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.

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Dealing with antisemitism in the North Norfolk Labour Party

Attached below is a link to a submission that I have made to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Investigation into the Labour Party.

The submission concerns a series of unfortunate and interconnected events that took place in the North Norfolk Labour Party (NNLP) over the period March-May 2019.  In summary the party passed a resolution applauding the efforts of the leadership under Jeremy Corbyn to ‘weed out and deal with genuine antisemitic behaviour appropriately’. The resolution was presented to the local party by an individual who was subsequently placed under investigation for alleged antisemitism and suspended by the national party.  The response of the local NNLP leadership was ill judged and damaging.

There are important lessons here in dealing with the antisemitism crisis that the Labour Party is facing.  Although I have taken a break from blogging this issue is so important that I am bringing this evidence into the public domain.

Dealing with Antisemitism in NNLP

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A non-event of considerable significance

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When, on 7th May, the de-facto Deputy Prime Minister, David Liddington announced that, out of necessity, the elections to the European Parliament would take place, our two major parties did not want to know. The Mays and the Corbyns resembled a mutually antagonistic set of parents obliged to attend a wedding that both sides wished wasn’t taking place. Pretend it isn’t happening and get through the day in the hope that normal relations with everybody else could be restored afterwards.  However, as the People’s Vote campaign argued in their final supporter’s mailing “With Farage’s Brexit Party moving ahead in the polls, it is vital for everyone to get out and vote for pro-People’s Vote parties tomorrow”.

People’s Vote were correct: the extent of the Remain versus Leave vote will prove to be of considerable importance. So also will the share of the vote across the competing parties.

Indeed, looking at the results, it may be that this unwanted poll will prove to be a significant milestone in reshaping our political landscape.  The UK turnout at 37% was as high as could be expected. The woeful Conservative performance will have a major influence on the competition to succeed Theresa May as leader. Labour cannot pretend that ambiguity on the most important issue of our time is seen as anything other than a dereliction of duty. Labour’s share of the UK vote at under 15% puts us well behind the LibDems and only two percentage points above the Greens. In the North Norfolk District Labour polled just 1325 votes (a miserable 3.8%) and finished in sixth place, even behind the near extinct UKIP Party.  Will our local party finally get the message, I wonder?

Worse still for Labour the European elections will go down as a massive missed opportunity to redefine ourselves: we will only survive as a progressive 21st century movement by adopting an international perspective.  So many of the problems that matter to us and the voters we care for  – combatting terrorism, climate change, regulation of the technology giants, economic opportunities for school-leavers – require committed international co-operation. Labour should have campaigned as an unequivocal ‘remain and reform’ party, to use Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s term.

The national Labour leaflet that was delivered to my doorstep could best be described can be dismissed as a desperate attempt to save a failing relationship: ‘please don’t leave me whatever you think of my behaviour’. At the local level our Party Chair adopted a more forthright tone: “The reality of a no deal Brexit would be for the wide boys of the city to make shed loads of money whilst life for working class people would get even harder than it is under the Tories now”.Using language like this, a hangover from the class war of the 1980s, will have limited appeal to successor generations.

Yes indeed Brexit will drag on and on.  The Tory leadership election will be the focus of national attention but it will take us no further forward in the short term. Brexit’s resolution could be quicker, however, than reversing the Labour Party’s decline as our legacy vote disappears.

I have now decided to attend some local Labour Party meetings. I am curious to see if the bombast when Corbyn became leader has been replaced by a more reflective tone.  I have incidentally been told that the local party will be raising my online behaviour with the Labour Party Eastern Region Office. It may be that they are nominating me for an award, but I doubt that this is the case.  One way or another I would have thought that the Regional Office of the Labour Party would have other things to do and I await developments.

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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.

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.

A depressing doorstep encounter in Wells-next-the-sea

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Three distinct events took place on Wednesday 30thApril; separately and together they caused me to reflect on the uphill task faced by those of us who are mainstream Labour members and are staying in the Party. It is not looking good in the short-term.

The first occurred in the morning in the attractive coastal town of Wells-next-the–sea.   My good friend Mike Gates was standing for the District Council.  His political perspective is similar to mine; we have been Labour activists for many years and have seen it all before.  Mike had previously represented Wells on the North Norfolk District Council and was guardedly optimistic about his prospects this time round.  Neither the LibDem nor the Tory Candidate lived in the town and Mike was well known locally; he had recently retired as the local postman.  Sadly, like all North Norfolk Labour candidates, he was unsuccessful when the poll took place the following day.  I will comment on the local results in more detail in my next blog.

I spent a morning delivering leaflets for him in a large estate that had been built as council housing but was now the usual mix of owner-occupancy and social housing.  Mike had warned me to expect apathetic indifference and occasional downright hostility towards politics and politicians.

I should know better than to indulge in arguments on the doorstep.  The standard advice, if someone disagrees with you, is to move on as quickly as possible. However as I grow older I am getting (even) more intolerant and more irritable. I handed a leaflet to an elderly man watering his garden.  When he found out it was Labour he rudely told me to clear off; I moved on to the next door but foolishly responded, rather than ignored, his shout of ‘let me ask you one question?’  Inevitably it was about Brexit.

There followed a wholly purposeless dialogue.  He began by grumbling about the money we were paying to bureaucrats; I said it was all about securing 21stcentury jobs for our grandchildren.  There was not the slightest prospect of any common ground. My lasting impression however was how strongly he felt: with some justification he believed he has been let down by a political process that promised but failed to deliver.  He was desperate to tell someone, even someone he despised.  Suggesting that he had been on the receiving end of a wholly dishonest leave campaign – he had been lied to – would have had no effect.  I am sure that such conversations are being repeated up and down the country.

That same afternoon the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee announced its manifesto position for the European Elections of May 23rd.  It is one that, despite my long-standing membership, I would find impossible to defend on the doorstep. It has been comprehensively analysed in the newspapers but, for the benefit of overseas readers, it maintains the fiction that there is  ‘Labour’s alternative plan’which could deliver Brexit and honour the referendum result. In this way “Labour is the only party which represents both people who leave and remain.  We are working to bring the country together after the chaos and crisis created by the Tories” (to quote from a Party spokesperson).

Stuff and nonsense.  There is a hard choice to be made here – in or out of the EU.  There is no way I and the man I encountered on the doorstep in Wells can be brought together until this whole debacle over the EU is resolved; if it results in a UK exit the fractious debate will rumble on for the next decade.  David Cameron caused the problem but Jeremy Corbyn and his entourage have exacerbated it through such dishonest opportunism.

Given this, the final depressing event of a miserable day came as no surprise. I received an email from a young man in his early thirties who I first met when I transferred my Labour Party membership from London to North Norfolk.   He was brought up in the nearby town of Holt and is an individual of considerable capability and immense promise.  He wrote: “I’m afraid I’ve resigned from the party, today’s manifesto fudge was too much … I’m not joining any other party, but I’m not sure I can stomach voting for the pro-Brexit manifesto in the European elections”.

This is all very sad, especially in the centenary year of the foundation of the North Norfolk Labour Party.  Can we rebuild and if so how?  My pal Mike Gates remembers the 1980s and thinks we can and will. History will repeat itself. I hope he’s right, but at this stage I cannot bring myself to share his optimism.

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.

An intriguing doorstep encounter in North Norfolk

The District Council elections in North Norfolk are now in full swing, or as near to ‘full’ as any swing is possible in this rather quiet area.  My vote this time will be in the Stody Ward. In previous elections my area was known as Glaven Valley: I stood as the Labour candidate in 2015 going down to a humiliating defeat.  The boundaries may have changed but the prospects, in one of the most rural swathes of Norfolk, remain unremittingly dismal.

Someone else is standing as the Labour Candidate this time, and he has already secured my postal vote – irrespective of my views on the national leadership of the Party.  We do however appear to be witnessing a determined fight between the LibDems and the Conservatives reflecting a battle for overall control of the Council.  Both groups are fundamentally non-political, indeed often anti-political.   The main issue that seems to be exciting local passions is the fate of the Sand Martins at Bacton beach: the birds were prevented from nesting on the cliff-side by nets erected by North Norfolk District Council in an attempt to attempt to combat cliff erosion.  Their fate made the national news and the Council swiftly moved the nets.

The local LibDem flier that I received was predictably bland. The Conservative leaflet was far more forthright and even ventured into politics “The Liberal Democrats are supporting a campaign to oppose Brexit and hold another referendum, disregarding the will of the British people. We cannot risk sending an endorsement of their divisive politics”.  Quite what the District Council can do about this I don’t know, but for a Tory to talk about divisive politics over Brexit merely underlines the adage that criminals always return to the scene of their crime.

However something else in the Tory leaflet attracted my attention. Our local candidate’s personal statement on the back page of a generic publication began “I’m a working class man who is passionate about creating opportunities for others…”.  I would not have expected such self-description: most of our local Tories like to pretend to be toffs. All was explained when the candidate came to my door.  We had a most unusual encounter: in fairness to the man I was deliberately provocative.

I began by reminding him of the mass defection of previously elected local Tories to form an Independent Group on the Council before going on to his motivation.  He told me that he had been brought up on a Council estate in West London; I responded by telling him that I too was brought up on a Council estate – in my case in South Wales.  He rather lost the thread by asking me why I was living in a nice big house in a nice village and not in Wales and then advanced his view that it was because Wales was a Labour area and “Labour areas are sh***oles”.My assertion that we had retired to Norfolk because of my wife’s family connections, and also I liked it here, did not seem to placate him in any way.  His next question was “why aren’t you standing for the Council here – why are you standing in North Walsham?”  Clearly he had me confused with someone else. I am not standing anywhere but have had letters published in the local press.  North Walsham does however offer the best prospect for Labour and he proceeded to describe this attractive market town as another ‘sh***ole’ – evidently this is one of his favourite expressions.

The encounter was as intriguing as it was revealing.   I do not want to be too unfair to our Conservative candidate as doubtless he has personal aspirations that are well intentioned.   Our exchange did however remind me that class politics and class prejudice are alive and well: they are simply taking a different form up here.

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.

The Banner Bright – a tribute

 

 

Providing it is isn’t pouring with rain, every spring morning I cycle three miles to the Co-op in nearby Melton Constable to buy my newspaper. There is little immediate employment in the former market town beyond a small number of retail outlets, a social club, and casual labour on one of the local farms; it is not unusual to see a group of migrant workers assembled at the bus stop waiting to be transported to their workplace for the day.  At its height Melton Constable was a railway town – the Crewe of North Norfolk – and was a junction for passengers and livestock destined for sale at the larger markets.

100 years ago this September the North Norfolk Labour Party was established at a meeting held in Melton Constable.  It is commemorated in an excellent booklet, The Banner Bright, researched and produced by our local Labour archivist, David Russell.  Little is known about the formation meeting beyond the fact that it is likely to have coincided with the 1919 Railway strike, which, according to Wikipedia “was precipitated when the government announced plans to reduce rates of pay which had been negotiated by ASLEF and NUR during the First World War. After nine days of strike action, the government agreed to maintain wages for another year”.

Simply reading this reminds us of how much has been achieved subsequently.  What I wonder would those pioneers have made of the endless derogation of a Labour Government that, amongst many other achievements, introduced the minimum wage across all sectors of the economy?   I suspect that they would have little patience with the ready embrace of ideological purity at the expense of reaching out to achieve power in order to change things.

David Russell and his team have undertaken painstaking research. They have identified the many individuals who contributed to the development of the Labour Party and even listed the local streets that have been named in their memory. This impressive work, however, raises many questions that, sadly, in the absence of written personal recollections we will never be able to answer.  One that particularly intrigues me is how these previous generations of Labour activists communicated with each other and, indeed, how they ever managed to meet.  I have asked the older residents of my village how they travelled and the main answer seems to be they never went anywhere – beyond the three miles to Holt if they had a motor bike.  Less affluent people used telephone kiosks up to the 1960s  (we still have one in our village but I have never seen anyone use it) and letter post was the only alternative.

One question where we can attempt an answer is what motivated these pioneers. Their lives were hard; they were conscious that they were exploited; they wanted something better for themselves and their family.  The way forward was clear: Labour Party support was built on offering the working class policies that would advance their economic interests while creating a fairer, more just, society.  There was no conflict seen between what the individual desired and what was needed for society.  Success in North Norfolk was built on galvanising this working-class vote: big arable farms meant that there were large numbers of poorly paid labourers working together in close proximity – similar to the mines or the docks.

This organisation produced a succession of Labour MPs in North Norfolk, something that only ended with the defeat of MP Bert Hazell in 1970: the son of a Norfolk farm worker, he had left school at 14 to work on a farm in Attleborough, where his duties included scaring crows.  Again we should remind ourselves of how far we have come. Today many 14 year olds in Attleborough will be setting their sights on University – something for which the last Labour Government deserves much credit.

All of this history and more is documented in the centenary booklet.  The Banner Bright is a fitting tribute to generations whose sense of perspective was better than ours.  My congratulations to David Russell, Tim and Ruth Bartlett, Stephen Burke and Jasper Haywoood for reminding us of how much we owe these pioneers and the need to build on their legacy rather than drift into the irrelevancy of gesture politics.  North Norfolk Labour Party Executive please take note.

To obtain a copy of The Banner Bright please see the comment below from David Russell

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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.