“The left has huge achievements – but let’s not be complacent” – interview with Rhea Wolfson

Clarion editorial board member Rhea Wolfson was elected to Labour’s National Executive Committee last year. In the general election she stood for Labour in the Scottish constituency of Livingston. She spoke with Sacha Ismail.

We’ve now had two year of a left-led Labour Party. How do you think it’s going? What are the challenges and tasks head?

We clearly have huge achievements – let’s not underestimate or underplay the massive shifts in 2015 and again since 2015. The kind of arguments Labour made in the 2015 election, accepting that public spending was the cause of the banking crisis have been completely discredited, and we’ve been able to demonstrate what we believed passionately – that left-wing policies and politics can be electorally successful. On that basis we’ve created a genuine movement around the party.

Equally let’s not be complacent. Our challenges inside the party continue. There are ongoing internal elections of various sorts, we’ll have more NEC elections next year, and candidate selection has already begun. Then there’s the need for structural changes, though there have been some positive steps, for instance in terms of the Chakrabarti report and its partial implementation, which is how we’ve ended the practice of auto-exclusions and started to put up barriers to the drives to exclude people. But clearly there is a lot more to do there. More widely, some people are still clearly quite uncomfortable about the concept of the Labour Party as a movement, supporting workers in struggle for instance. So there are structural changes but also political and cultural ones needed.

You mention exclusions. Of course many comrades are still excluded from the party.

Yes, we need to deal with that. There is the absurdity of people thrown out for something they tweeted, often before they joined, and then there is the issue of people who belong to socialist organisations within the party. I want to be very clear about this. Belonging to a distinct socialist current does not mean you oppose Labour values. We have a diversity of thought in the Labour Party and there is no contradiction there as long as people support the party and its candidates. Having a rich diversity of ideas and people self-organising within the party is an exciting and positive thing and something that should be welcomed.

The problem is that those advocating expulsions are not very interested in rational debate about these issues or in the ideas of those they are expelling, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty for instance. They are refighting imagined versions of the battles of the past. There has been some shift in that many people have had to recognise the positive contribution Momentum made in the election, which really was indisputable, but that has not stopped hostility even to Momentum and certainly to the left more generally. We must keep arguing and breaking down barriers.

After the election the idea that one side of the party believes in winning elections while the left just wants us to sit around yelling at each other is untenable. We have been vindicated.

How did you find the general election campaign? What lessons would you draw, both from your campaign in Livingston and more generally?

In so many ways it was fantastic, a really great and positive experience, in other ways it was very frustrating. Livingston is a collection of villages, a former mining area, Robin Cook’s old seat, which should be a core Labour area, but sadly it no longer is – it was the SNP’s fourths safest seat, with a 17,000 majority. We made good progress in winning back support, but the wider context in Scotland was not helpful. Contrast the party political broadcasts in England and Scotland, you had the one with NHS workers and the slogan “We demand”, while we had a prolonged, painful broadcast which echoed the Tories’ message about Nicola Sturgeon not doing her day job. It played straight into the nationalists’ hands.

Of course with the bad polls everyone was defensive at the start but as the mood started to change our feedback was ignored. Corbyn and the manifesto quickly became a selling point on the doorstep but that wasn’t reflected in the party’s national message.

I’d say that in Livingston, and it is interesting to compare this to other areas of Scotland, we lost ground to the Tories but gained a lot from the SNP. We are returning to some traditional political lines, with the SNP retreating back to its rural, agricultural nationalist heartlands, while Labour gains traction in the Central Belt.

Our campaign was successful, in that the party put on less than 10,000 votes across Scotland, but 1,300 of them were in Livingston. We got double the national swing. And we did that by shunning the Scottish Labour messaging, by having our own message, on social media and in our leaflets – for the many not the few, demand more, based around the UK manifesto.

We tried to target areas that have become SNP strongholds, working-class areas, areas with lots of social housing, with deprivation and we got a really positive response. There are a lot of people who have felt abandoned, and the fact that a candidate actually came to speak to them was seen as exceptional, which again is really sad. It tells you about the problems of the Scottish Labour Party. But in these areas we were really gaining, it was incredibly heartening. There were times I almost skipped home because of the kind of conversations I’d had. Issues like the minimum wage and zero hours contracts are incredibly significant here, in an area which is just outside Glasgow and Edinburgh, which had a lot of industry but has repeatedly seen that sucked out. Even since the election two massive HMRC centres have closed and moved to Edinburgh.

Livingston has a rich labour movement history, and despite the problems Scottish Labour has faced, we were able to tap into that loyalty and really bring out the local community. We made a start but there is a lot more to do to get Labour once again rooted in working-class communities, not just to win elections but to stand side by side with struggles. To take the example I’ve given we worked closely with PCS over the HMRC jobs issue.

Our basic approach was to raise the level of politics, of political expectation, so that people demand more, in the first instance demand more of the SNP. It’s apathy and low expectations which serves the SNP’s purposes. That is key to the whole nationalist project maintaining itself.

We had very good young people locally getting involved, including some people who had been involved in the SNP. We had some young comrades make a video about why they voted yes and how for them about why it wasn’t about nationalism but because they wanted a radical solution to the situation in society. I completely respect that, I didn’t agree with independence, but I understand that kind of aspiration entirely.

There is a generation of young people who saw that their life was not getting better and wouldn’t in the political status quo, and the SNP exploited that. And that goes to the heart of why Labour should be defined not fundamentally by a constitutional position but by a social one, and why we can’t afford more years of presenting ourselves as a unionist rather than a working-class party. I think all this explains our relative success in Livingston compared to East Renfrewshire, for instance, where the party ran very much a unionist campaign and fell into third place while the Tories went from third to first.

What’s the situation in Scottish Labour with the leadership election? How can comrades outside Scotland help the left there?

This feels very different from our last leadership election. There’s relative calm in the party but there’s also a major pushback after the election where wide layers of people aren’t happy with the way it went. We’ll know more about how the election will be run after the Scottish Executive Committee meets on Saturday [9 September] but we know there are two candidates, Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard. Anas Sarwar was Vice Chair of Progress, and last year he organised a letter from MSPs during the second leadership election saying that Corbyn couldn’t win and should stand down. Now he’s presenting himself as the unity candidate, saying he supports Corbyn, but I can’t believe he won’t be tarred by the latter.

Richard Leonard was only elected as an MSP last year, before that he was a GMB officer, involved in Scottish Labour for decades. He’s an interesting candidate. He’s not a member of the Campaign for Socialism or Momentum, though he supported Corbyn both times, but he has some record on the left and a vision for the party, one that is rooted in industry. Someone described him to me as being able to provide “the industrial backbone to Corbynism”. He’s written about industrial strategy for Scotland and talked about public ownership in industry. I think he will provide a much needed dimension to discussion in the party and that in the election we could have an interesting debate here.

With the obvious exceptions I’m confident the unions will get behind him.

In terms of how this is seen in England, I remember tearing my hair out at The World Transformed last year about people’s love affair with the SNP. Clearly the English left is sobering up and seeing the reality, which is that the SNP is not radical or left-wing. They talk left at Westminster but look at their record in Scotland. They have all kinds of powers they could use to change things and they do not. Their history is neo-liberal and it is nationalist and that is central to what they stand for. Nationalism is not good for the left.

Generally I’m a sceptic about the so-called progressive alliance which seems to me to just weaken the Labour Party and labour movement, but particularly so up here where the SNP has a very deliberate project of detaching the unions from Labour and undermining the existence of the labour movement as a political force.

So mainly we want people to listen to the Scottish left and try to understand. The other thing I should mention is that there’s discussion here about having a recruitment period for the election, rather than a freeze date, which of course would be a really good thing and is something we are pushing for. That’s something we should look at arguing for more widely too.

How has your experience of being on the NEC been? How can the left use the NEC more effectively?

Mainly frustrating. The NEC is a difficult body to get your head around. I lost my temper at the last meeting because once again they’d scheduled very little time and lots of crucial stuff was driven off the agenda. We had some very long meetings last year but now the problem is the opposite, where there’s no way we can have an in depth discussion on the agenda points and genuine discussion and debate is discouraged.

When we discussed the composition of the Young Labour policy conference, and I raised about Scotland only getting four delegates, I had people shouting at me, why are you raising this now, we have no time. That was literally my only chance to raise it!

The right is more confident and aggressive than the left, with lots of people on the committee who are experienced at pushing things through in a bureaucratic manner. You’ve also got the issue of people leaking things for factional reasons. I’m not talking about transparency or reporting back, I’m talking about details of individual disciplinary cases being leaked to the press before the person in question is even told. And again, left-wing NEC members are criticised for raising about individual cases, as if that is not our job.

Of course we lost the argument about CLPs being involved in candidate selection earlier this year, with the result that the membership had no input whatsoever and even the Tory party did better in that regard.

There is a clear political divide on the NEC, which is there in almost every vote, and it can be swung by one or two people. The Scottish leadership result could change things. We should also be demanding more seats to represent members. In the election before the won I stood in, we had six seats for 250,000 members, now it’s six seats for nearly three times that.

I’m trying to post regular updates about what’s going on on my Facebook and people are also welcome to email me.

What are the main policies and demands the left should be raising?

The manifesto was very good, but plenty of things could be strengthened. Why does ending age discrimination on the minimum wage not apply to workers below 16? It’s good that we want to raise carers’ allowance to the level of JSA, but really shouldn’t it be more? In fact we might criticise the nature of JSA too. We could go a lot further on rights and protections for people in various forms of care work, whether that is formally employed or not. In general we need to beef up social security.

On the issue of workers’ rights, when the NEC got the draft, I asked for clarification about the anti-union laws, about whether we were just talking about the Trade Union Act or the pre-1997 anti-union laws too. I got an answer that implied it was all of them but in fact that has been left unsaid. Clearly that is an absolutely crucial issue for the labour movement and one that must be taken up.

We need a better industrial policy. A national investment bank is good, but we need to talk more about public ownership. Public control of industry and supporting workers’ rights and the trade union movement should go hand in hand.

On the free movement controversy, I support free movement but I think we need a position that works in the context of Brexit and is a coherent policy for the party to put forward.

There are policies passed by conference and then forgotten that should be included. More generally, the left needs to take conference a lot more seriously. The NEC gets sent loads of motions from CLPs, but they don’t get discussed, just noted. We need to change the NEC but we also need to shift the balance of power towards conference, which is the real way for people to access party democracy and the way we’re going to change things.

What are the most important struggles going on at the moment?

In Glasgow we have a potentially epic struggle coming up among the workers I represent for the GMB, who are mainly cleaners and homecare workers, on the issue of job evaluation and equal pay. Of course this issue has cropped up all over the country; the bin strikes in Birmingham about the long term consequences of these issues, with another council trying to push male workers down rather than pull women workers up. In Glasgow we’ve just had a legal judgement that the council has not dealt with this properly, and it will have to re-evaluate 30,000 jobs.

There’s a danger of the Birmingham option, which is why we’ve moved fast to strengthen our links with union members in the mainly male sections of the workforce. We’ve made it clear that we want women levelled up, and the stewards in the male workforce have clearly and publicly stated their solidarity. We’ll be putting out a list of formal demands soon. We’re going to say no cuts, no redundancies, no negative changes in terms and conditions and no more privatisation, which is a major driver of the kinds of problems my members face.

Labour councils should be demanding the money they have lost back from the government. And in Glasgow we’re be demanding that the SNP council calls for more money from its comrades in the Scottish government. They tried to present that demand as a party political trick, but in fact I would turn that back on them. Are they willing to stand up for their constituents or not?

Beyond Glasgow I would have to say the obvious, the McDonald’s strike really shows people who are willing to be leaders in a generation of young people working in service and hospitality industry in precarious conditions. They are providing a model. The nature of work is shifting all the time, we have an incredibly fragmented and rapidly changing workforce but the key thing is the will to organise and embrace collectivism, which is the basis of any meaningful ability to fight back.

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