Sir Norman bows out

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One thing that has certainly changed over my fifty years of political involvement has been the level of respect for Members of Parliament. Looking back, it is amazing how much esteem they were once shown, seemingly irrespective of their work-rate or their personality.  When I was seeking Parliamentary nominations in the 1970s and 80s it was not uncommon to be told by activists that they were looking for someone who was as much as possible like their retiring member – even when the individual concerned was well-known to be both idle and ineffectual.

What was behind this was the celebrity effect.   If a celebrity behaves graciously towards them, some people go weak at the knees.  This is most obviously at work with the Royal Family.  Recently I heard a woman on a crowded train ringing a family member to tell them, excitedly, that Princes Anne had waved to her from a car!  Whatever next! Similarly, in the past, if an MP wrote a nice letter of thanks or congratulations, and even better remembered the names of someone’s family members, that would be sufficient to earn him or her the reputation as a good constituency member with immense charisma.

This sort of respect for Parliamentary authority has now eroded.  Many of the zealots of the ultra-right who have captured their local Conservative Party, and the those of the ultra-left who have captured the Labour Party, are driven by a contempt for what they regard as ‘the elite’.  Such mentality has always led to distasteful behaviour: Neil Kinnock, when he was trying to save the Labour Party from Trotskyists recalled going to meetings only to receive ‘carefully studied insolence’. Now this is unremittingly delivered through social media.

It is one thing for this to take place within the confines of a political party – serves us right for being activists and attending unpleasant meetings. It is quite another for a disenchantment with politicians to lead to a rejection of the principles of representative democracy. Many, possibly most, MPs do a good job, and this cuts across the party spectrum.

I am writing this blog on a day when our Prime Minister is apparently seeking to bypass Parliament to enforce a political change which will be disruptive in the short term and damaging in the long term.  He is willing to lie to achieve his objectives. This same day our local MP, Sir Norman Lamb, has announced his retirement from Parliament; he has represented North Norfolk as a LibDem since he gained the seat from the Conservatives in 2001.  I would like to use this column to pay him some tribute and wish him the best for the future.

Norman Lamb has always run a most effective constituency office. Any letter was immediately acknowledged and any serious issue investigated.  His practice was to send legitimate complaints to the relevant Government Department, public or private body, and forward the reply to the constituent. He would often add a short hand-written note offering to take the matter further if requested.  Moreover, he was always ready to receive a delegation and listen to them – even when he knew that he would not agree.  In the days of the Cameron-Clegg coalition I organised a group of University academics to publish a statement on the dearth of local opportunities for 16-18-year-olds.  Norman Lamb was the only MP in our county willing to receive the delegation.

Before my local comrades get irate, let me state that, in my twenty years here, I have never voted for Norman Lamb, though many Labour supporters (and indeed members) will have done so in this most marginal seat. I have frequently and publicly disagreed with him.  This does not mean that I am unable to wish him well.  It is far too easy to be negative.  Those of us who believe in the Parliamentary system, and in representative democracy, need to say so before it is overtaken by an ugly tide of populism. Norman Lamb has been an assiduous and effective MP, albeit holding different views on many issues to the ones that I embrace.

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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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Is social media the answer in Norfolk?

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It is rare for North Norfolk to feature on the national news but the LibDem’s capture of the District Council on May 2nd made the following day’s headlines. The apolitical but energetic LibDems won 30 seats; the antediluvian Tories took 6; some nondescript others 4.  For the Labour Party the results were dismal: in 2015 we polled 14.9% of the vote; this time round we polled 6.4%.  The highest percentage Labour vote, at 27.8%, was achieved by my friend Mike Gates in Wells (see previous blog).  The highest number of votes recorded by anyone with Labour persuasions was the 238 achieved in Gresham by a promising young party member; however, he ran without party affiliation and is now the subject of disciplinary action.  Not a good day for the Labour Party locally.

Inevitably analysis of the overall national results has concentrated on the implications for the Euro-elections and the future of Brexit.  Much of it has focused on the drift away from Labour amongst leave voters in the industrial north and amongst remain voters in the south.  Now, while North Norfolk is typical of nowhere but itself, dig deeper and we can offer some insights about the nature of left politics in the internet age and about the state of the Labour Party

As I have observed in previous blogs, as a corollary of Jeremy Corbyn’s barnstorming leadership election campaigns, North Norfolk Labour Party underwent a hostile takeover by Momentum.  The previous Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, introduced a scheme to allow affiliated members and £3 supporters to join full members in voting in leadership contests.  Vote they did.  Most voted by internet but a local hustings meeting in Cromer took on the atmosphere of a 19th revivalist gathering; it was packed with Corbyn supporters who had played no part in the Party previously nor were to do so subsequently.  Numbers on the books increased from 175 to over 600: we were told that the local Party was going ‘from strength to strength’. The subsequent small print gave a rather different picture.  To quote from the annual report ‘the challenge has been to activate the new membership in campaigning and participation in meetings’.

Too true.  For the first time since I arrived here Labour failed to find enough people to stand for election.  We did not field candidates in three of the North Norfolk seats including the market town of Holt.[i]

I cannot entirely blame our Momentum controlled local Party Executive, although their adolescent infatuation with Jeremy Corbyn undoubtedly led to a number of mainstream members, including myself, deciding not to stand this time; others ran against the Party as independents. There is, however, a more fundamental problem at issue.  The nature of political involvement has changed and will continue to change with the emergence of social networking.

Our local campaign, such that it was, seemed to place a deal of emphasis on a succession of posts, featuring individual candidates and some local issues, on the North Norfolk Labour Party Facebook site.  They were well produced and, to the Executive’s credit, regularly updated.  I doubt, however, if any uncertain voter accessed the site or anybody’s vote was changed as a result of the content.  This is simply the disciples talking amongst themselves: it is not where the effort should be placed if you are fighting an election.

Further, few of the newer members participated in the campaign. Certainly for the younger recruits it seems to be all about demonstrating commitment on-line: the political equivalent of the Bay City Rollers phenomenon. Here I am showing my age. The Bay City Rollers were a Scottish rock band who achieved worldwide teen idol popularity in the 1970s. Musically the band broke no new ground and had little lasting influence, but their fans were able to declare their identity by adopting a distinctive style of dress; this featured calf-length tartan trousers and tartan scarves.  Today Corbyn disciples declare their loyalty not through their style of dress but by decorating their Facebook sites with pictures of their idol. There is, as a consequence, a huge and growing gulf between those who profess support on-line and those who control events in the Party structure locally and nationally.

In an earlier blog, “ Strange goings-on in North Norfolk”, I drew attention to the bizarre decision of the North Norfolk Labour Party to devote much of its last pre-election meeting to a motion that began “This CLP applauds the efforts of the LP leadership under Jeremy Corbyn to weed out and deal with antisemitic behaviour appropriately”.  Just over a month later, in the middle of the election campaign, a news item appeared prominently in the North Norfolk News with the heading ‘Labour defends council candidate following anti-Israel Facebook posts’. The item can be accessed using the link below (the typo in the link is a mistake by the publisher).

https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/politics/allegations-of-anti-semetism-jean-thirtle-1-6008101?

Given the wider context of the shameful antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party it would be hard to construct a more damaging headline.  As the much-despised but extraordinarily perceptive Tony Blair put it: “The trouble with people from that tradition of the left is that they combine a huge degree of commitment with intolerance and misunderstanding about the nature of people and their relation to politics”. [ii]

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.

[i]There is a boundary anomaly in the County.  The District Council boundary is not contiguous with the North Norfolk Parliamentary boundary.  There was a similar lack of candidates in District Council seats that fell in the Broadland Parliamentary Constituency

[ii]This quotation is taken from Kogan, D., Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party, Bloomsbury Reader, (2019), p. 37.

A depressing doorstep encounter in Wells-next-the-sea

mike gates 1

Three distinct events took place on Wednesday 30thApril; separately and together they caused me to reflect on the uphill task faced by those of us who are mainstream Labour members and are staying in the Party. It is not looking good in the short-term.

The first occurred in the morning in the attractive coastal town of Wells-next-the–sea.   My good friend Mike Gates was standing for the District Council.  His political perspective is similar to mine; we have been Labour activists for many years and have seen it all before.  Mike had previously represented Wells on the North Norfolk District Council and was guardedly optimistic about his prospects this time round.  Neither the LibDem nor the Tory Candidate lived in the town and Mike was well known locally; he had recently retired as the local postman.  Sadly, like all North Norfolk Labour candidates, he was unsuccessful when the poll took place the following day.  I will comment on the local results in more detail in my next blog.

I spent a morning delivering leaflets for him in a large estate that had been built as council housing but was now the usual mix of owner-occupancy and social housing.  Mike had warned me to expect apathetic indifference and occasional downright hostility towards politics and politicians.

I should know better than to indulge in arguments on the doorstep.  The standard advice, if someone disagrees with you, is to move on as quickly as possible. However as I grow older I am getting (even) more intolerant and more irritable. I handed a leaflet to an elderly man watering his garden.  When he found out it was Labour he rudely told me to clear off; I moved on to the next door but foolishly responded, rather than ignored, his shout of ‘let me ask you one question?’  Inevitably it was about Brexit.

There followed a wholly purposeless dialogue.  He began by grumbling about the money we were paying to bureaucrats; I said it was all about securing 21stcentury jobs for our grandchildren.  There was not the slightest prospect of any common ground. My lasting impression however was how strongly he felt: with some justification he believed he has been let down by a political process that promised but failed to deliver.  He was desperate to tell someone, even someone he despised.  Suggesting that he had been on the receiving end of a wholly dishonest leave campaign – he had been lied to – would have had no effect.  I am sure that such conversations are being repeated up and down the country.

That same afternoon the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee announced its manifesto position for the European Elections of May 23rd.  It is one that, despite my long-standing membership, I would find impossible to defend on the doorstep. It has been comprehensively analysed in the newspapers but, for the benefit of overseas readers, it maintains the fiction that there is  ‘Labour’s alternative plan’which could deliver Brexit and honour the referendum result. In this way “Labour is the only party which represents both people who leave and remain.  We are working to bring the country together after the chaos and crisis created by the Tories” (to quote from a Party spokesperson).

Stuff and nonsense.  There is a hard choice to be made here – in or out of the EU.  There is no way I and the man I encountered on the doorstep in Wells can be brought together until this whole debacle over the EU is resolved; if it results in a UK exit the fractious debate will rumble on for the next decade.  David Cameron caused the problem but Jeremy Corbyn and his entourage have exacerbated it through such dishonest opportunism.

Given this, the final depressing event of a miserable day came as no surprise. I received an email from a young man in his early thirties who I first met when I transferred my Labour Party membership from London to North Norfolk.   He was brought up in the nearby town of Holt and is an individual of considerable capability and immense promise.  He wrote: “I’m afraid I’ve resigned from the party, today’s manifesto fudge was too much … I’m not joining any other party, but I’m not sure I can stomach voting for the pro-Brexit manifesto in the European elections”.

This is all very sad, especially in the centenary year of the foundation of the North Norfolk Labour Party.  Can we rebuild and if so how?  My pal Mike Gates remembers the 1980s and thinks we can and will. History will repeat itself. I hope he’s right, but at this stage I cannot bring myself to share his optimism.

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.

An intriguing doorstep encounter in North Norfolk

The District Council elections in North Norfolk are now in full swing, or as near to ‘full’ as any swing is possible in this rather quiet area.  My vote this time will be in the Stody Ward. In previous elections my area was known as Glaven Valley: I stood as the Labour candidate in 2015 going down to a humiliating defeat.  The boundaries may have changed but the prospects, in one of the most rural swathes of Norfolk, remain unremittingly dismal.

Someone else is standing as the Labour Candidate this time, and he has already secured my postal vote – irrespective of my views on the national leadership of the Party.  We do however appear to be witnessing a determined fight between the LibDems and the Conservatives reflecting a battle for overall control of the Council.  Both groups are fundamentally non-political, indeed often anti-political.   The main issue that seems to be exciting local passions is the fate of the Sand Martins at Bacton beach: the birds were prevented from nesting on the cliff-side by nets erected by North Norfolk District Council in an attempt to attempt to combat cliff erosion.  Their fate made the national news and the Council swiftly moved the nets.

The local LibDem flier that I received was predictably bland. The Conservative leaflet was far more forthright and even ventured into politics “The Liberal Democrats are supporting a campaign to oppose Brexit and hold another referendum, disregarding the will of the British people. We cannot risk sending an endorsement of their divisive politics”.  Quite what the District Council can do about this I don’t know, but for a Tory to talk about divisive politics over Brexit merely underlines the adage that criminals always return to the scene of their crime.

However something else in the Tory leaflet attracted my attention. Our local candidate’s personal statement on the back page of a generic publication began “I’m a working class man who is passionate about creating opportunities for others…”.  I would not have expected such self-description: most of our local Tories like to pretend to be toffs. All was explained when the candidate came to my door.  We had a most unusual encounter: in fairness to the man I was deliberately provocative.

I began by reminding him of the mass defection of previously elected local Tories to form an Independent Group on the Council before going on to his motivation.  He told me that he had been brought up on a Council estate in West London; I responded by telling him that I too was brought up on a Council estate – in my case in South Wales.  He rather lost the thread by asking me why I was living in a nice big house in a nice village and not in Wales and then advanced his view that it was because Wales was a Labour area and “Labour areas are sh***oles”.My assertion that we had retired to Norfolk because of my wife’s family connections, and also I liked it here, did not seem to placate him in any way.  His next question was “why aren’t you standing for the Council here – why are you standing in North Walsham?”  Clearly he had me confused with someone else. I am not standing anywhere but have had letters published in the local press.  North Walsham does however offer the best prospect for Labour and he proceeded to describe this attractive market town as another ‘sh***ole’ – evidently this is one of his favourite expressions.

The encounter was as intriguing as it was revealing.   I do not want to be too unfair to our Conservative candidate as doubtless he has personal aspirations that are well intentioned.   Our exchange did however remind me that class politics and class prejudice are alive and well: they are simply taking a different form up here.

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.

The people have spoken – or have they?

240px-Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple

Many of our politicians – both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are prominent here – are proclaiming that, while we have much to lose and little to gain, ‘Brexit must mean Brexit’ or variants thereof.  However wrong they think it was, in some way or other, the 51.9% no vote in June 2016 (37% of the electorate) must be treated as sacrosanct.

Amongst those who expressed this view is my own North Norfolk MP, the LibDem Norman Lamb.  As a Labour Party member I have crossed swords with him on many occasions – most notably on student fees – but he has always been courteous.   He is an assiduous member and is the sort of person who remembers everyone’s name.  He has established a formidable local machine, though it was not mobilised in any way that I could see in the 2016 Referendum. His energy has allowed him to continue to hold on to what, demographically, should be a safe Tory seat.  He is however flaky on Europe.  Like his local party, he kept a low profile in the 2016 Referendum campaign and was one of two LibDems who, just over a year ago, chose to abstain rather than vote against the Article 50 Bill.  He justified his stance in a New European podcast *.

In a careful studio interview, Norman Lamb was a model of politeness. He began by saying that he voted and campaigned for Remain and the result was “A mistake… fuelled by a fairly dishonest campaign”.   However he continued by saying that he held ”a basic view in terms of democracy that if you voted in Parliament to hold the referendum…  which we did, you can’t just pretend it hasn’t happen.  If you actually played through that the consequences for the reaction in the country would be pretty bleak”.

I wrote to Norman Lamb asking him if he would elaborate and, to his credit, received a detailed reply.  He said: “The point I was making was that, as I had voted to hold the referendum, I do not feel that I can simply seek to block the outcome of that vote – and that if we were to do that it could create a dangerous divide in the country and the risk of people concluding that their vote had been ignored.  I fear that that would undermine democracy and potentially create the conditions for anger to boil over”.  Here I must disagree.  For my part I cannot envisage local Norfolk pensioner groups grabbing their pitchforks, taking to the barricades, and then marching to London to capture the citadel should the dreadful decision on withdrawal be reversed.

Earlier this month I arranged to see Norman Lamb at one of his regular surgeries.  I went with two objectives.  First to see if he could encourage the significant number of LibDem North Norfolk District Councillors to develop an agenda to ameliorate the disastrous effects of Brexit on his constituency (see my earlier blog https://wordpress.com/post/leftyoldman.wordpress.com/1040) . My second objective was to persuade him to move away from ‘the people have spoken’ and to display more courage in his convictions.  Unsurprisingly I was achieved more progress on the first objective than the second, though he will clearly support a fresh referendum.

The sad truth is that many Parliamentarians are convinced that it is in the UK’s short and long-term interests to remain in both the customs union and the single market, but that would mean saying that the 2016 referendum decision was just plain wrong.  While this continues they are obliged to put forward convoluted arguments to justify indefensible positions.

 

*The podcast can be downloaded on http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-labour-1-5406396.

 

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An invitation to change colours

NNDC Council offices

On March 9th I launched a research paper on the Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk. The full twelve page version can be downloaded from the link on the left of this page.   I had two objectives: one political and one economic. The first was, in a modest way, to help shift opinion in any fresh referendum. The latest poll I have seen shows 53% Remain and 42% Leave – some progress but not enough. The excellent David Cowling, the former editor of BBC political research, commented in his latest mailing that “The country seems just as divided as in 2016”. However you don’t have to change minds in a fresh referendum, just get more of us to vote than them.

My economic objective was to persuade all our local decision-makers and influencers here of the dire consequences for Norfolk of a hard Brexit, and of the need to anticipate these consequences and take action. I therefore sent the paper to the 51 District and County Councillors who represent areas within North Norfolk.

So far I have received six polite replies and two ‘out of offices’, though in fairness the paper is detailed and others may be taking time to digest it before returning. A particularly welcome response came from the District Councillor, a Liberal Democrat, who represents my home area of Glaven Valley. She wrote: “I will circulate it to my fellow members. Next month, we are due to review the Overview and Scrutiny work programme for the forthcoming year, so this is a timely input to that discussion”. This is exactly the response that I had hoped for; I wish her well and will give her every support.

Another polite and thoughtful response was entirely unexpected. We have a large group of Independents on the Council, all of whom have defected from the Conservatives following internal dissension. One of them, after making some considered comments on the paper, continued, “… if you are minded to secure the best deal that the District can hope for … help us fight for it. In May 2019 there will be elections for NNDC District Councillors, we as Independents feel that we can speak freely on any issues. Obviously I don’t know what your political persuasions are, but your knowledge would be a huge advantage to any group…” I must admit, even at my age, being somewhat flattered, but, after more than 50 years dogged loyalty to the Labour Party through thick and thin, I am unlikely to change my allegiance.  

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Campaign technology hits Norfolk

On Bank Holiday Monday I received two emails inviting me to assist organisations through the use of campaign technology. Neither came from bodies that I support. I therefore do not propose taking any action as a result, but they have caused me to reflect on the way that technology, particularly social media, could have an impact on the election here.

The first of these emails came from Momentum, the retro-left group set up to propel Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership and defend him against any subsequent questions on his suitability for that position.   As is always the case, the email solicited a donation from me, which they assuredly won’t receive. This time, however, it also invited me to tweet and Facebook during the televised May-Corbyn interviews that evening, or to retweet their Momentum material. Although I was assured doing so would make me part of the ‘digital feedback’, I cannot see for the life of me what possible difference it would make.

I hope that at the end of the campaign someone will do a serious analysis of the value of social networking. In his September 2016 manifesto, when seeking to secure re-election as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn began by stating that that he has a serious plan with a “focus on winning the next general election to rebuild and transform Britain”. Moreover, “At the heart of my strategy to win is growing our movement through organising communities to win power through the most advanced techniques online and offline”. If this strategy is in place I haven’t seen any evidence of it. The only manifestation is a load of puerile on-line abuse from both sides that follows any Guardian article on the future of the Labour Party.

The second email seeking my support through on-line campaigning came from our local LibDems, who can always be relied upon to position themselves well to the back of any curve. Some time ago I signed up to their digital updates out of curiosity. Monday’s email came from the defending LibDem candidate Norman Lamb. It began, as ever, by informing me that it was neck-and-neck between him and the Tory candidate. This is a permanent refrain from him and every LibDem council candidate and sooner or later it was bound to be true: he is unquestionably facing a tough re-election battle.   Accordingly the email asked if I was active on social media in which case “one of my team will email you when we post something that we need your help to get out there” as doing so “will help us get traction on social media”. I again responded out of curiosity – I have no intention of helping him in any way – and received my first request from his office the following day. This told me “Norman’s just uploaded a photo on his Facebook page, if you could share away (sic) that would be fantastic”.

Well fantastic it may be, but would it be productive? I cannot believe that putting a candidate’s picture on my Facebook page would alter anyone’s vote. Moreover the North Norfolk electorate is not the most technologically adept. At a meeting held just three years ago one of the local Tory councillors stated: “It is not a village where many people work from home, so why do you need broadband?

Now I have no doubt that the electorate expects to be courted to some extent. We have received considerable amounts of literature from both Conservatives and LibDems. The Conservatives have also placed very expensive posters on the local farmers fields that abut such main roads that we have. People will be aware that an election is taking place and this may affect the differential turnout. However, after over fifty years of campaigning, I have doubts if anyone’s vote will be changed as a result. Exactly the same will apply to social media.

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