Two glimmers of light amidst the gloom

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 06.33.11

This last week has been a dispiriting one for those of us of a progressive, international disposition. On Sunday (15thApril) Sir Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame launched the long-awaited ‘People’s Vote’ campaign for a fresh referendum.  The timing could not have been worse; it could hardly have made less impact.  Understandably it was entirely overshadowed by the attacks on Syrian installations that manufactured, stored or supported the use of chemical weapons.  This catastrophe puts all our economic concerns into context.

Later in the week it was revealed that the Home Office had behaved disgracefully in its treatment of long-standing British citizens who settled in the UK from Commonwealth countries before 1971 – with the highest profile victims being the Windrush generation, so-called after the ship that arrived in 1948.

The Government’s performance has rightly been criticised: on Syria for not recalling Parliament; on the treatment of immigrants for its slow response and late apology.  We need an effective opposition and moreover one with the courage to put an unequivocally international perspective. Sadly Jeremy Corbyn has retreated into his comfort zone of pious platitudes on international conflict.  Worse still he seems incapable or unwilling of dealing with continued evidence of antisemitism in the Party he leads.   A House of Commons debate was held on the subject on Tuesday.  Veteran Labour MP Margaret Hodge, once my Councillor In North Islington when Jeremy Corbyn was my MP, was moved to say,  “I never ever thought I would experience significant antisemitism as a member of the Labour party…I have, and it has left me feeling an outsider in the party of which I’ve been a member for over 50 years… I have never felt as nervous and frightened as I feel today about being a Jew. It feels that my party has given permission for antisemitism to go unchallenged. Antisemitism is making me an outsider in my Labour Party.” (and this is 21stCentury Britain).

If ever there were circumstances that underlined the need for Britain acting as a progressive voice as part of the international community they have been abundantly evident over the last seven days.  So, in a gloomy blog, let me offer two threads of comfort. First, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered an inspiring speech to the European Parliament showing the leadership so sadly lacking this side of the channel.  He warned that “there seems to be a European civil war between liberal democracy and rising authoritarianism…where nationalism and egotism takes precedence over what brings us together”; he urged the EU to renew its commitment to democracy. Secondly the House of Lords inflicted a major defeat on the Government by requiring ministers to report on steps to negotiate a continued EU-UK customs union. This may be no more that the latest stage in a long battle but, at last, we can chalk up a win.  The campaign for a Peoples’ Vote may have been derailed, but there are some glimmers of light to beckon us forward.

If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs when they appear, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

Advertisements

Citizens of nowhere unite

24995?itok=USRc8nQ0

With a year to go from the formal EU withdrawal date it is possible to offer a prediction of the most likely outcome.  A starting-point is the House of Commons Exiting the European Union Committee report on The future UK-EU relationship, which was published earlier this month *. This excellent analysis treads carefully on the politics but suggests a possible end position: the UK will re-enter EFTA (the European Free Trade Area: Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein) as a preliminary step to joining the EEA (European Economic Area: EFTA plus Switzerland). This solution will do the least long-term damage to trading relationships while allowing both Tory and Labour leadership to tell the electorate that they have respected their wishes as expressed in the referendum.   If this is indeed what transpires, this shameful chapter will end with us having achieved nothing and dumping a political problem on the next generation.

So how did we get to this state of affairs?  To answer this question we must revisit the June 2016 Referendum campaign.  It seemed poor at the time; in retrospect it looks even worse. Across the political spectrum there was reluctance amongst remainers to argue that a move to a global economy and an international society was a good thing.  There was a strong desire, particularly amongst the new Labour leadership, to avoid offending insular Labour voters, and a feeling that the sooner the referendum was over the better. There was complacency amongst progressives amounting to a belief that we could win by stealth.

We must learn from our mistakes.  In any future encounters that lie ahead – in implementing the eventual solution or even, optimistically, in a fresh referendum – we must not be afraid to articulate a positive vision.  We must unapologetically put the case for an internationalist perspective.

A necessary start will be to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism.  My country was at its best during the London Olympics.  There was real buzz in the City.  We delivered a challenging event with remarkable efficiency, made many thousands welcome, and shared something with the world.  As a Welshman living in Norfolk I hold to a particular patriotism. I am proud of many features of the society in which I live.  We have a robust welfare state; we have a system of government that is free of corruption; we care for our heritage, and make it accessible to all; we have many of the world’s leading Universities.  However I have been fortunate, in my professional capacity, to have worked overseas alongside colleagues from many different countries. What has struck me is that our aspirations are the same: people I respect want the best for their children and grandchildren but not at the expense of others.

To her shame, in her October 2016 speech at Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Theresa May said: “But today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.  But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”.

Having something in common with someone who carries a different passport is not elitist, nor does it mean that you have nothing in common with people down the road.  Still less does it make you a poor citizen.  Sadly Theresa May’s speech set a tone and encouraged the surge of xenophobia that we are now witnessing. Speaking at a conference of EU nationals living in the UK Gina Miller, the British-Guyanese businesswomen who initiated the 2016 legal challenge (pictured above), said, “prejudice is worn as a badge and a sleeve of honour in Britain post-referendum”.   She is right; this is shameful; such attitudes must be fought with vigour, irrespective of the eventual outcome of withdrawal negotiations.

 

* The Select Committee Repot can be downloaded at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmexeu/935/935.pdf

 

Norfolk small businesses face uncertainty

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 06.34.24

It was concerns about future employment prospects, together with an abhorrence of the growing xenophobia, that made me return to political activism in support of Remain. Subsequent researches on the impact of Brexit on local employment have drawn my attention to the gravity of the local problem.

Generally North Norfolk can be described as an area of low unemployment, with below average wages and productivity, and a higher than average number of smaller, or micro, businesses. I was therefore pleased to take up an invitation to attend a ‘Brexit: Opportunities & Challenges for Small Businesses’ organised by the East Anglia branch of the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses). The event, which was held in Norwich, took the form of a panel discussion; it was well-organised and well-attended.

It was also thoroughly depressing. Small businesses face an uncertain future and, half way through the negotiation process, we are no clearer on the shape of any trade deal.

There were some impressive performances by knowledgeable panelists at the FSB event. Professor Hussein Kassim of the University of East Anglia argued that large companies can take care of themselves but small business are vulnerable. The former are always able to ‘up sticks and go elsewhere’. The Norfolk Chair of the National Farmers Union, Tony Bambridge, tellingly stated that ‘at present I can put my potatoes on a lorry to Spain as easily as I can put them on a lorry to (nearby) Shipdham’. The FSB’s national Policy Director, Martin McTague pointed out that ‘negotiating trade deals is a minority sport’. For most small businesses the challenge was meeting the needs of the immediate customer base. Moreover his evidence suggested, that, given the current uncertainty, many of them were avoiding borrowing and putting any expansion plans on hold.  He also pointed out that 20% of small businesses currently employ EU labour.

Another panelist was the Norwich North Tory MP, Chloe Smith. After a shaky start to her Parliamentary career (she was famously mauled and accused of incompetence in a television interview by Jeremy Paxman) she is now an assured and polished performer. She has clearly positioned herself as a loyal and unquestioning supporter of Prime Minister Theresa May and set out to defend the indefensible. Her line was that the Government was ‘doing things in sequence’ and small business must continue to apply common sense when coping with uncertainty. She made a half-hearted attempt to suggest that the extended transition period agreed on 19th March represented some form of clarification and even went on to imply that a solution was in sight on the Irish border.

Although the meeting was polite in tone, and concentrated on preparation for, rather, than the politics of Brexit, Chloe Smith was given a rough time by some sections of the audience. There is little prospect of new international deals replacing any loss of existing EU customers and, for many of our local small businesses, this is a serious immediate concern. Given the tone I left feeling that we could win the political battle in a fresh referendum. Unfortunately, on the drive home, my car radio informed me that Jeremy Corbyn had just sacked Owen Smith from the Shadow Cabinet for suggesting just that.

 

If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs when they appear, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

A shameful episode in Labour’s history

Screen Shot 2018-03-29 at 14.48.49

This column was written on 29th March, a year to the day before the UK ends its membership of the European Union and enters a transition period. Ideally I would be out with the local Labour Party handing out leaflets in Cromer demanding a fresh referendum. I doubt if it would do much good up here but it’s a sunny day and a nice place to be.

Instead I was obliged to undertake two activities that I sincerely wished had not been necessary. The first was to send an email to a valued family friend in New York to say how ashamed I was about the outbursts of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The second was to undertake an interview for BBC Look East expressing my view on how such incidents had arisen and the way that they had been handled.

For overseas readers the facts are these. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn has issued an apology for declaring support for those opposing the removal of a mural, unquestionably anti-Semitic in tone, in London’s East End. Secondly, Christine Shawcross, who Corbyn’s supporters had made Chair of Labour’s Disputes Committee, was obliged to resign. She had sought the reinstatement of a local council candidate who had circulated material which denied the holocaust. These facts are not in dispute and we have witnessed an entirely understandable reaction from leading Jewish organisations, and many others from all sections of the community who support them.

Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly emphasised that he is not personally anti-Semitic and will not tolerate such views. What I said to Look East was that we should take him at this word. The charges against him and his leadership are different. First he has always been injudicious in his choice of allies and in the company he keeps. I was an active member of his local party in Islington for many years and know that be especially true on the politics of Ireland and the Middle East. Secondly there was an unwillingness on the part of both Jeremy and Christine Shawcross to investigate and research the detail before pronouncing; an aversion to detail is a characteristic of the extreme left with their preference for a slogan that you can put on a coffee mug or a t-shirt. Thirdly Jeremy Corbyn himself was slow to recognise the extent of the problem and even slower to act up on it.

So there we have it. At this time, more than any other, the Labour Party should be looking outwards and offering hope for the future by making common cause with European social democrats. Instead all the focus of the last few days has been on limiting the damage – a terrible reflection on the style and quality of current leadership. I was able, in my BBC interview, to offer one slight ray of hope for the future. There are many members of the Labour Party who feel like this and we do not intend to leave, however ashamed we feel. We will stay in and fight for the values of the party we joined.

If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs when they appear, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

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.  

If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs when they appear, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

A high-priced playground?

cromer pier

 

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.

 

 

If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs when they appear, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

Brexit’s impact on North Norfolk

The most to lose and the least to gain 

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 09.25.01

The last few weeks have reshaped the Brexit debate.   First we had Jeremy Corbyn’s belated acceptance of the customs union in his Coventry speech of 26th February; subsequently, in her Mansion House speech delivered on 2nd March, Theresa May finally owned up to the weakness of her position. She implicitly accepted that that it would be impossible to negotiate a trade deal with Europe that will create better opportunities than the one that is currently in place. The best question at the Mansion House event came from a German reporter who asked “Is Brexit really worth it?” It could have been addressed to both of the party leaders.

Unfortunately the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition seem to be determined to soldier on and deliver something, however nonsensical, that will allow them to say that they have respected the will of the people. Such a decision will have consequences. Any weakening of our trading links with the EU will be disproportionally harmful for some areas of the country than for others. An analysis of the potential impact on North Norfolk, where I am now live in comfortable retirement, has occupied much of my time over the last month. The project is now complete and the conclusion is stark:

Few, if any, Parliamentary Constituencies in Britain are more vulnerable to a hard Brexit than North Norfolk. It is arguably the area with the most to lose and the least to gain.

North Norfolk will face big problems of adjustment and it is incumbent on us to anticipate and minimise any damaging effects. There is evident risk of severe labour shortages in key sectors of the local economy – particularly in residential care: North Norfolk has the third largest population of 65+ year olds in the UK. Generally if jobs become available they will be low-skilled and low-paid jobs, previously filled by migrant labour. There seems little short-term prospect of creating new jobs in high-value companies that can compete in any growing markets accessed under new trade agreements. Only a small number of such companies are present in North Norfolk and they are often overseas owned; none have evinced public support for withdrawal.

My full research paper, which draws on primary source data and is comprehensively researched, is available as a free download from my website www.martynsloman.co.uk or by email request to martynsloman@me.com. A link to a pdf two-page summary is included immediately below.

The Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk summary 1st March 2018

An urgent consideration of the consequences of Brexit is required from all local decision-making bodies. Over the next few weeks I will be circulating the paper to our MP, a LibDem, and elected Councillors at both County and District levels. I will report any feedback I receive in future blogs. What is at stake is too important to allow apathy to take hold.

 

If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs when they appear, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.