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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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.