POLITICS

For Jeremy Corbyn's Right-Hand Man Ian Lavery, Control Of The Labour Party Is Just The Beginning

'People are sick of cuts, sick of austerity'.

01/07/2017 11:31 BST | Updated 01/07/2017 11:33 BST

His booming stump speeches, delivered in a broad Geordie accent, placed Ian Lavery firmly in the hearts and minds of Jeremy Corbyn loyalists on the campaign trail.

Now the newly-crowned party chair, who represents Labour’s most northerly English seat, is the leader’s right-hand man in power and entrusted with forcing through reforms bitterly opposed by many of his colleagues.

In a revealing interview with HuffPost UK, the former miner today opens up about an extraordinary election campaign and pledges to build on Labour’s unexpected success. 

“People are sick of cuts, sick of austerity,” he said, when asked why the UK returned a hung parliament.

He was just warming up to his theme.

“People are sick of having to use foodbanks or hear about other decent people using foodbanks.

“They’re sick of the crisis in the NHS. They’re sick of crumbling schools while there was apparently money there for grammar schools and free schools.

“People haven’t had a pay rise, in some cases, for ten years. People are fed up. We put a smile on people’s face. We gave people hope.

“This isn’t loony left, it isn’t even left. It is social justice.”

But the 54-year-old, a fierce and frequent critic of Tony Blair’s New Labour, is undoubtedly a product of the left.

The only apprentice miner in the North East to go on strike back in 1984, his progression to shop steward was natural and he would later rise to be president of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Fast-forward to 2017 and in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely ascent to power, Lavery is a close ally of the leader’s and a key architects of Labour’s manifesto for government.

The Man Who Could Have Been Leader

In a parallel universe, however, Lavery could be leader. Back in 2015, he toyed with the idea of running as the left’s candidate before Corbyn volunteered because the then-fringe group decided it was “his turn”.

He doesn’t regret his decision.

He said: “I’m positive I was right at the time. People want change and I’m happy to play whatever role they want me to play in this.”

After Ed Miliband’s defeat in 2015, Lavery was promoted to the Shadow Cabinet Office as a Shadow Minister in Tom Watson’s office.  

Things were genial between him and Watson when it was announced Lavery would take on the job as chair.

“It happens in politics. Everybody gets moved. I’m under no impression that things are different for me.

“Wherever you climb in politics, there is always a fall at the end. Politics is about that, the leadership – whether it be Jeremy or Tony Blair or whoever – they change things around. People like to get a team that they are comfortable with.”

“We have got a lot of excellent talent, male and female I might add, in the party. If Jeremy ever decides it’s not for him then we won’t be short of superb talent.”

This isn’t loony left, it isn’t even left. It is social justice.

As the election has cemented Corbyn’s powerbase, Lavery is confident the leadership will not face a challenge. But he doesn’t rule it out.

“Politics is about scheming,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether the Labour Party won 600 seats at the election, the next day they will be scheming and the next day, they will be plotting. That’s no different to any other political party.

“It is all part of politics.”

He is 100% loyal to Corbyn and, he insists, certainly not the source of the “calamitous” early release of the manifesto.  

“I was there with Jeremy when we found out that the manifesto had been leaked and we were absolutely devastated,” he said. “Then, the coverage from the leak covered the press for the next three days.

“Inadvertently, it played right into our hands and from then on we were on the front foot.”

Next Manifesto Will Be Very Different

He describes the general election campaign as “the best experience of my life” but accepts the party did not win, failing to convince older voters in particular.

The next manifesto will be a very different document, he says.

“We will look at everything and there is a lot more we can do,” he said. “The WASPI women campaign, for example, is an area we would need to clarify and have another look at.”

Amid much-speculation that the party could back a universal basic income, Lavery said reversing benefit cuts is not on Labour’s agenda.

He said: “We have moved on in politics and that is one of the biggest challenges the Labour Party faces - to bring everyone up to where we are.

“With regards to reversing this or that, we have got to introduce legislation which covers the welfare bill. We have got to be imaginative, not just say we will repeal A, B or C and put it back to what it was.

“We can’t just repeal things – we have got to have a vision.”

As party chair, his main focus will be on reforming internal structures and, he said, “everything has got to be on the table”, including the national policy forum and candidate selection.

He said: “We are a broad church. Some might argue, and I would be one of them, that we might be too broad a church.

“Being an MP, I haven’t got the divine right to be an MP for Wansbeck. I’ve got to work very hard on behalf of every single member of that constituency.”

Backbench Labour MPs from the right will view those words with suspicion, fearing members will oust them at the first opportunity.

He said: “We are at the first stage of transforming politics, not just on a national scale but on a European scale, an international scale.”

He added: “We have got the same structures in place that we have had for many years but the party has changed.

“The party has got to bring ourselves up to speed, democratise and understand that the membership has got a huge role to play.”

We are at the first stage of transforming politics, not just on a national scale but on a European scale, an international scale.

The next reshuffle could see MPs from other wings of the party, such as former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, return to the frontline.

He said: “It is easy for people to say: ‘Right Jeremy, as leader of the party, you have got to make a decision, you have got to bring people in’.

“Do you then kick people out who have been terribly loyal and bring people in who have been disloyal?

“I think it will be a natural process.”

Asked if the next reshuffle would include moderates, he said: “Reshuffles will take place in the future and people will be brought in. There is not a block on anybody. People will be brought in and others will be disappointed. That is how it will progress.

“To offer Owen [Smith], who stood against him in the leadership campaign, a job was the right thing to do.”

‘Different Ways And Means’ For Selecting MPs

But he will look at “different ways and means” for selecting would-be MPs and members will be front and centre of the new regime. 

He said: “Everything is going to be reviewed. That’s the point I am making.

“You can’t be any more democratic than allowing the people in your constituency to pick who they want as their MP. I think that’s really fair and really important.

“That is the way it is at the minute, by the way, but perhaps we need to look at different ways and means. Listen, if you get deselected in a constituency there must be a reason for it.”

The party will also aim to hire an organiser in each constituency, though Lavery said the programme would cost “a lot of money” and be “difficult”.

“They will be seen not just as community organisers but community champions,” he said. “It will cost a lot of money but if you are building the membership up then there is nothing more important than staying in touch with people.

“We can’t march 500,000 members up a hill and then not involve them.”

The party’s approach to the most-pressing issue of the Parliament, Brexit, is unclear and Lavery sheds little light on this.

He said: “The brakes are on. The Tory Brexit that they wanted to achieve has been hauled right back. I know people call it hard Brexit or soft Brexit but this will now be more of a Labour Brexit – jobs and security will come first and that is what we wanted.”

Asked why those in favour of immigration controls voted Conservative, he underlined that Labour would back a “fair immigration system”.

He said: “Isn’t it interesting in communities in the North, for example, when you speak to some people you would think we were the only English people in the constituency. Immigration is hugely exaggerated.

“That is not to say they don’t have a point but immigration has been hugely scapegoated for all the woes and the ills of the country.

“We want a fair immigration system that the country can manage properly. It is right to say that is what we want to do, but we are not going to be UKIP.”

He poured scorn on claims the party was not patriotic.

He said: “Is it because we aren’t draping ourselves in the St George’s flag or walking around in Union Jack suits? It’s just a thing people say.”

He is more animated when thinking about the task ahead as Theresa May negotiates governing without a majority.

“I do think Theresa May is, to coin a phrase, a dead woman walking,” he said. “It’s pitiful.

“I do feel that when you look at her she knows very clearly that she is just playing this role now. She hasn’t got any authority. 

I would almost say that I feel sorry for her but I don’t.”

He added: “We have had an uncomfortable two-year period. We’ve set a manifesto out which has been warmly received to say the least by the general public.

“We have made major strides forward, just a few months ago we thought it would be ten years before we could even imagine getting the keys to 10 Downing Street and that is not the case now.

“We are putting pressure on the government and when we work together as a PLP as HM Opposition, we can hold their feet to the fire and make changes. We have a hung parliament and we can build on that.”