It’s all happening – except in North Norfolk

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Flocking to the polls in Sharrington Village Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ending exploitation is not the same as creating opportunity

Over the last five years, as an economist specialising in skills development, I devoted much of my energy to the problem of the so-called NEETS (young people not in education, employment or training). In a series of publications I argued that, unless there are radical changes in approach, the chronic problem of youth unemployment will continue to damage the life prospects of our children and grandchildren*. Tackling NEETs must be seen as a central problem – not a consequence of other policy aims. I concluded that more flexible labour markets and better information do not offer a solution.

The gravity of the underlying problem has subsequently been brought home to me by a retirement project undertaken by my wife and myself. We are both mentoring six students each at the local Fakenham Academy. They are fine young men and women who exhibit the hopes and aspirations and display the strengths and weaknesses of every generation of 16 and 17 year olds. However the economy is changing. For those who want to go to university the path is clearer, and for some this is a convenient way of postponing decisions about career choice. For a young North Norfolk student wanting to enter the world of work, however, the prospects are bleak. If the Fakenham Academy postcode is put into the Government’s ‘Find an Apprenticeship’ tool, with a specification of ‘science’ and ‘any level’ the nearest identified opportunity is 59.4 miles away, and the second 84.2. The message is clear: either move (with the prospect of struggling to manage on relatively low pay) or lower your aspirations.

Now there are some features of the Labour Party manifesto that are relevant and should be welcomed: the increase in the minimum wage and the ban on unpaid internships and zero hour contracts, for example. However the manifesto is vague and uncertain on the changing economy. It talks of the need ‘to create new, high-skilled, high-paid and secure work across the country’ but implies that this can be done through skills investment in the education system (known as the discredited ‘stockpile of skills’ argument) and indicative planning. It can’t.

In this area, at least, Labour’s manifesto is far from radical. There is an absence of an overall philosophy embedded in an understanding of the modern service-led and knowledge-driven economy; the manifesto could have been written in 1975. Friday the 21st April, as this current campaign was beginning, was the first day since the industrial revolution when electricity in the UK was generated without burning any coal. Three weeks later, on Friday 12th May, we witnessed the cyber attack on NHS systems. These events underline the way that the economy is changing and the need for seeing economic and social problems in a new light. We need a new holistic and less piecemeal approach to worklessness amongst young people. To borrow a phrase I learned at the Institute for Adult Learning, Singapore, we need to ‘recalibrate’ the process whereby 16-20 year olds enter the world of work. This is what being radical really means.

 

* See ‘A Black Paper on NEETs and Apprenticeships’ available as a free download at http://martynsloman.co.uk/Black%20Paper%20NEETS%20and%20apprenticeships%20September.pdf

 

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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.

 

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The wheels come off in North Norfolk

Given the timing it was inevitable that the council elections held on May 4th would be regarded as a foreshadow of the June General Election. These May elections offered a large-scale national opinion poll that could endlessly be analysed for local implications. Nationally the Labour vote held up just about well enough for those infatuated with Jeremy Corbyn to claim that ‘with a vigorous campaign we can make up the deficit over the next few weeks’ – but nowhere near well enough for any sane person to believe him. Predictably the County Council results in North Norfolk were poor. Taking the full ten seats across the Constituency Labour polled just under 10% of the votes cast – down by a third from the 15% recorded in the last County elections which were held in 2013.

No amount of cheery optimism can disguise the fact that the Labour Party is likely to be facing the worst result in the lifetime of every member and supporter under the age of 80. To their credit the local Labour Party here fielded a full slate of ten candidates in the May County Council elections. In some of these county seats there was a deal of organised election activity. In our best prospect we had an excellent candidate who had fought this seat, where he lived, on several occasions: in 2013 he lost by 38 votes; this time he came third, more than 200 behind the winning LibDem . It is very sad, as he would have made a fine councillor.

Recently the New Statesman published an excellent analysis of the Corbyn phenomenon by a Leicester University academic and commentator, Daniel Allington http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/june2017/2017/04/jeremy-corbyn-has-attracted-socialism-fans-not-labour-voters

Although the article is not always the easiest of reads, and certainly offers no comfort to those of who seek changes in society rather than mere protests, it contains some impressive insights. The one that struck me is the idea that the Labour Party has been the subject of a successful hostile take-over, to borrow a business analogy. Executing a takeover is one thing, making a success of the business that has been acquired is quite another. All the indications are that no-one wants to buy the new product – whatever the extent of the activity on the doorstep and in social media. Indeed, we are now learning that explosions and expletives in social media rarely translate into worthwhile practical support.

It is some small comfort to me that, whereas in April the North Norfolk Labour Party website invited people to sign up and “become part of Jeremy Corbyn’s new politics”, in May it had been softened to “become part of our new politics”. Alas, at this stage, I can’t see that this subtle but important distinction will have any effect.

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Why I won’t vote for Norman

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Seen at the end of the Unite for Europe march

The Lib-Dems will be defending nine seats at the snap June general election: my home constituency of North Norfolk will be one of them. It was captured by our sitting MP, Norman Lamb, sixteen years ago; in 2015 his majority fell from 11600 to just over 4000 ahead of the Conservatives. It is a highly marginal seat and there will plenty of hopefuls seeking the Tory candidature.

Lamb himself is an affable individual. He runs a well-managed office and always replies to letters. He is anxious to avoid offending anyone: his appeal locally has always been to offer politics for people who don’t like politics. For example, he and his local party adopted a very low profile on Europe, aware that North Norfolk is a stronghold for Brexit, while the LibDems nationally were committed to remain. Lamb himself abstained in the February 2017 Parliamentary vote to trigger Article 50 and start the exit process.

Such ambiguity will only take him so far in his attempt to hold on to his seat in June. A key LibDem tactic has always been to squeeze the Labour vote; this stood at just over 5000 at the 2015 election, due in no small measure to our excellent candidate. LibDem election literature, at both local and national elections, is often illustrated with claims, based on spurious opinion surveys, that the Labour vote is crumbling. They are eager for local Labour supporters to hold their noses and vote tactically for the LibDems.

I haven’t voted this way and never will. It may be dire times for those of us who are democratic socialists, but we must hold true to some basic beliefs. Chuka Umunna expressed them brilliantly in a recent New Statesman article. “Labour’s historic role is to be the party of the national labour interest. Our purpose is to represent working people and to redress the imbalance of power between capital and labour. And we provide protection for those who cannot work or support themselves”. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/03/chuka-umunna-labour-alternative

Norman Lamb cannot, and indeed does not seek, to be part of that process. Shamefully at the 2015 general election he promoted the dishonest analysis that the international financial crisis had been a result of government overspending, when history will prove it was a result of global imbalances and irresponsible lending by the banking system. In this way he justified betraying a firm pledge on the abolition of student fees and entering a coalition government with the Conservatives that savaged public expenditure.

Judging by a recent communication Norman Lamb is now moving from favouring expenditure cuts towards an anti-politics position. In March he e-mailed: “We all know that vital health and care services are under increasing strain. It is my belief that the problems will only continue to get worse. Unless politicians put aside their party interests and work together with professionals, staff and patients to agree a new, sustainable future for the services we all rely on.”

The poor grammatical construction of the last sentence should not disguise the fact that a new way of being all things to all men is under consideration. It will not wash with me and will not wash with many others.

 

 

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Buy at the bottom

In the early 1990s I was head of training for one of the UK’s least successful investment banks and had responsibility for the graduate scheme. I organised events at universities, involving the more articulate of the business heads in selling the bank to potential applicants.   On one occasion we attended an evening presentation when, on the previous day, our parent bank’s Chairman had announced, that, unless there was a rapid return to profit, he would close the investment subsidiary. No graduate in their right mind would choose to join us over our competitors. Ever imaginative, one of the business heads told the audience that a sensible market aphorism was ‘buy at the bottom’ and this was what they would do by joining us. A moment’s reflection demonstrates that there is no logic in the underlying argument but it had superficial credibility.

There is more substance in the case for voting Labour in the forthcoming local elections. Certainly, given the inept leadership and growing chasms between the factions, it is ‘buy at the bottom’. I shall vote Labour because I always have and don’t think I could do anything else – a poor reason I know. Like many others I want the party to survive and at some time return to mainstream credibility.

Our local party has succeeded in finding a full slate of candidates to fight all twelve County Council seats in North Norfolk. However the idea that there has been some rejuvenation as a result of the huge influx of people who joined to vote for Jeremy Corbyn has been exposed as nonsense. As the annual financial report coyly put it, despite the surge in membership: “the challenge has been to activate the new membership in campaigning and participating in meetings”.   Too true: as far as I can tell only one of the candidates is under the age of 40 and most have been around for some time, albeit some of them in the Greens.

However all credit to the candidates for their willingness to fight a pretty hopeless cause.  The leader of the County Council Labour Group was the guest speaker at the February meeting. The minutes record that the response included “questions on alternatives to implementing cuts such as joining with other councils to rebel against cuts”. Old habits die hard and it is almost touching to see such nostalgia for the gesture politics of the 1980s. Sadly, if the current polls are anything to go by, there will be few councillors elected here to join this forthcoming Trotskyist insurrection.

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Another dismal North Norfolk bye-election

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The late Earl of Leicester, a local aristocrat and wealthy local landowner, once described the North Norfolk division where I now live as follows: “the one constituency in England where, in 1964, it was so feudal that it had to be explained to the electors that the ballot was secret.” He was incorrect. It may be out of the way, but North Norfolk has a sophisticated electorate and a surprising history of radicalism.   Not only did Labour win the seat in 1964, but that election produced the Constituency’s fourth Labour MP – the first being elected in the 1920s. The agricultural workers were well aware that the ballot was secret; they organised and they and their families went to vote in large numbers.

This is now a historical footnote. The Labour candidate who won in 1964 lost the seat to the Conservatives in 1970; in 2001 a Liberal Democrat captured it, and he continues to hold it through a combination of affability, good local organisation and an absence of strong opinions on anything political.

Organised agricultural workers are no longer a political force in the area. This is an inevitable result of the move from labour intensive to capital-intensive production in the arable farms of Norfolk. The farm owned by my wife’s family, seven miles from our home, once employed eight full time workers and between three and five casual labourers. Mechanisation meant that there was insufficient work simply producing sugar beet and barley and the farm has become the basis of a most successful business offering bed and breakfast and holiday lets and now employs only a part-time cleaner.

Given the changing composition of the population, with many retired people moving to this attractive coastal area, it is hard to see how Labour could ever again become a serious contender for the Parliamentary Seat. As I indicated in my previous blog, the class basis of politics has faded over the course of my political lifetime. The votes of progressively minded people, and there are many about even in North Norfolk, must be secured through other routes. I am increasingly convinced that the argument for economic and social justice must be deployed internationally; it will take us a long time to get there but I believe that the process has begun.

Unfortunately such optimism means that we will have to wait in North Norfolk. On 9th February we had another District Council bye-election; this time in the Waterside Division, which abuts the Norfolk Broads. We had a fine candidate who lived nearby and was a former Councillor. He is a committed amateur historian of the local labour movement and reminds me much of the sort of elder statesman who took the time and had the patience to encourage me when I first joined the Party as a teenager.

Sadly our candidate polled only 41 votes compared with 210, albeit on much higher poll, for the leading Labour candidate in the same area two years ago (a drop from 8.5% to 3.5% in Labour’s percentage). I have just received an e-mail in which our Constituency Secretary crassly copied in details of all current members: this indicated that in total there are some 420 full Labour Party members in North Norfolk. It seems that we are rapidly approaching the situation where we have more people signing up to vote in Labour’s leadership election than are prepared to vote Labour at the ballot-box. Earlier this year our rising local star, an able young businessman who became Mayor of Cromer in his 20s, resigned from the Party citing disaffection with the national leadership. The local Labour Party Chairman responded to this resignation by telling our newspaper that the local party was ‘going from strength to strength’. ‘Alternative facts’ are not the exclusive preserve of Donald Trump.

We could indeed have a long wait for any recovery to reach darkest Norfolk, but I live in hope that it will happen eventually.