Friday, October 23, 2015

Why challenge is so important in everything you do

I've been thinking a lot about the importance of challenge this week. I've had an induction for a new board I'm joining where constructive questioning and challenging of executive directors is not only encouraged but actively expected. This hasn't always been the case in cultures where I've worked before.

In any walk of life, it must be impossible to achieve anything if you have to make all the decisions yourself, but are then surrounded by "yes men" who tell you what you want to hear. New ideas and new thinking on any subject can help to refresh decision making and bring a confidence to any organisation.

Tristram Hunt first floated the idea of "algorithm politics" at the debate I held in September on the new politics. You can watch a video of his speech here.

He continued the theme in a talk at the University of Sheffield last week. "Google’s skill at offering you what it knows you like is now directing you towards what you want to hear, from people like you."

We have algorithms driving Facebook and Twitter that point us towards more and more people we agree with and like. We are herded towards those with whom we agree. This fuels a cycle of validation.

Jeremy Corbyn has created the veneer of being inclusive with his parliamentary party because he has no choice. The talent pool is so shallow on the left he's had to give jobs to poor calibre ranters like Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott, but is still forced to work with whoever will serve. In his own team he is less pluralistic, Seamus Milne is the latest appointee, but others in his ranks like Simon Fletcher and Andrew Fisher are brutal faction fighters who are there to consolidate, validate and enforce. Not to challenge. That's not on the agenda.

Flesh on the bones of history

I started this week as I started last with an evening at the Manchester Literature Festival listening to authors I've heard of, but never read anything by. Admittedly, they are both Labour grandees, but Robert Harris and Melvyn Bragg have both written recent works that attempt to put flesh on the bones of history. Harris by completing his Roman trilogy and Bragg with a novel about the Peasants revolt of 1381.

I haven't truly embraced the spirit of historical fiction (or Game of Thrones, yet) but it strikes me that we apply much of our own interpretations of history through the lens of modern life and morality. Melvyn Bragg was asked how on earth he can construct a character based on how someone will think and feel 750 years ago. But he has, and wasn't this the very basis of our greatest ever historical fiction writer, William Shakespeare?

Chinese state visit 

So Manchester is receiving the Chinese leader today, which I'm genuinely pleased about. But it comes at a time when the strains of globalisation and fetishisation of the Chinese success story are being felt, especially on Teeside. The social costs of a loss of our steel industry and the technical weaknesses to our infrastructure from inferior product are high prices to pay.

It's also important that as we respect the culture and history of our visitors we don't forget our own traditions too. Protest, mutuality, respect and democracy. There will be protests against the human rights record of the Chinese government, rightly, I just hope it can be done with dignity and without spitting and rape threats.

The nuclear question

I genuinely haven't made up my mind about nuclear power. Next week we're hosting a debate as part of the Science Festival  which might help. Tickets have been shifting fairly briskly and we're close to a sell out with just a week to go.

A few years ago, when I was pondering what to do next, I became very excited by the possibilities of curiosity and debate. Bringing people together to explore new ideas and bring original thinkers to a stage to lead a sharing of knowledge and query.

It was on a wet night in August 2011 listening to Tristram Hunt telling a packed audience at the People's History Museum about Peterloo that the idea that is now Discuss started to form. I was also excited by some of the libertarian free thinking displayed by an author called Douglas Carswell, who challenged conventions on politics and community organisation.

I hope we've been true to that mission and I hope we have been able to encourage more critical thinking. Now that is an idea worth fighting for.

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