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Points North: Michael Taylor, co-founder of Discuss



Each Friday, Points North gives a senior media figure a platform to air their views on a topical or relevant issue.

This week it’s Michael Taylor, co-founder of Discuss and chairman of business lobbying group Downtown Manchester. In the wake of the galvanising if unsuccessful campaign for Scottish independence, he asks what kind of North we want now.

We have witnessed something quite incredible in Scotland.

At our Discuss Manchester debate on Scottish devolution at the Town Hall on Wednesday night, broadcaster Hardeep Singh Kohli described Scotland as enjoying its own “Tartan Spring”.

A bottom up, people’s campaign that has galvanised the public, given them hope (false hope, possibly) and unlocked a passion for how they are governed.

The Yes campaigners have achieved all of this with no support from any daily newspaper, a perceived indignation at the bias of the BBC and faced opposition from all four of the English parties.

Discuss - 5850To have taken the vote so close, and in the teeth of overwhelming economic evidence, you have to conclude these are remarkable political times.

And so what of English civic politics? In my role as chairman of Downtown Manchester I’ve met the leading lights in of all the main parties recently. They are throwing themselves at the Northern cities, promising a new covenant, a new deal and a new politics.

Hardly a week goes by without another think tank, research paper or policy initiative promising a Northern Powerhouse or, most recently, Devo Manc.

But as Labour arrive in Manchester this weekend, this is just the old politics promising new things. It’s not a new politics. Not yet. That comes from below and we’re nowhere near that.

The closest Northern phenomena has been in Bradford when the odious George Galloway won an election by using the tools of social media; Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to mobilise the youth of Bradford to follow his Pied Piper tune.

Close behind that we’ve seen UKIP gathering strength in Northern cities while the Conservatives vanish as a credible party machine in our urban areas. But the surprise shown by politicians towards the rise of UKIP, actually explains the rise of UKIP.

We bang away at this stuff. Across the Northern cities Downtown in Business puts political and civic leaders in front of business.

The Discuss debates in Manchester have tapped into a latent need for mental nourishment – a chance to hear national figures and local public intellectuals going toe to toe on big issues.

There’s a challenge amidst all of this, a challenge of communication and engagement.

This matters, because poor engagement in politics leads to poor policy and bad politicians.

We’re hosting a debate next month about the race to give cities more power. There’s an assumption this is an unequivocally a good thing and a very democratic thing to do. It isn’t though.

Council leaders elected with turnouts of 18% who have limited powers cannot inspire and lead.

And the media has a role to play. What kind of North do we want? Do we have respect for the institutions of power, those that seek election and those that make the hard decisions, or do we turn over and yawn? Will all of the efforts to create a new constitutional settlement for how our cities can be run better be reduced to a newspaper poll about whether Marco Pierre White could be Mayor of Leeds or Shaun Ryder in Manchester?

I have in my loft somewhere a North West flag. Designed by Peter Saville, unveiled by Tony Wilson, and the banner for North West self-determination. It was a different decade and a different time. It is a totem of false optimism and silliness.

But at least it represented something that broke with the old and what the Scots have opened up is a real yearning for something new and different.

I can’t see new models of statecraft and top down politics doing that. Just as technology has changed how creative projects are managed and run, so public service and community organisation must change too.

Scotland has risen to that challenge, even by asking the wrong question.

Now what if we were to ask the right one?

Michael Taylor is co-founder of Discuss and chairman of business lobbying group Downtown Manchester

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