The Northern Powerhouse: A Stroll down Oxford Road

March 20, 2015

Oxford Road SICK festivalYesterday, I took the opportunity to breathe in the culture of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, by taking a stroll down Manchester’s Oxford Road

A few hours earlier, driving in to the city centre, I had listened to George being quizzed on his party political broadcast, sorry, I meant his budget speech, the previous day [Wednesday March 17th, 2015].

There has been quite enough coverage of that elsewhere.

My interest had then been further aroused by a caller to BBC’s Radio Five Live who said he was self-employed, and that he believed the government when they said they were creating a Northern Powerhouse. You can feel it in the air everywhere in Manchester, he added.

Really? I thought it was a good time to check on the theory of a spring-time culture which you can ‘feel in the air’ as proposed by Sumantra Ghoshal (1948-2004)

Oxford Road

My route took me through the University campus to Oxford Road just west of the University Hospital. I was heading for the newwly re-opened Whitworth Art Gallery. [Image by Alan Williams]

Whitworth Art Gallery

Lunch-time pedestrians were enjoying one of the city’s four seasons which can all arrive on the same day. Yesterday it was Spring. It was also the time of an artistic festival that had gone in for an eye-catching title SICK. This announced itself with the rather phallic structure shown above.

It also happened to be student rag week. Oxford Road was lined with stalls were erected for money-raising and for all the other motives of the student societies and activists. My image was a glimpse of the Students’ HQ

That Powerhouse Culture

If power translates into culture I could detect signs of a new vibrancy. I had to tread carefully to avoid the installation artworks, [and that was before I reached the Art Gallery]. Once there, the super-modernist surround of the sensational revamp seemed to merge nicely with the Victorian buildings off Oxford Road. My photograph was taken, facing left from the Whitworth’s entrance steps.

View from steps of The Whitworth

So, is the re-birth of The Whitworth part of powerhouse culture emerging in the North West of England, with thriving Manchester at its heart? Maybe. If so, it was summed up in a snatch of conversation overheard as two students hurried past. The accent of one was was more Brixton than Bolton:

” I’s a’ a me’aphor, inni?’ I heard her say.

Today, the eclipse

Yesterday Oxford Road, today the eclipse. Which, I suppose is also important culturally as another metaphor.


The Woolworth’s choir: Tragedy as art remembered

December 4, 2012

Woolworth's fireThe 2012 Turner Prize was won by Elizabeth Price for a 20 minute video which transforms tragedy to art and back again. It even defies the conventions of Artspeak

Elizabeth Price, the winner of the Turner Prize [December 3rd, 2012] was considered an outsider. As is often the case, her creative work of art is now ‘obviously’ great . It has been discovered in a kind of Emperor’s new clothes moment of cultural insight.

The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 refers to a fire that resulted in ten fatalities in a Woolworth’s Store in central Manchester. [The site is by coincidence close to that of the IRA bomb explosion which wrecked Manchester’s sity centre many years later]. The work was part of a solo exhibition by Price at the Baltic in Gateshead.

The artist’s style was described by the Telegraph:

The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 [is] a 20-minute film that begins with drawings of Gothic architecture and ends with footage of a Manchester department store fire in which 10 people died. The judges praised “the seductive and immersive qualities of Price’s video installations, which reflected the ambition that has characterised her work in recent years”.

Artspeak

The subject matter was of personal interest. It helped me recall the fire and the dreadful lack of fire-proofing of the furnishings. So I started reading reviews of this year’s Turner prize before the result was announced.

Price was seen as an outsider, and the nature of her work mostly damned with faint praise. But the more favoured works attracted a lot of what might unkindly be called Artspeak, the peculiar dialect through which critics attempt to capture the essential message within works of art. The other short-listed works were each given the Artspeak treatment, not intentionally intended to belittle the works, but risking accusations of pseudery.

Beyond Artspeak

The Woolworth’s Choir was described in terms which were almost absent of Artspeak. That set me thinking. For some reason, great art defies attempts to reduce it. Maybe it deals with life first and art second. In comparison, novelty and the shock of the new are at best of transient worth.

Note

The image is from archival materials of the Manchester fire in 1979, and is not part of the Turner prize-winning entry.


Ed Miliband’s three leadership dilemmas, and how he dealt with them

September 29, 2010



Political pundits have poured over Ed Miliband’s acceptance speech at the Labour Party Conference of 2010.  We examine the three dilemmas facing the new leader, and the way in which he addressed them

First, some background:  A defeat of Labour in the General Election of May 2010 was followed by the formation of the coalition government of David Cameron’s conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.  It also led to the resignation of the leader and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  The Labour Party initiated a lengthy selection process for a new leader.

There were five candidates, and a tortuous voting procedure with transferable votes.  The original front runner was David Miliband.  He was widely regarded as Blair’s preferred candidate, or ‘heir to Blair’.  He had risen through the political ranks to become one of the youngest Foreign Secretaries ever.  David was a committed member of the Blairite faction of the party, which still subscribed to the concept of New Labour which had kept them in power since 1997.  Despite the unpopularity of Tony Blair, particularly for his supportive role to George Bush in the Iraq War, David Miliband appeared as the likely winner of the contest.  The anti-Blairites had been badly damaged by the defeat of their leader Gordon Brown, and there was no obvious emerging leader from their ranks.

Enter Ed, Stage Left

The campaign was enlivened by the emergence of David’s younger brother Ed as a serious in the campaign.  Ed, a relative inexperienced politician, started as a 33 to 1 outsider.   But as the weeks of the campaign passed, it became clear that the two brothers were running neck and neck. There was much psychological talk of sibling rivalry.  He became labelled ‘Red Ed’ by the Red Tops (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.  I meant labelled by the right-leaning popular tabloid newspapers).  Ed indicated his willingness to support the Unions who were talking up the possibility  of widespread protest strikes against the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government.  

The bookies know something

A week before the voting figures were announced, David was believed to have held off the surprisingly feisty campaign from his younger brother (based on straw polls).  Curiously, there was then a swing in the betting to Ed (must have been a leak somewhere).  Because of the complex transferable vote system, the pundits still considered the contest too close to call.

The drama of the vote

The day of the announcement of the secret ballot arrived. This was a taster before the Labour Party conference.  Much tension.  The candidates, informed only shortly before, arrived at packed conference hall.  David was smiling (rather unconvincingly, I thought).  Ed looked spaced out, face drained of emotion.  There was a painful period of suspence as candidates were eliminated and their votes redistributed.  David retained a slim lead, with far more support among MPs and Direct party members.  Ed had secured much of the ‘block’ Union votes.

Ed squeaks past David

At the dramatic final announcement, Ed had squeaked past the long-time favourite.  He had become leader against the wishes of the great majority of his fellow MPs and party membership. The two brothers embraced in a ‘well-down you deserved it/I’m sorry it had to be you I beat’ sort of way.

Agony and ecstasy

In the following days, the anguish of the defeated Miliband became clear. Slated to make a speech on the first day of the conference, he gallantly conceded his aspirations to the leadership.  He received a rapturous reception as did Gordon Brown, who had come to make his farewells to conference.  But David did not go so far as to say he would put himself forward for an appointment in Ed’s new shadow cabinet.   He remained another day, long enough to witness Ed’s acceptance speech.  By then the scribblers had decided David’s defeat career in politics was ended.  They were quickly proved right, and David Miliband announced a day later that he would not put himself forward to serve in his brother’s shadow administration.

Dilemmas of leadership No 1: Dealing with the Blairites

This how the drama was seen by the BBC’s Nick Robinson:

When Labour’s new leader declared that the Iraq War was wrong, he and other former ministers who voted for the war ­- Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and Andy Burnham – sat stony faced. Not so Harriet Harman. Seeing her clap David turns to her and angrily demands to know “you voted for it, why are you clapping?”

If ever evidence were needed of why David will, almost certainly, leave front line politics tomorrow this is it. He, and many others, deeply resent the way in which Ed – who wasn’t an MP at the time – used his rather less than public opposition to the war to win the party leadership.

This episode addressed Ed’s first leadership dilemma or ‘what should I do first about the potentially troublesome Blair faction of the party?’.  The cold logic was to take out its acknowledged leader.  Who just happened to be the brother he loved. And that’s about it. Dilemma No 1 addressed if not sorted.

Dilemma No 2: Dealing with the Unions

The second dilemma was equally clear:  ‘what should I do to show I am not a puppet of the Unions?’ The logic was to signal in his first speech that his support for the Unions was far from unequivocal.  He could not, would not, support ‘reckless’ strikes.  Despite mutterings, the assembled Union leaders rather sullenly acknowledged that Red Ed was not as full-blooded a supporter as they might have imagined.

Dilemma No 3: Dealing with the Red Ed tag

The third dilemma was how to defuse the potential weakness of being labelled dangerously left-wing and therefore unelectable. The immediate step was to reduce the sting of the Red Ed label.  His rather effectively mocked the epithet with a humorous call for more grown-up political discussion.

Explaining what Ed did and why

The analysis of Ed’s speech for dilemmas offers a plausible explanation of the issues the new leader considered most urgently in need of addressing.  Such an examination looks beyond the rational towards the symbolic significance to find some sense in what has been said.

Miliband the victor had to remove all threat from the still hugely-popular Miliband the loser.  As they say in the mafia movies, this is business.  Nothing personal.  Except of course it was deeply personal.   He further judged that two other developing stories had to be confronted that otherwise might have weakened the invention of himself as leader. In the one case he had to scotch the claims that he was in the pocket of the Unions, and in the other the related claim that he was too left-wing to be a credible figure as a future Prime Minister.

Dilemmas are not problems to be solved.  They do not permit correct solutions, nor decisions which seem likely to have no painful consequences.  There were many ways in which Miliband minor could have avoided antagonizing important groups in the party.  He chose to act the way he did.  His speech has the merits of offering a coherent and courageous strategy.  Will it succeed? That is beyond the scope of this analysis.


Miliband, Brown and the Heseltine Moment

September 23, 2008

An overheard remark by David Miliband is interpreted as evidence of his covert campaign to dislodge Gordon Brown. The treatment of his reference to a Heseltine moment is the journalistic equivalent of trading in junk bonds

One week on, and the city’s traders are widely criticised for self-centred avarice. Much the same terms could be used in the journalistic trading in a remark by David Milband overheard and turned into a headlined story.

The BBC report was no more reluctant than any other filed, as a story was eeked out of an overheard remark. This has, anyway, become accepted as legitimate journalistic practice. Bush and his remark to Tony Blair, and Cherie’s muttering at last year’s conference were recent examples. The practice is as unreflective of its dubious ethicality as were those behaviours of gamblers in the short-trading game over the least few months.

David Miliband has been overheard telling aides that he toned down his speech to Labour’s conference to avoid it being seen as “a Heseltine moment”

[He was] discussing his speech with staff who told him that it was being given six marks out of 10, and was heard to reply
“I couldn’t have gone any further. It would have been a Heseltine moment.”
His aide replied
“No, you are right. You went as far as you could. That was what the party needed to hear.”

His comments [were] an apparent reference to one of the occasions Michael Heseltine challenged the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

Journalistic Junk Bonds

This is no more than trading in journalistic junk bonds. I would uncomfortably accept the right, duty even, of a journalist who had overheard clear evidence of the duplicity of a potential Prime Minister. Suppose Milband had said to his aide

‘Yeah. I almost blew our cunning plan. It’s not easy hiding my superior talents, just in case people think the truth, and I’m seen as being disloyal to Gordon’.

I might have (reluctantly) accepted that it was worth reporting, provided the words were substantiated.

But this does not have to be an overheard Cassius moment with Brutus musing over the time in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on the fortune.

Michael Heseltine was hardly duplicitous. His ambition was never concealed in public. Maybe Miliband was using shorthand to say

‘Yeah. It’s getting a pain to stay in second gear because if I go any faster I’ll overtake Gordon and get a twenty five second penalty, and dish my chances when Gordon finally runs out of fuel’.

There’s just not enough to justify the conclusions being drawn. For me, there’s not even enough to justify creating a news story out of a private remark overheard. Leave it to the junk bond traders operating in the gossip market.