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Seeing off the Tories

Matt Zarb-Cousin

Jeremy Corbyn’s former press officer Matt Zarb-Cousin on why Labour’s anti-establishment campaign worked and how to finish the job.

Matt Zarb-Cousin with Jeremy Corbyn during his period as press officer.

Interview by
Max Shanly

In April, before the British general election, we spoke with Jeremy Corbyn’s former press officer Matt Zarb-Cousin.

Today, his interview reads as a prescient commentary on the campaign that was to come. In addition to predicting that Labour were “going to do a lot better than people think,” Zarb-Cousin’s particular emphasis on the weakness of Theresa May is striking in hindsight.

“The way she gets built up in the press,” he said, “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.”

Also featured in the interview was Zarb-Cousin’s reflections on working with the British press and his belief that their influence on the election would be diminished. Constant attacks against Corbyn over two years meant that most of the negative lines had been “priced-in,” he said.

A little over two weeks after the election Jacobin contributor Max Shanly sat down with Matt Zarb-Cousin again to talk about the campaign: what went so right for Corbyn and Labour; why had the press not been able to derail the surge; and what does the path look like to a left-led government?


MS

Almost thirteen million people voted for Labour on June 8, making a mockery of doomsday predictions from the press. Why do you think that happened?

MZC

The system at the moment is not working for a lot of people. The Conservatives recognized that Brexit was significant and meant more than just leaving the European Union — it was a vote to depart from the status quo.

 

Theresa May’s first speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street tried to position the Tories as the party that understood the system wasn’t working for ordinary people. But their conservatism and belief in the way things are prevented them from following through and proposing a manifesto that would transform people’s lives.

When the Labour manifesto leaked it sparked a huge amount of intrigue. The policies were very popular and the media gave them a lot of coverage. I think this election is the first where social media played a pivotal role. It wasn’t just the content that the Labour Party itself produced, it was about the outsiders, the public opinion shapers, such as Novara, Another Angry Voice and the Canary. The top ten links shared on Facebook during the general election campaign were either pro-Labour or anti-Tory, achieving roughly half a million shares each. So we’re talking about huge numbers with huge reach.

Then you also had influencers like Lowkey and JME producing content that went viral and reached out further to parts of the electorate that politicians and political parties don’t traditionally attempt to engage with. This was particularly the case with young voters.

In Jeremy we have an exceptional candidate for prime minister, who can demonstrate with this principles and record a kind of integrity previously unheard of in an age of professionalized, media-driven politics. Throughout his career he has been consistent and spoken his mind on issues that were not popular at the time. Young people are cynical about politicians, thinking “Oh they say things just to win votes.” They want politicians who are straight-talking and honest. Jeremy provided them with that.

Then there was also the waning of mainstream media influence. Before the election coverage of Jeremy Corbyn was so over-the-top negative that many people no longer saw them as objective, they lost credibility. This allowed a narrative to take hold that the election was a battle between the people and the establishment — and it was this that won Labour the support of 12.8 million people.

MS

The broadcast media was forced by electoral law to maintain a degree of impartiality unseen in the past two years. This didn’t, however, prevent the print media from targeting Corbyn and Labour. Why do you think their attacks failed?

MZC

The print media have been hostile to Jeremy since day one. They have thrown everything they can at him over the past two years. By the time the election began a lot of what was thrown at Jeremy had already been priced in by the public. They weren’t so concerned by things Jeremy might have said or done in the past, they wanted to know what he would do for them.

Lynton Crosby, the spin doctor, took control of the Conservative election campaign after the “dementia tax” fiasco. He sidelined Theresa May and the Tories’ top people and repeated the same mistakes he made during the Zac Goldsmith campaign for London mayor. He ran a campaign that was resolutely negative. As a result, the Conservatives did not have a positive message to communicate to the country.

Usually what you do during an election campaign is target your opponent’s strengths. Lynton Crosby tried to target what he believed were Jeremy’s weaknesses. But a lot of Jeremy’s perceived weaknesses were already priced in. After all the negative personal attacks the public could see Corbyn for themselves and come to their own conclusions. The more they saw of him, due to the broadcast election rules, and the more they heard Labour’s message to the country, the more the polls improved.

MS

Within twelve hours of the exit poll being released on election night, the tide had turned firmly against Theresa May in the press. This was best epitomized by the Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper, which on the day of the election had a front page declaring “COR-BIN” but the next day had a big photo of Theresa May and the word “MAYHEM.” What made them change direction so quickly?

MZC

Newspapers are ultimately businesses. To maintain a large readership they have to reflect public opinion to some degree. Theresa May’s approval ratings nosedived over the course of the election campaign because the public saw what she was actually like. The print media were then forced, despite their own political beliefs, to reflect that in the articles they were publishing.

MS

Is media reform something Labour supporters need to take more seriously? And what would that mean?

MZC

I think the Independent is an interesting example. They tried to be much more even-handed with Jeremy Corbyn and saw a spike in their online traffic as a result. It far outweighed that of their print rivals. I think a lot of the media, both old and new, are waking up to the fact that 40 percent of the country, 12.8 million people, voted for a political alternative. The anti-establishment feeling runs very deep. There will be some reform of the media under market pressure before there is legislation.

It is important people understand who owns and controls various media outlets. It helps people understand the slants, why they report certain stories in certain ways. There needs to be a big effort to build a broader awareness of this. The Labour Party membership has in its ranks some of the most creative and dynamic people in Britain today, educating the wider populous of the world around them and offering a real alternative. Explaining to the public how and why the media acts the way it does is obviously a key task for anyone that wishes to build a more democratic society. But we also have to build new media institutions, both online and offline, that can give people a clearer view of the world around them.

In my view, the key demand for media reform is for the second Leveson Inquiry. The Tories promised it would resume after criminal proceedings then quietly dropped that pledge as a favor to their right-wing media allies. We need to hold them to account on that.

MS

The past two years have seen a campaign of constant sabotage against Corbyn by Labour’s right and the party machine. A lot of his supporters would say this is the reason the party didn’t win the election outright. Do you give much credence to that line?

MZC

I think the attempted coup last year was very damaging. It made the party look bad, hurt Jeremy’s approval ratings and emboldened Labour’s opponents. Especially given the moment it occurred, during the crisis after the referendum, it has taken the party a long time to recover from that. We lost public confidence and people weren’t willing to give us a hearing until the election came around.

Outside of election campaigns, the public are looking for reasons not to like politicians because they’re not voting for anyone in those moments. The constant sniping from Corbyn’s internal opponents gave people that reason. As a consequence, Labour’s positive and popular message struggled to cut through.

This didn’t end when the election began, either, contrary to the unity narrative. party members spent eight weeks campaigning for a Labour government while many Labour candidates from the party’s right were writing letters to their constituents or giving interviews to the local and national press denouncing the party leadership. One Labour MP promised his constituents that were he re-elected he would vote against Corbyn becoming prime minister.

If Labour had fought the campaign from a higher baseline — if we hadn’t had all the sabotage, and if that hadn’t continued into the election itself — then I think we would have won the election and Jeremy Corbyn would be in Number 10 today.

MS

How do you think Labour’s MPs will respond to the election result, particularly those who had been critical of the leadership?

MZC

I think 1983 lives long in the memories of some, but 2017 will live longer. I have some sympathy for those who lived through Michael Foot’s defeat and thought the same would happen on June 8. But I think it shows a misreading of the situation. In 1997 New Labour had to adapt to the economic consensus of the day. In 2017, in post-financial crisis Britain, that economic consensus no longer exists. The Labour Party has to adapt again.

The context has changed, the world we live in now is very different to the one many Labour MPs cut their political teeth in. If they are to remain relevant they have no option but to get behind the leadership — failure to do so can only result in life on the margins.

MS

A recent letter to the Guardian signed by forty Labour MPs called for Labour to reverse its stance on Brexit and pursue continued membership of the single market. Does this signal the beginning of more rumbling on the backbenches?

MZC

I certainly hope that won’t kick off again. I don’t think it will. A couple of voices have spoken out against the leadership — I’m thinking of Chris Leslie and Neil Coyle in particular — but they are so unlikeable as characters that it begs a simple question: “Do you want to be with them or do you want to be with us?”

On the issue of Brexit, a lot of MPs who signed that letter come from Remain constituencies. They are entitled to express opposition to Britain leaving the European Union. But they have to accept in the country at large this is a minority view. It is also a minority view in the party at this time. They’re entitled to campaign for a change of policy inside of the party, but they must also accept that 12.8 million people voted for Labour to pursue the Brexit strategy laid down in the manifesto, one that aimed to protect workers’ rights. Trying to undermine the party or the leader on that basis in public, rather than debate these issues internally, would reflect very badly on Labour.

MS

A recent YouGov poll asked voters if they believed “A genuinely Socialist government would make their lives better,” 43 percent of respondents said yes, 36 percent said no. How do we convince the 21 percent who were either unsure or didn’t know?

MZC

The level of support built for Labour’s manifesto during a relatively short election campaign was incredible. The system isn’t working for the majority of people; wages have stagnated for a long time, precarious work is quickly becoming the norm, there’s a perpetual housing crisis, and people are really struggling to make ends meet in what is increasingly looking like a corporate dystopia. If we didn’t have a left-wing Labour leader proposing an alternative to the status quo then I think the likelihood of public disillusionment in the society and in politics would increase, and that anger would have some bad consequences.

But we cannot take public support for granted. As [Unite union leader] Len McCluskey said, “Labour has no God-given right to exist.” We have to earn people’s trust and prove to them that we deserve their support. That kind of politics is about a lot more than ticking a box on election day. Tom Blackburn’s essay “Corbynism from Below” outlines the type of work that needs to be done if we are to build a movement that can win a left government and support it in power.

It’s not enough to knock on someone’s door once every five years. You have to prove to people that you can make their lives better — whether you’re in power or not.