Friday, November 27, 2015

The inspiring life of Kevin Wilson and a Mao quote I hope it's alright to use

The trajectory of history sometimes shows how the smallest of events can have the most profound and positive of consequences.

First, a Mao story. Chairman Mao was allegedly asked what course history would have taken if it had been President Krushchev who had been shot in 1963 instead of President John F Kennedy. 

"I don't think Mr Onassis would have married Mrs Krushchev," he said.

This regular Friday blog is usually a summary of the week that was. This week it will be shorter than usual for reasons that will become apparent. 

Talking to people at the Bionow awards at Mere Country Club on Thursday night it was clear that the understated and modest Kevin Wilson, who died aged 64, deserves to be stated rather more.

This week I was involved in another Knowledge Exchange event. These thought leading seminars promote a greater level of understanding of issues to do with workplace design, productivity and culture. We held it at the Soapworks development at Exchange Quay next to where TalkTalk are building a major presence and a significant employment base. 

Had Kevin not met Ian Currie at Charlton Seal stockbrokers in the early 80s then the direction of Manchester as a financial centre may not have taken the successful route it has. RedX Pharma, a winner last night following a successfully flotation, was backed by Ian's business Seneca. My friend Neil McArthur was pondering this - Kevin's advice in 1998 took his telecoms business on a road that eventually saw the formation of TalkTalk.

But I've heard this week some profoundly personal ways in which Kevin Wilson will always be remembered. A maverick character who developed board games as a sideline, he trusted the judgement of a young admin assistant at Zeus Capital who was made to feel more confident and inspired by him as a result. Sally Williams is now the fantastic client services manager at Liberty, the pensions business I'm on the board of, and is one of the many who is reflecting on the special effect Kevin had.

I said this would be brief. But take any time you may have set aside to read this to instead go and read this tribute to "my funny and kind friend" Kevin Wilson from Steven Lindsay. Whether you know any of the people or not, it matters not. Just think of this: to have lived a life where you have friends who love you quite like this is a great life indeed. Just horribly short.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why I feel terrorised and what the former head of MI5 told me about leadership

Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5
(pic from JLA, speaker agency)
Are there things you know, that we couldn't know, but if we did know, maybe we'd think better of our leaders?

That was the question I put to Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, at an event I hosted in Manchester in 2012. Given she'd been on duty and in charge during the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 and we were discussing leadership it seemed a fair question to ask. It's at the forefront of all our minds now.

I'll admit this, I am terrorised. I shouldn't be, I can rationalise the numbers. And I'll sign up to any amount of "not afraid" pledges. I genuinely wasn't afraid when I lived in London through the early 90s. You just accepted it. Maybe I was younger and more reckless, but you always sensed the IRA usually intended to make life inconvenient and uncomfortable. That somehow the coded warnings would get us out of danger in time. That's how it felt. The deeper sense of fear and anger started when I made a trip up to watch Russia v Germany at Old Trafford during the Euro 96 Championships. That was the day when I heard a large boom in the distance - it was the IRA blowing up a big part of Manchester city centre. Warning or not, it made me angry and scared.

Three years later, while I was on constant standby for the birth of my first son, London was hit by bombings in three different spots - two of which were regular haunts, Soho and Brick Lane. The fourth target, before the maniac was stopped, was to have been Stamford Hill, the large Jewish area close to where I lived.

On September the 10th 2001 I looked around the Capitol building in Washington DC, visited Arlington Cemetery and gazed over in awe at the Pentagon building. Without illusions, but with great pride I enjoyed a few days steeped in the best traditions of a multi-cultural democracy. I flew home from Dulles Airport where I may well have been within feet of the murderous crew who hours later were flying the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 to Los Angeles into the Pentagon.

On the 7th of July 2005, my sister's birthday, I awoke to the awful news that London was under attack. I later found myself on a train from Manchester Piccadilly to Cardiff Central that day, both stations were closed due to security alerts, no coded warnings, no tactical avoidance of loss of life.

I mention those days of clammy mortal fear and anger, not just as a personal recollection, but to explain that I am terrorised. And that my pride for our society, how we congregate freely and how we celebrate diversity, universal human rights and the pursuit of love, however flawed, is who we are.

The London bombs were the work of Nazi nail bomber David Copeland. No one tried to say we were "reaping the whirlwind" of a society that was alienating him and turning him into what he was. Or that there was any basis to his justification that he was fighting the degeneracy encouraged by the Zionist Occupation Government. He is a murdering arsehole who deserves to rot in jail and so should the authors of the brainwashing garbage that turned him.

Likewise, I have no time for mealy mouthed moral relativism over terrorism, militant Islam and guilt about the West or that we "had it coming".

During a painful and emotional review of the Saturday papers for the BBC last weekend I could only conclude that being who we are, living as we do, is why they hate us. Why those people in Paris eating in an ethnic restaurant, watching football and going to a concert is an affront to a murderous death cult. It's who we are. I'm proud of who we are.

So, to come back to the point about leaders and what they know and how they react. I was fairly appalled by a paralysed George W Bush in the aftermath of 911 and impressed by Mayor Giuliani. Eliza Manningham-Buller confirmed I was right to be impressed by Tony Blair on all those occasions in London as well as all the threats we didn't get to hear about.

I'm not being mean spirited when I say I don't recall the statements of the leaders of the opposition back then.

Why then does it matter quite so much what the leader of our opposition says and does in the wake of the Paris attacks? It sort of matters to me because it's my party. And it matters because of everything he's ever said about terrorism, every caveat he's ever attached, every flaky position that the awful Stop the War Coalition have espoused, every element of the relativistic anti-Western "yebbutery" and "whataboutism" that has to find common cause with enemies of the rest of us.

Yet it wasn't really what Jeremy Corbyn was going to do or say this week that had me sitting up awake and anxious at 3 in the morning. I harbour a lack of confidence in David Cameron and don't yet feel he's gripped Britain's role in the world and has a strategy for a response to confront the threats we face, or to successfully project British values and Britain's interests effectively.

It all comes back to a point Eliza made three and half years ago in answer to my question - leadership is not about command and control, but vision and strategy. "You must be honest about difficulties, but demonstrate your confidence in the future and in your people."

That is quite some yardstick by which to measure our present leaders, is it not?

Friday, November 13, 2015

To offer hope - possibilities of devolution in Greater Manchester

At the Discuss Manchester debate on education this week I was greatly encouraged by a conclusion to some of the bright, startling and inspirational ideas being chucked around. Devolution is a possibility - not an inevitability. A challenge, not a solution. 

All the speakers were fantastic - I could listen to Debra Kidd and Melissa Benn all day long. But as ever our audience rose to that challenge of thought leadership and ambition. Overwhelmingly our audience agreed that education is failing our economy, despite a valiant and well-argued attempt to persuade us otherwise by Nick Bent and Alun Francis. The very deliberate word I asserted in that motion, by the way, was "our".

Our solution to our problem. Well, let's create a Manchester curriculum, for starters.

Since I raised it in the round table discussion with the PM, the Chancellor and other Northern leaders after George Osborne's Northern Powerhouse speech I've scratched my head as to why it hasn't formed a plank of the whole DevoManc edifice. Health and social care is arguably harder and riskier, while the direct benefits of education reform also potentially solve two problems in one - happiness and productivity.

Mike Emmerich has written a very smart piece for the Guardian on how cities need to scale up their ambitions on devolution. And I've written a great deal including this, also for the Guardian, about how devolution presents a real opportunity to shape the future, whereas to most people it's still seen as something that is done to you by "they".

I think a lot about "they".

At a meeting in our local area on Tuesday I witnessed one of those transitions from "they" to "we". Matt Grant is one of those special people in any community who cares enough to do something and uses his skills and resources to lead. He'd be reluctant to call himself a "community leader" or "organiser" but in addressing some of the acute traffic problems he's shown a great deal more vision than our local councillors.

Long story short, there's going to be a new by-pass that will link the A6 to the Airport road. It will inevitably change traffic patterns. We have a problem with speeding on local roads. Matt and the Windlehurst Living Streets Group (of which I'm a tiny part) have pushed and pushed through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, meetings with officers and councillors for information about whether we have a problem (we do) and what are the solutions (inadequate). This week Matt presented the start of "our" alternative strategy.

This is what devolution should be doing. Not just creating another structure slightly less far away that does stuff to you, but where decisions are taken at the appropriate level. Not just accepting what central government are doing but challenging it. Not just railing against an agreement because one side of it are Tories, who are very good at devolving other people's power, but seizing the moment because it has the possibility of better outcomes.

In another meeting I was at this week with a client we had a presentation on how HMRC are tackling the tax gap. Shortly after we hear that they are to be regionalised and rationalised, resulting in job losses and disruption to service. My old colleagues at the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAEW) are rightly sceptical about this. But what if it was a tax collection and incentive service that operated locally according to the priorities of an area? One again, the possibilities start to light up the imagination.

Finally, in the course of challenging ideas and exploring new areas of interest about how we work I attended a session on Tuesday about entrepreneurial wellbeing. I saw a terrific presentation by Kat Taylor on bipolar disorders and creative people. It was unsettling at times, but inspiring about how we must celebrate and embrace difference and diversity, however hard that can be.

So, an incredibly exciting, challenging and inspiring week - I'd like to think I can loll about on Saturday and think this through a bit more, but I'm up at the crack of dawn to review the newspapers with Andy Crane on BBC Radio Manchester. Maybe some of this will make it onto the programme.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Gary Bowyer, when "a right good go" just isn't enough and why I want Tim Sherwood

I have a small habit, a catharsis, of writing up a few thoughts on each Rovers match. Not a match report, just a few observations on our day out.

Except this week.

After the draw with Brentford I just couldn't be bothered. I'd stopped caring.

After the Burnley game a few fans I know we're trying to muster support for a Bowyer out campaign. That's never been my style, even with Ince and Kean, I thought it was counter productive. Much as I came to resent the pair of them picking up a big cheque for doing a job they were woefully unqualified to do.

Now that Gary Bowyer has been sacked I feel shocked. Mainly because the owners seem to have realised they own an actual football club with a manager. I had begun to suspect they would never be seen again and that change was a distant prospect while the transfer embargo is in place and any chance of promotion gone.

The strange world of Venky's is a mystery wrapped in an enigma buried under a riddle, or something. I can only imagine conversations were had to sell any player we could get money for, except Jordan Rhodes. I deduced that Bowyer was probably untouchable, because he kept his mouth shut and got on with it.

But if there was one thing from the Brentford game that summed it up for me, it was that there have been so many games where the style of the match is dictated by the opposition, Brentford play it quick pass and move and they press up the pitch, so we just let them. There didn't seem to be a game plan. time and time again I left games bemused about what type of side we are meant to be. The tormentors of Ipswich? or the torpor of MK Dons away? No consistency and no cohesion. His selections latterly of Chris Taylor and stubbornly persisting with Ben Marshall at right back were just daft. That wasn't why he was sacked though.

No, Bowyer committed the most unforgivable sin of them all. We lost to Burnley at home. There is no way back after that. He didn't have enough in the locker beyond "we gave it a right good go". Sure, all his mates, the football people, will say he had his hands tied, there was no money. But when there was he spent it on Chris Brown, Chris Taylor and various goalies we don't appear to need.

So, to the replacement. Now the owners have woken up I can only imagine the madness that may now ensue. I don't think they're likely to stop at the management team. Nor is the international break a coincidence. I would expect a sweep of the boardroom too. A new chief executive and chairman. That may then rule out my initial thought that Derek Shaw will lure his old mate David Moyes, just sacked in Spain. Just please don't appoint a global adviser. But given the mistakes of the past that I'm sure they want to learn from and atone for, let's assume they are capable of making rational and sound footballing decisions.

I would love one or more of the Class of 95 to come in - a dream ticket of Sherwood and Shearer, maybe. Not because they've proved themselves as top managers, but becuase it has to be about the passion, the fire and the glory. We had a glory year. We may never have one again. But playing it safe and appointing Alan Curbishley or Ian Holloway would be so boring.

OK, so Henning Berg and Colin Hendry haven't worked out as managers from that era, but Sherwood is different. He'd be my choice.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Taking Back Power by Simon Parker - book review in a lift

It just can't go on like this. Over centralised, inefficient and disengaged from the public. Not just the Labour Party, but government and politics. Simon Parker has created a lively and illuminating contribution to our understanding of how we are governed and how we may look to break out of this neck hold by Whitehall.

I've read more than my fill of policy pamphlets this summer as I've tried to digest Labour's defeat but the most upsetting one of all is the successful colonisation of the high ground on the devolution issue by the Conservatives. It's not like Labour never saw it coming. But instead of burying a good idea in a dense growth review - as Ed Miliband did to Andrew Adonis' important work - the Tories seized a moment, and made it plausible. That the excellent work of Labour local authorities is being made impossible through cuts to central grants is the difficult nettle to grasp, which this book attempts.

There's also more going on at a local level than Simon Parker has room to cover in this short and inspirational book - free schools, town teams and neighbourhood plans need more understanding.

I'm also not overly sold on the concept of a universal income - will have too high an inflationary effect - but loved the idea of a lottery for the second chamber. Just the kind of fresh thinking we have been lacking.

It's also really funny. Not something I expected from this neck of the woods, but one of the most enjoyable political reads in a long while.

This is a breezy book review in a lift, an idea started when I worked on the 8th floor and someone would point at the book and ask - what's that about then? 

Talking about 40 by 40 on TV with Fiona Fox of That's Manchester TV

Interview about my book 40 by 40 with Fiona Fox on That's Manchester TV.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Responding to my teenage lad who said: Corbyn's lot are burning police cars in London.

One of the kids, I won't say which one, burst into the kitchen last night and said - "have you seen what Corbyn's lot are doing? They're rioting and burning police cars in London." 

This poses a tricky dilemma as a parent. 

I had three choices, what do I do?

a) applaud his moral outrage at violence and disorder, but calmly point out that those rioting had nothing to do with the Labour leader.

b) berate him as a Tory lite lackey for swallowing the mainstream media line on legitimate protest against this vile Tory government who are literally slaughtering the poor while he does NOTHING.

c) say no, son, you're right. These are Corbyn's people, his mask of kinder gentler politics covers the ugly mob that have been emboldened and legitimised by the world view that says the correct response to anything you disagree with is to go on a march and protest against it, shout at it, thus attracting nutters who feed off the impotent faux outrage that will inevitably end in the same predictable way.

I ran this exercise on Facebook (which is for friends and family) and enjoyed the largely irreverant responses.

Anyway, game over, the correct answer was of course all 3. He has his own mind, he dislikes Jeremy Corbyn intensely - hence the highly visceral reaction to the burning of a police car. But there are many viewpoints to take on board, not least a more nuanced one about how angry people feel. But non-violence is a bit of line here for me.

Here's the Huffington Post's report on it following the appearance of Class War activist Adam Clifford on the BBC.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Crowd control at three events this week - the exciting life of an event host and chair

I've hosted three events over the last week where trouble and conflict was expected, but none came. I'd be flattering myself if I said this was because I established such a force of firm control, but there are ways to encourage debate without it getting testy.

Our speaker at a private dinner on Wednesday night was Tehsin Nayani. If you've never heard of him, that's his intention. For six years he was the PR man for the Glazer family. You could say he did a lousy job. That would be harsh, but he certainly had his hand tied behind his back with owners who simply didn't want to engage with public or media. As a result, the American owners of Manchester United have never improved upon their relationship with the fan base at Old Trafford and long periods of their ownership have been punctuated with protests and discontent. Tehsin gave us some fascinating insights into who his bosses were, what they were like and how the club is run. In his book The Glazer Gatekeeper, he explains just how frustrating his job was at times. He's no longer a spokesman for the owners of Man United, but clearly retains a respect for them and stoutly defended their tactics and strategy of ownership at Old Trafford. Did everyone leave convinced? Probably not. Did the guests of KPMG, NorthEdge and Rowan Partners manage to enjoy ourselves without falling out about it? Very much so, as Ron Manager would say.

I was delighted to be asked to open Manchester Policy Week on Monday. Arriving early I was surprised to see burly security guards on the doors to the room inside the Manchester Museum. The debate I hosted was on fracking, with an illustrious panel of geologists and climate scientists and for good measure, a senior executive from exploration business Cuadrilla, which seems to attract protestors like moths to a flame. We used electronic clickers to gauge the opinions of the audience - 70 per cent were against. By the end that number was reduced to 60 per cent (a mixture of latecomers and waverers). Interestingly, the argument against fracking from Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre is almost solely concerned with the end product, not the means. It's more hydro-carbons and that's enough to want to block any further gas extraction. Anyway, no protestors but a very robust and high quality debate as you can read on the Policy Week blog.

Last Saturday I took a trip to the seaside for Labour's North West conference where I was hosting a fringe meeting on how we can make Britain fairer in the next five years. As I said on my blog for the think tank Progress, there is a twin track approach needed here of community leadership and ultimately campaigning for Labour to be in government, wherever that may be. There is a golden thread of sanity through the Labour party that is exemplified by how we govern - Jim McMahon, the leader of Oldham and selected to stand for parliament in the Oldham West by-election is one - but also MPs like Alison McGovern who are thinkers and active campaigners. There is talk about conflict in the party, but I only detected a steely pragmatism. The advice I gave to Young Labour activists who didn't get elected to officer roles on Saturday was to just get on with the task in hand, put ideological differences aside and work for the people who need us. Sure, there will be ripe language and rule bending. Yes, some of them were a little shaken up, but that's politics, it can be a rough trade.

So, such variety and no bother. I do think it's important to maintain that safe and free space to express views and opinions. I saddens me that Universities are closing down debate and extending the dubious "no platform" policy beyond where it was ever intended. We're in the process of programming our 2016 Discuss series and I would dearly love to host debates on whether Islam needs a renaissance, why Manchester isn't as good as it thinks it is and the relevance of feminism.

I ought to point out that my agent, Nicky Wake of Don't Panic is taking bookings for conferences, debates and awards nights.