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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It’s more than tribal loyalty

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In May one of my LinkedIn Contacts was elected to a London Borough Council – as a Liberal Democrat.  I had always enjoyed a good professional relationship with him and sent him a congratulatory message.  He replied that he followed my blog, found it interesting (for which thanks), and continued: ‘I remain baffled that you actually want to have Corbyn in number 10 and (much worse) McDonnell in number 11!’ This is a fair point and deserves a response.

Let me start by saying there is much substance in what he says.  Alastair Campbell, Press Secretary in the Blair Government, speaking at the Progress Annual Conference (available on The New European website) described the 2017 General Election as a battle ‘between competing visions of the past. 70s v 50s, with little to match the sheer scale of challenge facing both the country and the world’.  He continued ‘frankly I am finding life and politics tough right now. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the winning side of arguments a lot of my life in politics. Today, whether on Brexit, Labour v Tory, or the direction of the Labour Party, or the spread of populism, it doesn’t feel like that any more.’ 

This all struck a chord with me, and I could also relate to the passage that followed: ‘I am also a very tribal person. Short of Putin and Assad leading a consortium to buy Burnley, for example, and installing Johnson as chairman and Rees-Mogg as manager, nothing will challenge my football tribalism’.  For me the side is Cardiff Blues which, like Labour Party membership, is part of my DNA.

However I recognise that the above paragraph does not offer much to those outside the Labour Party tent. Come inside and suffer alongside us is not a compelling argument.

Pointing to those who remain and are increasingly vocal offers a better argument.  Here I must applaud Neil Kinnock for his recent forthright interventions: writing in the Independent he warned that Jeremy Corbyn is about to commit a ‘serious evasion of duty’by refusing to back a plan to keep Britain in the single market.  David Miliband followed two days later by saying that the Labour Leader will ‘be the midwife of a hard Brexit that will harm Britain’s poorest unless he fights to stay in the single market.’  I am sure that these two interventions and others that will follow are co-ordinated and are building up to a crescendo at this September’s Labour Party Conference.

Neil Kinnock, who I knew from my South Wales days, and David Miliband, represent the two Labour different strands: working-class traditionalist and North London intellectual. Together these two strands shaped the party I joined.  While they are prepared to fight for the future within the party so, in a very modest and isolated way, am I.  Add in Yvette Cooper, David Lammy, Alison McGovern and Rachel Reeves and there is more than enough to make me continue to hope.  Indeed I am prepared to take another hiding as the candidate in Glaven Valley in the 2019 District Council elections. In 2015 I polled 78 votes. I do not expect any improvement: the return of Labour to mainstream politics will not start until Brexit is well behind us.

 

 

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It’s all much clearer; it isn’t

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There is a growing feeling that Brexit is inevitable, but is it? A vote in the Scottish Parliament to deny consent to the Withdrawal Bill and shifting opinion in Northern Ireland are the latest indications of potential opposition.  In October or November this year the Government will present the final Brexit deal to Parliament.  In the intervening period the insoluble problem of the Irish border may generate a crisis: Theresa May is dependent on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party for her political survival and the Irish Government appears to have maintained the support of the other EU member states.  If, however, there is no political explosion over the Irish border it will come down to the autumn Parliamentary vote on the negotiated deal. There is no majority in Parliament (or anywhere else in the country) for a hard Brexit; there is no majority on the Conservative benches for any form of customs union (whatever the term used to describe it). In short it is a right mess. So what is to be done?

What matters is the Parliamentary arithmetic and the position Jeremy Corbyn takes when his preferred policy of strategic ambiguity has run its course.  There is something that can be done here.  A new campaign #LabourSay has been launched to demand a meaningful debate vote at this autumn’s Labour Party Conference; this takes place a month before the Parliamentary vote.  It will be hard for those who oppose this move to summon credible arguments against it. ‘Leave it to Jeremy and the front bench team’ runs counter to their demands for greater democracy and power to the membership.

One piece of good news is that attitudes have changed in Northern Ireland as the failure to provide a solution to the border problem and the consequences of that failure are becoming more apparent.   Survey research shows 69% would vote Remain if there was another referendum compared to the 56% who voted Remain in June 2016 * .  It would of course be of enormous benefit if there were a significant shift of public opinion in favour of Remain in the rest of the UK. Sadly the local election results of 3rd May produced no indication that this is yet taking place – despite the mounting evidence of the economic damage that withdrawal would cause. The most perceptive comment that I have recently encountered comes from the broadcaster Robert Peston’s 2017 book: ‘There is no point lecturing the British people they have made a mistake in going for Brexit.  They will either decide that for themselves, in a spontaneous awakening led by someone or some people a million miles form the current class of leaders – or they won’t’. **

However we must not give up; what is at stake is too important. I resumed my activism so I could tell my grandchildren that I did my best to give them the opportunity of living in an open, tolerant country at peace with its position in the global community.  The battle will not be won in this remote part of Eastern England but we should all do our bit wherever we are. I am pretty confident the MP for my constituency, LibDem Norman Lamb, will vote the right way when it comes to the push. I shall be presenting my paper, the Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk, at a forthcoming meeting organised by the local Labour Party.  Kate Gott the driving force behind Norfolk4Europe has a mailing list of over 200 names and will be sending a coach from Norwich to the People’s vote march on 23rdJune.

* http://ukandeu.ac.uk/people-in-northern-ireland-want-the-uk-to-stay-in-the-customs-union-and-single-market-new-research-on-public-attitudes-reveals/

**Peston, R., (2017) WTF, Hodder & Stoughton, page 252

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Only delivery produces results

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Everyone of progressive views will have been moved by the recent tributes to the late Dame Tessa Jowell.  She was a politician who was respected across the political spectrum; she was highly regarded by her staff, amongst whom was Jessica Asato – the excellent candidate in Norwich North in 2015.  I recall meeting Tessa briefly when she a came to a fund-raising dinner for Jess shortly before the election.

Although I was a contemporary of Tessa Jowell in the London Labour Party of the 1980s I knew her only by reputation.  She was a Councillor in Camden and I was active in Islington. Camden generally maintained a good reputation for delivery; Islington, where Jeremy Corbyn was our MP, did not. However these were tough times for moderate activists in both boroughs with a factional war between left and right. A lot of people’s politics were shaped by their experiences of the time and, according to some of the obituaries, at one meeting where Tessa Jowell backed moves to set a rate, protestors threw chicken livers at her.  Whatever the reasons, she was one of the early of the Labour modernisers and firm supporter of New Labour and Tony Blair.  For her delivery mattered.

While at the Department of Health she introduced Sure Start, a scheme to improve childcare.  Her main achievement however was to secure the 2012 Olympics for London.  For me this will be remembered as a family occasion: my grandson went to his first sporting event, handball, in a sling carried by his parents.   More importantly, as I’ve said in an earlier blog, our country was at its best during the London Olympics.  We delivered a challenging event with remarkable efficiency, made many thousands welcome, and shared the experience with the world

In many local Labour Parties, my own North Norfolk included, Blairite has now become a term of abuse. Some of those who are so ready to use it in this way might pause and consider wherever the current generation of leaders will leave a legacy that begins to compare with that of Dame Tessa Jowell.  If we are going to change people’s lives for the better it is delivery, not speeches and rallies, that matter.

This is leftyoldman’s 200thblog – a tribute to perseverance if not judgement.

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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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A shameful episode in Labour’s history

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This column was written on 29th March, a year to the day before the UK ends its membership of the European Union and enters a transition period. Ideally I would be out with the local Labour Party handing out leaflets in Cromer demanding a fresh referendum. I doubt if it would do much good up here but it’s a sunny day and a nice place to be.

Instead I was obliged to undertake two activities that I sincerely wished had not been necessary. The first was to send an email to a valued family friend in New York to say how ashamed I was about the outbursts of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The second was to undertake an interview for BBC Look East expressing my view on how such incidents had arisen and the way that they had been handled.

For overseas readers the facts are these. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn has issued an apology for declaring support for those opposing the removal of a mural, unquestionably anti-Semitic in tone, in London’s East End. Secondly, Christine Shawcross, who Corbyn’s supporters had made Chair of Labour’s Disputes Committee, was obliged to resign. She had sought the reinstatement of a local council candidate who had circulated material which denied the holocaust. These facts are not in dispute and we have witnessed an entirely understandable reaction from leading Jewish organisations, and many others from all sections of the community who support them.

Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly emphasised that he is not personally anti-Semitic and will not tolerate such views. What I said to Look East was that we should take him at this word. The charges against him and his leadership are different. First he has always been injudicious in his choice of allies and in the company he keeps. I was an active member of his local party in Islington for many years and know that be especially true on the politics of Ireland and the Middle East. Secondly there was an unwillingness on the part of both Jeremy and Christine Shawcross to investigate and research the detail before pronouncing; an aversion to detail is a characteristic of the extreme left with their preference for a slogan that you can put on a coffee mug or a t-shirt. Thirdly Jeremy Corbyn himself was slow to recognise the extent of the problem and even slower to act up on it.

So there we have it. At this time, more than any other, the Labour Party should be looking outwards and offering hope for the future by making common cause with European social democrats. Instead all the focus of the last few days has been on limiting the damage – a terrible reflection on the style and quality of current leadership. I was able, in my BBC interview, to offer one slight ray of hope for the future. There are many members of the Labour Party who feel like this and we do not intend to leave, however ashamed we feel. We will stay in and fight for the values of the party we joined.

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It’s been a long time coming, but it’s welcome

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It gives me a deal of pleasure to be able to resume my weekly blog on a positive note. At long last there has been some shift in the Labour leader’s position. Now we are in favour of continued customs union membership. To quote from his Coventry speech:

“Labour would seek a final deal that gives full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union… with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections.”

No one should underestimate the extent of the shift and the opportunity that this provides for avoiding the Brexit catastrophe. Well done to all those who, over time, persuaded Jeremy Corbyn to shift his position.

I can’t include myself in that number, although at one time I knew him moderately well. I was a very active Labour Party member in Corbyn’s North Islington from the mid-70s to 1987 and did not hold him in high regard – I am sure that this feeling was reciprocated. In fact my Islington period covered the year when Corbyn was alleged to have consorted with a secret agent from the Czech republic. The idea that, at that time, anybody would have told him anything that mattered and that he would then have remembered it is absurd. However, in fairness, he has developed skills since becoming leader and is now pointing in the right direction.

The next challenge is to get him off the hook that the referendum vote must be treated as a considered and definitive decision that cannot be reversed – whatever the subsequent facts that have come to be light. In the course of a New European podcast published as recently as February 23rd , just three days before the Coventry speech, he was asked if Labour’s position on Brexit was shifting. He replied: “What we have said is that we accept the result of the referendum. We are leaving the European Union… We can’t be members of the single market because we won’t be members of the European Union”. *

The EU negotiators will not allow us to cherry-pick (or, as the Spanish apparently call it, sherry-pick) in this way. Signing up to everything that matters while pretending you are leaving may get the Labour Party through the next two years but it is not a strategy for Government.   Sooner or later political leaders must tell the electorate that they got it wrong. However let’s be thankful for some progress after a dreadful 2017.

*Listen on http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-labour-1-5406396

 

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