- Interview by
- John McEvoy
After serving as Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Justice Secretary for four years, deputy leadership challenger Richard Burgon lost his position in Keir Starmer’s first shadow cabinet reshuffle. However, he has continued to offer a vocal presence on the Left, committing himself to rebuilding the Socialist Campaign Group as a fighting presence within the Parliamentary Labour Party and fighting to defend the transformative policy agenda Labour has represented since 2015.
During the deputy campaign Burgon drew headlines for a number of left-wing positions on foreign policy and political education, while also proposing that Labour consider creating its own newspaper to counter the right-wing media barons who own the majority of the British press. In more recent weeks, he has been prominent both in responding to the leaked Labour Party report – which seemed to show senior party staff conspiring against Corbyn’s leadership – as well as in criticising the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
In this interview, Richard Burgon speaks to John McEvoy about the context of the leaked Labour report, how Covid-19 could change politics, and why the Left should do everything in its power to avoid a new Cold War in geopolitics.
Like so many others, I was devastated when I saw the reports of alleged sabotage of Labour’s electoral fortunes by senior party staff, and if those allegations are proven to be true, then that’s one of the most serious matters in the history of the Labour party. I said before this report came to light that we would have won the 2017 general election if it had not been for sabotage by members of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Now there’s an allegation that there was something else at play, and there’s a real case to answer here.
The human cost of Labour not winning that 2017 election was apparent even before the coronavirus crisis. But now that the coronavirus crisis is here, just take a look at the situation in care homes across our country. What’s going on is horrific, so if it’s proven to be the case that people at the top of the Labour party sabotaged our operations deliberately then they are responsible for the misery caused by the continuation of a Conservative government in this country. It couldn’t be any more of a serious matter – it isn’t just an internal Labour party issue, it’s a matter for all of society. We could be three years into a Labour government right now.
Evidence within the report also suggests that Labour staffers sat on serious cases of antisemitism in order to malign the Labour leadership. There are also cases of BAME Labour MPs being spoken about in derogatory and abusive ways, and references to blaming immigrants in the wake of terrorist attacks. The media, meanwhile, have either minimised or ignored the gravity of these particular revelations. What are your views on this aspect of the report as a whole?
If a leaked report had contained allegations of harassment, bullying, sexism, and racism from those in support of Corbyn, I should imagine it’d be getting a detailed, blow by blow, allegation by allegation account in many news outlets.
Let’s take the Guardian, for example. The Guardian followed every twist and turn, every allegation, every whispering of what some might call court politics in the Labour party in the past few years. But when this report comes up, it appears that there’s less interest in the press, and that’s regrettable. If it’s the case that allegations or reports of antisemitism weren’t dealt with properly because of some political motivation, through a desire to make the party look bad, that would be a very grave matter indeed.
And all of this is fundamentally important not only for members who gave up their time in all weathers campaigning to get a Labour government, but also for the millions of people who so desperately wanted a Labour government, and the millions of people who are now suffering as a result of not having a Labour government. These allegations need looking into.
The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs wrote a letter saying that the leaked Labour document has, to paraphrase, made ‘many labour members consider leaving’ the party. Both in light of the recent report and the new direction of the Labour party under Keir Starmer, do you think socialist Labour members should stay in the party and fight, and how do you propose they do so?
Socialist members of the Labour Party of course need to remain as members of our party, and I think we can be hopeful about the influence that they can have. There’s a lot to build upon – we’ve got to defend the policies of the 2017 and 2019 general election manifestoes.
If you look at my deputy leadership campaign, clearly a left campaign, we came second on first preferences with over 80,000 votes. It hasn’t always been the case that a candidate running on a such a left platform would get 80,000 votes or more – that would have seemed like a pipe dream in the days before Jeremy became leader.
We’ve also got some fabulous new MPs since 2019. People like Apsana Begum, Rachel Hopkins, Ian Byrne, Claudia Webbe and others – real socialist stars. So there’s a lot to take courage from, and what we need to do is carry on working, carry on formulating socialist ideas, and carry on organising for those ideas.
People should also remember that Jeremy’s victory in 2015 didn’t come from nowhere. If people hadn’t been organising to get left members selected, there wouldn’t have been sufficient people to get Jeremy onto the ballot paper in the first place.
Being on the Labour left has never been easy. Imagine the disappointment that members felt when Aneurin Bevan was expelled from the Labour party in 1939. He was expelled for six months, he came back in, created the NHS, and ended up being the deputy leader of the party. So people have got to understand that even when we suffer set-backs, even when we see allegations of horrendous treatment and horrendous behaviour, we can’t give up. As Dennis Skinner always said: “it’s about fighting and never giving in.”
So I’m proud to be secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, which I re-established back in 2017 after speaking with Jeremy, John McDonnell, and Diane Abbott. Going forward we will continue to be a voice for the Bennite and Corbynite strand within our Labour party family. And we’ll continue to support and engage with the Trade Union movement and communities around the country who are fighting back.
I want the Socialist Campaign Group to have the influence that Progress and Progress MPs had in Labour in the 1990s.
Can you talk about the inadequacy of the Tory government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, and also about how this crisis has exposed major cracks in neoliberalism?
The dreadful coronavirus crisis has highlighted weaknesses in our society caused by 40 years of neoliberalism. It’s left us insufficiently prepared, and it’s also shown that the market doesn’t have the solutions to the problems facing humanity – whether that’s in relation to public health or economic living standards. It’s shameful how a decade of austerity has left us unprepared.
So I think it’s right that when the government does the right thing, we work with it constructively. But it’s even more essential that when the government does the wrong thing, we call it out. Thousands of people have lost their lives.
And as sure as night follows day, austerity as a political argument will make a comeback once this public health crisis is over. Some people believe that austerity is dead as a political and economic concept – I wish that were the case but it’s not.
So we need to make the argument against austerity, but also for the kind of society that we want afterwards. We’ve seen the potential for action by the state to protect public health and living standards, so we need to make positive propositional policy arguments on that basis. We’ve seen how the government can say it will end homelessness overnight through state intervention.
But it won’t be easy because elements of the ruling elite and the economic establishment will be making the arguments for austerity, for cuts to social security, to benefits, and holding down wages for years to come.
The COVID-19 has unleashed a wave of anti-Chinese xenophobia globally with hate crimes rising, and certain sections of the UK media calling – without any sense of irony – on China to pay reparations. This of course isn’t occurring in a vacuum. So, what do you think are the dangers of this growing Sinophobia in both domestic and international terms? Does this form part of a new Cold War, and where does Britain fit into this?
Donald Trump’s attack lines are the clearest example of this when he calls coronavirus the China virus. This racist campaign of calling it the China virus is a classic example of distraction politics. When states like the US or even our own country are failing to properly deal with a public health crisis, and failing to protect people’s lives, some parts of the establishment respond by trying to distract, by finding scapegoats, by whipping up racism.
It’s not China or Chinese people who are responsible for the UK or US government’s slow start to a lockdown, it’s not Chinese people who are responsible for the UK government not testing sufficient people.
And actually, what we need is more co-operation, not less. We know that China’s a rising economy, and as it stands it’s set to be the largest economy in the world in the next decade or so – and certain elements in the US will see that as a huge threat; they see themselves in competition with that. We also see that the US has been reorienting its military to the Pacific in recent years. So, as you say, there is the risk here of another Cold War.
The UK also continues, in the midst of a global pandemic, to support Washington’s sanctions regime on countries like Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and more. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s not right when you see governments like that of Trump in the US seeing this horrific coronavirus crisis as a so-called opportunity to ‘tighten the screw’ on people in Venezuela because the US doesn’t like the political system there. I think it’s an inhumane and unjustifiable approach. I think that everyone, anywhere, should get the help they need regardless of the political system where they live, and regardless of whether or not the US likes their government.
The US blockade on Cuba is an absolute abomination – it’s gone on for decades because Cuba had the temerity to pick its own system and not become an appendage to the US. But this time, more than any other, I think it’s clear to all decent people that there should not be a blockade on Cuba. And when it comes to Cuba, I was very pleased to see that our own government wrote to the government of Cuba to thank them for their humanitarian intervention to help British citizens with coronavirus on a cruise ship.
We need an internationalism based on our humanity, not on the basis of what one government thinks of the economic or political system of another government. In reality, this disease has no borders.