“A independent workers’ voice” – interview with Jenn Forbes

Jennifer Forbes, who is campaigning to be Labour’s candidate in Truro and Falmouth, spoke to The Clarion. (She went on to win the nomination.)

I’ve lived in or near Truro for 22 years. I became a trade unionist twenty years ago, when I was 19. I was a BT engineer and joined the Communication Workers’ Union. When BT required apprentices to do a project to demonstrate our skills as potential managers, I chose to expose how BT’s training and culture produced unsafe working practices. This quickly propelled me into union activism in my teens. I was active through my 20s and became a trade unionist full-time.

It was great to make changes in the workplace but I got frustrated and wanted to see wider change, which requires politics. In terms of my political development I was very fortunate to be a union youth delegate to Nicaragua, helping to set up youth networks over there. I got such an education seeing how neoliberalism works – but also an education from ordinary people struggling in Nicaragua. While we were introducing tuition fees, they were defending free university education, in one of the poorest countries in the world!

I joined the Labour Party ten years ago, not because I had any illusions that it was particularly left-wing or democratic but because as a trade unionist I believe in the capacity of democratic organising to create change from within structures. I was involved in the organisation Labour Left, trying to promote a more left-wing agenda in the party.

Things have changed enormously in the Cornish party, it’s been an incredible upsurge. When I was Secretary a decade ago we had about 150 memers, now it’s 1,200. Some of that was drifting up under Ed Miliband but fundamentally it’s been about Jeremy Corbyn. We had 300 people out campaigning in the general election last year.

At the same time, large numbers of new members are not very engaged with the party at all, so there is a long way to go, to capture that enthusiasm and really get people involved.

There is a big Labour surge in Cornwall – the vote in Truro and Falmout increased by 170pc, and in St Austell and Newquay by over 300pc! Why in Cornwall specifically?

Cornwall has always had a lot of anti-establishment feeling – we’re out on the periphery and many people feel disconnected from the main Westminster parties. The Lib Dems very skilfully tapped into that, which meant that many left or Labour-leaning voters hardly ever voted for us. Now the Lib Dems are so discredited most of them have come over, along with many more purely “tactical voters”. But it’s also because Corbyn’s message resonates with people in an area that is struggling economically. Workers in Cornwall earn 23pc less than the national average.

What sort of people are turning to Labour?

It’s a very broad range, though it’s true that there’s a lot of more middle-class people joining the party. I think with working-class people there is sympathy and voters, but there are more barriers there and more winning over to do.

Why?

A lot of criticism you get from people in the workplace comes direct from the right-wing press. It’s good when it comes out as you then get to have the arguments and challenge it with facts. To change consciousness social media campaigns are good but real world conversations and in particular getting out into workplaces is absolutely key. The trade union movement can play a central role in that but that means that unions can’t be afraid to be political and discuss politics with their members.

More broadly we have this massive Corbyn surge in the party but trade unions are still in decline. We have to find ways to bridge this gap. That means finding a way to make politics real and accessible and inviting to workers in the workplace while also convincing people involved in the Labour Party that they can turn out and support workers’ struggles and make these kind of links.

It remains the fact that the majority of voices people hear in politics are from the middle class or in fact the upper class. So it’s about having messages that resonate but also about having more working-class representatives, including in Parliament. Trade unionism works best when you have someone from the workplace or someone people can relate to recruiting and the same is true for politics. It’s unusual for ordinary trade unionists to become MPs and we need to change that.

We’ve had successive MPs that do nothing for people in Cornwall, even on their own terms. They just get the positions and then support their Tory governments in Westminter in whatever they do. Labour needs to show it is different.

How would you define your politics as a socialist? What kind of society do you want to see?

I would actually describe a lot of things I want to see as quite mainstream European left-wing thinking. I’m involved with UNI Europa, which is an umbrella group for service workers’ unions across Europe, and when you go and visit comrades you see that many things called unrealistic here already exist in other countries. Of course those things are often under attack and they are not enough, but pointing out that they exist can help expand people’s conception of what is possible.

In terms of a wider vision we need to reimagine the way society is organised. Businesses claim they are their to provide employment and services, but in reality it seems we are there to serve businesses. We should have a society where wealth-creation and businesses work to serve us and not the other way round.

What do you mean more specifically?

Well to start with marketisation and privatisation have extended way too far, into areas where they make no sense on any level – health and education but also all sorts of utilities. I don’t just mean the obvious ones. For instance I would argue that telecommunications should be in public ownership. You’ve got BT Openreach linking with all these companies providing services and in reality it doesn’t work well if there’s any problems. It would work much better if there was a single unified system under public ownership and public control.

We should also look at models like John Lewis, which does not have shareholders and gives workers some input.

Beyond that we need to insist that whatever the forms of ownership workers’ interests come first, that people have decent standards of living and right and a voice in their work and how their industry Is run.

On John Lewis, is it all it’s cracked up to be? For instance, there have been cleaners’ strikes at its shops in London for very basic demands, and the cleaners are not part of the company structure where workers get some input.

I didn’t know that, but for sure an independent workers’ voice and input is always key – whatever the sector and formal structure you always get this tendency that those who run things want input on their own terms and not the workers’ terms, which is what we must insist on.

What are the most important policies you think Labour should be campaigning on?

My absolutely number one would be the NHS. There are really serious issues with what is being forced through in Cornwall, but more generally it reflects an underlying trend that exists everywhere. Labour is campaigning on the NHS, but the message is not strong enough. We’ve made progress on that, for instance with the policies that have gone through Labour Party conference, but in terms of opposing privatisation, bringing services back in house and for instance the NHS Reinstatement Bill, it is still not reflected in the official message. It tends to be mainly about funding, which is not adequate.

Secondly, housing: the manifesto had some good policies, like rent controls, longer tenancies and more affordable housing, but it’s got to be stronger on council housing. In Cornwall for sure that is the only way we’re going to address the very severe housing crisis we’ve got. Officially 19,000 people are on the waiting list but I wouldn’t be surprised if the real number in pretty severe need is double that. Many people are in a very bad housing situation but never even try to put themselves on the list. New houses are built all the time but not enough are even billed as affordable and the “affordable” ones are not, usually. There’s no problem with people moving into Cornwall but what’s being built is expensive housing that people here cannot afford.

And thirdly, we need to build up Cornwall’s economy. There are very serious areas of deprivation, all over the country, of course – Cornwall is one of them and suffers from being out on the periphery. So we need investment and job-creation, but it has to be such that improves the lives of ordinary working people. The projects that are being created now often don’t even meet basic trade union standards for wages and conditions. So creating jobs has to go hand in hand with strengthening the unions and repealing anti-union legislation – not just the most recent bits, but all of it. Re-establishing collective bargaining is necessary, but to have teeth it has to go together with workers’ ability to take action.

Are there any other issues where you think Labour policy could be strengthened?

Those would be the main ones, but I’d add the environment – there is huge scope for campaigning on this and it’s such an urgent issue which requires strong voices and firm action. All the stuff focused on consumers, plastic bags and so on, is good but it is not going to save the planet. We need government action to reorder society on a large-scale, and in particular industry. Energy is important – Cornwall had some of the first wind turbines, but all that has fallen back with lack of funding. This could be a great economic hub for a renewable energy industry, which should be developed under public ownership. By the way, I talked about nationalising utilities before, that has to include energy and water. In the South West we have some of the highest water bills and very poor service.

What’s your position on Brexit and free movement?

Let’s start with free movement – I’ve long felt migrant workers are unfairly tarnished by the right-wing press. I don’t believe the actual economic data supports the discourse. Migrant workers have brought a lot of benefits to the country. There are big risks in how it’s being proposed to limit migration. We’ve allowed the discussion to get shut down too quickly after the Brexit vote. I’m glad that Diane Abbott has reopened that debate about standing up for migrants’ rights.

Cornwall gets a lot of migrants, not necessarily from other parts of Europe but from other parts of the UK! We have problems with schools and hospitals and public services, but we can address those and it’s not about immigration.

On free movement and on Brexit we shouldn’t let our position be determined by the Tories. We need a discussion about what’s right for the country.

I was certainly in sympathy with the Lexit argument – the way the EU treated Greece was awful. On the other hand, as a trade unionist I’m used to the concept of fighting hard to change something from within. You also had to look at what Brexit means under a right-wing government. In addition, Cornwall receives a lot of EU funding and that is now disappearing. The Tories have made some noises about replacing it but predictably there are not commitments. We are also, as a weak economic area, particularly vulnerable to ecnomic shocks from leaving Europe. I’m glad Labour has come out for staying in the Customs Union, which can at least mitigate some of the harm.

Labour needs to keep fighting for a solution that protects workers’ rights, and jobs and so on, a solution that puts people first, not businesses first. At the moment it seems like that will be some form of alternative Brexit, although when more information about the deal comes back and the Tories are subject to more scrutiny about how bad it will be, perhaps that could change.

There is widespread youth sympathy for Labour but it’s not very organised. Why and how do we change that?

In Truro and Falmouth loads of young people did get involved in the election and some of those comrades get more involved in the party and took up positions in branches; but we’ve lost some of them, so clearly there is a challenge there.

I did a lot of work in the CWU as a youth rep and was on the national Young Members committee. I think the key experience was about facilitating young people’s own organising ability – creating spaces in which they feel welcome and empowering them to set their own priorities for discussion and campaigning. More Young Labour groups would be great – I had a really good experience with building youth groups in Nicaragua. We need to help young people get together to realise possibilities for organising they didn’t know were there.

People shouldn’t have to sit through boring party meetings as their own way of getting involved, though of course part of the answer is to make meetings less boring. Spaces for political discussion are very important. The outgoing CLP secretary in Truro just led a great educational meeting on socialism and democracy and it was a really good experience for those who took part I think. We need need, in addition to purely functional organising, things that are enjoyable but also the space to discuss political ideas.

You’re one of two Corbyn-supporters who has put their name forward in Truro and Falmouth [the other is Anna Gillett, who we have also asked for an interview – no reply yet]. What’s distinctive about your campaign?

My campaigning has been based on my experience and skills as a trade unionist – which means many different things, from representing people to collective responsibility and action in a branch to negotiating with employers on behalf of your members. Those skills I’ve built up over 20 years are very relevant in all sorts of ways. At the core of it is campaigning and organising, the kind of campaigning and organising we need to win in Truro and Falmouth and thus to win a Corbyn government. We need the right choice for a campaigning candidate who can help make that happen.

That’s reflected in the campaigning I’m doing now – for instance on the NHS. We need someone who just sees where there’s an issue and gets stuck in to organise and educate people.

The education aspect is vital. I do trade union education, which often involves standing up in front of a room of quite sceptical people and winning their trust. Political persusation is the underlying thing in trade unionism – or needs to be – so we can convince people they can make change in their workplaces and throughout society. Persuasion is an art form that has be practiced. We need organisers who will get out there and do it with as many people as possible.

I’ve been active on the left trying to create the movement we are beginning to see now for a long time, and for me it is not just about agreeing with Corbyn, but about the socialist ideas which underpin it and the kind of demands and campaigns that come out of that.

• Jenn’s website is here and her Facebook page here.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? Email theclarionmag@gmail.com

 

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