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A socialist in the House of Lords, a devotee of Jethro Tull and Joni Mitchell, Stewart Wood (1968) is a uniquely compelling voice in UK politics. A graduate of Oxford and Harvard, Wood was a close advisor of Prime Minister Gordon Brown between 2007 and 2010, working in 10 Downing Street. For the next five years worked with Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, leading his campaign to wrestle power back from David Cameron’s Conservative Party. In 2011, he was appointed to the House of Lords, assuming the title of Lord Wood of Anfield (home of Liverpool Football Club). "The Lords does a lot of really valuable work,” he reflects, “but personally I think an unelected second chamber doesn't have a place in a modern democracy”. He is a lifetime fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and has just been named chair of the United Nations Association (UK).
THE GREATEST POLITICAL CRISIS….
Owen Jones has suggested that the UK is facing its greatest crisis since the Second World War.
Yes, I think in many ways that is right. We are experiencing a combination of crises. Our economy—over-dependent on financial services and rising household debt—has still not recovered from the Crash of 2008. We have a long-standing crisis of living standards, not just for poor families but for families quite high up the income scale. On top of that we now have multiple political crises: turmoil inside the Conservative Party, civil war inside the Labour Party, a rising tide of anti-politics sentiment. And most importantly of all, we have made a momentous national decision to turn away from the European Union and chart a path on our own—a decision that will also continue to divide our country internally for some time I fear. So I think Owen's characterisation is not hyperbole.
Should we see the election results of 2015 as a reflection of the power of a conservative press in the UK? Or of some other factor?
It is true that the UK press has a right wing bias. Ed Miliband received years of disparaging and aggressive coverage that I am sure had an effect on how some people saw him. But I think it would be too easy to blame the press for the 2015 election. We need to accept more responsibility for our own defeat. I think looking back we had a good, strong and accurate diagnosis of what was going wrong in our country: an economy that only worked for a few, scarred by continued deregulation, growing insecurity and unacceptably high inequality, all compounded by a punishing and economically self-defeating philosophy that a crisis of markets could be sorted out by slashing the state. But I think we lacked radicalism in our policies to respond to that analysis. It was a time to be bolder than we were, while at the same time addressing more explicitly than we did some of the concerns many voters had about our record on spending, immigration and other issues.
In recent months, there has been an extraordinary growth in the membership of Labour. Does this reflect the reinvigoration of democracy in the UK?
Yes, in many ways it does, or at least the reinvigoration of faith in party politics among those on the Left. I have never believed that Britain is apathetic about politics, and even less that young British people are apathetic. But until Jeremy Corbyn, a lot of people who were engaged with political issues and angry about the decline of public services and the quality of life in our country had little faith in political parties as agents of transformation. Whatever your view of Corbyn, his candidacy for the leadership reinvigorated a sense of hope among those people, and they joined in their thousands to help make the Labour Party a social movement again. The next step is for those thousands, or indeed hundreds of thousands, to seek to work with those outside the narrow confines of Labour's membership—to build bridges and alliances—so that we can return to power and start to repair some of the damage done in the last decade.
THE FUTURE OF THE LABOUR PARTY
The Labour Party nevertheless seems to be on the verge of a definitive split. In explaining this, how much weight would you give to the Iraq War, and how much to the recession of 2008?
I sincerely hope we are not on the verge of a split, because I think—especially under our electoral system—Britain needs a Labour Party that unites people across class, income levels, regions and ethnicities to fight against the Conservative Party. But you are right that the internal divisions are strong and bitter at the moment. In part that is because of the long shadow of Iraq, which was a catastrophic mistake for our Party. In part this is a fight between two conceptions of the party. On the one hand, the vision of a Labour Party whose purpose is to win power in Parliament, and which craves a leadership that can lead in Westminster; and on the other hand, a Party whose purpose is to create a social movement that can change Britain from below, and which has little time for Westminster politics.
But I think there is a broader crisis underlying our split. It is a crisis that all social democratic parties have had since the Crash. Can you think of a single social Democratic Party in Europe at the moment that is thriving? The Crash exposed the historical problems of social democracy's mission: as an industrial society moves to a post-industrial time, inside a European Union committed to austerity, and with many of social democracy's historic causes now achieved, what is social democracy for? I think we need to do some fundamental rethinking about how to pursue a more just, prosperous and sustainable economy, and a fairer more equitable society, rather than see our way back by being a tribute act to the 1960s and 1970s.
Jeremy Corbyn is widely perceived as being unelectable. Do you think this perception is accurate? Is there a more electable figure within the party?
I don't think he is unelectable, but I think in order to win he needs to do more than survive as leader. I am very sympathetic to many of the causes he stands for, and I applaud much of his domestic economic policy—especially taking a stand against austerity. From a personal point of view, however, I have yet to see him set out anything resembling a strategic plan, or a set of policies that translate those speeches into action. And I see him and his team becoming more isolated and resentful of his own party, rather than seeking to engage with them, win them over, and then turning to win over the country. I passionately believe that this is the time to challenge the Conservative Government on a range of areas that have been accepted for too long—on economic policy, inequality, regulation of financial and labour markets, and approach to foreign policy problems such as in the Middle East. But I don't honestly believe Jeremy Corbyn can do that.
Do you think a Progressive Alliance with the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP is a viable means of ensuring that the Labour Party has a powerful voice in the next government?
I definitely think we should be taking the idea of a Progressive Alliance seriously. One of our brightest younger MPs, Lisa Nandy, has co-authored an upcoming back with Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, setting out exactly how this approach might work. We are political rivals in some areas but we have much in common, and we mustn't let historical rivalry prevent us from working together on those areas where we agree. I think excessive tribalism puts off so many people from engaging with party politics. In the referendum campaign, I took part in some events organised by Another Europe, an organisation that brought together people from the Labour Party, Greens, SNP and other progressive organisations to make the case for the EU based on a positive vision of Europe's future rather than using the politics of fear about what would happen if we left. Those meetings had energy and positivity, and showed just how exciting a progressive alliance could prove in the future.
ELITISM, SOCIAL CLASS, AND FOOTBALL
Elite educational institutions, from Eton through Oxbridge, continue to play a key role in British politics. Is this a facet of meritocracy, a survival of nineteenth-century elitism, both, or neither?
There is no doubt that our country continues to be dominated by institutions that reproduce privilege across generations. Only 7% of Britain attends privately-educated schools, but our political, judicial, press and financial elites massively over-represent this small group. Oxford and Cambridge are world-class teaching and research institutions, and do recruit very talented students. Their problem is that those students have an advantage when it comes to application processes to get into the best universities. I think Oxbridge has a responsibility to cast the net much more widely in looking for new talent.
Relatedly, has the rise in university tuition created a division between ‘town and gown’, exacerbating class divisions reflected in the recent Brexit vote?
One of the most striking things about the Brexit result was the division within our country based on education. A large majority of those who did not go to college or university voted to Leave, while over 80% of those currently attending college & university voted to stay. There is no doubt that the introduction of tuition fees has put off students from poorer backgrounds from going to university, because the prospect of incurring so much debt frightens many of them. But I am not sure that was a big factor in the referendum. The main divides seem to be on the basis of education, age and social class. Parts of our country have been left behind by the prosperity of the 25 years before the 2008 Crash, and since the Crash these parts of the country have struggled to recover under the austerity regime that the Conservative Government told us was unavoidable. I think much of the vote can be explained by that.
You are a devoted fan of Liverpool F.C., and chose to assume the title of Lord Wood of Anfield when you were appointed to the House of Lords. Can you explain the political significance of this title?
When I was asked to be a Lord, and asked to pick a place to which my position was connected, I immediately thought of Anfield—not just as the place with most emotional resonance to me, but as a way of thanking that part of the world for all the joy and support I've received from being a Liverpool supporter for over 44 years. When I took the title, some local councillors asked me to remember that Anfield is one of the poorest areas on any British city, and to champion causes that matter to the people of Anfield and Liverpool. I hope I have lived up to some of that challenge, for example in helping to expose the scandalous response of the British Establishment to the Hillsborough tragedy from 1989, and more generally in helping to remind my Labour Party that its fundamental reason for existence is to support those that the market economy has a tendency to leave behind.
In their impassioned idealism, the grassroots movements on the Labour left— Momentum, for example—seem, at least on the surface, to bear some resemblance to social movements such as Podemos, in Spain.
There are some similarities. Both want to stand for and reinvigorate a politics of the left that resists austerity, rejects anti-immigration sentiment, and which sees the power of political parties as lying in the movement it belongs to. The main differences is that Momentum came into existence to support a leader of an existing and long standing party—Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Labour. Personally I would have liked to have seen Jeremy, once he became Leader, turn around and challenge Labour to change itself to become more of active social movement, rather than turn to another organisation to provide that energy alongside Labour. Although I can see why he didn't do that, I think it has created antipathy for our leader to look to an organisation outside the Party for his primary support. But there is no doubt that, as Owen Jones often says, Podemos offers many lessons for a party such as Labour.
Over the past decade, you have often traveled to the United States, meeting both President Bush and President Obama. Many on the Left, in the US are deeply demoralized because of the defeat of Bernie Sanders and the influence of big money to influence elections. How healthy is American democracy?
Bernie Sanders’ remarkable campaign learnt a lot from those of Howard Dean and Obama before him, and showed quite how far you can go if you can inspire people in the possibility of a different kind of politics. However, the power of big money in US election campaigns is a serious problem. This influence, combined with a dysfunctional relationship inside Washington between Congress and the White House, is worrying. Put these two things together and it is difficult to see how the US can muster an effective response to some of the most pressing problems, such as achieving gun control.
ARTS AND CULTURE
Does deep change occur through culture, more than through politics?
My favourite play is Tom Stoppard's Rock & Roll, which looks at Czech politics in the 25 years after the Prague Spring abd asks exactly that question. He persuaded me that the answer was culture. The songs of Joni Mitchell and Jethro Tull, and Ingmar Bergman’s films, have had more influence on me than any political speech. But politics allied to culture is much more powerful for society as a whole. I think politics can break the doors and fences down to open up possibilities that were previously thought unobtainable. The danger is to obsess about politics and neglect the ingredients of a good and fulfilling life for you and those you love. Politics without culture risks redistributing power without transforming people's lives.
You are a great admirer of Joni Mitchell. Has your appreciation for music shaped your political career in any way?
Joni Mitchell's music has been my constant companion since I was fourteen. She admonishes herself a lot in her songs, pushes herself to realise her mistakes, and to re-emerge again. I've taken that to heart. And she captures the essence of humanity like no other songwriter—"each so deep and superficial, between the forceps and the stone". I don't think her music has shaped my politics directly, but her music reminds me about the true purpose of politics - to give people the time, freedom and confidence to live fulfilling lives, be creative, to have the space to love and laugh.
A socialist in the House of Lords, a devotee of Jethro Tull and Joni Mitchell, Stewart Wood (1968) is a uniquely compelling voice in UK politics. A graduate of Oxford and Harvard, Wood was a close advisor of Prime Minister Gordon Brown between 2007 and 2010, working in 10 Downing Street. For the next...
Simon R. Doubleday
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