It’s been a long time coming, but it’s welcome

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It gives me a deal of pleasure to be able to resume my weekly blog on a positive note. At long last there has been some shift in the Labour leader’s position. Now we are in favour of continued customs union membership. To quote from his Coventry speech:

“Labour would seek a final deal that gives full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union… with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections.”

No one should underestimate the extent of the shift and the opportunity that this provides for avoiding the Brexit catastrophe. Well done to all those who, over time, persuaded Jeremy Corbyn to shift his position.

I can’t include myself in that number, although at one time I knew him moderately well. I was a very active Labour Party member in Corbyn’s North Islington from the mid-70s to 1987 and did not hold him in high regard – I am sure that this feeling was reciprocated. In fact my Islington period covered the year when Corbyn was alleged to have consorted with a secret agent from the Czech republic. The idea that, at that time, anybody would have told him anything that mattered and that he would then have remembered it is absurd. However, in fairness, he has developed skills since becoming leader and is now pointing in the right direction.

The next challenge is to get him off the hook that the referendum vote must be treated as a considered and definitive decision that cannot be reversed – whatever the subsequent facts that have come to be light. In the course of a New European podcast published as recently as February 23rd , just three days before the Coventry speech, he was asked if Labour’s position on Brexit was shifting. He replied: “What we have said is that we accept the result of the referendum. We are leaving the European Union… We can’t be members of the single market because we won’t be members of the European Union”. *

The EU negotiators will not allow us to cherry-pick (or, as the Spanish apparently call it, sherry-pick) in this way. Signing up to everything that matters while pretending you are leaving may get the Labour Party through the next two years but it is not a strategy for Government.   Sooner or later political leaders must tell the electorate that they got it wrong. However let’s be thankful for some progress after a dreadful 2017.

*Listen on http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-labour-1-5406396

 

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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.

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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Mustard TV

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I was invited to Mustard TV studios on Thursday to appear on their weekly discussion programme ‘This Week’. The topic this week was the future of the Labour Party and the leadership election.

I was speaking in favour of a change of leadership within the Labour Party, while I was joined by Emma Corlett, who was speaking in favour of the status quo. Callum Ringer (also from North Norfolk Labour Party) appeared as an ‘undecided’ voter, while Professor John Street from UEA provided his own perspective as a political commentator.

The programme aired in Norfolk on Mustard TV on Thursday night, and is available online for a limited period of time. You can watch it back by clicking here.

If you get a chance to watch this please let me know what you thought in the comments section.

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Martyn Sloman (left) appearing alongside Professor John Street (right)

Welcoming new members

Our valued new media officer has input the data from 250 new contacts for North Norfolk Labour Party (we had 170 at the election). We sent out a welcome e-mail from Denise Burke our candidate and chair. We were surprised to receive a few replies grumbling that they had only signed up to vote and wanted their names removed from the system.

A prior forecast for North Norfolk

This forecast was made before nominations closed on 9th April.

My guess is that Norman Lamb, the retiring LibDem MP will hold his seat but his 11600 majority will drop to less than 5000. Going forward a lot will depend on whether the Conservatives beat UKip into second place. If they do Norman Lamb will certainly lose the seat next time round. It is natural Conservative territory. Our Labour vote of 2896 in 2010 will increase to 5000 and our percentage of 5.8% will double. Anything above that will be a remarkably good result. I will not be elected to the District Council from Glaven Valley and will be pleased if my vote exceeds 120 (from the 95 Labour recorded last time). I will be upset if I am outpolled by UKip but expect this to happen.

three days to go – the battle for Glaven Valley

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My hopes for a tranquil run up to election day in my home village in rural Norfolk were shattered over the last weekend. I no longer receive any LibDem leaflets through my letterbox: the Labour posters in my front window act as a deterrent. However one or two friendly neighbours pass them on to keep me informed. I was therefore shaken out of my complacency when I read, in a LibDem newsletter specially produced for the occasion, the following headline: Result in Glaven Valley: Too Close to Call. As the Labour Candidate this came as a surprise to me.

Some background may assist. There are 48 District Council up for election in North Norfolk with polling on the same day as the General Election (May 7th). We in the Labour Party had decided to fight all of them though we are only likely to win a few – in our best year we held ten. My main responsibilities are to act as agent for our excellent Parliamentary Candidate, Denise Burke, but I was happy to let my name go forward as a District Council candidate on two conditions: first, that the seat I was allocated was not too far from my home (distances are vast here in North Norfolk); secondly that there was no prospect of me winning. I have no desire to attend meetings in winter evenings at the Council offices in Cromer.

There was no problem in meeting these conditions. The Glaven Valley seat fits the bill admirably. It includes my home village of Sharrington and is probably the safest Conservative seat of all 48. At the last contest in May 2011 the winning Conservative polled 500, the LibDem was in second place with 232, Labour secured 95, the Greens 84 and UKip 83.

This time round the LibDem candidate is pleasant enough young man who works in the office of the local MP. He is obviously taking the campaign seriously but has experienced some difficulties. On his leaflet he has reproduced a telephone number with the qualification that: I have had some problems with this line recently but it is now fixed. This is the first time that I have seen such statement on a candidate’s promotional literature and can only assume that it is a way of demonstrating his ability to solve problems.

His main tactic seems to be to try to squeeze my vote. Again to quote: But the Conservatives will still win if people vote of Labour or the Greens: this time the result will probably be within a few dozen votes. He may be right in his prediction, but he has no way of knowing: the area, with the exception of the small harbour town of Blakeney (pictured above), is impossible to canvass as the properties are too dispersed. I don’t blame him for his tactics; however I have to report that my soundings suggest that they are not working. I have spoken to the six people who have said they will vote for me (this figure includes myself) and they are standing firm. We shall find out what happens when the result is declared on Friday.