Friday, March 13, 2015

Democracy isn't broken. Discussed.


I spoke at the Discuss debate on Democracy on March the 11th. I was speaking AGAINST the motion that Democracy is Broken. Here's my case. I was more than ably supported by Dr. Rob Ford, author of Revolt on the Right and an academic at the University of Manchester and up against activists Kwame Ibegbuna and Loz Kaye.

Good evening. I intend to prove to you tonight that Democracy isn’t broken.

It is bruised.

It is, to quote Winston Churchill, the worst form of government invented…

Except for all the others.

I wanted to set this out to start with by using the example of two cows.

PURE DEMOCRACY:
You have two cows. Your neighbours decide who gets the milk.

REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY:
You have two cows. Your neighbours pick someone to tell you who gets the milk.

FASCISM:
You have two cows. The government takes them and sells you the milk.

ANARCHY:
You have two cows. Either you sell the milk at a fair price or your neighbors try to kill you and take the cows.

That’s the Walking Dead theory of politics. Maybe some of you think that’s better.

Maybe the very fact we can reduce our democracy to such absurdities is a sign of a rumbling, grumbling discontent with it.

But hold that thought while I take you on my own personal journey

I’ve always been fascinated by our politics.

By the theatre of public life – how we attempt to reconcile issues of how we distribute resources by a system of popular validation.

From 2000 to 2012 I worked as editor of a high profile business magazine. I retained my fascination in politics, but put my participation on hold.

In that time as a journalist I would always put my readers and my own publication over any party political loyalty.

But as my time doing that ended in the spring of 2012 something happened.

I live in a small town called Marple. It sometimes gets generously referred to as “leafy Cheshire” but in reality it’s a mixed community in Stockport of working families and retired people, a mix of private and social housing.

Lots of self employed people. And yes, with white vans and occasional England flags. And I’m cool with that, by the way.

Our local sixth form college was in a financial black hole and opted to sell one of its sites to a supermarket chain.

As news dripped out, people got busy.

Through social media word spread.

Small teams divided up tasks to separate rumour from fact.

They scrutinised minutes of meetings, they put in Freedom of Information requests.

On one balmy evening 500 people turned up at the Local Area Committee meeting where usually the councillors go through the motions to an audience you could count on one hand.

One of the local councillors was a governor of the local college and could have, should have, but didn’t, speak out about this.

They said TRUST US.

We didn’t.

A group was born.

MARPLE IN ACTION.

Privately the Councillors appealed to us to “tone it down”.

We didn’t. We turned it up.

We gathered signatures on a mass petition.

There was a march through the centre of Marple.

We lobbied the leader of the council. He backed us and developed a spoiler scheme in the centre to spike Asda’s guns.

There was a rally in the park for 1000 people.

IT WAS EXCITING. IT WAS OUR VERY OWN MARPLE SPRING.

People started talking about what kind of place we wanted to live in.

We considered standing candidates in the local elections, but as all the parties knew where public opinion stood, there would have been nothing to gain for this single issue campaign.

In turn Asda tuned on the charm. Their consultants from Deloitte held a consultation.

They made promises on how engaged they’d be in helping the community and complementing local businesses.

Opinion held firm.

It took a while, but eventually, 18 months later, Asda gave up.

The College did the sensible thing and sold the site to a housebuilder. Much better.

This my friends was Democracy at work, the will of the people.

When it matters. When decisions are made that affect people’s lives and when they feel they can change, it is to the tools of democracy that we turn to.

I was inspired by this community action.

I was reminded of the words of Tony Benn.

You see there are two flames burning in the human heart all the time. The flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope you can build a better world.

I thought long and hard about how to play this out.

At the same time I’ve worked hard to develop this brand – DISCUSS – because I’m passionate about debate and ideas.

So….

I rejoined the Labour Party.

When I was younger and angrier I did so because I hated the Tories.

Through my activism in our church I have learnt more about the rich traditions of Catholic Social Teaching and the pursuit of a COMMON GOOD.

As Cardinal Vincent Nichols said in a letter this week  - “WE HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO BE INVOLVED IN THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS. IT IS A DUTY WHICH SPRINGS FROM THE PRIVILEGE OF LIVING IN A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY.”

We live in fascinating times and face an opportunity to reforge our democracy.

No-one has yet come up with a better structure for change and social action than a political party.

Parties aggregate diverse political opinion and create order out of chaos, creating a platform.

Sometimes that’s done badly.

What I found wasn’t that surprising.

Hollowed out political parties with historically low levels of engagement and membership.

More votes cast for the X Factor, Strictly or Big Brother than in council elections and even general elections.

In fact, Loz has already told you all of this. And I imagine Kwame will layer it on even more with examples at a local level.

It is hard and thankless.

People telling you they don’t vote, because “they don’t believe in it”.

What do they believe in?

Absolute monarchy?
Feudalism?
Dictatorship?
Anarchy?

But politicians are waking up to this.

Parties know that we have to engage differently. That’s what democracy forces us to do.

It offers us the challenge to do things differently.

But for all of the disillusionment in the political process I still believed it offers us the potential to change lives, and to ENJOY the active endorsement of voters.

Democracy places a powerful burden on the elected to hold the powerful to scrutiny and to exercise power with care.

It is taken for granted, but for the most part, it can work.

And what of the development of social media and the development of iDemocracy?

Or Digital politics?

Or the prevalence of the shallow narcissism of Russell Brand.

In the current parliament we have seen a return to scrutiny in the powerful committees.

We have seen more rebellions against a party line by free thinking Members of Parliament who feel the breath of accountability from their electors and visibility like never before.

How politics is done is changing as a result of this.

The iconic image of the narrow Scottish DEVO campaign isn’t a hollow pledge or Cameron’s tears, but Jim Murphy’s upturned IRN BRU crate – 100 speeches in 100 town squares.

By a quirk of fate and a twist of circumstance I found myself selected as Labour’s candidate in the upcoming General Election.

I’m keeping up fast, but I don’t have the party baggage of other candidates. It’s not my career ambition, but I do feel a calling.

And the very way we are doing politics appeals to me too.

In this general election my party is having to rely on smaller donations and wider participation. Teams of activists making local contacts.

Ed Miliband has set us the target of having 4 million conversations this campaign. Direct contact. Personal contact.

This isn’t happening by accident. It is a drive for more democracy.

Authenticity.

Obviously I hope it is successful. But even within our flawed democratic system it offers us hope for the future.

Back to our two cows.

You have two cows, the government in London want to decide who gets the milk. You organize a campaign to keep it local. You stand on a milk crate in a public campaign and persuade the people that’s a fairer and more sensible distribution of resources.

That’s what I’ll be doing.

I say please continue to support the fine traditions of democracy and reject the motion.



Campaigning update


We had a very successful fundraiser for the parliamentary election campaign last night. My election agent Navendu (pictured right) did a superb job of organising it, securing Chris Williamson MP (left) and Tony Lloyd (third right) as speakers. We were also supported by an impressive show of strength by the Stockport Labour councillors and Afzal Khan MEP (second left). 
But most of all it was a good night to remind ourselves what our campaign and our vision is around here, that we have dedicated and devoted activists who support our candidates, organise in our communities. I also really like my Labour colleagues. I haven't known many of them for long, but they're great people who I feel inspired by and enjoy their company. It really helps.  
I'll try and update this blog with a few more things from the campaign. But the local party website is here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Back to the Eighties with Chelsea


The revulsion and shock at the antics of Chelsea's throwback mob on the Paris Metro proves one thing: we've come a long, long way. But it has brought back some horrific memories of their fans and what it was like going to football when I was a lad.

In the 80s Chelsea were horrible. I saw what looked like the entire away end do Nazi salutes and chant at one of their own black players, Paul Cannoville, when he came on as a sub at the last game of the 1981/82 season. 

After the 82 game I watched from the top deck of a double decker bus as a mob of them in green flight jackets and big boots terrorised Bolton Road in Blackburn. One sight that will chill me forever was a black Rovers fan being pursued with particular zeal. He was on his own and there were that many after him, screaming the kinds of hateful words the killers of Stephen Lawrence said, that I thought he'd die. He didn't, as I still see him at Rovers games now. 

A few months later they battered everyone in sight on the Blackburn End (above) in a grotesque example of "end taking". The uniform had switched to golfer chic by then and terrified Rovers fans scrambled over barbed wire fences to get away from a mob dressed like Ronnie Corbett.

There's tales of growing up in the North aplenty in the book I published a couple of years ago, Northern Monkeys, an anthology about the evolution of northern working class fashion. We skirted around the right wing element of the casual movement and dropped a chapter from a National Front supporter (since reformed) and Blackpool fan (unreformed, I suspect). Apart from Leeds, it was never an overtly racist scene.

But the Nazi thing was what gave Chelsea a particular chilling edge. My brother-in-law is featured in Colin Ward's book Steaming In where he met the Chelsea mob at an England away game in Istanbul in 1984. The author highlights the bafflement of the "Blackburn lads" (he's actually Blackpool) at how the real hardcore refused to acknowledge goals by black players and were openly and proudly racist. That was the way they liked it.

But that was then and this is now. I'm one of the first to snigger at the atmosphere at Chelsea, the "golf clap" that greets a goal and all those corporate fans. I'm not sure these are good times for football, but they are better times in this respect, that's for sure.

The question has been asked whether those racist days are coming back? No, but if you'll excuse the pun, it hasn't gone away, it's just gone underground. 





Sunday, February 15, 2015

It's about Marple - Co-op closes, we get a new Asda in two months


We live in such a vibrant community, full of energy, people with ideas as well as a setting in an area of stunning natural beauty. One of the reasons I wanted to work with other people in the area to make things better was a sad sense that the local Liberal councillors (and our retiring MP) rather take the people for granted. One example is disappointment about a lack of progress in Marple recently, which will be laid are now that the Co-op has closed. 

In the Marple Spring of 2011 when the community came together to oppose plans by Asda and the College to build a hideous new retail shed I expected it would be an opportunity to forge a new vision for the centre of Marple. Not so. Instead the interest by developers has evaporated and communications on plans for the Co-op site, the surrounding plots and even of Asda itself has been very poor.

Speaking to shop staff yesterday they are due to be transferred and retrained as Asda employees and the target date for a new store is the 30th of April. I hope they're going to be OK.

Speaking to shoppers as the shelves emptied (above, with Carl from Mellor) they wonder what the whole of the centre will be like and what can be done to make it flow better.

I'll be honest, there was a great deal about the Co-op I didn't like - it was more expensive than most other supermarkets and the range was limited. 

It's clear the Co-op brand has taken a battering and the slow death of the Marple store has been tied to larger corporate problems, but the local civic gain has been positive. Will Asda be as generous? So far their silence has been deafening, but then it's early days.

The Civic Society have been active citizens doing some excellent work. Our Labour Party street stalls and surveys have identified an appetite to contribute to something better locally. We're keen to progress this and would urge local people to put pressure on our councillors to work a lot harder for our community.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Regency Cafe and Pimlico - contrasts aplenty

I took a trip down memory lane last Friday to Pimlico, central London, where I shared a flat with my mate Chris Lodge through 1991 and 1992. On the last trip I looked at the shifting urban geography of east London on a wander around Bethnal Green from The City. Westminster offers more subtler and more nuanced contrasts, but they are there.

The first sign that greets you as you stroll out of Pimlico tube station highlights the concerns of local tenants of the Peabody social housing estates in the area that they are being forced out. The shops across the road from the flats were a laundrette and a posh off licence doing a promotion on champagne, as if to highlight who lives here, cheek by jowl. I glance in a local estate agents would tell you that a small house off Vincent Square would cost you £2.5million.

I wandered across Vauxhall Bridge Road, where our flat has long since been demolished, and into Vincent Square. Here are the "soccer" pitches of Westminster School, behind locked gates. 

Within a short walk are the chequerboard rows of tenament blocks of the estate between the square and Horseferry Road and Channel 4's modernist HQ. Designed by Edwin Lutyens and built on land given by the Duke of Westminster in the 1930s. There's a great blog on the design of it, here.

The purpose of the trip, as it is on other visits to different London locations I used to know, was a stop over at a classic London cafe; this time Regency Cafe, one of my old favourites. It was also the location for a pivotal scene in one of my favourite British films of recent years, Layer Cake. The menu was better than I remembered and the customers packed it out. I only had time for cup of tea and a pudding but saw enough to tempt me back. 

I've just checked the scene and I even sat at the same table that Daniel Craig did. It was a long table for six and just like the last trip to Pellicci's, you share a space with strangers - it was another fascinating encounter, a lad who used to work in the area with similar fond memories and an uncanny knowledge of the Blackburn Rovers team of 1995, especially for an Arsenal fan. London tends to throw up these opportunities for stories and shared experiences.

I nipped into a lunchtime Mass at Westminster Cathedral before a meeting with the team I'm working alongside on a new project. Again, the brief service was an experience of incredible social richness and diversity.

Back in the day Pimlico was an area of acute contrasts, it is even more so now. Amazing that working class London still clings on alongside incredible wealth.


Saturday, January 31, 2015

The best drama - where nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all

Last night we watched our favourite episode of The Thick of It, Armando Ianucci's savage political satire. It was the hour long special Spinners and Losers, where the action opens with chaos in the government following the resignation of the prime minister and ends with everything exactly the same. 

Through the night there are comings and goings, characters reveal themselves, loyalties shift, there's lots of swearing and we learn about "Motherwell Rules". But essentially absolutely nothing happens. No one dies, no one resigns and certainly no one gets a pint glass in the eye (though Julius Nicholson gets some cheese chucked at him).
My youngest son is doing more and more story writing at the moment. We talked about the old techniques like "suddenly a man with a gun walked through a door" but it is a remarkable skill to just go round in a circle li this.
My favourite Tintin book does something similar, The Castafiore Emerald. It is a masterful journey through the skills and temperaments of Tintin and Captain Haddock. It makes pointed observations about prejudice and motive, but in the end we end up where we started. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Campaigning for our NHS in Hazel Grove. Against TTIP and...





Campaigning for our NHS in Hazel Grove. Against TTIP and creeping privatisation.




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These figures show George Osborne has broken his promise to balance the books by this year and national debt is still rising - Chris Leslie

These figures show George Osborne has broken his promise to balance the books by this year and national debt is still rising - Chris Leslie:

labourpress:



Chris Leslie MP, Labour’s Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, responding to today’s public sector finance figures, said:


“These figures show George Osborne has broken his promise to balance the books by this year and national debt is still rising.


“His failure on the deficit is because…





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Final chance for Government to ensure fracking regime is safe and sustainable – Flint and Greatrex

Final chance for Government to ensure fracking regime is safe and sustainable – Flint and Greatrex:

labourpress:



Labour has tabled an amendment to prevent fracking in the UK unless 13 outstanding loopholes in the regulation are closed. Labour first set out its conditions for fracking to take place in March 2012, but the Government has repeatedly sidelined genuine and legitimate concerns, ignoring gaps in the…





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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review of 2014

You just never know what opportunities life is going to throw in your way. That was my biggest take from a year of massive highs and lows.

The sad stuff first. We lost Hazel. Too soon and too painful, but forever loved. And Geoff Unsworth and Teresa Hawksworth, both so kind and warm and a cruel loss. Ian Hawksworth's eulogy to his wife, and the mother of his children, was as powerful and loving as anything I've ever heard.

Our debate forum Discuss has had a storming year - we're really thrilled with the progress we made - doing podcasts and putting on first rate debates - the real high points were our religion ding dong with Polly Toynbee and Bishop David Walker and the fracking fracas with Kevin Anderson and Bez.

My involvement in Discuss has really energised my involvement in popular debate and politics. I've seen some fantastic debates - Juergen Maier on Europe was outstanding, Tom Cannon on Football was pure poetry, but it was also contributions from people with a strong personal viewpoint who weren't academics or professional politician - guys like Steven Lindsay, Graeme Hawley and Tracey Smith, and then there was Bez, the longest ten minutes of my life from the moment I said: Ladies and gentleman, here's our first speaker... To be fair, he was on the winning side!

Saw some inspiring and thought provoking talks - the Blue Labour conference in Nottingham was probably the event with the deepest and widest range of provocations my friend Michael Merrick on education and Greenpeace's Ruth Davis on Nature, Science and the Common Good.

The best speech I wasn't at, but listened to on the RSA podcast, was Jon Cruddas's lecture on Radical Hope.

I long ago gave up on the main hall at Labour conference providing any of that, but the fringe had some real highlights - Liz Kendall on the personalisation of public services and Maurice Glasman on community organising - "the time it takes an activist to interrupt someone who is talking about something important to them - 8 seconds. The time that a stubborn interruption could be useful - 30 seconds." Personally, I think you can read some situations where even longer works. Listening always works.

Writing - got into the final of Pulp Idol - a first time writers competition. Making good progress on my debut novel getting published in 2015.

Work wise - I've really enjoyed being part of the Manchester conversation with Downtown - sitting at the table for some of the vital policy conversations that are contributing to the growth of Britain's best city, just as devolution rises up the agenda, providing a positive and progressive contacts and a context for the best business network in the North.

The work for Seneca, Liberty and the Tomorrow's Practice project for the ICAEW has been a real privilege, working alongside fantastically clever people creating businesses that are thinking hard and evolving in a challenging world.

Finally, I was selected to be Labour's parliamentary candidate for Hazel Grove for 2015. As described in the Stockport Express, Prolific North and the Business Desk, it is a big new step. But more than anything this represents a privilege and an honour, it is an opportunity to build a new covenant and a new way of doing community politics in this constituency.