Saturday, February 22, 2020

Martin Cook RIP my friend

We said goodbye to Martin Cook this week, one of the nicest guys I have ever known. It was an absolute choker, to be honest. More so for how sudden it seemed, because although I knew he'd been poorly, I assumed he was over the worst and on the mend.

There have been two dates marked on the calendar that won't have been met over the course of the last year. His wedding to Bev last July in Dublin which we didn't get to, and a night out in Blackburn with Trevor, Tony, Robin, and Cookie, next Saturday, after the Swansea game. The importance of both of those dates to him is now so cruelly apparent.

At the funeral in Dublin yesterday it was, as all of these occasions attempt to be, a celebration of a life as much as the mourning of a loss. But I still can't feel much to celebrate today. I spent the day with Trevor Curson, someone I met at the same time as Cookie, and with whom we have shared so much, and that is a real blessing. It rammed home to me the real aching need to connect and make sure these friendships get the love and attention they deserve.

I first met Cookie in 1989 when as a fellow professional Northerner in London I started turning out for the Blackburn Rovers London supporters team on Sundays at Wormwood Scrubs. Cookie was a great manager, bringing a bit of humour and effort to the job. He was the epitome of a team player, going in goal if necessary, making the tough decisions about who played where and who was a sub (me, usually). But a team formed of such a mixed bag of people inevitably you found your own. On our end of season tours to Devon and Sussex we'd properly bond, me Trevor and Cookie in particular eventually forming the editorial team on the Blackburn Rovers London fanzine Many Miles From Home (Best Boy, Key Grip and Dubbin Mixer).

I did a blog a few years ago about 20 amazing football memories - which was way too limiting. Cookie featured in a few but he pulled me up on missing out Grimsby away 1991, where we sold hundreds of fanzines, had an astonishingly good fish and chips and saw a terrific 3-2 win. It was also about the journeys, the mix tapes we'd make to play in the car, or the crack we'd have on the train. I have probably never laughed as much in my life as I did on the way back from Sheffield Wednesday in 1992 when we composed a ludicrously childish and self deprecating "what type of Rovers fan are you?" quiz for our fanzine. Nor will I forget kipping on his hotel floor pre-Cardiff in 2002 (18 years ago, almost to the day) and spending the match day together getting soaked, before heading into the stadium for an epic day.
Tinseltown in the rain - Cardiff 2002

We went out for dinner together in Dublin a few years ago and he brought some Irish Rovers t-shirts for the kids, which was such a great example of his generosity. I managed to squeeze into one last weekend for the trip to Charlton, where we seemed to bump into people all day all saying the same thing - "how sad about Cookie". Charlton, like most London grounds, was somewhere we went together loads of times over the years, one extending into a great East End night out with his mate Tom McCourt, a lovely bloke with a massive hinterland of stories from musical history.

Listening to the wonderful eulogies in Dublin yesterday you get to hear perspectives from people he worked with, his family from Blackburn, the friends he's made in Dublin since he moved there. Although they were a view of him I didn't have, they were all consistent in the themes of generosity, warmth, friendship, loyalty, doing things properly, but also with a real intelligence. He'd write incredibly well put together Christmas cards, and they were not only funny, but precise. It was apparent when we did the fanzine together that his standards and attention to language was very high. So it was no surprise that he eventually turned his back on local government and civil engineering and retrained as a broadcast journalist. Along with Facebook, that's given us a slice of Cookie in our lives; his recorded voice on the Dublin Inquirer podcasts and on Dublin City FM; all marked out with his humour, his commitment, and his absolutely tip top music choices, which he also must have chosen for his service  - The Clash foremost amongst them, a bit of Morrissey, but the observational melancholy of The Jam's That's Entertainment.

All I can say tonight is give your mates a ring. Invest in those friendships that truly mean something. I've always said the key to happiness is spending time with the people who you love and I loved Cookie, I'm really going to miss him. But not only are there all the times we didn't have more recently, but all the times we did. Go easy, step lightly, stay free.

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.