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Friday, October 28, 2016

LICHFIELD INTERROGATES: Chris Williamson

Chris Williamson is a Labour party politician who held the Derby North seat between 2010-2015. He was leader of Derby City Council twice and has also been a social worker and welfare rights officer. A prominent vegan and animal rights activist, Chris is former vice chair of the Local Government Anti Poverty Forum and was on the front bench as a shadow minister for communities and local government between 2010-2013. On the left of the party, Chris was one of 16 signatories that signed an open letter to Ed Miliband asking for Labour to oppose further austerity measures. I spoke to Chris recently to talk about Corbyn, Momentum, the right of the Labour Party and the history of the movement. 



Do you think Jeremy Corbyn can win a general election and, if so, how can he win over the naysayers? 

I do believe he can win a general election. We do have to work hard together but we’ve never had such a big movement of motivated activists in my lifetime. We could have a million members by next year – when there’s such a big mass movement covering so many parts of the country it presents a big opportunity to get Labour’s message of hope across to the wider electorate. It won’t be easy thanks to media and establishment bias, but what Jeremy is aiming to do is create a new consensus. 

The post-war consensus lasted until 1979 before it was replaced by the neoliberal consensus and continued through the Blair years. We may have knocked the edges off but we largely bought into it. We invested in public services but we were more exposed than other parts of the world when the crash came. We should have regulated the banks and closed the tax havens whilst we were in power, ensuring that the nation’s wealth was redistributed to ordinary people. 

Jeremy’s economic policies resonate with ordinary people and we need to focus on that rather than the soap opera being perpetrated by certain Labour MPs and other veteran figures around the party. People talk about us losing five million voters between 1997 and 2010, but we actually lost three million of them between 1997 and 2001. Millions of people are making a conscious decision not to vote because nobody has been offering an alternative to neoliberalism. Jeremy’s policies about regulating private rented housing, building more council homes, abolishing tuition fees, reintroducing maintenance grants, investing in the economy to create jobs and renewable energy will have a positive effect into the private sector. 

We have a positive, hopeful message that I think will resonate with people. When you look at polls on some issues, Jeremy’s ideas are much more popular than the media acknowledge. Once we get everyone in the party singing from the same hymn sheet, there’s every reason to believe we can win people over. 




Are Corbyn’s opponents in and out of Labour taking him more seriously than they would like to admit? 

I think so. It has been said that certain people aren’t angry because he can’t win an election but are in fact concerned that he could. A very tiny percentage of the population that are determined to defend the status quo will do everything they can to undermine him, but it’s clear that the party is recruiting people at unprecedented rates in spite of the actions of certain figures inside Labour. We have done far better in all but one of the parliamentary by-elections than in we did in 2015 and have fared well in the local elections too, whilst gaining a number of Police and Crime Commissioners in areas that aren’t known for Labour support. 

Some of the duplicitous assaults Jeremy has received are amongst the worst I have ever seen in politics. Now we have social media, which isn’t a panacea, but is a very useful tool for challenging the mainstream media narrative and gives people an alternative to the lies perpetrated in the media.  Jeremy wants to implement Leveson, which obviously means he’s going to attract the ire of the Murdoch regime and others. 



Did you expect the coup to be successful?

At first, I was not totally confident that we would prevail due to the orchestrated resignations and the attempt to keep Jeremy off the ballot paper. However, when I met him on the eve of the no-confidence vote he looked incredibly relaxed so I then stopped worrying that he would buckle under the pressure. It actually seemed to have a more negative effect on the people around him. Once the National Executive Committee vote went through I was confident we would have the support and thought we could actually increase Jeremy’s mandate, which we did, despite the attempts at gerrymandering and the purge which took place to root out his supporters. Had the members denied their right to vote had their say, Jeremy’s mandate would have been even bigger, perhaps as much as 70-80%. 

Will they attempt another coup? 

I think it’s unlikely now – they have thrown everything at this, yet Jeremy has enhanced his mandate. I think there is now a begrudging acceptance amongst enough of the PLP to make it less likely. They know that they will probably lose again. They also know they will be held responsible if we fail at the general election, because people do not vote for disunited parties. 




Do you think Theresa May has the potential to be an even worse PM than Cameron?

Very much so, particularly because she is seen as a more credible and more serious figure. She seems more sincere than Cameron, which is dangerous because her policy agenda is so concerning. On one hand she is playing on people’s fears and aping UKIP, but on the other hand she is talking about wealth redistribution, probably because of Jeremy’s influence on the agenda. The rhetoric is fine, but how will it play out in reality? I do think we will see backtracking in some areas such as welfare reform as we managed to force them back in those issues even when Cameron was the leader. 

I do think Jeremy has shifted the political narrative, and I don’t think we would be in the same place if he had lost. He has forced the Tories to talk on our terms, which is beneficial for the party and makes it easier to get our ideas across. It’s reminiscent of when we were aping the Tories. I think at the last election, our stance on immigration and commitment to austerity-lite didn’t go down well at all with the progressively-minded voters. We deterred the progressively-minded yet didn’t win back Tory or UKIP voters. Many of my left-wing constituents in Derby North told me it was “safe” to vote for the likes of the Greens because they thought Labour would win Derby North by a landslide, when in fact we lost by just 41 votes there. We will need progressively-minded candidates in seats like Derby North in 2020. 




How can Labour win back those sceptical about immigration? 

We clearly can’t out-UKIP UKIP, yet we were seeking to win the argument on their terms in 2015. I think part of the problem is that we have ceded ground on the immigration issue over the years and haven’t emphasised the benefits of immigration enough. Furthermore, we haven’t tackled the issue of wages being undercut by migrant labour. We need to focus on things like offering a higher minimum wage and investing in the inspection regime to ensure it is properly enforced. There have only been a handful of prosecutions for employers paying less than the minimum wage. 

We also need to invest in the economy to create more secure, better-paid jobs and ensure there are sufficient houses to go around. We also need to dispel the myth that the housing crisis is being caused by immigration and build more genuinely affordable social housing, whilst regulating private sector rents. Most people have more in common with migrants than the people who are ruthlessly exploiting migrant workers. I think if we can create better jobs and invest in housing, concerns about immigration can be softened. 

Do you think Labour really have significant problems with anti-Semitism or is this merely a convenient stick to beat Corbyn with? 

I think it is a very convenient stick. I have been a member of the party for decades and can honestly tell you, hand on heart, that I have never come across any examples of anti-Semitism or racism. Some figures have also claimed that the party isn’t a safe place for women, which is also absurd. It feels like we are living in Orwellian times, with a party that’s renowned for its positive stance on equality being portrayed as a sexist, racist and anti-Semitic organisation, when in reality those charges would be a more appropriately levelled at our opponents. 

I know that many Jewish Labour members have been appalled at the way that the party has been portrayed as something it absolutely isn’t, for political motives. Very prominent members of the Jewish community in and out of the party have condemned these tactics – it is utterly disgraceful to accuse someone like Corbyn of not caring about these issues. He has made it clear that we will not tolerate racism, anti-Semitism or misogyny. These accusations are the politics of the gutter. 




Did you expect the UK to vote for Brexit? Should the working-class be concerned about the outcome? 

I did not think the vote would go the way it did, though I expected it would be close. I think Jeremy’s argument was the right one, but it was drowned out by the debate between big players in the Tory party. I think a Tory Brexit has the potential to be problematic in terms of things like workers’ rights being diminished, but a Labour government would have more room to maneuverer when it comes to state intervention. Jeremy thought the EU did need reform and it is often seen as a capitalists’ club. Leaving the EU is another reason why the PLP needs to unite behind the leader. A Tory Brexit could have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable people in society. 

Under Labour, we would have extra room to bring about a new consensus and pursue a whole new direction, unlike many times in the past when incoming governments have pursued similar aims to their predecessors. The Tories didn’t fundamentally disturb the post-war settlement when they came into power in the fifties – they actually vied to build more council houses than Labour. Once Blair came in, we continued in much the same direction as Thatcher and Major, allowing privatisation and neoliberalism to carry on. 

What made you opt for a life in politics? 

I joined the Labour party forty years ago after being inspired by the history of the movement and how it had championed the underdog and brought about fundamental change. I wanted to be a part of that and saw it as an exciting proposition. I was an apprentice bricklayer when I joined and was recruited by Philip Whitehead, who held Derby North from 1970 to 1983. After around 15 years I was elected to Derby Council before becoming leader, and I became MP for Derby North in 2010. I have also been involved with animal rights organisations like the Hunt Saboteurs’ Association and the League Against Cruel Sports.

I always thought the Labour party had always been a driving force for progressive change, with most of the positive political changes in the country like equal pay, the NHS, clamping down on race discrimination, the Minimum Wage and the Open University having come from the party. I think we could have achieved a lot more between 1997-2010 but we still did many positive things. I think a Corbyn government could be even more progressive than the Atlee era. 

Also, I would certainly consider contending the Derby North seat again. It does feel like unfinished business, and I do relish the prospect of being part of a Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. 

What have you been involved in since May 2015?

I have helped to establish Momentum locally and have sought to engage people in political discussion in community meetings. I have toured the country during both of Corbyn’s leadership campaigns and have helped to set up an advice service out of my former constituency office to provide local people with support. Additionally, I have provided support to Easington MP Grahame Morris. I have enjoyed all the background work, but there’s no substitute for being out there on the frontline as an MP. Being able to intervene when people are being treated unfairly is hugely rewarding. 

The demonisation of Momentum is all nonsense – it was inevitable that it would be met with hostile media coverage, but the truth is that the movement is all about motivated people coming together to build on what Corbyn has already achieved. It has motivated previously disengaged voters, and even sceptics have admitted that the criticism it’s faced isn’t valid, especially after The World Transformed conference. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t a small number of people saying inappropriate things under the Momentum banner, but that takes nothing away from the good work being undertaken by the movement. 

Momentum has kept existing members enthusiastic who may have otherwise walked away and given them the opportunity to meet like-minded people, and helped us to retain new members who haven’t been welcomed with open arms by their CLP in some areas. It has been an excellent force for good. 




Can I get your thoughts on the recent reshuffle? What do you think about Blair’s rumoured return to frontline politics?

I am very pleased with the outcome – I am pleased that Jeremy has held faith with those who stepped up to the plate during the orchestrated resignations. People like Clive Lewis, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner (who has been a revelation) and Richard Burgon have done an excellent job. The cabinet now reflects the country and the membership much more convincingly. I think people now see voices that are like their own and people that are like them, which should enhance our credibility and convince more to join. 

I think the appointment of Nick Brown as chief whip is a good one – he has the experience and is great at managing personnel. 

As for Blair’s comeback, it would be disastrous. He is a toxic figure. He would have had a much better legacy had he quit in 2001, but his actions after that will define him. A comeback would be a non-starter. I doubt any CLP would select him. The NEC balance of power is now with Jeremy, and I don’t think he would put himself through it anyway. Perhaps he could set up some sort of alternative party – but we all remember what happened with the SDP band of traitors, who essentially handed a landslide victory to the Tories. 

What would you say to someone who is considering joining the party but is cautious due to the malcontents? 

No organisation is perfect, but it’s better to be inside the tent trying to achieve a more progressive vision than outside of it. I have been dreaming about the kind of progressive Labour leadership we now have all my life. In fact, there is now no need for anyone to vote for a leftist alternative like the Greens. There are millions of non-voters to engage and even a bulk of UKIP voters. It’s important that we don’t underestimate Jeremy’s appeal to the young too – his age is irrelevant. Like Bernie Sanders and Tony Benn, he has incredible appeal to neglected young people. 

One of our biggest problems over the years has been getting young people engaged, on the register and out voting. We need to take inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement when they were on a huge registration drive. Look at the phenomenal turnout in the Scottish referendum vote – when people feel engaged and the message is strong enough, they will go out and vote. There are also international examples like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, where there was massive investment from the oil revenues in housing, healthcare and a high minimum wage – poorer people turned out in droves. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of people who haven’t heard the message. 

What do you think about the Michael Foot comparisons? 

I don’t actually buy that bollocks anyway. In the early 1980s, when Foot became the leader after the SDP, we hit 50% on the opinion polls, won back the GLC and various councils. The thing that actually undid us wasn’t the supposed “longest suicide note in history”. There were two main obstacles, the Falklands Factor and the SDP splitting the centre-left vote – and the Tory vote actually went down from 1979. At that time, we didn’t have an alternative way of communicating with people. The assault on Tony Benn was as relentless as what Corbyn has faced, but we had no real efficient way of getting our message out. We can now correct mainstream media nonsense immediately. However, Foot’s leadership was not the total disaster it was portrayed as. 

Neil Kinnock famously attacked Militant, which was a tiny and much more hardline movement compared to Momentum and he moved the party further away from the left, yet it did us no good and he lost us two elections. He was also responsible for Tony Benn not becoming the deputy leader in 1981 due to the electoral college system and the abstentions he led. The 1983 boundary changes saw Tony Benn’s seat being carved up before he won a by-election in 1984 after Kinnock took charge. I believe if Benn had become the deputy leader, he would have gone onto lead the party and the course of history could have been very different. In 1981, when Tony marginally lost the election, we actually saw Kinnock looking dishevelled, offering someone out for a fight whilst Tony remained characteristically dignified.

Speaking of Tony Benn, what are your thoughts on his son? 

The Syria speech and over-the-top applause were clearly all about humiliating Jeremy. I actually worked for Hilary when I was on the front bench. He was a very cautious guy – personable and friendly enough, but his politics were very different to mine and his dad’s. He shares a lot of the same mannerisms, but there’s a suggestion that he didn’t want to be defined by his father. I think Tony Benn would have been delighted to see Jeremy elected. 

It often seems like the malcontents are trying to stamp out progressive left-wing politics from the mainstream, effectively leaving us with a one-party state. 

People like myself and others put up with Blair for so many years – I was never happy with him from day one but I accepted his mandate, saying we still would do what we could realistically do within the confines of what was laid down. However, what this lot have been doing is simply unbelievable, inexcusable and unacceptable. They are refusing to even give Corbyn a chance – couldn’t they give him three years to prove himself? They have been attempting to sabotage his leadership since day one – and even before. 

Figures like Simon Danczuk? It’s hard to believe he’s a real person at times. 

He’s a caricature. I actually know him. He actually invited me to his wedding. After I was sacked from the front bench, we sat on the Communities and Local Government Committee together. He did some good work on that and the Cyril Smith investigation, but when it all started to go to his head and his profile became bigger, he seemed to change. His behaviour regarding Jeremy has been completely unacceptable – I tried to convince him to accept Jeremy’s mandate but it fell on deaf ears. I think he was fit for parliament at one point but this is no longer the case. The media have used him and spat him out. His earnings from media work were actually the highest in parliament at one point, when he was writing for our political enemies like the Daily Mail and The Sun. He is actually from a working-class background too, which makes his stance a real shame. 




Surely not all 172 MPs were aggressively anti-Corbyn. Do you think a fraction may have been coerced or manipulated by more powerful figures? 

Absolutely. However, when I was in there, there were quite a few professional careerists. For instance, the former chief whip asked me what my career plan was when I was a new MP. I told her I didn’t have one and she seemed taken aback, telling me all of my colleagues had key milestones. I said I was never going to turn a front bench position down but I was mainly focused on doing my job and representing people. 

When Liam Byrne urged us to back the benefit cap, I made an impassioned plea that we shouldn’t be attacking the victims of Tory policies. We of course should have done more to tackle high rents when we were in government, but this issue had been high on my own agenda for years. I soon started to wonder to myself why nobody else had spoken out, even though they had congratulated me in private. It quickly dawned on me that vast numbers of MPs were worried about not blotting their copy book in case it hindered their career progression. I think the majority of the PLP incorrectly calculated that nobody would be able to withstand the pressure Jeremy was under. 

I expect a lot of the MPs thought that if they didn’t resign, their future standing and career chances would be seriously affected and they would be confined to the back benches forevermore. As soon as it became clear that Corbyn wasn’t going anywhere, I suspect a lot of them panicked. 

I was surprised to see figures like Lisa Nandy and Louise Haigh joining the attempted coup.


Yes, I was hugely disappointed in Lisa Nandy. She has been on the receiving end of some disgusting abuse on social media, but I don’t believe that it is coming from genuine Corbyn supporters? Plus, in any case, the perpetrators are a small minority. I did get on with Lisa really well, she’s very strong-willed and was excellent under Ed Miliband. I do get a lot of abuse on social media myself, as do most people in politics, but I pay no attention and just block those responsible if necessary. 





Do some right-leaning Labour MPs invite abuse by being deliberately provocative? 

Certainly, there a handful of absolutely awful individuals who have made various nasty below-the-belt attacks on me and others. They have talked about me “throwing away my seat” and gloated about me not winning the NCC nomination. In fact, delegates were offered free drinks for voting against me – they were well-organised in getting their delegates in early, but I’m not sure the delegates that were there truly reflected the membership – this is another reason why the left of the party do need to become more organised. The bureaucratic side of politics does put a lot of people off, but it is entirely necessary. I do think it’s best that people refrain from sending vitriolic comments in response to deliberately antagonistic posts. 

The outbursts by some against Corbyn in the House of Commons have been disgraceful. I had a run-in with one of them when I was on the front bench and speaking out against the benefit cap – he unleashed a torrent of foul language, accused me of “grandstanding” and asked me who I thought I was – before long, he was joined by another prominent MP and she joined in with him.  The disruption of PLP meetings by some of these characters, since Jeremy was elected leader, is totally unacceptable. 

I would be delighted if these saboteurs were deselected – there has to be some sort of limit as to what is accepted. The boundary changes may help resolve things, but certain individuals have no business representing the Labour party. We do need more people in the Labour party that share Jeremy’s vision, as the malcontents will use every trick in the book to try and derail it – it becomes harder and harder for them to achieve that with a strong progressive membership. 

How do you relax away from politics?

Politics takes up most of my life – I am now getting to a time in my life when I am experiencing more ailments despite being a lifelong vegan. We do like walking and cycling, and I do like reading and watching sport. Politics has been all-consuming – even on a recent holiday in the Cornwall where support for Labour is swelling I ended up speaking for the party at an event. Even when I am relaxing, I keep a close eye on the political scene. 

Cheers, Chris!

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