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“People on the Left Have Dreamt of This Situation for Generations”

Dan Carden
Alex Sobel

Two of Labour’s newly elected MPs discuss the stunning general election results and the prospects of a Corbyn government.

Alex Sobel addresses crowds in Leeds during the general election campaign.

Interview by
Marcus Barnett

The recent British general election saw the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn achieve the largest swing of any major party since 1945. One of the results of that swing was thirty new members of parliament at Westminster, the first time the party had increased their number of seats since 1997.

Two of those elected were Alex Sobel and Dan Carden. Sobel, a long-time party activist and councilor, defeated Liberal Democrat Greg Mulholland to become the MP for Leeds North West. Carden, a thirty-year-old trade union activist, was elected in Liverpool Walton with 85.7 percent of the vote.

Here they speak to Jacobin contributor Marcus Barnett about their paths to politics, experience of the election campaign, and the prospects of a Corbyn-led government.


MB

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

AS

I was born in the Hyde Park area of Leeds, slightly outside of the constituency I now represent. I became politically active as a young antifascist and environmental campaigner, and I joined the party at the age of twenty-two.

Since graduating from university, I have worked mostly in building local cooperative businesses and in community enterprise. For the past five years I have also been a Labour councillor on the Leeds City Council, and represented Leeds at the COP21 climate talks in Paris two years ago.

Though I joined the party in my twenties, my family’s history in Eastern Europe and Britain shaped a lot of my views. I am of Jewish descent; various family members on both my mother and father’s side were Bundists in Lithuania and Poland. My grandfather was a recruiter in the Jewish community for people to fight in the Spanish Civil War, which is something I am immensely proud of and runs very strongly throughout my politics.

Although we no longer have a Bund, I believe in the tradition of Jewish social, cultural and political self-organization, and it is a tradition that very much inspires me now.

DC

I was born and raised in Liverpool, where my dad and granddad both worked on the docks. In 1995 my dad was sacked alongside five hundred other Liverpool dockers for refusing to cross a picket line, which sparked a twenty-seven-month-long dispute.

From the age of eight I was on the picket lines. I saw people lose their homes, families breaking apart, and my own father being unemployed for seven years. But you also had a sense of community, of local and international solidarity — I’ll never forget the support from people in America, Australia, and all parts of Europe.

This experience deeply politicized me, and as a school boy I joined the Labour Party and my trade union, Unite. I’m very much looking forward to representing the people of Walton and fighting for socialism.

MB

What sort of constituency do you represent? What are the concerns of the people who elected you, and how do you envision their future under a Labour government?

AS

I’m not sure how many constituencies in the United Kingdom are more diverse than mine, stretching from the inner cities to the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales. It has a very big student portion, and includes large numbers of public sector workers and university staff, but also agricultural workers and farmers.

But there are shared anxieties across the area. People’s concerns about their living standards, their wages, and their living costs is widespread. For example, my constituency has one of the highest percentages of people in the UK who rent from private landlords, and they suffer from the pathetic lack of regulation.

The Labour manifesto puts forward a lot of things — decency standards, registers, and rent-rise restrictions — that would make the lives of the people in North West Leeds a hell of a lot easier.

DC

My constituency partially covers the city center, but mostly Everton, Anfield, and Fazakerley.

There is very little industry or secure employment, it has some of the worst literacy rates in the country, and eight thousand children live in poverty. There are problems with crime and gang violence, and school students here are far behind the national average for attaining GCSE qualifications. But it is also a wonderful place, full of the most generous and kind people you’d come across in the country.

We are also the only constituency to contain two Premier League football clubs, Liverpool and Everton — two islands of wealth in two of the poorest post codes in England. People in Liverpool love their football, but we really have to look at how we redistribute wealth across our society and address the obvious disparities in our communities.

MB

What are your thoughts on the election? Were you surprised at the overall result?

AS

The overall result, absolutely. But you could tell early on that something was different.

The idea peddled in the media that those born during or after Thatcher are somehow deeply selfish or self-centered has been proven wrong. The categorization of that generation of under-forty-fives I think is completely false; Labour spoke to them honestly, and they responded in kind.

Something has changed fundamentally in the politics of this country. Canterbury — the seat of the Church of England, a Tory safe seat since before the birth of our movement — is now red. Nobody could have envisaged that.

DC

I’d always maintained hope — and it was a fantastic result.

On the day of the election, when reports were filtering back that young people weren’t just voting but organizing themselves to turn out in big groups to vote, I wondered whether that was only happening in Liverpool — but it emerged that it was happening across the country.

Jeremy Corbyn was one of the main reasons people were voting — his leadership, and our manifesto, were key electoral assets.

MB

What do you think were the core reasons for Labour’s extraordinary swing in the polls?

AS

I really have to pay tribute to certain pockets of the party — Momentum, Young Labour Trade Unionist Network, and plenty of enthused volunteers — for their impressively hard work, and those who understood that the support shown in the Democratic primaries for Bernie Sanders, for example, could have impact here too.

In many ways, Bernie was almost a model for this election. It took Jeremy a little while to come to that model of operation — Bernie just went out and told it straight. It gave people hope.

People have talked about movement politics for years — Ed Miliband had a go, but it was mostly words. It is a difficult thing. You can’t draft a document or create an online system and declare that it is movement politics — there has to be an organic base from which you can build political infrastructure.

If I could offer advice to the party, it would be to develop this infrastructure now for the next election. The mood is there, we need to make it happen. People interact differently with Jeremy, and young people particularly pushed for Labour through Jeremy. If this isn’t seized, it will dissipate, and we will go back to fighting the trench warfare we have been fighting for the past twelve or so years.

DC

We got through the media storm. People rejected the disgusting headlines, the pages and pages of bile and vitriol from the right-wing newspapers making a last-ditch attempt to save Theresa May and the establishment. We can now say that we do not need to be writing our policies to satisfy the owners of big British newspapers. People have taken back some control from the right-wing media — they’re a hell of a lot weaker now.

Dan Carden talks to a Liverpool resident during his election campaign.

Voters really seemed to respect the integrity and decency of Jeremy Corbyn. Back in 2010, when we lost the election, so many people in party politics found political guidance in the polls. They wanted to know what the British people thought on issues such as, say, immigration; judging by the polls, they would assume that anyone who didn’t take a tough line on that issue couldn’t perform well electorally.

But that’s been turned on its head now. Jeremy has succeeded in breaking through and setting an agenda. On the doorsteps, people were telling me, “Oh, well I don’t quite agree with him on this or that issue, but I’m going to vote for him because he’s decent and honest, and has the right values.” It’s refreshing for politics, and it’s good for parliament.

MB

Did you have a highlight from the campaign?

AS

For me, it was the Monday, May 15. Before then, we got very little support from the party establishment, whose strategy was to defend Labour seats with a small majority.

But on the Friday beforehand, I got a call saying that Jeremy is coming to Leeds and would like to visit party activists. There is this amazing venue in Leeds that I couldn’t love enough — the Brudenell Social Club — which has a capacity of roughly 450 people. I guessed we’d bring more than that, so I thought we could “do a Corbyn” and also hold a rally outside in the car park — for a similar number of those inside.

We spread the news to our party membership that Corbyn was coming, and started a social media push on Monday morning. The whole thing went completely viral. I parked my car around the corner and saw a sea of people — five thousand had gathered with nine hours’ notice.

That afternoon, we all knew we’d won our constituency fight.

DC

I went to a huge rally on the beach in the Wirral — later on, Jeremy went to address a crowd of ten thousand before a Libertines gig.

Listening to the skepticism of some of our own MPs, who were arguing that Michael Foot had this sort of support in the 1983 general election but it was a bubble that wouldn’t translate into votes, I think many misread the situation.

My campaign in Walton was also fantastic, and totally dominated by young people. We now have 1,000 members in Walton, when only a few years back we had as little as 200 to 250. It’s a transformation. Party meetings are vibrant and energetic, people want to come and engage in democracy. A lot of people on the Left have dreamt of this situation for generations.

MB

Jeremy Corbyn has since called for Labour to engage in a “permanent campaign.” How can Labour develop and improve itself in the coming months?

AS

I think that Jeremy should get out there and speak to tens of thousands of people.

Throughout the election campaign, many people avoided the media narrative and wanted to hear from Jeremy directly. We got nearly 13 million votes. In a six- to eight-week campaign, Jeremy could probably talk to half that number of people if he stopped in two or three different places, propelled by the local party and the mass movement that can be built around him.

We need to be a government in waiting. We need to be ready to serve, and we have to communicate ourselves in the right way. Though we are halfway there, there is still a lingering sense with some about the economic credibility of our ideas — an interesting phrase, since all recent Tory administrations have demonstrated themselves to be economically illiterate.

Austerity has wrecked us, debts are mounting, the tax base is vanishing, and this has been going on for seven years. We need to emphasize all of this to those unconvinced.

DC

It’s essential we remain on an election footing. The manifesto stood up to every test. No doubt people were trying to shoot holes in it — but they failed.

We need to show that we’re a party ready for government, which puts responsibility on all elected representatives of Labour to unite. We need to renew our appeal to sectors of the country.

In cities like Liverpool, the support for Labour is overwhelming from all different strands of the community. But in places like Southern England, or the Midlands, there are places where we need to convince unsure voters that we have their interests at heart.

For example, where multinational supermarkets bully farmers and stop them from selling their produce at a fair price. We should be moving these voters away from the Tories, showing them that Labour should be the natural home for farmers.

There is plenty of terrain on which we can fight. The slogan “for the many, not the few” is sincere — and assuring people of this will win us the next election.

MB

It is possible that Labour will be elected soon with a mandate for transformative change in British society. What do you think the party should focus on?

AS

I think we have a good opportunity, as the Roosevelt administration did in America, to use state power to underpin the financial sector. We need to build a different economic model, and finance is crucial. We still own some shares in banking institutions, but we need to have a national investment bank and regional investment banking structures.

We need to demand the banks act responsibly and implement legislation to facilitate this. Ultimately, we need to take a stake in the financial sector to ensure the shock of 2007–8 will not return.

DC

Internationally, the response to the economic crisis has been varied — Trump in the USA, Trudeau in Canada, Macron in France, Syriza in Greece. Some are protectionists, some are “liberal,” some are continuing laissez-faire economics.

The global problems are something we have to address and work out. Specifically, taxation of big business, and establishing ways to limit capital flight.

MB

How do you think vested interests, like the Murdoch media empire, would respond to Labour implementing its program?

AS

Things are changing with the media — while traditional media is still the main form of communication, this is becoming less the case each year. Alternative forms of communication and media are clearly growing, and our message is aided by that. The result for Labour in the election was a massive defeat for the Murdoch empire.

People have criticisms of big institutions like Google and Facebook, but they are far less politically shadowy than Murdoch. They don’t seek the same kind of influence. They see themselves as facilitators of communication, whereas broadcast media tries to provide a one-way street, from-them-to-you method of communication. I think those days are over, and that’s great for us.

DC

I think we are seeing the power of the press dissipate — and they know it. We need freedom of the press, but we can’t have a healthy media when it is dominated by oligarchs.

What the election showed is that if your message is clear, you can break through and reveal their impotence. The more they attacked Corbyn, the more people rose to defend him. That’s a good sign.