“We can transform society” – interview with Chris Williamson MP

Chris Williamson, MP for Derby North, spoke to The Clarion.

Local government is under intense pressure. The impact of austerity is being felt in large measure by the funding reductions which have been imposed on local government, and local government then has no choice but to implement them.

But there are alternatives potentially, as interim solutions, that Labour groups could deploy, and that is introducing progressive, differential council tax rates whereby you freeze council tax for the majority of people, who are in the lower bands, and impose a progressive increase on people in band D. That would enable authorities to diminish or reverse the cuts, and to look at rebuilding some growth into public services at a local level. It is not yet Labour Party policy to do that, but it is something that I think local government could do that the Party could encourage Labour Councillors to consider.

That would mean a battle, a fight, to get people to support it in each local area because it would be subject to a referendum. That’s because you’d be breaching the council tax increase threshold. But as Bob Crow said, if you fight you might lose, but if you don’t fight you’ll always lose. At a local level, it’s something that could make a real difference to people. It could enable some of the worst impact of these cuts to be reversed.

By introducing a redistributive budget, it’s playing to the underlying values that the Party now subscribes to, which is For the Many, Not the Few. In my local area, about 85% of housholds live in lower bands. So 85% of households would have their council tax frozen. 15% would see a progressive increase. But they would have the broader shoulders to bear the extra burden. For those on low incomes, living in big properties, they would be protected by the council tax freeze. So you wouldn’t, for example, be forcing a low-income widowed woman in a larger house to live in penury. I think it’s not an ideal solution – Local Government needs more leaders and better funding – but it is something that would give us a chance at a local level. But the focus needs to be on the government at the national level, we need to expose what they are doing.

The delicious irony is that strategies like this were in fact made possible by the Localism Act. So it would be nice to turn the possibilities created by Tory legislation into a progressive action to deliberately distribute wealth.

What should the priority be for activists?

To my mind the key thing is that Labour is seen as part of the community. It is now to a larger extent than it has been in my lifetime. But there is more that we can do as a mass movement. We need to demonstrate that the Labour Party is a part of the community, doing things with the community and that it is not a separate entity that comes in every few years to do things, if you like, to the community. So engagement on the doorstep is important, and strategic thinking at a local and a national level.

Jeremy wants to change the Labour Party Conference into a forum that’s more concentrated on policy making. So look at policy locally, think what can be done locally, and also in terms of what the party should be doing nationally, feeding into the process, getting involved in those local community groups, working through the trade union movement as well, which is really important; working with Labour Groups and where there are elections and selections for candidates, putting themselves forward to make sure that we’ve got people who are progressively-minded in positions on local authorities where they can affect change at a local level.

Because of the way conference has worked for a long time, it’s not clear how much people pay attention to what conference passes. What do you do about that?

There is an awareness-raising exercise that needs to be done. Longstanding activists who understand the procedures need to help people understand that conference can make a difference. But for too long, conference has not discussed much in the way of policy, but has done a lot of worshipping at the foot of the leader. We’re moving away from that. We’ve begun that process at this conference. Jeremy wants to move more towards it being a delegate conference that works on developing policy. We could even have two conferences a year. However we do it, we shouldn’t move back to conferences that are about massaging the ego of people in the leadership. Conference should be about discussing policy nad the direction of the country. That would bring people back. That said, we had record turnout at this conference. We need to keep people’s interest, though. The fringe was incredibly dynamic, we had Momentum’s The World Transformed events. There was a lot to feel energised by. Conference itself was packed at every session. Even on day one, the discussion on procedure and rule-changes and so on was packed to the gunwhales. That’s never happened before. Clearly members now feel valued and able to contribute.

On the democracy review – is there a danger that it will slow down the process? Secondly, what would you like to see come out of it?

I think it’s pretty clear that the Review won’t be allowed to drag on for more than a year. Jeremy was very clear that it needs to report back to the next conference. Hopefully it will give us time to give a considered response. The terms of reference will need to make sure that we are democratising the party. I think the terms of reference are a bit limited but the key things for me are the way regional structures operate: that needs to be substantially democratised. I would like to see a one-member-one-vote situation where members of regional boards or regional committees are elected by every member in the region. I think that way we’d be more likely to get a regional committee that is reflective of the party as a whole. One-member-one-vote elections for the Leader and the Conference Arrangements Committee saw progressive candidates elected. That democratisation is really important in order to make sure that the regions function and reflect the priorities and concerns of the party. What I’d like to see in the democracy review is mandatory reselection of MPs. I’ve been calling for that for some time. The present system isn’t fit for purpose. Trigger ballots are a hostile process because you have to trigger to get 50 percent +1 of affiliated organisations and branches to demand a re-selection process. That implies that you are dissatisfied with your Member of Parliament. But if it was a routine process and everyone had to go through it, like everyone in other elected offices has to do, from trade union leaders to councillors to the chair of a local bowls club to the secretary of an allotments association, that would be something that would help to consolidate the role of the MPs, keep them rooted and keep them from drifting off into the Westminster bubble.

When we had mandatory reselection previously under the reforms spearheaded by Tony Benn, and there were actually very few deselections (although I wouldn’t call it deselection, but rather mandatory reselection). MPs, in my view, should be able to command the confidence and respect of the members of the party where they are standing. I know that some MPs argue that MPs are subject to a democratic process with the electorate, who give them their mandate. That’s true up to a point but they’re standing as Labour MPs. My response to that is: if that’s what you think, stand as an independent and see how far you get. They rely on the Labour badge and the hard work of ordinary activists. So it’s not too much in my view to ask for their endorsement to stand as their member of Parliament. Now you do have the trigger ballot mechanism, but that’s compromised in my view because every branch and affiliated organisation has the same weight in the vote regardless of how many members they’ve got. So a branch with 500 members and a branch with ten members would have the same vote. So you could have two branches with a couple of thousand members each, who want reselection, and ten or fifteen affiliated organisations or other branches with ten, fifteen, twenty, a hundred members between them being able to outvote the majority of the members. That’s not democratic and also there is this matter this having the character of a hostile move. So I’d like to see the terms of reference of the democracy review broadened to cover that.

Do you think that’s possible?

Anything’s possible if you see a groundswell of support, but not in a hostile way, just as a matter of calling for democracy. Grassroots members calling for that will be important. Also of course the democracy review will be looking at the way in which a candidate gets nominated onto the ballot for the leadership. My view is that the MPs shouldn’t have a gatekeeping role in that. If anyone has a gatekeeping role it should be the membership. We have over half a million members and growing. If there are gatekeepers, it should be the constituencies. We should make it as easy as possible. The leader should be a Member of Parliament. But to give MPs that right of gatekeeping is not right. They shouldn’t be arbiters of who should be the candidate.

What do you think of expulsions? Clearly there is wide discontent about left-wing activists being expelled on various pretexts.

I am very unhappy about the way that members are being expelled, on the flimsiest of reasons. John Dunn, in Derbyshire, is a pillar of the labour movement, an icon, a person who should be venerated. He was one of the rent rebels in Clay Cross in 1972, who was barred from office, and made bankrupt for standing up to the so-called fair rent law. They refused to implement a rent increase. He went on to become a distinguished councillor, he was chair of the Fire Authority; I served on the Fire Authority while he was chair in Derbyshire. He was a striking miner, he was out for the duration of the miners’ strike. To suspend him on the flimsiest of grounds was a travesty. It is no coincidence that he was suspended shortly after challenging Owen Smith, whom he had accused of stealing their history when he launched his campaign at Orgreave. John is one of the key organisers within the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, he was at Orgreave when it happened, and he was upset about Owen going there, so he challenged him and a few days after, he was suspended.

So when you’re getting suspensions like that it’s completely beyond the pale, completely unacceptable in my view. There are many others who are less well-known than him. There was another guy in Nottingham who was suspended before the big purge was going on, in fact it turned out to be an incredibly flimsy reason, but he wasn’t even told the reason for his suspension for over a year. There are questions that need to be asked about how the National Constitutional Committee and the Compliance Unit operate. That’s not to say that you should just have a free-for-all. You can imagine a situation where a bloody fascist joins the party. But it’s been overkill, definitely.

What would you say about people who are expelled for being members of socialist organisations that support the Labour Party?

I am in favour of a broad church. Anyone who supports the aims of the Labour Party should be able to participate as a full member. So that seems a rather flimsy reason for kicking someone out. Perhaps those organisations ought to think about affiliating to the party. That comes with difficulty, but you have the Co-op Party that’s affiliated. But in any case I welcome people supporting and joining the Labour Party and I like to think that we can build a progressive alliance within the party.

There is a widespread enthusiasm for the Labour Party among young people. But it is not organised at all. In the 1980s there was an LPYS in most constituencies. But there is little like that now. So how can young people be brought into the party?

I think we’re doing alright as it is at the moment and I think that formalising it into bureaucratic structures isn’t the right way to go. There was a job advertised in the party this week for community organisers. That approach maybe we should invest more time in and work with young people to bring them in. But I’m not sure that we need the bureaucratic structures. We should keep it as informal as possible. The processes that we had in place in the 1980s were a bit bureaucratic. They didn’t engage the numbers of young people that we are seeing being engaged now. Now, you didn’t have social media back then. But if we can encourage and facilitate what’s happening now… When Jeremy was at Glastonbury, some young people organised a “Jam for Jezza” in the park in Derby. Those sorts of initiatives should be fostered. If we can promote that kind of engagement through community organising approaches, without needing formalised structures… That’s not to say that I’m against formalised structures necessarily, but I think that the energy from the youth involvement is very positive and we have to be careful not to let it dissipate.

(Chris with Lewisham Momentum, supporting the Royal Mail workers)

You talk about community organising approaches, but what are you organising people to do?

It’s like we talked about earlier, getting people active in the community around the issues that matter to them, giving them a voice, rather than telling them what’s important to them, but letting them have a forum to decide. That could be informal or semi-formal, you might use social media to do that. I don’t want to map out exactly how it should work, but if you look at the agenda of Young Labour conference, some of the motions were incredibly progressive and that should be welcomed. There is that appetite for a strongly progressive political agenda and we need a mechanism where we can capture that enthusiasm and give people a forum where they can come together. My instinct is that this should not be overly formalised. We can be more dynamic than that, getting into minutes of the last meeting and so on. You should be able to blend both things, have a social side. I think a good model is The World Transformed, which managed to blend those things quite nicely. If we could capture that and reproduce it at a local level, that would be good. I don’t know how exaclty.

What are the most important of Labour’s policies?

The stuff around the economy, taking control, bringing key services into public ownership, investing in the economy to create secure jobs, a national investment bank, tackling the housing crisis – this is vitally important, especially in places like London. All these things are linked together. My view is that the most significant policy is the right to own – giving workers the right to buy out their company when it’s at risk of being asset-stripped or sold. That will enable us to take back power for everyone. That would prevent the sort of scandals that we’ve seen over the last forty years as our heavy industry and manufacturing bases are run down and destroyed. We have ended up with a nation that, to a large extent, has very low-paid, insecure jobs. Looking to try and generate some security in the workplace is going to be really important.

I think it’s about putting some flesh on the bones of what’s in the manifesto and taking it out to the general public. But the public is there already on a lot of this stuff. The support is there, it’s just about filling in the details and giving people the opportunity to contribute to that process.

At the Lewisham Momentum meeting you mentioned about how 50 percent of people are in favour of nationalising the banks. A national investment bank is a good policy, but I want to ask about nationalising the banks, something the TUC formally adopted in 2012. It is possible there’ll be another banking crisis. And then, do you bail them out or take control of them?

Never say never. It is useful to have the debate. But what we’re proposing, in terms of the national investment bank, is incredibly radical and progressive and it will make a massive difference, with a network of regional investment banks. That will transform the economy in ways we can’t imagine.

Don’t they have a national investment bank in Germany? Isn’t Germany a fairly typical neoliberal economy?

Yes but it’s a question of how you operate that at a national level and how you involve people and democratise the process. When we talk about creating a network of local cooperatives and bringing the utilities back into public ownership, I’m not talking about a state monolith, but something that’s much more democratic. We are looking at creating local energy co-operatives and localising and municipalising energy production for example.

We are a long way down the track. Bear in mind where we are, already, is pretty radical. But you know the saying, “walk before you can run.” I’m not saying we’ll never go further. Indeed the appetite is already out there if you look at the opinion polls. But let’s see where we go. With the national investment bank we not need to go any further. There may not be an appetite to go any further. Let’s see how we go on. We are embarking upon a big legislative programme, and bear in mind that there will be massive resistance to what we are trying to do, inside and outside of parliament, so I think that focussing on those areas that we have identified in the manifesto, it will be very significant. We’ll be breaking with the consensus that has persisted for the last four decades and the eyes of the world will be upon us. We have already seen this movement act as a beacon and inspiration right across the world. Even in the US, people are looking to what we’re doing and achieving.

I think, that while I’d say, never say never, there is a bit of work to do in terms of fleshing out what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a massive change to the green economy. Moving away from a state-led monolith is very significant.

Looking at Uber for example, there is potential there for workers to take control of their own destiny and create a co-operative model. That’s a huge leap, a volte-face from the current direction of travel. So let’s focus on that and delivering that.

The policy that has just been passed at conference about repealing not only the 2016 Trade Union Act but also the Thatcher-era anti-trade union laws. When that gets noticed it will be very controversial, including possibly with some people in the Labour Party. To me that seems quite essential. Without freedom for workers to strike, you can’t have strong trade unions or security at work.

It is one of the key areas and utterly crucial to the success of the project we are embarking upon now. Back in 2015, myself, Michael Meacher, Ian Lavery, Michael Connarty got together and came up with some ideas because we were worried about the direction of travel the party was taking. We didn’t want to write an alternative manifesto, but we did want to get some ideas down. We came up with three. Reject austerity; commit to re-nationalising the railways; and repealing all the anti-trade union legislation, which has led to an explosion in low-paid, insecure employment. That was overwhelmingly backed by the party membership then according to a poll that was undertaken by LabourList, and YouGov did some number-crunching on it and found there was wider support for it in the general public. Had Ed Miliband listened to us, he probably would have won the election in 2015 and he’d have been the Prime Minister and I wouldn’t have lost my seat in Derby North on that occasion. But he didn’t; and we are where we are; and you’ve got Jeremy Corbyn as leader and John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor, who are dyed-in-the-wool trade unionists, who have stood on hundreds if not thousands of picket lines, who are totally opposed to the anti-trade union legislation.

That will be a cornerstone, going forward, that Labour has to get rid of these laws, reintroduce collective bargaining, and so on. Without doing that it will be very hard to introduce the changes that we want to see. It is crucial that we empower the trade union movement again. When trade unions were stronger, a bigger proportion of wealth went to union members in their pay packets. We have to turn this around. One of the reasons that trade union membership has fallen is not necessarily that people have fallen out of love with trade unions, but the big industries, like the coal or steel industry, manufacturing, have been decimated. The coal industry no longer exists. There were a quarter of a million miners forty years ago, and we now have none. Manufacturing and textiles have been decimated. We have to get some of those jobs back. We have to create new jobs, too, in the digital economy, in renewable energy – and in public services as well. It’s important that there is a renaissance in public services as well as in manufacturing. There is plenty of work that needs to be done.

As automation, the age of the robots, gets going, it is important that we use technology as our servant, not our master. We need to give reality to what I was being told as a kid, that we need to get ready for the leisure generation in the 1990s and 2000s, because automation is going to mean we’ll all be working ten or 15 hours a week. It would be great to reduce the working week. But there are other things that need to be done. We have a massive role to play in the public sector and we need a big increase in investment in public services. That means kicking out the privateers, and valuing and paying properly people who are doing care work. It’s great that people are living longer. But we need to ensure that people are living good lives, not just long lives. That means helping people to remain in their own home for longer. That’s cost-effective as well. It’s a lot less costly than someone being hospitalised. But that’ll take a lot of people to do that.

There are a lot of jobs that need doing. We need park keepers and so on. We also need to re-open public lavatories! We ran a campaign when the Liberals ran the Derby council, and they were going to close all the public toilets, and we ran a big campaign. Again, when I was a kid, every public lavatory in the city centre had a toilet attendant. It sounds like a minor thing, but actually, for people, especially with an aging population, people plan their journeys into the city centre based on where there are public lavatories. And now it’s a no-go zone for people. That’s why I always make the point that decent public services define a decent society – and they’re an engine for economic growth. That’s where the growth in jobs will come, in the digital economy, renewable energy, there will be a renaissance there, and obviously in construction. Well-paid, motivated public servants are a good thing for the economy and society.

Doesn’t this rely on a push to organise the unorganised? So – how do you think the Labour Party should relate to strikes?

John McDonnell and Jeremy have made it clear that they believe that the party should stand shoulder to shoulder with colleagues in the industrial wing of the labour movement when they are in struggle, when they’re on strike, they deserve our support. There is a fantastic, heroic dispute in McDonald’s, that beacon of free enterprise and exploitative work practices – people have taken a stand. When working people stand together, that’s when we are strong. That old labour maxim is apposite I think. We need to give our support to trade unionists who are in struggle, on strike – we need a movement, and not just a movement about Westminster. By standing together, the industrial and political wings of the labour movement can transform society, just like they did after the war in the 1940s. My mum and dad came back from the war and they said, we’re never going back to the indignity of means testing and the grinding poverty of the 1930s. We stood together, we won the National Health Service and the welfare state.

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