Jill Mountford, a member of the Momentum Steering Committee, spoke to Solidarity about fighting her expulsion from the Labour Party. This version is a bit longer than in the printed paper.
What is your history with the Labour Party?
I joined Labour in 1983, because I got involved with class politics. Before that I was more involved with women’s politics. I’d spent time at Greenham Common. In 1983 I was a student, I went with students from my poly to picket lines in Warrington, for the NGA printers’ dispute, against Eddie Shah. After that things speeded up, and with the miners’ strike everything became clearer, that we needed to transform the party and movement so we could give a political dimension to these struggles that were going on. After the defeat of the miners I continued that battle, but it became much harder, of course.
In the mid-1990s I was leading a movement called the Welfare State Network which put demands on Labour about rebuilding welfare and public services. But, under Blair, Labour was going the opposite direction. I moved out of Labour Party activity in the late 1990s. The Iraq war in 2003 was bad, but before then we’d already seen what Blair’s Labour had done to the welfare state, to the NHS, to education, to teachers and in particular to welfare benefits.
What do you make of the argument that Blair was much better earlier on?
I don’t buy it. That misses the point completely. After 18 years of Thatcherite government, despite that incredible majority, they stuck to Tory spending limits, they pushed privatisation, there were the attacks on refugees. Of course we felt huge relief at getting rid of the Tories, of course it was better than the Tories, how could it not be, but remember in the first four days they gave away the bank of England and they cut single parent child benefit – which Harriet Harman was behind. I think tuition fees were not far behind. We shouldn’t rewrite history.
It was clear this was a Thatcherite government; Blair was very influenced by Thatcher and Thatcherism had seeped into his bones. There was a Thatcherisation of politics, they moved the whole spectrum to the right, which is why we’ve seen the rise of right-wing movements. It was about the failings of the left, but also the way they closed down space for left arguments more effectively than Thatcher, because they were the Labour Party. They justified themselves by saying public opinion isn’t left-wing, but they were actively helping to create that public opinion, with the help of the media. So I think in that context the need to make socialist arguments was clear.
So in the 2000s you supported some left election challenges to Labour, and stood yourself in 2010, in Camberwell and Peckham, Harriet Harman’s seat. Why? Wasn’t the bigger priority Labour winning against the Tories?
Of course we were bothered about Labour winning. You’d have to be one of those socialists who live in cloud-cuckoo land not to be bothered. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty had supporters all over the country working for a Labour victory. I see no contradiction whatsoever to that in standing candidates in safe Labour seats and making some clear propaganda about the kind of world we need to live in and how we get it. It’s not the job of socialists to be flag-waving supporters for whatever the Labour leadership is saying. It’s our job to make our case and arguments for a bigger and better programme and push that forward.
Couldn’t you have made those arguments inside the Labour Party?
I don’t know what the Labour Party membership was in those years, but it certainly fell to a serious low, maybe half what it is now. Of course there were lots of good, stalwart socialists who stuck with Labour because they got a bigger picture and they wanted to make the Labour Party fight for the kind of agenda I had too. But it was a very isolated argument at that time. Blair took pride in ignoring Labour conference decisions. Labour had changed enormously since the 1980s. There weren’t many new, young socialists in the Labour Party. Why would they have joined, after all the inequality and austerity, and everything else like Iraq and migrants’ rights?
After 1994 Blair made a coup and many channels in the Labour Party were blocked, making workers' representation more difficult. There were left challenges to Labour because people wanted to reassert basic class politics.
The difference now is that Labour has begun to open up. Today, any serious young left winger would join the Labour Party with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Compare and contrast!
Looking back on the 2010 election, what’s your overall assessment?
Well obviously the independent socialist left didn’t do well. There was a lesson there about the way things were going. There had been a decline of the activist left over that decade up to 2010. The Socialist Alliance stood in 2001 and the results were poor, but in any case it turned out it didn't go any further. There was a decline of the left and a resurgence of the right. That was reflected in the Labour Party too.
The left needs to look at itself and look at the different opportunities missed. Having said that, I think it was right in the Blair and Brown years to try to find the biggest platform possible to raise socialist ideas and policies for working-class people to fight for.
So how did you rejoin Labour?
I stayed up all night during the 2015 election with a group of friends, miserable since ten o’clock the night before that Labour had lost. I’d been actively campaigning for a Labour government, with the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, and I was bitterly disappointed.
Throughout that day I had loads of people coming into my work and saying they were going to join the Labour Party, some rejoining and others for the first time. In May I went to a “Left Platform” meeting at NUT HQ, where we were pushing for a left candidate to stand for the Labour leadership. It’s surreal looking back on it now.
I joined the Labour Party at the beginning of July and I threw myself into activity, canvassing, leafleting, producing materials, I took responsibility, I got elected to the GC and I’ve been arguing all over for people to join the party. I was out canvassing for Sadiq Khan when a letter arrived expelling me, two weeks ago. That letter said nothing about me standing for election six years ago. It just said my politics, the politics of AWL, are not compatible with the Labour Party.
That shouldn’t be the case — Labour has always been a broad church. It’s always involved many different kind of socialists and that is particularly the case now. It’s also contradictory as many AWL people are Labour members in good standing; and some have been expelled, have appealed, and have been reinstated. They’re not even being consistent. But the general point is: if the Blairites can be in the Labour Party, why can’t I?
The week before I was expelled, Richard Barrett, a UKIP councillor in Hull, who stood against Labour for parliament last year announced his defection to Labour. The Compliance Unit raised no objection. In 1999, Shaun Woodward, who was a Tory shadow minister, defected to Labour. He was welcomed with open arms. He was parachuted into a safe seat for the next general election, against the left-leaning candidate the CLP wanted. There are double standards here. I’m going to fight to get my place back in the party.
Why do you think you in particular have been expelled?
I'm not the only expellee, of course, far from it, but there are specific reasons. The idea in the New Statesman, that somehow the party missed my membership and didn’t notice, is obviously absurd. I’m a well-known person in Lewisham, I’d say, and I’ve been extremely active, and of course this is an area with a Labour council and Labour MPs and lots of prominent people.
Most people in the local party are really appalled and shocked. I’ve been expelled because we set up a successful Momentum group in Lewisham, which meets regularly with a good turnout and political discussions and actions as well as activity inside the Labour Party structures. Out of that, I was elected to the Momentum NC in February and then the steering committee. Just as they’re trying to give a kicking to Corbyn, the press are giving a kicking to Momentum and I was a target.
The Compliance Unit acted at the behest of the Tory press, and that’s really disgraceful. I’ve also been attacked by prominent right-wing Labour MPs, like Gloria De Piero, who is an ex-member of Workers’ Liberty. The wider picture is not just about me, it’s about Momentum and its potential for transforming the Labour Party. That’s what they’re worried about.
You don’t wish now that you’d kept your head down in the Blair and Brown years?
We wanted a Labour government, very much so, but we weren’t under any illusions that a Labour government then would put forward a working-class agenda. Remember that in 2010 Gordon Brown had just bailed out the banks, at huge expense. Who was going to pay for that? Not the rich, but the working class, through cuts. We had a completely different agenda to offer, including taking over the banks and taxing the rich so we could build council housing, and save the NHS, and expand services. That's why I was standing.
I wanted to talk about inequality. Camberwell and Peckham is a very poor constituency, with a lot of run-down social housing and expensive private landlords, massive unemployment, and of course a very big black and minority ethnic population. It also has some big houses being bought up by some very wealthy people. Even within the constituency, without looking further, there are very stark examples of rich and poor. How could Harriet Harman with her lifestyle on £100,000 a year represent some of the poorest people in London? Her politics reflected her wealth.
Now, Harman was probably far from the worst. By 2010 Blair and Mandelson were off making their millions. and of course Mandelson said he was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich. I seem to remember Blair made £20 million within two years of leaving the leadership. It’s amazing what they got away with, and what they went on to do. Less than a hundred years after the Labour Party was founded to represent working-class people, you’ve got a layer of leaders who were there to cream off vast sums of money. What relationship did they have to the labour movement? We were on a pledge to take an average worker’s wage. The rest would have been donated to labour movement campaigns in the fight for equality.
In the context of such grotesque inequality between the people who lead the labour movement and those they’re supposed to represent, in the context of industrial decline and then austerity, is it surprising that so many people turned to the right, to the BNP and then UKIP? That’s the context in which we decided to stand. That’s why I absolutely wouldn’t apologise for standing. There was absolutely a need to raise a different set of politics.
The working class needs a Labour government elected in 2020, if not sooner; but a Labour government that will stand up for working-class interests against the rich and the bosses. I’ll continue to fight for that. I regard this as a temporary interruption, or not really an interruption at all.
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