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INTERVIEW Rebuilding Labour – socialism, Brexit and democracy

Following the launch of their No Holding Back report on Labour’s loss of working-class support, IAN LAVERY, LAURA SMITH AND JON TRICKETT speak to Morning Star editor Ben Chacko about their findings

IAN LAVERY, Laura Smith and Jon Trickett’s No Holding Back report has made headlines, above all with its demand for Sir Keir Starmer to apologise for the party’s support for a second referendum on Brexit.

And among the thousands who attended the Zoom meetings that fed into the report launched on Thursday were many who “had voted Labour forever and a day, but because they voted Leave, they were castigated, criticised, harassed — accused of being right-wing, even fascist. 

“These are the people in our communities who deserve an apology from our party.

“That way we can at least try to rebuild that trust — by accepting that the decisions made with regard to Brexit were very misleading, actually for both sides.” 

Remainers, the report finds, were “led up the garden path” with unrealistic expectations that Brexit could be overturned while Leavers were betrayed.

The result described by Smith will be familiar to hundreds of campaigners who fought for a Labour victory in Leave areas last December: “Activists went out in horrific circumstances. A lot of people received abuse. And the communities they experienced that hostility from were traditional Labour areas.”

Trickett points out that “what working people are really interested in — aside from Covid itself — are jobs, incomes, housing, the health service. The left has got something to say, better than the right, on all those issues.

“But it will not get a proper hearing until we show that we know how to listen.”

Why did Labour make the mistakes it did? After it had made such progress on a socialist manifesto in the 2017 general election, in which it committed to respect the Brexit vote, how did it allow the second referendum campaign to seize the controls and pilot Corbynism into a ditch?

All three note the big money and effective propaganda of the People’s Vote campaign and the like, but Lavery notes that Labour’s membership was itself unrepresentative.

“There was a huge difference between what the membership wanted and what the country wanted. This was complicated by the fact that two-thirds of the membership were in the south. 

“That combined with the pressure from the People’s Vote — from within and without the party — who were producing information which was quite unbelievably inaccurate, and I think deliberately so, saying we were going to lose 50 seats to the Liberal Democrats if we didn’t move to a second referendum.” 

Trickett adds that Labour, which was founded as a movement for social justice, has in too many ways become a career ladder, which is why the report makes numerous recommendations about how to get more local and working-class candidates selected for Parliament and for clear, transparent ways for ordinary members to progress in local and regional government. 

“There was always a debate between those who wanted to transform capitalist society and those who wanted to reform it.

“Somehow along the way the reformers became managers and technocrats, that is how I see it. Our system, which was no longer working if it ever did for working people, worked for them.”

Not that they are prepared to give everyone in the shadow cabinet the benefit of the doubt, since Lavery points out that he, Trickett and others warned of the consequences for northern seats.

“We discussed these issues in shadow cabinet. And there were certain members who would then leave and speak to the press and say something completely different. That was extremely difficult.”

The way in which any departure from the EU was depicted in the bleakest colours, combined with the second referendum offer discouraging compromise, meant that there “was never the space created to be able to get the membership on board with what a positive vision outside the European Union could look like,” Smith puts in. 

“That meant we couldn’t have an honest debate about the issues with being part of the EU.

“What’s happened in America is really quite interesting because so many of the same people who are having a go, understandably, at Donald Trump are exactly the same people who wanted to ignore a vote in this country. And they fail to see the hypocrisy, and I can’t get my head around it.”

She has no doubt that many behind the second referendum campaign deliberately wanted to “pincer the Labour Party into a position that was impossible.”

Brexit was an electoral debacle, but understanding this is not just important for that reason, Trickett contends.

The report rejects the language of “left behind” communities — “these places have been held back. And they need massive intervention, to build new industries, to create proper jobs, to reform the labour market in areas like mine — I represent 23 former mining villages, and now the biggest employers are the hospitals and the schools, and a couple of large warehouses.

“The intervention they need is very difficult within the European Union. European law in relation to state aid and procurement make it extremely difficult.

“The Labour membership were against Brexit for cultural reasons, we’re not Little Englanders and we don’t hate foreigners like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.” 

The Brexit debate had taken shape almost entirely along these cultural lines — though Trickett notes that the Morning Star was among the few outlets facilitating a more serious debate about the nature of the EU — which resulted in even Labour’s Leavers posing the issue entirely in electoral terms.

“We argued that you are not going to win the election if you lose 50 Leave seats. That was important. But actually the bigger problem was that the European Union itself is a major obstacle to transforming our country.”

And transformational change is what people want.

“People want something different to the status quo, that’s clear,” says Smith. “Whether that’s in Scotland with the offer of independence, or the north of England with Brexit, traditional Labour heartlands want something different.

“We have to change people’s lives in these communities because the status quo just hasn’t worked.”

Labour will not be trusted to deliver those changes based on election promises, particularly when in local government it is often “the face of Tory cuts.” 

All three emphasise the huge importance of community organising to any Labour revival.

Campaigning is happening despite Labour, they note, with “students in Manchester at the moment, or the Black Lives Matter campaign.”

Looming threats such as mass redundancies require joined-up resistance “in the community, in the trade union movement, and through making sure we have politicians who effectively voice the concerns of the people they represent.”

But community organising needs a motivated membership, and hasn’t Starmer just lobbed a grenade into the mass membership with his suspension of Jeremy Corbyn?

Don’t the bans on CLPs and branches even talking about this illustrate total contempt for the party membership?

“You can’t put an idea in prison,” Trickett says. “Whatever they try to stop people talking about this is not going to succeed.”

The 2017 election “transformed people’s thinking in the country” and inspired socialists well beyond Britain, “in Germany, in France, in the United States.” 

The movement built under Corbyn’s leadership, that saw Labour swell to almost 600,000 members, was remarkable and can’t simply be wished away.

Even in 2019 “we got more votes, if you exclude the 2017 election, than at any time since 2005. The distribution of the votes, with so many Labour MPs in Leave seats, meant we didn’t get the seats.”

This shows that the socialist manifestos did cut through, and the policies in them “need to be reviewed — but only in one respect: that things have got worse because of Covid.”

Lavery slams the “appalling corruption” displayed by the Tories in their handling of health and PPE contracts, “the nepotism, the people given high-up positions because they are married to ministers.”

One of the most interesting proposals in the report is for a cronyism panel, selected randomly from the electoral roll like a jury, that would be able to block appointments or contracts.

“The state has come under the control of the wealthy and big corporations,” Trickett points out, “it’s been captured by them.” 

The current feeble regulations don’t obstruct a revolving door between business and government that incentivises flagrant corruption.

While the idea of a panel of citizens needs to be “fleshed out,” it represents one way of cutting through the special interests that have taken over British government.

The pandemic has been like a neighbour leaving the curtains open so you can peep into the living room, he says.

“Through that little crack in the curtain that disguises the nature of our society you could see that the country is run by key workers on really low wages. They run our country, not the trickle-down theorists or the millionaires or the billionaires.

“The lack of justice in our society has been revealed. So the flame lit in 2017 has not been extinguished. It’s more necessary than ever.”

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