I’m writing this in a dingy hotel room in Brussels, where I’m staying for an EU conference on employee financial participation. If you’re still reading by this point then frankly I’m amazed, and tempted to suggest you should get out more. For those still with me (hello Mum!) I’ll continue.
This is only the second ‘international’ conference I’ve been to, the first being almost exactly two years ago, when I was jammy enough to speak at a conference on urban governance in Porto Alegre – home of participatory budgeting – in Brazil. Jammy in that it’s a great city, and secondly because my colleague who was originally invited – a real expert – couldn’t go.
Predictably, my trip to Brazil was one of the most surreal experiences of my young life. My first ever long haul flight was considerably marred by sitting in the seat next to a very very fat walrus of a man, and then having a ten hour stopover in Sao Paulo airport. On the plus side this gave me the time I needed to read the book that had brought my colleague to the attention of the Mayor of Porto Alegre. Reading about democratic urban governance in a strange South American airport is not, however, an experience I am particularly looking to repeat.
The conference itself was completely bizarre, alienatingly so. Unlike the Brussels gig where everyone speaks fluent English, I keenly felt my complete lack of Portuguese and spent the entire time trying to decipher rather sub-par English translation through headphones. Not the most natural mingler anyhow, I spent every available break chain smoking in the blistering heat, and trying to avoid the racist Greek professor who felt a kinship with me due to our having studied at the same university.
This time things feel much more familiar and less overwhelming (not least in that I am rather more confident in what I’m speaking about). And whilst – honestly – there was another obese man sitting next to me on the Eurostar, the seats were rather larger and the journey considerably shorter.
Tomorrow morning I shall be talking about the inherent tension between the Coalition Government’s ambitions for nationwide take up of employee ownership and its localism agenda (how to achieve widespread change when each local area gets to make up its own mind?). I shall mention my belief that yes, the relative lack of evidence about public sector mutuals is an issue but suggest that evidence only persuades so many people, some of the time, and say that we need broadly distributed political leadership to move forward. And I shall underline my strongly-held belief that we must not forget that the mutuals agenda is first and foremost about real people making difficult decisions during challenging times. And then I shall hop on the train again, fervently hoping to be seated next to someone slim.