Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Lunch of the month for January - Grow Cafe

Manchester lunch of the month for January is our very own Grow Cafe in the Manchester Metropolitan University Business School. Not only was it a wholesome home cooked soup and a slice of beetroot focaccia pizza, it felt healthy and fresh too. Lovingly served by staff who totally get the whole ethos behind Grow and its commitment to plant based eating and sustainable food, it is such a great addition to the choice I have. Not something you would always say about University catering. The whole idea behind Grow emerged from a  Project called Met Munch which promotes sustainable habits in food and drink. And all for just over £3.

Other honourable mentions to Philpotts, the Lasso Gowrie, Chimaek and Falafil. 

I was long overdue a trip to the ever excellent Philpotts branch on the corner of Portland and Oxford. I had a real craving for a hot sandwich on good quality bread on what was a cold day. The system in Philpotts does freak some people out, but I don’t mind queuing twice for something as good as the hand made beef, mushroom, onions and gravy in a seeded roll, not at all. It actually gave me time to think about which posh crisps to get as as a side - black pepper Kettle Chips as it goes. I did a story a few years ago about how Philpotts initially chased Pret out of town, and I'm really pleased they got out of the financial basket case that was Patisserie Valerie and seem to be thriving. The sandwich was just the job on a cold day, generous and well made, but a treat at just under a fiver. 

I was in two minds about whether to include Korean joint Chimaek and the traditional pub meal at Lasso Gowrie. For reasons of academic ethics compliance I can only refer to my lunch chum in the final report as “Professor A” but he did describe it as “KFC meets Wagamama” - and we devoured the potato twirl like a pack of hungry “wolves”. It was both an assault on the senses and a bit confusing as to what to order, which is why we emerged stuffed and spiced and probably a little lighter in the pocket than I planned. Here’s the other “but”. The Lancashire Hot Pot at the Lass doesn’t quite meet the criteria for popping out for a quick lunch AND it was part of a walking tour package with Freshwalks. However, we will be back at Chimaek now we’ve collectively completed a literature review of the menu and agreed on a future methodology.

First week back after Christmas the lunch of the week winner was a bit of a shoe-in. As I was in Nottingham one day and skipped lunch on two others, I had a great Friday treat in the shape of a fresh, tasty, and ridiculously good value of Falafil Express on Oxford Road. I go for a medium falafel wrap for £3, with hummus, tahini, chilli sauce, lettuce, chopped cucumber and tomatoes, potatoes and a dash of red cabbage. Astonishes me every time that I enjoy it without equivocation, know exactly what I’m getting and still manage to make such a mess! Yet I’m never tempted by a salad box, stuffed vine leaves or plain hummus. It is a triumph and never ever disappoints.

So, well done to Grow for standing out in a very strong field.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Labour in denial - why the leadership contest is devoid of thinking

So, I said I'd try and write a piece on our politics every week and set out the main topics in a rough order, starting last week with the personal story of how I got here. This time I'm looking at the basic premise that Labour party members are in denial; that the sheer scale of Labour's defeat hasn't sunk in.

think they are, massively so. I base that on what people say, in person, on social media, in long reads and of course, how the leadership selections are going. There doesn't appear to be much self-reflection. Before I present any evidence, I should say it could be said that I might be proved entirely wrong by future events. That electing Kier Starmer or Lisa Nandy will be proof that the party is willing to change, and wants to do so, in order to win. In turn, if they elect Rebecca Long-Bailey, the clear continuity Corbyn candidate, then the point is proven easily. But I don't think it's as simple as that. I think the entire Corbyn project was an act of denial and indulgence, a cry to stop the world and imagine a better one is possible, rather than the one we have. The project is to turn Labour into a Latin American style movement of the righteous, or less like the social democratic parties of Europe, and more like Spain's Podemos and Syrizia in Greece. It would no longer be a party obsessed with what being in government means and how society works, and thus interested in a different way of governing. Example: how many times do you think senior Labour figures have asked Andy Burnham how he has managed to reduce rough sleeping in Greater Manchester and to make it a Labour policy to take nationally? Never. Nor were Mayors even mentioned in the Argos catalogue of endless bounty, the Labour manifesto of 2019.

The behaviour of new Corbyn era MPs is a further illustration of this, gurning in virtue signalling selfies, others posting videos insolently binning parliamentary correspondence. Then there's Len McCluskey, touring the TV studios extolling the "members" who are excited by Richard Burgon's "vision" without ever being able to explain what it is, nor seemingly aware of the irony of men in committees anointing their favoured sons with no democracy in sight. He's just the latest baron wielding an extraordinary power but with no other discernible success to his name. I wasn't surprised to discover that the vast majority of Britain's 35,000 firefighters don't even take part in leadership elections that see the left rule their union. At a time when the country faces a skills crisis, the one organisation with a direct relationship to its membership has utterly failed to seize their manifest destiny. It's a sick joke at the expense of the British people. A paper army.

But much as Len wishes it so, the Labour leadership election will be decided by all members, not just one. It's difficult to know who the members are at this stage, but the YouGov poll (above) seems to suggest they still adore "Jeremy" and hate the leader who won three elections. The activists turning up to CLP meetings to argue the toss on selections represent, on two recent accounts I've had first hand, around 10% of the local membership. Are they a representative sample? Again, I don't know. Though I've heard it said that the Labour period of reflection will be based on learning from the suffering of four straight election defeats. I disagree. Maybe the dedicated core do, but most of the Labour selectorate don't think like that. They weren't around for 2010 and 2015, they think they won in 2017 and the 2019 defeat was only because of the media and Brexit. One more heave should do it. Glen O'Hara nails it all in his long read here. The evidence is backed up by the further details of the YouGov poll, here, where the members polled think the party's purpose isn't about defending working people. Or the ESRC funded project which found almost a quarter of Labour members blame the media, to quote one: “Tory funded MSM lies and misleading articles and campaigns along with daily lies and propaganda on Tory owned main TV channels starting with the BBC!”. There's a good piece by Professor Tim Bale on this process, here.

At first sight another review of the General Election by Ed Miliband and a few others has set out a far reaching inquest. A first survey has blamed "division and gimmicks" but this isn't an official review, but a freelance operation. True, it might give a veneer of soul searching, but it's still asking the wrong people.

The official review was leaked this week. Allies of Andrew Gwynne have already distanced the Denton and Reddish MP from any role in it. Apparently the startling summary was written by Ian Lavery, the party chairman, who frankly came across as a thug and a bully in an encounter during the election with the journalist Michael Crick. It is a breathtaking account to read. Running through it is a zealous determination to avoid stating the obvious vote losing factor: Corbyn himself. No, they blame media smears and attacks, they blame the Conservative's social media campaign which reminded people who Corbyn's allies have been. 

Just a quick point on the so-called media smears. It's not a smear if it's true. This is called scrutiny. Frankly, I think they got off lightly. Precious few interviewers managed to lay a glove on magic grandpa on the subject of anti-semitism. The wreath, the mural, the Vice documentary where he attacks Jonathan Freedland and can't explain what Ken Livingstone had been suspended for. His record on Northern Ireland, his questions in the House of Commons on troop movements, were the actions of an operational outlier for the IRA, never mind a sympathiser. The lack of respect for any achievements of Labour in power shows they were never serious about winning it.

And this, in truth, is the mood music for the leadership election. Candidates must trash New Labour, call the Corbyn experiment a success, hail its radicalism, lavish praise on the wonders of the movement, the unions and the members, fetishise the membership without ever stopping to question whether the culture in the party is one of the problems. Maybe it has attracted the very people in politics who are the least able to do the required job of persuasion and advocacy? And it surely would be the kiss of death for any candidate to ask the members to take a moment to address that most uncomfortable of truths. Maybe the nation you feel you are morally superior to actually hates you. Hates the social media blue ticks and their abhorrent hectoring, those plummy media shock troops sent out to defend "Jeremy" against the "centrists", the "slugs and melts", and decry anyone who refuses to go along with this nonsense as a "Tory". Maybe the high contact rates and appearance of campaigners on housing estates works against the Labour party? And what are the stated priorities of the leadership candidates? Party democracy, that hideous idea that places an imbalance of power in the hands of a self-selecting self-appointed elite.

I'm reading a book at the moment called A Left For Itself - Left Wing Hobbyists and Performative Radicalism by David Swift. I'll let you know how I get on. But an early quote sets a marker - "Traditionally, people got involved in radical political movements mostly because they had to, to improve their own lives and communities." By contrast now it is out of a sense of altruism, and they'll soon get bored and do something else. Incidentally, there are traits of this in the liberal Remain movement too.

None of that comes close to addressing how the country feels and thinks, even less how a serious political party has to take any of that on board. Maybe promising more big state interventions doesn't quite cut it with someone who gets the runaround by the local council when they're trying to sort out fly tippers, or has a problem with a neighbour, or can't get a straight answer out of HMRC? Or trying to get a hospital appointment for a child, or for an elderly parent? Computer says no. While popular commercial services are increasingly personalised and relentlessly delivered for the convenience of their customers, who has the vision to shape public services in that same way, rather than looking at them primarily from the perspective of those struggling to deliver them? The officials in the DWP who order sanctions on people getting Universal Credit are supposed to be the vanguard of a solution. Yet the conversation pivots around more and more doing stuff to people, and by a distant other. Likewise, there still seems to be no serious attempt to understand how people in most places in this country live their lives. Theresa May came closest when she synthesised the 'just about managing' while Labour just lumped everyone in a box as the devastated poor and needy. Don't get me wrong, cuts to local government and mental health and drug and alcohol services have a direct line to those people holding out a cup when you walk through any town centre. But a mature response requires explaining what has happened and suggesting a solution to address austerity. But that also can't be all you have to say to people - portraying them as without agency and as in need of being rescued by Labour, when they generally get on with shoring up their lives, thanks very much. And while I'm here, people are not in low paid service jobs in the private sector because of austerity.  

There's another factor at play in the Labour selectorate. While Labour may have piled up votes in cities and university constituencies, this is also reflected in the movement of its membership in that same direction. How many of the supposed 580,000 members even know a working class person, let alone think they can build a movement to earn their votes and their trust? The longer this campaign goes on, the dimmer the memory of the election shines in the minds of the faithful, the more important are the articles of faith, rather than the hot takes of today. That favours the left and the loyalty to Jeremy.

Is it denial? Or just the actions of a party not serious about power. A party of protest, of hobbyists and virtue signallers. The intellectual searching that took place in the 1980s was deep and far reaching. Michael Foot took personal responsibility in a way that Corbyn simply has not. Rightly, the 1983 manifesto was referred to as the longest suicide note in history, while the 2019 version is regarded as a sacred text which struck all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order. And while the work of Stuart Hall and the New Times analysis came to a series of smart (and winning) conclusions, in today's far more febrile, yet technologically enriching time of possibilities, there seems nothing beyond illiterate economics, luxury communism, and tirades against working class nativists.

So here's a prediction: I think Rebecca Long Bailey will be the next leader in a close run tussle with Keir Starmer. Angela Rayner will be comfortably elected deputy on the first round.   

NEXT: Find and Replace "industrial+strategy" - The nature and character of this Conservative government is still widely misunderstood. Why I'm not even convinced that they'll 'get Brexit done' to the satisfaction of Nigel Farage and the ERG.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Me and politics

With Change candidates and Luciana Berger (front left) in Liverpool 

I started 2019 pledging to work hard to build a new political movement, getting selected to stand in an election. I ended the year totally disengaged. Here's what happened.

I never made a secret of how much I opposed Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow travellers. I never wanted Corbyn on the ballot in 2015. I never accepted that he was credible, nor did I ever think it would work. Even if he did prove popular, I couldn't in all conscience want them in power.  But from that time on, though I would continue to read widely, would support events for groups like Progress and Blue Labour, and I still wrote a lot, in truth I dipped in and out of local activity. However, unlike Corbyn I campaigned to Remain in the EU like I meant it. In local elections I supported candidates I considered competent and who ought to be on the local council and was genuinely pleased when the Labour Group took control of Stockport. I stopped going to meetings in 2017 and though I campaigned for Andy Burnham to be Mayor, and for Jonathan Reynolds in the next door constituency in the General Election of that year, I was well on the fringes. There were rows along the way, I fell out with people, distanced myself from others, made a really foolish tactical decision, but during that period our house got attacked and a window smashed. There is only one person I know who would be angry enough to do that to anyone at this address, and self-righteous enough to think it was a justified response. But what disheartened me more than anything was the sense that they'd won. This was amplified by the compromises good people in Labour were having to make to accommodate Corbynism, and for me it was too much. Not when the depth of the thuggery and anti-semitism was so apparent.

But while there are so many Sliding Doors moments where I made small tactical decisions that may have worked out differently over the last five years, I only have to think of the colleagues locally in Labour who gave me the most encouragement. One was completely stitched up by the party and prevented from standing to be an MP, another has stepped down from politics altogether. Others keep their portfolios in different local councils and do an honest job looking out for their constituents in what must be the most undervalued and misunderstood role in British politics, the ward councillor. Partly because of the high standard, dedication and professionalism of people like them it's not a job I could do to that acceptable standard.

In the end leaving Labour wasn't hard. But I didn't do the whole show of cutting up my card and writing a long letter to the constituency chair. In the end I just stopped paying subs, eventually getting a very nice email from her checking whether I'd lapsed, thanking me for 'helping us raise our game', and passing on her best wishes to the family. It felt sad, but also a relief.

I'd always got on very well with Ann Coffey, the Stockport MP, and liked the cordial and thoughtful policy forums she would host in the constituency, separate from the toxicity of the CLP meeting. She was forthright and imaginative in how she thought about policy challenges, but resolute in her outright opposition to Corbyn. When she bravely stepped forward as one of the original Independents who quit the party in January 2019 I reached out to support her straight away. If I'm brutally honest, I was surprised so few others locally did.

Come April time, although Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna and the rest were grabbing media headlines, they must have been disappointed more MPs didn't join them, but they made a stand against the fractious nature of politics, especially as there didn't seem to be a way of breaking the Brexit deadlock. With Theresa May extending her withdrawal of the EU and pointless European Parliament elections looming, I applied to be a candidate for Change UK. 

I was interviewed in London by Sarah Wollaston and Gavin Shuker, met a few other would be candidates (the identity of some would make your jaw drop). I was really thrilled to be selected to be on the top half of the slate. The other North West candidates and our tight group of supporters were great. We had illuminating and fascinating conversations and ideas, and they all came to the campaign with such a generous spirit and a remarkable can-do attitude. But the whole campaign was tough. Nationally it was a bit of a shambles, and on the ground the going was rough at times. We were spat at, jostled, verbally abused, though for the most part we supported one another and it was good fun. I also got a kicking on social media from the left, which caused me problems at work, and showed what a shabby rabble they are capable of being, but also how personally resilient you have to be.

Continuity Change, Manchester, Summer 2019
We all know the result, we got wiped out and the whole project fractured. But I firmly believed that we had to be part of a renewed radical centre and in those frantic days afterwards - when we all had an opinion - I urged MPs and candidates to stick together as a group and draw other parties to a new project, offering to host a gathering in Manchester to chart a way forward. We did that and it was energetic and optimistic, but it still felt like we were swimming against a tide. It just wasn't our time.

However, we weren't doing so from a position of strength, which meant we had to effectively join with the LibDems. After Chuka joined them, I sat at home one night and ticked a box to apply to join and waited to see what would happen. A few days later, I got a message from a Conservative acquaintance intimating he knew what I'd done and that it was gossip worthy - was I going to be a local candidate? By the end of the week I was called by the local party who said they'd need to come and have a chat. Long story short, it was less of a negotiation than an interrogation, never once was I asked what I might be able to contribute, and most of the conversation involved going through a dossier of rude things I'd said on this blog and in election leaflets. Basically, they didn't want me.

That was a fairly existential moment. Given my job, and my network, I talk to people with interesting ideas about policy development all the time. But my personal conduct, my style, owes more to commentary and journalism than party discipline. I bristle at cynical pavement politics, playing to prejudice, doing the easy thing, rather than the brave thing. Politics should be about leadership and service, not one at the expense of the other. I firmly believe communities that are engaged and passionate have endless possibilities to achieve more. My amazing wife has set up a youth social action group at our church, which proves that. And I really love the energy of a social movement like the People's Powerhouse which builds on my own lifelong passion for a renewed civic politics of a devolved England. But at the same time I also like the bustle of a campaign.

And so it came to December and apart from giving my son Matt lifts to Altrincham to campaign in Labour's key target seat, I sat out the 2019 General Election, just doing some events and media work. I voted Liberal Democrat, despite huge misgivings over their campaign. Appalled as I was by the terrible choice I had - the nation had - my only feeling when the exit poll came out was vindication. I'm aware that can be seen as a terrible indulgence, but it was always going to lead to this. Jeremy Corbyn was never going to win, nor was he going to end homelessness, injustice and poverty in one sweep. 

I genuinely don't know what to do now. This piece has been cathartic to write. Yes, it's all about me and what I've done, which is awkward, but hopefully I'm going to have time to write other analytical pieces and move on from this now, because obviously the world doesn't revolve around me. I'm still in touch with a great network of activists in Labour, the LibDems, and most of the ex-Change candidates. And yes, I'm even friendly with a few Conservatives. My job requires me to have a grip on what's going on politically, and my interest in the shifting sands of politics never wanes. But I don't need politics the way some people do. Maybe that's where I need to be, just on the edge. Afterall, there's plenty of material for another book!

Next: The sheer scale of Labour's defeat

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Our politics, my take and where we go from here

I didn't take part in the 2019 General Election, except to host a series of hustings for Quest Media Group in their circulation areas of High Peak, Ashton and Stalybridge & Hyde. It also seems like I haven't taken part in this blog much either, which is neglectful.

There are a few reasons for that; I've got a lot on. But there's also plenty of opinion out there, so I'm not making a priority of pitching hot takes and ready made opinions into a crowded market. However, a few common themes keep emerging in meetings and snatched conversations though that could do with a wider consideration.

So, here are a few longer pieces I want to write:

Me and politics - I started the year pledging to work hard to build a new political movement, getting selected to stand in an election, campaigning and sticking with it for a while. I ended the year totally disengaged. What happened?

The sheer scale of Labour's defeat hasn't sunk in with the members - I've heard it said that the Labour period of reflection will be based on suffering four straight election defeats. I disagree. Most of the Labour selectorate don't think like that. They weren't around for 2010 and 2015, they think they won in 2017 and the 2019 defeat was only because of the media and Brexit. One more heave should do it. Glen O'Hara nails it all in his long read here.

Find and Replace "industrial+strategy" - The nature and character of this Conservative government is still widely misunderstood. I'm not even convinced that they'll 'get Brexit done' to the satisfaction of Nigel Farage and the ERG.

The cunning genius theory - what's all the fuss about Dominic Cummings?

Evil conspiracy theory - how do the left think? Who is rigging the rigged system? Why are bad things happening? Who are "the few"? And why this is a really big problem.

Electoral reform, if only the rules had been different - The Tories wouldn't be in power if the electoral system had been proportional representation by national vote share. Yes, and Manchester United would have beaten Liverpool if shots over the bar counted as three points as they do in rugby. It's also highly unlikely ever to be ceded by a government elected on first past the post.

The nature and character of this Conservative government - I can't say it enough, but this is a new government in every conceivable way.

The limits and opportunities of Metro Mayors and devolution - I'm literally writing a thesis on this, so yes, it's on my mind.

Optimism and a positive view of the future - the Tories had one, none of the others did, maybe the SNP? - guess what, it works. How do the rest of us build this?

Monday, January 06, 2020

Lunch of the month for December - the Couch Potato in All Saints

The Manchester lunch of the month for December was this hearty and warming baked spud with tuna from the Couch Potato van on All Saints Park.

I nipped across the road to the Eighth Day deli for a Longley Farm cottage cheese with chives to go on the side. I used to go here at least once a week when I worked in All Saints and I have heard people being a bit snooty about it. Personally I love it, I always have a good crack with the team there and with the punters in the queue, especially builders from the sites nearby. They often have choice things to say about protesters who use the square. All life is here. Once the bloke gave me a baked potato that was so big, and with such a massive filling, he almost couldn’t close the lid. “There you go lad, a big one there for you. You’ll sleep well this afternoon.”

He wasn’t wrong.

Special mentions for Dishoom, where we had our team Christmas lunch, and which was spectacular, but rather extravagant to qualify for this competition; but also for Barbakan deli in Chorlton, where I frequently visit for work. Their custom built Polish meatloaf, tomato, mushroom, onion and mustard beauty was made with real enthusiasm.

I'll be back to picking a winner once a week from now on, with a monthly winner announced at the end of the month.