Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Story of the Blues - what Blue Labour isn't - come and join us next Saturday

I get a bit weary explaining that Blue Labour isn't about becoming more Tory. It absolutely isn't.

When Maurice Glasman came up with the name he was thinking about the blues, about blue collar issues, not the colour of another party.

Anyway, I'm involved in this event next Saturday in Manchester which I think is an important opportunity in our politics.

Since 2009, Blue Labour has been exploring and detailing the growing disconnect between the Labour Party and those whom it has traditionally sought to represent. This has included wide-ranging analyses - from welfare to economics, mass immigration to family policy - but at its heart has remained a consistent, core insight: an all-out embrace of liberalism, both social and economic, has alienated the Labour Party from its traditional working-class support. This conference aims to further explore those key insights, discerning where common cause might be found beyond the confines of current party orthodoxies, assisting the Labour Party in once again becoming a broad coalition of diverse interests and aims.

We've got a wide range of speakers - MPs Lisa Nandy and Graham Jones, controversially we've also invited Stephen Woolfe, who was elected a UKIP MEP. There will be a smattering of thinkers and writers including Maurice Glasman, Philip Blond, Nora Mulready and Rod Liddle. But more than anything we want to properly start a hard conversation about our politics and what's going to be important. There's one thing I can guarantee, there are no easy answers.

I'll leave you with a word from the wiseguy, Pete Wylie, from Story of the Blues, part 2:

"Well that's my story and I'm sticking to that. So let's have another drink and let's talk about the blues. Blues is about dignity, it's about self-respect, and no matter what they take away from you - that's yours for keeps..."

Tonight we burn responsibility in the fire - banning papers is wrong

I think sometimes the answers to many deep moral questions lie where they always do, in a Jam song.

After hearing about the latest University student union to embarrass itself by passing a motion to ban sale of The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express from their shop, I couldn't help but hark back to Funeral Pyre by The Jam, a pounding warning against the book burners of fascism.

Down in amongst the streets tonight
Books will burn, people laugh and cry in their turmoil
(turmoil turns rejoiceful)

On its own it really doesn't matter what a single union shop in London agrees to stock, or not. My local newsagent doesn't sell copies of Investor's Chronicle because people don't walk in off the street and buy it. So the truism remains, if you don't like something, don't buy it.

Shed your fears and lose your guilt
Tonight we burn responsibility in the fire
Well watch the flames grow higher!
But if you get too burnt, you can't come back home

I've looked at the motion passed at City University last week and a barely comprehensible one tabled in support of the censorious Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seems to think the country most worthy of student ire is the only stable parliamentary democracy in the Middle East.

We feast on flesh and drink on blood
Live by fear and despise love in a crises
(what with today's high prices)
Bring some paper and bring some wood
Bring what's left of all your love for the fire

It would be a cop-out to point out that barely 200 students attended the meeting. So would it to point out that I tend not to buy the Daily Express or The Sun. I do however skim read the Daily Mail when I see it knocking around and do occasionally buy the Mail on Sunday. I like Peter Hitchens, Rachel Johnson and Dan Hodges and I think the investigations into financial malpractice by the Financial Mail team play a key role in keeping the sector honest. I also happen to agree with much of what Alastair Campbell has to say about the Mail generally - the worst of Britain's values posing as the best. But who do you think really benefits from this censorious showboating in the name of fighting racism?

And as I was standing by the edge
I could see the faces of those who led pissing their selves laughing
Their mad eyes bulged their flushed faces said
The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger

One of the paradoxes of our times has been the knee-jerk reaction to things we don't like and a quick call to ban things. I'm convinced it's formed a key plank of the backlash against liberalism that has resulted in Brexit, Donald Trump and the triumph of identity politics that has defined Labour's core purpose over and above looking to represent working people.

Instead of all this, let me tell you a story about about how two mates of mine met. They were on a flight to Europe to watch England somewhere and caught each other's eye because they'd both bought The Guardian and The Sun. When I lived in Bristol a fellow Labour activist once spotted me at our local newsagent and asked an assumptive question that I'd come to get my Guardian. I purposefully bought the Financial Times and the Sun that day.

We seem to have lost that ability to think plurally and open ourselves up to other ideas. Social media has undoubtedly made this worse. Our algorithms set to validation, agreement and that ever more hostile view of anything that isn't in our sphere.

Censorship is always wrong, always.

But the greater tragedy in all of this is we've created a funeral pyre in our own minds.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Ambassador Matthew Barzun reminded me why I love Vital Topics at Alliance MBS

So, you're stuck at Chicago Airport in the snow. You're desperate to get to New York, but all the flights have been cancelled. If your ticket is with a mainstream airline the staff will be firm, polite, courteous and honest. They'll say, there simply aren't any flights, it's a real shame, we're really sorry and as soon as can we'll make it right.

A certain budget airline, on the other hand, has a different approach. Their staff would hold up a bit of paper and say, 'look, they've cancelled all the flights, but we're going to get you home'.

The first airline is Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton (and arguably the Remain campaign). The second is what Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (and Vote Leave) have done. Basically, they've placed themselves outside of the problems in front of the electorate, but said they'll sort it.

That was a taste of the colour, verve and wisdom of the US Ambassador Matthew Barzun on Wednesday night at Alliance Manchester Business School. He was everything you'd expect a speaker at a Vital Topics lecture to be - provocative, original and compelling. In fact I can only think of one that has left me disappointed and that was Lord Digby Jones. I like the stridently and brazen intellectual aspiration. I love the unspoken verbal jousting between the guests asking questions (me included). But most all I just love that understanding that there are forces in the world that are seeking to make things better, fairer, flatter and more interesting. It reaffirms the view that progress doesn't aways - rarely ever - comes from government, but from the slightly haphazard way in which business implements good ideas born in universities. Sure you need good governments to convene, direct and bring order, but none of his will stop because we've got a buffoon as Foreign Secretary and there's going to be an even bigger one in the White House.

Barzun drew some great discussion points on networked businesses and hierarchies. Reminding us that the forces at work need not always be the ones of regression.

These are dark times indeed. Sometimes it really does feel as if the lights are going out everywhere, but sometimes you just need reminding that we will overcome. And it feels better that there still are people prepared to take ownership of the challenges. Because eventually the madness will end. Things can be made better and I fondly hope that we'll be hearing more from a laid back and funny business guy who tweeted us back the next day to say how moved he was to be gifted with a vinyl copy of A Certain Ratio live in Groningen, which includes an epic long version of the demanding Winter Hill. Like all good climbs, like even the most difficult journeys, it will be worth it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Tear down this wall - a fresh start for Piccadilly Gardens

"If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity if you seek liberalisation, come here to this gate. Open this gate. Tear down this wall."

That's what President Ronald Reagan said in a speech in Berlin in 1987. Just over two years later, on this day in 1989, it indeed came down. It may seem strange to be quoting American presidents on the subject of walls today, but the issue has resonance.

The Berlin Wall was a symbol of division, but also of profound ugliness and a brutal crushing of the human spirit.

I would never go as far as to suggest that's what we have in Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, but it was announced today that a new masterplan is to propose knocking down the curved concrete edifices between the gardens, bus interchange and the tram tracks. When it was designed it was probably one of those functional architectural plans that may have looked like a good idea on paper, but has become a symbol of something that doesn't work.

The coverage in the Manchester Evening News for their campaign to restore the Gardens to some kind of former glory has spoken of how the wall divided opinion in the city. True, there was Sir Richard Leese defending it and virtually everyone else railing against it. He was right on a couple of points though, the Gardens are a well-used public space and what went before seems to have been lost to the collective memory of the city, or at least a very rose-tinted idyllic view. The trouble is, the area has become a magnet for crime and feels very scruffy. A co-ordinated approach with the police, the city council and the landowner L&G is addressing this.

It now provides an opportunity to really debate the wider aesthetic of the city. To make it work better everywhere. I have a fear though, that without a completely different approach to beauty, safe spaces and gentler development then this will never work.

For the last three years the city centre has been a mess. The long term gain will be a better St Peter's Square and a Second City Crossing for Metrolink, but people have just got used to their comfort and appreciation of beauty being disregarded.

At the recent Design Manchester festival debate, the starting point was the ambition of a devolved city region administration that has a huge opportunity to re-imagine how the city looks and functions. People can be very grumpy about design and see it as a top level luxury, especially in age of austerity. I disagree. In The Times last week - Clare Foges drew attention to the planning system to be more thoughtful, subtle and appreciative of beauty.

I thought the debate was a missed opportunity for would-be Mayor Andy Burnham to make a far bolder and more imaginative claim for a new pitch for the aspiring city to properly embrace design and a better vision that respects everyone's right to live in a community surrounded by beauty. And for the avoidance of doubt, this applies as much to forgotten towns like Marple, or Bolton, or Middleton, as it does to the very centre of the conurbation, represented to millions as Piccadilly Gardens. There is a body of evidence, gathered here by Caroline Julian that bolsters this thought.

And at a functioning transport level, let's not forget the impact of the colour coded tube map in London and the impact of the orange overground lines to how these services were perceived, used and appreciated. Transport Minister John Hayes touches on this in a speech on the need to make new stations better designed and less ugly, but it goes beyond that.

I hope this is a beginning. An appreciation of city planning and how space should be shared and valued. But for now, tear down the wall.

PS - This, from Manchester Confidential, is very good.