- Interview by
- Max Shanly
The British general election campaign is underway, with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party trailing in the polls.
Despite a strong start to the campaign, the left-wing leader is already facing familiar challenges. Hostile MPs within his own party say they will never vote for him as prime minister and that he isn’t up to the job. Others criticize him for not preventing an early election, only months after some conspired with the Tories in pursuit of one.
Matt Zarb-Cousin was spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn until early this year. He talks with Jacobin contributor Max Shanly about working in the Leaders’ Office, how he dealt with unprecedented hostility inside and outside the party, and his belief that Labour will rebound from their difficulties in the general election campaign.
How did you first get involved in politics?
I was nineteen when I joined the Labour Party. I was studying politics at university and started to read up about different left-wing thinkers and political theory. I was always on the left of the party but was never part of the organized left. I wrote different for different Labour orientated publications, including the Blairite magazine Progress. While at university I worked with Political Scrapbook. I didn’t really have much of a home in the party, but then Jeremy stood for the leadership and I felt a sense of purpose in my politics that I had been searching for.
I worked for two Labour MPs after graduating from university, but didn’t think I would work in politics again. I applied to work for Jeremy after seeing a job being pilloried by the BBC’s Have I Got News For You [a satirical news quiz]. It featured on the program because there was a mistake in the job description. It said “the contract will last until the end of the year, or Jeremy’s leadership, whichever is sooner.” I applied speculatively and ended up being the successful candidate and Jeremy’s official spokesperson.
The experience of working in the leaders’ office has made me more committed to the party’s left-wing, because I have seen what happens day-to-day.
What was life like working in Corbyn’s office?
It was a great place to work: intelligent people, on the same page politically and committed to seeing the project through. I got on very well with Seumas Milne, who I’ve got a lot of respect for. But on many occasions there was a kind of siege mentality because of the constant pressure we were under.
When I started working in the Leader’s Office Kevin Slocombe was there as Corbyn’s Head of Media — Kevin left that position about a month later to work for Marvin Rees, Labour’s Mayor of Bristol. For around four or five months I was the only person dealing with the press lobby [the journalists in Westminster]. Some days I was getting eighty to a hundred calls or texts from journalists, mostly with stories that were leaked by people on our own side. Obviously that’s extremely frustrating.
It was very difficult to get Southside [Labour Party Headquarters] to work with us constructively. There were times when certain journalists would find out about events and appointments immediately after they had been approved. Sometimes journalists would even find out before we did. There were endless leaks from Southside, which makes it incredibly difficult to function in a professional way. I don’t think anyone would be able to under those conditions.
I personally got on very well with the media team at Southside, certainly towards the end of my time. But there remained a lot of issues in terms of how the operation was run, who had authority over communications and so on; that’s probably as far as I can go into it.
What was the relationship between Corbyn’s office and the media?
I built personal relationships with everyone I could in the lobby, but obviously newspapers have an editorial line and their own sense of priorities. When we talk about media bias people think we are alluding to a conspiracy but what you’re actually saying is that an editorial decision is taken that one issue is more important than another. There has been a constant focus on items that would portray Jeremy in a negative light. This feeds their own narrative about him. The way the media frames politics clearly influences public opinion.
I don’t buy into the argument that people make up their own minds irrespective of what the media says. Having had experience of handling rebuttal, it is obvious the media influences people considerably. Either a free press is integral to a functioning democracy or it isn’t. If it is then you must accept it has influence — you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say it is essential one minute and background noise that no one really pays attention to the next.
When we held events, rather than just covering the event and scrutinizing the policy, as they would with others, the press would seek out a trivial issue in an attempt to mock the whole thing. It felt like this was constant, desperate even. It was a campaign to undermine Jeremy. Sometimes I thought people did it because they were lazy and couldn’t be bothered to read up on the policy. A lot of them really couldn’t be bothered to engage with what we were trying to put forward.
I came to the opinion that it was best to use that to our advantage, to use their attempts to produce controversy to draw attention to what we were really saying and then maybe we could cut through. Instead of trying to manage the media and trying to engineer something that was never really going to work, we could try to ride their wave and steer the attention of the public in the direction we wanted.
But the conclusion is that the press make it incredibly difficult for a left-wing, anti-establishment Leader of the Opposition to communicate to people. I don’t think conventional strategies work in the current framework.
So what sort of media strategy should Labour and the Left pursue?
We need to build new institutions. The party needs to work out how to use social media more effectively and to optimize it. But what we need more than anything is for our own side to stop briefing against the leadership, and by our own side I mean Labour MPs, Lords, and the staff at Southside. Leaks from private meetings would occur on a regular basis. I would receive phone calls from journalists asking me about specific details and I would often have to admit “well, this happened but not how you’re saying it.” I would really be thinking, “who told you?”
Because of the nature of lobby journalism, a lot of people have been there for maybe five to ten years. Many would be Blairites politically. So therefore, a lot of their contacts in the Parliamentary Labour Party are — as they like to describe themselves — “moderates.” These people and Cameroons [people who were close to the Cameron government] are in the contact books and the ones with influence.
The Tories are a lot more professional in the way they go about conducting their business. They resolve their issues behind closed doors and largely without media involvement. Labour on the other hand had MPs such as Neil Coyle and Michael Dugher providing on-the-record briefings to journalists against the leadership. I often felt as if I was drowning in requests for responses.
I never lied to journalists. I tried to rebut what was being said the best I could by pouring cold water on it. Over time journalists would trust what I was saying and come to me with a story given to them by a Labour MP. I would tell them it wasn’t true and often they wouldn’t run it. But that took time, and they obviously trusted the people who were giving them the stories much more — because they have known them for years and hold many of the same opinions and prejudices about the Left that they do.
How do you think the Labour Party will fare in the general election?
We’re going to do a lot better than people think. Jeremy is a born campaigner — he has led and delivered two successful leadership campaigns. Campaigning is in his blood, his parents met at an organizing meeting in support of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War and fought together against Mosley’s Blackshirts during the Battle of Cable Street.
The passion he shows when fighting for what he believes in is what makes him. The leadership are up for the fight, and the Labour Party is going to bring forward some excellent policies during the campaign. I hope they will inspire people who have never voted before to vote Labour.
I think the Tories will run a comparatively weak campaign. Theresa May is not a people-person, she interacts very badly with the public and tends to detach herself from them as soon as the cameras are turned off.
How do you think the media will cover the campaign?
More than anything, what the media wants is copy. They want to be able to fill their pages or their news bulletins. Theresa May and the Tories aren’t giving them much, and everything they do give them is tightly managed. In an age of social media that level of control makes people suspicious. If that’s the way their campaign continues people will get fed up with it.
I don’t think enough is being done to raise the significance of her decision to boycott the televised leaders’ debates. The BBC and ITV have said they’re going to “empty chair” her, but it isn’t as prominent as it should be. For most people televised leaders’ debates are now seen as part of the general election process. Most people don’t engage with electoral politics day-to-day, they have a right during the campaign to hear what candidates for Prime Minister have to say so they can make an informed decision.
At present, I don’t think the lobby has a particularly good relationship with Theresa May. Decisions like this are frustrating for them. We might get some good coverage because they’ve got nothing else to write about. But when it comes down to endorsements and editorial lines they will support the Tories.
When May called the election, the front pages of newspapers the next day fawned over her. There was no real scrutiny. There seems to be a consensus that she has some sort of competence. But how are we defining competence?
I think Owen Jones put it best, when Theresa May visited a factory recently to make a speech she looked like she was standing in for someone who was off sick. When she interacts with the public she looks uncomfortable. The way she gets built up in the press, particularly the right-wing newspapers, doesn’t fit with anyone’s perception of her, let alone the reality.
The more people see May during this campaign, the less they will support her. That’s why the Tories are so determined to hide her away for as much of it as possible. It’s classic Lynton Crosby [right-wing political strategist working with the Tories]: “hide her away, we’re in the lead, don’t make any unforced errors.”
How do you think Crosby and his team will approach this election? Will they target Jeremy Corbyn?
I recently spoke to a well-known right-wing journalist and he told me that Tory HQ doesn’t have much more on Jeremy and John McDonnell. Everyone seems to think they’ve loads of bad stories on Jeremy and John, but they don’t. They’ve already used them and so they’re priced-in, they have already impacted public opinion. The journalist thinks the Tories have maybe one or two front-page negative stories to place in the press for the whole campaign. So the extent to which Lynton Crosby can run a negative campaign is limited.
Most people know about Jeremy and John’s past, they’ve either already factored it in or simply don’t care. So I don’t think that would be the best approach for Crosby. But of course, if Labour start to rise in the polls, as I think they will, then it will get a lot more ugly. In 2015 when everyone thought Ed Miliband was going to win, Crosby ran a strong campaign suggesting Labour would go into coalition with the Scottish Nationalist Party and that Ed Miliband would be in Alex Salmond’s pocket. It was baseless but it worked.
I think the last week of Labour’s campaign was effective. We’ll see if that’s impacted the polls in the next few days. If it has then I think we’ll see the Crosby machine move into gear.
If, against all odds, Labour was to win the election, how do you think the media would approach a left-led Labour government?
Unfortunately, I think the media would be the least of our worries. Such a government would face pressure first from the party. I don’t think being in government would have the “unifying” effect we would like it to. We would face pressure from the civil service, who on the whole are small-c conservative. We would also face pressure from the media. All of these different groups would apply pressure in tandem. I remember during Jeremy’s first leadership campaign a general said there would be a military coup if Corbyn were to take power in Britain. The press lapped it up.
Jeremy is a man of principle, and I know he will do what he pledges to do — I trust that he would act in the interests of the majority, and against the interests of a small minority of wealthy and powerful people whose concerns have trumped those of the British people for years. But it wouldn’t be easy and I think Labour supporters would have to play a new role. If there is a need for organization in opposition, there is most certainly a need for that in government.
This is why democratizing the Labour Party is so important, because it is the first step to democratizing the British state and the economy. You have to provide a conduit through which people’s opinions and concerns can be relayed directly into the day-to-day running of government; a really dynamic government that has its ear to the ground, not one that is beholden to what lobby journalists or commentators are saying.
To achieve that, the Labour Party has to become much more than an electoral outfit. It has to have a purpose beyond electing a parliamentary elite to run the country while leaving the people on the outside. Constituency Labour Parties must become the centers of community life, running social programs, building the public’s capacity to understand the world around them. If we are to have a government of the people, for the people, and by the people then we must first raise people’s abilities to govern themselves. That’s the central task for the Labour Party, and one that I am looking forward to playing a part in.