Andrew Gwynne: "Opposition is no fun"
With local elections just weeks away, Labour remain hopeful of a good night at the polls. But amid reports of abuse at CLP meetings and attempts to unseat council leaders, Andrew Gwynne fears the sense of party unity that followed last year’s election success is under strain. The Shadow Communities Secretary tells Kevin Schofield why the party must unite and take the fight to the Conservatives
Andrew Gwynne laughs when I describe him as Jeremy Corbyn’s “attack dog” – but he doesn’t deny it. “I’m a pussycat,” he insists. “But then so are lions and tigers, aren’t they?”
Gwynne’s reputation is well-deserved. During last year’s election, his live TV clashes with Boris Johnson became legendary. On one memorable occasion, he called the Foreign Secretary “a pillock” as a watching nation gazed on agog.
The Shadow Communities Secretary is a reliable firefighter for Jeremy Corbyn, regularly going on political programmes to elucidate the Labour line and challenge the Tory narrative.
What makes his dependability all the more impressive is the fact that he is by no means a Chris Williamson-esque Corbynista. Rather, he is a loyal Labour man who believes any public splits instantly increase the chances of continued Conservative rule.
He says: “I’m a democrat. I think that my upbringing in local politics, particularly in a Labour stronghold like Thameside in Greater Manchester, is that we can have all the rows behind closed doors, but when you go outside to the public you are one united Labour party and none of us are bigger than the Labour party that we seek to serve in.
“Jeremy has won two very clear mandates from the party membership and I think it is all of our jobs to unite around Jeremy and to get that Labour government.”
Subconsciously highlighting where he differs from the Labour leader’s more enthusiastic followers, who see any deviation from pure socialism as tantamount to betrayal, Gwynne insists there is no point having principles without the ability to implement them in office.
“Opposition is no fun,” he says. “Unless we have power, unless we can transform society from within government, we’re letting down all those people that desperately need a Labour government. That’s one of the reasons why I agreed to join the Shadow Cabinet and will fight passionately to ensure that a Labour government is elected at the next election.”
The next test of public opinion comes in two weeks’ time, when voters across England go to the polls to elect their local councils. As Labour’s election co-ordinator, it is Gwynne’s job to ensure that the party capitalises on what are a fairly benevolent set of circumstances. The seats up for grabs – mainly in London and the large metropolitan boroughs – should be rich pickings for a Labour party still enjoying the support of around 40% of the population.
Gwynne acknowledges that it should be a good night for his party, but is keen to guard against complacency. In particular, he seeks to dampen down the belief that the Tory citadels of Westminster and Wandsworth are about to turn red. “There is an expectation issue because, particularly in the capital, Labour performed very well four years ago. Any gains on top of where we were in 2014 would be quite an achievement,” he says.
“I don’t like to put figures on it because you’re then hostage to fortune. We think that there will be Labour gains, particularly in the capital. Whether it’s anything like what some pollsters are predicting I doubt, not least because a lot of people have been talking up our chances in Westminster and Wandsworth.
“I think we’ll make gains in Westminster and Wandsworth, but to be able to take control of those councils you are looking at some very big shifts in public opinion, even based on last year’s general election results, which were very good in the capital.
“For us to win Wandsworth Council I think we need to double the swing that what we got in June last year, so that is perhaps overly-optimistic. But we will make seat gains in both of those boroughs.”
Further adding to Labour’s sense of optimism is the fact that the issues that are coming up on the doorstep are ones where the party has a good story to tell.
Gwynne says: “There are some common themes across England – crime and the cuts in police numbers is a big issue, housing is a big issue in London, the devastation of local public services, and particularly what’s happening to our NHS.
“We are sending out the message that you need to elect Labour councils not only to deliver quality services within tight budgets, but to send a message to the Conservatives that after eight years of cuts we need to start investing in public services again.”
Nevertheless, despite those eight years of Tory government in one form or another, Theresa May’s party remains neck-and-neck with Labour in the polls, at around 40% each. Gwynne, the MP for Denton and Reddish in Greater Manchester, says politics remains “very polarised”, partly as a result of the EU referendum.
“It’s also defined by people identifying either with the Conservatives or Labour to the exclusion of the other parties in a way that we’ve not seen since about 1970,” he says.
“I suspect we’re going to have to ride it out. If we knew what the answer was, we’d both be trying to break out of the 40% mark we’re both stuck at.
“Future general elections will be determined by an increasingly small number of seats and switches in votes in a small number of areas, more so than has been the case under first past the post in most modern elections. You’re probably looking at a period of either small majorities or no majorities going forward, unless this cycle can be broken.”
Labour’s continued buoyancy in the polls comes despite the party’s ongoing travails over anti-Semitism. Gwynne himself led for the party in this week’s Commons debate on the subject, a pretty thankless task as several Jewish Labour MPs lined up to reveal the abuse they had received and castigate the party leadership for failing to address the problem.
His efforts were not helped by Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to temporarily leave the chamber during the debate, thereby missing powerful contributions from John Mann and Ruth Smeeth.
There is no doubting, however, Gwynne’s own determination to do all he can to tackle the issue. He says: “It is an issue we have got to grasp and we’ve got to grasp firmly. There is no place in the Labour party or indeed in modern politics, for any form of intolerance based on religion or racial background and anti-Semitism I find completely abhorrent.
“I want to see the new general secretary take this task as the number one priority and root it out of the Labour party. There is absolutely no place for it in the Labour party.
“The challenge for the party going forward is to rebuild trust with the Jewish community. I see that as part of my role as Shadow Communities Secretary as well as the national campaign co-ordinator to rebuild those relationships with the Jewish communities across the country, because many of those people share progressive values and share the aims and objectives of the Labour party and if they don’t feel that they have a home in the party, I think it is something we need to address pretty rapidly.
“It’s not going to be easy but the way we do it is by showing there is zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.”
Gwynne is also dismayed by attempts by some constituency Labour parties –most notably Thangam Debonnaire’s Bristol West branch – to discipline MPs who attended an anti-Semitism demonstration organised by Jewish leaders last month.
He says: “Some constituency parties view things through the prism of the leadership elections that we’ve had and concerns that MPs are perhaps not loyal to Jeremy. What I say to party members in Bristol West is Thangam is a member of Jeremy’s frontbench, she is a valuable Member of Parliament and she is right to tackle anti-Semitism and stand against prejudice wherever it exposes itself.
“People should view MPs’ attendance at the rally in the intention that they were there for, which was to send a very loud voice to the Jewish community that the Labour party is a home for them as well. Now is the crunch time to make a clear stand against anti-Semitism. There is no place for it in the Labour party. End of.”
In last week’s edition of The House, Gwynne’s Shadow Cabinet colleague Kate Osamor hinted that a Labour government may give its support to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which aims to target Israeli’s economy as a protest at its government’s treatment of Palestinians.
Gwynne makes it clear that he has no truck with that campaign. He says: “I’ve had a long-held view on this, that boycotts are incredibly unhelpful. What we’ve got to do in the wider sphere of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is re-engage international efforts at getting meaningful dialogue between the Israeli government and Palestinian representatives to get that two-state solution.”
Gwynne’s moderate instincts come to the fore when the discussion turns to Syria, where the UK joined with America and France last weekend to launch airstrikes on the Assad regime’s chemical weapons facilities. While he agrees with Jeremy Corbyn that the Prime Minister should have recalled parliament to get MPs’ approval for military action beforehand, he breaks ranks with his leader by insisting there are times when intervention is justifiable on humanitarian grounds.
“I’m not a pacifist, I believe in liberal intervention where that is necessary and I think Kosovo is a recent example of where the West stepped in without UN backing,” he says.
“It stopped a bloody genocide and we were right to do that and a lot of innocent lives were saved.
“The long shadows of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq will take a long time for people to forget. If we are going to involve ourselves in the Middle East, we need to have an endgame and I want to see greater consideration to bringing the civil war to an end.
“I’m not sure how you do that when the Assad regime is reprehensible, but the other guys aren’t much better. I want to see a greater humanitarian response so that the refugees can rebuild their lives, and I see none of that at present. Just dropping a few bombs on allegedly a chemical weapons plant does not resolve the situation.”
For someone who places great store in the need for unity, Gwynne also has a message for party activists working to unseat Labour council leaders deemed to be too centrist for their tastes.
Claire Kober in Haringey is the most high-profile victim of what some have labelled a left-wing purge, but others fear they could be targeted as well. “Our Labour councillors and our Labour councils are on the front line defending our communities and public services. They’re often the last line of defence for those public services and those communities,” says Gwynne.
“Councils can’t set illegal budgets, they have to operate within the budgets that they get from the governments of the day and so Labour councils are making very difficult decisions. But I would sooner there be Labour councillors and Labour councils making choices rooted in Labour values to defend those services as best they can than Tory councillors making those decisions, or Tory-imposed commissioners stepping in and making those cuts on behalf of the Secretary of State because Labour councils have absolved themselves of the responsibility.
“I say to party members ‘unite behind your Labour councils and your Labour councillors and let’s get rid of this Tory government’.”
Andrew Gwynne is confident that 3rd May will be a good day for Labour. The rest of the country hopes to see a rematch between him and Boris Johnson the day after.