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.

 

leftyoldman will now take a break and resume blogging when he has something worthwhile to say. If you would like to receive email notification of the next blog when it appears, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

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Ending exploitation is not the same as creating opportunity

Over the last five years, as an economist specialising in skills development, I devoted much of my energy to the problem of the so-called NEETS (young people not in education, employment or training). In a series of publications I argued that, unless there are radical changes in approach, the chronic problem of youth unemployment will continue to damage the life prospects of our children and grandchildren*. Tackling NEETs must be seen as a central problem – not a consequence of other policy aims. I concluded that more flexible labour markets and better information do not offer a solution.

The gravity of the underlying problem has subsequently been brought home to me by a retirement project undertaken by my wife and myself. We are both mentoring six students each at the local Fakenham Academy. They are fine young men and women who exhibit the hopes and aspirations and display the strengths and weaknesses of every generation of 16 and 17 year olds. However the economy is changing. For those who want to go to university the path is clearer, and for some this is a convenient way of postponing decisions about career choice. For a young North Norfolk student wanting to enter the world of work, however, the prospects are bleak. If the Fakenham Academy postcode is put into the Government’s ‘Find an Apprenticeship’ tool, with a specification of ‘science’ and ‘any level’ the nearest identified opportunity is 59.4 miles away, and the second 84.2. The message is clear: either move (with the prospect of struggling to manage on relatively low pay) or lower your aspirations.

Now there are some features of the Labour Party manifesto that are relevant and should be welcomed: the increase in the minimum wage and the ban on unpaid internships and zero hour contracts, for example. However the manifesto is vague and uncertain on the changing economy. It talks of the need ‘to create new, high-skilled, high-paid and secure work across the country’ but implies that this can be done through skills investment in the education system (known as the discredited ‘stockpile of skills’ argument) and indicative planning. It can’t.

In this area, at least, Labour’s manifesto is far from radical. There is an absence of an overall philosophy embedded in an understanding of the modern service-led and knowledge-driven economy; the manifesto could have been written in 1975. Friday the 21st April, as this current campaign was beginning, was the first day since the industrial revolution when electricity in the UK was generated without burning any coal. Three weeks later, on Friday 12th May, we witnessed the cyber attack on NHS systems. These events underline the way that the economy is changing and the need for seeing economic and social problems in a new light. We need a new holistic and less piecemeal approach to worklessness amongst young people. To borrow a phrase I learned at the Institute for Adult Learning, Singapore, we need to ‘recalibrate’ the process whereby 16-20 year olds enter the world of work. This is what being radical really means.

 

* See ‘A Black Paper on NEETs and Apprenticeships’ available as a free download at http://martynsloman.co.uk/Black%20Paper%20NEETS%20and%20apprenticeships%20September.pdf

 

leftyoldman will continue to offer some reflections on the election campaign and the future of the social-democratic left. To receive email notification of the next blog when it appears, press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

Meet the alpacas

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Old habits die hard. Despite my misgivings over the national party leadership, I have placed a Labour poster in my window and decided I had to do something. So, here in North Norfolk, I began by delivering some Labour Party leaflets on a social housing estate in the nearby coastal town of Wells-next-the-Sea. Any visitor who arrives there with small children when the tide is out will discover that the town’s name is a misnomer; they can face a long walk for a paddle in the sea, but it has a lovely beach.

As the weather was fine, and I was working with an old friend Mike Gates, a former postman and party secretary, it was a most pleasant experience. I was delighted to see that the introductory leaflet extolled the local efforts of our Parliamentary Candidate and avoided any mention of Jeremy Corbyn or his front bench entourage. It may be that some disputes are taking place behind the scenes locally: the North Norfolk Labour Party website has oscillated from ‘Sign up to become … part of Jeremy Corbyn’s new politics’ to ‘Sign up to become … part of our new politics’ back to ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s new politics’ within the space of a month. It is vaguely reminiscent of the old battles in the Soviet presidium and doubtless there will be some recriminations after the election.

During our session at Wells we had one cheerful exchange with a former colleague of Mike’s who was delivering the post. We also encountered a group of alpacas that were being escorted round the estate by some tourists (or holiday-makers as we call them in Norfolk). However we had no feedback at all from any member of the electorate. Given this, I gathered no direct insights to explain reported movements in the opinion polls. For overseas readers, there appears to have been a gradual but perceptible upward movement in Labour’s percentage – nowhere near enough to make any difference to the final outcome – but otherwise no shifts in the relative positions of the parties.

We are coming towards the end of a very long campaign, interrupted by the terrible event in Manchester.  It is hard to judge how this will effect the electorate’s view of the parties and their performance, although hopefully it will underline a commitment to the democratic process,  Let me, however,  offer some tentative analysis and suggest some conclusions. The main surprise of the election to date has been the complete failure of the LibDems to make any progress. They have branded themselves as the only unequivocal pro-European Community party. Rightly or wrongly, however, the electorate is displaying no enthusiasm for a rematch on this issue – they feel that the referendum resolved the question for the time being.  Immediately before the atrocity of Manchester the Conservatives were delivering a poor campaign: Theresa May is not at her best at the hustings and made a mess of her party’s position on social care, thus undermining her reputation for stodgy competence. By contrast an election plays to Jeremy Corbyn’s strengths – he is an old-fashioned market-place orator who loves a rally. It doesn’t matter what he says, as no-one believes he will be in a position to deliver anything

Perhaps more importantly large swathes of the electorate believe that the election is unnecessary and will punish Theresa May by denying her the overwhelming majority she desires. If this analysis is correct there will be a low poll as people display a lack of enthusiasm for any option.  Overall the election will take us no further forward – a depressing conclusion for social democrats.

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Digital marketing is fine, but I didn’t vote for Steffan

Analysis of the votes recorded in the County Council elections confirms what we already suspected: North Norfolk is a highly marginal LibDem/Conservative seat. On May 4th the LibDems polled 43% of the votes cast and the Conservatives 38%. We will get a lot of media attention here and can get used to having a microphone stuck in our faces when we go for fish and chips in Cromer.

The big surprise was the collapse in the UKip vote, down to just over 5%. They have now announced that they will not field a candidate next month and the assumption is that their vote will mainly go to the Conservatives. Similarly the Greens will not be standing here at the General Election. In the May County elections Labour polled marginally under 10% and we will be a major target as the LibDems try to persuade those of left of centre views to vote tactically.

The LibDems have an impressive, well-oiled machine and I was not surprised to receive two personalised e-mails, as well as the normal leaflets, from them during the local elections. One e-mail arrived the day before polling. It was from my MP, Norman Lamb, saying that “The Liberal Democrat candidate for Melton Constable Division is Steffan Aquarone and I am backing him to win. I hope you will be able to support him”.  The second, which arrived mid-day polling day, was from Steffan himself telling me that “The result in Melton Constable could be close today and I’ll need your help to win!” The rest of both the texts was predictably banal but it is always nice to make new friends and to receive such personal attention.

Despite these pleas I didn’t vote for Steffan Aquarone, and for two reasons. First, I will never vote LibDem (see my earlier blog Why I won’t vote for Norman http://wp.me/p5dTrr-eQ) . Secondly I could not have voted for him even if I wanted to do so; Sharrington, the village where I live, lies in the Wells division not Melton Constable.

In short, we have a Customer Relationship Management database cock-up. A friend, who is a leading authority on the subject, said that this sort of error is ‘understandable, common, but not good’. That could nicely sum up the Norfolk LibDems. I bear Steffan Aquarone no ill-will and would not normally have drawn attention to his mistake. However, I note that on his website he claims to have ‘spoken around the world on innovation, entrepreneurship and digital marketing’. Oh dear.

 

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My memories of Rhodri Morgan

This week we heard the sad news that Rhodri Morgan, the former Labour First Minister of Wales, died at the age of 77. There have been many deserved tributes for his service, both in the Welsh assembly, where he headed coalition governments, and as Member of Parliament for Cardiff West. I feel a particular loss since Rhodri, with his friend and flatmate at the time, Neil Kinnock, were prominent amongst many generous people in Cardiff who encouraged and supported my nascent teenage interest in politics. Reflecting on these times makes me realise how positive we all felt about Labour politics in the late 1960s.

Rhodri was seven years older than me and had completed his Harvard Masters before returning to Cardiff. I first met him when we were campaigning in the 1964 General Election; I was a somewhat awkward sixth former at Cardiff High School a grammar school that had pretensions and social aspirations. Instead of playing local secondary schools at rugby our headmaster aspired to build up a fixture lists with public schools; prefects were called ‘sir’. I rebelled, wholly ineffectually, against this environment and found great solace in the local Labour Party.

It is easy to forget just how pervasive class prejudice was in provincial cities at that time and what a political motivator it was for those who held left-of–centre politics. The dominant figure in Conservative politics in Cardiff was the late Wilf Wooller. He was an outstanding athlete, winning 18 caps for Wales at rugby, and becoming the dominant force in Glamorgan cricket successively as Captain, Secretary and President. Wooller was instrumental in appointing a wholly unsuitable gentleman amateur and former Cambridge Blue, A.C. Burnett to captain the county – unfortunately Burnett did not know much about field positions and his period in charge was mercifully short.   Not content, Wooller then arranged for Ted Dexter, another Cambridge Blue (although in fairness an excellent cricketer) to contest the Cardiff South-East constituency at the 1964 general election. Jin Callaghan was defending a majority of under 900.

Wooller doubtless believed that Dexter would be a suitable a role model and an inspiration for us ordinary folks – someone for us to look up to. Unfortunately Dexter had no political skills and displayed limited ability on the platform. I did not witness them myself but he was reported as delivering the following statements at various hustings meetings: the electorate should “consider sending their sons to Eton, on the grounds that it didn’t only qualify children for careers in politics and merchant banking, but that he personally knew several Old Etonians who had gone on to be racing correspondents and bookmakers” and “Labour-voting households could be identified by their ‘grubby lace curtains and unwashed milk bottles on the doorstep’”*. Equally importantly, Dexter had no knowledge of Cardiff nor desire to acquire such knowledge. During the campaign he was publicly humiliated and wholly destroyed at an election meeting when he was subjected to forensic questioning on council spending from one of our rising stars – Rhodri Morgan. It came as no surprise to any of us when Rhodri want on to greater things.

Campaigning in the 1964 election remains one of the happiest memories of my lifetime. Rhodri and Neil Kinnock were generous young men who were to make immense contributions and leave lasting legacies.

* See https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jun/22/the-spin-ted-dexter-politics-eu-referendum-cric

 

 

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The wheels come off in North Norfolk

Given the timing it was inevitable that the council elections held on May 4th would be regarded as a foreshadow of the June General Election. These May elections offered a large-scale national opinion poll that could endlessly be analysed for local implications. Nationally the Labour vote held up just about well enough for those infatuated with Jeremy Corbyn to claim that ‘with a vigorous campaign we can make up the deficit over the next few weeks’ – but nowhere near well enough for any sane person to believe him. Predictably the County Council results in North Norfolk were poor. Taking the full ten seats across the Constituency Labour polled just under 10% of the votes cast – down by a third from the 15% recorded in the last County elections which were held in 2013.

No amount of cheery optimism can disguise the fact that the Labour Party is likely to be facing the worst result in the lifetime of every member and supporter under the age of 80. To their credit the local Labour Party here fielded a full slate of ten candidates in the May County Council elections. In some of these county seats there was a deal of organised election activity. In our best prospect we had an excellent candidate who had fought this seat, where he lived, on several occasions: in 2013 he lost by 38 votes; this time he came third, more than 200 behind the winning LibDem . It is very sad, as he would have made a fine councillor.

Recently the New Statesman published an excellent analysis of the Corbyn phenomenon by a Leicester University academic and commentator, Daniel Allington http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/june2017/2017/04/jeremy-corbyn-has-attracted-socialism-fans-not-labour-voters

Although the article is not always the easiest of reads, and certainly offers no comfort to those of who seek changes in society rather than mere protests, it contains some impressive insights. The one that struck me is the idea that the Labour Party has been the subject of a successful hostile take-over, to borrow a business analogy. Executing a takeover is one thing, making a success of the business that has been acquired is quite another. All the indications are that no-one wants to buy the new product – whatever the extent of the activity on the doorstep and in social media. Indeed, we are now learning that explosions and expletives in social media rarely translate into worthwhile practical support.

It is some small comfort to me that, whereas in April the North Norfolk Labour Party website invited people to sign up and “become part of Jeremy Corbyn’s new politics”, in May it had been softened to “become part of our new politics”. Alas, at this stage, I can’t see that this subtle but important distinction will have any effect.

leftyoldman will be blogging regularly through the election campaign. To receive email notification of the next blog when it appears, press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

Diane and her detractors miss the point

Mid-week media coverage of Labour’s campaign was dominated by discussion of an appalling performance by the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott. In a radio interview she stuttered and hesitated while presenting contradictory and, at times, ludicrously inaccurate figures on the costs involved in deploying 10000 extra police officers – thus ruining the impact of a commitment that could have had some immediate attractiveness. For overseas readers the interview can be accessed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-39775693

I was surprised. I knew Diane Abbott in my days of activism in the London Labour Party of the early 1980s. She was hardly in tune with my brand of Labour politics and proved to be an aggressive infighter in the factional battles of the time. Subsequently she attracted a deal of flak for sending her son to a fee-paying school – after being prominent in an earlier criticism of another MP’s decision to send her child to a selective (but not fee-paying) grammar. I was therefore disappointed when the North Norfolk Labour Party nominated her for the Party Leadership in 2010.

Nevertheless I always considered Diane Abbott to be able and intelligent. She can hardly claim inexperience: Cambridge educated, she has been in Parliament since 1987 and is a frequent performer on TV and radio. In her interview she displayed a complete lack of professionalism at a time when it really mattered and let herself and the Labour Party down. Inevitably she has been pilloried in what she would regard as a hostile press who have seized on her confession that she ‘misspoke’ when questioned in the LBC radio broadcast on 2nd May.

There are however some more fundamental points to be made on what has been described as a car crash interview. The first is that electoral prospects are heavily dependent on giving the impression of competence – particularly in Labour’s case economic competence. The party therefore needs to demonstrate that proposals are costed and that there is a clear identification of the impact of the various initiatives, rather than a bland assertion that all will come out of increased capital gains tax, corporation tax and dealing with tax avoidance.

The second point is more subtle: if Labour is to win back support from the voters who have defected in recent years it must show that it is the party of the future and not the past. Putting more bobbies on the beat may be an attractive sound-bite but the nature of crime is changing and new methods of detection and prevention are needed. Cybercrime is an obvious example. Current TV crime series always show detectives in front of computers, not uniformed police walking the streets. It further appears that Labour’s proposals, when they subsequently published a clarification, ignored the costs of training and equipment (estimated by the BBC at £130 million). As a former professional training manager nothing used to infuriate me more than the idea that such costs can be absorbed ‘in existing budgets’.

All in all a wasted opportunity. A poor effort and best forgotten.

leftyoldman will be blogging regularly through the election campaign. To receive email notification of the next blog when it appears, press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.