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.

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Strange goings-on in North Norfolk

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After two decades of settled life in North Norfolk I’ve learned to accept that we can sometimes be a little out of step here.   Even so the recent behaviour of our local Labour Party has been odd by any standards.

Anyone who reads this blog will need no reminding of the gravity of the situation we are facing nationally.  The last two weeks have witnessed the biggest constitutional crisis of my lifetime – and as a leftyoldman I am well into my 70s.  On Tuesday March 12thMPs voted overwhelmingly to reject the PM’s Brexit deal for a second time; on Wednesday ‘no deal’ was narrowly defeated; on Thursday a motion to extend the Brexit process was passed.  This week we have seen the Speaker’s intervention and the Cabinet decision to seek a Brexit delay. Quite correctly the Brexit debacle is dominating political debate.

Not, it appears, as far as the North Norfolk Labour Party is concerned.  They have other priorities.

Late on the evening of Wednesday 13th (the day that ‘no deal’ was rejected) I received notification and the agenda for the monthly members meeting of the North Norfolk Labour Party; this meeting takes place tomorrow.  The centrepiece of the evening is to be a motion on antisemitism to be proposed by ‘a Member of the Executive’ – name unspecified.  A briefing note, transparently cut and pasted from another document, stated “This CLP wishes to express its pride in the way that Jeremy Corbyn, Jennie Formby and other members of the NEC have acted in establishing a process able to deal fairly with antisemitism complaints”. The motion itself read “This CLP applauds the efforts of the LP leadership under Jeremy Corbyn to weed out and deal with antisemitic behaviour appropriately”.  The whole communication continued at length over 300 words in a similar unctuous style.

Apart from the curious timing, there are two points to be made here.  The first concerns the internal contradiction in this bizarre communication: on the one hand it denies that there is any problem; on the other it congratulates the leadership for sorting the problem out.  Secondly, those of a more sophisticated intelligence may reflect that if the problem had been dealt with correctly in the first place we wouldn’t need to discuss it all at this stage.

Accordingly I decided it was time to overcome my torpor. Together with my friend the excellent Mayor of Cromer I wrote to all the Executive Committee (who apparently had passed the resolution unanimously) arguing:“Articulation of this motion in this way, and at this time, is a travesty bordering on the ridiculous.  It will make the NNLP a laughing stock  – immediately ahead of the District Council elections”.  I also encouraged other members to communicate their concern.  I was pleased to receive support; it is spring equinox so perhaps new growth is emerging.  I discovered, for example, that our last two Parliamentary Candidates had expressed similar concerns.

The Executive themselves are oblivious and have seemingly become more entrenched and united.  One of Corbyn’s achievements, perhaps the only lasting one, will be to unite the Trotskyists and Communists and thus end the Bolshevik schism. [i]  I have received various warnings, including one from the Chair, reminding me that I must ensure that I destroy any contact details of members that I held when I was Treasurer.  Quite how he intends to enforce this I have no idea and, I suspect, neither does he.  However, using procedures to cut down dissidents is a standard hard-left tactic.

Sadly none of us on our side of the divide have the inclination to attend the meeting; for my part I will be going to London for the Peoples-Vote march – the political issue of our time.   I am sure the resolution will pass; if not I will add a codicil to this blog. Enough of the handful of people (now generally dropped into the high teens) who attend North Norfolk Labour Party Meetings at present have a desperate need to reinforce their own ideological certainty. Passing such a silly motion will have no effect beyond making the local party seem irrelevant and ridiculous.

[i]I am indebted to ‘The Progressive’ writing in Progress Magazine for this quip.  I wish I had thought of it first.

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.

Love me like I’m leaving

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As I settle into comfortable retirement in our village, BBC Radio Norfolk is one of life’s real pleasures.  I particularly enjoy the predictability of the phone-in football programme, ‘Canary Call’, which follows the final whistle after every Norwich City game.  Comments from those who not only didn’t see the game under discussion but haven’t seen one for decades are always treated with the utmost courtesy.

My favourite however will always be ‘Rodeo Norfolk, Radio and Norfolk’s Country and Western Programme’,which goes out between 0900 and 1200 on a Saturday.  Half way through, the feature is ‘Your Country Collection’: listeners send in six records and the excellent presenter, Keith Greentree, chooses three to play.  I am proud to say that my selection has been played on four occasions and I have just submitted a fifth.  This pride was punctured when I met one the BBC executives who told me that, unusually for a listener, I always identified the right artist and song title and was able to spell their names correctly; it was this, rather than any musical judgement, that had provided the platform for my success.

It was no surprise therefore when, on Monday 18thFebruary, I received a phone call from the station.  I thought it was a query about my latest country collection submission, but in fact the call was a request for the radio interview that is reproduced the blog immediately below.  It was a response to the major news story of the day: that a group of seven Labour MPs had formed an independent group as a reaction to the current Labour Party leadership.

Listening to the clip I wish I had been a little clearer that I am not currently planning to leave a Party that I joined over 50 years ago. I wouldn’t have changed anything else I said  – I am disgusted by the anti-Semitism and by the behaviour of those, including North Norfolk Labour Party Members, who defend the leadership’s inept handling of the issue.  To his immense credit Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, hit the right note with his statement the following day.  To quote: “The instant emotion I felt, when I heard the news this morning that colleagues were leaving Labour, was deep sadness. I love this party. But sometimes I no longer recognise it”.

Tom Watson continued: “The tragedy of the hard left can be too easily tempted into the language of heresy and treachery.  Betrayal narratives and shouting insults at the departed might make some feel better briefly but it does nothing to address the reasons that good colleagues might want to leave”.  Too true, Tom.  My inbox the following day was full of communications from various Labour factions and included the following gem from Momentum: [Leslie and Chuka] are attacking Labour for “weaken[ing] our national security”, supporting “states hostile to our country” and being “hostile to businesses large and small”.In short, their agenda is for war and big business”.  Work your way through that tortuous logic!  It illustrates why I cannot currently make the effort to attend North Norfolk Labour Party meetings while Momentum exercise control.

So, as Tom Watson so eloquently articulated in his statement, if the Labour Party is to survive time is short; it is vital that the scale of the problem is recognised if further defections are to be avoided.  Ironically such sentiments were captured perfectly in one of my songs submitted for the Country Collection.  It is ‘Love me like I’m leaving’by Sugarland: a recognition that a relationship can only be rebuilt if the emotions underpinning imminent break-up are recognised.  I hope that Keith Greentree will play it one coming Saturday – but not on 23rdMarch when I will be in London for the Remain rally.

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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.

 

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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