“You can always appeal to a higher ideal” — an interview with the man who won England’s most marginal seat
Chris Williamson is the newly-elected MP for Derby North — England’s most marginal seat- and Labour’s shadow fire minister.
In the early hours of May 8 2015 Chris Williamson found out he had lost his Derby North seat by just 41 votes.
This time around his insistence on talking up Corbyn on the doorstep while other Labour MPs talked him down, saw his chances dismissed by critics. But the former brickie and care worker walked back into Parliament last month on a majority of two thousand. Chris now has every reason to be ebullient.
He’s reopened his old constituency office in the same shopping centre unit it stood before and got the same parliamentary office in Portcullis House back as well. “It’s like stepping into old, familiar shoes”, he says. “Nothing’s changed.” He hesitates. “Something is different — we’ve a leader in keeping with my vision of the world.”
It has taken a long time for that to happen — perhaps ever since Chris joined the Labour Party in 1975, spurred on by values inherited from his family.
“Mum always said to recognise there’s good and bad in everybody, all races and creeds. Dad fought in the war, and had a sense of fairness that came from growing up in the 1930s. The generation that fought the war were not going back to the indignity of means testing, mass unemployment, poor housing and being terrified of the medical bills for falling ill or being injured at work.”
“They engendered a sense of when you stand together you can make a difference.”
But his other influences are more cultural, in an age where politics featured more regularly in popular entertainment. “I’d left school at 15 and hadn’t studied politics. But the TV dramas I watched reflected the struggles and history of the Labour movement and these grabbed me. There’s a serial called When the Boat Comes In dwelling on the period before the First World War, working class life in the North East and how unions and Labour were part of communities that worked together. These along with Cathy Come Home and others whetted my appetite and sparked my interest.”
Decades on, he’s spent the last few months fighting tooth and nail to take back the most marginal seat in England. He has not just been fighting the Conservatives either — when the general election campaign started, resources were being poured into the seat next door which had a Labour majority of ten thousand. Chris had to struggle for everything he got from Labour’s HQ. But what he lacked in central support he made up for in volunteer enthusiasm. There were canvassing drives coordinated by Momentum, and also more spontaneous groundswells of activism.
“We had hundreds coming in. Twenty canvassing teams on occasion, plus the city centre stalls. That happened because of the agenda we set out, the agenda that won Jeremy Corbyn the leadership, a programme that gave people hope.”
The weekend during the campaign that I visited there were teams from London and Sheffield bolstering the locals, and bales of leaflets being delivered in spite of driving rain. Chris made time to talk to every campaigner at the same time as he tried to reach as many voters as possible.
“But you can’t reach absolutely everyone face to face”, he says. “We had a more innovative digital campaign than I’ve ever seen [Labour] organise before. Using targeting algorithms on Facebook we reached much, much more people and were able to focus on some cohorts — Ukip swing voters, Lib Dem voters, and environmentalists for example.”
The output ranged from a short film on Chris’ life, record and commitments put together quickly but with high production values, to a Facebook page called “Chris Williamson memes for Derby North teens”, which kept up a steady stream of light-hearted posts until polling day.
Chris says that all the campaign’s online content received unprecedented engagement, attacks on the Tories and their record went down best in terms of engagement. But the street was a much more positive place.
“We didn’t really indulge in anything negative”, he adds proudly.
“We were talking about the programme” — and here he uses his well-worn key message, “which isn’t a matter of left or right but a matter of right or wrong.” Others have said there was something in the manifesto for everyone, and Chris makes reference to his conversations with Ukip supporters. There he was able to stress that only Labour would genuinely take back control by stopping global corporations running railways and other services. “If you want to continue with the status quo, where it’ll be easier for global corporations to continue exploiting British workers, then go and vote Ukip and Tory”, he said to some. Most were receptive; Chris says flat-out disagreement was rare.
He also notes that people were informed about the manifesto than ever, “obviously not the detail, but plenty of the broad themes. Fees, housing, utilities and rail, investment in the economy to create jobs — that last one is more nebulous but it came through in some ways, and the NHS and National Care Service also.”
“Labour would sweep away private sector involved in delivering public services. You have people like care workers, doing the most important work you can possibly do, but on effectively less than the minimum wage when you count time between visits which is part of the working day.
Chris is talking about expansive, sweeping national reforms — yet in Derby North, they are all very close to home.
“The manifesto would address our crisis in housing, education and public services”, says Chris. “When growing up I never saw sleeping in shop doorways, people would be able save to buy a house and be able to get a council flat if they couldn’t buy.”
“The National Investment Bank was probably our least understood policy but the difference it would make is incredible, especially in terms of job opportunities in manufacturing. We’re still a manufacturing city.”
Chris is well acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of Derby’s labour market. Average earnings are some of the highest outside London “but most high earners live outside the city. We’re a low-wage city with a high average driven by Rolls-Royce and also the railway.”
Both these workplaces have strong union representation, unlike the low-paid, zero-hours jobs that proliferate elsewhere. “We’ve had sweatshop type companies in Derby, and no prosecutions. It’s a real issue. For anyone in the position I was — working class kids coming out with few qualifications, the opportunities simply aren’t there”, laments Chris.
“But they could be.”
As the campaign progressed, Chris would be buoyed by conversations on the doorstep and in the street, and then go home and be deflated by news coverage of how poorly Labour were doing. “The news got more and more out of step, and opinion kept shifting.”
With his victory secured, the conversation has turned to what happens next. Some of the young people involved in his campaign have organised a “Jam 4 Jez” session for young people to meet and talk politics while they sing or play guitar.
Chris hopes such spontaneous energy keeps going. But he wants to go further in making Labour present in every part of the community. There is a member of his staff working on a community organising operation fit for a 21st Century socialist project.
“When I was MP before, we’d do citizens on patrol”, says Chris, “and resolve problems on the spot with fire, police, or housing officers in attendance. But this time we need to go deeper. In the past it’s felt as if local organising is over here and Labour over there. We need to be embedded in communities, solving problems alongside people, part of local organisations.”
That, he insists, is the way to turn this unprecedented result into future victories and a lasting legacy.
Chris’ views on New Labour — “it’s dead and buried” — are no secret. But as an MP in a place often treated as part of an “English Rust Belt”, he’s just as hard on those in Labour who claim to be post-neoliberal, but believe a tough stance on issues like immigration is the only way to win blue-collar workers. There is a hint of irritation with the typecasting of what working class people think.
“You can always appeal to a higher ideal. I’d have lots of conversations about immigration and I would make the point to people that they’ve more in common with migrants than people at top exploiting both — and we’ve got to work together to have a higher minimum wage, a decent inspection and enforcement regime, and ensure those who transgress the law are actually prosecuted. Most people in my experience are willing to listen and accept that. And people are moved and inspired by a hopeful alternative, whoever they are.”
Chris Williamson has another challenge to meet. He’s back in his former role as shadow fire minister, just weeks after a deadly blaze ripped through Kensington’s Grenfell Tower in the worst civil disaster in modern Britain.
“It’s appalling. It’s an indictment of the system we’ve been living with for forty years. We’ve looked at public services as cash cows to generate profit. This took off under Thatcher with compulsory competitive tendering, which generated profits by cutting staff pay and conditions. Public housing has been farmed out to the private sector, who are constantly looking at how corners can be cut, how deals can be done.”
His analysis is far from abstract. Emails detailing the cost-saving exercise that led to non-fire resistant cladding being fitted to the tower were seen by The Times two weeks ago, adding to a litany of missed warnings and missed opportunities for action at every level.
“Forty years ago”, Chris adds, “there were large numbers of people whose job was to go from building to building checking fire safety. That inspection regime has been cut to the bone.”
When working as a builder, Chris found himself on a site with no handrail on a scaffold. He fell twenty feet onto a concrete staircase.
“There’s been general improvements in health and safety since then. But on the fire inspection regime, the eye has been off the ball. Planning departments used to be run by local authority building control teams, and then competition was brought in. People would offer the same service as local authorities at a reduced fee. This affected the number and quality of staff at local authorities.”
He sighs and continues. “Then there are changes to how things are signed off. Desktop exercises rather than physical assessments to determine whether buildings were safe. Now all these things — cuts, deregulation, letting the market run riot, have come home to roost.”
“The inquiry will reach final conclusions but in my view, if that block had been run by a properly resourced local authority it wouldn’t have used cheaper cladding that failed to meet basic standards, there would have been more fire breaks, and corners would not have been cut.”
Following Grenfell, the government appointed Sir Ken Knight as an independent fire safety expert. Chris is concerned. “I was shadow fire minister when he was doing work on the future of the service. I took him to task on his recommendations, like increasing part-time firefighters. I will wait and see but it’s not a good sign that they’ve got someone who has helped justify 11,000 firefighters being lost and response times increased.”
Derby County, like most regions, has lost fire stations and Chris is worried that with further cuts, the losses might extend into the city as well.
“Government must look at how it gains people’s confidence and stops this happening again in the future. That’s why the Grenfell inquiry has to look at political decisions and the political culture behind decisions.”
Emergency service reform sits at the top of Chris’ priorities in his new brief. “We’d reverse cuts and build blue light services fit for purpose”, he says. “We’d repeal the Health and Social Care Act and ensure democratic accountability in services.”
But even on the specific question of emergency service reform, he can’t get away from the bigger picture. “Rising homelessness and the effect of cuts increases pressure on emergency services and the better quality of life we’d provide reduces this.”
A minute or so later, he’s sketching out a vision of the future. He leans on — and jumps seamlessly between — the intricacies of the ground campaign in Derby North, the broad brush strokes of values and political theory and a formidable understanding of policy built up both from his career outside politics and his time in local government.
“The £200bn government spends on public procurement can be used to promote good growth, while investment, whether in housing or a stronger digital economy will help the private sector through both contracts and the value of the assets.”
A keen environmentalist, Chris offers up renewable energy as an example of something that could be done better for both public and private good. “The Lib Dems claim environmental credentials but in coalition with the Conservatives they messed with tariffs, undermining a fledgling renewables industry at a stroke. We’d create the stability needed for investment.”
He adds that investment-led growth would create a ‘virtuous circle.’
“A higher minimum wage means good quality jobs, higher tax returns, more disposable income generating more jobs in turn, and so on.”
“Ed Miliband talked in his campaign about the promise of Britain — that your kids would have a higher living standard than you — no longer being true. That’s why our manifesto hit home, and turnout was the highest among young people it’s been in my lifetime.”
There’s an appreciation of youth engagement that seems to come from Chris’ own process of joining the Labour Party at nineteen. He tried to join three times, and in the end it took the-then MP, Philip Whitehead, to sort the application out. Whitehead won Derby against a national swing, according to some in part due to the efforts of maverick football manager Brian Clough, a local hero and lifelong socialist who gives his name to the flyover leading into the city centre. Chris met him many years later and counts both him and Whitehead among his inspirations.
“Philip was erudite, and he was an intellectual. He was just the kind of person you expected to be an MP. I was an apprentice brickie and never thought someone like me could do it.”
“Thirty-four years later, here I am.”