- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
Rhea Wolfson has not had a straightforward path to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC). Seeking nomination from her local branch earlier this summer, Wolfson found her way blocked by Tony Blair’s former cabinet office minister Jim Murphy.
Undeterred, the young trade unionist from Glasgow found another route to the ballot where she has joined five other candidates — Ann Black, Christine Shawcroft, Darren Williams, Claudia Webbe, and Peter Willsman — on the grassroots slate that backs Jeremy Corbyn.
Ahead of Friday’s noon deadline for voting, Jacobin contributing editor Ronan Burtenshaw spoke to Rhea Wolfson about her political history, the task ahead of left-wingers in the Labour Party, and her vision for the party’s executive.
How did you get involved in left-wing politics?
My first steps were probably a bit unusual. I began actually in Jewish politics, in the community I came from. I grew up in the progressive part of the community but nonetheless had a very traditional educational experience, so I was initially involved in pro-Israel campaigning at university.
My position on Israel has changed, and I would no longer consider myself a Zionist but it was a steep learning curve. I had to confront and challenge my identity. This was a process that involved me working with anti-occupation charities in the Palestinian territories, seeing the reality of what was happening, and questioning my own views of social justice.
At the same time, in university, I joined the Labour Party and began to get active in youth and student politics. But that was a journey too. I was initially involved in Progress, the right-wing faction of the party, more because that was the orientation of the group I was around in our Labour branch.
I remember distinctly sitting at a Progress conference, hearing Luke Akhurst talking about how Labour founded NATO at the same time as the National Health Service, how Tony Benn had destroyed the party, and so on. I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?”
So I broke from Progress and began reading more left-wing material and getting involved in campaigns. Over time I became more and more critical of society and power until eventually I was a socialist.
Would you describe yourself as part of the Corbyn generation?
I think I would, yes. By the time of the first leadership election last year I was on the left of the party and supported Jeremy Corbyn straight away. I had moved back to Scotland from Oxford then so I began organizing young Corbyn supporters there. We phone-banked, campaigned, really threw ourselves into it. After he won we set up Scottish Labour Young Socialists, which is the group I’m affiliated to now, so it has really shaped my involvement in the Labour Party.
But it also shaped me. His win was a big moment, it represented something profound. I began to read more radical material: Marx, Trotsky, Luxemburg. We began to have these debates inside Scottish Labour Young Socialists too. It isn’t enough to just be supportive of Corbyn, we have to develop politics to understand what is happening.
It is important to say that this wasn’t the only influence. I am also a branch secretary for the general trade union, the GMB, in Glasgow and a committed trade unionist. I work with outsourced workers, mainly women in catering and cleaning services in schools and public buildings across Glasgow.
It’s a pretty devastating state of affairs because it’s mainly older workers who need to retire, but can’t because they can’t afford to. They have been paid terrible wages for the past sixty years. At the same time they’re being forced out because of massive cuts that are being passed down from the Scottish National Party (SNP) to the councils. So I have also seen the realities of capitalism at the industrial level.
This work in the GMB has made the role of the Labour Party clearer to me. It isn’t just a party fighting for social justice, it is a class movement. That’s why I was so excited by the Jeremy Corbyn campaign because he’s not talking about reducing inequality, he’s talking about fundamentally restructuring society. I think it’s that or bust at the moment.
Why did you decide to run for the NEC?
I think my first reason was that we needed new faces on the NEC. The comrades I’m standing alongside are fantastic but many of them have been put forward for election by the Left in the party for many years.
We need candidates on the NEC who reflect the new movement that has developed around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. As a younger activist and a member of Momentum I felt I occupied that space quite well.
I also think the Labour Party needs to be changed. Its structure mirrors today’s society in too many ways. Control is centralized, power is centralized, and there is a fear of party democracy. If it continues to operate like this not only will it not be a welcoming place for the hundreds of thousands of new members who have joined, but it won’t be able to carry out our socialist vision.
I’ve been travelling the country while saying this to meetings: we need a massive push, people have to run for offices right throughout the party from their local Constituency Labour Party (CLP) to the executive and fight to change it.
What is your vision of the role of the NEC within the party?
I see the NEC as a body to interpret the party’s constitution. It does not, and should not, have a policy role. But in this interpretation there are different values.
We have seen some really troubling decisions at the recent NEC, for example, where huge numbers of members were excluded from voting in the leadership election and local party democracy was effectively shut down. I think that the party’s executive should interpret its rules with respect for democracy and our membership, and clearly this wasn’t the case in that instance.
I also think we need an NEC that will fight for working-class people. The recent decision to increase the cost of becoming a supporter was an example of how it is not doing this at the moment. Asking people to pay twenty-five pounds in the middle of the month to participate in your party is wrong, it excludes people.
I was phone-banking recently and spoke to an elderly man who told me he wanted to vote in the leadership election but couldn’t because he didn’t have twenty-five pounds. That is just one example, there will be many. In my view that decision was against Labour values.
The NEC also has a role to play in ensuring balance between different forces in the party. I would use a place on the executive to make sure this is taken seriously, that we don’t have what we have in previous years: a Parliamentary Labour Party that calls the shots and the rest of the party simply having to dance to their tune. We need a real, democratic political party that takes seriously the jobs done by the whole party, not just one section.
What will you do if you win this NEC election?
First, I have an immediate and practical aim. Two local CLPs have recently been suspended — Brighton and Hove and Wallasey — in a way that I think is unacceptable. It was summary, there was no proper process.
These CLPs are now asking for an inquiry to vindicate themselves and it is falling on deaf ears. That is a big problem. If we allow the party executive to behave like this, with no accountability, it will seriously damage party democracy.
I want to implement the recommendations of the Chakrabarti Report. We need proper disciplinary processes that can give justice to both those making allegations and those accused.
It has to be transparent and accountable, and people have to understand the rules. Anything other than this will breed resentment, further party division, and be open to abuse. So I will fight for those reforms.
Finally, I will look to change the culture of the party. We cannot continue with the level of hostility towards our members that exists today. Their views need to be taken seriously and respected.
If we can do this, and build real party democracy, I also hope we can take some of the anger and division out of the party. If procedures and structures are fair, and people feel them to be this way, competing visions can coexist. This is crucial if the Labour Party is to remain a strong and united force.