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.
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.
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.
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.
We’ve all seen it happen at wedding receptions. Someone nobody likes is going to make a speech; the speaker may well have an unfortunate history with the family but his position (divorced father?) makes his attendance obligatory. We hold our breath and hope that nothing will be said that will cause offence: everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief when this proves to be the case and we can all proceed to the next stage.
I was reminded of this on Saturday when I attended my first ever Progress Conference where Jeremy Corbyn had agreed to speak. For overseas readers Progress is an organization for moderate Labour Party members – widely castigated by others as a Blairite group. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Corbyn’s close ally, has described Progress as a ‘right-wing conservative’ group which had never accepted Corbyn as Labour leader. Certainly for my part I had joined Progress for that very reason.
All credit to Progress to getting Jeremy Corbyn to come. The conference organisers had trailed a surprise speaker and a surprise it was. And all credit to Jeremy Corbyn for coming. However what was he going to say?
My guess, talking with others before the event, is that we could have expected one of two things. The first, which would have been very tough to deliver, would have been an appeal for tolerance towards his leadership. The second would have been a statement on the critical importance of a Remain vote in the June referendum and the obligation on us all to put aside all differences and work for that result in the meantime. Clive Lewis, the Norwich South MP and a Corbyn support, had made just such a statement in a breakout session earlier in the day and it went down well
In fact Jeremy Corbyn did neither of these. He started with a quite a good joke – something he normally avoids. ‘It is my first time speaking here. In fact it’s the first time I’ve ever been invited to a Progress conference – you set a pretty high bar if you have to be elected leader of the party if you ever want to get invited here.’ He then delivered a rushed, and sometimes garbled, address covering topics where no-one in the room could disagree: human rights, protection of rights at work, refugees. He concluded by answering a number of questions – all were very soft with the exception of a tougher one on anti-semitism in the Labour Party.
Someone of the calibre of Neil Kinnock or Michael Foot would have grasped the opportunity and tried to influence the forward agenda in some way. As it was I felt that Jeremy was just pleased to get through without incident – like the speaker at the wedding who knows he is not liked by almost all those present.
It may have been a missed opportunity for him. The case for putting differences aside for the greater goal of Europe is most powerful and everyone is receptive. Two days before the Progress event I went to a most enjoyable Labour Party ‘Remain’ dinner in Tottenham where the Labour MP David Lammy articulated the case with considerable aplomb. His was the speech of the week that I will remember.
Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, is a maverick who can on occasions offer perceptive insights, but his choice of allies can reduce his effectiveness. In 2010 he was happy to accept an appointment from David Cameron to lead an independent review into poverty and life chances. Not surprisingly his loyalty to the Labour Party was called into question.
Field is a long-time Eurosceptic. In a speech on Tuesday he said that 40% of Labour supporters wanted to leave the EU but that their views were being ignored in favour of a pro-EU policy ‘designed to please a London metropolitan elite’. He called on Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn to listen to his working-class base, claiming that Labour voters who oppose the EU are likely to defect to Ukip. There is some truth in this perspective – however my view is that such voters have already gone and are unlikely to return. A couple of successive Saturday mornings on the Labour Party stall in North Norfolk towns have convinced me that this is the case. Most of those passing by are neutral or too busy to bother; some are pleased to receive our LabourIn material. However we certainly encounter the occasional burst of hostility from people who are just waiting for their opportunity to hold forth.
Sometimes these hostile passers-by begin by saying that they are former Labour voters and will never vote for the Party again. This is followed by a litany against immigrants, wealthy fat cats, young people who are idle, foreigners generally and often a combination of all four. Although I find this annoying I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing to be done. Such people are not amenable to reason. Arguing with them is as purposeless as complaining to the people who are spoiling my view at the Millennium Stadium by continually leaving their seats to buy beer or go to the toilet rather than watching the game; all you get in return is a load of abuse.
The real question Frank Field should be asking is how we can win back the thoughtful voters in Scotland who have ceased to identify with the Labour Party. This presents a hard challenge and will require a deal of new thinking and a different approach. His contribution is ill-advised and unhelpful and has taken us no further forward.
The day before Jeremy Corbyn delivered his major pronouncement on Europe, the North Norfolk Labour Party met to discuss our attitude to the referendum. I went to the meeting with some trepidation. As a consequence of the Labour leadership campaign we have acquired a vocal group who have defected from the Greens and, judging by some comments on our Party Facebook site, are mainly motivated by a nostalgia for the Labour party of the 1980s. I was expecting the ‘EU as a capitalist conspiracy’ arguments to resurface.
In fact I was pleasantly surprised. Our former Chairman made an extremely good job of presenting the case for remaining in the community, emphasising the peaceful transition that had taken place across the continent. He was followed by a member who had agreed to make the case for Brexit. In a curious address the individual concerned announced that he had now changed his mind. One of the former Greens rambled on about protecting the working class from the ravages of global capitalism, but no-one actually spoke for withdrawal.
There has been much newspaper discussion on whether Jeremy Corbyn’s espousal of the European cause is genuine or opportunistic. One suggestion is that he has been persuaded that he should not step too far out of line with his younger supporters, but he should not appear too enthusiastic for what his entourage regard as an institution of the established order. I don’t think that it matters. Politicians often say things that they don’t believe, but if they say it often enough they start to believe it – ask the LibDems. True, Jeremy is unlikely to participate much in the campaign. However he has never been able to persuade anyone of anything unless they agreed with him in the first place.
The referendum will not be won by persuasion through reasoned argument. It will be won by ensuring that our side (LabourIn for Britain) goes out and votes; this is especially true of the young voter. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn has come out in favour has removed one important barrier to making that happen. North Norfolk for once seems to be ahead of the game.