“Anyone who thinks politics only happens in Parliament should read a few history books – it’s often the last place to get the picture.”Richard Burgon MP
By Ben Hayes, Arise Festival volunteer and Islington North CLP
Arise Festival 2022 kicked off with a inspiring “in conversation” event with Young Labour Chair and candidate for upcoming party NEC elections Jess Barnard sitting down with Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East and Secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group, to talk about crisis, resistance and the struggle for Socialism.
You can read the report-back or watch the event below:
The discussion opened with Barnard putting forward questions on the Tories’ response to the current series of crises, how the fightback against them can be supported, and countering attempts to pit workers against each other in the context of a new wave of industrial action.
Burgon defined the current period in Britain as revolving around “the biggest attack on living standards in living memory” whilst “the billionaire class further enriches itself in a grotesque way”. Linking the cost-of-living crisis with the intensifying climate emergency and clampdowns on protest and trade union rights, he stated that the urgency of the situation was already producing rising resistance – citing recent disputes with UNISON university staff at Leeds, and the RMT nationally. Pointing to polling showing increasing levels of support for their strike action, he argued that this illustrated how providing strong leadership can win over public opinion.
Calling for socialists to place themselves “inside every single struggle”, he emphasised that working inside the Labour Party should go hand in hand with engaging in trade unions and social movements campaigning on issues such as women’s rights and climate action. Burgon outlined that whilst “anyone who thinks politics only happens in Parliament should read a few history books – it’s often the last place to get the picture”, left MPs had an important role to play in providing a bridge to struggles in wider society and using their platform to champion popular demands.
He also paid tribute to the work of Young Labour during Barnard’s tenure as Chair, noting that the organisation had not only remained a consistent voice for socialist politics inside the party in often difficult circumstances, but done important international solidarity work – such as making Lula (who is now the consistent polling favourite to return as President of Brazil later this year) its Honorary President whilst he was imprisoned by a judge who went onto serve in the cabinet of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Arguing that “right wing forces are always eager to stop the spread of a good example”, he outlined how this can be seen in their response to progressive industrial, political and international developments.
In relation to arguments used to try and divide workers in different industries, Burgon highlighted the relevance of comments from Nye Bevan’s 1952 essay In Place of Fear: “How can wealth persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power? Here lies the whole art of Conservative politics”. Noting that workers fighting back are finding higher levels of support from the wider public than many articulated, he argued that a strong response from the labour movement can be “the rising tide that lifts all boats”. He also recalled that the angriest he’d seen Tory MPs in Parliament was during debates marking the anniversary of the miners’ strike and the recent RMT dispute – and called for “a Labour Party as class conscious and determined as the Conservatives”.
Questions from those tuning in at home covered issues such as Labour MPs attending picket lines, how figures such as Boris Johnson can be stopped from gaining power in the future, ways to hold the party leadership to account, and sources of hope and inspiration for socialists in the current period.
Burgon confirmed that he would be continuing to show his support for workers taking industrial action at picket lines, commending other MPs who had attended in solidarity with RMT members and stating that there was “nothing anybody could say” to stop them linking up with the wider movement.
Expressing his fear of a potential new Conservative Party leader having a similar impact to John Major, who achieved victory at the 1992 general election less than 18 months after replacing Margaret Thatcher, he emphasised the need for “Labour inspiration as well as Tory division”. Noting that focusing a bold manifesto in 2017 helped the party achieve its only electoral advance since the turn of the millennium to date, he called for Labour to campaign on a pledge card including policies such as the introduction of a wealth tax, scrapping tuition fees, a £15 minimum wage, abolishing zero hour contracts, and stopping NHS privatisation.
Highlighting that Keir Starmer was elected leader after running a campaign promising to continue the broad policy direction of Jeremy Corbyn, he stressed the importance of organising in support of this agenda, not just inside Labour but in communities across Britain – citing polling commissioned by the TUC showing a strong public desire for the strengthening of workers’ rights as evidence of the potential support base for it.
Burgon also called for a strong rejection of “the caricature of working class politics” offered by reactionary forces. Outlining the need to offer principled opposition to these arguments, he stated that “there is no price those in power won’t way to push the politics of divide and rule”, and noted that the 2017 election campaign was the only one he’d taken part in where immigration wasn’t being regularly raised during canvassing – arguing that this illustrated how political leadership can counter these narratives.
Describing Parliament as often being “at the end of the production line” when it came to organising for change, he characterised the state as “as a tool of class interests – it’s about which class you represent”. Pointing to wealth hording and price hikes as the driving factors behind inflation (and highlighting that wages have not been going up for the majority), he asked: “is now is not the time to support workers fighting for better pay, when?”.
Addressing the issue of continuing organisation inside the Labour Party, Burgon urged activists to adopt a “non-rose tinted view” for its historical role, describing the party as “an imperfect creation of the working class in Britain”. Emphasising that the labour movement has always been a “contested space”, including trade unions themselves, he shared Tony Benn’s analysis that has always been “a party with socialists in it“, and argued in favour of “regaining our bearings” and learning lessons from previous defeats rather than giving up. With this in mind, he also encouraged support for Barnard and other left candidates in the upcoming NEC elections.
Concluding by discussing sources of hope, he pointed not only to domestic campaigns of action from trade unions, but also to international developments – citing the resurgence of the left in Bolivia after overcoming a brutal reactionary coup and the recent victory of progressive candidate Gustavo Peteo in Colombia, a country where the labour movement has faced decades of violent repression, as examples of what can be achieved against overwhelming odds.
- The next Arise Festival 2022 session takes place tonight (Monday, July 4th) at 6PM – watch “Building Global Movements for Peace, People & Planet” with Jeremy Corbyn; Yanis Varoufakis; Sevim Dağdelen, Die Linke MP; and more here.
- You can view all upcoming Arise Festival sessions, and watch back any you missed here.