British left Labour MP Chris Williamson: 'We need a mass movement supporting us'

Labour MP for Derby North Chris Williamson with Jeremy Corbyn.

Ever since his unexpected rise to British Labour Party leader, veteran socialist MP Jeremy Corbyn has faced sustained attacks and smears from the media, Tories and the right-wing of his own party. But over the past month, the attacks have become an unprecedented avalanche.

The slanders have ranged from widely discredited Cold War-era slurs about Corbyn as a supposed Soviet spy, to allegations of “being a Putin stooge” for refusing to back Theresa May’s expulsion of Russian diplomats without waiting for real proof over the Skripal case, to sustained accusations of failing to tackle serious allegations of anti-Semitism within Labour Party ranks.

The campaign over anti-Semitism, probably the most successful, entered the realm of absurdity when the media and political opponents slammed Corbyn attending an event by a group of left-wing Jews for Passover. Having slammed Corbyn for not taking the concerns of Jewish people seriously enough, now he was attacked for meeting the “wrong” sort of Jews.

The accusations have largely fallen flat, thanks partly to the Labour leader’s history of fighting against social evils of racism and anti-Semitism and his principled stance on foreign affairs.

Nevertheless, it has further exposed the extent of fear and desperation among the minority Conservative government, the corporate media and the Labour Party right to see the back of Labour’s most left-wing leader in modern times.

Chris Williamson is the Labour Party MP for Derby North and the President of the Labour Friends of Progressive Latin America. A strong supporter of Corbyn’s project of transforming British society, he sat down with Green Left Weekly’s Denis Rogatyuk to discuss some of Labour’s important campaigns.

***

We have seen significant industrial actions in universities across the country in recent weeks. Do you think this is at least in part thanks to the support from Labour and the momentum that Corbyn’s leadership has generated?

We have had 40 years of attacks on terms and conditions of workers, which also permeated into the New Labour years, when Labour was in office from 1997 through to 2010. Going back to the early 1980s, when pension funds were doing very well, many employers took the decision to take what they called a “pension contribution holiday”. For about a decade they made no contribution at all.

However, now that the stock market has gone down, we are being told that workers have to pay the price. We have seen many workers, particularly in the private sector, lose their defined benefit pension schemes.

Attacks are now being waged against lecturers, and so they decided to take a stand. They are using industrial action to resist this change, and are supported in their actions by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Corbyn.

I do think workers have had enough and this action would’ve been taken irrespectively. But it is definitely helpful to have a Labour Party that recognises that it is part of the labour movement and it is great to have Labour politicians speaking on behalf of the workers in parliament.

McDonnell and others have mentioned several times they want to repeal the Trade Union Act and other anti-union laws. But do you feel that trade unions should also play a larger role in determining Labour’s economic policy?

What Corbyn has been talking about is democratising the party and having opportunities for the entire labour movement to contribute to policy.

It is certainly a significant policy commitment to scrap the anti-trade union legislation and McDonnell has made it clear that it will be a top priority. We’ve also talked about reintroducing collective bargaining, making it easier for people to join unions, banning zero-hour contracts and raising the minimum wage to 10 pounds an hour.

We are the sixth richest nation on Earth. After the post-war settlement put in by the 1945 Labour government, a bigger proportion of the national income each year went to workers’ wage packets each year until the late 1970s. Britain was a much more egalitarian country.

What we have seen since that period, with this obsession with neoliberalism, is that a bigger and bigger proportion of national income goes into unearned income through shareholder dividends. Ordinary working people are getting diminishing returns from the wealth of their nation. The wealth workers create is not actually finding its way into their pockets. It is finding its way into the bank balances of the super-rich.

Labour has pledged to abolish tuition fees and restore funding to universities. Do you also feel a future Labour government should redesign and replace the current neoliberal model of higher education?

That’s very much the direction of travel. Scrapping tuition fees is the first step.

We have talked about creating a National Education Service, a cradle-to-the-grave education service. We want to make it easier for people to come in and out of the higher education and view education as a good thing in its own right.

[Late British socialist politician] Tony Benn once talked about increasing the school-leaving age to 75 and then said he got complaints from a pensioner who graduated from an open university at 85. Benn revised his position to make it no upper-age limit.

That is the sort of philosophy that would drive a Labour government. We are investing in education to give people chance to get into the education system. This would liberate so many people who have been locked out of the opportunities education provides.

You have been one of the leading voices on the left and within Labour supporting left-wing and anti-imperialist governments and movements around Latin America. What kind of a foreign policy would you like to see for a Labour government?

We want foreign policy to be based on helping other nations develop — it has a benefit for them and it has a benefit for Britain. What would underpin our policy would be an ethical dimension. We had a brief attempt to introduce an ethical foreign policy when Labour came to power in 1997, led by Robin Cook. He was the first foreign secretary in that New Labour administration.

This brave attempt didn’t go as far as towards an ethical foreign policy that a Corbyn-led government would do, Robin resigned from the frontbench when Labour joined Bush’s war on Iraq.

Clearly we need to go further. It would be about making sure that we don’t sell weapons to despotic regimes like Saudi Arabia. It would mean putting a premium on promoting peace around the world, rather than conflict, as has been the case with the Foreign Office for far too long.

It seems there’s no despotic regime around the world this government isn’t prepared to do a deal with.

Honduras is yet another example where the government didn’t just sell arms to the regime, but also spyware to assist the regime in spying on the opposition elements. It has become the murder capital of environmental and progressive activists around the world, along with having the highest murder rate as a whole.

So that would be our aim and we would have a minister explicitly devoted to promoting peace. I look forward to the day when we are a force for good around the world, rather than conflict and war.

What kind of a future relationship do you see developing between a Corbyn-led government and the United States?

Labour has spoken out against Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and policy agenda and direction he is taking. However, we still see a possibility of a new kind of special relationship between the US and Britain with Bernie Sanders in the White House and Jeremy Corbyn at Number 10, should Sanders once again stand for the presidential candidacy in 2020.

There is an obvious real appetite for a genuine democratic socialist candidate in the US. I wouldn’t have believed you if said to me 20 years ago that a self-declared socialist would come as close as he did to becoming the Democratic presidential candidate. At the moment, he is the most popular politician in the United States.

It shows what a sea-change we have seen in the US and Britain. The eyes of the world are on Britain right now and on the Labour Party and what we have achieved under Corbyn.

When we win the next election, there’s going to be even more attention on what we do. Winning power would just be the first obstacle, as the power of establishment will try to deflect and knock us off course.

So it would be even more important to have a mass movement mobilised behind us to support the progressive reforms that Corbyn’s government will be pushing in government.

What do you think will be Corbyn’s policy towards the Kurdish struggle and the current conflict in Syria?

Before becoming the Labour leader, Corbyn was very outspoken in support of the Kurds. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is effectively a gangster committing war crimes. The atrocities being perpetrated [by Turkish forces] in Afrin [in Syria’s north] right now are horrendous.

It is getting very little coverage in the Western media and very little attention from the government. We are trying to raise its profile, but it is difficult as the government doesn’t seem to be interested.

When I challenged the foreign secretary on this issue, he refused to condemn the Turkish atrocities in Afrin. The Kurds have been at the vanguard of defeating ISIS. In the event of a Labour government, we would be push for Erdogan to be held to account for the crimes perpetrated in Afrîn.

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Reading Green Left online is free but producing it isn't ...

Green Left aims to make all content available online, without paywalls, but we depend on your support to survive.