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.

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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.

The Banner Bright – a tribute

 

 

Providing it is isn’t pouring with rain, every spring morning I cycle three miles to the Co-op in nearby Melton Constable to buy my newspaper. There is little immediate employment in the former market town beyond a small number of retail outlets, a social club, and casual labour on one of the local farms; it is not unusual to see a group of migrant workers assembled at the bus stop waiting to be transported to their workplace for the day.  At its height Melton Constable was a railway town – the Crewe of North Norfolk – and was a junction for passengers and livestock destined for sale at the larger markets.

100 years ago this September the North Norfolk Labour Party was established at a meeting held in Melton Constable.  It is commemorated in an excellent booklet, The Banner Bright, researched and produced by our local Labour archivist, David Russell.  Little is known about the formation meeting beyond the fact that it is likely to have coincided with the 1919 Railway strike, which, according to Wikipedia “was precipitated when the government announced plans to reduce rates of pay which had been negotiated by ASLEF and NUR during the First World War. After nine days of strike action, the government agreed to maintain wages for another year”.

Simply reading this reminds us of how much has been achieved subsequently.  What I wonder would those pioneers have made of the endless derogation of a Labour Government that, amongst many other achievements, introduced the minimum wage across all sectors of the economy?   I suspect that they would have little patience with the ready embrace of ideological purity at the expense of reaching out to achieve power in order to change things.

David Russell and his team have undertaken painstaking research. They have identified the many individuals who contributed to the development of the Labour Party and even listed the local streets that have been named in their memory. This impressive work, however, raises many questions that, sadly, in the absence of written personal recollections we will never be able to answer.  One that particularly intrigues me is how these previous generations of Labour activists communicated with each other and, indeed, how they ever managed to meet.  I have asked the older residents of my village how they travelled and the main answer seems to be they never went anywhere – beyond the three miles to Holt if they had a motor bike.  Less affluent people used telephone kiosks up to the 1960s  (we still have one in our village but I have never seen anyone use it) and letter post was the only alternative.

One question where we can attempt an answer is what motivated these pioneers. Their lives were hard; they were conscious that they were exploited; they wanted something better for themselves and their family.  The way forward was clear: Labour Party support was built on offering the working class policies that would advance their economic interests while creating a fairer, more just, society.  There was no conflict seen between what the individual desired and what was needed for society.  Success in North Norfolk was built on galvanising this working-class vote: big arable farms meant that there were large numbers of poorly paid labourers working together in close proximity – similar to the mines or the docks.

This organisation produced a succession of Labour MPs in North Norfolk, something that only ended with the defeat of MP Bert Hazell in 1970: the son of a Norfolk farm worker, he had left school at 14 to work on a farm in Attleborough, where his duties included scaring crows.  Again we should remind ourselves of how far we have come. Today many 14 year olds in Attleborough will be setting their sights on University – something for which the last Labour Government deserves much credit.

All of this history and more is documented in the centenary booklet.  The Banner Bright is a fitting tribute to generations whose sense of perspective was better than ours.  My congratulations to David Russell, Tim and Ruth Bartlett, Stephen Burke and Jasper Haywoood for reminding us of how much we owe these pioneers and the need to build on their legacy rather than drift into the irrelevancy of gesture politics.  North Norfolk Labour Party Executive please take note.

To obtain a copy of The Banner Bright please see the comment below from David Russell

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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.

Project(s) Reset

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Given my South Wales background, two institutions have defined my identity.  Both are in a chaotic state.  One is Welsh Rugby: I saw my first game at the Arms Park when still at primary school. The second is the Labour Party which I joined at the age of sixteen.  l have an emotional commitment to both institutions but despair of them.  It’s like the pull of a family member who continually lets you down; you never give up and always remain hopeful of better behaviour.

The tribulations facing both entered a new stage earlier this month, a time dominated by the collapse of May’s Brexit strategy. Both institutions have been in continuous discord for some time and their latest upheavals mark another step along the road, but, importantly, a step that takes us no nearer a harmonious solution.

Lets start with rugby.  The governing body, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), and almost everybody else, has for a long time recognised that the current structure for our national game cannot be sustained commercially.  There are four professional teams in Wales and the solution the WRU offered was to merge two of the South Wales teams (Ospreys and Llanelli) and establish a new side in North Wales – hence Project Reset.  This solution, we were lead to believe, had secured wide agreement following extensive discussion and consultation.

In fact it fell apart on the day it was announced, with the Osprey’s Chairman tendering his resignation.  The Welsh XV players, due to take the field in a crucial game against Scotland that weekend, then lined up to express their anxiety and concern. To quote from the distinguished ex-player and now TV pundit Jonathan Davies: “It was a total shambles – the timing, how it was handled”. When asked if this debacle would be a distraction for the team and affect their performance, he replied “With Welsh Rugby there is always a distraction somewhere or other”. He was correct: the team won the game and the underlying problems remain deadlocked.

Now, despite dire opinion polls, the Labour Party leadership has not embarked on a Project Reset, nor is it likely to do so.  So long as Momentum retains control of the Party at local levels, and Jeremy Corbyn is unchallenged, nothing matters to the leadership faction. Those of a more social democratic persuasion who leave the Party in disgust can be dismissed as Blairites – ignoring the fact that Blair himself ceased be leader twelve years ago.

All credit therefore to Deputy Leader Tom Watson for very publicly establishing The Future Britain Groupto, according to his blog,  ‘restate those social democratic and democratic socialist values’. [i]Press Reports state that Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett and John Prescott attended the launch event in the House of Commons, together with the alternative leaders of the Parliamentary Party, including Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn.   If the immediate intention was to persuade rank and file members not to leave the party he could hardly have assembled a stronger cast.

Given all this my dismal best guess is that both Welsh Rugby and the Labour Party will carry on underperforming for some time to come but terminal decline will be avoided.  For my part there is no way that I will change my allegiances however inept the leadership of both institutions.  I will continue to take my seat at the Principality Stadium.  I will also continue in membership of the Labour Party.  It is possible that some hard questions will be asked, both in the Norfolk party and nationally, after the May local elections.  Then we may see some progress.  For Welsh Rugby much will depend on the performance in this autumn’s Rugby World Cup. Time to be patient and see how things unfold.

[i]https://www.tom-watson.com/please_don_t_leave_the_labour_party

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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.

Love me like I’m leaving

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As I settle into comfortable retirement in our village, BBC Radio Norfolk is one of life’s real pleasures.  I particularly enjoy the predictability of the phone-in football programme, ‘Canary Call’, which follows the final whistle after every Norwich City game.  Comments from those who not only didn’t see the game under discussion but haven’t seen one for decades are always treated with the utmost courtesy.

My favourite however will always be ‘Rodeo Norfolk, Radio and Norfolk’s Country and Western Programme’,which goes out between 0900 and 1200 on a Saturday.  Half way through, the feature is ‘Your Country Collection’: listeners send in six records and the excellent presenter, Keith Greentree, chooses three to play.  I am proud to say that my selection has been played on four occasions and I have just submitted a fifth.  This pride was punctured when I met one the BBC executives who told me that, unusually for a listener, I always identified the right artist and song title and was able to spell their names correctly; it was this, rather than any musical judgement, that had provided the platform for my success.

It was no surprise therefore when, on Monday 18thFebruary, I received a phone call from the station.  I thought it was a query about my latest country collection submission, but in fact the call was a request for the radio interview that is reproduced the blog immediately below.  It was a response to the major news story of the day: that a group of seven Labour MPs had formed an independent group as a reaction to the current Labour Party leadership.

Listening to the clip I wish I had been a little clearer that I am not currently planning to leave a Party that I joined over 50 years ago. I wouldn’t have changed anything else I said  – I am disgusted by the anti-Semitism and by the behaviour of those, including North Norfolk Labour Party Members, who defend the leadership’s inept handling of the issue.  To his immense credit Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, hit the right note with his statement the following day.  To quote: “The instant emotion I felt, when I heard the news this morning that colleagues were leaving Labour, was deep sadness. I love this party. But sometimes I no longer recognise it”.

Tom Watson continued: “The tragedy of the hard left can be too easily tempted into the language of heresy and treachery.  Betrayal narratives and shouting insults at the departed might make some feel better briefly but it does nothing to address the reasons that good colleagues might want to leave”.  Too true, Tom.  My inbox the following day was full of communications from various Labour factions and included the following gem from Momentum: [Leslie and Chuka] are attacking Labour for “weaken[ing] our national security”, supporting “states hostile to our country” and being “hostile to businesses large and small”.In short, their agenda is for war and big business”.  Work your way through that tortuous logic!  It illustrates why I cannot currently make the effort to attend North Norfolk Labour Party meetings while Momentum exercise control.

So, as Tom Watson so eloquently articulated in his statement, if the Labour Party is to survive time is short; it is vital that the scale of the problem is recognised if further defections are to be avoided.  Ironically such sentiments were captured perfectly in one of my songs submitted for the Country Collection.  It is ‘Love me like I’m leaving’by Sugarland: a recognition that a relationship can only be rebuilt if the emotions underpinning imminent break-up are recognised.  I hope that Keith Greentree will play it one coming Saturday – but not on 23rdMarch when I will be in London for the Remain rally.

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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.

 

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.