It’s all happening – except in North Norfolk

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Flocking to the polls in Sharrington Village Hall

There are times in your life when you have to admit that you were totally wrong. For me, as for many others, the 2017 General election will be one of them. There can be no question but that Jeremy Corbyn has proved to be an excellent campaigner: he achieved resonance with those who wanted to maintain the welfare state, and with those who found gross inequality offensive. Above all he inspired young people to register and to vote.   Uncertain times lie ahead but social democrats of an international perspective must remain in the Labour Party, bite their tongues, and wait to see how events unfold.

These last five years have indeed been depressing times and, although the result defied expectations, the fact remains that the Conservatives have won their third General Election in succession. Following the shattering June 2016 referendum result we are negotiating our way out of the European Union; worst of all, President Trump is bombastically and ignorantly striding the world stage.

Let’s therefore strike a positive note. British democracy works and works well. The electorate have an uncanny ability to get the result that they want: they refused to fall into line with Theresa May’s wishes and deliver support for a hard Brexit. Early analysis indicates that this election was the revenge of the remainers, particularly young remainers, including rich young remainers who live in Kensington.

Moreover there were two terrorist attacks during the course of the campaign but they had no effect on people’s willingness to cast their ballot. Turnout was up. There was no friction or aggression reported beyond an unseemly struggle between two photographers competing for a picture of the LibDem leader voting in Cumberland.

It was certainly a peaceful election here in North Norfolk where, in keeping with our local traditions, nothing happened. In fact the 2017 result for the main parties was almost exactly the same as the 2015 result. Despite incessant communications – both electronic and hard-copy – from retiring MP LibDem Norman Lamb that the result was too close to call he held on conformably with a majority of 3512, just over 500 down on last time.   Our energetic Labour candidate polled 5180, up just 137.

At some stage I will start re-attending local Party meetings, particularly if there is there is a groundswell of support for a soft Brexit, or even a second referendum. However for the time being I will allow the Corbynistas their moment of triumph – like Leicester City supporters they are entitled to it. This does not mean that I have much in common with them beyond voting Labour, and I will not donate any money in case it is spent on a celebratory charabanc outing.

 

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Joining a march again

The first London march that I attended took place in 1963. I was a teenage member of the Cardiff Young Socialists and we had been infiltrated by a Trotskyist element based at the university, though I was too naive to realise it at the time.   I was excited to learn that they were organising a coach to London to join some demonstration or other and, not least because I was keen on a girl who I knew to be going, I eagerly consented.

All I remember about the occasion is that we could not find the event. I had the humiliating experience of wandering round in a group in Central London asking various pedestrians if they had seen a march. I recall little of the cause – though it was almost certainly not one I would support today – but I do remember that, given this inauspicious start, my intended relationship did not progress. All in all a disappointing experience.

Over the subsequent decades I became a regular participant in such activism: I marched against apartheid and against various military interventions, most noticeably the Vietnam War. My elder son has told his friends that I participated in the Chartist March to Newport in 1839 and the Tonypandy riots of 1910.   Whatever the reality I thought that, at my advanced age, my marching days were over. It was a push from generations below that made me take to the streets again.

At the instigation of one of my sons I joined the Haringey Labour Party contingent on the ‘Unite for Europe’ march on March 25th.   Two of my granddaughters (aged 5 and 3) came along with their parents and so did my 15-year-old niece who travelled up from Wales with her father. It was an inspiring occasion. Most of those present seemed to have strong personal motives: one woman was wearing a t-shirt that read ‘my husband is a migrant and he is the only person in our village with an OBE’; another had a hat that read ‘I am German, I am a chef, I work here’. The extreme left were nowhere to be seen, which meant to my relief that there were no indigestible and unreadable Trotskyist publications on sale.   At the end of the event many people, my son included, laid floral tributes at Westminster Green in memory of the policeman who died last week defending our democracy.

It is this sort of vision and spirit that brought me into activism. Dare I believe that we are starting to build a progressive alternative?

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Knocking up the Council Estate

Council housing

Those of us who are international in outlook are waking up in a shattered state this morning. We cannot deny the result and must ask ourselves what sort of society we are living in and what our response should be. An unnecessary and exhausting Referendum campaign has been conducted in a thoroughly unpleasant fashion; I have never witnessed such overt racism and xenophobia as I did yesterday morning when handing out Remain leaflets at White Hart Lane station in North London.

We need to lick our wounds and take time to digest the lessons. However one thing is certain. We have reached a turning point in national politics: voting habits based on social class have ended for good.

I became active in politics as a teenager in my native city of Cardiff. Our family allegiance was firmly Labour and I was excited by the vision of the future that Harold Wilson offered – ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’. In Cardiff, like every provincial city, social class determined voting and housing was the most visible indicator. Posh Penylan and Llandaff voted Tory; the large council estates at the fringes of the city voted Labour. There were small enclaves of council housing in most of the wards and the assumption was that they would always produce Labour votes. Accordingly the practice was to knock up these houses on election evening to ensure that they voted; if you had the energy and resources you would have canvassed them previously to weed out the odd Conservative.

This practice worked in reverse. Over time our family circumstances improved and we became owner-occupiers living in a semi-detached house at the edge of the large Ely council estate. My father was in the front garden when a woman canvassing for the Conservatives called. Unusually for him he was polite and told her that he would be voting Labour. She responded with a snooty ‘What Labour? in a nice house like this’ causing him to explode. Ironically his class-based assumptions of politics were as strong as hers.

Before I went to help in London I participated in our Remain campaign here in North Norfolk. Together with my friend Mike Gates, the former Party Secretary, I delivered door to door in an area of social housing in the coastal town of Wells. He is well known and well liked locally so we encountered no hostility when delivering the Remain literature. It was easy work but I must now question whether our activity did any good – we may have helped to bring out the opposition. It now seems that it is ‘traditional Labour voters’ who have been the most hostile to the Party’s position. The divide has been between the wider outlook of the younger, better-educated, generation and those who lack confidence in a more international future. Times have indeed changed and so must the centre-left’s approach to politics.

 

Europe and the Labour Party: forty years on

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Political parties could not survive without undergoing periodic metamorphoses and the European Referendum seems to have triggered a new phase for Conservatives, Labour and Liberal-Democrats. Much of the newspaper coverage has been on the splits within the Conservative Party. However for me the most remarkable change is the one that has taken place within Labour. Now, it seems, we are the most pro-European in outlook and it is Labour supporters that will hopefully produce the votes needed to remain. I wonder if we are beginning to recover a long-forgotten internationalist tradition – albeit in a very different form.

Being of advanced years I well remember the 1975 European referendum. At that time the majority of Labour activists were hostile to continued entry and, worse still, managed to convince themselves that the majority in the country were behind them. As a pro-European the meetings of the local North Islington Labour Party were even more unpleasant than was usually the case. We were the subject of a deal of personal animosity.

To understand this hostility it is necessary to appreciate the prevailing assumptions that were held on economic and industrial policy by those in the active left. Two were of particular importance. The first was that the solution to all economic problems lay in extensive state ownership and directive economic planning. The second was a belief that the Soviet Union was relatively benign in it intentions and any defects could be attributed to the aggressive hostility of the United States. My father and his Marxist friends advanced the slogan ‘Common market No – United States of Socialist Europe Yes’. The Common Market was regarded as part of an international capitalist conspiracy.

Underlying this sort of fundamentalist simplicity was a confused view about the rest of this world and how it would develop. I well remember the time that Roy Jenkins came to Cardiff to deliver a lecture of European Union. One of the local Labour Party Councillors, who was well known for his eccentricity and unpredictability, asked the following question ‘What would happen if China applied to join the Common Market?’ This flummoxed the speaker who tried to deflect it and move on the next topic; however the questioner persisted and was told that what he asked was too hypothetical at this stage. Who knows, given the subsequent rise of China as an economic power, the Cardiff Councillor may have been showing remarkable prescience.

The 1975 referendum produced an overwhelming vote for continued entry. Sadly it marked the beginning of a time when the Labour Party turned in on itself and also lost touch with the electorate. Today the Labour Party is again losing touch. It would be nice if a successful referendum campaign marked a new beginning with a wider perspective on global politics emerging. We can but hope.

The generation game

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Opinion polls on Referendum voting intentions are producing an important message with practical implications. Those over 45 are inclined to vote for exit; those under 45 favour remain. Historically older people are more likely to vote than younger people so the challenge for those of us in ‘Remain’ is to maximize the youth vote. For this reason I shall be spending the last week of the campaign with one of my sons leafleting in North London rather than in my home patch in Norfolk.

Given the age profile of the population it will be tough going here. 32.0% of the North Norfolk electorate is 65 or over compared with 17.7% for the UK as a whole. This is apparent on the streets and in all forms of activity. So far I have seen no evidence of young people joining to reinvigorate the local Labour Party Indeed our local Momentum group (the organisation established to support Jeremy Corbyn) seems to be the Dad’s Army branch of the movement.

I will however miss the quirkiness of Norfolk politics during the final stages of the campaign. The county can always be relied upon to produce something to amuse – none more so than our local UKip activists who will form the hard core of Brexit locally. Following the elections of 2014 one elected UKip County Councillor resigned after admitting to shoplifting from Poundstretcher – the value store where ‘every penny counts’. More recently, a UKip candidate in the 2016 Norwich Council elections was reported to the Electoral Commission when a £5 voucher for his hairdressing business was delivered with his election literature. When interviewed on local radio the unfortunate man sounded bemused that it had become an issue. He is quoted as saying that he did not mean to ‘do anything sinister’.

Nationally this differential voting by age presents a challenge. My view is that those who have already determined to vote for exit will be difficult, if not impossible, to shift. They seem to be impervious to reasoned argument from subject experts. However Hilary Benn has come up with a good idea: to appeal to voters ‘as one grandparent to another’. ‘Ask your grandchildren’ could prove to be an effective way of shifting some votes. It would be sad to think that, on something as important as this, the future of the young would be determined by the prejudices of the old.

Braving the elements for Remain

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Nothing quite matches the charm of a North Norfolk seaside resort on a cold and rainy bank holiday.   We have our own microclimate here (the Humber shipping forecast is the best guide to the weather) and this often works to our disadvantage with sea frets that block out all sunshine. This year, on the bank holiday Sunday at the end of May, it seemed that everywhere in the country was bathed in warmth except the Norfolk coastline.

Despite the weather some twenty brave souls turned out at Cromer Pier as part of a Beach Parties for Europe event designed to underline the very positive effect that EU membership has in combatting pollution – clearly a problem that can only be addressed through international co-operation. It was a nice idea, and an important point to make, even if Remain for Nature t-shirts were worn over sweaters and in some cases anoraks.

This was an all-party event. Our Eastern Region Euro MP, Richard Howitt, was in attendance as well as a Conservative MEP, a sprinkling of Greens, and some euro-supporters of no firm party allegiance. As far as I could ascertain there was one LibDem present but no sign of the local LibDem MP Norman Lamb (see previous blog), despite the fact that his participation had been announced in our local daily paper, the Eastern Daily Press. Ironically, if he was trying to adopt a low profile, Cromer Pier on a rainy bank holiday Sunday would have been a perfect place to be – there were comparatively few passers-by and most of his constituents would have remained firmly indoors in the warm.

Also conspicuous by their absence were members of our local branch of Momentum – the ultra-left organisation established to protect Jeremy Corbyn’s position as leader of the Labour Party. They are displaying very little momentum, and certainly limited enthusiasm for the European cause. I wonder if the name they have chosen for their organisation is any longer appropriate. One of my all-time favourite misnomers was the group within the Church of England who styled themselves ‘Reform’. Their statement of principles included a recognition of ‘the unique value of women’s ministry in the local congregation but also the divine order of male headship’– code for keeping women in their place. Titles chosen by organisations can be most misleading.

Silence of the Lamb

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Something very unusual is happening in politics. All political parties are undergoing a transformation as a result of the European debate – and this has even penetrated to North Norfolk. Our Parliamentary Constituency, tucked away on the coast, is one of eight in the country represented by a Liberal Democrat. Norman Lamb first captured the seat in 2001 and has held it subsequently, with majority in 2015 of over 4043 over the Conservatives, greatly reduced from the 11626 he achieved in 2010. It is a now marginal seat.

Lamb won and held the seat by squeezing the Labour vote, however there is no good reason for someone who is left-of-centre to vote for him. In fairness he has been an affable individual – he tried an unsuccesful charm offensive on me when I first moved into the area. However much of his success can be attributed to a formidable professionally organised machine that can deliver the vote in both national and local elections.

This Liberal-Democrat machine has been conspicuously absent to date during the referendum. I have now placed a LabourIn poster in my window. I delayed putting it up as we are next door to our Church; we had a Village wedding last weekend and I did not want to cause offence to any wedding guests.   So far mine is the only poster from any party that I have seen. Our local Labour Party has been organizing regular stalls on Saturdays – the Lib Dems seemed to have undertaken no activities. Norman Lamb’s website gives no prominence to the European debate. It is not listed as a specific campaign he supports and there is just one statement tucked down the pages where he formally disputed some Leave campaign figures.

Now North Norfolk has one of the oldest electorates in the country and will, as a result, probably produce one of the highest percentage votes for exit. The LibDems, whatever their inconsistencies, have always been very pro-Europe. Indeed this was one of their defining characteristics and the reason they attracted the breakaway Social Democrats from the Labour Party. My guess is that our MP has decided to keep a very low profile and hopes that a favourable referendum result will be produced and we can all return to business as normal. If so he has gone down further in my estimation.