Bean over Britain: Corbyn’s champion on Brexit, Blair and winning back Derby

In the Derby North seat which Chris Williamson held from 2010 to 2015, the fiercely pro-Corbyn candidate has a fight on his hands. Having lost by just 41 votes two years ago, it is one of the most marginal Labour targets in Britain. Seen by many as a test case for the leader’s policy agenda, Williamson was as enthused as ever when he sat down to talk to me after a campaign rally in the rain.

Why are you standing in this election and what have you got to offer the people of Derby North?

“I’m a Derby lad, born and bred, I live a hundred yards from where I was born. I was the MP for five years, from 2010-2015 and prior to that I was a councillor. I’ve been active in the Labour party for 41 years now, councillor for 20 years in this city, and I’m very passionate about Derby, very passionate about Labour and I’m particularly enthused by Jeremy Corbyn’s policy agenda and the manifesto that we’re putting forward now.

“In my view, it’s the best manifesto since 1945. We really do have an opportunity to literally change the course of history.”

“I know the opinion polls are suggesting that Labour is going to fare particularly badly – that’s not my experience, I have to say, on the doorstep. We’ve had a very good reaction in certain parts of the constituency. In fact, on some streets that I’ve been down, it is literally 100 per cent support. Hopefully that will translate [into votes] – I’m not guaranteeing that it will do – but it feels very very positive.”

How would you describe your politics in one sentence?

“Progressive.”

How has Brexit affected the seat?

“It hasn’t really affected it yet, because it’s not happened. Derby was a city that voted for Brexit – not by a huge margin but it did vote for it. I campaigned vigorously for remain, I wasn’t a remainer with a blank cheque – I was very much on the same page as Jeremy was in this. Remain and reform.”

“Clearly the EU was far too much of a capitalist club, there was far too much of a presumption in favour of privatisation. But having said that, as we know, there were many benefits to being in the European Union. We managed to secure, and I was on the periphery of the campaign, to bring Toyota to Derby.

“The fact is, in many working class communities across the country – and Derby’s no exception – people didn’t really see or feel the benefits of being in the European Union. They saw their jobs disappearing, Derby’s a very big manufacturing city but not as big as it used to be. Working class kids, and older people for that matter, forced into low wage, dead end, zero hour contract jobs with no real career prospects. People unable to buy a house on their own or unable to get a council house. People couldn’t see what the benefit was.

“It was a misplaced view I think, but I blame successive governments, I blame Tony Blair and New Labour, for not having a proper industrial strategy. For not actually providing these good quality decent jobs for those communities.”

“Many of the benefits that flowed to Derby and the UK we attributed to ourselves, and to a Labour government, and gave the impression that we’ve done this because of a Labour government. That’s fine up to a point but people didn’t see what the benefit was of being in the European Union.

“Why weren’t we singing from the treetops the benefits of being in the EU?”

Why does Britain need a Labour government?

“We offer a transformational policy programme that – well it’s kind of bread and butter – will improve people’s quality of life, standard of living, give people access to decent housing, give people a future they can believe in, give young people hope. Improve our public services, make the economy work for ordinary people – the list is pretty good, and it’s pretty endless actually!”

“What we’ve seen as a consequence of a laissez faire approach [to big business] – which New Labour bought into as well – is that the corporate interest hasn’t always, and more often than not doesn’t coincide with the national interest. What we’re going to have with a Labour government, with the programme that Jeremy Corbyn is putting forward now, is one that will ensure that the government works in the national interest, that the corporate sector works in the national interest, that people get a share of the wealth of this country.”

Labour faces poor poll ratings nationally so how do you deal with that locally?

“We’re not seeing it locally – we’re finding locally, and I’m not seeing this through rose-tinted glasses, I’ve been active in every general election campaign since 1979.”

“I know what we’ve seen in the past, and last time it was looking quite good for us, but this is markedly different I have to say. I’m not saying that it means we’re going to storm to power – who knows what is going to happen – but that is not what I’m getting.”

“On some streets, and I’ve never seen this before, you get 100 per cent returned for Labour.”

“This is a movement, and this agenda will stand the test of time – irrespective of what happens in this election, this is the right agenda.”

“There can be no going back to New Labour, there can be no going back to an acceptance of neo-liberalism – that’s been an utter disaster for the Labour party and for the people that rely on a Labour government.”

Do you think Labour receives a fair hearing from the media?

“No, of course we don’t – we never have. The hearing that we’re getting now is kind of non-existent. I’ve never known it so bad.

“It’s an absolute scandal – the BBC have been nothing short of scandalous.

“They’re doing a disservice to democracy, they’re certainly doing a disservice to the licence fee payers by not reporting accurately. I think though that we are getting some traction with the programme that we’re putting forward, because it is such a common sense proposition.

“We know the policies are popular, but they’ve tried to demonise Jeremy so much, they’ve tried to smear, ridicule and they’re obsessed with these gotcha questions, and with the focus on the trivia and the minutiae rather than the big themes.”

When was the last moment you had to relax off the campaign trail and how did you spend it?

“I suppose, trying to do the house up. We’re knocking the house around – this general election couldn’t have come at a worse time in many ways.

“It started that we were just going to knock around our en-suite bathroom, it’s moved on from that to refurbishing the whole house. It’s looking great now, we’ve got the decorator in.”

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