It’s been a long time coming, but it’s welcome

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It gives me a deal of pleasure to be able to resume my weekly blog on a positive note. At long last there has been some shift in the Labour leader’s position. Now we are in favour of continued customs union membership. To quote from his Coventry speech:

“Labour would seek a final deal that gives full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union… with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections.”

No one should underestimate the extent of the shift and the opportunity that this provides for avoiding the Brexit catastrophe. Well done to all those who, over time, persuaded Jeremy Corbyn to shift his position.

I can’t include myself in that number, although at one time I knew him moderately well. I was a very active Labour Party member in Corbyn’s North Islington from the mid-70s to 1987 and did not hold him in high regard – I am sure that this feeling was reciprocated. In fact my Islington period covered the year when Corbyn was alleged to have consorted with a secret agent from the Czech republic. The idea that, at that time, anybody would have told him anything that mattered and that he would then have remembered it is absurd. However, in fairness, he has developed skills since becoming leader and is now pointing in the right direction.

The next challenge is to get him off the hook that the referendum vote must be treated as a considered and definitive decision that cannot be reversed – whatever the subsequent facts that have come to be light. In the course of a New European podcast published as recently as February 23rd , just three days before the Coventry speech, he was asked if Labour’s position on Brexit was shifting. He replied: “What we have said is that we accept the result of the referendum. We are leaving the European Union… We can’t be members of the single market because we won’t be members of the European Union”. *

The EU negotiators will not allow us to cherry-pick (or, as the Spanish apparently call it, sherry-pick) in this way. Signing up to everything that matters while pretending you are leaving may get the Labour Party through the next two years but it is not a strategy for Government.   Sooner or later political leaders must tell the electorate that they got it wrong. However let’s be thankful for some progress after a dreadful 2017.

*Listen on http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-labour-1-5406396

 

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Knocking up the Council Estate

Council housing

Those of us who are international in outlook are waking up in a shattered state this morning. We cannot deny the result and must ask ourselves what sort of society we are living in and what our response should be. An unnecessary and exhausting Referendum campaign has been conducted in a thoroughly unpleasant fashion; I have never witnessed such overt racism and xenophobia as I did yesterday morning when handing out Remain leaflets at White Hart Lane station in North London.

We need to lick our wounds and take time to digest the lessons. However one thing is certain. We have reached a turning point in national politics: voting habits based on social class have ended for good.

I became active in politics as a teenager in my native city of Cardiff. Our family allegiance was firmly Labour and I was excited by the vision of the future that Harold Wilson offered – ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’. In Cardiff, like every provincial city, social class determined voting and housing was the most visible indicator. Posh Penylan and Llandaff voted Tory; the large council estates at the fringes of the city voted Labour. There were small enclaves of council housing in most of the wards and the assumption was that they would always produce Labour votes. Accordingly the practice was to knock up these houses on election evening to ensure that they voted; if you had the energy and resources you would have canvassed them previously to weed out the odd Conservative.

This practice worked in reverse. Over time our family circumstances improved and we became owner-occupiers living in a semi-detached house at the edge of the large Ely council estate. My father was in the front garden when a woman canvassing for the Conservatives called. Unusually for him he was polite and told her that he would be voting Labour. She responded with a snooty ‘What Labour? in a nice house like this’ causing him to explode. Ironically his class-based assumptions of politics were as strong as hers.

Before I went to help in London I participated in our Remain campaign here in North Norfolk. Together with my friend Mike Gates, the former Party Secretary, I delivered door to door in an area of social housing in the coastal town of Wells. He is well known and well liked locally so we encountered no hostility when delivering the Remain literature. It was easy work but I must now question whether our activity did any good – we may have helped to bring out the opposition. It now seems that it is ‘traditional Labour voters’ who have been the most hostile to the Party’s position. The divide has been between the wider outlook of the younger, better-educated, generation and those who lack confidence in a more international future. Times have indeed changed and so must the centre-left’s approach to politics.

 

Updates on previous blogs: What is Richard Howitt doing? and Academics for Jeremy Corbyn

Richard Howitt MEP’s Press Officer rang me today to have a whinge on what he felt to be two factual inaccuracies in my blog below. First he claimed that there was no early bird price for the jolly to Europe. Oh yes there is. It is £165 early bird for Strasbourg and £85 for the Brussels jolly.

On his second I must hold my hand up and admit a mistake.  I said that you would not find information on whom Richard was supporting for the leadership by looking at his website. I was wrong. You can if you are prepared to do the following.  Go the main site; ignore the four news items listed on the page; go below them and press ‘see all’. You then get to page 1 of 10. Press ‘page 3’.   Richard nominates Yvette Cooper for Labour Leadership is the 5th story of 10. It appears just below Loughton teens are being denied a say in their own future and What Greece needs isn’t Grexit. I offer the Press Officer my apologies.

My second update concerns the letter from pro-Corbyn academics.  I sent an e-mail to the 27 signatories drawing attention to my piece immediately below.  So far I have received 7 out of office replies only one of which gives an alternative contact. The prize goes to the lecturer from Greenwich whose reply reads: This is an automatic reply. I am out of the office until 14 September, and will respond to you if necessary on my return.

One other academic wrote asking me to reproduce a second letter in support of Corbyn’s position.  The author admitted to doing ‘very little canvassing’ (which I suspect means none) and his letter denies that Corbyn is a “danger” who is causing harm to the Labour Party. As Gordon Brown put it this week ‘Labour must be credible, radical, sustainable and electable to help people out of poverty’. I will be dealing with Jeremy Corbyn’s policy position on Wednesday and Thursday.

 

20 days to go – the hustings meeting

This week I attended one of the North Norfolk hustings meetings, as they are now called. All five Parliamentary candidates spoke and answered questions. The event, organised by the Church in Cromer, attracted over 200 people and was a most impressive occasion – marred only by the failure of the Chairman, a Church dignitary, to introduce himself or give the candidates an opportunity to sum up at the end. Each of the candidates responded to five pre-notified questions: the economy, housing, the European Union, social deprivation, and their priorities. The audience was attentive and respectful and the whole occasion reflected well on our democratic system.

Having said that I doubt if any votes would have changed as a result. Most of the audience were party activists and, as in my case, had come along to size up the opposing candidates. I don’t think we learned anything new. Denise Burke our Labour candidate, as we expected, performed well throughout and I thought her most effective answer to be the one on Europe. She alone specifically rejected the idea of an in/out referendum because of the uncertainty it would cause and the distraction that would result. I hope that this will feature prominently in our national campaign.

The most unambiguous stance was that taken by our UKip candidate. When a final question was put on ‘what matters to you more than party?’ his response was ‘my sovereign nation’. As a Welshman living in England with half-Irish grandchildren this sort of ultra-nationalism scares me a little. I am sure that I am not alone. By acting as a polarising influence UKip is forcing many people to realise how important the international community is to them personally.