We’re Gold Plating Labour’s Policy – Emma Burnell interviews Alex Sobel MP

It’s unusual for me to meet Alex Sobel dressed in a suit. Before he became an MP we were occasional gig buddies, and so I’m more used to the regulation jeans and T-shirt. But today, relaxing in his Parliamentary office, Alex looks every inch the MP.

One week from when this interview will be published, it will be Open Labour’s AGM and conference at which we will be launching the new pamphlet edited by myself and Allison Roche of Unison and with a Foreword by Alex. In it Open Labour lay out the options available to the Party over Europe and argue strongly in favour of staying in both the Customs Union and the Single Market.

A No Brainer for Labour

Alex argues that staying in the Single Market is a “No brainer” for Labour. “It wouldn’t challenge us, but would give us a whole load of benefits and it would ensure that the jobs we need would not be lost because of any transition period.”

In making these arguments, he sees this as a key part of Open Labour’s role in helping the Labour Party to “own the future” as he puts it. He wants to create space for Labour to look at the Customs Union and Single Market from a left perspective and the pamphlet and subsequent tour of events will help create that space. When asked about the differences between this approach and the leadership, Alex argues that Open Labour is “gold-plating the Labour Party’s policy.”

Open Culture

Alex is the highest profile of the Open Labour Executive, being also our sole representative in Parliament. He was a founder member and as such has done a lot of thinking about the role of Open Labour in the Party. He was inspired by the failure of the people around Ed Miliband to properly cohere into a group to keep Ed true to the politics he was elected on.

“It’s about having an open culture, of the Left being welcoming, and having debate and respecting other people’s opinions broadly on the left. It’s [also] about having credible, pragmatic, socialist positions and trusting people collectively rather than just entrusting all power and control to the state.”

“There’s a tendency for some on the left to believe too much in the overarching power of the state, to place all the levers in the hands of the state not in the hands of people collectively and that’s a problem.”

Genuinely New Politics

When asked if Open Labour is just another faction he laughs. His position is that we try not to be factional in some of the old ways. It doesn’t matter what you call it “the new politics strikes me as very much the old politics just run by a different faction.” He argues that for the new politics to work it has to be genuinely new.

For example on the NEC. Open Labour are championing the veteran left winger Ann Black. But as Alex says “I’ll support and vote for Ann Black for the NEC without a doubt. But I’ve got nine other votes.”

“The new politics should be about stepping back and voting for a candidate or range of candidates who most closely represent your personal political positions, your view about party culture, your view about where the Party should be heading… Just having two slates for everything is usually detrimental to the Party. What we need is diversity and pluralism.”

Shaping the Future

Like most party members it is the fight against inequality that brought Alex to Labour. But he likes to approach this fight at what he calls “A layer above”.

“For me, it’s about how we shape the future, how our generation shapes the planet. So we need to look at societal threats – not just inequality – much more broadly. To be honest, irrespective of what we do on Universal Credit now, if we don’t think about climate change, that won’t really make any difference.”

This long-term approach informs Alex’s priorities as an MP. He is also reflective of some of the mistakes that New Labour made in office. “[We] never replaced industrial jobs lost and we need to have a strategy to do that… and a lot of those could be related to climate change.”

He also argues for better infrastructure –, especially in the North. As he says “If you have HS3 and can get from Leeds to Manchester in 20 minutes, that changes your complete ability to get a job in those two cities, between them or around them.”

Trusting Communities

Alex’s approach to policy is similar to his approach to Open Labour. It reflects the Corbyn mantra of putting economic power back into the hands of the many. But equally has to be about “trusting people rather than the state or capital” with that power.

That would be a new politics indeed.

Emma Burnell and Alex Sobel will both be appearing at the Open Labour Conference on 23rd June 2018. tickets are still available here.

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