Saturday, June 26, 2010

To my Labour-supporting friends....

I have had a hard time at your hands this week. Love you though I do - you're mostly in the caring professions - you've been, how can I say it, annoying in your naivete...since Tuesday's Emergency Budget announcement.

All of you, to a person, have conveniently forgotten that Darling set out cut of 20% next to the Coalition's 25%. Some of you are telling me this is "so un-necessary", as if the deficit didn't exist and all was well. You are forgetting that public spending is still going to rise to 750 billion by 2015 (today it is about 625), much of it paying-back 2001-09 debt). Provocatively of you talk about Lib Dem betrayal as though we had some other alternative than create a Coalition. And then you get onto the banks and how it's all their fault etc.

Which of course it partly is...but let's get real here. About three years ago I shared a platform with Carl Emmerson who is Robert Chote's deputy at the Institute of Fiscal Studies. This was well before the crisis and Carl's mission that day was to tell an un-witting third sector audience that all was not well. That the public sector was being pumped up unsustainably and that by 2011 we'd be looking at cuts, quite severe ones. And this was before the banking crisis.

The truth about the last Government is that it was held together was an ideology which says that clever, enlightened people can manage society through a large state which consumes 45-50% of the nation's resources. You get this view wherever you go in the Labour Party - except, possibly the uber-Blairites (who are now long-gone).

This model has been discredited. And while it was fine to turn the taps up when the receipts were there to cover it, to keep this going for so long when the money wasn't there is, in my mind, neglectful.

My party - the Liberal Democrats - will no doubt pay a heavy price in future elections. But whatever happens, I will be proud that we didn't join in the chorus of opposition to cuts. Don't get me wrong, I am worried. I have kids in (pre)school and depend on the NHS like everyone else. It won't be easy. But I have seen the public sector at close quarters for 20 years and there is massive scope for savings and, with it, long overdue reform.

Which gets me to where I am going with this piece. I am firmly convinced that the implementation of cuts by the Coalition will be executed a lot more effectively than would have happened under Labour. Reform of the public sector was stopped by Gordon Brown. This was over the head of a deeply frustrated Blair. Foundation hospitals, divesity of suppliers in the NHS, academies, you name it. Brown and Labour found ways to stop these things because they weren't part of the Master-Plan.Labour is the part of producers and has paid them more and put them before the user of public services for a very long time.

Neither Liberals or Conservatives think like this. Reform will be immediate and comprehensive. Neither party is funded by or owes anything to Unison, Unite or any of the other blockers. Bureaucracy will be hit a lot harder as will public sector pay and pensions - rightly too in my view. Only the Coalition can do this.
The alternative under Labour may have been a slightly lower level of cuts - but you can bet the cuts would have hurt me and you before they touched a public sector worker. Cuts under Coalition, though more severe, will, I believe, hit the producers much harder than me and you - which is how it should be.

So, my friends from the other side, I hope you do, eventually, smell the coffee on cuts. Labour people are, I tend to find, a heck of a lot nicer than Tories, the majority of whom are not people I would chose to hang out with. But I hope I don't have to spend the next five years listening to moaning about the nasty coalition. That would be no fun at all!

Friday, June 18, 2010

If you're ever invited to speak....

I do quite a lot of public speaking these days. I normally enjoy it. My audiences vary a bit but are normally public or social sector.

I am probably living proof that the training they send you on works. Before trooping off two years ago to a leafy media centre in the countryside I was your usual teeth-chattering nervebag who would read out something I'd taken about four days to write. The audience would snore away, I would creep off, un-noticed.

These days, there's no notes, a few slides with photos on (I have a collection of 50 slides which I use interchangablely) and an acceptance that it's better to go with the flow and see where that takes you. Because every audience is different. What animates one will bore another.

However, all audiences want to see the real you so whatever you say that day must feel authentic to you, and connect with them. I realise that this is also how stand-up comedy must work. There's an element of just going where your energy and the occasion takes you.

Step one therefore is to achieve a connection, an unbroken line of communication that lasts till you go off. First lines matter here. Either a gracious `thank-you for inviting me here to Scunthorpe' or a good joke (but never a mediocre or poor one).

Step two is to watch carefully how people are responding. Do they look bored - if they do, change gear, forget the plan. One person will always be sleeping. Ignore this if others look ok. The odd person will also suddenly get up and leave. Again don't worry - they are normally taking a call or a pee. The overall mood is what matters.

Step three is to tell stories. Don't make points, tell stories. People really love stories and learn better through them. The stories have to be things you have personally done or been involved in. Don't tell other people's stories - they have limited impact.

Step four is to make sure you have a Big Message. People feel entitled to take something away from their 30 minutes investment. Give this to them. Repeat it up to five times during the talk. The message must be simple `There may be doom and gloom but there are also opportunities' or `You are responsible for what happens to your business'. It need not be profound but it must be clear and recountable.

Finally I would suggest that you only speak about things that interest you. I was asked recently to speak on a subject that,frankly, bored me. I salvaged it by turning into my own show, but the stuff I did about the subject itself never came to life. Because I didn't believe it and it probably showed. At the end of the day, you've got to care about what you're talking about. If you don't give a shit, don't do it, is my advice.

But if you get a chance to speak in public, definitely do it. It's an experience and to be able to do it well gives you a fairly unusual skill. Plus it is good fun, mostly.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Big Booze versus Big Society

There's a bit of drama in Bury St Edmunds this week. It's all centred on the historic Corn Exchange, a public building used, till now for the odd gig or antique show. Now that our brand new public venue is open it's time to dispose of the Corn Exchange.

There are two bids. One is from a social enterprise called Abbeycroft who want to turn the Corn Exchange into a town-centre play-centre for children and have lots of indepdendent outlets selling stuff. The other is from Wetherspoons who want to turn it into a huge boozer selling pints for one-fifty and all-day breakfasts for a quid.

Amazingly, Abbeycroft is still in the game. It's down to these two and, as I speak, the public debate is going on down there now - the consultation closes today. Wetherspoons have sent in an extravagent bid that promises to restore the Exchange to its former glory. How glorious we'll find their all-day-breakfasts splattered all over our pavements on a Sunday morning I don't know, but they are offering silly money to a council that hasn't got any.

Abbeycroft meanwhile have a secret weapon. Or rather two. One is that they are a spin-out from the Council. They run all our leisure services and enjoy high respect in the area. Even I, a former health-club member, use their spotless facilities and find them to be everything they weren't when part of the council.

The other secret weapon is Norman Tebbit. Yes, the old bastard now lives in Bury and is a totemic figure for the massed-elderly in Bury who love the place how it used to be. Who opposed our new shopping centre (and, yes, it is shite) and who stop every single nightclub application. This cadre of Tory-voting stick-wavers is jab-jabbing away at local councillors. They point to Wetherspoons killing the cafe-culture of the town (true). The threat to other businesses in the town (also true). They get Norman to go apeshit in the local paper about the town becoming the place in West Suffolk to get off your tits for under a tenner (at the moment the yobs stay in Brandon, Thetford and Mildenhall because Bury so dear).

And you know what? I feel grateful Norman and the gang. On this one, they are right. I don't want Bury's traders to be fucked-over by Wetherspoons. I don't want the town to be like Newcastle on a Friday night with fighting and cops everywhere. And I certainly don't want slip in sick when I pick up my Sunday paper. Bury is a nice place - let's keep it so.

In addition, I like the Abbeycroft idea. It's different. It's about people. Let's give it a try.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

An Unsocial Entrepreneur?

What I am loving at the moment is the start-of-the-affair feeling you get with a new venture. It animates everything. You can think of little else. Your stomach flicks when you think about it. My mind drifts back to it while I am watching the TV or driving the car. In short, I am hooked and I will need to be because while starting a business is fun it is bloody-hell too.

This is the forgotten truth of entrepreneurship, be it social or for pure-profit. The personal cost is total. You hand your normality in at the door and emerge five years later blinking at the light. While I won't disappear, I know my world will have to shrink down to making this baby work.

I also have a secret for you too. I am going private. Yes, this won't be a social enterprise, well certainly not in the way set out by the CIC rules and I doubt I will get the Social Enterprise Mark. No, it will be owned by me and my partners. There will be social aspects - it will be a balanced business that will be socially accountable. A proportion of its profits will be given away, probably through a foundation. But it will, repeat, be private.

Am I turning my back on social enterprise? Most certainly not for the reasons above. Yet, I am turning my back on some aspects of being a social entrepreneur that I do not like. Such as putting my ass and my money on the line but being rewarded with peanuts. Such as not having control over the organisation I founded. Such as not being able to benefit much if it is ever sold for a lot of money.

I have concluded that those bits of social entrepreneurship seem to me a bit unfair. 30 grand and six months of my life are going into this. If it doesn't work I am worth less in the market than I just got myself a nice job. This new venture could cost me financially and reputationally. Yes, you'd shit yourself too, particlarly if there was a pauper's reward at the end, as social enterprise orthodoxy currently insists.

SO, if I do another purely social enterprise, you can be sure it it will not involve this level of risk and return. It is likely to be a side-project to which my social commitment exceeds my need to make money and survive. The simple fact is that as a 40 year old man with kids and a daft mortgage, I cannot afford, long-term to be a social entrepreneur.

I say this with no shame. Indeed I hope I would not be judged by those in the sector are paid either by the state (directly or indirectly), are `retired' with high net worth or with few enough responsibilities to manage on a small income.

Yes, there are some superheroes who risk and toil for low-return who also carry responsibilities, and while I take my hat off, I do not want to join them. It's not fair to those around me who will have to suffer my absences, cash-crises and stress these next few years. To make the choice of entrepreneurship now, at this stage, I need to be able to tell the family that it will be worth it. For all these reasons, I am now, in the eyes of many, just another unsocial-entrepreneur.

In my own eyes, I remain somewhere on the sliding-scale between pure-white and red-claw, but so far we can't accommodate this in our language - I'm either social or not. End-of. So great is our fear of assimilation that we have drawn the bridge high, meaning all those not like us are viewed as the same. So I guess, for some of you at least, I am, from now, not the Naked but the Unsocial Entrepreneur.