Sunday, October 19, 2014

My mate #21 - Tom Bloxham

It's been a while since I updated the "my mate" series. It's not because I've run out of mates or anything, but more a symptom of slower blog activity to be honest. Last Wednesday I was at the University of Manchester Alumni Dinner at the Town Hall, where the guest speaker was Tom Bloxham, the Chancellor of the University and the chairman and founder of property company Urban Splash. 

We had a chat afterwards, as we often do on such occasions, and he reminded me of the times we've shared together over the years - the acquisition of my favourite hotel - The Midland in Morecambe - by Urban Splash, his innovative property business and how he used some of my articles about it in the exhibition before the launch;  how consistently supportive he was in my time as editor of Insider, speaking at events - always superbly; but socially too we've had some enjoyable times together - his wife Jo's joyful 40th at their house in Worsley and a terrific Christmas lunch with some of our other mutual friends like Ian Currie. Tom also invited me to join him at Old Trafford for United's annual drubbing of Blackburn Rovers, I declined, that being the time we won against the odds of course.

We're from the same neck of the woods politically - the pro-entrepreneur arm of Labour - and he's most recently been a contributor to the Labour Party's review of housing under Michael Lyons.

But I also recall a University General Assembly meeting during my lengthy and painful 12-month notice period as I was exiting Insider. I asked a question about what the University was doing to leverage its academic base to connect better with the intellectually curious in the city. A good answer would have been to list a number of public lectures and open days. Tom's answer was brilliant, he leant forward and asked me, "what have you got in mind, Michael?"

That encouragement was the first step on the road to developing what is now DISCUSS and I've never forgotten his support. Indeed, our motivation is part of the same civic pride to make our adopted city better than we found it, in line with his own well-used anecdote about the Ephebic oath of the ancient Athenians.

I always enjoy Tom's company and seeing him at the dinner last week reminded me of the friendship we've developed and how fond I am of him. I'll say this as well, he'll be a hard act to follow as Chancellor.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Whatever happened to the aspirant northern Tories?

The rise of UKIP and the dent they have made in the Labour vote in Heywood and Middleton seems to have shocked a lot of Labour people. Not me.

I grew up in the north, but it was in a Tory area and not even a posh one. For me Tory was normal and “common sense”. This wasn’t the North of Ken Loach and David Peace, where you wore your yellow Cole Not Dole sticker with pride. Where the Labour votes were weighed rather than counted. This was the City of Lancaster, where our MPs were Elaine Kellett-Bowman and Mark Lennox-Boyd.

I wasn’t born into Labourism or a Trade Union tradition. My Dad was a self-employed milkman and my Mum a nurse. Political debate around our dinner table was about what an idiot Arthur Scargill was and why surrendering nuclear weapons would be akin to inviting the Red Army to invade our shores.

It was where standing for socialism in 1983 made you out to be a bit of a nutter, frankly. I used to work with my Dad on his milk round, knocking on doors every Friday night to collect the money. The reaction to my political badges then told me everything I needed to know about how out of touch Labour had become.

I remember stumbling upon a disco in the church hall in the city centre one Friday evening. In there were all the sporty lads from our school, the rugby team and the quiet lads who did well in their exams. Their equivalents from the Girls Grammar School were there too. Attractive girls with a bit about them, who you’d never see at the punk gigs we went to, or the CND meetings at the Trades and Labour club. No, this was the Lancaster Young Conservatives. One of my mates did some childish graffiti in the toilets, we insulted a few people and left. But what bothered me more than anything was that this lot weren’t meant to be having a good time, Tories were anti-fun.

Even when I took to knocking around with the lads I knew through football few of them had much positive to say about the divisive issues that faced the working class. They were for patriotism, working hard, getting off your backside and wishing they could get a £20,000 pay off from a job down a pit like Scargill and his mob.

I mention all of this because there seems to have been a selective memory loss about what the North was like during the 80s. It wasn’t a sea of rebellion and insurrection against Thatcher. Many people quite liked her. Many people started their own businesses – often in the teeth of a workplace culture of sloth, petty theft and entitlement. I remember one lad I knew describing one of his mates thus – “a typical Labourite – you know, going off sick and always bloody complaining.”

When I went to University it was the aspirant working class kids from the Home Counties that were politically apathetic around University but were sufficiently attracted to the surge in Thatcherite capitalism that they ended up working for Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and Merrill Lynch, or became feisty entrepreneurs.

They may have also been imbued with a loathing of racism, a sense of fairness, but they were the people who quietly voted Tory in 1992. But where has that layer in society gone now?

I keep a close eye on what Ged Mirfin has to say on this and many other matters. A northern Tory and a councillor in Lancashire who has some keen observations to make on all of this: “Political affiliation has become less about aspirant lifestyles, and more about the maintenance of living standards.”

It's why I don't quite buy the line that Mondeo Man is voting UKIP, as Rod Liddle has, it's more nuanced than that. 

As John McTernan says here, in Heywood and Middleton. Labour seem to have fought the campaign on the single issue of the NHS. This is at a time when people all over the North want to hear something new and someone addressing their concerns over living standards and immigration in the way that Simon Danzcuk seems to do in Rochdale. 

The demography of Britain is changing. The last couple of years has seen record levels of new company formations and new businesses. According to Start-Up Britain 500,000 new businesses were started in 2013. That enormous figure may mask a multitude of different stories – it includes one-man bands, sole traders, kitchen table eBay traders, white van men, shell companies as well as a fully fledged companies with dreams of world domination. Lumping them all together as “entrepreneurs” is dangerous, but they do have that shared hope that screams to be supported, not held back.

George Osborne is hoping these people will also become Tories. But Labour have as much a claim to this as the Conservative Party. Small Business Saturday,  imported from the US, was modestly successful and was well championed by Chuka Umunna.

Aspiration is one of those words that gets too easily reduced to a slogan. But it used to be what people associated with Conservatism. I see much to be optimistic about in the North, I meet energetic and creative people everyday. Politics doesn’t often come into it, but what we have seen in less than a generation is the collapse of the Conservative Party as any kind of organising force in the urban North and the complete disconnect from any claim to be the party of Northern aspiration.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Scotland the brave

I've done two blogs on the Scottish referendum result and the aftermath. One is more normal Downtown Friday blog, which is here. A flavour:
There has been an awful lot of hyperbole amongst think tankers and pundits about the triumphs of the Manchester experiment. But it would be wholly wrong to equate this with any kind of awakening of a civic mood for independence.
 But if we think the Tartan Spring is on its way to Manchester we have a lot of waking up to do. There are wards in Greater Manchester with voter turnout at miniscule levels. So small as to actually undermine the democratic mandate.
 There is an argument that because local government has become about bin collections and cuts to services that there is nothing to vote for. The aspiration has to be to correct that through real power, proper engagement and meaningful change.
Then I was guest commentator on Prolific North, the media news website. Where I picked up on the theme about political engagement and the role the media can play. A taster:

And the media has a role to play. What kind of North do we want? Do we have respect for the institutions of power, those that seek election and those that make the hard decisions, are do we turn over and yawn. Will all of the efforts to create a new constitutional settlement for how our cities can be run better be reduced to a newspaper poll about whether Marco Pierre White could be Mayor of Leeds or Shaun Ryder in Manchester.
Scotland has had a generational opportunity and is hopefully now working out how it can work effectively as part of the United Kingdom. That conversation has started here too. It mustn't get obsessed with structures, but it still desperately needs something to connect to people about what the new politics will be like.

And as if by magic, our next DISCUSS debate on the 8th of October will be on the race to give power to the cities. 

Eventbrite - English devolution. More power to the cities.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Mental strength and football

Quick one. Went to Manchester City v Stoke City today and was reminded of why I so fondly remember Mark Hughes' time as Rovers manager. They mugged a 1-0 win with a goal from Diouf which he scored too few of for us, but the resolute defending took me back to the Samba, Nelsen pairing at their "never say Dai" best under the Welsh management team of Hughes, Bowen and Niedweski.
Stoke parked the bus, for sure, but they had more clear shots on goal over the game than Man City who tried to play it through the middle via Toure and Silva when that clearly wasn't working.
I also noticed that Gary Bowyer today has said Rovers need to toughen up defensively. Go and watch how Stoke set up and have a plan Gary. Surely there's a Sparky manual left around in the dressing room somewhere.

Douglas Carswell and the end of politics

I was shocked and taken aback by the defection of Douglas Carswell MP to UKIP. This isn’t some swivel-eyed loon from the back benches trying to shore up his declining local popularity. 

I have watched him with interest and he is a serious thinker about how to modernise politics and how technology is forging an entirely new relationship between the individual and the state. Though he was never a mainstream Tory, his departure into the UKIP fold is a massive shock to the Conservative central nervous system and, I hate to say it, a huge lift for the credibility of UKIP.

I think the major parties need outriders and mavericks. Good constituency MPs who don’t toe the party line, energise local campaigning and reflect the broad coalitions of position and philosophy that makes up our otherwise dreary party system.

It's a bigger jolt to the Tories than it is to Labour, obviously. It exposes the position on the referendum  for what it is, a patronising sop to the Eurosceptics, thinking it will shut them up just kicking the can along the road.

But for Labour it helps because it paints the emergent threat as a Tory problem. Suddenly the second most prominent UKIP member is a libertarian thinker who wants to reduce the state. Not sure how that will play down in target seats like Rotherham, where Labour is rightly vulnerable for the unforgivable sins of the past and in other parts of the North where "they're all the same" is a frequent complaint.

His book The End of Politics and the birth of iDemocracy is a terrific handbook for anyone who wants to understand how society and politics are changing. It now gives UKIP something I've never really thought they had - ideas.

Netwalking, not working and a fantastic day

I have a sore knee, aching feet and a warm glow. Yesterday was the culmination of an idea I first had two years ago. To take a party of people into the Peaks for a day out. Anyone who knows me well will understand that the logistics and delivery of something like this is beyond me, but the core idea - the simplicity of netwalking - was something that got me excited.

Enter stage left then my good pal Michael Di Paola, a branding genius, a bundle of energy, with a personal magnetism and a following gained from his status as Man of the Year. Michael made sure we had the full turn out we needed - and a good mix of people who made the day so special.

As with all good plans, they adapt and we were blessed to have Thom Hetherington, the one man Glossop tourist board, who offered to guide us on a route described as Bleaklow from Old Glossop.

It was a physical challenge - at my age walking 9 miles to anywhere will be - but the initial steady 2 mile climb was gruelling and a shock to the system. The wind on the next leg was bracing and invigorating and a relief it wasn't colder. The yomp across the peat moors to the summit, and then to the site of a crashed American WW2 plane was a test of your balance. But mostly it was just a matter of keeping your footing and spending time with the rest of the party. That's what these days are about - not passing out business cards and schmoozing, but getting to know people a little better, seeing ways you can help one another, working people out and being amazed by what they do and what they know.

The rain started five minutes after we landed at the Wheatsheaf pub in Old Glossop. A sure blessing, but a fine piece of luck on a day when a plan really came together.

There are more pics on my Facebook, Chris Marsh took some crackers and on the Twitter hashtag #netwalking.

Downtown - the business club with altitude.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

I accept the Ice Bucket Challenge

Accepting the ice bucket challenge and will be donating to Macmillan Nurses in memory of our much loved friend Martin McDermott.

I nominated Gareth Burton, Father Edmund Montgomery and Graham Jones MP.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A day of surprises - why beating Bournemouth doesn't feel as good as it should

Who would have thought that after 10 minutes of hardly touching the ball against a decent Bournemouth side, Blackburn Rovers would have been impressively 3-0 up after half an hour?

And who would have thought that an hour of football later we were hanging on for dear life?

Well, me for one. This Blackburn Rovers side is capable of great things. The ball control, fluidity and goal poaching is something else. The defence is strong and athletic. And this was a bold team, designed to attack and supply Rudi Gestede and Jordan Rhodes.

But that niggling thought I've had about mental strength. It was always there. It was especially there when Rhodes was subbed for a veteran midfield player, David Dunn, with 20 minutes to go. And it was there again when Paul Robinson took back passes from the half way line with 15 minutes to go.

I have seen Rovers sides with commanding leads at Ewood Park go on to destroy a defeated opposition - Norwich in 1992 (7-1), Forest in 1995 (7-0), Sheffield Wednesday in 1997 (7-2) and West Ham in 2001 (7-1). This could and should have been such an occasion, but it wasn't and never will be with Gary Bowyer as manager.

Had we done so it would have sent a powerful message to the rest of the league. Wow, this Blackburn team are ruthless. Wow, this Blackburn team mean business. They're not the bottlers of last season.

That issue of mental strength comes from the top. Letting teams back into games has become a habit. The quality is there, but the killer instinct is not. Not through the spine of the team when the pressure mounts.

This is going to be a long hard season and the issue now, more than ever, is mental strength.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Cardiff City stadium - Real Madrid v Seville - or the Cristiano Ronaldo Show

What a day out. Seeing so many incredible footballers on one pitch - apparently the most expensive team ever assembled - was an experience. I'm not impressed by all of that big club stuff to be honest. But it was still a treat to witness Ronaldo on one of his good days.

When I told people beforehand that I had secured tickets for the Europa League Final, hardly anyone knew it was in Cardiff. "You do know it's the women's Europa Final, don't you?" said one pal. Even those that did assumed it would be at the Millenium Stadium, scene of a famous cup win in 2002. But no, this was at a ground I'd not visited before and one I didn't fancy trekking to for a Championship game to be honest.

It was an artful, tactical passing game, with a few hard challenges going in, but quite a contrast to what else we're going to see this season, I suspect. I was taken in particular with how the movement off the ball was so impressive by both sides, but also how hard they had to work, just to close down an option for an attacking player.

All in all, we had a fantastic day out. One of the lads mentioned towards the end how Spanish fans were so much better too. Maybe this was a one off - a final - and maybe we were sat amongst polite Spanish people as opposed to some of the louts we've encountered recently, but the displays of colour and noise from the Seville fans was something else.

As a day out it was also good to visit Cardiff again - a city centre that has improved massively in recent years, but still could do with a bit of love in places. The St David's Centre is good as far as sterile shopping centres go, even Chip Alley (Caroline Street) seemed to be a bit smarter.

The stadium has a good atmosphere, excellent site lines and I was pleased to see blue seats. Cardiff will always be blue and it upsets me to see the mess Vincent Tan has made of the club with his colour change.

And it was a new ground for me. Of the current 92 it is number 67. I lost Torquay and Macclesfield recently, but regained Mansfield and Cambridge. I have Rotherham, Fleetwood, Morecambe and Millwall in my sights. Oh the joys. And of the grand total it's 140.