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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It’s all happening – except in North Norfolk

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Flocking to the polls in Sharrington Village Hall

There are times in your life when you have to admit that you were totally wrong. For me, as for many others, the 2017 General election will be one of them. There can be no question but that Jeremy Corbyn has proved to be an excellent campaigner: he achieved resonance with those who wanted to maintain the welfare state, and with those who found gross inequality offensive. Above all he inspired young people to register and to vote.   Uncertain times lie ahead but social democrats of an international perspective must remain in the Labour Party, bite their tongues, and wait to see how events unfold.

These last five years have indeed been depressing times and, although the result defied expectations, the fact remains that the Conservatives have won their third General Election in succession. Following the shattering June 2016 referendum result we are negotiating our way out of the European Union; worst of all, President Trump is bombastically and ignorantly striding the world stage.

Let’s therefore strike a positive note. British democracy works and works well. The electorate have an uncanny ability to get the result that they want: they refused to fall into line with Theresa May’s wishes and deliver support for a hard Brexit. Early analysis indicates that this election was the revenge of the remainers, particularly young remainers, including rich young remainers who live in Kensington.

Moreover there were two terrorist attacks during the course of the campaign but they had no effect on people’s willingness to cast their ballot. Turnout was up. There was no friction or aggression reported beyond an unseemly struggle between two photographers competing for a picture of the LibDem leader voting in Cumberland.

It was certainly a peaceful election here in North Norfolk where, in keeping with our local traditions, nothing happened. In fact the 2017 result for the main parties was almost exactly the same as the 2015 result. Despite incessant communications – both electronic and hard-copy – from retiring MP LibDem Norman Lamb that the result was too close to call he held on conformably with a majority of 3512, just over 500 down on last time.   Our energetic Labour candidate polled 5180, up just 137.

At some stage I will start re-attending local Party meetings, particularly if there is there is a groundswell of support for a soft Brexit, or even a second referendum. However for the time being I will allow the Corbynistas their moment of triumph – like Leicester City supporters they are entitled to it. This does not mean that I have much in common with them beyond voting Labour, and I will not donate any money in case it is spent on a celebratory charabanc outing.

 

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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

 

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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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