Sorting out our differences: Norfolk style

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June 2020

Years ago, when I was working as a management trainer, a key part of our teambuilding days was an activity called ‘sorting out our differences’.  It was a powerful exercise: participants were put into pairs and asked to produce three adjectives describing the other person’s strengths and three describing the other person’s weaknesses.  The pairs were re-allocated and, over the course of an hour or so, participants were given a clear idea of the way their colleagues perceived them and where they could benefit from an adjustment in their behaviour.  Most of the feedback was positive and course members were pleasantly surprised.

Unfortunately, I was not similarly uplifted by the feedback that I received this week from some comrades in the North Norfolk Labour Party. I am sure they would argue that I deserved it; I brought it on myself by offering a challenge to our controlling clique.

Let me first say how the situation arose.

All local Labour Parties are unable to hold meetings or take any decisions during the lockdown period. However, I fell that we should use the hiatus to consider the best way forward, both nationally and locally. Together with my friend Jasper Haywood, I produced a short paper which was subsequently published on the Progress Online website.  The link is below [1] and, although the paper offered a clear viewpoint, I thought the contents were innocuous.  I sought our relevant local Party Officer’s permission for it to be circulated to members.  He requested a minor amendment (which I made) but told me that it should wait until the next meeting; this will probably not take place until September at the earliest, when much of the contents would be out-of-date.  I treated this as yet another clumsy attempt to supress any dissenting views so I circulated the paper widely myself.

I am pleased to say that I had some positive, and on occasions, congratulatory, comments in return.  Set against that I was on the receiving end of some profoundly negative feedback.   One recipient, who was known for her volatility, described me in an email as an “obsequious, pompous, xxxx”.  A second, who holds a senior party position and should know better, used “disingenuous, divisive and vindictive”.  The redacted word in the first list is defined in my dictionary as vulgar slang for (in my case gender inappropriate) genitals; I also suspect ‘obnoxious’ was intended rather than ‘obsequious’. Probably there is some grain of truth in the rest of the adjectives, though it would have been nice to have seen some positives included.  However, neither of these lists fall within the clear rules of ‘sorting out our differences’ – they do not indicate how I can go about improving my performance or rebuilding relationships.  So, what can be learned from this unfortunate exchange?

Ironically the main lesson was set out most clearly in the section of our joint paper which drew on Japer Haywood’s excellent research – see my earlier blog below “A fine contribution from Norfolk from the next generation”[2].   This pointed to the continued lack of trust and mutual respect which is likely to pervade the Party at grass-roots level for some time ahead. The Corbyn era sharpened all our differences and phrases like ‘we have more in common than divides us’ are meaningless in the current climate.  We are more like two sets of aged heavyweights slugging it out on the undercard when it is time to hang up our gloves.  The Labour Party has excellent new leadership at national level and we desperately need the next generation to echo this by taking over at local levels.

I genuinely regret the hostility from the second respondent, since I think under different circumstances, and in different times, we would have got on well together.  As it is, I think it’s best if I give any post-lockdown celebratory barbecue a miss and take my excellent Papworth Farm (advertisement) sausages elsewhere and await the return of the much promised kinder, gentler politics.

[1] http://progressonline.org.uk/how-to-advance-in-an-unwinnable-area/

[2] https://wordpress.com/post/leftyoldman.wordpress.com/1361

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Sausages are highly recommended – best I’ve ever tasted

 

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A new community spirit – the challenge and the opportunity

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April 2020

Like every sane and sensible person, I am prepared to take any action required of me to help overcome this dreadful pandemic.  The plain truth, however, is, given my age and circumstances, the best I can do is to self-isolate and try not to be a nuisance to anybody else.

This has proved to be more than a little frustrating.  A good friend of mine, who is also in his 70s, is a retired Anglican vicar living in the neighbouring coastal town of Sheringham. He put it this way: “for the first time I’m meant to be on the receiving end and am finding it an unsettling experience”.

For my part I registered online with the local authority initiated North Norfolk COVID 19 volunteers scheme.  I was interviewed, in a most professional manner, over the phone by someone who was pleased to learn that I had an enhanced DBS certificate* and a Safeguarding certificate following my attendance on the relevant Church of England course.  As a result, I was referred to the local volunteer hub which is led by a seconded Council official who is our local tree officer – the last contact we had with this individual was when he gave approval for us to remove two dying silver birches in our garden.  Because I and my wife only leave the house for essential shopping and exercise all I could offer was telephone contact with people who are lonely. So far, I have not been asked to do this: I suspect that the service has far more volunteers than needed

If North Norfolk is anything to go by, people have indeed risen to the occasion and the very best side of our communities has emerged.  In our small isolated village, immediately the extent of the epidemic became apparent, a joint note from the Chair of the Parish Council and our Churchwarden was distributed to every house asking for volunteers. We all stand ready to assist, but it is evident that an informal network of support sprang into action with people anxious to ensure that their immediate neighbours have adequate supplies. Importantly we have maintained the collection and delivery of items to the Fakenham food bank that our Church had put in place for several years.

My retired clergyman friend tells a similar story in Sheringham where a more ambitious operation is in place: ‘Sheringham Community Support’, initiated by the town council, has identified a volunteer for each street and distributed a list of shops who are able to make home deliveries.  In my friend’s words “Sheringham has pulled together in an amazing way”.

This blog usually has a political focus and there are some lessons to be drawn even at this stage.  First, while the energy in a crisis must come from volunteers there is a need for structure and professional organisation – if not people get frustrated.  In Norfolk local government has performed well, as have many voluntary organisations; I have been particularly impressed with the way the Trussell Trust manage the local foodbanks.  One long term political challenge is to revisit the role of local authorities and the way in which voluntary groups can be supported. A second lesson is that there is no role for a political party in community volunteering; that is not what we are about nor what we should be about.  For several years my local North Norfolk Labour Party has flirted with idea that part of the rebuilding process could involve working alongside community activists.  The events of the last two months should have put an end to this fantasy – and hopefully will have persuaded them to halt plans to buy a property for that purpose.  An overt intervention from a political organisation would be resented.  The task ahead is to rebuild credibility, to restore the Labour brand, and this can only be done by behaving ourselves locally and by sensible political leadership at national level.

In the meantime, while I await any call from North Norfolk COVID 19 volunteers, all I can do is ring a bell at 8 o’clock on Thursday evening and put rainbows in my window.  My grandchildren sent me the rainbows and also tell me that in London another trend is to put a teddy bear in the window to allow limited urban bear hunts in exercise periods. Hence the picture below.

 

*Disclosure and Barring Service – the way of checking that someone has no criminal convictions

 

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Dear Jennie Formby – my welcome letter

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My inbox often contains unexpected communications: on Monday I received two bizarre emails from the Labour Party.

My guess both is that both were sent as a result of repeated public complaints that many members, particularly those who joined recently, have not received ballot papers for the leadership election. However, I responded immediately to these two most friendly overtures; it would be impolite to do otherwise.  Below is the reply I sent to the General Secretary:

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Dear Jennie Formby

It is always a pleasure to hear from the central administration of the Labour Party and I was delighted, if a little surprised, to be the recipient of two emails on 10th March.

The first, which arrived just before four p.m. from the Regional Office, was a most pleasant welcome to the party (we are delighted to have you as part of our movement).  The second, two hours later, was sent by the National Party (reply to Jeremy Corbyn) and began: Now you’ve had a chance to settle in, we would love to know more about what motivated you to become a member of the Labour Party.

For the record I joined the Party in Cardiff on my sixteenth birthday, fifty-seven years ago, and have remained in continuous and unbroken membership since then.  This, I may add, contrasts with many of the controlling clique in the North Norfolk Labour Party (NNLP), some of whom have displayed the political consistency of the figures in an Alpine Weather House*. In fact, June 18th this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first time that I stood for office as a Labour Candidate (in the 1970 General Election).  Turning to the question asked in the second email, I joined because I believed in the promotion of social justice, the elimination of poverty, and the protection of the less able.  These values have stayed with me throughout, but, over time, I have come to realise that delivery is more important than slogans and rhetoric. This last is a view that has dropped out of fashion in the Corbyn era.

It is evident that both the emails I received were intended for new members rather than the old guard.  Could I ask you to investigate what has happened? To assist, could I offer two possible explanations.

You will be aware that central Labour Party Departments have acquired the reputation for tardy action – this has been particularly pronounced in the appalling way that a backlog of complaints over antisemitism has been allowed to accumulate.  Could it be that, under our current leadership, a decision has been made to write a welcome all members and the process has now reached those who joined in 1962?

A second and more likely explanation concerns the well-publicised fact that significant numbers of new members have not received ballot papers for the leadership.  Given this, as a result of over-enthusiasm or ineptitude, someone in the database team either chose to play safe or simply pressed the wrong button and a sent a ‘new member’ email to a batch of long-standing members.  I cannot believe that I alone have been selected for this treatment, and I know that at least one other NNLP member has erroneously received these emails.

Whatever the explanation, it does not reflect well on the Labour Party as an organisation.  Looking forward I can only take comfort in the fact that Keir Starmer for five years led a high-profile organisation, the Crown Prosecution Service, where this sort of cock-up would not be tolerated and the circumstances that led to such a mistake thoroughly investigated.

I hope that you will agree that I am right to draw this matter to your attention and wish you well.

*In an Alpine Weather House, male and female figures ride on a balance bar, which is suspended by a piece of catgut or hair. The action swings one figure or the other out of the house depending on the humidity

 

Leftyoldman is taking a break from regular blogging until the shape of left of centre politics becomes clearer – though, as on this occasion, I will continue to make the odd incursion when I have something to say. If you would like to receive email notification of future leftyoldman blogs, please press the ‘follow leftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above.  

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A fine contribution from Norfolk from the next generation

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My inbox on Valentine’s Day, February 14th contained one of the most interesting communications that I’ve received for some time: although not of a romantic nature, it made me think a lot.   A young, rising star in our North Norfolk Labour Party, Jasper Haywood, has produced a fine dissertation for his Master’s thesis at the University of East Anglia. Entitled Betrayal in the Labour Party: irrelevant divisions and silent debates it brought home to me the extent of the problem that will face Keir Starmer, who, if the bookies are right (and they are seldom wrong), is about to be enthroned as our Next Labour Party leader.

Over my years of activism, I’ve come to recognise that, to succeed, the Labour Party needs to maintain a balance between a balance between an ideological Marxist influenced left and a pragmatic social-democratic right.  Both factions have a great deal to contribute: the left always demonstrate great commitment and can generate enthusiasm, particularly amongst younger members: the right will ask the hard questions involved in delivery, something that is essential if the party is to be seen as a credible electoral force.

Relationships between those two broad factions have now become toxic.  Mutual respect has disappeared and trust broken down.  In our local Labour Party, our ruling clique seems to be motivated mainly by a hostility to Blair and his government, particularly over Iraq.  For my part I feel resentful that they saddled us with the most ineffectual party leader seen in post war Britain, and moreover one who through indifference and incompetence failed to deal with the emergence of antisemitism.  This is something that will return to haunt us

Jasper, having interviewed 34 Labour members in the North Norfolk and Norwich North constituencies, underlines how this lack of trust and mutual respect has affected the Labour Party leadership election. To quote:

Evidently, decisions over leadership have less to do with the likelihood of winning power for the party, and more to do with who can establish power within the party. The outcome of this is that party engages in a perpetual disagreement over its aims, and results in a tyranny of the majority. In essence, changes of leadership are a reaction against the past, not a response to the future.

And

the process of changing leader becomes an opportunity to enact retribution, impelled by lack a trust and dictated by an overwhelming sense of betrayal. When combined, the party’s contestation of its aims and the centrality of retribution to membership consolidate the disparate ideological views into a core diametric. Ultimately, this limits the extent of alternative policy narratives.

Jasper has generously allowed me to include a condensed version of his thesis on this blog as a downloadable word file.  If this analysis is correct it is scarcely surprising that, in policy terms, the last thing Keir Starmer would wish to do is to alienate people who, if the party settles down, he would much prefer to have on board.  He would recognise, more than anyone else, the extent of current mutual hostility and the huge difficulty in overcoming it.

Despite its depressing tone, Jasper’s paper was a welcome Valentine’s day present.  It certainly served to underline the extent of the challenge that we all face.  There is precious little desire for unity, however much the leadership candidates call for it; it will certainly be a very long time before love is in the air.  As a Welshman, I’d look for guidance to our equivalent St. Dwynwen – the Welsh St. Valentine – whose day is celebrated falls on January 25th.  Dwynwen fell in love with a local boy called Maelon, but her father had already arranged for her to marry another prince. Maelon took the news badly, so the distraught Dwynwen fled to the woods to weep, and begged God to help her. She was visited by an angel who gave her a sweet potion to help her forget Maelon, which turned him into a block of ice. Dwynwen then became a nun.

This cheery tale seems to reflect the mood I am encountering on the future of the Party, but to support Keir Starmer, who may well prove to be the outstanding leader we so desperately need, I will on hang on in and continue to attend meetings.

JH Betrayal Thesis 140220

I will now take a break from regular blogging until the shape of left of centre politics becomes clearer – though I may make the occasional incursion if I have something to say. If you would like to receive email notification of future leftyoldman when publication resumes, please press the ‘follow leftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above.  

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79996 to go – Labour’s Green Opportunity

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This last week was National Apprenticeship Week 2020: an annual celebration designed to “bring the whole apprenticeship community together to celebrate the impact of apprenticeships on individuals, employers and the economy”.  I doubt if many people noticed that this national celebration was taking place. For my part, rather than donning a party hat, I was concentrating of my role as mentor at our local state comprehensive school.  Each year my wife and I offer support to a selected small group of Year 12 (17-year old) students.

We enjoy our work at the School.  We have developed a deal of respect for the professionalism and commitment of the staff and find the energy and optimism, albeit sometimes misplaced, of the students refreshing. My generation of baby-boomers needs to recognise how lucky we were to enter a workforce with a booming employment market and we need to understand how much tougher things are today.

Reflecting on my practical experience at the school and building on my earlier professional experience writing and lecturing in this field, has reinforced two firm conclusions. Both have important political implications as we begin the long and tortuous process of rebuilding the Labour Party’s credibility.  The first is that we should focus less on the needs of the 50% of the population who are heading for University and more on the 50% who are not going on Higher Education.  It is the latter who face challenging life opportunities.  The abolition of all student fees might be a vote winner but it is hardly good socialism to invite a less privileged section of the population to subsidise a more privileged section. My second conclusion, underlined by the empty propaganda of National Apprenticeship Week, is that apprenticeships lost their traditional meaning some time ago, and that far more honest reporting and less hype is needed.

No government has been able to deliver their propaganda targets for apprenticeships, and the current situation is dire.  In, what was for them, a remarkable intervention in the free market, Theresa May’s government introduced an apprenticeship levy on employers in April 2017. It has failed. According to a recent research report* much of the levy has been spent on jobs “offering minimal training and low wages” or on “rebadging” jobs already offered by employers as apprenticeships.  Indeed, the report goes so far as to describe 50% of apprenticeship courses introduced since 2017 as “fake”, saying they do not “relate to helping young people get started in a skilled job or occupation”.

It is a sad reflection on the Labour Party that this debacle did not feature prominently in the December 2019 General Election, but let’s turn to something that did: The Green New Deal.  This idea is a central plank of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign and she claims credit for its authorship. The Green New Deal appeals to all factions of the Labour Party and beyond to uncommitted voters – particularly young people.  It is an idea whose time has come.

Given this, it is essential that The Green New Deal is well-grounded and credible.  It cannot be mere aspiration: if we are to regain the electorate’s confidence, we must show that we are capable of delivering what we promise.  We have a long time to get things right and I make no apology for asking some hard questions now.

In a speech delivered to the Confederation of British Industries Conference in November 2019, Jeremy Corbyn introduced the idea of climate apprenticeships:  “Under the plans, businesses will benefit from an average of 80,000 people per year being trained as apprentice engineers and technicians in renewable energy and transport, civil engineers and skilled tradespeople in sustainable construction, designers, welders and fabricators in low carbon industries, and sustainable agriculture and forestry specialists.”.  The 80,000 annual figure was translated into a commitment to deliver 320,000 such apprenticeship in the first term of office and has been repeatedly used in all discussions on The Green New Deal. This idea is attractive and seductive.  It is also totally unrealistic.

To return to an earlier point, we must be honest in our promises, particularly those that affect young people.  Let me go back to one aspect of my work at the local Sixth Form.  For those mentees who are not contemplating University I make use of the official Government ‘Find an apprenticeship’ online tool**.  Out of curiosity I fed in ‘climate apprenticeships’ into the search engine.  It produced four responses across the whole of England, one of which was bogus as the tool had picked up the phrase ‘a positive working climate’ in a logistics firm.

Now I know I am being unfair: neither Jeremy not Rebecca Long-Bailey had the opportunity to put their scheme into practice.  I do however question how much serious thought has gone into the delivery of climate apprenticeship, or even if anyone has worked out what it actually means.  Accordingly, I have endeavoured to contact anyone and everyone to ask how the figure of 80,000 was derived and who derived it.  I have had no replies on this and must reluctantly conclude that it was plucked out of the air to give Jeremy a chance for a headline.  If so, this was quite unscrupulous.  We are going to have to do much better going forward.

 

* The report Runaway Training was published January 2020 by the think tank EDSK:   see https://www.edsk.org/publications/runaway-training/ and https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-50973579

**https://www.findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk/apprenticeshipsearch

 

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North Norfolk Labour’s Game of Thrones – our nomination meeting

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Having been brought up in a family where everyone had strong opinions but no-one ever listened to anyone else, I was well-placed to attend Thursday’s North Norfolk Labour Party’s Leadership nomination meeting.  I went with low expectations but departed feeling optimistic that the Party will survive, although it will take many years to win back the confidence of the electorate.

For those who are not familiar with the process, local Labour Parties such as North Norfolk, can hold an All Members Meeting to choose which, if any, candidate to nominate to succeed Jeremy Corbyn; however, the ultimate decision will be taken by the forthcoming national ballot when every member will have an individual vote once the ballot opens on February 21st.  So, to some extent, this week’s event in Cromer was a pointless exercise, no more than a test of strength for the competing factions:  it offered Corbyn supporters the opportunity to demonstrate continuing ascendancy locally; it offered mainstream counter-insurgents the opportunity to rally for the first time since we were crushed in 2016.

From my point of view the meeting began well.  At 7.00 p.m. the Chair warned all those present that the formal proceedings would begin at 7.05 p.m.; anyone who turned up after this would not be allowed to vote.  At 7.10 p.m. a hard core Corbyn supporter who had been gratuitously offensive to me and had been obliged to send a churlish apology* arrived with two other people; once the situation was explained to him, he promptly departed.

It is of course the numbers that matter.  There were 32 members present.  Since there are over 500 members currently in the North Norfolk Party this is a dismal turnout.  Significantly it was half the number present in August 2016 when Jeremy Corbyn defeated his challenger Owen Smith by 44 to 15 in our local vote.  This time our mainstream candidate, Keir Starmer, defeated the anointed heir to the Corbyn project, Rebecca Long Bailey, by 18 votes to 12.  Set against this, these figures were reversed in the contest for the Deputy Leadership where leftish Angela Rayner defeated mainstream Ian Murray by 18 votes to 13.  However, this all indicates a major shift in mood, albeit in a remote and wholly unrepresentative part of the UK.

I am sure that no-one came to this meeting with an open mind nor was influenced by anything that took place there.  Any discussion was simply a necessary ritual to be undergone before the vote took place.  However, the meeting was well-chaired and all those who spoke made their points in a non-aggressive, often reflective, manner.  Indeed, what was most evident was both a collapse of bombast and a lack of organisation from the Corbyn faction.  On the same evening we were asked to put forward nominations for Labour’s National Executive Committee – the NEC.  This might not sound important but Momentum, the Corbyn faction’s organisational arm, have captured this body to do the leader’s bidding.  In due course the NEC will be held to account for the shameful failure to deal with antisemitism in the party. Significantly this time Momentum could not produce and communicate an agreed slate of candidates for the NEC.  I was able to secure the Constituency support for Gloria Mills (recommended to me by the mainstream Labour First faction) as our BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) nominee in the absence of alternative names.

The meeting finished early and I left in time to get home and indulge in my current binge watch: I am working my way through a box set of Game of Thrones, something that I never saw on live television.  Late on Thursday I watched the final episode of Series 1.  It ended with a slightly built fair-haired woman trying to regain a throne by hatching a number of dragons from their eggs, and thus commanding huge loyalty from a warlike tribe. If Thursday’s North Norfolk figures are any indication, Rebecca Long Bailey will have to produce some similarly unexpected initiative if she is to win.  I am hopeful that she will not be able to do so.

*See my previous blog I’ve told to send it, but I didn’t mean it.  https://leftyoldman.wordpress.com/2019/10/21/ive-be-told-to-send-it-but-i-didnt-mean-it/

 

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A fine mess you’ve gotten me into

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During my professional days in management education and training one of my jobs was to mentor new managers.  One question I frequently encountered was “I am inheriting a right mess – how can I protect my own position if things go wrong?”.

My advice was, first and foremost, document the full set of horrors that you are facing, and date the document so you can always produce it in a crisis.  My next step was to ask the new manager what the general opinion in the organisation was of his or her predecessor.  It was easy to deal with a situation where everyone recognised the departing manager was inadequate.  If the person leaving was popular, and most people most people thought he or she had done a good job, it was far more difficult.  I encountered the latter situation once myself.  I took over a crumbling department from someone who had immense face validity – he was well liked – but as far as I could see had done very little for the last eighteen months.  When I tried to introduce changes, I met a deal of resistance from those who had rated him.

Labour’s leadership contest has caused me to reflect on this advice – not that Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long Bailey or the other contenders have sought my guidance.  The list of horrors that they face is easy to construct: a complete lack of credibility with the electorate; ambiguity on the central political question of the day, Brexit; lack of imaginative and relevant thinking on pressing 21st century issues; inadequate and underperforming shadow ministers; a National Party Executive captured by a destructive faction; the failure to deal with antisemitism; a deeply divided membership in the country.

This list would be enough to keep anyone awake at night.  They should however be able to take comfort in the fact, turning to the second part of my guidance to new managers, that nobody thinks that their predecessor had done a good job.  To misquote Laurel and Hardy, he has got them into a fine mess.

There is, however, always the odd exception.  Things can be different in Norfolk.  This time the example comes not from my own North Norfolk Labour Party, but from the neighbouring constituency of Broadland.  At their first meeting after the General Election, on a Saturday morning in January, the membership in Broadland was asked to support the following motion, which was presented by member of the Regional Executive of the Labour Party.  I might add that I have no idea what is meant by the word ‘comparable’ in this context.

Broadland CLP records its gratitude to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell for their work over the past four and a half years, in moving the policy agenda forward so that the Labour Party now has policies that are comparable with most European social democracies.

The secretary is instructed to write to the NEC (via the General Secretary) to formally record our thanks with a copy to the respective offices of the Leader and the Shadow Chancellor.

The classic model for dealing with loss talks of seven stages of grief.  It seems that some in Broadland are unable  to move beyond the first stage of the process – that of denial.  With members like this a hard road lies ahead for our new leader!

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