A fiftieth anniversary that falls on June 18th is unlikely to be a cause of celebration in North Norfolk. The General Election of 1970 saw the defeat of our last Labour MP, the former Agricultural Workers’ Union official Bert Hazell. He had followed a line that had stretched back to 1922; before the loss of 1970 the party had held the seat throughout the post-war years.
Subsequently the Conservative vote increased and Labour’s declined. For twelve years North Norfolk was held by a LibDem, Norman Lamb, whose energy attracted many potential Labour voters. Following Lamb’s retirement in 2019 the area reverted to type and produced a comfortable Tory majority. In the December election of that year Labour polled under 4000 votes. The only positive thing that could be said about that the result is that Labour’s percentage of the vote at 7.7% was more than double that recorded in the European Elections held earlier in May: here the Labour vote in North Norfolk was a miserable 3.8% and the party finished in sixth place. This put it not only behind the Brexit Party and the Greens, but left it with nine votes less than UKIP, a party that no longer existed at the time but was still on the ballot paper. Add to this the fact that there is not one County, District or even Town Councillor serving who has been elected under the Labour banner, and it is fair to say that the prospects have gone from dismal to dire.
So, does what happens in this rural outpost matter and, if so, what is to be done about it? The national dialogue is focused on recapturing the ‘red-wall’ seats in the North and Midlands and on extending Labour’s grip in the University towns. True, we may never win in North Norfolk. The demographics are against us: changes in agricultural labour following mechanisation has eliminated the trade union base; the area has become increasingly popular for retirement (with one the oldest age profiles in the country) and many deeply conservative voters have moved in to enjoy life near the coast. However, Labour’s decline here matters to us. As residents and party members in the constituency, we believe we could and should do better. Some excellent individual party members are now obliged to run as independents locally and they contribute well when elected on to Town Councils. Accordingly, we would like to offer two observations, followed by some overall conclusions. Both observations and conclusions have wider implications on the task facing Keir Starmer and his new team at national level.
The first observation is based on research undertaken by one of the authors as part of his Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia.[i] The research set out to explore the reasons why new thinking has rarely persisted in the party in recent decades. Thirty-four Labour party members in the North Norfolk and Norwich North constituencies were interviewed and the findings demonstrated that, over time, relationships between the different factions in the party had become toxic. Mutual respect had disappeared and trust broken down. Many of those in control in our local Labour Party seemed to be motivated mainly by a hostility to Blair and his governments, particularly over Iraq. Others, including some who had suspended any activism, saw Jeremy Corbyn as the most ineffectual party leader seen in post war Britain, and moreover one who through indifference and incompetence failed to deal with the emergence of antisemitism.
These interviews, and the resulting analysis, underlined how this lack of trust and mutual respect has affected attitudes and actions in Labour Party leadership elections. The research report concluded that:
Evidently, decisions over leadership have less to do with the likelihood of winning power for the party, and more to do with who can establish power within the party. The outcome of this is that party engages in a perpetual disagreement over its aims, and results in a tyranny of the majority. In essence, changes of leadership are a reaction against the past, not a response to the future.
the process of changing leader becomes an opportunity to enact retribution, impelled by lack a trust and dictated by an overwhelming sense of betrayal. When combined, the party’s contestation of its aims and the centrality of retribution to membership consolidate the disparate ideological views into a core diametric. Ultimately, this limits the extent of alternative policy narratives.
The last thing the new Party Leader would wish to do is to alienate people whom he would prefer to retain once the party settles down. If the above analysis is correct, he will, however, face significant difficulties in overcoming the extent of current mutual hostility at local levels.
The second of our two observations is a consequence of the current pandemic. It concerns the idea floated that the Party could best be rebuilt through community involvement. A central argument advanced by Jeremy Corbyn in his leadership bids was that the Party shouldtransform itself by making a break from ‘the top-down centralisation of the New Labour era’, and become a mass movement and a vehicle for community empowerment. Such sentiments were echoed in Rebecca Long-Bailey’s attempt to succeed him. In our view there are relevant lessons to be drawn from our recent local experiences with the pandemic.
If North Norfolk is anything to go by, people have indeed risen to the occasion: the very best side of our communities has emerged and ‘community empowerment’ may well prove to be more than a slogan. In our towns and villages, immediately the extent of the crisis became apparent, volunteers were ready to assist. Informal networks of support sprang into action with people anxious to ensure that their neighbours were safe and secure. However, while the energy came from volunteers there was a need for structure and professional organisation. In Norfolk local government performed well, as did many voluntary organisations, for example the Churches. A particularly impressive response has been the management and funding of the local foodbanks by the Trussell Trust. One long term political challenge must be to revisit the role of local authorities and the way in which voluntary groups can be supported enabling them to deliver on the ground.
However, there is an important corollary. There has proved to be no role for a political party in community volunteering. For several years the North Norfolk Labour Party has flirted with idea that part of the rebuilding process could involve working alongside community activists. The events of the last months should have put an end to this fantasy: that is not what we are about nor what we should be about. An overt intervention from an organisation seeking party political advantage over the last months, at a time of national crisis, would have been resented – and indeed this would be the case at any other time.
This may all sound depressing – but we must be prepared to face the reality of the challenge that we face. The task ahead is to rebuild credibility, to restore the Labour brand by sensible political leadership at national level. There is little we can do locally except behave ourselves. We must stop looking inwards and instead reach out to the electorate to show that we appreciate their concerns. Sadly, the major item in the North Norfolk News immediately before the April 2019 District Council Elections concerned the suspension and investigation of one of the candidates as part of the enquiry on antisemitism – and a robust defence of her behaviour by our Party Chair.[ii]
Labour will start winning in North
Norfolk when we start winning elsewhere.
We look forward to electing at least some County and District
Councillors when times improve. In the meantime, we should be able to offer
credible and coherent opposition. This
can only be done under effective national leadership and for that reason alone
we feel some can feel some optimism for the first time in many years.
Jasper Haywood is a Regional Board Member for the East of England Labour Party. He has a Masters degree in Public Policy and Public Management. He tweets @haywood_jasper
Martyn Sloman is a member of Progress 100. He was Parliamentary Agent for North Norfolk in the 2015 General Election. He tweets @martyn_sloman
[ii] For details see the leftyoldman blog