The wheels come off in North Norfolk

Given the timing it was inevitable that the council elections held on May 4th would be regarded as a foreshadow of the June General Election. These May elections offered a large-scale national opinion poll that could endlessly be analysed for local implications. Nationally the Labour vote held up just about well enough for those infatuated with Jeremy Corbyn to claim that ‘with a vigorous campaign we can make up the deficit over the next few weeks’ – but nowhere near well enough for any sane person to believe him. Predictably the County Council results in North Norfolk were poor. Taking the full ten seats across the Constituency Labour polled just under 10% of the votes cast – down by a third from the 15% recorded in the last County elections which were held in 2013.

No amount of cheery optimism can disguise the fact that the Labour Party is likely to be facing the worst result in the lifetime of every member and supporter under the age of 80. To their credit the local Labour Party here fielded a full slate of ten candidates in the May County Council elections. In some of these county seats there was a deal of organised election activity. In our best prospect we had an excellent candidate who had fought this seat, where he lived, on several occasions: in 2013 he lost by 38 votes; this time he came third, more than 200 behind the winning LibDem . It is very sad, as he would have made a fine councillor.

Recently the New Statesman published an excellent analysis of the Corbyn phenomenon by a Leicester University academic and commentator, Daniel Allington http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/june2017/2017/04/jeremy-corbyn-has-attracted-socialism-fans-not-labour-voters

Although the article is not always the easiest of reads, and certainly offers no comfort to those of who seek changes in society rather than mere protests, it contains some impressive insights. The one that struck me is the idea that the Labour Party has been the subject of a successful hostile take-over, to borrow a business analogy. Executing a takeover is one thing, making a success of the business that has been acquired is quite another. All the indications are that no-one wants to buy the new product – whatever the extent of the activity on the doorstep and in social media. Indeed, we are now learning that explosions and expletives in social media rarely translate into worthwhile practical support.

It is some small comfort to me that, whereas in April the North Norfolk Labour Party website invited people to sign up and “become part of Jeremy Corbyn’s new politics”, in May it had been softened to “become part of our new politics”. Alas, at this stage, I can’t see that this subtle but important distinction will have any effect.

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Vote Labour – there’s no danger of ending up with Corbyn

One of the more bizarre claims that will be articulated over the next six weeks is that the Labour Party is uniting and is rallying behind our leader. This is wishful thinking. Many of us who are long-standing party members believe that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to serve as Prime Minister – and my guess is that this is still the view of most of the Parliamentary Party.   Nevertheless I will still vote Labour in my home seat of North Norfolk. I will do so for two reasons.

First, although the medium term prospects are poor, there is a need to maintain a strong Labour Party to revise and rebuild the case for democratic socialism. We need a rigorous understanding of the challenges posed by today’s service-led and knowledge-driven economy: it will not be solved by solutions embedded in nationalism or the ‘politics for people who don’t like politics’ of the LibDems. We have many Labour MPs who are capable of leading this necessary revisionist process. Tragically the best platform that was available to develop and communicate this new thinking was the European Referendum campaign of June 2016. It was a massive missed opportunity and rightly triggered the no-confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn.

This brings us to the second reason for voting Labour. One can do so in the secure knowledge that Corbyn will never become Prime Minister.

If there were the slightest prospect of this happening I would find it very difficult to advocate a Labour vote. I knew Jeremy Corbyn well in my Islington days in the early 1980s when I was a member of his local Labour Party Management Committee.   His views were well entrenched by then and have not altered since. The ones that most disturbed me were his attitudes to terrorist violence, particularly his support of the IRA. Disturbingly one his first statements when becoming party leader in 2015 concerned the Paris attack that took place that November: in a BBC interview he expressed opposition to a shoot to kill policy in such circumstances. At some stage in the current election this statement will doubtless come back to haunt him and he remained silent on the subject in the recent London attacks. However the idea that a man of his views, and his limited ability, could be a key player in discussions with the police and emergency services when they are dealing with a terrorist threat is unthinkable.

This could not happen. Almost certainly Labour under Corbyn will not be a serious threat to the Conservatives. If there were any prospect of an anti-Conservative coalition the price that the Scottish Nationalists and the LibDems would demand would be a new Labour Party leader. They would be assisted by many Labour MPs who would be prepared to risk the sustained hostility from the ultra-left by supporting such a move.

This is a sombre blog to present at the start of an election campaign, so let me finish with an optimistic alternative. A distinguished Professor of History at the University of East Anglia (who lives seven miles down the road and is good friend of mine) had a letter published in the Times on 21st April. His subject was the hazards of snap elections and he drew attention to the Australian experience of 1983. There a Conservative Prime Minister called an election to take advantage of weakened Labour opposition which began by floundering politically; the Labour party then changed its leader and went on to win. Could this happen here with Yvette Cooper emerging as Prime Minister? Chance would be a fine thing but we can dream.

 

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Buy at the bottom

In the early 1990s I was head of training for one of the UK’s least successful investment banks and had responsibility for the graduate scheme. I organised events at universities, involving the more articulate of the business heads in selling the bank to potential applicants.   On one occasion we attended an evening presentation when, on the previous day, our parent bank’s Chairman had announced, that, unless there was a rapid return to profit, he would close the investment subsidiary. No graduate in their right mind would choose to join us over our competitors. Ever imaginative, one of the business heads told the audience that a sensible market aphorism was ‘buy at the bottom’ and this was what they would do by joining us. A moment’s reflection demonstrates that there is no logic in the underlying argument but it had superficial credibility.

There is more substance in the case for voting Labour in the forthcoming local elections. Certainly, given the inept leadership and growing chasms between the factions, it is ‘buy at the bottom’. I shall vote Labour because I always have and don’t think I could do anything else – a poor reason I know. Like many others I want the party to survive and at some time return to mainstream credibility.

Our local party has succeeded in finding a full slate of candidates to fight all twelve County Council seats in North Norfolk. However the idea that there has been some rejuvenation as a result of the huge influx of people who joined to vote for Jeremy Corbyn has been exposed as nonsense. As the annual financial report coyly put it, despite the surge in membership: “the challenge has been to activate the new membership in campaigning and participating in meetings”.   Too true: as far as I can tell only one of the candidates is under the age of 40 and most have been around for some time, albeit some of them in the Greens.

However all credit to the candidates for their willingness to fight a pretty hopeless cause.  The leader of the County Council Labour Group was the guest speaker at the February meeting. The minutes record that the response included “questions on alternatives to implementing cuts such as joining with other councils to rebel against cuts”. Old habits die hard and it is almost touching to see such nostalgia for the gesture politics of the 1980s. Sadly, if the current polls are anything to go by, there will be few councillors elected here to join this forthcoming Trotskyist insurrection.

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Jeremy’s tax return – the real problem

Like many of my generation I have made a transition from paid employment, through self-employment, to living on pensions with the odd bit of extra income.   Given this, for over a decade I have prepared my own tax return. It is becoming increasingly less arduous; my pensions are taxed at source and this year’s extra income amounted to £25.86. This was the royalties from six copies of A Handbook for Training Strategy; five of them were sold overseas. I wrote the book in 1994 and it is now hopelessly out of date. I wish I could find a way of returning the money to the purchasers.

Having completed and submitted returns for some time, I know that it is easy to miss a deadline, make a mistake, or overlook some detail, so I have some sympathy with Jeremy Corbyn. Last year he incurred a fine for late return. This year he made a big public statement by making his tax return publicly available in order to shame rival politicians into taking a similar action. Unfortunately it has all gone wrong and has proved to be another embarrassment, albeit minor. It is worth reflecting on why this is the case and what lessons can be drawn.

The tax return that Corbyn has published contained a small technical error. His £27000 salary as leader of the opposition was declared, not as income from employment, but as a state benefit. Tax on this element of salary was paid in full; there was no implication or any attempt to dissemble; it was simply an entry put in the wrong place. This is no big deal to the Inland Revenue, but raises an important question. Given that taking the return into the public domain was a planned political offensive, was it thoroughly checked before it was issued and if so by whom? Were adequate processes in place and were the individuals responsible for implementing them competent in the jobs for which they are paid? Had they ever completed a tax return themselves?

Inevitably a minor gaffe led to derision from a hostile press who, in a dull political period, are just waiting for the next dropped ball; the Leader’s office issued a predictable petulant response and yet another chance for a more serious debate was missed.

Labour supporters in the constituencies may well shrug their shoulders but, to the electorate as a whole, competency in office does matter. Those of us who have worked most of lives in corporate roles simply cannot understand why the even the simplest things can’t be done effectively at this high-profile and well-resourced level.

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Regaining trust – is am-dram the answer?

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The second half of 1985 was without doubt the worst period of my working life. I had spent some 17 years at the National Coal Board and we were all reeling from the effects of the year-long catastrophic strike. I had then been promoted to a job teaching at the industry’s internal management college, where we received instructions that our Chairman, Ian MacGregor, required us to devote all our efforts to improving the communication skills of colliery managers. He seemed to believe that the strike was a result of a corporate failure to put his message across at the coalface (for once a literal use of the term).

Opinions may differ on the causes of the strike, and what should have been done, but all of us knew that MacGregor was totally wrong in his analysis. The nature of the mining industry meant that there was plenty of contact and exchange between management and workers. They lived in the same communities and often had close family connections. The issue was not communication: there was an underlying political and economic agenda that needed to be resolved.

All this came flooding back when I saw Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction to the recent disastrous bye-election result at Copeland. “… Our message was not enough to win through in Copeland” he said “ To win power to rebuild and transform Britain, Labour will go further to reconnect with voters, and break with the failed political consensus.” This echoed his supporters’ underlying belief that, if their perspective was not distorted by a hostile media, the voters would immediately return to Labour.

This is, of course, nonsense. Flooding the estates with imported bands of Momentum activists would only make things worse. It would serve to remind the electorate of how detached the Corbyn supporters are from the aspirations and ambitions of most people, and how shallow the solutions on offer are. Banging on doors simply serves to remind the electorate of our malaise and, indeed, could make traditional Labour voters further question their intentions.

In recent blogs I have drawn attention to some defections of prominent North Norfolk individuals from Labour to the LibDems. I greatly regretted the departure of a former Mayor of Cromer: he was a fine young man. Before he resigned from the party he circulated his concerns over a members’ meeting held in November. The agenda included “role play activity which was aimed at developing skills and confidence in campaigning on the doorstep”. This, the former Mayor, described this as ‘unrealistic am-dram’.   However it was adjudged a success by the organisers and, on the Saturday immediately before Copeland, a morning session was scheduled where “through role play we will show different ways to engage with residents, discuss issues and find out whether they support Labour”.

One of the co-presenters of the session has a history of revolutionary Trotskyism. In fairness to him I doubt if he intended to use the occasion to explore the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’ (the way in which material, ideological, and institutional processes in capitalist society mislead members of the proletariat*). He might just as well done so, for all the good that sessions like this are going to have at this stage. Simply promoting the Party on the doorstep will serve no purpose until we have something to offer that makes sense to the electorate.   Until and unless we address the underlying policy vacuum, and get a new leader, all that is on offer is further decline.

 

* Taken from the Wikipedia definition of the term

 

Leftyoldman blogs appear on occasional basis when I have something to say. Sadly very little happens in Norfolk so intervals occur. To receive email notification of the next blog when it appears, press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

The first signpost – on a long road ahead

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We have just returned from a thoroughly enjoyable holiday in Vietnam; it is a country that is ambivalent about how to portray its own recent history. Most of the people I met there seemed to share similar aspirations to my neighbours in Norfolk. However there was a background of continuous propaganda on the success of the revolution and the 1975 victory over ‘American capitalist imperialism’.   The latter was at its most strident in a room in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City: it contained multiple photographs of protest marches purporting to demonstrate the international working-class solidarity against the war. I marched against the war as a student in the late 1960s. It was a protest of the university-educated intellectuals not the working class, who, as I recall, were for the main part were indifferent.

The reality is that the class basis of politics was always overstated and has faded irrevocably over the course of my political lifetime: this process had begun by the 1970s and has accelerated ever since.   It may well be that, as a result, the Labour Party faces inevitable decline; this certainly seems to be the view expressed in opinion pieces in our more serious newspapers.

The argument runs as follows: the Labour Party can only succeed as an alliance between middle-class progressives and working-class traditionalists. However, the June 2016 referendum hastened the road to extinction by showing, in sharp perspective, the collapse of the glue that held Labour together. A majority of both the forty Parliamentary Constituencies producing the biggest percentage of ‘remain’ votes and the forty Parliamentary Constituencies producing the biggest percentage of ‘leave’ votes are held by Labour. The former lie in the University cities, especially London; the latter lie in the traditional industrial heartlands. Skilled leadership, as demonstrated by the Scottish National Party, can hold a coalition together for a time (every Scottish Parliamentary Constituency voted remain) – but the division between those who have benefitted from globalization and those who feel threatened by such changes is real. It will be increasingly reflected in different behaviour at the ballot box. For the Labour Party, worse is to come.

In my previous blog I indicated that I was taking a break and would resume only when I saw a ray of hope for left of centre politics in the UK. Given the paragraph above it may appear surprising that I have put fingers to keyboard. Ironically, the disastrous election of Donald Trump suggests that a rebuild of liberal social democracy is possible. Trump’s election has put into sharp focus the ugly face of ultra-nationalism and given rise to large and peaceful demonstrations populated by like-minded people throughout the world.   Sophisticated modern technology allows rapid communication of ideas and these can rapidly feed through to changes in patterns of political activism and, ultimately, voting behaviour; both Donald Trump in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK have demonstrated the potential of such movements. The very same weapon can be used against them.

So, looking to the long-term future, I believe that the choice may not lie between ultra-nationalism and unstructured protest. Liberal social democracy can and eventually will be rebuilt as a global movement. Class politics is dead and the sooner we get rid of Marxist terminology the better, but the remaining shell of the Labour Party may be a constituent of this international process with an important role to play in our country. I may not live to see the day but am hopeful nonetheless.