Tesco, hurricanes and Chernobyl

I’ve left Chelsea tractor country this week for Hove and the Green Party’s autumn conference.

This is a huge one for me: as Campaigns Co-ordinator I’m running a stand promoting this year’s big green energy and local shops campaigns; I have a big policy motion on the agenda to bring together our policies to help small businesses; and on Saturday I have two fringe meetings to chair and a rehearsal on the beach for activists who are coming to Scotland next month as part of a 100-day blockade of the Faslane nuclear weapons base. (The weather forecast is for a hurricane so I’m a little worried we will all be swept out to sea.)

And on top of all that I am standing as a candidate for female Principal Speaker on next year’s executive so I’ll be making my hustings speech on Saturday to try to convince the Party that I would be a worthy successor to the great Caroline Lucas MEP as one of our main public faces.

It took ages just to write all that down, never mind fitting it all in over the next few days, and of course I’m also aiming to blog all this here, so we’ll see how that fits in – please excuse me if my grammar goes all John Prescott in the rush.

It is fitting to have our conference in Brighton and Hove this year – along with Norwich this is the Greenest city in the country. For the last two general elections, Brighton Pavillion has been our best parliamentary constituency and we have twice as many councillors here as the Liberal Democrats. So, imagine my dismay on emerging from Brighton station this morning to find the place thick with the ‘yellow menace’.

I try not to get too frustrated with the LibDems, I really do, but their lack of principle does get to me. Most of them, particularly on local councils, seem to have joined simply to get elected. In contrast most Greens are first and foremost interested in ‘the cause’ and can’t wait to tell you the gory details of their conversion.

This will sounds like a joke, but one of the major sponsors of their conference is actually Tesco. Yes, you read that correctly. Tesco is of course sugaring the pill - using the conference to promote their new ‘Community Plan’ and boast about their aim to be a ‘good neighbour’. But if the LibDems are prepared to let Tesco propagandise to their members in exchange for a few quid, then you have to wonder where else they will be prepared to compromise.

I could go on about this for a dozen pages, but I think the real problem with the LibDems was put best by the Green Party protestors who this morning picketed their conference to expose their record on local councils, supporting road-building and airport expansion virtually across the board. Given they were holding a ‘Climate Crazy Ming’ banner, I’ll have to admit we’re not above a bit of name-calling when it’s deserved!

Almost the whole of the conference today is taken up with education issues. We’ll be updating our education policy over the next six months, so have invited a very wide range of interesting groups and individuals to Hove to tell us what they think we should be doing.

This agenda was set up months ago, but it’s a stroke of luck that there has been so much noise on the subject of ‘the purpose of education’ and ‘the state of childhood’ lately. There are definite signs that many influential figures are moving towards the Greens’ point of view in this area.

As well as the recent open letter to the Daily Telegraph, signed by everyone from psychology professors to poets, the Children’s Society and the Archbishop of Canterbury have also chipped in during the last week to launch a two-year inquiry that will look at the effects of recent changes in education on children’s wellbeing.

The sessions today made it obvious that most Greens are once again way ahead of the agenda on an important issue. We have always insisted education practice should be about developing human beings not economic units, and negotiated between the young and their teachers - not a quantified ‘service contract’ to help employers and parents mould young people in their image.

At a packed fringe run by the Young Greens today, our student rep at the London School of Economics described it as ‘a production line for the City of London’ and criticised current education practice - starting in schools – for turning kids into corporate clones at younger and younger ages. The other main speaker was keen to see the student voice given real power in schools, sitting on governing bodies as well as helping to design government policies and the curriculum. She was right – how can we expect young people to begin turning up to vote at 18 when they have had no power over their lives at all before then?

But while our philosophy on education is bang on target, it is true that many of the specifics of our education policy do need updating. This is not our fault but simply thanks to the vast number of new initiatives and ‘reforms’ brought in lately by New Labour (many of which we wouldn’t even have suspected of Thatcher at her height).

In fact, in contrast to most criticisms we hear about Green policies, the policies we have on education are packed full of things we are in favour of, but doesn’t cover half of what we’re against (these include student loans, tuition fees, SATs, trust schools, and selection - in case you were wondering).

This evening I’m off to see a film about Chernobyl. I’ll post more tomorrow when we’ll be talking mainly about social enterprise (and no that does not include Tesco’s ‘Community Plan’).

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit