[Labour Vision Archived] Interview with Abi Wilkinson

Originally published on Labour Vision in 2017. With thanks to Abi Wilkinson for agreeing to the original interview and the republication of it. 

WBT: First of all, I’d like to thank you for agreeing to this interview and would like to begin by asking do you think that the election result marks a permanent shift in British politics from a generally centrist position to that of a more left-wing position?

AW: I think personally, that it shows that there is a public appetite. It isn’t just a result of the election – it’s reinforced with the opinion polls recently saying that half of people think that a socialist government would be a good thing, most people thinking mansions in Kensington should be used to rehouse the homeless. There is an appetite for properly left-wing policy

WBT: So therefore, you think it is more a reaction to public attitude rather than a permanent shift that could never be reversed?

AW: Well who knows what it will be like in twenty years. I think at the moment there is a feeling in Labour that we couldn’t make bold economic plans and follow the Conservatives whereas what people were potentially looking for from Labour was something different. We’d given up on attracting none voters and the turnout shows we shouldn’t do that. It shows what’s possible and that you can win from the left. People who doubted that strategy before have to accept that it’s a legitimate strategy which I think a lot of people in Labour are happy about because you get people going on about the divide within the party but I think there’s a certain proportion of people in Labour who would have preferred to have gone a bolder, more left-wing platform but would have considered it unviable. Not everyone but I do think there is a new sense of possibility now.

WBT: Why do you think Jeremy Corbyn was able to mobilise voters in a way that Ed Miliband wasn’t?

AW: I think it was because of a bolder, more left-wing agenda. When they did polling on free tuition fees, which wouldn’t have been my personal policy priority, and the reaction they got to it was that it seemed like Labour would provide a government that would really change things. I also think that it was Corbyn getting people more involved and because he had a big support basis combined with Brexit people have become more engaged in politics again. As a result, people were more active on social media, more people were canvassing and knocking on doors – more people were just getting involved. If 40% of people voted for Jeremy Corbyn and a manifesto like that it changes the perception of what’s possible doesn’t it. Public opinion has been moving against austerity for a while now if you watch opinion polls, people have been saying that they don’t want more spending cuts. I think it has been a perfect storm of different factors.

WBT: The tragedy at Grenfell Tower in Kensington has opened a lot of searching questions about how we protect the most vulnerable members of our society – do you think that it, in a way, symbolises what has gone wrong with the austerity project and symbolises why people want something different?

AW: Absolutely, I think it is a culmination of so many failures, legal aid cuts meaning that people weren’t able to get the legal advice they need, outsourcing, meaning that contractors were cutting corners and finding the cheapest way possible to deal with things. There is also this sense of Conservatives attempting to water down regulations which is just nonsense because you need regulations that are sensible and protect people – the fact that the building didn’t have sprinklers for instance. And the fact that the residents might be housed hundreds of miles away now because they live in council houses. I think Kensington and Chelsea aren’t remotely interested in building social houses now. The utter contempt they’ve shown to one strata of society has been just laid bare. Grenfell really is symbolic of this government’s failing. I don’t want to suggest though that Labour councils have always been perfect on housing because they’ve clearly not as residents will tell you but we want to make a change to that.

WBT: Do you think, therefore, that’s why some people suggest there are comparisons between the agenda of Jeremy Corbyn and that of Clement Attlee?

AW: It’s hard because Labour’s manifesto wasn’t that heavy on certain aspects of welfare or housing but you get the sense that Labour have gone into retreat on welfare – the feeling from some in the party that they couldn’t oppose the Welfare Bill, that we couldn’t stand up for welfare state spending anymore. The Corbynite response is to fight against that and say that’s what Labour is for and that it’s gone too far and that we need to go back to our roots, so in that way I’d agree.

WBT: In terms of mobilising Labour’s support do you think more emphasise on the state and that the state will help you and look after you, help you get back on your feet if something happens to you the state will help you – do you think that’s something that should be more central?

AW: Yeah, that should always be central to Labour policy, that should be what we’re about. I think that the majority of the public are on side with that and I think in a way right wingers get that wrong because solidarity for that ideal is still strong in the country. And there is this presumption that if people need state aid that they’re a scrounger, they don’t want to work, they just want to live off benefits and it’s just wrong. In this country, I think we’ve always had a sense that people deserve to be looked after if they fall on hard times and the real challenge is to resist the attempt to stop people having access to those services.

WBT: Leading on from that, do you therefore think that focussing on a more Norwegian or even European style of state intervention and healthcare is preferable to what the Conservatives have been suggesting, more along the lines of a less intervention in a similar vein to the US?

AW: Oh yes, absolutely I mean the US has people without access to basic healthcare even people on ObamaCare can’t get premiums only if it is an absolute emergency and even then, cost thousands and thousands. If you look at the socialist agendas in Norwegian countries and the results of them – happiness, health, good life expectancy, low infant mortality, all of these great things. They do things much better and I absolutely think that is the model we should be looking at – I can’t see anyway why anyone would hope to imitate a country like the US. One of the richest countries in the world but massive inequality, poor health outcomes. I just cannot understand why you would look at the US welfare state and think it was an appropriate model.

WBT: So, whilst we are leaving the European Union, do you think in terms of political philosophy we should be closer to Europe and European political ideals?

AW: Yes, I think there are certain countries in Europe that are a lot more worth imitating. Norway, of course isn’t in the EU, so I don’t think being a member of the EU is necessary to following other countries in thinking about how to structure our own state.

WBT: In that case, do you think that there can be benefits for leaving the European Union, such as the process of nationalisation being made easier?

AW: I’m not sure really because I’m not sure what is and isn’t possible whilst inside the European Union however if we have to leave the EU and that is how it is then we might as well all be Lexiters. It does open up new possibilities such as higher taxes on people who earn more, a more comprehensive welfare offering, more universal benefits but those are things that can be achieved anyway so it doesn’t matter if we’re in the EU or not really. Of course, economically it matters and we have to hope that we pull it off well; we need to keep up our productivity, we need to invest in our infrastructure. If we can get the most out of our labour force – we’ve got particularly low productivity for an advanced economy and there are things that can be improved both inside and outside the European Union. I guess there is more of a pressure to do it now because we are making things economically harder for ourselves. So, it is perfectly possible that there can be benefits.

WBT: I’d like to move on to talk about the Labour Party’s image – how important is it that the Labour Party presents unity by having figures like Owen Smith in the Shadow Cabinet?

AW: I think that putting Owen Smith in the Shadow Cabinet was a great move, I think he’ll do a good role in that job for sure. I don’t think Corbyn necessarily has a duty to bring in people who get described as “big beasts” – I don’t think that really means anything to ordinary people. I find we have to be careful. I find the suggestion that he must have the likes of Chuka [Umunna] in there when they’ve been getting together for a leadership bid, flawed. I think it seems odd to me, particularly when the people he has already elevated did such a good job. Perhaps in the future, when there is room for people who have previously been on the other side of the conflict there can be some compromise. Honestly, I think Corbyn has always been willing to reach across to people from across the party. There were a lot more moderate, centrists in the Shadow Cabinet before they quit and I think most MPs now, having seen the result of the election, are on board are ready to make this work so there is definitely the possibility of more coming in the future. I think though that the current Shadow Cabinet is looking good.

WBT: Again, look at the image of the party – how well do you think the allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party have been dealt with and do you think that it is an ongoing issue?

AW: Well I think Ken [Livingtone] should have been expelled. I think a permanent expulsion is necessary. We need to have a zero-tolerance approach on all forms of racism and that is what the party should be about. I think, generally speaking, as I understand it all the allegations are being investigated quite quickly. I think, to return to Ken, the temporary suspension was the wrong result and I think anti-Semitism is a blind spot for certain sorts of people on the left who are otherwise anti-racist. You’ve also got some New Labour affiliated types for who Islamophobia is a problem. We have to not let these people in our party – bigots of any description. It has to be zero tolerance, there has to be no discrimination against people. I do think it is something the party has taken seriously though.

WBT: It is something that, you could say, effects all political parties then?

AW: Oh yeah, bigots always get into political parties. I don’t think though we should hold ourselves to the standards of the Conservative Party, who are not very good with dealing with any of this stuff at all. I mean we are meant to be beyond bigotry and racism – we are better than that.

WBT: How much better do you think the future of the Labour Party is now compared with when the election was called?

AW: Oh much better. In terms of optimism things have changed a lot – MPs were worried about their results, the party looked divided, it was difficult to see us ever pulling together. The polls suggested that Labour might get a higher vote share than Miliband but few seats, in which case both sides of the divide would feel even more divided but also vindicated. I mean, when you’ve got John Woodcock saying he was wrong about Corbyn and when you’ve got people really trying to work together and when we are in a situation where we only need a couple of point swing to win a majority – things are looking much better.

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