“Is Britain a democratic country? That’s what this is all about.” The Useless Interviews #1: Matt Zarb-Cousin, political strategist and social campaigner

How can left-wing publications survive in the age of right-wing media dominance?

Matt Zarb-Cousin was formerly Jeremy Corbyn’s official spokesman, a campaigner for Fairer Gambling who helped achieve better regulation of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, and more recently part of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s Labour leadership campaign team, he is now a campaigner for Clean Up Gambling.

I arranged this interview with him via Twitter DMs and it was conducted by phone. He had no copy approval but was given sight of the piece before publication to ensure no factual errors were introduced by me in the editing process. 

What do you make of the current Labour leadership and their strategy? 

They are not propositional; they are scrutinising the government on its own terms. You can’t shift the discourse by doing that. If this continues, the next election will be on the government’s terms. Right now, they are focused on the government’s priorities -- that means scrutinising them on their terms, which means while Labour evades scrutiny, it won’t be judged on its own policies as the next election will be defined by the government’s agenda.

In 2015, at that time, Labour did the same -- it wanted to scrutinise the Tories on their own terms, which meant the Miliband leadership had to accept that the deficit was the problem and that Labour had caused that problem. Labour couldn’t win on the terrain of getting the deficit down. 

UKIP did well at that, shifting the framework of the debate. They moved the conversation to immigration and made that an issue. Since the Brexit vote, immigration is now not high in the public’s priorities because the press is not talking about it much anymore. 

There are two categories of current Labour strategy:  

How they relate to the government: it’s a deliberate strategy, it’s wrong. It failed in 2015. It will fail again. 

How they relate to the public: All of their messaging is directed at Labour leavers who shifted to the Tories in 2019 in ‘Red Wall’ seats, predominantly older, white women, the Labour Leave women went disproportionately to the Tories. All of the stuff about BLM is stuff Starmer is saying -- such as in the Nick Ferrari interview on LBC when he was talking about the statues — is not clumsy but deliberate. But if you orientate all your messaging to that demographic -- because you were a Remain figurehead -- that makes sense but it will have consequences, that loses him young people and ethnic minorities. 

How do you see Rebecca Long-Bailey’s sacking? What’s your interpretation of that? 

It was a Twitter story initially. When I saw it, she’d tweeted an interview with Maxine Peake. There are two layers to this; The Independent didn’t challenge what Maxine Peake had said in the copy. If you put it in the copy, you don’t put it in unchallenged if you think it’s wrong, you contextualise it. You explain why it’s wrong and put analysis with it or you are giving an uncritical platform for what has since been described as antisemitism. 

The second layer is how it was framed and reported. Rebecca needed to clarify that she didn’t agree with everything in the article, which she did. It only became a national media story once he had sacked her. The story was then ‘Starmer sacks Rebecca Long-Bailey for retweeting an antisemitic article’. No one remembers Robert Jenrick now, it knocked that off the agenda. 

Why do you think Starmer has been so reticent to attack on the Jenrick story? 

Starmer can’t take the moral high ground over Jenrick. His campaign cost about £700,000. It was one of the most expensive leadership campaigns in political history. It was a campaign to retake the Labour Party from the Left. 

It needed Peter Coates, who started Bet365. Does the membership really want a Labour Party that can’t take the moral high ground on funding? That’s what we wanted to communicate in the Leadership election, but we couldn’t get cut through versus the institutional support he had. It will profoundly affect his opposition. It’s a move towards managerialism and away from identifying the Tories as the party of capital. It’s instead about ‘competence’ and managerialism. 

Starmer’s launch video and leadership campaign leaned on what he did when he was young. There was a big gap though, including when he was DPP. His politics changed during that time. And then it jumped to where he is today. He’s on the Labour Right. 

The Labour establishment is still punching left. They need an enemy. They are more comfortable saying what they’re not than who they are.

What is Labour’s analysis of the current politics? £5 billion is not Roosevelt’s New Deal but the government is going to spend a lot of money. 

Four years is a long time. If Starmer has started chipping away at his base already, where are we going to end up? Will the narrow demographic he’s targeting even vote Labour? Particularly if the Tories have a new leader by then. When Kinnock was punching left, the media loved him. Then look what happened to Kinnock. They still lost. 

In 2015, everyone thought Labour was finished. And then there was 2017. 

New Labour was guided by the media. After ‘92, Labour saw getting the media onside as a route to power. The newspapers backed New Labour. Starmer is trying to do that now. He’s building relationships with the press, Lobby, and commentariat even if it comes at a cost of alienating his base.

So what is the Starmer leadership’s political strategy? 

Their political strategy is a media strategy. 

What does Starmer stand for on anything? He gestured vaguely at the 2019 manifesto but I don’t think that almost any of that would be in the next policy platform. 

Starmer represents the 2012 nostalgia and going back to when it seemed to make sense for centrist people. 

There are two ways to define centrism:  

1. Social and economic liberalism -- between far-left and far-right 

2. Where the centre of gravity of public opinion is -- that is basically Labour’s 2019 manifesto, that’s what that platform basically was. The policies polled extremely well individually - except our Brexit policy which Starmer was the architect of.

How did you respond to the revelation that people in Labour HQ were actively working against the party?

I said when Panorama came out that it was crocodile tears. The level of institutional support that the Labour Right has is incredible. They are loyal to the British state above all else. They will not allow anyone who wants to change the status quo from winning. Is Britain a democratic country? That’s what this is about. If you have a political party where the people working for it are all trying to work against that party winning an election, that’s a big problem. 

The guy responsible for that was put in the House of Lords. It’s one of the biggest scandals in British political history in my view. It’s acceptable to the BBC and the mainstream media for people in the Labour party to work against a left-wing person’s campaign to be Prime Minister. 

If the left can’t form a government because it is accepted that their own party will actively work against their own electoral prospects, then we are not a democratic country.

Is the conviction politician dead? 

There is no one with a coherent vision for the future on the Labour front bench or the Tory front bench. The ideas in British politics, whether enacted by the government or floated as Labour policy, the ideas have come from the Left, because they have a materialist conception of history and a destination in mind -- and want to plot a route to that, with transitional interventions or revolutionary efforts. We know where we want to get to. Rebecca talked about this in the leadership campaign -- multiple crises are on the horizon. 

You need big ideas or you are not serving the people or the country. Politics should be about big ideas.

If you need conviction politicians, I don’t know why anyone would get involved if they didn’t want to change things. If it’s just about power, it’s not good for the country.

How do left-wing journalists succeed in this environment?

The left must occupy as much of the mainstream media as it can and must engage with the platforms that exist, but we have to build our own platforms. The right has done that on YouTube. Darren Grimes’ video when Cummings happened -- attacking Stephen Kinnock -- got millions of views. They’re very good, not just at rebuttal, but at changing minds and winning people over.

You need to change minds and win people over. YouTube is something that the left is really lacking in. It’s incredibly tough on people who go out there and do broadcast. You get grilled like you’re a member of the Shadow Cabinet. 

One slip up and a left-wing commentator gets ripped to shreds. I have slipped up a couple of times in the past and they try to demoralise and discredit you. They are trying to silence the Left. It’s a form of censorship. Politicians and public figures say stupid stuff all the time. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid. The worst person in the world can still make a great point, as the meme said.

Online mocking is irrelevant. The more controversy you cause, the more influence you can potentially have. [Ed: I think we should call that Zarb’s law.]

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Check out the work Clean Up Gambling is doing and the interview below with Matt talking about it: