I remember the day Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the leadership, a true socialist leader for a Labour Party recently lacking in socialism. I remember the day he had the whip withdrawn as well. I don’t remember either day for Chris Williamson, but I do speak about him more fondly than I do about Jeremy Corbyn, as, while Corbyn was the voice of socialism in Labour, Williamson was the very blood that allowed that heart to beat.
A red through and through, I knew a little of what Williamson had gone through in his last few years in the Labour Party. I’ve talked with many people since, mostly my own age, who’ve caught me at odd moments of peace catching up on his book, ‘Ten Years Hard Labour’. Often they’ll ask me who Chris Williamson is. I feel this is much less important than what Chris Williamson has come to represent.
Ten Years is the story of an MP from a working class background, a Labour Party member for more than 40 years, who held the Derby North seat for a total of seven years.
It is obvious from how he writes that his experience with Miliband was true to the latter’s portrayal in the media – a man who meant well but failed altogether when it came to following through, by failing to appeal to the public who might have been swayed to vote for the Labour Party. As Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government in Miliband’s Cabinet, Williamson talks about his days establishing himself as a close ally to the Fire Brigades Union prior to losing his seat at the 2015 election.
In a way this is the origin of the story of his book, the place from which Williamson emerges from the shadows, as one of the most vocal voices for change under the banner of a new leader. That leader was Jeremy Corbyn.
Most of us recall what it was like to get swept up in the Corbyn frenzy of optimism – everyone and their mum would cheer his name over the sounds of Seven Nation Army, although most of us also couldn’t imagine what it was like being part of that movement within the Houses of Parliament.
Williamson has the unfortunate knowledge that, however powerful a movement is, if the organisation grows and is not allowed to thrive, then it will die. That is the bleak, yet honest, account of Williamson. An advocate for social change and a determined MP who seemed interested in his job, unrelated to the pay, Williamson tells quite clearly what many of us already suspected about the Party..
Within the Labour Party there are many who may claim to wear the red, but in truth they are as blue as many Tories. And both groups look down on us common people as if we’re not their constituents whom they should serve, but rats on the dinner table stealing bites from their buffet.
I will say that this is quite a labour to read, as it must have been to write, and, while I might argue that this book is better off cut down into three shorter sections, the singular narrative can, if read in one go, keep your interest whilst allowing for greater details for each event. For example, the main crux of Williamson’s book – the antisemitism scandal – is highly detailed and goes very much into every single attack levied against Williamson, Corbyn and other allied socialists such as Mark Wadsworth and Jackie Walker.
Reading about the horrific acts that the right of the party undertook to discredit those speaking up (and when that didn’t work hinting at violence) truly makes the blood boil. I had to take more than a few calming walks so as not to feel enraged at the audacity of those MPs who smeared Corbyn and his allies, behaving like a pack of bullies towards anyone who questioned the ‘unquestionable moral piety’ that is the state of Israel.
It is in fact difficult to read this book and not help but feel… well, helpless. If an MP with as great and upstanding a record as Williamson can be destroyed overnight, how easily can the rest of us be dealt with by the Friends of Israel? How easily can we be silenced by hypocrites who so very rarely point out how quickly their agenda will shift to keep themselves in a position of wealth and power.
I also came out of this book finding a greater sense of doubt in having defended Corbyn so vigorously throughout the years when he seems incapable of doing the same for his allies. Not to say I altogether thought Corbyn was a bad leader of the Labour Party, nor will I indulge anyone and say perhaps others were better suited, but it is true what Williamson says. Time and time again Corbyn’s hand was lined up for a full house, and yet every time he folded, perhaps in an attempt to take the higher moral ground.
This strategy, however noble, left the Labour Party back in the state before Corbyn had his moment – right back to where we were in 2015. Only now, many MPs and members of groups such as Momentum and other left wing organisations have been falsely discredited and left with the option of fighting over a doomed party under Sir Keir Starmer or placing their bets elsewhere.
Perhaps the Labour Party was always doomed to fail, perhaps the NEC and grassroots movements were always going to go head-to-head, and the ugly faces of selfish characters were always going to raise their heads and refuse to follow a leader who might not only have won the country for them but also brought about numerous socialist programmes.
We have reasons not to feel hopeless. As Williamson reminds us, Corbyn might not have won, but that does not mean his impact was not felt. Williamson’s own story is a direct and honest account of parliamentarians and a stark reminder that we should not be fighting less but fighting harder, that we are not Sisyphus forever pushing the boulder up the hill. We’re more like Elsa in Frozen 2 (stay with me here!), continuously battling the sea and getting thrown back time and time and time again.
But each time it is a little harder for them to throw us back. Each time the forces against us have to try to double their efforts from the last time they beat us back. We are forever moving closer to that moment when we reach a tipping point, when the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back falls softly while the snap is loud and clear and cannot be mended. Almost eight and a half million voted Labour in Tony Benn’s day in 1983, more than ten million scarcely three years ago. Ten MILLION people voted for a better future. And, against all odds, the right wing did not crush Jackie Walker nor Chris Williamson. Both still speak up today, and, though the power they have is not the same as they had a few years ago, the fact of the matter is that the story the right, many of whom are Zionists, have is not as strong either.
Revolution is not just required but needed to change what we have now into what Williamson and Corbyn and Walker and Wadsworth and every other person fighting for a better future envision. Reading this book will not start a political revolution, it won’t suddenly alter your understanding of the political battlefields. But it is a stark reminder of what we came so close to winning and the mistakes that were made. That it shines a light on the attitudes of our representative government ministers is also quite illuminating.
If you are prepared to be swamped with information, raised to the heights of fury and can spare the time and have a comfortable chair – then go at this book with as much enthusiasm as we all felt in the Corbyn days. Perhaps Williamson is right, Corbyn was not the leader we needed. Perhaps though he was, and Williamson was the individual we needed to be there so the people could be given, from at least one MP, an honest account.