Facing the wrong way

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The failure to support Amendment 51 of the EU Withdrawal Bill will not loom large in future undergraduate politics essays; it may however find its way into the odd doctoral thesis on the decline of the Labour Party in the 21st Century.  Amendment 51 would have obliged the government to prioritise staying in the European Economic Area.  Given the Parliamentary arithmetic it offered the best chance of defeating the Government and hence putting a serious impediment in the way of withdrawal.

The Labour leadership opposed the amendment on the bizarre grounds that the Party had better ideas.  As a result the Government emerged unscathed. It was a dismal performance in a thoroughly dispiriting week.

Two emails arrived in my inbox on Tuesday, the day before Parliament debated and rejected the Lords’ amendments.   One was from Jeremy Corbyn telling me that ‘the Tories are too divided to negotiate with the EU’so Labour‘has an opportunity to vote to protect jobs, living standards and our rights’.   Communications from the leader’s office are often impervious to the irony inherent in their content.

The second communication upset me more.  It was from Momentum inviting me to attend their ‘big lefty weekend’in July.  As well as their conference there will be a ‘People, Pits and Politics Festival’.  This will feature Anne Scargill, ex-wife of the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) leader Arthur, speaking on the Miners’ Strike. To quote from the publicity for the event: ‘Still the most significant class struggle in generations, the miners strike of 1984-5 was a watershed in trade union history’. Too true.  It was indeed a watershed. It was also a disaster.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of those who will attend Momentum’s jamboree, I do feel in a position to comment with some authority on this chapter of labour history.  I worked in the coal industry from 1968 till 1986. During the strike I set up the Coal Board’s job creation company NCB (Enterprise).  Having seen it at first hand I have no time for the rewriting of history, or for romantic nonsense about growing class awareness. What should have been at issue was the management of change and how necessary but painful economic transitions could be accomplished.  What actually happened was an episode of foolish adventurism led by an egotistic Marxist.

The miners returned to work in March 1985 without a settlement: it was a victory for the politics of Margaret Thatcher and the managerial economics of Ian MacGregor, the NCB Chairman of the time. The NUM was irreversibly fragmented. In less than a year Arthur Scargill and his adherents had destroyed what previous generations of miners had taken decades to establish: a single cohesive trade union.  The decline of the industry was brutally hastened rather than sensibly managed.

With the benefit of intervening time, romantic folk myths have emerged. The most pernicious is that the strike marked the beginning of a new awareness and solidarity. That is what Anne Scargill will be peddling.  Those attending want to believe that this is the case, despite all evidence to the contrary. They are more comfortable with the delusions of the 1970s and the 1980s than they are facing up to the complex challenges of 2018.

By rewriting history in this way we are doing a disservice to those who worked so hard to bring the labour movement to a position where it could achieve power and bring about social change.  Our failure to provide an effective counter to Brexit sadly reflects this preference for gesture politics over difficult decisions.

It has been a dreadful week. I can only look forward travelling to London and joining other members of my family on the March for a People’s Vote on the 23rd and walking off my frustration.

https://www.peoples-vote.uk/march

 

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Internationalism or nostalgia?

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Tony Benn on the platform

Next week there is the opportunity to halt, or even reverse, the long slide to a catastrophic EU withdrawal. After a summer break Parliament will debate the House of Lord amendments to the Brexit Bill.  Endless calculations of the Parliamentary arithmetic will be made, but all will depend on courageous Conservative rebels and, more importantly, the attitude of the Labour leadership.

We should all rejoice that there has been a shift in Labour’s position.  It appears that the Party’s current stance is for the softest possible Brexit: to stay in the customs union, while seeking a relationship with the EU that gives the benefits of the single market without membership. This is of course nonsense. As a country we have received repeated indications that this it would be unacceptable to the EU. Such a position can only be regarded as an opportunistic debating stance with an eye on the main chance of forcing and winning a general election.

Sadly the current Labour Party leadership and their most enthusiastic adherents believe this is all that matters: use any sleight of hand to keep the Labour Leave voters in the old heartlands on side and hope to take advantage of the chaos that results from Brexit.   There is little interest in the wider case for internationalism or for growth through frictionless trade; hence membership of the EU is incidental to progress to the idealised socialist nirvana.  Judging by his actions this is Jeremy Corbyn’s stance to date and, since he is certainly a man of principle, we need to ask why.

Everybody looks back fondly to the day when they discovered their politics, especially if it marked a period of successful activism and personal advancement. For Jeremy Corbyn that period was the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember that time well.  I was a young economist in the nationalised coal industry and an active member of Corbyn’s fractious North Islington Labour Party.

In that period the ‘alternative economic strategy’ (AES) developed by Tony Benn defined the economic thinking of what were then called the new left.  Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott were keen disciples. The AES was about centralised planning: elements included an investment bank (the National Enterprise Board), planning agreements with private sector companies (which simply never happened) and an extension of public ownership.  It was a credible instrument in its time and its successes and failures deserve careful analysis in any consideration of the effectiveness of Labour in power.  At the time Benn led the hostility to what was then called the common market on the grounds that it was an international capitalist conspiracy and, if outside, the UK would be able to create some sort of socialist state.

We are forty years on; times have changed.  However the AES continues to have a disproportionate influence on the left of the Labour Party, especially the more elderly members of Momentum. They fail to appreciate that 21st century economic and social problems require international co-operation.

A good example is one that emerged during the May Irish referendum on abortion.  Electoral integrity was potentially compromised when paid advertisements financed from overseas appeared on social media; anxious to avoid serious government intervention both Facebook and Google banned such advertisements.  Important issues were raised here: current electoral law is no longer appropriate to deal with the impact of international social media. What is certain is that this is just the first of many complex problems that will arise with social media companies. They cannot be resolved by nationalising the companies concerned – they are global players – and appropriate regulation can only be developed and implemented internationally.  There is a common agenda to be developed across Europe. Moreover, the left’s concern that greater state intervention will be made more difficult in the customs union and single market has itself been hotly contested – see for example the thorough analysis by Andy Tarrant and Andrea Biondi in Renewal http://renewal.org.uk/blog/eu-law-is-no-barrier-to-labours-economic-programme.

So, if the electorate decided to vote for the Alternative Economic Strategy, or variants thereof, there is no reason why it could not be implemented within the single market.  Opposition to the EU on these grounds is based on nostalgia and gut reaction rather than any analysis of the facts. There is no sensible reason remaining for anyone of left-of-centre views to equivocate on Brexit. Next week’s Parliamentary decisions will go down as a turning point for the Labour Party and have an impact way beyond the immediate issues.

 

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Cults don’t win elections

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Haringey Council results by ward 2018

The local government elections of May 3rd were not good news for those of us who hold progressive left-of-centre views. True, UKIP are now finished as an electoral force, but most of their Europhobe votes have found a home with Theresa May’s Conservatives – thus buttressing the faction within her party that supports a hard Brexit.

The leading election guru David Cowling, in his analysis, described the elections as an ugly baby contest.  He has a point: there seem to be little enthusiasm for anything or anybody.  Despite this, the percentage voting remained at the normal level for a local government contests, so, thank goodness, there is no evidence of a loss of faith in electoral democracy.

Labour did not do well and lame excuses will not do.   I was particularly saddened to see the result in Muswell Hill, in the London Borough of Haringey, where we had lived between 1987 and 2001.  All three council seats were captured by the LibDems, as were the other wards in the more prosperous parts of the Borough that lie to the west of the railway line. In part this reflects Jeremy Corbyn’s abject handling of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party: there is a significant Jewish community in Haringey.  However much more is at stake.

At its best the Labour Party has always been an alliance between those in need and those who care.  Those in need in the most urban areas will, on the evidence of May 3rd, continue to vote Labour almost irrespective of policy and leadership. Set against this, organised Labour as expressed through the trade union movement has ceased to be a significant political force, beyond the crudest defence of public sector jobs.  Labour is therefore increasingly reliant on those who care: West Haringey is full of such people and it is bad news for Labour if they are prepared to migrate to the LibDems.

Much of the election analysis has concentrated on Labour’s relatively poor performance in the smaller cities and the towns that voted leave in the 2016 referendum.   The argument here is that Labour needs to develop new policies to deal with the economic decline and the accompanying social problems that affect such localities.  While this is undoubtedly true, it offers nothing to rural areas like the one where I now live. There were no elections here in North Norfolk in 2018, but the local LibDems will doubtless be hoping that the ‘leafy suburbs of London’ effect will have spread to the more rural areas by May next year when we go to the polls here. Labour currently hold none of the 48 council seats in North Norfolk and since Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership the local party is firmly in the hands of Momentum. However, as was proved beyond doubt on May 3rd, cults don’t win elections.  It is not looking good.

 

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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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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.

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.

It’s always nice to hear from Momentum

The name that an organisation chooses can be deceptive. For example, two pressure groups in the Church of England were called ‘Reform’ and ‘Forward in Faith’. Both opposed the ordination of women and neither was in favour of reform nor  in any way forward-looking. In current politics, ‘Momentum’ was established as a Jeremy Corbyn Fan Club and, since it has achieved its purpose, may well have run out of steam altogether.

Two distinct sorts of people joined Momentum. The first were the young who branded their Facebook site and competed for a selfie with the messiah. They transferred many of their commendable hopes honestly but misguidedly to his campaign; they cannot be blamed for the resulting debacle. The second group were ageing lefties who were determined to exact some revenge against Tony Blair; characteristically were they were likely to have been in and out of Labour Party membership over the last two decades. Given the age profile here in Norfolk it is the second group that dominates the branches of Momentum in the market town of North Walsham and the seaside resort of Sheringham. It came as no surprise, when they captured the North Norfolk Labour Party, that their first action was to seek to spend hard-earned party funds on a charabanc trip to a factional demonstration in London.

Momentum claim to be creating a new sort of politics. It is hard to see what this involves behind an extensive use of technology, particularly social media. This they deployed most effectively to insert Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership and support him when he faced a subsequent challenge. I’ve always been a sceptic on how far such use of technology will influence behaviour where it really matters, that is in the privacy of the ballot-box in a public election. However, out of a desire to know what they are doing, I’ve subscribed to their mailing list and was therefore interested to receive an e-mail from them that began with the sentence ‘I’m incredibly excited to announce Momentum’s new campaigning tool – MyNearestMarginal.com’. Momentum numbers some clever nerds amongst their supporters so this was worth investigating.

The e-mail arrived in my inbox on 11th May. At the time I was staying with friends just outside Edinburgh prior to a trip to Murrayfield see the European Rugby Cup Finals. I therefore put their postcode into the site search box and the results are shown in the picture below. Barrow in Furness is identified as the nearest marginal to East Lothian, Scotland. This is a distance of 180 miles or just under four hours by charabanc.

 

Now the people who run Momentum may be blinkered but they are fully aware that there are elections in Scotland; indeed one of their past claims was that Scotland would revert to Labour if the traditional voters were offered an aggressively left-wing programme. There are two possible explanations for their embarrassing oversight: the first is that they had not got round to loading the Scottish information; the second is that Momentum may not be functioning outside England. Bluntly I don’t care. What irritates me are claims that Momentum is producing some great breakthroughs in our approach to political activity. It isn’t and hopefully Momentum is about to run out of momentum.

 

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