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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It’s been a long time coming, but it’s welcome

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It gives me a deal of pleasure to be able to resume my weekly blog on a positive note. At long last there has been some shift in the Labour leader’s position. Now we are in favour of continued customs union membership. To quote from his Coventry speech:

“Labour would seek a final deal that gives full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union… with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections.”

No one should underestimate the extent of the shift and the opportunity that this provides for avoiding the Brexit catastrophe. Well done to all those who, over time, persuaded Jeremy Corbyn to shift his position.

I can’t include myself in that number, although at one time I knew him moderately well. I was a very active Labour Party member in Corbyn’s North Islington from the mid-70s to 1987 and did not hold him in high regard – I am sure that this feeling was reciprocated. In fact my Islington period covered the year when Corbyn was alleged to have consorted with a secret agent from the Czech republic. The idea that, at that time, anybody would have told him anything that mattered and that he would then have remembered it is absurd. However, in fairness, he has developed skills since becoming leader and is now pointing in the right direction.

The next challenge is to get him off the hook that the referendum vote must be treated as a considered and definitive decision that cannot be reversed – whatever the subsequent facts that have come to be light. In the course of a New European podcast published as recently as February 23rd , just three days before the Coventry speech, he was asked if Labour’s position on Brexit was shifting. He replied: “What we have said is that we accept the result of the referendum. We are leaving the European Union… We can’t be members of the single market because we won’t be members of the European Union”. *

The EU negotiators will not allow us to cherry-pick (or, as the Spanish apparently call it, sherry-pick) in this way. Signing up to everything that matters while pretending you are leaving may get the Labour Party through the next two years but it is not a strategy for Government.   Sooner or later political leaders must tell the electorate that they got it wrong. However let’s be thankful for some progress after a dreadful 2017.

*Listen on http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-labour-1-5406396

 

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It’s all happening – except in North Norfolk

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Flocking to the polls in Sharrington Village Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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