Monday, June 26, 2017

Why everyone's wrong about Arlene Foster and the DUP

Back in 2012 I took a finance conference to Belfast. It wasn't unusual to get some warm words from a local politician, but in Northern Ireland we were greeted with enormous appreciation from devolved government, notably by Business and Investment Minister Arlene Foster, as she was then, First Minister of Northern Ireland and supporter of the minority Conservative government as she is now.What struck me more than anything in the couple of years that I regularly hopped over to work in Belfast was the powerful desire to be seen as a "normal" part of the United Kingdom, somewhere that business is done, where visitors are made welcome and that peace was permanent.

The last issue they're going to raise as part of a UK settlement is gay marriage and abortion. That wasn't on the table when they negotiated with Gordon Brown's team in 2010 and it isn't now. I don't doubt for a minute that the infrastructure spending in Northern Ireland will form part of the long promised 'peace dividend', and that concessions will be made to many of the campaigns that politicians on all sides in Stormont have made over the last twenty years. These include a competitive corporation tax regime with the Republic and further inward investment incentives.

At the heart of this hostile assault on the DUP is a depressing characterisation of the people of Northern Ireland. That they are the other. That there is more that divides us, than unites us, if you want to put it like that.

Jenny McCartney in CapX makes these points very well.  "The level of vitriol has been disturbing even to those of us from Northern Ireland who are both wary of the DUP’s social conservatism and familiar with its flaws: the Paisleyite inheritance, the party’s dwindling rump of religious fundamentalists and creationists, the energetic self-interest and intermittent financial scandals. But the ecstasies of liberal piety and fury in the British press at any potential deal with the DUP – the sort of deal that Labour sought in 2010 – have gone beyond normal political criticism and plunged into outright hypocrisy and untruths. It was as if – hemmed in by correctness on all sides – many, mainly English, pundits were finally relishing the unleashing of fire on people they could feel really pious about hating."

The greatest misgiving I have about Arlene Foster was her poor handling of the botched biomass scheme, or "cash for ash". But she has stuck it out. The price of failure is a high one in Northern Ireland, so too is the value of unity around a project for peaceful co-existence, compromise and forgiveness, as Stephen Bush acknowledges, here: "The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator."

I'll leave the last word to Jenny McCartney again, who goes on to say: "Foster is, in fact, a member of the Church of Ireland who happily drinks alcohol and only joined the DUP in 2004. She spent the day before the election in Messines, Belgium with the outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny, commemorating a WWI battle in which unionist and Irish nationalist soldiers fought side by side. When necessary, she has attended local events alongside the Sinn Fein MLA Sean Lynch, a former close comrade of the late IRA man Seamus McElwain, whom Foster believes attempted to murder her policeman father and succeeded in wounding him. How many armchair pundits have had to negotiate such a complex past and present?"

POSTSCRIPT: Here is a brilliant, concise, but detailed examination of the deal by Ciaran McGonagle, that summarises the very clever negotiation by Arlene Foster on this. It's on

Friday, June 16, 2017

Jonathan Schofield and Manchester's "betrayal" of its radical history

I could listen to Jonathan Schofield all day. I could listen to a talk on Manchester's radical history for even longer than that. So last night at Manchester Metropolitan University's 70 Oxford Street, the building that used to be the Cornerhouse, I listened and watched as he took us on a proper trek through Manchester's past.

The proposition our favourite tour guide and historian put to us was this: has Manchester betrayed its radical roots? It's a story of nuance and myth, heroism and sacrifice. But it's ultimately a story about the thing that really encapsulates Manchester's real radicalism - pragmatism and progress.

I won't attempt to summarise his talk, instead I'll point you to his excellent books. But I will take three examples that rather show we haven't betrayed our past in the way some may think. Jonathan's journey took us from the development of the town of Manchester, England's least aristocratic, through the English civil war and the siege of 1642, the stubborn non-conformist Christians who challenged the divine right of kings to rule. He talked about the beginnings of opposition to slavery, a careful case built against it by the preacher Thomas Clarkson, a direct influence on William Wilberforce who eventually succeeded in outlawing such barbarism, despite opposition from the Liverpool dockers who tried to kill him.

Secondly, Manchester's radicalism was, he argued, middle-class and non-conformist. Even the reaction to Peterloo - the birth of the Chartist movement - had a moderating force despite its entirely reasonable demands for universal (male) suffrage, the victories of this soft radicalism - the vegetarianism and municipal parks of Joseph Brotherton, John Bright's opposition to the needless Crimean war and Richard Cobden's free trade treaty with France were all touched not by insurrection and revolutionary radicalism but by a rounded and benevolent pursuit of the common good.

Thirdly, the incredible achievements of universal women's suffrage were characterised by a determination, a collection of evidence, a persistence and a refusal to shut up. Isn't that so very Manchester. And then there's Engels observation of the 3000 people gathered in a socialist hall on a Sunday that no Englishman can go three minutes without telling a joke.

So, I don't think Manchester today is a betrayal of those roots. What we do now, based on evidence, decent moderation and noisy anger traces a direct line to all that in some form or other. True, we all don't do enough, like voting in greater numbers, for a start. Change dot org and Facebook clicking absorb our own calls to radical action, while much is so wrong in the world we seem unprepared to do much about it. But isn't it something that there has been a sea of flowers around the statues of Cobden and Bright in St Anne's Square. Those flowers are our response to an act of medieval barbarism, not an act I would ever describe as radical, never. Flowers next to statues that commemorate an idea that we should be tolerant, open-minded and free to exchange ideas and the fruits of our common endeavour.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A bitter victory for Theresa May, a glorious defeat for Jeremy Corbyn

Back in April when the General Election was called, my contribution to the discussion was that it proved that everything we thought we knew was wrong. Today, many commentators, campaigners and pollsters are even more wrong. I broke it down then to what it meant for a number of key players. I’ll return to them all, in the same order, as we absorb the results today.
For Theresa May, it is a disaster, pure and simple. Her poor campaign has delivered a victory that feels like no victory at all. Her wide ranging manifesto lies in tatters – described by Nigel Evans MP for Ribble Valley as “dire” – her programme of a reforming Red Tory government now lacks a convincing mandate.
The decision to call an election and tear up the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was born of political calculation, believing her own hype and badly underestimating the resilience and popularity of her rivals.
It has been said too that she has relied too closely on her two closest advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, and too little on her cabinet and the Conservative Party. Once called, the campaign was about her, less about how she would govern. Her u-turn on social care added to the negative perception that she was far from ‘strong and stable’ but was indecisive “Theresa Maybe”.
She called it the Brexit election, but it was barely an issue, hardly mentioned by Labour, while the two parties who are defined by that vote – the Liberal Democrats and UKIP - seem diminished and irrelevant.
For the business of government, there will be disruption. Those of us who work in the Higher Education sector were relieved the Higher Education and Research Bill sneaked through in the pre-recess wash-up. There will have to be a priority given to less contentious and controversial measures that won’t provoke a Tory rebellion. One example, on immigration policy and international students, it is arguable that there is no longer any clear mandate for the Conservative manifesto commitment for keeping international students in the net migration target.
For UKIP, I anticipated the disaster that followed. Paul Nuttall, one of their longest serving leaders this year (I think, I’ve lost count), has now resigned.
What was a factor was the distribution of UKIP’s 4 million insurgent votes from 2015. It seems more returned to a boisterous Labour under Jeremy Corbyn than the Tory campaign expected.
For Labour, it is the glorious defeat. After losing the Copeland by-election and trailing by 20 per cent in the polls, to achieve a result like this is nothing short of a miracle. It is a tribute to Jeremy Corbyn’s calmness under pressure and to the legions of volunteers and party activists that the uptick happened at all, let alone to the extent it denied Theresa May a majority. Localised campaigns where the MPs clawed back slim majorities were hard fought and attracted door-knockers and leafleters in their thousands. The most telling and popular policy in the manifesto of free stuff was undoubtedly the promise to abolish university tuition fees and bring back grants. It clearly did the trick in Canterbury, Lancaster, the Manchester seats and Remain supporting parts of London.
For the Tory campaign strategists, the push in Northern heartlands wasn’t enough, and they took their eye off the ball in London and parts of the South East, badly misreading the sentiment in places like Canterbury and Swindon. The squeeze on Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott went too far. People stopped listening and it backfired. Even the rhetoric about Corbyn being the terrorist’s friend only worked to a limited degree.
For the SNP, it was a mighty fall. There was only one way to go after 2015 when they swept all before them, but no-one except the impressive Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson expected the losses they suffered. Politics isn’t just about winning elections, it’s also about governing. If people’s lives haven’t improved and they don’t feel things are getting better, then the electorate will take that out on the government.
For the Liberal Democrats, it was a disappointing campaign which failed to deliver the gains they should have achieved in an election where their pro-European purpose was a key issue. Their gains in Scotland, Bath and Twickenham were offset by Nick Clegg’s loss in Sheffield Hallam. It’s a sour end for Clegg who one commentator observed had sacrificed his party in 2010 for the good of the country, while David Cameron had done the opposite in 2016.
For Labour moderates, this now represents an existential crisis. Rather than Corbyn owning a catastrophic defeat, he owns a triumph of sorts. It should have been predictable that Corbyn was rather good at campaigning. Where he has frustrated the parliamentary Labour Party is his inability to effectively oppose in the House of Commons. The fragile government requires scrutiny, especially over Brexit, but even as talented seasoned centrist politicians like Yvette Cooper and Caroline Flint indicate they are willing to serve, Corbyn may feel he owes it his loyalists to continue.
Many MPs may point out that Corbyn’s face was on far more Conservative leaflets than Labour ones. That activists from across the party won their own local battles despite Corbyn. What the path to government is from here may be more rallies, more free stuff promised in manfestos, or it may be a gentle combination of the two.
For the devolution project and the Metro Mayors, they have an opportunity to come up with imaginative solutions to the problems that have evaded this failed “Mayist” project. They have the moment to operate outside the claustrophobia of Westminster.

Monday, June 05, 2017

My mate #23 Jonathan Reynolds

So, to the latest installment of the "my mate" series where I say something about one of my mates, telling a tale about how we met, etc, after a random shuffle of the address book.

By a remarkable coincidence it's my friend Jonathan Reynolds, who this week is up for re-election as the Labour Member of Parliament for Stalybridge and Hyde, the constituency next door to where we live.

Mothers know, don't they? I was with my Mum yesterday and showed her Jonny's video of his own story (above). How he was the first from his family to go to University, in Manchester, and made a home in Greater Manchester of which his family, community and his church are very much at the centre of his life. He also chairs Christians on the Left and the All Party group on Autism. "Wow," she said, "so many parallels, and I can see why you're friends. I wish I could vote for him."

I first met Jonny when he worked for James Purnell, his predecessor, where one of his duties had been to deliver Alastair Campbell from Turf Moor to a fundraiser at Hyde Town Hall. I bumped into him after that a couple of times, but it was Chuka Umunna who suggested I invite him to speak at a Downtown business conference I was involved in. He went down a treat that day, providing thoughtful and cogent ideas and arguments on regional devolution, while sitting alongside Terry Christian on a panel.

When the opportunity came up for me to stand as a candidate Jonny was hugely supportive, giving me a reference and some good advice. He introduced me to his team, including his amazing wife Claire and to his office manager, Jason Prince, who is also a great friend now. When I was selected in 2015 he came over to Marple to support me when he was on Caroline Flint's shadow energy team. "I'm the minister for all the green crap," he said, disarmingly, quoting David Cameron, to the gathering of activists and eco-entrepreneurs we'd corralled and of which we have rather a few in Marple.

I've had the pleasure to support Jonny of the last few weeks during this General Election campaign. I have seen people do extraordinary things for an extraordinary guy. The wells of love and support for him in his constituency are deep and real. People who remember favours he did, kind words he spoke and how he fulfilled his role as a proper community leader.

You'd expect me to say nice things about a mate who is standing for election, so I'm not going to disappoint or layer it on any less thick. But I will say this, we have disagreed on a number of issues, but it is a function of a strong friendship that one can disagree well.

On the side of this blog you'll see a quote from the Dangerous Book for Boys extolling the three virtues of boyhood - "be honest, be loyal, be kind". These are the attributes you'd think of when you think of Jonny. Bluntly honest, supremely kind and fiercely loyal.

Of all the people I know in the harsh and brutal world of politics I can say without fear or favour that he is probably the nicest of them all. That may be a low bar in that space, but it actually should count for something.

There is also a call to action in that same quote - to march on when things are tough, to work hard and not grumble. They are qualities you want in your representative in parliament. Someone who doesn't just tell you what you want to hear, or takes a position because it's easy, but someone who is drawn to this as a calling, a mission, a response to the parable of the talents.

So, people of Stalybridge, Hyde, Mottram, Mossley, Longendale and Gee Cross, you are very lucky to have an MP like Jonny. And me, I feel blessed to count him and Claire as friends. Best of luck, mate.