Building a green left in Hackney Matt Sellwood 9 April 2010
James O’Nions spoke to Matt Sellwood, a socialist standing for the Green Party in Hackney
You’re standing as a Green Party candidate in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott’s constituency. Why should people who want to see more leftwing MPs in parliament support you and not her?
I suppose there are two main reasons. The first is that, simply put, I am to Diane’s left. While she has a decent voting record in parliament, it is by no means on a par with stalwart rebels such as Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell. For example, she voted for the abolition of the 10 pence tax rate, against a transparent inquiry into Iraq, and so on. Given that there is absolutely no chance of the Conservatives ever winning Hackney North, socialist voters are free to weigh up our differing records and positions and vote for the person with the views that most accord with their own. I’d strongly argue that, for a Red Pepper reader approaching politics from an anti-authoritarian socialist perspective, that would be me.
The second reason is that I believe the Labour Party to be a dead-end for progressing socialist politics in the long term. The internal democracy of the party has been gutted, and as Red Pepper recently pointed out in an excellent article, it is becoming increasingly difficult for left-wing people to be adopted as parliamentary candidates. Even if people think that Diane is the best thing since sliced bread (and given her outside media commitments and so on, not many socialist voters in Hackney North feel that way any longer), she will be replaced within the next couple of parliaments, almost certainly by a New Labour drone. At that point, we can either have a strong Green Party with a powerful base of local councillors and an increasing vote share in the borough, or New Labour will win by default. My argument is a medium term one, and I think that kind of thinking is actually what has been missing in so many recent socialist electoral efforts.
It’s also worth saying, of course, that some people will understandably simply not vote Labour any longer, regardless of who the MP is. I think that is an entirely understandable position, and it is important to provide an alternative for people on the left who cannot stomach voting for another five years of Gordon Brown.
What are the issues that you are particularly interested in as a candidate?
My personal focus is on issues of economic equality, particularly given the appalling levels of inequality within Hackney North. I have worked particularly with the local Keep Our NHS public group, to oppose the egregious and continuing privatisation of our health service. I am also national spokesperson on housing for the Green Party, and do a lot of work on supporting investment in housing to create local employment, improve conditions and move modes of housing provision towards more cooperative models.
I am also passionate about withdrawal from Afghanistan. During the Iraq War I broke into RAF Fairford and sat on the runway to stop B-52 bombers taking off, and I’m only sorry that we couldn’t build a bigger movement of direct action at that time. The foreign policy of the Labour government over the last decade should, alone, be enough reason for socialists to abandon it immediately. It makes my blood boil.
How would you define your personal politics?
I am an anti-authoritarian ecosocialist. Quite a mouthful, but simply put it means that I come from the libertarian left – the ‘Red Pepper left’, if you like. My vision for society is based on equality, environmental sustainability and local democracy – not just in our existing ‘political’ structures, but in the workplace as well. I believe that electoral politics is one route to change, but certainly not the only one, and often not even the most important one. Direct action by citizens, the building of workplace solidarity and community organisations are just as important. Electoral politics is just a tool to create the space for those things to happen, driven by ordinary people.
In his recent Red Pepper column, Mike Marqusee, whilst conceding that the Green party’s programme is far superior to the mainstream parties, raised concerns about its ‘middle-class managerialism’. How would you respond to this?
The Green Party is by no means perfect, and I think it is a fair criticism to say that we have not always been great at realising that electoral office is a means to an end, rather than the end in itself. It is very easy, in any political party, to get obsessed with what will win you votes, and what is ‘realistic’, as opposed to what is necessary for radical social change.
Having said that, the Green Party has definitely moved to the left in the ten years I have been a member, and at the same time has become significantly better organised and more coherent ideologically. We still need to continue some of the big discussions about strategy and wider social change, but the beauty of the party is that any member can contribute to that thinking. Any member can propose policy or organisational changes to our twice yearly conference and have the same voting power as Caroline Lucas MEP. Increasingly, socialists who used to be in both the Labour Party and the far-left grouplets are joining the Greens, which is leading to a reassessment of how we achieve social change, what getting elected means, and how to best use our elected positions to change the world.
You’re also standing for a winnable seat on Hackney council for Clissold ward. What’s your assessment of the Labour administration in Hackney?
They are technocrats, essentially. As far as I can tell, their message consists of pointing out that Hackney Council used to be a complete basket case (which is certainly true) and that now it is around about average. Their central policy is a constant programme of council tax freezes, made possible by basic delivery improvements in a council which was very badly run for decades. As for using the Council to change society, I see very little sign of that at all. Perhaps this is no surprise from a Labour group whose Chief Whip is Luke Akehurst, supporter of Hazel Blears for deputy Labour leader and PR consultant to arms companies (sorry, ‘defence contractors’).
I’m very much hoping to be part of a Green Group in the next Council term (at the moment we only have one councillor, which makes holding the administration to account much more difficult) which will push for a significantly more radical direction, including the devolution of powers and funds to ordinary people, rather than everything running through the elected Mayor, Jules Pipe CBE.
On a more long-term level, what do you think are the key strategies for progressive change in Hackney?
I think that, in common with elsewhere in the UK, progressive social change in Hackney is going to come through ordinary people organising in their communities and their workplaces, building up grassroots networks of solidarity and resistance. My belief is that this is much easier if supported and defended by a progressive, socialist party which occupies elected office. The Green Party is not ‘the solution’ for progressive change in this country, but it is by far the closest thing we currently have to a left-wing, democratic and grassroots electoral force, linked to community campaigning. I very much hope that Hackney Green Party will continue to develop into the kind of party which can support and encourage radical organisation in the borough.
Matt’s election blog can be found at http://mattsellwoodforhackney.blogspot.com