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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Does Brexit solve anything that matters?

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The Gas Museum at Fakenham Norfolk

Recently much of my energy has been devoted to promoting the arguments that I presented in my paper The Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk (this can be downloaded from the link on the left).  In this way I feel that I have made my own modest contribution to prevent the catastrophe that is EU withdrawal.  How much effect my efforts have had is questionable.  However I have been gratified to find that the paper and its arguments have been well received by those who are facing the practical employment challenges in the area where I now live.

For some time I have been particularly aware of the problems faced by local school-leavers – especially those who are seeking vocational employment, qualifications and training rather than a University education.  The opportunities for what might be called 21stcentury apprenticeships are worse in Norfolk than for comparable coastal and retirement areas.

My wife and I are voluntary mentors at a secondary school in the area: currently we offer support to a group of Year 12 (first year 6th) students at Fakenham Academy.  Almost all of the students we meet have undertaken some part-time or vacation work in the local hospitality industry; this has taught them the importance of reliability, working in teams and, above all, dealing with customers. They produce hilarious tales of the frequently ignorant and often patronising behaviour of posh townies who visit the area.  What the students lack at this stage is the practical skills base that would prepare them for work in the science or engineering based industries. Similarly, on the arts side, limited accessibility, with rural transport a major problem, means that it is difficult for local young people to get exposure to music, theatre and exhibitions.

I have been campaigning on youth employment issues since my retirement some four years ago.  In all my subsequent research activity I have been impressed by the quality of the work undertaken by the local authority staff at both District and County Council level.  Rather than being defensive they welcomed new ideas.  I was also pleasantly surprised when Councillor Nigel Dixon, the District Council Cabinet Member for Economic Development and Tourism, sought the opportunity to meet me and comment on the work – he had evidently read my paper in detail. Councillor Dixon is a Conservative; I will never be anything but a Labour Party member but we had a constructive exchange on the challenges facing the area.

What this brief interlude brought home to me is how unproductive the economic debate has become since the June 2016 referendum.  The current Labour leadership is ambivalent about the role of business, something that should be central to the Brexit debate. Moreover the key players – Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott, Thornberry and indeed Keir Starmer – all have London constituencies and have little practical knowledge of rural employment issues.  On the other side of the divide the Conservative Party appears to have no ambitions beyond political survival and the installation of a new leader after EU withdrawal on whatever terms in March 2019.

Brexit has been a damaging distraction.  Right across the political spectrum it has sucked in energy that is desperately needed elsewhere.  Enhanced employment opportunities for school-leavers in rural areas are but one example of a difficult problem that needs urgent consideration, imaginative new policies and determined application if we are going to the right thing by our children and grandchildren.

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The people have spoken – or have they?

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Many of our politicians – both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are prominent here – are proclaiming that, while we have much to lose and little to gain, ‘Brexit must mean Brexit’ or variants thereof.  However wrong they think it was, in some way or other, the 51.9% no vote in June 2016 (37% of the electorate) must be treated as sacrosanct.

Amongst those who expressed this view is my own North Norfolk MP, the LibDem Norman Lamb.  As a Labour Party member I have crossed swords with him on many occasions – most notably on student fees – but he has always been courteous.   He is an assiduous member and is the sort of person who remembers everyone’s name.  He has established a formidable local machine, though it was not mobilised in any way that I could see in the 2016 Referendum. His energy has allowed him to continue to hold on to what, demographically, should be a safe Tory seat.  He is however flaky on Europe.  Like his local party, he kept a low profile in the 2016 Referendum campaign and was one of two LibDems who, just over a year ago, chose to abstain rather than vote against the Article 50 Bill.  He justified his stance in a New European podcast *.

In a careful studio interview, Norman Lamb was a model of politeness. He began by saying that he voted and campaigned for Remain and the result was “A mistake… fuelled by a fairly dishonest campaign”.   However he continued by saying that he held ”a basic view in terms of democracy that if you voted in Parliament to hold the referendum…  which we did, you can’t just pretend it hasn’t happen.  If you actually played through that the consequences for the reaction in the country would be pretty bleak”.

I wrote to Norman Lamb asking him if he would elaborate and, to his credit, received a detailed reply.  He said: “The point I was making was that, as I had voted to hold the referendum, I do not feel that I can simply seek to block the outcome of that vote – and that if we were to do that it could create a dangerous divide in the country and the risk of people concluding that their vote had been ignored.  I fear that that would undermine democracy and potentially create the conditions for anger to boil over”.  Here I must disagree.  For my part I cannot envisage local Norfolk pensioner groups grabbing their pitchforks, taking to the barricades, and then marching to London to capture the citadel should the dreadful decision on withdrawal be reversed.

Earlier this month I arranged to see Norman Lamb at one of his regular surgeries.  I went with two objectives.  First to see if he could encourage the significant number of LibDem North Norfolk District Councillors to develop an agenda to ameliorate the disastrous effects of Brexit on his constituency (see my earlier blog https://wordpress.com/post/leftyoldman.wordpress.com/1040) . My second objective was to persuade him to move away from ‘the people have spoken’ and to display more courage in his convictions.  Unsurprisingly I was achieved more progress on the first objective than the second, though he will clearly support a fresh referendum.

The sad truth is that many Parliamentarians are convinced that it is in the UK’s short and long-term interests to remain in both the customs union and the single market, but that would mean saying that the 2016 referendum decision was just plain wrong.  While this continues they are obliged to put forward convoluted arguments to justify indefensible positions.

 

*The podcast can be downloaded on http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-labour-1-5406396.

 

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Citizens of nowhere unite

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With a year to go from the formal EU withdrawal date it is possible to offer a prediction of the most likely outcome.  A starting-point is the House of Commons Exiting the European Union Committee report on The future UK-EU relationship, which was published earlier this month *. This excellent analysis treads carefully on the politics but suggests a possible end position: the UK will re-enter EFTA (the European Free Trade Area: Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein) as a preliminary step to joining the EEA (European Economic Area: EFTA plus Switzerland). This solution will do the least long-term damage to trading relationships while allowing both Tory and Labour leadership to tell the electorate that they have respected their wishes as expressed in the referendum.   If this is indeed what transpires, this shameful chapter will end with us having achieved nothing and dumping a political problem on the next generation.

So how did we get to this state of affairs?  To answer this question we must revisit the June 2016 Referendum campaign.  It seemed poor at the time; in retrospect it looks even worse. Across the political spectrum there was reluctance amongst remainers to argue that a move to a global economy and an international society was a good thing.  There was a strong desire, particularly amongst the new Labour leadership, to avoid offending insular Labour voters, and a feeling that the sooner the referendum was over the better. There was complacency amongst progressives amounting to a belief that we could win by stealth.

We must learn from our mistakes.  In any future encounters that lie ahead – in implementing the eventual solution or even, optimistically, in a fresh referendum – we must not be afraid to articulate a positive vision.  We must unapologetically put the case for an internationalist perspective.

A necessary start will be to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism.  My country was at its best during the London Olympics.  There was real buzz in the City.  We delivered a challenging event with remarkable efficiency, made many thousands welcome, and shared something with the world.  As a Welshman living in Norfolk I hold to a particular patriotism. I am proud of many features of the society in which I live.  We have a robust welfare state; we have a system of government that is free of corruption; we care for our heritage, and make it accessible to all; we have many of the world’s leading Universities.  However I have been fortunate, in my professional capacity, to have worked overseas alongside colleagues from many different countries. What has struck me is that our aspirations are the same: people I respect want the best for their children and grandchildren but not at the expense of others.

To her shame, in her October 2016 speech at Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Theresa May said: “But today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.  But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”.

Having something in common with someone who carries a different passport is not elitist, nor does it mean that you have nothing in common with people down the road.  Still less does it make you a poor citizen.  Sadly Theresa May’s speech set a tone and encouraged the surge of xenophobia that we are now witnessing. Speaking at a conference of EU nationals living in the UK Gina Miller, the British-Guyanese businesswomen who initiated the 2016 legal challenge (pictured above), said, “prejudice is worn as a badge and a sleeve of honour in Britain post-referendum”.   She is right; this is shameful; such attitudes must be fought with vigour, irrespective of the eventual outcome of withdrawal negotiations.

 

* The Select Committee Repot can be downloaded at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmexeu/935/935.pdf

 

Norfolk small businesses face uncertainty

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It was concerns about future employment prospects, together with an abhorrence of the growing xenophobia, that made me return to political activism in support of Remain. Subsequent researches on the impact of Brexit on local employment have drawn my attention to the gravity of the local problem.

Generally North Norfolk can be described as an area of low unemployment, with below average wages and productivity, and a higher than average number of smaller, or micro, businesses. I was therefore pleased to take up an invitation to attend a ‘Brexit: Opportunities & Challenges for Small Businesses’ organised by the East Anglia branch of the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses). The event, which was held in Norwich, took the form of a panel discussion; it was well-organised and well-attended.

It was also thoroughly depressing. Small businesses face an uncertain future and, half way through the negotiation process, we are no clearer on the shape of any trade deal.

There were some impressive performances by knowledgeable panelists at the FSB event. Professor Hussein Kassim of the University of East Anglia argued that large companies can take care of themselves but small business are vulnerable. The former are always able to ‘up sticks and go elsewhere’. The Norfolk Chair of the National Farmers Union, Tony Bambridge, tellingly stated that ‘at present I can put my potatoes on a lorry to Spain as easily as I can put them on a lorry to (nearby) Shipdham’. The FSB’s national Policy Director, Martin McTague pointed out that ‘negotiating trade deals is a minority sport’. For most small businesses the challenge was meeting the needs of the immediate customer base. Moreover his evidence suggested, that, given the current uncertainty, many of them were avoiding borrowing and putting any expansion plans on hold.  He also pointed out that 20% of small businesses currently employ EU labour.

Another panelist was the Norwich North Tory MP, Chloe Smith. After a shaky start to her Parliamentary career (she was famously mauled and accused of incompetence in a television interview by Jeremy Paxman) she is now an assured and polished performer. She has clearly positioned herself as a loyal and unquestioning supporter of Prime Minister Theresa May and set out to defend the indefensible. Her line was that the Government was ‘doing things in sequence’ and small business must continue to apply common sense when coping with uncertainty. She made a half-hearted attempt to suggest that the extended transition period agreed on 19th March represented some form of clarification and even went on to imply that a solution was in sight on the Irish border.

Although the meeting was polite in tone, and concentrated on preparation for, rather, than the politics of Brexit, Chloe Smith was given a rough time by some sections of the audience. There is little prospect of new international deals replacing any loss of existing EU customers and, for many of our local small businesses, this is a serious immediate concern. Given the tone I left feeling that we could win the political battle in a fresh referendum. Unfortunately, on the drive home, my car radio informed me that Jeremy Corbyn had just sacked Owen Smith from the Shadow Cabinet for suggesting just that.

 

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An invitation to change colours

NNDC Council offices

On March 9th I launched a research paper on the Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk. The full twelve page version can be downloaded from the link on the left of this page.   I had two objectives: one political and one economic. The first was, in a modest way, to help shift opinion in any fresh referendum. The latest poll I have seen shows 53% Remain and 42% Leave – some progress but not enough. The excellent David Cowling, the former editor of BBC political research, commented in his latest mailing that “The country seems just as divided as in 2016”. However you don’t have to change minds in a fresh referendum, just get more of us to vote than them.

My economic objective was to persuade all our local decision-makers and influencers here of the dire consequences for Norfolk of a hard Brexit, and of the need to anticipate these consequences and take action. I therefore sent the paper to the 51 District and County Councillors who represent areas within North Norfolk.

So far I have received six polite replies and two ‘out of offices’, though in fairness the paper is detailed and others may be taking time to digest it before returning. A particularly welcome response came from the District Councillor, a Liberal Democrat, who represents my home area of Glaven Valley. She wrote: “I will circulate it to my fellow members. Next month, we are due to review the Overview and Scrutiny work programme for the forthcoming year, so this is a timely input to that discussion”. This is exactly the response that I had hoped for; I wish her well and will give her every support.

Another polite and thoughtful response was entirely unexpected. We have a large group of Independents on the Council, all of whom have defected from the Conservatives following internal dissension. One of them, after making some considered comments on the paper, continued, “… if you are minded to secure the best deal that the District can hope for … help us fight for it. In May 2019 there will be elections for NNDC District Councillors, we as Independents feel that we can speak freely on any issues. Obviously I don’t know what your political persuasions are, but your knowledge would be a huge advantage to any group…” I must admit, even at my age, being somewhat flattered, but, after more than 50 years dogged loyalty to the Labour Party through thick and thin, I am unlikely to change my allegiance.  

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