It’s by now a familiar theme of 2015 that smaller parties are chipping away at the vote of Conservatives and Labour alike. This trend is aided by perceptions that the mainstream parties are all the same or insufficiently radical — on either wing. In this context, it’s easy to forget that even within the Labour or Conservative party, members vary quite radically in their views.
The SNP have to a large degree cemented their hold on Scotland with an anti-austerity agenda that is presented as to the left of Labour. The Greens, similarly, offer what is often termed a more progressive politics. Both capitalise on the idea that New Labour was a centrist movement that shifted the party away from radically redistributive ambitions, and seek to carve out that ‘left behind’ territory for themselves.
So what does vegan, anti-capitalist, ex-bricklayer turned social worker turned Labour MP Chris Williamson think of this development in political climes?
“It’s always been a feature of the left over the years: we’ve fractured and splintered, and it’s made it easier for the forces of conservatism to prevail.”
A long memory adds to Williamson’s strongly held view that the Left is better together. “We saw that [fragmentation] spectacularly in the 1980s when the traitors left the Labour party to set up the SDP and then set up with the Liberals. That split the centre-left vote and let Thatcher’s Tories in in 1983 and 1987 with a lower vote that they got in 1979.”
The Greens have developed their agenda significantly since 2010, and now present themselves as a social-justice oriented party as much as an environmental pressure group. Essentially, these issues are Williamson’s primary drivers, though he chooses a different vehicle for their expression.
“I’m not happy about the Greens standing against me. I consider myself the green candidate in the Labour party.”
The crux, for Williamson, is this: “Surely you need to try and get some political power. Not just say ‘I’m a real green, I’m not compromising my principles, I’ll vote for the Green party’. It’s bloody ridiculous if you’re going to let the Tories in as a consequence of that! So, as you can tell, I get pretty irritated by what is just self indulgence, instead of supporting the real force of progress.”
And if voters disagree with aspects of Labour’s agenda, and the Greens map more closely onto their beliefs? Williamson is uncompromising; though he believes in compromise within parties for the sake of progression.
“You might not agree with everything Labour does, but I don’t either. The Labour party is a broad church and I’ve always felt that it’s the best vehicle to deliver progressive social change and social justice in the country. Get involved with the Labour party, and try to make us a bit more progressive. Try to help those of us who want to see a progressive vision for the country actually to deliver it!”
Williamson was one of the sixteen signatories of a letter to Ed Miliband opposing further cuts, supporting the return of the railways to public operation and ownership, as well as advocating the strengthening of collective bargaining.
The SNP leadership frequently use the language of anti-austerity, in contrast to Labour’s commitment to cutting public expenditure. With an SNP-Labour arrangement of some sort looking like one of the more viable combinations in the likely eventuality of a hung parliament, one might think that Williamson would favour the increased support for his stance that such an arrangement could bring. But not so:
“I wouldn’t collaborate. For years they were known as the tartan Tories. They’ve no basis in the real Labour movement: they’ve not really got a history of working with the trade union movement, for example.
“They’ve got form for bringing the Tories in. They voted us down in 1979 when there was a confidence motion before the house. I remember listening to it live on the radio — we didn’t have it on TV in those days — and we lost by 1 vote. The SNP voted with the Tories, and that heralded in 18 years of Thatcherism. That was disastrous for Scotland, and the whole country really: manufacturing decimated, whole industries destroyed.”
After the 2015 general election, if Labour achieve a plurality but no majority, Williamson favours a minority Labour government, drawing support from parties that agree with them without any formal cooperative arrangement.
“If the SNP are serious about anti-austerity and a more progressive government, let them vote us down if they dare. We don’t need a formal agreement for that.”
Although he is among the strongest voices against austerity in the Labour party, Williamson’s constituency, Derby North, escaped more unscathed than other areas from the economic downturn that has driven the politics of the last 8 years.
“It’s quite unusual in that the economy in Derby has been insulated to some extent from the worst effects of the recession. That’s not to say we’ve been immune from it, but we’ve been fortunate in that there is still a lot of high tech engineering in the city”
That’s not to say, though, that the constituency hasn’t faced its share of economic challenges. When a large rail contract was awarded to Siemens in Germany in 2011, around 1200 lost their jobs in Derby, and speculation was rife that Bombardier would pull out of Derby. Williamson mused that the decision potentially would have led to the demise of the train industry in Britain, which “would have been a certain irony, given that we’re the city that gave the world the railway”.
The last train manufacturer in Britain, Bombardier won a new 2014 contract with Crossrail, prompting the creation of around 1400 jobs. But the instability currently inherent in the industry is, Williamson says, a concern for voters in Derby. “It still resonates with people. There’s a certain anxiety about what will happen for the next generation.”
Historically Derby North has been a close Labour-Conservative contest, with the Liberal Democrats in a more distant third. The Liberal Democrats surged in Derby North in 2010, returning a result that makes the seat look like a three-way marginal. But when Ashcroft polled in May 2014, the seat was beginning to lean more towards Labour: the Lib Dem vote had declined, with Labour well ahead and a reduced Conservative vote coinciding with UKIP gains.
The rise in UKIP support is interesting in the context of a local economy heavily dependent on multinational firms, whose role as employers in the constituency brings some obvious benefits. So are voters in Derby North commonly thinking about the EU when deciding how to vote?
“For all the hyperbole in the media, it’s not actually something that ever really comes up on the doorstep. I could count on one hand maybe, certainly no more than two, the number of people who have raised it with me. Ever since I’ve been elected I have been out every week. And in the short campaign, even now with the heavy canvassing that we’re doing, it’s very rarely raised.
“Generally, I think the feeling is that we’re better in than out. And I tend to take that view, even though I did vote to come out in the 1975 referendum.”
More prominent in Derby voters’ minds are the most tangible aspects of the economy. “Cost of living comes up quite a bit. And access to housing”
Housing, though, is an issue that divides voters here. One the one hand, there is a shortage of affordable housing, which especially affects young people. On the other, existing residents frequently oppose new developments which they see as disruptive to their neighbourhoods and green spaces. It’s one of the most notoriously difficult policy areas, both in terms of the level of investment that progress requires, and achieving consensus.
Williamson leans on the side of those in need of housing: “Some people in some parts of the constituency are concerned about new housing being built, but there are others who recognise that there are young people who can’t afford their own home. So you can’t appeal to everyone on that. We need housing for everyone, and all you can do is try and persuade people of that case.”
Conservative candidate Amanda Solloway makes opposing new housing developments one of the key proposals on her website. Clearly, it’s an issue that divides residents deeply. Her concerns relate to the added pressure on public services that new residents might bring, and proposals for construction on green field sites. It seems that the candidates are to a certain extent targeting quite different sections of the electorate, which hints at the divides that make Derby North such a marginal seat.
Williamson, though, is keen to talk about the increase in the cost of housing relative to wages. “In the 1970s, when I was a twenty year old apprentice bricklayer, I was earning enough money — we saved enough in about a year — to buy a brand new house. A three bedroomed, semi-detached house backing onto a waterfront in a desirable village eight miles south of Derby, a place called Shardlow.”
“It’s just impossible now for somebody of my background, working in that kind of occupation, to aspire to buy a house. They can’t even aspire to rent, many young people, in that situation. My house cost me ten grand, three times what I was earning as an apprentice brickie. The same property now would be going for £250,000: twenty-five times what an apprentice bricklayer would be earning.”
We got the sense of a man frustrated by the status quo: “It’s impossible, completely impossible. And then you’ve got people living in ex-council houses paying ridiculous rent, three times what they’re paying in the council sector, and it’s just gone mad. Spending £25 billion per year subsidising rent, £10 billion of which is going to private landlords. It’s just wrong. A crazy system. We’ve got to sort it out.”
There’s no question that Williamson sits to the left of a large portion of the Labour party. But at a time when perceptions that ‘they’re all the same’ are rife, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine Williamson in conversation with, say, a conservative member of the Conservative 1922 committee. His reference of choice when discussing international business and governance is radical French economist Thomas Piketty.
“As Piketty says, we need to make capitalism the slave of democracy, not the other way around. And when you have people pulling that kind of trick, we end up continually hanging onto the coattails of international capitalism.”
The intellectual wing of political Leftism is often seen as removed from the direct representation of working people that motivated the formation of the Labour party. But Williamson is a living testament that these strands sometimes go hand in hand.
“It just ain’t right: inequality is getting worse. In one of the richest economies in the world, it’s an obscenity that people are forced to use food banks, and sleeping rough on the streets. And as I was saying earlier, kids not being able to buy a house and so on. It’s just crackers.”