Chris Williamson: “It’s like all my Christmases have come together – the sort of Labour party I dreamed about”
Chris Williamson has gained a reputation as one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most uncompromising supporters in the House of Commons. What turned the formerly moderate leader of Derby Council into a left-wing firebrand? Emilio Casalicchio travels to the city to find out
Crossing the threshold of the Hollybrook pub in Derby, Chris Williamson boasts of being teetotal for more than 40 years and in the same breath orders a lemonade with a splash of lager. The suggestion that even a drop of alcohol detracts from his ideological purity seems lost on the Labour firebrand.
The drinking habits of the Derby North MP are not his only contradiction. The fully-paid up Corbynista has been one of the most uncompromising proponents of the socialist Labour message since his return to Westminster last year – branding internal critics of the leadership “political enemies” and peddling lines that echo the Kremlin in international affairs. He lost his frontbench job in January when he went too far even for Corbyn by suggesting council tax on expensive homes should be doubled.
But surprisingly, despite his self-appointed role as Corbyn’s defender-in-chief, he has a history of playing by the rules and lending his support to what he now dismisses as a “right wing” agenda. He backed PFI schemes and led a coalition with the Conservatives on Derby City Council. During his first stint as an MP between 2010 and 2015, he voted for military intervention in the Middle East and allowed the controversial Immigration Bill to slide through the Commons.
Williamson, who was re-elected at the 2017 election, insists he was a Corbynista from the off – albeit one who was willing to make concessions in public and push a more left-wing agenda in private. “Making certain compromises in some areas enables you to make progress in others,” he explains. “And I always took the view that Labour was the best vehicle and always has been the best vehicle, certainly in post-war history, for progressive social change in the country. But I always felt that even in those most radical of Labour governments we maybe could have gone a bit further.”
I’m visiting the Derby North MP in his constituency to see how the party is being received on the doorstep with the local elections just around the corner. Pounding the streets in a Derby suburb, Williamson says now is the “easiest period to campaign for Labour in my entire life”. “It’s easy when you’re telling the truth,” he explains. “It’s like all my Christmases have come together – the sort of Labour party I dreamed about, having a mass membership and appealing to young people.”
His zeal is palpable on the doorstep as he bounds about in the Lib Dem-held ward of Littleover, joking with voters about his straw trilby hat, calling everyone “mate” and interacting with their pets. He refuses to admonish those who suggest they might not back Labour – as anyone familiar with his aggressive approach to party politics might expect – and instead quips: “We welcome you back into the fold if you’ve strayed.”
As a violent midday shower makes way for an overcast afternoon, Williamson recalls the political inspirations that led him to join the Labour party during his six-year stint as a bricklayer in his twenties. He recalls watching 70s BBC period drama When the Boat Comes In, about a First World War veteran returning to his poverty-stricken hometown in the North East of England and navigating the political struggles of the 1920s and 1930s. “The Labour party featured in it as a party standing up for social justice and to right the utter bloody injustice that existed and prevailed at that time,” he says. “I remember thinking I want to be part of that.”
And he holds dear former Derbyshire council leader David Bookbinder – a controversial political grandee of the left who railed against Thatcher’s poll tax and refused to pay up front for extra police during the miners’ strikes.
Williamson also pays tribute to his plasterer father – who was injured in North Africa during the Second World War and saw the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy – and his mother, who defied the orthodoxy of the time by inviting Caribbean factory worker colleagues to tea at the family home.
As patches of sunlight begin to poke through the clouds above Derby, the Labour lines trip off the Williamson tongue with ease – even when challenged on the doorstep. Hillary, a middle-aged woman in a Ralph Lauren t-shirt, tells him Jeremy Corbyn “doesn’t do you any favours” and complains about the “negativity” of the Labour leader as well as his conduct on the “Jewish issue”.
Williamson assures her that Corbyn has a “phenomenal” record in tackling anti-Semitism (although away from the doorstep he admits the party has been slow to act) and says like most “great figures” in history, the boss has been “traduced” by the establishment. “He will be the most transformational prime minister this country has ever had – even more so than Clem Attlee who set up the National Health service,” Williamson gushes.
“I’m not just saying that because he’s my leader. He’s the best leader we’ve ever had, in my opinion. He’s the most decent, genuine, kind-hearted individual.”
But has Williamson always been the Corbynista he is now? As Derby Council leader in 2006, he took credit for having spearheaded a Private Finance Initiative project when he was chair of housing in the mid-1990s. Now Labour says PFI will end if it wins power, with all existing schemes brought into public ownership. Williamson says his approach at the time was part of an “innovative pragmatism” agenda, which sought to “be as radical as we possibly could within the confines that we were subjected to by central government”.
He says PFI was “the only show in town” at the time – and he speaks proudly of using it to renovate 150 houses for affordable rent and build a handful of schools. But animated with passion, he fumes: “It was a bullshit scheme – I wouldn’t have chosen it at all. It didn’t give value for money. But what were we supposed to do as a local authority? We either [do it or] say we are not going to build these schools or we are not going to refurbish these unfit dwellings.” His argument is reminiscent of the one offered by ex-council leader Claire Kober – who was hounded out of her Haringey post by Momentum activists earlier this year over a controversial PFI housing scheme.
Williamson trooped through the voting lobbies with David Cameron (and Diane Abbott) to support the 2011 military intervention in Libya. He also backed the bombing of Isis in Iraq in 2014 and intervened on his future leader in a later debate asking him to consider the argument that RAF bombs had damaged the extremist group. He insists he was not trying to speak against the Islington North MP – however he did vote for the motion to show his continued support for the airstrikes anyway. Jeremy Corbyn voted against military action on every count.
“In the end I went along with the whip, and it’s to my eternal regret really that I did that on that occasion,” Williamson laments about the later 2014 debate. “I was conflicted right up to the point to decide which lobby to go in.”
On his previous votes for military intervention, he adds: “I guess I was naïve, if I’m honest, to believe the propaganda that was being put forward at that time to suggest somehow that those military interventions would have a positive effect. Clearly they did not.”
And on the Libya vote, he notes: “Ed Miliband called me into his office in relation to that decision because I was very conflicted, and I think he knew that. And basically, he said ‘trust me on this’ and so I went along with it. But I was wrong to do so. I should have listened to the subsequent leader rather than the existing leader.” Asked if he still thinks airstrikes against Isis have helped degrade the extremist group or whether they were the wrong decision, he says: “I would say it was a bad idea.”
In 2014, Williamson followed orders from Ed Miliband and abstained on the Immigration Bill put forward by one Theresa May. The legislation – her most important project during her tenure as Home Secretary – was the centrepiece of the “hostile environment” the government sought to cultivate to crack down on illegal immigration. But the changes also ushered in a wave of pain for the so-called Windrush generation, in a scandal that hit national headlines only this month. Jeremy Corbyn – of course – defied the Labour whip and voted against the bill. “I do regret that,” Williamson says. “I have to say – if I’m being honest – I didn’t study it enough or fully appreciate the implications.”
He adds: “This is where I think Jeremy Corbyn comes into his own, because he was somebody who did speak out against it, he did acknowledge that there were difficulties and he did predict the consequences [that have] now come to pass. So once again Jeremy was on the right side of history.”
Surely, if he was anywhere close to the apparent purity of the Labour leader, he would have been more self-assured in his scepticism of party policy and emboldened to defy the whip more often. But Williamson insists he would make the case in his own way.
“I’m not one for undermining the leadership publicly,” he says. “I would make those points in Parliamentary Labour party meetings and others.” However, he launches a vehement defence at the suggestion Corbyn was wrong to go public with his concerns in the past, arguing the veteran MP was simply reflecting the views of the membership every time.
“Jeremy actually spoke out on stuff that was overwhelmingly supported by party members,” he explains. “So, he hasn’t been speaking against the party, he has been speaking up for the party. I’m afraid to say that the leadership went rogue, went wrong, and they were speaking against the party.”
Asked what changed to make him fervently condemn some of the things he followed the whip on in the past, he says: “The big change is that we have now got a common-sense socialist who is leader of the Labour party who doesn’t put MPs into that situation.”
It is that change at the top which has fired Williamson up to be the hardliner he is today –outraged at PFI “social cleansing” and warning of “slaughter” if the government fires eight bombs at a factory in Syria.
Chris Williamson may not have been the most vocal cheerleader for the Jeremy Corbyn way of thinking in the past, but he is making up for his former political compromises now. The Derby North MP is brimming with energy, having been unshackled by a Labour party finally adopting the socialist programme he always dreamed of. Anyone keeping tabs on him today would struggle to fathom the same man voting for military action abroad and ushering private capital into the public sector. But when it comes to ideological purity, what does a splash of lager in a pint of lemonade matter anyway?