Dear Jennie Formby – my welcome letter

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My inbox often contains unexpected communications: on Monday I received two bizarre emails from the Labour Party.

My guess both is that both were sent as a result of repeated public complaints that many members, particularly those who joined recently, have not received ballot papers for the leadership election. However, I responded immediately to these two most friendly overtures; it would be impolite to do otherwise.  Below is the reply I sent to the General Secretary:

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Dear Jennie Formby

It is always a pleasure to hear from the central administration of the Labour Party and I was delighted, if a little surprised, to be the recipient of two emails on 10th March.

The first, which arrived just before four p.m. from the Regional Office, was a most pleasant welcome to the party (we are delighted to have you as part of our movement).  The second, two hours later, was sent by the National Party (reply to Jeremy Corbyn) and began: Now you’ve had a chance to settle in, we would love to know more about what motivated you to become a member of the Labour Party.

For the record I joined the Party in Cardiff on my sixteenth birthday, fifty-seven years ago, and have remained in continuous and unbroken membership since then.  This, I may add, contrasts with many of the controlling clique in the North Norfolk Labour Party (NNLP), some of whom have displayed the political consistency of the figures in an Alpine Weather House*. In fact, June 18th this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first time that I stood for office as a Labour Candidate (in the 1970 General Election).  Turning to the question asked in the second email, I joined because I believed in the promotion of social justice, the elimination of poverty, and the protection of the less able.  These values have stayed with me throughout, but, over time, I have come to realise that delivery is more important than slogans and rhetoric. This last is a view that has dropped out of fashion in the Corbyn era.

It is evident that both the emails I received were intended for new members rather than the old guard.  Could I ask you to investigate what has happened? To assist, could I offer two possible explanations.

You will be aware that central Labour Party Departments have acquired the reputation for tardy action – this has been particularly pronounced in the appalling way that a backlog of complaints over antisemitism has been allowed to accumulate.  Could it be that, under our current leadership, a decision has been made to write a welcome all members and the process has now reached those who joined in 1962?

A second and more likely explanation concerns the well-publicised fact that significant numbers of new members have not received ballot papers for the leadership.  Given this, as a result of over-enthusiasm or ineptitude, someone in the database team either chose to play safe or simply pressed the wrong button and a sent a ‘new member’ email to a batch of long-standing members.  I cannot believe that I alone have been selected for this treatment, and I know that at least one other NNLP member has erroneously received these emails.

Whatever the explanation, it does not reflect well on the Labour Party as an organisation.  Looking forward I can only take comfort in the fact that Keir Starmer for five years led a high-profile organisation, the Crown Prosecution Service, where this sort of cock-up would not be tolerated and the circumstances that led to such a mistake thoroughly investigated.

I hope that you will agree that I am right to draw this matter to your attention and wish you well.

*In an Alpine Weather House, male and female figures ride on a balance bar, which is suspended by a piece of catgut or hair. The action swings one figure or the other out of the house depending on the humidity

 

Leftyoldman is taking a break from regular blogging until the shape of left of centre politics becomes clearer – though, as on this occasion, I will continue to make the odd incursion when I have something to say. If you would like to receive email notification of future leftyoldman blogs, please press the ‘follow leftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above.  

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A fine contribution from Norfolk from the next generation

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My inbox on Valentine’s Day, February 14th contained one of the most interesting communications that I’ve received for some time: although not of a romantic nature, it made me think a lot.   A young, rising star in our North Norfolk Labour Party, Jasper Haywood, has produced a fine dissertation for his Master’s thesis at the University of East Anglia. Entitled Betrayal in the Labour Party: irrelevant divisions and silent debates it brought home to me the extent of the problem that will face Keir Starmer, who, if the bookies are right (and they are seldom wrong), is about to be enthroned as our Next Labour Party leader.

Over my years of activism, I’ve come to recognise that, to succeed, the Labour Party needs to maintain a balance between a balance between an ideological Marxist influenced left and a pragmatic social-democratic right.  Both factions have a great deal to contribute: the left always demonstrate great commitment and can generate enthusiasm, particularly amongst younger members: the right will ask the hard questions involved in delivery, something that is essential if the party is to be seen as a credible electoral force.

Relationships between those two broad factions have now become toxic.  Mutual respect has disappeared and trust broken down.  In our local Labour Party, our ruling clique seems to be motivated mainly by a hostility to Blair and his government, particularly over Iraq.  For my part I feel resentful that they saddled us with the most ineffectual party leader seen in post war Britain, and moreover one who through indifference and incompetence failed to deal with the emergence of antisemitism.  This is something that will return to haunt us

Jasper, having interviewed 34 Labour members in the North Norfolk and Norwich North constituencies, underlines how this lack of trust and mutual respect has affected the Labour Party leadership election. To quote:

Evidently, decisions over leadership have less to do with the likelihood of winning power for the party, and more to do with who can establish power within the party. The outcome of this is that party engages in a perpetual disagreement over its aims, and results in a tyranny of the majority. In essence, changes of leadership are a reaction against the past, not a response to the future.

And

the process of changing leader becomes an opportunity to enact retribution, impelled by lack a trust and dictated by an overwhelming sense of betrayal. When combined, the party’s contestation of its aims and the centrality of retribution to membership consolidate the disparate ideological views into a core diametric. Ultimately, this limits the extent of alternative policy narratives.

Jasper has generously allowed me to include a condensed version of his thesis on this blog as a downloadable word file.  If this analysis is correct it is scarcely surprising that, in policy terms, the last thing Keir Starmer would wish to do is to alienate people who, if the party settles down, he would much prefer to have on board.  He would recognise, more than anyone else, the extent of current mutual hostility and the huge difficulty in overcoming it.

Despite its depressing tone, Jasper’s paper was a welcome Valentine’s day present.  It certainly served to underline the extent of the challenge that we all face.  There is precious little desire for unity, however much the leadership candidates call for it; it will certainly be a very long time before love is in the air.  As a Welshman, I’d look for guidance to our equivalent St. Dwynwen – the Welsh St. Valentine – whose day is celebrated falls on January 25th.  Dwynwen fell in love with a local boy called Maelon, but her father had already arranged for her to marry another prince. Maelon took the news badly, so the distraught Dwynwen fled to the woods to weep, and begged God to help her. She was visited by an angel who gave her a sweet potion to help her forget Maelon, which turned him into a block of ice. Dwynwen then became a nun.

This cheery tale seems to reflect the mood I am encountering on the future of the Party, but to support Keir Starmer, who may well prove to be the outstanding leader we so desperately need, I will on hang on in and continue to attend meetings.

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I will now take a break from regular blogging until the shape of left of centre politics becomes clearer – though I may make the occasional incursion if I have something to say. If you would like to receive email notification of future leftyoldman when publication resumes, please press the ‘follow leftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above.  

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79996 to go – Labour’s Green Opportunity

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This last week was National Apprenticeship Week 2020: an annual celebration designed to “bring the whole apprenticeship community together to celebrate the impact of apprenticeships on individuals, employers and the economy”.  I doubt if many people noticed that this national celebration was taking place. For my part, rather than donning a party hat, I was concentrating of my role as mentor at our local state comprehensive school.  Each year my wife and I offer support to a selected small group of Year 12 (17-year old) students.

We enjoy our work at the School.  We have developed a deal of respect for the professionalism and commitment of the staff and find the energy and optimism, albeit sometimes misplaced, of the students refreshing. My generation of baby-boomers needs to recognise how lucky we were to enter a workforce with a booming employment market and we need to understand how much tougher things are today.

Reflecting on my practical experience at the school and building on my earlier professional experience writing and lecturing in this field, has reinforced two firm conclusions. Both have important political implications as we begin the long and tortuous process of rebuilding the Labour Party’s credibility.  The first is that we should focus less on the needs of the 50% of the population who are heading for University and more on the 50% who are not going on Higher Education.  It is the latter who face challenging life opportunities.  The abolition of all student fees might be a vote winner but it is hardly good socialism to invite a less privileged section of the population to subsidise a more privileged section. My second conclusion, underlined by the empty propaganda of National Apprenticeship Week, is that apprenticeships lost their traditional meaning some time ago, and that far more honest reporting and less hype is needed.

No government has been able to deliver their propaganda targets for apprenticeships, and the current situation is dire.  In, what was for them, a remarkable intervention in the free market, Theresa May’s government introduced an apprenticeship levy on employers in April 2017. It has failed. According to a recent research report* much of the levy has been spent on jobs “offering minimal training and low wages” or on “rebadging” jobs already offered by employers as apprenticeships.  Indeed, the report goes so far as to describe 50% of apprenticeship courses introduced since 2017 as “fake”, saying they do not “relate to helping young people get started in a skilled job or occupation”.

It is a sad reflection on the Labour Party that this debacle did not feature prominently in the December 2019 General Election, but let’s turn to something that did: The Green New Deal.  This idea is a central plank of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign and she claims credit for its authorship. The Green New Deal appeals to all factions of the Labour Party and beyond to uncommitted voters – particularly young people.  It is an idea whose time has come.

Given this, it is essential that The Green New Deal is well-grounded and credible.  It cannot be mere aspiration: if we are to regain the electorate’s confidence, we must show that we are capable of delivering what we promise.  We have a long time to get things right and I make no apology for asking some hard questions now.

In a speech delivered to the Confederation of British Industries Conference in November 2019, Jeremy Corbyn introduced the idea of climate apprenticeships:  “Under the plans, businesses will benefit from an average of 80,000 people per year being trained as apprentice engineers and technicians in renewable energy and transport, civil engineers and skilled tradespeople in sustainable construction, designers, welders and fabricators in low carbon industries, and sustainable agriculture and forestry specialists.”.  The 80,000 annual figure was translated into a commitment to deliver 320,000 such apprenticeship in the first term of office and has been repeatedly used in all discussions on The Green New Deal. This idea is attractive and seductive.  It is also totally unrealistic.

To return to an earlier point, we must be honest in our promises, particularly those that affect young people.  Let me go back to one aspect of my work at the local Sixth Form.  For those mentees who are not contemplating University I make use of the official Government ‘Find an apprenticeship’ online tool**.  Out of curiosity I fed in ‘climate apprenticeships’ into the search engine.  It produced four responses across the whole of England, one of which was bogus as the tool had picked up the phrase ‘a positive working climate’ in a logistics firm.

Now I know I am being unfair: neither Jeremy not Rebecca Long-Bailey had the opportunity to put their scheme into practice.  I do however question how much serious thought has gone into the delivery of climate apprenticeship, or even if anyone has worked out what it actually means.  Accordingly, I have endeavoured to contact anyone and everyone to ask how the figure of 80,000 was derived and who derived it.  I have had no replies on this and must reluctantly conclude that it was plucked out of the air to give Jeremy a chance for a headline.  If so, this was quite unscrupulous.  We are going to have to do much better going forward.

 

* The report Runaway Training was published January 2020 by the think tank EDSK:   see https://www.edsk.org/publications/runaway-training/ and https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-50973579

**https://www.findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk/apprenticeshipsearch

 

leftyoldman blogs will continue to appear as the Labour leadership election progresses.  If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘follow leftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above.

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So now we know

For the period of the election I produced no blogs and no tweets: this reflected some old family advice.  My mother always said if you can’t say anything nice, it’s best to say nothing at all – though she rarely followed her own guidance.  My father, a Labour and trade union activist, taught me that if you didn’t like the way the election was organised you should remain silent until the results were in and have your say afterwards.

It is therefore some relief to be able to ease my built-up tension and express my opinion.  Labour’s leader was a disgrace; the campaign wholly ineffective; the manifesto misdirected and undeliverable.  There was a huge appetite for a plausible, credible left of centre party capable of tackling the poverty experienced by the underclass, addressing growing inequalities of income and opportunity, and rebuilding public sector provision.   What we offered the electorate instead was old-fashioned class rhetoric and mass rallies.  Ironically all the fulmination against elites and billionaires resulted in many in those old mining areas that I knew so well voting in support of an old Etonian.  We could hardly have done worse.

I would not wish to finish this diatribe without saying a word on the manifesto.  Generally, this seemed to be based on a  belief that any problem can be solved by throwing money at it.  There was no thought whatsoever about what is involved in the delivery of services, for example on productivity in the public sector.  Meaningless slogans and soundbites were on offer – a ‘National Education Service’ was the most obvious.  The electorate were all too aware of the underlying problems but they had lost all trust in the party to deliver any solution.

Nevertheless, I voted Labour and I am glad that I did.  It will make me feel more comfortable as I make my contribution, however modest, towards building this credible centre-left party of the future.  The failure,  pre-election, of alternative new parties, together with the poor electorate performance of the LibDems, means that this must come from the ashes of the Labour Party.  Expect a sustained battle between the Corbynistas and a sensible candidate in the mainstream tradition.  I hope that this mainstream candidate will have the courage to offer an uncompromising rejection of the politics of class war and residual Marxism.

So, it looks as though  I will have to start attending meeting on a regular basis.  For the record we had, in the context of the night, a reasonable result in North Norfolk.  The Tories gained the seat from the LibDems with a comfortable majority, but Labour held their deposit with 3895 votes (7.7% of the total cast).  We had a good candidate, but the local party, firmly in hands of ageing Corbynistas was incapable of delivering an effective campaign.

We shall see what emerges locally in the battle for the soul of the Labour Party.  I will resume blogging in the new year when I have something to report.

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leftyoldman blogs will reappear in the new year.  If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above.

 

I’ve be told to send it, but I didn’t mean it

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Our political process is in a terrible state.  Reasoned argument is losing out to emotional, often aggressive, behaviour.  There are childish and petty displays by those in a position of power who cannot get their own way.  Our Prime Minister has set this tone and, seemingly, made it acceptable.  Parliament instructs him to send a letter requesting an extension to the Brexit process; the Courts stand ready to enforce it.  A Conservative Prime Minister responds by sending the letter but refusing to sign it.  A stroppy teenager could behave in this way, but hopefully would grow out of it.

Let me offer another political example of stroppy teenage-like behaviour, this time at a local level.  Our North Norfolk Party is firmly in the hand of a small group who are Corbyn loyalists.  Notoriously and incredibly, in March this year, they passed a resolution which stated: “This CLP applauds the efforts of the LP leadership under Jeremy Corbyn to weed out and deal with antisemitic behaviour appropriately”.[1] The reaction from anyone I have told about this is to laugh.  However, I do care and it prompted me to go along to meetings and to get stuck in again.

I have tried to rally mainstream Labour opinion locally by writing and circulating short papers: for example, I prepared evidence on this particular bit of local lunacy to the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry into antisemitism.  The initial response of the North Norfolk party leadership was to try to supress my dissent by warning me that, if I continue to communicate in this way, I could fall foul of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This is, of course, nonsense.  I therefore sent round a separate missive on these GDPR requirements.  In return I received an email from one member of the Executive (who I will not embarrass by naming), copied to all the others, that said: I have absolutely no wish to receive any more of what I regard as spam mail from Sloman. What action is needed to stop this unfortunate from ignoring Labour Party rules?

Unfortunate is a bit unpleasant – I consider myself to have been very fortunate in life.  Accordingly, I put in a complaint and was told that I would receive an apology from the person concerned. I can do no better than reproduce an extract:

 

Dear Comrade
Massive apologies for the unfortunate e-mail you were inadvertently copied into. It would never be my intention to cause such distress to a comrade in arms at this moment of great peril….. What I meant to say was ‘unfortunate matters’ i.e. this infernal unsolicited e-mail affair. I would never regard you as an unfortunate – how could I? And then I referred to you as ‘Sloman’! Again how could I? I can only assume that I was in a rush and had no idea that you’d object so to being referred to by your surname and that I would then become the target of your official complaint partly because of missing that all important pre-fix ‘Mr’. I can see how you might even interpret that as disrespectful but absolutely no disrespect was ever intended. How could I ever disrespect you? …

Sincerely yours – a Comrade in arms

When Neil Kinnock was fighting to save the Labour Party in the 1980s he referred to travelling long distances to meetings and then being on the receiving end of ‘carefully studied insolence’.  I know exactly what he meant.

I continue to attend our local meetings and have noticed a softening of attitude.  I was even asked to serve as auditor –  a measure of desperation rather than a recognition of anything I could offer to the party.  It is far too late to pretend that the cry for a kinder, gentler politics ever meant anything at all.  It has been a rough period for mainstream Labour activists.

 

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.

[1] See an earlier blog ‘Strange goings-on in North Norfolk

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How ugly can it get?

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Bendigeidfran the giant acting as a bridge

 

We are just weeks away from a General Election.  It is likely to be a thoroughly unpleasant experience with the two leaders of our major parties willing to use arguments and language that appeal to the worst side of human behaviour.  It is as if, at a tense derby football game, the competing managers stood in front of their group of supporting fans and led them in the most hostile and aggressive set of chants.  No-one would wish to take their family to such an event.

The two party leaders behave in different ways but both can threaten civilised democratic discourse.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes concerted attacks on elites: apparently defined as anyone who is professionally successful and who takes a more informed and measured view of the country’s future.  As an Eton educated Prime Minister his populist views apparently exclude him from any charge of elitism.  Jeremy Corbyn has a different style. He is unrelentingly courteous in Parliament but shrugs his shoulders at the excesses of behaviour from his supporters at local levels.  Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are most comfortable when whipping up the faithful at rallies.  Neither are thoughtful politicians – let alone coalition builders.

All in all, it is not looking good.  Whatever the result of the election, I hope that one consequence will be the subsequent emergence of a concerted campaign to restore the best traditions of our democracy and the need to conduct elections in a civilised fashion.  This involves treating your opponents with respect.

Nostalgia is not always productive but I look back almost half a century to the first election where I stood as a candidate.  In 1970, as a twenty-three-year-old I was the Labour Candidate in the safe Tory seat of Leominster, a huge chunk of rural Herefordshire.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  The nearest I encountered to overt hostility was when a young farmer and his mate deliberately revved up their tractor engines to drown out my loudspeaker speech.  This gave me useful headlines in the local paper.

Moreover, I can recall being treated with the utmost courtesy by the local committee of the National Farmers’ Union when asked to address them “It’s clearly no good asking you questions in detail so we can do no more than thank you for coming”.  One incident in particular will stay in my memory.  At a public meeting in the market town of Ledbury the local Conservative Chairman, a retired military gentleman turned up and asked a question about reform of the taxation system.   I did not agree with his premise but, fresh from an economics degree, offered him a considered reply.  At the end of the meeting the gentleman concerned stood up and said, that on behalf of those present, he would like to wish the young candidate every success in his endeavours in life.   It was only later that I fully appreciated the generosity of this gesture.

I doubt if incidents of this type will feature in the forthcoming General Election.  One can just hope that nasty chanting, egg and milkshake throwing and the drowning of legitimate interventions from working journalists will be kept to a minimum.  Set against this, there is no way that Internet abuse and threats can be controlled.

By tolerating these assaults on democracy, we have lost something important.  However, if enough people desire it, tolerance could eventually prevail.   There are sufficient people from the traditional mainstream in both parties who would like to see this happen but it requires leadership willing to reach out and include rather than reinforcing prejudices.

There is old Welsh proverb, taken from the folk stories known as the Mabinogi: “A fo ben, bid bont” translated as “He would be a leader, let him be a bridge” (or “bear the load).  Bendigeidfran the giant laid down across a river to let his forces walk across his body when on a mission to rescue the maiden in distress.

I doubt if Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn will behave like Bendigeidfran the giant but they could begin by trying to keep their more extreme supporters under control.

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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From the 1970 General Election

 

Time to speak: a hashtag for Jeremy

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Given the maelstrom that is the current political scene there is a surprising consensus on the way that events could unfold.  This is because the position and ambitions of our Prime Minister are so transparent.

For Boris Johnson, like his opposite number across the Atlantic, ego dominates and reputation is all.  What matters is what appears or can be said to happen, not what actually happens. He has staked his reputation on delivering Brexit on October 31st.  If it doesn’t take place as predicted it will be everybody else’s fault  – the EU, the Irish Government, unsupportive MPs.  That will set him up nicely for a people vs. parliament General Election that will be the nastiest any living person has ever witnessed.

Many parliamentarians on all sides of the House are endeavouring to prevent this dreadful scenario from taking place.  They are determined to do all in their power to prevent both a head-on attack on the principles of representative democracy and the consequent delivery of an economic disaster.   Some of them, for example Philip Hammond, Dominic Grieve and Justin Greening from the Conservative side, have already displayed great courage.  We can be sure that there is a huge amount of organising and planning taking place across the party divide in advance of the resumption of Parliament on September 21st.  However, there is nothing that we ordinary voters can do to assist them beyond demonstrating our strength of feeling and wishing them well.

It is the Labour Party that concerns me.  It would: I have been a member for over 50 years.  The continued ambiguity of the Party’s position is a cause of distress.  Alan Johnson, an Education Minister under Tony Blair and someone who would have made an excellent leader himself today, described Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Europe as a total disaster. “He’s not a leader. He’s never going to be a leader, never wanted to be a leader, and is totally uncomfortable in his role of leader”.

Whatever one’s opinion on Alan Johnson’s scathing judgement, it would be a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyns’ potential contribution to overturning Brexit.  His ability to motivate and inspire his younger supporters was much in evidence during the 2017 General Election, though sadly absent in the Referendum that took place in the previous year.  We need him, first, to stop equivocating and to offer the clear message of Remain.  Every recent national and local poll has demonstrated that this is a political necessity if the Party is to offer a serious challenge in a future General Election.  Jeremy Corbyn still enjoys a following and we need him in play to mobilise his supporters and we need him in play now. It is no good to waiting until late September after Labour Party Conference.  Moreover the mechanism exists, through the Momentum network, to mobilise pressure, should he choose, through social networking.

In an article, published in the New European in February 2018, I wrote, “Future generations will be amazed at our lack of action and the total impotence that so many progressives feel today…. I will learn from the success of the Corbyn campaign and use social media to promulgate my position and my concerns.”I went on to establish a twitter account @eugrandparents.

Eighteen months on I still feel isolated and impotent in my North Norfolk retreat but more than ever believe that we should all do what we can. Accordingly I have established, and will be promoting a new hashtag #jeremyMIAJeremy missing in action’ – to see if we can embarrass him to do his bit before it is too late.

A version of this article has appeared on The New European website

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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