Digital marketing is fine, but I didn’t vote for Steffan

Analysis of the votes recorded in the County Council elections confirms what we already suspected: North Norfolk is a highly marginal LibDem/Conservative seat. On May 4th the LibDems polled 43% of the votes cast and the Conservatives 38%. We will get a lot of media attention here and can get used to having a microphone stuck in our faces when we go for fish and chips in Cromer.

The big surprise was the collapse in the UKip vote, down to just over 5%. They have now announced that they will not field a candidate next month and the assumption is that their vote will mainly go to the Conservatives. Similarly the Greens will not be standing here at the General Election. In the May County elections Labour polled marginally under 10% and we will be a major target as the LibDems try to persuade those of left of centre views to vote tactically.

The LibDems have an impressive, well-oiled machine and I was not surprised to receive two personalised e-mails, as well as the normal leaflets, from them during the local elections. One e-mail arrived the day before polling. It was from my MP, Norman Lamb, saying that “The Liberal Democrat candidate for Melton Constable Division is Steffan Aquarone and I am backing him to win. I hope you will be able to support him”.  The second, which arrived mid-day polling day, was from Steffan himself telling me that “The result in Melton Constable could be close today and I’ll need your help to win!” The rest of both the texts was predictably banal but it is always nice to make new friends and to receive such personal attention.

Despite these pleas I didn’t vote for Steffan Aquarone, and for two reasons. First, I will never vote LibDem (see my earlier blog Why I won’t vote for Norman http://wp.me/p5dTrr-eQ) . Secondly I could not have voted for him even if I wanted to do so; Sharrington, the village where I live, lies in the Wells division not Melton Constable.

In short, we have a Customer Relationship Management database cock-up. A friend, who is a leading authority on the subject, said that this sort of error is ‘understandable, common, but not good’. That could nicely sum up the Norfolk LibDems. I bear Steffan Aquarone no ill-will and would not normally have drawn attention to his mistake. However, I note that on his website he claims to have ‘spoken around the world on innovation, entrepreneurship and digital marketing’. Oh dear.

 

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Tactics but no strategy – the Tory Campaign

Our local North Norfolk News is published on a Thursday so an edition appeared on council election day (May 4th). Before I and the other regular readers could reach the front-page headline of ‘Mammoth bone found on the beach’, or the other similarly exciting articles, we had to negotiate a four page advertisement placed by the Conservative Party. This was clever timing on their part, but will have cost them a lot and must be declared as an election expense.

The content of the four pages was entirely predictable with their campaign mantra dominating the front page: ‘strong, stable leadership’ or ‘a coalition of chaos and instability’. This will be repeated ad nauseam over the remaining weeks of the campaign and avoids the need for any expression of political or economic strategy. Keep it simple stupid. It reminds me of the approach that we adopted when I played rugby.

The pinnacle of my rugby career occurred when I played in the back row for Lancaster University 3rd XV.   The reason I was in the thirds was because we didn’t have a 4th XV. We had one tactic.   We kicked the ball down the field directly at the opposing full back in the hope that something would happen. The opposing full-back was likely to be the least talented player on the field: sometimes he would be a spare player of ours who we had loaned to opponents who had arrived short of numbers; sometimes he would be an overseas student who had turned up out of curiosity and had never played the game before. There was a strong possibility of the ball getting stuck in the mud on its travels or of a fumble when it arrived. We had not thought of anything beyond this stage; we had tactics but no strategy and if we ever won it was by accident and the opponent’s mistakes.

The Conservatives too are relying on their opponent’s mistakes. The mantra will get very tedious in course of a long campaign.

 

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The wheels come off in North Norfolk

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

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

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

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

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

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Who will fight North Norfolk? – apply on the website

Anyone with an appetite for detailed political analysis should take a look at the excellent Electoral Calculus website maintained by Martin Baxter: http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/homepage.html

In this site he takes an overall prediction based on current national polls (Conservatives at 43.5%, Labour at 25.7%, LibDems at 10.5%) and translates it into votes at constituency and even ward level. Fascinating stuff for the election nerd.

On this basis he is predicting that the incumbent LibDem MP, Norman Lamb, will hold North Norfolk in June with a 5.4% lead over the Conservatives. My guess is that it will be much tighter, but what is of more interest is his prediction that the Labour vote will drop to 6.4% from the 10.2% we achieved at the 2015 election.

For overseas readers, a deposit of £500 is required for a candidate to stand at a general election and this is paid by the local party. I was the Parliamentary Agent in 2015 and was obliged to withdraw cash (cheques not acceptable) from a Cromer bank and take it a mile up the road to the Council offices. A deposit is refunded only if a threshold of 5% of the votes is achieved. In other words, if things get any worse as this election progresses there is a risk of the humiliation of a lost deposit here.

In the 2015 election we were most fortunate with our candidate. We had plenty of time to choose and our Party Chair, Denise Burke, put her name forward. At the formal selection evening, when the candidates were due to present their views at hustings, she faced just one challenge: a young man whose name I cannot recall and who was based in London. We all assembled in the Cromer Community Hall and a series of mobile telephone exchanges with Denise’s challenger took place. He first revealed that he was on his way, then that he had lost his way, and eventually simply did not appear. Although we all wondered where he had ended up, there was relief all round when we were able to select Denise. She proved to be an excellent candidate who, in happier times, would have made a very good MP. Undoubtedly our poll benefited from her energy and enthusiasm.

This time round the unexpected election call means that the timetable for selection will be compressed. Our Labour Party Regional Office is charged with contacting Denise and seeing if she will stand again. We shall see but my guess is that, regrettably, this is unlikely.   The next stage in the process is, to quote, from the guidance we have all received: “adverts will be placed on the Labour Party website from Friday 21 April and applications close on Sunday 23rd April at noon inviting applications from party members seeking selection…. Candidates will also be asked to indicate their preference of seat in which they are seeking selection”. The Regional Office will then approve and allocate candidates.

I cannot believe that anyone outside North Norfolk will express a preference for our seat. It is a very long way to come, although it may appeal to someone whose hobby is bird watching. We have a Dad’s Army Branch of Momentum operating in our seaside town of Sheringham and, heaven help us, they may make use of their network and seek to find someone of like persuasion. I will await further communications from the party with interest.

 

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Why I won’t vote for Norman

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Seen at the end of the Unite for Europe march

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Buy at the bottom

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

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

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

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

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Regaining trust – is am-dram the answer?

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The second half of 1985 was without doubt the worst period of my working life. I had spent some 17 years at the National Coal Board and we were all reeling from the effects of the year-long catastrophic strike. I had then been promoted to a job teaching at the industry’s internal management college, where we received instructions that our Chairman, Ian MacGregor, required us to devote all our efforts to improving the communication skills of colliery managers. He seemed to believe that the strike was a result of a corporate failure to put his message across at the coalface (for once a literal use of the term).

Opinions may differ on the causes of the strike, and what should have been done, but all of us knew that MacGregor was totally wrong in his analysis. The nature of the mining industry meant that there was plenty of contact and exchange between management and workers. They lived in the same communities and often had close family connections. The issue was not communication: there was an underlying political and economic agenda that needed to be resolved.

All this came flooding back when I saw Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction to the recent disastrous bye-election result at Copeland. “… Our message was not enough to win through in Copeland” he said “ To win power to rebuild and transform Britain, Labour will go further to reconnect with voters, and break with the failed political consensus.” This echoed his supporters’ underlying belief that, if their perspective was not distorted by a hostile media, the voters would immediately return to Labour.

This is, of course, nonsense. Flooding the estates with imported bands of Momentum activists would only make things worse. It would serve to remind the electorate of how detached the Corbyn supporters are from the aspirations and ambitions of most people, and how shallow the solutions on offer are. Banging on doors simply serves to remind the electorate of our malaise and, indeed, could make traditional Labour voters further question their intentions.

In recent blogs I have drawn attention to some defections of prominent North Norfolk individuals from Labour to the LibDems. I greatly regretted the departure of a former Mayor of Cromer: he was a fine young man. Before he resigned from the party he circulated his concerns over a members’ meeting held in November. The agenda included “role play activity which was aimed at developing skills and confidence in campaigning on the doorstep”. This, the former Mayor, described this as ‘unrealistic am-dram’.   However it was adjudged a success by the organisers and, on the Saturday immediately before Copeland, a morning session was scheduled where “through role play we will show different ways to engage with residents, discuss issues and find out whether they support Labour”.

One of the co-presenters of the session has a history of revolutionary Trotskyism. In fairness to him I doubt if he intended to use the occasion to explore the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’ (the way in which material, ideological, and institutional processes in capitalist society mislead members of the proletariat*). He might just as well done so, for all the good that sessions like this are going to have at this stage. Simply promoting the Party on the doorstep will serve no purpose until we have something to offer that makes sense to the electorate.   Until and unless we address the underlying policy vacuum, and get a new leader, all that is on offer is further decline.

 

* Taken from the Wikipedia definition of the term

 

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