Letting down a generation

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Evidence of the harmful impact of Brexit mounts by the day. The UK car industry will be particularly damaged: on February 3rd Nissan announced that it would now build its X-Trail car in Japan rather than Sunderland.

In an excellent recent New Statesman article, Jonathan Powell, Chief of Staff under Tony Blair, argued ”The Prime Minister and many of her colleagues knew they were doing something that would do great harm to the country but did not dare stop it for fear of being unseated by the extremists in their own party”.[i]  In her defence nobody, and that includes the Prime Minister herself, fully realised how much harm would be done; the electorate were seduced by dishonest Brexiteers who pretended it would be easy to forge new trade deals.   Nissan has demonstrated the fallacy of that assumption, which, amongst other things, disregards the complexity of supply chains in high value manufacturing and precision engineering.

Here I have some professional interest.  I spent my career in management education and training and, in the latter part, specialised in skills development and apprenticeships. In November 2013 I was asked to give evidence to the Select Committee of the House of Lords Inquiry into EU (European Union) action to tackle youth unemployment.  I presented a case study of a success story. It related to a factory based in Llanelli, South Wales. Part of the German owned Schaeffler Group, the factory employed 220 people producing high specification bearings for motor engines. It was an exemplary organisation and to quote one of my published articles:

“The company faced increasing competition from low labour cost countries as group production capacity was placed in Eastern Europe (Slovakia and Romania) where wages are a fraction of those in the UK.  The company responded by developing the capability to deliver higher value added products. There was a planned focus on continuous improvement, cost reduction and, as an integral component of the process, a sustained attempt to up-skill the workforce”.

On reading of the Nissan decision I plucked up courage to update my knowledge of the Llanelli factory and was saddened, but not surprised, to find the following headline in a 6th November article in WalesOnline: 220 jobs axed with closure of Llanelli auto parts plant due to ‘Brexit uncertainty’. A link to the article is set out below.

 

https://www.walesonline.co.uk/business/business-news/live-updates-250-jobs-axed-15377458

This is a tragedy.  The plant was established in 1957 and offered high quality apprenticeships in an area of high unemployment and limited opportunities.  It was, together with an Indian IT consultancy based in Bangalore, the best managed organisation I encountered in over twenty years researching the subject.

From a comfortable retirement base in North Norfolk I feel very angry.  Not just about the dishonesty of Brexit – the charade of ‘we’ll make Britain great again’ – but about the dismal performance of the national leadership of the party that I joined in South Wales fifty years ago.  Local Labour representatives in Llanelli, including the excellent MP Nia Griffith, are doing their best; Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes wouldn’t began to understand what a supply chain is and are in hiding in the hope that a catastrophe will propel them to power.  That is a heavy price for a generation of school-leavers to pay: it is easy to destroy opportunities; it takes ages to rebuild.  Once factories like Schaeffler Llanelli have gone they are gone for good, taking the quality jobs with them.

So I make no apologies for, in a very modest way, continuing the fight. Following my previous blog in which I drew attention to problems here in North Norfolk, I received a reprimand from the current Chair of the local Labour Party.   He is the fourth person to occupy this position in the four years since Momentum took control and the third in succession to try to tell me off for the contents of my blog. He wrote:  “even though we may disagree on Labour policy issues we are all members of that broad socialist church”.  While the Labour leader behaves in this way, and unscrupulously avoids engaging in the major question of the day, I have no intention of joining Mr. Corbyn and his acolytes where they choose to worship.  I will carry on writing as I please.

[i]Jonathan Powell, The rise and fall of Britain’s political class, New Statesman, 30th January 2019

Ina

leftyoldman blogs will appear occasionally as the Brexit battle continues and the shape of post Brexit politics emerges.  If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above. I continue to tweet at @eugrandparents.

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Pork barrel comes to the UK

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Some time ago I told one of my granddaughters that I had no friends; I was hoping to elicit some sympathy from this excellent child. Her response was both perceptive and pertinent “Well you should be more polite to people and not so grumpy”. Serves me right – I had lied, I do retain some friends – but she was telling the truth.  Age has made me grumpy, but I feel that I have good cause. Yesterday’s news made me feel that our politics has hit rock bottom.  Everything I espouse seems to be under threat.

The shameful manoeuvres of Theresa May to secure any sort of Brexit have been matched only by the dismal failure of Jeremy Corbyn to articulate any sort of compelling vision of a future.  Sadly Parliament has failed to grasp the initiative, although there was a valiant effort by the person who should be Labour leader, Yvette Cooper.  All of this was predictable and one crumb of comfort is that our North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb voted the right way in all the divisions – he seems to have overcome any ambivalence.

What, however has shocked me is the report that, in order to secure support from anybody and at any cost, Theresa May is preparing to ‘entice’ certain Labour MPs to vote for her deal by offering a ‘”cash injection into deprived areas that supported Leave, including former mining communities”. A front-page report in The Times went on to quote ‘a well-placed government source’ saying “it’s about allowing Labour MPs representing Brexit communities to show that they have extracted something tangible in return for their vote.  And, frankly, it’s not an unreasonable ask” (The Times 31stJanuary).

This is what is known as ‘pork barrel’: a US term defined as the appropriation of government spending for localised projects secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative’s district. The Prime Minister did just this to secure DUP support after the 2017 General Election and, if The Times is correct, will continue on these lines. Is there no sense of shame? This approach is wholly alien to our tradition of democratic politics.

Moreover it fails to recognise the changing nature of economic geography.  It is not just the former mining areas that are suffering from a lack of opportunities and declining living standards.  Here in North Norfolk the changing demography means that the opportunities for the Sixth Form Students that I mentor are dwindling.  There are almost no apprenticeship places in ‘new economy’ industries this side of Cambridge, which is a two-hour drive.  There is a general economic problem that requires a clear national strategy – and remaining part of the European Community is essential to its achievement.

If ‘pork barrel’ is accepted in this way our politics will be severely diminished.  Given this it is, in a strange sort of way, a relief to report that some things never change. Norfolk parish-pump politics continue to bump along much as they always did.  I attach a link to an article from the North Norfolk News on a no confidence vote in a local councillor.

Both the Councillor concerned and the Town Mayor mentioned in the article are Labour Party Members and the Councillor is a firm supporter of the Labour Leader.  So much for Mr. Corbyn’s ‘kinder, gentler politics’

 

https://www.northnorfolknews.co.uk/news/vote-of-no-confidence-elaine-addison-1-5871350

 

leftyoldman blogs will appear occasionally as the Brexit battle continues and the shape of post Brexit politics emerges.  If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above. I continue to tweet at @eugrandparents.

Changin’ times: a fine march

Bob Dylan

In politics it is easy to exaggerate the importance of the moment.  It is easy to convince yourself that new forces are emerging and that things will never be the same. I remember being intoxicated with that feeling in 1968 when, after graduating from Lancaster University, I crossed the Atlantic to work for the peace candidate Eugene McCarthy. Youth was about to triumph.  We confidently joined Bob Dylan in singing ‘The times they are a-changin’.  Times didn’t change that much. On 5thNovember 1968, almost exactly fifty years ago, Richard Nixon was elected to the US Presidency; today Donald Trump holds that office.

The naïve optimism of youth has long gone and I am more measured in my assessments.  Nevertheless events over the last month lead me to believe that something of significance could be happening below the surface and the tectonic plates of politics may be about to shift.  One indication was the People’s Vote March that took place on 20thOctober. I was accompanied by a number of old (in both senses of the word) Labour Party friends, one of whom was concerned that his lack of mobility would hold up progress.  He need not have worried:  a crowd of 700,000 shuffled along in what was described as ‘the slowest Waitrose queue in history’.  Yes the march was decidedly middle class. However it cut across the existing party spectrum and, I suspect, attracted a lot of people who, while well-informed, have always avoided political activism.

Curiously any new political consciousness has not been reflected in the opinion polls.  Both main parties are hovering around the 38-40% mark with the Conservatives marginally ahead of Labour and the LibDems not moving at all.  In his latest update, David Cowling the distinguished election specialist, simply commented: “once again one is left to marvel at this state of affairs”.  My interpretation is that, while there is a high level of political concern, the existing parties fail to excite: both are hopelessly divided and Labour in particular will pay a price for an ambiguous and opportunist position on Brexit.   If ever there was a time for a principled stand this was it and such a stand could well have attracted many of the 700,000 marchers.

It would be nice, at this stage to be able to offer some insights from North Norfolk.  Alas this has not proved possible.  Local government is continuing on as normal.  The North Norfolk LibDems seem to be emerging from their torpor over Brexit, and look as though they may come out of their burrow and campaign if there is a new referendum – but this is scarcely evidence of the emergence of any  ‘new politics’.  The Labour Party, of which I remain a member, may well have hit the buffers.   Momentum are firmly in control locally but the bombast is evaporating and they will be challenged to find sufficient candidates to fight all the District Council seats next year.

It is hard to know what to conclude from all this.   Certainly the nature of activism is changing as well as the times, but, to quote from Bob Dylan:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.

I am sure he is right: there is no tellin’ (sic) who it is namin’ (sic). Fifty-two years after penning these words Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature; nobody would have predicted that outcome.

 

leftyoldman blogs will appear occasionally as the Brexit battle continues and the shape of post Brexit politics emerges.  If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above. I continue to tweet at @eugrandparents.

More life in a bottle of pop

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This blog was written towards the end of a thoroughly depressing week.  It will be my last for some time and a sad note on which to take a break. I can only hope things will improve before I resume.

Wednesday marked the failure to make any significant changes to the EU Withdrawal Bill – shortly to become the Withdrawal Act.  This was most disappointing, not least because of Labour’s deliberately ambiguous position in the Parliamentary debates that took place. I was deflated even further when I attended a meeting of my local North Norfolk Labour Party the following day.

The local meeting was held to give our Labour Member of the European Parliament, Alex Mayer, the opportunity ‘to answer questions on the Brexit process and how she sees the Labour position’.   I did not envy her this task.  She is in a very tricky position, not least because she will lose her job next year, and she deserves some sympathy.

Alex Mayer voted Remain, is aware of the damage that withdrawal will cause, and has publicly committed to the single market.  She must also be conscious of the dismal performance of Labour in Parliament and the cynical opportunism of the Leadership’s current position on Europe; doubtless this dominates discussions with socialist colleagues in Brussels, both from the UK and the other EU members.   However most local Labour Parties are in the hands of people who are infatuated with Jeremy Corbyn and this certainly true of North Norfolk. Like most doomed love affairs there is nothing to be done beyond letting events run their course.

How I wondered would Alex Mayer cope?

She is a competent person, thoroughly in command of her facts, and had hit on an ingenious solution to navigate the political challenge. This was to adopt a fatalistic acceptance that Brexit is going to happen, coupled with a vague hope that the length of the process might mean that things could improve over time.  She mentioned Jeremy Corbyn and his ambiguous stance just once. Her performance was capable but detached, almost an academic lecture, and offended nobody but it wholly lacked passion.  Brexit is bad but, like the weather, we should make the best of it.  Our local members seemed wholly satisfied with this defeatist attitude.  So long as Jeremy is not threatened, it seems they will go along with anything.

I can only say that this is simply not good enough.  A casual acceptance of something that will damage economic prospects for the next decade is a sign of a complete absence of political virility.   As we used to say on the football terraces, there is more life in a bottle of pop.

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I do so hope that my mood will be lifted when I join with three generations of my family at the March for a People’s Vote on Saturday. Jeremy Corbyn should, of course, be leading this march.  Every local Labour Party should be out in the shopping centres and on the doorstep collecting signatures for a People’s Vote petition.  This would have massive long-term political advantages: it would consolidate the votes of many remainers who voted Labour in 2015 but are drifting away; Labour would be positioned at the centre of the debate on employment. Above all Jeremy Corbyn should be leading the march because it is the right thing to do.

 

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Facing the wrong way

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The failure to support Amendment 51 of the EU Withdrawal Bill will not loom large in future undergraduate politics essays; it may however find its way into the odd doctoral thesis on the decline of the Labour Party in the 21st Century.  Amendment 51 would have obliged the government to prioritise staying in the European Economic Area.  Given the Parliamentary arithmetic it offered the best chance of defeating the Government and hence putting a serious impediment in the way of withdrawal.

The Labour leadership opposed the amendment on the bizarre grounds that the Party had better ideas.  As a result the Government emerged unscathed. It was a dismal performance in a thoroughly dispiriting week.

Two emails arrived in my inbox on Tuesday, the day before Parliament debated and rejected the Lords’ amendments.   One was from Jeremy Corbyn telling me that ‘the Tories are too divided to negotiate with the EU’so Labour‘has an opportunity to vote to protect jobs, living standards and our rights’.   Communications from the leader’s office are often impervious to the irony inherent in their content.

The second communication upset me more.  It was from Momentum inviting me to attend their ‘big lefty weekend’in July.  As well as their conference there will be a ‘People, Pits and Politics Festival’.  This will feature Anne Scargill, ex-wife of the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) leader Arthur, speaking on the Miners’ Strike. To quote from the publicity for the event: ‘Still the most significant class struggle in generations, the miners strike of 1984-5 was a watershed in trade union history’. Too true.  It was indeed a watershed. It was also a disaster.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of those who will attend Momentum’s jamboree, I do feel in a position to comment with some authority on this chapter of labour history.  I worked in the coal industry from 1968 till 1986. During the strike I set up the Coal Board’s job creation company NCB (Enterprise).  Having seen it at first hand I have no time for the rewriting of history, or for romantic nonsense about growing class awareness. What should have been at issue was the management of change and how necessary but painful economic transitions could be accomplished.  What actually happened was an episode of foolish adventurism led by an egotistic Marxist.

The miners returned to work in March 1985 without a settlement: it was a victory for the politics of Margaret Thatcher and the managerial economics of Ian MacGregor, the NCB Chairman of the time. The NUM was irreversibly fragmented. In less than a year Arthur Scargill and his adherents had destroyed what previous generations of miners had taken decades to establish: a single cohesive trade union.  The decline of the industry was brutally hastened rather than sensibly managed.

With the benefit of intervening time, romantic folk myths have emerged. The most pernicious is that the strike marked the beginning of a new awareness and solidarity. That is what Anne Scargill will be peddling.  Those attending want to believe that this is the case, despite all evidence to the contrary. They are more comfortable with the delusions of the 1970s and the 1980s than they are facing up to the complex challenges of 2018.

By rewriting history in this way we are doing a disservice to those who worked so hard to bring the labour movement to a position where it could achieve power and bring about social change.  Our failure to provide an effective counter to Brexit sadly reflects this preference for gesture politics over difficult decisions.

It has been a dreadful week. I can only look forward travelling to London and joining other members of my family on the March for a People’s Vote on the 23rd and walking off my frustration.

https://www.peoples-vote.uk/march

 

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Internationalism or nostalgia?

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Tony Benn on the platform

Next week there is the opportunity to halt, or even reverse, the long slide to a catastrophic EU withdrawal. After a summer break Parliament will debate the House of Lord amendments to the Brexit Bill.  Endless calculations of the Parliamentary arithmetic will be made, but all will depend on courageous Conservative rebels and, more importantly, the attitude of the Labour leadership.

We should all rejoice that there has been a shift in Labour’s position.  It appears that the Party’s current stance is for the softest possible Brexit: to stay in the customs union, while seeking a relationship with the EU that gives the benefits of the single market without membership. This is of course nonsense. As a country we have received repeated indications that this it would be unacceptable to the EU. Such a position can only be regarded as an opportunistic debating stance with an eye on the main chance of forcing and winning a general election.

Sadly the current Labour Party leadership and their most enthusiastic adherents believe this is all that matters: use any sleight of hand to keep the Labour Leave voters in the old heartlands on side and hope to take advantage of the chaos that results from Brexit.   There is little interest in the wider case for internationalism or for growth through frictionless trade; hence membership of the EU is incidental to progress to the idealised socialist nirvana.  Judging by his actions this is Jeremy Corbyn’s stance to date and, since he is certainly a man of principle, we need to ask why.

Everybody looks back fondly to the day when they discovered their politics, especially if it marked a period of successful activism and personal advancement. For Jeremy Corbyn that period was the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember that time well.  I was a young economist in the nationalised coal industry and an active member of Corbyn’s fractious North Islington Labour Party.

In that period the ‘alternative economic strategy’ (AES) developed by Tony Benn defined the economic thinking of what were then called the new left.  Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott were keen disciples. The AES was about centralised planning: elements included an investment bank (the National Enterprise Board), planning agreements with private sector companies (which simply never happened) and an extension of public ownership.  It was a credible instrument in its time and its successes and failures deserve careful analysis in any consideration of the effectiveness of Labour in power.  At the time Benn led the hostility to what was then called the common market on the grounds that it was an international capitalist conspiracy and, if outside, the UK would be able to create some sort of socialist state.

We are forty years on; times have changed.  However the AES continues to have a disproportionate influence on the left of the Labour Party, especially the more elderly members of Momentum. They fail to appreciate that 21st century economic and social problems require international co-operation.

A good example is one that emerged during the May Irish referendum on abortion.  Electoral integrity was potentially compromised when paid advertisements financed from overseas appeared on social media; anxious to avoid serious government intervention both Facebook and Google banned such advertisements.  Important issues were raised here: current electoral law is no longer appropriate to deal with the impact of international social media. What is certain is that this is just the first of many complex problems that will arise with social media companies. They cannot be resolved by nationalising the companies concerned – they are global players – and appropriate regulation can only be developed and implemented internationally.  There is a common agenda to be developed across Europe. Moreover, the left’s concern that greater state intervention will be made more difficult in the customs union and single market has itself been hotly contested – see for example the thorough analysis by Andy Tarrant and Andrea Biondi in Renewal http://renewal.org.uk/blog/eu-law-is-no-barrier-to-labours-economic-programme.

So, if the electorate decided to vote for the Alternative Economic Strategy, or variants thereof, there is no reason why it could not be implemented within the single market.  Opposition to the EU on these grounds is based on nostalgia and gut reaction rather than any analysis of the facts. There is no sensible reason remaining for anyone of left-of-centre views to equivocate on Brexit. Next week’s Parliamentary decisions will go down as a turning point for the Labour Party and have an impact way beyond the immediate issues.

 

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It’s more than tribal loyalty

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In May one of my LinkedIn Contacts was elected to a London Borough Council – as a Liberal Democrat.  I had always enjoyed a good professional relationship with him and sent him a congratulatory message.  He replied that he followed my blog, found it interesting (for which thanks), and continued: ‘I remain baffled that you actually want to have Corbyn in number 10 and (much worse) McDonnell in number 11!’ This is a fair point and deserves a response.

Let me start by saying there is much substance in what he says.  Alastair Campbell, Press Secretary in the Blair Government, speaking at the Progress Annual Conference (available on The New European website) described the 2017 General Election as a battle ‘between competing visions of the past. 70s v 50s, with little to match the sheer scale of challenge facing both the country and the world’.  He continued ‘frankly I am finding life and politics tough right now. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the winning side of arguments a lot of my life in politics. Today, whether on Brexit, Labour v Tory, or the direction of the Labour Party, or the spread of populism, it doesn’t feel like that any more.’ 

This all struck a chord with me, and I could also relate to the passage that followed: ‘I am also a very tribal person. Short of Putin and Assad leading a consortium to buy Burnley, for example, and installing Johnson as chairman and Rees-Mogg as manager, nothing will challenge my football tribalism’.  For me the side is Cardiff Blues which, like Labour Party membership, is part of my DNA.

However I recognise that the above paragraph does not offer much to those outside the Labour Party tent. Come inside and suffer alongside us is not a compelling argument.

Pointing to those who remain and are increasingly vocal offers a better argument.  Here I must applaud Neil Kinnock for his recent forthright interventions: writing in the Independent he warned that Jeremy Corbyn is about to commit a ‘serious evasion of duty’by refusing to back a plan to keep Britain in the single market.  David Miliband followed two days later by saying that the Labour Leader will ‘be the midwife of a hard Brexit that will harm Britain’s poorest unless he fights to stay in the single market.’  I am sure that these two interventions and others that will follow are co-ordinated and are building up to a crescendo at this September’s Labour Party Conference.

Neil Kinnock, who I knew from my South Wales days, and David Miliband, represent the two Labour different strands: working-class traditionalist and North London intellectual. Together these two strands shaped the party I joined.  While they are prepared to fight for the future within the party so, in a very modest and isolated way, am I.  Add in Yvette Cooper, David Lammy, Alison McGovern and Rachel Reeves and there is more than enough to make me continue to hope.  Indeed I am prepared to take another hiding as the candidate in Glaven Valley in the 2019 District Council elections. In 2015 I polled 78 votes. I do not expect any improvement: the return of Labour to mainstream politics will not start until Brexit is well behind us.

 

 

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