A Labour campaigner during the last days of the 2015 election campaign. Photo: Getty Images
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Labour were beaten, yes, but we're not dead

Labour were knocked back last month, but we can rebuild, and we must. 

I failed the 11+.

To say that it was a blow would be a bit of an understatement.

I was born and brought up in Small Heath. It’s one of the poorest areas of the city of Birmingham and it’s where I still live today. Birmingham then, as now, operates a grammar school system.
My parents are first generation immigrants from Kashmir who ran a corner shop in Small Heath. With four children at home my Dad also worked a day job. Despite the challenges we faced, my parents always encouraged us to aim high and that meant university. As a teenager my heart was completely and utterly set on one thing. I was going to be Kavanagh QC. Well a Muslim, female version at any rate.
To fulfil this dream I thought I needed to win a place at Oxford and for that I thought I needed a place at the grammar school. But I had failed, which is a pretty crushing blow for any 11 year old.

I eventually made it to Oxford where I studied law and became a barrister. The point is that things don’t always work out quite the way we plan and failure is not always indicative of total disaster.
The Labour Party did not plan to lose the election. We certainly did not think that the Conservatives would form a majority government.
But we did, and they have.
Sure there are challenges and I don’t underestimate the scale of the task ahead. We have big questions to ask about our approach to the economy and our relationship with business.

But the narrative that is taking a hold is that the Labour Party is in chaos. Let’s learn one lesson from the summer of 2010; if we allow ourselves to be defined before we define ourselves then it will stick however far from the truth it is.
We are not in trouble. Nor are we in chaos. We are having a perfectly reasonable leadership contest. If we are to be in the race in 2020 it’s important we face up to our failings in an open, transparent and inclusive way. Quite frankly, the next leader of the Labour Party should be up to this level of scrutiny.
Whilst there is no shortage of opinions about why we lost and where to go from here, what we are already seeing is the emergence of some consensus on our approach to the economy and business. Differences between candidates exist on a myriad of other issues from free schools through to Labour’s involvement in the EU campaign. But, on the economy, what is increasingly evident is a collective realisation that our relationship with the business community - big, medium and small – needs to be reset. 

Our economic offer was too narrow. Do I disagree that the minimum wage should be raised or that exploitative zero-hour contracts should be banned? No of course not, these measures should always be part of a Labour manifesto. But should they have been all we spoke about? The Tories cut the 50p rate of tax but they didn’t spend all their time talking about it.
If we want to be the workers party for now, then we have to be the workers party for the 4.5 million self-employed, the business owner, the public sector worker and the low paid. Our policies have to reflect the fact that there are 31 million people employed in this country and most of those jobs are in the private sector. And what do most people actually want? At its most basic, most of us want a good job (for ourselves and our family members), then the opportunity to get a better job and a helping hand or a second chance if things go wrong.

That means as a party we need to push relentlessly policies that focus on economic growth, productivity and the high-tech, high-skill jobs of the future – something we’ve been hearing a lot about as we choose our new leader.
Our policies also have to show an understanding of what it means to live these lives. And why shouldn’t they? For many us in the Labour movement these lives are our lives. My first experience of work was helping in our corner shop; going to the cash and carry, helping with the stock checks and serving behind the till. At home, watching my dad working two jobs and every hour God sent to provide for me, my mum and my brothers and sisters.
The lessons I learnt then are still with me now. I learnt about budgeting and money, about the value of hard work, about the importance of determination and graft. I learnt the importance of obligation and loyalty. These are the values I share and understand. These must be the values of Labour.

 

Shabana Mahmood is Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Shabana Mahmood is Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood.

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Want your team to succeed? Try taking a step back

From the boardroom to the sports ground, managers need to step back for creativity to thrive.

Everyone is in favour of creativity, usually at the expense of creative people. The concept is in perpetual boom. Give us creative midfielders, creative leadership, creative solutions, creative energy. It’s with the “how” that the problems start – with extra meetings and meddling, over-analysis and prescriptiveness, whiteboards and flow charts. Professional systems rarely support the creativity that they allegedly seek. The creativity industry system is at odds with its stated goals.

The novel was an early casualty. Nothing makes me close a book more quickly and finally than the creeping realisation that the author is following a narrative map purchased on an American creative writing course. Life is too short for competent novels. The creativity industry pulls up the worst while dragging down the best.

Something similar happens inside professional sport, even though creativity is so obviously linked to performance and profit. Yet sport, especially English sport, has suffered from excessive managerialism. Perhaps guilt about English sport’s amateur legacy gave “professionalism” free rein, however pedestrian its form.

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control. If an attacking player doesn’t know what he is going to do next, what chance does the defender have?

So when truly unexpected moments do happen, they take on a special lustre. This month, Olivier Giroud scored an unforgettable goal for Arsenal. Bearing down on the goal, he was already launched in mid-air when he realised that the cross was well behind him. With his body far ahead of his feet, Giroud clipped the ball to the top corner of the net with the outside of his left ankle – a so-called scorpion kick.

It was, in retrospect, the only option available to him. Football, for a moment, touched the arts – not only beautiful, but also complete. Nothing could have been added or taken away.

I once tried to compare the perfect cricket shot to Robert Frost’s celebrated description of writing a poem: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification . . . Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

A great goal, however, fits that poetic model better than a cricket shot. Cricket shots come in many aesthetic grades, but they are all intended as shots. A goal, on the other hand, is more than just a very good pass, only better. There is an act of transformation within the event.

Frost’s acknowledgment of luck (distinct here from fluke) neatly defuses the accusation. Saying that a great goal involved luck does not to diminish it. Many unearned factors must interact with the skill.

“But did he mean it?” some people have wondered about Giroud’s goal. That isn’t the point, either. There wasn’t time. Giroud had solved the problem – to make contact with the ball, however possible, directing it towards the goal – before he was fully conscious of it. That doesn’t make it an accident. The expertise of a striker, like that of a writer, is opportunistic. He puts himself in positions where his skills can become productive. It is a honed ability to be instinctive. “If I’d thought about it, I never would have done it,” as Bob Dylan sings on “Up to Me”, an out-take from Blood on the Tracks.

Pseudo-intellectual? Quite the reverse. There is nothing pretentious about recognising and protecting creativity in sport. Over-literal decoding is the greater threat: instinctive performance needs to be saved from team meetings, not from intellectuals.

Having described a creative goal as unplanned – indeed, impossible to plan – what can coaches do to help? They can get out of the way, that’s a good start. It is no coincidence that the teams of Arsène Wenger, who is sometimes criticised for being insufficiently prescriptive, score more than their fair share of wonder goals.

The opposite arrangement is bleak. A friend of mine, a fly-half in professional rugby union, retired from the game when his coaches told him exactly which decisions to make in the first six phases of every attacking move. In effect, they banned him from playing creatively; they wanted rugby by numbers.

Not everything can be rehearsed. One useful book for coaches scarcely mentions sport – Inside Conducting, by the conductor Christopher Seaman. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at rehearsal,” Seaman writes, “and then just run the program during the performance. There is much more
to it than that.”

Dan Vettori, the rising star among cricket’s Twenty20 coaches, is rare for having the bravery to echo Seaman’s theory. He believes that cricketers are more likely to play well when they feel slightly underprepared. It’s a risk and a fine balance – but worth it.

As I explored here last month in the context of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, there is a danger of slotting players into false stereotypes and classifications. Giroud, for example, is slow. Slow yet athletic. That’s an unusual combination and partly explains why he is underrated.

We often think of pace as the central and definitive aspect of athleticism. But speed is just one component of total athletic ability (leave to one side footballing skill). Giroud has an outstanding vertical jump, power and great balance. Because he is big and slow, those athletic gifts are harder to spot.

Management systems overestimate both labels and top-down tactics. A braver policy, pragmatic as well as aesthetic, is to be less controlling: allow opportunity to collide with skill, directed by an open, expert and uncluttered mind. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge