- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
Jon Trickett came to prominence in the 1980s as a member of the Leeds City Council. Elected to his position amid the miners’ strike in 1984, he served through the period of its most intense confrontations with the Thatcher government and went on to serve as its leader in 1989.
Trickett was later elected member of parliament (MP) for Hemsworth in Yorkshire in 1996 representing some of the region’s historic, and now largely deprived, mining communities.
Aligning himself with the left of the party, he was a critic of many aspects of Tony Blair’s government, including the Iraq War and public service reforms. After arguing that Labour’s 2005 election result necessitated a leftward shift in policy he was brought into the tent under Gordon Brown, serving as his parliamentary secretary.
Joining the Shadow Cabinet for the first time under Ed Miliband, Trickett became one of the thirty-six MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader in the 2015 election. After the latest reshuffle he now occupies a dual role as shadow secretary of state for business, innovation, and skills and chair of Labour’s campaigns and elections chair under Jeremy Corbyn.
Trickett recently talked to Jacobin’s Ronan Burtenshaw about his career in Labour politics, his time studying under Ralph Miliband, and how the party can be reformed to meet the twenty-first century.
How did you get involved in the Labour Party and labor politics?
I was a working-class kid in Leeds in the 1960s who was expelled from school with no qualifications. At first, I felt that as a failure. I thought, “I’ve let my mom and dad down.” But as I went in to manual labor, after school, I began to think differently. I thought, “No, the system failed me.” Then my second thought was “the system fails a lot of people like me.”
When you begin to think there is a system which is grinding certain types of people down you develop a political consciousness. You think to yourself, “Who are we? Why are we being held down by a system? What is this all about?”
I don’t want to pretend that I wasn’t also a very difficult chap at school! But that is how I began to think about politics. Then I encountered socialism because there were mass movements against the Vietnam War. Just the other day I was thinking about Muhammad Ali and how some of the things he said about war and imperialism had shaped me.
After that, at work, I got involved in the trade union. I had some issues to deal with which a shop steward helped me with. He told me, “You have got to join a political party because there are certain things in your life that must be resolved by changing the way society runs.”
I was working in the building industry at that time and started to open my mind to a series of ideas. People began to tell me about the history of class. A guy who was very political got me reading books for the first time about that.
Then decided I should get an education. I went very quickly through further education, college, and into university and I finished up studying under Ralph Milliband in the University of Leeds.
What effect did studying under Ralph Miliband have on you?
He was a remarkable man, very charismatic. I remember I was with him at the moment Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister and we had a fascinating conversation. In those days there were major debates going on about socialism, particularly how we should interpret the communist states and if there was a socialism outside of that. Miliband was a major figure in this discussion, not only in Britain but across the world.
I knew the New Left of that time well, including his collaborator John Saville. I remember getting drawn into the controversy that happened between Miliband and Poulantzas over the nature of the state. A group of us, studying under Miliband, set up a Poulantzas study group. We sided against him! It was a kind of rebellious act at the time and, looking back, I think Ralph was right about most of his analysis.
I remember he got us to read the Eighteenth Brumaire of Karl Marx, which is a foundational text of political sociology and really influenced me. In that Marx explained how a superstructure of society rose out of property and social relations, which were the basic structures.
One important aspect of that idea relates to the Miliband-Poulantzas debate, about the relative autonomy of the state, but another relates to individuals. Marx’s talked about how they make history but not under “self-selected circumstances.” Ralph was preoccupied with that, and it fascinated me too.
After this he persuaded me to research a particular period in Russian history just after the revolution which many had called state capitalism. This was the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP). It was a socialist state with a capitalist economy.
Ralph wanted to know if you could have such an arrangement and still be in control. I never got to the end of the piece of work but it shows what way Miliband was thinking.
How do you think Ralph Miliband would interpret this moment in the life of the British Labour Party?
It is an interesting question because one of Miliband’s most important areas of research was how structures themselves mitigate against radical social change. In State in Capitalist Society he is examining how the individuals who populate a state’s structures can give it a certain character, and maybe there are some lessons in that.
But we have to also remember that politics evolves, it has eras. The Labour Party is changing quite substantially at the moment and this reflects changes in the wider society and economy. We can debate precisely how long this change has been taking place but a mold was set in 1979 for our politics and economy which has been crumbling in recent years.
This creates crises in people’s lives, their economic position deteriorates, and they begin to move against ossified social structures which are no longer responsive to their needs. They don’t say, “neoliberalism is the problem,” but they might say the political structures are crap and they have got to be transformed.
This is where the refrain comes from that we need a new politics. People collapse down a quite complex set of problems into “the politicians are all the same.”
You can understand that because the ideology of liberal democracy suggests they should be behaving in ways that they aren’t, that the system should be accountable to people. It is becoming clear that it is not.
This has created a fascinating development inside the Labour Party. There is, as there has to be, a serious debate about where we are going. It is not at all clear how that is going to finish up.
What is clear is that only a change in political structures and culture can deliver the kind of economic and social changes which will break through the impasse that we are now in. Changes in the party are necessary but not sufficient conditions to create the change we need in society.
How do you think Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has gone so far?
It is an uneven process. It was never going to be easy. Tony Blair built his Labour Party on the premise of accepting the 1979 Margaret Thatcher settlement. His deal with those in power was, “I will tinker around the edges but I’m not going to challenge the fundamentals of this.” That kind of politics can’t work now.
The way I see British history there are two big settlements since the war. One happens in 1945 and endures until roughly the mid-seventies. This is a loosely social-democratic settlement in which a lot of progress is made by working-class people, with strong economic growth. But then in the 1970s there is a fiscal crisis and other problems which cause a rupture. Thatcher comes in with a reforming, neoliberal model that gives control back to business and the market.
If we think about it as 1945 to 1979, that’s thirty-four years. From then until 2008 is a similar period of time. We are now in between settlements, in one of those moments Gramsci talked about the old dying and the new not yet being born.
The Labour Party needs to break through to end this prolonged period of blockage. Inevitably this creates a problem. For a party which has accepted for quite a long time the lines of the 1979 settlement now to say we are going to try to be the engine to give birth to a new set of social and economic arrangements necessitates substantial change. It is going to be turbulent. It has been! But in the end there can be no going back.
This is true for the whole European left. There is hardly a country in the West where new social and political movements are not emerging.
In Proportional Representation (PR) systems sometimes there are new parties. In fact, in a number of cases, such as Greece and Ireland, social-democratic parties have been almost replaced.
In others, they are much weaker than they once were. But these changes manifest differently in Britain, and in the United States, where the political systems dictate that the battles happen within those parties.
Speaking of battles within parties, how do you think the Labour left has dealt with the internal opposition it has faced since winning the leadership election? How do you draw the line on what is in this new left and what is outside?
I take the view that anyone who holds the same party card as me has said, to one extent or another, that they want to be on the Left and not part of a politics led by the Conservative Party. Therefore, we have things in common.
We accepted, when we were in a minority, the hegemony of people with whom we had disagreements. You have to hope that, if we act in a generous way, they will respond in kind.
Is that what you expect them to do?
We made a massive effort to reach out. We will continue to do that. But it must be understood that there can be no going back to status quo ante.
I think it is our job to win over as many people as possible to our analysis. We have to talk compellingly about the changing nature of our society and the broad historical changes we’re seeing. We have come to the end of a settlement and we need to give birth to a new politics.
I would ask members of the party to look at what has happened in recent years and see that it is unsustainable. Why have so many people turned off politics? Why has the Labour Party not responded? Why is it now in disrepute? The world has changed, capitalism is not seen today as a dynamic force that can improve people’s lives. It is imposing great hardship on many. We have to respond to that with a more critical approach.
I hope at the end of this debate the vast majority of our movement can accept that we have to have a direction, and that we have to be broad. We will argue our corners but we move on together, because we have to stop the Tories from destroying people’s lives.
What would a Labour Party capable of transforming society in the way that you describe look like?
Too many British institutions represent a kind of nineteenth-century verticalism, whereas we now live in a more networked and horizontal world. Political organizations, particularly on the Left, need to capture that organizational zeitgeist. People have found new ways of communicating and organizing, and technological change is facilitating that. We have got to adapt.
For the Labour Party, this will mean a significant cultural change. A long time ago we debated “post-Fordism,” but the only place Fordism seems to live on is in political parties!
There is a huge task in front of us, every member of the party. We are now the largest political party on the left in Europe. We are well over half a million members with their own talents and expertise which they can contribute. We have got to find a way of energizing all of these people, many of whom are in a political party for the first time in their lives. And we should be aiming to bring more people in. A million-member party, why not? It is not impossible.
When I first joined the Labour Party in 1969 I was in a working-class community in Leeds and there was something called a “street captain.” They would be responsible for the Labour members in the streets around where they live.
On a Friday night they would knock on the door and collect the subs. Then they would sit at the table, have a cup of tea and say, “What are you thinking?” The street captains would then meet the election agent and would then speak to the MP. It was an organic relationship between ordinary people and the party.
I don’t want to glory in the past or be too romantic, but that is a basis for real left-wing politics. That can change things. We have a mass membership again. We should be imagining a way of putting a foot in every community in this country.