Uniting the community

Jenny Sutton, the Tusc candidate in Tottenham, talked to Nick Rogers

Why are you standing as a candidate in the general election?

In February we found out that there were going to be a £2.5 million cuts at our college’s budget and David Lammy MP, who is minister for higher education, indicated that there was nothing he could do about it. The local MP can’t do anything about it and he’s education minister. It was obvious that we needed an MP who could fight. Because of my role as branch secretary of the University and College Union at the College of North East London (Conel) and also chair of London region UCU it seemed to make sense both symbolically and practically to stand against David Lammy and really present an alternative to the programme of cuts that all the main parties are promising.

How did you come to be the candidate for Tusc?

Well, obviously there would have been no point standing as an independent because I’m a socialist and a trade unionist. An independent platform wouldn’t have been appropriate.

I’d heard a little bit about the formation of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Although it is clearly by definition an electoral coalition and is going to be flawed and fragile, nevertheless, the basic programme that Tusc was putting forward - anti-privatisation, anti-war - was one I could support. It just felt important that if we are going to start building electoral unity on the left, clearly we are better being part of a coalition than standing as an individual candidate.

This isn’t just a single-issue campaign. Although the cuts at Conel were the springboard, it is a broader programme than that I am standing on: defending public services, and campaigning for public money to be spent on public services. The reason why they are cutting public services is that so much money has been spent on bailing out the banks, so much money has been spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that now we are being expected to pay for it.

There are broader questions about the inequalities and contradictions in the system that are coming to the fore. That is why I wanted to stand on an explicit socialist platform and not just as an independent. I’m not an independent.

What support have you received from the left?

I’m not a member of a left organisation myself. In some ways that has helped, because it’s meant that there have been people from different organisations involved in the campaign. On the left, principally, the people who are doing most of the leg work have been the local Socialist Workers Party. They’ve been brilliant. I’ve had support from some comrades from your organisation. There have been individuals from other left organisations and a range of non-aligned socialists. At the heart of the campaign have been UCU activists at Conel and the local SWP.

Is it true to say that the Socialist Party in England and Wales have been notable by their absence? Were they involved in the meeting that selected you?

They came along to the second organising meeting and they have given the campaign support. They have their own candidate standing in Walthamstow, Nancy Taaffe, who is a Socialist Party member, so they have been concentrating their efforts on supporting her. I don’t think they’ve had many forces on the ground available to work in Tottenham.

What support have you been getting from the general public?

The response has been extraordinary. We’ve been out and about on the streets and knocking on doors. What we’ve found is that, although Tottenham has always been a solid Labour constituency, this time the degree of dissatisfaction we’re hearing about is quite overwhelming. There are very few people who are actively defending Labour. Although they start off by saying they are going to vote Labour because they always have done, as soon as you start talking about it, they can be persuaded to vote for an alternative. We’ve had not one person defending the record of David Lammy actually. He must be one of the most unpopular MPs in the country.

The message we are presenting is really resonating, but my only frustration is that we don’t have the machine or the people to get it out more widely. So, although just about anyone we’ve had ended up having any extended conversation with has said, yes, they are going to support us, nevertheless, we have only been able to speak to at most a couple of thousand people out of a constituency of 60,000.

If Tusc was more widely known and if we’d had longer and had the forces to speak to everybody, I think we could win on the programme. Realistically, we are not going to unseat Labour, but who knows? This election is turning out to be very unpredictable.

One thing I know for sure is that we are putting David Lammy under a lot of pressure. At a hustings last week he focused his attack on me and my campaign - not the Conservative or Lib Dems - so I know we are getting under his skin. What that says to me is that even if he is re-elected he will know that there are people who want to fight for the local college and the local community. He will have to respond to that pressure. So it will have been worth it.

Has race been an issue in this campaign, given that David Lammy is a black man and you are a white woman?

Less than we anticipated. I have to say, when the idea of standing for Tusc was first mooted, I thought, well, we need a black candidate. I did talk to the branch chair at Conel who is a black woman and tried to persuade her to stand.

What is amazing is how few people have said, ‘You are a white woman, you shouldn’t be standing against David Lammy because he is black’. A lot of people have felt very, very let down. What he has demonstrated is that being black and being from Tottenham is not enough to fight for your local community.

People are looking at me and thinking, ‘Here is someone who is genuinely committed to the community.’ I’ve lived here for more than 20 years. I’ve taught at the college for over 17 years. I’ve got a history of campaigning against racism. I’ve supported campaigns against police harassment. I’ve supported the Winston Silcott defence campaign. I used to take the Silcott family to visit Winston in prison because they didn’t have a car. I’ve worked with the Delroy Lindo defence campaign when he was victim of police harassment. I’ve worked over the years with lots of asylum-seekers. The whole issue of cuts in English language (Esol) courses is an issue of racism. You are cutting provision for second-language speakers, denying them access to education.

I think people recognise that it’s not who you are that counts but what you do and where you stand.

What kind of impact is this campaign going to have on the fight against cuts at Conel?

It’s interesting. It’s politicised a lot of people. We have linked the fight against job cuts and cuts in courses at Conel with the election campaign. For a lot of people who maybe in the past would have seen it as either purely as an issue of fighting for social provision - a lot of Esol teachers in particular are very committed to their community and will fight hard to defend it - and others who will see it as an industrial struggle for jobs, what this campaign has done is to connect the struggles with the broader political context.

We have said to people, we are in a situation where all three parties are planning a massive programme of cuts in response to the economic crisis. If we want to campaign for community provision for students, if we want to campaign for students with disabilities, for students with low levels of literacy, we have to take on the ideology. We’ve got to take on the Labour Party because they are the party implementing cuts. You can’t argue it’s not a political struggle to fights for jobs and against cuts. The decision about where public money is spent is very much a political decision.

So, I think it has brought people together; it has engaged people politically. We’ve had union members who don’t have a political background, who wouldn’t identify themselves with a political party, group or ideology, and yet they have been some of the most stalwart members of the campaign. It has been brilliant to see them argue with the passion of people who have newly discovered politics.

We are going to be on strike the day before the election. I think people will have a heightened awareness of the role of politics in everyday life. I think it has been very empowering.

Do you think Tusc will continue and how do you see its future?

I don’t know. I haven’t been involved in the negotiations at national level. I understand there have been bickerings of one sort or another.

To be quite honest, I’m someone who comes from a left background, but, like a lot of people who were in left organisations and got hacked off with the kind of sectarianism that seems to be endemic on the British left, I don’t have a lot of time or a lot of patience for these kind of troubles.

What I think is that the left - every socialist, every left activist - has got to see that there is a need for an electoral challenge left of Labour. In order to make that effective, we have to find our points of unity. Too many left organisations define themselves in distinction to others and like to emphasise the differences. I feel very strongly that we have to find the points of unity and we have to work together to create some kind of genuine left coalition. Maybe that’s naive, I don’t know. I hope that, if Tusc does well, what we’ll get out of it is the willingness to build for a united left of some description.

We’re going to have differences. People are going to have different interpretations of what socialism is and different attitudes to the situation in Cuba or Venezuela, or different interpretations of the history of the ex-Soviet Union. But those are secondary. We have to recognise that what is happening at the moment is a massive assault on the working class in our country.

We have to unite to defend the gains that have been made over the years by trade unionists and socialists for social welfare, democratic and civil rights. That’s got to be the basic platform. Within that platform, we can have differences. These have to be debated openly. These debates have to be productive and constructive in order to develop a deeper understanding of socialism and Marxism. They should not be pretexts for falling out with each other and for not backing campaigns.

Where the CPGB differs from calls for a ‘broad’ left coalition or party is that we think Marxists should join together as Marxists. A party should be able to encompass differences on questions of theory and philosophy as long as there is agreement on the broad themes of the programme.

I’ve always considered myself to be a bit of a half-baked Marxist. I’m not particularly well-read and I’m not particularly ideologically strong. I think what matters is the content rather than the label. I think too many people are put off leftwing politics because they feel that it’s almost like a science at which you have to study. I don’t want to sound kind of crude and philistine and I’m not being anti-intellectual. I think there is absolutely a need for the development of ideology and theory, but I think that has got to be secondary.