BEN SELLERS played a major role in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 Labour leadership campaign and worked for MP Laura Pidcock before she lost her seat in North West Durham at the 2019 general election. Now working for City of Durham MP Mary Foy, he is a leading member of Red Labour and Don’t Leave, Organise.
Here he talks to ILPers and fellow north-east party members MARY STRATFORD and DAVID CONNOLLY about the gains and losses of the Corbyn leadership, the role of the left under Keir Starmer and how Labour can re-build in ‘red wall’ communities.
David Connolly: After Corbyn’s victory you said that from the left’s point of view events had happened the wrong way round – it gained the leadership before changing the party. Is there anything the Corbyn leadership could have done to avoid the divisions that followed?
Ben Sellers: What I meant was that in a normal political scenario we would have had 10 years building up to gaining a socialist leader and the Parliamentary Labour Party would have evolved to more closely align with that political project. We kind of plonked the leadership on top of a very different type of party and parliament.
So the leadership’s control of the party was quite weak even though Jeremy won that commanding majority. In the PLP, initially, the idea was to send out a message that they did believe in a broad church – to include the likes of Andy Burnham and Hilary Benn in the shadow cabinet, for example.
If there was a failure it’s more in how they could have appealed better to the party outside parliament. The strength of Corbynism was always that membership who joined in big numbers to support Jeremy’s first leadership campaign. The failure was in not galvanising them, not in picking the wrong shadow cabinet figures.
DC: I think the right of the PLP was so utterly shocked by Corbyn’s victory they didn’t know how to react, other than with outright hostility, even though Corbynism took us back to the social democratic mainstream. You would think that would have been attractive to some of them.
BS: Maybe we should have been more explicit about that social democratic mainstream from the start. There was fear on the right and centre of the party about what the movement was, and we weren’t clear enough about it. There could have been a bit more of a strategic approach explaining those left-wing social democratic traditions.
Mary Stratford: It’s now seven months since the general election and the result in North West Durham still takes some getting used to. Brexit was part of the reason, but what else does it tell us about working class conservatism, and what can Labour do to win such seats back next time?
BS: Brexit meant it was always going to be a struggle but I don’t think we thought it was going to be as difficult as it turned out. We thought we’d done enough work and that Laura [Pidcock] (pictured below) had connected more with her working class constituency.
In hindsight, we could have had more conversations with people about Brexit, and about other issues, to be honest, like the NHS. We missed out on talking to the people we needed to talk to.
I also think some of the methods we use aren’t effective these days. We need to re-think door knocking, for example. My wife, Charlotte, says if someone comes to her door she’s on the defensive straight away because she hasn’t chosen when to talk them. It’s a false conversation.
There is an element of working class conservatism too, but it’s more about a lack of confidence. Communities have been beaten down for such a long time people accept they’re not going to win. So when we come along with a ready-made campaign, they respond by saying, ‘No, we haven’t got a chance, nothing ever changes, it doesn’t matter what you do.’
We need to re-think how we campaign between elections. Some community organisations, such as Acorn and Citizens UK, can teach us quite a bit about how to listen more and meet people where they are. We should have more open meetings where people just come and tell us what they think, what it is that annoys them, what affects their quality of life, and how they’d like to change it. Then we can talk about what can be done.
The party could learn a lot about achieving small wins from small campaigns, then building to bigger wins. People need the excitement of winning those small campaigns, then they might decide the Labour Party is for them.
MS: It’s the key task, I think. That’s what I’ve learned most from being involved in coronavirus aid groups. It gives you a chance to engage with people at a very small level, to start a discussion with them that isn’t part of a heightened election conversation.
When I re-joined Labour in 2015 I was shocked by how far the party had disengaged, by how it saw things only in terms of elections. That left massive gaps in places that allowed messages from the right to go unchallenged. We just abstained.
DC: The achievement of the Corbyn years was to return the party to that social democratic mainstream and some of that shift is reflected in Keir Starmer’s leadership manifesto. Yet a lot on the left dismiss that as insincere and deceptive, rather than a document to hold him to account. How do you see the Starmer leadership?
BS: I feel your frustration. The Corbyn surge generated around 300,000 new members with bags of potential but collectively there was a political immaturity in parts of the left. There was a vacuum of political education and a lack of understanding about the need to organise for future conflicts, as well as about the compromises that are always necessary, whatever your beliefs.
In the heat of the battle when people feel under attack it’s very easy to slip into factionalism and a factional approach usually means the circle becomes smaller and smaller, until you are left with three people in a room. That sort of thing kills us. It is sometimes combined with a conspiracy theory approach, which can’t ever produce an open political culture.
It’s a long battle to educate people about how to relate to each other constructively, to disagree without being disagreeable. Unfortunately, a lot of people like to shut down debate. What happened in September 2015 was a very small step towards creating a good socialist culture in the party and, in a sense, we are still there with a lot of work to do.
MS: The quality of debate within the party can be frustrating. The right has little or no vision and always emphasises the limits of what can be done, while the left seems to have a mystical belief in the power of leadership to change everything and gets angry when it doesn’t happen. How do we create a left that is more strategic in its approach?
BS: That’s the million dollar question. During the 2015 leadership election I had a lot of optimism because there was a nice feeling of debate in that campaign and people felt they had a voice.
Momentum could have played more of a role after that in creating a more open and inclusive movement, in helping supporters come together to debate and learn from each other. But that didn’t happen and it’s a big failure of the Corbyn period. Its original goal was to be an effective factional body, a vehicle for community organising and a movement for political education – but the latter role got lost.
There was a lack of respect for the education tradition within the party and its history. I proposed that Red Labour set up something like the Workers’ Educational Association discussion groups around the country because strategy comes out of debate.
The ‘worship’ of Corbyn was damaging too. Corbyn himself emphasised the importance of the movement and not just himself, echoing Bernie Sanders: “It’s us, not me”. Tony Benn said that most change only comes from below and we needed to do more at grassroots. Momentum should have been a vehicle for that but they didn’t understand the amount of work needed.
Community organising has to be done in partnership with established groups and activists and that is happening now in some areas in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. I hope Starmer doesn’t dismiss community organising.
We need to watch how that plays out and be realistic, develop and train activists on how best support local campaigns. That never happened with Momentum.
DC: There seems to be an increase in hostility at the moment to people who dissent from the ‘orthodoxy’ on the left. What can be done about that?
BS: I understand why people do get angry about, say, the anti-Semitism attacks and things like that. But we need an internal dialogue within the party and within left groups in the party about those debates. And we need to have some discipline about it.
We have a basic duty of care for our members as well, so when people are being attacked spuriously there has to be a defence of our membership as a whole. But what I don’t think is useful is when people seek revenge.
There are an awful lot of complaints and counter complaints against people in local parties, and wasted time on Twitter. To fall into that rabbit hole is extremely damaging for the Labour left, but to say so often falls on deaf ears. It’s really frustrating because people are not thinking about the bigger picture of what we want to achieve as the Labour left.
MS: I agree. It is perfectly possible to criticise the Israeli government without lapsing into anti-Semitism but you’ve got to be careful. It appals me to hear people using lazy slogans and tropes without understanding what they are doing. And then people refuse to accept any criticism. The left needs to have some discipline about this.
BS: Laura’s background with Show Racism the Red Card meant she really understood the power of education around racism. She taught me a lot about understanding education as a solution when people have got things wrong. I don’t know why the party didn’t make education a bigger part of its response to the issue. Maybe Starmer will pick that up. It would be better than constantly disciplining people and sacking people.
DC: How has the Don’t Leave, Organise initiative been received? Has it been successful so far and what do you hope to achieve?
BS: It arose out of discussions between Red Labour, the Labour Representation Committee and Jewish Voice for Labour and was formalised after the election when everyone was feeling a bit down. It was a really difficult time to do it and in many ways we needed a longer run-in.
But we’ve had nearly 3,000 people sign-up and local groups are setting up. We’re not a membership organisation but a network of smaller organisations – local campaign groups and so on. It will some take time to get going and the name will probably change at some point.
The overall project is really about making sure socialists aren’t isolated in the party. One of Momentum’s failures was not to link people up at a national and regional level. It left people isolated and demoralised, so many have left the party. We want to make sure there is still a home for socialists and to give them a platform to connect with each other and organise together.
Ben Sellers was talking to David Connolly and Mary Stratford via Zoom on 6 July 2020.