Labour’s wannabe cheerleaders fail to convince in listless Newsnight hustings

May 30, 2007

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The candidates for deputy leader of the labour party do themselves no favours with disappointing performances in a below-par antiquated and amateurish Newsnight production. Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn do their career prospects least damage. Jeremy Paxton as King Lear is irritated and irritating. A night to forget.

BBC’s Newnight proudly trailed its coup of arranging the first televised debate of the Deputy leadership contest. All six candidates accepted an invitation to appear. The format, set, performances were all pretty dreadful.

Perhaps it was always naïve of me to expect anything enlightening from this kind of speed dating, although some viewers with a taste for black comedy may have found something in the show.

The candidates were each given two minutes for an uninterrupted pitch. This ended with all six standing uncomfortably behind a set of cheap-looking lecterns arranged in a shallow arc. In the next act, Jeremy Paxton asked a series of futile questions. This was followed by the trick or treat game ‘You’ve got to answer YES or NO’ or you will be shown up as the buffoon we all know you really are’. This is usually great fun, because everyone knows that the questions can’t be answered Yes or No. So mostly, the contestants cheated and offered qualified Yes or No replies. At one stage someone answered with a firm Yes, which seemed a surprisingly adequate response.

Tiring of the lack of gratification from this extended play, Jeremy made a remarkable triple-lutz kind of technical move, announcing that he was going to ask each of them in turn a philosophical question. Through some kind act of personal psychological protection I can recall neither question nor the replies it generated. By this time Hilary Benn and Harriet Harman were draped miserably over their flimsy barriers, and Hazel Blears had almost disappeared behind hers.

Overall impact

It would have been an astonishing performance for any candidate to have risen above the nightmarish situation they found themselves in. In a briefer extract from an earlier event, Hazel Blears had seemed to be the most impressive, speaking with warmth and intelligence. These qualities were not so much on view tonight. Jon Cruddas made a reasonable case for a role in which he would gee-up the morale of party activists. Peter Hain was far too weighed down with gravitas. Harriet unconvincing.

Hilary Benn was able, from time to time, to rise above the questioning with intelligent (but not too clever) replies. I thought both he and Alan Johnson offered the promise of something authentic if they were to be elected. Johnson will eventually be able to avoid mentioning postal deliveries. Benn is well on the way to escaping from being son of a loveable but strange dad.

If only

It would have been wonderful if any candidate had found a way of stopping the performance through some act of creative destruction. That would have shown something special. Would it really have been damaging to a political career? But it was not to be. Newsnight’s curiously banal format trundled on. And, yes, maybe I should have just switched off earlier. No wonder leading politicians are reluctant to accept invitations to appear. Newsnight is likely to be a mostly Gordon-free zone over the coming months.


Social Networking and The Manchester Method

May 29, 2007

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The Manchester Method is offered as a case example of an educational innovation which can be analysed within a complex social network

Which sounds very grand and scholarly. I had been offered a ten-minute slot to discuss The Manchester Method at a workshop for educational experts.

Ten minutes is a rather brief time for a public presentation. I consoled myself with the thought that this was five time longer than was granted to the candidates for the Labour Party deputy leader debacle last night.

I futher consoled myself with the thought that one of my points was an example of a realistic leadership challenge in which MBA students were trained to make a one-minute elevator pitch.

So, assisted with such psychological Dutch courage I stepped up to the plate, and attempted to summarize over thirty years of work known as The Manchester Method which has been carried out by a community of practice extending out from my academic homebase of The Manchester Business School, within The University of Manchester, England.

The gentle art of knitting

It is a well-known fact that academics are prohibited from publishing the same idea in more than one scholarly journal. It is less well-known that academics are skilled at the art of knitting a variety of patterns, thus conveying the appearance of producing new product after new product, with minimum change of procedures.

I was thus able to draw on the basic principles of The Manchester Method, outlined in an earlier post.

These were then knitted to meet the request of the workshop organizers to ‘do something about social networking’

Manchester Method as Social Networking


What’s Blair up to? Elementary my dear Watson

May 29, 2007

paget_holmes.pngThe transition now has one recurrent theme. Why does Tony not step down? The transition from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown as Prime Minister is increasingly baffling. Is this a case for M Poirot, or for Sherlock Holmes?

The story takes on the form of a classic detective mystery. Tony has been undertaking a hectic schedule of events, mainly abroad. Shouldn’t the transistion include a gradual transfer of powers? What’s going on?

There may be a whole diary-load of reasons for his globe-trotting . As someone brought up on Agatha Christie, I’m attuned to her favorite themes. The mystery story appears to have many clues, but most of them are red herrings. The key lies in finding the unrevealed clue, and ignoring the rest.

Without cracking the code, we have to consider a range of possibilities: TB may be staying on ‘for his legacy’, ‘to influence the G8 leaders and actions’, ‘to fulfill a timetable for a grand goodbye (leaked memo)’, ‘as a nice advertising campaign and prelude for his next role, for the next role’.

Agatha teaches us that the answer may lie in considering some of these, but the heart of the matter may be elsewhere. If none of them make sense we have to make new sense. M Poirot or even Sherlock Holmes step forward. ‘We’ve got a little job that might interest you, Mr Holmes’

Further developments

Tuesday May 29th 2007. Tony Blair starts a one week tour of Africa in Libya. The meeting here will indicate renewal of links with Libya, and a symbolic start to a big business deal for BP.

Pehaps Lord Browne had been too distracted over the last few months to have been able to persuade Tony to go instead to Siberia, where the company’s future is looking rather less promising


Nurses pay won’t go away. Gordon Brown must have his say

May 28, 2007

_42810465_noreena203.jpgA recommended pay award for nurses in England was partly delayed by the Government. The Royal College of Nursing is to ballot its members for possible industrial action. Politicans back the call. A tricky and possibly important early challenge for Gordon Brown’s leadership. Is there anything he might learn from Nicholas Sarcozy’s first weeks in office?

How long is a leader’s honeymoon period? As long as a piece of string. Gordon Brown has over a month to go even before the nuptuals are celebrated. Already there are malcontents likely to be at the wedding ceremony.

Gordon Brown as Prime Minister will be not be given as much time to find his feet as was David Cameron on his appointment of leader of the Conservative party and wannabe Premier. Brown’s honeymoon will be briefer, if only because he has been in the public eye as a political heavyweight for a more that a decade (and a decade as we all know is a very long time in politics).

In this respect he has something common with Nicholas Sarcozy, the newly elected French president. Sarco had a tricky little test within days of coming to office. As he was preparing to assume the trappings of power he had a little time to consider the rumbling discontent of workers at Airbus.

Now Airbus in the French psyche is not quite the cultural icon as is The National Health Service in the British. Not quite. But combine the threat the French jobs with the traditional willigness for action direct and you are looking at a challenge that had to be dealt with at risk of a bad first impression as a leader. So we might conclude that Gordon has this also in common with the French leader.

The joys of opposition

The circumstances provide one of the joys of opposition. The opportunity to espouse a popular cause. Already there is further support from activists who have enlisted Professional Footballers to the cause.

Gordon Brown in opposition would have been in there with his political opponents (which, as they say, can be found in, as well as outside, his own Party).

According to The BBC

Nearly 200 MPs, including the leaders of both main opposition parties, have backed calls for nurses to get a full 2.5% pay increase this year. Nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been offered a 1.5% rise followed by another 1% in November .. [The MPs also include] several leading Labour figures – the deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas, former health secretary Frank Dobson and former ministers Kate Hoey and Stephen Byers

What might Gordon do?

There is a juicy dilemma of leadership here. Gordon as social reformer would like to find a way of supporting the Nurses. As politican he would also like to win some points for being nice to such a cherished group of workers. As Chancellor, he has already faced the tough financial and political consequences of granting a modest-looking pay award in full and on time. As would-be leader his famous concern for prudence is likely to be gnawing away as he nail-bites his way to a decision.

A tip from across the channel

The parallels with the Airbus case are strong enough to be worthy of consideration.
In an earlier post I suggested that:

There are times in politics, when as in chess, the leader has to find a waiting move. In chess, the idea is to move without disturbing the delicate balance in a complex and dynamic situation. You do best by effectively not disturbing the status quo. … So it was in Toulouse. Facing angry Unions, represtatives of the Company’s French leadership, and the wider international press, he signals two somewhat contradictory positions. Yes, he will ‘stand by’ and ‘do his duty’ to the interests of the French employees. But in the longer term, he does not rule out selling the Government’s stake in the company. I will return, he promises. In July. When he will be accompanied by his new friend Angela [Merkel]. If not masterful inactivity, we have seen an example of how to create a little wriggle room in a tricky situation.

Gordon, who would have made a good chess-player if he had not chosen other pursuits, has to find a waiting move. He will try not to upset the nurses. That would never do. He will try to appear not to have been forced to act by political opponents. That will never do, either.

And so we will not have long to wait to find out what happens next. The next game in the leadership match is starting, and Gordon Brown’s clock is ticking away.

Update

Later, May 28th 2007. Gordon brown’s website has a vote on issues of the week. Voters were opting for the NHS by a narrow margin (over international affairs).


Bank Holiday Quiz: Ten touching tales I never tackled

May 27, 2007

350px-thaivillageflood.jpgEvery day there are leadership stories full of triumphs and disasters. Here are ten recent ones set as a Bank Holiday quiz. Can you remember all ten recent headlines involving (1) Bertie Ahern, (2) Malcolm Glazer, (3) Steve McClaren &amp David Beckham, (4) Armani (5) Stuart Rose, (6) Tony Blair & George Bush, (7) Nicholas Sarcozy and an influential Doctor, (8) Freddy Shepherd, (9) Paul Wolfowitz, and (10) John Charman?

The weather is so bad over most of Europe that I’ve left you opportunity to pass the time on this as a Bank Holiday challenge. Meanwhile, I’m switching TV channels and watching the rain fall on two sporting events in England, a cricket test match in Headingley, Leeds, between England and The West Indies, and the golf at Wentworth.

Similar thoughts seem to have struck other bloggers such as an expat yank.

Here’s a quiz to pass the time away. If you know (really know) the ten tales, you are probably a Francophil Brit (yes, there are a few, honest) with anorak tendencies extending into sport, politics, and the world of business.

If you don’t know all ten, and it worries you, you are a wannabe anorak and a sad case.

Good luck

Hints for wannabe anoraks will be supplied in a future post …


Margaret Hodge: A good time to resign?

May 26, 2007

_42947981_hodge_bbc66.jpgResignation from public office is an extreme leadership decision. It can make or mar a career. But resigning is not necessarily a forced move. Margaret Hodge may find it an option worth considering.

Margaret Hodge has taken a high-profile position over immigration. So high-profile and dangerous that I am inclined to fall back on one of my favorite metaphors – chess as a source of leadership insights. Margaret is in a tricky position, so she weighs up the possibilities, and makes a dangerous move in an attempt to break free. In chess terms, it’s a forced move. Or no-brainer.

In chess, faced with a forced move, a player will sometimes stare at the board, wasting valuable time, looking for another playable move. This is mostly futile. It’s better to make the move and take the consequences, or resign and take the consequences of that.

There might be another move

Even in chess, there may be an overlooked possibility. Training books have examples of positions in which a player has resigned, failing to see an unexpected move. The forced moves believed to lead to certain defeat were not forced after all.

So let’s look at the salient features of the position Margaret Hodge finds herself in. The problems appear to be to do with social housing, the British term for state-provided housing, traditionally controlled by local councils, hence ‘council estates’. But council estates impact on national politics.

A tale of two Margarets

Margaret Thatcher believed that selling off as much council housing stock as possible would be a good step in her social revolution. Her opponents point to that decision as a disaster in its longer-term consequences. According to the BBC

More than 1.5m homes have been sold off since the Conservative government introduced “right to buy” legislation in the 1980s.

The Treasury-sponsored Barker report said in 2004 that Britain needs to build 140,000 new homes a year – of which 23,000 should be social housing units – if housing supply is to meet demand. The Lib Dems say there are 1.6m families on waiting lists for social housing – compared to 1m in 1997.

There are more than 8,000 families on the waiting list in Margaret Hodge’s Barking constituency alone. There is concern Labour voters are turning to the BNP, which blames the shortages on immigration. Labour’s left blames the shortage on Tory “right to buy” policies and the government’s reluctance to build more council houses

It is hardly surprising if Margaret Hodge has drawn attention to the issue. As a Minister of State she has chosen to make broaden the debate.

Ken has his say

Ken Livingstone is well-aware of London’s housing problems. His high-profile actions as Mayor have not enabled him to influence local council housing decisions. His frustration is evident in his observations:

Margaret Hodge is wrong. Far from it being the case that immigrants are jumping the housing queue, the opposite is true, with immigrants naturally finding it very much harder to find their way round a system with which they are not familiar … Instead of making remarks which will be seen as scapegoating immigrants, senior politicians like Margaret Hodge should be working to solve the real housing shortage affecting all communities. [Her] suggestion that housing allocation should be based not on need but factors like length of residence would be catastrophic for community relations. In reality it would quite rightly be illegal to take immigration status into account in allocating housing.

The other move

Even in chess, there are good times to resign. A strong player has some social obligation to ‘go over the game’ afterwards showing where his defeated opponent went wrong. This encourages an early resignation. It’s part of the learning and maturing process for juniors, who tend to prolong the agony rather than capitulate.

So, I’m suggesting that resignation is anything but a no-brainer for Margaret Hodge. If she is right, she is under increasing threat of losing her parliamentary seat. Her own stated estimate is that 80% of white families in her constituency were tempted by the British National Party. At the recent local elections the BNP won 11 of the 13 seats it contested in Barking and Dagenham, making it the second party.

The unexpected move in the wider game would have been resignation from her ministerial duties, so that she could fight more directly for the interests of her constituents. Such actions have more credibility if the leader clearly is prepared to suffer personal damage for the wider cause.

Realistically such a move would have made more sense before she stood for the current election for deputy leadership of the Party. This is unlikely to happen. I offer it as a thought experiment of possibilities for leadership rather than as a prediction.


The Branson Murdoch match: Round Two

May 25, 2007

James Murdoch for Sky TV and Richard Branson of Virgin Media continue to slug it out. Both companies have a capacity to damage the other’s competitive position. As a complete victory for one side seems unlikely, the organizations will have to find ways of co-existing and collaborating, as well of competing.

The dispute

The wider battle was explored by Jeremy Warner for The Independent in February.

It can be traced to the formation in April 2006 of Virgin Media, from the ailing NTL cable company. The move was presented as one which would offer a bundle of services to users. It brought the new company into more direct competition with Sky. Competition in this emerging multi-media context is intricately mixed up with inter-dependence, as services are shared and traded. Sky promptly acquiring a minority stake in ITV. This was seen as a protective strike, as ITV was a take-over target for the newly formed Virgin Media.

It is this move which led to complaints against Sky, and to the decision this week by Secretary of State Alistair Darling to refer the issue to the Competition Commission.

Background

In the last few months the dispute became serious when Sky and Virgin Media failed to resolve a dispute over re-negotiated charges requested by Sky. Customers of Virgin Media were deprived of the disputed bundle of Sky programmes previously accessed through the former NTL cable service.

It is tempting to portray the dispute as a battle between Richard Branson of Virgin Media and James Murdoch of Sky. We can predict Murdoch junior’s actions to some degree. He is unlikely to present himself as anything but the son of superdad Rupert. So tough and mean is likely to be the order of the day. Branson will continue to find ways of representing himself as a benign socially-caring figure.

Meanwhile, the dispute is a bit of a no-brainer. There’s evidence that the combatants have blundered into a messy situation which can turn out badly for all concerned. Corporate attention may be distracted from issues of running creative media organizations to political and legal efforts.

What happens next?

The least violent outcome is a period of increasing lack of progress, followed by some resolution, togther with a bit of cosmetic face-work for the weary warriors. There may even be some creative initiative accompanying restoration of Sky channels for Virgin Media subscribers.

More catastrophic solutions might include a regime change. But recent military history reminds us of the dangers of such a policy. Time-scale for significant developments? Weeks would be possible but unlikely. Months would be unfortunate, and not beyond the bounds of probability. But cash haemorrhaging is a condition which brings even the strongest of egos into line.