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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It’s all much clearer; it isn’t

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There is a growing feeling that Brexit is inevitable, but is it? A vote in the Scottish Parliament to deny consent to the Withdrawal Bill and shifting opinion in Northern Ireland are the latest indications of potential opposition.  In October or November this year the Government will present the final Brexit deal to Parliament.  In the intervening period the insoluble problem of the Irish border may generate a crisis: Theresa May is dependent on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party for her political survival and the Irish Government appears to have maintained the support of the other EU member states.  If, however, there is no political explosion over the Irish border it will come down to the autumn Parliamentary vote on the negotiated deal. There is no majority in Parliament (or anywhere else in the country) for a hard Brexit; there is no majority on the Conservative benches for any form of customs union (whatever the term used to describe it). In short it is a right mess. So what is to be done?

What matters is the Parliamentary arithmetic and the position Jeremy Corbyn takes when his preferred policy of strategic ambiguity has run its course.  There is something that can be done here.  A new campaign #LabourSay has been launched to demand a meaningful debate vote at this autumn’s Labour Party Conference; this takes place a month before the Parliamentary vote.  It will be hard for those who oppose this move to summon credible arguments against it. ‘Leave it to Jeremy and the front bench team’ runs counter to their demands for greater democracy and power to the membership.

One piece of good news is that attitudes have changed in Northern Ireland as the failure to provide a solution to the border problem and the consequences of that failure are becoming more apparent.   Survey research shows 69% would vote Remain if there was another referendum compared to the 56% who voted Remain in June 2016 * .  It would of course be of enormous benefit if there were a significant shift of public opinion in favour of Remain in the rest of the UK. Sadly the local election results of 3rd May produced no indication that this is yet taking place – despite the mounting evidence of the economic damage that withdrawal would cause. The most perceptive comment that I have recently encountered comes from the broadcaster Robert Peston’s 2017 book: ‘There is no point lecturing the British people they have made a mistake in going for Brexit.  They will either decide that for themselves, in a spontaneous awakening led by someone or some people a million miles form the current class of leaders – or they won’t’. **

However we must not give up; what is at stake is too important. I resumed my activism so I could tell my grandchildren that I did my best to give them the opportunity of living in an open, tolerant country at peace with its position in the global community.  The battle will not be won in this remote part of Eastern England but we should all do our bit wherever we are. I am pretty confident the MP for my constituency, LibDem Norman Lamb, will vote the right way when it comes to the push. I shall be presenting my paper, the Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk, at a forthcoming meeting organised by the local Labour Party.  Kate Gott the driving force behind Norfolk4Europe has a mailing list of over 200 names and will be sending a coach from Norwich to the People’s vote march on 23rdJune.

* http://ukandeu.ac.uk/people-in-northern-ireland-want-the-uk-to-stay-in-the-customs-union-and-single-market-new-research-on-public-attitudes-reveals/

**Peston, R., (2017) WTF, Hodder & Stoughton, page 252

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Only delivery produces results

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Everyone of progressive views will have been moved by the recent tributes to the late Dame Tessa Jowell.  She was a politician who was respected across the political spectrum; she was highly regarded by her staff, amongst whom was Jessica Asato – the excellent candidate in Norwich North in 2015.  I recall meeting Tessa briefly when she a came to a fund-raising dinner for Jess shortly before the election.

Although I was a contemporary of Tessa Jowell in the London Labour Party of the 1980s I knew her only by reputation.  She was a Councillor in Camden and I was active in Islington. Camden generally maintained a good reputation for delivery; Islington, where Jeremy Corbyn was our MP, did not. However these were tough times for moderate activists in both boroughs with a factional war between left and right. A lot of people’s politics were shaped by their experiences of the time and, according to some of the obituaries, at one meeting where Tessa Jowell backed moves to set a rate, protestors threw chicken livers at her.  Whatever the reasons, she was one of the early of the Labour modernisers and firm supporter of New Labour and Tony Blair.  For her delivery mattered.

While at the Department of Health she introduced Sure Start, a scheme to improve childcare.  Her main achievement however was to secure the 2012 Olympics for London.  For me this will be remembered as a family occasion: my grandson went to his first sporting event, handball, in a sling carried by his parents.   More importantly, as I’ve said in an earlier blog, our country was at its best during the London Olympics.  We delivered a challenging event with remarkable efficiency, made many thousands welcome, and shared the experience with the world

In many local Labour Parties, my own North Norfolk included, Blairite has now become a term of abuse. Some of those who are so ready to use it in this way might pause and consider wherever the current generation of leaders will leave a legacy that begins to compare with that of Dame Tessa Jowell.  If we are going to change people’s lives for the better it is delivery, not speeches and rallies, that matter.

This is leftyoldman’s 200thblog – a tribute to perseverance if not judgement.

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Cults don’t win elections

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Haringey Council results by ward 2018

The local government elections of May 3rd were not good news for those of us who hold progressive left-of-centre views. True, UKIP are now finished as an electoral force, but most of their Europhobe votes have found a home with Theresa May’s Conservatives – thus buttressing the faction within her party that supports a hard Brexit.

The leading election guru David Cowling, in his analysis, described the elections as an ugly baby contest.  He has a point: there seem to be little enthusiasm for anything or anybody.  Despite this, the percentage voting remained at the normal level for a local government contests, so, thank goodness, there is no evidence of a loss of faith in electoral democracy.

Labour did not do well and lame excuses will not do.   I was particularly saddened to see the result in Muswell Hill, in the London Borough of Haringey, where we had lived between 1987 and 2001.  All three council seats were captured by the LibDems, as were the other wards in the more prosperous parts of the Borough that lie to the west of the railway line. In part this reflects Jeremy Corbyn’s abject handling of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party: there is a significant Jewish community in Haringey.  However much more is at stake.

At its best the Labour Party has always been an alliance between those in need and those who care.  Those in need in the most urban areas will, on the evidence of May 3rd, continue to vote Labour almost irrespective of policy and leadership. Set against this, organised Labour as expressed through the trade union movement has ceased to be a significant political force, beyond the crudest defence of public sector jobs.  Labour is therefore increasingly reliant on those who care: West Haringey is full of such people and it is bad news for Labour if they are prepared to migrate to the LibDems.

Much of the election analysis has concentrated on Labour’s relatively poor performance in the smaller cities and the towns that voted leave in the 2016 referendum.   The argument here is that Labour needs to develop new policies to deal with the economic decline and the accompanying social problems that affect such localities.  While this is undoubtedly true, it offers nothing to rural areas like the one where I now live. There were no elections here in North Norfolk in 2018, but the local LibDems will doubtless be hoping that the ‘leafy suburbs of London’ effect will have spread to the more rural areas by May next year when we go to the polls here. Labour currently hold none of the 48 council seats in North Norfolk and since Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership the local party is firmly in the hands of Momentum. However, as was proved beyond doubt on May 3rd, cults don’t win elections.  It is not looking good.

 

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Does Brexit solve anything that matters?

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The Gas Museum at Fakenham Norfolk

Recently much of my energy has been devoted to promoting the arguments that I presented in my paper The Impact of Brexit on North Norfolk (this can be downloaded from the link on the left).  In this way I feel that I have made my own modest contribution to prevent the catastrophe that is EU withdrawal.  How much effect my efforts have had is questionable.  However I have been gratified to find that the paper and its arguments have been well received by those who are facing the practical employment challenges in the area where I now live.

For some time I have been particularly aware of the problems faced by local school-leavers – especially those who are seeking vocational employment, qualifications and training rather than a University education.  The opportunities for what might be called 21stcentury apprenticeships are worse in Norfolk than for comparable coastal and retirement areas.

My wife and I are voluntary mentors at a secondary school in the area: currently we offer support to a group of Year 12 (first year 6th) students at Fakenham Academy.  Almost all of the students we meet have undertaken some part-time or vacation work in the local hospitality industry; this has taught them the importance of reliability, working in teams and, above all, dealing with customers. They produce hilarious tales of the frequently ignorant and often patronising behaviour of posh townies who visit the area.  What the students lack at this stage is the practical skills base that would prepare them for work in the science or engineering based industries. Similarly, on the arts side, limited accessibility, with rural transport a major problem, means that it is difficult for local young people to get exposure to music, theatre and exhibitions.

I have been campaigning on youth employment issues since my retirement some four years ago.  In all my subsequent research activity I have been impressed by the quality of the work undertaken by the local authority staff at both District and County Council level.  Rather than being defensive they welcomed new ideas.  I was also pleasantly surprised when Councillor Nigel Dixon, the District Council Cabinet Member for Economic Development and Tourism, sought the opportunity to meet me and comment on the work – he had evidently read my paper in detail. Councillor Dixon is a Conservative; I will never be anything but a Labour Party member but we had a constructive exchange on the challenges facing the area.

What this brief interlude brought home to me is how unproductive the economic debate has become since the June 2016 referendum.  The current Labour leadership is ambivalent about the role of business, something that should be central to the Brexit debate. Moreover the key players – Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott, Thornberry and indeed Keir Starmer – all have London constituencies and have little practical knowledge of rural employment issues.  On the other side of the divide the Conservative Party appears to have no ambitions beyond political survival and the installation of a new leader after EU withdrawal on whatever terms in March 2019.

Brexit has been a damaging distraction.  Right across the political spectrum it has sucked in energy that is desperately needed elsewhere.  Enhanced employment opportunities for school-leavers in rural areas are but one example of a difficult problem that needs urgent consideration, imaginative new policies and determined application if we are going to the right thing by our children and grandchildren.

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The people have spoken – or have they?

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Many of our politicians – both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are prominent here – are proclaiming that, while we have much to lose and little to gain, ‘Brexit must mean Brexit’ or variants thereof.  However wrong they think it was, in some way or other, the 51.9% no vote in June 2016 (37% of the electorate) must be treated as sacrosanct.

Amongst those who expressed this view is my own North Norfolk MP, the LibDem Norman Lamb.  As a Labour Party member I have crossed swords with him on many occasions – most notably on student fees – but he has always been courteous.   He is an assiduous member and is the sort of person who remembers everyone’s name.  He has established a formidable local machine, though it was not mobilised in any way that I could see in the 2016 Referendum. His energy has allowed him to continue to hold on to what, demographically, should be a safe Tory seat.  He is however flaky on Europe.  Like his local party, he kept a low profile in the 2016 Referendum campaign and was one of two LibDems who, just over a year ago, chose to abstain rather than vote against the Article 50 Bill.  He justified his stance in a New European podcast *.

In a careful studio interview, Norman Lamb was a model of politeness. He began by saying that he voted and campaigned for Remain and the result was “A mistake… fuelled by a fairly dishonest campaign”.   However he continued by saying that he held ”a basic view in terms of democracy that if you voted in Parliament to hold the referendum…  which we did, you can’t just pretend it hasn’t happen.  If you actually played through that the consequences for the reaction in the country would be pretty bleak”.

I wrote to Norman Lamb asking him if he would elaborate and, to his credit, received a detailed reply.  He said: “The point I was making was that, as I had voted to hold the referendum, I do not feel that I can simply seek to block the outcome of that vote – and that if we were to do that it could create a dangerous divide in the country and the risk of people concluding that their vote had been ignored.  I fear that that would undermine democracy and potentially create the conditions for anger to boil over”.  Here I must disagree.  For my part I cannot envisage local Norfolk pensioner groups grabbing their pitchforks, taking to the barricades, and then marching to London to capture the citadel should the dreadful decision on withdrawal be reversed.

Earlier this month I arranged to see Norman Lamb at one of his regular surgeries.  I went with two objectives.  First to see if he could encourage the significant number of LibDem North Norfolk District Councillors to develop an agenda to ameliorate the disastrous effects of Brexit on his constituency (see my earlier blog https://wordpress.com/post/leftyoldman.wordpress.com/1040) . My second objective was to persuade him to move away from ‘the people have spoken’ and to display more courage in his convictions.  Unsurprisingly I was achieved more progress on the first objective than the second, though he will clearly support a fresh referendum.

The sad truth is that many Parliamentarians are convinced that it is in the UK’s short and long-term interests to remain in both the customs union and the single market, but that would mean saying that the 2016 referendum decision was just plain wrong.  While this continues they are obliged to put forward convoluted arguments to justify indefensible positions.

 

*The podcast can be downloaded on http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-labour-1-5406396.

 

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