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.

United we stand! – as a family?

 

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Once I had recovered from my immediate depression following the Labour Party Conference I checked out the on-line site of our local newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press. Their politics page included a picture of local Corbyn supporters enjoying their triumph: ‘Jubliant (stet) Corbyn supporters and Momentum members celebrated the long-expected victory over challenger Owen Smith at a Norwich pub and called for unity behind the leader’. http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/politics/local_corbyn_supporters_call_for_unity_after_landslide_victory_1_4710124

The joint secretary of my local North Norfolk Labour Party was amongst those present and, it is reported, offered the following observation: ‘He (Jeremy Corbyn) has started uniting the party in his speech today by holding out an olive branch and reminding us we are all part of the same family. There are disagreements but we are together above all else’.  Well Sue, I take a different view; I’m not sure we have much in common. Indeed the reference to ‘part of the same family’ reminds me of an occasion when my mother was talking to one of my many Aunts about the Aunt’s 20 year-old daughter. My Aunt reported: “Susan and Jason (not their real names) are rowing with each other all the time. They’re going to have to get it sorted out because they’re getting engaged at Christmas”. They did indeed get engaged at Christmas, had a big wedding the following year, and divorced two years later.

Where real differences exist it takes more than an engagement ring or bland calls for unity to resolve them.

Our North Norfolk Labour Party is now firmly in the hands of the Corbyn supporters and it is down to them to deliver. They are not off to a good start – see my blog on the Glaven Valley bye-election http://wp.me/p5dTrr-cH – but in fairness they must be given time. It is evident that Jeremy Corbyn is unassailable as leader this side of a General Election and the first test here will be whether the Party advances or retreats in the County Council elections due in May 2017.

I have been a candidate (in hopeless seats) the last two occasions these elections were contested but will not put my name forward this time round. I cannot, in all integrity, commend Corbyn’s 1980s style social protest movement to the electorate. Neither, for the time being, will I go to the local meetings. In 50 years of political activism I have yet to attend a meeting of the Labour Party where anyone ever changed his or her mind as a result of any discussion that took place there. I doubt that it will be any difference over the next year.

At a national level I will be seeking to contribute to the revival of sensible centre-left politics, and reporting on progress.  I will, of course, remain a party member in the hope that the Labour Party will be the seedbed of such a recovery.

From now on my blogs will appear on a monthly, rather than a weekly, basis. I will try to look for something positive to say, which may not be easy – hence the reduction in output.

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Winning philosophy or winning formula?

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The Labour leadership election is over. Jeremy Corbyn has won and, however unpalatable a fact this is for many us, this is where we are.

With every justification the Corbyn camp is drawing attention to the impressive numbers of people voting in his re-election. The Labour Party now has the largest membership of any European political movement and there is no doubt that something remarkable has happened. People who had to work with Jeremy Corbyn lined up to testify to his incompetence; many of those who didn’t know him were star-struck by his approach to politics.

Inevitably the immediate focus has been on the position of dissident Labour MPs who are facing hard personal and ethical choices.   This will capture the headlines over the next few months. However there is a need for sober reflection and to begin a discussion on what is at stake in the longer term. My main concern is whether we in Labour Party still supports power through the ballot box – or has become simply a protest movement. My starting point is to reproduce the opening sentences of the statement that Jeremy Corbyn sent to me and the other 640000 electors. To quote:

I have a serious plan for troubled times – a plan that has its focus on winning the next general election to rebuild and transform Britain. At the heart of my strategy is growing our movement by organising communities to win power through using the most advanced techniques online and offline. We must make Labour a living, breathing movement in every part of the country. (My emphasis in bold)

It is difficult to judge how ‘serious’ a plan is in place. However the intention is clear and it is dangerous. It emphasises activist control at the expense of Parliamentary democracy. The Party not the electorate rules supreme. The main criticism of Jeremy Corbyn should not concern his incompetence but his intentions. He has never displayed any interest in the Parliamentary process and so given the opportunity naturally wishes to downgrade it.

Not only are such intentions damaging but also they are wholly impractical. It is one thing to capture and consolidate power through advances online and off line methods – through social media and inspiring rallies. This has been a considerable achievement: the first of its kind to gain power and should be recognised as such. It does however require very little of the adherent – a banner on the Facebook site, a click online and, with luck, the opportunity for a selfie with the Messiah. Achieving change in communities is quite different and requires building consent across a wide spectrum of perspectives – this is why the sensible left has historically been wholly committed to Parliamentary democracy.

The Corbyn victory is a huge setback for those of us who believe in democratic socialism as opposed to control by activist cliques. More importantly, whatever their frustrations with their political representatives, UK voters still believe in the primacy of electoral democracy achieved through ballot box.   They will not attend rallies nor be attracted to worship at the cult of the leader.

Grim times at Party Conference

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There are fewer less pleasant places than a Party Conference when you are on the losing side. I still have nightmares about the 1982 Regional Conference in Cleethorpes. Lincolnshire. I had just been selected as the Parliamentary Candidate for Nottingham East, and Tony Benn was trying to block my endorsement; in his view I was too right wing and also had beaten a pal of his to the seat. The resort itself may well have improved since the early 80s but the bed and breakfast hotel at the time was grim (they did not seem to supply towels and I remember having to ask for one). The only other resident was an ultra-left delegate from the Bolsover constituency whose MP was the retro-Marxist Denis Skinner. I had defeated Skinner’s brother in the Nottingham selection. To enter the Conference Hall I was obliged to walk through a phalanx of sellers of indistinguishable papers and broadsheets with titles like Militant, Socialist Organiser and Class Struggle. If anyone recognised me I was a target for abuse.

This year’s Conference at Liverpool will similarly be an unremittingly dismal experience for those who hold traditional mainstream Labour Party views. They have my utmost sympathy. The dominant theme, unless the laws of gravity are miraculously suspended, will be the triumphalism of the Corbyn supporters: the mass sustained ovations for Jeremy inside the Conference Hall and the veiled threats to dissenting MPs outside.

In some ways the worst moment will to be that, in one of his major speeches, Jeremy Corbyn, will make an appeal for unity and demand support from all his opponents.   This will come from an unremitting factional fighter whose office, in the run-up to Conference, negligently released a half-baked list of 13,14 or MPs who it claimed were undermining the leader (the numbers reported varied and it may be that there were three lists or they simply could not count). The list included his Deputy Tom Watson.

This all recalls a recent an occasion when I was escorting two of my grandchildren to their London primary school. As is their habit they started rowing and pushing each other about nothing and I told them to stop bickering. My six-year-old granddaughter told me that she didn’t know what was meant by the word. I explained that bickering was something that destroyed peace and harmony. She immediately replied that ‘if you wanted peace and harmony, you wouldn’t grumble about us’. Perhaps Mr. Corbyn could learn something from her.

Performance management for politicians?

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In the mid 1970s I worked as an economist in the coal industry and lived in North Islington.   I was an active member of the local Labour Party where our local MP was under attack from a broad coalition of left-of-centre activists. I found their tactics thoroughly distasteful but was well aware of the deficiencies of the MP: in my view Michael O’Halloran was a decent fellow but simply lacked the skills to be an effective Parliamentarian.

At the height of the campaign against O’Halloran I went to see the Labour Party Regional Organiser, John Hills, to seek his advice. His counsel was both wise and straightforward. What we should do, he said, is to agree on the areas where O’Halloran was deficient, give him every opportunity to improve, and support him in the process. Only after this had failed should there be a move to deselect. Of course, as this was the Labour Party, none of this took place. The campaign became ever more aggressive and meetings more unpleasant. Eventually, in 1981, O’Halloran defected to the newly formed SDP and Jeremy Corbyn succeeded him to become our MP.

What John Hills said was fundamentally correct; it was the ethical and professional way to approach a very difficult, possibly intractable, problem.

Some years later, as my career developed, I moved into human resources – first as a practitioner in organisations and subsequently as a writer and lecturer. I learned that what John Hills was describing was performance management: the process whereby an employee undergoes a discussion on their strengths and weaknesses, is set objectives, and is offered support. The formal meeting, the performance appraisal, has now become almost universal for employers beyond the very smallest. In my view it has been the most positive development in human resource management in the last four decades. I spent many hours as a consultant or lecturer outlining the principles or teaching people how to undertake the annual interview to best effect.

The model I used was based on three ‘Cs’: commitment, compliance and consequences. Changes in behaviour are most likely to work when the individual recognises the problem and is willing to do something about it – so securing commitment is the desirable first step. If that doesn’t work compliance involves imposing a solution and the final step, consequences, involves telling the individual the potentially serious implications of continued under-performance.

One of the few areas of employment untouched by performance management is politics A legitimate criticism of our system is that increasing numbers of our MPs, certainly on the Labour side, have no working experience outside politics: they were aides or researchers before entering the House of Commons. No-one has ever sat them down and given them the ‘support and challenge’ that underpins an agenda for performance improvement.

I am sure that this is the case with Jeremy Corbyn. He has the capacity to excite and enthuse and has real skills in handling large crowds. However it is evident that he cannot manage his own office, achieve change, or inspire loyalty in those who work closely with him. He is a very poor team player.

The most effective approach in performance appraisal is based on open-ended questions. The appraiser would say to Jeremy Corbyn ‘Your ability to draw crowds of 5000 and your social network following are most impressive achievements. What can you do to translate your evident abilities in this context to inspire greater understanding and support from those who work with you in the shadow Cabinet? How can you go about it? What help do you need?

Alas this is pure fantasy. Jeremy Corbyn appears to be in total denial of his deficiencies: everyone is to blame except himself. There is no prospect of commitment and we move straight to consequences – a deficient opposition leading to dire electoral prospects

The same but different

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Michael Foot Leader of the Labour Party 1980-3

While sitting in next-door Sharrington Church I often browse through the English Hymnal. There is one hymn that captures the mood of most long-standing mainstream members of the Labour Party. It is number 351, ‘Day of wrath and doom impending’. It includes the following cheery lines: ‘Guilty, now I pour my moaning, All my shame with anguish owning’. The tune is not very uplifting, either.

In the spirit of judgement and redemption Hymn number 351 ends with a message of hope for the future for the righteous – after they have undergone torment. Mainstream members of the Labour Party also have this underlying hope that all will turn out all right in the long run. This is based on the view that we have seen it all before, in the 1980s.

I am not sure that it will be so easy this time. I was a candidate in the disastrous General Election of 1983. On reflection I have come to the view that there are more differences than similarities between the Labour Party of today and the one that fought under Michael Foot.

First, there are some significant differences in the articulation of policy. The 1983 Labour election manifesto has become known as the longest suicide note in history. I can’t say I read it myself because I thought it was likely to upset me. However it was grounded in a coherent philosophy: that extensive state ownership and government intervention could deliver benefits in a siege economy.   It was the subsequent recognition that this was no longer viable, given the expectations of the consumer and growing globalisation, that led to economic philosophy of New Labour. By contrast policies under McDonnell and Corbyn lack any semblance of coherence, are a ragbag of unconnected initiatives with no ideas on implementation, and thus cannot be subjected to rational analysis.

Secondly, in the mid 1980s, there were levers that could be used to restore balance in the Party. In particular many of the Trade Union leaders of the time were committed to creating a credible Labour Party and devoted staff time and resources to the task. Labour Peer Dianne Hayter’s 2005 book, Fightback!: Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s, describes the huge efforts undertaken over an extended period.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the leadership was in the hands of someone who wanted a broad based Labour Party to survive. Michael Foot was a decent man who sought to avoid further defections to the SDP, respected other people’s points of view, and above all wanted to see a Labour Government in power.

None of these three apply today.   The main intention of the current leader is use the power of local activists to change the Labour Party irrevocably. It is hard to see how this can be countered until the Party has been on the receiving end of repeated humiliations at the polls – and initially these will be blamed on the media.

The prospects may be dismal in the short-term, and, if the leadership result is as predicted, it is hard to see the way forward. However I remain firm in the belief that at some stage the electorate will want to see a credible, electable, social-democratic party in Parliament. They will then sort us out somehow or other.