Paul Sweeney on how Labour can rebuild both the ‘Red Wall’ and the ‘Yellow Wall’

Sienna Rodgers
© Kerstin Rodgers

When I last interviewed Paul Sweeney, he was fighting for re-election as the Labour MP for Glasgow North East, defending a majority of just 242. He had been made an MP unexpectedly in 2017, when Labour didn’t win but enjoyed many happy surprises. We soon discovered that the feat could not be repeated two years later, as Labour’s vote share dropped significantly in a general election that was shaped by Brexit and once again saw SNP voters motivated to turn out. Speaking to Sweeney ahead of Holyrood elections in which he is campaigning to become a Glasgow region MSP, he describes his time in Westminster as an “Alice in Wonderland experience” and his experience of losing the seat as “fairly traumatic”.

“I had to leave my job when I got elected, so I didn’t have anything to go back to,” he explains. Fortunately, he got a job working on Angela Rayner’s deputy leadership campaign for several months. “Then I ended up unemployed for the first time since I was 14 and had a paper round. It was a bit of a disorientating experience. I came to the realisation that I’d have nothing else but to sign on basically, so I signed on for Universal Credit.” Potential employers don’t quite know what to do when they see “MP” as someone’s last job, but he managed to get work for three months over the summer helping asylum seekers in Glasgow.

Home Office contractor Mears decided to decant asylum seekers into empty hotels in the city centre during the pandemic. There were calls for an inquiry after one day an asylum seeker stabbed six people. Sweeney says it was a “pressure cooker” situation and a “stressful environment without much information or support”. In his work with organisation Community InfoSource, they got grants to buy smartphones and used them to “help people get information, helplines, legal advice, places they can go to for assistance, clothing, food, etc”. Sweeney tells me: “My project was to prepare each phone for each individual asylum seeker… It wasn’t particularly well-paid or anything, it was just something to keep me going and something I was working on as an MP, working with asylum seekers.”

Since September, the candidate says, “I’ve been on Universal Credit, just burning down my savings and living off UC. It’s been pretty miserable.” He has been working on other projects, though, such as the safe drugs-use van with Peter Krykant (who is standing as an independent candidate in the Holyrood elections). Again, the Labour candidate is challenging the Home Office, in this case on drug reform. “They won’t allow for the piloting of safe consumption rooms, which have been globally demonstrated to have obvious successes in reducing harms associated with risky drug consumption.” But the law is silent on injecting drugs, he says, so they decided to go for it anyway.

“The pilot has been a great success. It started in September, in an old transit minibus, and we created a sterile desk where you can inject drugs with a surface that is safe and you’ve got clean needles. Peter has been doing most of it, I occasionally drop in. But it’s been a really good project.” It put pressure on SNP public health minister Joe FitzPatrick, who lost his job after Scotland recorded its highest ever number of drug deaths. “He wouldn’t even come and visit it. It was shocking.” Sweeney reports that the van has also changed public opinion. “People initially were quite suspicious of the idea. But they’re increasingly like, this is great.” It builds relationships, takes people off the streets, reduces drug debris in alleyways and reduces HIV transmission.

Sweeney tells me these projects have helped him see even more clearly that his politics have a real purpose. “It’s not about if I can just have ‘MP’ after my name, or about ‘working in politics’, whatever the fuck that’s meant to mean, just enjoying it for the drama. There’s a lot of people who are like that, they just like the soap opera. It’s never really been about that for me. I find all that stuff fairly boring, just a bit pathetic,” he says. “It’s not some trivial exercise, here – there’s lives at stake. You see some of the people who come to that van, at total rock bottom, who’ve been traumatised, suffered all sorts of harms, failed by the state… It brings you to tears sometimes.”

“It’s not just ‘oh, this is terrible’. It’s like, we can fucking fix this! Let’s get on with it. Stop fucking around,” Sweeney continues. “The solutions are obvious. We just need the political willpower… That’s why things like saying the Tory policy on drugs is ‘about right’ is so exasperating.” He is referring here to Keir Starmer’s expressed view that the government’s current policy on drugs is “roughly right”. Sweeney attributes this to “a total lack of intellectual curiosity”, “probably born of ignorance” or “just conventional thinking that people are too scared to challenge”. The candidate admits: “That really frustrated me, to be honest with you. I took it a bit personally, actually, given the amount of work I’ve done on that.”

Anas Sarwar is clearly popular with voters in Scotland, but Keir Starmer is not getting the same warmth on the doorstep. What does Sweeney think? “I certainly supported, and still support, Keir. I don’t have any reason to be antagonistic towards Keir. But I think there is a frustration that it feels like he’s holding back and he’s not being himself. It feels like he’s overly cautious and it feels like he’s being programmed by apparatchiks and focus groups rather than just trying to be himself.” He wants to see more evidence of an “ethical, moral mission that defines the Labour Party in the 21st century”.

Sweeney adds: “There were many flaws in the Corbyn project, not least the fact he failed to win on both occasions, but there was certainly the genesis of a philosophy about what a democratic socialist party in Britain should look like in terms of the economic project that we were pursuing.” The Glasgow candidate then launches into what should really be described as a manifesto. It is thoroughly considered and raises ideas that should be at the core of Labour’s internal debates, which are instead dominated by the same old arguments and often needlessly hostile. His programme for change covers the big stuff: the economy and the constitution.

“When we’re looking at the massive, unprecedented structural economic issues we’re gonna have to face coming out of the pandemic, when the furlough scheme starts to ebb away, what kind of country is going to be left? How resilient is our economy going to be? Are we going to face mass unemployment? What is Labour’s thinking on how to address these things? I don’t feel that we’re approaching it with the degree of vigour and imagination that we could be,” he says.

“We’ve almost kept our powder dry for no obvious reason, when it comes to the Tories. There’s been a big focus on corruption, certainly. But I think there’s a general feeling that we’ve been way too lenient on them. In Scotland, you don’t get any prizes for being soft on Conservatives, certainly in the industrial central belt of Scotland, which is probably analogous to Merseyside or Greater Manchester. I think for Scots, particularly in these communities, where they’ve seen the SNP being highly, highly assertive against the Conservatives, to see Labour not really stepping up in the same sort of robust way is frustrating.”

There seems to be an impression in Scotland that UK Labour is not as strong a critic of Boris Johnson as the SNP, which is a massive boost for Nicola Sturgeon among some voters. “There’s a degree of triangulation that seems to be happening with the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the solution either. If you look at the common pattern of why people voted Yes and why people voted Leave, in both of those referendums, there was a feeling of economic and social alienation,” Sweeney tells me.

“Is Labour offering a convincing alternative to that? We’ve certainly seen the Conservatives doing so, in a fairly superficial manner where they’re basically indulging in pork barrel politics by shovelling investment into certain target towns.” He points out that the SNP is adept at selling Scotland’s green economy, making the case that there has been unprecedented progress in switching to renewable sources for electricity generation, yet “when you actually look at their manufacturing content, nearly 10% of it is made in Scotland, most of it’s done in Denmark and Germany”. Industry ownership, as well as the control of workers over their lives and employment, is the big issue here, he says.

“I think there’s a really good, coherent analysis that Labour can put forward, that speaks to both the ‘Red Wall’ and the ‘Yellow Wall’… They’re two walls that need to be rebuilt simultaneously. And we do that by having a very positive analysis about a hopeful future that Labour can build. I think that’s about capturing the opportunity over the next century, about saying that we’ve got these new emerging industries, we’ve got fantastic technologies and innovation in Britain, but much of the ownership and industrial benefits never come to British communities or British workers. There’s a patriotic, robust, energetic socialist case to be made.”

Sweeney is not a career politician: although only 32, he’s had hugely varied experiences. Before becoming an MP, he served as an army reserve soldier and worked in shipbuilding. The latter shapes his views of the economy. “We see so much of the British economy foreign-owned now, a casualised branch plant economy, where it’s basically competing for foreign direct investment. Even when they hold up big investments like Siemens in Hull, where they’re building the wind turbine blade factory. Why isn’t Britain owning big industrial companies, building wind turbines and exporting around the world? Why are we relying on a German company? A branch factory in the north of England, and that’s supposed to be hailed as an economic success story? We could aim so much higher.”

On the constitution, he has more recommendations for the Labour leadership, which he says should publicly accept that “the current model of the British state is not fit for purpose” – because “unless we grasp that nettle, or grasp that thistle we might say, we’re not going to make progress in Scotland”. This is not a case of “chucking more powers at the Scottish parliament”, he tells me. “It’s about giving Scots a feeling that they have a stake in the central democratic structures of the British Parliament, and it doesn’t feel like that for them anymore.” Advocating electoral reform and agreeing that first-past-the-post is a “poisonous force in British politics” is key, Sweeney believes.

“We [should] actually challenge the whole idea of central parliamentary sovereignty and say it’s actually got to be a newer model of shared sovereignty, of common respect, of a codified constitution that has clear lines of engagement between what will become state government and federal government. I think that’s got to be the future for Britain.” Acknowledging that this can sound like a politics seminar at university, he says “it’s got to spelled out in common language”.

“I think you can go back to that fundamental: take back control. Britain once had a really vibrant tapestry of municipal socialism. It had great powerful cities that had lots of power within them. Joe Chamberlain in Birmingham, for example. We need to restore that level of power because ultimately Britain’s future and its progress and its prosperity is going to be driven by its city regions. And it’s going to be driven by focused, responsive policies within those regions,” he argues. “It’s never going to be delivered by a remote agency in Whitehall – it’s got to be on the ground, close to where those realities lie.”

Explaining his case for a federal government, Sweeney says: “Yorkshire has got a bigger population than Scotland, so there’s a patriotic Yorkshire identity as much as anything else. It’s not compromising English identity, it’s just saying that you can have these dual identities and multi-identities as British, English, Yorkshire, Scottish, and we should celebrate that. But we also need to build a much more resilient set of institutions to reflect that: instead of creating tension between them, let’s try and make them work in harmony. That’s something that Labour needs to get its head around.”

Sweeney is excited about making these arguments if elected as an MSP, but is – in his words – ”slightly exasperated” by the “lacklustre” approach being taken at the moment. “I don’t know whether there’s just a reluctance to project or to articulate these arguments when we’re in this immediate crisis mode of a pandemic, but I feel like Labour could be making more overtures on this front. After all, the Beveridge report was written whilst German tanks were rolling across Europe: there was a war to be fought, and they didn’t wait until it was finished before they decided what they were going to build afterwards.” Well, that’s my first question answered, I tell Sweeney. “I’ve spent ten years thinking about it, to be fair. Failure focuses the mind,” he laughs.

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