Labour Higher Education Policy or Cynical Vote Grab?

So, Labour is planning to reduce fees for University students from £9000 to £6000. Well let’s ask a question and toss a coin. Is Labour’s announcement a sensible approach to the funding of Higher Education? Or is it just a tactical grab for those Lib Dem voters who turned on Nick Clegg after he stuffed his election fees pledge in the glove compartment of his deputy Prime Ministerial limo? Well, I lied about needing a coin. It’s rather obviously the latter. It’s electioneering and not a sensible policy for Higher Education. And there is absolutely no detail on £10bn which will be needed to replace the income Universities currently get from fees.

Every body says they hate fees. But they’re not the problem. The re-payment regime is very light and they have been a welcome injection of resource into teaching and research. And they haven’t put off poor kids who are now 60% more likely to go to University than in 2006.

The problems that Labour should tackle instead are: the serious drop off of part time students (7% last year alone), most of whom are mature students; the real disincentive for poor kids from going to University which is the debt they take away from the cost of living as a student and, thirdly, the failure of governments to fund PhDs properly.

If Labour really wanted a sensible proposal they’d increase the grant for students from poor families and develop better links with business to fund part-time courses and develop a stream of funds for PhD students

The Office of Fair Access has done a good job in keeping up the pressure via the access agreements to provide bursaries. Labour should extend this work by increasing the incentives to Universities to attract poor kids by increasing their investment in more school outreach work (The Sutton Trust has shown just how effective this is), and to use even more contextual information when assessing A level grades (rather than just relying on straight tariffs). Poor students should then be eligible for the government to pay their rent directly for University accommodation.

The value of part-time study is primarily to people beyond the traditional undergraduate age who are working and the businesses they work in. Labour should be looking at tax incentives to those businesses to encourage them to second workers to part-time study to upgrade or change their skills. This would strengthen the relationship between University-generated innovation and business, increase investment in research, boost the skills and knowledge of British workers in a global economy which is highly competitive for ideas and operate as a lever for diversity in HE by offering an opportunity to employees who never went to University in the first place.

The Coalition did introduce a postgraduate loans system after the Autumn Statement. However it was accompanied by rather fanciful claims that it would increase the number of Post Graduates by 10,000 a year and an unhelpful stipulation that it would only apply to those under 30, dealing another blow to mature students and those in work. Labour could invest in Doctoral students by partnering with business (again incentivised by tax) to create research funds and bursaries for the cost of living for PhD students.

But instead Labour has opted for a flash snatch for the votes on the left hand side of the LibDems and Greens by reducing fees while offering nothing to either universities or to students.

Like Chris Bryant on culture, instead of bothering to announce a serious policy response to the need to invest in making sure that working class stories reach our screens and stages when you can engage in a bit of public school bashing, they’ve avoided a credible approach to University funding and access in order to pick-pocket a few Lib Dem and Green votes.

It feels like another moment in Miliband’s core vote strategy of getting to the winning post rather than having a vision of what you would do when you get there. And Universities and the economy will suffer as a result.

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Better Boards: Chairman’s role involves ‘personal discomfort’

This appeared in the Financial Times on 27th June 2013

There are times when those of us who live non-executive lives wonder whether we really make any difference at all. Business failures are a non-executive’s worst nightmare, and avoiding them is the point of us.

Then we look at the several banking fiascos and ask what on earth were the non-executives doing? They were not stupid people and none of us is infallible when it comes to risk – but why didn’t they challenge their chief executives?

I am about to retire as chairman of the governing council of the University of Sussex after six years in the role. In that time, higher education has seen drastic change and its own fiascos. It makes me aware that the biggest trial any board faces is finding a way of challenging the executive team in a collegiate, yet rigorous, way, constantly negotiating the line between governance and management.

Although rules can help, this is not fundamentally a question of process. It is a matter of pursuing the purpose and integrity of the organisation above the personal discomfort that can arise from differences of opinion. It requires a degree of emotional intelligence to navigate the human relationships. Challenging people is difficult; it is easier to be swept along.

When I became chairman of the council at Sussex University, it is fair to say that the governance was not working well. There was little that was reliable and consistent about the information coming to the council and decisions were not dependably carried out.
Consequently, the council leant in too far, distrustfully wanting to become too involved in the detail. I had to get it back to flying at 30,000ft and only occasionally coming down to 1,000ft.

University councils dating back to before 1992 are oddly constructed. Ours, which is fairly typical, has 25 members: 15 are independents; two are the vice chancellor and deputy VC; six are elected academics; and the final two are the president of the students’ union and a representative of the professional (non-academic) staff. There is huge potential for the confusion of provenance with role. So my first task was to try and get it to operate as a single body, each member behaving as an individual trustee.

For the first two years I used a programme of telephoning every member before meetings. At 12 hours each time in all, it was arduous. But it gave me the chance to get to know their concerns individually, to understand where they might be coming from in debate, and to help them express what they wanted in a way that was strategic and useful.
It also gave them a chance to understand that I was only interested in chairing a council that reached collective decisions, based on our agreed strategy as individual trustees. There was to be no grandstanding or lobbying, but a hard-nosed concentration on improving the performance of the institution.

The culture of challenge in a board goes in two directions: first, there needs to be an openness between members – debate must be rigorous but at the same time anyone can ask the stupid question without embarrassment. Second, challenge goes towards the executive.

There is a social element to both forms of challenge: you need to know each other to work well together. You need to come to value each other’s differences. And the chairman, in order to leverage that diversity of thought, approach and perspective, needs to be able to allow it to flower and then manage it to a viable conclusion.
We therefore reorganised the schedule of the meetings to take a strategic day twice a year and spend time in the evenings eating together.

Committees were also hampering the formal process of challenge. They had grown over the governance structures like barnacles. A sub-group, chaired by my deputy, took a scythe to them and produced a streamlined three-committee structure: finance and investments, performance, and audit (plus the few statutory ones we are required to include, such as honorary degrees, remuneration and nominations).

Our biggest innovation was to introduce one-off oversight groups on particular projects, such as the reorganisation of our loan book, the commissioning and building of new residences and, most recently, the process of working with external partners to deliver catering and total facilities management.

This process is difficult for management. It can feel like we are second-guessing them, that we don’t trust their expertise. But we do. We just want to add to it by providing the crucial external perspective through interrogation of the process and assumptions used to reach conclusions. There is general agreement that, although initially resisted to some degree, it has added very considerably to the capacity of the university to get a very complicated contractual process right in order to deliver the best quality and value to students and staff.

Crucial in underpinning all this has been a transparent process of recruitment – only of the independents, of course, as the others are elected – and an agreement that we would institute a formal system of appraisal. I have explicitly used recruitment to vary the age, gender and range of skills on the council. We have developed a formal matrix for the skills we need and appraisals. Board appraisal can seem too much for a voluntary organisation: we are all volunteers, after all. But we are still responsible for a £200m, highly complex organisation, and appraisal is part of judging both the effectiveness of the council as a whole and of individual members.

Working together in this way with management we have increased Sussex’s income by 66 per cent, student numbers by 25 per cent, research income by 38 per cent, academic and technical staff numbers by 12 per cent, and our league table position has gone from the low 20s to an average of 15 in 2011-12.

There are a series of very well- written codes on governance, from Cadbury to Higgs and the UK Corporate Governance Code. But while rules can guide, and you need the right structures for the formal process of challenge, only the culture of the board can make the difference between nightmares and successes.

My experience at Sussex has led me to develop, in my professional consultant life, a form of board self-assessment that concentrates on the self-conscious capacity of a board to examine how it behaves, measure its effectiveness and then work together on enhancing its effectiveness.

The ability to leverage difference of approach, provenance, style and perspective in this way is what develops challenge in boards. As Henry Ford said: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

And that comes by developing the right culture, not ticking the boxes of compliance.

Simon Fanshawe is partner and co-founder at astar-fanshawe, a consultancy that encourages equality and diversity. www.astar-fanshawe.co.uk

The Better Boards series of features and videos can be viewed at FT.com/management/better-boards

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WHEN APPOINTING A WOMAN IS NOT A SIGN OF DIVERSITY

Dame Clara Furse has been in banking one way or another all her working life. She was the first woman to run the stock exchange. She ran one of the other Exchanges before that. She was an MD at UBS, the bank. And she is an all round superwoman in finance.  And now she is the first ever women to be appointed the to the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee (FPC)., which “is charged with a primary objective of identifying, monitoring and taking action to remove or reduce systemic risks with a view to protecting and enhancing the resilience of the UK financial system.” (my italics)

Hurrah for diversity says everyone. A woman on the Board, that’ll make the difference. No more financial crises. If it’d been Lehman Sisters, there’d have been no crash, no double dip, no austerity. Etc etc. So hurrah for Clara.

And actually who can deny her a word of personal congratulation. It’s a pretty stellar achievement. But diversity it isn’t.

Diversity just isn’t about maths. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about difference. Diversity is about more than what a black actress friend of mine calls ‘panther casting’. It’s not enough just to get some women, some blacks and some gays.

If you’re on a committee charged with “reducing systematic risk”, you’d better have a culture of challenge built into the DNA of the committee.

There’s increasingly a really interesting body of research that is asking the question whether, if you can measure the quantum and quality of an individual’s intelligence , you can measure the same in a group?

And Dr Chris Chabris from MIT and a team of researchers have come up with compelling evidence that suggests that you can. (published in Science on 29th October 2010). And here’s the interesting thing – high performing teams are not made up of groups of high performing individuals. High performing teams need diversity – of approach and identity – and the ability to manage the difference.  There is also a great book called The Difference by Scott E Page that reaches the same conclusion.

Diversity is about recruiting Boards, Committees, Teams and Project groups that have a real range of external perspectives, have diversity of heritage or identity and, on top of all that, the ability to manage the difference. And It’s so much harder managing a team of real difference than it is managing a group that all the same whether they are a bunch of 50 year old pin striped white career City men or for that matter the same number of lentil eating, vegetarian shoe wearing, like-minded lesbians. It turns out that great minds don’t think alike. Great teams think differently.

So when Clara Furse went in front of the Treasury Select Committee they were right to grill her fiercely on one main topic. How she had demonstrated her independence of thought when it came to risk.

What raised their suspicions was her role as a director of Fortis, the Dutch-Belgian bank, which, together with RBS and Santander, made a disastrous acquisition of ABN Amro in 2007. Fortis had to be bailed out by Dutch, Belgian and Luxembourg taxpayers. And the deal so depleted the reserves of RBS that British taxpayers ended up footing the bill for it too.

Clara was a member of Fortis’ risk committee. And all she had to say on the matter was that she believed it was a “high quality, high margin, low risk” deal.

The big-brained Tory Andrew Tyrie, the MP for Chichester, who chairs the Committee wasn’t impressed. He remarked “It is vital that ……the FPC’s external members should ….challenge the views of those from inside the Bank and ensure the committee does not fall prey to group-think.” Which is what happened with the ABN Amro farrago, where none of the RBS or Fortis non-execs appear to have challenged the wisdom of the deal.

Group think is the enemy of good risk handling. And the FPC is supposed to protect us against such mad deals as the ABN Amro deal. They are supposed to supervise banking risk. And, if Chabris and Page are right, handling risk properly and diversity are crucially interlinked. Even if Dame Clara is the first women to be appointed, there is no real diversity on the Committee. Have a look at the picture of the Committee on the Bank’s site. It’s the same old, same old.  Career bankers. Read their CVs and you just wonder where’s the challenge, where is the diversity of thought?

If Boards and Teams really want to perform highly they need to develop thorough-going diversity in the way they recruit and operate. It’s not enough  for Clara to be a women. Her record suggests she’s just more of the same.

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I had an interesting challenge the other day

I had an interesting challenge the other day. I was asked to speak to 350 people in the construction trade. They were mostly men and by the time I spoke they were all still standing up after two previous speeches. And the topic …. equality and diversity in construction.

Have you hear builders snore in an upright position before?

So I said to them give me three minutes before you snooze. And bless them, they did. And that’s because there really are three very good reasons that “difference” can give even a construction business a real competitive advantage. And I am increasingly using the term “difference” these days. We are working on its transformational effect on organisations and as a way of getting them to think freshly. The beauty of it is that using “difference” is a real and productive route even into an industry like construction that hasn’t always taken equality and diversity very seriously.

And I am not talking about compliance here – Of course noone wants to run a business where people are treated badly and unfairly. Noone wants to spend their time in court rather than on site.

But beyond compliance, there are three advantages that “difference” can give you: it gives you a competitive head start in pitching your company will perform better if you recruit for and manage difference well you will be far better equipped for the future in a fast changing world.

The head start you get in pitching is that, if I was to procure a major project from you, I want to know that, with your business, I am hiring a firm that cares about its people, develops their talent and is the kind of company that minds about its values. Everybody has got a policy on equality and diversity, but the companies that stand apart are the ones are actively doing some thing about it – opening up opportunities for women in construction (engineering really is some thing you do with your head not your hands, so why do so many women graduates do Law instead?) or creating real apprenticeships for young people.

That way I will also know that I am getting a company that will care about the customer. You’re more likely to bring the project in on time because your staff actually mind about me, because they care about the company. It’s a sign that you regard your people as your greatest asset. And what’s more it’s important to show that you are also paying attention to your supply chain (notorious in construction for being where the failures happen). Look what is happening to Apple and the accusations about labour conditions in China. Being able to demonstrate that you take equality, diversity and difference seriously brands you as a company above the others. Which Apple’s response is clearly doing for them.

Secondly, if your company is wise enough to recruit for difference, see the value in different skills and approaches to life and wants to make up teams from a variety of people who will therefore be more creative in their approaches to challenges and problems, I will know that that is a company that thinks, responds and is cleverer in its approach to my project. And when I say “difference”, I don’t just mean token quotas, the occasional bit of minority hiring, I mean understanding that different kinds of people (and this is the crucial bit) well and creatively managed produce better performance than homogenous companies, however managed, and diverse companies badly managed.

There is increasing evidence to show that lots of badly managed diversity initiatives just make things worse. “She only got the job because she’s a woman”, “why are minority workers promoted beyond their skills when I could do the job?”, “I was just dumped in this job and expected to be the token woman who salved the company’s conscience” (all things that have been said or reported to us in the last year).

Deliberately recruiting into project teams groups of people who have different approaches and skills and provenance and then creatively recognising that the differences between them can produce better problem solving and project delivery is a competitive advantage. It is also a sign to the world that you think carefully about your company, value innovation and nurture talent.

Furthermore you will survive better into the future. We are living in a world where building technologies, building methods, the pressure of carbon reduction and a hundred other forces are changing the environment in which construction is developing (and making its profits). To stay ahead of the game companies need teams that have the right breadth of skills to think forward. You need to hire for difference so that your company is not stuck in the past, but has the right skills round the table to tackle the future with confidence.

Of course this doesn’t just apply to Construction. But it was fun to convince even some of them. And we even got some work out of it. The programme that we’re talking with those new clients about is called The Creative Difference Programme. I am not sure so many years ago I’d have been looking forward to wearing a hard hat in these rather more authentic contexts. The Village People seem to have crashed Construction for real.

(http://www.astar-fanshawe.co.uk)

 

 

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Thomas the Tank Engine and treading on eggs shells

I read something today, which sparked some reflections on an issue that comes up constantly when our company astar-fanshawe (www.astar-fanshawe.co.uk) is working with organisations.  It is that there is a great deal of unease and uncertainty about language in relation to diversity and inclusion. At one end of the spectrum people are treading on eggs shells fearing they might offend people – even though in many cases no one has actually suggested that they are offended. And at the other end, people are saying they are not happy to be told what they can and can’t say and consequently banter away regardless. And then they often do offend people. Both types of behaviour betray a lack of confidence in organisations about what are the rules, the manners if you like, of the situation. Both kinds of behaviour are uncomfortable for everybody. And both make it very difficult to challenge or be challenged at work without rancour and in a way that resolves things. At astar-fanshawe we are always being asked to help people learn how to challenge “unacceptable behaviour”. And there are some very successful ways, which we use, of staff learning to do so.

 

The particular instance today was a letter to a newspaper paper from the daughter of the Reverend W Awdry, the author of Thomas the Tank Engine. (Blissfully, as I write, I can hear my father reading the stories to me at bedtime). She is annoyed because the American makers of the TV shows of her Dad’s books have substituted a reference to “Christmas” in an episode called “Keeping up with James”. She says that her dad would have been very unhappy as he always said that he ‘was a priest first and a children’s author second.’ And also because he would never have dreamed of using sanitized phrases like “winter holidays’ for Christmas and “holiday tree” for Christmas tree, which is what they have done.

 

You wonder why? It is hard to understand why anyone, of whatever religion or none at all, could possibly be offended by the use of the word Christmas. The producers have mumbled something about wanting to be able to sell the programme all through the year, rather than just in December. But that sounds pretty weak. Who doesn’t love watching White Christmas or Miracle on 34th Street on a wet Wednesday in February? It sounds like they are tiptoeing around the issue, which is not uncommon.

 

It’s a vexing question. Who will be offended about what, by whom and how to deal with it are all constants in organisations. And the blatantly unacceptable is just the other side of the coin from this cringingly oversensitive use of language. The question is how do we build confidence in organisations to know how to behave with one another, to be able to make genuine mistakes and, when we do, challenge and be challenged in a way that helps?

 

There is firstly the question of leadership. How we behave in front of staff at work is crucial to setting the tone. I remember being told by a PA at a leading investment bank how she had put up with endless, in her words, “mild but annoying” remarks about her appearance – all complimentary by the way, but a constant stream that just wore her down. What made her life immeasurably better was when, at the monthly staff meeting, her boss, without saying that it was his PA or that she had mentioned it to him, asked colleagues to refrain from comments about appearance, however complimentary, and instead to compliment colleagues on their work and performance. He made a point of doing it himself and it became the company norm.

 

An incident at the other end of the spectrum, which came to a terrible end, was the now infamous Tullet & Toyko Liberty case in 2001 where a Jewish broker was ordered by the rest of his team to dress up as Hitler as a forfeit. This behaviour, the company said, was “designed to relieve stress and create a more productive atmosphere on its trading floor”.

 

They argued that the incidents were “part of the office culture” that Mr Weinberger had joined in with. He had gone along with it. But to be accepted into this culture, employees had to endure insults and don fancy dress. Challenging it was nigh impossible. Not only did the company appear to encourage it, but also they never provided their staff with the training to deal with it. They ended up settling outside a tribunal for a “six figure sum”.

 

Challenge can be made so much easier by following what is known as the DESC model.

 

In a simple role-play last week, we had 60 people (Diversity Ambassadors in a housing organisation) practising the method: Describe, Express, Specify and Consider. In a nutshell the four stages ask you to get agreement with the person you want to challenge on exactly what they said/did, then express what you felt about it, specify what you’d like them to change about their behaviour and ask them to consider the consequences of not changing. It’s remarkably effective. But it needs practice. We did a number of role-plays with actors playing the offending person and working with small facilitated groups to run it several times.

 

The key to it is that, apart from agreeing on what was said/done, the important thing is to try and get to a position where you hear them and they hear you – and you feel that that is happening. I have been involved much work over time on reconciliation and restorative justice. The key thing people need in order to get beyond an often utterly horrific event is to hear each other, explore what it means for each other. I moderated the first conversation in public between Patrick Magee, the Brighton bomber, and Jo Berry, whose father he killed. You cannot “agree” about a murder. But Jo persists in trying to understand Patrick’s motives and reasons and he persists in trying to face up to the human consequences of his actions. He doesn’t apologise and he doesn’t ask him to. But they have a genuine dialogue. It enables them to manage (and build) a relationship.

 

They are using a form of DESC. Give it a go. Practice it. In a more domestic context, the next time you have an argument with a close friend, spouse or lover try it. And swiftly it will become apparent that it’s not winning the argument that matters to you, it’s keeping and nurturing the relationship. And that is what matters at work. You don’t need to like or agree with people about everything, but you need to be able to manage conflict and work together. Otherwise the organisation will be undermined by morale issues, unhappy staff and, in the worst cases, tribunals. And all of that speaks to productivity and the bottom line.

Don’t tiptoe around trying not to offend people. Ask them. Engage. Make mistakes and learn how to put them right. And equally, don’t just refuse to accept rules, ignore how you might be upsetting people and banter regardless, claiming you are “shooting from the hip”, “saying it like it is”, “just having a joke. Find out, try to understand what might offend people, and why, and have an open exchange about it. Use DESC. It works. And can we let Thomas the Tank Engine celebrate Christmas?

 

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You Can’t Put Me in a Box – Super-diversity and the end of identity politics in Britain

This is the recent (some people say ‘ground-breaking’) report that ippr published, co-written with Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah on a new approach to equality and diversity. It forms the basis of much of my consultancy work at the moment.

Download a PDF of the report here

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Gaydar is Bad for Your Health

I met someone the other day. Well I say I met him. I didn’t meet him in any accepted human sense of the word. I “met” him online. On Gaydar. We “chatted”. No we didn’t. We typed. We had no eye contact, no tone of voice. Well, I suppose, he did have a picture (assuming just for a minute it was his picture) But did I hear his voice? No. Taste him? Smell him? I guess one day Gaydar might have a scratch and sniff app. But not yet. And Touch? No. The most sensual of all is the one so crucially missing. No hugs, no kisses, no hands. Just the unfulfilled landscape of one’s own expectations. In fact through all the useless hours I have spent on gaydar, I have been wondering exactly through which of my five senses I was experiencing any of these men. Gaydar is essentially an inhuman experience.

So why log on? Well this is the difficult bit. I feel very exposed writing it down. But here goes….. I think I have been addicted. I think it has become a dangerously invented bit of my life where I indulge in a grown up version of ‘Let’s Pretend’. I can spend hours in this Never Never land of sexual and social promise that never delivers reality. JM Barrie didn’t quite mean it this way, but Gaydar is full of Lost Boys.

The fact that I am able to write this, to put it out into the public domain, is a sign that I might be kicking the habit. At least that I am thinking of doing so. Although what just now flashed through my mind was a devilish opening filled with .. ‘I could pause and log on for a mo and see who’s there’. So I am not sure if I am over it. I know I am trying to exorcise it. But I don’t know if I I’ll succeed. I am writing a novel at the moment and, as a writer much wiser than me once said, there is a definite link between masturbation and the chapter. And I am writing a fictional diary. So the chapters are very short.

Gaydar has not been an occasional pastime over the last few years. It’s been everyday and sometimes for far too much of a day. I have found myself thinking about it on the train, on the way home, in moments during meetings. I am writing this on the way to Manchester and I am imagining what I could do when I get to my hotel room. And it’s not just me, is it? Go on. Be honest. Are you reading this and thinking that it’s also you? Increasingly I reckon this is one of the most widespread, unspoken and toxic slices of many gay men’s lives. When I look at who is in the chat rooms, every day it’s mostly the same people. Yet being in this “community” is the most isolating thing that I do.

On the other hand, it can be fun. No doubt about that. But, by and large, the fun fades when the tissue appears. It’s a classic stimulant. The highs are good and the lows are swift. It’s a drug. It deadens us. Its virtual reality is as destructive to our psychological state, and drives us underground quite as effectively, as anything society ever did to the homosexual culture when we were illegal. Virtual contact threatens to lock us away from the richness of face to face, lip to lip, body to body emotional reality. Other men on gaydar become porn. They are mirages on the horizon of our own yearning.

Of course straight men are addicted to porn too. I don’t think this is a gay thing. It’s a man thing. But it has a gay dimension. I don’t know anything about straight sites . I’ve never been on one. But I do know that when you see a man for real you know something about him from his look, his clothes, his eyes, the way he holds his glass, the way he stands and walks. We make instant judgements about every human being that we see, so fleeting sometimes that we’re not even conscious of what we think. But when we’re interested, we take in and process detail like a top of the range Police witness. And above all we know if there is chemistry. But the virtual is mere simulation. On Gaydar you are just an avatar.

Of course people have met on Gaydar and had fun and sex. I have. People have even met on Gaydar and moved in. Hurrah. But when that happens it defies the inhumanity, the coldness, the sheer mendacity of the virtual. People online are not “friends” or “favourites”. They’re just other atoms. And until we collide there is no explosion. Human contact is the only thing that produces energy. And love.

Going on Gaydar is not about being single and wanting to meet a boyfriend. That is definitely part of my life (email address on my website). That’s what I want. (Again application downloadable from simonfanshawe.com). But the likelihood of Gaydar filling that sock hanging at the bottom of my bed like some romantic Santa is up there with me going out with Johnny Depp and Iceland’s economy recovering. Gaydar is about avoiding all that. And I admit I have been hooked. I need out. But its grip is strong. Now I’ve finished writing this, I might just log on and see who’s there. And I know that many of you know exactly what I am feeling right now.

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Parody of Democracy

The Guardian,
Wednesday March 5 2008

For very good reason, there is much soul searching and hand-wringing about local councils and councillors. The recent Councillors Commission was debated at a Local Government Association conference last week. And on Friday, London councils launched what was inevitably described as an “X Factor search” to find the councillors of the future in the capital.

Behind all this lies the uncomfortable truth that fewer and fewer people want to become councillors or vote in council elections. Work done recently by Andrew Collinge, at Ipsos Mori, indicated that only 35% of people trust local councillors to tell the truth and only 32% think that they “make a real effort to listen to the views of local people”, whereas 85% of councillors think they do.

The Councillors Commission has suggested a series of well thought out, if slightly dreary, recommendations, ranging from allowances to accreditation, affecting the attitudes of employers and suggesting that local authorities should be charged with “a statutory duty to facilitate local democratic engagement”. And the X Factor search will do its best to re-balance the kind of people who stand – so at least there is a chance that the current 4% nationally who are from ethnic backgrounds might better represent the almost 30% of Londoners who are.

But we need a little more frankness. Councillors are caught in a downward vortex. Their self-importance elevates them above the ordinary Joe and Joanna, while the government systematically undervalues and mistrusts them, dropping the odd crumb of autonomy into a recipe that makes them instruments of national policy, rather than truly local actors.

Councillors need to realise that they are not the only ones with a mandate. They get incredibly sniffy about partnership because they think it devalues them. But while they may be ennobled with the legitimacy of a universal franchise, they work best when they participate with others who are trying to operate within the civic sphere in the interests of the whole city, town or parish.

I should declare an interest. I chair an economic partnership. I am not elected by “the people”, but I exercise the influence I have not in my own interests, but arguing for the greater good of the economy and mainly for jobs and homes. To act beyond your own self-interest is to play out democratic values. Democracy doesn’t always flow through election. It also &flows through responsibility. The Roberts report states, without nuance, that “local government is the institutional embodiment of the community of place”. It isn’t. What shapes the place is a far wider variety of forces. What symbolises the place for many people is their place of work, their festival, their great civic buildings. Councillors are just one voice in that mix.

But they do have a very specific role and they are not playing it honestly. What their particular mandate does give them is the duty to decide between competing interests. And yet they insist endlessly that their job is “to listen”. The Councillors Commission quotes with breathless enthusiasm South Tyneside council as offering one of the best examples of effective communication, saying that their “We asked … You said … We did” listening campaign is “based on effective two-way communication”.

This kind of sloppiness is guaranteed to undermine trust. Famously, you can’t please all of the people, because they talk with many voices. If you listened to the people, you’d bring back hanging, in some areas you wouldn’t house asylum seekers never mind how desperate their need, you wouldn’t allow gay people to adopt and, as was reported yesterday in the Observer, you wouldn’t allow Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour to spend £3.6m of his own money trying to house poor people in your area because residents had “concerns about security since many residents would have mental health problems”.

Don’t just listen, accept the responsibility to decide. We need to resolve this contradiction for councillors. You cannot act in the general good if you are tied to a ward. We should have cabinet councillors, full-time with executive responsibility elected city-, town- and county-wide and local councillors to act as local ward advocates. The cabinet would have the honesty to present its role as the decider. Councils working with clarity about their precise role together with others in the civic sphere to act in the overall good might be a way of attracting a majority of people with serious skill to do a meaningful job. Otherwise we will continue with this parody of democracy where councillors will dupe the people into thinking they can all have what they want and that legitimate involvement only comes from being elected by, let’s face it at the moment, a small minority of the population.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/mar/05/6

Jenny Rogers – chair of Councillors Commission’s response

No one has as much local legitimacy as elected councillors
They are not the only voices worth listening to, but their link to the voters is crucial, says Jane Roberts
_. The Guardian, Friday March 14 2008 Article history
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This article appeared in the Guardian on Friday March 14 2008 on p41 of the Leaders & reply section. It was last updated at 00:17 on March 14 2008.
Simon Fanshawe’s article (A parody of democracy, March 5) was a parody of the Councillors Commission report Representing the Future. Fanshawe says “we need a little more frankness”. I’ll second that. But frankness demands more than a partial, lazily glib view of councillors.
Our report conveyed the complexity of the councillor’s role and the range of skills that are needed in order to fulfil it. Fanshawe writes: “Don’t just listen, accept the responsibility to decide.” Did we say councillors are elected only to listen? Did we ignore their decision-
making role? Certainly not. We said: “The package of skills which this demands from councillors … is extensive: listening; negotiating; probing and scrutinising; handling contradiction; lobbying; campaigning; community development; conflict resolution; mediation; and of course decision making.” It is precisely this wide range that makes the role so intriguing, demanding and enriching.
This does, however, put a high premium on councillors’ communication skills. If people disagree with a decision they should at least understand how and why it came to be taken, and councillors should do the explaining. How else can people make sense of what happens in their locality?
I simply do not agree with Fanshawe’s sweeping statement that councillors “cannot act in the general good if you are tied to a ward”. Who defines the general good? Our report teased out the components of effective representation and stressed the importance of councillors sharing similar life experiences with their constituents – hardly fostered by Fanshawe’s notion of “cabinet councillors, full-time with executive responsibility”. And just where would Fanshawe find “local councillors to act as local ward advocates” when councillors already feel, with some justification, that they have too few powers?
We know there is much anxiety about the relationship between the citizen and the state: a widespread disengagement from and disenchantment with politics. If we are to tackle these issues, local democracy is the most accessible way of understanding how change comes about through the political process.
Our report goes out of its way to acknowledge Fanshawe’s “rich variety of forces” that makes up the culture and symbolism of any one place. Of course “councillors are just one voice” in that heady mix, but a crucial one that should take account of the wider plurality.
While acknowledging that he is “not elected by ‘the people'”, Fanshawe, from his perspective as chair of a local economic partnership, writes that “councillors … are not the only ones with a mandate”. Yes, he has a key role in his area, and I hope local councillors work constructively with him. But putting yourself up for election surely endows an extra legitimacy that is not to be so quickly downplayed. It’s not good enough for Fanshawe to argue that his influence is exercised “not in my own interests … but for the greater good of the economy”. Who is the judge of that? Who can get rid of you?
Go for it, put your head above the parapet, Simon – stand for election. You might even enjoy it.
· Jane Roberts is chair of the Councillors Commission_roberjane@gmail.com

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Isra – a thoroughly modern muslim

This is a conversation I have had in two halves with a young Muslim woman. The first half was at a conference in front of an audience of youth workers. The second was on the phone last week. Like most of us I know few practising Muslims. Which is hardly surprising. After all they constitute only 3% of the population. She has profoundly opened my mind about her faith.
SF If we were on the radio and I said to the audience that you were wearing the hijab; they wouldn’t see in their minds who I see in front of me now. (This is because she is wearing a bright pink hijab, a white jacket, pink flowing skirt and jewelled slippers)
IJ I know. My friends and I call out selves the Hijabi-Barbies
SF That’s the first Muslim joke I have ever heard.
IJ Yes, it’s been a bit dull since the 16th century
SF And that’s the second
What does the hijab mean to you?
IJ I can’t remember a moment when I decided to wear it. I often say it grew over my head. As I got older, and I know this sounds stupid, I realised how much we are judged by how we look. I hear boys saying, “she’s a real minger” about some girl when I know she’s really sweet and “she’s fit” about some girl who is just horrible. If you believe in a merciful God then everybody is beautiful. To call someone ugly is condemning a creation of God. I know I am gorgeous, that I have a beautiful body. It’s the bit of me that is clever and caring that you can’t see. The hijab in a way makes you naked.
SF Do you have lots of different coloured hijabs?
IJ I think I have more hijabs than knickers. Sometimes I think that’s going against what I am saying. But I don’t claim to be a perfect Muslim. I rationalise that I am living in a western country, so do in Rome and all that. It’s my way of bridging the gap. If I am sitting on a train, I am far less threatening to someone sitting next to me than someone covered from head to toe.
SF You’re melding your traditions with Britain?
IJ This kind of melding has been going on for centuries with Muslims.
SF What is your relationship with the Muslims we so often see in the news, ‘Beeston’, if you like?
IJ I feel towards them the same as I feel towards the BNP. I recognise that we share some things. With them I recognise that we have our faith in common. With the BNP we live in the same country and watch the same TV programmes. But both groups are making my life really different.
SF How?
IJ One group is making me into something I am not. When the radicals are aggressive about this country and the way of life I feel very difficult. I have made this my country and I would die for it. Their actions are limiting me.
SF I sense that you might find it difficult to criticise other Muslims in public?
IJ Lots of Muslims want to change Muslim behaviour. But part of me still feels extremely defensive. When these debates happen in public I feel pulled in two directions. There is a certain amount of friction in public which is damaging to Muslims when we are so misrepresented in the media. But I know that when I say this to you, you’re going to write it down. It is only 2% of my concerns but it always gets far more attention than it deserves. I wish more people would just say that there are millions of different Muslims. Because all of a sudden we became the same thing – associated with sects in Pakistan. I don’t know what a Madrassa is!
SF Do you find it difficult to criticise your leaders in public?
IJ What they have done is important. Getting Muslim organisations into the mainstream is a way of bridging the gap. At the same time do they represent me? They sure as hell don’t sound like they do.
SF Now you’ve graduated from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) what do you want to do?
IJ I want to work for an NGO. I am starting looking for jobs now. But I went to a recruitment agency and they said that I should make some of the stuff on my CV, voluntary work etc, look less Muslim. So I’ve changed things like the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue to IFID. I don’t want to be unemployed for ever!
SF When I write this up how shall I refer to you?
IJ I think as Ms I Jawad. I have a funny thing about seeing my name written down. I’ll finally be Isra Jawad when I write “The Hijabi Barbies, the Muslim update of the Bridget Jones diaries”.

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Leicester – city of no surprises

I went to a vegetarian restaurant the other day. (Bear with me on this.) The food was terrific. But more than that, Halli Restaurant somehow summed up the idea of a plural city, a symbol of a very modern take on diversity.

It’s in Leicester. There are myths about Leicester. One is that it is dull. In one sense this is not a myth at all, but rather part of the story of a city that was once most famous for producing socks and pantyhose – the wonderfully Mrs Slocomb-esque “hosiery”. Leicester is the embodiment of a kind of ornate suburbia. Joe Orton and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, both masters of the language of comic self-importance, were born there. Both were geniuses at imparting over-significance to the minutiae of the everyday, with hilarious effect. Leicester has the same quality. It once launched a glorious promotional slogan. On all the buses in huge letters, incredibly, ridiculously, it read “Leicester City of Surprises”. Most people tittered.

At the end of the sixties the city played host to a group of Indians, fleeing East African. They are now the largest minority group in the city. Unlike in many other cities in the North and the Midlands Leicester’s Asian population is largely Hindu and Indian rather than Pakistani or Bangladeshi and Muslim. In clumsy broad-brush strokes Leicester is roughly 60% “white” and 40% “black or Asian”. Which has given rise to another myth, a rash of stories uncritically reported by the papers and repeated by the CRE and other agencies that “Leicester will be the first non-white majority city in Britain by 2011”.

But according to Professor Ludi Simpson and Dr Nissa Finney of the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research at the University of Manchester in their recent paper, this is highly unlikely to happen before 2020. And anyway, they argue, this really only has any real significance, if you think that “white” or “black and Asian” have any kind of homogeneity as groups. They point out that the story is really a shorthand for anxieties that some existing consensus about how to live in and govern cities will be displaced by a different and foreign one, that “newcomers….will upset the applecart of the accepted way of life and governance”.

During the conference where I was speaking (hence the dinner the night before) a number of people referred to diversity in such clumsy ways as organised religion or these broad ethnic groups. Clearly both notions do contribute to our identities, but they do not describe the whole of us. They are just stepping-stones on the journey to creating what Robert Putnam, the American sociologist, calls ‘a new we’. One woman next to me muttered in my ear with a sarcastic grin “my boyfriend is white and I am not having an arranged marriage”.

So why did the restaurant seems to transcend this? Well, because when I walked in the door, my spirit slightly dropped as I looked at the décor. There was more blonde bargain pine in there than in Ikea. The pie crust backs to the chairs and the dark wooden floor made me think that we had come to one of those vegetarian restaurants that in the 80’s called themselves Health food Cafes. I expected to be bloated with faceless veggie gloop, off a menu, of the kind that I once described as being ‘lentilly handicapped’. But in fact Jamion Thomas the owner came from Kerala six years ago to join his wife, an NHS nurse, and after a working life spent in the hospitality industry, realised his dream of opening a Southern Indian vegetarian restaurant. The food has its roots in Udupi, a village – a Halli – in Karnataka. I asked the waiter for a wine recommendation, but he was a Muslim, so it wasn’t his strong suit. He smiled and we chose. The customers, who were an all-encompassing bunch, were ordering the food with the confidence of regulars. Outside proudly hangs the banner announcing Halli’s Award as Venue of the Year in the Leicester Comedy Festival. In February they play host to a regular diet of comedy newcomers.

What was so striking about this cultural melange was that the aesthetic of the place had broken free of its preconceptions. It just felt like a restaurant in Leicester. Rather ordinary looking, it’s light hidden under a bushel of inexpensive pine (even the menus are made of wood), it is a symbol of what Leicester is now. As the city tells the story of its next forty years, those who have come to live there have not so much changed it as become it. Listen to them talk and they don’t sound Asian, they just sound Leicester. A city of no surprises whatsoever.

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