“Help people get educated and confident” – interview with Pamela Fitzpatrick

Pamela Fitzpatrick, recently selected as Labour’s PPC for the marginal Harrow East seat, spoke to The Clarion.

I grew up in Harlesden, in a working-class Irish family that was always struggling financially and we faced homelessness several times.  I was part of a community that was often struggling but was very much a community – for instance people rallying round and organising benefits for families where the dad had been injured or killed on a building site. My family was quite political, coming out of class experience but also the troubles in Ireland and so on.

I joined a trade union in the first job I had and the first strike I was involved in was when I was 19. I’ve been involved in the trade union movement much longer than the Labour Party, although I joined Labour when was I quite young as well. I’ve been a shop steward or workplace rep numerous times, in most of the jobs I’ve had. The theme of helping people fight for better terms and conditions was central to how my politics developed, coming both through my union experience but also the jobs I’ve had since my mid-20s, in the voluntary sector, with a focus on advising people about welfare benefits and also on migrants’ rights. I worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Child Poverty Action Group; I helped set up and now run Harrow Law Centre.

In the late 90s I found myself campaigning against much of what the Labour government was doing, in terms of benefits – the first thing Harriet Harman did was cut single parent benefit and replaced incapacity benefit with the dreaded employment support allowance.  We shouldn’t forget that in 2000 New Labour introduced possibly one of the worst piece of legislation in history attacking asylum-seekers, removing their access to housing and benefits and their ability to work. Before that most asylum-seekers lived in London and were pretty anonymous. The Blair Government pursued a policy of dispersal around the country, with the consequence that people ended up in poor working-class northern communities. It’s unbelievable really.

Lots of my colleagues, understandably, asked how can you be in this Labour Party; but because of my strong roots in unions I saw Labour as the only place it was possible to achieve real change. From about 2010 I got more involved and threw myself in. I stood as a councillor, again on the basis of fighting to change how things were done. Of course it was very difficult for a long time. I remember the years in Harrow when the Fabians seemed to be the most radical political force… Then Corbyn happened and suddenly it wasn’t so difficult!

What are your political ideas? What sort of society do you want to see?

We need more political education and discussion about how society can be different. I want to see a society where people have somewhere really decent to live and can easily put food on the table and access decent healthcare and families can afford to stay together. There’s nothing massively radical about that, of course, but it will require a struggle to achieve it. It will require shifting wealth and power, which is why public ownership is so important, and the kind of questions John McDonnell has raised about workers having more say in their workplaces, about cooperatives and so on.

We need to help more people become politically educated and confident to be active. Social media is useful but democracy can’t exist through just clicking a button. It has to be about people engaging in the real world. Really central to that is reviving strong trade union activism. The people I went to school with, their mums worked in factories, it was low paid work, but it was unionised. That’s very different from today, obviously; we have to get back to that.

What are the most important policies / issues you want to campaign on or see Labour campaign on more widely?

Ok, everyone says housing, but we can’t just say build more homes. We need more council housing, specifically, and abolition of the “right to buy”, which means the council stock is constantly depleted. We need to get rid of talk about “affordable rents”, which is just spin – in my work we constantly deal with housing associations that have been forced by the Tory Government to set so-called “affordable rents” rather than social rents and people are being evicted as a result. That links in with the cuts to benefits we’re seeing in various ways – people are being attacked from both sides. In Harrow we’ve got the second highest rate of evictions in London. We need to say that people need genuine security of tenure.

We need job security for people, with a ban on zero hours contracts, which are also a contributor to homelessness, because people may have work one week and then the next week have nothing. We need to abolish the academy system which means that Local Education Authorities don’t really exist; for sure in Harrow where every secondary school but one is an academy. There is no planning in education any more, we have to get a grip on that.

More generally you can have all the rights in the world but if people can’t enforce those rights it’s pointless. So I’d say first we need to reverse the devastating cuts to Legal Aid, which the Tories have accelerated but which were started under New Labour. And secondly it comes back again to the need for strong trade unions.

Ok, so: how should Labour relate to the unions and workers’ struggles?

There are lots of strikes and disputes spring up in unexpected places, the junior doctors for instance and now cleaners and others. Clearly we have to do everything we can to support them.

Having strong unions so people have access to support and advice and can take action when they need to is crucial. The anti-union laws are important. I’ve been involved in organising several strikes and supporting many more, and the bar you have to hit to take action is absurd. Workers and unions have to go through these onerous processes that no one else has to for any other decision. Union officials are always worried about what overstepping the bounds will mean for their unions’ funds. Once again, the reality is that these laws introduced by the Tories were kept in place by a Labour government, for thirteen years. Now we have an opportunity to repeal all of them.

Harrow is a traditionally Tory area; are you optimistic about Labour’s future here?

I don’t think it is traditionally Tory; even before 1997 parts of Harrow were Labour sometimes and since then Harrow West has been Labour for over two decades, now heavily so, and Harrow East was until 2010, so things are actually tipping our way. Now, in terms of making further progress, I think people in Harrow are crying out for the kind of policies Corbyn is offering.

Harrow was very hostile to the Iraq war, unsurprisingly given the diverse make up of our community, which is the most religiously diverse in London and near the top for the most ethnically diverse. But in terms of issues now, issues about the economic crisis and austerity, take the ward I represent, which is very mixed but has a lot of middle-class areas. So-called middle-class people are worried about their kids coming of university with £50,000 of debt and then not being able to find a decent job; you can have a degree but all you’ll find is work in a bar or shop. Those kids are worried because they very possibly can’t afford to live with or near their partner. Everyone is worried about the health service, and older people losing their homes to pay for social care. Then look beyond that to the majority of people in the borough: we have the worst level of low pay in the capital according to the research by Trust for London and the TUC. We have the second highest rate of evictions, and the lowest level of council housing.

The kind of policies we are offering mean that, minimally, people will be able to stay together in Harrow and not be sent off round the country because there is no housing for them here. It means kids will be able to get an education without struggling and racking up those huge debts.

I have friends and relatives who are traditionally non-political but are feeling inspired by Corbyn, his different way of doing politics but also saying something different.

All this is why the Tory majority in Harrow East fell so sharply at the last election. With a socialist message and a strong campaigning candidate it is extremely winnable. The Tories will attack the left, of course, but our response will be a positive campaign around the issues and around our vision.

You’re a councillor. What’s your view on the debate about Labour’s approach in local government?

I look at the case of Haringey, which seems like a good example of councillors not listening to their party or their community. The media presented it as the NEC over-riding councillors, but in reality it was a council leadership who had lost support from the party and all sections of the community and even many of their own councillors.

Labour councillors and councils need to be more ambitious. We need to make sure the party does what is needed and restores the lost funding to local authorities. I’ve said this many times – that’s something we need to demand very clearly and vocally.

There is a structural argument here too, which is that under Blair we moved to councils being run by cabinets. We need to go back to democratic committee systems, which mean power is spread among more councillors and there is more influence and democracy for party members and also for the wider community. Executive mayors are even worse than cabinets of course.

You were suspended from the party in 2016 and then reinstated. What were the issues there and how do you think things have developed since?

I was suspended due to a false and malicious allegation with no evidence of what I’d supposedly done.  I was reinstated within ten days and received widespread support, but the main thing I’d highlight is that I was one of thousands this happened to. It happened to me despite being a councillor; I was luckier than most in getting reinstated quickly. There is a well-established system for dealing with problems, but during the Corbyn leadership elections the party machine stepped outside it. Issues need to be raised locally, investigated by the CLP EC, and the members need to get a say. I’d point out that Labour introduced the Human Rights Act, which in Article 6 gives the right to a fair hearing, but we are not implementing that ourselves!

In terms of the political arguments, we keep being told Labour is a broad church – good, but if you mean it we need pluralism in which different ideas and organisations are welcome in the party and disagreements are dealt with by debate and discussion and not bans.

What’s your view on Brexit and free movement?

I predicted a decade ago that Britain would sleepwalk out of Europe because of the combination of anti-working class and anti-migrant policies we were pursuing. As well as attacking asylum-seekers, New Labour also attacked EU nationals, they blamed them for social problems and introduced restrictions on access to housing and benefits for EU nationals. It created a situation where Brexit-type politics flourished.

I supported Remain, but I don’t agree now with having another referendum. Unless we deal with the issues that pushed people to supporting Leave we are missing the point. In general I think the party is doing a good job on Brexit – we are treading a fine line. Within that though we need to defend freedom of movement.

Even if Remain had won, there are big issues with the EU: look at the shameful treatment of Greece, and to a certain extent Ireland.  I want to see a socialist Europe, so the links our leadership are building with other left forces across Europe are important.

There’s a feeling that MPs are a separate social layer, cut off the wider membership let alone the wider population. What do you think and what can we do to change that?

The way our MPs have related to the leadership, in particular the coup against Corbyn, hasn’t helped, with our supposed representatives going against the view of the great majority of the membership. I think things in the PLP are shifting and some good, popular politicians are starting to come through. Corbyn himself has shown that it is possible to connect with ordinary people.

There is also a question of who becomes an MP. We lost the trade union route, which produced politicians with a variety of life and workplace experiences. There has been a tendency to have upper middle-class people, in many cases the stereotype of PPE at Oxford and then a life in professional politics. We need more working-class candidates.

To repeat, Harrow has the worst level of low pay in London, the average is about £22,000, and I’ve always been concerned about the disparity between people’s livelihoods and those of people who represent them. When I set up Harrow Law Centre, we established pay parity – as the director I get the same salary as the administrative staff. That’s been a really popular and successful thing, despite some sceptics. There’s clearly an issue about the kind of lifestyles MPs enjoy too and I’d like to think more about what we can do about that.

How do we draw significant numbers of the young people inspired by Corbyn’s Labour into ongoing organisation and involvement?

We’ve made a start in Harrow, with two good youth officers and a Young Labour group set up. However I think we need to build on this and involve more young people and make sure we keep them.

There are loads of barriers to this. Just take a traditional fundraiser, which means paying £25 for a dinner with the MP. Lots of older people can’t afford that, let alone young workers. Then there’s the work situation of many young people, the economic situation they face and everything that goes with that.

Then there’s the problem of people in the party regarding young people as an extension of the post office, just a mechanism to deliver leaflets. If young people do speak up or express their view they can be treated in a distrustful way. Corbyn and our policies have inspired many young people but that can easily beg undermined if the party doesn’t operate in the right way.

Boring meetings are necessary, though we can make them less boring; and we need transparency and pro-active education about how to get involved in and use the structures. We should have a mix of different kinds of meetings and activity, to interest people and to be more accessible. Political education and opportunities for political discussion are really important. So are campaigns where people can see the possibilities for real change. If we can in McDonald’s and similar campaigns, you’ll see young people flocking into unions and hopefully into Labour Party activism too.

Lastly there’s the issue of expulsions and suspensions – many young people will have previously supported other parties, particularly the Greens, and there are good young activists who are involved in various socialist groups. These young people have to be welcomed, not treated with suspicion or excluded.

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

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