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.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Binge watching, what's been good lately on BBC, Netflix etc

You don't need another article by someone from my generation (X, Y, etc) to observe with bewilderment at how media consumption is changing. But I do think we are in something of a golden age of television.

How you consume though is everything. I really enjoy the binge watching of a series and it has totally altered the way our attention spans pivot around a programme. Being married to a teacher not all of these have been shared experiences, one of us doesn't have the time, one of us travels on trains a lot. But the ones I enjoyed the most, we enjoyed together.

Here's what I've been watching over the last year since what I thought were the peak telly highs of Stranger Things and Narcos.

The Fall (BBC) - we gave up on this creepy, rapey, sexist crap. Should never have been broadcast. Outrageous. 1/10.

The OA (Netflix) - I didn't really get into this. The twists and turns seemed like strange leaps into the unknown and in the end I skipped a few to find out what was going on. 4/10.

Homeland (C4) - I thought Homeland had run out of steam around series three, but this last series probably cemented its place as a decent but run-of-the-mill spy thriller. The Trump election probably ruined the narrative about America's new place in the world and the characters rather fizzled out. 5/10.

Cleverman (ABC- iPlayer) - an Australian thriller, set in a dystopian racist future with the emergence of a secret race of "hairy people" or "subhumans" in a corporatist police state. Sometimes I wish they'd just get on with it, there's not quite enough going on, and I'm struggling to see the shifting motives of two of the lead characters. 6/10.

Taboo (BBC) - Tom Hardy's grunt fest was a real mixed bag. In parts brilliant. In others just a load of incomprehensible mystical tosh, which I admit is a harsh verdict given how forgiving I've been of Twin Peaks. By the end it had all the elements and you could truly smell the filth of London's dirty streets and rivers. 6/10.

Twin Peaks - The Return (NowTV) - strangely, I don't think I could handle binge watching Twin Peaks. It would be too much to handle. It started off with so many disparate strands and red herrings thrown to the winds that it seemed aimless and directionless. Just as I was losing patience with it came the outrageous 8th episode (Got a light?). It was off the scale Lynch weirdness, creepy, dark, ugly and needlessly violent. Unforgettable television that had as many theories as it probably had viewers. Since then it has started to draw the fragments together, from the first half and from the first series 25 years ago and from the film Fire Walk With Me. It is a masterpiece, for all it's flaws. Whatever happens now will be unable to be repeated by anyone. What Lynch has done is to graft onto an old project something that feels like a lifetime of work and creativity, sometimes with the sense that a director is indulging his fans and his  own imagination. 7/10 (points deducted for needless indulgence).

Ozark (Netflix) - billed as an heir to Breaking Bad this was always on a hiding to nothing. But I liked it and was gripped by the end. Sympathetic characters were in short supply, but the stars of the show weren't the entitled money laundering Chicago family, trying to make a mark in the sticks, but the roughnecks of the Missouri Ozarks, especially the dysfunctional Langmore clan, exemplified by an outstanding performance by Julia Garner as Ruth. But for me the real show stealer was Peter Mullan as Jacob Snell. 7/10.

Top of the Lake, season 1 (BBC) - I came across Top of the Lake series one quite late. It was glorious to watch, unnerving and full of suspense with a series of jaw dropping scenes starring Elisabeth Moss, again. And Peter Mullan again, this time with his Scots accent intact. 8/10.

Top of the Lake, season 2 (BBC) - I was pleased that season two was made available all at once on the BBC iPlayer. It was hard going at times. Though I have a soft spot for pretty much anything Australian (of which more later) the grimy side of Sydney was too much at times. It wasn't until the third episode that a male character emerged with any redeeming features whatsoever. But it was a brave and ambitious series marked out with some complex character twists. 7/10.

The Code (ABC- iPlayer) - we watched two series of this pacy and high octane Australian thriller, pretty much one after the other. Taught and anxious due to stand-out performance of Ashley Zukerman as Jesse, a high functioning autistic lead character. I loved how it spanned different parts of Australian life, the outback as well as the stiff political class of Canberra. 8/10.

Hinterland (S4C) - we were properly gripped by Hinterland, picking up on where I left off from the first series which I reviewed here. I adored the sparse and oppressive central character in the show, the one consistent and dominant element that loomed not just in each episode, but every scene. That is the landscape of Ceredigion, and collectively the people of west Wales. I was disappointed that Sian and Lloyd weren't bigger parts, but the priority had to be flushing out the frankly ludicrous presence of the most useless copper on television, the brooding Prosser. We liked it so much we went to Aberystwyth for the day. 8/10.

The Handmaids Tale (C4) - I thought this was a masterful piece of filmmaking. Atmospheric, uncomfortable and terrifying. As part of an Elisabeth Moss binge it was right up there. But. There was a but coming. The experience of watching it every Sunday night, with adverts, was hard going. I'm delighted there's a next series, but I'm going to dash off the lot in a weekend. 5/10 for the experience, 8/10 for the actual programme.

Broadchurch (ITV) - we were dubious about how ITV could keep the momentum going with Broadchurch. More red herrings than a trawler could catch off the Dorset coast, the third series was actually my favourite of the lot. So many issues got resolved, so many didn't. I can't think of a better cast female detective than Olivia Coleman as DI Miller. 8/10

The Missing (BBC) - we found this second series a really tough watch, and frustrating for the jumpy timelines, but it was mesmerising and truly worthy of a week off between episodes. Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey were outstanding as the parents of a missing daughter, while Tcheky Karyo as Julien Baptiste brilliantly portrayed the detective who takes an obsession to a new level. The producers are constantly in the driving seat with what they choose to reveal, prompting a whole industry of speculation. 8/10.

Line of Duty (BBC) - for tension, twists, manipulation and sheer brass balls I watched most of Line of Duty stood up. This was the BBC at its best and at most preposterous. The clues were littered all the way back through the previous series, and sometimes it stretched credibility with the deep and frankly inexplicable dark criminal conspiracy looming over everything. 9/10.

But the winner is...

Broken (BBC) -  as Catholics you sort of heave a sigh of predictable acceptance when a TV series focuses on a priest. It's usually only a matter of time before he gets outed as a kiddie fiddler. Dark as this series was though Sean Bean not only delivered a performance you could believe in, but depicted a priest that truly fulfils Pope Francis' call to them to get out and smell of the sheep. Tough storylines, full of despair, frustration and tension, but in doing so Jimmy McGovern also wrote a troubled love letter to the church. Full of contradictions, but full of the graces. 9/10.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Tony Mowbray is the problem

That was awful. Pitiful, weak, shambolic, amateur and downright dishonest. Losing anytime is disappointing, losing at home is always particularly hard to take. But surrendering in our first home game of the season to newly promoted Doncaster really hurt.

I blame Tony Mowbray all the way. Sure, some players had individual off-days (Williams, Graham, Ward, Bennett) but he picked the team. He drilled the formation, he will have read the scouting reports on Doncaster Rovers and stuck Danny Graham up front on his own to hide in the shadows of two taller centre halves. Unbelievably, inexplicably, he sent them out in the second half to do the same again.

So if Tony Mowbray's the problem, what's the solution? For now, more Tony Mowbray.

Friday, August 11, 2017

I love the Inn at Whitewell

I love the Inn at Whitewell.

I've only been twice, but I have an irrational and emotional connection to it, possibly to everything it represents.

Growing up in Lancaster the Trough of Bowland was so close, but yet so far. Signs to places like Oakenclough, Calder Vale, Chipping and Clitheroe pointed to destinations we never quite reached. The hills and vales seemed like a nether region, somewhere that an Ordnance Survey map offered mystery, but an ancient map in an antiquarian bookstore would probably denote them as "there be dragons". We had our own names for our favourite beauty spots for picnics and paddling - the pipe place, the pools, the rocky place. Far from ice cream vans and penny arcades they contain firm memories of enduring innocence and, I've grown to appreciate, wise parents.

JRR Tolkein visualised Middle Earth when he was embedded at Stonyhurst College, a few miles away. As you peel away from Whalley with your Sat Nav charting a course ahead, along no obvious highway, defying logical directions to anywhere in particular, you can see why. It is glorious countryside, rolling and surprising.

Yesterday was a magical, glorious, emotional day. The wedding of our very special niece Danielle to Carl Holden, such a smashing lad. These days layer on the pleasurable experiences that cement a reputation. Stood on the terrace with braziers burning brightly and warmly added to the sense of comfort and hospitality. And I'm a sucker for a shop stocked full of cookbooks and expensive cashmere socks.

The Inn also kicked off the TV series The Trip, where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon open their food travels of the North. The surprises on seeing that for the first time back in 2010 are all happy ones, a real delight, heightened possibly by Coogan's chicken choice pretty much matching what we had as our wedding banquet yesterday. I scanned the menu while we were there; local, seasonal and utterly tantalising. On the way there we passed by the Three Fishes at Mitton, the first of Nigel Haworth's monuments to Northern food where we have enjoyed many a splendid lunch.

I got hopelessly lost on the way home, in the dead of night. It didn't put me off, quite the opposite. I liked that it requires extraordinary effort to discover, but also to escape. I love that no-one stumbles on it by chance, that you have to go there with purpose and prior knowledge.

And that photo above of my beautiful wife Rachel in the private dining room will be one to treasure forever.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Clash of the abominable owners - Rovers at the Ricoh

Two clubs with abominable owners met last night at the Ricoh Arena. My team the Blackburn Indian Chicken and Pharma Conglomerate visiting the Japanese Photocopier Bowl, the temporary home of of the Coventry Hedge Funders in the Confected Energy Brand Trophy. That Blackburn won the actual cup tie 3-1 doesn't settle the argument of who have the worst owners (not that they were there, either). You can take a look at many others here to decide that for yourself.

It is an appalling situation that Coventry find themselves in. Kicking off the season in League Two (fourth division) is no place for a club of this size in a city like Coventry. Reading back through the coverage of their shabby period in charge provokes real anger. SISU thought they could turn around a distressed situation to their advantage, wreaking havoc on the fortunes of the club, the city and the asset they thought they'd enhance. Instead they've made it worse, arguably by applying their own ruthless business logic to a sport that defies it.

In one of our Discuss Manchester debates a few years ago my pal Graeme Hawley (currently on the silver screen as Morrissey's teacher in England is Mine) made the powerful and emotional case for fans everywhere. An unregulated wild west has enabled football to become the plaything of oligarchs and asset strippers. A club is no longer a focal point in a community that exists for the common good.

On looking out across this large bowl of a stadium last night my first sad thought was how sparse and eerie it was. How a few thousand people peppered around it accentuated the demise of what it ought to be. I texted Graeme to say I thought it felt like a music venue, an arena with a pitch in the middle, compounded possibly by a very good choice of music. The effect of that size and scale, that emptiness, has proved suffocating to teams, he said.

On my groundhopping journey, of which this season will be a very busy one, this is another new ground chalked off. I make it the 149th ground I've watched football on, I'm now on 79 out of the Punk 92 as I'd seen Coventry City at Highfield Road twice before, but it is my 71st of the current 92 as I lost Hartlepool United and Leyton Orient last season, the latter another club with bad owners.

I was pleased that we won, especially after the disappointment of Southend, but never have I felt as sad at a football ground for the fate of the fans following the other team.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Southend away - back to reality

It always takes me a while to absorb the pattern of a game of football, to work out a formation and a game plan and to see who's on top and what's going on. Yesterday at Southend, after 20 minutes or so I thought to myself we're the better team here, our players are clearly a notch above and I like what I see. Of the new faces Peter Whittingham has a forward gear and an instinct to go forward in a way that Jason Lowe never did, and I like the look of Richie Smallwood. Bradley Dack never got in the game until too late.

So what went wrong? I had my say on TalkSport2 half an hour after the game as we rattled through the Essex countryside. I said there seemed to be too much of what we had last season. Reliance on our best player to pull some magic out of the hat, a defence that crumbled under pressure and failed to do the basics, and a forward that for all his undoubted poaching ability doesn't score enough goals.

There's something else though. Ever since we lost Mark Hughes as manager each of our teams has lacked steel. They've been a soft touch and been unable to impose their style of play and physical presence on a game. We just seem to adapt to the game plan of the opposition. When it counted we were bullied by Southend yesterday. Anton Ferdinand might as well have got a new pocket sewn into his shorts for Danny Graham to slip into for the second half. I don't honestly think Southend were better players, neither did they "want it more" but the last 15 minutes Rovers were totally unable to create momentum to get an equaliser. The introduction of Harry Chapman descended into farce when he fell over his own feet right in front of us. Despite that, I believe Sheffield United fans who tell me we've got a good one there.

There were loads of us in the sold out away end yesterday, an impressive turnout from a loyal support. It added to the occasion and the home fans relished beating the team everyone is going to want to beat. But as we discussed on the way home yesterday, we're going to have some more tough days like that. We should win this league. We can win this league, but it's going to be a lot harder than a lot of fans, and maybe some players, realise.

First Generation: The campaign to transform lives



There's a really fabulous programme underway at work to support students to come to university. Across Greater Manchester there are bright kids at schools and colleges who are thinking that further education isn't for them. They don't have the peer groups, the siblings or the parents who can relate their experiences. What I like about First Generation is that it provides a level of pastoral support as well as a financial package. Have a look at the video and see if you can contribute to this really good cause.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

David Goodhart's Road to Somewhere and our journey to Oldham

Author David Goodhart has contributed something substantial to the understanding of our confused new times. The backdraft from the EU referendum last year has been a constant debate conducted alongside an exposed fault line in society between two tribes of people. On one hand are the "Anywheres"; highly educated, mobile, not as rooted, international in outlook, well-travelled and comfortable with globalisation and immigration, and usually found in big cities, and they make up about 20 per cent of the population. On the other hand are the "Somewheres"; rooted in their decaying places, often feeling left behind, threatened by immigration and globalisation, and more likely to hold socially conservative attitudes.

Though it's a useful distinction and powerfully argued, Goodhart's compelling book The Road to Somewhere draws on these influences from a social and cultural perspective, rather than a political dichotomy between left and right. So far, so good.

If anything the 2017 General Election told us even less about the distinction than we could have reasonably expected in Brexit stricken Britain. As Goodhart said himself in the Catholic Herald last week: "the task of politics now is to create a new settlement between Anywheres and Somewheres which gives more space to Somewhere principles without hurting too many Anywheres. Theresa May produced an innovative programme that tried to do just that... but her own performance let her down."

At an event at Oldham College last month we wrestled with these and many other issues, with David present and ready to lead the discussion. There's a good account of that discussion, here, from the Oldham Chronicle.

I have a few issues with his central thesis. The first is personal, the second is the political expression of this dichotomy, the third is in his attempt to hang heavy charges on the university sector.

So, firstly, I don't fully buy that the Anywhere identity applies to anything like the numbers he suggests. Even as someone who moved from a Lancaster home to a Russell Group university, passed through London and Australia, settling 60 miles from where I was born, I was the offspring of itinerant post-war parents. But I hesitate to even begin to apply my own anecdotal experience into this sphere, because I think it's where Goodhart's arguments are at their weakest.

The University of Manchester has a corporate social responsibility programme that encourages staff and alumni to become school governors. Large international businesses in Greater Manchester mandate their senior staff to volunteer in their communities. Undoubtedly professional careers give people the options to advance in other places, but it's too convenient to assume the ties that bind them to a place are inevitably weak. In discussing this with my colleague who appeared on the panel with David, a French academic who is raising a family in Stockport, I tend towards less of Somewhere v Anywhere, but to consider the possibilities of a "Somewhere Else". Communities of people, brought together by where they live, shaping places into a diverse and different character by the contribution of changing groups of people and families.

As he closed the event in Oldham David Goodhart tossed in an anecdote that graduates of Russell Group universities have no close friends who aren't also graduates of similar institutions. It cuts to the heart of where these people go and where they end up? Parts of big cities, presumably. It's not my responsibility to disprove that, but Goodhart's to justify, but I suspect it's nonsense. I suspect too that there are more than a few anecdotes in search of suitable evidence, which is partly why I've indulged my own story too.

Second, there's the politics. There are large parts of the country where people feel that the system doesn't work for them. And when things don't work, you cast around for the causes, for who it does seem to work for. On page 225 he lists initiatives and government actions that were Anywhere priorities: Scottish devolution, the fox hunting ban, immigration, the Iraq war, EU expansion to allow Bulgarians and Romanians into the country in large numbers, £9,000 tuition fees, the Human Rights Act.

I read through that list with some sympathy. But it spoke to me of something far more fundamental to the British political psyche than Somewhere and Anywhere, but "don't take the piss", something I first heard articulated by a guy called Jonathan Simons at a Tory conference fringe last year. That to me comes closer to synthesizing the anger we feel all around us.  And there are a variety of political responses that coalesce around a number of no-go zones of moral relativism; all attempts to manage sensibly public spending is "austerity" and the automatic response to an act of Islamist terrorism is to say it isn't Islamic and to say otherwise is playing to the racist right. To me, that's where we've got stuck. There are tribes of people who think the other side isn't just wrong, but "extreme", "alien" and "dangerous". No-one is talking to one another. Everyone is shouting. The left behind feel ever more helpless.

Thirdly, he has it in for the university sector. In fact, not only is this the sector where I work, my job is to do all the things he suggests we don't do and that are the cause of many social ills. He identifies a “university or bust” mentality; “Today’s university option is sucking in more young people than is economically or socially desirable” (p230); "Modern universities have expanded far beyond any useful purpose”; and (p165) that it would be preferable to recreate elite vocational colleges with strong local connections.

Some of the charges I simply don't recognise within the sector. A big drive to create more apprenticeships, more generous support for technical training, better links within and between northern cities and more patriotic procurement are all pretty much mainstream ideas today in Whitehall, not least at the top of the agenda for the Metro Mayors.

I don't accept the binary distinction between what is offered in universities and what is more practical and rooted, or that the shift from polytechnic to university was a mistake. I accept a massive underfunded skills shortage, but the fingers are all pointing to the wrong place. I don't see the evidence that what is achieved at a modern university is to the detriment of technical pathways. Or that we don’t offer them. At Manchester Metropolitan, where I work, we take most of our students from the North of England, 40% from Greater Manchester. Many are what we call 'first generation' students. The percentage of pupils coming from the 20% lowest participation neighbourhoods has increased from 14.5% in 2011/12 to 16.6% in 2015/16. Universities provide high quality, cost-effective routes to advanced technical skills. Degrees should not be placed in opposition to technical education.

We currently recruit a third of all degree entrants from BTEC and other vocational backgrounds and are one of the leading universities in the development and delivery of Degree Apprenticeships with employers, a good example of a pathway that is both ‘technical’ and ‘academic’.

I'm going to leave it there. It's starting to sound like I've got a bee in bonnet about what is in fact a very helpful and fascinating contribution to our understanding of some big trends in our society. It's certainly going to have some influence on society, politics and education for sometime. Though I don't think it's as effective a summary of our psyche as "Don't Take the Piss".