Letting down a generation

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Evidence of the harmful impact of Brexit mounts by the day. The UK car industry will be particularly damaged: on February 3rd Nissan announced that it would now build its X-Trail car in Japan rather than Sunderland.

In an excellent recent New Statesman article, Jonathan Powell, Chief of Staff under Tony Blair, argued ”The Prime Minister and many of her colleagues knew they were doing something that would do great harm to the country but did not dare stop it for fear of being unseated by the extremists in their own party”.[i]  In her defence nobody, and that includes the Prime Minister herself, fully realised how much harm would be done; the electorate were seduced by dishonest Brexiteers who pretended it would be easy to forge new trade deals.   Nissan has demonstrated the fallacy of that assumption, which, amongst other things, disregards the complexity of supply chains in high value manufacturing and precision engineering.

Here I have some professional interest.  I spent my career in management education and training and, in the latter part, specialised in skills development and apprenticeships. In November 2013 I was asked to give evidence to the Select Committee of the House of Lords Inquiry into EU (European Union) action to tackle youth unemployment.  I presented a case study of a success story. It related to a factory based in Llanelli, South Wales. Part of the German owned Schaeffler Group, the factory employed 220 people producing high specification bearings for motor engines. It was an exemplary organisation and to quote one of my published articles:

“The company faced increasing competition from low labour cost countries as group production capacity was placed in Eastern Europe (Slovakia and Romania) where wages are a fraction of those in the UK.  The company responded by developing the capability to deliver higher value added products. There was a planned focus on continuous improvement, cost reduction and, as an integral component of the process, a sustained attempt to up-skill the workforce”.

On reading of the Nissan decision I plucked up courage to update my knowledge of the Llanelli factory and was saddened, but not surprised, to find the following headline in a 6th November article in WalesOnline: 220 jobs axed with closure of Llanelli auto parts plant due to ‘Brexit uncertainty’. A link to the article is set out below.

 

https://www.walesonline.co.uk/business/business-news/live-updates-250-jobs-axed-15377458

This is a tragedy.  The plant was established in 1957 and offered high quality apprenticeships in an area of high unemployment and limited opportunities.  It was, together with an Indian IT consultancy based in Bangalore, the best managed organisation I encountered in over twenty years researching the subject.

From a comfortable retirement base in North Norfolk I feel very angry.  Not just about the dishonesty of Brexit – the charade of ‘we’ll make Britain great again’ – but about the dismal performance of the national leadership of the party that I joined in South Wales fifty years ago.  Local Labour representatives in Llanelli, including the excellent MP Nia Griffith, are doing their best; Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes wouldn’t began to understand what a supply chain is and are in hiding in the hope that a catastrophe will propel them to power.  That is a heavy price for a generation of school-leavers to pay: it is easy to destroy opportunities; it takes ages to rebuild.  Once factories like Schaeffler Llanelli have gone they are gone for good, taking the quality jobs with them.

So I make no apologies for, in a very modest way, continuing the fight. Following my previous blog in which I drew attention to problems here in North Norfolk, I received a reprimand from the current Chair of the local Labour Party.   He is the fourth person to occupy this position in the four years since Momentum took control and the third in succession to try to tell me off for the contents of my blog. He wrote:  “even though we may disagree on Labour policy issues we are all members of that broad socialist church”.  While the Labour leader behaves in this way, and unscrupulously avoids engaging in the major question of the day, I have no intention of joining Mr. Corbyn and his acolytes where they choose to worship.  I will carry on writing as I please.

[i]Jonathan Powell, The rise and fall of Britain’s political class, New Statesman, 30th January 2019

Ina

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.

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More life in a bottle of pop

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This blog was written towards the end of a thoroughly depressing week.  It will be my last for some time and a sad note on which to take a break. I can only hope things will improve before I resume.

Wednesday marked the failure to make any significant changes to the EU Withdrawal Bill – shortly to become the Withdrawal Act.  This was most disappointing, not least because of Labour’s deliberately ambiguous position in the Parliamentary debates that took place. I was deflated even further when I attended a meeting of my local North Norfolk Labour Party the following day.

The local meeting was held to give our Labour Member of the European Parliament, Alex Mayer, the opportunity ‘to answer questions on the Brexit process and how she sees the Labour position’.   I did not envy her this task.  She is in a very tricky position, not least because she will lose her job next year, and she deserves some sympathy.

Alex Mayer voted Remain, is aware of the damage that withdrawal will cause, and has publicly committed to the single market.  She must also be conscious of the dismal performance of Labour in Parliament and the cynical opportunism of the Leadership’s current position on Europe; doubtless this dominates discussions with socialist colleagues in Brussels, both from the UK and the other EU members.   However most local Labour Parties are in the hands of people who are infatuated with Jeremy Corbyn and this certainly true of North Norfolk. Like most doomed love affairs there is nothing to be done beyond letting events run their course.

How I wondered would Alex Mayer cope?

She is a competent person, thoroughly in command of her facts, and had hit on an ingenious solution to navigate the political challenge. This was to adopt a fatalistic acceptance that Brexit is going to happen, coupled with a vague hope that the length of the process might mean that things could improve over time.  She mentioned Jeremy Corbyn and his ambiguous stance just once. Her performance was capable but detached, almost an academic lecture, and offended nobody but it wholly lacked passion.  Brexit is bad but, like the weather, we should make the best of it.  Our local members seemed wholly satisfied with this defeatist attitude.  So long as Jeremy is not threatened, it seems they will go along with anything.

I can only say that this is simply not good enough.  A casual acceptance of something that will damage economic prospects for the next decade is a sign of a complete absence of political virility.   As we used to say on the football terraces, there is more life in a bottle of pop.

stop backing brexit

I do so hope that my mood will be lifted when I join with three generations of my family at the March for a People’s Vote on Saturday. Jeremy Corbyn should, of course, be leading this march.  Every local Labour Party should be out in the shopping centres and on the doorstep collecting signatures for a People’s Vote petition.  This would have massive long-term political advantages: it would consolidate the votes of many remainers who voted Labour in 2015 but are drifting away; Labour would be positioned at the centre of the debate on employment. Above all Jeremy Corbyn should be leading the march because it is the right thing to do.

 

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It’s all much clearer; it isn’t

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There is a growing feeling that Brexit is inevitable, but is it? A vote in the Scottish Parliament to deny consent to the Withdrawal Bill and shifting opinion in Northern Ireland are the latest indications of potential opposition.  In October or November this year the Government will present the final Brexit deal to Parliament.  In the intervening period the insoluble problem of the Irish border may generate a crisis: Theresa May is dependent on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party for her political survival and the Irish Government appears to have maintained the support of the other EU member states.  If, however, there is no political explosion over the Irish border it will come down to the autumn Parliamentary vote on the negotiated deal. There is no majority in Parliament (or anywhere else in the country) for a hard Brexit; there is no majority on the Conservative benches for any form of customs union (whatever the term used to describe it). In short it is a right mess. So what is to be done?

What matters is the Parliamentary arithmetic and the position Jeremy Corbyn takes when his preferred policy of strategic ambiguity has run its course.  There is something that can be done here.  A new campaign #LabourSay has been launched to demand a meaningful debate vote at this autumn’s Labour Party Conference; this takes place a month before the Parliamentary vote.  It will be hard for those who oppose this move to summon credible arguments against it. ‘Leave it to Jeremy and the front bench team’ runs counter to their demands for greater democracy and power to the membership.

One piece of good news is that attitudes have changed in Northern Ireland as the failure to provide a solution to the border problem and the consequences of that failure are becoming more apparent.   Survey research shows 69% would vote Remain if there was another referendum compared to the 56% who voted Remain in June 2016 * .  It would of course be of enormous benefit if there were a significant shift of public opinion in favour of Remain in the rest of the UK. Sadly the local election results of 3rd May produced no indication that this is yet taking place – despite the mounting evidence of the economic damage that withdrawal would cause. The most perceptive comment that I have recently encountered comes from the broadcaster Robert Peston’s 2017 book: ‘There is no point lecturing the British people they have made a mistake in going for Brexit.  They will either decide that for themselves, in a spontaneous awakening led by someone or some people a million miles form the current class of leaders – or they won’t’. **

However we must not give up; what is at stake is too important. I resumed my activism so I could tell my grandchildren that I did my best to give them the opportunity of living in an open, tolerant country at peace with its position in the global community.  The battle will not be won in this remote part of Eastern England but we should all do our bit wherever we are. I am pretty confident the MP for my constituency, LibDem Norman Lamb, will vote the right way when it comes to the push. I shall be presenting my paper, the Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk, at a forthcoming meeting organised by the local Labour Party.  Kate Gott the driving force behind Norfolk4Europe has a mailing list of over 200 names and will be sending a coach from Norwich to the People’s vote march on 23rdJune.

* http://ukandeu.ac.uk/people-in-northern-ireland-want-the-uk-to-stay-in-the-customs-union-and-single-market-new-research-on-public-attitudes-reveals/

**Peston, R., (2017) WTF, Hodder & Stoughton, page 252

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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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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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A high-priced playground?

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In 2009 I taught for a term at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. It was an interesting time to be in the country. The government was trying to decide the best response to the previous year’s global financial crisis in an economy that was clearly unbalanced.   Productivity was poor and the country’s manufacturing sector was finding it increasingly difficult to compete with Australia in the Pacific Rim. Conferences were held; papers written. One phrase struck me: the academic and author Paul Callaghan stated that New Zealand was in danger of becoming “a theme park with a farm”. *

Last week I launched a research paper on the Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk. I distributed the paper it widely and one thoughtful response echoed Callaghan’s sentiment. It came from Martin Collison, of Collison and Associates a specialist consultancy who have been assisting with change management in areas like ours. He wrote:

Technology enabled change is likely to proceed much faster than most people understand, the smartphone which so many people now take for granted and which pervades every aspect of our lives, only really took off in 2007 with the launch of the i-phone.  The adoption of technology is a real challenge for those communities outside the golden triangle of London, Oxford, Cambridge, which benefits from higher data speeds and a concentration of technology businesses.

There is a danger that areas such as North Norfolk are too far away to benefit directly from the success of these technology hotspots and will end up falling back on being a high priced playground for those who do well in these other areas.

With a proactive economic response rural areas can grow in the future, but there are real constraints.  Too often their own communities fight to preserve a rural idyll and some visitors positively seek out rural areas with poor online connectivity to detox.  The cities, enabled by Metro Mayors, are also in many cases resurgent, proactive and lobby very hard to explain to government how they can deliver economic growth and as a result gobble up much of the available funding.  To compete, rural areas need dynamic leadership which is clear about how they too can embrace technology, deliver growth and benefit UK Plc.

This struck me as both insightful and correct and I am grateful to him for letting me reproduce it. We are going to face immense problems of change in North Norfolk; we are ill equipped to reap the benefits that arise from a knowledge-driven economy and it will be younger generations who will suffer. A hard Brexit will make things far worse. Moreover, as Martin Collison, indicates above many of the older generation are quite comfortable with the present situation and see no reason to change.

Just before the 2015 General and Local Elections I, attended out of curiosity, a ‘stand for councillor’ evening at the offices of North Norfolk District Council. At the time in my small village we had real problem on broadband speeds and were investigating an innovative solution involving Wi-Fi transmission from a local church tower. One of the councillors at the evening event, who did not represent our area, had aligned herself with objectors to this initiative. At the meeting she asked me: “It is not a village where many people work from home, so why do you need broadband?” Doubtless the landed gentry said similar things about electric light on the grounds that not many people in the village were able to read.  Not everyone will buy into the need for a proactive economic response.

 

* Callaghan, P. (2009). Wool to Weta: Transforming New Zealand’s Culture & Economy. Auckland University Press.

 

 

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