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Interview ‘They’ve got the money but we’ve got the power’

CHRIS WILLIAMSON talks to Ben Cowles about neoliberalism and its effects in Latin America

What is there left to say about austerity? I can barely conjure up the energy to write about it. The hideousness of stripping vital funding away from everything a society needs to function is as self-evident as Boris Johnson’s narcissism.

It seems I’m not alone in feeling this way. Even the Tories don't talk about it anymore. Nor do they even try to justify it with perverse economic arguments and backwards logic. Instead, austerity has this Voldemort-like quality to it whereby the Tories dare not speak its name — but they still enact its policies.

“The thing that underpins austerity is the Tories’ obsession with neoliberalism,” says Labour’s MP for Derby North Chris Williamson.
Luckily there are a growing number of people like Williamson within the Labour Party who are willing and able to act upon the burning indignation that seven years of Tory rule has set alight within them.

“They find all kinds of excuses to try and justify this obsession with free market economics. Yes, they’ve dropped the austerity justification for neoliberalism, but clearly, this is about continuing to enrich the top 1 per cent. What we’ve got to do is expose that.”

We spoke for a few hours last week over dinner at a pasta place in St Pancras station before Williamson had to train it back to his constituency. I noticed the Fire Brigades Union badge pinned to the lapel of his jacket and remembered that since we last met in June, Williamson had been up to quite a lot.  

He’d smashed the last election, winning back the seat he lost by 41 votes at the 2015 election with a lead of 2,000 votes, been appointed the shadow fire and emergency services minister and, due to his unflinching socialist stance, had ruffled the feathers of the Blairites as well as both the corporate media’s virulently right and liberal wings.

One of the things Williamson says the Tories have been most successful at is “persuading people to accept the unacceptable, the inequalities, the sense that there’s nothing to be done about it, that it’s just inevitable that there’s always going to be poor people.”

For Williamson, the post-war 1945 to ’79 economic consensus demonstrates that the world doesn’t have to be this way, that the erosion of working people’s rights in favour of austerity economics and the concentration of wealth into the hands of an ever-shrinking cabal of billionaires is not inevitable.

“I’m not saying it was perfect back then, but what it showed was that an interventionist government can move the ratchet in the favour of working people. And that’s what was happening in Latin America, with the pink tide sweeping the continent and left-wing governments being elected all over, inspired by [former Venezuelan president Hugo] Chavez.”

During the summer months in what the media calls the silly season, when stories of lesser importance are sexed up due to a lack of “real” news, Williamson found himself at the centre of a political furore involving Jeremy Corbyn and Venezuela.

We’ll return to that in a minute, but first I wanted to know what it was that drew the former brickie to become a member of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign and No Coup in Brazil.

“Latin America was a watchword for right-wing despotic regimes, for torture and death squads, weren’t it? During my first term as an MP [2010-15] I found it inspiring to see what change was beginning to happen there, a continent which had been brought to chaos and abject poverty, in places like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil.

“Look at the investment in healthcare and housing and improving living standards, increases in the minimum wage and education. According to Unesco, after seven years of Chavez, the country had eliminated illiteracy in Venezuela by 2005. I mean, fucking heck, what a fantastic achievement.

“I saw it as an exemplar for this country. It demonstrated what an interventionist government can achieve when it puts its mind to it, to use the wealth of the nation to benefit the people, which you’d think is an absolute no-brainer. It’s what governments should always be doing, but of course they generally don’t.

“But you know, I’m not a romantic. Well, I’m a bit of a romantic but not completely. I accept that Venezuela has its problems still. It hasn’t eliminated poverty. But look at where they've come from and where they’ve got to.

“It ain’t perfect. And clearly, in the recent crisis that’s been going on, a number of police and security personnel have overstepped the mark. But the difference is, as I understand it anyway, many of those, if not all of them, have been arrested and are facing charges. Where’s that in the bloody Western media?

“When the BBC asked me to do that Newsnight interview, I f’ed and blinded at this producer guy when he rang. I said: ‘Why have you asked me?’ Well, I was a bit more blunt than that. ‘What the fuck are you asking me to come on for? I’m not a bloody expert on Venezuela. I’m just inspired by some of the stuff they’ve done. This is your job as the BBC to give this context.’ Anyway, I went on in the end.

“That is a frustration; the media don’t give a balanced view of what’s going on there. To listen to them you’d think Venezuela has a totally socialised economy, a dictatorship, no elections, everything is run by the state. As you know, nothing could be further from the truth.”

I also vented my frustration with the mass media, but Williamson pointed out that the misrepresentation wasn’t entirely the media’s fault.

“Yes, the media were concentrating on Venezuela but a lot of those flames were being fanned by people inside the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party], who were indulging in a bloody proxy war.

“The people who joined the All Party Parliamentary Group on Venezuela never raised any issues on Latin America before, let alone Venezuela.

“Well, why? Because Jeremy said some positive things about the country in the past. Then suddenly there’s these demands, because of the crisis there, to attack [President Nicolas] Maduro, to dissociate ourselves from him.

“So the media is partly culpable but they’re being fed info by people who should — I don’t want to say know better — but people who shouldn’t be doing that.

“If they’re Labour members, then what the fuck are they doing? I mean, why aren’t they looking at the whole context? And why aren’t they saying anything about Brazil, Honduras, Colombia?

“Why aren’t they saying anything about the coup that took place in Brazil? They talk about these protesters in the streets in Venezuela and the reaction of the security force. But, of course, they don’t mention the extreme violence of some of these characters.

“Have you seen the video where they set fire to a Chavista? This poor, young lad. They beat him and set this kid on fire, burnt him to death. It was fucking appalling, I tell you. I’m not one for watching these things. Normally, I turn away; I can’t look. But sometimes it’s important to see it.

“There’s bloody radio silence on Brazil. And the protesters there are being brutally put down. They have an absolutely legitimate complaint, I think much more legitimate than the ones in Venezuela.

“A democratically elected president has been removed. And the government has inflicted this 20-year spending freeze on education and healthcare, slashed investment in public services and embedded all this in the bloody constitution. It’s outrageous. I mean, outrageous doesn’t really do it bloody justice.”

So, what can we do to put an end to austerity and neoliberalism?
“We’ve got to be vigilant. We’ve got to show solidarity here and abroad more than we’ve ever done before. And if we do that, I’m hopeful that we can prevail. The wealthy corporations have got power because they’ve got lots of money at their disposal. Well, we’ve got power if we stand together in unity. And when we do that we can achieve great things.”

Chris Williamson is shadow minister for fire services and MP for Derby North, joint honorary president of Labour Friends of Progressive Latin America and is involved in the No Coup in Brazil initiative.

Ben Cowles is the Morning Star’s deputy features editor.


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