“This crisis has made inequalities glaring”

Katrina Faccenda is a Labour Party activist in Edinburgh and Labour candidate for the Scottish parliamentary seat of Edinburgh Northern and Leith.

This crisis has starkly highlighted all sorts of inequalities that we as socialists already talked about but are now really glaring. Vulnerable people are now much more vulnerable – people in poverty, women, BAME communities. It’s an indicator not so much of how awful the pandemic is, as how dysfunctional our society was even before.

At the same time, we’ve seen the power trade unions can have when they actually put their mind to it, winning victories and concessions, including through direct action which simply ignores the law. My partner’s a bus driver and even though they’re employed by an arms length company linked to the council, there were no clear instructions on safe working. Unite members exerted pressure and now they’re working in fairly safe conditions.

From an international perspective, all this has exposed the absurdity of migration controls. Britain’s a country with people from all over the world working here, and they have the right to. Anyone talking about managed migration is coming from a very weak argument, particularly if they’re part of the labour movement. We need to make these arguments, and also use this moment to engage people with what’s happening in other countries. The virus is international and the solutions must be international. When we get a vaccine, it has to be fairly shared around the world, because that’s right and because otherwise none of us will be safe.

So there’s space to make and win socialist arguments. The danger is that nationalists are pushing in a different direction – right-wing nationalists, obviously, but the SNP have also flirted with using the crisis for anti-English agitation. They tried to claim PPE had been diverted to England, which was proved to be untrue, but it fitted the logic of their approach.

Here in Edinburgh we’ve had attacks on the Chinese community. Meanwhile family back in Italy have talked about the anti-EU feeling growing there because people feel abandoned.

What policies should the labour movement be advocating?

Number one is public ownership. The only way to sort out the mess with procuring and providing PPE is in a coordinated, planned manner, which means requisitioning. The government is putting lots of money here and there, but that’s different from public planning. I’m not generally enthusiastic about top-heavy nationalisation but some of that is necessary, particularly in an emergency like this. It can be combined with input from workers.

We need to be raising the question of jobs. My full-time job is in tourism. Obviously that’s all suspended and I don’t think a lot of it will come back. In a way that’s no bad thing, as an industry it was absurdly bloated on the basis of lots of people working in very poor conditions. The same in hospitality, which is linked. We need to demand decent jobs for everyone, not a mass of low-paid, precarious jobs. We’ll have to create useful jobs where they’re needed. Part of that is thinking about the Green Industrial Revolution and more broadly what skills do people have and how can they be put to use?

The Scottish government set up a framework a few years ago for “fair work”. It was all pitched as a contract between workers and employers with rights and obligations for both. Of course it avoided controversial questions like the anti-trade union laws. The Scottish government doesn’t have control over those issues, at the moment, but there’s nothing to stop them making the arguments. The whole thing was based on being treated “fairly” with very basic minimum conditions, rather than people being organised empowered and organised to improve their situation. The SNP used a claim about EU rules to justify refusing even to include requirements about a living wage in procurement procedures.

Businesses exist to make a profit, not serve the interests of workers. That brings us back to the need for stronger, more aggressive trade unions, but also Scottish Labour taking a lead on these questions with clear demands. In this crisis it’s urgent.

What other issues are you facing in Scotland specifically?

The Scottish government has largely gone along with the UK government’s strategy, with criticisms it is true but also a very good line in presenting themselves as oppositional. Nicola Sturgeon is very good at judging such things and presenting the Scottish government and the SNP in a particular way to the people of Scotland. They now seem to be considering a bit of a shift away from the UK approach and we could see nationalist agitation develop there.

Going forward next year, they’re going to face a challenge cranking up the campaign for independence when people are bothered about the fall out from Covid-19 and the price of oil, which is central to their argument, has bottomed out. So they’ll be considering that carefully.

The Tories are the official opposition here and they make a show of challenging the SNP in an opportunistic way, similar to how the the SNP challenges the UK Tory government. The Scottish Tories lost a lot of votes in the general election; as well as people entrenched in the nationalist or unionist camp, there do seem to be voters who swing back and forth between them and the SNP.

The big challenge on the left is making progress in the Labour Party, where things are not good. Losing the deputy leadership election was a big blow. The reality is that the party in Scotland is still a bit of a rump. Largely it has not had the surge of members you’ve had in the rest of the UK and that is reflected in its political character. When UK Labour was moving away from Blairism, and not that long before the rise of Corbyn, we elected [ultra-Blairite] Jim Murphy and by a big majority. Yes we got Richard Leonard as leader, but the party has changed much less even than elsewhere.

A lot of the same people as always are in charge. They’re very conservative, extremely unionist in a quite right-wing way and issues such as nepotism are also rife. That layer is strengthened by the fact that Ian Murray is now our shadow secretary of state.

Right now it’s hard to persuade people to stay – a lot of older lefties in particularly are going – let alone join. Matt Kerr [prominent left councillor in Glasgow who stood for Parliament and then for the deputy leadership] has done a good job of involving younger left activists; he had a lot of them campaigning for him for deputy. There’s some very good younger activists, although some are influenced by nationalism and I’m also concerned about the trend of people getting jobs as full-time unelected union officials. In any case, the numbers we’re talking about are pretty small.

I don’t know where the right are going to want to go, whether for instance they’ll stick to their extreme unionism. In terms of taking the left forward, all this is why I decided at the age of 53 to stand to be a candidate, something I would never have done before. We need people with socialist politics and perhaps even more importantly from outside the pool of councillors, people who’ve spent their life working for MSPs and MPs and all that. It’s about changing the culture as well as the politics.

For holding the left together and making progress, we have to give people other struggles to be involved. Of course there’s an internal battle but it has to be linked to class struggle. We also have to consider what it means to be on the left. There has to be some way of cooperating in struggle as well as debate between those with different views on independence.

What’s your position on independence?

I’m in favour of people’s right to have a second referendum from the viewpoint of democracy. John McDonnell was right about that. I don’t agree with comrades on the left who think it’s something we should actively champion or push for. If there is a referendum I will absolutely vote against independence – it would be a defeat for the working class and for internationalist politics.

What’s your analysis of where Labour is at UK-wide?

Until we have an honest look at why Starmer got elected and RLB didn’t, I don’t think we’re going to move forward. There isn’t much of that reflection going on. It’s important, particularly for the discussion around Momentum. It doesn’t have to be navel-gazing.

I voted for RLB, but I had to think about it. When she talked about things like progressive patriotism obviously there was a huge issue there. I can understand why a lot of people voted for Starmer because he seemed like a change.

There’s different elements to that – partly he’s a typical male politician, he “looks like a prime minister” and all that nonsense. That is how we end up with the kind of political class I described above. But in addition a lot of people were dissatisfied with the culture around the old leadership, the people running Corbyn’s office, and wanted a break from that. Ironically the new people will be just as bad in a different way, and some of them will be the very same people, making the transition to the new regime. That’s the culture of the Labour Party, people wanting jobs.

I’ve got Starmer’s policy pledges printed out, and we need to fight in the party for those to be stuck to. That raises the question of who decides the policy, of Labour conference, and democracy more generally.

In Scotland we’ve got a big issue around the Holyrood election – about who’ll decide the manifesto. It might be delayed, but in theory the election is in May next year. In years before an election we normally have Scottish conference in the autumn, to at least in theory decide or shape the manifesto, but I very much doubt we’ll have a physical conference. We need to insist on at least a virtual conference so the manifesto is not decided behind the scenes by a small number of people.

Local Labour Parties should start meeting for discussions, where they haven’t, and at some point we’re going to have to challenge the business about not being allowed to take decisions.

What’s your position on Brexit, and immediately campaigning for an extension?

I’ve spent most of my life working in Europe, I’ve got family in Europe, my partner’s a European migrant. Freedom of movement is very personal for me, and in any case, I’m an internationalist. The Tories’ Brexit project is completely counterposed to that and we need to find ways to continue to oppose it. In terms of calling for an extension, my instinct was to avoid it, but on reflection it’s necessary if we’re going to meaningfully oppose what the Tories want. It probably needs to be presented as a matter of basic good sense – we cannot have massive economic chaos foisted on us in the midst of the existing crisis.

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