More life in a bottle of pop

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This blog was written towards the end of a thoroughly depressing week.  It will be my last for some time and a sad note on which to take a break. I can only hope things will improve before I resume.

Wednesday marked the failure to make any significant changes to the EU Withdrawal Bill – shortly to become the Withdrawal Act.  This was most disappointing, not least because of Labour’s deliberately ambiguous position in the Parliamentary debates that took place. I was deflated even further when I attended a meeting of my local North Norfolk Labour Party the following day.

The local meeting was held to give our Labour Member of the European Parliament, Alex Mayer, the opportunity ‘to answer questions on the Brexit process and how she sees the Labour position’.   I did not envy her this task.  She is in a very tricky position, not least because she will lose her job next year, and she deserves some sympathy.

Alex Mayer voted Remain, is aware of the damage that withdrawal will cause, and has publicly committed to the single market.  She must also be conscious of the dismal performance of Labour in Parliament and the cynical opportunism of the Leadership’s current position on Europe; doubtless this dominates discussions with socialist colleagues in Brussels, both from the UK and the other EU members.   However most local Labour Parties are in the hands of people who are infatuated with Jeremy Corbyn and this certainly true of North Norfolk. Like most doomed love affairs there is nothing to be done beyond letting events run their course.

How I wondered would Alex Mayer cope?

She is a competent person, thoroughly in command of her facts, and had hit on an ingenious solution to navigate the political challenge. This was to adopt a fatalistic acceptance that Brexit is going to happen, coupled with a vague hope that the length of the process might mean that things could improve over time.  She mentioned Jeremy Corbyn and his ambiguous stance just once. Her performance was capable but detached, almost an academic lecture, and offended nobody but it wholly lacked passion.  Brexit is bad but, like the weather, we should make the best of it.  Our local members seemed wholly satisfied with this defeatist attitude.  So long as Jeremy is not threatened, it seems they will go along with anything.

I can only say that this is simply not good enough.  A casual acceptance of something that will damage economic prospects for the next decade is a sign of a complete absence of political virility.   As we used to say on the football terraces, there is more life in a bottle of pop.

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I do so hope that my mood will be lifted when I join with three generations of my family at the March for a People’s Vote on Saturday. Jeremy Corbyn should, of course, be leading this march.  Every local Labour Party should be out in the shopping centres and on the doorstep collecting signatures for a People’s Vote petition.  This would have massive long-term political advantages: it would consolidate the votes of many remainers who voted Labour in 2015 but are drifting away; Labour would be positioned at the centre of the debate on employment. Above all Jeremy Corbyn should be leading the march because it is the right thing to do.

 

I WILL NOW TAKE A BREAK FROM BLOGGING (though continuing to tweet at @eugrandparents).  If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs when I resume, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

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Facing the wrong way

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The failure to support Amendment 51 of the EU Withdrawal Bill will not loom large in future undergraduate politics essays; it may however find its way into the odd doctoral thesis on the decline of the Labour Party in the 21st Century.  Amendment 51 would have obliged the government to prioritise staying in the European Economic Area.  Given the Parliamentary arithmetic it offered the best chance of defeating the Government and hence putting a serious impediment in the way of withdrawal.

The Labour leadership opposed the amendment on the bizarre grounds that the Party had better ideas.  As a result the Government emerged unscathed. It was a dismal performance in a thoroughly dispiriting week.

Two emails arrived in my inbox on Tuesday, the day before Parliament debated and rejected the Lords’ amendments.   One was from Jeremy Corbyn telling me that ‘the Tories are too divided to negotiate with the EU’so Labour‘has an opportunity to vote to protect jobs, living standards and our rights’.   Communications from the leader’s office are often impervious to the irony inherent in their content.

The second communication upset me more.  It was from Momentum inviting me to attend their ‘big lefty weekend’in July.  As well as their conference there will be a ‘People, Pits and Politics Festival’.  This will feature Anne Scargill, ex-wife of the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) leader Arthur, speaking on the Miners’ Strike. To quote from the publicity for the event: ‘Still the most significant class struggle in generations, the miners strike of 1984-5 was a watershed in trade union history’. Too true.  It was indeed a watershed. It was also a disaster.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of those who will attend Momentum’s jamboree, I do feel in a position to comment with some authority on this chapter of labour history.  I worked in the coal industry from 1968 till 1986. During the strike I set up the Coal Board’s job creation company NCB (Enterprise).  Having seen it at first hand I have no time for the rewriting of history, or for romantic nonsense about growing class awareness. What should have been at issue was the management of change and how necessary but painful economic transitions could be accomplished.  What actually happened was an episode of foolish adventurism led by an egotistic Marxist.

The miners returned to work in March 1985 without a settlement: it was a victory for the politics of Margaret Thatcher and the managerial economics of Ian MacGregor, the NCB Chairman of the time. The NUM was irreversibly fragmented. In less than a year Arthur Scargill and his adherents had destroyed what previous generations of miners had taken decades to establish: a single cohesive trade union.  The decline of the industry was brutally hastened rather than sensibly managed.

With the benefit of intervening time, romantic folk myths have emerged. The most pernicious is that the strike marked the beginning of a new awareness and solidarity. That is what Anne Scargill will be peddling.  Those attending want to believe that this is the case, despite all evidence to the contrary. They are more comfortable with the delusions of the 1970s and the 1980s than they are facing up to the complex challenges of 2018.

By rewriting history in this way we are doing a disservice to those who worked so hard to bring the labour movement to a position where it could achieve power and bring about social change.  Our failure to provide an effective counter to Brexit sadly reflects this preference for gesture politics over difficult decisions.

It has been a dreadful week. I can only look forward travelling to London and joining other members of my family on the March for a People’s Vote on the 23rd and walking off my frustration.

https://www.peoples-vote.uk/march

 

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Internationalism or nostalgia?

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Tony Benn on the platform

Next week there is the opportunity to halt, or even reverse, the long slide to a catastrophic EU withdrawal. After a summer break Parliament will debate the House of Lord amendments to the Brexit Bill.  Endless calculations of the Parliamentary arithmetic will be made, but all will depend on courageous Conservative rebels and, more importantly, the attitude of the Labour leadership.

We should all rejoice that there has been a shift in Labour’s position.  It appears that the Party’s current stance is for the softest possible Brexit: to stay in the customs union, while seeking a relationship with the EU that gives the benefits of the single market without membership. This is of course nonsense. As a country we have received repeated indications that this it would be unacceptable to the EU. Such a position can only be regarded as an opportunistic debating stance with an eye on the main chance of forcing and winning a general election.

Sadly the current Labour Party leadership and their most enthusiastic adherents believe this is all that matters: use any sleight of hand to keep the Labour Leave voters in the old heartlands on side and hope to take advantage of the chaos that results from Brexit.   There is little interest in the wider case for internationalism or for growth through frictionless trade; hence membership of the EU is incidental to progress to the idealised socialist nirvana.  Judging by his actions this is Jeremy Corbyn’s stance to date and, since he is certainly a man of principle, we need to ask why.

Everybody looks back fondly to the day when they discovered their politics, especially if it marked a period of successful activism and personal advancement. For Jeremy Corbyn that period was the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember that time well.  I was a young economist in the nationalised coal industry and an active member of Corbyn’s fractious North Islington Labour Party.

In that period the ‘alternative economic strategy’ (AES) developed by Tony Benn defined the economic thinking of what were then called the new left.  Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott were keen disciples. The AES was about centralised planning: elements included an investment bank (the National Enterprise Board), planning agreements with private sector companies (which simply never happened) and an extension of public ownership.  It was a credible instrument in its time and its successes and failures deserve careful analysis in any consideration of the effectiveness of Labour in power.  At the time Benn led the hostility to what was then called the common market on the grounds that it was an international capitalist conspiracy and, if outside, the UK would be able to create some sort of socialist state.

We are forty years on; times have changed.  However the AES continues to have a disproportionate influence on the left of the Labour Party, especially the more elderly members of Momentum. They fail to appreciate that 21st century economic and social problems require international co-operation.

A good example is one that emerged during the May Irish referendum on abortion.  Electoral integrity was potentially compromised when paid advertisements financed from overseas appeared on social media; anxious to avoid serious government intervention both Facebook and Google banned such advertisements.  Important issues were raised here: current electoral law is no longer appropriate to deal with the impact of international social media. What is certain is that this is just the first of many complex problems that will arise with social media companies. They cannot be resolved by nationalising the companies concerned – they are global players – and appropriate regulation can only be developed and implemented internationally.  There is a common agenda to be developed across Europe. Moreover, the left’s concern that greater state intervention will be made more difficult in the customs union and single market has itself been hotly contested – see for example the thorough analysis by Andy Tarrant and Andrea Biondi in Renewal http://renewal.org.uk/blog/eu-law-is-no-barrier-to-labours-economic-programme.

So, if the electorate decided to vote for the Alternative Economic Strategy, or variants thereof, there is no reason why it could not be implemented within the single market.  Opposition to the EU on these grounds is based on nostalgia and gut reaction rather than any analysis of the facts. There is no sensible reason remaining for anyone of left-of-centre views to equivocate on Brexit. Next week’s Parliamentary decisions will go down as a turning point for the Labour Party and have an impact way beyond the immediate issues.

 

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It’s more than tribal loyalty

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In May one of my LinkedIn Contacts was elected to a London Borough Council – as a Liberal Democrat.  I had always enjoyed a good professional relationship with him and sent him a congratulatory message.  He replied that he followed my blog, found it interesting (for which thanks), and continued: ‘I remain baffled that you actually want to have Corbyn in number 10 and (much worse) McDonnell in number 11!’ This is a fair point and deserves a response.

Let me start by saying there is much substance in what he says.  Alastair Campbell, Press Secretary in the Blair Government, speaking at the Progress Annual Conference (available on The New European website) described the 2017 General Election as a battle ‘between competing visions of the past. 70s v 50s, with little to match the sheer scale of challenge facing both the country and the world’.  He continued ‘frankly I am finding life and politics tough right now. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the winning side of arguments a lot of my life in politics. Today, whether on Brexit, Labour v Tory, or the direction of the Labour Party, or the spread of populism, it doesn’t feel like that any more.’ 

This all struck a chord with me, and I could also relate to the passage that followed: ‘I am also a very tribal person. Short of Putin and Assad leading a consortium to buy Burnley, for example, and installing Johnson as chairman and Rees-Mogg as manager, nothing will challenge my football tribalism’.  For me the side is Cardiff Blues which, like Labour Party membership, is part of my DNA.

However I recognise that the above paragraph does not offer much to those outside the Labour Party tent. Come inside and suffer alongside us is not a compelling argument.

Pointing to those who remain and are increasingly vocal offers a better argument.  Here I must applaud Neil Kinnock for his recent forthright interventions: writing in the Independent he warned that Jeremy Corbyn is about to commit a ‘serious evasion of duty’by refusing to back a plan to keep Britain in the single market.  David Miliband followed two days later by saying that the Labour Leader will ‘be the midwife of a hard Brexit that will harm Britain’s poorest unless he fights to stay in the single market.’  I am sure that these two interventions and others that will follow are co-ordinated and are building up to a crescendo at this September’s Labour Party Conference.

Neil Kinnock, who I knew from my South Wales days, and David Miliband, represent the two Labour different strands: working-class traditionalist and North London intellectual. Together these two strands shaped the party I joined.  While they are prepared to fight for the future within the party so, in a very modest and isolated way, am I.  Add in Yvette Cooper, David Lammy, Alison McGovern and Rachel Reeves and there is more than enough to make me continue to hope.  Indeed I am prepared to take another hiding as the candidate in Glaven Valley in the 2019 District Council elections. In 2015 I polled 78 votes. I do not expect any improvement: the return of Labour to mainstream politics will not start until Brexit is well behind us.

 

 

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It’s all much clearer; it isn’t

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There is a growing feeling that Brexit is inevitable, but is it? A vote in the Scottish Parliament to deny consent to the Withdrawal Bill and shifting opinion in Northern Ireland are the latest indications of potential opposition.  In October or November this year the Government will present the final Brexit deal to Parliament.  In the intervening period the insoluble problem of the Irish border may generate a crisis: Theresa May is dependent on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party for her political survival and the Irish Government appears to have maintained the support of the other EU member states.  If, however, there is no political explosion over the Irish border it will come down to the autumn Parliamentary vote on the negotiated deal. There is no majority in Parliament (or anywhere else in the country) for a hard Brexit; there is no majority on the Conservative benches for any form of customs union (whatever the term used to describe it). In short it is a right mess. So what is to be done?

What matters is the Parliamentary arithmetic and the position Jeremy Corbyn takes when his preferred policy of strategic ambiguity has run its course.  There is something that can be done here.  A new campaign #LabourSay has been launched to demand a meaningful debate vote at this autumn’s Labour Party Conference; this takes place a month before the Parliamentary vote.  It will be hard for those who oppose this move to summon credible arguments against it. ‘Leave it to Jeremy and the front bench team’ runs counter to their demands for greater democracy and power to the membership.

One piece of good news is that attitudes have changed in Northern Ireland as the failure to provide a solution to the border problem and the consequences of that failure are becoming more apparent.   Survey research shows 69% would vote Remain if there was another referendum compared to the 56% who voted Remain in June 2016 * .  It would of course be of enormous benefit if there were a significant shift of public opinion in favour of Remain in the rest of the UK. Sadly the local election results of 3rd May produced no indication that this is yet taking place – despite the mounting evidence of the economic damage that withdrawal would cause. The most perceptive comment that I have recently encountered comes from the broadcaster Robert Peston’s 2017 book: ‘There is no point lecturing the British people they have made a mistake in going for Brexit.  They will either decide that for themselves, in a spontaneous awakening led by someone or some people a million miles form the current class of leaders – or they won’t’. **

However we must not give up; what is at stake is too important. I resumed my activism so I could tell my grandchildren that I did my best to give them the opportunity of living in an open, tolerant country at peace with its position in the global community.  The battle will not be won in this remote part of Eastern England but we should all do our bit wherever we are. I am pretty confident the MP for my constituency, LibDem Norman Lamb, will vote the right way when it comes to the push. I shall be presenting my paper, the Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk, at a forthcoming meeting organised by the local Labour Party.  Kate Gott the driving force behind Norfolk4Europe has a mailing list of over 200 names and will be sending a coach from Norwich to the People’s vote march on 23rdJune.

* http://ukandeu.ac.uk/people-in-northern-ireland-want-the-uk-to-stay-in-the-customs-union-and-single-market-new-research-on-public-attitudes-reveals/

**Peston, R., (2017) WTF, Hodder & Stoughton, page 252

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Only delivery produces results

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Everyone of progressive views will have been moved by the recent tributes to the late Dame Tessa Jowell.  She was a politician who was respected across the political spectrum; she was highly regarded by her staff, amongst whom was Jessica Asato – the excellent candidate in Norwich North in 2015.  I recall meeting Tessa briefly when she a came to a fund-raising dinner for Jess shortly before the election.

Although I was a contemporary of Tessa Jowell in the London Labour Party of the 1980s I knew her only by reputation.  She was a Councillor in Camden and I was active in Islington. Camden generally maintained a good reputation for delivery; Islington, where Jeremy Corbyn was our MP, did not. However these were tough times for moderate activists in both boroughs with a factional war between left and right. A lot of people’s politics were shaped by their experiences of the time and, according to some of the obituaries, at one meeting where Tessa Jowell backed moves to set a rate, protestors threw chicken livers at her.  Whatever the reasons, she was one of the early of the Labour modernisers and firm supporter of New Labour and Tony Blair.  For her delivery mattered.

While at the Department of Health she introduced Sure Start, a scheme to improve childcare.  Her main achievement however was to secure the 2012 Olympics for London.  For me this will be remembered as a family occasion: my grandson went to his first sporting event, handball, in a sling carried by his parents.   More importantly, as I’ve said in an earlier blog, our country was at its best during the London Olympics.  We delivered a challenging event with remarkable efficiency, made many thousands welcome, and shared the experience with the world

In many local Labour Parties, my own North Norfolk included, Blairite has now become a term of abuse. Some of those who are so ready to use it in this way might pause and consider wherever the current generation of leaders will leave a legacy that begins to compare with that of Dame Tessa Jowell.  If we are going to change people’s lives for the better it is delivery, not speeches and rallies, that matter.

This is leftyoldman’s 200thblog – a tribute to perseverance if not judgement.

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Cults don’t win elections

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Haringey Council results by ward 2018

The local government elections of May 3rd were not good news for those of us who hold progressive left-of-centre views. True, UKIP are now finished as an electoral force, but most of their Europhobe votes have found a home with Theresa May’s Conservatives – thus buttressing the faction within her party that supports a hard Brexit.

The leading election guru David Cowling, in his analysis, described the elections as an ugly baby contest.  He has a point: there seem to be little enthusiasm for anything or anybody.  Despite this, the percentage voting remained at the normal level for a local government contests, so, thank goodness, there is no evidence of a loss of faith in electoral democracy.

Labour did not do well and lame excuses will not do.   I was particularly saddened to see the result in Muswell Hill, in the London Borough of Haringey, where we had lived between 1987 and 2001.  All three council seats were captured by the LibDems, as were the other wards in the more prosperous parts of the Borough that lie to the west of the railway line. In part this reflects Jeremy Corbyn’s abject handling of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party: there is a significant Jewish community in Haringey.  However much more is at stake.

At its best the Labour Party has always been an alliance between those in need and those who care.  Those in need in the most urban areas will, on the evidence of May 3rd, continue to vote Labour almost irrespective of policy and leadership. Set against this, organised Labour as expressed through the trade union movement has ceased to be a significant political force, beyond the crudest defence of public sector jobs.  Labour is therefore increasingly reliant on those who care: West Haringey is full of such people and it is bad news for Labour if they are prepared to migrate to the LibDems.

Much of the election analysis has concentrated on Labour’s relatively poor performance in the smaller cities and the towns that voted leave in the 2016 referendum.   The argument here is that Labour needs to develop new policies to deal with the economic decline and the accompanying social problems that affect such localities.  While this is undoubtedly true, it offers nothing to rural areas like the one where I now live. There were no elections here in North Norfolk in 2018, but the local LibDems will doubtless be hoping that the ‘leafy suburbs of London’ effect will have spread to the more rural areas by May next year when we go to the polls here. Labour currently hold none of the 48 council seats in North Norfolk and since Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership the local party is firmly in the hands of Momentum. However, as was proved beyond doubt on May 3rd, cults don’t win elections.  It is not looking good.

 

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