It’s always nice to hear from Momentum

The name that an organisation chooses can be deceptive. For example, two pressure groups in the Church of England were called ‘Reform’ and ‘Forward in Faith’. Both opposed the ordination of women and neither was in favour of reform nor  in any way forward-looking. In current politics, ‘Momentum’ was established as a Jeremy Corbyn Fan Club and, since it has achieved its purpose, may well have run out of steam altogether.

Two distinct sorts of people joined Momentum. The first were the young who branded their Facebook site and competed for a selfie with the messiah. They transferred many of their commendable hopes honestly but misguidedly to his campaign; they cannot be blamed for the resulting debacle. The second group were ageing lefties who were determined to exact some revenge against Tony Blair; characteristically were they were likely to have been in and out of Labour Party membership over the last two decades. Given the age profile here in Norfolk it is the second group that dominates the branches of Momentum in the market town of North Walsham and the seaside resort of Sheringham. It came as no surprise, when they captured the North Norfolk Labour Party, that their first action was to seek to spend hard-earned party funds on a charabanc trip to a factional demonstration in London.

Momentum claim to be creating a new sort of politics. It is hard to see what this involves behind an extensive use of technology, particularly social media. This they deployed most effectively to insert Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership and support him when he faced a subsequent challenge. I’ve always been a sceptic on how far such use of technology will influence behaviour where it really matters, that is in the privacy of the ballot-box in a public election. However, out of a desire to know what they are doing, I’ve subscribed to their mailing list and was therefore interested to receive an e-mail from them that began with the sentence ‘I’m incredibly excited to announce Momentum’s new campaigning tool – MyNearestMarginal.com’. Momentum numbers some clever nerds amongst their supporters so this was worth investigating.

The e-mail arrived in my inbox on 11th May. At the time I was staying with friends just outside Edinburgh prior to a trip to Murrayfield see the European Rugby Cup Finals. I therefore put their postcode into the site search box and the results are shown in the picture below. Barrow in Furness is identified as the nearest marginal to East Lothian, Scotland. This is a distance of 180 miles or just under four hours by charabanc.

 

Now the people who run Momentum may be blinkered but they are fully aware that there are elections in Scotland; indeed one of their past claims was that Scotland would revert to Labour if the traditional voters were offered an aggressively left-wing programme. There are two possible explanations for their embarrassing oversight: the first is that they had not got round to loading the Scottish information; the second is that Momentum may not be functioning outside England. Bluntly I don’t care. What irritates me are claims that Momentum is producing some great breakthroughs in our approach to political activity. It isn’t and hopefully Momentum is about to run out of momentum.

 

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Tactics but no strategy – the Tory Campaign

Our local North Norfolk News is published on a Thursday so an edition appeared on council election day (May 4th). Before I and the other regular readers could reach the front-page headline of ‘Mammoth bone found on the beach’, or the other similarly exciting articles, we had to negotiate a four page advertisement placed by the Conservative Party. This was clever timing on their part, but will have cost them a lot and must be declared as an election expense.

The content of the four pages was entirely predictable with their campaign mantra dominating the front page: ‘strong, stable leadership’ or ‘a coalition of chaos and instability’. This will be repeated ad nauseam over the remaining weeks of the campaign and avoids the need for any expression of political or economic strategy. Keep it simple stupid. It reminds me of the approach that we adopted when I played rugby.

The pinnacle of my rugby career occurred when I played in the back row for Lancaster University 3rd XV.   The reason I was in the thirds was because we didn’t have a 4th XV. We had one tactic.   We kicked the ball down the field directly at the opposing full back in the hope that something would happen. The opposing full-back was likely to be the least talented player on the field: sometimes he would be a spare player of ours who we had loaned to opponents who had arrived short of numbers; sometimes he would be an overseas student who had turned up out of curiosity and had never played the game before. There was a strong possibility of the ball getting stuck in the mud on its travels or of a fumble when it arrived. We had not thought of anything beyond this stage; we had tactics but no strategy and if we ever won it was by accident and the opponent’s mistakes.

The Conservatives too are relying on their opponent’s mistakes. The mantra will get very tedious in course of a long campaign.

 

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The wheels come off in North Norfolk

Given the timing it was inevitable that the council elections held on May 4th would be regarded as a foreshadow of the June General Election. These May elections offered a large-scale national opinion poll that could endlessly be analysed for local implications. Nationally the Labour vote held up just about well enough for those infatuated with Jeremy Corbyn to claim that ‘with a vigorous campaign we can make up the deficit over the next few weeks’ – but nowhere near well enough for any sane person to believe him. Predictably the County Council results in North Norfolk were poor. Taking the full ten seats across the Constituency Labour polled just under 10% of the votes cast – down by a third from the 15% recorded in the last County elections which were held in 2013.

No amount of cheery optimism can disguise the fact that the Labour Party is likely to be facing the worst result in the lifetime of every member and supporter under the age of 80. To their credit the local Labour Party here fielded a full slate of ten candidates in the May County Council elections. In some of these county seats there was a deal of organised election activity. In our best prospect we had an excellent candidate who had fought this seat, where he lived, on several occasions: in 2013 he lost by 38 votes; this time he came third, more than 200 behind the winning LibDem . It is very sad, as he would have made a fine councillor.

Recently the New Statesman published an excellent analysis of the Corbyn phenomenon by a Leicester University academic and commentator, Daniel Allington http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/june2017/2017/04/jeremy-corbyn-has-attracted-socialism-fans-not-labour-voters

Although the article is not always the easiest of reads, and certainly offers no comfort to those of who seek changes in society rather than mere protests, it contains some impressive insights. The one that struck me is the idea that the Labour Party has been the subject of a successful hostile take-over, to borrow a business analogy. Executing a takeover is one thing, making a success of the business that has been acquired is quite another. All the indications are that no-one wants to buy the new product – whatever the extent of the activity on the doorstep and in social media. Indeed, we are now learning that explosions and expletives in social media rarely translate into worthwhile practical support.

It is some small comfort to me that, whereas in April the North Norfolk Labour Party website invited people to sign up and “become part of Jeremy Corbyn’s new politics”, in May it had been softened to “become part of our new politics”. Alas, at this stage, I can’t see that this subtle but important distinction will have any effect.

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Diane and her detractors miss the point

Mid-week media coverage of Labour’s campaign was dominated by discussion of an appalling performance by the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott. In a radio interview she stuttered and hesitated while presenting contradictory and, at times, ludicrously inaccurate figures on the costs involved in deploying 10000 extra police officers – thus ruining the impact of a commitment that could have had some immediate attractiveness. For overseas readers the interview can be accessed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-39775693

I was surprised. I knew Diane Abbott in my days of activism in the London Labour Party of the early 1980s. She was hardly in tune with my brand of Labour politics and proved to be an aggressive infighter in the factional battles of the time. Subsequently she attracted a deal of flak for sending her son to a fee-paying school – after being prominent in an earlier criticism of another MP’s decision to send her child to a selective (but not fee-paying) grammar. I was therefore disappointed when the North Norfolk Labour Party nominated her for the Party Leadership in 2010.

Nevertheless I always considered Diane Abbott to be able and intelligent. She can hardly claim inexperience: Cambridge educated, she has been in Parliament since 1987 and is a frequent performer on TV and radio. In her interview she displayed a complete lack of professionalism at a time when it really mattered and let herself and the Labour Party down. Inevitably she has been pilloried in what she would regard as a hostile press who have seized on her confession that she ‘misspoke’ when questioned in the LBC radio broadcast on 2nd May.

There are however some more fundamental points to be made on what has been described as a car crash interview. The first is that electoral prospects are heavily dependent on giving the impression of competence – particularly in Labour’s case economic competence. The party therefore needs to demonstrate that proposals are costed and that there is a clear identification of the impact of the various initiatives, rather than a bland assertion that all will come out of increased capital gains tax, corporation tax and dealing with tax avoidance.

The second point is more subtle: if Labour is to win back support from the voters who have defected in recent years it must show that it is the party of the future and not the past. Putting more bobbies on the beat may be an attractive sound-bite but the nature of crime is changing and new methods of detection and prevention are needed. Cybercrime is an obvious example. Current TV crime series always show detectives in front of computers, not uniformed police walking the streets. It further appears that Labour’s proposals, when they subsequently published a clarification, ignored the costs of training and equipment (estimated by the BBC at £130 million). As a former professional training manager nothing used to infuriate me more than the idea that such costs can be absorbed ‘in existing budgets’.

All in all a wasted opportunity. A poor effort and best forgotten.

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Vote Labour – there’s no danger of ending up with Corbyn

One of the more bizarre claims that will be articulated over the next six weeks is that the Labour Party is uniting and is rallying behind our leader. This is wishful thinking. Many of us who are long-standing party members believe that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to serve as Prime Minister – and my guess is that this is still the view of most of the Parliamentary Party.   Nevertheless I will still vote Labour in my home seat of North Norfolk. I will do so for two reasons.

First, although the medium term prospects are poor, there is a need to maintain a strong Labour Party to revise and rebuild the case for democratic socialism. We need a rigorous understanding of the challenges posed by today’s service-led and knowledge-driven economy: it will not be solved by solutions embedded in nationalism or the ‘politics for people who don’t like politics’ of the LibDems. We have many Labour MPs who are capable of leading this necessary revisionist process. Tragically the best platform that was available to develop and communicate this new thinking was the European Referendum campaign of June 2016. It was a massive missed opportunity and rightly triggered the no-confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn.

This brings us to the second reason for voting Labour. One can do so in the secure knowledge that Corbyn will never become Prime Minister.

If there were the slightest prospect of this happening I would find it very difficult to advocate a Labour vote. I knew Jeremy Corbyn well in my Islington days in the early 1980s when I was a member of his local Labour Party Management Committee.   His views were well entrenched by then and have not altered since. The ones that most disturbed me were his attitudes to terrorist violence, particularly his support of the IRA. Disturbingly one his first statements when becoming party leader in 2015 concerned the Paris attack that took place that November: in a BBC interview he expressed opposition to a shoot to kill policy in such circumstances. At some stage in the current election this statement will doubtless come back to haunt him and he remained silent on the subject in the recent London attacks. However the idea that a man of his views, and his limited ability, could be a key player in discussions with the police and emergency services when they are dealing with a terrorist threat is unthinkable.

This could not happen. Almost certainly Labour under Corbyn will not be a serious threat to the Conservatives. If there were any prospect of an anti-Conservative coalition the price that the Scottish Nationalists and the LibDems would demand would be a new Labour Party leader. They would be assisted by many Labour MPs who would be prepared to risk the sustained hostility from the ultra-left by supporting such a move.

This is a sombre blog to present at the start of an election campaign, so let me finish with an optimistic alternative. A distinguished Professor of History at the University of East Anglia (who lives seven miles down the road and is good friend of mine) had a letter published in the Times on 21st April. His subject was the hazards of snap elections and he drew attention to the Australian experience of 1983. There a Conservative Prime Minister called an election to take advantage of weakened Labour opposition which began by floundering politically; the Labour party then changed its leader and went on to win. Could this happen here with Yvette Cooper emerging as Prime Minister? Chance would be a fine thing but we can dream.

 

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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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