“We’re Filling the Street With Hope”

Paul Mason

Paul Mason on the power of the Corbyn campaign and his experience canvassing for Labour.

A Labour Party rally in West Kirby, England on May 20. Andy Miah / Flickr

Interview by
Margaret Corvid

It is unusual for a high-profile journalist to play a central role in a political party in the midst of an election campaign, but that is just what Paul Mason, former Guardian writer, former economics editor for Channel 4, has been doing.  In February 2016, he quit Channel 4 so he could participate fully in the affairs of the political left without the presupposition of impartiality that is (unevenly) imposed on broadcasters.

And participate he has: since joining Momentum, the pressure group formed in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies after his surprise 2015 win of Labour’s leadership contest, his writing has been explicitly partisan. He has authored emails to Momentum members exhorting us to get involved in election campaigning, and he has spoken out on Twitter and his own Medium blog in support of Corbyn’s Labour, becoming a leading voice of the unprecedented movement that has swelled the party’s ranks.

Mason has been traveling the country as a sort of embedded journalist-activist, visiting the marginal constituencies — those parliamentary seats where, in 2015, Labour had only won or lost by a few thousand, or a few hundred, votes. On Saturday, he came to Plymouth, where I live.

Two of our three constituencies are marginals: Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, where in 2015 our candidate, Luke Pollard, lost to Tory incumbent Oliver Colville by a bit over five hundred votes, and Plymouth Moor View, where in 2015 our candidate, incumbent MP Alison Seabeck lost by a bit over a thousand votes to Tory challenger Johnny Mercer.

The summer after these losses, Labour leader Ed Miliband stepped down, and a new voting process which allowed members to choose the leader swept Jeremy Corbyn to power. Our city, deep in the country’s southwest, is an industrial center with a busy military dockyard, a city where many voters that have historically voted Labour have abandoned our party due to their skepticism of Jeremy Corbyn and his long associations with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War Coalition.

But our local constituency party organizations, like those across the country, have been swelled by an influx of new members, inspired by Corbyn. When Paul Mason announced that he would be visiting our constituency to canvass alongside our candidates and activists, dozens of us joined him.

I caught up with Mason as he was canvassing with our Plymouth Moor View candidate, Sue Dann. I interviewed him in Honicknowle, a ward in the north of the city, historically Labour, where in our 2016 local elections, a swathe of habitual Labour voters switched to UKIP. Dozens of activists had come out to campaign with him and Sue, visiting our marginal seat from places hours away where Labour candidates had little chance of winning. As Sue spoke for five minutes with a voter, Mason and I spoke on a sunlit street, as children played and householders washed their cars or cut their lawns.


MC

Can you tell me about your experience canvassing in the marginal seats in this election?

PM

Well, what made the difference was Labour’s manifesto. Before Labour’s manifesto came out, all the messaging from the Conservatives was kind of hitting home.

Remember, in a lot of these marginal seats in English constituencies people are not that bothered about politics. You were on the doorstep really struggling to get people interested. But once they heard that there was a kind of cash offer — 9,000 pounds a year if you were a student, 9 pounds a week for school meals, social care for elderly people worth about 1,000 pounds a month for some people, they just woke up. They actually just woke up and said, “Wow!”

And you know, what I compare it to is — especially for the baby boomer generation, people in their fifties and sixties — it’s like finding an old piece of vinyl that you’d forgotten and thinking, “That sounds better than anything I’ve heard for the last twenty years.” So that’s been the difference.

MC

People keep saying about the Corbyn movement that it’s a bunch of keyboard warriors. You’re a person interested in the digital economy. Can you evaluate that kind of thinking?

PM

What we’re taking part in this afternoon here in Plymouth is a traditional Labour canvass, a face-to-face canvass. The difference is, is that what we have got is relative autonomy, so we no longer have a rigid machine ordering us to say things and do certain things in a certain way.

We have got a whole new generation doing this. They know they have to do the face-to-face stuff, but they do it in a different way because we’ve got — certainly, centrally, in the Momentum office — people from the Bernie Sanders movement actually saying to us how you link the online stuff to the offline stuff.

And let’s remember another thing: there are keyboard warriors on the other side. The other side is doing voter suppression and fake news on an industrial scale that we can’t afford and we don’t have the expertise to do. Therefore, we have had to find and train people to just monitor and counter that.

Online, we aim to get thousands of people onto the streets this week to do the campaigning — although it’s not the keyboard, it’s the little phone thumb screen that most people will do it through.

MC

What has the role of Brexit been on doors in your experience canvassing?

PM

Amazingly, when I started out, I did a speech to some campaigners in Nottinghamshire who were saying, “There is a big bad old world of crisis out there that people are very worried about. When you knock on their door, you’re bringing the world of Brexit, you’re bringing the world of Trump into their lives.”

No, you’re not. They don’t — to use an English colloquialism — give a shit about that. What they care about are the very, very basic figures and facts and money issues around their own lives, especially in a poor area like this. They’ve been able to completely detach that from Brexit in their minds.

Another way of looking at it: in these little patches of grass that are in front of all of these houses, the drama of Brexit is too big to play. It’s like trying to play Wagner in somebody’s front room — it doesn’t work. So they’re not interested in it.

MC

What do you think our chances are for Labour nationally and here in Plymouth?

PM

I think here in Plymouth there are two winnable seats. If we win the one we’re in now, where there is an ex-military guy in a military city sitting in the seat for the Tories, it will be a signal of real success. It will mean that our message has really cut through to a bunch of poor, alienated people who have found hope. That is the top end of the scale.

I think the more likely thing is that we reduce the Tory margin of victory, because they have everything going for them: surprise, incumbency, all the media supporting them. But we have got big things going for us.

Therefore, the point about the Labour movement in Britain is that it’s a movement. It understands the need for resilience and we understand the fact that we’re up against a party that if it wins this election, will crash the economy and Brexit will fail on it’s own terms.

We will have to pick up the pieces of that. What you’d need for that is a mass activist party. Look at it. On this street, we’re filling the street with life. The challenge is to fill it with a bit of hope.

MC

Do you think Corbyn should stay as leader either way?

PM

After the election, if we don’t win, if we don’t form a government, it’s quite likely there will be a period of instability in British politics. That’s the last time to lose a leader in terms of Corbyn. But as a person, if we then face another five years, I don’t think he would fight another election.

But we need to consolidate the democratization of the party first. I have never, as a left winger in the Labour party, been obsessive or fetishized Corbyn.