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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A strange defection in North Norfolk

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After five decades of political activism I recognise that people are always entitled to change their opinions. Many well-meaning individuals were seduced by Jeremy Corbyn’s evangelism when he was elected Labour leader; now they are having doubts. Recently I’ve been on the receiving end of multiple shame-faced variants of “I supported him for his principles but he is not much of a leader’’.   As the football fans chant “It’s gone very quiet over there”. However if we are to move the Labour Party back to electability we must, I know, be prepared to forget the mistakes people made eighteen months ago.   Nevertheless some things really rankle.

On 13th October 2015, a month after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader a piece appeared in the New Statesman. It was written by a Norfolk-based journalist, Lauren Ravazi, under the headline: “It’s nothing radical: Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters on why his politics are just common sense”. It was adulatory in tone: “…. a widespread movement; people drawn from a variety of backgrounds who have come together under the umbrella of Corbynism to support principles of equality, fairness and democracy”…. ”Welcome to the new British politics”.

One of three people identified in the article was a local party member, a Cromer literary director Jen Hamilton-Emery. She was quoted as describing Corbyn as a man of strong and unshakeable principles. That same month Jen became Chair of the North Norfolk Labour Party and wrote to us all saying:

“I decided to stand as Chair after attending the recent Labour Party Conference in Brighton where I was reminded why I had joined the Party in the first place. The New Politics outlined by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell struck a chord with me: Labour values, fit for a modern age, where everyone is encouraged to express their views and have their voices heard”.

I’d always liked Jen and was disappointed with her seemingly uncritical support for Jeremy Corbyn so the starry-eyed comments in the Statesman piece jarred. I was even more disappointed, and somewhat surprised, when she resigned as local Chair just five months later citing personal reasons. Whatever the underlying causes, and we never found out, on a personal level I continue to wish Jen well.

What I do find extraordinary however is that that she has now defected to the LibDems. On 16th February she sent out an e-mail in which she said “I have never been a Corbin (sic) fan, but was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but his 3-line whip in support of May’s Brexit plan was the last straw”.   Even by North Norfolk standards, where defections are common (the Conservatives and LibDems seem to be both interchangeable and indistinguishable), such a complete reversal of opinion in a short period strikes me as odd.

Feeling a little aggrieved I contacted the Statesman journalist suggesting that she should produce a follow-up article on the change of heart. I received a prompt and courteous reply. Lauren Ravazi informed me that she too had now joined the LibDems and, moreover, “As for writing about any of this, I prefer to put pen to paper on issues of global development and space exploration these days.” I can only wish her well with the latter – with consistency like this we don’t dwell on the same planet.

Funny things happen in Norfolk.

Another dismal North Norfolk bye-election

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The late Earl of Leicester, a local aristocrat and wealthy local landowner, once described the North Norfolk division where I now live as follows: “the one constituency in England where, in 1964, it was so feudal that it had to be explained to the electors that the ballot was secret.” He was incorrect. It may be out of the way, but North Norfolk has a sophisticated electorate and a surprising history of radicalism.   Not only did Labour win the seat in 1964, but that election produced the Constituency’s fourth Labour MP – the first being elected in the 1920s. The agricultural workers were well aware that the ballot was secret; they organised and they and their families went to vote in large numbers.

This is now a historical footnote. The Labour candidate who won in 1964 lost the seat to the Conservatives in 1970; in 2001 a Liberal Democrat captured it, and he continues to hold it through a combination of affability, good local organisation and an absence of strong opinions on anything political.

Organised agricultural workers are no longer a political force in the area. This is an inevitable result of the move from labour intensive to capital-intensive production in the arable farms of Norfolk. The farm owned by my wife’s family, seven miles from our home, once employed eight full time workers and between three and five casual labourers. Mechanisation meant that there was insufficient work simply producing sugar beet and barley and the farm has become the basis of a most successful business offering bed and breakfast and holiday lets and now employs only a part-time cleaner.

Given the changing composition of the population, with many retired people moving to this attractive coastal area, it is hard to see how Labour could ever again become a serious contender for the Parliamentary Seat. As I indicated in my previous blog, the class basis of politics has faded over the course of my political lifetime. The votes of progressively minded people, and there are many about even in North Norfolk, must be secured through other routes. I am increasingly convinced that the argument for economic and social justice must be deployed internationally; it will take us a long time to get there but I believe that the process has begun.

Unfortunately such optimism means that we will have to wait in North Norfolk. On 9th February we had another District Council bye-election; this time in the Waterside Division, which abuts the Norfolk Broads. We had a fine candidate who lived nearby and was a former Councillor. He is a committed amateur historian of the local labour movement and reminds me much of the sort of elder statesman who took the time and had the patience to encourage me when I first joined the Party as a teenager.

Sadly our candidate polled only 41 votes compared with 210, albeit on much higher poll, for the leading Labour candidate in the same area two years ago (a drop from 8.5% to 3.5% in Labour’s percentage). I have just received an e-mail in which our Constituency Secretary crassly copied in details of all current members: this indicated that in total there are some 420 full Labour Party members in North Norfolk. It seems that we are rapidly approaching the situation where we have more people signing up to vote in Labour’s leadership election than are prepared to vote Labour at the ballot-box. Earlier this year our rising local star, an able young businessman who became Mayor of Cromer in his 20s, resigned from the Party citing disaffection with the national leadership. The local Labour Party Chairman responded to this resignation by telling our newspaper that the local party was ‘going from strength to strength’. ‘Alternative facts’ are not the exclusive preserve of Donald Trump.

We could indeed have a long wait for any recovery to reach darkest Norfolk, but I live in hope that it will happen eventually.

Save the Sharrington phone box?

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One downside of living in a small Norfolk Village is that very little happens. When it does, however, word gets round quickly: the incident becomes a much-repeated topic of conversation. Our communal village facilities consist of the Church, a Village Hall and a telephone box. Shortly after we moved here there was an event that caused great excitement: it transpired that, for several days, the telephone box had become the temporary overnight shelter for a passing itinerant. Eventually the person moved on and things went back to normal. The box has remained empty and unused ever since. See the picture above that draws attention to the spiders’ webs and intruding greenery.

I have made this a topic of my blog because our local our local Labour Party has embarked on a bizarre campaign to safeguard the future of this amenity. BT (British Telecom) is proposing the removal of over seventy phone boxes in rural villages in the county. Although BT has stated that it will not remove boxes in areas where the mobile signal is poor, their commitment is treated with scepticism. Hence the North Norfolk Labour Party’s initiative: it is “opposing the removal of this lifeline in our rural communities”. Note the word lifeline.

We first came here in 1997. Over that 19-year period I have never once seen anyone enter and use the phone box; I did not witness the passing itinerant personally.  Some good friends who live opposite the box tell me that, very occasionally, they have seen men in flashy cars pull up outside and make a call – the purpose of which is unclear. So if the box is removed we could be making it more difficult to make untraceable calls, thus diminishing local provision for illicit relationships and for criminal activity. As for the ‘lifeline’ argument, I am sure that any real emergency would be dealt with by a landline call from the home of a sympathetic resident.

Locally–driven political campaigns need to be carefully judged. In North Norfolk our Labour candidate at the last General Election, the excellent Denise Burke, built up her reputation with a well-researched, high profile campaign on deficiencies in the local ambulance service. The local Labour Party has continued this theme with a petition on excessive charges for parking at local hospitals. Such campaigns have a resonance because everyone feels they might, at some time, need an ambulance or spend long periods visiting a relative in hospital. This doesn’t apply to telephone boxes; they are a charming relic of a bygone age, now only used in period drama. I am sure that those behind the phone box campaign are well intentioned – but the Labour Party needs to be identified with forward thinking and new solutions not nostalgic retrospection.

 

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