- Interview by
- Marcus Barnett
December 12th was a tough night for Labour, but the very next day one of the party’s new intake MPs helped to remind the Left of the stakes of the struggle ahead. In the hours after she defeated her Tory opponent in Warrington North, Charlotte Nichols found herself thrown into the spotlight. After being scrutinised by BBC reporter Phil McCann about a tweet where she said that Lazio fans performing Hitler salutes in Glasgow should “get their heads kicked in by the good folk of Glasgow,” the 28-year-old politely but immovably defended anti-fascist politics, saying that “fascism has to be physically confronted as it was at Cable Street and elsewhere.”
In the coming days, Nichols – a trade unionist and Labour left-winger who replaced the retiring Helen Jones – repeatedly refused to back down on her remarks, putting it to the BBC in simple terms that “you shouldn’t be doing Nazi salutes on the streets of Britain if you don’t want your head kicked in.” Although there were calls for Labour to discipline her, her remarks found widespread support from across the party, and sparked an interest in Nichols and the new intake of socialist Labour MPs. Tribune associate editor Marcus Barnett sat down with Nichols to talk about her political background, what went wrong in the election, the leadership election and the road to recovery.
Can you tell Tribune readers a bit about your background, and your politics?
I was a trade union officer before coming into parliament and was selected really late due to my predecessor’s retirement, so until just a few weeks before the election I’d always seen myself more on the industrial side of things rather than the political. However, when my predecessor retired, a few friends messaged me asking if I’d thought about putting my name forward as I’d been involved in the Labour Party for a long time in the North West, spending most of my adult life in the neighbouring borough of Salford.
Through my work in my union, the GMB, some of the really core issues in our society – from how we make the labour market fairer to how we ensure that there’s a social care system fit to meet the challenges of an aging population with increasingly complex care needs – have been my bread and butter for my whole working life. I have also thought often about how young people are always told we’re “the future”, but actually political decisions which directly affect us – from tuition fees through to the housing market – are being made, right now, without us having any voice in our political institutions. I hoped that by throwing my hat in the ring, I could also do something about that.
My parents both met through their union, so I’ve always joked that socialism was drummed into me from birth. But I think the older I’ve gotten, the more I notice how unequal society is, and how that gap is widening – and the socialist movement is the only movement which seeks to fundamentally change this rather than tinkering around the edges of a system that’s totally broken. There are jobs like nursing where, a generation or so ago, you could have raised a family on them, but they are now jobs where people are choosing between heating their homes and having food on the table. It’s clear there’s plenty of money splashing around in our economy – we are, after all, the sixth richest country in the world. But fewer and fewer people are seeing the benefits of that. It’s our job as a movement to change this.
Now we are into a new year, what are your thoughts were on the defeat in December, and what do you think went so wrong for Labour?
This was the first election where I’ve been a candidate, which I found all quite surreal to be honest. I’m hoping that side of things gets easier in future elections! But I think the biggest difference I noticed was the mood on the doorstep. It wasn’t hostility, though there was pockets of that. But people really were frustrated with the entire political system and were opting out altogether. I’ve heard things like “all politicians are the same” before, but this was like: “I don’t think we live in a democracy anymore”. Apathy has turned into alienation, which is much more difficult to come back from.
I think it’s really important that we don’t rush to quick conclusions from a defeat this heavy, as the party’s future is in a pretty precarious place if we get it wrong. But there were some things that were clear, at least in my seat.
The biggest was the party’s Brexit position. Part of the issue is that we came to the conclusion we did too late and that what we were saying didn’t resonate with people. Too many people (and a majority of people I spoke to were lifelong Labour voters) thought that our position wasn’t about getting the best possible deal but about trying to frustrate the process of leaving because fundamentally we wanted to stay.
You can say the referendum may only have been an ‘advisory vote’, but it was advice Labour should have taken. The last three years should have been about articulating a vision for what a Labour Brexit and our future relationship with Europe would look like. We failed to do that and I think we paid the price for it.
The second was concerns around our leadership, and I spent far more time talking about things like the IRA than I ever expected to in 2019, as I don’t think we were good enough at rebutting a lot of that stuff. And finally, I think there was confusion over our manifesto. There wasn’t anything in there that was wrong per se, but I don’t think we laid out a vision and a narrative that encapsulated what we were trying to achieve. Announcements on additional spending commitments after the manifesto was launched undermined our claim that it was fully costed and damaged our credibility – we just weren’t trusted to deliver what we said we wanted to.
But I think the problems go deeper than all of that, and if we want to be serious about getting into government, we need to reflect not just on this election result but the last decade or so of our vote dropping away, the rise in right-wing populism globally, and how we can turn the tide there.
As a candidate who won in a Northern Leave-voting town, how do you think we begin to rebuild our support in the former red areas of the country where the Tories now command significant electoral majorities?
In the short term, the most important thing is to resist the temptation to tear each other and the party to pieces. There’s a lot of hurt right now, which is understandable, but with our next elections only months away – both the London Mayoral elections and council elections across the country – it’s vital that we conduct the leadership contest in a comradely fashion or we’ll go further backwards.
In the medium and long term, we need to look at ensuring Labour is properly embedded in the communities it seeks to serve. With a Tory majority this big, a lot of our road to winning back trust will be what we’re able to achieve at local government level, but also in things like community projects and institutions that make a real difference to the quality of people’s lives. We need to help break down this idea that a Labour government is something that happens to you, rather than something you have a stake in shaping.
The leadership election looks set to be a tight and unpredictable one,. Do you have any thoughts on the competition so far?
When I lived in Salford, Becky Long Bailey was my MP and I think she’s an incredibly thoughtful and principled person. I read her piece in The Guardian with interest, as I think she’s one of the few people in the contest that has properly articulated the vision I think was missing from our last few election campaigns. We spent a lot of time talking about all the things that are wrong but our solutions seemed to be more about redistributing wealth but not power – like rebalancing our economy so that it works for the whole country and empowering communities to determine their futures is going to be vital. I think the work that she’s done not only in Salford, which Tribune discussed recently, but also nationally with Labour’s Green New Deal would stand her in really good stead as leader.
And finally, since we’re apparently having to ask the question again in 2020: ‘is it ever OK to punch a Nazi’?
It was totally bizarre to me that this was considered controversial. This wasn’t a case of differing opinions. They were doing Nazi salutes! If you see someone openly being a fascist or a Nazi on the streets of our country, it mocks the memory of the people who gave their lives all over the world in the struggle against the murderous ideology of fascism. Sometimes it is simply not possible to have a reasoned debate with people who want to intimidate ethnic minorities, sow the seeds of racial hatred in our communities, and destroy working class organisations. Our movement has a brave legacy of standing up against Nazism and fascism, and what I said can only be viewed in that tradition.