How ugly can it get?

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Bendigeidfran the giant acting as a bridge

 

We are just weeks away from a General Election.  It is likely to be a thoroughly unpleasant experience with the two leaders of our major parties willing to use arguments and language that appeal to the worst side of human behaviour.  It is as if, at a tense derby football game, the competing managers stood in front of their group of supporting fans and led them in the most hostile and aggressive set of chants.  No-one would wish to take their family to such an event.

The two party leaders behave in different ways but both can threaten civilised democratic discourse.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes concerted attacks on elites: apparently defined as anyone who is professionally successful and who takes a more informed and measured view of the country’s future.  As an Eton educated Prime Minister his populist views apparently exclude him from any charge of elitism.  Jeremy Corbyn has a different style. He is unrelentingly courteous in Parliament but shrugs his shoulders at the excesses of behaviour from his supporters at local levels.  Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are most comfortable when whipping up the faithful at rallies.  Neither are thoughtful politicians – let alone coalition builders.

All in all, it is not looking good.  Whatever the result of the election, I hope that one consequence will be the subsequent emergence of a concerted campaign to restore the best traditions of our democracy and the need to conduct elections in a civilised fashion.  This involves treating your opponents with respect.

Nostalgia is not always productive but I look back almost half a century to the first election where I stood as a candidate.  In 1970, as a twenty-three-year-old I was the Labour Candidate in the safe Tory seat of Leominster, a huge chunk of rural Herefordshire.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  The nearest I encountered to overt hostility was when a young farmer and his mate deliberately revved up their tractor engines to drown out my loudspeaker speech.  This gave me useful headlines in the local paper.

Moreover, I can recall being treated with the utmost courtesy by the local committee of the National Farmers’ Union when asked to address them “It’s clearly no good asking you questions in detail so we can do no more than thank you for coming”.  One incident in particular will stay in my memory.  At a public meeting in the market town of Ledbury the local Conservative Chairman, a retired military gentleman turned up and asked a question about reform of the taxation system.   I did not agree with his premise but, fresh from an economics degree, offered him a considered reply.  At the end of the meeting the gentleman concerned stood up and said, that on behalf of those present, he would like to wish the young candidate every success in his endeavours in life.   It was only later that I fully appreciated the generosity of this gesture.

I doubt if incidents of this type will feature in the forthcoming General Election.  One can just hope that nasty chanting, egg and milkshake throwing and the drowning of legitimate interventions from working journalists will be kept to a minimum.  Set against this, there is no way that Internet abuse and threats can be controlled.

By tolerating these assaults on democracy, we have lost something important.  However, if enough people desire it, tolerance could eventually prevail.   There are sufficient people from the traditional mainstream in both parties who would like to see this happen but it requires leadership willing to reach out and include rather than reinforcing prejudices.

There is old Welsh proverb, taken from the folk stories known as the Mabinogi: “A fo ben, bid bont” translated as “He would be a leader, let him be a bridge” (or “bear the load).  Bendigeidfran the giant laid down across a river to let his forces walk across his body when on a mission to rescue the maiden in distress.

I doubt if Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn will behave like Bendigeidfran the giant but they could begin by trying to keep their more extreme supporters under control.

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.

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From the 1970 General Election

 

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Because I say so (or words to that effect)

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To my surprise and pleasure I received some positive feedback from my previous blog, the one in which I paid tribute to our retiring local LibDem MP Norman Lamb.  Several people took the trouble to tell me that is was good to see something positive said about a political opponent.  Perhaps this is what Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn meant when he made his plea for a kinder, gentler politics.

This aspiration, articulated almost exactly four years ago, has, of course, been totally ignored in practice.  Politics has taken an unpleasant turn with stories fabricated and motives impugned on all sides.  Both major parties have saddled themselves with unsuitable leaders, neither of whom is interested, let alone capable, of building consensus; both are happiest delivering market place oratory to the faithful. Over the last week it has been the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who has chosen to show the worst aspect of his character with a display of bombast that has descended into the ridiculous.

On Sunday, in a newspaper interview, Boris Johnson vowed that the UK would leave the EU by aping the behaviour of the Marvel character ‘The Incredible Hulk’.  For those who are not into comic books, Bruce Banner, Hulk’s physically weak alter-ego, morphs into a huge green-skinned giant when angry.  According to our Prime Minister: “Banner might be bound in manacles, but when provoked he would explode out of them”and “Hulk always escaped no matter how tightly bound…that is the case for this country. We will come out on October 31stand we will get it done”.

Such childish macho-talk takes me back to a bizarre interlude in my working career.  For six years I was head of human resource development at what was probably the UK’s worst-managed investment bank, and that really is going some.  After the changes in the financial and regulatory system introduced at Big Bang in 1986, our home-grown firms were unable to compete with the onslaught from US competitors.   The domestic response was to throw money at the problem and hire more and more highly-paid and ultimately unsuccessful managers – a bit like an over-resourced struggling football team

The most egregious example was our appointment of a new Deputy Chief Executive whose arrogant self-belief and crude management style led to resignation of some of the more thoughtful staff.  See the obvious parallels with our two major parties?  I couldn’t afford to resign so I simply tried to keep my head down.  Unfortunately, our new boss decided we needed a programme to recruit MBAs, a subject about which he knew nothing.  I was given the job of investigating the feasibility of such a scheme.

My investigations rapidly revealed that it was not a runner. Our business areas were hostile and, given our reputation, no-one any good would wish to join us.  ‘Never let your boss receive bad news as a surprise’is a standard management maxim so, when I saw the Deputy Chief Executive who was taking the escalator, I moved alongside him and gave him the news. His response was to turn to me, put his face about three inches from mine, and deliver the following motivational message: “It’s going to f***ing happen and you know why it’s going to f***ing happen?  Because I say it’s going to f***ing happen and I when I say things are going to f***ing happen round here, they f***ing happen.  Get the message?”.

So, what did happen, or, in short, “Did it f***ing happen?” Unsurprisingly the answer is “No it f***ing didn’t”.  Our macho manager left the organisation shortly afterwards and I often wonder what happened to him. Most probably he went in to psychotherapy or personal life style coaching; certainly, that is where many of his ilk ended up.

Later this week I will summon up the energy to attend my local Labour Party.  I have put forward a motion that unequivocally supports the Remain position. I am not deluding myself that a motion agreed by a group of people in North Norfolk will make the least bit of difference.  It is simply that we should all be prepared to do whatever we can, and for heaven’s sake, let reasonable argument prevail over crude sloganising.

 

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.

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Time to speak: a hashtag for Jeremy

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Given the maelstrom that is the current political scene there is a surprising consensus on the way that events could unfold.  This is because the position and ambitions of our Prime Minister are so transparent.

For Boris Johnson, like his opposite number across the Atlantic, ego dominates and reputation is all.  What matters is what appears or can be said to happen, not what actually happens. He has staked his reputation on delivering Brexit on October 31st.  If it doesn’t take place as predicted it will be everybody else’s fault  – the EU, the Irish Government, unsupportive MPs.  That will set him up nicely for a people vs. parliament General Election that will be the nastiest any living person has ever witnessed.

Many parliamentarians on all sides of the House are endeavouring to prevent this dreadful scenario from taking place.  They are determined to do all in their power to prevent both a head-on attack on the principles of representative democracy and the consequent delivery of an economic disaster.   Some of them, for example Philip Hammond, Dominic Grieve and Justin Greening from the Conservative side, have already displayed great courage.  We can be sure that there is a huge amount of organising and planning taking place across the party divide in advance of the resumption of Parliament on September 21st.  However, there is nothing that we ordinary voters can do to assist them beyond demonstrating our strength of feeling and wishing them well.

It is the Labour Party that concerns me.  It would: I have been a member for over 50 years.  The continued ambiguity of the Party’s position is a cause of distress.  Alan Johnson, an Education Minister under Tony Blair and someone who would have made an excellent leader himself today, described Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Europe as a total disaster. “He’s not a leader. He’s never going to be a leader, never wanted to be a leader, and is totally uncomfortable in his role of leader”.

Whatever one’s opinion on Alan Johnson’s scathing judgement, it would be a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyns’ potential contribution to overturning Brexit.  His ability to motivate and inspire his younger supporters was much in evidence during the 2017 General Election, though sadly absent in the Referendum that took place in the previous year.  We need him, first, to stop equivocating and to offer the clear message of Remain.  Every recent national and local poll has demonstrated that this is a political necessity if the Party is to offer a serious challenge in a future General Election.  Jeremy Corbyn still enjoys a following and we need him in play to mobilise his supporters and we need him in play now. It is no good to waiting until late September after Labour Party Conference.  Moreover the mechanism exists, through the Momentum network, to mobilise pressure, should he choose, through social networking.

In an article, published in the New European in February 2018, I wrote, “Future generations will be amazed at our lack of action and the total impotence that so many progressives feel today…. I will learn from the success of the Corbyn campaign and use social media to promulgate my position and my concerns.”I went on to establish a twitter account @eugrandparents.

Eighteen months on I still feel isolated and impotent in my North Norfolk retreat but more than ever believe that we should all do what we can. Accordingly I have established, and will be promoting a new hashtag #jeremyMIAJeremy missing in action’ – to see if we can embarrass him to do his bit before it is too late.

A version of this article has appeared on The New European website

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.

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A non-event of considerable significance

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When, on 7th May, the de-facto Deputy Prime Minister, David Liddington announced that, out of necessity, the elections to the European Parliament would take place, our two major parties did not want to know. The Mays and the Corbyns resembled a mutually antagonistic set of parents obliged to attend a wedding that both sides wished wasn’t taking place. Pretend it isn’t happening and get through the day in the hope that normal relations with everybody else could be restored afterwards.  However, as the People’s Vote campaign argued in their final supporter’s mailing “With Farage’s Brexit Party moving ahead in the polls, it is vital for everyone to get out and vote for pro-People’s Vote parties tomorrow”.

People’s Vote were correct: the extent of the Remain versus Leave vote will prove to be of considerable importance. So also will the share of the vote across the competing parties.

Indeed, looking at the results, it may be that this unwanted poll will prove to be a significant milestone in reshaping our political landscape.  The UK turnout at 37% was as high as could be expected. The woeful Conservative performance will have a major influence on the competition to succeed Theresa May as leader. Labour cannot pretend that ambiguity on the most important issue of our time is seen as anything other than a dereliction of duty. Labour’s share of the UK vote at under 15% puts us well behind the LibDems and only two percentage points above the Greens. In the North Norfolk District Labour polled just 1325 votes (a miserable 3.8%) and finished in sixth place, even behind the near extinct UKIP Party.  Will our local party finally get the message, I wonder?

Worse still for Labour the European elections will go down as a massive missed opportunity to redefine ourselves: we will only survive as a progressive 21st century movement by adopting an international perspective.  So many of the problems that matter to us and the voters we care for  – combatting terrorism, climate change, regulation of the technology giants, economic opportunities for school-leavers – require committed international co-operation. Labour should have campaigned as an unequivocal ‘remain and reform’ party, to use Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s term.

The national Labour leaflet that was delivered to my doorstep could best be described can be dismissed as a desperate attempt to save a failing relationship: ‘please don’t leave me whatever you think of my behaviour’. At the local level our Party Chair adopted a more forthright tone: “The reality of a no deal Brexit would be for the wide boys of the city to make shed loads of money whilst life for working class people would get even harder than it is under the Tories now”.Using language like this, a hangover from the class war of the 1980s, will have limited appeal to successor generations.

Yes indeed Brexit will drag on and on.  The Tory leadership election will be the focus of national attention but it will take us no further forward in the short term. Brexit’s resolution could be quicker, however, than reversing the Labour Party’s decline as our legacy vote disappears.

I have now decided to attend some local Labour Party meetings. I am curious to see if the bombast when Corbyn became leader has been replaced by a more reflective tone.  I have incidentally been told that the local party will be raising my online behaviour with the Labour Party Eastern Region Office. It may be that they are nominating me for an award, but I doubt that this is the case.  One way or another I would have thought that the Regional Office of the Labour Party would have other things to do and I await developments.

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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.

A depressing doorstep encounter in Wells-next-the-sea

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Three distinct events took place on Wednesday 30thApril; separately and together they caused me to reflect on the uphill task faced by those of us who are mainstream Labour members and are staying in the Party. It is not looking good in the short-term.

The first occurred in the morning in the attractive coastal town of Wells-next-the–sea.   My good friend Mike Gates was standing for the District Council.  His political perspective is similar to mine; we have been Labour activists for many years and have seen it all before.  Mike had previously represented Wells on the North Norfolk District Council and was guardedly optimistic about his prospects this time round.  Neither the LibDem nor the Tory Candidate lived in the town and Mike was well known locally; he had recently retired as the local postman.  Sadly, like all North Norfolk Labour candidates, he was unsuccessful when the poll took place the following day.  I will comment on the local results in more detail in my next blog.

I spent a morning delivering leaflets for him in a large estate that had been built as council housing but was now the usual mix of owner-occupancy and social housing.  Mike had warned me to expect apathetic indifference and occasional downright hostility towards politics and politicians.

I should know better than to indulge in arguments on the doorstep.  The standard advice, if someone disagrees with you, is to move on as quickly as possible. However as I grow older I am getting (even) more intolerant and more irritable. I handed a leaflet to an elderly man watering his garden.  When he found out it was Labour he rudely told me to clear off; I moved on to the next door but foolishly responded, rather than ignored, his shout of ‘let me ask you one question?’  Inevitably it was about Brexit.

There followed a wholly purposeless dialogue.  He began by grumbling about the money we were paying to bureaucrats; I said it was all about securing 21stcentury jobs for our grandchildren.  There was not the slightest prospect of any common ground. My lasting impression however was how strongly he felt: with some justification he believed he has been let down by a political process that promised but failed to deliver.  He was desperate to tell someone, even someone he despised.  Suggesting that he had been on the receiving end of a wholly dishonest leave campaign – he had been lied to – would have had no effect.  I am sure that such conversations are being repeated up and down the country.

That same afternoon the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee announced its manifesto position for the European Elections of May 23rd.  It is one that, despite my long-standing membership, I would find impossible to defend on the doorstep. It has been comprehensively analysed in the newspapers but, for the benefit of overseas readers, it maintains the fiction that there is  ‘Labour’s alternative plan’which could deliver Brexit and honour the referendum result. In this way “Labour is the only party which represents both people who leave and remain.  We are working to bring the country together after the chaos and crisis created by the Tories” (to quote from a Party spokesperson).

Stuff and nonsense.  There is a hard choice to be made here – in or out of the EU.  There is no way I and the man I encountered on the doorstep in Wells can be brought together until this whole debacle over the EU is resolved; if it results in a UK exit the fractious debate will rumble on for the next decade.  David Cameron caused the problem but Jeremy Corbyn and his entourage have exacerbated it through such dishonest opportunism.

Given this, the final depressing event of a miserable day came as no surprise. I received an email from a young man in his early thirties who I first met when I transferred my Labour Party membership from London to North Norfolk.   He was brought up in the nearby town of Holt and is an individual of considerable capability and immense promise.  He wrote: “I’m afraid I’ve resigned from the party, today’s manifesto fudge was too much … I’m not joining any other party, but I’m not sure I can stomach voting for the pro-Brexit manifesto in the European elections”.

This is all very sad, especially in the centenary year of the foundation of the North Norfolk Labour Party.  Can we rebuild and if so how?  My pal Mike Gates remembers the 1980s and thinks we can and will. History will repeat itself. I hope he’s right, but at this stage I cannot bring myself to share his optimism.

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.

Letting down a generation

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Evidence of the harmful impact of Brexit mounts by the day. The UK car industry will be particularly damaged: on February 3rd Nissan announced that it would now build its X-Trail car in Japan rather than Sunderland.

In an excellent recent New Statesman article, Jonathan Powell, Chief of Staff under Tony Blair, argued ”The Prime Minister and many of her colleagues knew they were doing something that would do great harm to the country but did not dare stop it for fear of being unseated by the extremists in their own party”.[i]  In her defence nobody, and that includes the Prime Minister herself, fully realised how much harm would be done; the electorate were seduced by dishonest Brexiteers who pretended it would be easy to forge new trade deals.   Nissan has demonstrated the fallacy of that assumption, which, amongst other things, disregards the complexity of supply chains in high value manufacturing and precision engineering.

Here I have some professional interest.  I spent my career in management education and training and, in the latter part, specialised in skills development and apprenticeships. In November 2013 I was asked to give evidence to the Select Committee of the House of Lords Inquiry into EU (European Union) action to tackle youth unemployment.  I presented a case study of a success story. It related to a factory based in Llanelli, South Wales. Part of the German owned Schaeffler Group, the factory employed 220 people producing high specification bearings for motor engines. It was an exemplary organisation and to quote one of my published articles:

“The company faced increasing competition from low labour cost countries as group production capacity was placed in Eastern Europe (Slovakia and Romania) where wages are a fraction of those in the UK.  The company responded by developing the capability to deliver higher value added products. There was a planned focus on continuous improvement, cost reduction and, as an integral component of the process, a sustained attempt to up-skill the workforce”.

On reading of the Nissan decision I plucked up courage to update my knowledge of the Llanelli factory and was saddened, but not surprised, to find the following headline in a 6th November article in WalesOnline: 220 jobs axed with closure of Llanelli auto parts plant due to ‘Brexit uncertainty’. A link to the article is set out below.

 

https://www.walesonline.co.uk/business/business-news/live-updates-250-jobs-axed-15377458

This is a tragedy.  The plant was established in 1957 and offered high quality apprenticeships in an area of high unemployment and limited opportunities.  It was, together with an Indian IT consultancy based in Bangalore, the best managed organisation I encountered in over twenty years researching the subject.

From a comfortable retirement base in North Norfolk I feel very angry.  Not just about the dishonesty of Brexit – the charade of ‘we’ll make Britain great again’ – but about the dismal performance of the national leadership of the party that I joined in South Wales fifty years ago.  Local Labour representatives in Llanelli, including the excellent MP Nia Griffith, are doing their best; Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes wouldn’t began to understand what a supply chain is and are in hiding in the hope that a catastrophe will propel them to power.  That is a heavy price for a generation of school-leavers to pay: it is easy to destroy opportunities; it takes ages to rebuild.  Once factories like Schaeffler Llanelli have gone they are gone for good, taking the quality jobs with them.

So I make no apologies for, in a very modest way, continuing the fight. Following my previous blog in which I drew attention to problems here in North Norfolk, I received a reprimand from the current Chair of the local Labour Party.   He is the fourth person to occupy this position in the four years since Momentum took control and the third in succession to try to tell me off for the contents of my blog. He wrote:  “even though we may disagree on Labour policy issues we are all members of that broad socialist church”.  While the Labour leader behaves in this way, and unscrupulously avoids engaging in the major question of the day, I have no intention of joining Mr. Corbyn and his acolytes where they choose to worship.  I will carry on writing as I please.

[i]Jonathan Powell, The rise and fall of Britain’s political class, New Statesman, 30th January 2019

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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.

More life in a bottle of pop

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This blog was written towards the end of a thoroughly depressing week.  It will be my last for some time and a sad note on which to take a break. I can only hope things will improve before I resume.

Wednesday marked the failure to make any significant changes to the EU Withdrawal Bill – shortly to become the Withdrawal Act.  This was most disappointing, not least because of Labour’s deliberately ambiguous position in the Parliamentary debates that took place. I was deflated even further when I attended a meeting of my local North Norfolk Labour Party the following day.

The local meeting was held to give our Labour Member of the European Parliament, Alex Mayer, the opportunity ‘to answer questions on the Brexit process and how she sees the Labour position’.   I did not envy her this task.  She is in a very tricky position, not least because she will lose her job next year, and she deserves some sympathy.

Alex Mayer voted Remain, is aware of the damage that withdrawal will cause, and has publicly committed to the single market.  She must also be conscious of the dismal performance of Labour in Parliament and the cynical opportunism of the Leadership’s current position on Europe; doubtless this dominates discussions with socialist colleagues in Brussels, both from the UK and the other EU members.   However most local Labour Parties are in the hands of people who are infatuated with Jeremy Corbyn and this certainly true of North Norfolk. Like most doomed love affairs there is nothing to be done beyond letting events run their course.

How I wondered would Alex Mayer cope?

She is a competent person, thoroughly in command of her facts, and had hit on an ingenious solution to navigate the political challenge. This was to adopt a fatalistic acceptance that Brexit is going to happen, coupled with a vague hope that the length of the process might mean that things could improve over time.  She mentioned Jeremy Corbyn and his ambiguous stance just once. Her performance was capable but detached, almost an academic lecture, and offended nobody but it wholly lacked passion.  Brexit is bad but, like the weather, we should make the best of it.  Our local members seemed wholly satisfied with this defeatist attitude.  So long as Jeremy is not threatened, it seems they will go along with anything.

I can only say that this is simply not good enough.  A casual acceptance of something that will damage economic prospects for the next decade is a sign of a complete absence of political virility.   As we used to say on the football terraces, there is more life in a bottle of pop.

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I do so hope that my mood will be lifted when I join with three generations of my family at the March for a People’s Vote on Saturday. Jeremy Corbyn should, of course, be leading this march.  Every local Labour Party should be out in the shopping centres and on the doorstep collecting signatures for a People’s Vote petition.  This would have massive long-term political advantages: it would consolidate the votes of many remainers who voted Labour in 2015 but are drifting away; Labour would be positioned at the centre of the debate on employment. Above all Jeremy Corbyn should be leading the march because it is the right thing to do.

 

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.