Raring to go? Our NNLP selection conference

On Sunday afternoon I attended the North Norfolk Labour Party hustings called to choose our Parliamentary Candidate to fight the (ever forthcoming) General Election.   I set off on the 40-minute drive from Sharrington village to North Walsham with a heavy heart.  Our local Labour Party is still in the hands of true believers in the Corbyn project and most mainstream members have left or simply stopped attending meetings.

My mood was not improved when the person sitting on my right at the selection meeting audibly proclaimed: ‘at last we have some candidates worth voting for, which is more than I have been able to say for the last fifty years’.  Sitting on my left was Mike Gates, a fine individual, who had been our candidate in 2001.

Despite this unpromising start, I have to say that I returned from the meeting somewhat heartened.  The event was well organised with 26 members in attendance and, to my surprise, we had two capable, even commendable, candidates.  Moreover, on reflection, the meeting led me to adopt a more positive perspective on the future of the Labour Party –  though goodness knows the short-term prospects are dismal.

Let’s start with the candidates.  Both women lived in Norfolk; both presented themselves well, and were highly articulate.   They had professional backgrounds and were now juggling the demands of a family with political activism.   Both currently held leadership roles in minority Labour groups on local councils and made their experiences the main focus of their opening address: how cuts in Government funding were having a catastrophic effect on specific local services.  Neither mentioned the national issues that are undermining Labour’s electoral prospects: incoherent ambivalence on Brexit; a woefully inadequate leader; a party riven by factionalism.   Jeremy Corbyn was first mentioned by name in a question forty minutes into the process and Europe first mentioned in the one that preceded it.  The Party’s attitude on antisemitism was not mentioned at all.

Whether these omissions were deliberate tactical decisions by the two contenders or just instinct on their part is beside the point.  It made me aware of two things.  First,  we would be better off without a national campaign.  Secondly, either of the two women offered the best that we could expect under current circumstances.   Someone with hard local government experience will play well on the doorstep, and hold up a declining Labour vote that will be under a great deal of pressure in a critical LibDem-Conservative marginal. Certainly, the winning candidate, Emma Corlett, (see the North Norfolk Labour Party  Facebook website https://www.facebook.com/northnorfolk/ for details), will make mincemeat of the lack-lustre opponents chosen by the main contenders.  I wish her well.

Having said that, it would be nice if I could wholeheartedly cheer on my political side: Jeremy Corbyn’s limitations, his shameful behaviour on antisemitism, and the ‘constructive ambiguity’ on Europe make that difficult.  From a narrow Labour Party point of view the sooner the election is over and he goes the better.  However, there is one side that retains my unqualified support. On that same Sunday a gallant, injury-ravaged, Welsh team played their hearts out and contested to the end, but were narrowly beaten by a South African side that simply had a better pool of players.  I will happily rise to my feet in the Principality Stadium when the Welsh team take the field in the home international championship this spring.  I am proud of that red jersey.  Sadly, I doubt if, in the foreseeable future, I will see either Wales win the World Cup or another Labour Government in power.

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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Celebrations in 1959 as Edwin Gooch holds North Norfolk

 

A depressing doorstep encounter in Wells-next-the-sea

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Three distinct events took place on Wednesday 30thApril; separately and together they caused me to reflect on the uphill task faced by those of us who are mainstream Labour members and are staying in the Party. It is not looking good in the short-term.

The first occurred in the morning in the attractive coastal town of Wells-next-the–sea.   My good friend Mike Gates was standing for the District Council.  His political perspective is similar to mine; we have been Labour activists for many years and have seen it all before.  Mike had previously represented Wells on the North Norfolk District Council and was guardedly optimistic about his prospects this time round.  Neither the LibDem nor the Tory Candidate lived in the town and Mike was well known locally; he had recently retired as the local postman.  Sadly, like all North Norfolk Labour candidates, he was unsuccessful when the poll took place the following day.  I will comment on the local results in more detail in my next blog.

I spent a morning delivering leaflets for him in a large estate that had been built as council housing but was now the usual mix of owner-occupancy and social housing.  Mike had warned me to expect apathetic indifference and occasional downright hostility towards politics and politicians.

I should know better than to indulge in arguments on the doorstep.  The standard advice, if someone disagrees with you, is to move on as quickly as possible. However as I grow older I am getting (even) more intolerant and more irritable. I handed a leaflet to an elderly man watering his garden.  When he found out it was Labour he rudely told me to clear off; I moved on to the next door but foolishly responded, rather than ignored, his shout of ‘let me ask you one question?’  Inevitably it was about Brexit.

There followed a wholly purposeless dialogue.  He began by grumbling about the money we were paying to bureaucrats; I said it was all about securing 21stcentury jobs for our grandchildren.  There was not the slightest prospect of any common ground. My lasting impression however was how strongly he felt: with some justification he believed he has been let down by a political process that promised but failed to deliver.  He was desperate to tell someone, even someone he despised.  Suggesting that he had been on the receiving end of a wholly dishonest leave campaign – he had been lied to – would have had no effect.  I am sure that such conversations are being repeated up and down the country.

That same afternoon the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee announced its manifesto position for the European Elections of May 23rd.  It is one that, despite my long-standing membership, I would find impossible to defend on the doorstep. It has been comprehensively analysed in the newspapers but, for the benefit of overseas readers, it maintains the fiction that there is  ‘Labour’s alternative plan’which could deliver Brexit and honour the referendum result. In this way “Labour is the only party which represents both people who leave and remain.  We are working to bring the country together after the chaos and crisis created by the Tories” (to quote from a Party spokesperson).

Stuff and nonsense.  There is a hard choice to be made here – in or out of the EU.  There is no way I and the man I encountered on the doorstep in Wells can be brought together until this whole debacle over the EU is resolved; if it results in a UK exit the fractious debate will rumble on for the next decade.  David Cameron caused the problem but Jeremy Corbyn and his entourage have exacerbated it through such dishonest opportunism.

Given this, the final depressing event of a miserable day came as no surprise. I received an email from a young man in his early thirties who I first met when I transferred my Labour Party membership from London to North Norfolk.   He was brought up in the nearby town of Holt and is an individual of considerable capability and immense promise.  He wrote: “I’m afraid I’ve resigned from the party, today’s manifesto fudge was too much … I’m not joining any other party, but I’m not sure I can stomach voting for the pro-Brexit manifesto in the European elections”.

This is all very sad, especially in the centenary year of the foundation of the North Norfolk Labour Party.  Can we rebuild and if so how?  My pal Mike Gates remembers the 1980s and thinks we can and will. History will repeat itself. I hope he’s right, but at this stage I cannot bring myself to share his optimism.

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.

Strange goings-on in North Norfolk

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After two decades of settled life in North Norfolk I’ve learned to accept that we can sometimes be a little out of step here.   Even so the recent behaviour of our local Labour Party has been odd by any standards.

Anyone who reads this blog will need no reminding of the gravity of the situation we are facing nationally.  The last two weeks have witnessed the biggest constitutional crisis of my lifetime – and as a leftyoldman I am well into my 70s.  On Tuesday March 12thMPs voted overwhelmingly to reject the PM’s Brexit deal for a second time; on Wednesday ‘no deal’ was narrowly defeated; on Thursday a motion to extend the Brexit process was passed.  This week we have seen the Speaker’s intervention and the Cabinet decision to seek a Brexit delay. Quite correctly the Brexit debacle is dominating political debate.

Not, it appears, as far as the North Norfolk Labour Party is concerned.  They have other priorities.

Late on the evening of Wednesday 13th (the day that ‘no deal’ was rejected) I received notification and the agenda for the monthly members meeting of the North Norfolk Labour Party; this meeting takes place tomorrow.  The centrepiece of the evening is to be a motion on antisemitism to be proposed by ‘a Member of the Executive’ – name unspecified.  A briefing note, transparently cut and pasted from another document, stated “This CLP wishes to express its pride in the way that Jeremy Corbyn, Jennie Formby and other members of the NEC have acted in establishing a process able to deal fairly with antisemitism complaints”. The motion itself read “This CLP applauds the efforts of the LP leadership under Jeremy Corbyn to weed out and deal with antisemitic behaviour appropriately”.  The whole communication continued at length over 300 words in a similar unctuous style.

Apart from the curious timing, there are two points to be made here.  The first concerns the internal contradiction in this bizarre communication: on the one hand it denies that there is any problem; on the other it congratulates the leadership for sorting the problem out.  Secondly, those of a more sophisticated intelligence may reflect that if the problem had been dealt with correctly in the first place we wouldn’t need to discuss it all at this stage.

Accordingly I decided it was time to overcome my torpor. Together with my friend the excellent Mayor of Cromer I wrote to all the Executive Committee (who apparently had passed the resolution unanimously) arguing:“Articulation of this motion in this way, and at this time, is a travesty bordering on the ridiculous.  It will make the NNLP a laughing stock  – immediately ahead of the District Council elections”.  I also encouraged other members to communicate their concern.  I was pleased to receive support; it is spring equinox so perhaps new growth is emerging.  I discovered, for example, that our last two Parliamentary Candidates had expressed similar concerns.

The Executive themselves are oblivious and have seemingly become more entrenched and united.  One of Corbyn’s achievements, perhaps the only lasting one, will be to unite the Trotskyists and Communists and thus end the Bolshevik schism. [i]  I have received various warnings, including one from the Chair, reminding me that I must ensure that I destroy any contact details of members that I held when I was Treasurer.  Quite how he intends to enforce this I have no idea and, I suspect, neither does he.  However, using procedures to cut down dissidents is a standard hard-left tactic.

Sadly none of us on our side of the divide have the inclination to attend the meeting; for my part I will be going to London for the Peoples-Vote march – the political issue of our time.   I am sure the resolution will pass; if not I will add a codicil to this blog. Enough of the handful of people (now generally dropped into the high teens) who attend North Norfolk Labour Party Meetings at present have a desperate need to reinforce their own ideological certainty. Passing such a silly motion will have no effect beyond making the local party seem irrelevant and ridiculous.

[i]I am indebted to ‘The Progressive’ writing in Progress Magazine for this quip.  I wish I had thought of it first.

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.

Letting down a generation

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Evidence of the harmful impact of Brexit mounts by the day. The UK car industry will be particularly damaged: on February 3rd Nissan announced that it would now build its X-Trail car in Japan rather than Sunderland.

In an excellent recent New Statesman article, Jonathan Powell, Chief of Staff under Tony Blair, argued ”The Prime Minister and many of her colleagues knew they were doing something that would do great harm to the country but did not dare stop it for fear of being unseated by the extremists in their own party”.[i]  In her defence nobody, and that includes the Prime Minister herself, fully realised how much harm would be done; the electorate were seduced by dishonest Brexiteers who pretended it would be easy to forge new trade deals.   Nissan has demonstrated the fallacy of that assumption, which, amongst other things, disregards the complexity of supply chains in high value manufacturing and precision engineering.

Here I have some professional interest.  I spent my career in management education and training and, in the latter part, specialised in skills development and apprenticeships. In November 2013 I was asked to give evidence to the Select Committee of the House of Lords Inquiry into EU (European Union) action to tackle youth unemployment.  I presented a case study of a success story. It related to a factory based in Llanelli, South Wales. Part of the German owned Schaeffler Group, the factory employed 220 people producing high specification bearings for motor engines. It was an exemplary organisation and to quote one of my published articles:

“The company faced increasing competition from low labour cost countries as group production capacity was placed in Eastern Europe (Slovakia and Romania) where wages are a fraction of those in the UK.  The company responded by developing the capability to deliver higher value added products. There was a planned focus on continuous improvement, cost reduction and, as an integral component of the process, a sustained attempt to up-skill the workforce”.

On reading of the Nissan decision I plucked up courage to update my knowledge of the Llanelli factory and was saddened, but not surprised, to find the following headline in a 6th November article in WalesOnline: 220 jobs axed with closure of Llanelli auto parts plant due to ‘Brexit uncertainty’. A link to the article is set out below.

 

https://www.walesonline.co.uk/business/business-news/live-updates-250-jobs-axed-15377458

This is a tragedy.  The plant was established in 1957 and offered high quality apprenticeships in an area of high unemployment and limited opportunities.  It was, together with an Indian IT consultancy based in Bangalore, the best managed organisation I encountered in over twenty years researching the subject.

From a comfortable retirement base in North Norfolk I feel very angry.  Not just about the dishonesty of Brexit – the charade of ‘we’ll make Britain great again’ – but about the dismal performance of the national leadership of the party that I joined in South Wales fifty years ago.  Local Labour representatives in Llanelli, including the excellent MP Nia Griffith, are doing their best; Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes wouldn’t began to understand what a supply chain is and are in hiding in the hope that a catastrophe will propel them to power.  That is a heavy price for a generation of school-leavers to pay: it is easy to destroy opportunities; it takes ages to rebuild.  Once factories like Schaeffler Llanelli have gone they are gone for good, taking the quality jobs with them.

So I make no apologies for, in a very modest way, continuing the fight. Following my previous blog in which I drew attention to problems here in North Norfolk, I received a reprimand from the current Chair of the local Labour Party.   He is the fourth person to occupy this position in the four years since Momentum took control and the third in succession to try to tell me off for the contents of my blog. He wrote:  “even though we may disagree on Labour policy issues we are all members of that broad socialist church”.  While the Labour leader behaves in this way, and unscrupulously avoids engaging in the major question of the day, I have no intention of joining Mr. Corbyn and his acolytes where they choose to worship.  I will carry on writing as I please.

[i]Jonathan Powell, The rise and fall of Britain’s political class, New Statesman, 30th January 2019

Ina

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.

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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