”Sometimes I think maybe the next leader of the Labour Party is not even in parliament yet,” Sam Tarry says. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign director has already turned his thoughts to the future - one month after securing victory over Owen Smith.
The 34-year-old union official and Labour councillor is unimpressed with the party’s current crop of MPs, most of whom wanted to oust Corbyn over the summer. Many, he says, are “quite intellectually bankrupt”. And that seems to be him putting it nicely.
The dust has settled on the leadership contest and relative calm, as much as anything is calm in Labour these days, has returned. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Tarry speaks about running to be an MP, “sure, I would do that”, as well as his desire to run Labour’s next general election campaign.
He also reflects on Smith’s “unforgivable” campaign, why Labour HQ needs “fundamental” changes, how the Green Party should be brought into the Labour tent, why Momentum needs to get its “house in order” and traingate.
Tarry is speaking to HuffPost at the Exmouth Arms pub near Euston station - a short walk from the TSSA rail union HQ which hosted Corbyn’s leadership operation - a favourite of campaign staff. In many ways it reflects the mix of old and new left that has risen in Corbyn’s Labour Party. What used to be a more gritty boozer frequented by railway workers now has a substantially more hipster feel. Cask ales on tap and craft burgers - including the ‘Juicy Bastard’ - to eat.
In his day job, Essex born Tarry is the national political officer for the TSSA as well as a Labour councillor in Barking. But the post-EU referendum “coup” by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) saw him loaned to Corbyn’s campaign team.
“I thought there was going to be a leadership contest, yeah, absolutely,” he says. And he is very critical of Smith. “He ran a terrible campaign. It was absolutely disastrous. He has potentially finished his political career.
“One thing that I found really disturbing was in the last six weeks they essentially gave up on winning and they just sort of decided to burn the party to the ground.
“Losing by 17 points at an election would be an absolutely catastrophic disaster”
Since the result, Tarry has been having coffee with people he knew on the Smith campaign. To exchange stories. But he is damning of the Smith strategy. “It was kind of ‘let’s torch the place just to try and stop Jeremy winning’. And I just think that is completely unacceptable really. Even if we were running against Tony Blair I wouldn’t have behaved in that sort of way. I wouldn’t have allowed the campaign to behave in that sort of way.”
As an aside, Tarry laughs at the idea of Blair returning to British politics, as the former prime minister recently hinted he would like to do.”He wouldn’t be leading the Labour party would he. I think there is more chance of it snowing on the sun than that happening.”
Tarry says from the perspective of the Corbyn campaign, Smith’s operation “seemed to be run essentially by corporate lobbyists by the end of it” having pushed out soft-left MPs such as Lisa Nandy.
“They did not really give a monkey’s about the Labour Party. ‘Let’s just smash it to pieces and hope it just takes Jeremy Corbyn out’. And I just think that’s unforgivable. It’s difficult to know why they decided to embark on an almost scorched earth sort of strategy. I think that was a huge bit of disloyalty to the Labour Party itself.”
“The PLP had gone on the offensive in such a strategically wrongheaded way. The other side seem to lack any serious political strategy, any analysis of the crisis in social democracy.
“I was always of the view that our goal was to push as far as possible in terms of maximising Jeremy’s mandate,” he says, as a way of solidifying Corbyn’s position. “Yes that’s a bigger stick. Yes that’s a bigger carrot.”
“I was actually, to be totally honest, kind of disappointed,” Tarry volunteers of the result. “In the end we didn’t get 65%-plus. The potential Corbyn vote could have been nearly as high as 70%,” he says. Tarry puts the lower than expected margin down to Labour’s decision to increase the registered supporter fee to £25 and its so-called “purge” of members. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell accused party HQ of trying to rig the contest in Smith’s favour.
Yet it was still an increase. Corbyn won with 61.8% of the vote. In 2015, he secured 59.5%. “We knew that if we didn’t increase the mandate or only got the same as before, it would give people the opportunity to come in for round three. I think that idea is just totally dead in the water now,” Tarry says.
“The final nail in the coffin for Owen Smith’s campaign before it really even got running was when the party took its own members to court to stop them being able to participate. I mean that was ludicrous in my view. I think those sort of things almost guaranteed us winning,” he says.
“Some of those people debarred from voting behaved intolerably online and absolutely shouldn’t have been able to participate,” he says. But adds: “The party took its own members to court - complete madness.”
“I don’t really see the Green Party as the enemy”
Other people who were banned from voting were those who were seen to have been too supportive of the Greens.
“I don’t really see the Green Party as the enemy,” Tarry says. “I am quite open to this idea of them almost being a bit like the Co-op party, they are kind of actually brought in to the Labour fold in a certain way. The thing with the Green Party is there are some people who are basically Corbyn supporters. who believe in transformative change. There are others that are just Tories on bikes.”
The the moment Corbyn’s victory over Smith was announced at the start of the Labour Party conference in Liverpool at the end of September, Tarry says he had “a sense of satisfaction and vindication” as “justice had kind of prevailed.”
Tarry is “quite proud” of the Corbyn operation. “I felt we ran a campaign which had some of the components of what I want to see a general election campaign be like,” he says.
“In a strange way I almost wish it didn’t stop,” he says of the leadership battle. “What we needed to do was carry on the operation as much as possible, integrate it with the Labour Party, right through to whenever a general election happens”.
The party “needs a fundamental redesign”, he says. “The Labour Party is a £8m a year machine. If you were to sit down and design something to win an election you wouldn’t come up with Labour Party. At the moment it just doesn’t seem to be match fit.”
Tarry warns Labour that it should be worried about what happened to the party in Scotland, where Ruth Davidson's Conservatives pushed the party into third place.
"The Tories have to be credited with running really advanced campaign. Their ability to use data in a really targeted way, in a deep way, grab big data, have a segmented campaign, probably down to ward by ward messaging. The Labour Party is not set up to do something as advanced as that," he says. "This is the sort of things the Tories have nicked from the Democrats in the United States.
"We can’t have a second general election where the Labour Party is behind the Tories in terms of how they use Facebook. That’s just crazy."
Labour is not sitting in a winning position. A recent poll put Theresa May’s Conservative Party, despite Brexit divisions, out of sight.
“Losing by 17 points at an election would be an absolutely catastrophic disaster,” Tarry admits. “It would take us back to levels of representation for the Labour Party that we haven’t seen in a very, very long time. This is why it’s so important to get the right candidates in place, to get the Labour Party machine, as an election winning vehicle, in place.
Tarry does not disguise his disappointment with many of the current MPs occupying the Labour benches. And freely admits he may seek election to Westminster himself.
“I have always steered clear of wanting to be an MP,” he volunteers when asked if he has his eyes on the Commons. “Although I think there are an awful lot of people, not just people who are in and around Corbyn, but people actually over a much wider spread of people in the party, who are super keen that I go into parliament as soon as possible.”
“But I’ve got to make a decision about whether that’s the most effective place for me to be. I do happen to think we need to hugely increase the calibre of people that are in parliament. I think we are lacking.”
He adds: “With all these things you have to have a conversation with your family, you have to have conversation with people in that local area. If people genuinely thought that was the best way that I can contribute the skills that I have then sure, I would do that.”
“We have some fantastic MPs in the shadow cabinet. We’ve got people that are quite young, thrown in at the deep end, who really are swimming, like Angela Rayner, she is superb. But I think there are a huge amount of people in the PLP who just have this huge sense of entitlement. But have no skills in terms of community organising. No skills in terms of building a movement. No strategy for winning a general election and are kind of quite intellectually bankrupt.”
“Any party that’s basically punching itself in the face for three months is going to be in a difficult place”
Tarry is casually open to the idea of running for parliament. But he also has his eyes on a more strategic job. “I think there are too many people whose goal is to be an MP. My goal is to change the country. Being an MP may or may not be part of that package to do that,” he says.
“Designing Labour Party’s general election strategy might equally be as important and actually running to be an MP and doing that at the same time is going to be pretty difficult.
“I am kind of at a bit of a crossroads really. I want to hugely see the Corbyn project succeed. I think that this is the beginning of something. For me I have always viewed this as not just about the next election, this about more than ten years, this is about building something hegemonic that is genuinely transformative for British society. I don’t actually think that can be even achieved in one electoral cycle.”
Tarry does not promote deselection of MPs, “that’s far too divisive”. But does not mince his words about the right of the PLP. “I mean they are completely devoid of any serious thinkers whatsoever,” he says. “They are certainly devoid of any electoral strategy whatsoever.
“I think really this sort of new left that has been born in the Labour Party, that really is the only sort of strategy we’ve got at the moment, we’ve got to make it work. That’s actually building a far bigger project than just Corbyn himself. He is a lightening rod, he’s a conductor, he’s that person who symbolises a more just, a more equal and more sustainable society.
“Sometimes I think maybe the next leader of the Labour Party is not even in parliament yet. British politics is in such as state of flux at the moment. We could actually be a bit like the Tories, there is the potential to skip a generation at some point.”
Looking back on the campaign, Tarry recalls some of the more difficult moments - including the BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme debate with Smith.”Jeremy wasn’t particularly keen to do that to say the least,” Tarry recalls. “We knew Victoria Derbyshire herself was very hostile.”
“In the end I was very much of the view and took the decision that this has to happen. It is a show that has a certain cache, we need to be seen to be doing these things, and actually it went far better than expected.”
One of the most memorable moments of the campaign was ‘traingate’ - when Corbyn was accused of falsely claiming there were no seats left on a train in order to make a political point about the privatised rail industry. The Labour leader’s irritation with the story was clear at a press conference that week where he angrily dismissed questions.
“It was a difficult moment,” Tarry concedes. “The thing that really pissed us off was that, you know, it wasn’t a staged event. It was genuine moment. He was on that train, had gone through all these carriages, it was actually totally rammed.” Or “ram-packed”, as Corbyn put it.
Virgin decided to release CCTV images it said showed there were empty seats Corbyn could have taken. But Tarry is defiant: “I think ultimately when all of the footage is released - it might well paint quite a different picture.
“The media was really hammering us, saying ‘you have been caught out this is a massive spin operation’, and internally we were going ‘actually it wasn’t’. Jeremy really did want to sit down. He had a 24-hour day the day before. The guy was pretty exhausted.”
“Jeremy really did want to sit down”
“Throughout the whole campaign Jeremy had incredible energy. But we had a duty of care to him in terms of like, this guy is in his 60s, how the hell does he have the energy to do all this stuff. So if there had been seats he would have sat down straight away.”
In the end though, ‘traingate’ worked in Tarry’s favour. “I knew if we came out fighting on it and flipped it around to the state of the railways, the state of the people like Richard Branson extracting profit from it at the expense of taxpayers, in terms of selectorate, it would actually win us support,” he says. “I was right. It did. It increased our support within the Labour Party membership.”
Corbyn has emerged from the campaign in arguably a stronger place than ever before. “He draws tremendous energy from our campaigns,” Tarry agrees. Was the leadership challenge actually the best thing that could have happened?
“It wasn’t a good thing for the Labour Party,” Tarry says. “The Labour Party is definitely down in the polls by a massive margin as a consequence of the whole of the summer, any party that’s basically punching itself in the face for three months is going to be in a difficult place. But for him and for his operation, I think it did really focus minds, it did energise people.
“Of course, like anyone, there are always moments when people get exhausted and get tired. Jeremy has got an absolutely lovely wife and he’d always want to make sure he got home to speak to her and spend time with her. I think that is tough because if you think about it Jeremy went from the first leadership campaign, then it was pretty much straight into elections, then it was straight into the referendum, then Brexit, then the coup, then the leadership election. That’s an exhausting process for anyone.
“In a strange way I think Jeremy feels sort of refreshed by it and more determined. He has his kind of clarity of purpose. He has this very kind of solemn belief almost, he needs to represent these people who have elected him and his purpose is to galvanise this movement that can actually change the country.”
As well as directing Corbyn’s leadership campaign, Tarry is heavily involved in Momentum. The pro-Corbyn campaign group that grew out of the Labour leader’s 2015 election challenge is held in deep suspicion by many Labour MPs - who see it as a trojan horse for people opposed to the values of the party. During the 2016 race, Smith attacked Momentum as wanting to use Labour “host body” to push hard-left politics.
Tarry says a survey of its members shows 85% are Labour members. It is not, he says, an anti-Labour force. “It is fundamentally a completely Labour Party orientated organization. Despite whatever gets written about it.”
But he clearly does not think everything is fine. “I think Momentum has got to change,” Tarry says. “It’s to to get its house in order. I’ve instigated an internal discussion and internal review among the staff and key figures.”
“Momentum has got to change”
“A year on, we need to have real clarity of purpose about what the organisation is about, how that helps deliver either a general election win next year, or if comes in 2020, what have we done to deliver that? Anything else than that is just going to be a deviation.”
Tarry sees Momentum as key to pushing Labour to adopt better campaigning techniques. “Momentum has got huge potential. I see it as a turbo-charger. It can be a testing ground. It’s not the Labour Party. For me it can be used to pilot things test things almost at arms length from the Labour Party and if things work they should be adopted,” he says.
One of the most frequent criticisms of Corbyn and his movement within Labour is that he, and it, is not interested in power. Tarry rejects this. Like many of his generation, he was politicised by the Iraq War. But while Blair’s decision to lead the UK into the invasion pushed many away from Labour - it convinced Tarry of the need to get stuck in.
“I was very active in campaign against the War. I have friends of mine who were being sent off, squaddies, to go and fight in the Iraq War,” he says. “That was really something that made me get really politically active.
“The big lesson I drew from the Iraq War was we not only need to be in power to change things, but we need to be in power in the Labour Party to change things.
“I kind of had this frustration, yes you could be on these huge marches banging the drum really loudly. Ultimately you got ignored. So that was really the driving force to drive me to get involved in the Labour Party.”
He adds: “The left doesn’t just have to sit in the corner and gnash its teeth like it always does and achieve absolutely nothing. I always found that incredibly frustrating.
“There is no point being some sort of valiant left-wing martyr. We are in this to seriously change things. If you are not in it for that reason. Why bother. In my view.”