The Randomness of Life Giving Strangers

IMG_1464  I was driving back from Heathrow earlier this week, where Britain’s highest temperature of the day was being recorded,  and I was stuck in traffic on the M25, sweltering in the still heat. The weather reporter on Radio Four was saying it was the hottest recorded temperature since the long hot summer of 1976.

I was instantly transported back to a hot dusty road near Salford Docks, now Salford Quays with its Media City and designer apartments, walking back from grabbing a lunchtime sandwich to my summer job as a clerk in one of the engineering firms on the Ship Canal. Walking with me was my fellow summer temp jobber, a student.

I was waiting for my A level results and the plan was, like most of my friends, to get enough grades to scrape into a low level white collar desk job, get a car and some decent clubbing clobber. That, and girls, was our event horizon.

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The student talked about the wider world, new ideas, experiences and social interactions a working class girl like her had discovered by leaving home and going to university.

She worked on me for the couple of weeks we sat together that steaming summer, in our little ratty office looking over the shop floor, persuading, advising, until eventually I agreed to change my mind and go to college.

I ended up in the same town as her, went round to see her once but she was out, and never got round to trying to visit her again. But she got me to college, the first of my branch of the Byrne clan to go, and I never looked back. It was a transformative social, intellectual and cultural experience, and I for one welcome the increasing number of working class kids going to university, the greatest social leveller and social mobility platform we have in our society. I can’t remember her name, or much of what she looked like. But she changed my life back in that long hot summer of 1976.

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Fast forward years later. My wife and I had only recently met and discovered a mutual fondness for camping. We took ourselves, our wetsuits and body boards off to the surf of Cornwall. I’d been looking enviously at the surfers in the wide bay where we were camping, and resolved to give it a go. As ever with me, I cut the prep, bought a second hand board and launched myself out into the waves without a single lesson.

Being shy, and not wanting to humiliate myself in front of seasoned surfer dudes, I took myself to the furthest corner of the bay, well away from them. And out I went.

As well as skipping lessons, I omitted to check on the tide. The surf was fierce and the tide was fast retreating. I soon got into difficulties. Every huge rolling wave dragged me under in its tow, ripping the board from my hands. I was attached by a line but by the time I fought my way back to the surface and reeled in the board, the next wave was pounding me under again, and the tide dragged me back three times whatever feeble progress I had made clawing my way towards the increasingly distant shore.

One mighty wave tore the board from me and shot it like a rocket upwards. When it fell back the tip hit and broke my shoulder.

I knew I was going to die. I had no strength left, my shoulder was in agony, I was choking on brine, losing feeling in my limbs and starting to give up the fight.

In the distance I could see surfers weaving in and out of the breaking waves. I gathered whatever meagre strength I had left and yelled for help, waving with my one good arm.

A miracle happened. I saw one guy lie down on his board and start to paddle towards me. It seemed to take forever and I was still being dragged under and out ever few seconds. After what seemed like an impossible forever he reached me, grabbed my line and started the slow, painful haul against the waves and tide to the shore. Eventually he hauled me out and I lay coughing and shaking and gasping on the beach. Satisfied I would live, he patted me on the shoulder, said “ok mate” and went back to his surfing.

Again I can remember nothing about what he looked like, didn’t even get to say thanks as I lay in shock, but he – literally – saved my life.

In my previous post I wrote about the people I have to thank for the break into PR and advances in my career and reputation. But for many of us it is random strangers – the unsuspecting hero in a terrorist attack, the medic at the car crash scene, the anonymous organ donor, the conversation with a fellow passenger on a long flight -who shape and even save our lives.

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Election thoughts

In truth I spent more of the weekend immersed in the Isle of Wight Festival than politics, and colleagues at Weber Shandwick such as former May aide and Sky political guru Joey Jones have far better insights than me.  Neither as a New Labour refugee do I have any insights into Corbyn’s strategy – if there was much of one. So I will stick to what impressed and heartened me personally about the outcome of the campaign and what I see as positive for British politics.

There are four things that struck me about the outcome and things that personally give me hope.

1 Youth Engagement

Even with the big Facebook voter registration drive in 2015, the 18-24 year old turnout on polling day remained depressingly low at 43%. Although it is too early to assess the specific youth voter turnout last week, there are clear trends of increased turn out in areas with a high youth demographic and the youth vote was key in securing seats in Sheffield, Leeds, Canterbury and elsewhere. Some cite Labour being more sure footed on digital engagement than in 2015, with new tools like Chatter and Promote. But none of these would have worked without the other factors below.

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Youth engagement in politics is a big issue for me and I am delighted to see young people seizing the opportunity to have a big say in their own future. For me this is the biggest positive out of the campaign.

2 Politics Unspun

For someone trained by Peter Mandelson during my time in political communications, it is counter intuitive for me to celebrate the lack of professionalism of the campaign, and I spent much of it shouting “that would never have happened in my day!” at every botched interview and old style rally complete with Socialist Worker banners, but that – linked to people liking the fact that Corbyn defied convention and spoke out for what he believed in – was undoubtedly a factor in Corbyn’s over-performance of (low) expectation. People, and particularly young people, have pushed back on confectionary politics and responded positively to the real thing. New Labour may have perfected the art of professional campaigning in recent decades, but it worked briefly in the decade post 1997 because Tony Blair was genuinely offering and embodying hope. Without him in his political prime it became artifice. Now ironically Old Labour’s poster boy has put a nail – perhaps the final nail – in spin’s coffin.

On the other hand, May’s attempt at message discipline a la New Labour (“strong and stable”, “collation of chaos”, blah blah) just didn’t work despite being rabbited in unison by her media supporters, because neither she nor her campaign looked strong or stable.

3 The continued declining power of the tabloids

In 1992 The Sun had some semblance of truth in its assertion that it was “The Sun Wot Won It” after a campaign of lies and crap about then Labour leader Neil Kinnock. But as trust in the media declines alongside their circulation figures, and people get increasingly fed up being told what to think, that claim is no longer valid. My own firm’s polling shows that even in 2015 traditional print media was a top three influencer of voting intention. But an updated poll released just ahead of polling day revealed that along with broadcast media, and friends and family, Facebook was now seen as more influential that the tabloids.

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4 Civility in politics

Strange one this, given the rampant incivility of many of Corbyn’s supporters to their fellow party members and moderate MPs, but the sight of broadcasters and Tory politicians being really nasty to JC earned him a sympathetic underdog status. People didn’t necessarily agree with him, but they didn’t like abuse being heaped on someone who is basically a decent if often misguided old guy with a beard telling it the way he sees it. Given the unprecedented level of nastiness flying in the Trump campaign, it is interesting and affirming to see the opposite effect in our election less than a year later.

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So these are four things that struck me and gave me heart out of this election, the results of which continue to twist and turn by the hour.

One last thought on JC – and let’s remember Labour did actually lose the election despite seven years of unpopular austerity policies, a welcome surge in youth participation and a fairly shambolic Tory campaign – was underlined by Peter Mandelson on BBC Radio the other day. He made the point that an election took place on the streets, and now the power shifts back to Parliament. JC has to show he can make that shift also. That means a Shadow Cabinet of the talents, not the cronies. A test for Corbyn is does he embrace the best talent across the PLP and Lords, or return to the narrow tribalism that marked his first two years as leader.