Buy at the bottom

In the early 1990s I was head of training for one of the UK’s least successful investment banks and had responsibility for the graduate scheme. I organised events at universities, involving the more articulate of the business heads in selling the bank to potential applicants.   On one occasion we attended an evening presentation when, on the previous day, our parent bank’s Chairman had announced, that, unless there was a rapid return to profit, he would close the investment subsidiary. No graduate in their right mind would choose to join us over our competitors. Ever imaginative, one of the business heads told the audience that a sensible market aphorism was ‘buy at the bottom’ and this was what they would do by joining us. A moment’s reflection demonstrates that there is no logic in the underlying argument but it had superficial credibility.

There is more substance in the case for voting Labour in the forthcoming local elections. Certainly, given the inept leadership and growing chasms between the factions, it is ‘buy at the bottom’. I shall vote Labour because I always have and don’t think I could do anything else – a poor reason I know. Like many others I want the party to survive and at some time return to mainstream credibility.

Our local party has succeeded in finding a full slate of candidates to fight all twelve County Council seats in North Norfolk. However the idea that there has been some rejuvenation as a result of the huge influx of people who joined to vote for Jeremy Corbyn has been exposed as nonsense. As the annual financial report coyly put it, despite the surge in membership: “the challenge has been to activate the new membership in campaigning and participating in meetings”.   Too true: as far as I can tell only one of the candidates is under the age of 40 and most have been around for some time, albeit some of them in the Greens.

However all credit to the candidates for their willingness to fight a pretty hopeless cause.  The leader of the County Council Labour Group was the guest speaker at the February meeting. The minutes record that the response included “questions on alternatives to implementing cuts such as joining with other councils to rebel against cuts”. Old habits die hard and it is almost touching to see such nostalgia for the gesture politics of the 1980s. Sadly, if the current polls are anything to go by, there will be few councillors elected here to join this forthcoming Trotskyist insurrection.

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Joining a march again

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

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

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

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

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

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Jeremy’s tax return – the real problem

Like many of my generation I have made a transition from paid employment, through self-employment, to living on pensions with the odd bit of extra income.   Given this, for over a decade I have prepared my own tax return. It is becoming increasingly less arduous; my pensions are taxed at source and this year’s extra income amounted to £25.86. This was the royalties from six copies of A Handbook for Training Strategy; five of them were sold overseas. I wrote the book in 1994 and it is now hopelessly out of date. I wish I could find a way of returning the money to the purchasers.

Having completed and submitted returns for some time, I know that it is easy to miss a deadline, make a mistake, or overlook some detail, so I have some sympathy with Jeremy Corbyn. Last year he incurred a fine for late return. This year he made a big public statement by making his tax return publicly available in order to shame rival politicians into taking a similar action. Unfortunately it has all gone wrong and has proved to be another embarrassment, albeit minor. It is worth reflecting on why this is the case and what lessons can be drawn.

The tax return that Corbyn has published contained a small technical error. His £27000 salary as leader of the opposition was declared, not as income from employment, but as a state benefit. Tax on this element of salary was paid in full; there was no implication or any attempt to dissemble; it was simply an entry put in the wrong place. This is no big deal to the Inland Revenue, but raises an important question. Given that taking the return into the public domain was a planned political offensive, was it thoroughly checked before it was issued and if so by whom? Were adequate processes in place and were the individuals responsible for implementing them competent in the jobs for which they are paid? Had they ever completed a tax return themselves?

Inevitably a minor gaffe led to derision from a hostile press who, in a dull political period, are just waiting for the next dropped ball; the Leader’s office issued a predictable petulant response and yet another chance for a more serious debate was missed.

Labour supporters in the constituencies may well shrug their shoulders but, to the electorate as a whole, competency in office does matter. Those of us who have worked most of lives in corporate roles simply cannot understand why the even the simplest things can’t be done effectively at this high-profile and well-resourced level.

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Regaining trust – is am-dram the answer?

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The second half of 1985 was without doubt the worst period of my working life. I had spent some 17 years at the National Coal Board and we were all reeling from the effects of the year-long catastrophic strike. I had then been promoted to a job teaching at the industry’s internal management college, where we received instructions that our Chairman, Ian MacGregor, required us to devote all our efforts to improving the communication skills of colliery managers. He seemed to believe that the strike was a result of a corporate failure to put his message across at the coalface (for once a literal use of the term).

Opinions may differ on the causes of the strike, and what should have been done, but all of us knew that MacGregor was totally wrong in his analysis. The nature of the mining industry meant that there was plenty of contact and exchange between management and workers. They lived in the same communities and often had close family connections. The issue was not communication: there was an underlying political and economic agenda that needed to be resolved.

All this came flooding back when I saw Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction to the recent disastrous bye-election result at Copeland. “… Our message was not enough to win through in Copeland” he said “ To win power to rebuild and transform Britain, Labour will go further to reconnect with voters, and break with the failed political consensus.” This echoed his supporters’ underlying belief that, if their perspective was not distorted by a hostile media, the voters would immediately return to Labour.

This is, of course, nonsense. Flooding the estates with imported bands of Momentum activists would only make things worse. It would serve to remind the electorate of how detached the Corbyn supporters are from the aspirations and ambitions of most people, and how shallow the solutions on offer are. Banging on doors simply serves to remind the electorate of our malaise and, indeed, could make traditional Labour voters further question their intentions.

In recent blogs I have drawn attention to some defections of prominent North Norfolk individuals from Labour to the LibDems. I greatly regretted the departure of a former Mayor of Cromer: he was a fine young man. Before he resigned from the party he circulated his concerns over a members’ meeting held in November. The agenda included “role play activity which was aimed at developing skills and confidence in campaigning on the doorstep”. This, the former Mayor, described this as ‘unrealistic am-dram’.   However it was adjudged a success by the organisers and, on the Saturday immediately before Copeland, a morning session was scheduled where “through role play we will show different ways to engage with residents, discuss issues and find out whether they support Labour”.

One of the co-presenters of the session has a history of revolutionary Trotskyism. In fairness to him I doubt if he intended to use the occasion to explore the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’ (the way in which material, ideological, and institutional processes in capitalist society mislead members of the proletariat*). He might just as well done so, for all the good that sessions like this are going to have at this stage. Simply promoting the Party on the doorstep will serve no purpose until we have something to offer that makes sense to the electorate.   Until and unless we address the underlying policy vacuum, and get a new leader, all that is on offer is further decline.

 

* Taken from the Wikipedia definition of the term

 

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A strange defection in North Norfolk

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After five decades of political activism I recognise that people are always entitled to change their opinions. Many well-meaning individuals were seduced by Jeremy Corbyn’s evangelism when he was elected Labour leader; now they are having doubts. Recently I’ve been on the receiving end of multiple shame-faced variants of “I supported him for his principles but he is not much of a leader’’.   As the football fans chant “It’s gone very quiet over there”. However if we are to move the Labour Party back to electability we must, I know, be prepared to forget the mistakes people made eighteen months ago.   Nevertheless some things really rankle.

On 13th October 2015, a month after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader a piece appeared in the New Statesman. It was written by a Norfolk-based journalist, Lauren Ravazi, under the headline: “It’s nothing radical: Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters on why his politics are just common sense”. It was adulatory in tone: “…. a widespread movement; people drawn from a variety of backgrounds who have come together under the umbrella of Corbynism to support principles of equality, fairness and democracy”…. ”Welcome to the new British politics”.

One of three people identified in the article was a local party member, a Cromer literary director Jen Hamilton-Emery. She was quoted as describing Corbyn as a man of strong and unshakeable principles. That same month Jen became Chair of the North Norfolk Labour Party and wrote to us all saying:

“I decided to stand as Chair after attending the recent Labour Party Conference in Brighton where I was reminded why I had joined the Party in the first place. The New Politics outlined by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell struck a chord with me: Labour values, fit for a modern age, where everyone is encouraged to express their views and have their voices heard”.

I’d always liked Jen and was disappointed with her seemingly uncritical support for Jeremy Corbyn so the starry-eyed comments in the Statesman piece jarred. I was even more disappointed, and somewhat surprised, when she resigned as local Chair just five months later citing personal reasons. Whatever the underlying causes, and we never found out, on a personal level I continue to wish Jen well.

What I do find extraordinary however is that that she has now defected to the LibDems. On 16th February she sent out an e-mail in which she said “I have never been a Corbin (sic) fan, but was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but his 3-line whip in support of May’s Brexit plan was the last straw”.   Even by North Norfolk standards, where defections are common (the Conservatives and LibDems seem to be both interchangeable and indistinguishable), such a complete reversal of opinion in a short period strikes me as odd.

Feeling a little aggrieved I contacted the Statesman journalist suggesting that she should produce a follow-up article on the change of heart. I received a prompt and courteous reply. Lauren Ravazi informed me that she too had now joined the LibDems and, moreover, “As for writing about any of this, I prefer to put pen to paper on issues of global development and space exploration these days.” I can only wish her well with the latter – with consistency like this we don’t dwell on the same planet.

Funny things happen in Norfolk.

Another dismal North Norfolk bye-election

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The late Earl of Leicester, a local aristocrat and wealthy local landowner, once described the North Norfolk division where I now live as follows: “the one constituency in England where, in 1964, it was so feudal that it had to be explained to the electors that the ballot was secret.” He was incorrect. It may be out of the way, but North Norfolk has a sophisticated electorate and a surprising history of radicalism.   Not only did Labour win the seat in 1964, but that election produced the Constituency’s fourth Labour MP – the first being elected in the 1920s. The agricultural workers were well aware that the ballot was secret; they organised and they and their families went to vote in large numbers.

This is now a historical footnote. The Labour candidate who won in 1964 lost the seat to the Conservatives in 1970; in 2001 a Liberal Democrat captured it, and he continues to hold it through a combination of affability, good local organisation and an absence of strong opinions on anything political.

Organised agricultural workers are no longer a political force in the area. This is an inevitable result of the move from labour intensive to capital-intensive production in the arable farms of Norfolk. The farm owned by my wife’s family, seven miles from our home, once employed eight full time workers and between three and five casual labourers. Mechanisation meant that there was insufficient work simply producing sugar beet and barley and the farm has become the basis of a most successful business offering bed and breakfast and holiday lets and now employs only a part-time cleaner.

Given the changing composition of the population, with many retired people moving to this attractive coastal area, it is hard to see how Labour could ever again become a serious contender for the Parliamentary Seat. As I indicated in my previous blog, the class basis of politics has faded over the course of my political lifetime. The votes of progressively minded people, and there are many about even in North Norfolk, must be secured through other routes. I am increasingly convinced that the argument for economic and social justice must be deployed internationally; it will take us a long time to get there but I believe that the process has begun.

Unfortunately such optimism means that we will have to wait in North Norfolk. On 9th February we had another District Council bye-election; this time in the Waterside Division, which abuts the Norfolk Broads. We had a fine candidate who lived nearby and was a former Councillor. He is a committed amateur historian of the local labour movement and reminds me much of the sort of elder statesman who took the time and had the patience to encourage me when I first joined the Party as a teenager.

Sadly our candidate polled only 41 votes compared with 210, albeit on much higher poll, for the leading Labour candidate in the same area two years ago (a drop from 8.5% to 3.5% in Labour’s percentage). I have just received an e-mail in which our Constituency Secretary crassly copied in details of all current members: this indicated that in total there are some 420 full Labour Party members in North Norfolk. It seems that we are rapidly approaching the situation where we have more people signing up to vote in Labour’s leadership election than are prepared to vote Labour at the ballot-box. Earlier this year our rising local star, an able young businessman who became Mayor of Cromer in his 20s, resigned from the Party citing disaffection with the national leadership. The local Labour Party Chairman responded to this resignation by telling our newspaper that the local party was ‘going from strength to strength’. ‘Alternative facts’ are not the exclusive preserve of Donald Trump.

We could indeed have a long wait for any recovery to reach darkest Norfolk, but I live in hope that it will happen eventually.

The first signpost – on a long road ahead

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We have just returned from a thoroughly enjoyable holiday in Vietnam; it is a country that is ambivalent about how to portray its own recent history. Most of the people I met there seemed to share similar aspirations to my neighbours in Norfolk. However there was a background of continuous propaganda on the success of the revolution and the 1975 victory over ‘American capitalist imperialism’.   The latter was at its most strident in a room in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City: it contained multiple photographs of protest marches purporting to demonstrate the international working-class solidarity against the war. I marched against the war as a student in the late 1960s. It was a protest of the university-educated intellectuals not the working class, who, as I recall, were for the main part were indifferent.

The reality is that the class basis of politics was always overstated and has faded irrevocably over the course of my political lifetime: this process had begun by the 1970s and has accelerated ever since.   It may well be that, as a result, the Labour Party faces inevitable decline; this certainly seems to be the view expressed in opinion pieces in our more serious newspapers.

The argument runs as follows: the Labour Party can only succeed as an alliance between middle-class progressives and working-class traditionalists. However, the June 2016 referendum hastened the road to extinction by showing, in sharp perspective, the collapse of the glue that held Labour together. A majority of both the forty Parliamentary Constituencies producing the biggest percentage of ‘remain’ votes and the forty Parliamentary Constituencies producing the biggest percentage of ‘leave’ votes are held by Labour. The former lie in the University cities, especially London; the latter lie in the traditional industrial heartlands. Skilled leadership, as demonstrated by the Scottish National Party, can hold a coalition together for a time (every Scottish Parliamentary Constituency voted remain) – but the division between those who have benefitted from globalization and those who feel threatened by such changes is real. It will be increasingly reflected in different behaviour at the ballot box. For the Labour Party, worse is to come.

In my previous blog I indicated that I was taking a break and would resume only when I saw a ray of hope for left of centre politics in the UK. Given the paragraph above it may appear surprising that I have put fingers to keyboard. Ironically, the disastrous election of Donald Trump suggests that a rebuild of liberal social democracy is possible. Trump’s election has put into sharp focus the ugly face of ultra-nationalism and given rise to large and peaceful demonstrations populated by like-minded people throughout the world.   Sophisticated modern technology allows rapid communication of ideas and these can rapidly feed through to changes in patterns of political activism and, ultimately, voting behaviour; both Donald Trump in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK have demonstrated the potential of such movements. The very same weapon can be used against them.

So, looking to the long-term future, I believe that the choice may not lie between ultra-nationalism and unstructured protest. Liberal social democracy can and eventually will be rebuilt as a global movement. Class politics is dead and the sooner we get rid of Marxist terminology the better, but the remaining shell of the Labour Party may be a constituent of this international process with an important role to play in our country. I may not live to see the day but am hopeful nonetheless.