Two glimmers of light amidst the gloom

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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.

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Citizens of nowhere unite

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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

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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.

 

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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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Joining a march again

The first London march that I attended took place in 1963. I was a teenage member of the Cardiff Young Socialists and we had been infiltrated by a Trotskyist element based at the university, though I was too naive to realise it at the time.   I was excited to learn that they were organising a coach to London to join some demonstration or other and, not least because I was keen on a girl who I knew to be going, I eagerly consented.

All I remember about the occasion is that we could not find the event. I had the humiliating experience of wandering round in a group in Central London asking various pedestrians if they had seen a march. I recall little of the cause – though it was almost certainly not one I would support today – but I do remember that, given this inauspicious start, my intended relationship did not progress. All in all a disappointing experience.

Over the subsequent decades I became a regular participant in such activism: I marched against apartheid and against various military interventions, most noticeably the Vietnam War. My elder son has told his friends that I participated in the Chartist March to Newport in 1839 and the Tonypandy riots of 1910.   Whatever the reality I thought that, at my advanced age, my marching days were over. It was a push from generations below that made me take to the streets again.

At the instigation of one of my sons I joined the Haringey Labour Party contingent on the ‘Unite for Europe’ march on March 25th.   Two of my granddaughters (aged 5 and 3) came along with their parents and so did my 15-year-old niece who travelled up from Wales with her father. It was an inspiring occasion. Most of those present seemed to have strong personal motives: one woman was wearing a t-shirt that read ‘my husband is a migrant and he is the only person in our village with an OBE’; another had a hat that read ‘I am German, I am a chef, I work here’. The extreme left were nowhere to be seen, which meant to my relief that there were no indigestible and unreadable Trotskyist publications on sale.   At the end of the event many people, my son included, laid floral tributes at Westminster Green in memory of the policeman who died last week defending our democracy.

It is this sort of vision and spirit that brought me into activism. Dare I believe that we are starting to build a progressive alternative?

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Knocking up the Council Estate

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Those of us who are international in outlook are waking up in a shattered state this morning. We cannot deny the result and must ask ourselves what sort of society we are living in and what our response should be. An unnecessary and exhausting Referendum campaign has been conducted in a thoroughly unpleasant fashion; I have never witnessed such overt racism and xenophobia as I did yesterday morning when handing out Remain leaflets at White Hart Lane station in North London.

We need to lick our wounds and take time to digest the lessons. However one thing is certain. We have reached a turning point in national politics: voting habits based on social class have ended for good.

I became active in politics as a teenager in my native city of Cardiff. Our family allegiance was firmly Labour and I was excited by the vision of the future that Harold Wilson offered – ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’. In Cardiff, like every provincial city, social class determined voting and housing was the most visible indicator. Posh Penylan and Llandaff voted Tory; the large council estates at the fringes of the city voted Labour. There were small enclaves of council housing in most of the wards and the assumption was that they would always produce Labour votes. Accordingly the practice was to knock up these houses on election evening to ensure that they voted; if you had the energy and resources you would have canvassed them previously to weed out the odd Conservative.

This practice worked in reverse. Over time our family circumstances improved and we became owner-occupiers living in a semi-detached house at the edge of the large Ely council estate. My father was in the front garden when a woman canvassing for the Conservatives called. Unusually for him he was polite and told her that he would be voting Labour. She responded with a snooty ‘What Labour? in a nice house like this’ causing him to explode. Ironically his class-based assumptions of politics were as strong as hers.

Before I went to help in London I participated in our Remain campaign here in North Norfolk. Together with my friend Mike Gates, the former Party Secretary, I delivered door to door in an area of social housing in the coastal town of Wells. He is well known and well liked locally so we encountered no hostility when delivering the Remain literature. It was easy work but I must now question whether our activity did any good – we may have helped to bring out the opposition. It now seems that it is ‘traditional Labour voters’ who have been the most hostile to the Party’s position. The divide has been between the wider outlook of the younger, better-educated, generation and those who lack confidence in a more international future. Times have indeed changed and so must the centre-left’s approach to politics.

 

The generation game

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Opinion polls on Referendum voting intentions are producing an important message with practical implications. Those over 45 are inclined to vote for exit; those under 45 favour remain. Historically older people are more likely to vote than younger people so the challenge for those of us in ‘Remain’ is to maximize the youth vote. For this reason I shall be spending the last week of the campaign with one of my sons leafleting in North London rather than in my home patch in Norfolk.

Given the age profile of the population it will be tough going here. 32.0% of the North Norfolk electorate is 65 or over compared with 17.7% for the UK as a whole. This is apparent on the streets and in all forms of activity. So far I have seen no evidence of young people joining to reinvigorate the local Labour Party Indeed our local Momentum group (the organisation established to support Jeremy Corbyn) seems to be the Dad’s Army branch of the movement.

I will however miss the quirkiness of Norfolk politics during the final stages of the campaign. The county can always be relied upon to produce something to amuse – none more so than our local UKip activists who will form the hard core of Brexit locally. Following the elections of 2014 one elected UKip County Councillor resigned after admitting to shoplifting from Poundstretcher – the value store where ‘every penny counts’. More recently, a UKip candidate in the 2016 Norwich Council elections was reported to the Electoral Commission when a £5 voucher for his hairdressing business was delivered with his election literature. When interviewed on local radio the unfortunate man sounded bemused that it had become an issue. He is quoted as saying that he did not mean to ‘do anything sinister’.

Nationally this differential voting by age presents a challenge. My view is that those who have already determined to vote for exit will be difficult, if not impossible, to shift. They seem to be impervious to reasoned argument from subject experts. However Hilary Benn has come up with a good idea: to appeal to voters ‘as one grandparent to another’. ‘Ask your grandchildren’ could prove to be an effective way of shifting some votes. It would be sad to think that, on something as important as this, the future of the young would be determined by the prejudices of the old.