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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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.
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.
Nothing quite matches the charm of a North Norfolk seaside resort on a cold and rainy bank holiday. We have our own microclimate here (the Humber shipping forecast is the best guide to the weather) and this often works to our disadvantage with sea frets that block out all sunshine. This year, on the bank holiday Sunday at the end of May, it seemed that everywhere in the country was bathed in warmth except the Norfolk coastline.
Despite the weather some twenty brave souls turned out at Cromer Pier as part of a Beach Parties for Europe event designed to underline the very positive effect that EU membership has in combatting pollution – clearly a problem that can only be addressed through international co-operation. It was a nice idea, and an important point to make, even if Remain for Nature t-shirts were worn over sweaters and in some cases anoraks.
This was an all-party event. Our Eastern Region Euro MP, Richard Howitt, was in attendance as well as a Conservative MEP, a sprinkling of Greens, and some euro-supporters of no firm party allegiance. As far as I could ascertain there was one LibDem present but no sign of the local LibDem MP Norman Lamb (see previous blog), despite the fact that his participation had been announced in our local daily paper, the Eastern Daily Press. Ironically, if he was trying to adopt a low profile, Cromer Pier on a rainy bank holiday Sunday would have been a perfect place to be – there were comparatively few passers-by and most of his constituents would have remained firmly indoors in the warm.
Also conspicuous by their absence were members of our local branch of Momentum – the ultra-left organisation established to protect Jeremy Corbyn’s position as leader of the Labour Party. They are displaying very little momentum, and certainly limited enthusiasm for the European cause. I wonder if the name they have chosen for their organisation is any longer appropriate. One of my all-time favourite misnomers was the group within the Church of England who styled themselves ‘Reform’. Their statement of principles included a recognition of ‘the unique value of women’s ministry in the local congregation but also the divine order of male headship’– code for keeping women in their place. Titles chosen by organisations can be most misleading.
Something very unusual is happening in politics. All political parties are undergoing a transformation as a result of the European debate – and this has even penetrated to North Norfolk. Our Parliamentary Constituency, tucked away on the coast, is one of eight in the country represented by a Liberal Democrat. Norman Lamb first captured the seat in 2001 and has held it subsequently, with majority in 2015 of over 4043 over the Conservatives, greatly reduced from the 11626 he achieved in 2010. It is a now marginal seat.
Lamb won and held the seat by squeezing the Labour vote, however there is no good reason for someone who is left-of-centre to vote for him. In fairness he has been an affable individual – he tried an unsuccesful charm offensive on me when I first moved into the area. However much of his success can be attributed to a formidable professionally organised machine that can deliver the vote in both national and local elections.
This Liberal-Democrat machine has been conspicuously absent to date during the referendum. I have now placed a LabourIn poster in my window. I delayed putting it up as we are next door to our Church; we had a Village wedding last weekend and I did not want to cause offence to any wedding guests. So far mine is the only poster from any party that I have seen. Our local Labour Party has been organizing regular stalls on Saturdays – the Lib Dems seemed to have undertaken no activities. Norman Lamb’s website gives no prominence to the European debate. It is not listed as a specific campaign he supports and there is just one statement tucked down the pages where he formally disputed some Leave campaign figures.
Now North Norfolk has one of the oldest electorates in the country and will, as a result, probably produce one of the highest percentage votes for exit. The LibDems, whatever their inconsistencies, have always been very pro-Europe. Indeed this was one of their defining characteristics and the reason they attracted the breakaway Social Democrats from the Labour Party. My guess is that our MP has decided to keep a very low profile and hopes that a favourable referendum result will be produced and we can all return to business as normal. If so he has gone down further in my estimation.
We’ve all seen it happen at wedding receptions. Someone nobody likes is going to make a speech; the speaker may well have an unfortunate history with the family but his position (divorced father?) makes his attendance obligatory. We hold our breath and hope that nothing will be said that will cause offence: everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief when this proves to be the case and we can all proceed to the next stage.
I was reminded of this on Saturday when I attended my first ever Progress Conference where Jeremy Corbyn had agreed to speak. For overseas readers Progress is an organization for moderate Labour Party members – widely castigated by others as a Blairite group. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Corbyn’s close ally, has described Progress as a ‘right-wing conservative’ group which had never accepted Corbyn as Labour leader. Certainly for my part I had joined Progress for that very reason.
All credit to Progress to getting Jeremy Corbyn to come. The conference organisers had trailed a surprise speaker and a surprise it was. And all credit to Jeremy Corbyn for coming. However what was he going to say?
My guess, talking with others before the event, is that we could have expected one of two things. The first, which would have been very tough to deliver, would have been an appeal for tolerance towards his leadership. The second would have been a statement on the critical importance of a Remain vote in the June referendum and the obligation on us all to put aside all differences and work for that result in the meantime. Clive Lewis, the Norwich South MP and a Corbyn support, had made just such a statement in a breakout session earlier in the day and it went down well
In fact Jeremy Corbyn did neither of these. He started with a quite a good joke – something he normally avoids. ‘It is my first time speaking here. In fact it’s the first time I’ve ever been invited to a Progress conference – you set a pretty high bar if you have to be elected leader of the party if you ever want to get invited here.’ He then delivered a rushed, and sometimes garbled, address covering topics where no-one in the room could disagree: human rights, protection of rights at work, refugees. He concluded by answering a number of questions – all were very soft with the exception of a tougher one on anti-semitism in the Labour Party.
Someone of the calibre of Neil Kinnock or Michael Foot would have grasped the opportunity and tried to influence the forward agenda in some way. As it was I felt that Jeremy was just pleased to get through without incident – like the speaker at the wedding who knows he is not liked by almost all those present.
It may have been a missed opportunity for him. The case for putting differences aside for the greater goal of Europe is most powerful and everyone is receptive. Two days before the Progress event I went to a most enjoyable Labour Party ‘Remain’ dinner in Tottenham where the Labour MP David Lammy articulated the case with considerable aplomb. His was the speech of the week that I will remember.
Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, is a maverick who can on occasions offer perceptive insights, but his choice of allies can reduce his effectiveness. In 2010 he was happy to accept an appointment from David Cameron to lead an independent review into poverty and life chances. Not surprisingly his loyalty to the Labour Party was called into question.
Field is a long-time Eurosceptic. In a speech on Tuesday he said that 40% of Labour supporters wanted to leave the EU but that their views were being ignored in favour of a pro-EU policy ‘designed to please a London metropolitan elite’. He called on Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn to listen to his working-class base, claiming that Labour voters who oppose the EU are likely to defect to Ukip. There is some truth in this perspective – however my view is that such voters have already gone and are unlikely to return. A couple of successive Saturday mornings on the Labour Party stall in North Norfolk towns have convinced me that this is the case. Most of those passing by are neutral or too busy to bother; some are pleased to receive our LabourIn material. However we certainly encounter the occasional burst of hostility from people who are just waiting for their opportunity to hold forth.
Sometimes these hostile passers-by begin by saying that they are former Labour voters and will never vote for the Party again. This is followed by a litany against immigrants, wealthy fat cats, young people who are idle, foreigners generally and often a combination of all four. Although I find this annoying I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing to be done. Such people are not amenable to reason. Arguing with them is as purposeless as complaining to the people who are spoiling my view at the Millennium Stadium by continually leaving their seats to buy beer or go to the toilet rather than watching the game; all you get in return is a load of abuse.
The real question Frank Field should be asking is how we can win back the thoughtful voters in Scotland who have ceased to identify with the Labour Party. This presents a hard challenge and will require a deal of new thinking and a different approach. His contribution is ill-advised and unhelpful and has taken us no further forward.