Katie Roberts talks to Jon Woods of Portsmouth Against the Cuts Together and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) about Jeremy Corbyn’s election chances, the shifting loyalties in Portsmouth politics and a Conservative councillor’s audacious attempt last year to smear Jon and other local activists.
Katie Roberts: Could you start by telling us a little bit about how you got involved in politics?
Jon Woods: Right, that goes back a long time. I got involved, I suppose, around about 1985 in the campaign against the social policies of the Tory government of that time. Shock horror, they were cutting benefits!
KR: And what about the work you’re doing now?
JW: I do a lot of trade union work, I’m very active in my own union, Unison, on the trades council. I’m also involved in the Socialist Workers Party, Stand Up To Racism; a whole range of different things.
KR: And you were the local Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate in the last election?
JW: That’s right. For Portsmouth North.
KR: I understand that TUSC is supporting Labour for this election. Is that your personal stance on things?
JW: Absolutely. Yes. TUSC are not standing candidates against the Labour candidates. In 2015, bearing in mind Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t the leader of the Labour party, it was Ed Miliband in charge and they had quite soft policies on austerity. The candidate in Portsmouth North was John Ferrett, who has since left the Labour party. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he’s out now campaigning for the Tories. He spoke very favourably about Donna Jones on the council and was very, very critical of Jeremy Corbyn. So, it’s a very different election in 2017. So that’s why I think every socialist should be getting behind Jeremy Corbyn for Labour.
KR: To what extent do you think Labour has lost touch with its grass roots?
JW: There are a couple of things here. I think the polls are not to be relied on. We’ve seen time and time again over Brexit and over a range of elections, that the polls get it wrong. The polls particularly underestimate or don’t take account of young people. Older people tend to be polled more than younger people and I think that skews it towards the Tories and against Labour. I also think what doesn’t seem to be being reported much in the mainstream media is that the gap is narrowing. There’s still a big gap but Corbyn is catching up and I think because he’s putting forward bold policies, he is inspiring people and I think he could make up that gap.
KR: Do you think it’s a realistic hope that we could have a socialist government in the near future?
JW: I do. I think the problem we’ve had for too long is in elections we’ve had not much choice. We’ve had the Tories and a slightly more watered-down version of the Tories under New Labour, under Blair. People were sick of the wars that were caused, all the racism, all the scapegoating about migrants and all those sorts of things. Jeremy Corbyn represents a very clear alternative.
I think the key thing, though, is that he goes out on the streets. He is calling some big meetings. The more we have the movement out on the streets, campaigning, protesting at what the Tories are doing, for example the cuts to school budgets, the better chances we have. If we can get a movement behind him, in the way he had a movement behind him over the past two summers with the Labour leadership elections, a real grassroots movement, I think he could win the election.
If we have a socialist government like that, he’s going to need the backing of the people. The powers that be won’t take kindly to a Jeremy Corbyn government and will do their utmost to undermine him. So, if he is successful, which I hope he is, he will need that movement to continue after the election because it will be on the streets, protests, and I think ultimately we will be looking at strikes. Jeremy Corbyn on his own can’t bring those socialist policies in I don’t think, he could try, but the state, the media will be up against him and therefore we need to keep that movement going.
KR: He has a lot of support among the members doesn’t he?
JW: He does. A huge amount of support among the Labour party members. And people, like myself who are not Labour party members, but who desperately want to see the policies and what Jeremy Corbyn stands for coming into play. Even beyond the Labour party, he will appeal to lots of people.
KR: Can you describe how you feel about the cuts being made to public services, particularly in Portsmouth?
JW: I feel very, very strongly. I helped found the Portsmouth Against the Cuts Together, which was a campaign in 2011 because we were so concerned about it. I am a public service worker myself. I can see day in, day out the effects of cuts and you look around, you look at this situation with the cuts to hospitals, I think it’s absolutely criminal.
What really gets to me is the fact that people seem to forget – and again Jeremy does put this out there but it needs to be more widely spread – what happened [when] Thatcher and then Reagan deregulated the banking industry back in the 70s and 80s. As a result, we had the banking crash. So the banking crash, for a start, is a direct result of Tory policy. So they always try to blame Labour but actually, who deregulated the banks and let them do these dodgy deals and gamble on the stock markets? The Tories. And then, they were bailed out by the public purse. So, they gambled, lost, we all paid for it in terms of cuts to public services, and the bankers are turning around saying ‘there’s a deficit, now you’ve got to cut even further’. So the very criminals, in my opinion, who caused the mess are then inflicting the punishment on ordinary people through the cuts to their services.
So, I feel extremely strongly about that and that’s why I think it’s so good that Jeremy Corbyn is talking about the anti-austerity policies because austerity is a political choice, it’s not a necessity. The Tories always talk about it ‘we have to balance the books, we have to do this, that and the other’ but you look at the level of debt after World War II, much, much greater than it is now, and yet at that time we built the National Health Service, Social Security and all those sorts of things. We’ve had so many years of cuts, after cut, after cut and ordinary people and also the people who provide those services have suffered immensely.
KR: And we can expect more of those cuts if we continue to have a Tory government?
JW: Absolutely. They will always make us pay because the Tories always look after the rich. They want to cut the taxes for the rich even further. Jeremy Corbyn is talking about increasing the taxes on the rich. Personally, I think he could go further. It’s interesting that Mélenchon, the left-wing candidate in the French presidential elections – who got 19%, quite a big amount although he didn’t get into the final round – wanted to bring in a top-rated tax of 100% for people earning over 100,000 Euros. So, very radical. If you look at the levels of income tax going back to the Thatcher government, the top level of tax under Margaret Thatcher was 60%. We’ve got down to 45% now, so there’s plenty of room to move.
KR: Last year, Tory councillor Scott Harris named you alongside campaign group Sisters Uncut in emails detailing a smear plot. Can you tell us a bit about how you felt to be on the receiving end of such tactics?
JW: I’ve been around in politics long enough to not be overly concerned about the Tories’ lies. Part of me felt it was laughable, in one sense, although I know that for some of the other people who were smeared it had a big impact on them. But what it really exposed to me, it just made very clear what I already knew, that most of the Tories are nasty pieces of work and that’s the way they operate. The dirty politics, low politics, snideness, secrecy…
I did have the ‘pleasure’ of doing a deputation with Scott Harris over the cuts. I pointed out to him what a despicable act it was and he sort of slumped down in his chair in the council chamber and looked a bit worried. If you contrast that with Jeremy Corbyn’s way of dealing with things; very honourable, huge amount of integrity, and he doesn’t stoop down to the levels of other people. So, yeah, I think it was nasty, and very, very unfair particularly on Shonagh from Aurora New Dawn and [freedom of information campaigner] Sameen Farouk. People don’t deserve those sorts of things. When I go out campaigning in town, for example today, I’ll probably get a few insults thrown my way but that’s the way it goes.
KR: In a way, it exposed them for what they are.
JW: It did. It not only exposed them as being nasty it exposed them as being incompetent. Because if you’re going to smear somebody you don’t send your email to everybody that you’re going to do that.
KR: There’s no denying that Portsmouth is an area with fairly large pockets of deprivation, yet the people of Portsmouth voted for austerity under a Tory government in the last election. Do you think this could change with the mobilisation of more working-class and young votes in the area? If so, how can we best do this in your opinion?
JW: Yes, I do think you’re right. The problem I think we’ve always had is that unless the left can inspire people, they don’t come out and vote. If you look what’s happened over many, many years the Labour vote has dropped and dropped and dropped and it started dropping way before Corbyn. It dropped after 2001, 2005, under Tony Blair, and it demoralised people. It demoralised people because we had cuts, we had illegal wars, it was looking after the rich and I think that demoralises people. And that’s the way we have to inspire people, we give people hope, we actually show them there’s a real alternative, a radical alternative.
My feeling is, we’ve still got just under four weeks left, I do think that things are going in the right direction and I do think it’s quite possible we can mobilise people. The more we go out and do campaigning, the more we liven things up a bit, the more every time the Tories raise their heads we point out their terrible record. This joke that Theresa May is trying to put out that she’s a friend of working people. What? How can you possibly believe these lies that they’re coming out with? We need to nail them on those sorts of things and inspire people and then I do think we could mobilise the vote.
KR: Theresa May is almost becoming a brand. The campaign bus with ‘Theresa May’ in huge letters and ‘Vote Conservative’ in small print is an example.
JW: They’re trying to make people forget that they’re Tories. And people know, I think, that deep down the Tories always look after the rich, they will always cut services, they will always try and privatise stuff, they will always then try and blame refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants for the cuts. ‘Oh there’s not enough council housing, that’s the refugees and the migrants’ no, it’s because you cut the council housing big time and you sold off the council housing for years and years and years. So it’s disgraceful racism that they perpetrate. I think actually people do know. The key thing that’s been missing from many of the other elections is a radical, clear alternative. People need a clear choice, for too long we haven’t had a choice and I think that’s why this election could, fingers crossed, be different.
(To be continued).
Photography by Moshe Tasky