Interview was conducted on December 10, 2021
Why has Labour seemingly struggled, at present, in-by-elections?
Well I think that things may change and the opinion polls have changed recently in Labour’s favor. Today, for example there’s an opinion poll that’s coming out showing, I think, shows us, at nine points ahead in the polls, or thereabouts, or rather actually, to correct myself, seven points ahead is’t it? I think an opinion poll today shows the Tories on 33 and Labour on obviously, the by-elections are all so far, taken place before the government became embroiled in the kind of second jobs scandal and before it came out the government was really betrayed the trust of the people in relation to these parties at Downing Street, and it being one rule for them and another rule for everyone else, I think that changed the picture somewhat.
You ask why Labour hasn’t done better in recent by-elections, obviously there are a number of reasons for that, but what I would say is that by-elections are different to a general election. So in a by-election, people generally aren’t thinking about who they want to form the next government because that’s not what it is that is at stake, that day. And so it’s not so easy to extrapolate from by-election results to a general election result. I also think we’ve seen some tactical voting for example in favor of the Liberal Democrats in the recent by-elections, the Liberal Democrats win that by-election, unexpectedly it seemed really that anybody who didn’t want the Tories in, even if they were naturally Labour voters decided to back the Lib Dems in order to get the Tories out.
So, I think that also, as the Secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, which is the organized Left grouping within the Parliamentary Labour Party, obviously I have analysis that, since Keir became elected as Leader, I think he could have been more robust at taking the fight to the Conservatives and laying out a practical programme of policies, for specific policies, to defend and lift living and standards. And I think that that would have helped us, in those by-elections perform better, that’s my perspective. It’s a perspective that people won’t be surprised I have
Well, coming to talk about that, looking at the the history of by-elections within Labour, since Jeremy Corbyn took over, they only increased in vote share in three by-elections, and from 2017 to 2019, the four that they stood in, saw double-digit reductions in in vote share. Is it more than just about robustness and policies or is it more systemic within the institution of Labour?
Well, I think it’s difficult to compare by-elections to general election results, and obviously you’re talking about by-elections under Keir. Each by-election is different, there are y’know, circumstances in each by-election which make them hard to compare, it’s not always comparing like with, like, and the other thing about by-elections of course is that the turnout is generally much much lower than it is, in a general election. Obviously I always want to see Labour do well in by-elections and the fact we haven’t done better, you know, concerns me. But the thing that I’m most focussed on is Labour winning the next General Election and I don’t think that by-elections are necessarily the best predictor of a general election across the board. However, if we look at the Hartlepool by-election, for example, you know that was clearly disastrous result for Labour in that has always been Labour, and so the outcome tells its own story that was deeply concerning. Similarly in Batley and Spen, in that by-election Labour only just won the seat and I do think that if Kim Leadbeater – a local, well rooted candidate who as well as having her own strengths also has a great resonance being the the sister of of the much missed Jo Cox – hadn’t have been the candidate I don’t think Labour would have won, and that’s a seat that we should have been winning in a by-election, you know, regardless of who the Labour candidate was, so that gave cause for concern as well.
In three years time will be 2024, which will be the 40th anniversary of the last time a Labour Prime Minister won an election that wasn’t Blair. So is it a case that what you need to do is you need is to go back to Blairism as that’s seemingly the only route in 40 years for Labour to get into government?
One of the things that the architects of New Labour always used to say, they used to say that you had to modernize, and I agree with that, you have to modernize. What that means is that when we’re looking at how to win with the next general election, we can’t be just implementing the approaches from the mid-1990s. You know, what worked in the mid-1990s wouldn’t work now because the challenges facing society, domestically, locally and internationally are different. Society’s different, the economy is a fundamentally different place, a lot’s changed since then, so, just as in the 1990s, it’d’ve been strange if the Labour leadership had been saying, well, look, let’s see how Harold Wilson won in the 60s, it would be strange for us to be using that as our model now because things have clearly changed.
In terms of most recent general elections, the only general election in the last 20 years in which Labour has made an electoral advance has been the 2017 general election and so we would make sense to look at the 2017 general election, what went wrong, what went right, obviously we didn’t do well enough in that we didn’t win the general election but as I say, it was the only electoral advance for Labour in a general election for 20 years and there are some in the Labour Party, on the right of the Labour Party, who want to write the 2017 general election out of history for their own kind of ideological political or factional purposes, but I think we need to look at it objectively and see how can we manage to get so many extra votes in that general election, how do we manage to get, you know, all those extra MPs, how do we manage to get the biggest increase in the share of the Labour vote since 1945. 2019, the general election was a disaster because you know, we got beaten around, you know, we got beaten badly, I say that’s because it became a Brexit election. The next election won’t be a Brexit election, though I think we do need to look at 2017. So for those who think we should look at elections from 30 years ago but not an election from 2017, I think are mistaken. We need to look at what went right, and what went wrong in 2017
Well, looking at the 2019, I think it’s a really interesting year to document the position of both the Conservatives and Labour because it seemed to have a lot of parallels between the two. In the 2019 Local Elections both Labour and the Conservatives went backwards, in the EU election both of them went backwards, and in the General Election only Labour went backwards. So, is there not, you could argue, a greater deal of frustration at Labour during that time period that extends over Brexit?
I think that the European elections that you mentioned in 2019 weren’t representative because if they were the Tories would have got smashed at the next general election, wouldn’t they? Because I can’t remember off the top of my head the percentage of the vote that Labour and the Tories got in the 2019 election
Well, I mean, that’s not very good, but what I’m trying to get at is that you, was there not an endemic issue within people connecting to Labour, who instead joined those two, in the local and the EU elections, people went to the Liberal Democrats and for the Conservatives they went to the Brexit Party? You know, the Conservatives fixed that in regards to the 2019 election, but seeing you kind of failed to match them.
Yeah, those EU elections, it was an election which became just an opportunity for people to make their point of what they thought about Brexit, the EU Referendum, and about the EU, which is why parties that were either completely Remain or completely Brexit did better. The Tories, I suppose, mended that by a few words, didn’t they, in the 2019 general election, which was “Get Brexit Done” and so that’s how they managed to get rid of the Brexit Party, and I think Labour was always in a difficult position when it came to Brexit because we’re the only major political party that represents both constituencies, a lot of constituencies that voted Leave and a lot of constituencies that voted Remain.
So, it’s easy, I think, for the Conservatives to have a clear policy message on Brexit than it was for Labour, my seat for example voted overwhelmingly to Leave the EU, other MPs seats, other Labour MPs seats voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU, so actually the breadth of the communities that Labour represents in Parliament actually presents us with a different challenge, and then of course you’ve got a situation where the majority of Labour members were very supportive of Remain, and really wanted another Referendum. But that wasn’t always represented in the constituencies we needed to win at the 2019 General Election, and if you look, Labour did disproportionately badly in the 2019 General Election in seats which voted to Leave the EU, so that’s why I say it became a Brexit election. So, the Tories could say “Get Brexit Done”, that helped them to solve the problem, that you’ve identified they faced in the 2019 EU elections, but it’s harder for Labour given the different views in the constituencies we represent, harder for Labour to come out with a three word slogan, that connected with people in that way.
Okay so, moving on to the Labour Party, and I think the most interesting thing is obviously the former Leader not being a sitting MP. Now, it’s been reported that Jeremy Corbyn knows how to get his whip reinstated. Do you think that what he should do is apologize for the comments he made regarding the EHRC report or do you think holding firm and remaining as an independent MP is the right course of action?
Well, let me make my position clear on this. I think, we’re in this strange situation, where Jeremy Corbyn has been a member of the Labour Party since, I think, 1966. The former Leader of the Labour Party, is a Labour Party member and a Member of Parliament but not a Labour Member of Parliament. He was reinstated to the Labour Party after being suspended from the Labour Party by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, and what would flow from that is the restoration of the Labour whip as a result of that hearing. That didn’t happen, I believe it should happen, and not in the situation of being a Labour member and a Member of Parliament but not a Labour Member of Parliament, he should be a Labour Member of Parliament back in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Well, many would argue that Labour’s relationship to the Jewish community has been extensively damaged, is not giving Jeremy the whip after his comments regarding the report almost a way to show the Jewish community that that kind of attitude won’t be tolerated?
Well the matter of antisemitism in the Labour Party was looked into by the EHRC as an incredibly serious matter for the EHRC and it is of course completely appropriate that the Labour Party shows we take the issue of antisemitism in society, and where it occurs in the Labour Party, incredibly seriously.
Okay, a Labour member has asked me to ask you this question if that’s okay, which is that, what is the future for the Labour left?
Well, the future of the Labour left is, I think, a promising future in that it’s the left that are coming up with the policy solutions that are fit to meet the crises of our time. Whether it be in relation to climate catastrophe, a socialist Green New Deal, whether it be a National Care Service, run as the same principles as founded as our National Health Service, whether it be a massive council house building programme, 100,000 homes a year, abolishing zero hours contracts, a better rights in the workplace, these are left policies that have the support of, not only a majority of Labour Party members, but also the support of the majority of the country. Look at a wealth tax for example, it’s the left that has been pushing for a wealth tax and all the opinion polls show most people support progressive taxation policies such as a wealth tax on the super rich. So, I think the left should be confident.
We should also remember that Keir Starmer won the leadership election overwhelmingly, with what was basically a left programme, the 10 left pledges, you know, the 10 pledges that were made that were really economic policies from the 2017 and 2019 manifestos so I think the left should be confident, I don’t think that managerialism or tinkering round the edges is enough to meet the challenges we face today with the public health crisis, the environmental crisis, the crisis in living standards, the housing crisis, the refugee crisis, all of these things the left has got practical policy proposals that would, that we can put forward, so I think it’s regrettable that the left hasn’t been given a more significant role under Keir’s leadership and I think that when Keir’s looking at how to win the next General Election, as we’ll want him to do so, then his 10 pledges actually, would aid him in the endeavor to win the next General Election in my opinion, because they’re the kind of transformative policies I think can connect with the public.
In a recent interview you were asked to condemn the Chinese government and some have argued since that you weren’t quite clear on it but would you like to take this opportunity now to rest people assured that if you do or do not condemn the Chinese government for their treatment of the Uyghur people?
Well, the interviewer on LBC, the question that was asked was “what does the UK do about China?”, that’s a very good question because it’s a question that as politicians and as a society we need to consider. China is a superpower, China is on its way to becoming the biggest economy on Earth so the nature of how we relate to China is becoming more and more relevant. Now, course, there are human rights abuses including of the Uyghur people, in China. When I see photographs, it gives me great concern, when I see reports of what’s going on, I do believe that the United Nations should be allowed in to report back on what exactly is going on. So, of course, I condemn human rights abuses in China, and anywhere else as well. For example, the death penalty exists in China, I disagree fundamentally with the death penalty for any reason, obviously the death penalty also exists in the United States but when it comes to the death penalty, we need to be calling that out, whoever implements the death penalty in my opinion from a human rights perspective, also I have concerns in relation to the way workers can organize as well.
But, an important point is, in addition to make, is that I think it’s very worrying that we’re moving towards a new Cold War, that could be dangerous, so for example I criticized the governments AUKUS pact between Australia, the UK and the USA, which involves, I think, ratcheting up tensions with China, I think we need robust relations with other countries, my own opinion is that we should have an independent foreign policy based upon peace, conflict resolution and cooperation because, look, we’re going to have to work with China and other countries around the world in relation to climate change. You can see that at COP26, we’re going to have to work with China and other countries in relation to the refugee crisis which is actually being made worse by climate change, and so and the public health crisis, if you look at COVID, the issue of vaccinations, the issue of ensuring people around the world, including Africa get vaccinations, so going into a Cold War with China I think is the wrong thing to do because one, cold wars can become hot wars and proxy wars, also it would mean increasingly resources diverted to the military from other important things that we need to be investing in, in our country, in order to protect and advance living standards and public services.
We need a robust relationship, so our government needs to call out human rights abuses including in China, but I think going into a Cold War with China would be a grave mistake, dangerous mistake for the world, and so, as I say, I think we should be independent foreign policy, and it seems that’s not going to happen any time soon, it’s a big question isn’t it? How do we relate to an emergent superpower which could become soon the biggest economy in the world, where we disagree with them we have to make that clear, including in relation to human rights abuses, including in relation to the Uyghurs, including in relation to the death penalty also, as I’ve said, but at the same time as raising those issues robustly, that’s what a government should do, I think we need to accept that we need to have a relationship with China in relation to climate change, in relation to public health, and we’ve seen that with COVID and vaccinations, and in relation to the refugee crisis, and of course, in relation to the economy as well, as we do have close economic ties with China.
So, Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, rank them from best to worst.
Well, I think that’s a bit unfair, I think we can all easily say who was the worst, Ramsay MacDonald, Gordon Brown I have a lot of time for, I think the work he’s done since stepping down as Prime Minister shows what kind of person he is, he’s had a focus on alleviation of poverty and a focus on the role that the United Nations can play in relation to that and the things he’s been saying about rolling out the vaccine around the world has been very important, I don’t think that the Labour movement is just about the great figures and the great leaders, without a doubt Ramsay MacDonald betrayed the Labour movement and the people it exists to represent when he went into that National Government to hold austerity in place.
Tony Blair, his Government did many good things in terms of tackling poverty, increased investment in public services, of course sadly he will be remembered for predominantly, for the unjust and illegal war in Iraq which did a lot to lose the trust of people in politics, in general, and I think that James Callaghan, it was sad the way that he lost the election to Margaret Thatcher, that paved the way for 18 years of Conservative government. But, look, every Labour government has done good things for working class communities, they need to get back into Government, Harold Wilson, of course, the Yorkshireman, there’s a wonderful statue of him outside Huddersfield Train Station and he actually fought 4 elections didn’t he?
Yes, ’63, ’66, ’74 and ’74.
Yeah, he won four elections, so he’s won more elections than any other Labour leader and he was a figure who came from the left, one of the Bevanites originally. I think he was a very, very skilled politician, but as I say, I know the question is a bit of fun but it’s hard to rank them in order because they’re all from different periods in history and as I say, I don’t think that the Labour Party and the Labour movement should be about great individuals and great figures alone. I believe in politics from the bottom up, I believe that political change happens at the grassroots across our country and around the world, and mobilized for that, so I think the duty we will have now is to try and build the biggest movement against the Tory agenda we can, and the biggest movement for justice and for a better society that we can.
One final question, it’s Christmas, which Tory MP is getting a Christmas card from you?
Well, I don’t think I’m sending Christmas cards this year.
If you had to, which one would you send one to?
If I had to send a Christmas card to any Tory MP? It’s a good question isn’t it! A very good question. I think I’d send a Christmas card to the Chair of the Justice Select Committee, because I used to be on the Justice Select Committee, I was former Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and Bob Neill, the Chair of the Justice Select Committee, I think does a good job on working cross-party to raise issues around our justice system, I think he does a good job as a justice select committee chair, and he does it diligently, and that includes criticizing his own government, so if I were going to send a Christmas card this year to a Tory MP I’d send it to Bob Neill,