Love me like I’m leaving

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As I settle into comfortable retirement in our village, BBC Radio Norfolk is one of life’s real pleasures.  I particularly enjoy the predictability of the phone-in football programme, ‘Canary Call’, which follows the final whistle after every Norwich City game.  Comments from those who not only didn’t see the game under discussion but haven’t seen one for decades are always treated with the utmost courtesy.

My favourite however will always be ‘Rodeo Norfolk, Radio and Norfolk’s Country and Western Programme’,which goes out between 0900 and 1200 on a Saturday.  Half way through, the feature is ‘Your Country Collection’: listeners send in six records and the excellent presenter, Keith Greentree, chooses three to play.  I am proud to say that my selection has been played on four occasions and I have just submitted a fifth.  This pride was punctured when I met one the BBC executives who told me that, unusually for a listener, I always identified the right artist and song title and was able to spell their names correctly; it was this, rather than any musical judgement, that had provided the platform for my success.

It was no surprise therefore when, on Monday 18thFebruary, I received a phone call from the station.  I thought it was a query about my latest country collection submission, but in fact the call was a request for the radio interview that is reproduced the blog immediately below.  It was a response to the major news story of the day: that a group of seven Labour MPs had formed an independent group as a reaction to the current Labour Party leadership.

Listening to the clip I wish I had been a little clearer that I am not currently planning to leave a Party that I joined over 50 years ago. I wouldn’t have changed anything else I said  – I am disgusted by the anti-Semitism and by the behaviour of those, including North Norfolk Labour Party Members, who defend the leadership’s inept handling of the issue.  To his immense credit Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, hit the right note with his statement the following day.  To quote: “The instant emotion I felt, when I heard the news this morning that colleagues were leaving Labour, was deep sadness. I love this party. But sometimes I no longer recognise it”.

Tom Watson continued: “The tragedy of the hard left can be too easily tempted into the language of heresy and treachery.  Betrayal narratives and shouting insults at the departed might make some feel better briefly but it does nothing to address the reasons that good colleagues might want to leave”.  Too true, Tom.  My inbox the following day was full of communications from various Labour factions and included the following gem from Momentum: [Leslie and Chuka] are attacking Labour for “weaken[ing] our national security”, supporting “states hostile to our country” and being “hostile to businesses large and small”.In short, their agenda is for war and big business”.  Work your way through that tortuous logic!  It illustrates why I cannot currently make the effort to attend North Norfolk Labour Party meetings while Momentum exercise control.

So, as Tom Watson so eloquently articulated in his statement, if the Labour Party is to survive time is short; it is vital that the scale of the problem is recognised if further defections are to be avoided.  Ironically such sentiments were captured perfectly in one of my songs submitted for the Country Collection.  It is ‘Love me like I’m leaving’by Sugarland: a recognition that a relationship can only be rebuilt if the emotions underpinning imminent break-up are recognised.  I hope that Keith Greentree will play it one coming Saturday – but not on 23rdMarch when I will be in London for the Remain rally.

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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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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.

 

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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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Two glimmers of light amidst the gloom

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This last week has been a dispiriting one for those of us of a progressive, international disposition. On Sunday (15thApril) Sir Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame launched the long-awaited ‘People’s Vote’ campaign for a fresh referendum.  The timing could not have been worse; it could hardly have made less impact.  Understandably it was entirely overshadowed by the attacks on Syrian installations that manufactured, stored or supported the use of chemical weapons.  This catastrophe puts all our economic concerns into context.

Later in the week it was revealed that the Home Office had behaved disgracefully in its treatment of long-standing British citizens who settled in the UK from Commonwealth countries before 1971 – with the highest profile victims being the Windrush generation, so-called after the ship that arrived in 1948.

The Government’s performance has rightly been criticised: on Syria for not recalling Parliament; on the treatment of immigrants for its slow response and late apology.  We need an effective opposition and moreover one with the courage to put an unequivocally international perspective. Sadly Jeremy Corbyn has retreated into his comfort zone of pious platitudes on international conflict.  Worse still he seems incapable or unwilling of dealing with continued evidence of antisemitism in the Party he leads.   A House of Commons debate was held on the subject on Tuesday.  Veteran Labour MP Margaret Hodge, once my Councillor In North Islington when Jeremy Corbyn was my MP, was moved to say,  “I never ever thought I would experience significant antisemitism as a member of the Labour party…I have, and it has left me feeling an outsider in the party of which I’ve been a member for over 50 years… I have never felt as nervous and frightened as I feel today about being a Jew. It feels that my party has given permission for antisemitism to go unchallenged. Antisemitism is making me an outsider in my Labour Party.” (and this is 21stCentury Britain).

If ever there were circumstances that underlined the need for Britain acting as a progressive voice as part of the international community they have been abundantly evident over the last seven days.  So, in a gloomy blog, let me offer two threads of comfort. First, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered an inspiring speech to the European Parliament showing the leadership so sadly lacking this side of the channel.  He warned that “there seems to be a European civil war between liberal democracy and rising authoritarianism…where nationalism and egotism takes precedence over what brings us together”; he urged the EU to renew its commitment to democracy. Secondly the House of Lords inflicted a major defeat on the Government by requiring ministers to report on steps to negotiate a continued EU-UK customs union. This may be no more that the latest stage in a long battle but, at last, we can chalk up a win.  The campaign for a Peoples’ Vote may have been derailed, but there are some glimmers of light to beckon us forward.

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A shameful episode in Labour’s history

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This column was written on 29th March, a year to the day before the UK ends its membership of the European Union and enters a transition period. Ideally I would be out with the local Labour Party handing out leaflets in Cromer demanding a fresh referendum. I doubt if it would do much good up here but it’s a sunny day and a nice place to be.

Instead I was obliged to undertake two activities that I sincerely wished had not been necessary. The first was to send an email to a valued family friend in New York to say how ashamed I was about the outbursts of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The second was to undertake an interview for BBC Look East expressing my view on how such incidents had arisen and the way that they had been handled.

For overseas readers the facts are these. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn has issued an apology for declaring support for those opposing the removal of a mural, unquestionably anti-Semitic in tone, in London’s East End. Secondly, Christine Shawcross, who Corbyn’s supporters had made Chair of Labour’s Disputes Committee, was obliged to resign. She had sought the reinstatement of a local council candidate who had circulated material which denied the holocaust. These facts are not in dispute and we have witnessed an entirely understandable reaction from leading Jewish organisations, and many others from all sections of the community who support them.

Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly emphasised that he is not personally anti-Semitic and will not tolerate such views. What I said to Look East was that we should take him at this word. The charges against him and his leadership are different. First he has always been injudicious in his choice of allies and in the company he keeps. I was an active member of his local party in Islington for many years and know that be especially true on the politics of Ireland and the Middle East. Secondly there was an unwillingness on the part of both Jeremy and Christine Shawcross to investigate and research the detail before pronouncing; an aversion to detail is a characteristic of the extreme left with their preference for a slogan that you can put on a coffee mug or a t-shirt. Thirdly Jeremy Corbyn himself was slow to recognise the extent of the problem and even slower to act up on it.

So there we have it. At this time, more than any other, the Labour Party should be looking outwards and offering hope for the future by making common cause with European social democrats. Instead all the focus of the last few days has been on limiting the damage – a terrible reflection on the style and quality of current leadership. I was able, in my BBC interview, to offer one slight ray of hope for the future. There are many members of the Labour Party who feel like this and we do not intend to leave, however ashamed we feel. We will stay in and fight for the values of the party we joined.

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It’s been a long time coming, but it’s welcome

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It gives me a deal of pleasure to be able to resume my weekly blog on a positive note. At long last there has been some shift in the Labour leader’s position. Now we are in favour of continued customs union membership. To quote from his Coventry speech:

“Labour would seek a final deal that gives full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union… with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections.”

No one should underestimate the extent of the shift and the opportunity that this provides for avoiding the Brexit catastrophe. Well done to all those who, over time, persuaded Jeremy Corbyn to shift his position.

I can’t include myself in that number, although at one time I knew him moderately well. I was a very active Labour Party member in Corbyn’s North Islington from the mid-70s to 1987 and did not hold him in high regard – I am sure that this feeling was reciprocated. In fact my Islington period covered the year when Corbyn was alleged to have consorted with a secret agent from the Czech republic. The idea that, at that time, anybody would have told him anything that mattered and that he would then have remembered it is absurd. However, in fairness, he has developed skills since becoming leader and is now pointing in the right direction.

The next challenge is to get him off the hook that the referendum vote must be treated as a considered and definitive decision that cannot be reversed – whatever the subsequent facts that have come to be light. In the course of a New European podcast published as recently as February 23rd , just three days before the Coventry speech, he was asked if Labour’s position on Brexit was shifting. He replied: “What we have said is that we accept the result of the referendum. We are leaving the European Union… We can’t be members of the single market because we won’t be members of the European Union”. *

The EU negotiators will not allow us to cherry-pick (or, as the Spanish apparently call it, sherry-pick) in this way. Signing up to everything that matters while pretending you are leaving may get the Labour Party through the next two years but it is not a strategy for Government.   Sooner or later political leaders must tell the electorate that they got it wrong. However let’s be thankful for some progress after a dreadful 2017.

*Listen on http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-labour-1-5406396

 

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