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Using the local elections to fight for workers' rights

Submitted by AWL on 3 May, 2021 - 5:44
Edd Mustill

Edd Mustill (pictured right) is an NHS worker and GMB trade union activist who is standing for Labour in the Graves Park ward of Sheffield city council. He spoke to us about his campaign.

My ward – which I also live in – has a long history of Lib Dem councillors so I’m unlikely to win. I’m standing to get a decent vote, but also to raise issues, build our Labour Party branch and get more people active as campaigners.

I was selected a year and a half ago, and I planned to run a campaign based on extensive voter contact, with lots of door-knocking and discussions. Obviously, events intervened, and we’ve really only done that in the last few weeks. The situation has also limited the number of people involved – there are a lot of comrades waiting for their vaccine or generally just unsure about being out campaigning – so we’ll need to keep going consistently after the election.

The ward is mainly owner-occupied properties but with quite a few private renters. Like a lot of Sheffield wards it's a ward of two halves, with a strong Labour vote in one half but more affluent residents who tend to lean Lib Dem in local elections in the other. In the 2017 election we won every part of the ward, but general elections are a bit different here. In 2019 we did quite badly for a number of reasons, including frustration over Brexit and a local issue to do with the council taking down trees, which it has partially shifted on now.

We’re not getting the hostility we sometimes got in 2019, but I have had quite a few people saying they don’t feel Labour stands for much. However, our local campaign has been different, with some strong working-class politics, and that has actually got a very positive response.

What kind of things are you raising?

There are local issues we’ve raised, for instance about green spaces and woodland, but mainly we’ve focused on workers’ rights. We’ve put out a lot about fire-and-rehire. We’ve raised the profile of local workers’ campaigns like the couriers' disputes and Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise. We’ve promoted the wider message that workers should not pay the costs of the pandemic. Members have liked all this and as I say it’s got a good response from voters too. Quite number of people have specifically said it’s good to get something so substantial, with some actual politics in it.

What’s your assessment of the national Labour campaign?

Well, there’s the focus on NHS pay, that’s the most political point, but of course councils don’t run the health service and in any case Labour’s position is weak. In Sheffield there’s also some material about Andy Burnham re-regulating the bus system in Manchester, but the problem is [Sheffield regional mayor] Dan Jarvis has nodded at this issue, but not committed on it. There are campaigns on this in South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire but they’ve not got real commitments from Labour yet.

What have you said on the NHS?

My material has explicitly called for the 15% demand. I’m one of the local organisers of NHS Workers Say No.

What about council cuts and council funding?

Nationally as far as I can see we’re not saying anything about it, which is frankly mad. In Sheffield we’ve had £475 million removed from the council’s block grant since 2010. The wider Labour campaign has nodded at this problem, but I’ve tried to much more definite about it.

We also have a referendum to move the council from a leader and cabinet system to a more democratic committee one. There’s a campaign called It’s Our City and I’m one of quite a few Labour candidates supporting the move. However I’ve tried to make the point that, run the city however you want, moving to a committee system is not going to get back the half a billion we’ve lost. There needs to be a political campaign about reversing this, preferably nationally but we need to organise locally too.

We need to have this argument even on the left. The local Labour for a Green New Deal group have put out a manifesto which I’ve signed up to along with several other candidates. It’s all good stuff, mainly focused on a “community wealth building” type of approach, like the "Preston model". That’s fine but there's a danger that it becomes a substitute for arguing for a restoration of lost funding. The problem is that without the fight over cuts community wealth building is pretty much what Cameron and Osborne wanted for local authorities – be entrepreneurial, find other sources of income. It has to be part of a fight to restore central government funding. I'm sure LGND comrades would agree, but it's a question of emphasis.

On this point, Momentum nationally is relaunching its councillor network, but I want to know what the point is, what’s the political basis on which it will organise?

A lot of people on the left are feeling disillusioned with Labour. Why vote Labour?

There’s some truth in the adage that the worst Labour council is better than the alternative; but more fundamentally it’s because Labour is still a site of struggle for left-wing ideas, as I think my campaign shows. I’ve been able to put out thousands of leaflets about banning fire-and-rehire, a 15% NHS pay rise and the Deliveroo strike, and we’ve discussed trade unionism with hundreds of people. It’s difficult to combine this stuff with an election campaign but we have.

I know some people have left the party, and some have been expelled, often on the most spurious grounds, but we still have a mass left-wing membership that supports these kind of ideas.

I think it has to be about putting forward these positive alternatives, not only attacking Starmer. Some people were a bit naive about how great Corbynism was and have now flipped to extreme negativity. I’m not in Labour because I love everything about the party or its leadership, far from it. For me as a socialist it’s a mechanism to put forward left-wing ideas and working-class struggle in my community. Labour is still the best vehicle for that on a large-scale.

How do you expect the party to do on Thursday?

In Sheffield, it could go from a Labour majority to No Overall Control, with Labour the largest party. I think the Greens will do well this time. Across the country I imagine it will be a real mixed bag. Every Labour faction will leap to draw the conclusions it wants. The right will say it vindicates them whatever happens; we should try to be more sober and honest. Unfortunately if the Tories do ok, which they probably will whatever else happens, that may provide them with a fresh boost.

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