A fine mess you’ve gotten me into

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During my professional days in management education and training one of my jobs was to mentor new managers.  One question I frequently encountered was “I am inheriting a right mess – how can I protect my own position if things go wrong?”.

My advice was, first and foremost, document the full set of horrors that you are facing, and date the document so you can always produce it in a crisis.  My next step was to ask the new manager what the general opinion in the organisation was of his or her predecessor.  It was easy to deal with a situation where everyone recognised the departing manager was inadequate.  If the person leaving was popular, and most people most people thought he or she had done a good job, it was far more difficult.  I encountered the latter situation once myself.  I took over a crumbling department from someone who had immense face validity – he was well liked – but as far as I could see had done very little for the last eighteen months.  When I tried to introduce changes, I met a deal of resistance from those who had rated him.

Labour’s leadership contest has caused me to reflect on this advice – not that Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long Bailey or the other contenders have sought my guidance.  The list of horrors that they face is easy to construct: a complete lack of credibility with the electorate; ambiguity on the central political question of the day, Brexit; lack of imaginative and relevant thinking on pressing 21st century issues; inadequate and underperforming shadow ministers; a National Party Executive captured by a destructive faction; the failure to deal with antisemitism; a deeply divided membership in the country.

This list would be enough to keep anyone awake at night.  They should however be able to take comfort in the fact, turning to the second part of my guidance to new managers, that nobody thinks that their predecessor had done a good job.  To misquote Laurel and Hardy, he has got them into a fine mess.

There is, however, always the odd exception.  Things can be different in Norfolk.  This time the example comes not from my own North Norfolk Labour Party, but from the neighbouring constituency of Broadland.  At their first meeting after the General Election, on a Saturday morning in January, the membership in Broadland was asked to support the following motion, which was presented by member of the Regional Executive of the Labour Party.  I might add that I have no idea what is meant by the word ‘comparable’ in this context.

Broadland CLP records its gratitude to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell for their work over the past four and a half years, in moving the policy agenda forward so that the Labour Party now has policies that are comparable with most European social democracies.

The secretary is instructed to write to the NEC (via the General Secretary) to formally record our thanks with a copy to the respective offices of the Leader and the Shadow Chancellor.

The classic model for dealing with loss talks of seven stages of grief.  It seems that some in Broadland are unable  to move beyond the first stage of the process – that of denial.  With members like this a hard road lies ahead for our new leader!

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

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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.

Does Brexit solve anything that matters?

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The Gas Museum at Fakenham Norfolk

Recently much of my energy has been devoted to promoting the arguments that I presented in my paper The Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk (this can be downloaded from the link on the left).  In this way I feel that I have made my own modest contribution to prevent the catastrophe that is EU withdrawal.  How much effect my efforts have had is questionable.  However I have been gratified to find that the paper and its arguments have been well received by those who are facing the practical employment challenges in the area where I now live.

For some time I have been particularly aware of the problems faced by local school-leavers – especially those who are seeking vocational employment, qualifications and training rather than a University education.  The opportunities for what might be called 21stcentury apprenticeships are worse in Norfolk than for comparable coastal and retirement areas.

My wife and I are voluntary mentors at a secondary school in the area: currently we offer support to a group of Year 12 (first year 6th) students at Fakenham Academy.  Almost all of the students we meet have undertaken some part-time or vacation work in the local hospitality industry; this has taught them the importance of reliability, working in teams and, above all, dealing with customers. They produce hilarious tales of the frequently ignorant and often patronising behaviour of posh townies who visit the area.  What the students lack at this stage is the practical skills base that would prepare them for work in the science or engineering based industries. Similarly, on the arts side, limited accessibility, with rural transport a major problem, means that it is difficult for local young people to get exposure to music, theatre and exhibitions.

I have been campaigning on youth employment issues since my retirement some four years ago.  In all my subsequent research activity I have been impressed by the quality of the work undertaken by the local authority staff at both District and County Council level.  Rather than being defensive they welcomed new ideas.  I was also pleasantly surprised when Councillor Nigel Dixon, the District Council Cabinet Member for Economic Development and Tourism, sought the opportunity to meet me and comment on the work – he had evidently read my paper in detail. Councillor Dixon is a Conservative; I will never be anything but a Labour Party member but we had a constructive exchange on the challenges facing the area.

What this brief interlude brought home to me is how unproductive the economic debate has become since the June 2016 referendum.  The current Labour leadership is ambivalent about the role of business, something that should be central to the Brexit debate. Moreover the key players – Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott, Thornberry and indeed Keir Starmer – all have London constituencies and have little practical knowledge of rural employment issues.  On the other side of the divide the Conservative Party appears to have no ambitions beyond political survival and the installation of a new leader after EU withdrawal on whatever terms in March 2019.

Brexit has been a damaging distraction.  Right across the political spectrum it has sucked in energy that is desperately needed elsewhere.  Enhanced employment opportunities for school-leavers in rural areas are but one example of a difficult problem that needs urgent consideration, imaginative new policies and determined application if we are going to the right thing by our children and grandchildren.

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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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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.

 

leftyoldman will now take a break and resume blogging when he has something worthwhile to say. If you would like to receive email notification of the next blog when it appears, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

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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Tactics but no strategy – the Tory Campaign

Our local North Norfolk News is published on a Thursday so an edition appeared on council election day (May 4th). Before I and the other regular readers could reach the front-page headline of ‘Mammoth bone found on the beach’, or the other similarly exciting articles, we had to negotiate a four page advertisement placed by the Conservative Party. This was clever timing on their part, but will have cost them a lot and must be declared as an election expense.

The content of the four pages was entirely predictable with their campaign mantra dominating the front page: ‘strong, stable leadership’ or ‘a coalition of chaos and instability’. This will be repeated ad nauseam over the remaining weeks of the campaign and avoids the need for any expression of political or economic strategy. Keep it simple stupid. It reminds me of the approach that we adopted when I played rugby.

The pinnacle of my rugby career occurred when I played in the back row for Lancaster University 3rd XV.   The reason I was in the thirds was because we didn’t have a 4th XV. We had one tactic.   We kicked the ball down the field directly at the opposing full back in the hope that something would happen. The opposing full-back was likely to be the least talented player on the field: sometimes he would be a spare player of ours who we had loaned to opponents who had arrived short of numbers; sometimes he would be an overseas student who had turned up out of curiosity and had never played the game before. There was a strong possibility of the ball getting stuck in the mud on its travels or of a fumble when it arrived. We had not thought of anything beyond this stage; we had tactics but no strategy and if we ever won it was by accident and the opponent’s mistakes.

The Conservatives too are relying on their opponent’s mistakes. The mantra will get very tedious in course of a long campaign.

 

leftyoldman will be blogging regularly through the election campaign. To receive email notification of the next blog when it appears, press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.