd be fighting to get my children educated by him.

In the midst of this tribute I've also not touched on Michael's family. He has a lot of children and is a devoted husband. Or his humour, or his quest for truth...

Life takes you in different directions from time to time. I'm just very proud this week to doff my cap and say my prayers of thanks that I can count Michael Merrick a friend.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Peterborough away, creating memories and a chance to moan about trains

Seeing the sights of Peterborough, pre-match
Sometimes it's better to travel than to arrive, said no-one ever after being crammed into a two-car East Midlands train from Stockport to Peterborough for the best part of three hours. The Championship and League One fixture list clearly remains a mystery to whoever plans the allocation of trains in December.

But even the noisy accompaniment of Preston and Bolton fans on the way home couldn't take the shine off another good day watching Rovers at another new ground.

Part of the enjoyment remains the company of old friends and new on these trips. On the way down was the bloke who first took me to Ewood in 1977, Kevin Bradley. On the way home we were sat with former referee Tony Leake, sharing stories, memories and opinions about all things Rovers and reffing, particularly good for our Louis who is enjoying being the man in black at Stockport Metro League matches.

At the Blackpool away game last month I found myself behind Tony Brierley, a lad I used to go away with in the 80s; like me he now goes with his sons. They were wild times back then, and very different experiences to now. Apart from anything they were sparsely attended trips, us Rovers fans were usually numbered in our hundreds, not thousands. As we left Bloomfield Road we shared a few memories of friends of old, which necessitated me breaking the news that one of the old crew had passed away. Tony shared the thought with me that though they were great days, we were "true fans, too soon".

In a way we were, but I constantly dwell on the collective memories I'm now involved in shaping for Louis and Joe. Getting relegated last season was hard, but I felt it was coming. This season at least is a chance to enjoy a better team, winning games and playing decent football. It's certainly been a while since we've had a player like Bradley Dack to get excited about. Cairney, possibly?

It was also the first time this season that Rovers have gone behind and yet I thought we'd still win. There seemed to be the same feeling running through the packed away stand. I was massively annoyed at some of our players for getting involved in personal tussles (Samuel) and for getting booked for diving (Antonsson), but I just never thought we'd lose. Mowbray must have talked some sense into them at half time and our counter attacking breaking play was superb. Dack causes havoc among opposing defences, they can't take their eye off him and he seems to want the ball and torture them with it. Anyway, Louis has done the player ratings for Rovers Chat.

I liked that Peterborough have a ground near the city centre, where we could walk back to the station and have some food and beverage beforehand with our pals Mushtaq and Smithy. I'll call the ground by its rightful name, London Road, but it's a mish mash of styles and clearly a work in progress. Though the away end is now in the old wooden main stand, we had a decent view and enjoyed the raucous atmosphere.

It marks another new ground chalked off. I make it the 152nd ground I've watched football on, I'm now on 81 out of the Punk 92, and it marks my 74th of the current 92. I've said before that doing the 92 isn't just a way of chalking off identikit grounds, but a way of rediscovering this land. This season in particular it's also about creating memories, even if they involve learning that "the RAF from Bolton" shot down 10 German bombers. Sigh.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Stockport’s Market - a step in the right direction

I was delighted to learn last week that Stockport Borough Council have selected Steve Pilling to develop the Produce Hall opposite the market. We're frequent visitors to the market area, which to my mind is brimming with potential. Creating more buzz around the market, the other neighbouring property assets and bringing interesting ideas to play is the key to taking this whole area to the next level. There are limited levers that councils can pull, but this is just what Stockport Council have started here with an active intervention. 

Over the years there have been loads of small initiatives in Stockport that have been "alright", but when added together have not been transformational. I don't think anyone can claim that the dribble of money that the Mary Portas project provided has made anything like the splash that was hyped, nor could it ever have done.

Inevitably, this being Stockport, it's caused a rumpus, with one of the unsuccessful bidders to operate in the building expressing particular upset. This is a shame. If Steve Pilling were in fact Wetherpoons, I could see their point of view. It would be a wholly inappropriate use of the space and be a regressive step in how the Old Town area should be going. But he isn't. He's a credible and creative leisure entrepreneur with some great plans to open through the evening. I love what he did with the Chop Houses in Manchester, with Damson, the Dock House and during his tenure at the Red Lion in High Lane.

Building a place is about doing so in a gradual and authentic way. Adding new things to what exists is smart planning, rather than torching the past. I'm pleased then that Foodie Friday (on the last Friday of each month) will continue, so too will the Council's small subsidy towards its running costs, and I truly hope that the organisers use this opportunity to expand it and think even bigger.

I hope all of the unsuccessful bidders for this opportunity - and I understand there were several - remain excited by the momentum of what's going on in Stockport centre. The by-ways and nooks of the market area have a genuine character, something to be built around and enhanced. In turn the market can evolve into something sustainable beyond being a collection of competitive alternatives to B&M and Poundland.

By the by, I hesitated to post this last week when the supporters of one of the losing bids were lashing out in a state of frustration. I understand that, but it got too personal. Allowing comments on a Facebook page to go unmoderated, when they allege malpractice and corruption, isn't on. It is always possible that someone else made a better application, and that the door is always open.

A podcast on the future of work - should we be afraid of the robots?

I enjoyed chairing this podcast with Grant Thornton's Karen Campbell-Williams and Herb Kim from Thinking Digital about the future of work. It was recorded around the first Vibrant Economy lecture with Matthew Taylor of the RSA. Enjoy.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Pity Poor Bury - The Forgotten Fifteen and relative decline

Honestly? It was a poor game on Saturday at Gigg Lane, Bury. After everything we've been through I should learn to celebrate our wins with more enthusiasm. I was genuinely pleased we won, and with three really good goals as well and a clean sheet. And I'm excited every time Bradley Dack gets near the ball. He's the difference we need at this level. He got some physical attention, but he seems to just get on with it and lets his goals do the talking.

But I felt bad for Bury, not simply that we beat them, but that the club is in such a mess. Managerless, bottom of the league and dumped out of the cup by non-league Woking, they are in a poor state. True, four teams have to be relegated and only three will judge the season a success if they go up, but they looked to be a hopeless cause on Saturday, another club made worse by Lee Clark.

Into this story I'd like to mention a remarkable book I read a couple of years ago called The Forgotten Fifteen. It's a reminder that every club has a history, a period that makes fans swell with pride, but that things never happen in isolation. Bury's "glory year" was 1984-85 when a squad of just 15 players won promotion from the fourth division. But it was also amidst the decay and violence of football's worst year.

The author is James Bentley, a Bury supporter of my acquaintance, and it's a real gem. It not only deals with the matches and the players, but the lead up to the 1984-85 season and Bury's history. It includes an eclectic collection of contributions, including a foreword from Alastair Campbell and I ought to point out that I have some quotes in the book initially recollecting the former manager Jim Iley. But my principal contribution is describing a riot when Blackpool fans smashed up the ground in March 1985, just a few days after the end of the Miner's Strike and later caused mayhem on the streets of Bury. It was a season that James rightly points out, football was truly on the brink, ending so tragically in Bradford, Birmingham and Heysel.

On Saturday, during the stop start match I drifted off and my thoughts turned to that day over 30 years ago. Gigg Lane's good features are still intact and the old stadium has retained its charm and setting. Back then, in 1985, there must have been several hundreds of people intent on mayhem being barely controlled by the police. On Saturday, it was quite laughable watching Greater Manchester Police manhandling kids for celebrating a goal and lining up as if to stop a riot as Bury's fans drifted off and the only intent of any Rovers fans getting on the pitch was to ruffle Bradley Dack's hair.

Football has changed, in so many ways for the better, but it's been a mixed blessing for clubs like Bury. It must be hard enough to survive in the shadow of Manchester United and Manchester City, then there's the insidious creep of the Checkatrade Trophy where the "big clubs" get to play their reserves. In a couple of years they'll have Gary Neville's Salford City challenging them for support and sponsorship in the local area.

I've been in touch with James since Saturday to remind him that however bad he thinks it feels for Bury, it could be worse. You could be a fan of Stockport County.



Friday, November 17, 2017

Golden Arrow, or golden funnel? and blocking on Twitter - my (polite) questions for Andrew Adonis


I asked Andrew Adonis two questions on Tuesday night. The first was about the progress of the Metro Mayors, of which he has been a staunch supporter. The second was the one that got a roar of laughter from the chair. Will you unblock me on Twitter? It's on the video (above) at about 55 minutes in.

His inaugural lecture was entitled 'Never forget - Rome fell, what London needs to do to remain the world's greatest city'. There's a link to the whole thing here if you don't want to watch the video. As it was curated and presented by Dr Jon Davis from the Strand Group at King's College London, my inspiration and muse as the nation's foremost academic entrepreneur, the lecture was lavish in scope and impressive in range, particularly about London's history and power.

Here's a taster: "Consider for a moment what has made London so great. Political stability and military security unmatched by any nation in Europe – indeed the world – for 330 years since 1688. Huge and generally secure international trade also since the late 17th century, first by British naval dominance and the British empire, and more recently by the European Union and a benign international regime for trade. When the French captured Amsterdam in 1795, much of the city’s wealth fled across the Channel, as it did from Antwerp during the Napoleonic wars and from Paris itself and other cities of continental Europe during the wars and revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries."

He built up to a vision for an ambitious infrastructure project - the Golden Arrow - connecting all points North to our nation's capital.

"I suggest turning the “golden triangle” of universities in London, Oxford and Cambridge into a “golden arrow” of urban innovation, which includes Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds as the “shaft” of an arrow uniting the North, Midlands and London. This is possible because of HS2, which will treble transport capacity while also cutting the journey time between these destinations to under an hour. This will boost economic activity and help fix the housing crisis by bringing more homes within easy distance of London."

It includes, by the way, the case for better east west connections, but the purpose is to grow London. And that's my problem. I've never quite bought the argument that HS2 is necessary to free up capacity on the present West Coast line. In 2013, my own reservations about it were that the link would become a talent funnel. It's arrival hastens the need to develop a thriving necessary Northern Powerhouse with a clear and distinct interlocking purpose. As I said back then: "The shorter journey time to London starts to shrink the reach of the talent pool. As Manchester and Leeds are two hours from the capital then it makes sense to have a physical presence in the North. Cutting journey times to an hour undermines the case for that. I think the flight of senior corporate finance professionals from Birmingham to London has been evidence of this."

No other country has all its core economic, political and cultural power so concentrated in one city. Developing alternative constellations that connect better with one another, and basing the case for doing so on a social benefit model is a pressing issue. It's refreshing that a discussion about London's future takes into account the North, and the Midlands, as he did so admirably, but my weakness, my most grievous fault, is to look at each problem through the other end of this telescope, from Manchester. I want a shift in this metropolitian London-centric thinking. Expecting it at a lecture about London was a stretch, I get that, but I'm not convinced that trickle down will work any more effectively when we've got a dirty great train line.

I have form for saying I like Andrew Adonis and very much enjoyed chairing an event with him, which I wrote about here. I thought he was treated appallingly by Ed Milliband, who gifted the Tories a 2-0 lead on the Northern Powerhouse, which then cost him the 2015 election. Adonis is a thinker, a strategist, someone for whom thinking big about knotty challenges is exciting.

But he's also been wrong. He was wrong to push so vigourously the case for no-power city Mayors in 2010, when the case for Metro Mayors needed to be made. He is also wrong-headed in his assault on the UK's university sector, which he presumably thinks he is saving from itself. No, our university should not revert to being a poly again. And I'd cordially invite him to Manchester to show him exactly why.

My second question is linked to that point. It was simply, humbly, kindly, that he unblock me on Twitter. It has been hard to disagree well in this febrile, nasty environment. And if I've been rude, then it is with regret and I apologise. But I believe we can engage, respectfully, as I hope this blog has demonstrated.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Matt Forde live in Chorley



We needed a laugh this week. And by goodness we got one on Saturday night watching Matt Forde at the delightful environs of Chorley Little Theatre.

I saw him interview Tony Blair in 2015 and thought I'd like him, but given I've had so very little to laugh about in politics since, he rather passed me by. My mate off of the wireless Mark Webster mentioned him to me as someone he thought I'd know, never mind like.

We bought the tickets on impulse after watching his TV show on Dave. Since then I've enjoyed listening to his Political Party podcast, where he has both a wry wit and a penetrating interview style.

There are plenty of comedians who can do jokes about politicians. There are comics who do very good impersonations, but the reason I really like Matt Forde's particular angle on this is that, like us, he's a proper political anorak. But has also has respect for those who serve and he's also worked in the Westminster system. It gives him a fairly unique perspective that I worried would restrict his range. Happily, he has a very good grounding in life, which I suspect makes his observational style so sharp. He was bouncy and warm with the crowd, playful about local things like football and as far away from other 'political' comedians who dehumanize the objects of their derision. Full marks lad. See you again soon, I hope.




Monday, November 06, 2017

The model for a new northern economy in Preston? Not really

Preston's pride - BAE Systems at Preston Guild
Sometimes I think I've spent so long away from the coal face of business journalism that I've slipped into a new echo chamber where business owners are the bad guys, where entrepreneurship is a dirty word and all they're good for is to milk them for tax revenue. Yet I'm still a board director of three overtly commercial organisations where that characterisation remains an absolute and outrageous travesty.

The truth is it is the world that has changed. The concern for the left behinds, the people who haven't benefited from globalisation, who live in communities riven apart by an economic and cultural decay, is righteous. But it has illicited all manner of easy answers and wrong-headed responses, not least that this anger ushered in Brexit, an answer to a problem it can't solve.

Soul searching for a proper response is now proliferating. The author Richard Florida's new book tests his own earlier theories of the creative super-city (think London, New York and San Francisco) which collectively have created 40 per cent of the world's GDP with just 7 per cent of the population. He asks, as I do on a daily basis, where does that leave the rest of us in a world of winner takes all urbanism?

The run-up to the CBI conference saw The Times report the frustration of business in the glacial progress of the government’s industrial strategy and whether it was being taken seriously in the heart of government. Hinting that nice guy Greg Clark was the right man to lead the sort of vocal industrial policy promoted in the past by the likes of Lord Heseltine and Lord Mandelson, CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn said: “We want to see a real championing of business and of industrial strategy. It has to go beyond BEIS [the business, energy and industrial strategy department] right to the top at the Treasury and No10. We really do believe we are at a watershed moment.”

In the absence of anything concrete, usually down to civil service inertia and political paralysis, it’s allowed a number of fierce critiques of the entire system to grab airtime, many peppered with the code words and trigger warnings about "neo-liberalism", "failed models" and "alternatives to austerity".

There was a piece in the Economist last month about how Preston has used the power of its "anchor institutions" (that's the NHS, Preston's College and UCLAN to me and you), to create the model of a smart-procuring, entrepreneurial state for a guide to how Jeremy Corbyn will govern and encourage a thousand co-operatives to bloom.

It seemed like an attempt to do what economists (as opposed to The Economist writers) often do, look for something that's working and apply a theory to it retrospectively, but it has been the product of some interesting work with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Preston City Council.

Lancashire is no stranger to experiments in economic planning and innovation. In much the same way, Lancashire County Council in the 80s was hailed as the cradle of New Labour. Under leader Louise Ellman in 1983 the council created Lancashire Enterprises, who's chief executive was urban regeneration visionary David Taylor (no relation).  It was the very model of a pump priming activist state, much of the thinking leading to the strcuture of the regional development agencies under Blair and Taylor's friend John Prescott. The longer term corporate legacy was a utilities support business Enterprise PLC, now part of Amey PLC, in turn the UK subsidiary of Ferrovial. But it also spawned Enterprise Ventures, now part of Mercia Technologies, an active venture capital investor in growth businesses in the North, the Midlands and Scotland.

Preston City Council's recent ambition has been created out of a response to local government cuts to its budget. just as Lancashire's response in the 80s was to the wholesale collapse of northern industry. One is a brave, necessary and innovative response, that feels strategic, but is intensely tactical. The earlier one, similarly, fashioned an ambitious response that grew and grew as it proved to have a relevance and need. It's not to spot the virtue in a locally based procurement strategy, supporting local businesses.

Much of the work on the Preston example, has been done by Neil McInroy from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. As this from the Guardian explains, more of the £1bn plus public sector budgets were spent locally.

Taking that on a stage, Neil's outline case here, where he argues for 'a new economic agenda', that can replace failed neo-liberalism. But I found myself asking at the end of each paragraph, but what about the businesses who'll create the jobs?

The four pillars of Neil's argument are: to recognise decline; understand technological shifts; build on local strengths; and invest in the economy of care. In many ways it's a bold and suitably broad synthesis. But I kept coming back to a common niggle I have with many conversations with people on the left, wouldn't life just be so much easier if everyone worked for the NHS?

And then the other question, but where are the businesses?

This is a blog, not a Masters thesis, or even an article worthy of the Economist, so I'll restrict my criticism to the new economic orthodoxy to one single baseline point. Where are the businesses? My starting point is that wealth is created in a business by someone having an idea, spotting an opportunity, selling that service or those value added goods for a surplus and growing that enterprise, employing people, their families spend that money locally, pay their taxes, replicate that across the entire economy and that's what makes the world go round. Larger existing businesses are enticed to stay, to relocate, and a careful co-ordination of their presence almost certainly contributes the conditions for even more people to take risks, build another business, that in turn makes that place even wealthier. The fewer people want to do that, or do it well, then that place gets poorer.

There's a line at the end of paragraph three that says: "Cities need to invest in social infrastructure and social enterprise and above all, support indigenous small business activity." My question therefore is how? To use Lancashire as an example again, the red rose county isn't short of initiatives from the public sector to "support" small business activity. There's the very noble Boost Business Lancashire for a start, which I should declare I have done some work for. But despite these valiant efforts and more, many of the same systemic issues continue to hold northern towns back and no amount of smart procurement can patch it up.  

It brought to mind something Peter Mandelson said as long ago as 2013, that all too frequently ambitious industrial strategies are little more than 'pea-shooter' initiatives; haphazard and ineffective programmes too small to make any kind of difference.

And in this context, are we facing something similar? And what does "democratise" the economy mean, other than letting committees of part time councillors decide where to spend money? Spending more state money locally isn't a new economic, it's arguably a good thing to do, but it isn't a paradigm shift it's been cracked up to be. 

There is also need for a regulating, guiding and protecting state, more than has been previously fashionable. But my sense is there are two elephants in the room which the "new economics" thinking doesn't acknowledge. The first is big business. In Lancashire, again, the major anchor institution of Preston isn't even in Preston, but the city would be stuffed were it not for BAE Systems at Warton and Salmesbury, and its supply chain.

The second is that hard infrastructure works. It's not neo-liberal economics to build better roads, rail links and make housing an integrated strategic plank of an industrial strategy, it's sound social investment. The Treasury methodology needs fixing, and an industrial strategy needs to reach deep into all parts of government, including the Treasury if it is to be effective. Afterall, the return on investment model for Crossrail will not be the same for the Todmorden Curve, but both are necessary.

How we solve a problem like the northern towns and smaller cities hasn't been taken seriously enough for decades. But we start from where we are, not where we'd like to be.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

When Rock Went to College - a Lancaster musical education

Last week marked the launch of this tremendous book about our musical education. 

Growing up in Lancaster we were incredibly blessed to have a major live music venue right on our doorstep; one that all the major touring bands would play at. At the time, of course, we took it for granted. We assumed it was what universities did. And that it was the dividend for having all these hippies invade our small proud northern city. The truth was it was a perfect storm of circumstances, sparked initially by the ambition of a young entertainments officer, Barry Lucas.

From when he booked The Who in 1970 through the next decade and a half, Barry out Lancaster on the musical map, giving youngsters like me the chance to see the some of my favourite bands, including The Jam, Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Cure, and to walk home afterwards. They were the ones I saw. The ones I missed through accident, apathy or stupidity included the Two Tone tour, the Clash, the Smiths and U2.

At the launch party we were treated to some of Barry’s stories, told with great warmth and generosity, including how the University blocked the Rolling Stones, how The Who sent sandwiches to an anti-Vietnam war vigil in Market Square and that U2 were the nicest band to deal with.

The two questions he gets asked more than any other are - why Lancaster? and, why did it stop? I've sort of answered the first one, it became a mixture of chance, luck, destiny and hard work. The Great Hall was just the right size for the right type of band touring at the time, and a stop off after Manchester on the way up to Scotland, the team also earned a reputation for looking after the artists and the promoters clearly liked dealing with Barry. But something else contributed to that. The Lancaster crowd was appreciative of good music, creating an unmistakable 'Lancaster stomp' and often giving support bands a chance (except Duran Duran, who were booed off and gobbed on by the local punks), and were a usually happy blend of town and gown.

My copy of the book arrived earlier in the week, so I had a good look through and know the answers to those key questions. But there are loads more tales in the book - beautifully curated by Paul Tomlinson - and plenty of memories will be sparked by the enjoyment of seeing the old ticket stubs, photos and posters displayed inside. I can strike off The Triffids from the list of all-time favourite bands I wish I'd seen. Apparently I saw them support the Bunnymen in 1984, but I only really discovered them when I lived in Western Australia five years later. If you saw one of your favourite bands and don't remember, does it still count?

I saw a few old faces in the crowd at the launch, including the staff of the legendary Ear Ere Records, and here's my belated disclaimer - I am chuffed to bits to have my contribution to the book included, a tribute to that iconic shop. More though, it was good to go along with my old pals Jim Warwick and Dave Tinkler to reminisce about our own memories of gigs gone by. 

Those friends, that record shop and this live music experience have formed where I am today and I'm eternally grateful.

Fact fans: the last ever gig at the Great Hall was New Order in 1985, I missed that one too.

You can buy the book from the publisher, here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Matt Johnson's Intertia Variations at Home

Sat in the audience at cinema 1 of Manchester's Home on Monday I pondered the thought that I knew next to nothing about one of the most interesting and compelling artists of my generation. I was absorbed by Matt Johnson's The The, especially the Infected album and particularly Heartland. It also gave me a devotion to music video that inspired me to launching a magazine that celebrated its craft. It made my mixing pop and politics list from 2014.

But even back then his interviews with the music press were sparse and his albums sporadic. Most other bands I liked, I knew loads about. But while there was an intensity to his music, there was a lot he was holding back.

I saw him once in a cafe in Shoreditch and someone in the office I was working in told a story about him owning a building around the corner and that he was making music for films. A true enigma. But one with a whole story of his own as to why these long periods of inertia set in.

It was a special event, a screening of the documentary about him, The Inertia Variations, directed by Johanna St Michaels, his ex-partner and mother to their son, Jack. It only worked, he explained, because of the intimacy they'd shared and nature of their relationship. The result is a personal and emotional film about Matt, but also about the creative process. It's an incredibly atmospheric piece of work, occasionally reflective and never sycophantic.

In the talk afterwards, chaired very well by Jason Wood, the head of film at Home, he spoke a great deal more about his work to try and stop the encroachment of east London by developers. On a new build site of an expanding city, we forget that much of what we enjoy that is new doesn't come at the expense of what went before. For now, at least.

Never a prolific performer, Matt has announced some live dates next year, including three in London, the No6 Festival in Portmerion and, he hinted, something in Manchester. Yes, please. Johnny Marr was in the audience and I didn't notice him shaking his head.

Anyway, there's an interview with him from Uncut, here, and a really good piece here from the ever excellent Northern Soul website.

The problem with a new centre party

It's been three weeks since I promised a blog about the problems faced by any new centrist party. In that time, another new movement has been unleashed to great social media fanfare and not much more. I dare say more will follow. This at least points to an undeniable pent up demand for something as an alternative to this shambles of a zombie Tory administration under Theresa May, and to the hubristic, infantile socialism of the Corbyn project.

But here's the first problem with the centrists. It's become like the far left of the 1980s, with a Heinz 57 of varieties of politically pure programmes: I discovered recently that the SDP is still a thing; there's Renew, which stood in Battersea in 2017 and got 7.4% of the vote; a brief flurry on Twitter for the Democrats, of which ex-journalist and SpAd James Chapman was Rogue One; then there's the Radicals, started by accident by Economist writer Jeremy Cliffe.

And aside from new parties there are new movements around which the core unifying ideas can coalesce, More United and Open Britain, both of which I'm a subscriber to, as well as being the proud owner of a Centrist Dad t-shirt.

Chris Deerin on UnHerd helpfully refers back to a piece from a few years ago that aligned our parties into four far more coherent and equally representative groups. Left, Liberal, Christian Democrat and the National Front or UKIP. This was pre-Brexit, and we have been rather lulled into the false dichotomy that our society has become divided into the two defining camps of Remainers and Leavers, a fault line that this analysis claims broadly persists. As ever, I think it's more complicated than that.

As Stephen Bush commented in the New Statesman, all of these projects are avoiding the issue: "(As) yet another upper-middle-class bloke (sets up) ...  a political party. My suspicion, which may be unfair, is that the real reason why people keep doing this is that they look at the prospects for internal change in the big two and think it is all too difficult. So they set up a new party, not to fix the problem but as a rather public form of therapy."

Similarly, there are the Labour moderates who seem to be determined to cling on - the phrase quoted at me was not to retreat from anti-semites, but to fight (or campaign to put Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in Downing Street and hope you don't get purged). Stubborn pride and fear that there isn't a social base for an alternative seems to be holding them back.

Another spectre that haunts the British centre is that of Emmanuel Macron. For want of a charismatic leader for the British equivalent, inevitably thoughts turn to the potential of a number of generals in search of an army, be that Nick Clegg, Chuka Umunna or Liz Kendall. The flaws of each, and any alternative, make the task ever harder.

Then there is the challenge of our electoral system. The latest poll shows Labour and Conservative on 42% each, a remarkable hegemony for a two party system that is profoundly unloved.

Squeezed between these are the Liberal Democrats, tainted by coalition, lacking a core vote, but occasionally in receipt of a tactical vote or a local vote. At 100,000 members any centrist, pro-European political party has to accommodate the LibDems and give that movement a shot of purpose, other than just being the alternative.

The only set of circumstances that could make this work seem devilishly complex, yet marvellously simple: persuade a significant group of MPs to resign from their parties, cross the floor to the Liberal Democrats and mount a reverse takeover of the party machinery (including a name change) to campaign on a platform of resisting Brexit, reforming immigration, more devolution and a break with the tired old politics of discredited Mayism, a disastrous Brexit and save the country from Corbyn.

Waiting for that moment is maddening, but here's Chris Deerin again on the lessons from the failure of the SDP and the recent inspirations: "Quite: fail better. If the politicians lack the guts to bring about change, perhaps the answer is to focus on a bottom-up movement. That’s what drove Macron’s success, and Ukip’s, and Corbyn’s, and the extraordinary surge in support for campaign in Scotland. All of them brought new people into politics, tapped into public disillusionment with what already existed, and went on to bend the system to their will. The evidence shows that when voters feel disenfranchised they are willing to give the new a fair hearing."

The reason this has taken three weeks to write is because it is such a crux for so many in politics. I wonder how this would play out locally and I start to wince, which is where another problem lies. That's the problem laid out before us, but it won't get any easier by ignoring it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Blackburn Rovers, overcoached, and not experienced enough at winning

The old fellah behind us in the Riverside drips with sarcasm and berates this team with a cutting savage wit. But he said something to us at half time that struck home for me; Tony Mowbray’s side is overcoached. They work too hard on the complicated things that they’ve forgotten to get the basics right.

The same ball lofted in towards the useless Danny Graham. Ryan Nyambe’s desperate seeking out of a square ball or a back pass to Mulgrew. It all smacks of a rigid training ground plan that has no alternative.

What’s worse, looking through the team, is that there are no winners. Who has won anything? Who has been part of a strong, sustained winning team? Mulgrew and Caddis at Celtic? No, that doesn’t count.

That was awful stuff. This division is where we truly deserve to be, get used to it.

PS - fair play to Plymouth fans for making that trip in such numbers.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Not fit to wear the shirt?

There’s a word that I’ve come up against in a child-rearing and mental health context recently that I haven’t quite been able to shake.

Catastrophise.

I could add the dictionary definition here for you, but here’s what I think it means. To react to something disappointing, some kind of setback, in a completely over-the-top and irrational way. To deduce from one event or situation that there is a catastrophe, a crisis, a disaster.

That’s what happened at Boundary Park, Oldham, yesterday. We lost 1-0. We deserved to lose. The performance was way below what Rovers fans have come to expect this season (more on that later). At the final whistle, fans near me were swearing, shouting, venting. The cry was ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’. During the game there were people around me shouting for multiple players to be subbed off, even when we only had one more change to make.

Rewind to last month’s trip to Shrewsbury. The team were undeservedly cheered off the pitch. Personally I thought that was a far worse performance than Oldham and we were very lucky to get a point. We didn’t deserve anything.

Would they have been lauded yesterday at Oldham if Elliot Bennett hadn’t missed an open goal? Or Peter Whittingham’s shot bounced under the crossbar and in and if somehow we managed to not fluff a goalmouth scramble? Probably. Sport is all about fine margins, but ultimately about scoring the goals, or winning the race, or building the points total.

I’ve got my own opinions about the players we’ve got, and I respect that my view is as subjective and potentially flawed as anyone else’s, but the following may put me at odds with the consensus:
  • I like Peter Whittingham, he rarely gives the ball away, he creates space and makes good passes. I don’t expect him to run fast any more than I expect David Raya to take good throw-ins. 
  • Harry Chapman can glide past the first player, but not the second. He’s got a petulant streak and I don’t think we should start with him. 
  • Bradley Dack is great. We need more of him and he contributes something to every game he plays in. If we go on and do well, he will be key. 
  • Defensively, Charlie Mulgrew is a liability. If he doesn’t take a good free kick or a corner, and he didn’t yesterday, then he’s not much better in a game than the hapless Elliot Ward, who gets all the blame and no credit for anything he contributes.
  • Richie Smallwood, battler though he is, gives the ball away too much. Jack Byrne taught him a lesson in how to power a midfield engine room yesterday. 
  • Danny Graham has nothing to offer at this level.
The trouble is, we’re a third division team now. I thought the result yesterday was disappointing. The performance was inadequate. The reaction though was depressing. I’m up for this season and I’m prepared for more days like this. How much of this will be forgotten if we beat bottom of the table Plymouth on Tuesday? Will it be a return to form and a team of world beaters again? Time for us all to toughen up and stop catastrophising.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The problem with the Conservative Party

This could be a very long blog, such are the depths and the extent of the problems "in" the Conservative Party, but this series of remarks are intended primarily to address the problem "with" each party. That said, the evidence is plentiful. Given I've been up close and personal with six different ministers during their party conference in Manchester, the insights and observations just keep coming thick and fast. In some cases 'thick' being the operative word. I don't honestly believe that the Tories are evil, nor do I think they are the 'stupid' party, but their collective and individual ability to commit acts of great stupidity simply reinforce the view that they are (to quote one commentator this week) "malevolent privileged scumbags". It is the gift that keeps on giving to their political opponents.

The embodiment of all of this is Boris Johnson; too clever by half, boorish, bumbling and yet deeply loved by the activists. Sometimes his excesses can be tempered by the boring sensible technocrats in his own cabinet - likable ministers like Greg Clark and Damian Green - or even in his own family. Though his more clever younger brother Jo committed a gaffe about students having the choice to live frugally, which played directly into the narrative that they are detached from how most people live their lives.

At the start of the 2017 conference there appeared to be a deep desire for this gathering to reset their core values, to take their base philosophy apart and come up with a sensible vision of the future. In so doing it would discover the reasons why their support among every expanding demographic is declining, this, from CapX is good on that. Fair play then to Tim Montgomerie and his new venture UnHerd and this piece on ten things every Conservative should dwell on; respect to Roger Scruton for this radio piece on what conservatism is (they are for responsibility, liberals for freedom, socialists for equality); here is Ruth Davidson on reforming capitalism; and probably the second most interesting Tory politician around is George Freeman, who created the Big Ideas Festival which Jamie Barttlett does a decent job of dissecting here.

But none of that has been the story. None of that seems to have any cut through. The mess of Brexit, the weak divided government and an aimless Prime Minister was summed up in the omnishambles of her conference speech. The coughing, the stunt with the P45, the letters on the backdrop falling off, the coded body language of her cabinet members all rendered all of the above efforts utterly useless. Even her own laudable policies to tackle big systemic issues like housing, skills and energy prices will have fallen apart before I've hit 'Publish'.

But this is the biggest learning of the Tories, despite all of this, they're going to stick with Theresa May for a couple of years. They're going to torture this poor and unwell woman because they can, but also because they have no alternative yet. But they also have the time, they have the one thing the party exists for - to secure power and to never let it go.

The topline narrative is that the Tories are playing out a succession drama but as Matthew D'Ancona says they still need to confront that deeper and more profound existential question and develop a vision of the future that people can get: "That proposition needs to be explained in language that speaks to every home and those who long for their own home; to people who believe with every fibre in their being that they have no stake in the status quo, and that more Toryism means more poverty, more inequality, more misery."

The trouble is, this is the sort of thing that usually goes on inside an opposition party as they dust themselves down after a defeat. The immediate problem for the Tories is that they are in government and don't seem to have the foggiest as to what to do.

Next: the problem with a new centre party

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The problem with the Labour Party

The party transformed, cartoon from Progress
This could be a short blog. The problem with Labour is it is now a left wing political party. In itself that is the problem, but it doesn't answer the point as to why that's problematic. But this phase will persist. The party of Attlee, Wilson and Blair is no more.

Over the summer Paul Mason said, quite rightly, that this is a left wing party now, it is Jeremy Corbyn's party and that anyone who doesn't like it can go. Here's another Corbyn loyalist, Claudia Webbe, demanding not just unity, but surrender. George Eaton in the New Statesman writing on how the left triumphed still doesn't answer the question about whether the solutions they offer will work, but it speaks to the paucity of sensible, practical ideas in the centre of British politics and instead the triumph of easy answers that worked for Donald Trump and the campaign to Leave the EU.

But it's not just a left wing party, but something worse: a home for those who revel in it as a truly nasty party. I literally run out of examples on a daily basis, but this is bad enough. For a significant part of the membership and the Corbyn fans, the story of a BBC journalist needing a bodyguard for her personal safety isn't something to be ashamed of. This betrays not a kinder gentler politics but a world in which there aren't journalists and opponents, but enemies. The comments and tweets under the line on this piece by Gaby Hinsliff are horrific, as is the call for the Jewish Labour Movement to be expelled from the party. That this is even being discussed, applauded and tolerated at the conference fringe of a mainstream party is a stain on our democracy.

But for me one of Labour's biggest problems right now is that many in the party seem to think it won the 2017 election and that the giveaway manifesto was a work of unimpeachable genius.

Here's Bridget Phillipson, a thinker, and the Labour MP for Sunderland, on the manifesto and where the party is at: "The shopping list feel to the manifesto reflected a second, deeper problem: there was no vision or strategy behind our electoral offer to engage in any detail with the context in which we find ourselves. Last year I wrote an article highlighting Labour’s failure to properly come to terms with the transformation of our economy, culture, and society since we last won an election. There was little in our manifesto to give me confidence the leadership is rising to that challenge."

The events at Labour conference in Brighton have proved her right. But constitutional party matters are deemed more important than Brexit, while there was no platform for the Labour politician with the second highest personal vote of any politician in the country, Andy Burnham. You can draw your own conclusions about why that might be.

Having nothing to say about Brexit sits high on Labour's charge sheet, save for kicking the can along the road again. Thirty senior Labour MPs write a letter calling for retaining Britain's membership of the single market and Jeremy Corbyn just laughs at them. His priority, effectively, is that state control of the commanding heights of the economy is more important than sustaining jobs dependent on the European single market.

Labour also has next to nothing to say on foreign policy challenges of the 21st Century, the instinct from the leadership has been to support anyone but the west, and to unleash some fairly unpleasant tropes about Jews and the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. For the most part though the line is to wisely keep quiet about past alignments and hope that no-one notices, or remembers.

There are clever and forward thinking people in the Labour Party. The most innovative local government leaders amongst them, including Nick Forbes in Newcastle, Andy Burnham closer to home and Sadiq Khan. These are grown-ups, as are the diligent back benchers who are prepared to debate Brexit and think about the future, whether that be Caroline Flint saying we just need to get on with Brexit, or Alison McGovern arguing to stay in the single market and customs union. But it is an illusion to think they are representative of the party now.

How will this end? The British people punish hubris and overreach. John McDonnell has displayed traits of epic self-delusion in his pronouncements on the nationalisation of the railways, utilities and the construction industry. It is always a mistake to assume that the adoration of the rally, the snarling mandate of conference and the support of the membership is the same as a country that is ready for full-throated socialism. The British people don't like it when their support is taken for granted. Just ask Theresa May.

Next week: The problem with the Conservative Party.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

First World Problems put into context in Shrewsbury

The impressive stained glass window at Shrewsbury's small but stunning Catholic cathedral depicts the desperate and gory history of England's Catholic martyrs. Tortured, executed and persecuted for their faith. Being able to take that in and then order a cup of herbal tea and a freshly baked cake in a beautifully appointed cafe underneath speaks to the progress towards civilisation we have made.

It's also a reminder that we live in a society where we do what we want, say what we want and live within rules, for the most part. Our discourse dwells endlessly on our divided and fractured society. Social science focuses relentlessly on breakdown, schism and threats to the social order. I'm frankly amazed at how it actually holds together for the good most of the time. My anger and frustration at the sight of broken lives sleeping in doorways is not that society can't prevent this, but that the solutions are so remarkably within our grasp.

I got to know how to get around the country by train at a remarkably young age, taking summer holidays by buying British Rail runabout tickets that took me from Wales to the Scottish border, just because we could. I'm also reminded now quite how much of our country I want to see, either revisit or see for the first time. Either way it's a journey of discovery. At different stages of life you view places as through a lens. I first wandered the streets of Shrewsbury as a teenager, bored with the frankly pointless collection of train numbers on Crewe station, so I jumped on a train to Shrewsbury and looked around the town. I was on the hunt for record shops, probably, and somewhere to eat. I certainly didn't go to the Cathedral.

Shrewsbury is a lovely place for a day out. If you've come to this blog to read about the football match I went to, then can I politely direct you here, where Old Blackburnian, who we sat next to at the New Meadow, summarised it perfectly.

The New Meadow is another new ground chalked off. I make it the 151st ground I've watched football on, I'm still on 80 out of the Punk 92 as I went to the previous ground, Gay Meadow a few times, and it marks my 73rd of the current 92. Doing the 92 isn't just a way of chalking off identikit grounds, but a way of rediscovering this land.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The problem with the Liberal Democrats

I read an extraordinarily disappointing pamphlet over the weekend. It started well enough because it was entitled Reinventing the Liberal Democrats - how to build a party for tomorrow. At last, I thought, they've got it. Given all of the political turmoil, the mess that the Tory government are in, the lack of focus from Labour on the biggest issue of the day, then it should be a golden opportunity for a centrist party to surge through the middle and offer a compelling vision for the future, as Macron has done in France.

It's a pipe dream though. The Economist's Bagehot summed up the Liberal Democrats pretty well describing the party as "feeble", going on to sketch their predicament in stark terms: "The party's implosion after the coalition coincided with the opening up of its biggest opportunity in decades: the Brexit vote. Had the party entered the post-referendum world with 60 seats and a charismatic leader it would have had a chance of engineering the political alignment it always dreamed of. Instead it entered that world as a political husk."

The pamphlet, timed to fire up the activists at this week's conference in Bournemouth, backs that up with its central call: "Set out an inspirational purpose that is illustrated by signature policies and communicated through everything we do." The fact that it states from the outset something so obvious, so fundamental and so basic to any brand; especially so a political party, only serves to accentuate the crisis the party is in. The rest of it is standard stuff - digitise the party, lower the barrier to entry, be welcoming and nice - none of which anyone in any campaign group or party should have a problem saying. But that isn't why the document is disappointing, it's the lack of reach, the lack of ambition and the lack of generosity.

I've consistently argued that the LibDems are a party without purpose or point. Here, in July 2010, again in 2011 here, and again in the aftermath of the 2015 election, where I found them to be the ultimate "say anything, believe in nothing" party. At their high watermark they were the beneficiaries of protest votes from the New Labour dominance. Such an existence is unsustainable. It manifests itself in the pitch at election time which purely focuses on the negative. Positioning themselves in opposition as the party in the best place to beat the other party you hate the most. Laughably, this is illustrated to almost comic effect by their obsession with mathematically illiterate bar charts, something I've created my own Pinterest board - Ludicrous Lib Dems - to record for political posterity. This betrays more than just a readiness to fight dirty, but an acute lack of confidence in their own purpose.

More than a few times I've overheard people saying that history will be kinder in its analysis of Nick Clegg's part in a coalition government with the Conservatives. It was an extraordinarily brave and bold thing to do, but one for which their 'core vote' or more accurately their 'peak vote' have never really forgiven them for. It's not the point of voting LibDem for them to be in power, but to salve your conscience that you are doing something positive. I'm not even so sure about that any more. Times have changed to such an extent that the opportunity is staring them in the face, but the party no more seems to want another tilt at power than a return to their comfort zone.

Next week: The problem with Labour.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Doing the 92 at Scunthorpe

Mushy, me, Smithy and Martin at Glanford Park
Scunthorpe last night was an oddity. A newish stadium, opened in 1988, on an out of town retail park that felt old, certainly older than Rochdale on Saturday, which has been tweaked and improved substantially. There were no corner stands, steel beams held up each stand roof, which isn't ideal with low sight lines, and the pitch felt very close to the crowd. Not surprisingly, I hear they're looking to move.

On my groundhopping journey I've started to see patterns in stadium development. On one level it's binary, there are old grounds and new ones, obviously. Of those some are finished, others are constantly evolving.

There are old grounds that exude character, like Everton, while some new ones look they have been knocked up out of an Ikea flat pack. The constant is that I find something to like about the experience in all of them. The thought never leaves you about how a new stand came to be built, the compromises, the budgetry limits, the vanity of the naming or the expediency of working with needy sponsors.

Quick point on the game - I thought Scunthorpe were the best side we've played this season. Graham Alexander, their manager, thought they were at their best. It wasn't always pretty and David Raya was our best player overall. Which tells you that we ground out a decent 1-0 with some solid defending and good counter attacking play.

Glanford Park is another new ground chalked off, and was my first visit to Scunthorpe. I make it the 150th ground I've watched football on, I'm now on 80 out of the Punk 92, and it marks my 72nd of the current 92.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Fathers, sons and football - why I love going to the Rovers

One of the joys of going to watch Rovers each week is the company. I really don't think I would bother if I was going on my own. A few years ago we had seven season tickets and some weeks my Dad would join us. One by one the kids developed their own interests, I wrote here about even having to take one of them to Manchester City, but Joe and Louis have stuck at it. I thought I might lose Joe this season as he planned to go to college or have weekend work commitments to price in, but he's still up for it, it would appear.

Me and Louis have been to every game, so far. Which is some going.

One of the reasons I particularly like the company of two teenage chips off the old block is that they are much better readers of the game than me. It goes without saying that they are also far better players than I ever was and have the tactical and statistical grounding you get from playing FIFA on the Xbox and PlayStation.

For that reason, I proudly present Louis' debut for the Rovers Chat blog this week, a report from Rochdale v Rovers, far more lucid than anything I'd write.



Sunday, September 03, 2017

Chris Brookmyre's Want You Gone, a stormer of a book

I've just read my favourite novel of the year so far, Chris Brookmyre's Want You Gone, or in the US the far better title The Last Hack. It's the sixth Brookmyre I've read that features journalist Jack Parlabane and is a terrific progression of how he's developed as a writer and observer of a fast changing world.

There seems to be a move into hard-boiled crime fiction by a wide range of male writers over the last few years. I've enjoyed Tony Parsons' latest series of Max Wolfe books, good stories, strong adversaries, and a good twist on his empathetic single Dad genre. I suspect that in another age a writer of the sensitivity and capability of Joseph Knox may have attempted a more literary state of the nation debut novel, but Sirens was as gritty and dark as they come.

I've enjoyed discovering Brookmyre this year and have resolutely ploughed through the Parlabane novels in chronological order, attempting to get to know errant journalist better by the book. Truth be told, he's not easy to get to know, or like, sometimes. I've enjoyed viewing all manner of Scottish life through his lens - Edinburgh society, the press, the Tory establishment, then the Labour one that followed, the medical fraternity. As you'd expect from a former journalist, he has a good eye for a new milieu and a fine ear for speech. I'd run out of Parlabane stories and no sooner had I finished Be My Enemy, that friends at work got me Black Widow and Want You Gone. The transition in his story structure and writing style has been remarkable. No less observant, but far darker and more urgent. Not without lighter moments and laughs, but far less of the quirky scatalogical humour that seems to have reached a peak with Be My Enemy. It all runs in parallel to Parlabane's status shifting from super star hack picking his assignments to him hustling to 25-year old editors on a fading reputation as the world changes around him.

Want You Gone is a masterpiece in modern crime noir and would easily make a Hollywood blockbuster; bang up to date with the Dark Web, Cyber attacks, Fake News and old criminals still up to the same shifty games.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Grumpy Rovers post - 5 things I dislike about modern football this week

This week I've been up close and personal with pretty much everything I dislike about modern football. Here's my five.

MK Dons - I don't have a proplem with Milton Keynes, or with the city having its own team. I just think they should have come up through the pyramid like Burton or Fleetwood. They shouldn't have stolen another club's position and part of its name. So, I always feel a bit grubby going to see them.

The Lancashire derby with Burnley - don't get me wrong, I've always enjoyed beating Burnley. I can take the defeats too, just as I did in 1979. But the hysteria, thuggery, sheer blind hatred around this fixture has got out of hand. Those idiots running on the pitch and attacking players was bad enough. Lauding them as "legends" by some fans makes me ashamed to be human.

The gulf - Burnley are a functional Premier League side. They will probably finish somewhere between 20th and 15th. Yet the gulf in ability, fitness, awareness and attitude was so far beyond our 11 that you realise how polarised football in this country has now become. I don't accept the cycle of life argument, I think a massive tectonic gap has opened up.

Venky's branding - I wince at the amount of Venky's branding around Ewood Park. I would rather they just said "Sorry". What are they selling?

Black and white - this or that, no room for nuance. Opinions are great in football, but I've paused before saying this last one, partly through fear of sparking some kind of Twitter war, Facebook fight, or whatever passes for a delinquent rage with someone who doesn't agree with you. Yesterday, I was pleased that Rovers won 4-1. But for large parts of the game we were a mess, against opponents who were demonstrably a weaker side. Football can be like that. Even when Rovers put 7 past Norwich and Forest back in the glory days, there were spells when the other side held the ball and when our players made mistakes. And just because we now have six points and we've got a winnng feeling back, we are not going to smash this division. We still might go up, but it will be by stealth, luck, grinding out a win at Scunthorpe next month and yes, occasionally, there may be a day when it clicks into place and we dominate a game. The other teams in this division will have something to say about each match. The young managers with modern methods of training, the players looking to make a mark. On the whole most people I speak to are like this, they get it. But there seem to be about 5% of fans for whom triumph and disaster are the only reactions. These tend to dominate social media and radio phone in shows. Sadly, as film maker Jonny Owen pointed out today, the news media build a narrative around these.

But we'll be back, there's far more that I love about football, there's always something about the many moving parts on the pitch to appreciate, and so much I love about the culture of the supporters too.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Freshwalks is for dogs - even eccentric ones like ours

Rachel and I went on the latest Freshwalks yomp through and around Lyme Park on Friday. It was a truly great day, as these occasions always are, covering 9 miles, 21,128 steps and a climb up the equivalent of 76 floors. 

We also took our trusty border terrier, Martha, who we thought would enjoy the challenge and the exercise and being around other people. As this is National Dog Day, it's high time this blog paid tribute to our eighth family member. I didn't expect us to be joined by six other four legged friends on the day. It has to be said, our Martha doesn't like other animals. We can be relaxing in the back garden or conservatory and she goes completely doolally at the smell of a cat, squirrel or a pigeon. She is particularly offended by squirrels. Hates them. And she will never get near one, ever. But she retains her greatest outrage for other dogs, the nearer to home, the angrier she is. When we walk her up the hill from our house she's literally straining at the leash in a demented rage if there's another dog on our road. Not without justification she's earned the nickname "Millwall" for her readiness to "have it" with any dogs trying to take serious liberties on her "manor".

Around people she's absolutely fine. She'll roll on her back and invite anyone to stroke and tickle and she's remarkably affectionate with little kids.

Her transition from border terrier to border terrorist can be traced back to when she was a puppy and she bounded up to a Rottwelier being barely controlled by a skinny woman in high heels and "WAG" sunglasses who screamed at us, making the situation even worse. She's never been the same since. Our only other major concern was when she escaped from our cottage in the Lake District and chased sheep (and caravans). I have palpitations thinking about it now, relieved none of my kids were far sighted enough to capture the moment and my anxiety for YouTube. Put it this way, Fenton wouldn't be the name guaranteed to get a cheap laugh whenever a dog is chased if they had.

Here's the thing though. She managed not to have any fights yesterday. A bit of casual gnashing to start with, but she got used to it and behaved herself. Even shrugging off an attempt to be mounted by a lively bull terrier. My favourite of the other dogs on the trip was Fox, pictured above, a gorgeous and totally eccentric character who did a lap of honour around the Ram's Head at the end of the walk. All that was missing was a chef in full whites chasing this curious half Jack Russell/half Collie out of the kitchen while he scamped off with a string of sausages hanging from his mouth and that tail wagging furiously. And our Martha slept ever so well.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A win at Bradford, that's more like it Rovers. Better in every way

The contrast with last week couldn't have been greater. Yesterday at Valley Parade, Blackburn Rovers ended the home side's unbeaten home record with a good win. Not emphatic, not dominant, not even lucky. Just good.

But I didn't just enjoy the day because we won. I was taken with the manner of it. All of the things that appalled me about the performances at Southend and at home to Doncaster were gone. The play was positive, Conway got some good crosses in. I liked Dack playing just off Samuel and thought they were both a handful.

There are still errors lurking, but this is the third tier of professional football.

I can't be bothered analysing the opposition any more. There's enough going on with my team to take in. But there were enough slack passes and mistimed tackles by Bradford to suggest they just had one of those days where they couldn't click. Overhearing a few of their fans after the game confirmed this. But fair play to Evans, Smallwood, Bennett and Dack for being first to those loose balls.

I've not been to Valley Parade for a long time, nearly 30 years, it's a striking ground that seems unfinished. If we'd planned our day better we should have paid tribute to the memorial in the city centre and at the stadium to the 56 who died in the fire in 1985. Instead, after we got off the train we found ourselves being escorted to the stadium by a testy police presence. Rubbing shoulders with the Blackburn leg of the EDL was a thoroughly unpleasant experience and one not to be repeated. Memo to self: if you hear the sound of a football crowd in a city centre, don't go towards it, go the other way.