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‘The Labour Party is its members’ – Chris Williamson MP interview

Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left

July 13, 2017
10 min read

Chris Williamson when he first won his seat, in 2010. He lost in 2015 and won in 2017. Photo: John Whitby

You return to parliament after 2 years of terrible division within the Labour Party. Has this summer’s election healed those wounds?

People get confused about what the Labour Party is. To me, it’s the membership and the wider trade union labour movement, not the Westminster bubble who, if you think about it, are a tiny percentage of the overall party.

Of course, that bubble is influential and I accept it’s had an impact in terms of the way the media has portrayed the Labour Party, but while I acknowledge that the Westminster bubble is a part of it, it’s not the Labour Party. The Labour Party is its members and in the 41 years I’ve been a member, I’ve never known it to be more united.

I think we’ve needed to rediscover the spirit of 1945, that Nye Bevan zeal to use an interventionist state to create a good society. That’s what we’re doing under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the agenda he represents has touched people. It’s reached people.

The only thing I can think of that was remotely similar was 1945 and what my dad told me about when the troops came back after the war.

The younger generation in 1945 changed the course of that election and changed the course of history. They said we’re not going back to the means-testing indignity of mass unemployment and poor quality housing and being fearful of falling ill or getting injured at work because you couldn’t afford a doctor.

That’s why it was so fantastic and inspiring and brilliant to see young people turning out for this election in the numbers that they’ve done.

‘Ultimately if MPs don’t embrace the democratic decision of the membership, the membership will replace them’

For many young people now the only opportunities for work are in call centres, zero hour contracts, part-time work, insecurity. A lot of contemporary workplaces are not unionised and when people try and get the union involved they’ve been booted. It’s a difficult environment for young people.

We came out talking about getting rid of tuition fees, creating decent jobs for people, tackling the housing crisis. Things that are really relevant to young people. That’s why you see, like in Glastonbury, quarter of a million people chanting Jeremy Corbyn’s name.

Austerity government in Britain is now 7 years old. What’s the greatest priority turning things around?

Is it £27 billion, the housing benefit bill? We’ve got this perverse situation now where we’re spending huge amounts of money just to subsidise our rents and we’ve got a massive housing crisis, people sleeping in shop doorways all over the country.

£10 billion of that goes to private landlords, most to social housing, but a lot is effectively being used to service loans from banks which helps to generate bankers’ bonuses. It’s a scandal.

If the government was to spend that money building houses, we’d actually resolve the housing crisis. You can build council houses effectively for nothing because the rental stream services the loan shark.

We could effectively raise money now for half a percent interest and that’s easily sustained through council house rents.

It’s a win-win-win situation. You build the houses. You tackle a social need. You actually generate loads of decent jobs as well because the building trade – I used to work as a bricklayer in the 70s – is a very labour-intensive industry.

It’s also beneficial in terms of the supply chain because according to the products association, last time I looked, 84 per cent of materials used on a building site are procured inside the United Kingdom. So you’re generating jobs both directly in the construction industry but also in the supply chain as well.

You’re generating, also, economic growth as a consequence of that, putting money into people’s pockets. Then they can spend that in the real economy.

It’s generating tax revenues which can then be used for investing in more council houses say, or supporting our national health service. And you can do it, as far as council houses are concerned, for nothing.

It’s just plain common sense.

What’s your position on Brexit and specifically, on the issue of freedom of movement?

I campaigned vigorously for Remain and I was very much on the same page as Jeremy on that. It was a remain and reform agenda because clearly there’s a lot of problems with the EU.

But at the end of the day, people have voted and we’ve got to go along with that. The question now is what kind of Brexit do we negotiate. That was very much our line in the parliamentary campaign in Derby North.

We asked, do you want a people’s Brexit or a bankers’ Brexit? Do you want a system where you’ve got a government that will work for people, hold the corporations to account, intervene, take certain key industries into public ownership?

In terms of freedom of movement, what we’ve said is that freedom of movement comes to an end when we come out of the European Union. But that’s not to say there’s going to be no immigration or anything like that. We’re still going to have an immigration policy but it will be based on the needs of the economy and it will also have to have an element of compassion within it, family ties and things like this.

It comes down to being honest with people and talking straight. Stand up for what you believe in. The capitalists, the neoliberals, want to use immigration to exploit people, to drive down terms and conditions.

If we say look, we’re going to protect terms and conditions, we’re going to make sure that people have got the houses they need and got the public services they need and the education and all those other things that are contained in our manifesto, frankly, I think immigration falls down the list of issues.

Moving forward, if the Labour Party is to win votes from UKIP and the Tories and win the 60 seats needed to get a majority in parliament, don’t we need to engage a strategy other than winning from the left?

I don’t think so, no. If you trim and start going down the road of triangulating and trying to be all things to all people in order to win over some Tories, what you’re gonna end up doing is piss off and effectively disenfranchise a lot of people who have been inspired and got involved for the first time in many years and given the political process a chance. You’ll just lose them at the other end.

We are never going to win an argument, nor should we even try to win the argument, by trying to out-UKIP UKIP or out-Tory the Tories.

Many UKIP voters did vote Labour this time around. The manifesto gave us a hearing with a lot of those people and whenever I spoke to people, especially on issues like immigration, I would always say to them that you’ve actually got more in common with migrants than you have with people at the top of society who are the real cause of the problems you’re concerned about.

We did a very strong campaign on taking back control. We targeted UKIP supporters, publishing stuff online that said if you genuinely want to take back control of the country, the only way is to vote Labour. Because it’s only Labour who want to nationalise the rail, take back the utilities and stop the corporations from exploiting workers.

Your 2,000-vote majority in Derby North was supported by the Green Party standing down. Are you a fan of the idea of a progressive alliance?

A progressive alliance would be very helpful and yes, I do think we should be moving in that direction.

There’s seats like the Isle of Wight for example, where you know it could be a miracle for us to ever win. So in places like that, I wouldn’t be averse to Labour stepping aside for the Greens.

I’m not sure about the Lib Dems. People who vote Liberal are potentially progressive but the Liberal party is not really progressive.

In terms of the Greens, however, though I do think Labour would have won Derby North even if they had stood, of course it was incredibly helpful that they stepped aside and I think we should acknowledge that.

In the fullness of time, if we had a system of proportional representation that facilitated Greens coming in and being elected I could see us very easily having some sort of arrangement in government where there’s a Green-Red vs Tory coalition. I mean, I was described as the greenest MP elected in 2010. I support a lot of the Green agenda.

Does that mean you’re also a fan of the electoral reform agenda?

You know, I was always opposed to it, but when I saw what happened to Jeremy and the project that he represented when he won the leadership election in the first place, the complete refusal of people on the right of the party to accept the democratic will changed my mind.

I mean the irony of ironies was that it was a lot of them that were actually arguing for that one-member-one-vote system in the first place. They didn’t like the democratic decision so they kicked off. It was that event that made me recognise that there’s no future for the first-past-the-post system if we really want to embed a progressive direction for the country.

So I think we do need to embrace electoral reform now. It remains to be seen how things develop after this election, but up until the election, signs have been that the ‘broad church’ of the party is no longer fit for purpose.

That Brexit moment, when the Tories were in complete disarray, running round like headless chickens, was an opportunity to drive home our advantage. We had had quite a decent result in the local elections – yes we needed to do better, but we had achieved the same number of returns in terms of councillors as Ed Miliband’s high water mark, and when you took into account the mayoralties – Bristol won by a landslide, London won by a landslide – it was a great base from which to build.

What did they do? They created mayhem. I mean if Lynton Crosby had planned it, he couldn’t have planned it any better. It was as if they were acting as saboteurs. It was an absolute outrage what they did. They let the Tories completely off the hook.

It led to all that infighting again and all the difficulties that we had. As we know, Jeremy prevailed, with an even bigger mandate, but still the sniping continued. It’s just unacceptable. That’s why for me, the broad church is not really fit for purpose in the way it once was.

But ultimately if MPs don’t embrace the democratic decision of the membership, the membership will replace them. They’ll go. That won’t even require the introduction of mandatory reselection. They’ll go because people will invoke the trigger ballot – you can already do that right now. People will no longer tolerate this disrespect of the democratic will.

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