How a Durham bookshop owner helped to lead Jeremy Corbyn to Labour Leader


By Oliver Mawhinney

It was the political blockbuster of the summer, how Jeremy Corbyn a 200-1 socialist outsider emerged victorious as the leader of the Labour Party.

A monumental effort which traversed rallies, demonstrations and meeting rooms across the country. However Ben Sellers is in a better place than most to assert the incredible importance of social media to Corbyn’s campaign which on average reached three to four million people a week.

Sellers who has ran the radical, independent People’s Bookshop in Saddler Street since 2011 was one of the social media organisers who underpinned Corbyn’s successful campaign.

Sellers who only rejoined the Labour Party in 2008 while working for the Trade Union Congress (TUC) having twice left the party over the revision of Clause IV in the party’s constitution and involvement in the Iraq War informs that: “The left around Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonell was very small. Over the past three or four years I’ve been very involved with that section of the left around the Labour Party.

“I always had this sense that there was this untapped resource and around the same time I started doing some campaigning with the TUC around social media. At the same time I was meeting quite regularly with people like John McDonell because of my Labour Left involvement.

“Starting to understand social media as a campaign tool, the Labour left involvement came together under the Red Labour project. I came together with a few people and we started to do some campaigning which was targeted inside the party but also looking outside to try and attract people back to the party”.

Through the Red Labour group sellers alongside an ilk of fellow committed activists built a reputation for extensive campaigning and compelling debate leading to long-time ally of Corbyn John McDonell reaching to Sellers following the decision that Corbyn would run for leader.

Sellers adds: “John was crucial in getting Jeremy to stand, I’d been involved in John’s campaigns before where he hadn’t managed to get on the ballot and think he decided it wasn’t for him to try again. He spotted that Jeremy had attributes he didn’t have, he hadn’t really upset anyone, he was respected on the left and had that record which couldn’t be challenged.

“He immedietly got on the phone to us and said ‘I know about the things you’ve done with Red Labour’ is there any chance you could  drop things for a week and help get Jeremy on the ballot.

Sellers concedes: “A lot of us weren’t all that conviced that Jeremy would agree to do it and be the leadership candidate needed.”

“A lot of us weren’t all that conviced that Jeremy would agree to do it and be the leadership candidate needed.”

However he rejoices in the achievement of obtaining the 35 nominations from MPs to ensure that Corbyn got onto the ballot for the vote and his eventual victory:

“I’m not claiming that others parts of the campaigns weren’t really important but I think without social media I don’t think there is anyway that we would have got Jeremy on the ballot because of the direct contact people had with those MPs. During the campaign itself, social media was able to have a reach far wider than anything we would have done if we relied on the traditional campaig

“It would have taken us right to the end of the campaign to get the point where we were in a week because of social media. Social media just accelerates things so much so that you can get to your end point so much quicker than if you relied on traditional campaigning methods. You still have to have those things, without that, we  also wouldn’t have won.

Corbyn did not simply just win. He achieved one of the most comprehensive and convincing landslides in the history of Labour Party elections, winning over 59% of first-preference votes

I subsequently proceed to ask Sellers why did people perceive their social media campaign more inspiring than that of the other candidates: “All the other campaigns were quite corporate looking, Andy Burnham was particularly, it was pretty grey and I think he could have been a lot bolder. He was probably the closest in terms of his politics but their social media was incredibly safe and they didn’t really want to start debates.

“We were brave enough to go we’re confident enough that people will be interested in the debates that we’re going to start out. Also because we were outsiders we were more prepared to take risks.

“All the other campaigns were quite corporate looking, Andy Burnham was particularly, it was pretty grey”

“The campaign wasn’t just about the debates, it was all about trying to get people to join as supporters and full members and to make people vote. That side of it wasn’t as exciting, we had a campaign that everyday reminded people to register and those things had to be done everyday and you sometimes felt like you were just churning them out. But at the same time no matter how much you were engaging people, if you don’t register and get people to vote then all that effort is for nothing. We had rota of about ten people for the stuff like that.”

The campaign was also responsible for permeating one of the slogans of the summer: #jezwecan which penetrated the tweetopshere like wildfire (much like our very own #readpalatinate). Sellers laughs: “It was a joke actually, that’s the hilarious thing. With Red Labour half of the content we put out was serious and about debates and then the other half was flippant stuff but also with a point. We put out a message with #jezwecan and it just took off, it wasn’t intended to be the campaign slogan, in fact we talked about campaign slogans and nothing really came up. We actually said we wanted something which wasn’t like Obama’s campaign. When this guy who was a councillor who ended up not supporting Corbyn sent it to us as a private message we put it up straightaway with credit to him and he texted us about five minutes later saying ‘please don’t put my name to it I haven’t decided how to vote yet’.

“I suppose the slogan even though it was a bit cheesy it showed that we could do this, people said Obama couldn’t do it, people said Corbyn was this complete outsider but we’re actually starting to make progress so the slogan took on more importance as we went on in the campaign. “

As Corbyn continues to progress from one landmark to the next, he marked 100 days as Labour leader before Christmas, the presence of Sellers who is now Social Media Coordinator for the Jeremy Corbyn for PM campaign provides a pertinent opportunity to reflect on the leadership thus far:

“We expected it to be really difficult but it is still the shock, particularly the hostility from the press, but there’s probably been more problems within the party than people anticipated.

“It’s been difficult to make progress. If  we had a plan over the summer and knew we were going to win, we might have been able to anticipate some of the problems. Even little things like the Mao’s Red Book, that’s John, he would of done that with a group of leftie’s two or three years ago and everyone would think it was a funny joke but now we are dealing with a hostile press.”

“We put out a message with #jezwecan and it just took off, it wasn’t intended to be the campaign slogan”

However Sellers concludes by painting a more positive, albeit uncertain future for the Corbyn-led Labour Party: “There have been some significant victories. I think things that John McDondell has done in terms of his economic policy is really interesting and changed the debate. Although the Syria debate was really difficult, at one point it was reported that about 115 Labour MPs were going to rebel and vote for airstrikes in Syria, by the end of it, it was about 67 MPs. I think this was partially down to the campaigning that went on. Of course it doesn’t seem like a victory but certainly it mitigated some of the fallout, if there had been a huge rebellion at that point it might have caused a lot more problems.

“We won’t survive unless we are very positively bold about policies that people relate to and are interested in. I see some positive signs since Christmas that we are beginning to change the debate

“If we want to win in 2020 is build a huge campaign, drawing on the campaigns by Obama and Bernie Sanders, it has to be this huge social movement. It won’t be like a traditional campaign, it has to be really ambitious. At the moment were in a firefighting mode and if we are to win in 2020 we need to switch to a frontfoot and use social media as a way of organising community action. I think its possible, I wouldn’t be doing it if wasn’t confident we could.

“We didn’t think we could win in the summer so it is possible. Things are changing, the world is very volatile…”

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

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