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Manchester: my City of Dreams

This morning when I arrived at my ploace of work at Ackworth School, I discovered that two of our students and the daughter of one of my colleagues had been at the Ariana Grande concert at the MEN building last night. Mercifully they were safe but very shaken. We can’t know, at this stage, what the long term impact will be for children – and indeed adults – who witnessed the horrors of what we assume to be a terrorist attack last night.

 

The mood in school was sombre. I taught a GCSE Drama class first period and decided  – after they had talked about things for a bit – to let them play a game of Hide and Seek in the theatre. Young people are remarkably resilient and can often find reserves of strength and the ability to laugh much sooner than adults. “Thanks sir, I feel much better after that” one student shouted as they left the room at the end of the lesson. They bounce back, not because they’re insensitive, but because they’re tough.

I work in a Quaker school and Quakerism is an offshoot of Christianity that I have come to love. There is no clerical hierarchy, no iconography; dare I say it there is almost no ‘religion’ in terms of rules and strictures. There is silence, there is contemplation; I once heard it described as a western Zen  -a description I rather liked. There is a strong and lengthy tradition of pacifism associated with the Quakers, although again, this is not a rule. Quakers have fought in wars, just as they have driven ambulances or, in some cases, gone to prison for their conscientious objection.

Yet we should not forget that Quakerism was founded in outrage and anger at the excesses and tyranny of those who would wield religious belief like a crude and devastating weapon. Quakerism may be peaceful but it is not passive any more than those of us who love and cherish peace are not passive in our striving for peace. Today is a day to be angry, to be outraged as the shrill voices of extremism screech their fidelity to a moronic set of murderous epithets. It’s nothing to do with faith and everything to do with control, exploitation and tyranny. As a privileged member of a community (Ackworth School)  that was founded on the principles of peace and religious tolerance more than two centuries ago I’m glad I know the difference. But for all that, today is a good day to be angry. Today, I need my anger and I guess many of us do.

I had little to do with Manchester until 2007 when I took a play called ‘An Englishman’s Home’ to a theatre festival for new writing – the wonderful 24.7 theatre Festival. I made friends with many good people in the theatre scene and I longed to go back. Two years later I took another play called ‘As We Forgive Them’ and my association with Manchester became a friendship. The people of Manchester welcomed me, supported me, worked with me and honoured me with a Manchester Evening News  theatre award for ‘As We Forgive Them’ . I didn’t and don’t feel like a visitor  when I go there now and it is significant that nearly half of my friends on Facebook are people I know and love from the theatre scene in Manchester. It’s a city that was gracious enough to take me to its heart just as I have taken it to mine. My son studied there and now lives there. I love the place. The Kings Arms, The Brockley Jack, The Arndale, The Whitworth – they all just feel right and I’ve been in and seen so many wonderful events here.

Many people have commented that they have ‘no words’ after the horrors of last night – and I understand that. There is an inevitable sense of impotent rage in the face of this kind of terror. But, for me, the response of Manchester’s citizens represents the ultimate thwarting of the brainless evil that was at work there last night. The taxi drivers who turned up to take people home free of charge, the woman who posted her number offering to help people find their loved ones, fielding hundreds of calls and texts as a consequence; the homeless man who ran into the building and gave comfort to a dying woman; the hoteliers who opened their doors for no charge and many many others are all practitioners of a greater good. The countless thousands acts of love that filled the streets of Manchester last night are more than a match for any sterile ideology and the Heavens are, frankly, too small to accommodate the unassuming heroes whose dignity and strength I can only wonder at.

Thank you Manchester.

 

The terrifying consequences of certainty

As I get older I seem to get less certain – about everything. I won’t bore you with where my current thinking is in regard to the existence of God but it’s somewhere between Richard Dawkins and Pope Francis. It’s probably nearer to Dawkins these days, but I like the Pope’s face and he made quite a funny ‘mother in law’ joke once in a speech. (No offence Shirley, it was genuinely quite funny.)

If you want to win an election, you create a platform for policies that you think will reach across the political landscape, gain traction and  – crucially – persuade people to change their minds if you lost last time, or stick with you if you won. If the outcome is unclear, you’ll make a number of promises and pledges which – over time – you hope you might just be able to backtrack on. Remember the charming Mr Cameron? He (rather rashly it turned out) promised a referendum in the days when UKIP were a potent force in British politics and seemed a genuine threat to both major political parties – but there was no  way he could hope that we’d forget that once he’d won in 2015.

But what do you do if you’re certain of victory or, indeed, defeat? Writing a manifesto when you know you’ll never have to implement it is, arguably, quite easy. Promise the earth because it isn’t going to cost you or anyone else the earth. Fill it full of ‘Here’s what you would have won’ goodies and then shake your head wistfully when you’re not called on to deliver.  But even if you know you’re not going to win, you should at least deliver something that’s credible, costed and that can be taken seriously. My principal problem with the Labour Manifesto was that it proposed a series of major changes that should have been discussed much earlier so that it could have a decent platform. As I posted on FB at the time, I don’t actually think it’s that radical or left wing – no reference to withdrawing from NATO or junking Trident – but the lack of discussion led to members of the Shadow Cabinet  not being able to answer points of clarification when challenged by journalists. If you really believe that the News Media is biased against you (and for a variety of reasons I don’t) then work on your case so it’s water tight, don’t start getting shirty with a journalist who asks you a question you can’t answer.

The problem for the Tories is that they had to come up with a manifesto that they know they will have to implement in difficult times, very difficult times.  May knows that Brexit will bring economic challenges – to put it mildly –  and for many of the ‘Leave’ voters who thought their lot would be a better one out of the EU, things could easily get much worse. So for all the talk of turning her back on generations of Tory low taxation and encouragement of the individual, this is a manifesto that is pragmatic to its core. She needs as much room for manoeuvre as possible so the electorate need fair warning to prepare themselves. They know that she’s at the helm so everything will be fine. The manifesto may not promise goodies but it’s fair, honest and straight-forward. Just like her.

The only problem, of course, is that, with this manifesto,  she’s blown it.

It took Blair six years of being PM before he started to believe in his own infallibility – and we all saw where that ended. May has every right to be confident, given her record at the Home Office and her public approval ratings – against those of Corbyn’s. But scrapping the Winter Fuel Allowance and failing to put a cap on Social Care, she’s taken an axe to the roots of her core support in the certain belief that the core support will stay solid because she’s…..well damnit, she’s Theresa May. However, at the time of writing, she’s just issued a statement announcing that there will be a cap on Social Care and that there was always going to be one. She just feels it’s necessary to clarify this now because Jeremy Corbyn has been fear mongering amongst the elderly, the fiend.

Good God, the unthinkable has happened: Corbyn has rattled May.

For the record, I think the Tories will still win a majority on June 8th but today May looks dithering, flummoxed and weak. Their manifesto crosses the line between pragmatism and complacency and, recklessly, takes for granted their core support. Corbyn, on the other hand, having been at his tetchy, paranoid worst a month ago at the outset of the Local Election campaign, is positively beaming.

It’s all beginning to get just a bit interesting, after all!

The day Jeremy called me Richard.

In July 2015, as a Labour Party member, I attended a leadership hustings in Leeds. Three of the candidates were on the stage with the chairman, Matthew d’Ancona, awaiting the arrival of the fourth. He was nowhere to be seen and we were already 10 minutes late, so d’Ancona, somewhat embarrassed, decided to press on and hope that the absent candidate would soon join us.

Andy Burnham was part the way through his initial address when a commotion was heard at the back of the hall. Voices of concern gave way to a spontaneous burst of applause as a slight but athletic figure sprinted down the centre aisle and leapt on to the stage. Burnham paused as the figure removed his jacket and embraced a rather startled Liz Kendall in one deft movement.

Jezza had arrived.

When it was his turn to speak he began with an almost proud apology. “I’m sorry I’m late”, he beamed,  “blame the trains. When I get in I’ll re-nationalise them!” The cheers were resounding. That Jeremy Corbyn knew how to  make an entrance was beyond doubt and, although, the veracity of his account of subsequent train journeys would run into a little trouble, no one had anything but good will towards him that day. He was engaging, sincere and totally lacking in any detail. But it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to be elected so it seemed a shame not to enjoy the broad brushstrokes of his rhetoric.

Rather to my surprise, of the 200 people or so present that afternoon, I was called upon to ask a question. I’ve always held Matthew d’Ancona in the highest regard since. Not just for selecting my question, but also for pronouncing my surname correctly. I asked about the future of my disabled son and spoke, briefly, of my anxieties about the dignity and value of his life in today’s society. Interestingly, Jeremy was the only one of the four candidates to use my first name when offering an answer. It feels nice when someone famous talks to you personally and dignifies you with the use of your name. But, in terms of policy and specific ideas he didn’t really substantiate his undoubted sincerity. Kendall, regrettably, was even less convincing. Cooper and Burnham answered the question unglamorously, factually and with specific reference to current legislation and future legislation they would attempt to action. Afterwards I was able to talk to both of them about their responses. Again they were straightforward, unexciting but impressively well informed and specific. Sadly I couldn’t ask Jeremy anything because he had a train to catch, apparently.  For all the criticism that his presentation skills have drawn, this is a man who knew his audience that day and who, undoubtedly, possesses a kind of tousled vanity. But I’m afraid I couldn’t get as excited as most of the rest of the audience.  I had arrived as a floating voter and left a supporter of Cooper. Should she stand again, I’d probably vote for her again.

In the weeks that followed, it became clear that the apparent also-ran from the Left was going to win and win big. The decision by the PLP, under its temporary leader Harriet Harman to abstain on the Welfare Bill sealed the fate of the three other contenders. They weren’t, as some have said, betraying their core voters; rather they were trying to show that they were prepared to look carefully at the Bill’s contents and argue it clause by clause before it went to final reading. In the shadow of a crushing defeat three months previously, they weren’t going to be caught out voting against a Welfare Bill without giving it due consideration – and they were aware that, for all its iniquitous unfairness, the benefit cap had gone down well with many people.  By abstaining, they thought they were avoiding the trap the Tories left for them. Instead they fell right into it.  It was one of the most ham-fisted political manoeuvres in the face of a nasty vicious piece of legislation  – and it ended any speculation that Corbyn might not become leader.

I was always taught in History that civil wars are more brutal than wars between nations and the internecine savagery in the Labour Party since Corbyn’s election has been blistering. Many see this is a battle between left and right, the ideological soul of the party as exemplified by Keir Hardie and Clement Attlee (for whom Corbyn is seen as a  natural successor by his supporters) versus the ghosts of New Labour, the Blairites, the centrists and the compromisers. But in invoking history, the far left fail to study it. However unpalatable we may find it, all of the party’s successful leaders were shrewd politicians, fixers and deal makers in order to keep the broad coalition of the Labour Party together. Don’t invoke the name of Keir Hardie without finding out how he did a deal with the Liberals. Don’t wistfully reflect on the government of Clement Attlee without reading up on his battles with the left and, on the other hand, don’t ever dismiss Wilson as an unprincipled fixer without thanking him that no British soldier ever died in Vietnam. Many on the left of the party may ask – quite understandably  – “What’s the point of a Labour Party if it can’t be radical and have a strong leftish platform? If it can’t appeal to the public, then what is the point in dressing the party up as some pale imitation of the Tories? Why not just let the Tories get on with it?”

To answer that, let’s take the last years of the New Labour Government – from 2007 – 2010, years that were mired in scandal and the appalling legacy of the Iraq invasion, a government that had run out of ideas and was philosophically bankrupt.

Except it hadn’t and it wasn’t.

Between 2007 and 2010, statutory entitlement to paid holidays was increased from 4.8 to 5.6 weeks, parents with children up to the age of 16 were given statutory rights to request flexible working arrangements; between 2008 and 2010 additional money was put into provision for tax credits for families and child poverty fell. The Autism Act was passed in 2009 to provide support and improve services for adults with Autism. The Pension Acts of 2007 and 2008 improved provision for Pensions, The Equality Act in 2010 required equal treatment in access to employment and public services (an Act I used, successfully, when my disabled son was suspended from college for ‘poor conduct’) and The Child Poverty Act in 2010 which set targets for governments to eliminate child poverty and led to the establishment of the Child Poverty Commission. Look at this list, then look at it again and answer this question: how much of this would have been accomplished by a Tory government? And then consider Minimum Wage, Educational Maintenance Allowance, Overseas Aid tripled,  Surestart, Remploy and Disability Living Allowance, NHS waiting lists reduced and education funded at record levels. Ok, it wasn’t enough, the breadth of ambition was too limited and New Labour was too authoritarian and too in thrall of the ghastly Murdoch Press – BUT the notion that it was no different from what came before it or what came afterwards is crude, mendacious nonsense.

When a political party shifts its ground it frequently does so as part of a backlash against its immediate past. The ‘charm’  and superficially inclusive manner of Cameron was intended to address Theresa May’s observation that the Tories were seen as ‘The Nasty Party’.  Seen out of context, the New Labour project might look authoritarian, plastic, focused on image and ideologically limited; a project which yielded only a few ameliorations to an unrelentingly unfair system. Seen within the prism of the rise of Militant in the late 70s and early 80s it seems a far more rational move. There is a very old documentary (from 1997), still to be found on Youtube,  “Walden on Wilson”,  in which veteran commentator Brian Walden asserts that New Labour  is trying to distance itself from the murkiness, compromise and ‘failure’  of the Wilson governments. (Ironically, an excellent resume of the Wilson years was given last year by Tristram Hunt, the former MP for Stoke on Trent who, for many exemplifies the character of New  Labour). “It’s ok”, each new generation seems to say  “we’re not like that anymore, we’ve moved on so you can move on with us too”.  The tragedy of the Labour Party is its innate desire to reject its own legacy. It is not unreasonable to want to reject the disastrous incursion into Iraq, but do we have to reject everything else too? We can reject the authoritarianism, the stage managed conferences and the appalling obsequiousness towards Murdoch but we can and should embrace the achievements. I write on the 20th anniversary of the most overwhelming Labour victory in history and Corbyn – in an inept and ungracious move – chooses to celebrate on his Twitter account the creation of the May Day bank holiday by the Callaghan Government in 1978 instead.

In this election I will still vote Labour and will encourage others to do the same, but there are so many of our would-be supporters who won’t be doing. And whilst I know that those who remain faithful to Jeremy Corbyn will blame the PLP for not supporting him and that electoral defeat will be our punishment for a divided party, the truth is that he cannot appeal to a wider electorate. In the aftermath of the 2015 election a study by the Fabian society outlined the battle the party had to fight in order to overturn the Tory government. It is essential reading for anyone who accepts that electoral success for our party is a prerequisite to social and educational progress. I can’t dispute the success of Corbyn in galvanising a new and enlarged party membership but, sadly, it’s not enough to win power. In the 100 constituencies where voter turnout is at its lowest, 92 of them are already held by Labour.

I recently lost a friend who accused me of despising Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t. Furthermore, I acknowledge his contribution as an MP, a campaigner and protestor.  But just as I have worked with many wonderful teachers, there are very few of them who I ever believed who would make good Head teachers. The NUT Rep/Woodwork teacher is now occupying the Heads office and the kids are delighted. But the parents think the austere grammar school is the better option and some staff are having to consider a rapid career change.