“I think that will never happen again,” says Lloyd Russell-Moyle of Labour’s 2017 general election campaign. “It was manifestly the wrong strategy.”
The 31-year-old self-styled socialist MP for Brighton Kemptown has been in parliament for a year. He took the seaside seat back for Labour from the Conservatives and sits on a pretty healthy 9,868 majority. The party machine, he says, did not expect him to win.
Labour vastly exceeded expectations last year. But in an interview with HuffPost UK Russell-Moyle, who is a solid supporter of Jeremy Corbyn despite the leader’s “flaws”, believes the party should have done better.
“The rule of thumb should be no party should ever go into an election to just stem its losses. If your strategy is to not win any new seats and just try and retain the seats you’ve got, that is a strategy of losing seats. A retention strategy is always a loss strategy,” he says.
“I think that it was treacherous for the party organisation to run a campaign that was for retention only. I think people who agreed that strategy, and it was agreed in the leader’s office as well as in Southside [Labour HQ], should really apologise. Because I think it did damage the party.
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Russell-Moyle says while he “understands all the motivations” at the time it was right that some people responsible “have apologised” for the campaign.
Russell-Moyle is a Brighton native. Brought up in the city, he studied peace studies and conflict resolution at the University of Bradford before completing an MA in international law back home at the University of Sussex. He was a local councilor before being elected the MP for Kemptown.
The change from the 2015 election in the seat, which saw Tory Simon Kirby elected, was obvious from the start. “The first time we went out were ran out of posters. People were running out of their houses to grab posters,” he says. “We were having canvassing sessions where literally hundreds of people would turn up and we didn’t know what to do with them.
“At the beginning of the 2017 campaign I was very worried. We were having activists going out with Jeremy Corbyn t-shirts. I thought ‘fuck you’re going to put people off, let’s just focus on Labour’. By a week or two in, I had become much more relaxed about it.”
A few months after being elected, he was approached in John McDonnell to see how he was finding life in Westminster. “I said I didn’t really feel like am 100% settled here,” Russell-Moyle recalls.
The shadow chancellor, an ally on the left of the party, told him: “Good. If you very feel 100% settled, you know they’ve got you.”
The lesson the new MP took from that was this: “You want to feel a bit like you are here as a bit of grit in the machine. Or grit in the cow’s stomach. That’s the point. Otherwise the bureaucratic system would just continue to run the country. You could run the country without MPs.
“The state continues but you are not able to deal with injustices that are built into the system. Unless you are actually disrupting some of the things the state is going along like a juggernaut to do then actually inequalities overtime build up and nothing get changed.
He adds. “That’s our role. To disrupt.”
You could run the country without MPs
One of the biggest disruptions of the last few years has been the left’s takeover of the Labour Party. “Every party needs disruption,” Russell-Moyle explains.
“To some extent Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock disrupted the Labour Party for the better. At that moment in time that was probably needed. The problem is you can’t use the same solution ongoing. We have seen across Europe how that solution, that third way-ism, that 1990s politics, has destroyed social democratic parties.”
Russell-Moyle joined Labour in 2005 and has always been on the left of the party. “There is a problem with capitalism as a system,” he says.
“I have always liked Jeremy and I voted for him both times. I campaigned for him both times,” he says.
But his support has not been unwavering. Brighton, whose other Labour MP, Peter Kyle, is seen as being on the right, has seen some of the most tumultuous Labour in-fighting. Although he says this has calmed down. “Wining is very good anti-dote to any argument and they feel like they won. Everyone feels like they won,” he says.
Thinking back to the most fraught days of internal Labour wars between 2015 and 2017, he admits there have been moments where he thought “oh well actually let’s see how this goes, this is difficult territory” given “the abuse some Labour MPs give Jeremy day in day out”.
Sometimes you still have really nasty Labour MPs that are just rude and obnoxious
Corbyn’s leadership of the party is now secure. Whether all of his MPs like it or not. “Sometimes you still have really nasty Labour MPs that are just rude and obnoxious. I am sure you can imagine a group of them,” Russell-Moyle says.
He does not name names. But points to Len McCluskey’s recent New Statesman article in which the Unite union leader denounced Chris Leslie, Neil Coyle, John Woodcock, Wes Streeting and Ian Austin as a “dismal chorus”.
“Some of them get carried away,” Russell-Moyle adds. “Some of them are just rude and obnoxious people. You get that in all groups. Some of those people were rude and obnoxious to Gordon Brown. Some of those people were rude an obnoxious to Tony Blair. Some of them are just rude and obnoxious people I’m afraid. You look through their history. I think we just have to understand they were always like that.”
Like many MPs of his generation on the left, Russell-Moyle is often given the ‘Corbynista’ tag. But it is not a word he chooses to use himself. “I would describe myself as a leftwinger. As a socialist MP. I support Corbyn. I think he is a very good leader. I think he has revived the party. Do I see he has his flaws? Of course. He has flaws. He is a human being. All human beings have flaws. The people around him have flaws. They are human beings as well. We will disagree on certain things. Things can sometimes be very frustrating.
“I am very satisfied with him. I supported him in both leadership elections. But there have been moments where I’ve thought ‘oh god why have you done that’ or ‘why have you said that’. You know certain statements where he’s had to come out and re-clarify.”
He adds: “Even if I was the leader I would disagree with myself half the time. Because of course you reevaluate things yourself. And sometimes you think ‘actually I was probably wrong about that’.
“No one is going to be perfect. But he is as close as we are going to get decent leader out of what we’ve got.”
He is as close as we are going to get decent leader out of what we’ve got.
Russell-Moyle was speaking to HuffPost UK before the May 3 local elections which saw the Tories take control of Barnet council in north London. It had been a Labour target. But the accusations of anti-Semitism that have rocked the party are widely seen to have torpedoed the party’s campaign in the Jewish area of the capital.
“Clearly we need to stamp that out,” he says. Russell-Moyle, who has campaigned against anti-Semitism in the party since he joined in 2005, says the problem should not be “covered up”.
“It does exist and it does need to be tackled,” he says. “We can not let them damage the party or damage society.”
Several of the culprits, he argues however, may have been guilty of making anti-Semitic statements but are not necessarily anti-Semites.
“I can do something that is racist. And look back and think ‘oh fuck that was bloody stupid I didn’t think about doing that’. That doesn’t mean you are a racist in your very core. We’ve got a number of people like that in the party who aren’t anti-Semitic in their very core, but have done things and clearly have said things that are anti-Semitic,” he argues.
In normal times, Russell-Moyle says these people should be given training. But adds: “I don’t think we are in normal times.” Members found guilty of anti-Semitism, he says, should be thrown out of the party.
Unlike some allies of Corbyn, Russell-Moyle does not accept that accusations of anti-Semitism within the party have been overplayed to damage the leader. Rather he says that Corbyn’s critics have highlighted it because “it’s easier for them to raise it” and “they just expose it as it is”.
MPs loyal to Corbyn, he suggests, will raise the problem of anti-Semitism more “quietly” out of “loyalty” to the leader.
“Just because it’s been played, overplayed is not the word I would use, doesn’t mean you’ve not got a problem,” he says.
“It’s a bit like if you go to the doctor with a a lump and the doctor says ‘oh it’s cancer’. You can’t say ‘oh the doctor is overplaying cancer aren’t they. The person in the street’s not mentioned cancer to me’. The doctor is there as the person who has seen it and is knowledgeable.
“Some of our Jewish MPs are going to talk about it because they are the ones experiencing it. And others who aren’t Jewish MPs aren’t experiencing it.
“Quite rightly those who are women MPs will talk about the abuse they’ve had a women MPs. Black MPs, Diane [Abbott], Dawn [Butler], will talk about the abuse they’ve had because that’s the experience they’ve had. It doesn’t mean Diane is overplaying the abuse she gets. But she gets that abuse because she is a black woman. It doesn’t mean [Jewish Labour MP] Ruth Smeeth is overplaying the abuse she gets.
“We need to recognise that it doesn’t help anyone by saying it’s been overplayed. It is of course being played by people who have experienced it. The people who able and freely to speak out.”
However he says some of the “solutions might be a bit overplayed”.
The Jewish Board of Deputies has proposed that and independent, mutually agreed ombudsman should be appointed to oversee cases of anti-Semitism in the party, reporting to the party and to the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council.
“I’m afraid this is on a different planet,” he says. “The idea the Labour Party, a private members club, should have the Jewish Board of Deputies reviewing certain cases is very difficult precedent to set. Why would they get oversight and not Operation Black Vote? Or Stonewall for homophobic abuse?”
Russell-Moyle is on the ardently pro-Remain side of the Labour Party. And he is in tune with his city. Brighton and Hove voted 68.6% to stay in the EU at the referendum. But he would rather another general election than a second referendum. “At the moment if we had are referendum it still looks like we would end up losing,” he says. “We’ve not really changed the narrative on Europe.”
The ‘Leave’ campaign, he says, won the “hearts argument” even if the ‘Remain’ campaign won the “minds” argument. “The heart rules the mind.
“It didn’t cut through. You’ve got to win the heart. We’ve not moved on to winning the heart argument. We are still talking about the facts. Re-running the referendum again, we would just lose it again and then we’ve lost the argument for ten or twenty years.”
A lot of the more pro-EU Labour MPs are frustrated at the party’s position. And are agitating for Corbyn to push hard for a much softer Brexit. But Russell-Moyle says the leadership has got itself to the right position. Not every Labour MP, he admits, has such a pro-Remain seat.
“If the party tries to run ahead like the Lib Dems have, ahead of the country, all that happens is you lose them because the country is so far behind. They’ve gone running so far ahead they’ve lost people over the horizon.
“Of course you want to try and lead opinion. But you have to lead it at the pace the country is going in.
“Now that is frustrating for real hardcore Remainers who want to go ahead with the Lib Dems. But the problem is they are only 6% of the vote. A vocal 6% who I kind of agree with. But if you don’t win hearts you wont get anywhere. My heart has wanted to run ahead. My brain keeps telling me now it’s the right strategy.”
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Looking ahead to the next election, due in 2022, Russell-Moyle says Labour needs to “reach out to some people we’ve not managed to reach out to” yet. Including the working class.
“During the election campaign what you saw in the process of the campaign made people feel much more comfortable with Jeremy Corbyn,” he says.
“I think the working class estates were coming around. But there needs to be more of that wooing.”
And he is clear that the feeling of being the “underdog” was a huge motivator for activists on the ground. And must be maintained in the next election. Being told that the left could not win only spurred them, and him on.
“If you are told you can’t do something it does one of two things to you. It either makes you internalise it or it makes you push back even harder. I think most political people tend to go for the push back harder.
“That makes me go: “Well fuck it, I’m going to make sure I am going to pursue this even more now’.”