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.

What do we do next?

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The battle for the Labour Party is over for the time being. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have won: he has been re-elected as leader and will be in place until the next general election; our party here in North Norfolk has been captured by his supporters. An inevitable consequence, at least in the short-term, is that the Labour Party will cease to become a potential party of government. It will be incapable of achieving change through democratic means by winning elections and will degenerate into a mere protest group,

For many us who were brought up a tradition that saw the Party as the best way of achieving social justice, this is a sad conclusion. These are depressing times. The question is whether the situation is irreversible and if so how. I have little doubt that, at some stage, new voices will emerge, and that they will offer radical economic and social alternatives that extend beyond slogans and soundbites. It is uncertain whether such voices will be based in the Labour Party or come from an entirely different political tradition and background.

This is an issue that I discuss over the occasional lunch with a friend who teaches at the University of East Anglia. He, like myself, is a long-standing party member and we were both asked to allow our names to go forward for the list of candidates in the next set of County Council elections, due to take place in May. Standing would amount to no more than a gesture: there is absolutely no prospect, in the current climate, of winning in our part of North Norfolk. In a previous blog I drew attention to a local District Council bye-election that took place at the end of September (http://wp.me/p5dTrr-cH). Labour polled 23 votes. 10 people signed the nomination papers and both I and a member of my family voted Labour. That means that only 11 others out of an electorate of 1800 gave the Party their vote – despite energetic leafleting in the area. It could hardly be worse.

The question is what should we do. Let me quote from my friend’s response to the invitation he received:

I do not wish to put myself forward as a candidate. To do so would be to ask voters to support also the current leader of the party, his ill-conceived ideas and the entryists and anti-Semites who thrive under his leadership. … I cannot publicly support the Labour party for as long as Jeremy Corbyn remains its leader, nor will I support the party either through donations or by giving advice, as I have done in the past. I very much hope that there will come a time, and soon, when I will be able to resume an active role in the Labour party again

I entirely agree with his position and would emphasise his last sentence. Once there are indications that the Labour Party is ready to become the basis of a credible social-democratic alternative to the market fundamentalism of the current government, I will again give it time and money.   The good news is that there are now some indications that this could happen. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London is a principled, capable and articulate politician who is building his own power-base; Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper have taken on the Chairs of two important Select Committees of the House of Commons; Keir Starmer, a lawyer with enormous intellectual strengths, has accepted a role in the Shadow Cabinet and will provide the necessary and overdue challenge on Brexit.

Who knows, within a year or two it might be time to start going to the meetings to support such people. My guess is that many of those currently in control locally with have lost interest by then.

Bottom of the class?

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Jeremy Corbyn has followed his re-election with a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle, promoting his allies. Now he has to deliver.

His position reminds me of a joke by the 1930s comedian Will Hay, when playing an incompetent schoolmaster in one of his films. ‘Boy, go the bottom of the class. Sir, I am at the bottom of the class. Well go to the top of the class and remember you’re a lap behind.’

In future these blogs will appear on a monthly, rather than a weekly, basis. I will be writing on the challenge facing the centre-left in developing a credible alternative.

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United we stand! – as a family?

 

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Once I had recovered from my immediate depression following the Labour Party Conference I checked out the on-line site of our local newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press. Their politics page included a picture of local Corbyn supporters enjoying their triumph: ‘Jubliant (stet) Corbyn supporters and Momentum members celebrated the long-expected victory over challenger Owen Smith at a Norwich pub and called for unity behind the leader’. http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/politics/local_corbyn_supporters_call_for_unity_after_landslide_victory_1_4710124

The joint secretary of my local North Norfolk Labour Party was amongst those present and, it is reported, offered the following observation: ‘He (Jeremy Corbyn) has started uniting the party in his speech today by holding out an olive branch and reminding us we are all part of the same family. There are disagreements but we are together above all else’.  Well Sue, I take a different view; I’m not sure we have much in common. Indeed the reference to ‘part of the same family’ reminds me of an occasion when my mother was talking to one of my many Aunts about the Aunt’s 20 year-old daughter. My Aunt reported: “Susan and Jason (not their real names) are rowing with each other all the time. They’re going to have to get it sorted out because they’re getting engaged at Christmas”. They did indeed get engaged at Christmas, had a big wedding the following year, and divorced two years later.

Where real differences exist it takes more than an engagement ring or bland calls for unity to resolve them.

Our North Norfolk Labour Party is now firmly in the hands of the Corbyn supporters and it is down to them to deliver. They are not off to a good start – see my blog on the Glaven Valley bye-election http://wp.me/p5dTrr-cH – but in fairness they must be given time. It is evident that Jeremy Corbyn is unassailable as leader this side of a General Election and the first test here will be whether the Party advances or retreats in the County Council elections due in May 2017.

I have been a candidate (in hopeless seats) the last two occasions these elections were contested but will not put my name forward this time round. I cannot, in all integrity, commend Corbyn’s 1980s style social protest movement to the electorate. Neither, for the time being, will I go to the local meetings. In 50 years of political activism I have yet to attend a meeting of the Labour Party where anyone ever changed his or her mind as a result of any discussion that took place there. I doubt that it will be any difference over the next year.

At a national level I will be seeking to contribute to the revival of sensible centre-left politics, and reporting on progress.  I will, of course, remain a party member in the hope that the Labour Party will be the seedbed of such a recovery.

From now on my blogs will appear on a monthly, rather than a weekly, basis. I will try to look for something positive to say, which may not be easy – hence the reduction in output.

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Glaven Valley speaks

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One consequence of the Corbyn leadership victory is that the intricate over-analysis of any election result, however trivial or untypical, will continue. Those who support the new model Labour Party are keen to demonstrate that Jeremy Corbyn is an electoral asset; more grounded left-of-centre supporters know him to be an electoral liability.

As chance would have it a first public test following the Liverpool coronation of the new leader has, in fact, taken place in my remote corner of North Norfolk. On Thursday September 29th some 1800 electors in Glaven Valley voted for a new councillor to replace the previous incumbent Liberal-Democrat who has moved to London.

The last time the position was contested, in May 2015, I was the Labour candidate: I polled derisory 78 votes coming fourth coming behind UKIP and just above the Greens. This humiliation was no surprise to me. Our area mainly consists of retired people, most but not all of whom are comfortably off. This time round the Conservatives chose a somewhat unusual candidate for the area. To quote from his election address: ‘I once won a Porsche 911 Car in a beer competition beating 17,000 others!’ and ‘I have appeared on game shows, most notably “Blind Date” beating odds of 1000-1’. By contrast the Lib-Dem was carefully understated, claiming only to have been ‘Senior advisor across the Civil Service under David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair’.

I declined the opportunity to fight again – and clearly would have been out of my depth against such august opponents. Moreover I have decided that I cannot publicly support and campaign for the Labour Party while Jeremy Corbyn is leader.   I remain a committed member in the hope of better times.

Given the capture of our local Labour Party by the pro-Corbyn faction I had assumed that one of them would be keen to put their views to the test at the polling station. After all our membership has increased from 170 to over 600. However none of those in our ward attended the selection meeting and our constituency Chairman, who lives some 50 minutes away in this vast constituency, agreed to stand. I know him to be of a more traditional persuasion, politically experienced, and with considerable personal charm. His election literature avoided all mention of our new leader. When he called he assured my wife and I that he was concentrating on local issues and receiving a good response on the doorstep.

On election day (September 29th) the Lib-Dem candidate sent out an early morning e-mail that stated ‘The election today is likely to be the closest in this area for many years – probably within a few dozen votes’. I cannot believe she had any basis for making such a claim but honesty does not figure highly among LibDem considerations. Their tactic locally is to say anything that might squeeze the Labour vote. In the event she polled 429 and had a majority of 148 over the Conservative.

Labour polled 23 votes – just under 3% of the total votes cast. My estimate is that this figure will be very close to the number of people in Glaven Valley who signed up (as members, affiliates or registered supporters) to vote in the Labour Party Leadership election.   This is the lowest vote we have recorded in a District Council Election in North Norfolk this century. It does not bode well.

Is my blog a safety threat?

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Writing a blog is a useful way of venting my frustrations. I don’t delude myself that I am influencing the national debate; I am not a figure of importance and my readership, while welcome, is hardly likely to mobilise into action.

I get occasional bits of feedback from readers. Most of this is welcome but one set of communications was both puzzling and disappointing. Over the last months I have received two formal complaints: one from the Secretary and one from the Chair of the North Norfolk Labour Party. To quote from one of the e-mails: ‘We would ask that you refrain from posting blogs that appear to make the meetings and processes of the local party unsafe for party members. In addition, we would ask that you consider removing those blog posts that refer to internal processes of the local party”.

My reaction on receiving this was to feel flattered (not only was I being read but my words were having some impact) had it not been for the implication that I am in some way threatening the idea that members should feel safe in local meetings. This I find offensive – particularly in the context of the Internet bullying and the jeering of Owen Smith that has characterized the leadership election to date.

The North Norfolk Labour Party has attracted some veterans from Labour’s civil war of thirty years ago, some of whom who have recently defected from the Greens. I suppose that, at 70, I must also be classed as a veteran   Given all this, the major threat to personal safety at most Labour Party meetings, dominated as they now are by the Corbynistas, is for someone to fall off their chair. This would be a result of drifting into a doze induced by the boredom of listening to endless retro-slogans from the 1980s.   However, since it appears that my presence and reporting could constitute a safety hazard, I have decided it best not to attend for the time being.