Jeremy Corbyn must “absolutely” not quit as Labour leader should he lose the general election, says one of the Labour leader’s most vocal supporters aiming to be elected to parliament on June 8.
Chris Williamson, the former Labour MP who is hoping to recapture the Derby North seat he lost in 2015, says if Theresa May is returned to Downing Street the blame will lie “100% at the door of the malcontents” within his own party who conducted “guerrilla warfare” against Corbyn rather than the leader himself.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, Williamson, who is known for his vigorous support for the Labour leader on Twitter, insists Labour is more united now than it has been in 40 years and there is “overwhelming” backing for Corbyn.
Williamson lost Derby North at the last election to the Conservatives by just 41 votes. He blames the defeat largely on the idea Ed Miliband’s policy platform “wasn’t sufficiently distinctive enough” from the Conservative agenda.
“We were still offering austerity-lite and a number of people as a consequence of that didn’t bother to turn out to vote. We lost votes to the Greens, which is another progressive party, I think people voted for the Greens on the basis they were offering a more progressive agenda to the Labour Party.
The 60-year-old agrees his attempt to re-take the seat from Conservative MP Amanda Solloway will be a “test case” for Corbynism. “Absolutely I do,” he says.
But with Labour trailing the Conservatives considerably in the polls - the prospect of Corbyn walking into No.10 on June 9 does not appear likely even if Williamson wins his own seat.
Yet he is defiant when asked if a general election loss also means the end of Corbynism. “No. No way. Not at all. I am absolutely certain of that fact. As certain as you can be. There is no appetite at all for us to go back to accepting a neoliberal New Labour approach. We know it doesn’t work. We know it left people on the scrap heap. We know it resulted in people being marginalised, disenfranchised, losing hope,” he says.
And if Labour ends up back in opposition, does he think Corbyn should be allowed to stay on as leader? “I most certainly do. I suggest if you had a poll or a vote, and we had two votes don’t forget, there is overwhelming support for him.”
Williamson says: “I tell you what. If we don’t win this election the fault won’t lie at Jeremy’s door. Absolutely no way. The fault will be 100% at the door of the malcontents who have actually created the division inside the party. And created that perception that the party is divided when the reality is the party is united.”
He adds it is “a bit lazy” when he hears journalists report that Labour is split. “They are basing that on what the PLP is saying. There are only 232 of them. It’s a tiny percentage of the party,” he argues.
An overwhelming number of Labour MPs signed a no confidence motion in Corbyn last year. But the party membership re-elected him in defiance of the PLP.
Williamson says Corbyn is offering a “mainstream” platform of an “interventionist enabling government” as opposed to the neoliberal approach of May and her predecessors in both parties. “It ain’t rocket science, you don’t need to be a bloody brain surgeon to realise if you invest you create jobs,” he says.
“I’m a Derby person born and bred and it feels a bit like unfinished business. We lost by the narrowest of margins last time and the opinion polls gave us false hope it was going to be a fairly comfortable victory.
“And now with Jeremy Corbyn as leader we’ve got an incredibly exciting policy programme which will be really beneficial to Derby and I would like to be part of putting that into practise.”
Williamson acknowledges that Labour is currently behind in the polls and there is a “still a long way to go” to turn that around. A Guardian/ICM survey released on Monday suggested the Conservatives had a 19 point lead over Labour.
But he told HuffPost UK he was “confident” the gap would narrow as the campaign progressed.
“The other thing which has really hurt us is the fact there has been a very tiny minority the Labour Party who have been indulging in a sort guerrilla warfare, they have not accepted Jeremy’s leadership. That has not been helpful. The focus in the media about division rather than focusing on the issues which are important to people. That’s not very helpful,” he says.
“The fact we had a challenge to Jeremy’s leadership in the immediate aftermath of the referendum when the Conservatives were in disarray, that was a time we could have driven home an advantage. But sadly a very tiny proportion of the Labour Party, albeit in very influential positions in the PLP, decided that was a good time to mount a leadership challenge.”
Williamson says he was “bemused” just as “ordinary members of the public were bemused” about why MPs tried to oust Corbyn following the Brexit result.
“I think it was a disgrace to try and lay on him the defeat in the EU referendum. He worked tirelessly in the referendum, as did I,” he says.
Labour MPs, he says, were “mistaken” to think the voters and members wanted to return to the policies of Miliband, Brown or Blair.
“We have just gone through two devastating general election defeats putting forward the sort of proposition they seem to be clinging to. We need to put this different proposal forward,” he says.
“The reason for the poor poll showing has been the perception that the Labour Party is divided. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but I have been a member of the Labour Party for 41 years and I can tell you I have never know the party to be more united.
“The problem is of course is that is not cutting through to the general public because people’s perception is the party is disunited because a tiny proportion of members have not been united. The PLP is 232 people. The Labour Party membership is over half a million.
“When you see Jeremy go round the country, the sense of warmth and love which is directed towards him gives you a very clear feeling that people do warm to him and his policy agenda.”
He adds that he would be “amazed if any Labour MP felt the [current] policy agenda wasn’t the right thing to do.”
When the snap general election was called by May, surprising most in Westminster, some Labour MPs decided not to seek re-election. Middlesbrough South MP Tom Blenkinsop quit citing “significant and irreconcilable differences with the current Labour leadership”. Barnsley East MP Michael Dugher, a fierce critic of Corbyn, also decided to leave parliament.
Williamson says they and others had made the right choice. “There is a yearning from the membership for something different to the New Labour era that had held sway for the last 20-years or so.
“I like Michael [Dugher],” he says, before adding: “I think it’s the right thing. If you don’t feel you can get behind the leader and the programme which is is popular with the membership now, then I think it’s best to step aside and let someone else come in.”
The former MP, who once suggested the anti-Corbyn members of the PLP were like “sleeper” agents for Tory campaign chief Lynton Crosby, says MPs’ view would change if Corbyn won. “I think people in the PLP, flush with victory in their nostrils if we do win, will get behind the leader at that moment in time.”
Corbynism has always been about much more than winning an election for its advocates, it has also been about transforming the Labour Party and building a movement. “It’s a big thing we are doing,” Williamson says.
“We are not just seeking to win an election, that is important of course, you’ve got to be in power to be able to implement your policy programme, but we are trying to create a new consensus here. This is the moment in time like 1945 and 1979 actually. If indeed there is a change in government.”
Tony Blair, Williamson says, had not tried to reshape the country in the way the Attlee or Thatcher government’s had. “Blair decided in his wisdom, and the leadership of the party at the the time, to adopt that old maxim of ‘if you can’t beat them join them’. It was on that basis we accepted that kind of free market principle.”
This week marks the 20th anniversary of Blair and New Labour’s 1997 landslide. And nostalgia is thick in the air for many veteran Labour MPs and campaigners.
Williamson says that campaign that brought to an end 18 years of Tory rule was “incredibly successful”.
“We did some great things. I’m not one of those who says it was all shit or they were crap, they did some great things. We saved the NHS for Christ’s sake.”
But he adds: “But lets not forget, it came on the back of 18-years of a Conservative government that was exhausted, that was very unpopular because of all of the scandals and Tony Blair was in the right place at the right time. He was fortunate in that sense.
“I’m not saying he wasn’t a shrewd campaigner, he was, the messaging and all that was great. But the practise, when we got into government, it was squandered opportunity.
“When Tony came to power Labour had kind of bought into he neoliberal agenda and the view was taken at the tope of the party at that time we needed to embrace that and knock the rougher edges off. We did. But we weren’t able there to transform society.”