The left and the General Election: on Harman's doorstep

Submitted by Matthew on 18 March, 2010 - 4:22

Jill Mountford, who is standing as a Workers’ Liberty candidate in Peckham and Camberwell, spoke to Solidarity about the politics behind her campaign.

What do you think of what is on offer politically from the mainstream parties in this election?

In policy terms there is very little for the working class — we have three main political parties, if you include the Lib Dems, all vying for the centre ground. But the working class is not in the centre ground, we’re firmly on one side of the class divide.

Of course, historically, Labour is the party of the working class, born out of the trade unions and organised workers needing political representation. Despite decades of attacks on Labour Party democracy and workers’ rights, and desperately trying to manage capitalism better than the capitalists, Labour still has potentially strong links with the unions and so cannot be written off as a spent force.

That said, what a betrayal: 13 years of attacks on the working class, building on the previous 18 years of Tory attacks. Jobs, homes, welfare and healthcare all hacked away.

We’re out every weekend campaigning on estates around Camberwell and Peckham and it is reassuring that people haven’t forgotten what the Tories stand for and what they did during their 18 year reign under Thatcher and Major.

The polls show that many working-class people still see Labour as the traditional party of the working class in some form or other, even if they feel betrayed and let down by them. Of course, this is likely to translate itself into a really low turnout at the polls; not because people don’t care who is in government, or don’t have strong feelings about lots of different issues affecting their and other people’s lives, but because they feel powerless and that voting is pointless. This is a bad situation.

Despite this there is much to be optimistic about. Once you get the ear of people it’s easy to engage in some serious discussions about how we could better organise society in the interests of the majority.

Brown giving away billions of pounds to rich bankers while watching jobs in industry and the public sector fall by the wayside is undoubtedly obscene, and opposition and repugnance to it is rife.

It is our job to put forward a clear and distinct alternative, a set of working class demands that includes nationalising the banks, transport, utilities, etc; that involves creating jobs by building and staffing schools, the health service, the welfare state. It also includes repealing the anti-trade union laws and passing a charter of positive workers’ rights, as well as fighting racism in all its guises and sexism.

Of course, this election, in many places around the country, is not simply a contest between the three major parties, and a socialist candidate here and there. In this election we have the threat of the BNP. It’s then we hear the main parties and their MPs talking about the importance of voting. Politicians such as Labour MP Margaret Hodge in Barking have started talking about keeping the fascist BNP at bay — but it’s all too little, far, far too late. For the previous 13 years under Labour and for 18 years under the Tories they have been consciously excluding working-class people from politics.

What we have to say in any election, but especially at a time like this, when we have seen such corruption in the political class and are still going through a terrible economic crisis, is really important. The combination of the banks being bailed out and the MPs’ expenses scandals has brought the whole system into disrepute. What we say on our leaflet — about the need for a workers’ voice in politics, our pledge to take an average skilled workers’ wage if we are elected — no one else is saying. Yet that is exactly what needs to be said in this election!

For sure there are a few good Labour MPs left, but even they have become ground down, have lost confidence. I don’t think they are fighting on some of the issues they would have fought on 15 or 20 years ago.

What are the big political issues in Peckham and Camberwell?

Wages, jobs and housing!

In drafting our latest election leaflet someone whose political opinion I respect questioned whether the emphasis on the minimum wage was a bit skewed. The point is that having talked to people living on Southwark’s estates in the last few months, low wages seems to me to be really important. So many people do not earn even the present minimum wage — which is itself completely inadequate. And we’ve come across lots of people who are “underemployed”.

Many people live and work in a sub-economy, working at scrappy, part-time, cash-in hand jobs, in smaller workplaces. Where the work they have has little or no opportunity to unionise, they are at the beck and call of a boss who they work alongside, and they have only two or three co-workers.

The flipside is over-employment. We’ve met women who are working at three or four cleaning jobs or men who have cleaning jobs and are also night security guards. All to earn a living wage. This situation is insulting to human beings. No one should have to live like this.

The other big issue is homes. I grew up in a 1930s council house. It had a back garden, front garden, plenty of space inside. I don’t want to romanticise, but looking back, it does seem like a golden age of council housing.

Now you walk around estates and even though some homes are spacious on the inside the lack of investment is blindingly obvious.

Even when money has been spent, it has been on cosmetic “improvements”. They will tart up and modernise the fascia of a building, give it an aluminium covering so it ceases to look like a 1960s block... But the fundamentals, like getting your heating fixed, getting your hot and cold water when you need it, repairs to leaks and lifts, all of these things are shabbily attended to, even on some of the “better” estates.

And on the big Aylesbury estate there was a conscious political decision by Southwark council, once under Labour, now under Liberal leadership, not to invest in the estate, to prepare it instead for demolition, and for a PFI scheme to come in and build on the land, building much smaller and fewer homes.

People living on that estate have had to clarify, to the fine detail, what is being done to their homes, had to demystify the propaganda.

We on the left sometimes talk about “social housing”. But as people on the Aylesbury have found out, “social housing” isn’t good enough. Today “social housing” means Housing Associations, higher rents, loss of tenancy rights. It is council housing that we need. It is council houses that haven’t been built — there is a huge waiting list in Southwark —and those that remain have been run down or sold off — under both Tories and Labour.

Yet there is a lot of money going into building in the area. Before the crash the penny dropped with developers that the Elephant and Castle was the next circle out from the city. They had developed Bermondsey, next stop the Elephant. So now there is a major facelift going on. There is a very stark contrast in this part of the city between incredibly flash buildings going up, and run-down estates. It’s a familiar story but when this development — iconic glass and steel buildings, built to worship capitalism — creeps into an area like Peckham and Camberwell where there is so much brutalist architecture, working-class storage tanks we fondly call home, it is shocking.

We’ve found people sleeping rough on council estates. On one cold mid-week daytime in January we found two young men asleep. Only one guy had a sleeping bag. One was sleeping in the bin area — the space at the bottom of a rubbish shaft, a cold, stinking, grungy hole of a place, that only a description by Dickens could do justice to. You couldn’t tell if this guy was dead or alive. This is 2010, Peckham and Camberwell, the Labour Deputy Prime Minister’s consituency.

This is an election where we will get either a return Labour government or a Tory government. There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that a Tory government would be far, far worse. But everything about my experience of doing this campaign tells me that under no circumstances can we let the Labour government off the hook. All around us, what we see now is both the Tories’ and Labour’s legacy.

We shouldn’t forget that Harriet Harman is not just an ordinary MP. She may not be a bad local MP, but that’s not all she is.

When it suits her, she’s the feminist, when it suits her, she is the class warrior, when it suits her, she’s the pacifist. But for the last 13 years she has sat at the top table of the Labour government in different ministerial positions. We have to remind people that she has a lot to be responsible for.

What do you want your electoral campaign to achieve?

We should be pleased with ourselves if we can put back on people’s agenda the idea that working-class people have the right to a voice in Parliament.

Working-class people have a set of needs and aspirations which are quite different from those of the rich and the powerful.

It would be good if we can re-introduce ideas and slogans that were quite commonplace when I came into politics in the 1980s and that were still around in the 1990s, about workers having a right to representation, and the importance of Parliamentary politics, from an independent working-class standpoint.

I would like us to talk with people in the constituency about how capitalism works, to help others make sense of what is going on in the economy and with the banks.

It is worthwhile just getting out onto the streets and making a noise!

We need to carry on working in the constituency with the good people we have met, for instance in tenants’ associations —people we have met and will meet by holding meetings on council estates.

We shouldn’t be like the big parties and think people are only worth talking to while there is an election going on. So many people are interested in ideas and have a sharp sense, from direct experience, about how the world works. That’s very inspiring.

Some people in the area have a big battle ahead, people on the Aylesbury estate. We must continue to help them in that fight.

How does your campaign fit into developing and improving the socialist left?

We live in interesting times — the biggest socialist group in the Britain, the SWP, is in a terrible decline. On one level it’s sad because there have been so many opportunities missed by that organisation. That’s not just bad for the SWP it’s bad for the working class. But ultimately it seems like an opportunity for renewal. A time to further sift out the debris on the left.

We should remain optimstic because a lot of the dross could be cleared away and the AWL, as have others, have a test now, to see if we can win people over to our ideas.

We believe, in contrast to others on the left who have bent to Stalinism and political Islam, that we have had a rational, principled, independent and systematic approach to thinking through our ideas. Now we have to prove that.

Even a small voice can be heard in the right circumstances with the right opportunities and by keeping our voice clear. I do think there are opportunities. Over the last two years people have become more interested in politics in a general way — witnessing, as we have, a Labour government coddling the richest and most powerful people in the world, while workers affected by the crisis can’t pay their rents or their mortgages. A Labour government defending the system to that extent — it’s been an education for many.

Now we might be entering the general election with a wave of strikes. The BA workers seem very prepared to go out on a limb and to fight their union leaders, if they sell them out. This fills me with hope of what could be possible. We will need that kind of fight when we face such devastating cuts across the public sector.

The job of socialists is to be unashamed fighters for our ideas. Inevitably we are going to get into arguments and discusssions — that can only be a good thing.

How did you first become a socialist and what has kept you involved?

I first got involved in socialist politics as I drifted out of going to Greenham Common in 1982–3. It had been a good powerful feeling to find a voice and to organise alongside other women of different generations and different classes. But it became increasingly clear to me that women alone could not change the whole world, and women of different classes had different needs and aspirations.

But I was fortunate. I was able to get involved in the Warrington Messenger (newspaper) strike solidarity campaign. I was able to get on a coach from Stoke, go there and get arrested. That was my turning point. From there I went on to be involved in the miners’ strike — the best year of my life! And after that there was a year-long dispute against Murdoch in Wapping.

At this time, no matter where you were in the country you could get on a coach and join a demonstration or go to a picket line — every single weekend. In between all these major class battles there were campaigns to defend the health service, stop apartheid, and so on.

Young people who come to socialist politics now are worth much more than my generation were worth. To be inspired is very hard. There is a lot to make you angry but not much to inspire you. Of course, the test is to keep up the commitment and that is the same for all of us — cherishing and developing rational and logical socialist ideas.

The thing is being able to understand how capitalism works. The fact that there are two classes in society and our interests, needs and desires are diametrically opposed to each other. Nothing in my experience in the last 30 years has shown me that they can be reconciled.

For capitalism to survive, day by day, decade by decade, century by century, it has to absolutely screw the class that it exploits for profit.

Nothing has changed fundamentally since it first came about. Even if things had gone better for the labour movement, in the last twenty or thirty years we would had better opportunities, but still it would not have been enough.

Like billions of people the world over I come from a long line of people who have always had the crumbs from the table — and it’s not good enough.

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