Labour and the left after #jezwecan: An interview with Ben Sellers

Ben Sellers is a member of Red Labour and was one of the organisers of the social media team that underpinned Jeremy Corbyn’s successful campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party.

The moment Corbyn's victory was announced to supporters in Hyde Park. Photo: Steve Eason.
The moment Corbyn’s victory was announced to supporters in Hyde Park. Photo: Steve Eason.

rs21: You’ve written a piece explaining the roots of Jeremy Corbyn’s social media campaign in Alex Craven’s Facebook page Red Labourwhich you and others joined in 2012. The piece doesn’t set out your background as an activist – can you describe that?

I joined Militant briefly as a student and was also involved in the Labour Party then. I left the Labour Party when Tony Blair got rid of Clause IV, and joined again, before leaving in 2003 over the Iraq War. In between, I was a member of the Socialist Alliance for a time and then the Greens before re-joining Labour.

In 2007, I started working for the TUC, was on their organising academy, and came into the regional TUC working with asylum seekers in Newcastle from 2007. That was my first introduction to social media as an organising platform. I was working with people who needed help and wanted to join unions but didn’t want to go public. Facebook was a good way of working with them.

I also set up the People’s Bookshop in Durham in 2011.

You say that in around 2012, existing left Labour groups such as the Labour Representation Committee were showing no signs of growth, but then Red Labour started building until it had 20,000 Facebook likes by earlier this year. Why do you think other Labour left groups did not have the success that Red Labour has had?

With Red Labour we decided to focus on the Labour Party but that has always involved a broader battle for hearts and minds rather than very technical arguments about the Labour Party rule book. We were about ideas, and a tradition. We shared a lot of memes about Nye Bevan, trying to create a memory of Labour Party rebels.

The Labour Representation Committee tries to be an umbrella for the whole Labour left. A downside is that it brings together an awful lot of factions within it. Some people wanted to focus on Labour Party work; some people see Labour as just one of several campaigns in which to operate. People have different agendas.

Look back on the Miliband leadership, he cut an isolated figure with the Blairites briefing against him. In Red Labour were you more “on Miliband’s side against Progress”, or more “against them both and looking for something better”?

In Red Labour, there has always been a diversity of opinions. The majority view I think was that Miliband had social democratic instincts but allowed himself to be completely dominated by the people in the background, the Labour Party bureaucracy. He had the idea that he would be a Harold Wilson figure that could appeal to all sides of the Labour Party and thereby avoid conflict. He was very naïve, I think. When he did that awful interview saying that he would not support strikes, when he was photographed holding the Sun newspaper, you could see that his instincts were always going to be to come back to the New Labour machine.

On the Red Labour page, there are 40 local groups, only one 1 of which is in London. Why has Red Labour found it easier to build outside London?

I’m based in Durham, and we have strong groups in Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Stoke and Sheffield. The London group has been much harder. It’s interesting for me with the Corbyn campaign seeing how many factions there are in the Labour left in London. In the North East the dividing lines are clearer. If we say who we are, we will get the majority of socialists in the Labour Party supporting our events. We’ve just had two events in Newcastle in the space of three days, with 150 people at each. The people who wouldn’t come are only those members who associate with New Labour or the party machine locally.

In London, people have an awful lot of other things they’re involved with not just in the Labour Party. There’s also a historic animosity between the Labour left groups which we need to address.

Many of us on the left had high hopes of Syriza which came to power in Greece in January 2015. Is there anything which you learned from Syriza’s defeat?

We were supportive of Syriza, engaged with how it went. It was disappointing. I don’t think it’s over yet, but it’s a warning of how ruthlessly capitalist institutions will stamp down on any challenge to their power. The assault that Jeremy is already getting from the press could well be a softening up for that. We know that none of this is going to be easy, there will be crises along the way.

You have described the first stage of the campaign when it seemed unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn would get on the ballot paper, and celebrated the petitions and letter-writing campaigns that were put in place targeting the MPs that Jeremy was going to need to reach the target of 35 nominations. How many MPs do you think were won to nominating Corbyn by this pressure?

It’s hard to say for definite, perhaps 8-10. There as a relationship between social media and what people were doing in the Constituency Labour Parties and on the ground. There were moments when we were getting messages from MPs saying – leave me alone but I am listening. The clearest moment was when Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP for Newcastle Central since 2010, went on Facebook saying that a number of her branches had nominated Jeremy but she wanted advice as to whether she should back him. Everyone in her thread encouraged her to nominate him.

During the campaign, a number of right-wing Labour MPs complained about how the £3 membership opened up Labour to people who had never been members of the party. Many of the same MPs, had previously been advocates of the same “primary” system. Once Jeremy Corbyn was on the ballot paper, how quickly did you see this as a chance to recruit people in the Labour Party?

From the start we realised that we could sign people up, that was very early, long before other candidates spotted it might be a danger for them. We were thinking about Jeremy as a candidate as well. We wrote down sections of the local left that supported his personal politics: Palestine campaigners, Stop the War people, anti-fascists. Many had previously been members of the Labour Party or around Labour. We thought we could ask them to join. Right from the start, we had the idea of asking them, even if we didn’t know how many people would be interested.

You used graphics to promote Jeremy Corbyn, many by Leonora Partington  – what was the visual look you were after?

Leonora has worked for John McDonnell, she understood the politics of the campaign. She just started doing them. In our first few days of the campaign, we had a discussion about images. Two views emerged. Some of us wanted to brand Jeremy Corbyn, get a designer, and keep the visuals similar. I argued that our campaign needed to reflect the grassroots and understand where people on come from. We wanted Jeremy’s campaign to look different. We weren’t at all upset by the thought of different visuals appearing – memes, posters. We had a theme but didn’t want the campaign to look like the others – grey, corporate, controlled – that wasn’t going to engage with our people. We wanted to force a debate, we wanted our images to grab people by the throat and make them think about Jeremy’s campaign.

By the end, the Jeremy for Leader page had 70,000 likes, and was getting up to some 6,000,000 views per week. You also had a significant Twitter following of 64,000 people. But Facebook seems to have been more important. I’m interested in why Facebook was more useful than Twitter – when journalists talk about social media they always seem to see it the other way around?

You’re right about the press. You can put the most controversial things on Facebook, the press won’t notice them. Then you repeat them on Twitter and suddenly they’re news. I wrote something complaining about journalists’ “tittle tattle” when Jeremy didn’t stand for the national anthem. It had a huge response on Facebook but the press ignored it. We put the same quote on Twitter and the national press had attributed it to Jeremy and within 2 hours it was national news.

I keep on having to convince people that Facebook is more help than Twitter. You can’t talk about social movement in 140 words. Twitter is nice for short soundbites, but the messages are decontextualized and you don’t see the debate. It’s contained as a medium, you don’t get the activist voice coming through.

We’ve had to cheat by taking screenshots of our Facebook posts and using them on Twitter to get a discussion going.

Facebook builds a community, you can see even on a single thread people talking to each other. We’ve had lovely messages, people engaged for the first time in politics because of the messages that we’ve been posting.

How about the negative side of social media?

We’ve had very little of this on Facebook – we haven’t even had people trolling us for the other candidates or from the Tories. I think we have been lucky with the nature of the campaign, you wouldn’t be there unless you were already interested in what Jeremy was saying.

To a limited extent, we had people freelancing, setting up their own Corbyn pages, all we could do was explain that ours was the official campaign and theirs were independent from our operation.

I also think we have been lucky with the message from Jeremy – that we should be talking politics not personalities – we repeat that constantly.

Of course there’s a double side to this. Now we need to be going for the Tories. We can’t respond like Buddhists to a party that’s destroying the country

How far was the social media campaign shaped by Corbyn’s personality?

Jeremy has had a long history on the left, people know what he stands for. I knew he fitted with my politics, you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between my politics and his. Others on the team feel the same way about him.

He’s stubborn, in a good way. Ed Miliband was happy to be moulded by the right. Jeremy isn’t like that. There’s a core to him which is different from most politicians. We expect them to be flexible, to triangulate. Even people on the left like Ken Livinstone have done that. With Jeremy what you see is what you get.

Jeremy has not shifted, he’s grounded in traditional Labour Party politics. We tried to choose images and messages which reflected his consistency. One of Leonora’s first themes was about anti-apartheid, showing his political consistency – you can trust Jeremy, she was saying, he’s not changed in 30 years.

Have you discussed how the Red Labour or Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister pages will change now that he is leader of the Labour Party? You have described Red Labour in one place as a rapid rebuttal page within internal Labour Party debates and as an “intervention” in the Party. Those are roles for an ongoing internal fight – not for a stable leadership. Will the pages grow further apart, do you think?

We have started to separate out the two things. They can’t be merged. Jeremy has said he’s not interested in fighting his own MPs.

And we may be beyond the stage where we call it a faction fight. Progress and the Labour right are a lot weaker than they were. Red Labour is not in the position any more of having to create a space for socialists in Labour Party. The space exists.

For Red Labour the next stage will be about creating an organising role for people from Jeremy’s campaign so that they don’t get lost in the constituency parties, some of which are very bureaucratic. It’s about encouraging debate and winning the Labour Party to certain political positions.

For example, we want to show MPs that in the constituencies there’s massive support for abolishing Trident – if they see that, it will have effect in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Since the election, on the Jeremy for PM Facebook page, articles have been posted about Trident and about Jeremy Corbyn’s successful speech at a Labour Friends for Israel event? In a context where Corbyn is now the leader and different parts of the Labour Party take different approaches – the page is siding with Jeremy against his critics. Is that something you think you’ll keep on doing?

Yes. There is a difference between Jeremy’s personal Facebook presence and our campaigning pages which will be places where we take the agenda that came out of the campaign and continue to argue his positions. A common sense view would have been to shut them off – hand everything back to the Party. But the Labour Party has long been in control of smallish clique. It would be naïve to think the Party will change without a continuing argument. We have a conversation going with hundreds of thousands people – they’re very important people to the future of the Party. We have the legacy of the campaign, it would be foolish to throw that away.

In terms of Red Labour, there must be individual MPs who you’ve been watching for some time – I’m thinking of someone like Simon Danczuk, who seems both personally venal and extremely hostile to Corbyn’s leadership. Within Red Labour: have you ever put up posts explaining his history? Is that something you would do now that Corbyn is elected?

Firstly, just to say, we’re not interested in hounding anyone. But yes, when people seek publicity and are openly damaging to an agenda which was overwhelmingly endorsed by our membership, we’d expose that. We have done that a bit. And Simon’s has been on our radar for some time – how could he not be? For instance, he made some rather racist comments about immigration. We mocked up an image of him based on that scene from Father Ted where the priest gives a speech standing behind a pane of glass and it looks like he has a Hitler moustache. It was a bit of fun and I’m sure Danczuk knows about us. We reserve the right to prick their bubble. As far as anything else goes – that’s not down to us. We won’t attack people, but obviously if there were socialists in the Labour Party in Rochdale who didn’t feel that their MP was representing their views – we would publicise that and encourage them. But it wouldn’t be us taking the lead – it would be about local members having their voices heard. That’s democracy, isn’t it?

You talked earlier about how Miliband always compromising to the Labour right. The price of holding the Labour Party together is that Jeremy Corbyn is under a similar pressure to compromise; is there any way that social media can counteract that pressure?

There’s always been that question, we’re riding the crest of a wave but is it real? Social media has bolstered the confidence of the people right at the heart of the campaign, even Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. There is much more support than we realise for what Jeremy says and his approach to politics. If people see that support from social media it gives them the confidence to continue.

Jeremy Corbyn will get a lot of pressure from the Parliamentary Labour Party – we can be the counter to that. Over Trident, academies – we can show the weight of opinion that there is behind the policies that Jeremy was elected to implement.

Are there any compromises which would be so bad that you could not support them?

I can see pressure is on Jeremy and the people around him, and they could succumb.. If there are suggestions which are a compromise too far, we’ll argue against them. We’ve seen in Greece if it comes to the point where a compromise is so bad you lose the original aims of the project – we have to say that would be too far and we won’t go along with it. With Miliband, people went along with it, made excuses and excuses, slipped and slipped. We’ll have lines in the sand. Jeremy and John, as socialists, would expect that.

How do you convert people who have engaged with you on social media into people who will engage with you on the streets?

We’ve not been as good at this as I’d like. But in Newcastle, we’ve encouraged people to get involved in campaigns around Calais. Red Labour in Stoke is the same, they have been on demos over the NHS, the recent protests outside the Tory Party conference. The group has a presence in the Labour Party and on the streets.

How do you see the campaign continuing to engage with people who won’t (or just don’t) join the Labour Party?

One thing Jeremy will be doing is setting up a campaign “Momentum“, for people inside and outside the Labour Party, to keep going the spirit of his campaign. There’s also a Communities for Corbyn campaign which Red Pepper has publicised. I’d welcome any other groups who are doing this. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen people who have never worked together in 10 or 15 years, doing so – we need to keep that going. Even after Jeremy’s campaign, the majority of activists on the left are independents not members of the Labour Party. There has to be a relationship between them and us.


Interview by David Renton


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