Friday, July 24, 2020

Build Back Better - webinar with Andy Burnham, the LEP and the Growth Company

I was really pleased to be asked by the Growth Company to host this important webinar with Andy Burnham on Build Back Better - How Greater Manchester can make the best of the challenge of the pandemic and stay true to the ambitions of creating quality jobs, homes and businesses.

Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Help me out, Charlotte - letters to a Labour activist from the political wilderness

The second in a series of conversations with political activist friends has taken a little longer to produce than I hoped, but following a long chat to Liberal Democrat Stephen Duckworth, here are some ideas and thoughts shared between me and Charlotte Morris, a Councillor and now an Executive member on Bury Borough Council. 

Hi Charlotte,
Thanks for agreeing to this. As you know I’ve had a very troubled relationship with the Labour Party. I hated it under Corbyn. In fact I wasn’t that keen on Miliband and I fought a General Election in my home seat on that manifesto. I left when the anti-semitism was out of control and the NEC, the leaders office and local infrastructure of the party was dominated by people I had no interest in working with, or had any desire to see get into power. I supported Ann Coffey, Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger when they had the courage to leave. I was disappointed more didn’t follow and that an alternative wasn’t possible – and it really isn’t, I get that. 
I also thought that after the general election wipeout that Corbyn could truly own his defeat when it inevitably came. But he hasn’t and the Left were quickly back on social media with a ready made betrayal narrative because they discovered the kind of Whatsapp group I have been in over the last few years. 
And though I can’t for one minute support a Boris Johnson Conservative government, I’m relieved in a way that the government we have now is not the one Jeremy Corbyn may have led. I wasn’t convinced Kier Starmer would be able to shape Labour into an electoral force, but I think he’s made a very good start. To be clear, despite three seperate messages from Labour MPs urging me to 'come home' as Starmer was elected, I don’t really see the point of rejoining and yet, at the same time, I think our society is faced with an opportunity to really change and emerge from this terrible virus and the economic catastrophe with a better heart and a sense of common purpose. I know that’s a bit of an offload, but I value your view.


Hi Michael,
Sorry for not getting back to you sooner on this. Given I’ve kept you waiting for a response, I won’t hang about. Let’s get to the nub of the issue; you’re looking for someone to give you reasons to re-join the Labour Party. 
Well, sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to indulge you in that.
I’m not really sure you should re-join. You said yourself in your email you “don’t see the point”. So why are you even considering it? 
Seeing as we both work for esteemed academic institutions, I’ve done a bit of Google bashing and it turns out there is plenty of clever sounding academic thought around why people join political parties. The ‘General Incentives Model’ (Seyd and Whiteley, 1992) is a widely accepted approach to understanding why people become active in political parties. So why don’t we start there?
This model outlines the following reasons why people take up membership of political parties:
- Perception that participation will achieve a desired collective outcome.
- A desire to see particular policies introduced. 
- Selective benefits of membership e.g. material or career benefits. 
- The intrinsic pleasure of political engagement. 
- Altruistic motivations. 
- A desire to conform to social norms and behaviour and expectation of personal contacts. 
- Personal affection for a party and / or leader. 
(Isn’t it amazing what you can learn after a few minutes on Google, by the way …)

I don’t profess to you know you super well, but we’ve shared many conversations about politics over many brews over the past couple of years, so if you don’t mind I will make a couple of observations on what I think motivates you. Please tell me if I’m off base.
I think you are fascinated by politics, see it as the vehicle to achieving things that make the world a better place and enjoy the intellectual stimulation of being involved in political debate. You’re not a Tory. Not even a shy one, I don’t think. You’ve got too much water under the bridge locally with the Lib Dems. And that lot you had a brief dalliance with last year are no more (hurrah!).
You’re politically engaged, but politically homeless.
Perhaps you could consider the motivations for joining a political party against your own feelings of the Labour Party in its current form. Ask yourself why you want to be a member of a political party at all and what you want from that membership, and then you might start to find your answer as to whether that party should be Labour. I’d be interested to know what you come up with.  
I know I could have used this email to tell you all the reasons why you should come back. Anti-Semitism will be stamped out once and for all. We’re going to focus on winning elections, not just the argument. The Shadow Cabinet and its diverse talent shows the ambition the Party has. Sir Keir Starmer’s hair. The truth is I don’t think you should have left in the first place and I’m not too sure I want to legitimise that decision by saying “it’s alright now, we’re back to normal and you can return to the fold”.
It somehow normalises the idea that those who resigned in protest at anti-Semitism were morally right. And that those who didn’t were morally wrong. How can you support a racist Party? Why won’t you take a stand? How can you ask people to vote for that man? My membership of the Labour Party certainly has caused me issues with people I love at times over the past couple of years. It’s been hard to justify. And I accept that. I know that for those who quit, like you, it wasn’t an easy decision. And at times, neither was deciding to stay. But ultimately I believe that my values are in line with those of the Labour Party and those who espouse anti-Semitism in the name of the Party or in the name of the Leader are the ones that are out of step.  
I think ultimately what you need to ask yourself is do you think the Labour Party best represents your values and is it the best vehicle for seeing those values put into action?
But don’t forget, with your chequered past, the big question isn’t whether you should re-join the Party, it’s whether we’d have you. 
Speak soon. 


Very good, Charlotte. Maybe we should have carried on talking about our pets.
I’m not all surprised you’ve cut to the chase and put the hard word down about joining. You’re right, but I thought I made it clear I’m not joining, and I think I’m probably done with parties. Not least because you raise the obvious issue that they wouldn’t have me anyway. So let’s park that thought for now.
There’s an element of the last five years that I still find troubling though. In an effort to keep the party together plenty of people kept their heads down and didn’t speak out against the basket of deplorables that presided over the most shameful political leadership of a major party in our country’s history. There’s a sense now that papering over the shame can suddenly make everything OK. It’s fine to laud Keir Starmer now with his impressive words and deeds and his grown up approach to political management, and his forensic and calm dissembling of Boris Johnson at PMQs is masterful, but there are going to be sterner tests when the EHRC publish their report that WILL declare Labour to have been institutionally racist. 
Anything less than a sweeping of the stables, withdrawl of the whip, expulsions and firm statements of intent, will render any attempts to reach beyond that current base utterly redundant. 
I put it back to you then, what should non-aligned, non-partisan community activists do? How do parties seek to coalesce allies with whom they find common cause around campaigns. Maybe later we can think about what Build Back Better might mean and how you and I as various elements of our personas - Councillor, University execs, community activists – can imagine that at local, regional, national, global level. 



The past five years is all I’ve known as a Labour Party member. I joined in the summer of 2015 following the General Election defeat. As a political observer both personally and professionally I’d never really felt party political and certainly not tribal, but by the time the exit poll came in I had had enough of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (I’d voted Lib Dem in 2010, don’t tell anyone, we were all young once). I was absolutely gutted that Labour wasn’t going to be able to form a minority or coalition government. Maybe it was the heady days of the Milifandom and we all got a bit carried away with ourselves (I confess I came for the memes, but stayed for the politics). Regardless, there wasn’t much I didn’t agree with the Labour Party on and I wanted to see the Party win. Ed Miliband wasn’t perfect nor was that manifesto, but much of it spoke to me at that time and, actually, still does. 
So to have gone from non-party political and very non-tribal to suddenly being a member of a political party that has been tearing itself limb from limb in a factional war for the past half a decade has been a bit disconcerting to say the least. I can’t disagree with you that Corbyn’s tenure has brought shame to the Labour Party and I tried to explain briefly why I stayed with the Party even though I felt that way in my previous reply. 
But I don’t agree that by moving forward in the way that the Party is doing now we are somehow papering over the cracks. Following a meeting with Keir Starmer after he was elected leader, the Board of Deputies said he achieved more in four days more than his predecessor had in four years. That’s a good start and there is much more that needs to be done; I agree that we need action. I guess it’s the old “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” and we shall await the publication of the EHRC report and judge Keir Starmer’s response accordingly. 
Beyond political parties, community activism is alive and well. In my own ward where I’m a councillor I’m lucky enough to know and work with a number of really proactive, passionate and dedicated community groups. These are non-party political although the people that run them have political views and in some cases party allegiances. They come in different forms, from a volunteer-led community centre to local litter picking groups, and from a traditional residents’ association to a constituted ‘Friends of’ group that hopes to take over management of the local country park. I don’t think they’d call themselves ‘activists’ as I don’t think they see themselves as campaigners, but they are making a real difference in their communities and isn’t that the ultimate aim of activism?
So to answer your question, what do non-aligned, non-partisan community activists do? You find something in your community that you’re not happy with or that you think could be improved, you get a group of like-minded people together and you take action. In today’s society with social media and the multitude of ways in which we can stay connected, this is easier than ever. 
Ultimately, however, a degree of political engagement will be required, but political engagement doesn’t have to be aligned or partisan either. 
A great example of successful community activism, again from my patch in Bury, has been seen around the climate emergency. The Council passed a climate emergency in July 2019. In response a local group, Bury Climate Action, was set up. They’ve got engaged, got online, got in our faces by asking questions at Full Council, held meetings and asked us to attend, and they’ve lobbied local councillors to take appropriate action. They’ve put pressure on us. Asked us hard questions. And we’ve had to find answers. They’ve changed the debate and held us to account on our promises. 

I hope that answers your question. 



Monday, July 20, 2020

Under appreciated genius


I've been thinking a lot about what might have been. But also listening to a wide range of new music at a time when venues like Gorilla were at risk of closing, Q Magazine is nearing the end, and artists are staring into the abyss. Before all of that though, here are some massively unappreciated geniuses.

The one above is a towering anthem of melancholy from Gavin Clark, Good Day to Die, from the album Crazy on the Weekend by Sunhouse. In his A&R days author John Niven looked after Gavin when he was a brittle and sensitive singer songwriter at a time when the music market demanded brash and confident at the tail end of Britpop. Although you might recognise his tone and key from This is England soundtracks and various indie films, Gavin never broke through with any of his bands, Sunhouse or Clayhill. He died a few years ago in sad circumstances. Here's a heartbreaking and beautifully written obituary John Niven wrote in the Daily Record which captures him painfully well and a film his friend Shane Meadows made with Gavin in his living room. Maybe you could read the obituary while you play Good Day to Die, or just the whole of the album to be honest.

I went to see I Am Kloot a few times and was touched by the wall of affection from an appreciative audience of people like us. I noticed that singer John Bramwell was due to tour again just as lockdown kicked in. That’s going to be top of my list when this is over. Support venues, support artists, and no, just downloading on Spotify won’t be enough will it?

You couldn’t download this next track if you wanted to, as it’s not on Spotify.  Flowered Up, or the Cockney Mondays as they were known at the time (by me) had an incredible energy about them and (heresy, I know) I genuinely think Weekender is far better than anything the baggy Mancs ever came up with. It's a sprawling, multi-layered, epic non-anthemic classic. Behind it is another tragic story of a talent lost and the subject of what I hear is a very good book. This here, about them, nails it and the epic lost brilliance of Weekender.

For a slightly happier ending, David Ford is at least still with us, but nowhere near the status he deserves. I'm fairly stuck on one of his earlier albums, Let the Hard Times Roll, but I'm not here to judge, just to share. I'd start with To Hell With The World, but maybe cheer yourself up with Making up For Lost Time. I just don't understand why everyone doesn't know these songs like I do. Life's better for it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Let it happen

I found this old photo taken of me in 1989 when I was the editor of a fashion magazine in Australia, sat staring out of the window of the L'Alba Cafe in Northbridge, WA, possibly one of my all time favourite neighbourhood hangouts. 
Strangely, I've been taken back to that time and place by the song below - Let it Happen by Tame Impala. Written and performed by Kevin Parker who grew up in WA, but will have been 3 years old at the time, it seems to capture that anxious feeling of the world of possibilities and excitement. The added ingredient for me is the sense of dislocation from home, and that I'm not meant to be laying down roots and making plans here, I'm in a foreign land. Hence the most critical line is this - "If I never come back, tell my mother I'm sorry". 
There's also a loop in the song where it momentarily sounds like the disc is stuck, before the burst that breaks that loop finds another settled rhythm and then a complex harmony of two vocal tracks competing for your attention. There's a lot going on, but it's ultimately uplifting.
I often think about those 'Sliding Doors' moments of big life decisions, and deciding to return to Britain was just such a time for me, especially the crushing sense of struggle and uncertainty, loneliness and rotten English weather that followed, taking me a couple of years to find my groove in London. 
Where would the friendships, relationships and opportunities in Australia have taken me? How much more chicken mango or Greek salad could I have eaten at L'Alba, or Vietnamese noodles from this takeaway in Highgate? Would I have grown out of dance music and clubbing in Perth as quickly as I did in London? Maybe I quit while I was ahead? Obviously I don't wish away the happy marriage and the wonderful children I've fathered, and I would always have wanted to have landed here.
I've been doing a lot of looking back lately and thinking about where my own sons will go in the world and how I'll feel about that. Maybe it's because the world has got so much smaller during lockdown, shrinking our literal horizons, but expanding our sense of responsibility. 
Let it Happen
It's always around me, all this noise
But not nearly as loud as the voice saying
"Let it happen, let it happen (It's gonna feel so good)
Just let it happen, let it happen"
All this running around
Trying to cover my shadow
An ocean growing inside
All the others seem shallow
All this running around
Bearing down on my shoulders
I can hear an alarm
Must be a warning
I heard about a whirlwind that's coming 'round
It's gonna carry off all that isn't bound
And when it happens, when it happens (I'm gonna be holding on)
So let it happen, let it happen
All this running around
I can't fight it much longer
Something's trying to get out
And it's never been closer
If my take-off fails
Make up some other story
If I never come back
Tell my mother I'm sorry
I will not vanish and you will not scare me
Try to get through it, try to bounce to it
All the while thinking I might as well do it
They be lovin' someone and I'm not that stupid
Take the next ticket to take the next train
Why would I do it? And you wanna think that
I will not vanish and you will not scare me
Try to get through it, try to bounce to it
All the while thinking I might as well do it
They be lovin' someone and I'm not that stupid
Take the next ticket to take the next train
Why would I do it? And you wanna think that
I will not vanish and you will not scare me
Try to get through it, try to bounce to it
All the while thinking I might as well do it
They be lovin' someone and I'm not that stupid
Take the next ticket to take the next train
Why would I do it? And you wanna think that
I will not vanish and you will not scare me
Try to get through it, try to bounce to it
All the while thinking I might as well do it
They be lovin' someone and I'm not that stupid
Take the next ticket to take the next train
Why would I do it? And you wanna think that
Oh, maybe I was ready all along
Oh, maybe I was ready all along
Oh, maybe all I wanted was the sound
Oh but maybe I was ready all along
Songwriters: Kevin Parker
Let It Happen lyrics © BMG Rights Management

An introduction to the future

Every day we seem to lurch from one example of our crisis of leadership and trust, to another. I'm not alone in feeling adrift, confused, and searching for purpose, but whatever else is going on it doesn’t have to be one of crushed personal responsibility and accountability. This pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has been a shock to the collective system and to individual hopes and dreams.

I hardly stand unique in this country at my disgust and horror at how the most impressive collective contribution of sacrifice and civic spirit was frittered away by a lethal amateurism. It is a time of intense national shame. Yet organisations and individuals across our country have displayed leadership, generosity and a capability to contribute to the common good, and it is from them that we must take inspiration in order to contribute to a rebuilding of trust.

Many of us are determined the inevitable change should be positive, and a few of us have been knocking ideas around. For me, this arose from a small group of us from within the Freshwalks hiking group. We were split into smaller groups to support one another during lockdown and see where it took us. We've done OK, I think. We've shared a lot, helped one another and enjoyed the experience. I knew one of the others quite well, another a bit, one used to work with Rachel years ago, and the final chap, not at all. I'd say we've been through a fair bit together since and know each other pretty well now. 

Let me start with my own state of mind.

I’m one of those people on the divide in society that has been able to work from home.  I’m not going to complain about that, because others have suffered far worse symptoms than the new blight of being all Zoomed out. We've done alright at home, eating together, I exercise regularly, Rachel's done well with her work, raising money for people in crisis.

But while I’ve got a lot done - finally written an MSc thesis - I’ve also drifted and dithered. I’ve wondered how I can make a meaningful contribution to my work, and to making the world better, to know what I’m doing in my job, and that it matters. In reviewing things I’ve written and read, there’s an awful lot of nostalgia. From that comes a melancholy about what I’ve missed out on. I think we look back because there’s precious little to look forward to. The promise of the future as a better place is an uncertain one now.

I have three impatient words written on the opening page of my work journal – the book where I take notes at meetings and where I write ideas down. It just says – does it matter? Frankly, at the moment, it doesn’t always feel like much does; but it must.  I want to articulate a bold sweep of key actions and behaviours that can and should take place as we emerge out of lockdown to contribute in our own way to Build Back Better, it can’t happen just by willing it so.

And much as I muse at a policy level - I literally wrote a thesis on it - it's at a personal level that I have had similar moments of clarity that have looked at the ticking clock of life and thought – I no longer have the patience to work with unpleasant people. I think part of me has always done this. I've definitely been guilty of discriminating in favour of working with people who crack on, get stuff done, work at a pace I do and share my values. I described it recently as finding a golden thread of good people. However, I’m also aware that has come across in the past as 'picking favourites'. But for many emerging from this terrible pandemic and the recession to come, we’re going into a severe economic situation where plenty of us will be content to work for anyone, assholes included. Therefore it also places an even greater importance on those of us who can discriminate to build alliances with the good, the kind, the generous.

Here, then, are my three thoughts on where I think I must go:

All of us who can must double our commitment to get on and do stuff - I think of what Matthew Taylor at the RSA described as the need to 'make power, not take power'. Not require power to be given to us, but demonstrate we are effective community leaders and actors, capable of using the skills, efforts and capacity we have to make change. It’s not a substitute for gaining real power, but it’s a step towards it.

Secondly, more than ever, we need to build alliances. I’m in a community of people loosely based around our hiking group, Freshwalks. It’s but a small example of how we can support one another. It's not the solution to the world's problems, but right now as a collective it works for me. So does the People's Powerhouse, the RSA, my Church, other networks I'm part of, and the links I've built through my work. Our whole world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and obviously plenty of people say this, repeatedly. But maybe within that we have to understand there are things beyond our control and decisions made that we don’t like and that our response has to be messy too. So to counter that feeling of helplessness we need to ask the right questions, not always to try to provide all the answers, and only through thinking through a potential answer with others, will we be able to make progress.

Thirdly, we must never be afraid to think big, and realise it’s not just for us. I’ve stumbled across something called “Cathedral thinking” the idea that you are creating something you may never see built in your lifetime. Greta Thunberg has talked about it, apparently, which is fine with me. Submitting yourself to the pursuit of a big idea. 

The bottom line is a revolution in spirit, in kindness, in a new conception of how we live our lives in relation not only to each other, but to nature, to our air, our rivers and seas and a different understanding of how our land is our common treasury. I've said so many times that happiness is about spending time with the people you love, but it's also about knowing you are living your life as close as possible to your own sacred values. Mine are to be honest, be loyal, be kind. When I fall short on any of them, it crushes me. So I need personal strength, but also that of others, to uphold those pillars.  

Where we individually go with that I genuinely don't know. The answer to the question of "what we do" isn't actually as important as the why?

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Tracey Thorn's Another Planet - we were all young once and not very nice

It took me far too long to read this delightful and insightful memoir of a suburban childhood, bought for me by my dear friend John Dixon who has over the years opened my eyes and ears to routinely enriching books and music. 

Maybe lockdown has made us all more reflective. I've certainly found nostalgia very appealing, even more so than usual. 

The structure veers between the 1970s and 2016 and a nostalgic return to Brookman's Park in Hertfordshire where she grew up. The fact that you know the happy ending - Tracey's career as a singer songwriter and her own family life (I'm an avid reader of her fortnightly Off The Record column in the New Statesman, by the way) doesn't change anything; there's no revelation or a gotcha moment. 

It brought back all kinds of memories of discos, experimenting with alcohol and girls, getting into scrapes and the emerging music of the time. But the strongest reminder I got was that teenagers aren't terribly nice, and regard their long suffering parents either with disdain, or not at all. Whenever I've tried to place myself in the world of my own sons and reverted to how my magnificent parents behaved, my memories are almost entirely bereft of them. And yet who picked me up from the Hornby village disco at 10pm before starting work the next day at 5 am? And that I habitually lied to them about where I was, who I was with and what I was doing. I'm just relieved I didn't have a diary to cross reference as Tracey has, I wince at the thought.

More than anything though, it is a tenderly written book, tinged with appreciation and sharp social and cultural observations. As John reminded me of Paddy McAloon's thoughts on the matter: "the sweet sweet songs that cloud your eyes (pause) nostalgia supplies."