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.