“We have to branch out beyond traditional urban heartlands” – Councillor and Labour NEC member Alice Perry

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.

Read more of our ELN interviews here.

2 comments

  1. The word ‘nationalism’ has connotations that the left are understandably uncomfortable with. But, getting down to brass tacks, ‘nationalism’ is the ideology that a nation should be self-governing; and if you have a progressive, civic idea of what constitutes ‘nation’ then what is wrong with nationalism?

    Personally, I think England should have its own government and parliament – along with strengthened local government – and if that makes me a nationalist, then so be it.

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  2. It would appear that concerns about nationalism do not extend among the UK power elite to its own relentless British nationalism, as much at home as abroad. England has been governed in a neo-colonial manner by the British state under successive governments of all political parties. Some now wish to continue that process by balkanising England into a gerrymanded ‘federal’ settlement, without the prior referendum consent of the people of England, and based upon contrived ‘regions’ which have had little, if any, historical or political resonance in the English imagination.

    Like the previous comment, I too wish to see the people of England, for the first time, directly elect all who govern them at national (England) and local level. National self-determination for England is a matter fundamentally of citizenship, public interest and value, democratic accountability, participation, voice and transparency, and the best way to restore people’s faith in the political process. It is also about reconnecting with a very long political tradition of radical thought and action in politics, political economy and constitutional matters.

    The time is long overdue that the New Whig verson of England’s history and identity upon which has been founded the whole neo-liberal British modernization project of the past 40 years, from Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May, including the Leave campaign, was challenged by an alternative vision. The task is all the more urgent given how much power is currently being devolved to corporations and individuals as market actors (not citizens) under the STP-led reforms of the NHS in England, and the parallel reforms to England’s schools and universities.

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