Islington councillor Alice Perry talks to Sam Stopp about devolution, Labour’s progress in reaching new voters, and Jeremy Corbyn’s understanding of national identity.
In three crucial ways, this interview is a departure from the previous two I have carried out on behalf of the English Labour Network. First, Alice Perry is a councillor in Islington, a world away from the more rural English communities represented by my previous two interviewees. Second, Perry has a formal role speaking up for Labour councillors on the party’s National Executive Committee.
And third, Perry believes the Labour Party is already well on the way to achieving many of the aims set out by the English Labour Network – including winning a majority of seats in England and pushing policies aimed at greater devolution.
As a passionate voice for Labour in local government, Perry is keen to stress the understanding she already feels has been garnered within the party as to the need for greater political power at local level. Highlighting this year’s general election manifesto, she praises Labour’s commitment to a Minister for England and then remarks, “I loved the Bank Holidays for all the different nations within the United Kingdom … this was a great pledge which really got people to pay attention in the early part of the election campaign.”
This is all rather agreeable, so I decide to push into a more controversial area. Does Perry ever feel the values and identity of the community she represents in North London are at odds with parts of deindustrialised England? Perry doesn’t seem to think so: “We were very London-centric as a party. That was very true a couple of years ago. Since the membership surge, our party membership is now much more representative of the wider country. This has clearly had an effect electorally.”
How so, I ask? “The fact that we now have target seats in Cornwall … and the members in (places like that) have a much stronger voice about issues that matter to them, such as homeownership and the issues that face coastal towns across the country.” She goes on to say the positive effect of this surge extends into recent boosts for Labour in local elections, particularly in the South of England.
Perry repeats that the Labour membership is no longer so skewed towards London, although it remains to some extent centred around London and Manchester. She confirms that the Labour membership is nearly at 600,000, which she adds is “really good to hear.” I ask, though, whether Perry feels Labour’s message is still overly geared towards the needs and aspirations of those living in metropolitan centres, and whether this stops us from being able to speak to white working-class supporters in towns and rural areas.
“I think that was something people were always concerned about”, says Perry. “Like I say, that was a concern people had particularly in 2013-2014. It was something we were really concerned about in the context of UKIP’s rise.” Perry goes on: “What was interesting in 2017 was that we won seats in places like Peterborough and we nearly won in places like Thurrock.” This, Perry contends, shows that if Labour was out of touch with people in places like this, it no longer is to such an extent.
Perry is clear that Labour – especially under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – has tried to address concerns about rural England being left behind. She says Corbyn was very welcoming of submissions from rural CLPs when the party’s 2017 manifesto was being drawn up. We wouldn’t have had these discussions three years ago, argues Perry. “We have to branch out beyond traditional urban heartlands”, Perry stresses.
I mention that my previous interviewee, Crawley Council Leader Peter Lamb, had talked up the prospect of regional assemblies as a vehicle for devolution. Perry accepts this is a possibility, but argues that regional assemblies need to relate to an area people actually recognise. Here she criticises the West of England Metro Mayoralty as “a bit weird.”
“What’s important”, argues Perry, is giving people “a say in how their local communities are run.” It’s hard to disagree with this. So, I ask for more detail. Perry highlights the work that has been done in Islington to involve local people in political decision-making, although she accepts that this model may not be so easily applied outside of London. “People’s faith has been shaken by political scandals”, Perry ventures. Labour needs to help restore that trust through greater democratic accountability, she argues.
Finally, I decide to tap into Perry’s knowledge of Jeremy Corbyn’s thinking on all of this. As a councillor in the community the Labour Leader has represented since 1983 and a member of the NEC, Perry is likely to know more than most about Corbyn’s views on all of this. “Jeremy really gets regional identities”, Perry tells me.
“One thing that was quite interesting”, she goes on, “was that at the first leadership hustings in 2015, Corbyn showed a far better grasp than the other candidates about the fact that socialism isn’t the same as statism. He gets that national identity is something that can bring people together, which is great.”
Perry concludes: “A positive sense of our own English history is a good thing. I understand that people have concerns about nationalism, but Jeremy is perhaps more comfortable than other leaders at owning a progressive sense of English national identity.” On this upbeat note, we wrap up, and I leave Perry to battle with her cat, who has apparently spent large parts of the interview trying to destroy the house. All cats are Tories, after all.