What would Caerwyn have made of it?

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Yesterday’s by-election result in Brecon and Radnorshire came as no surprise.  For the past thirty years the seat has been a LibDem-Tory marginal and the leave-remain divide just adds another overlay.  Labour’s share of the vote, at 5%, though dreadful for the main opposition party, was widely predicted.

It however did lead me to still more reflection on some questions that have been occupying my thoughts over the last few months: can the Labour Party be saved and, indeed, is it worth saving?  My musing was given a further stimulus because of some of my own Labour Party history, in particular my years as a precocious teenage activist in Cardiff.

The Chair of the Cardiff North Labour for much the mid 60s was Caerwyn Roderick, a secondary school teacher.  He was a most generous man and patient and helpful to me.  I can remember how grateful he was for my maladroit efforts on the doorstep in one of the 1964 General Election. Now, like many agricultural areas, Brecon and Radnorshire was not always a hopeless prospect and it has been a Labour seat.  In the early 1970s Caerwyn became the MP and held on despite changing demographics until he lost to the Tories in 1979.  During his time in Parliament he continued to offer me much helpful advice and indeed came to speak on my behalf when I became a candidate myself.

Last week I delved further into Caerwyn’s background and politics.   He came from Ystradgynlais a mining village that was at the top of a South Wales Valley but geographically part of Breconshire (now Powys).  It was one of a group of similar communities that gave Labour its core vote.   Unsurprisingly Caerwyn had been a great admirer of Nye Bevan.  In Parliament he joined the Tribune Group and was Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to left-wingers Eric Heffer, Tony Benn and Michael Foot.

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Caerwyn Roderick in retirement

Now to aspire to power Labour has needed to maintain a balance between an ideological, Marxist influenced, left, and a pragmatic social democratic right.  Nye Bevan always appreciated that fact: he could not have had the opportunity to implement the social transformation that was the National Health Service without reaching an accommodation with the pragmatic Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison.

The leader of the time, Clement Attlee had both the ability and determination to hold the Labour coalition together.  This has been true of all his successors until, but not including, the current leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.  One of these successors, Neil Kinnock wrote of his struggles in the 1980s: ‘The contest in the Labour Party was between those people who put a premium on getting power in the Labour Party and those on getting power for the Labour Party’. [i]This is even more so today.  Many hard-core Corbynistas are simply interested in control of the Party as a vehicle in preparation for some fantasy revolution.

So, returning to my questions, it is because of people like Caerwyn Roderick that I will stay in and join the efforts to save the Labour Party. I retain that emotional bond. Accordingly I have renewed participation in the All Members Meetings of the North Norfolk Labour Party – and an extraordinary experience it has been.  At a poorly attended July meeting the person sitting next to me took it upon himself to interrupt every time I sought to make a point.  He moved on from counter-arguments to interjections of balderdash and then finally in desperation resorted to loud theatrical coughing.  So much for the kinder, gentler politics that we were all promised when Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Now, to be fair, several members present attempted to intercede on my behalf.  More importantly the current Chair intervened to try to give me a decent hearing and indeed has subsequently written out reminding the Executive of the Party’s Code of Conduct.  This is to his great credit since he has a very different perspective on the state of the Party to the one that I hold.

Attending local Labour Party meetings these days is like being in the wrong stand with opposing supporters at a football match.  They suddenly discover you are not one of them and act with hostility.  The factional divide is now so deep that the Party may not continue to be a credible force, bumping along polling around the high 20%s in a good election year.  I wonder what Caerwyn would have thought.

 

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.

[i]See Kogan, D., Protest and Power: the Battle for the Labour Party, Bloomsbury Reader (2018), p.47

Dealing with antisemitism in the North Norfolk Labour Party

Attached below is a link to a submission that I have made to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Investigation into the Labour Party.

The submission concerns a series of unfortunate and interconnected events that took place in the North Norfolk Labour Party (NNLP) over the period March-May 2019.  In summary the party passed a resolution applauding the efforts of the leadership under Jeremy Corbyn to ‘weed out and deal with genuine antisemitic behaviour appropriately’. The resolution was presented to the local party by an individual who was subsequently placed under investigation for alleged antisemitism and suspended by the national party.  The response of the local NNLP leadership was ill judged and damaging.

There are important lessons here in dealing with the antisemitism crisis that the Labour Party is facing.  Although I have taken a break from blogging this issue is so important that I am bringing this evidence into the public domain.

Dealing with Antisemitism in NNLP

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Family, friends and a legacy

Sloman family Hannah and Richard

I have an enormous tribal loyalty to the Labour Party, as do the rest of my family, and I am not going to change.  I fully understand that many progressives, particularly our local LibDems, find such behaviour a source of frustration. I don’t need to justify it to other people; I vote, by secret ballot, as I wish.  I do, however, sometimes feel the need to justify my obduracy to myself.  My grandparents were said to be founder members of the Labour Party in Cardiff. I have doubts whether this was strictly true. Most of our family stories do not stand up to scrutiny. I have little evidence, for example, to support the tale that my father and his cousin were arrested and detained on their way to fight join the International Brigade in Spain; all I can say with certainty is that they never got there.

It was my own experiences in a difficult adolescence that forged this tribal political loyalty. It was the adults in the Labour Party who took an interest in me and encouraged a burgeoning awareness that matured into activism.  Indeed I would not have gone to University to read Economics had it not been for an intervention from the local organiser of the Workers Educational Association.

My much younger sister was brought up in similar circumstances; she has remained in Wales and brought up her family not far from where we all used to live. She had the opportunity of voting Plaid Cymru (wholeheartedly pro-remain) and, in our conversation, told me that it posed the most difficult dilemma and she did not make her mind up finally until she was at the polling station.  In her words ‘if people like me, with my background, are feeling like this, heaven help the Party’.  One of my sons told me that his daughter, my 8 year-old granddaughter, urged him to vote Green.  Several my close friends have told me that they failed to vote Labour for the first time in their lives.

None of the above will come as any surprise to anyone who reads a newspaper.  What however does surprise is the complacency of so many of the supporters of the Corbyn project.  There seems to be a belief that this will all blow over and loyalties will drift back to where they were before divisions over Europe were put into sharp focus in the 2016 referendum.   This is a forlorn hope and is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of political legacy.

The sort of intense tribal loyalty that my immediate family and I experience is unusual. For most of the population their involvement with politics is far more tenuous and any ties much weaker.  The wider Labour legacy in the industrial areas was forged through shared employment and community traditions.  I came up through the coal industry and twice stood as candidate in a mixed constituency with several pits and mining villages.  It wasn’t just about miners voting Labour: the vote was dependent on them getting their sons, daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends to go to the polling stations. This is all now history and, as Scotland has shown, once the link is broken it is very difficult to restore it.

In the aftermath of the European referendum there is a growing recognition that the nature of politics in the UK has irrevocably changed. An appeal to class has no resonance. People no longer define themselves politically in terms of economic status but in terms of remain or leave. As the excellent Philip Collins, writing in the Times, put it ‘Between the person who believes immigration to be good and the person who believes immigrants be bad there is not much ground.  Lifetime liberals do not share a common ground with votaries of traditional values’. [1]

In Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has emerged as an impressive politician who so far has been able to bridge this divide.  Jeremy Corbyn in England does not even recognise its existence.

This summer while the Tories are choosing a new leader, Labour progressives will be seeking to ensure that the Party commits firmly and irrevocably to remain; this is probably too late in electoral terms but I will support these efforts.  I will also be preparing evidence on an incident in our local Party and submitting it formally to the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party. I have described the incident in a previous blog. [2] Given its sensitivity I will not at this stage be disclosing further information here so I will now will take a break and resume at a later stage.

[1]Brexit has left Corbyn a politician out of time, Times 31stMay 2019

[2]Strange goings-on in North Norfolk https://wordpress.com/post/leftyoldman.wordpress.com/1150

I WILL NOW TAKE A BREAK FROM BLOGGING (though continuing to tweet at @eugrandparents).  If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs when I resume, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left hand side above.

A non-event of considerable significance

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When, on 7th May, the de-facto Deputy Prime Minister, David Liddington announced that, out of necessity, the elections to the European Parliament would take place, our two major parties did not want to know. The Mays and the Corbyns resembled a mutually antagonistic set of parents obliged to attend a wedding that both sides wished wasn’t taking place. Pretend it isn’t happening and get through the day in the hope that normal relations with everybody else could be restored afterwards.  However, as the People’s Vote campaign argued in their final supporter’s mailing “With Farage’s Brexit Party moving ahead in the polls, it is vital for everyone to get out and vote for pro-People’s Vote parties tomorrow”.

People’s Vote were correct: the extent of the Remain versus Leave vote will prove to be of considerable importance. So also will the share of the vote across the competing parties.

Indeed, looking at the results, it may be that this unwanted poll will prove to be a significant milestone in reshaping our political landscape.  The UK turnout at 37% was as high as could be expected. The woeful Conservative performance will have a major influence on the competition to succeed Theresa May as leader. Labour cannot pretend that ambiguity on the most important issue of our time is seen as anything other than a dereliction of duty. Labour’s share of the UK vote at under 15% puts us well behind the LibDems and only two percentage points above the Greens. In the North Norfolk District Labour polled just 1325 votes (a miserable 3.8%) and finished in sixth place, even behind the near extinct UKIP Party.  Will our local party finally get the message, I wonder?

Worse still for Labour the European elections will go down as a massive missed opportunity to redefine ourselves: we will only survive as a progressive 21st century movement by adopting an international perspective.  So many of the problems that matter to us and the voters we care for  – combatting terrorism, climate change, regulation of the technology giants, economic opportunities for school-leavers – require committed international co-operation. Labour should have campaigned as an unequivocal ‘remain and reform’ party, to use Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s term.

The national Labour leaflet that was delivered to my doorstep could best be described can be dismissed as a desperate attempt to save a failing relationship: ‘please don’t leave me whatever you think of my behaviour’. At the local level our Party Chair adopted a more forthright tone: “The reality of a no deal Brexit would be for the wide boys of the city to make shed loads of money whilst life for working class people would get even harder than it is under the Tories now”.Using language like this, a hangover from the class war of the 1980s, will have limited appeal to successor generations.

Yes indeed Brexit will drag on and on.  The Tory leadership election will be the focus of national attention but it will take us no further forward in the short term. Brexit’s resolution could be quicker, however, than reversing the Labour Party’s decline as our legacy vote disappears.

I have now decided to attend some local Labour Party meetings. I am curious to see if the bombast when Corbyn became leader has been replaced by a more reflective tone.  I have incidentally been told that the local party will be raising my online behaviour with the Labour Party Eastern Region Office. It may be that they are nominating me for an award, but I doubt that this is the case.  One way or another I would have thought that the Regional Office of the Labour Party would have other things to do and I await developments.

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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.

Is social media the answer in Norfolk?

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It is rare for North Norfolk to feature on the national news but the LibDem’s capture of the District Council on May 2nd made the following day’s headlines. The apolitical but energetic LibDems won 30 seats; the antediluvian Tories took 6; some nondescript others 4.  For the Labour Party the results were dismal: in 2015 we polled 14.9% of the vote; this time round we polled 6.4%.  The highest percentage Labour vote, at 27.8%, was achieved by my friend Mike Gates in Wells (see previous blog).  The highest number of votes recorded by anyone with Labour persuasions was the 238 achieved in Gresham by a promising young party member; however, he ran without party affiliation and is now the subject of disciplinary action.  Not a good day for the Labour Party locally.

Inevitably analysis of the overall national results has concentrated on the implications for the Euro-elections and the future of Brexit.  Much of it has focused on the drift away from Labour amongst leave voters in the industrial north and amongst remain voters in the south.  Now, while North Norfolk is typical of nowhere but itself, dig deeper and we can offer some insights about the nature of left politics in the internet age and about the state of the Labour Party

As I have observed in previous blogs, as a corollary of Jeremy Corbyn’s barnstorming leadership election campaigns, North Norfolk Labour Party underwent a hostile takeover by Momentum.  The previous Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, introduced a scheme to allow affiliated members and £3 supporters to join full members in voting in leadership contests.  Vote they did.  Most voted by internet but a local hustings meeting in Cromer took on the atmosphere of a 19th revivalist gathering; it was packed with Corbyn supporters who had played no part in the Party previously nor were to do so subsequently.  Numbers on the books increased from 175 to over 600: we were told that the local Party was going ‘from strength to strength’. The subsequent small print gave a rather different picture.  To quote from the annual report ‘the challenge has been to activate the new membership in campaigning and participation in meetings’.

Too true.  For the first time since I arrived here Labour failed to find enough people to stand for election.  We did not field candidates in three of the North Norfolk seats including the market town of Holt.[i]

I cannot entirely blame our Momentum controlled local Party Executive, although their adolescent infatuation with Jeremy Corbyn undoubtedly led to a number of mainstream members, including myself, deciding not to stand this time; others ran against the Party as independents. There is, however, a more fundamental problem at issue.  The nature of political involvement has changed and will continue to change with the emergence of social networking.

Our local campaign, such that it was, seemed to place a deal of emphasis on a succession of posts, featuring individual candidates and some local issues, on the North Norfolk Labour Party Facebook site.  They were well produced and, to the Executive’s credit, regularly updated.  I doubt, however, if any uncertain voter accessed the site or anybody’s vote was changed as a result of the content.  This is simply the disciples talking amongst themselves: it is not where the effort should be placed if you are fighting an election.

Further, few of the newer members participated in the campaign. Certainly for the younger recruits it seems to be all about demonstrating commitment on-line: the political equivalent of the Bay City Rollers phenomenon. Here I am showing my age. The Bay City Rollers were a Scottish rock band who achieved worldwide teen idol popularity in the 1970s. Musically the band broke no new ground and had little lasting influence, but their fans were able to declare their identity by adopting a distinctive style of dress; this featured calf-length tartan trousers and tartan scarves.  Today Corbyn disciples declare their loyalty not through their style of dress but by decorating their Facebook sites with pictures of their idol. There is, as a consequence, a huge and growing gulf between those who profess support on-line and those who control events in the Party structure locally and nationally.

In an earlier blog, “ Strange goings-on in North Norfolk”, I drew attention to the bizarre decision of the North Norfolk Labour Party to devote much of its last pre-election meeting to a motion that began “This CLP applauds the efforts of the LP leadership under Jeremy Corbyn to weed out and deal with antisemitic behaviour appropriately”.  Just over a month later, in the middle of the election campaign, a news item appeared prominently in the North Norfolk News with the heading ‘Labour defends council candidate following anti-Israel Facebook posts’. The item can be accessed using the link below (the typo in the link is a mistake by the publisher).

https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/politics/allegations-of-anti-semetism-jean-thirtle-1-6008101?

Given the wider context of the shameful antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party it would be hard to construct a more damaging headline.  As the much-despised but extraordinarily perceptive Tony Blair put it: “The trouble with people from that tradition of the left is that they combine a huge degree of commitment with intolerance and misunderstanding about the nature of people and their relation to politics”. [ii]

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.

[i]There is a boundary anomaly in the County.  The District Council boundary is not contiguous with the North Norfolk Parliamentary boundary.  There was a similar lack of candidates in District Council seats that fell in the Broadland Parliamentary Constituency

[ii]This quotation is taken from Kogan, D., Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party, Bloomsbury Reader, (2019), p. 37.

A depressing doorstep encounter in Wells-next-the-sea

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Three distinct events took place on Wednesday 30thApril; separately and together they caused me to reflect on the uphill task faced by those of us who are mainstream Labour members and are staying in the Party. It is not looking good in the short-term.

The first occurred in the morning in the attractive coastal town of Wells-next-the–sea.   My good friend Mike Gates was standing for the District Council.  His political perspective is similar to mine; we have been Labour activists for many years and have seen it all before.  Mike had previously represented Wells on the North Norfolk District Council and was guardedly optimistic about his prospects this time round.  Neither the LibDem nor the Tory Candidate lived in the town and Mike was well known locally; he had recently retired as the local postman.  Sadly, like all North Norfolk Labour candidates, he was unsuccessful when the poll took place the following day.  I will comment on the local results in more detail in my next blog.

I spent a morning delivering leaflets for him in a large estate that had been built as council housing but was now the usual mix of owner-occupancy and social housing.  Mike had warned me to expect apathetic indifference and occasional downright hostility towards politics and politicians.

I should know better than to indulge in arguments on the doorstep.  The standard advice, if someone disagrees with you, is to move on as quickly as possible. However as I grow older I am getting (even) more intolerant and more irritable. I handed a leaflet to an elderly man watering his garden.  When he found out it was Labour he rudely told me to clear off; I moved on to the next door but foolishly responded, rather than ignored, his shout of ‘let me ask you one question?’  Inevitably it was about Brexit.

There followed a wholly purposeless dialogue.  He began by grumbling about the money we were paying to bureaucrats; I said it was all about securing 21stcentury jobs for our grandchildren.  There was not the slightest prospect of any common ground. My lasting impression however was how strongly he felt: with some justification he believed he has been let down by a political process that promised but failed to deliver.  He was desperate to tell someone, even someone he despised.  Suggesting that he had been on the receiving end of a wholly dishonest leave campaign – he had been lied to – would have had no effect.  I am sure that such conversations are being repeated up and down the country.

That same afternoon the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee announced its manifesto position for the European Elections of May 23rd.  It is one that, despite my long-standing membership, I would find impossible to defend on the doorstep. It has been comprehensively analysed in the newspapers but, for the benefit of overseas readers, it maintains the fiction that there is  ‘Labour’s alternative plan’which could deliver Brexit and honour the referendum result. In this way “Labour is the only party which represents both people who leave and remain.  We are working to bring the country together after the chaos and crisis created by the Tories” (to quote from a Party spokesperson).

Stuff and nonsense.  There is a hard choice to be made here – in or out of the EU.  There is no way I and the man I encountered on the doorstep in Wells can be brought together until this whole debacle over the EU is resolved; if it results in a UK exit the fractious debate will rumble on for the next decade.  David Cameron caused the problem but Jeremy Corbyn and his entourage have exacerbated it through such dishonest opportunism.

Given this, the final depressing event of a miserable day came as no surprise. I received an email from a young man in his early thirties who I first met when I transferred my Labour Party membership from London to North Norfolk.   He was brought up in the nearby town of Holt and is an individual of considerable capability and immense promise.  He wrote: “I’m afraid I’ve resigned from the party, today’s manifesto fudge was too much … I’m not joining any other party, but I’m not sure I can stomach voting for the pro-Brexit manifesto in the European elections”.

This is all very sad, especially in the centenary year of the foundation of the North Norfolk Labour Party.  Can we rebuild and if so how?  My pal Mike Gates remembers the 1980s and thinks we can and will. History will repeat itself. I hope he’s right, but at this stage I cannot bring myself to share his optimism.

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.

An intriguing doorstep encounter in North Norfolk

The District Council elections in North Norfolk are now in full swing, or as near to ‘full’ as any swing is possible in this rather quiet area.  My vote this time will be in the Stody Ward. In previous elections my area was known as Glaven Valley: I stood as the Labour candidate in 2015 going down to a humiliating defeat.  The boundaries may have changed but the prospects, in one of the most rural swathes of Norfolk, remain unremittingly dismal.

Someone else is standing as the Labour Candidate this time, and he has already secured my postal vote – irrespective of my views on the national leadership of the Party.  We do however appear to be witnessing a determined fight between the LibDems and the Conservatives reflecting a battle for overall control of the Council.  Both groups are fundamentally non-political, indeed often anti-political.   The main issue that seems to be exciting local passions is the fate of the Sand Martins at Bacton beach: the birds were prevented from nesting on the cliff-side by nets erected by North Norfolk District Council in an attempt to attempt to combat cliff erosion.  Their fate made the national news and the Council swiftly moved the nets.

The local LibDem flier that I received was predictably bland. The Conservative leaflet was far more forthright and even ventured into politics “The Liberal Democrats are supporting a campaign to oppose Brexit and hold another referendum, disregarding the will of the British people. We cannot risk sending an endorsement of their divisive politics”.  Quite what the District Council can do about this I don’t know, but for a Tory to talk about divisive politics over Brexit merely underlines the adage that criminals always return to the scene of their crime.

However something else in the Tory leaflet attracted my attention. Our local candidate’s personal statement on the back page of a generic publication began “I’m a working class man who is passionate about creating opportunities for others…”.  I would not have expected such self-description: most of our local Tories like to pretend to be toffs. All was explained when the candidate came to my door.  We had a most unusual encounter: in fairness to the man I was deliberately provocative.

I began by reminding him of the mass defection of previously elected local Tories to form an Independent Group on the Council before going on to his motivation.  He told me that he had been brought up on a Council estate in West London; I responded by telling him that I too was brought up on a Council estate – in my case in South Wales.  He rather lost the thread by asking me why I was living in a nice big house in a nice village and not in Wales and then advanced his view that it was because Wales was a Labour area and “Labour areas are sh***oles”.My assertion that we had retired to Norfolk because of my wife’s family connections, and also I liked it here, did not seem to placate him in any way.  His next question was “why aren’t you standing for the Council here – why are you standing in North Walsham?”  Clearly he had me confused with someone else. I am not standing anywhere but have had letters published in the local press.  North Walsham does however offer the best prospect for Labour and he proceeded to describe this attractive market town as another ‘sh***ole’ – evidently this is one of his favourite expressions.

The encounter was as intriguing as it was revealing.   I do not want to be too unfair to our Conservative candidate as doubtless he has personal aspirations that are well intentioned.   Our exchange did however remind me that class politics and class prejudice are alive and well: they are simply taking a different form up here.

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.