Labour Soc co-chairs talk Starmer, Corbyn, and politics on campus

Some quotes have been edited for concision and clarity.

It’s fair to say that for the past few years the Labour Party hasn’t been in its prime. Amid anti-Semitism, infighting, and trailing performance in the polls, the party had its worst election result since 1935. However, a lot has changed since the party’s catastrophic defeat in 2019: most significantly, the election of a new leader in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century. What hasn’t changed is that almost two years on, the Labour Party is more divided than ever.

For my part, this interview is an effort to understand where students stand in the great rift that divides Labour. Before going into the Media Centre, I can guess the general line the co-chairs of Labour Society, Lola Fayokun and Tilly Mason, are going to follow given LSE’s reputation as a left-wing university. In the half-hour that follows, their wide-ranging criticism of Keir Starmer and defence of the Corbyn-era goes beyond my expectations.

Covid has not been easy on anyone, especially societies. Labour Society was no different: “During Covid, there was a lot going on… but it was hard to mobilise around anything because everything was online,” Tilly says. Even with the new year and fewer restrictions, Labour’s place on campus can be confusing, as it’s not always clear to what extent the party itself can be represented by students. “We don’t necessarily have to represent the whole of the Labour Party…we are a home for people who vote Labour but we can take that in our own direction,” Tilly adds. Lola says, “We don’t want to represent internal Labour conversations – we want to be more open.” 

One manifestation of this was the protests against Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely. While Labour has been surprisingly critical of student protests, with Keir Starmer calling the protests “completely unacceptable”, Lola and Tilly don’t share this perspective. “I’ve never witnessed that before where nothing happens and the media [sensationalised it]…just because it was majority non-white people protesting,” Tilly says. “A lot of the stuff she said is really upsetting for a lot of people because it represents the oppression they face,” adds Lola.

This small example of the disconnect between what Labour currently represents and students’ views foreshadows even larger discrepancies. “This is a tricky one,” is Tilly’s initial reaction when asked about Keir Starmer. Lola interjects: “I don’t think that the direction Keir Starmer is going in is one that’ll win him the next election.” She argues Starmer’s previous career as a prosecutor has shaped how he reacts to many issues: “His [approach] is to have more authoritative reactions…it’s clear to us who those reactions end up harming, particularly those from marginalised backgrounds.” On the Hotovely protests, Tilly says that his reaction shows “he is losing the original base of Labour”. 

What the pair see as Starmer’s “lack of vision” really stands out. “If you look at Blair or Corbyn, at least you could identify a particular vision…and I think, for most people, Keir Starmer represents the vacuous politician,” says Lola. “He thinks, by not having a stand, he is easy to subscribe to but it’s kind of doing the opposite. It’s disenfranchising people from Labour,” adds Tilly. Labour’s answer to their catastrophic defeat seems not to have impressed the pair.

Lola and Tilly make no secret of their support for Corbyn. But the million-dollar question of why Labour lost the 2019 election seems to elude them. Lola says that there are “probably a lot of immediate and historical reasons that led to us losing” before quickly moving to talk about the election’s silver linings, namely that it led many young people on campus to be involved with politics. They also disagree with the idea that Corbyn was too left-wing to be elected. Instead, giving the example of free wifi, Tilly says that “people had in their brains that it wasn’t feasible, even though I think it is”. “I think it was difficult to present that vision in a way which felt realistic and honest, and people felt was possible,” Lola adds.

“It’s one of the most vivid memories of my life,” says Tilly as she describes sitting in Latimer Road Station, in full view of Grenfell Tower, when the exit poll came out. “We were just pointing at Grenfell, like ‘have people forgotten about this? How can you vote Tory after that?’” Through the laughter of describing how Lola walked into a lamppost and broke a bottle of wine, ruining her ‘Jez We Can’ bag, you can make out the sense of disappointment they still feel today.

Lola emphasises that Labour should “learn lessons” from the election defeat. However, as I question them further about Corbyn’s legacy, I can’t help thinking that they refuse to acknowledge his shortcomings. With the theme of young people in politics running throughout our conversation, I ask them whether, conversely, Corbyn also alienated some older people. Lola responds by saying that “he alienates some people, in the same way Keir Starmer alienates some people”, adding “I think it’s too early to tell what the actual trend is in terms of voting patterns.” However many Labour members loved and elected Corbyn – which Tilly cites as a reason for why his vision “couldn’t have alienated that many people” – it’s also true that the wider public generally didn’t think the same. Aside from two lost general elections, the fact that Corbyn’s approval rating was at some points as low as -60% also indicates this.

As the interview comes to an end, I find myself struck by how profoundly Lola and Tilly’s perspectives differ from that of the Labour leadership. Time will tell if Labour can overcome these differences and once again present a united front. Winning over young people, many of whom share Lola and Tilly’s opinions, may be Keir Starmer’s biggest challenge, and one which he is evidently failing.

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