“We should be imaginative and bold” – interview with Matt Wrack (part 1)

Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union and a prominent socialist activist in the Labour Party and Momentum, spoke to The Clarion shortly before the general election was announced. This is the first part of the interview, published in Clarion issue 6: in the second part, published in issue 8, Matt talks more about trade unionism, workers’ struggles and his wider socialist ideas.

There’s discussion about the idea that the “Corbyn movement” has run out of steam or is in a crisis. What’s your assessment of that and what’s the way forward?

There’s always been people attempting to promote that story, that Corbyn isn’t a leader, that he’s doomed to failure, so I think we have to take it in that context. This is the latest round. Equally there are questions being asked by people about direction and I think a lot of rank and file Corbyn-supporters are feeling frustrated that the right seems to still be very much in charge of the Labour Party; what people are looking for is a clear strategy, about how we build on the enthusiasm that led to the Corbyn movement in the first place. Of course, there are things we can and should criticise, but it remains the case that any defeat of Corbyn would represent a victory for the right wing in Labour, and that’s what a lot of this is actually about.

What do you see the role of Momentum as being?

I think Momentum had the potential, or has the potential — that’s the debate — to draw together the many thousands of people who got involved in politics around the Corbyn campaigns. That includes trying to organise the left in the Labour Party around socialist policies, around political education, and around democratising the party, as well as putting left candidates forward as councillors, and MPs and so on. The question is the degree to which it does that, or whether it is simply a sort of top-down cheerleading movement for Jeremy Corbyn. That seems to me to contradict with the way Jeremy Corbyn has always presented himself, as not running hierarchical structures or wanting machine politics.

There’s was that tension from the start, on the old Steering Committee, on the old National Committee,which was also between people who want to be focused in the office and those who want it to be focused in the local groups – which is where I stand.If Momentum is going to survive it needs to be focused around the local groups.You need an office but you can’t have all the decisions taken in the office.

Where does that centralised, top down approach, almost a Blairite approach, come from?

There’s a mistrust of the left-wing activists; that becomes an argument about particular socialist groups, the AWL for instance, when there was actually a much wider group of left-wing activists on the old NC, most of whom have been in the Labour Party a long time,some of whom are new — but it’s a mistrust of all of us. Comments were made at meetings about self-appointed activists. In fact, of course you’re self-appointed, nobody appoints you to be an activist, so it’s a silly and quite a reactionary idea. We want more people to be activists in this movement. Another aspect is that, though I am a union general secretary, in Momentum I argued we should have an orientation towards rank-and-file trade unionists to draw them in, at the same time as approaching unions officially, whereas I think the approach from the Momentum office is simply to approach trade union general secretaries to see if can we do a deal around something.

When you say mistrust of activists, do you mean because they’ll be too radical? I have some sympathy that people might say things that are potentially politically damaging to the Labour leadership. I’m not against having some sort of discipline in terms of messaging and so on. We’re trying to build the Labour Party and get it ready for a general election and so on. I don’t have a problem with that. But it has to be tempered by democracy and allowing people to debate things, and allowing local group to function.

What would you advocate in terms of both official Momentum and the Grassroots Momentum network within it?

I’m still a member of Momentum, and I participated in the Grassroots Momentum conference, and I want to see what can be built.There are differences of opinion about whether Momentum itself is viable any longer. I haven’t reached a conclusion. Generally I’m not in favour of just splitting things — but I’ve invested a lot of personal time, as well as on behalf of my union, in Momentum, just to be stitched up. It is very hard to carry on as if nothing’s happened, or to persuade people in the FBU to carry as if nothing’s happened. In terms of the FBU’s affiliation, we’re monitoring and discussing the situation and we haven’t yet decided what to do. We’ve been asked by Momentum to take up seats on the new NCG, and we haven’t reached a decision on that.

What are the most important ideas, demands and policies socialists should be raising at the moment?

One very positive thing about Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign is that it allowed us to raise issues that were off the agenda and you weren’t allowed to say. I remember talking to a left-wing economist about our FBU policy on nationalising the banks; although he privately supported it, he said, you’ll just be isolated if you raise stuff like that, it’s too far-fetched – whereas I think we should precisely be thinking about the big things, about how society is organised.

In terms of policies we should be campaigning for — there’s 5.4 million public sector workers,we should be saying they should be campaigning to break the pay cap, but we need link that to all workers, needing a pay rise. Interestingly the TUC held a campaign and demonstration about “Britain needs a pay rise”; in fact Britain needs a pay rise far more now than it did five years ago, and yet it seems to have gone off the agenda.Then the fragmentation, privatisation and destruction of public services.We need to discuss in more detail how you could start steering the economy in a different direction.

There is a widespread understanding of the degree of inequality in this society, but people don’t really know what to do about it. We need to say, this isn’t new, this is part of the system, and how are we going to challenge that. We have to be more radical than saying people should pay the tax they’re supposed to pay.It should be pretty basic to say people should pay their tax and yet it seems as though that’s as far as the left will go. I saw an interview once with Boris Johnson where he said, companies have a duty to try to limit the amount of tax they pay. He’s actually right, but that’s about the profit system — if they’re going to maximise their profit, they should minimise what they pay, so some sort of moral appeal to them isn’t convincing.

We should start raising taxing the rich, saying look at the tax that business and wealthy were paying even when Thatcher left office, far in excess of what’s being paid today. We should raise issues about public ownership, but also control of public services. Take the railways, people talk about “Bring back British rail”; I don’t think we want to bring back British Rail in the form it was. We should have imaginative ideas that involve workers having a say, commuters having a say, service-users having a say in how things are run, in a democratic way. We should be far more imaginative and bold.

But I mean how do we counter the pressure on Corbyn to tone down?

I think we counter that pressure by building a movement. When the left has been in the ascendancy in the past, we had big networks. One of the contradictions is that in the early 80s, left leadership challenges weren’t able to succeed, but you had a much bigger movement: you had the Labour left, you had other groups on the left, you had shop stewards networks, you had all sorts of left-wing campaigns which were very well established. Today you’ve got the most left-wing leadership ever elected, but all those structures don’t exist, the movement itself doesn’t. So in a sense we’re trying to rebuild that movement from the bottom up. That’s the key thing and there’s where Momentum could have played a role. It’s inevitable that people will come under pressure from the status quo, and if you’re simply operating in Parliament, then the whole structure is designed to make you retreat. We can’t resist that unless there’s a movement built on a much wider basis.

What are the most important changes you want to see in the Labour Party?

The starting point is the mass membership — that was a fantastic achievement of the leadership campaigns, to build the start of a genuine mass membership. However, it seems there has been some decline in that in the last few months. We need to stop that. The only way we do that is by having that membership active and engaged in Labour Party structures, in meetings, debates, elections and so on. The Labour Party could play quite a big political and cultural role. In my constituency they’ve set up a socialist cinema club now which is getting a big participation. There’s lots that could be done. Really the party should have a whole team working on how do you encourage lively participation in events.

Then there has to a serious campaign around Labour Party democracy, which for me means first of all ending all the witch-hunting activity, bans, proscriptions, expulsions, suspensions. Virtually any time a party organisation steps out of line, as the right wing would see it,they are closed down at the drop of a hat, and it takes a long time to be reinstated. There’s elements of the left that need to remember that picking on bits of the left, on particular socialist groups, is always a prelude to attacking the left more widely.That’s the lesson of previous witch-hunts.

Labour Party conference needs democratising, and decision-making and party structures should be subordinated to that conference. We need a campaign around Labour’s elected representatives,whether that’s in councils or in Parliament — if there’s this mass party membership, then they should be reflected on those levels. We need more socialist councillors and MPs. The whole debate around accountability of MPs needs to be on a different footing. There’s a lot of apologetics about it. For most people who’ve been involved in the labour movement for a long time, it just seems a bit weird,why people think that being elected at thirty or whatever gives you a job for life as a Labour MP. Anyone, including Jeremy Corbyn, is only an MP because they’ve been selected by Labour members as a Labour candidate; of course they’re accountable to their electors, but they’re also accountable to the party that got them elected.

The assumption at the moment is that MPs will be middle-class professionals — I don’t mean teachers or social workers but actual middle-class professionals.

I find it deeply depressing that the whole political structure, including in the labour movement, is so is dominated, including on the left, by people whose whole experience is university, research for a trade union or a Labour MP, and then a council position and then an MP’s position — it’s almost like a caste of people who then become very, very influential. The Labour Party was set up to represent workers in Parliament, and yet workers don’t really have that representation.

I hear people who are described as officials of unions. To me an official of a union is someone who’s been elected by workers to represent them, not someone who’s got a job as a researcher or policy or whatever. In my union, all our officials, the people we call officials, are elected; we employ members of staff, and I have a great deal of respect for them, but we wouldn’t call them officiala of the union. That’s one of our strengths — everyone has come through the industry, everyone has been a firefighter, or worked in the fire service. That’s the best tradition of the labour movement and that’s what we need to see in people selected as councillors or MPs. It would make the Labour Party much more reflective of society and break down the hostility to politicians among ordinary people, and understandable and justified. It’s an alien world for workers, because on one side people have gone through those sorts of bureaucratic structures, and on the other side it’s all Eton and Oxbridge-educated Tories. Politics then becomes very alienating for ordinary people.

So, how much progress have we made in the last year and a half?

At local level the left has won some positions — Constituency Labour Parties are key to a lot of this. The reason I’m wary of raising concerns about progress is I think we have to remember how far we’d been thrown back and where we were starting from. Immediately after the 2015 election, people would have been quite pessimistic about the prospects of the left and socialists within the Labour Party. There was a decline in the labour movement matched by a decline in political participation and a decline in socialist ideas, and that’s gone on for thirty or more years. We need to try to be optimistic. It’s inevitable that a left-wing leadership is going to come under this massive pressure. That’s why I reject this Owen Jones sort of narrative, that Corbyn’s leadership is failing and has to be replaced. That would simply be a defeat and a setback. We haven’t made sufficient progress, and that’s down to leadership but not just — we’ve got to do it from the bottom up.

• See also: ‘Why we must fight to nationalise the banks’, by Matt Wrack

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