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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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

 

Because I say so (or words to that effect)

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To my surprise and pleasure I received some positive feedback from my previous blog, the one in which I paid tribute to our retiring local LibDem MP Norman Lamb.  Several people took the trouble to tell me that is was good to see something positive said about a political opponent.  Perhaps this is what Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn meant when he made his plea for a kinder, gentler politics.

This aspiration, articulated almost exactly four years ago, has, of course, been totally ignored in practice.  Politics has taken an unpleasant turn with stories fabricated and motives impugned on all sides.  Both major parties have saddled themselves with unsuitable leaders, neither of whom is interested, let alone capable, of building consensus; both are happiest delivering market place oratory to the faithful. Over the last week it has been the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who has chosen to show the worst aspect of his character with a display of bombast that has descended into the ridiculous.

On Sunday, in a newspaper interview, Boris Johnson vowed that the UK would leave the EU by aping the behaviour of the Marvel character ‘The Incredible Hulk’.  For those who are not into comic books, Bruce Banner, Hulk’s physically weak alter-ego, morphs into a huge green-skinned giant when angry.  According to our Prime Minister: “Banner might be bound in manacles, but when provoked he would explode out of them”and “Hulk always escaped no matter how tightly bound…that is the case for this country. We will come out on October 31stand we will get it done”.

Such childish macho-talk takes me back to a bizarre interlude in my working career.  For six years I was head of human resource development at what was probably the UK’s worst-managed investment bank, and that really is going some.  After the changes in the financial and regulatory system introduced at Big Bang in 1986, our home-grown firms were unable to compete with the onslaught from US competitors.   The domestic response was to throw money at the problem and hire more and more highly-paid and ultimately unsuccessful managers – a bit like an over-resourced struggling football team

The most egregious example was our appointment of a new Deputy Chief Executive whose arrogant self-belief and crude management style led to resignation of some of the more thoughtful staff.  See the obvious parallels with our two major parties?  I couldn’t afford to resign so I simply tried to keep my head down.  Unfortunately, our new boss decided we needed a programme to recruit MBAs, a subject about which he knew nothing.  I was given the job of investigating the feasibility of such a scheme.

My investigations rapidly revealed that it was not a runner. Our business areas were hostile and, given our reputation, no-one any good would wish to join us.  ‘Never let your boss receive bad news as a surprise’is a standard management maxim so, when I saw the Deputy Chief Executive who was taking the escalator, I moved alongside him and gave him the news. His response was to turn to me, put his face about three inches from mine, and deliver the following motivational message: “It’s going to f***ing happen and you know why it’s going to f***ing happen?  Because I say it’s going to f***ing happen and I when I say things are going to f***ing happen round here, they f***ing happen.  Get the message?”.

So, what did happen, or, in short, “Did it f***ing happen?” Unsurprisingly the answer is “No it f***ing didn’t”.  Our macho manager left the organisation shortly afterwards and I often wonder what happened to him. Most probably he went in to psychotherapy or personal life style coaching; certainly, that is where many of his ilk ended up.

Later this week I will summon up the energy to attend my local Labour Party.  I have put forward a motion that unequivocally supports the Remain position. I am not deluding myself that a motion agreed by a group of people in North Norfolk will make the least bit of difference.  It is simply that we should all be prepared to do whatever we can, and for heaven’s sake, let reasonable argument prevail over crude sloganising.

 

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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Time to speak: a hashtag for Jeremy

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Given the maelstrom that is the current political scene there is a surprising consensus on the way that events could unfold.  This is because the position and ambitions of our Prime Minister are so transparent.

For Boris Johnson, like his opposite number across the Atlantic, ego dominates and reputation is all.  What matters is what appears or can be said to happen, not what actually happens. He has staked his reputation on delivering Brexit on October 31st.  If it doesn’t take place as predicted it will be everybody else’s fault  – the EU, the Irish Government, unsupportive MPs.  That will set him up nicely for a people vs. parliament General Election that will be the nastiest any living person has ever witnessed.

Many parliamentarians on all sides of the House are endeavouring to prevent this dreadful scenario from taking place.  They are determined to do all in their power to prevent both a head-on attack on the principles of representative democracy and the consequent delivery of an economic disaster.   Some of them, for example Philip Hammond, Dominic Grieve and Justin Greening from the Conservative side, have already displayed great courage.  We can be sure that there is a huge amount of organising and planning taking place across the party divide in advance of the resumption of Parliament on September 21st.  However, there is nothing that we ordinary voters can do to assist them beyond demonstrating our strength of feeling and wishing them well.

It is the Labour Party that concerns me.  It would: I have been a member for over 50 years.  The continued ambiguity of the Party’s position is a cause of distress.  Alan Johnson, an Education Minister under Tony Blair and someone who would have made an excellent leader himself today, described Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Europe as a total disaster. “He’s not a leader. He’s never going to be a leader, never wanted to be a leader, and is totally uncomfortable in his role of leader”.

Whatever one’s opinion on Alan Johnson’s scathing judgement, it would be a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyns’ potential contribution to overturning Brexit.  His ability to motivate and inspire his younger supporters was much in evidence during the 2017 General Election, though sadly absent in the Referendum that took place in the previous year.  We need him, first, to stop equivocating and to offer the clear message of Remain.  Every recent national and local poll has demonstrated that this is a political necessity if the Party is to offer a serious challenge in a future General Election.  Jeremy Corbyn still enjoys a following and we need him in play to mobilise his supporters and we need him in play now. It is no good to waiting until late September after Labour Party Conference.  Moreover the mechanism exists, through the Momentum network, to mobilise pressure, should he choose, through social networking.

In an article, published in the New European in February 2018, I wrote, “Future generations will be amazed at our lack of action and the total impotence that so many progressives feel today…. I will learn from the success of the Corbyn campaign and use social media to promulgate my position and my concerns.”I went on to establish a twitter account @eugrandparents.

Eighteen months on I still feel isolated and impotent in my North Norfolk retreat but more than ever believe that we should all do what we can. Accordingly I have established, and will be promoting a new hashtag #jeremyMIAJeremy missing in action’ – to see if we can embarrass him to do his bit before it is too late.

A version of this article has appeared on The New European website

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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