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.

Strange goings-on in North Norfolk

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After two decades of settled life in North Norfolk I’ve learned to accept that we can sometimes be a little out of step here.   Even so the recent behaviour of our local Labour Party has been odd by any standards.

Anyone who reads this blog will need no reminding of the gravity of the situation we are facing nationally.  The last two weeks have witnessed the biggest constitutional crisis of my lifetime – and as a leftyoldman I am well into my 70s.  On Tuesday March 12thMPs voted overwhelmingly to reject the PM’s Brexit deal for a second time; on Wednesday ‘no deal’ was narrowly defeated; on Thursday a motion to extend the Brexit process was passed.  This week we have seen the Speaker’s intervention and the Cabinet decision to seek a Brexit delay. Quite correctly the Brexit debacle is dominating political debate.

Not, it appears, as far as the North Norfolk Labour Party is concerned.  They have other priorities.

Late on the evening of Wednesday 13th (the day that ‘no deal’ was rejected) I received notification and the agenda for the monthly members meeting of the North Norfolk Labour Party; this meeting takes place tomorrow.  The centrepiece of the evening is to be a motion on antisemitism to be proposed by ‘a Member of the Executive’ – name unspecified.  A briefing note, transparently cut and pasted from another document, stated “This CLP wishes to express its pride in the way that Jeremy Corbyn, Jennie Formby and other members of the NEC have acted in establishing a process able to deal fairly with antisemitism complaints”. The motion itself read “This CLP applauds the efforts of the LP leadership under Jeremy Corbyn to weed out and deal with antisemitic behaviour appropriately”.  The whole communication continued at length over 300 words in a similar unctuous style.

Apart from the curious timing, there are two points to be made here.  The first concerns the internal contradiction in this bizarre communication: on the one hand it denies that there is any problem; on the other it congratulates the leadership for sorting the problem out.  Secondly, those of a more sophisticated intelligence may reflect that if the problem had been dealt with correctly in the first place we wouldn’t need to discuss it all at this stage.

Accordingly I decided it was time to overcome my torpor. Together with my friend the excellent Mayor of Cromer I wrote to all the Executive Committee (who apparently had passed the resolution unanimously) arguing:“Articulation of this motion in this way, and at this time, is a travesty bordering on the ridiculous.  It will make the NNLP a laughing stock  – immediately ahead of the District Council elections”.  I also encouraged other members to communicate their concern.  I was pleased to receive support; it is spring equinox so perhaps new growth is emerging.  I discovered, for example, that our last two Parliamentary Candidates had expressed similar concerns.

The Executive themselves are oblivious and have seemingly become more entrenched and united.  One of Corbyn’s achievements, perhaps the only lasting one, will be to unite the Trotskyists and Communists and thus end the Bolshevik schism. [i]  I have received various warnings, including one from the Chair, reminding me that I must ensure that I destroy any contact details of members that I held when I was Treasurer.  Quite how he intends to enforce this I have no idea and, I suspect, neither does he.  However, using procedures to cut down dissidents is a standard hard-left tactic.

Sadly none of us on our side of the divide have the inclination to attend the meeting; for my part I will be going to London for the Peoples-Vote march – the political issue of our time.   I am sure the resolution will pass; if not I will add a codicil to this blog. Enough of the handful of people (now generally dropped into the high teens) who attend North Norfolk Labour Party Meetings at present have a desperate need to reinforce their own ideological certainty. Passing such a silly motion will have no effect beyond making the local party seem irrelevant and ridiculous.

[i]I am indebted to ‘The Progressive’ writing in Progress Magazine for this quip.  I wish I had thought of it first.

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.

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)