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'Keep our eyes on the prize and we'll build that better Britain'

Ahead of Derby's Silk Mill festival, CHRIS WILLIAMSON MP speaks to Morning Star editor Ben Chacko about the spread of poverty in Britain and the rush to war with Iran

THIS weekend Derby North MP Chris Williamson speaks at the city’s Silk Mill festival, commemorating the lockout of 1833-4 when employers tried to force workers to renounce trade unions. Is the lockout relevant today?

The trade union movement has been under attack for as long as I can remember. In the 1970s we were fed a propaganda diet by the media about trade union barons holding the country to ransom. The truth was very different — the unions had successfully reduced inequality through successful collective bargaining — though there was still a long way to go.

The seminal Grunwick dispute over trade union recognition and low pay started the year I joined the Labour Party in 1976 and ended in failure two years later.

The employer carried on regardless. He was unmoved by the regular mass picketing and simply disregarded the court of inquiry, chaired by Lord Scarman, recommending union recognition and reinstatement of the sacked workers.

What that showed me was that far from having too much power, the unions needed a lot more. But Thatcher shredded what union powers there were and little changed when Labour came to power — Tony Blair said “we will still have the most restrictive union laws in the Western world.”

I do see parallels with the anti-union tactics of firms such as McDonald’s and Amazon and the treatment of Derby’s silk mill workers nearly two centuries ago.

Despite the best endeavours of the industrial and political wings of the labour movement, we’ve failed to wrest power from the capitalist Establishment. That’s why I’m so excited and optimistic about the possibilities a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government offers. 

It would give us the chance to succeed where the Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan governments failed — to bring about an irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people. I didn’t include the Blair and Brown governments in that list, because they didn’t even try to change the neoliberal, deregulated system they inherited.   

Stats released this week by the IFS show in-work poverty has been rising since the '90s - a bit of a blow to Tony Blair who recently attempted to defend his government's record on social justice from Corbyn. 

Tony Blair decided to embrace Thatcher’s legacy. I’m not one of those who says everything New Labour did was bad. I was the leader of Derby City Council during Blair and Brown premierships and there is no doubt that more funding was available.  

Public services did improve. Initiatives like Sure Start made a huge difference to working-class families. NHS facilities were transformed, waiting times were slashed and satisfaction in the NHS had never been higher when we left office in 2010. And the Climate Change Act was a crucially important piece of legislation.

But the 13 years that New Labour were in office represent an enormous missed opportunity. Where was the industrial strategy? Where was the housing strategy? We could, and should have reduced inequality instead of accelerating it.

The way to reverse rising in-work poverty is to give people hope that they can regain control of their lives by standing together in solidarity with each other through the trade union movement. We need to convince people that a paradigm shift is achievable.

The 1833-4 lockout came just after the Great Reform Act which extended the franchise. Demonstrations in Derby for electoral reform even resulted in shots fired and people killed. Now we have universal adult suffrage, is the question of democracy solved?

The question of democracy is far from being solved. In fact, we’ve hardly even begun. At the beginning of the last century Keir Hardie said radicalism had democratised the system of government politically and predicted that socialism would lead to industrial democracy. The former has a long way to go and the latter hasn’t even got off the starting blocks.

When Tony Benn told Michael Moore that democracy was the most revolutionary thing in the world, I thought he was exaggerating. But judging by the reaction to the democracy roadshow I staged with Tosh McDonald, Tony’s comment was an understatement.  

It resulted in me being vilified, denounced and utterly misrepresented for arguing that grassroots members should always be able to select their parliamentary candidates and determine party policy. Which reminded me of something else Tony spoke about 26 years earlier when he said: “I know why they call us names, it’s because they dare not face our arguments.”

But I’m not interested in merely making the Parliamentary Labour Party more accountable to the grassroots, although that is a prerequisite for good governance, I want to see workers given control over their lives and their workplace.

The pledge in Labour’s 2017 manifesto to offer workers the right to buy out their company when it’s being sold would be a significantly important step along the road towards real industrial democracy.

Democratising the land is also essential if we are to bring about the irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power that’s needed. We could make a start by dusting off Tony Benn’s 1986 Common Ownership of Land Bill as well as legislating to establish community land trusts throughout the country. 

And another huge shortcoming in the British political system is the first-past-the-post method of electing MPs. I used to be an advocate for it, but it really isn’t fit for purpose. I think we should explore something like a top-up system where voters would have two votes.

One would be to elect a candidate for the constituency and a second would be for a party. That would keep the constituency link with MPs and make the system more proportional.

Despite having the whip suspended you haven’t slowed down. Always one of the most active MPs in Parliament, you’ve recently put down an EDM on torture in Turkish prisons and continue as one of Parliament’s loudest voices against war. What’s your take on the US accusations against Iran and our government’s apparent agreement with them?

I’m very sceptical about it. This government is all too quick to jump into military action and seems determined to hold onto Donald Trump’s coat-tails whatever the consequences.  

We saw it last year when Theresa May decided to join Trump in launching air strikes against targets in Syria, without even bothering to obtain parliamentary approval.

It was done on the flimsiest of evidence about an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma by the Assad regime. Now it turns out that question marks about the evidence were redacted from the subsequent OPCW report on their investigation into whether chlorine gas had actually be used. 

As for the US accusations against Iran, all I can say is even the Japanese ship owner has contradicted the Trump administration’s account of how the tanker was attacked. I’m genuinely worried that, like we saw in Iraq, the White House seems determined to manufacture an excuse to go to war, this time with Iran, which could spiral out of control into a worldwide conflagration.

One of the things that’s been so inspiring about the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader is that we can now look forward to a genuine ethical foreign policy in government.  

One of his most significant decisions was to establish a shadow minister for peace and disarmament and to appoint Fabian Hamilton to that role.  

Fabian is already making a huge impact while we’re in opposition — just imagine what he’ll be able to achieve when we’re in government.

Britain will be prioritising peace and economic development around the world. Just think about that for a moment — it will be a truly extraordinary landmark in British and world history.

The Tories are trying to crown a new leader without an election, but all those indicative votes show there’s no majority for any way forward on Brexit in Parliament. Surely we need an election?

I do think an election would be the preferable outcome, but I’m not sure there is a route that would enable us to force one because we simply haven’t got the numbers in the House of Commons.  

The Tories could of course implode, so anything is possible, but if that doesn’t happen I think we need to be prepared for the long haul to 2022.

The public is weary of the parliamentary parlour games on Brexit. My view is we should be focusing on developing our vision for life outside the EU.

If we’re going to secure an early election we’ll need the public’s support, but that means focusing on a clear message of hope for the future, rather than talking about another referendum, because that’s increasingly interpreted as the Westminster and metropolitan elites ignoring democracy.

If we said we’re definitely in favour of leaving with or without a deal, but we will use the power of the state to invest in a fiscal stimulus to address the economic shock of leaving, and redistribute income and wealth we would be unstoppable.

Recent attacks on Corbyn from figures like Tom Watson and the abuse levelled at the new Peterborough MP by her colleagues after her surprise election victory show the PLP is still a potential Achilles heel for Labour.

We need democracy, democracy and more democracy inside the party and trade unions. 

Members expect their MPs to get behind the leader they’ve overwhelmingly elected on two separate occasions, and want their MPs to concentrate their fire on the Tories and an economic system that’s rigged in favour of wealthy elites.

So I say keep your eyes on the prize. I know it’s frustrating, but just look at how far we’ve come. If we stand together we can defeat all the naysayers to build that better Britain we all envisaged when we elected Jeremy as our leader nearly four years ago.

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