Glaven Valley speaks

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One consequence of the Corbyn leadership victory is that the intricate over-analysis of any election result, however trivial or untypical, will continue. Those who support the new model Labour Party are keen to demonstrate that Jeremy Corbyn is an electoral asset; more grounded left-of-centre supporters know him to be an electoral liability.

As chance would have it a first public test following the Liverpool coronation of the new leader has, in fact, taken place in my remote corner of North Norfolk. On Thursday September 29th some 1800 electors in Glaven Valley voted for a new councillor to replace the previous incumbent Liberal-Democrat who has moved to London.

The last time the position was contested, in May 2015, I was the Labour candidate: I polled derisory 78 votes coming fourth coming behind UKIP and just above the Greens. This humiliation was no surprise to me. Our area mainly consists of retired people, most but not all of whom are comfortably off. This time round the Conservatives chose a somewhat unusual candidate for the area. To quote from his election address: ‘I once won a Porsche 911 Car in a beer competition beating 17,000 others!’ and ‘I have appeared on game shows, most notably “Blind Date” beating odds of 1000-1’. By contrast the Lib-Dem was carefully understated, claiming only to have been ‘Senior advisor across the Civil Service under David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair’.

I declined the opportunity to fight again – and clearly would have been out of my depth against such august opponents. Moreover I have decided that I cannot publicly support and campaign for the Labour Party while Jeremy Corbyn is leader.   I remain a committed member in the hope of better times.

Given the capture of our local Labour Party by the pro-Corbyn faction I had assumed that one of them would be keen to put their views to the test at the polling station. After all our membership has increased from 170 to over 600. However none of those in our ward attended the selection meeting and our constituency Chairman, who lives some 50 minutes away in this vast constituency, agreed to stand. I know him to be of a more traditional persuasion, politically experienced, and with considerable personal charm. His election literature avoided all mention of our new leader. When he called he assured my wife and I that he was concentrating on local issues and receiving a good response on the doorstep.

On election day (September 29th) the Lib-Dem candidate sent out an early morning e-mail that stated ‘The election today is likely to be the closest in this area for many years – probably within a few dozen votes’. I cannot believe she had any basis for making such a claim but honesty does not figure highly among LibDem considerations. Their tactic locally is to say anything that might squeeze the Labour vote. In the event she polled 429 and had a majority of 148 over the Conservative.

Labour polled 23 votes – just under 3% of the total votes cast. My estimate is that this figure will be very close to the number of people in Glaven Valley who signed up (as members, affiliates or registered supporters) to vote in the Labour Party Leadership election.   This is the lowest vote we have recorded in a District Council Election in North Norfolk this century. It does not bode well.

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Is my blog a safety threat?

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Writing a blog is a useful way of venting my frustrations. I don’t delude myself that I am influencing the national debate; I am not a figure of importance and my readership, while welcome, is hardly likely to mobilise into action.

I get occasional bits of feedback from readers. Most of this is welcome but one set of communications was both puzzling and disappointing. Over the last months I have received two formal complaints: one from the Secretary and one from the Chair of the North Norfolk Labour Party. To quote from one of the e-mails: ‘We would ask that you refrain from posting blogs that appear to make the meetings and processes of the local party unsafe for party members. In addition, we would ask that you consider removing those blog posts that refer to internal processes of the local party”.

My reaction on receiving this was to feel flattered (not only was I being read but my words were having some impact) had it not been for the implication that I am in some way threatening the idea that members should feel safe in local meetings. This I find offensive – particularly in the context of the Internet bullying and the jeering of Owen Smith that has characterized the leadership election to date.

The North Norfolk Labour Party has attracted some veterans from Labour’s civil war of thirty years ago, some of whom who have recently defected from the Greens. I suppose that, at 70, I must also be classed as a veteran   Given all this, the major threat to personal safety at most Labour Party meetings, dominated as they now are by the Corbynistas, is for someone to fall off their chair. This would be a result of drifting into a doze induced by the boredom of listening to endless retro-slogans from the 1980s.   However, since it appears that my presence and reporting could constitute a safety hazard, I have decided it best not to attend for the time being.

Knocking up the Council Estate

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

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

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

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

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

 

Silence of the Lamb

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Something very unusual is happening in politics. All political parties are undergoing a transformation as a result of the European debate – and this has even penetrated to North Norfolk. Our Parliamentary Constituency, tucked away on the coast, is one of eight in the country represented by a Liberal Democrat. Norman Lamb first captured the seat in 2001 and has held it subsequently, with majority in 2015 of over 4043 over the Conservatives, greatly reduced from the 11626 he achieved in 2010. It is a now marginal seat.

Lamb won and held the seat by squeezing the Labour vote, however there is no good reason for someone who is left-of-centre to vote for him. In fairness he has been an affable individual – he tried an unsuccesful charm offensive on me when I first moved into the area. However much of his success can be attributed to a formidable professionally organised machine that can deliver the vote in both national and local elections.

This Liberal-Democrat machine has been conspicuously absent to date during the referendum. I have now placed a LabourIn poster in my window. I delayed putting it up as we are next door to our Church; we had a Village wedding last weekend and I did not want to cause offence to any wedding guests.   So far mine is the only poster from any party that I have seen. Our local Labour Party has been organizing regular stalls on Saturdays – the Lib Dems seemed to have undertaken no activities. Norman Lamb’s website gives no prominence to the European debate. It is not listed as a specific campaign he supports and there is just one statement tucked down the pages where he formally disputed some Leave campaign figures.

Now North Norfolk has one of the oldest electorates in the country and will, as a result, probably produce one of the highest percentage votes for exit. The LibDems, whatever their inconsistencies, have always been very pro-Europe. Indeed this was one of their defining characteristics and the reason they attracted the breakaway Social Democrats from the Labour Party. My guess is that our MP has decided to keep a very low profile and hopes that a favourable referendum result will be produced and we can all return to business as normal. If so he has gone down further in my estimation.

North Norfolk deliberates and decides

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech on the EU referendum campaign at Senate House, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday April 14, 2016. Mr Corbyn said that Labour is "overwhelmingly" in favour of Britain staying in the EU but pointed to serious "shortcomings" in Brussels. See PA story POLITICS EU. Photo credit should read: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

 

The day before Jeremy Corbyn delivered his major pronouncement on Europe, the North Norfolk Labour Party met to discuss our attitude to the referendum. I went to the meeting with some trepidation. As a consequence of the Labour leadership campaign we have acquired a vocal group who have defected from the Greens and, judging by some comments on our Party Facebook site, are mainly motivated by a nostalgia for the Labour party of the 1980s.   I was expecting the ‘EU as a capitalist conspiracy’ arguments to resurface.

In fact I was pleasantly surprised. Our former Chairman made an extremely good job of presenting the case for remaining in the community, emphasising the peaceful transition that had taken place across the continent. He was followed by a member who had agreed to make the case for Brexit. In a curious address the individual concerned announced that he had now changed his mind. One of the former Greens rambled on about protecting the working class from the ravages of global capitalism, but no-one actually spoke for withdrawal.

There has been much newspaper discussion on whether Jeremy Corbyn’s espousal of the European cause is genuine or opportunistic. One suggestion is that he has been persuaded that he should not step too far out of line with his younger supporters, but he should not appear too enthusiastic for what his entourage regard as an institution of the established order. I don’t think that it matters. Politicians often say things that they don’t believe, but if they say it often enough they start to believe it – ask the LibDems.   True, Jeremy is unlikely to participate much in the campaign. However he has never been able to persuade anyone of anything unless they agreed with him in the first place.

The referendum will not be won by persuasion through reasoned argument. It will be won by ensuring that our side (LabourIn for Britain) goes out and votes; this is especially true of the young voter. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn has come out in favour has removed one important barrier to making that happen. North Norfolk for once seems to be ahead of the game.

A sorrowful resignation

My working life extended over 40 years and included both good and bad times. There were three or four occasions when I felt a real buzz. These were mainly a result of being part of an effective team: people respected each other; had a high regard for each other’s talents; and pulled together in a shared purpose. Some of these high-points came to an abrupt end – often through organisational disruption or a change of boss.

I’ve just had a similar experience in a voluntary organisation, the North Norfolk Constituency Labour Party. Our excellent Parliamentary Candidate, Denise Burke, surrendered the Chair at the October AGM. Under her leadership we had increased the Labour vote in this tough constituency from just under 3000 to just over 5000; we were a most effective team and performed well under very difficult circumstances. Denise was succeeded by someone who promised much but delivered nothing, and resigned within three months.

Since the General Election we have had a surge of new members and I wait to see if any of them are willing to take on the hard grind of leadership. Sadly I find myself in little sympathy with the political perspective of some of these members and have decided to finish after five years as Party Treasurer. I have taken this step with considerable regret since I have greatly enjoyed my involvement

My disquiet was reinforced by this e-mail from one of the new enthusiasts: an e-mail that was proudly circulated by the short-lived new Chair.

After being a Labour supporter most of my life I became increasingly disillusioned by Labour’s dismal slide into insincerity and pointlessness, finally abandoning Labour to join the Green Party a few months ago.  Since then, my respect for the Green Party has only grown, and I fully intended remain a member for the foreseeable future

But then the Labour Party did an unexpected and remarkable thing – they overwhelmingly elected one of the most progressive, principled and honest leaders imaginable, and it has given heart to many thousands of ex-Labour voters like myself.  Perhaps more importantly, the vision and integrity of Jeremy Corbyn has encouraged thousands of energetic and enthusiastic young people to join Labour. … It is therefore with some regret that I respectfully request to end my membership of the Green Party in order to become a member of the Labour Party, but I will of course return to the Green Party if Corbyn is toppled by his opponents within Labour and replaced by yet another Tory clone.

The author of this e-mail and I dwell on different planets. He probably considers me to be a Tory clone supporting insincere politics. Perhaps he will take on the responsibilities and the considerable amount of work that being a constituency officer entails. Perhaps not. For my part I will never leave the Labour Party that I joined over 50 years ago as a 16 year old. I remain a committed member and hope for better times.

Denise Burke Board in Cromer

Ineluctable rugby

This weekend sees the opening game of the Rugby Six Nations Championship and I am looking forward to enjoying some of the games at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. I am a long-standing member of both Cardiff and London Welsh and, although I have lived over two-thirds of my life in England, there is no question where my loyalties lie. Nothing is quite as bonding as when a total stranger from the valleys spills his beer over you in the Cardiff Arms Park bar.

Since retiring to Norfolk I have also become a member of the local rugby, Holt. It is a successful and well-run organisation and, although the first team only plays in division 2 London North-East, can claim to have produced two current British Lions: Ben and Tom Youngs. To their credit the two young men can often be seen in the clubhouse and on the touchline; both are approachable and have managed their success with commendable maturity.

One of my real pleasures is to enjoy the set lunch in the clubhouse before a home game.   The committee and members are most welcoming and embrace all visitors. It is a farmers’ club and inevitably many of the conversations start from a firmly Norfolk perspective. One of the rugby enthusiasts that I took to a club lunch was a former Director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet; before that he had been a successful ballet dancer. When his former occupation had been revealed you could see one of his neighbours at the table puzzling with this alien concept. His considered and well-meant response was to ask ‘Do you have anything to do with the Thursford Show?’ This is the local Christmas song and dance extravaganza.

Inevitably, as in the case of all rugby clubs, there is a certain amount of excessive beer consumption and one member in particular is known for his intemperate behaviour.   As he has become less mobile he watches little of the game but spends his time in his chosen seat at the bar. On occasions his behaviour has given cause for concern and he has recently been banned from all future trips with the Holt Farmers Club. The Club Secretary sent him a letter saying that he was now longer welcome and they had come to the conclusion that his behaviour was ‘ineluctable’. I am someone who does crosswords regularly but had never heard of the word; according to Chambers it means ‘not able to be escaped from or avoided’. That description is both apt and polished.

Together with my elder son I will be sitting with the Holt contingent when England play Wales at Twickenham. They are good company but I hope that it will be me, rather than them, who will need to be magnanimous in victory.

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