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.

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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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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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Oh no Rebecca

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It comes as no surprise that candidates for Labour’s leadership intend to massage the ego of the Party membership.  Telling members that their emotional spasms in 2015 and 2016 saddled the party with the most ineffective leader witnessed by anyone under the age of 90 is not likely to garner many votes.  A more circumspect approach is needed.

Understanding such caution does not, however, excuse the need to challenge absurdities when they emerge and I want to begin my new year threads by concentrating on a statement made by the front runner of the Corbynite legacy, Rebecca Long-Bailey.   Setting out her pitch in the Guardian this week she wrote:

Labour’s trade unions and our party members will be crucial. They are our roots in every workplace and community. They bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experience. We can’t take them for granted, and our promise to democratise society will ring hollow if we can’t even democratise our own party. We must take the conversation from Westminster to the workplaces and social spaces of our communities,

What on earth is meant by such a statement?

Now, to his credit, Jeremy Corbyn was more explicit about what he would like to see happen.  To quote from his 2016 leadership statement “Labour should transform itself by making a break from the top-down centralisation of the New Labour year’ and become a mass movement that is a vehicle for community empowerment”.  Subsequently a community organising unit was established to help build alliances so that the party could become ‘a social movement rooted in communities’.

At that time our North Norfolk Labour Party was still in a state of rapture with the leader.  The same month that the community organising unit was established at national level, in January 2018 , our local party conducted a survey of its then 600 members.  The survey included the following questions: “are you currently involved or have links to any community organisations based in North Norfolk? If yes do you feel that Labour Party Members could contribute to these groups?”  The survey was doubtless well intended, but the result was clear.  Of the 600 who received the survey, to quote: “only ten people replied to our recent members’ survey, so it’s impossible to draw any generalisations from these results”.  It was not impossible to draw conclusions: what was evident was that the overwhelming majority of paying members were not in the slightest bit interested in such social activism.  Moreover, our local community bodies, of which there are many, were scarcely likely to welcome a visit from evangelists representing a body undergoing existential crisis.

There are no circumstances in which I could ever support Rebecca Long-Bailey However, at this important time, a little bit of honesty and realism would not go amiss.  So, here’s a question for her.

In 2019 I participated, with my family, in the Peoples Vote marches in London.  In the last of them some 700000 people were involved – far more that the national membership of the Labour Party.  My fellow marchers came across as thoughtful and progressive and we need their votes if we are every likely to attain power.  My guess is that if they voted Labour in 2019 they did so with great reluctance; they held their noses.  How, Rebecca will you capture their support and  enthusiasm in the future?  They are certainly not likely to be attracted to the Corbyn legacy.

leftyoldman blogs will appear as the Labour leadership election progresses.  If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above.

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So now we know

For the period of the election I produced no blogs and no tweets: this reflected some old family advice.  My mother always said if you can’t say anything nice, it’s best to say nothing at all – though she rarely followed her own guidance.  My father, a Labour and trade union activist, taught me that if you didn’t like the way the election was organised you should remain silent until the results were in and have your say afterwards.

It is therefore some relief to be able to ease my built-up tension and express my opinion.  Labour’s leader was a disgrace; the campaign wholly ineffective; the manifesto misdirected and undeliverable.  There was a huge appetite for a plausible, credible left of centre party capable of tackling the poverty experienced by the underclass, addressing growing inequalities of income and opportunity, and rebuilding public sector provision.   What we offered the electorate instead was old-fashioned class rhetoric and mass rallies.  Ironically all the fulmination against elites and billionaires resulted in many in those old mining areas that I knew so well voting in support of an old Etonian.  We could hardly have done worse.

I would not wish to finish this diatribe without saying a word on the manifesto.  Generally, this seemed to be based on a  belief that any problem can be solved by throwing money at it.  There was no thought whatsoever about what is involved in the delivery of services, for example on productivity in the public sector.  Meaningless slogans and soundbites were on offer – a ‘National Education Service’ was the most obvious.  The electorate were all too aware of the underlying problems but they had lost all trust in the party to deliver any solution.

Nevertheless, I voted Labour and I am glad that I did.  It will make me feel more comfortable as I make my contribution, however modest, towards building this credible centre-left party of the future.  The failure,  pre-election, of alternative new parties, together with the poor electorate performance of the LibDems, means that this must come from the ashes of the Labour Party.  Expect a sustained battle between the Corbynistas and a sensible candidate in the mainstream tradition.  I hope that this mainstream candidate will have the courage to offer an uncompromising rejection of the politics of class war and residual Marxism.

So, it looks as though  I will have to start attending meeting on a regular basis.  For the record we had, in the context of the night, a reasonable result in North Norfolk.  The Tories gained the seat from the LibDems with a comfortable majority, but Labour held their deposit with 3895 votes (7.7% of the total cast).  We had a good candidate, but the local party, firmly in hands of ageing Corbynistas was incapable of delivering an effective campaign.

We shall see what emerges locally in the battle for the soul of the Labour Party.  I will resume blogging in the new year when I have something to report.

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leftyoldman blogs will reappear in the new year.  If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above.

 

I was there – but others said it better

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There are times when other people can say what you want to say better than you can.  Yesterday I travelled down from Norfolk for Saturday’s Peoples Vote Demonstration.  I am glad I marched  – together with one of my oldest friends, one of my sons, his wife, and two of my grand-children.  I was there.  However, it was Will Hutton, in an excellent Observer opinion piece today [1], who captured where we are and where we must go: it was headlined: “We marched for a People’s vote with hope but few expectations.  Yet history will side with us”.  Too true.

In his piece Will Hutton said, first looking at how we got to where we are:

British democracy has mutated from an arena where those with a different hierarchy of values try to deploy the best argument into faith-based politics – matched on the left by the ultras around Corbyn, the complement to the Tory Spartans. For them, the greater issue is not to win a general election with an attractive, broad-based Labour party. Instead, it is to retain control of the party as a Corbynite tribune in the wake of what promises to be a devastating defeat.

And how we might recover:

The searing lived experience of economic closure, the splitting off of Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the diminution of a once great country will change minds – and give a younger generation of politicians the powerful inner conviction to combine reason and passion. Some spoke yesterday. Britain will one day again make common cause with friends and allies in Europe – we millions who marched are not going away.

I saw a lot of those younger generation – together with many of an older generation who are still positive in their outlook on life – on that march yesterday.  They are concerned, determined and clever – as their banners testify.  I will therefore conclude this short blog with a selection of the best compiled by my friend Jono Read of The New European; the full set is available on the site at

https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/people-s-vote-final-say-march-protest-signs-pictures-1-6331535

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/19/we-marched-for-a-people-s-vote-with-hope-but-few-expectations-history-will-side-with-us

 

leftyoldman blogs will appear occasionally as the Brexit battle continues and the shape of post Brexit politics emerges.  If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above. I continue to tweet at @eugrandparents.

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How ugly can it get?

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We are just weeks away from a General Election.  It is likely to be a thoroughly unpleasant experience with the two leaders of our major parties willing to use arguments and language that appeal to the worst side of human behaviour.  It is as if, at a tense derby football game, the competing managers stood in front of their group of supporting fans and led them in the most hostile and aggressive set of chants.  No-one would wish to take their family to such an event.

The two party leaders behave in different ways but both can threaten civilised democratic discourse.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes concerted attacks on elites: apparently defined as anyone who is professionally successful and who takes a more informed and measured view of the country’s future.  As an Eton educated Prime Minister his populist views apparently exclude him from any charge of elitism.  Jeremy Corbyn has a different style. He is unrelentingly courteous in Parliament but shrugs his shoulders at the excesses of behaviour from his supporters at local levels.  Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are most comfortable when whipping up the faithful at rallies.  Neither are thoughtful politicians – let alone coalition builders.

All in all, it is not looking good.  Whatever the result of the election, I hope that one consequence will be the subsequent emergence of a concerted campaign to restore the best traditions of our democracy and the need to conduct elections in a civilised fashion.  This involves treating your opponents with respect.

Nostalgia is not always productive but I look back almost half a century to the first election where I stood as a candidate.  In 1970, as a twenty-three-year-old I was the Labour Candidate in the safe Tory seat of Leominster, a huge chunk of rural Herefordshire.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  The nearest I encountered to overt hostility was when a young farmer and his mate deliberately revved up their tractor engines to drown out my loudspeaker speech.  This gave me useful headlines in the local paper.

Moreover, I can recall being treated with the utmost courtesy by the local committee of the National Farmers’ Union when asked to address them “It’s clearly no good asking you questions in detail so we can do no more than thank you for coming”.  One incident in particular will stay in my memory.  At a public meeting in the market town of Ledbury the local Conservative Chairman, a retired military gentleman turned up and asked a question about reform of the taxation system.   I did not agree with his premise but, fresh from an economics degree, offered him a considered reply.  At the end of the meeting the gentleman concerned stood up and said, that on behalf of those present, he would like to wish the young candidate every success in his endeavours in life.   It was only later that I fully appreciated the generosity of this gesture.

I doubt if incidents of this type will feature in the forthcoming General Election.  One can just hope that nasty chanting, egg and milkshake throwing and the drowning of legitimate interventions from working journalists will be kept to a minimum.  Set against this, there is no way that Internet abuse and threats can be controlled.

By tolerating these assaults on democracy, we have lost something important.  However, if enough people desire it, tolerance could eventually prevail.   There are sufficient people from the traditional mainstream in both parties who would like to see this happen but it requires leadership willing to reach out and include rather than reinforcing prejudices.

There is old Welsh proverb, taken from the folk stories known as the Mabinogi: “A fo ben, bid bont” translated as “He would be a leader, let him be a bridge” (or “bear the load).  Bendigeidfran the giant laid down across a river to let his forces walk across his body when on a mission to rescue the maiden in distress.

I doubt if Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn will behave like Bendigeidfran the giant but they could begin by trying to keep their more extreme supporters under control.

leftyoldman blogs will appear occasionally as the Brexit battle continues and the shape of post Brexit politics emerges.  If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above. I continue to tweet at @eugrandparents.

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From the 1970 General Election