Maria Exall, Communication Workers Union and chair of the TUC LGBT committee spoke to Solidarity in a personal capacity
What are the factors behind the “Corbyn explosion”?
It is a response to the Tory victory. Anyone who has half a socialist thought in their head will have been shocked by that, would have thought “we are stuck with this lot for another five years, they are going to do so much damage to welfare, the unions.”
What is exciting about it, especially as this includes a lot of young people, is people thinking how politics does matter. Jeremy’s campaign came along and they were inspired by the necessity of politics, at different levels.
The second element is people who were once Labour Party members and who have come back. Plus existing Labour members, are realising that the Blairite era is well and truly over.
Ed Miliband was a bit half-and-half. People backed him wanting something different and they got half of something different. Now people are thinking, what is the Labour future? Maybe other candidates in the leadership contest didn’t present something so future orientated. The Corbyn campaign was seen as a new paradigm.
The third element is that things in Labour politics are quite different when in opposition than in government. There is more room for recasting politics. Maybe that was an element in the unions’ thinking because it was surprising that they supported Corbyn. All the time that I’ve been active in the unions and attending Labour conference on behalf of my union, it’s been about “how can we win power” and “what will be acceptable”. That’s important actually, because it’s about convincing the majority of the British people. However to be always constrained by this imperative, as it was in the New Labour era, was a problem.
Now things have gone the other way and people are coming out with all sorts of ideas. In any party that should represent the labour movement and the working class we should gather up all these ideas. But we also need to think about how to convince people to vote for Labour. There has to be a strategy for the future.
The new political direction needs people to go out and convince people, street activity, door knocking..
Yes that’s right. But we also need to develop the Labour left. There has been some residual left in the party over the last ten years, people voting for left candidates etc. but it has been suppressed. We need a united democratic organisation to support this shift in politics.
People should get involved in their constituencies and their union’s political organisations to ensure this develops. Of course it raises democratic questions about who decides what policies get pushed and so on.
What were your impressions of this year’s Labour conference?
There were obviously some people who were really pissed off that Corbyn had won. There were people who had voted for Jeremy as well. But also a whole lot of people who didn’t vote for him but wanted to give him a go. I would say they were in a majority.
People responded very well to John McDonnell’s speech even though he made it very clear that he wanted to take Labour on a different political route. Jeremy’s speech was received very well. I think though a whole lot of people will be coming in and changing things, they are not so very different from the people who have been involved before. There is a difference but it is not as great as has been said.
A majority of people went along with the Blairites, but that’s all it was — going along with. Doesn’t mean that they thought in the same way as those people controlling the party machine. The Blairites got just 5% of Labour Party members’ vote this time [votes for Liz Kendall]. After all most Labour Party members don’t go to meetings and those that do might, just go to, for example, a selection meeting.
It’s as Tony Benn always used to say, there are the members, the activists and the Parliamentary Labour Party. They are all different people. It’s still the case. The problem, and political time-lag we have now is with the PLP. It’s very important now for the trade unions to encourage people to stand, to have candidates who represent working-class people and push campaigns.
Do you think the unions are going to try to capitalise on Corbyn’s victory? Getting local branches to affiliate, pushing policies forward?
There will always be a tension in the union movement between control from the top and what happens at the base. That may become an issue. For example, getting working-class candidates. It means unions have to go out and find people, educate them. More than just going through the motions of supporting this, that or the other campaign.
To organise effectively we need to take people, coming into the party, from where they are. Their experiences won’t be identical. But if people aren’t empowered, or shown how to get involved, then they won’t. People may get involved because they have been inspired. But there is a difference between being a member of a political party and being part of single issue campaign. With the former you are part of a project to win people over to a political viewpoint. And that is quite difficult. It requires you to think differently.
There is a big necessity for political education...
Yes, that is what we need. It needs to involve the trade unions as well. For instance, how many people understand what’s wrong with the Trade Union Bill? It seems to be an abstract democratic question. Unless you know how things work on the ground you won’t understand that the Tories are pushing back the unions in the workplace. Plus if you hear about what is happening on the ground, then solidarity becomes a bigger possibility.
How would summarise your thoughts and feelings about Corbyn?
I think it is a massive opportunity to push forward socialist ideas in Britain. And for the Labour Party to remake itself with a more pro-worker and grounded agenda on all the big issues about political economy, and trade union rights.
Personally I think the domestic agenda is more uniting; if you want relate to people on issues that really matter in their lives that is the direction to go in. We all have our important single issues, enthusiasms. But what this is about is trying to build connections in communities and workplaces. That has always been the strength of the Labour Party compared to other political formations.
Because it is a mass political party, of half a million people, you have the opportunity to be rooted in working-class peoples’ lives. If you are socialist of any sort and want to motivate people on a class basis then you have to take that seriously. The priority for the moment is to pick things that really chime with people, tell people how to fight back against the Tories and make clear that the labour movement is on peoples’ side.
On the issue of Trident, while I support the abolition, it is a problem. You are picking a hard issue there. A bit similar to Republicanism. For rebuilding the Labour Party in the immediate term we have got to be clear that we have a leadership that fights for people in their workplaces and communities.
There are some issues you can not avoid; that’s true of the Trade Union bill. But on other issues you can pick and choose. We have to chose the main things — housing, rail. I would hope we can take policies on these issues further. Public ownership of the rail is an easy issue; it’s not so easy on the other utilities. But we have to tackle that. The same arguments apply to other utilities as to rail. A campaign on rail is an opportunity to make people political about public ownership. I would hope there is more space to make similar political arguments.
The same on the trade union issue. In the Blairite years the arguement always had to be balanced between unions and employers. Why? I would hope there is more opportunity to get beyond that. To talk about, for instance, who actually creates the wealth. It should be about drawing out the basic socialist arguments.
Anyone who is a socialist activist needs to get active.
It’s now about rebuilding the sinews of the movement. Politics isn’t about having an opinion, it is about doing something about having an opinion. The collective approach is not just about debating and voting it is also about building support for campaigns, to work with others to achieve something.
And we are going to have to have big fights. In local government for instance, where democratic accountability has almost disappeared, and it’s now all about directly elected Mayors, it will be a big task to reverse that situation.
I’ve been quite privileged to be quite rooted in an active labour movement structures, a union branch and as a member of the Labour Party. I can see things with a more long term perspective and that a continuity of working in those structures is important.