Labour activists upbeat in Norfolk as national party hit by resignations

Jeremy Corbyn at the No More War event at Parliament Square in August. A Creative Commons stock phot

Jeremy Corbyn at the No More War event at Parliament Square in August. A Creative Commons stock photo. - Credit: Archant

To lose one MP is a blow, but the departure of Labour rising star Tristram Hunt, the second MP in as many months to stand down, has prompted another round of Labour soul-searching – at a national level at least.

Tony Blair's former communications chief, Alastair Campbell, said Mr Hunt's departure was a sign that many Labour MPs now fear the party is 'going nowhere under Jeremy Corbyn' as last week the Labour leader was forced to deny he had 'lost control'.

But more than 100 miles away in Norfolk, many Labour activists are concentrating their efforts elsewhere. Most grassroots members are campaigning as enthusiastically as they always have done. The immediate priority is the pursuit of power locally.

Long-serving local councillor Bert Bremner says it has always been his policy to focus on local politics, and in Norwich there was a positive feeling and view about the party in the city.

Leader of the Labour group at Norfolk's County Hall, George Nobbs, wouldn't like to say if Jeremy Corbyn could win in 2020, but agrees that the mood is a good as he ever known it among Labour activists in the county.

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'It is true to say that what happen locally is as removed from national Labour as it is visa versa. Their concerns are almost exclusively national concerns. We are concerned about issues such as children in Norfolk and economic development.'

Certainly in Norwich the results at last year's district council elections were good, with the party winning more council seats at City Hall. Labour has benefited as some support for the Green Party has ebbed away locally.

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Labour county councillor Emma Corlett pounds the streets every Thursday and Saturday all year round.

Since 2010 her Town Close ward in Norwich has seen its membership grow from 78 members to more than 300 and the core that take to the streets is a mixture of long-term activists and newer members.

She said that in Norwich people were much keener to talk about local issues than they were to talk about national politics.

But where national issues did come up once you took away the personal, people found it hard to disagree with Labour policies on the NHS, housing and protecting pay.

But she admitted it was a battle.

'It is a bit like when Ed Miliband ate a sandwich. There is a certain narrative that is set by the media, that is difficult to argue against.

'The only way you challenge it is by having really good conversation. Not every ward is as active as we are. You have to earn the right for people to talk to you. You can't just pitch up a couple of weeks before a general election and say vote for us.'

But she said much of the negativity on the doorstep was about infighting within the parliamentary Labour Party.

Great Yarmouth councillor Mick Castle, who confesses he was not a natural Corbyn supporter and voted for Andy Burnham first time around, turned his fire on the 'ridiculous' coup by Labour moderates last year. He backed Mr Corbyn in the second leadership contest and thinks he is 'growing into the job'.

But in his first campaigning of the year, the veteran Labour member, who started canvassing under Harold Wilson's leadership, said people were neither really excited about Jeremy Corbyn nor bad-mouthing him.

He suggested politics is in a bit of a limbo as people wait to see what happens when Article 50 – the formal process for leaving the European Union –is triggered.

He said he didn't think people were calling for Theresa May to go at the moment, believing she will deliver Brexit – but thinks a scenario two or three years down the line with the pound still slipping and jobs being lost after Britain had come out of the single market could present Mrs May and the UK Independence Party in a different light.

In the meantime, though, Mr Castle is optimistic there could be some good gains for Labour in the local elections in May.

A councillor in a strongly Brexit-backing part of the country, he acknowledges much of the Brexit vote was about immigration.

But warns any attempt by the Labour Party to become 'Brexit lite' is not going to suddenly change the ideas of rabidly anti-foreigner voters.

He maintains that the UK still needs immigration to fill care, food industry and hospital jobs and believes Mr Corbyn will not suddenly 'do somersaults to please his colleagues in the Labour group in parliament'.

'He is not a flip-flopper. He has been fairly solid on this issue. It is one thing to say he is going to prevent abuse and rising down wages. He is not going to say we don't need foreign workers. If he did, I imagine the NHS would be in crisis through lack of personnel.'

And when it comes to the key questions about whether Jeremy Corbyn could win at the next election in 2020, Mr Castle is upbeat.

'People said Trump couldn't win. In a way they are treating him like Trump. It is almost a daily dose of trying to pick on him. I think he can ride it out.'

But that view is certainly not universal. One Labour councillor, who did not want to be named, agreed that the party was strong locally, but said while people were willing Mr Corbyn to get his act together, he feared he was not capable of leading the edifice he had created.

He was particularly frustrated by Mr Corbyn's performance last Tuesday when he had to contradict the briefing that had been given about his speech the previous evening.

Like many though, his fire is not exclusively aimed at Mr Corbyn – but also on his opponents on the backbenches, whose coup he described as the 'worst example of political incompetence' in politics in half a century. He did not vote in the second leadership election in protest.

He was furious about the own goal of launching another Labour leadership battle when David Cameron had resigned, and the country was reeling.

He added: 'To think they could run the party or the country. I have never seen anything like it.'

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